Archive for the ‘The Moustache of Wisdom’ Category

Friedman, solo

March 25, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Look Before Leaping:”  What’s at stake in the nuclear deal with Iran?

I can think of many good reasons to go ahead with the nuclear deal with Iran, and I can think of just as many reasons not to. So, if you’re confused, let me see if I can confuse you even more.

The proposed deal to lift sanctions on Iran — in return for curbs on its bomb-making capabilities so that it would take at least a year for Tehran to make a weapon — has to be judged in its own right. I will be looking closely at the quality of the verification regime and the specificity of what happens if Iran cheats. But the deal also has to be judged in terms of how it fits with wider American strategic goals in the region, because a U.S.-Iran deal would be an earthquake that touches every corner of the Middle East. Not enough attention is being paid to the regional implications — particularly what happens if we strengthen Iran at a time when large parts of the Sunni Arab world are in meltdown.

The Obama team’s best argument for doing this deal with Iran is that, in time, it could be “transformational.” That is, the ending of sanctions could open Iran to the world and bring in enough fresh air — Iran has been deliberately isolated since 1979 by its ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard Corps — to gradually move Iran from being a revolutionary state to a normal one, and one less inclined to threaten Israel. If one assumes that Iran already has the know-how and tools to build a nuclear weapon, changing the character of its regime is the only way it becomes less threatening.

The challenge to this argument, explains Karim Sadjadpour, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment, is that while the Obama team wants to believe this deal could be “transformational,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, “sees it as transactional” — Iran plugs its nose, does the deal, regains its strength and doubles-down on its longstanding revolutionary principles. But, then again, you never know. What starts out as transactional can end up being transformational in ways that no one can prevent or predict.

A second argument is that Iran is a real country and civilization, with competitive (if restricted) elections, educated women and a powerful military. Patching up the U.S.-Iran relationship could enable America to better manage and balance the Sunni Arab Taliban in Afghanistan, and counterbalance the Sunni jihadists, like those in the Islamic State, or ISIS, now controlling chunks of Iraq and Syria. The United States has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia, ever since Iran’s 1979 revolution, and while the Saudi ruling family and elites are aligned with America, there is a Saudi Wahhabi hard core that has funded the spread of the most puritanical, anti-pluralistic, anti-women form of Islam that has changed the character of Arab Islam and helped to foster mutations like ISIS. There were no Iranians involved in 9/11.

Then again, it was Iranian agents who made the most lethal improvised explosives in Iraq that killed many American troops there. And it was Iran that encouraged its Iraqi Shiite allies to reject any extended U.S. military presence in Iraq and to also overplay their hand in stripping power from Iraqi Sunnis, which is what helped to produce the ISIS counterreaction.

“In the fight against ISIS, Iran is both the arsonist and the fire brigade,” added Sadjadpour. To Saudi Arabia, he added, the rise of ISIS is attributable to the repression of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq by Iran and its Shiite clients. To Tehran, the rise of ISIS is attributable to the financial and ideological support of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.

And they are both right, which is why America’s interests lie not with either the Saudis or the Iranian ideologues winning, but rather with balancing the two against each other until they get exhausted enough to stop prosecuting their ancient Shiite-Sunni, Persian-Arab feud.

Then again, if this nuclear deal with Iran is finalized, and sanctions lifted, much more Iranian oil will hit the global market, suppressing prices and benefiting global consumers. Then again, Iran would have billions of dollars more to spend on cyberwarfare, long-range ballistic missiles and projecting power across the Arab world, where its proxies already dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sana.

But, given the disarray in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, do we really care if Iran tries to play policeman there and is embroiled in endless struggles with Sunni militias?  For 10 years, it was America that was overstretched across Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it will be Iran’s turn. I feel terrible for the people who have to live in these places, and we certainly should use American air power to help prevent the chaos from spreading to islands of decency like Jordan, Lebanon and Kurdistan in Iraq. But managing the decline of the Arab state system is not a problem we should own. We’ve amply proved that we don’t know how.

So before you make up your mind on the Iran deal, ask how it affects Israel, the country most threatened by Iran. But also ask how it fits into a wider U.S. strategy aimed at quelling tensions in the Middle East with the least U.S. involvement necessary and the lowest oil prices possible.

I’m sure it will all sort itself out in just one more FU.  And by the way, Tommy, FU.

Cohen and Friedman

March 18, 2015

In “An Uneasy Coalition for Israel” Mr. Cohen says a national unity government may be the least bad outcome.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Go Ahead, Ruin My Day,” has a question:  In looking at Israel, Iran and ISIS, why does it seem as though we have only bad choices, and nothing ever works?  Hang in there Tommy, I’m sure things will get better if we only give it another FU…  (Forget?  Never!)  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

If the Israeli election was above all a referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he prevailed. After accumulating nine years in office over three terms, that is a measure of his political guts, however limited his political achievements.

But his victory revealed deep divisions within Israeli society, and a long season of Israeli uncertainty now looks inevitable, despite the cries of triumph from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party.

After a bitter campaign, voters converged on the two major parties, a measure of the widespread sense that Israel’s future was at stake. Netanyahu seemed to have won about 30 seats, ahead of the estimated 24 seats of Isaac Herzog, the leader of the center-left Zionist Union. How a government coalition would be put together in the 120-seat Knesset and who would lead it remained an open question that is likely to take weeks of haggling to resolve.

An election of uncertain outcome has already clarified certain things. The world, and certainly the White House, may be tired of Netanyahu, his fear-mongering and posturing, but his hawkish defiance and dismissal (now explicit) of a Palestinian state reflect a wide section of Israeli society that has given up on a two-state outcome and prefers its Palestinians invisible behind barriers. “Bibi, king of Israel,” went supporters’ chants after the vote. He’s not a monarch but he sure looms large.

“Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations,” Netanyahu said in a video released as votes were cast. To the last, he played on fear and incendiary division. It worked.

But many Israelis are tired of Netanyahu’s games; they embrace a different idea of Israel. That, too, became clear in this election and is of equal importance. Herzog, in forming the Zionist Union with Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, brought the moderate Israeli left back from the brink and, through the name of his movement, asserted a distinction critical to Israel’s future: only a Zionism that preserves Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in the image of its founders, can secure the nation’s long-term future.

The contrast with the Messianic Zionism of the right, with its religious-nationalist claim to all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, was clear. Herzog, unlike Netanyahu, is serious about the idea of two states, whatever the immense difficulties, because the alternative is the progressive corrosion of Israel’s democratic ideals as it attempts to control the lives of millions of nonvoting Palestinians in the West Bank.

The phenomenon of the election was Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister who became wildly popular in office by liberalizing Israel’s cellphone market and reducing customers’ bills. His success in getting nine or 10 seats at the head of a new party called Kulanu (“all of us”) turned him into a possible kingmaker. It was also indicative of the frustrations of Israelis: with their successful but increasingly unequal economy, with corruption, and with business as usual. Kahlon has said he will wait for final results before indicating his allegiance, but suggested it was a “time to unite.”

