Archive for the ‘Friedman’ Category

Bobo from yesterday, Friedman and Bruni

February 10, 2016

I had some minor eye surgery yesterday, so didn’t spend any time on the computer.  But I couldn’t POSSIBLY not post Bobo’s cri de coeur from yesterday, titled, and you can’t make this stuff up, “I Miss Barack Obama.”  Turns out that President Obama is okay after all…  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “Let’s skip the disingenuous ode to Obama. Of course he’s a decent man. But instead of mourning the upcoming loss of his grace and equanimity, we ought to be lamenting the loss of eight years of potential that Republicans squandered in their utter refusal to work with him. Conservatives like Mr. Brooks have undermined everything he’s stood for, and helped to create the polarized chaos out of which these embarrassing excuses for Republican candidates have emerged.  Brooks dismisses them all, except that he find Rubio charming when he breaks out in a nervous sweat and robotically repeats talking points under the pressure of a Republican debate. Imagine how charming he’ll be when North Korea launches missiles.”  Poor Bobo has a terrible case of the flop sweats.  Today The Moustache of Wisdom ponders “The Many Mideast Solutions” and says our presidential candidates can retire their platitudes about standing with Israeli and Sunni Arab allies.  Mr. Bruni considers “Feminism, Hell and Hillary Clinton” and says gender informs her quest, but it’s not the main reason to be for or against her.  Here’s Bobo from yesterday:

As this primary season has gone along, a strange sensation has come over me: I miss Barack Obama. Now, obviously I disagree with a lot of Obama’s policy decisions. I’ve been disappointed by aspects of his presidency. I hope the next presidency is a philosophic departure.

But over the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board. Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply.

The first and most important of these is basic integrity. The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free. Think of the way Iran-contra or the Lewinsky scandals swallowed years from Reagan and Clinton.

We’ve had very little of that from Obama. He and his staff have generally behaved with basic rectitude. Hillary Clinton is constantly having to hold these defensive press conferences when she’s trying to explain away some vaguely shady shortcut she’s taken, or decision she has made, but Obama has not had to do that.

He and his wife have not only displayed superior integrity themselves, they have mostly attracted and hired people with high personal standards. There are all sorts of unsightly characters floating around politics, including in the Clinton camp and in Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. This sort has been blocked from team Obama.

Second, a sense of basic humanity. Donald Trump has spent much of this campaign vowing to block Muslim immigration. You can only say that if you treat Muslim Americans as an abstraction. President Obama, meanwhile, went to a mosque, looked into people’s eyes and gave a wonderful speech reasserting their place as Americans.

He’s exuded this basic care and respect for the dignity of others time and time again. Let’s put it this way: Imagine if Barack and Michelle Obama joined the board of a charity you’re involved in. You’d be happy to have such people in your community. Could you say that comfortably about Ted Cruz? The quality of a president’s humanity flows out in the unexpected but important moments.

Third, a soundness in his decision-making process. Over the years I have spoken to many members of this administration who were disappointed that the president didn’t take their advice. But those disappointed staffers almost always felt that their views had been considered in depth.

Obama’s basic approach is to promote his values as much as he can within the limits of the situation. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has been so blinded by his values that the reality of the situation does not seem to penetrate his mind.

Take health care. Passing Obamacare was a mighty lift that led to two gigantic midterm election defeats. As Megan McArdle pointed out in her Bloomberg View column, Obamacare took coverage away from only a small minority of Americans. Sanderscare would take employer coverage away from tens of millions of satisfied customers, destroy the health insurance business and levy massive new tax hikes. This is epic social disruption.

To think you could pass Sanderscare through a polarized Washington and in a country deeply suspicious of government is to live in intellectual fairyland. President Obama may have been too cautious, especially in the Middle East, but at least he’s able to grasp the reality of the situation.

Fourth, grace under pressure. I happen to find it charming that Marco Rubio gets nervous on the big occasions — that he grabs for the bottle of water, breaks out in a sweat and went robotic in the last debate. It shows Rubio is a normal person. And I happen to think overconfidence is one of Obama’s great flaws. But a president has to maintain equipoise under enormous pressure. Obama has done that, especially amid the financial crisis. After Saturday night, this is now an open question about Rubio.

Fifth, a resilient sense of optimism. To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.

People are motivated to make wise choices more by hope and opportunity than by fear, cynicism, hatred and despair. Unlike many current candidates, Obama has not appealed to those passions.

No, Obama has not been temperamentally perfect. Too often he’s been disdainful, aloof, resentful and insular. But there is a tone of ugliness creeping across the world, as democracies retreat, as tribalism mounts, as suspiciousness and authoritarianism take center stage.

Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him.

About the only thing I’ll add to that is to take everything he said with a larger than usual pinch of pink Himalayan salt because he cited Megan “Where Does That Decimal Point Go?” McArdle.  Now we get to TMOW:

In December at the Brookings Saban Forum on the Middle East, Atlantic magazine reporter Jeff Goldberg asked the right-wing former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman this provocative question: “Things are shifting radically not only in non-Jewish America but in Jewish America as it concerns Israel and its reputation. My question is: (A) Do you care? (B) What are you going to do about it? And (C) how important is it to you?”

“To speak frankly, I don’t care,” Lieberman responded, adding that Israel lived in a dangerous neighborhood. Give Lieberman credit for honesty: I don’t really care what American Jews or non-Jews think about Israel.

That conversation came back to me as I listened to the Democratic and Republican debates when they briefly veered into foreign policy, with candidates spouting the usual platitudes about standing with our Israeli and Sunni Arab allies. Here’s a news flash: You can retire those platitudes. Whoever becomes the next president will have to deal with a totally different Middle East.

It will be a Middle East shaped by struggle over a one-state solution, a no-state solution, a non-state solution and a rogue-state solution.

That is, a one-state solution in Israel, a no-state solution in Syria, Yemen and Libya, a non-state solution offered by the Islamic caliphate and a rogue-state solution offered by Iran.

Start with Israel. The peace process is dead. It’s over, folks, so please stop sending the New York Times Op-Ed page editor your proposals for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. The next U.S. president will have to deal with an Israel determined to permanently occupy all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, including where 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians live.

How did we get there? So many people stuck knives into the peace process it’s hard to know who delivered the mortal blow. Was it the fanatical Jewish settlers determined to keep expanding their footprint in the West Bank and able to sabotage any Israeli politician or army officer who opposed them? Was it right-wing Jewish billionaires, like Sheldon Adelson, who used their influence to blunt any U.S. congressional criticism of Bibi Netanyahu?

Or was it Netanyahu, whose lust to hold onto his seat of power is only surpassed by his lack of imagination to find a secure way to separate from the Palestinians? Bibi won: He’s now a historic figure — the founding father of the one-state solution.

And Hamas is the mother. Hamas devoted all its resources to digging tunnels to attack Israelis from Gaza rather than turning Gaza into Singapore, making a laughingstock of Israeli peace advocates. And Hamas launched a rocket close enough to Tel Aviv’s airport that the U.S. banned all American flights for a day, signaling to every Israeli, dove or hawk, what could happen if they ceded the West Bank.

But Hamas was not alone. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, sacked the only effective Palestinian prime minister ever, Salam Fayyad, who was dedicated to fighting corruption and proving that Palestinians deserved a state by focusing on building institutions, not U.N. resolutions.

They all killed the two-state solution. Let the one-state era begin. It will involve a steady low-grade civil war between Palestinians and Israelis and a growing Israeli isolation in Europe and on college campuses that the next U.S. president will have to navigate.

Meanwhile, a no-state Syria — a Syria that Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers only partly control — will be a chest wound bleeding refugees into Europe. I am certain that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is deliberately bombing anti-regime Syrians to drive them into Europe in hopes of creating a rift in the European Union, strain its resources and make it a weaker rival to Russia and a weaker ally for America.

And the non-state Sunni caliphate (ISIS) and rogue-state Shiite Iran will feed off each other. I love it when both Democratic and Republican candidates say, “When I am president, I’ll get Sunni Arabs to take the lead in fighting ISIS.” Gosh, I bet Obama never thought of that!

The Sunni Arabs are never going to destroy a non-state ISIS as long as Iran behaves like a Shiite rogue state, not a normal one. It’s true, Iran is a great civilization. It could dominate the region with the dynamism of its business class, universities, science and arts. But Iran’s ayatollahs don’t trust their soft power. They prefer instead to go rogue, to look for dignity in all the wrong places — by using Shiite proxies to dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sana and Baghdad.

So my advice to all the candidates is: Keep talking about the fantasy Middle East. I can always use a good bedtime story to fall asleep. But get ready for the real thing. This is not your grandfather’s Israel anymore, it’s not your oil company’s Saudi Arabia anymore, it’s not your NATO’s Turkey anymore, it’s not your cabdriver’s Iran anymore and it’s not your radical chic college professor’s Palestine anymore. It’s a wholly different beast now, slouching toward Bethlehem.

And now we get to Mr. Bruni:

I’m 51. My health is decent. And while my mother died young, there’s longevity elsewhere in the family tree.

I could live to see an openly gay presidential candidate with a real chance of victory.

Will there be a “special place in hell” for me if I, as a gay man, don’t support him or her?

I can guess Madeleine Albright’s answer. She more or less told women that they’re damned if they’re not on Hillary Clinton’s team.

I’m still trying to get my head around that — and around Gloria Steinem’s breathtakingly demeaning assertion that young women who back Bernie Sanders are in thrall to pheromones, not ideas or idealism, and angling to score dates with the young bucks in the Sanders brigade.

That’s right, “democratic socialism” is a known aphrodisiac: the oyster of politics. There’s nothing like denunciations of oligarchs to put you in the mood.

Also, has Steinem forgotten about lesbians? More than a few of them support Sanders, and it’s not because of the way some 26-year-old doctoral candidate looks in his L. L. Bean flannel.

There’s a weird strain of thought swirling around Clinton’s campaign: that we should vote for her because she’s a woman. Or that she’s inoculated from certain flaws or accusations by dint of gender. Or that, at the least, there’s an onus on forward-looking people who care about gender inequality to promote her candidacy.

I care about gender inequality, and I don’t buy it. It’s bad logic. It’s even worse strategy. People don’t vote out of shame. They vote out of hope.

Perhaps that was among the lessons of Clinton’s defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, where she lost to Sanders among all women by at least seven percentage points, according to exit polling, and among women under 30 by more than 60 points.

Clinton is on sturdy ground, morally and tactically, when she mentions a double standard for women. So are her surrogates. Actually, there are so many double standards that you couldn’t fit them in a column eight times the length of this one, and she has bumped into plenty, including, yes, the fuss over her raised voice.

