Dowd, Friedman and Bruni

Oh, frabjous day!  Let’s all celebrate!  The Pasty Little Putz has the day off.  MoDo has combined a hiss and a swoon today.  In “Bill Schools Barry on Syria” she’s all excited about how, after dithering over what to do about Syria, President Obama was taken to the leadership woodshed by Bill Clinton.  I don’t recall her being quite so in love with Bill when he was in the White House, and I can’t imagine what she’ll have to say about him should Hillary decide to run.  (Other, of course, than ruminating on who wears the pants…)  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Egypt’s Perilous Drift,” says Egypt is a mess. But there is hope in the young environmentalists.  In “The Pope’s Gay Panic” Mr. Bruni says that the Vatican speaks in sexual double standards. But then so does America.  Here’s MoDo:

Not only is President Obama leading from behind, now he’s leading from behind Bill Clinton.

After dithering for two years over what to do about the slaughter in Syria, the president was finally shoved into action by the past and perhaps future occupant of his bedroom.

Clinton told John McCain during a private Q. and A. on Tuesday in New York that Obama should be more forceful on Syria and should not rationalize with opinion polls that reflect Americans’ reluctance to tangle in foreign crises. McCain has been banging the gong on a no-fly zone in Syria for some time.

The oddity of Obama’s being taken to the leadership woodshed by the Democrat who preceded him and the Republican who failed to pre-empt him was not lost on anyone. When Obama appointed Clinton “the Secretary of ’Splaining Stuff,” he didn’t think Bill would be ’splaining how lame Barry was.

As Maggie Haberman reported in Politico, Clinton said at the McCain Institute for International Leadership that the public elects presidents and lawmakers to “look around the corner and see down the road” and “to win,” not to follow polls.

When the man who polled where to take his summer vacation and whether to tell the truth about his affair with Monica Lewinsky tells you you’re a captive of polls, you’d better listen up.

Citing his own experiences in Kosovo and Bosnia, Clinton said that if you blamed a poll for a lack of action, “you’d look like a total wuss.” He added that “when people are telling you ‘no’ in these situations, very often what they’re doing is flashing a giant yellow light” of caution.

According to Haberman, Clinton, who apologized for failing to intervene in the Rwandan genocide, continued: “If you refuse to act and you cause a calamity, the one thing you cannot say when all the eggs have been broken is that ‘Oh my God, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it.’ Right? You’d look like a total fool. So you really have to in the end trust the American people, tell them what you’re doing, and hope to God you can sell it.”

That is the problem for Obama: selling it. The silver-tongued campaigner has turned out to be a leaden salesman in the Oval Office. On issues from drones to gun control to taxes to Syria, the president likes to cite public opinion polls to justify his action or inaction. He seems incapable of getting in front of issues and shaping public and Congressional opinion with a strong selling job.

After the whistle was blown on the National Security Agency’s No Call Left Behind program, the president said he would welcome an ex post facto debate. But now that polls indicate that the overwhelming American attitude is “Spy on me,” Obama has dropped the subject.

Too bad. We’ll see what Americans have to say when someone in the mold of Dick Cheney or Bob Haldeman gets his hands on all that personal data; the West Wing has been known to drive its occupants nuts.

On Syria, the administration now says it will begin supplying rebels with small arms and ammunition, a gesture that friends and foes alike say is too little, too late. The Times’s Peter Baker reported on Saturday that Obama himself said it wouldn’t change anything but would maybe buy time.

And as the White House announced this pittance of a policy on Thursday evening, the president was nowhere to be seen. He let his deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, be the face of the Syria plan, while he spent time at an LGBT Pride Month celebration, a Father’s Day luncheon and a reception for the W.N.B.A. championship Indiana Fever basketball team.

On “Morning Joe” on Friday, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Carter national security adviser, dismissed the president’s response to Syria as “propaganda,” noting the ambiguous nature of the red line that President Assad had crossed, killing 150 people with chemical weapons after nearly 93,000 had died in the civil war.