It will fall to President Reuven Rivlin to invite Netanyahu to try to form a stable coalition. He has already indicated his preference for the outcome, saying “I am convinced only a unity government can prevent the rapid disintegration of Israel’s democracy and new elections in the near future.” But a unity government is anathema to both Netanyahu and Herzog, or at least has been up to now.

Reality may, however, catch up with them. A Netanyahu-led right-wing government will face growing international isolation, especially because of the prime minister’s open commitment to stop the emergence of a Palestinian state. Repairing relations with President Obama would be arduous. A hardening of America’s position toward Israel at the United Nations cannot be ruled out, if West Bank settlements continue to expand. Israelis, for all their nation’s extraordinary success, know how critical the alliance with the United States is; they are unhappy with the Netanyahu-Obama rift. A government of the right would more likely exacerbate than overcome that estrangement over the next couple of years.

For Herzog, in the light of the right’s strong performance, the path to a center-left-led government looks blocked — and achieving anything with such a government even more so. He would not have the muscle to bring real change on the central challenge facing Israel in its relations with the world: the Palestinian conflict. He did well, but not well enough to bring about the “post-Bibi era” that he sought.

As with Churchill’s words on democracy, a national unity coalition now looks like the worst form of government for Israel except for all the others. It could curtail Netanyahu’s hubris while giving Herzog heft, a desirable double whammy.

Anything that can rein in Netanyahu is a good thing.  Now here’s TMOW:

As the saying goes, “to err is human, to forgive is divine,” to which I’d add: “to ignore” is even more human, and the results rarely divine. None of us would be human if we didn’t occasionally get so wedded to our wishes that we failed to notice — or outright ignored — the facts on the ground that make a laughingstock of our hopes. Only when the gap gets too wide to ignore does policy change. This is where a lot of U.S. policy is heading these days in the Middle East. Mind the gaps — on Iran, Israel and Iraq. We’re talking about our choices in these countries with words that strike me as about 10 years out of date. Alas, we are not dealing anymore with your grandfather’s Israel, your father’s Iran or the Iraq your son or daughter went off to liberate.

Let’s start with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party pretty well trounced the Labor Party leader, Isaac Herzog, in the race to form Israel’s next government. Netanyahu clearly made an impressive 11th-hour surge since the pre-election polls of last week. It is hard to know what is more depressing: that Netanyahu went for the gutter in the last few days in order to salvage his campaign — renouncing his own commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians and race-baiting Israeli Jews to get out and vote because, he said, too many Israeli Arabs were going to the polls —  or the fact that this seemed to work.

To be sure, Netanyahu could reverse himself tomorrow. As the Yediot Ahronot columnist Nahum Barnea wrote: Netanyahu’s promises are like something “written on ice on a very hot day.” But the fact is a good half of Israel identifies with the paranoid, everyone-is-against-us, and religious-nationalist tropes Netanyahu deployed in this campaign. That, along with the fact that some 350,000 settlers are now living in the West Bank, makes it hard to see how a viable two-state solution is possible anymore no matter who would have won.

It would be wrong, though, to put all of this on Netanyahu. The insane, worthless Gaza war that Hamas initiated last summer that brought rockets to the edge of Israel’s main international airport and the Palestinians’ spurning of two-state offers of previous Israeli prime ministers (Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert) built Netanyahu’s base as much as he did.

On Iran, there’s an assumption among critics of President Obama’s approach to negotiating limits on Iran’s nuclear program that if Obama were ready to impose more sanctions then the Iranians would fold. It’s not only the history of the last 20 years that mocks that notion. It is a more simple fact: In the brutal Middle East, the only thing that gets anyone’s attention is the threat of regime-toppling force. Obama has no such leverage on Iran.

It was used up in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars that have left our military and country so exhausted that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big U.S. land army into the Middle East “should have his head examined.” Had those wars succeeded, the public today might feel differently. But they didn’t. Geopolitics is all about leverage, and we are negotiating with Iran without the leverage of a credible threat of force. The ayatollahs know it. Under those circumstances, I am sure the Obama team will try to get the best deal it can. But a really good deal isn’t on the menu.

Have I ruined your morning yet? No? Give me a couple more paragraphs.

O.K., so we learn to live with Iran on the edge of a bomb, but shouldn’t we at least bomb the Islamic State to smithereens and help destroy this head-chopping menace? Now I despise ISIS as much as anyone, but let me just toss out a different question: Should we be arming ISIS? Or let me ask that differently: Why are we, for the third time since 9/11, fighting a war on behalf of Iran?

In 2002, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in Afghanistan (the Taliban regime). In 2003, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in the Arab world (Saddam Hussein). But because we failed to erect a self-sustaining pluralistic order, which could have been a durable counterbalance to Iran, we created a vacuum in both Iraq and the wider Sunni Arab world. That is why Tehran’s proxies now indirectly dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sana and Baghdad.

ISIS, with all its awfulness, emerged as the homegrown Sunni Arab response to this crushing defeat of Sunni Arabism — mixing old pro-Saddam Baathists with medieval Sunni religious fanatics with a collection of ideologues, misfits and adventure-seekers from around the Sunni Muslim world. Obviously, I abhor ISIS and don’t want to see it spread or take over Iraq. I simply raise this question rhetorically because no one else is: Why is it in our interest to destroy the last Sunni bulwark to a total Iranian takeover of Iraq? Because the Shiite militias now leading the fight against ISIS will rule better? Really?

If it seems as though we have only bad choices in the Middle East today and nothing seems to work, there is a reason: Because past is prologue, and the past has carved so much scar tissue into that landscape that it’s hard to see anything healthy or beautiful growing out of it anytime soon. Sorry to be so grim.

Friedman and Bruni

March 11, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom appears to have been living in a cave for a while.  He woke up recently, looked around, and has a question:  “Is It Sheldon Adelson’s World?”  He’s finally noticed that the influence of Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and financial backer of right-wing causes, is being felt in both the United States and Israel.  Mr. Bruni, in “Hillary’s Prickly Apologia,” says she’s got a primary contest, all right. It’s against the ghosts of the 1990s and her own defensive ways.  Here’s TMOW:

The symbolism was too powerful to ignore. As anyone who watched Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last week in Congress knows, one of the people prominently seated in the House gallery was the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a primary financial backer of both the Republican Party and Netanyahu. As The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz reported, at one point Adelson’s wife, Miriam, accidentally knocked her purse off the House gallery railing and it hit Representative Brad Ashford, a Nebraska Democrat seated below. The Post noted that Adelson had given $5 million to the G.O.P.’s Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, which had spent $35,000 in a failed effort to defeat Ashford in his 2014 race against Representative Lee Terry. Ashford later joked to The Omaha World-Herald: “I wish I’d opened the purse. Do you think she carries cash?”

We certainly know that Mr. Adelson does. And when it came to showering that cash on Republican presidential hopefuls and right-wing PACs trying to defeat President Obama (reportedly $150 million in 2012), and on keeping Netanyahu and his Likud party in office, no single billionaire-donor is more influential than Sheldon. No matter what his agenda, it is troubling that one man, with a willingness and ability to give away giant sums, can now tilt Israeli and American politics his way at the same time.