But the argument that she’s somehow not a full-fledged member of the establishment because she’s a woman — as she contended during the most recent Democratic debate — is nonsense. On that night, she also echoed a past statement to CBS News that she “cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president.”

Really? Anyone? Off the top of my head I can think of a person who might quibble with that. His name is Barack Obama.

Admittedly, there’s no easy way to navigate the terrain she inhabits. Eight years ago, she denied her campaign the romantic sweep of Obama’s by playing down and trying to correct for gender. This time around, she was advised, rightly, not to repeat that mistake. But how to do that without going too far?

I think she started out perfectly, with incontestable reflections on women’s challenges in the workplace and with casual asides about the historic nature of her bid. Discussing her age, she said, “I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States.”

But more recently, things have fallen out of whack. Bill Clinton’s diatribeabout the misogyny of some Sanders supporters sounded like a defensive outsourcing of blame for the Clinton campaign’s disappointments in the polls and the returns: the narrowest of victories in Iowa followed by the resounding New Hampshire defeat.

The Clintons are always quick to point fingers and slow to look in the mirror. On top of which, Bill Clinton’s invocation of sexism felt too pat, his citation of gross language on Twitter (which, sadly, brims with it) too easy.

Clinton’s gender indeed matters. Just as you couldn’t properly evaluate Obama’s arc without factoring in race, you can’t see her accurately without recognizing that she’s a woman of her time, with all the attendant obstacles, hurts, compromises and tenacity.

That informs — and, ideally, illuminates — her perspective. And her presidency would carry a powerful, constructive symbolism that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

But those are considerations among many, many others in taking her measure and in casting a vote. To focus only or primarily on them is more reductive than respectful, and to tell women in particular what kind of politics they should practice is the antithesis of feminism, which advocates independence and choices.

We’re all complicated people voting for complicated people. We’re not census subgroups falling in line.

I’ll go to the barricades for that imagined gay candidate if he or she has talents I trust, positions I respect and a character I admire. If not, I’ll probably go elsewhere, because being gay won’t be the sum of that person, just as womanhood isn’t where Clinton begins and ends.

Friedman and Bruni

February 3, 2016

In “Social Media: Destroyer or Creator?” The Moustache of Wisdom says a man who helped set off the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt has drawn some conclusions about “Facebook revolutions.””  Mr. Bruni, in “Hillary Clinton’s Dutiful Slog,” says her campaign declared victory in Iowa, but she has no reason to celebrate.  Here’s TMOW:

Over the last few years we’ve been treated to a number of “Facebook revolutions,” from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to the squares of Istanbul, Kiev and Hong Kong, all fueled by social media. But once the smoke cleared, most of these revolutions failed to build any sustainable new political order, in part because as so many voices got amplified, consensus-building became impossible.

Question: Does it turn out that social media is better at breaking things than at making things?

Last month an important voice answered this question with a big “ yes.” That voice was Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google employee whose anonymous Facebook page helped to launch the Tahrir Square revolution in early 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak — but then failed to give birth to a true democratic alternative.

In December, Ghonim, who has since moved to Silicon Valley, posted a TED talk about what went wrong. It is worth watching and begins like this: “I once said, ‘If you want to liberate a society, all you need is the Internet.’ I was wrong. I said those words back in 2011, when a Facebook page I anonymously created helped spark the Egyptian revolution. The Arab Spring revealed social media’s greatest potential, but it also exposed its greatest shortcomings. The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.”

In the early 2000s, Arabs were flocking to the web, Ghonim explained: “Thirsty for knowledge, for opportunities, for connecting with the rest of the people around the globe, we escaped our frustrating political realities and lived a virtual, alternative life.”

And then in June 2010, he noted, the “Internet changed my life forever. While browsing Facebook, I saw a photo … of a tortured, dead body of a young Egyptian guy. His name was Khaled Said. Khaled was a 29-year-old Alexandrian who was killed by police. I saw myself in his picture. … I anonymously created a Facebook page and called it ‘We Are All Khaled Said.’ In just three days, the page had over 100,000 people, fellow Egyptians who shared the same concern.”

Soon Ghonim and his friends used Facebook to crowd-source ideas, and “the page became the most followed page in the Arab world. … Social media was crucial for this campaign. It helped a decentralized movement arise. It made people realize that they were not alone. And it made it impossible for the regime to stop it.”

Ghonim was eventually tracked down in Cairo by Egyptian security services, beaten and then held incommunicado for 11 days. But three days after he was freed, the millions of protesters his Facebook posts helped to galvanize brought down Mubarak’s regime.

Alas, the euphoria soon faded, said Ghonim, because “we failed to build consensus, and the political struggle led to intense polarization.” Social media, he noted, “only amplified” the polarization “by facilitating the spread of misinformation, rumors, echo chambers and hate speech. The environment was purely toxic. My online world became a battleground filled with trolls, lies, hate speech.”

Supporters of the army and the Islamists used social media to smear each other, while the democratic center, which Ghonim and so many others occupied, was marginalized. Their revolution was stolen by the Muslim Brotherhood and, when it failed, by the army, which then arrested many of the secular youths who first powered the revolution. The army has its own Facebook page to defend itself.

“It was a moment of defeat,” said Ghonim. “I stayed silent for more than two years, and I used the time to reflect on everything that happened.”

Here is what he concluded about social media today: “First, we don’t know how to deal with rumors. Rumors that confirm people’s biases are now believed and spread among millions of people.” Second, “We tend to only communicate with people that we agree with, and thanks to social media, we can mute, un-follow and block everybody else. Third, online discussions quickly descend into angry mobs. … It’s as if we forget that the people behind screens are actually real people and not just avatars.

“And fourth, it became really hard to change our opinions. Because of the speed and brevity of social media, we are forced to jump to conclusions and write sharp opinions in 140 characters about complex world affairs. And once we do that, it lives forever on the Internet.”

Fifth, and most crucial, he said, “today, our social media experiences are designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagements, posts over discussions, shallow comments over deep conversations. … It’s as if we agreed that we are here to talk at each other instead of talking with each other.”

Ghonim has not given up. He and a few friends recently started a website, Parlio.com, to host intelligent, civil conversations about controversial and often heated issues, with the aim of narrowing gaps, not widening them. (I participated in a debate on Parlio and found it engaging and substantive.)

“Five years ago,” concluded Ghonim, “I said, ‘If you want to liberate society, all you need is the Internet.’ Today I believe if we want to liberate society, we first need to liberate the Internet.”

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Late Monday, as the unfinished vote count suggested the slimmest of victories for Hillary Clinton, she stepped to a microphone, flashed an Oscar-worthy smile of triumph and told supporters that she was “breathing a big sigh of relief.”

She wasn’t. She isn’t. And she definitely shouldn’t be.

That’s not because what happened in Iowa — almost a tie between her and Bernie Sanders — substantially loosens her grip on the Democratic presidential nomination. Iowa was better terrain for Sanders than much of what lies ahead, and the dynamics that made her a heavy favorite to be the nominee before the state’s caucuses make her a heavy favorite still.

But Iowa demonstrated, yet again, what a flawed and tarnished candidate she is. And on the Republican side, the caucuses augured the possibility of a retreat from the party’s craziness and the rise of an adversary, Marco Rubio, who could give her trouble in a general-election matchup.

She should have trounced Sanders. Yes, he communicates authenticity to an electorate ravenous for it and has given potent voice to Americans’ economic angst. But little in his Senate career suggests that he’d be able to turn that oratory into remedy.

He’s no gushing font of political charisma. He’s a 74-year-old, self-proclaimed socialist who until fairly recently had minimal name recognition outside of Vermont.

President Obama clearly prefers Clinton. And in a poll of Democrats showing up for the Iowa caucuses, well over half said that they wanted someone who would continue Obama’s agenda — which is the precise pledge that Clinton has been making over the last few weeks — while only about one-third said that they preferred someone more liberal.

Even so, Clinton appears to have edged out Sanders by mere decimal points. How to explain it?

Perhaps with the sturdiest truism of politics: Elections are about the future. And so much about Clinton screams the past.

A rally of hers that I attended in Iowa last week actually began with a highlights reel of Clinton through time, including plenty of footage from the 1990s.

I understand why. The retrospective underscored her extraordinary experience. But nothing in her subsequent speech looked forward as stirringly as those images looked backward.

She’s forever stressing what she’s put up with, what she’s survived. “I’ve been around a long time,” she said in Des Moines a week ago, answering — but not really — a young voter’s question about the dearth of enthusiasm for her. “They throw all this stuff at me, and I’m still standing.”

It’s the language of drudgery and duty rather than inspiration, and she can sound as if she’s collecting on an i.o.u. and asking voters to complete hertrajectory rather than begin one of their own.

Bill Clinton may well garner applause, but every time he stumps for her, it’s an implicit promise to revisit yesterday, not to chart tomorrow. On Monday night, he and Chelsea stood with her as she spoke, and I was struck by the overwhelming familiarity of that tableau. It has been with us for a quarter of a century.

At this point the Clintons are royalty, and royalty sits at a remove from all else. Among Democratic caucusgoers most concerned about voting for a candidate who cared about people like them, 74 percent picked Sanders, while only 22 percent chose Clinton. (Martin O’Malley got the remainder.)

For caucusgoers acting primarily on the basis of who they deemed most “honest and trustworthy,” 83 percent voted for Sanders, while just 10 percent voted for Clinton. That’s the toll of all the attention to her emails, a topic that’s not disappearing anytime soon.

She has a habit, whether addressing a large group or a small one, of diving so deeply into the weeds of a subject that she doesn’t so much impress listeners as exhaust them. To her credit, she has educated herself more thoroughly than other politicians. But she somehow hasn’t learned to wear that erudition lightly.

For months Democrats have been heartened by the absurdity with which Donald Trump infused the Republican primary and by the prospect of him or Ted Cruz as the party’s nominee. But his second-place showing could be his twilight, and Rubio’s strong third-place finish supports the scenario that he’s the one.

He poses a bigger threat to Clinton. He understands that she, like Jeb Bush, is an awkward fit for the national mood, and he’d try to take advantage of that. He leans hard on his youth. He talks about a new generation.

Clinton needs to persuade voters that as much as they’ve seen of her, she can still lead them to a place they’ve not yet seen. She hasn’t succeeded, and she slogs on from Iowa much as she did eight years ago: with more to prove than to savor.