“It all seems to me rather sporadic, chaotic, unstructured, undirected,” he said. “I think we need a serious policy review with the top people involved, not just an announcement by the deputy head of the N.S.C.”

Especially, he added, since Syria could slide into a larger regional war that would pit America against Syria’s ally, Iran, with a huge effect on the international economy and America’s budget.

While the president was avoiding talking about what he hadn’t wanted to do in the first place, the former president was ubiquitous and uxorious, chatting about Syria and myriad other issues on MSNBC and Bloomberg TV; smiling on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek and offering his solutions for corporate America’s problems; presiding at his global initiative in Chicago; and promoting the woman he hopes will be the next president.

On Friday, a self-satisfied Clinton told the “Morning Joe” hosts about Syria, “It looks to me like this thing is trending in the right direction now.”

The less Obama leads, the more likely it is that history will see him as a pallid interregnum between two chaotic Clinton eras.

Nature abhors a vacuum. And so does Bill Clinton.

Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Marsa Alam, Egypt:

On Tuesday, I visited a bakery in Cairo’s dirt-poor Imbaba neighborhood, where I watched a scrum of men, women and children jostling to get bread. You have to get there early, because the baker makes only so many subsidized pita loaves; he sells the rest of his government-subsidized flour on the black market to private bakers who charge five times the official price. He has no choice, he says, because his fuel costs are spiking. You can watch the subsidized-flour bags being carried on shoulders out the side door. “This is the hardest job in Egypt,” the bakery owner told me. Everyone is always mad at him, especially those who line up early and still leave with no bread.

These are difficult days in Egypt. It is running out of hard currency and can’t buy enough gasoline and diesel for power stations. Long lines are forming at gas stations, worsening Cairo’s titanic traffic jams, and electricity cuts are commonplace. Around the corner from the bakery, on an unpaved street, a small knot of men have two manhole covers lifted, exposing a sickening black sludge that has backed up almost to street level; they’re fishing down the hole for the blockage with a long, thin rod. There is much arguing about how best to solve this problem. In the background, through an open window, you hear children in a Koranic school cheerfully repeating verses for their teacher.

This is Egypt in miniature — so many problems built up over so many years that are all about to spill onto the street. No one can agree on what to do about them — and the only tool they have looks like a 30-foot-long, jury-rigged, straightened coat hanger.

As if things weren’t bad enough, who should show up to add to Egypt’s stresses but Mother Nature herself. Climate, water, food and population pressures are now interweaving with the political and economic ones in ways that would challenge even the best of leaders, and Egypt today has far from the best. In the last month, Cairo has seen temperatures as high as 113 degrees Fahrenheit, 20 degrees above the daily average high.

And the headline news in Cairo last week was Ethiopia’s construction of the biggest hydroelectric dam in Africa, on the Blue Nile. As the reservoir behind the dam is filled up, the water supply to Egypt is likely to be reduced, and since Egypt’s 85 million people get 97 percent of their fresh water from the Nile, this has become a huge issue. Some senior Egyptian officials speak of possible military action to prevent the dam from being completed. President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, on Monday declared publicly of Ethiopia: “We are not calling for war, but we will never permit our water security … to be threatened.” Egypt, he said, will keep “all options open.” Ethiopia has responded with defiance, with its prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, saying “nothing and no one” would stop construction.

Invading Ethiopia may be Morsi’s only open option. His government has been a huge disappointment for many Egyptians. Many non-Islamists voted for Morsi — it was the only way he got elected — because they felt they could not vote for the candidate favored by supporters of the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, and because they believed his promise to be “inclusive.” These pro-Morsi non-Islamists are known here as “lemon squeezers,” from an Egyptian expression — when you are forced to do or eat something unpleasant you say: “I squeezed lemon all over it first.”

When you talk to these lemon squeezers today — the liberals, conservatives and nationalists who make up the opposition — you can feel a palpable hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood and a powerful sense of theft: a widespread feeling that the Brotherhood tricked the lemon squeezers and the poor into voting for its members and now they have failed to either fix the country or share power, but are busy trying to impose religious norms. This opposition has mounted a nationwide petition drive that has garnered 10 million signatures so far calling on Morsi to resign and to call new elections. On June 30, their campaign is set to culminate in a nationwide anti-Morsi protest. Morsi still enjoys support in the more traditional countryside, so this could get very ugly.

