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Tom Friedman contrasts Middle East approaches: ‘Trump did crazy well, Biden doesn’t do crazy’
‘"Crazy" is a very important strategic verb in that part of the world,' the NYTimes columnist explained on JI’s ‘Limited Liability Podcast’
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman warned that President Joe Biden’s perceived inability to “do crazy” could cost him strategically in the Middle East, during an appearance on Jewish Insider’s “Limited Liability Podcast.”
“‘Crazy’ is a very important strategic verb in that part of the world,” Friedman explained to co-hosts Richard Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein. “The Iranians always think that they can out-crazy you. One thing they know: They can’t out-crazy the Israelis. Hezbollah learned that in 2006 and so did Hamas. Basically, they cannot play the Israelis.”
Friedman contrasted Biden’s approach with that of former President Donald Trump: “Trump’s greatest advantage as a president was he’s the first president we’ve had in a long time who did crazy really well,” he noted, adding “Biden just doesn’t do crazy really well. He just doesn’t do crazy.”
Friedman’s appearance on the show followed his recent column calling the Trump administration’s decision to leave the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, “one of the dumbest, most poorly thought out and counterproductive U.S. national security decisions of the post-Cold War era.”
“I thought it was just a giant strategic error that [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu co-authored,” Friedman said of the decision to leave the JCPOA. “Everyone knows now that the Israeli military was not comfortable with this, but all of them were really afraid to speak up while Bibi was there. And now, after he’s gone, you see everybody’s coming out of the woodwork — Bogie [Ya’alon], the [former] chief of staff — and all saying ‘we knew this was stupid.’”
At the time of the withdrawal from the JCPOA, Friedman admitted, he offered a more sanguine assessment. “If you read my reporting on Trump, anytime he’s done something I thought was right I supported it — UAE deal most notably, and I would support him on things on China. So I was just watching to see what they would do. I said, ‘I wouldn’t have done that. But maybe they’ve got a strategy.’ It turned out he had no strategy at all.”
Offering what he would have done instead, Friedman argued, “The right strategy, and I argued this at the time, would have been to go to the Iranians, it seems to me, and say, ‘I will lift the sanctions, may even throw some sweeteners in, but we want to extend the deal to 25 years.’”
Earlier in the conversation, Friedman, who won three Pulitzer Prizes early in his career for his reporting from Beirut for UPI and Jerusalem for the Times, considered his trajectory as a Minnesota Jew to the epicenters of Middle East and foreign policy reporting. “This was 1979. That’d be very important. They’re vintage years in history, just like there are vintage wines, where the first two stories I cover are the Iranian revolution, and the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in Saudi Arabia,” Friedman said of his first assignment in Beirut, for UPI. “Little do I know [at the time] that those two stories will shape the region and really my whole career for the next 40 years.”
By the time he moved to the Times two years later, Friedman had established himself as a Middle East correspondent. But that did not fully qualify him in the eyes of his new editors.
“It was not easy because at that time The New York Times wouldn’t send a Jew to Israel, let alone a Jew to the Arab world,” Friedman recalled, citing a longstanding taboo in the newsroom that considered it difficult for a Jewish reporter to remain objective covering the Middle East.
“I had to persuade Abe Rosenthal, who was an executive editor, who literally said to me, ‘How do I send a Jew to Beirut?’ I said, ‘Well, the good news is, I’ve already done it, because UPI had done that,’” Friedman remembered.
Read the full episode transcript below:
Jarrod Bernstein: For more than 40 years people across the world have waited with anticipation to read the latest report, commentary or book from Thomas Friedman.
Rich Goldberg: From London, to Beirut, to Jerusalem to bestselling books and famed New York Times columns, few American correspondence have ever reached Tom Friedman’s level of prominence and prestige.
Jarrod: With Iran racing forward, with its nuclear program, Lebanon melting down, US-Saudi relations in limbo and support for Israel, a persistent topic of debate. We welcome Tom Friedman to the podcast to help us sort it all out.
Rich: Don’t push pause. You’re listening to Jewish Insider’s Limited Liability Podcast.
Rich: Welcome back to Jewish Insider’s Limited live Podcast. I’m Rich Goldberg.
Jarrod: I’m Jarrod Bernstein.
Rich: Jarrod how was your Hanukkah?