Friedman and Bruni

January 27, 2016

In “Friends and Refugees in Need” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that a tidal wave of people threatens to overwhelm our top ally, the E.U.  In “The Twinned Egos of Cruz and Trump” Mr. Bruni says the Republican front-runners are quite the self-infatuated pair. What does that say about the future of politics?  Here’s TMOW, writing from Stockholm:

Now in his last year in office, President Obama is in legacy mode. He has much to be proud of. But if he doesn’t want his achievements muddied by foreign policy, he’ll spend his last year redoubling his efforts to contain the Middle East refugee crisis before it goes from a giant humanitarian problem to a giant geostrategic problem that shatters America’s most important ally: the European Union.

I know — putting “European Union” into the lead of a column published in America is like a “Do Not Read” sign. Maybe I should call it “Trump’s European Union.” That would go viral. But for the two of you still reading, this is really important.

The meltdowns of Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Mali, Chad and Yemen and our takedowns of Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan — without proper follow-up on our part, NATO’s part or by local elites — has uncorked the worst refugee crisis since World War II. This tidal wave of migrants and refugees is a human tragedy, and their outflow from Syria and Libya in particular is destabilizing all the neighboring islands of decency: Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Kurdistan and Turkey. And now it is eating away at the fabric of the E.U. as well.

Why should Americans care? Because the E.U. is the United States of Europe — the world’s other great center of democracy and economic opportunity. It has its military shortcomings, but with its wealth and liberal values, the E.U. has become America’s primary partner in addressing climate change, managing Iran and Russia and containing disorder in the Middle East and Africa.

This partnership amplifies American power and, if the E.U. is hobbled or fractured, America will have to do so many more things around the world with much less help.

At a seminar in Davos, Switzerland, sponsored by the Wilson Center, I interviewed David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, which oversees relief operations in more than 30 war-affected countries. He made several key points.

First, one in every 122 people on the planet today is “fleeing a conflict” at a time when wars between nations “are at a record low,” said Miliband, a former British foreign secretary. Why? Because we now have nearly 30 civil wars underway in weak states that are “unable to meet the basic needs of citizens or contain civil war.”

Second, he said, last year the rescue committee assisted 23 million refugees and internally displaced individuals. Some 50 percent of those going to Europe come directly out of Syria and most of the rest come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea — and the international humanitarian relief system “is now being overwhelmed by the numbers.”

Last year, within the E.U. bloc there were 56 million truck crossings between countries and every day 1.7 million crossings by people. Preserving that free movement of trucks, trade and people, Miliband added, is a huge “economic prize,” but it will not be sustained if E.U. countries feel swamped by refugees who can’t be properly registered or absorbed.

More and more countries are now sealing their borders, and anti-immigrant parties are rising everywhere. Sweden has imposed border controls, and its ultranationalist Sweden Democrats party has grown from the fringe to one of the largest. Many in Germany, Sweden and Austria, which have accepted the lion’s share of refugees so far, want to seal off Greece from the E.U.’s passport-free internal travel zone if Greece — the first port of entry of many refugees — is unable or unwilling to hold them.

In the past few days, The Guardian reported, national leaders and top E.U. officials warned “that Europe’s passport-free travel zone could crumble within weeks, risking the dissolution of the union.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was well intentioned when she opened her country to 1.1 million Arab, African and Afghan migrants last year, but it was also reckless of her to think that so many immigrants, primarily Muslims, could be properly absorbed so quickly into society in Germany — a country that took two decades and billions of dollars to absorb East Germans. Merkel’s open-door policy drew even more refugees to the E.U., and now that the Germans want to stop the flow, their neighbors won’t take them.

“This refugee crisis is a real arrow pointed at the heart of the European Union,” said Miliband. “There is no solution that confines itself within the borders of Europe.” As long as there is “war without law and without end in Syria,” the refugee flow will continue, with all its destabilizing implications.

Obama did not cause this Syria problem, and he can’t fix it alone — but it’s not going to get fixed without U.S. leadership. I have shared the president’s caution about getting involved on the ground in Syria. But I now believe we need to take another look at establishing some kind of U.S./E.U./NATO safe zone inside Syria and Libya to create space for refugees to remain in these countries. It’s not a panacea or cost-free, but letting this refugee disaster fracture the E.U. will be a lot more expensive.

Next up we have Mr. Bruni, writing from Osceola, Iowa:

For a few minutes I wondered if I’d wandered into the wrong barn.

Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, was introducing the candidate I’d come to see, but with descriptions that bore no relation to the candidate I’d come to know.

He called this man “one of the great listeners that I’ve ever been around in my entire life.” He praised him as “a person who is full of humility.”

Then it hit me: Perry was playing defense and asserting the precise virtues that the candidate famously lacks.

Because when most people think of Ted Cruz, they don’t think: listener.

And when Cruz took the microphone and made his remarks, I hardly thought: humble.

It was Tuesday morning, six days until the caucuses. Dozens of voters sat among bales of hay and cows could be heard mooing in the background at such perfectly staggered intervals that I suspected a soundtrack rather than the real thing.

Cruz explained what he regarded as the seven battles of our time, and guess who was the conquering hero in each? (Hint: not Barack Obama.) He expressed the need for a Ronald Reagan of the here and now, and guess who’s perfect for the part? (Hint: not Donald Trump.)

His voice swelled and swooped and dropped at times to a whisper so fraught with foreboding that it belonged in a bad afternoon soap. There are speakers who smoothly get the job done, and then there are those who dance to the music of their own voices, pirouette after pirouette. Cruz is the 2016 campaign trail’s prima ballerina.

But then Trump is its black swan.

As each tries to muscle the other into the wings, they emphasize their contrasts. So does the media, describing the dissimilar paths that these two Republican front-runners traveled.

But to me they’re as alike as they are different, with an overlap that helps to explain the intensely, passionately negative reactions they elicit. They’re both transcendently — and transparently — self-serving and self-infatuated. They scale new pinnacles of egotism in a profession (politics) and pursuit (the presidency) that’s already a veritable mountain range of it.

They’re grim prophecies come true. Many of us have worried that the increasingly circuslike, invasive, round-the-clock nature of modern campaigns would frighten off anyone with an inkling of modesty, an iota of self-doubt. Who would endure this ordeal and make this bargain?

The answer, all too often, is someone who finds the spotlight so mesmerizing that the ugliness on its periphery doesn’t matter, or someone whose hunger for validation is so prodigious that only Air Force One will sate it.

Here in Iowa four years ago, I marveled at the Everest of vanity that was Newt Gingrich. But he doesn’t even reach base camp on the slopes of Trump, whose campaign is one bottomless, boundless soliloquy of self-congratulation. On Sunday he stunned journalists by sitting through a church service, but it wasn’t really the religious gesture that impressed them. It was the fact that for a solid hour, he assumed a posture of deference, and he couldn’t brag.

Cruz is cut from the same flamboyant cloth. It’s striking how many explorations of his past wind up focusing on the magnitude of his confidence, the scale of his ambitions and the off-putting nakedness of both.

As a cocky teenager, he said that his life goals were to “take over the world, world domination, you know, rule everything.” He separately wrote of plans to “achieve a strong enough reputation and track record to run for — and win — president of the United States.”

That last detail comes from a recent story in Politico whose themes included Cruz’s zest for attention, quickness to grab credit and utter self-consumption. It opened with a scene in which Cruz, gearing up to run for the Senate, visits George W. Bush to get his backing, then holds forth at such tone-deaf length about his disruptive plans for the Republican Party that the former president is appalled and repelled.

In The Times on Monday, Matt Flegenheimernoted discrepancies between Cruz’s accounts of his vital contributions to Bush’s legal team during the 2000 Florida recount and the memories of others. “There are a lot of people who claim to be in Florida at the time of the recount,” Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s campaign manager, told Flegenheimer.

Every successful politician is a self-promoter. Every campaign is a sequence of boasts. In an ideal political environment, the narcissism is tempered and the worst narcissists foiled.

But the current ecosystem is toxic, and Trump and Cruz flourish. Neither demonstrates an especially robust appetite for listening, though listening is important. Both are full of a great many things. Humility isn’t among them.

Friedman and Bruni

January 20, 2016

The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “What If?”:  What if the eras of the E.U., high growth in China, expensive oil and newly independent nations’ economic foundations are all over?  In “Rethinking College Admissions” Mr. Bruni says a new report suggests that we’re on the cusp of important, necessary changes in the way colleges evaluate applicants.  Here’s TMOW, writing from Zurich:

Just get me talking about the world today and I can pretty well ruin any dinner party. I don’t mean to, but I find it hard not to look around and wonder whether the recent turmoil in international markets isn’t just the product of tremors but rather of seismic shifts in the foundational pillars of the global system, with highly unpredictable consequences.

What if a bunch of eras are ending all at once?

What if we’re at the end of the 30-plus-year era of high growth in China, and therefore China’s ability to fuel global growth through its imports, exports and purchases of commodities will be much less frothy and reliable in the future?

“Now that this debt bubble is unwinding, growth in China is going offline,” Michael Pento, president of Pento Portfolio Strategies, wrote on CNBC.com last week. “The renminbi’s falling value, cascading Shanghai equity prices (down 40 percent since June 2014) and plummeting rail freight volumes (down 10.5 percent year over year) all clearly illustrate that China is not growing at the promulgated 7 percent, but rather isn’t growing at all. The problem is that China accounted for 34 percent of global growth, and the nation’s multiplier effect on emerging markets takes that number to over 50 percent.”

What if the $100-a-barrel oil price era is over and all these countries whose economies were directly or indirectly propped up by those prices will have to learn to grow the old-fashioned way — by making goods and services others want to buy? Thanks to steady technological advances in America for fracking, horizontal drilling and using big data to identify deposits,OPEC’s pricing power has disappeared. Countries that have set their budgets based on $80- to $100-a-barrel oil will find themselves vastly underfunded just when their populations — in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Indonesia and Venezuela — have surged.

What if average is over for countries? During the Cold War you could be an average, newly independent state with artificial borders drawn by colonial powers. There were two superpowers ready to throw foreign aid at you, educate your kids in America or Moscow, build up your armed forces and security services and buy your crummy manufactured exports or commodities.

But what if the rise of robots, software and automation mean that these countries can’t rely on manufacturing to create mass labor anymore, that the products they can make and sell can’t compete with Chinese goods, that climate change is pressuring their ecosystems and that neither Russia nor America wants to have anything to do with them because all either wins is a bill?

Many of these frail, artificial states don’t correspond to any ethnic, cultural, linguistic or demographic realities. They are caravan homes in a trailer park — built on slabs of concrete without real foundations or basements — and what you’re seeing today with the acceleration of technology, climate change stresses and globalization is the equivalent of a tornado going through a trailer park. Some of these states are just falling apart, and many of their people are now trying to cross the Mediterranean — to escape their world of disorder and get into the world of order, particularly the European Union.