What to do with such a mess?

In trying to answer that question I did something different on this trip. I did not talk to any politicians, but focused instead on Egypt’s impressive but small group of environmental activists, many of whom were also involved in the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. I focused on them because I believe that while they may not know what is sufficient to fix Egypt (who does?) they do know what is necessary:

Egypt needs a revolution.

Wait, isn’t that what happened two years ago? Not really. It is now clear that what happened two years ago was more musical chairs than revolution. First the army, using the energy of the youth-led protesters in Tahrir Square, ousted Mubarak, and then the Muslim Brotherhood ousted the army, and now the opposition is trying to oust the Brotherhood. Each, though, is operating on the old majoritarian politics — winners take all, losers get nothing.

But the truth is that any faction here — the youth, the army, the Muslim Brotherhood — that thinks it can rule Egypt alone and make the others disappear is fooling itself. (Ditto in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.) Because Egypt is in such a deep hole, and the reforms needed so painful, they can be accomplished only if everyone shares in the responsibility and ownership of the transition through a national unity coalition. In that sense Egyptians today desperately need a “peace process” — not with Israel, but with one another.

Everyone has to take responsibility for the commons, rather than just grabbing their own. That is the real cultural revolution that has to happen for Egypt to revive. And that’s where the environmentalists here have such an advantage over the politicians, because all they think about is the commons — resources that have to be shared. Egypt’s commons — its bridges, roads, parks, coral reefs — are crumbling.

I’m here looking at how environmental stresses contributed to the Arab Awakening, as part of a documentary for Showtime: “Years of Living Dangerously.” This week we traveled to Marsa Alam, on the Red Sea, with Ahmed el-Droubi, a campaigner for Greenpeace in Egypt, and Amr Ali, the head of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association, or Hepca, a Red Sea conservation group, to look at how overbuilding, overfishing and rising water temperatures have led to the bleaching of some of the Red Sea’s spectacular coral reefs. As we set out for a dive to look at these reefs, Droubi tried to explain Egypt’s central problem to me by using the example of Cairo’s jammed traffic, among the worst in the world.

“The other day,” Droubi said, “I was standing on a main intersection in downtown Cairo, where two one-way roads meet. As I stood there, I saw cars going both ways down both one-way streets — cars were coming and going in four different directions — and other cars were double-parked. I was standing next to a shop owner watching this. ‘This is a complete mess,’ he said. ‘No one has any civic responsibility. They each only care about themselves getting to where they are going.’ ”

A few minutes later, Droubi continued, a car that was parked right in front of the man’s shop drove away and a new car tried to slip in. “This same owner came out with a chair, put it in the parking space and told the new driver not to block his store but to double-park and block part of the street instead!” Droubi told me. “So, the shop owner saw the problem. He knew the reasons for the problem. He knew the solution, but he wouldn’t do his part because he thought others would not do theirs. The net result was that the traffic was worse for everyone. We have to break this cycle — to show people if they act in the common good they will each benefit more.”

What happened on Cairo’s roads happened along the Red Sea coast. Each hotel owner looked out for himself, while a corrupt government looked the other way. Some hotel owners, to expand their land or gain some beach, simply put landfill over the coral reefs on their shores. Marine activities were unregulated, stressing dolphins in their own resting areas, where they try to sleep safe from the sharks. Fishermen overfished — especially for sharks, which they sold for meat and for fins — and they used dynamite and mesh nets that killed the multicolored reef fish, along with the grouper they were trying to catch. As a result, the whole reef ecosystem became less resilient to global warming.

“In 1997, one of the hottest years on record, coral bleaching became a problem around the world,” but not in the Red Sea, Ali told me. Coral bleaching means that the photosynthetic algae that give the coral its rainbow of colors and nutrition are evicted by the coral after it is stressed beyond certain natural limits and it all turns bone white. But in 2012, when water temperatures in the Red Sea rose by about two degrees Celsius above their average, said Ali, the coral died “all over the place,” especially in the most tourist-filled and fished areas. Healthy coral are critical for fish spawning.