Jarrod: My Hanukkah was great, Rich. Before we get to Hanukkah and our guest I want to give a special shout out to my longtime boss and mentor Mike Bloomberg for giving an amazing speech at the UJA, in New York, calling out antisemitism from both the left and the right, something we’ve done on this show a lot. Kol hakavod to Mayor Mike for making that speech when we need it the most.
Rich: I retweeted him. I thought it was a wonderful speech. Excellent message for all sides to hear. One that we, I think, have carried here on the podcast. Maybe one day we will have Mayor Bloomberg here on the podcast, Jarrod.
Jarrod: Working on it.
Rich: I’ll make the invitation. I’ll make the invitation. Anyways, Hanukkah was great. We had a lot of fun. I saw photos of yours as well. You looked like you guys had some fun as well.
Jarrod: Rich, let’s get to our guest. Tom Friedman is an internationally renowned author, reporter and colonist, the recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes and the author of seven bestselling books among them From Beirut to Jerusalem, The World Is Flat. Tom Friedman, welcome to the podcast.
Tom Friedman: Thanks, Jarrod. Thanks, Rich. It’s good to be with you guys.
Jarrod: Let’s start with St. Louis Park Minnesota. Prominent Minnesotans appear to be having a moment in American foreign policy. Tom Nides is the new ambassador to Israel. Jake Sullivan is the national Security Advisor. Denis McDonough is the secretary of Veterans Affairs. Of course you are the chronicler of the Middle East among other pressing foreign policy matters. The question we all had, what’s with the water in Minnesota that you and all these individuals are growing up?
Tom: Yes. I told this story in my last book. Thank you for being late. Basically, in Minneapolis, the Jews, after immigration, firstly, all in the north side of the city with the Black community. In fact, it was Jewish Black ghetto, the north side. I was born probably three miles from where George Floyd was killed. After World War II, the Jews were able to escape. The Blacks couldn’t. There are too many housing restrictions. The Jews wasn’t so easy to escape because there are a lot of housing restrictions against Hebrews in some of the surrounding suburbs. There was one suburb called St. Louis Park that had enough housing and didn’t have housing covenants.
Basically, in a period of about three or four years, an entire Jewish community moved from the north side of the city to one suburb called St. Louis Park, a suburb that had been 100%, Swedish, 99% German, Scandinavian and Catholic became overnight basically, 20% Jewish and 80% Scandinavian, and German, and Protestant Catholic. If Sweden and Israel had a baby, it would’ve been St. Louis Park.
Rich: That’s probably a very tasty meatball.
Tom: Exactly. Out of that mix emerged an incredible creative explosion. I went to Hebrew school, a high school or lived in the same basic neighborhood with Al Franken, Norm Ornstein, Michael Sandel from Harvard, Peggy Orenstein, the writer, [unintelligible 00:04:05] the guitarist, the Coen Brothers. The Coen Brothers’ movie, A Serious Man was about St. Louis Park. The Coen Brothers compared it that town in Transylvania, where all the Draculas came from. It was just postwar, it’s like the Jews were shot out of a cannon and unleashed. We were fortunate to live in this really pluralistic environment with all these suites, and we really appreciate that pluralism. They appreciate our neurotic obsession with education. Out of it came a really interesting synthesis.
Rich: We actually found this incredible 1986 profile of you in the LA Times of then 32 year-old time Tom Friedman. You grew up, you talked about this Jewish household, this Jewish neighborhood, you went on family trips to Israel, lived on a kibbutz, speaking fluent Hebrew. Talk to us about the role Judaism, Israel played during your childhood.
Tom: Can speak fluent Hebrew. In Minneapolis, we all grew up, all of us went to the St. Louis Park Talmud Torah. This will be hard to for your kids to believe. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, you walked out of elementary school to the Hebrew bus that was waiting and took you to Hebrew school four nights a week, count them, one, two, three, four nights a week and Sunday morning for five years till your Bar Mitzvah.
I grew up in that conservative Jewish environment. What really had the biggest impact on me, there’s a very vibrant summer Jewish camp in the Minnesota, Wisconsin area called Herzl Camp in Webster, Wisconsin where Bob Dylan also went. It was a Zionist summer camp. We enacted the Dreyfus trial every summer. I got to be the French officer once ripped off Dreyfus’ epaulettes and broke his sword. It really instilled a strong affection and identity with Israel in me before I ever went there. It really started there because I basically went to Herzl Camp for five years, took a year off, and then lived in kibbutz for three years. There was a continuum there that was very much part of my education.