But what if the E.U. era is over? Reuters reported this week that Germany is telling other E.U. countries that if they don’t prevent the influx of more refugees into Europe from the Mediterranean and “relieve Berlin of the lonely task of housing refugees, Germany could shut its doors.” Some Germans even want a border fence. One senior conservative was quoted as saying, “If you build a fence, it’s the end of Europe as we know it.”

What if the era of Iranian isolation is over, just as the Arab system is collapsing and the two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians is history? How will all those molecules interact?

And what if all this is happening when the two-party system in America seems to be getting most of its energy from the far left and the far right? Bernie Sanders’s platform is that we can solve our most onerous economic problems if we just tax “The Man” more. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are running on the theme that they are “The Man” — the strongman — who can magically fix everything.

What if our 2016 election ends up being between a socialist and a borderline fascist — ideas that died in 1989 and 1945 respectively?

And what if all of this is happening at a time when our government’s ability to stimulate the economy through either monetary or fiscal policy is constrained? Unless we go to negative interest rates, the best the Fed can do now is rescind the tiny rate hike made in December. Meanwhile, after all the vital government spending to stimulate demand after the 2008 crisis, there is no consensus in the country for another big round.

These what-ifs constitute the real policy landscape that will confront the next president. But here’s the worst “what if”: What if we’re having a presidential election but no one is even asking these questions, let alone “what if” all of these tectonic plates move at once? How will we generate growth, jobs, security and resilience?

There’s still an opportunity for someone to lead by asking, and answering, all of these “what ifs,” but that time is quickly coming to an end, just like the last dinner party I ruined.

I’m sure he can ruin a dinner party just by showing up…  Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Over recent years there’s been a steady escalation of concern about the admissions process at the most revered, selective American colleges. And little by little, those colleges have made tweaks.

But I get the thrilling sense that something bigger is about to give.

The best evidence is a report to be released on Wednesday. I received an advance copy. Titled “Turning the Tide,” it’s the work primarily of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, though scores of educators — including the presidents and deans of admission at many of the country’s elite institutions of higher education — contributed to or endorsed it. Top administrators from Yale, M.I.T. and the University of Michigan are scheduled to participate in a news conference at which it’s unveiled.

“Turning the Tide” sagely reflects on what’s wrong with admissions and rightly calls for a revolution, including specific suggestions. It could make a real difference not just because it has widespread backing but also because it nails the way in which society in general — and children in particular — are badly served by the status quo.

Focused on certain markers and metrics, the admissions process warps the values of students drawn into a competitive frenzy. It jeopardizes their mental health. And it fails to include — and identify the potential in — enough kids from less privileged backgrounds.

“It’s really time to say ‘enough,’ stop wringing our hands and figure out some collective action,” Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s education school, told me. “It’s a pivot point.”

Weissbourd is one of the directors of the school’s Making Caring Common project, which produced the report. He’s also the author of research that was one motivation for it — specifically, a survey of more than 10,000 middle- and high-school students that asked them what mattered most: high individual achievement, happiness or caring for others. Only 22 percent said caring for others.

The new report contemplates how the admissions process contributes to that psychology and how it might be changed. Some of those alterations would simultaneously level the playing field for kids applying to college from less advantaged backgrounds.

“Colleges spend a huge sum each year sending signals that influence the behavior of millions of students,” the report notes. Why not rethink those signals to reshape that behavior?

The report recommends less emphasis on standardized test scores, which largely correlate with family income.

It asks colleges to send a clear message that admissions officers won’t be impressed by more than a few Advanced Placement courses. Poorer high schools aren’t as likely to offer A.P. courses, and a heavy load of them is often cited as a culprit in sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression among students at richer schools.

The report also suggests that colleges discourage manic résumé padding by accepting information on a sharply limited number of extracurricular activities; that they better use essays and references to figure out which students’ community-service projects are heartfelt and which are merely window dressing; and that they give full due to the family obligations and part-time work that some underprivileged kids take on.

Stephen Farmer, the vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, praised the report as consistent with his school’s desire “to be humbler and more alert to the many ways in which people can stake a claim on a place here.”

He said that the school had already, for example, downgraded the importance of “A.P. everything,” which doesn’t necessarily measure true ability or intellectual hunger.

“Just making people jump through hoops because we can — we don’t want to do that,” he told me, especially when some hoops are so arbitrary that “we might as well be admitting these people on the basis of their height or the size of their neck.”

“Turning the Tide” follows other reexaminations of the admissions process. A growing number of colleges have made the SAT or ACT optional. And late last year, more than 80 colleges, including all eight in the Ivy League, announced the formation of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, which is developing a website and application process intended in part to diversify student bodies.

Colleges are becoming more conscious of their roles — too frequently neglected — in social mobility. They’re recognizing how many admissions measures favor students from affluent families.

They’re realizing that many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions. And they’re acknowledging the extent to which the admissions process has contributed to this.

But they still need to stop filling so much of each freshman class with specially tagged legacy cases and athletes and to quit worrying about rankings like those of U.S. News and World Report. Only then will the tide fully turn.

Friedman and not Mr. Kristof

January 13, 2016

The Moustache of Wisdom considers “The Age of Protest” and says it’s no wonder people are morally aroused by the behavior they are exposed to. But he says to beware when moral arousal manifests as moral outrage.  Mr. Kristof offered “My Take on Obama’s State of the Union Address” and says he was live-tweeting President Obama’s State of the Union Address. In lieu of actually writing a column he put up images of his tweets, which were just as puerile and useless as any other tweets are.  So he’s being ignored today.  Here’s TMOW:

If you go to The Guardian’s website these days you can find a section that is just labeled “Protest.” So now, with your morning coffee, you can get your news, weather, sports — and protests. I found stories there headlined, “Five Fresh Ideas for the Street Art Agitator in 2016,” “Muslim Woman Ejected From Donald Trump Rally After Silent Protest” and, appropriately, “We Are Living in an Age of Protest.”

We sure are. This week alone Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany faced huge protests after her justice minister declared that Arab immigrants — let in under Merkel’s liberal refugee policy — were largely responsible for the mass sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve and used social networks to coordinate their attacks. President Obama actually cried — that was his unique protest — while trying to channel his outrage, and many other people’s, into fixing our nation’s crazy gun laws.

In my view, this age of protest is driven, in part, by the fact that the three largest forces on the planet — globalization, Moore’s law and Mother Nature — are all in acceleration, creating an engine of disruption that is stressing strong countries and middle classes and blowing up weak ones, while superempowering individuals and transforming the nature of work, leadership and government all at once.

When you get that much agitation in a world where everyone with a smartphone is now a reporter, news photographer and documentary filmmaker, it’s a wonder that every newspaper doesn’t have a “Protest” section.

I asked Dov Seidman, the author of the book “How” and C.E.O. of LRN, which advises companies all over the world on leadership and how to build ethical cultures, for his take on this age of protest.

“People everywhere seem to be morally aroused,” said Seidman. “The philosopher David Hume argued that ‘the moral imagination diminishes with distance.’ It would follow that the opposite is also true: As distance decreases, the moral imagination increases. Now that we have no distance — it’s like we’re all in a crowded theater, making everything personal — we are experiencing the aspirations, hopes, frustrations, plights of others in direct and visceral ways.”

Indeed, we’re being intimately exposed to footage of outrageous police brutality, terrorism victims jumping from the windows of a Paris theater and racially biased/sexist corporate emails revealed by hackers. Who wouldn’t be aroused?

“Think about this,” said Seidman: “A dentist from Minnesota shoots a cherished lion in Zimbabwe named Cecil, and days later everyone in the world knows about it, triggering a tsunami of moral outrage on Twitter and Facebook. As a result, some people try to shut down his dental practice by posting negative reviews on Yelp and spray paint ‘Lion Killer’ on his Florida vacation home. Almost 400,000 people then sign a petition in one day on Change.org demanding that Delta Air Lines change their policy of transporting trophy kills. Delta does so and other airlines follow. And then hunters who contribute to Zimbabwe’s tourism industry protest the protest, claiming that they were being discriminated against.”

That we are becoming more morally aroused “is generally a good thing,” argued Seidman. Institutionalized racism in police departments, or in college fraternities, is real and had been tolerated for way too long. That it’s being called out is a sign of a society’s health “and re-engagement.”

But when moral arousal manifests as moral outrage, he added, “it can either inspire or repress a serious conversation or the truth.” There is surely a connection between the explosion of political correctness on college campuses — including Yale students demanding the resignation of an administrator whose wife defended free speech norms that might make some students uncomfortable — and the ovations Donald Trump is getting for being crudely politically incorrect.

“If moral outrage, as justified as it may be, is followed immediately by demands for firings or resignations,” argued Seidman, “it can result in a vicious cycle of moral outrage being met with equal outrage, as opposed to a virtuous cycle of dialogue and the hard work of forging real understanding and enduring agreements.”

Furthermore, “when moral outrage skips over moral conversation, then the outcome is likely going to be acquiescence, not inspired solutions,” Seidman added. It can also feed the current epidemic of inauthentic apologies, “since apologies extracted under pressure are like telling a child, `Just say you’re sorry,’ to move past the issue without ever making amends.”

With all of this moral arousal, it’s as if “we’re living in a never-ending storm,” he said. Alas, though, resolving moral disputes “requires perspective, fuller context and the ability to make meaningful distinctions.”

That requires leaders with the courage and empathy “to inspire people to pause to reflect, so that instead of reacting by yelling in 140 characters they can channel all this moral outrage into deep and honest conversations.” If we can do that — a big if — Seidman concluded, “we can be truly great again because we’ll be back on our journey towards a more perfect union.”

Friedman and Bruni

January 6, 2016

In “Up With Extremism” The Moustache of Wisdom offers us the radical campaign platform we need, but he says we’re just not ready for it.  In “The Clintons’ Secret Language” Mr. Bruni tells us that Bill and Hillary have a marriage like any other — it’s unknowable from the outside.  Here’s TMOW:

From its very inception, Donald Trump’s campaign for president has been life imitating Twitter. His candidacy is built on Twitter bursts and insults that touch hot buttons, momentarily salve anxieties and put a fist through the face of political correctness, but without any credible programs for implementation.

Where Trump has been a true innovator is in his willingness to rhetorically combine positions from the isolationist right, the far right, the center right and the center left. If I were running for president, I’d approach politics in the same way: not as a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian or a centrist.

I’d run as an extremist.

The agenda that could actually make America great again would combine the best ideas of the extreme left and the extreme right. This year is probably too soon for such a radical platform, but by 2020 — after more extreme weather, after machines replace more middle-class jobs, after more mass shootings and after much more global disorder — voters will realize that our stale left-right parties can’t produce the needed answers for our postindustrial era. Accelerations in Moore’s law, the market and climate change are transforming the workplace, the environment and nation-states, leaving people feeling insecure and unmoored.