Israel has much stricter laws on individuals donating to political campaigns, so Adelson got around that in 2007 by founding a free, giveaway newspaper in Israel — Israel Hayom — whose sole purpose is to back Netanyahu, attack his enemies in politics and the media, and enforce a far-right political agenda to prevent any Israeli territorial compromise on the West Bank (which, in time, could undermine Israel as a Jewish democracy). Graphically attractive, Israel Hayom is now the biggest-circulation daily in Israel. Precisely because it is free, it is putting a heavy strain on competitors, like Yediot and Haaretz, which both charge and are not pro-Netanyahu.

Adelson then bought the most important newspaper of the religious-nationalist right in Israel, Makor Rishon, long considered the main backer of Netanyahu’s biggest right-wing rival, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Last March, in an interview with Israel Army Radio after the Makor Rishon sale, Bennett said: “It saddens me. Israel Hayom is not a newspaper. It is Pravda. It’s the mouthpiece of one person, the prime minister. At every junction point, every point of friction between the national interest and the interest of the prime minister, they chose the side of the prime minister.”

The Washington Post said that last November at a conference of the Israel American Council, a lobbying group Adelson has funded, he joked in a public discussion with another wealthy Israeli: “Why don’t you and I go after The New York Times?” Told it was family owned, Adelson quipped, “There is only one way to fight it: money.” At this same conference Adelson was quoted as saying that Israel would not be able to survive as a democracy: “So Israel won’t be a democratic state,” he added. “So what?”

Last March in Las Vegas Adelson organized his own private Republican primary. Politico wrote at the time: “Adelson summoned [Jeb] Bush and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin to Las Vegas. … The new big-money political landscape — in which a handful of donors can dramatically alter a campaign with just a check or two.” When Christie, in his speech before Adelson, described the West Bank as “occupied territories,” some Republican Jews in the audience were appalled. So, Politico reported, Christie hastily arranged a meeting with Adelson to explain that he had misspoken and that he was a true friend of Israel. “The New Jersey governor apologized in a private meeting in the casino mogul’s Venetian office shortly afterward,” Politico reported. It said Adelson “accepted” Christie’s “explanation” and “quick apology.”

When money in politics gets this big, when it can make elected officials bow and scrape in two different countries at the same time, it is troubling. I’m sure Adelson cares deeply about Israel, but he lacks any sense of limits in how he exercises his extraordinary financial power — power he is using to simultaneously push Israel and America toward eliminating any two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, toward defunding the Palestinian Authority and toward a confrontation with Iran, not a diplomatic solution. People need to know this.

The most important bonds between Israel and America always emerged from the bottom up — a mutual respect between two democracy-loving peoples. Money can’t buy those bonds, but it can threaten them by going to excess — by taking Israel’s true good will in America and using it to help one party “stick it” to the president, one big donor drive his extreme agenda, one party appear more pro-Israel than the other for electoral reasons or one Israeli politician win re-election. People who go “all the way” like this will one day go over a cliff. They will regret it. So will the rest of us.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

“Convenience.” “Convenience.” “Convenience.” “Convenience.”

Hillary Clinton’s reliance on that word during her news conference at the United Nations on Tuesday minimized the exemption from standard procedure that she allowed herself when she decided — all on her own — to use only a private email address for both personal and government business.

She told reporters that she hadn’t wanted to be weighed down by a second electronic device. It wasn’t secrecy that motivated her. It was purse space and pinkie strain.

And behind her forced smile, which was practically cemented in place, she seemed put out by all the skepticism and all the questions. She shouldn’t be. This latest Clinton controversy is not the work or fault of Republican enemies or a ruthless, unappeasable press corps. It’s her doing.

She made a choice when she stepped into the secretary of state’s job that was bound to be second-guessed if it ever came to light, as everything eventually does. And when it did, she was silent about it for a week, letting suspicions fester.

She was on the spit Tuesday because she placed herself there.

But the real problem with the news conference wasn’t anything specific that she said or didn’t say, any particular tone of voice or set of her shoulders that she aced or bungled.

It was what kept coming to mind as she stood before the cameras once again, under fire once again, aggrieved once again by Americans’ refusal to see and simply trust how well intentioned and virtuous and good for the country she is:

Yesterday.

It was all so very yesterday.

And elections are about tomorrow. Yes, that’s a cliché, but it’s also unassailable political truth.

And Clinton’s challenge is to persuade an electorate that has known her since the Mesozoic era and trudged wearily with her through so much political melodrama that to vote for her is to turn the page, to embrace a new chapter, to move forward.

On Tuesday she didn’t look as if she was leaning into the future. She looked as if she was getting sucked into the past.

That’s not where voters want to go. Oh, sure, the Clinton years are remembered as prosperous ones, and she and Bill don’t hurt her cause by rekindling those memories and stoking a bit of nostalgia.

But nostalgia doesn’t win elections. The promise of solutions to problems and better times ahead does. And right now there’s little horizon in Clinton’s unofficial campaign for the White House; it’s almost all rearview mirror. The conversation — incredibly — has returned to Rose Law Firm records lost and found, to the pricey privilege of the Lincoln Bedroom, to Whitewater.

Her “convenience”-fixated remarks at the United Nations won’t change that.

They may nudge the news narrative in a different direction, because the news narrative is always ready for a different direction, and because she made some smart, deft moves.

She spoke of a wedding and of a funeral and even of yoga, reminding everyone that she’s not merely a functionary but a daughter and a mother, with concerns not just about her upward rise but also about the downward dog.

She made a plea for protected spaces in public life that most voters will find sympathetic.

She made a very good point: that even government officials who have two email accounts decide, whenever they write a new communication, which one to use. So they’re doing a real-time editing not much different from her after-the-fact editing when she made the call about which of her tens of thousands of emails to turn over to the State Department.

But what she needs, not so much to put this behind her as to get ahead, is a kind of reset, a reboot, one in which she sublimates her understandable desire to conduct her business in the way she prefers to a show of openness and transparency. She shouldn’t simply be assuring voters that they can trust her and that no outside arbiter is needed. She should be eliminating the shields and shenanigans that create room for distrust in the first place.

That would be a break with the Clintons of the 1990s, a departure from politics as usual and a sign to voters that in order to make political history, she’s willing to examine her personal history, acknowledge her mistakes and change her ways, electing candor over ceaseless calculation.

No more minced words. No more split hairs. No more donations to the Clinton Foundation that have a whiff of hypocrisy and suggest conflicts of interest.

She’s going to have a primary, all right, but it will be a contest against her own worst impulses, default defensiveness and prickly sense of insult when pressed for explanations. From what I saw Tuesday, victory is uncertain.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  Any time I see her name on a ballot I’m writing in Elizabeth Warren.