Rich: This nice Jewish boy from Minnesota is covering war in Beirut and getting bombed by the PLO, winning Pulitzers along the way. Your family must have been worried sick about you.
Tom: My dad, unfortunately, passed away when I was 19. My mom, God bless her, now that I’m a parent and even a grandparent now, I don’t know how she did it. My mom when she was about 64, actually came and visited my wife and I in Beirut, too. Basically, first, I got interested in the Middle East, going to Israel, living on kibbutz. Did my sophomore year abroad at the Hebrew University. Then I did a semester at the American University in Cairo and got interested in the Arab world. Then started taking Arabic as a freshman at the University of Minnesota. Eventually got my graduate degree in Arabic and Middle East history from Oxford and had a classic British Arabist education.
Got to study with one of the great Arab historians, Albert Hourani. I really was interested and wanted to cover the Arab world, and it was not easy because, at that time, The New York Times wouldn’t send a Jew to Israel, let alone a Jew to the Arab world. Fortunately, I was hired by UPI in London on Fleet Street was where I got my start. They dared to send me to Beirut. They launched me on what was just such a privileged and interesting career. I’m the only person probably who covered the Arab world first and then went to Israel. I didn’t just cover the Arab world, I covered the war of ’82 [unintelligible 00:07:41] the bombing in the American embassy, and all of that. It’s been an amazing ride.
Jarrod: Tom, you just mentioned a minute ago, and this was a fascinating story to Rich and I, you were the first Jewish correspondent in Israel for The New York Times something that had been taboo before then. What changed?
Tom: I think I was part of the change. When I was hired, Abe Rosenthal literally said to me– Basically, I worked in London. I was hired on Fleet Street in 1978. In 1979, the number two man in the Beirut Bureau of UPI got shot in the ear by a man robbing a jewelry store on Hamra Street. They came to me and said, “Would you like to go to Beirut?” middle of the civil war. Of course, I jumped at it. This was 1979. That would be very important. 1979, there are vintage years in history just like there are vintage wines. The first two stories I cover are the Iranian Revolution and the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Little do I know that those two stories will shape the region and really my whole career for the next 40 years. I was there for two years with UPI and then The New York Times hired me. They wanted to eventually send me back to the Middle East, but I had to persuade Abe Rosenthal who was an executive editor who literally said to me, “How do I send a Jew to Beirut?” I said, “The good news is I’ve already done it,” because UPI had done that. They did that. Then it went well for them, and then they wanted to send me to Israel. They thought they had broken the rule, the taboo on not sending Jews to Israel when they sent David Shipler my predecessor. It turned out David just looked Jewish, but he wasn’t Jewish.
Tom: When they got to me, they didn’t take any chances. They wanted to get over this, and I was a good person to do it with because I’d actually started in the Arab world and came to Israel from there.
Rich: One of our last guests on the podcast, John Schanzer, he’s got a new book out on the Gaza conflict from earlier this year. He talks a lot about foreign correspondence. I’m sure you’ve become a mentor, I’m sure, to many over the years who come and say, “How should I cover the conflict? How should I cover Israel?” One of the disconnects I think we saw was the famous part of the conflict when the IDF had tweeted something that alluded to them invading Gaza maybe, and then breaking news reports from all the foreign correspondents, “The IDF has invaded Gaza,” they all have to issue retractions.
The Israeli media never actually reported that. They had sources in the PMO and then the IDF embedded, and they said, “Yes, we don’t see any invasion.” What would you be advising if you’re mentoring foreign correspondents in Israel right now? How should they be covering things? What do you tell people of sources and methods and all that of how to be a good foreign correspondent?
Tom: That’s a long lesson, Rich. I’ll just give you a couple of highlights. It’s a perfectly valid question. My views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have actually never changed. Even though people like to search through my past and find something I said when I was at [unintelligible] whatever. I believe in a two-state solution. I believe it’s the only way, and if you’re for two-state solution, you’re my friend. If you’re not, you’re my opponent. That’s my core belief. When it comes to Israel, I really believe that to effectively think about Israel, whether you’re a foreign correspondent or whether you’re just a citizen of the world, I believe you have to be able to hold three thoughts together in your head at the same time.