It’s time for a true nonpartisan extremist, one whose platform combines the following:

■ A single-payer universal health care system. If it can work for Canada, Australia and Sweden and provide generally better health outcomes at lower prices, it can work for us, and get U.S. companies out of the health care business.

■ Expansion of the earned-income tax credit to top-up wages for low-income workers and introduction of a negative income tax to ensure a government-guaranteed income floor for every American. In an age when machines are gobbling low-skilled jobs, we’ll need both.

■ Common Core education standards as the law of the land, to raise education benchmarks across the country, so high school graduates meet the higher skill levels that good jobs will increasingly demand. But those higher standards should be phased in with funding to enable every teacher to have the professional development time to learn the new curriculum those standards require and to buy the materials needed to teach it.

■ Controlling low-skilled immigration while removing all limits on H-1B visas for foreign high-skilled knowledge workers and doubling the research funding for our national labs and institutes of health to drive basic research. Nothing would spin off more new good jobs and industries than that combination.

■ New accelerated tax incentives and elimination of all regulatory barriers to rapidly scale up deployment of superfast bandwidth for both wire line and wireless networks to ensure that next-generation Internet services are developed in America. And borrowing $100 billion at today’s super-low government interest rates to upgrade our ports, airports and grids and to create jobs.

■ Bans on the manufacture and sale of all semiautomatic and other military-style guns and government offers to buy back any rifle or pistol in circulation. It won’t solve the problem, but Australia proved that such programs can help reduce gun deaths.

■ To pay for all this, a phased-in innovation and tax agenda that incentivizes start-ups and hiring. That means: Slash all corporate taxes, income taxes, personal deductions and corporate subsidies and replace them with a carbon tax, a value-added consumption tax (except on groceries and other necessities), a tax on bullets and a tax on all sugary drinks — with offsets for the lowest-income earners.

We need a tax system that shrinks what we don’t want — carbon, sugar and bullets — and incentivizes what we need. If we slash corporate taxes, many more companies will want to locate here, and the ones domiciled here will have the incentive to bring home foreign profits and plow them into research and new business lines.

■ An independent commission appointed to review Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley to determine which, if any, of their provisions are needlessly making it harder for entrepreneurs to raise capital or start businesses. We need to be sure we’re preventing recklessness — not risk-taking.

■ Copy Britain: Strictly limit national political campaign spending and the length of the campaign to a period of a few months. It makes it much harder for billionaires to buy candidates.

■ Increased military spending and ensuring that our intelligence services have all the legally monitored latitude they need to confront today’s cyberenabled terrorists — because if there’s one more 9/11, many voters will be ready to throw out all civil liberties. And with the world cleaving into zones of “order” and “disorder,” we’ll need to project more power to protect the former and stabilize the latter.

In sum, our slow growth, inequality and national security challenges require radical solutions: strengthening safety nets, curbing the bad environmental and health behaviors that are bankrupting us and paying for it all by sharply incentivizing risk-taking, innovation, investment and hiring.

That calls for a nonpartisan extremist for president who’s ready to go far left and far right — simultaneously. That’s my 2020 vision, and in four years the country just might be ready for it.

One of the biggest pimps for W’s clusterfck wants increased military spending…  How special.  Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Remember the Gores? Al and Tipper? At the Democratic convention in 2000, they shared that hungry, happy kiss, and it was more than a meeting of lips. It was a window, or so we thought, into a partnership of enduring passion and inextinguishable tenderness.

They’re separated now. Have been for more than five years.

And the Edwardses? John and Elizabeth? He resembled a Ken doll. She didn’t take after Barbie. That endeared them to voters — endeared him to voters. Only later did we learn about his double life, the furious fights and the copious tears.

We know nothing of other people’s marriages. Nothing at all.

So why do we pretend otherwise? Why do we make so many assumptions and judgments?

And why, every election cycle, do we treat candidates’ spouses and unions as the keys to their characters?

We can’t trust what’s paraded in front of us any more than we can take what journalists and opponents dig up as the essential truth. A person’s intimate life isn’t readily fathomed, and on the inside tends not to look anything like it does on the outside.

Bill Clinton hit the campaign trail this week. That brought back memories, or rather Donald Trump hauled those memories to the surface, and we were reminded anew of all that Bill and Hillary have been through (and have put us through): the infidelities, the intern, the lies, the smears.

We were also reminded of Hillary’s role in defending him. How did that square with her claim to be a champion of women? It’s fair to ask.

But the fascination with the Clintons as a couple goes beyond that question, beyond those scandals, to the belief in many quarters that we can divine something essential about each of them by the fact that they teamed up and stayed together.

According to her fans, it’s a measure of her understanding that people are broken, of her capacity for forgiveness, of her belief in commitments. According to her foes, it reveals a thirst for power that redeems any heartbreak and transcends all humiliation.

It could be proof of both — or neither. The answer isn’t gettable. Talk with six different people who know the Clintons well and you hear six different appraisals of their bond, each presented with unalloyed confidence.

I’ve been told that they light up around each other as they light up around no one else.

I’ve been told that there’s no extraordinary spark there, just a storehouse of shared memories, an accretion of endurable disappointments, a daughter, a granddaughter and a friendship.

I’ve been told that they’re really business associates, intricately involved in each other’s lives because they’re jointly invested in the perpetuation of their political relevance.

I’ve been told that they talk more than anyone would imagine. I’ve been told that they talk less.

In New Hampshire on Monday, when he described his first encounters with her some 45 years ago, he called her “the most amazing person” and said, “Everything she touched, she made better.”

Maybe that was a deeply felt tribute. Maybe just a great line.

Heidi Cruz will also be in New Hampshire this week. She’s a busy evangelist for Ted, half of a couple who present themselves as perfect. Perhaps.

Or perhaps, as the cringe-worthy outtakes from a Cruz campaign commercial suggest, they’re just equally meticulous about the script on which they’re collaborating, equally intent on a triumphant denouement.

I’m less and less interested in guessing, because I’m more and more aware of how compartmentalized people are, of how flawed and fruitless it is to extrapolate from one chamber of their lives to another. The stingiest spouse and parent can be the greatest boss, and vice versa. Someone who’s selfless and principled in one context is sometimes the opposite in another, as if there’s only so much goodness to go around.

And no chamber resists exploration and explanation like that of a marriage or comparable relationship.

We’re certain that we have it figured out — who musters the most patience, who makes the greatest sacrifices, who’s pure, who’s sullied — until it falls apart. Then we gape at the pieces, because none are recognizable.

We’re certain that social climbing or religious devotion is a couple’s glue, when what matters more is the secret language of goofy endearments that they speak. Or the unremarkable daily rituals that they’ve grown to relish. Or the tempo of his speech. Or the timbre of her laugh.

And when we come to our sweeping conclusions, we’re not perceiving but projecting, and we’re using couples to cling to our idealism or validate our cynicism. It’s a foolish game under any circumstances. It’s a dangerous one en route to the election of a president.

So of course Mr. Bruni, the male MoDo, plays the game of sniffing in the panty drawer.  Butthead.

Friedman, solo

December 16, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom says the “Paris Climate Accord Is a Big, Big Deal” and that the agreement means we have a chance to avoid unmanageable effects of global warming and to handle the effects we can’t avoid.  Here he is, writing from Paris:

I had low expectations for the U.N. climate meeting here and it met all of them — beautifully. I say that without cynicism.

Any global conference that includes so many countries can’t be expected to agree on much more than the lowest common denominator. But the fact that the lowest common denominator is now so high — a willingness by 188 countries to offer plans to steadily and verifiably reduce their carbon emissions — means we still have a chance to meet what scientists say is our key challenge: to avoid the worst impacts of global warming that we cannot possibly manage and to manage those impacts that we can no longer avoid. That is a big, big deal.

Many leaders had a hand in it, but it would not have happened without the diplomacy of President Obama and John Kerry.

Hat’s off, because this keeps alive the hope of capping the earth’s warming to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 Fahrenheit, above the level that existed at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution — the rough redline scientists have drawn beyond which “global weirding” will set in and the weather will most likely get really weird and unstable. We’re already almost halfway to passing that redline.

The only important holdout in the world to this deal is the U.S. Republican Party. I wouldn’t care about such cave men — as one sign borne by a Paris demonstrator said, “Dinosaurs didn’t believe in climate change either,” and it didn’t end well for them — except that one of these knuckleheads could be our next president and mess this up.

The G.O.P. should take the wise counsel of Andy Karsner, who was George W. Bush’s assistant energy secretary and one of his climate negotiators, and use the Paris deal to build a bridge back to constructive engagement on the subject. The G.O.P. can plausibly argue, said Karsner, that it was Bush who, in 2007, created the “major economies” strategy to address climate change through precisely the kind of market-enabled, voluntary national targets adopted in Paris.

“The price of getting this issue behind us may never again be this cheap,” Karsner said of the G.O.P. “Congressional leaders need to evaluate the opportunity they have to reconnect with mainstream voters, scientific, civic and business leaders, geopolitical strategists and most anyone under 35 years old who’s completed eighth-grade science.”

With the earth on pace to add two billion more people by 2050, who will all want cars and homes, and with scientists saying the only way to stay below the 2 degrees C redline is to phase out all fossil fuels by roughly the same date, there is only one force big enough to do that — to take on Mother Nature at scale — and that’s Father Greed, a.k.a., the market.

What will make this deal epochal is if the U.S. and China now lead the world in imposing a price on carbon, because only that will take to scale the already significant technology breakthroughs that have happened with wind, solar, batteries, energy efficiency and nuclear power.

“In the last six years,” said Hal Harvey, C.E.O. of Energy Innovation, a policy research group, “solar prices have dropped by more than 80 percent, and now cost less than a new coal plant. Wind is down 60 percent, and LED lights more than 90 percent.” With other new technologies near at hand “it becomes clear that a clean future costs no more than a dirty one,” he said. “Texas now has the most wind installed of any U.S. state. Texas!”

Harvey’s team has built a computer model to see which policies can decarbonize the economy at the lowest price. It lets a user test varying policy options on climate, pollution and the economy. If you pick the right blend, the results will have you grinning. Go online, atwww.energypolicy.solutions, and try it for yourself.

The point, said Harvey, is that today’s chief executive doesn’t “have to be a hero anymore” to invest in clean power.