Friedman and Bruni

March 4, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “What Bibi Didn’t Say:”  Now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has had his say, it’s time to ask: What is in America’s best interest?  Mr. Bruni considers “Hillary’s Messy Habits” and says in recent weeks, as in the past, the Clintons have been needlessly arming their opponents.  Here’s TMOW:

Now that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made his case on Iran before Congress, with all the circus atmosphere it involved, let’s get to the serious questions: What is America’s interest in striking a deal with Iran? Because our interests and Israel’s are not fully aligned. What is the minimum we need to satisfy our interests? And how should we balance the critiques of our policy from the serious Bibi versus the cynical Bibi?

What both the United States and Israel agree on, and I certainly do, is that Iran must be prevented from building a nuclear bomb, because it could be used to threaten the Jewish state and, once loaded onto a missile, Europe and the Arab states as well. Moreover, if Iran gets a bomb, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt would surely be tempted to do so as well, and, suddenly, you’d have a Middle East that is already full of sectarian proxy wars also full of nuclear weapons — with few of the deterrent safeguards you had during the Cold War between Washington and Moscow. There are actors in the Middle East for whom “mutual assured destruction” is an invitation to a party — not a system of mutual deterrence. Also, if Iran gets a bomb, there’s a good chance the whole global nuclear nonproliferation regime, already frayed, would totally unravel, which would be very destabilizing.

Here, President Obama and Netanyahu share the same concerns. And, in fairness, I doubt there would have been the sanctions and negotiations we have today with Iran had Bibi not threatened to go full “Dr. Strangelove” on Tehran.

However, Bibi argues that any deal should eliminate all of Iran’s centrifuges and related components that can enrich material for a bomb. I don’t begrudge him that wish. Most of my Israeli friends share it. But, as Robert Einhorn, a former member of the U.S. negotiating team with Iran, observed in an Op-Ed article in The Times, that position “is neither achievable nor necessary” to safeguard our security or that of our Mideast allies.

Netanyahu never made a convincing argument as to why walking away from Obama’s draft deal with Iran would result in either a better deal, more sanctions or an Iranian capitulation — and not a situation where Iran would continue to build toward a bomb and our only two choices would be to live with it or bomb it, with all the mess that could entail. In that sense, Bibi’s speech was perfect for Congress: I’ve got a better plan, and it won’t cost a thing or require any sacrifice by the American people. The guy could be a congressman.

The U.S. position — shared by China, Russia, Germany, Britain and France — is: Given that Iran has already mastered the techniques to make a bomb and managed to import all the components to do so, despite sanctions, it is impossible to eliminate Iran’s bomb-making capabilities. What is possible is to demand that Iran roll back its enrichment and other technologies so that if Iran decided one day to make a bomb, it would take it a year — more than enough time for the U.S. and its allies to destroy it.

I think such a deal would be in America’s interest if — if — it includes Iran agreeing to constant, intrusive and unannounced inspections of, and limits on, all bomb-making capacities and if, even after the specified 10 years, there are more-than-the-usual inspections. I would also welcome Congress accompanying the deal by granting the president formal authorization — right now — to use “any means necessary” to respond should Iran try to break out of the deal.

These conditions would satisfy U.S. strategic concerns, while opening the possibility — nothing more — for Iran to become more integrated into the global system. Ultimately, the only safeguard against Iran’s nuclear ambitions is an internally driven change in the character of Iran’s regime.

My problem with Netanyahu is that he warned that the interim deal Obama negotiated with Iran — which froze and rolled back parts of Iran’s nuclear program and created these negotiations — would lead to a collapse of sanctions and be violated by Iran. None of it happened.

Moreover, Bibi’s message was that there is nothing more important than deterring Iran. O.K. But, if that were my top priority, would I engineer an invitation to speak to Congress by leveraging only the Republican Party and do it without even informing the president, who is running the Iran talks? And would I do it two weeks before Israeli elections, where it looks as though I am using the American Congress as a backdrop for a campaign ad, raising the question of whether my opposition to Iran is partly a political pose? And if I needed the Europeans to be on my side for tighter sanctions, wouldn’t I announce no more settlement-building in the West Bank in areas everyone knows will be part of any negotiated Palestinian state? Such a move would cost Bibi politically with his base, but would certainly increase Israel’s support from Europe.

Alas, Bibi is Churchill when it comes to isolating Iran, but he is AWOL when it comes to risking his own political future to make it happen. I have a problem with that. I still don’t know if I will support this Iran deal, but I also have a problem with my own Congress howling in support of a flawed foreign leader trying to scuttle the negotiations by my own government before they’re done. Rubs me the wrong way.

Rubs you the wrong way???  That’s all you have to say???  Whatta schmuck…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Hillary and Bill Clinton have one home in Washington, D.C., another in Chappaqua, N.Y., and a whole wide world that opens its arms and wallets to them.

But their permanent address is on the fault line where defiance meets self-destruction.

They know what the caricature of them is and they play right into it. They’re familiar with the rap against them and generously feed it. And they tune out their critics, at least the ones they’re not savaging.

Although they’ve long been derided for a surrender of principle when they’re on the hunt for donations, their foundation has raked in money in a manner that opens them up to fresh, predictable accusations of that.

Although they’ve long been cast as greedy — remember the china, flatware and furniture carted out of the White House? — they hit the speaking circuit in a way that only strengthened that impression. Audiences of Wall Street bankers, fees in the hundreds of thousands, extra coddling: They have demanded, received and inevitably been blasted for all of that.

And now, from Michael Schmidt’s story in The Times, we learn that Hillary’s response to her reputation for flouting rules and operating in secrecy was to put what could be construed as a cloak over her communications as secretary of state by using only a private email account.

There’s pushback from her defenders over how rare this really was. There are explanations and information still to come.

But this was reckless, given the questions that would surely be asked if it came to light, the likelihood that it would, and how she’d wind up looking.

Does she have a political death wish?

Until a month ago, one of the arguments I frequently heard in favor of her presumed candidacy for the presidency was that she’d been vetted like nobody’s ever been vetted, with no surprises left. All the skeletons had been tugged from the Clintons’ labyrinthine closets. All the mud had been dug up and flung.

But that assessment shortchanged the couple’s ability to make new messes. It ignored the “Groundhog Day” in which they star.

Republicans are having a field day. The dominant figure at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week wasn’t Jeb Bush, Rand Paul or Scott Walker. It was Hillary Clinton, in absentia.

Referring to the controversial sources of funds raised by the Clinton Foundation in recent years, Ted Cruz joked that she wasn’t present because the conference’s organizers “couldn’t find a foreign nation to foot the bill.”

Reince Priebus added: “Hillary barely comes out in public these days. If there’s not a private luxury jet and a quarter-million-dollar speaking fee waiting for her, you can forget about it.”

That gibe was over the top. But it touched on a worry that many Democrats have: Can Hillary, of all Democrats, persuasively style herself as a champion of the struggling middle class?

It also demonstrates how much ammunition she’s needlessly giving a future Republican rival.

That is, if she runs and if she gets her party’s nomination. Democrats should look closely at the revelations of recent weeks and think hard about finding a primary opponent for her, one more fearsome than those who have stepped forward so far.