Which I am perfectly capable of doing, but a lot of people are not. Those three thoughts are Israel’s an amazing place. Israel’s an amazing place. When you look at what has been built there in a hundred years, the medicine, the science, the literature, the ingathering of refugees, the society, Israel’s an amazing place. Number one. Number two, Israel does bad stuff sometimes. Israel does bad stuff sometimes. Particularly in the West Bank. Number three, Israel lives in a crazy dangerous neighborhood. I have no problem holding all three of those thoughts together in my head at the same time. Unfortunately, a lot of people want to just say, “Israel’s amazing. It’s amazing. It’s amazing. Israel does bad stuff. That’s all they do is bad stuff. It lives in a crazy neighborhood.”
Actually, all three are true at the same time. If you don’t have a mind that can hold three thoughts together at the same time, don’t be a journalist, be an ophthalmologist. Do you have any problem there? That’s my number one rule. My second rule is cover Israel as a country, not a conflict. If you just come to Israel and cover it as a conflict, you may get locked in that thing of Israel does bad stuff. If you cover it as a country, it’s an amazing country. By the way, you’ll understand the conflict better. If you cover it first as a country, a really dynamic, rich, diverse society. My third rule is this, people always ask me or they’ll say, “You’re not objective. How can you be objective? Jewish kid from Minnesota.”
That comes from a, I think, real failure to understanding what is objectivity. Most people think objectivity is equal to ignorance. If we want a really fair correspondent in Israel, let’s take a Gentile from Montana and plunk him down in Jerusalem, make him the bureau chief. He doesn’t know anything. That’s actually not objectivity. Objectivity is a tension, it’s a constant tension between two things. Basically, empathy almost and disinterest. I can’t possibly write a fair column about Rich and Jarrod if I don’t really get inside you and almost see the world through your eyes. I also can’t write a fair story if I only see the world through your eyes.
Objectivity is a tension between those two things almost, empathetic and disinterest. There are times when I might be a little more empathetic to you than the other side. There are times I may be more disinterested to you than the other side. What I tell everyone is, “I’m engaged in a dialogue here. I’m trying to unfold this story. You want to judge me, do not judge me from one story. Judge me over a year. If you see a pattern over a year, then come to me. Let me know.” I’m engaged in a constant dialogue and a constant tension between a certain empathy and a certain disinterest. Those would be my three pieces of advice.
Rich: I love it. I feel like I’m back in journalism school. You’re one of my favorite professors already.
Tom: Thank you.
Rich: You just actually wrote a column last week that got a lot of attention. Trump’s Iran policy has become a disaster for the US and Israel. We want to unpack that a little bit. The headline and the top, I think, with “Bogie” Yaalon got most of the attention. I actually think the lead for me was at the very, very end where you say, “I’m watching that Israeli player. He has a really grim look on his face. He keeps counting his F-35 chips like he’s thinking about going all in alone, and he is crazy enough to do it.” My question, do you believe the Israelis are actually prepared to attack Iran right now? Is this posturing to coax action by the Biden administration or by the Iranians during the talks?
Tom: Yes. I think it’s both. I think, as a good poker player, they’re just rolling their chips around. At the same time, there are two audiences. One is the Biden administration and one is Iran, and they much prefer to do something with the Biden administration. They much prefer. I don’t just write these columns, obviously. These are reported columns, so I can’t go into that. Basically, what the Israeli army believes right now is that the way to avoid war in the Middle East would be to credibly threaten the Iranians. From the very beginning of these negotiations, Rich, I’ve always said the Iran deal, the JCPOA, the Iran deal was the best deal that money and covert Israeli could buy.
That deal was 15 years. If you’re just going to do money that is imposing sanctions and covert action, that got you the JCPOA. One thing the Iranians knew is, “We weren’t going to attack.” They never believed that there was a credible military threat. They believed that even less so today. That doesn’t mean they’re under other economic pressure. These sanctions are really hurting, but they do not believe that Joe Biden would risk $10 gasoline for Christmas to take out Iran’s nuclear reactor. I’m putting this very crudely. Israel is arguing to them that the way you actually avoid war is by credibly threatening the Iranians.
