Tom Friedman looks at Mideast anomalies in S.F. talk

Friedman, the author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning "From Beirut to Jerusalem," employed an anecdotal style in the lecture called "The Real Truth About the Middle East." He said the events of Sept. 11 were a result of an ironic "new world order" in which peoples and cultures are melded together at warp speed without the concomitant ability to understand each other. That juxtaposition, he said, has led to a new paradigm of the "super-empowered" individual who can affect change on the world stage simply by possessing a modem.

"Thus you have people such as Judy Williams, who was a kind of 'super-empowered nice lady' who waged an e-mail campaign to ban land mines, and had incredible success doing it.

"On the other hand, you have someone like Osama bin Laden, who is like a cross between Charles Manson and Jack Welch (the former CEO of General Electric), who uses the new culture of globalization for much more pernicious means."

He addressed some of those issues in his 1999 book "The Lexus and the Olive Tree."

Throughout the lecture, sponsored by the Madeleine Haas Russell Institute of Jewish Learning, Friedman peppered his talk with frequent references to both foreign dignitaries and the Middle Eastern "street." The former Times correspondent in Beirut and Jerusalem now serves as the paper's roving foreign affairs columnist, and the Mideast is a prime focus.

Friedman contends that the United States, because of its support of autocratic regimes, was complicit in the anger festering throughout the Arab world.

In what he called another ironic facet of the new global paradigm, the journalist said that the countries that receive the most U.S. financial backing — Saudi Arabia and Egypt — also have the most rabid anti-American sentiment. Ironically, he said that one of the countries most disdained by the U.S. government — Iran — has a very pro-Western populace.

In fact, Friedman quipped that if the United States were to open an embassy today in Tehran, "there would be waiting lines outside its doors that would make the lines for 'The Producers' seem ridiculous."

An admitted advocate of globalization, Friedman castigated Arab countries for their failure to modernize, saying that the recent Arab summit contained no democratically elected leaders, an ignominy that exists in no other region in the world.

Friedman also said that the insulated nature of the Arab world had a profound impact on its adherents when they traveled abroad. Noting that nearly all the ringleaders of the Sept. 11 attacks had converted to radical ideologies in Europe, Friedman contended that the terrorist attacks were not the result of "poverty of money but of poverty of dignity."

"People don't fly planes into buildings because they're poor," he said. "They fly planes into buildings because of a 'cognitive dissonance' that comes from severe jolts to their faith — the result of being castigated to the fringes of society [n Europe] and also by seeing so many Christians and Jews who are living more powerfully than they are as Muslims."

President Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were also the recipients of verbal swipes from Friedman, who said Bush's initial foreign policy was "if Clinton was for it — then I'm against it," an attitude Friedman said formed the crux of Bush's Middle Eastern diplomacy until Sept. 11.

Calling former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent talk of tabling the idea of a Palestinian state a form of "idiocy," Friedman said the Likud Party has been held hostage by the political gamesmanship between Netanyahu and Sharon.

"Is it a mere coincidence that Sharon went to Temple Mount after the Israeli attorney general didn't indict Netanyahu for stealing silverware during his tenure?" asked Friedman, who also spoke to a sold-out crowd at Stanford University the same day.

"I think Sharon went to Temple Mount after he realized that Netanyahu's political career had been revived. I believe that the competition between these two men has been deeply destructive for their political party and for Israel."