Only then would she get the practice she may need in answering the latest charges against her. Only then would Democratic voters see how well she handles that. Only then would they be forced to reckon fully with her habit of clinging to her ways.

She and Bill have lived their entire political lives under fire, some of it deserved, some of it not. It’s as if they decided at a certain point that they’d never get a fair shake and should cut the corners that they could and behave as they wished. Their foes would storm the gates regardless.

But there are times when the Clintons are their own worst enemies.

Insistent that his persecutors would find sexual misdeeds even where none existed, Bill gave them a blue dress and Monica Lewinsky.

Aggrieved by the way her detractors saw her as haughtily above it all, Hillary decided on an approach to emails as secretary of state that has made her look haughtily above it all.

Is that entitlement? Or hubris?

An inability to change? Or a refusal to?

I approached someone who knows the Clintons well, asked how to make sense of this and got an answer that echoed observations about them from the past: “They’d rather seek forgiveness than permission.”

Because they have passion and talent, forgiveness has routinely come. But the longer they live on that fault line, the greater the chance of an irredeemable misstep, and the taller the odds that they’ll reclaim a temporary address: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Friedman and Bruni

February 18, 2015

Today we’ve got The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Bruni.  In “Democracy Is in Recession” TMOW says Turkey’s drift away from democracy is part of a much larger trend around the world.  Gee, I wonder why?  “Marie” from Texas hit on the cause in her comment:  “If our “democracy” is looked to as the gold standard that all others should aspire towards and emulate, the recent degradation of so many fledgling democratic systems around world is perfectly understandable. These countries are not, in fact, averting their eyes from our beacon, but have instead fixated their gaze on it. They are doing a wonderful job of following our lead in expediting the changes towards increased militarization, plutocracy, corruption, inequality, callousness, polarization and anti-intellectualism we have been pioneering for some time now. In this, “American Exceptionalism” and Imperialism is alive and well.”  Mr. Bruni considers “College, Poetry and Purpose” and says he reconnected with his Shakespeare professor to get her thoughts on the humanities and higher education today.  Here’s TMOW:

Every month now we get treated to another anti-Semitic blast from Turkey’s leadership, which seems to be running some kind of slur-of-the-month club. Who knew that Jews all over the world were busy trying to take down President Recep Tayyip Erdogan? Last week, it was Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s turn to declare that Turkey would not “succumb to the Jewish lobby” — among others supposedly trying to topple Erdogan, the Hurriyet Daily News reported. This was after Erdogan had suggested that domestic opponents to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., were “cooperating with the Mossad,” Israel’s intelligence arm. So few Jews, so many governments to topple.

Davutoglu’s and Erdogan’s cheap, crude anti-Semitic tropes, which Erdogan now relies on regularly to energize his base, are disgusting. For the great nation of Turkey, though, they’re part of a wider tragedy. It is really hard to say anymore that Erdogan’s Turkey is a democracy. Even worse, it is necessary to say that Turkey’s drift away from democracy is part of a much larger global trend today: Democracy is in recession.

As the Stanford University democracy expert Larry Diamond argues in an essay entitled “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession” in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy: “Around 2006, the expansion of freedom and democracy in the world came to a prolonged halt. Since 2006, there has been no net expansion in the number of electoral democracies, which has oscillated between 114 and 119 (about 60 percent of the world’s states). … The number of both electoral and liberal democracies began to decline after 2006 and then flattened out. Since 2006 the average level of freedom in the world has also deteriorated slightly.”

Since 2000, added Diamond, “I count 25 breakdowns of democracy in the world — not only through blatant military or executive coups, but also through subtle and incremental degradations of democratic rights and procedure. … Some of these breakdowns occurred in quite low-quality democracies; yet in each case, a system of reasonably free and fair multiparty electoral competition was either displaced or degraded to a point well below the minimal standards of democracy.”

Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey are the poster children for this trend, along with Venezuela, Thailand, Botswana, Bangladesh and Kenya. In Turkey, Diamond writes, the A.K.P. has steadily extended “partisan control over the judiciary and the bureaucracy, arresting journalists and intimidating dissenters in the press and academia, threatening businesses with retaliation if they fund opposition parties, and using arrests and prosecutions in cases connected to alleged coup plots to jail and remove from public life an implausibly large number of accused plotters. This has coincided with a stunning and increasingly audacious concentration of personal power by … Erdogan.” Rule of law in Turkey is being seriously eroded.

Meanwhile, Freedom House, a watchdog group, found that, from 2006-14, many more countries declined in freedom than improved. This trend has been particularly pronounced in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa, where declining transparency, crumbling rule of law and rising corruption are becoming the norm.

Why this trend? One reason, says Diamond, is today’s autocrats are fast learners and adapters. They have developed and shared “new technologies of censorship and legal strategies to restrict civil society [groups] and ban international assistance to them,” and we haven’t responded with new strategies of our own. Also, old habits of corruption and abuse of power went into hiding during the 1990s and 2000s, when post-Cold War democracy was ascendant, “but now corrupt autocrats feel the heat is off and they can rule as nastily and greedily as they want.”

Moreover, China, which has no democracy standards or problems with corruption abroad, has displaced the U.S. as the most valued foreign aid provider in much of Africa, while Russia has become more aggressive in undermining virtually every democratic tendency on its borders. Finally, post-9/11, we let the “war on terror” supplant democracy promotion as our top foreign policy priority, so any autocrat who collared terrorists won a get-out-of-jail-free-card from America.

But, Diamond adds, “perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic recession has been the decline of democratic efficacy, energy, and self-confidence” in America and the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock and corruption through campaign financing, the world’s leading democracy is increasingly dysfunctional, with government shutdowns and the inability to pass something as basic as a budget. “The world takes note of all this,” says Diamond. “Authoritarian state media gleefully publicize these travails of American democracy in order to discredit democracy in general and immunize authoritarian rule against U.S. pressure.”

Diamond urges democrats not to lose faith. Democracy, as Churchill noted, is still the worst form of government — except for all the others. And it still fires the imagination of people like no other system. But that will only stay true if the big democracies maintain a model worth following. I wish that were not so much in question today.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni, writing from Philadelphia:

Over four decades at two universities, Anne Hall has taught thousands of students, enough to know that they come to college for a variety of reasons, with a variety of attitudes. Many are concerned only with jobs. Some are concerned chiefly with beer.

All would like A’s. And too many get them, she said, even from her, because a professor standing up to grade inflation is in a lonely place.

But what, in an overarching sense, should students be after? What’s the highest calling of higher education?

When I asked her this on Monday night, she shot me a look of exasperation, though it gave way quickly to a smile. And I remembered that smile from 30 years earlier, when she would expound on Othello’s corrosive jealousy, present Lady Macbeth as the dark ambassador of guilt’s insidious stamina and show those of us in her class that with careful examination and unhurried reflection, we could find in Shakespeare just about all of human life and human wisdom: every warning we needed to hear, every joy we needed to cultivate.