That’s very hard because, as I said in that piece, I’ve had this view of the Middle East that there’s only two non-Arab tribes that have survived in the region, and they’re the Kurds and the Jews. The Christians have really been pushed out. That is a tragedy because the Middle East without the incredible contribution to culture and politics and economics of the Christians is really a different region. I speak not just about Lebanon but Syria and Iraq in particular. There’s a reason the Kurds and the Jews are the only two local tribes to survive in a basically Arab Muslim region. That’s because they play by the local rules, and the local rules are no rules at all.
You cannot out crazy them because at the end of the day, Israelis will do whatever it takes. You cannot out crazy them. Out crazy is a very important strategic verb in that part of the world. Because the Iranians always think that they can out crazy you. One thing they know, they can’t out crazy the Iranians. Hezbollah learned that in 2006 and so did Hamas basically. They can’t out crazy the Israelis. Trump’s greatest advantage as a president was he’s the first president we’ve had in a long time who did crazy really well. Trump wasted his craziness by never retaliating to the attack on Saudi Arabia. When the Iranians saw that they thought, “That guy’s done.” Biden just doesn’t do crazy really well. He just doesn’t do crazy.
Rich: My follow would be this column came about a year, almost exactly a year after another attention-grabbing column you had right after the president was elected. It was so attention grabbing that he apparently called you to give an interview as a response. The headline was, “Dear Joe, it’s not about Iran’s nukes anymore.” I’ll just quote for our readers real quick. If Biden tries to resume the Iran nuclear deal as it was and gives up the leverage of extreme economic sanctions on Iran before reaching some understanding on its exporting of precision guided missiles, I suspect that he’ll meet a lot of resistance from Israel to UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Biden would call you later on and say, “Listen, I want to go back into the deal to negotiate the bigger deal. Nuclear weapons are the paramount issue. Everything else is important. We’re going to cover missiles.” My question is, in the context of your most recent column, has your view changed at all over the last year that still going back to the old deal doesn’t make sense? What should Biden do from here basically?
Tom: It’s like the policeman, you stop him to ask directions, “How do I get to the New York Times,” and he says, “It wouldn’t start from here,” and you wouldn’t start from here. I supported the Iran deal when it happened. It was the best deal we could get and keeping Iran away from a bomb for 15 years and trying to reintegrate them seemed to be a legitimate bet by Obama. I think it was perfect, but I thought it was a legitimate bet. When Trump tore up the deal, Rich, I basically looked at that and said, “Man, I sure wouldn’t have done that. That was what I said in my first [unintelligible 00:19:55] My second is, “I wonder what they’ll do. Can he somehow improve it?”
If you read my reporting on Trump, anytime he’s done something, I thought it was right, I supported it. UAE, a deal most notably. I even support him on things on China. I was just watching to see what they would do. I wouldn’t have done that. Maybe they’ve got a strategy. It turned out he had no strategy at all. Because the right strategy, and I argued this at the time, would’ve been to go to the Iranians, it seems to me, and say, “We’ll lift the sanctions. We may even throw some sweeteners in, but we want to extend the deal to 25 years.” Now, just imagine this, you’re Trump, and you manage to get the Iranians– When I say 15 years, the deal basically keeps Iran one year away from a bomb for 15 years.
That’s the core of it. Imagine Trump had gone back to the Iranians, maybe thrown in some sweetener and said, “I got them to 25 years.” That would’ve been a huge victory. By the way, that would’ve been a great thing for the region. I talked to Trump right before the election. I asked him about this and he said, “Tom, as soon as I win again I’ll do a deal with Iran in 10 minutes.” He wanted to do one, but he didn’t have the courage to do this, instead he let Pompeo put out this list of 10,12 demands that basically weren’t serious, that were not something Iran was going to do.
Therefore, it was tantamount to no deal. That brought us to where we are right now. I thought it was just a giant strategic error that Bibi Netanyahu coauthored, and everyone knows now that the Israeli military was not comfortable with this. All of them were really afraid to speak up after Bibi while Bibi was there. Now that after he’s gone, you see everybody’s coming out to the woodwork Bogie, the chief of staff and all saying, “We knew this was stupid. You got to always be calibrating the balance of power. When I grew up in Minnesota, there was a state fair.