Indeed, José Manuel Entrecanales, chairman of Acciona, the giant Spanish renewables company, told me that he used to be sprinting alone in the race to install renewables “with the wind in my face.” But now he finds the wind is at his back, and some of the biggest oil companies are trying to muscle into the race. That is not an accident, he said, considering that recent deals from Morocco to South Africa to Chile were struck for around 2.8 cents a kilowatt-hour of wind and 4.2 cents a kW-h for solar, making them highly competitive with fossil fuel.

“In Chile,” said Entrecanales, “there was [just] an auction which was technology agnostic, so the government was offering big bunches of energy to be supplied over the next 10 years, 20 years, and all the energy awarded was renewable. Not one single megawatt hour of conventional energy was supplied.”

But, he stressed, leveraging the Paris consensus to get a price on carbon in the big emitting countries is the “Holy Grail,” the thing that tips everything. Because while renewables can win against new fossil fuel plants, old fossil fuel plants built without any pollution control, and with all their capital expense amortized and still enjoying subsidies, can still run very cheaply — if you don’t count their massive carbon impacts.

A price on carbon, said Entrecanales, “would drive technology, it would drive R&D, it would drive investment, it would drive consumer habits.” So Paris was necessary. A price on carbon will make it sufficient.

Friedman and Bruni

December 9, 2015

In “#You Ain’t No American, Bro” TMOW tells us that Donald Trump is doing real damage to America’s ability to lead a coalition, the only vehicle that can effectively address ISIS.  Mr. Bruni thinks he knows “What to Tell Donald Trump,” and he says the planet’s neediest billionaire is aiding our enemies by playing into their narrative.  Here’s TMOW:

Two weeks ago, I was in Kuwait participating in an I.M.F. seminar for Arab educators. For 30 minutes, we discussed the impact of technology trends on education in the Middle East. And then an Egyptian education official raised his hand and asked if he could ask me a personal question: “I heard Donald Trump say we need to close mosques in the United States,” he said with great sorrow. “Is that what we want our kids to learn?”

I tried to assure him that Trump would not be our next president — that America’s commitment to pluralism runs deep. But the encounter was a bracing reminder that what starts in Iowa shows up in Kuwait five minutes later. Trump, by alienating the Muslim world with his call for a ban on Muslims entering America, is acting as the Islamic State’s secret agent. ISIS wants every Muslim in America (and Europe) to feel alienated. If that happens, ISIS won’t need to recruit anyone. People will will just act on their own. ISIS and Islamic extremism are Muslim problems that can only be fixed by Muslims. Lumping all Muslims together as our enemies will only make that challenge harder.

But if Trump is wrong, is President Obama right? Partly. He’s right that the only way you can sustainably defeat ISIS is with a coalition. We need moderate Sunni Muslim forces to go house to house against ISIS in Iraq. We need Sunni spiritual leaders to go heart to heart and delegitimize the ISIS message everywhere. And we need Iran to make clear it supports an equitable power-sharing agreement in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites, so moderate Sunni Arabs will fight ISIS rather than seeing it as their shield against Iran.

What Obama also has right is that old saying: “If you’re in a poker game and you don’t know who the sucker is, it’s probably you.” That’s the game we’re in in Iraq and Syria. All our allies for a coalition to take down ISIS want what we want, but as their second choice.

Kurds are not going to die to liberate Mosul from ISIS in order to hand it over to a Shiite-led government in Baghdad; they’ll want to keep it. The Turks primarily want to block the Kurds. The Iranians want ISIS crushed, but worry that if moderate Sunnis take over its territory they could one day threaten Iran’s allies in Iraq and Syria. The Saudi government would like ISIS to disappear, but its priority right now is crushing Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. And with 1,000 Saudi youth having joined ISIS as fighters — and with Saudi Arabia leading the world in pro-ISIS tweets, according to a recent Brookings study — the Saudi government is wary about leading the anti-ISIS fight. The Russians pretend to fight ISIS, but they are really in Syria to protect Bashar al-Assad and defeat his moderate foes.

It’s not exactly the D-Day alliance. It’s a deck full of jokers, none of whose priority is defeating ISIS and replacing it with a multi-sectarian democracy in Iraq and Syria, which is our goal. And yet, I worry: These ISIS guys are smart and wicked. The longer they control territory, the more likely they’ll acquire something really scary, like a dirty bomb.

Sufficient U.S. ground forces could easily crush ISIS, but the morning after — when we try to put in place a decent local government to replace our troops — we’d face those mixed motives of all of our coalition partners. So what to do?

I’d do a bit more of everything: Apply more pressure on our Sunni allies to join the anti-ISIS fight with troops on the ground; call on the Saudis and other Sunnis to loudly delegitimize ISIS; deploy more U.S. and NATO Special Forces; make clear to Iran that we might have to put the nuclear deal on hold if Iran is not a more constructive partner in Iraq and Syria; and stress that while we know that the violent jihadists are a minority among Muslims, the notion that they’re a totally separate and distinct group is not true. ISIS ideology comes directly out of the most puritanical, anti-pluralistic Salafist school of Islam, which promotes a lot of hostility toward “the other” — Shiites, Jews, Hindus, Christians. Clearly, some people are taking permission and inspiration from this puritanical Islam to murder and sow mayhem. I can’t reform it, but a movement of Muslims must, because it is isolating their whole community.

There are some good signs. NPR reported Monday that “when a man wielding a knife stabbed three people at an East London subway stop on Saturday evening and shouted, ‘This is for Syria,’ as he was being handcuffed … an onlooker yelled, ‘You ain’t no Muslim, bruv!’ using slang akin to ‘bro.’ ‘You’re no Muslim. You ain’t no Muslim,’ he repeated.” The man who made the statement has not been identified, but the hashtag ‘#YouAintNoMuslimBruv’ began trending worldwide,” no doubt propelled by Muslims. That’s what we need more of.

As for Trump, well, he may be a deal maker, but he’s no poker player ready for the Middle East five-card stud sharks. His xenophobic rhetoric and unrealistic, infantile threats of massive bombing make up the kind of simplistic hand you’d play in “Go Fish” — not in this high-stakes game. Beyond playing into ISIS’s hand by denigrating the U.S. presidency and our democratic ideals, Trump is doing real damage to America’s ability to lead a coalition, the only vehicle that can effectively address this problem.

#You ain’t no American, bro.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

“You know how you make America great again?” Senator Lindsey Graham said on CNN Tuesday morning. “Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.”

Fine by me.

But before we give him that send-off, there’s a whole lot else we should tell him, not that he hears anything other than his own voice and the applause of people who mistake a trash-talking bully for a blunt-talking leader.

We should tell him that we’re on to him. We now fully realize that nothing he says — certainly not this dangerous claptrap about preventing all Muslims from entering the United States — is meant as an earnest proposal, as serious policy.

No, he’s just an addict whose drug of choice is attention, and he can’t get enough of it. He’s learned that if he presses the lever the right way, with the right provocation, out pops another hit of saturation media coverage, of all Trump all the time.

As the weeks and days go by, he has to press harder, escalating from the deportation of Mexicans to hallucinated street celebrations in Jersey City to the surveillance of mosques to this latest idiocy. What does he care if he’s likened to George Wallace, to Joseph McCarthy, even to Adolf Hitler? Those men aren’t even ranting anymore and they’re still talked about. Nowthat’s celebrity!

We should tell him how transparent and pathetic his nonstop, unsolicited boasts about polls and crowds have become. No matter the question, his answer is that he’s leading the pack. No matter the challenge, his response is that he got a standing ovation.

And so it went on Tuesday.

“Massive audience!” he bragged of the supporters who’d turned out for him the previous night. “Thousands of people inside, thousands of people outside — they couldn’t even get in!”

We should tell Trump that the man who constantly invokes his popularity is the one who worries that he’s unlovable. The man who refers incessantly to his riches is the one who frets that he’s worthless.

Is there a needier billionaire on the planet?

We should tell him that we, too, question the intensity of Barack Obama’s focus on the Islamic State and the terrorist threat, and that even on Sunday, when Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office, we didn’t see quite the passion that this moment demands or quite the strength that a fearful country craves.

But what Trump just did took pressure off the president by redirecting the conversation from his tentativeness to Trump’s insane overreach. We should tell him that, and we should add that he has practically collaborated with the enemy by playing into a narrative of Muslim persecution and a grand war between civilizations.

He has given the Islamic State and other barbarians a piece of propaganda as big as any of his resorts and as shimmering as any of his office towers.

We should tell him that by setting a standard of such outlandishness and a reference point of such divisiveness, he’s helping his Republican rivals, whose own recklessness doesn’t draw the scrutiny that it otherwise would. Nothing’s shocking in the context of Trump.

So Ted Cruz reacts to the San Bernardino massacre by visiting a firing range and promising such extensive bombing of the Middle East that he’ll find out “if sand can glow in the dark.” But are we reading about him as the second coming of Barry Goldwater? Not so much, because we’re reading about Trump as the second coming of the last century’s worst fascists.

We should tell him that even a huckster extraordinaire like him can’t sell himself as smart while acting so dumb. He’s going to bar Muslims only temporarily, he insisted — just until Congress figures out “what the hell is going on.”

But he also portrays members of Congress as nincompoops who can’t figure out how to tie their own shoelaces. So Trump’s temporary is forever, at least if we apply logic to his illogic.

What’s not forever: our surrender to his insidious grandstanding. Our obedient witness to it. We in the media should tell him that once he fades from this presidential race, is no longer a candidate for anything and there’s no urgency or compelling public interest in having him phone in to the morning news shows, he’s fired. Cut off.

It’s cold turkey, Trump. We don’t need the ratings, not when they come with the ravings. We should be — we must be — better than that.

And he will fade, probably starting now, because while there are scared Americans and petty Americans and moments when all of us lose our way, we’re not lost enough to keep indulging him. We’re nowhere near that far from greatness.

Friedman and Bruni

December 2, 2015

In “Putin’s Syrian Misadventure” The Moustache of Wisdom says the Russian president’s bold moves have had costly repercussions for his country without making real advances against ISIS.  Mr. Bruni, in “Anyone but Ted Cruz,” says that the strident Texas senator wants the ultimate promotion.  He says we should check his references first.  Here’s TMOW:

When President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced he was setting up an air base in the middle of Syria to take on the Islamic State and bolster President Bashar al-Assad, more than a few analysts and politicians praised his forceful, game-changing, strategic brilliance, suggesting that Putin was crazy like a fox. Some of us thought he was just crazy.

Well, two months later, let’s do the math: So far, Putin’s Syrian adventure has resulted in a Russian civilian airliner carrying 224 people being blown up, apparently by pro-ISIS militants in Sinai. Turkey shot down a Russian bomber after it strayed into Turkish territory. And then Syrian rebels killed one of the pilots as he parachuted to earth and one of the Russian marines sent to rescue him. Many of the anti-Assad rebels in that area are ethnic Turkmens, with strong cultural ties to Turkey; Turkey was not amused by Putin bombing Turkmen villages inside Syria, because it weakens Turkey’s ability to shape Syria’s future.