She answered my question about college’s purpose, but not right away and not glibly, because rushed thinking and glibness are precisely what she believes education should be a bulwark against. She’s right.

I introduced her in a column last week, writing that when I was recently pressed to describe a transformative educational experience, what came to mind were her voice and her animation as she read aloud the wondrous words of “King Lear.”

Her field is Renaissance poetry. I studied that and Shakespeare’s plays with her when I was an English major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the mid-1980s. I never got to know her well, though. I didn’t keep in touch.

But after my column appeared, she sent me an email. It included a lament about changes in the humanities that made me want to hear more. I was curious to know what the professor who was the highlight of my time in college thought of college today.

So I visited her in Philadelphia, where she has been a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania since 1998. She’s 69.

She expressed regret about how little an English department’s offerings today resemble those from the past. “There’s a lot of capitalizing on what is fashionable,” she said. Survey courses have fallen out of favor, as have courses devoted to any one of the “dead white men,” she said.

“Chaucer has become Chaucer and …” she said. “Chaucer and Women in the Middle Ages. Chaucer and Animals in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare has become Shakespeare and Film, which in my cranky opinion becomes Film, not Shakespeare.”

She didn’t want to single out any particular course for derision but encouraged me to look at what Penn is offering this semester. There’s Pulp Fictions: Popular Romance From Chaucer to Tarantino. Also Sex and the City: Women, Novels and Urban Life. Global Feminisms. Comic Books and Graphic Novels. Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film. Literatures of Psychoanalysis.

And while she applauds the attempt to engage students and diversify instruction, she worries about an intellectual vogue and academic sensibility that place no one masterpiece, master, perspective or even manner of speech above others.

Not long ago, she said, she asked students to try to go for an entire class without letting the word “like” drop needlessly — part conjunction, part stutter — into their speech. One of them responded that Hall was a “cultural capitalist” defending her particular “cultural capital.”

She has qualms about the way a university now markets campus amenities to students and marvels at “how many sites there are for feeding them.” The increased weight given to the evaluations that they fill out can be a disincentive for professors to be rigorous.

“The student became the customer who’s always right,” she said.

And yet, she said, there are still many earnest young men and women who come before her wanting nothing more or less than to be bigger, better. She praised an undergraduate business major in the class that she is currently teaching, Poetry and Politics in Ancient Greece.

“She said that going to college develops something in you that’s like a muscle, in the same way that when you go out and play tennis or whatever sport, you develop certain muscles,” Hall told me, adding that she agreed with the student.

That brought Hall to her own answer about college’s mission: “It is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”

Friedman, solo

February 4, 2015

In “A Bad Mistake” The Moustache of Wisdom has a question:  What’s behind the coming address to Congress by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel?  In the comments “Rob Campbell” from Western MA can answer:  “A bad mistake? This action is not a bad mistake, it’s an outrage. Protocols are well established. This move by Boehner and Netanyahu is a flagrant showing of disrespect for our President, his office, and our system.  The insult is against the American people, not just Obama.”  Here’s TMOW:

The decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and House Speaker John Boehner to cook up an address to Congress by Netanyahu on why the U.S. should get tougher on Iran is churlish, reckless and, for the future of Israeli-American relations, quite dangerous.

If Netanyahu wants some intelligent advice, he should listen to the counsel of his previous ambassador in Washington, the widely respected Michael Oren, who was quoted as saying that the whole gambit was creating the impression of “a cynical political move, and it could hurt our attempts to act against Iran.” He urged Netanyahu to cancel the speech.

And if Netanyahu and his current ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, who organized the gambit with Boehner, want to know how offensive the whole thing is to average Americans they should listen to conservative Fox News Sunday talk-show host Chris Wallace, not a usual critic of Israel, who gutsily said of the Bibi invite on Friday, Jan. 23: “To make you get a sense of really how, forgive me, wicked, this whole thing is, the Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Israeli ambassador to the United States for two hours on Tuesday, and Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador, according to the State Department, never mentioned the fact that Netanyahu was in negotiations and finally agreed to come to Washington, not to see the president, but to go to Capitol Hill, speak to a joint session of Congress and criticize the president’s policy. I have to say I’m shocked.”

Imagine that Israel’s Labor Party invited President Obama to address its Parliament about why Israel should give negotiations on Iran more time, and it was all worked out with the U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv behind the back of the Likud Party prime minister. A lot of Israelis would see it as an insult to their democratically elected leader. I’ve polled many of my non-Jewish friends, who follow world politics and are sympathetic to Israel, and they really don’t like this. It doesn’t only disrespect our president, it disrespects our system and certain diplomatic boundaries that every foreign leader should respect and usually has.

You know how this happened: Netanyahu; his ambassador; the pro-Israel lobby Aipac; Sheldon Adelson, the huge donor to Bibi and the G.O.P.; and Boehner all live in their own self-contained bubble. You can tell that nobody was inside there telling them: “Bibi, this speech to Congress two weeks before your election may give you a sugar high for a day with Israeli voters, but it’s in really poor taste for you to use America’s Congress as a backdrop for your campaign. Many of Israel’s friends will be uncomfortable, and the anti-Semites, who claim Israel controls Washington, will have a field day.”

Already, in reaction to this maneuver, 10 Senate Democrats — who had advocated putting more sanctions on Iran now — have instead parted company with the Republicans and granted the White House the two-month reprieve it was seeking to see if negotiations can still work. It was exactly the opposite of what Netanyahu wanted, and it shows how upset are many Democrats.

But this isn’t just churlish. For Israel’s leader to so obviously throw his lot in with the Republicans against a Democratic president is reckless. Israel and its defenders are already under siege on college campuses across America, where many university boards are under pressure to divest from companies doing business with Israel. Making support for Israel more of a Republican cause is not at all in Israel’s interest — or America’s. Israel needs the support of more than just Congress or one party.

Netanyahu’s concerns about Iran are not without merit. But his aggressiveness is also not without critics in Israel. If Congress wants to get Israel’s perspective on how to deal with Iran, then it should also invite the top Israeli intelligence and military officers, current and retired, who have been arguing publicly against Netanyahu’s threatened use of force against Iran. Why are we getting only one Israeli view? How is that in America’s interest?

Personally, I’m still dubious that the U.S. and Iran will reach a deal that will really defuse Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Such a failure would be very serious and could end up, one day, with the U.S. deciding it has to use military force to set back Iran’s program. We surely don’t want Iran to get a bomb that sets off a nuclear arms race in an already unstable Middle East.

But, even if we do use force, success is hardly assured and the blowback unpredictable. That is why it is absolutely not in Israel’s interest to give even the slightest appearance of nudging America toward such a military decision. Israel should stay a million miles away from that decision, making clear that it is entirely a U.S. matter. Because, if we do have to strike Iran, plenty of Americans will not be happy. And if it fails, or has costly consequences for us and our military, you can be sure a lot more Americans will not be happy — and some will ask, “How did we get into this mess?” One of the first things they’ll dig out will be Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

Why in the world would Israel risk putting itself in that situation? Just lie low, Mr. Netanyahu. Don’t play in our politics. Let America draw its own conclusions.