I used to go as a kid, and there was a guy who could guess your weight. If he got it within a few pounds, he won, if he didn’t, you won Kewpie doll. I was amazed, “How could that guy guess my weight?” as a kid. The Iranians can guess your power from a thousand miles away. You’re dealing with people who’ve been around a long time. These are sophisticated players, and they didn’t play this hand wisely at all. They played it for domestic consumption.
Rich: The counterfactual of had we not left the deal, we’d be better off right now can be countered with the other counterfactual, which is had Trump been reelected or had Biden continued maximum pressure, they would’ve folded by now. The IMF says they had $4 billion in accessible foreign exchange reserves coming into the year. Biden doesn’t enforce any sanctions, Chinese imports go up, no IAEA resolutions, doesn’t respond at all to even a contractor being killed, et cetera, et cetera. [crosstalk]
Tom: I would dispute one thing. The sanctions are still there. Yes. We have winked at as Trump did China buying’s some oil. They’re still under the broad hammer of sanctions.
Rich: To an extent, he’s issued waivers to give them access to billions to repay for in debts. I don’t think he’s cracked down on China’s imports the way that they could have. We can dispute that. I think the question is, putting aside, what should we have done back in 2018? Where would we have been at today? We are where we are today. Biden’s where he’s at today after 10 months of his own policy playing out the results of that policy as you note, not good either. What does he do?
Tom: I really don’t know. I’m not going to lie to you. I think we’re in a just a terrible place because there is no support in America for going to war with Iran at a time of tight energy markets. Just threatening that would spike oil and gas prices at a time when the president’s popularity is low. At the same time, Iran now, is basically three weeks away from having a fissile material to make a warhead, [unintelligible 00:24:16] a couple of years away from a warhead. I really don’t know. I say this is not where I would have started. I have no magic bullet. I think where this is going though, if you look at the history of Pakistan, North Korea, is Iran’s going to be a threshold nuclear power. Israel will deal with them through traditional deterrence, a mutually assured destruction.
It feels to me, as I look at all the factors, who has room to maneuver, who doesn’t, that’s where I think this is going. I think that Israel is very frustrated by this. You can see it in their actions. If they had a smart answer for you, Rich, I would know it by now. They don’t either, because a bombing is hugely complicated because Iran is dispersed all its facilities. It’s not actually bombing, it’s a war, it’s a multi-day operation. Even then, maybe you set them back for a year, and then Israel is isolated on the world stage. It’s a hellish situation.
Rich: The northern front response, most likely. [crosstalk]
Tom: Exactly. You get rockets all over. I don’t have a smart answer. I wouldn’t have started from here.
Rich: That is why we are watching the Israeli player in the poker game.
Jarrod: We wanted to make sure we asked you because you are one of the great thinkers about the region, the Abraham Accords, obviously, it had a big impact. What do you think the region looks like in 10 years after these accords? How does it play out with Saudi Arabia, any of the signatories and others who may not have come on board yet?
Tom: Jarrod, I wouldn’t make any predictions. I can just tell you what I would hope. My hope is that the Middle East will look a lot more like the European Union than the Syrian Civil War. That is more states trading with each other and Israel, but I have my fears as well, and this gets to larger things I’ve written about. We’re entering an era where it’s actually become really hard to be a state. This is because of economic pressures, technological pressures, climate pressures, population pressures, a lot of the states are just blowing up. We’ve seen it in Lebanon, we’ve seen it in Syria, we’ve seen it somewhat in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya.
These countries are too late for imperialism. I’m not advocating imperialism, I’m simply observing that they’re too late for some outside power to come in and take control, yet they failed at self-government. From Israel’s strategic perspective, its whole challenge, other than Iran, it’s actually managing weakness, not strength. Managing weakness among your neighbors, that’s hell on wheels. If you look at– What was the last wall that Israel built? The last wall, it was an electric fence, it’s in the Negev to prevent basically Sudanese and [unintelligible] from walking to Israel to find an island of order, and so you’re going to see the region cleave, I believe, between islands of order and islands of disorder.