Meanwhile, in Crimea, Ukraine, which Putin annexed, pro-Turkish Tatars apparently cut the power lines, plunging Crimea into a near total blackout. And in October dozens of Saudi clerics called for a “holy war” against the governments of Syria, Iran and Russia.

In sum, Putin’s “crafty” Syrian chess move has left him with a lot more dead Russians; newly at odds with Turkey and Iran; weakened in Ukraine; acting as the defense lawyer for Assad — a mass murderer of Sunni Muslims, the same Sunni Muslims as Putin has in Russia; and with no real advances against ISIS.

Other than that, it’s been a great success.

Truth be told, I wish Putin had succeeded. It would have saved us all a lot of trouble, because ISIS is not the “J.V. team” President Obama once called it. It’s actually the Jihadist All-Star team. It combines the military efficiency of Iraqi ex-Baathist army officers with the religious zealotry and prison-forged depravity of its “Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” the Web-savvy of Arab millennials and a thrill-ride appeal to humiliated young Muslim males, who’ve never held power, a decent job or a girl’s hand.

And the ISIS threat is becoming strategic. The massive outflow of refugees from Syria and Iraq that ISIS has provoked is leading the European Union to start to close internal borders and limit the free flow of people and probably some goods as well — just the opposite of what the bloc was created to do. That will only slow the E.U.’s economic growth and fuel greater nationalism that could ultimately threaten its unity. The E.U. is America’s most important partner in managing the global system. If it is weakened, we are weakened.

But to sustainably destroy ISIS, you need to understand three things: 1) It is the product of two civil wars; one was between moderate and extremist Sunnis and the other was between Sunnis and Shiites. And they feed each other. 2) The only way to defeat ISIS is to minimize the struggle between Sunnis and Shiites and strengthen the fighting capacity of moderate Sunnis against extremist ones. And 3) the fight has to be led by Arabs and Muslims but strongly backed by America, the E.U. and, yes, Russia.

Whereas Putin’s goals are uncertain, and perhaps limited to protecting a truncated Assad regime, Obama really does want to defeat ISIS. Just as important, he wants to do it without being either Putin or George W. Bush, who just dove into the middle.

But it isn’t clear that a middle approach exists, let alone the fantasy options of many Obama critics, as in Donald Trump’s just “bomb the [blank] out of them.” (Gosh, no one thought of that!) Everyone wants to defeat ISIS with the “Immaculate Intervention”: more bombs from the air or somebody else’s troops, boots, risks or political transformation.

Sorry, but to sustainably defeat ISIS you need a mutually reinforcing coalition. You need Saudi Arabia and the leading Sunni religious powers to aggressively delegitimize ISIS’s Islamist narrative. You need Arab, Kurdish and Turkish ground troops — backed by U.S. and NATO air power and special forces, with Russia’s constructive support — to uproot ISIS door to door.

You need Iran to encourage the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to create a semiautonomous “Sunnistan” in the areas held by ISIS, giving moderate Iraqi Sunnis the same devolved powers as Kurds in Kurdistan so they have a political alternative to ISIS. And you need Iran to agree to a political transition in Syria that would eventually replace Assad.

In short, you need either a power-sharing political solution that all the key players accept and will enforce, or an armed force to just crush ISIS and then sit on the region indefinitely, so ISIS doesn’t come back. Obama can’t secure the former, and doesn’t want to do the latter. Nor do the American people — nor Obama’s critics, despite what some of them might suggest.

You can say that when it comes to ISIS and Syria, Obama has done an impossible job badly, and someone else might have done it better. But it is still an impossible job as long as all the key players in that region define their interests as rule or die and as long as most of the real democrats in that region are living abroad.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

You’re evaluating candidates for an open job in your company, and you come across one who makes a big impression.

He’s clearly brilliant — maybe smarter than any of the others. He’s a whirlwind of energy. And man oh man can he give a presentation. On any subject, he’s informed, inflamed, precise.

But then you talk with people who’ve worked with him at various stages of his career. They dislike him.

No, scratch that.

They loathe him.

They grant him all of the virtues that you’ve observed, but tell you that he’s the antithesis of a team player. His thirst for the spotlight is unquenchable. His arrogance is unalloyed. He actually takes pride in being abrasive, as if a person’s tally of detractors measures his fearlessness, not his obnoxiousness.

Do you hire this applicant?

No way.

And that’s why voters should be wary — very wary — of Ted Cruz.

He’s surging. I warned you about this. In a poll of Republicans in Iowa last week, he was in a statistical tie with Donald Trump for the lead.

More and more Republican insiders talk about a battle between Cruz and Marco Rubio for the nomination, or about a three-way, if you will, among Cruz, Rubio and Trump.

And in the voices of these insiders I hear horror, because Trump and Cruz are nasty pieces of work.

Cruz will work overtime in the months ahead to persuade you otherwise. The religious right already adores him, but to go the distance, he needs more support from other, less conservative Republicans, and he knows it. Expect orchestrated glimpses of a high-minded Cruz, less skunk than statesman, his sneer ceding territory to a smile.

You saw this in recent debates. He chided moderators for meanspirited questions. He bemoaned the pitting of one Republican against another. The audacity of those complaints was awe-inspiring: Cruz rose to national prominence with gratuitous, overwrought tirades against fellow party members and with a complete lack of deference to elders in the Senate, which he entered in January 2013, at age 42.

He likened Senate Republicans who recognized the impossibility of defunding Obamacare to Nazi appeasers. They took note.

“As Cruz gains, GOP senators rally for Rubio” said the headline of a story this week in Politico, which explained: “The idea of Cruz as the nominee is enough to send shudders down the spines of most Senate Republicans.” Support for Rubio is the flower of anyone-but-Cruz dread.

Anyone but Cruz: That’s the leitmotif of his life, stretching back to college at Princeton. His freshman roommate, Craig Mazin, told Patricia Murphy of The Daily Beast: “I would rather have anybody else be the president of the United States. Anyone. I would rather pick somebody from the phone book.”

It’s not easy to come across on-the-record quotes like that, and Mazin’s words suggest a disdain that transcends ideology. They bear heeding.

So does Cruz’s experience in the policy shop of George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. After Bush took office, other full-time advisers got plum jobs in the White House. Cruz was sent packing to the Siberia of the Federal Trade Commission.

The political strategist Matthew Dowd, who worked for Bush back then, tweeted that “if truth serum was given to the staff of the 2000 Bush campaign,” an enormous percentage of them “would vote for Trump over Cruz.”

Another Bush 2000 alumnus said to me: “Why do people take such an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? It just saves time.”

His three signature moments in the Senate have been a florid smearing of Chuck Hagel with no achievable purpose other than attention for Ted Cruz, a flamboyant rebellion against Obamacare with no achievable purpose other than attention for Ted Cruz, and a fiery protest of federal funding for Planned Parenthood with no achievable purpose other than attention for Ted Cruz. Notice any pattern?

Asked about Cruz at a fund-raiser last spring, John Boehner responded by raising a lone finger — the middle one.

More recently, Senate Republicans denied Cruz a procedural courtesy that’s typically pro forma.

“That is different than anything I’ve ever seen in my years here,” Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, told The Washington Post.

Many politicians rankle peers. Many have detractors. Cruz generates antipathy of an entirely different magnitude. It’s so pronounced and so pervasive that he’s been forced to acknowledge it, and he spins it as the price invariably paid by an outsider who challenges the status quo, clings to principle and never backs down.

No, it’s the fruit of a combative style and consuming solipsism that would make him an insufferable, unendurable president. And if there’s any sense left in this election and mercy in this world, it will undo him soon enough.

From his mouth to God’s ear.

Friedman and Bruni

November 25, 2015

Tommy has been given a tour and chatted with someone in Riyadh.  This led to him producing his “Letter From Saudi Arabia,” in which he breathlessly tells us that a stirring for change was evident during a visit to the kingdom and an evening with the 30-year-old deputy crown prince.  Right…  In the comments, a NYT picked comment no less, “wenzel dehn” from Ohio had this to say:  “Women segregated at a public talk? Wearing all black? Yeah, they are all about change.  Still flogging people for ideas? Yeah, they are all about change.  Still blaming the behavior of Shia Muslims as the reason Sunni Muslims have taken the Wahabi extremist position they do, and not one hint that the money and guidance and soldiers are coming from with the Saudi kingdom? Yeah, they are all about change.  They have every right to have a 12th century barbaric justice system, every right to treat women and others as less than themselves, just as we have the right to turn off the tap to cheap weapons which will only end up being used against us when they end up in the hands of Daesh.”  I’ve got my fingers crossed that Charlie Pierce at Esquire addresses this, or Matt Taibbi…  Mr. Bruni, in “The Gift of Reading,” says books are fundamental engines of advancement, illumination, wonder. Let’s get them in more children’s hands.  Here’s TMOW:

Saudi Arabia is a country that is easier to write about from afar, where you can just tee off on the place as a source of the most austere, antipluralistic version of Islam — the most extreme versions of which have been embraced by the Islamic State, or ISIS. What messes me up is when I go there and meet people I really like and I see intriguing countertrends.

Last week I came here looking for clues about the roots of ISIS, which has drawn some 1,000 Saudi youth to its ranks. I won’t pretend to have penetrated the mosques of bearded young men, steeped in Salafist/Wahhabi Islam, who don’t speak English and whence ISIS draws recruits. I know, though, that the conservative clergy is still part of the ruling bargain here — some of the most popular Twitter voices are religious firebrands — and those religious leaders still run the justice system and sentence liberal bloggers to flogging, and they’re still in denial about how frustrated the world is with the ideology they’ve exported.

But I also ran into something I didn’t know: Something is stirring in this society. This is not your grandfather’s Saudi Arabia. “Actually, it’s not even my father’s Saudi Arabia anymore — it is not even my generation’s Saudi Arabia anymore,” the country’s 52-year-old foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said to me.

For instance, I was hosted by the King Salman Youth Center, an impressive education foundation that, among other things, has been translating Khan Academy videos into Arabic. It invited me to give a lecture on how big technological forces are affecting the workplace. I didn’t know what to expect, but more than 500 people showed up, filling the hall, roughly half of them women who sat in their own sections garbed in traditional black robes. There was blowback on Twitter as to why a columnist who’s been critical of Saudi Arabia’s export of Salafist ideology should be given any platform. But the reception to my talk (I was not paid) was warm, and the questions from the audience were probing and insightful about how to prepare their kids for the 21st century.