Blow, Friedman and Bruni

January 28, 2015

In “Reducing Our Obscene Level of Child Poverty” Mr. Blow says a new report on our nation’s “moral disgrace” reminds us that allowing child poverty to remain this widespread costs more than eliminating it would.   The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “Czar Putin’s Next Moves:”  Is anyone paying attention to the awful things President Vladimir Putin of Russia is doing to Ukraine, not to mention his own country?  Mr. Bruni says “We Dodged Icy Doom.  Let’s Gripe.”  He explains that whether they prepare for too little snow or too much, politicians can be assured of our unhappiness.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

I’m not someone who believes that poverty can ever truly be ended — I’m one of those “the poor will always be with you” types — but I do believe that the ranks of the poor can and must be shrunk and that the effects of poverty can and must be ameliorated.

And there is one area above all others where we should feel a moral obligation to reduce poverty as much as possible and to soften its bite: poverty among children.

People may disagree about the choices parents make — including premarital sex and out-of-wedlock births. People may disagree about access to methods of family planning — including contraception and abortion. People may disagree about the size and role of government — including the role of safety-net programs.

But surely we can all agree that no child, once born, should suffer through poverty. Surely we can all agree that working to end child poverty — or at least severely reduce it — is a moral obligation of a civilized society.

And yet, 14.7 million children in this country are poor, and 6.5 million of them are extremely poor (living below half the poverty line).

Today, the Children’s Defense Fund is releasing a report entitled “Ending Child Poverty Now” that calls this country’s rate of child poverty “a moral disgrace.”

As the report points out:

“America’s poor children did not ask to be born; did not choose their parents, country, state, neighborhood, race, color, or faith. In fact if they had been born in 33 other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries they would be less likely to be poor. Among these 35 countries, America ranks 34th in relative child poverty — ahead only of Romania, whose economy is 99 percent smaller than ours.”

It points out many of the corrosive cruelties of childhood poverty: worse health and educational outcomes, impaired cognitive development and the effects of “toxic stress” on brain functions. It also points out the “intergenerational transmission” properties of poverty:

“In one study, people who experienced poverty at any point during childhood were more than three times as likely to be poor at age 30 as those who were never poor as children. The longer a child was poor, the greater the risk of adult poverty.”

But the report is more than just an excoriation of the hollowness of our professed American values and our ethical quandary. It also serves as an economic manifesto, making the point that allowing child poverty to remain at these unconscionable levels costs “far more than eliminating it would,” calculating that an immediate 60 percent reduction in child poverty would cost $77.2 billion a year, or just 2 percent of our national budget.

For context, the report puts it this way:

“Every year we keep 14.7 million children in poverty costs our nation $500 billion — six times more than the $77 billion investment we propose to reduce child poverty by 60 percent.”

The report cites the M.I.T. Nobel laureate economist and 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Dr. Robert Solow, who wrote in his foreword to a 1994 C.D.F. report, “Wasting America’s Future”: “As an economist I believe that good things are worth paying for; and that even if curing children’s poverty were expensive, it would be hard to think of a better use in the world for money.”

To pay for the effort, the report calls for some of the same things the president called for in his State of the Union speech last week, like closing tax loopholes and eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy. But it also called for a reduction in the military budget. This is an echo, in a way, of the concerns Martin Luther King had about military spending sapping money from efforts to help the poor, which he laid out in his not-nearly-cited-enough 1967 anti-Vietnam speech at the Riverside Church:

“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

What would we get for our $77 billion, anyway? Things like the creation of subsidized jobs, an increase in the earned income tax credit, a raise of the minimum wage, an expansion of child care subsidies and housing subsidies, and an increase in SNAP benefits.

The report holds up Britain, which took some of the same steps as a case study of how such an approach can work because they “managed to reduce child poverty by more than half over 10 years, and reductions persisted during the Great Recession.”

We can do this too, if just stop seeing helping these children as an us-versus-them struggle between makers and takers, if we stop getting so hung up on prudishness about sex and traditional views of what constitutes a family, if we stem our impulse to punish children for their mothers giving birth before marriage.

By the way, Britain’s out-of-wedlock birthrate is even higher than ours.

Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from Zurich:

Last March, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine, supposedly in defense of Russian-speakers there, was just like “what Hitler did back in the ‘30s“ — using ethnic Germans to justify his invasion of neighboring lands. At the time, I thought such a comparison was over the top. I don’t think so anymore. I’d endorse Mrs. Clinton’s comparison purely for the shock value: It draws attention to the awful things Putin is doing to Ukraine, not to mention his own country, whose credit rating was just reduced to junk status.

Putin’s use of Russian troops wearing uniforms without insignia to invade Ukraine and to covertly buttress Ukrainian rebels bought and paid for by Moscow — all disguised by a web of lies that would have made Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels blush and all for the purpose of destroying Ukraine’s reform movement before it can create a democratic model that might appeal to Russians more than Putin’s kleptocracy — is the ugliest geopolitical mugging happening in the world today.

Ukraine matters — more than the war in Iraq against the Islamic State, a.k.a., ISIS. It is still not clear that most of our allies in the war against ISIS share our values. That conflict has a big tribal and sectarian element. It is unmistakably clear, though, that Ukraine’s reformers in its newly elected government and Parliament — who are struggling to get free of Russia’s orbit and become part of the European Union’s market and democratic community — do share our values. If Putin the Thug gets away with crushing Ukraine’s new democratic experiment and unilaterally redrawing the borders of Europe, every pro-Western country around Russia will be in danger.

“Putin fears a Ukraine that demands to live and wants to live and insists on living on European values — with a robust civil society and freedom of speech and religion [and] with a system of values the Ukrainian people have chosen and laid down their lives for,” Natalie Jaresko, Ukraine’s finance minister, told a Ukraine seminar at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week.

The U.S. and Germany have done a good job organizing the sanctions on Russia. While the Obama administration recently decided to deploy some American soldiers to Ukraine in the spring to train the Ukrainian National Guard, I’d support increasing our military aid to Ukraine’s Army now so it can better defend itself from the estimated 9,000 troops Putin has infiltrated into Ukraine.

Ukraine also needs $15 billion in loans and grants in the next year to stabilize its economy, in addition to its bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Ukrainians had dug themselves into a deep, deep hole with their 20-plus years of industrial levels of corruption from a series of bad governments after Kiev became independent of the Soviet Union. The reason for hope is that the revolution and latest elections in Ukraine have brought in a new generation of reformers, who are rapidly transforming ministries and passing tax and transparency regulations. They are actually welcoming hardheaded, good-governance benchmarks as a condition for Western aid. But if they deliver, we must deliver.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has been traveling across Europe this week in part to lock in the aid package for Kiev. The U.S. has committed its share, but the European Union is still balking a bit. Putin’s aim is to sow enough instability that the West will hold back aid so the Ukraine reformers will fail to deliver and be discredited. That would be a shame.