Hepca was formed by the diving community in 1992 to protect the reefs. “These coral reefs are the rain forests of the marine environment,” Droubi explained. “There are 800 species of coral here and 1,200 species of fish.” It all, though, requires a healthy ecosystem, starting with the apex predator — the sharks. If too many sharks are killed, too many of the midlevel predators survive and they then eat too many of the smaller plant-eating fish that keep coral healthy by eating the algae off substrates to clear space for coral to colonize. A reef rich in herbivores will be more resilient.

But for a long time the local government and fishermen were not interested and certainly could not grasp global warming’s impact on the region. So Hepca helped them understand the problem by putting it in their vernacular. They estimated that every shark in the Red Sea was worth about $150,000 a year in business from tourists (who fly in to see or swim with the sharks) and lived for 30 years, while a shark killed for meat and fins for soup brought in about $150 one time. So if everyone worked together, if the government passed new zoning laws where people could fish, and dive-tour operators respected them and Hepca was empowered to enforce the regulation with its own speedboats — the Egyptian coast guard has no boats — everyone would be better off. It sounds simple, but it was a revolution here.

“The national government was not really interested in helping,” Droubi said, “but the local government and fishermen realized they were losing, so everybody came together for a local solution,” which was creating protected zones. “Everybody realized that they were stakeholders,” he added — the environmentalists because of their priorities, the local government, which wanted the tax base from tourism and fishing, and the tourism and fishing industries because this was their livelihood. “We made everyone aware of how their interests intersected if they worked together. It was all about revolting against an old paradigm and creating a new one.” So far the results seem promising.

I have no illusions, and neither do Droubi and Ali, about how hard it would be to bring this kind of “shared commons” thinking to the national level here, but the absence of it is what ails almost every one of these Arab Awakenings today, where one group or another thinks it can have it all and too few people are thinking about the common good and how it has the potential make them all better off. Syria is the most extreme version of this disease, but Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen are all struggling with the same issue.

What is different about Egypt, though, is that it is bursting with talented young people who understand that Egypt needs an inclusive, long-term, sustainable plan for national renewal. And what they also understand is that those who say that the Arabs have tried everything — Nasserism, socialism, Communism, Baathism, liberalism and Islamism — but that nothing has worked, are wrong. There is one ism they haven’t tried: environmentalism. The only way Egypt and the other Awakening states will have sustainable democracies with sustainable economies is to elevate an environmental ethic to the center of political thinking. Without that, it’s all just musical chairs.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

I have many questions for and about the “gay lobby” in the Vatican, but I’ll start with this: How can you be so spectacularly ineffective?

You wouldn’t last a minute on K Street; the Karl Roves of the capital would have you for lunch. Despite your presence in, and presumed influence on, the upper reaches of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, church teaching still holds that homosexuality is disordered, and many church leaders still send the preposterously mixed message that while gay and lesbian people shouldn’t be admonished for, or ashamed about, their same-sex attractions, they should nonetheless elect cold showers over warm embraces. Look but don’t touch. Dream but don’t diddle.

“It’s like saying, ‘You’re a bird, but you can’t fly,’ ” cracked Sister Jeannine Gramick, an American nun who has long challenged the church on this issue, when we chatted recently.

“That’s not original,” she quickly confessed, referring to her analogy. “It’s been around awhile.”

I called her after the news reports last week that Pope Francis, in a private meeting with a Latin American religious group, had wrung his hands about a network of gay clerics at Catholicism’s command central. “Gay lobby” was the phrase he used, according to the group’s notes, but it wasn’t clear whether he meant a political faction per se.

What was clearer was his acknowledgment — rare for a pope, and thus remarkable — of the church’s worst-kept secret: a priesthood populous with gay men, even at the zenith. And that underscored anew the mystery and madness of the church’s attitude about homosexuality.

