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New York Times' Thomas Friedman Looks Back On Foreign Policy After Sept. 11


It has been 15 years since 9/11, the coordinated attacks on America that took the lives of almost 3,000 people. Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times, has tracked the transformation of the country in the years since that day. He won his third Pulitzer Prize for his post-9/11 work and came in to talk with us about his memories of that day and what came next.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Ironically or not, I was actually in Tel Aviv. I had gone to Israel to report on the Intifada. And I was at Tel Aviv University, interviewing the president. And I had a regular driver who'd been with me there for many years.

And I came out of the meeting. And the driver said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. And I thought immediately, well, there was just a terrible accident. And then I thought I'd better check. And I turned around and went back into the president's office. And we watched the towers coming down. And so I happened to know the chief of military intelligence at the time.

And I called him and said, I need to know everything you know about suicide bombing. Of course, the Israelis had had this experience in their conflict with the Palestinians. And they also wanted to talk to me about my experience in Beirut. So we actually decided to meet at the Ministry of Defense on the morning of 9/12.

And I tell you, Rachel, there was something that was said at that meeting that stayed with me to this day. And basically, what the Israeli said was, you know, our intelligence is really good in the West Bank. We can get Achmed (ph) before he blows up a pizza parlor. And we can get this guy before he blows up a disco.

But, you know, at the end of the day, they said, suicide bombing only stops if the village says no. And no amount of intelligence can make it stop unless the village says no.

MARTIN: And that has not happened.

FRIEDMAN: And that has not happened.

MARTIN: You wrote a column on September 13, 2001, right after you've had these conversations. The column feels like it could've been written today. You make the point that at the time, we were playing what you call the double game with our Middle Eastern allies.

As long as they kept the prices of oil low, then the U.S. turned a blind eye. Since then, we've been through two different presidents who had two different strategies. Do you think that double game is still happening?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. It's happening - just in a different way. And substitute security for oil. So what I was saying back then, Rachel, is that over the many years, we had come to treat the Arab world as basically a collection of big gas stations.

And our basic bargain with them was, guys, keep your pumps open, your prices low. And don't bother the Israelis too much. You know, leave the Jews alone. And you can do whatever you want out back. You can treat your women however you want. You can preach whatever crazy ideas from your mosques that you want.

You can tolerate as much unemployment among your youth as you want. Just keep your pumps open, your prices low. And don't bother the Israelis too much. And my view, then, Rachel - and is my view still to this day - is that we got hit with the distilled essence of all the pathologies that were going on out back.

That's what 9/11 represented. And unfortunately, today, we're kind of playing a similar bargain. Now we're telling them, just keep your terrorists under control. And you can do, again, whatever you want out back, basically.

MARTIN: So two different presidents since 9/11 - two different policies. George W. Bush - much more aggressive, you could argue. Barack Obama spent much of the last eight years trying to undo those policies, get out - hands off. You know, let's extract ourselves from these quagmires.

So what is the third way? What is the way that the United States can make change in these people's lives, can give people hope that is welcomed in these cultures and that can make real change?

FRIEDMAN: So I've learned in the Middle East that the Middle East only puts a smile on your face if it starts with them. So the Oslo peace process - that started with them. You know, the Arab Spring started with them.

By the way, which is the one Arab country that had a successful Arab Spring, produced a new democratic constitution - still very frail? It's Tunisia. It's the one we had nothing to do with. So what that tells you - what I've learned from all of this is that it has to start with them. We can then amplify it.

We can help it. And what we learned after 9/11 was yes, in the Arab Spring and after 9/11, a lot of people there wanted to be free. But some wanted to be free to be more Islamist. And some wanted to be free to embrace liberal values. But there weren't enough.

And so this is a part of a broader dilemma of American foreign policy today. And Syria's the quintessential example - is that the necessary is impossible. And you know what? The impossible is also necessary. So I have a very simple foreign policy progression in my head. Where there is disorder, try to build order.

Where there's order, try to make it more decent. Give it a positive slope. Where there's decent order, try to make it more consensual. And where there's consensual order, protect it like a rare flower.

MARTIN: It also suggests that this is a conflict the likes of which we have never known. I mean, when you think back at 9/11 now - 15 years ago - was it, as many suggest, the beginning of something - that the world changed forever, and it started this new thread? Or was it just a symptom of something that had been with us all along?

FRIEDMAN: So I weep for all of our brothers and sisters in this country who were killed on 9/11. And I'm awed by the acts of heroism. But I actually hate this day. And I don't like thinking about it anymore.

I hate it because every time I drive through a pothole in Washington D.C., every time I land in LAX from Singapore and realize I've gone from the Jetsons to the Flintstones, I weep for the money we have spent after 9/11 that could've gone into infrastructure and education.

And I also realize that 9/11 - it's one of those days. It's like Pearl Harbor. It's like D-Day. But Pearl Harbor, although it presaged a war in the Pacific in which millions were killed - it ended with a democratic Japan and a much more stable Asia. D-Day ended with a democratic Germany and an amazing European Union.

And 9/11 ended with just a lot more many 9/11s. And that's because Pearl Harbor was a war against a nation-state. And you could actually fix that state in collaboration with the people. D-Day - the same. But 9/11 was not about a nation-state. It was about a jihadist Islamist movement.

And you can't kill a movement and fix it like a nation-state. Only the local culture, society and faith community can do that. And that's why I end where I started. It takes a village. And without that, we're going to have a lot more of these.

MARTIN: Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, thank you so much for talking with us.

FRIEDMAN: Thank you for having me, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.