BOOKS REVIEW Deconstructing Thomas Friedman The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work by Belen Fernandez
Reviewed by Sandra Siagian
NEW YORK - A new book on the influential New York Times columnist Thomas
Friedman sets out to debunk his hawkish, neo-liberal views, accusing him of
overt racism, factual errors and skewed judgments on issues ranging from the
United States invasion of Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Deconstructing one of the country's highest-paid journalists, Belen Fernandez's The
Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work presents a comprehensive
overview of the man - and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner - she describes as
"characterized by reduction of complex international phenomena to simplistic
rhetoric and theorems that rarely withstand the test of reality".
Fernandez, 29, admits that prior to 2009 she wasn't too familiar with the work
of the foreign affairs columnist. It wasn't until that summer she decided to
analyze Friedman's work after reading "a sequence of ridiculous articles".
Finding it difficult to ''cram all of that incompetence into a concise book'',
Fernandez divided the content into three issues that ''most enraged'' her,
analyzing his work along with a brief examination of the shortcomings of the US
The Imperial Messenger looks at Friedman's obsession with US global
dominance, his Orientalism vis-a-vis the Arab/Muslim world, and his special
relationship with Israel.
It took her just over a year, working with the editor and feature writer at
Pulse Media, in which she read every column he had written since 1995 three
times. She also read a selection of his articles that were free to access from
the New York Times archive, from 1981 to 1995.
The final product, written in a punchy and often sarcastic tone, offers a
concise overview that is accessible even for those who aren't familiar with
Fernandez explained that the first chapter, "America", incorporates Friedman's
"cheerleading of punitive economic systems at home and abroad" while the
"Special Relationship" chapter delves into the inconsistencies of his persona
as a serious critic of the Jewish state.
"His criticism, of course, is limited to intermittently encouraging the
Israelis to slightly curtail settlements," Fernandez told Inter Press Service
(IPS). "Not because he cares about the plight of non-settlers, but because he
wants to avoid a situation in which Palestinians demand equal rights in a
As an example, Fernandez cites his advocacy of the war in Iraq "to create a
free, open and progressive model in the heart of the Arab/Muslim world to
promote the ideas of tolerance, pluralism and democratization".
She says Friedman wrote this after having said in 2002 that "unless the US
encourage(s) alternative energies that will slowly bring the price of oil down
and force Arab/Muslim countries to open up and adapt to modernity - we can
invade Iraq once a week and it's not going to unleash democracy in the Arab
In the same year, Friedman classifies the invasion of Iraq as "the most
important task worth doing and worth debating", even while admitting that it
"would be a huge, long, costly task - if it is doable at all, and I am not
embarrassed to say that I don't know if it is".
In the "Arab/Muslim World" chapter, she quotes Friedman as concluding that the
"short answer" for why the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in response to 9/11
"is because Pakistan has nukes that we fear and Saudi Arabia has oil that we
Fernandez notes that Friedman is never forced to formally retreat or even
informally amend offensive and racist statements, meanwhile diverting attention
from the role of Israel in generating regional rage by accusing the
Palestinians of "a collective madness".
Friedman's power and freedom to express his views is made evident when
Fernandez describes the latitude granted him by the New York Times. Take this
"Readers of Friedman's column are often reminded that New York Times columnists
are not permitted to endorse US presidential candidates. The blatant
endorsement of war crimes like collective punishment, however, is apparently
less polemical, even when columnists cannot keep track of their own reasons for
"In separate reflections on the war with Serbia published two months apart in
1999, Friedman writes in the former that once the [Kosovar] refugee evictions
began ... using a huge air war for a limited objective was the only thing that
made sense." He then adds that he may indeed understand the true sequence of
events, 'NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] bombed, and [Slobodan]
Milosevic began ruthlessly killing and evicting Kosovar Albanians'".
Whatever the reader's political bent, The Imperial Messenger raises
thought-provoking questions about the objectivity of mainstream media when it
comes to US economic and foreign policy interests.
After stripping down columns, articles and his books, Fernandez said her
perception of Friedman worsened from beginning to end.
"I realized how truly criminal his behavior is, whereas before I had thought of
him more as a somewhat amusing purveyor of mixed metaphors who had by accident
ascended to the post of New York Times foreign affairs columnist," she told
"The New York Times is totally complicit in Friedman's crimes, just as it was
complicit in selling the whole business of the Iraq war. The degenerate state
of the mainstream media, which actively sides with corporate profit over human
life, is simply a testament to the importance of alternative media outlets."
The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work by Belen Fernandez.
Verso (November 1, 2011). ISBN-10: 1844677494. Price US$16.95, 240 pages.