If homosexuality is no bar to serving as one of God’s emissaries and interpreters, if it’s no obstacle to being promoted to the upper rungs of the church’s hierarchy, how can it be so wrong? It doesn’t add up. There’s an error in the holy arithmetic.

The answer that many church leaders now give is that homosexuality isn’t in fact sinful, not in and of itself, not if it’s paired with chastity, which Roman Catholic priests of any persuasion are supposed to practice. Church leaders also stress that they don’t mean to disparage gay people or deny them full human dignity.

“The first thing I’d say to them is: I love you, too,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, told ABC News earlier this year. “And God loves you. And you are made in God’s image and likeness. And we want your happiness.”

“You’re entitled to friendship,” he went on, laying out the ground rules for same-sex longings and pairings. As for sexual love, he added, “that is intended only for a man and woman in marriage, where children can come about naturally.”

Let’s leave aside the legions of straight people, Catholic and otherwise, who aren’t tucking their sex lives into a box that tidy, tiny and fecundity-minded.

Let’s focus on something else. There’s no way for a gay or lesbian person not to hear Dolan’s appraisal as something of a condemnation, no matter how lavishly it’s dressed in loving language. It assigns homosexuals a status separate from, and unequal to, the one accorded heterosexuals: you’re O.K., but you’re really not O.K. Upon you there is a special restriction, and for you there is a fundamental dimension of the human experience that is off-limits, a no-fly zone of the heart.

It’s two-tiered thinking, which is present as well in American political life, where many people who say that they have no problem with gays and lesbians and no intent to discriminate against us also say that we shouldn’t be allowed to marry, because, well, that’s the tradition, and marriage is an accommodation too far.

The Supreme Court is poised to weigh in on the matter in the next two weeks, and while the smart money is on a toppling of the Defense of Marriage Act, which forbids the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in any of the 12 states that have legalized it, there’s little sign that the court will compel all the other states to get with the program.

And so we gay and lesbian people will be told: you’re O.K., but it’s up to states to decide just how O.K. There’s an asterisk to your supposed equality, a margin of difference between what others deserve and what you do.

That’s not really acceptance, and that may explain some of the findings of a Pew Research Center poll of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans that was released last week. About one-third of the respondents said that they’d not told their mothers the truth of their lives, and an even greater fraction had not told their fathers. In other words, fear and secrecy — not to mention the potential psychological damage associated with each — persist. And you can’t divorce that from marriage inequality’s insinuation that gays and lesbians have less honorable relationships, and are lesser creatures all in all.

Nor can you divorce it from the Catholic Church’s wildly contradictory signals. Although the church doesn’t deem homosexuality paired with chastity to be sinful, the Vatican decreed in 2005 that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” shouldn’t be ordained as priests.

And yet many such men have been ordained. The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit and an editor at large at the Catholic magazine America, told me that he’s seen thoughtful though not scientifically rigorous estimates that anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of Catholic priests are gay. His own best guess is 30 percent. That’s thousands and thousands of gay priests, some of whom must indeed be in the “deep-seated” end of the tendency pool.

Martin believes that the vast majority of gay priests aren’t sexually active. But some are, and Rome is certainly one of the many theaters where the conflict between the church’s ethereal ideals and the real world play out.

I lived there for nearly two years, covering the Vatican for The Times, and while I got no real sense of any “gay lobby,” I was given my own lesson in the hypocrisy of clerics who preach one set of morals and practice another.

Every so often, I’d have lunch or dinner with the Rev. Thomas Williams, who was the dean of theology at a pontifical university and belonged to the Legion of Christ, a conservative order. He liked to expose secular news organizations to the order’s philosophy, and over time his classic, square-jawed good looks — he resembled some ecclesiastical man of steel, ready to star in “Superman Genuflects” — led to television time as a Vatican analyst.

Last year he took a leave from ministry, amid accusations of affairs with several women. He admitted to one of them, and to fathering a child.

The friends with whom I’ve shared that story invariably ask: “Doesn’t that make you angry?”

No. Just really, really sad.


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