It appears that conservatives here have a lot more competition now for the future identity of this country, thanks to several converging trends. First, most of Saudi Arabia is younger than 30. Second, a decade ago, King Abdullah said he’d pay the cost for any Saudi who wanted to study abroad. That’s resulted in 200,000 Saudis studying overseas today (including 100,000 in America), and now 30,000 a year are coming back with Western degrees and joining the labor force. You now see women in offices everywhere, and several senior officials whispered to me how often the same conservatives who decry women in the workplace quietly lobby them to get their daughters into good schools or jobs.

Finally, just as this youth bulge exploded here, so did Twitter and YouTube — a godsend for a closed society. Young Saudis are using Twitter to talk back to the government and to converse with one another on the issues of the day, producing more than 50 million tweets per month.

What’s been missing was a leadership ready to channel this energy into reform. Enter the new King Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, the 30-year-old deputy crown prince, who, along with the moderate crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, has embarked on a mission to transform how Saudi Arabia is governed.

I spent an evening with Mohammed bin Salman at his office, and he wore me out. With staccato energy bursts, he laid out in detail his plans. His main projects are an online government dashboard that will transparently display the goals of each ministry, with monthly K.P.I.s — key performance indicators — for which each minister will be held accountable. His idea is to get the whole country engaged in government performance. Ministers tell you: Since Mohammed arrived, big decisions that took two years to make now happen in two weeks.

“The key challenges are our overdependence on oil and the way we prepare and spend our budgets,” Mohammed explained. His plan is to reduce subsidies to wealthy Saudis, who won’t get cheap gas, electricity or water anymore, possibly establish a value-added tax and sin taxes on cigarettes and sugary drinks, and both privatize and tax mines and undeveloped lands in ways that can unlock billions — so even if oil falls to $30 a barrel, Riyadh will have enough revenues to keep building the country without exhausting its savings. He’s also creating incentives for Saudis to leave government and join the private sector.

“Seventy percent of Saudis are under age 30, and their perspective is different from the other 30 percent,” said Mohammed. “I am working to create for them the country they want to be living in in the future.”

Is this a mirage or the oasis? I don’t know. Will it produce a more open Saudi Arabia or a more efficient conservative Saudi Arabia? I don’t know. It definitely bears watching, though. “ “I’ve never been more optimistic,” Mohammed Abdullah Aljadaan, chairman of the Saudi Capital Market Authority, told me. “We have a pulse that we’ve never seen before, and we have a [role] model in government we thought we’d never see.”

Bottom line: There are still dark corners here exporting intolerant ideas. But they seem to now have real competition from both the grass roots and a leadership looking to build its legitimacy around performance, not just piety or family name. As one Saudi educator said to me, “There is still resistance to change,” but there is now much more “resistance to the resistance.”

Mohammed has had the important backing of his father, King Salman, who has replaced both the key health and housing ministers with nonroyal business executives as part of a broader shift to professionalize the government and stimulate the private sector to take a bigger role in the economy. The new health minister was the most important C.E.O. in the country, Khalid al-Falih, who was running the national oil company, Aramco.

Streamlining government, Mohammed said, is vital to “help us fight corruption,” which “is one of our main challenges.” Moreover, only by phasing out subsidies and raising domestic energy prices, he added, can Saudi Arabia one day install “nuclear power generation or solar power generation” and make them competitive in the local market. That is badly needed so that more Saudi oil can be exported rather than consumed at home, he said.

But this will all be tricky. Saudi workers pay no income tax. “Our society does not accept taxes; [citizens] are not used to them,” said Mohammed. So the fact that the government may be increasing taxes in some way, shape or form could have political ramifications: Will the leaders hear declarations of “no taxation without representation”?

How far things will go in that direction — Saudi Arabia already has municipal elections where women can run and vote — is unclear. But the new government does seem to intuit that to the extent that its welfare state has to be shrunk, because of the falling price of oil, its performance and responsiveness have to rise.

“A government that is not a part of the society and not representing them, it is impossible that it will remain,” said Mohammed. “We saw that in the Arab Spring. The governments that survived are only those that are connected to their people. People misunderstand our monarchy. It is not like Europe. It is a tribal form of monarchy, with many tribes and subtribes and regions connecting to the top.” Their wishes and interests have to be taken into account. “The king cannot just wake up and decide to do something.”

There were other little things that caught my eye on this visit — like the Western symphony orchestra playing on Saudi state-run television one afternoon and the collection of contemporary paintings by Saudi artists, including one of a Saudi woman by a Saudi woman, on display in the Ministry of Information.

As for ISIS, Mohammed disputed that it is a product of Saudi religious thinking, arguing that it was in fact a counterreaction to the brutalization of Iraqi Sunnis by the Iranian-directed Shiite-led government in Baghdad of Nouri al-Maliki and to the crushing of Syrian Sunnis by the Iranian-backed government in Damascus. “There was no [ISIS] before America departed from Iraq. And then America leaves and Iran enters, and then ISIS appears,” he said.

He complained that at a time when ISIS is blowing up mosques in Saudi Arabia in an effort to destabilize the regime, the world is accusing Saudi Arabia of inspiring ISIS: “The [ISIS] terrorists are telling me that I am not a Muslim. And the world is telling me I am a terrorist.”

This is the legacy, though, of decades of one part of the Saudi government and society promoting Salafist Islam and the other part working with the West to curb jihadists. As I said, the world has been frustrated with that dichotomy.

Mohammed argued that the ISIS narrative is beamed directly to Saudi youth via Twitter, and that the message is: “The West is trying to enforce its agenda on you — and the Saudi government is helping them — and Iran is trying to colonize the Arab world. So we — ISIS — are defending Islam.”

He added: “We don’t blame the West for misreading us. It is partly our fault. We don’t explain our situation. The world is changing rapidly, and we need to reprioritize to be with the world. Today the world is different. You cannot be isolated from the world. The world must know what is going on in your neighborhood, and we must know what is going on in the world — [it’s] a global village.

In Yemen, a Saudi-led Gulf coalition has been fighting a coalition of Houthi militants and rebels loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who are backed by Iran. The rebels pushed the official Yemeni government out of the capital, Sana, in March and the Saudi coalition is trying to restore it to power. So far, the U.N. reports, some 5,700 people have been killed, many of them civilians. Saudi officials made clear to me that they are ready for a negotiated solution, and don’t want to be stuck in a quagmire there, but that the Houthis will get serious only if they keep losing ground, as they have been.

“The other side has trouble reaching a political consensus,” said Mohammed, who is also defense minister. “But whenever they sustain loses on the ground and international pressure, they get serious [about negotiating]. We are trying to bring this to an end.”

Like just about every official I spoke with on this trip to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Mohammed voiced a desire for America not to abandon the region. “There are times when there is a leader and not a leader [in the world], and when there are no leaders, chaos will ensue.”

Sure, he didn’t meet anyone from a radical mosque, sure the women are segregated (in their black robes), sure radical clerics control the legal system and impose 12th Century punishments, and Tommy’s sure the winds of change are blowing…  Cripes.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

The list of what a child needs in order to flourish is short but nonnegotiable.

Food. Shelter. Play. Love.

Something else, too, and it’s meted out in even less equal measure.

Words. A child needs a forest of words to wander through, a sea of words to splash in. A child needs to be read to, and a child needs to read.

Reading fuels the fires of intelligence and imagination, and if they don’t blaze well before elementary school, a child’s education — a child’s life —may be an endless game of catch-up.

That’s a truth at the core of the indispensable organization Reading Is Fundamental, a nonprofit group that provides hundreds of thousands of free books annually to children age 8 or younger, in particular those from economically disadvantaged homes, where books are a greater luxury and in shorter supply.

I shine a light on Reading Is Fundamental, or R.I.F., for several reasons.

We’re in the midst of giving thanks, and this group deserves plenty. It has distributed more than 410 million books to more than 40 million American children.

We’re on the cusp of the year-end holiday season, during which many people turn their attention to charity, making the most generous of their yearly donations. I urge everyone to think about literacy, books, early childhood education and organizations, like R.I.F., that support them.

And we’re a texting, tweeting, distracted country in which too many children don’t read at grade level, too many forces conspire against any improvement in that and too heavy a price is paid.

R.I.F. just began its 50th year of work — it was born in November 1966 — and is marking that milestone with some new approaches and a fresh determination to spread its message despite budget challenges. With the clampdown on federal spending over recent years, it lost about $24 million in annual funding that it had come to rely on. That represented more than two-thirds of its budget, which now leans harder on private contributions.

Consequently, R.I.F. gives away fewer books in a given year than it once did. It was down to 1.8 million last year from a high of about 17 million more than a decade ago.

But R.I.F. has signed on as a partner with ustyme — a digital platform that enables multiple users to read or play video games together — to make sure that underprivileged children in particular take advantage of ustyme’s Billion e-Book Gift, which will provide access to a digital library of 50 previously selected children’s titles, many in Spanish as well as English. Those titles can be downloaded by visiting RIF.org/50ebooks, starting Dec. 1.

The ebook reflects R.I.F.’s determination to get kids to read in whatever manner best accomplishes that. The goal is to develop a muscle, nurture a habit, maybe even spark a passion. You never know where a little reading might lead.

Ellen Halliday, the R.I.F. coordinator for the Brooklyn Public Library, recalled a mother who worried that her 8-year-old son was wasting his time with easy, breezy, frivolous books.

“Then one day,” Halliday told me, “when he was about 9 or 10, he said to me, ‘You know, I got this book, and this author — I can really see what he’s talking about when he talks about the shire or the hobbit. I think this Tolkien guy is an excellent author.’”

R.I.F. was the brainchild of Margaret McNamara, whose experience as a teacher convinced her that for many poor kids, one of the main barriers to proficient reading was simply access to books.

The group became known for its Bookmobiles, trucks that pulled up to schoolhouses to dispense books the way a Good Humor or Mister Softee truck dispenses ice cream — only for free.

It’s vital nourishment. Research suggests that during their earliest years, kids from disadvantaged homes don’t hear as robust a variety of words as kids from privileged ones, and that’s the prelude to a series of other gaps with bearing on their success in school and beyond.

Early reading is one of the remedies.

“Reading follows an upward spiral,” said Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of “Raising Kids Who Read,” which was published earlier this year.

“Kids who read more get better at reading, and because they are better at reading, it’s easier and more pleasurable so they read still more,” he said. “And kids who read well don’t just do better in English class — it helps them in math, science and every other class, too.”

I’d go even further. Reading tugs them outside of themselves, connecting them to a wider world and filling it with wonder. It’s more than fundamental. It’s transformative.

Amen.


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