Friedman’s Love Letter to a War Criminal
Sometimes newspapers publish credulous fluff pieces about their subjects, but Tom Friedman leaves them all in the dust with his encomium to Mohammed bin Salman (MBS):
Unlike the other Arab Springs — all of which emerged bottom up and failed miserably, except in Tunisia — this one is led from the top down by the country’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and, if it succeeds, it will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe. Only a fool would predict its success — but only a fool would not root for it.
It would be more accurate to say that only a fool would be so quick to take all of this at face value. I don’t see the news value in having a prominent columnist working as a foreign leader’s publicist, but it is extremely useful for the crown prince to be given a major platform to deliver his spin to someone who will uncritically endorse it. There is practically nothing in the long profile that might displease its subject, whose assurances are taken as proof that he is the zealous “reformer” that his cheerleaders say that he is. Friedman tells us that he couldn’t find anyone with a bad word to say about MBS’ purges, as if anyone there would feel free to do so after the dramatic mass arrests that the crown prince has orchestrated.
I would like to dismiss this piece as the latest example of Friedman’s terrible, superficial analysis of the rest of the world, but unfortunately his eager acceptance of MBS’s self-serving claims is all too typical of Western reactions to the crown prince. Western pundits are always on the lookout for foreign leaders that say the right things about tolerance and reform, and when they find someone mouthing the words they tend to cast aside their skepticism and start “rooting” for that leader. Friedman swallows MBS’ propaganda hook, line, and sinker:
This anticorruption drive is only the second-most unusual and important initiative launched by M.B.S. The first is to bring Saudi Islam back to its more open and modern orientation — whence it diverted in 1979.
The Saudis have been spreading one of the most virulent, destructive forms of Islam around the world for decades, and they have been doing quite a lot to stoke sectarian hatred against Shia Muslims even more in the last decade. Even if Islam in Saudi Arabia before 1979 was “more open and modern” than it is now, I don’t buy for a second that that the same person who has been busy destabilizing the rest of the region in the name of hostility to Iran has a genuine interest in creating a “more open and modern” Islam. This is the sort of thing one says to get credulous Westerners to overlook the enormous crimes being perpetrated right now by the Saudis and their allies in Yemen.
Friedman does mention Yemen once, but it mostly amounts to reciting what MBS told him:
He insisted that the Saudi-backed war in Yemen, which has been a humanitarian nightmare, was tilting in the direction of the pro-Saudi legitimate government there, which, he said is now in control of 85 percent of the country, but given the fact that pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, who hold the rest, launched a missile at Riyadh airport, anything less than 100 percent is still problematic.
There is a reference to the “humanitarian nightmare” in the country, but Friedman has nothing to say about who is primarily responsible for creating that nightmare. He might have said that the tightening of the Saudi-led blockade was an outrageous act of collective punishment and a ridiculous overreaction to a single missile launch, but instead he said nothing at all. Friedman’s interview took place as the tightened coalition blockade was swiftly bringing about what the U.N. warns will be the worst famine in decades, and yet one looks in vain in this very long profile for the words blockade or famine. Imagine if someone wrote up a conversation with the head of Myanmar’s military and never said anything about the genocide they are carrying out right now. That is what Friedman did in his glowing, enthusiastic description of MBS’ agenda. MBS is only too happy to use prominent Western media outlets to launder his image, and the outlets that oblige him in whitewashing his government’s war crimes do tremendous harm to their credibility.