What you’re seeing right now is the islands of order all getting aligned with each other. Now, there’s overlap. They’re all Sunnis. There’s the Iranian threat, but Iran is going to have that challenge as well. Let me just step back and give you the framework with which I look at the region today. If I collect my columns from 27 years now almost, among my favorites will be a column I wrote on January 3rd, 2020. I was in Auckland, New Zealand. My editors called me at night and said “Trump just assassinated Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. You have to write the column.” I say, “Guys, I’m in New Zealand, It’s a long way away, and I’m on vacation.”
I went to bed, I woke up and being me, it was like a piece of sand in the oyster. I opened my laptop, and I just typed the following sentence. I don’t know where it came from. This isn’t verbatim, but it’s pretty close. “Trump just assassinated the dumbest man in Iran. Trump just assassinated the dumbest man in Iran.” I looked at that sentence and said, “Where did that come from?” Here’s where it came from. It was my declaration of independence from a way of looking at the Middle East. I was basically saying to the late Soleimani, “I’m not going to judge you the old way, on the basis of your resistance to us or your resistance to the Sunnis. I’m going to judge you on a whole new metric called resilience.”
What do I mean? “I’m going to judge you in the actual context your country is living in. If you don’t know that context, let me spell it out to you. Your population is more than doubled since 1979, from 40 million to 85 million. The biggest lake in the Middle East, Urmia, has basically dried up. You have water riots in the south of your country, and what is your business model? Your business model is to go out and hire Arab Shiites to kill Arab Sunnis in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and create failed states around you. You’re the dumbest man in Iran because your people are never going to be able to realize they’re full potential.”
Now I realize he’s on another jag, but I’m taking him out of that. What I’m basically saying is I think we need to judge leaders there on, “Are you a resilience leader or you’re a resistance leader?” What you see in MbZ in the UAE, what you see in Prince Salman in Bahrain, what you see in the Moroccans, what you see in MBS. Is these guys on understand, “I better be a resilience leader in the age of climate change, population explosion, all of these things. I’m not just going to play the old resistance game. I’m going to derive my legitimacy from the resilience I produce for my people and their ability to realize their full potential, not from the resistance I provide for my people.”
To me, Soleimani death was basically the demarcation line for me of covering the story one way and the other. I will tell you, I was inundated by emails from Iranians saying thank you. Look, this regime can go on with resistance as long as it wants, but I think ultimately they’re playing a losing hand.
Rich: It’s a great segue. You brought up some of the other players and this pivot to resilience, MBS in particular Mohammad Bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the narrative for MBS, for Saudi Arabia has ebbed and flowed, let’s say, over the last couple of years. Where do you sit today on the future of Saudi Arabia, the future of MBS, and the future of Israeli-Saudi normalization?
Tom: I start inside Saudi Arabia. I have interviewed MBS twice. I wrote about him positively, this is all before the Khashoggi murder. I have no regrets about that because MBS was the first Saudi leader trying to reverse 1979. Let’s go back to where I started, what happened in 1979?
Rich: At the Grand Mosque.
Tom: After the attack on the Grand Mosque, the Saudi regime took the ruling family, took a giant right turn, and took the whole Arab Muslim world with them into Wahhabism. What started in 1979 ended on 9/11 in New York. They basically took Sunni Islam on this puritanical fundamentalist right turn with all the money from the rising oil prices. That changed the face of the Arab and Muslim world in a really bad way in my view and the view of many Muslims. MBS was the first leader to come along to say, :I’m going to reverse 1979,” explicitly. That is a fundamental strategic interest of United States of America.
We got involved in Iraq in part because of what happened in 1979. That was what produced Al-Qaeda. That was my argument with people. It’s not to say, “Get over it, he just killed a guy.” No, it’s terrible what he did. Not just terrible, it’s just incredibly stupid and venal. We also have to understand the only guy who would kill Khashoggi was also the only guy who would take the religious police off the streets, take on the religious establishment, let women drive, lift male guardianship. That’s the dilemma. It’s the Middle East, Jake. I wish Tom Jefferson was on the agenda and running all these countries. He’s not.
We’ve got to find a way to work with Saudi Arabia to encourage this trend, which is a fundamental strategic interest of the United States while at the same time not saying, “Oh, okay, you killed a American resident, a journalist whatever.” I don’t know how we do that. That is the balance we need to strike because that is the fundamental interest, not of the United States, of the whole Muslim world. It’s only when Saudi Arabia changes that the whole Arab Muslim world changes. None of his weenie cousins ever would have had the balls to do that, but unfortunately, he’s got this other side. It’s the Middle East, Jake.
