I just finished reading this latest book from Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs correspondent for the New York Times. Everyone who follows Middle East news closely already knows about Friedman and has possibly already read this. If you care about that part of the world you owe it to yourself to do the same.

The book contains a collection of Friedman’s columns from December 2000 to April 2003, divided by September 11, 2001 (obviously) into sections entitled Before and After . There’s also a post-9/11 diary segment of material that couldn’t fit into the columns, although much of it echoes the material that did fit.

Friedman is a competent but not great writer—I repeatedly found myself wanting to tighten up a sentence or switch in a smoother synonym. This doesn’t matter much, because he has (in my opinion) the clearest view on a large scale of the Middle East of anyone alive who writes about such things for his bread; and the occasionally awkward prose doesn’t obscure that view in the slightest.

[Disclosure: I spent eleven years of my life in the Middle East and have strong opinions on the issues there; in most cases they approximately parallel Friedman’s. This means that if you have warm feelings about the Likud party, the Hezbollah, the Israeli settler movement, or the Government of Saudi Arabia you will probably disagree fairly violently.]

Of course, Friedman has advantages—as the NYT’s big-name columnist he can hobnob with Israeli cabinet ministers and Saudi princes, and go anywhere he wants whenever he wants, and does. There is reason to believe that he in fact originally planted the idea that led to the Saudi offer in 2002 of recognition & peace with Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal to 1967 borders.

He writing is studied and cool, but this only makes his occasional measured bursts of passion and anger more effective. He’s a Jew, arguably a necessity in his job, which regularly requires saying unpleasant things about certain policies and actions of the government of Israel. He’s also a patriot, and if I have a single gripe with this book, it is the repeated over-the-top flag-waving; the US after all is not the only place in the world which is cosmopolitan, free, peaceful, and creative. But once again this may be a necessity; just as criticism of Israel can lead to accusations of anti-Semitism, insufficient god-bless-US cheerleading can lead to snarls from the right about traitorous America-hating.

His theses about the Israel/Palestine situation are straightforward and to my mind mostly sensible; his view on Iraq more complex and in parts controversial, but always well-argued. I think anyone who regularly engages in discourse about the Middle East who hasn’t read this book ought to feel nervous.

As a footnote for the geeks in the crowd, there is a short passage near the end of the Diary section of musings on the effect of the Net. It’s far from optimistic and really should be read by anyone who spends time thinking about the intersection of the body politic with life online.


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August 29, 2003
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