I wish everybody was a nice guy, and they’re all future Martin Luthers. You work with what you got. We’ve got to find a way to work with Saudi Arabia. If he’s in charge of Saudi Arabia, to somehow work with him without giving him a pass for what he did, and I don’t know how to do that. Look, we work with Putin. How many journalists have been pushed out of windows in Moscow or [unintelligible] jail, or Chinese? They got their entire Muslim population in reeducation camps. It’s not an excuse. I’m not looking for excuses. What he did was terrible, but I’m saying, it’s the world we live in.
Jarrod: To finish up, we usually ask our guests a series of lighthearted questions to get a little bit more of a sense of who they are. The first question in the lightning round today for you is, what is your favorite Yiddish word or phrase?
Tom: Schvach. I use schvach a lot. [laughs]
Rich: That’s really good.
Tom: That’s really schvach.
Rich: That’s first for us, but I like it.
Jarrod: Yes, [crosstalk]
Rich: I like schvach. I use that, too.
Tom: My parents spoke Yiddish a lot to each other.
Rich: My parents spoke it so that we wouldn’t know what they were talking about.
Tom: Exactly. Yes.
Rich: We had to learn it with these tapes. What I learned, I never shared this on the podcast, learning Yiddish by one of these like old cassette tapes, the first side of the tape is how to complain.
Tom: [laughs] Exactly.
Rich: All the phrases, it’s like, “Oh, my foot. My foot hurts. My head, my head hurts.”
Tom: [unintelligible] [laughs]
Rich: What is one new but obscure book that our listeners should have on their radar or maybe even on their bookshelf?
Tom: I just read a fun book about, 2034, war between China, America, and Iran in 2034. I can recommend that.
Rich: All-right. Favorite golf course to play?
Tom: That’s just so easy, Cypress Point.
Rich: oh, not Caves Valley.
Tom: I love Caves Valley but it’s Cypress Point.
Rich: Finally, golf course you’ve always wanted to play but haven’t gotten there yet?
Rich: Oh, wow. When you’re Tom Friedman, that’s the answer.
Tom: I would say Bandon Dunes, but I’ve not played in Bandon Dunes yet, and I want to play that.
Rich: Tom Friedman, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. Appreciate the time.
Jarrod: Thanks so much, Tom.
Tom: My pleasure, guys. Thanks for having me.
Jarrod: Rich, what an interview. I could have talked for two more hours with Tom Friedman. I always leave a conversation like that feeling totally inadequate, and like I need to read a thousand more books. He seems to have read everything and talked to everybody we want to hear from. What do you think?
Rich: Listen we obviously disagree a little bit on the Iran deal, and the exit and we’re not going to spend the whole show on that. I think our listeners know my views on it. That’s why I wanted to just get to the, as we would say, the talk list of like, “What are we going to do now?” I just thought the conversation was excellent. His insights in the Middle East remain excellent. His insights on Saudi Arabia I thought are something that is a current topic of debate in Washington. I think a lot of members of Congress need to think about, the administration needs to think about on their way forward and navigating US-Saudi relations and the potential for Saudi-Israeli normalization in the future could depend on the US-Saudi relationship as well.
Jarrod: We got some golf course reviews, which is always a good thing.
Rich: That’s true. I’ve gone to the range a few times. I’ve never played a full 18 holes. Our listeners now, I think I’ve just lost a bunch of golf listeners. I’m sorry. Jarrod are you a golfer?
Jared: Sort of. I think we should probably record us playing golf one day. I think that would actually make for a phenomenal podcast. If we just live recorded you and I out on the golf course talking about whatever comes to our mind and have that as an episode of Limited Liability Podcast. We should see if we could set something like that up.
Rich: So long as nobody mentions what I’m actually doing when I hit the ball, I’ll be fine with that. That’s fine with me. We’ll just begin with the drinking cart or something. We’ll just have fun.
Jarrod: If you like this show, help us get the word out to other people. Subscribe on your favorite podcast app, leave us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify and most importantly, tell your friends because it’s the best recommendation we can get.
Rich: Until next time this is Limited Liability Podcast. Thanks for listening.
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