Global financier George Soros, who’s been helping foster Ukrainian reform, told the Davos gathering that “there is a new Ukraine that is determined to be different from the old Ukraine. … What makes it unique is that it is not only willing to fight but engage in executing a set of radical reforms. It is up against the old Ukraine that has not disappeared … and up against a very determined design by President Putin to destabilize it and destroy it. But it is determined to assert the independence and European orientation of the new Ukraine.”

Ukraine could also impact the price of oil. The two biggest actors who can shape that price today are Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman, and Russia’s czar, Putin. If the Saudis decide to cut back production significantly, the price of oil will go up. And if Putin decides to fully invade Ukraine, or worse, one of the Baltic states, and test whether NATO will really fight to defend either, the price of oil will go up. With his economy in shambles, Putin’s regime is now almost entirely dependent on oil and gas exports, so he’s really hurting with the oil price collapse. The odds of Putin fully invading Ukraine or the Baltics are low, but do not rule out either.

Triggering a big geopolitical crisis with NATO is an easy way for Putin to shock the oil price back up. Putin’s covert Ukraine interventions up to now have not succeeded in that. In sum: Today’s oil price will be most affected by two men — King Salman and how he uses his spare capacity to produce oil and Czar Putin and how he uses his spare capacity to produce trouble.

Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

“You can’t be a Monday morning quarterback on something like the weather,” Bill de Blasio said right after the snow.

Oh really? On Tuesday morning we hurled second guesses and grievances the way Tom Brady tosses an inadequately inflated football.

By “we” I mean not just us New Yorkers, who were promised the icy end of the world and then forced to make do with something less dramatic, but also all of those who gazed upon the city, state and region and gleefully joined a chorus of instant complaint.

We grilled de Blasio, wondering if he might be using an emergency — and his role as responder in chief — to shake off that nastiness with the police and turn the page.

We put Andrew Cuomo on the hot seat, noting that as long as he was gasping at the possibility of a record-breaking blizzard, he didn’t have to deal with the actuality of jaw-dropping corruption on his watch.

And we marveled that Chris Christie was even present in New Jersey. He spent months gallivanting around the country collecting i.o.u.s for a presidential campaign, then thundered home just in time to close roads and prophesy disaster? What a storm queen.

That’s one perspective, and a sizable share of the cynicism is warranted. These guys are showboats who always preen and play the angles. It’s called getting elected.

But before we reflexively shovel too much censure on them, let’s get a few things straight.

None of them hallucinated those forecasts of two feet (or more) of snow, nor did they cherry-pick apocalyptic ones. Meteorologists and broadcasters aplenty tripped over their adjectives to describe the frigid horrors in wait for residents of the northeastern United States.

Our politicians heard what we heard, and the same tidings that had us picking grocery-store shelves clean and standing in epic checkout lines had them cordoning off bridges and tunnels. Everyone braced for the worst, which is a whole lot smarter than hoping for the best.

“All signs were that this was going to be very bad,” Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of homeland security, told John Berman and Kate Bolduan on CNN, adding that for de Blasio not to take many or most of the steps that he did “would have been complete negligence.”

And it was indeed a bad storm. In New England, people did get several feet of snow. They also got that much in areas of Long Island that aren’t all that far from the New York City border, as the mayor noted at his news conference on Tuesday.

But from the howls of inconvenience and accusations of overreaction in the city itself, you would have thought that Central Park’s snowfall (almost 10 inches) was everybody’s. Untrue. In matters meteorological as in others, Manhattan is solipsism central.

Still, there are questions to be fairly asked. Was it really necessary, at 11 p.m. Monday, to take the extraordinary step of shutting down the subways? Especially when it turned out that some trains were still running, empty, as a way of maintaining the system?

That was Cuomo’s call, and it could have waited, if indeed it ever had to be made. Friends who’ve lived through Moscow’s brutal winters tell me that its mass transit never lets up. And while Russia’s people are hardier, their vehicles are not.

To varying degrees, Cuomo, de Blasio, Christie and other politicians overreacted, at least slightly, but who’s to blame? They’ve seen leaders past — including the New York mayors John Lindsay in 1969, Michael Bloomberg in 2010 and de Blasio himself just a year ago — endure or be undone by charges of insufficient girding for snow.

And they know that these days, thanks to Twitter and the like, the verdict will be especially hasty and the jury unusually large and loud. TV networks, pressed for money and ratings, will pay rapt attention, because weather is an easy news story to cover: straightforward, theatrical. The correspondents get to wear their ski-chalet best and to roar over the wind’s whisper.

In a more nuanced environment, the politicians in the snow’s path could have charted a better midcourse between readiness and run-for-cover alarm. They could have trusted us to understand that their talents don’t include soothsaying and that their plans will never be precisely right.

But that’s not the climate we live in. No, ours is so gripe-happy that not long after dawn Tuesday, on the Business Insider website, Henry Blodget reacted to the transportation shutdown with this sweeping judgment: “New York has become a nanny state.”

Perhaps. But imagine if all the snow predicted had arrived and scores of motorists were stranded. We’d be asking those nannies why they’d abandoned us, and we’d be looking for their replacements.

Friedman and Bruni

January 21, 2015

In “Say It Like It Is” The Moustache of Wisdom says you can’t dance around the topic of radical Islam.  In the comments “Lymond Crawford” of Brooklyn had this to say:  “Interesting that Marine Le Pen made much the same argument in her Times Op-Ed today. And not to diminish the point, but when Thomas Friedman comments on radical Islam one cannot help but remember that the war Mr. Friedman so enthusiastically embraced in Iraq (which many others accurately predicted would breed generations of terrorists) has been such an inspiration for Islamic extremists. Every piece he ever does on the subject should begin with that acknowledgement.”  Amen.  In “Cradle to Ivory Tower” Mr. Bruni says college is crucial, and so is all that leads up to it.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

I’ve never been a fan of global conferences to solve problems, but when I read that the Obama administration is organizing a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism for Feb. 18, in response to the Paris killings, I had a visceral reaction: Is there a box on my tax returns that I can check so my tax dollars won’t go to pay for this?

When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. And this administration, so fearful of being accused of Islamophobia, is refusing to make any link to radical Islam from the recent explosions of violence against civilians (most of them Muslims) by Boko Haram in Nigeria, by the Taliban in Pakistan, by Al Qaeda in Paris and by jihadists in Yemen and Iraq. We’ve entered the theater of the absurd.

Last week the conservative columnist Rich Lowry wrote an essay in Politico Magazine that contained quotes from White House spokesman Josh Earnest that I could not believe. I was sure they were made up. But I checked the transcript: 100 percent correct. I can’t say it better than Lowry did:

“The administration has lapsed into unselfconscious ridiculousness. Asked why the administration won’t say [after the Paris attacks] we are at war with radical Islam, Earnest on Tuesday explained the administration’s first concern ‘is accuracy. We want to describe exactly what happened. These are individuals who carried out an act of terrorism, and they later tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam and their own deviant view of it.’

This makes it sound as if the Charlie Hebdo terrorists set out to commit a random act of violent extremism and only subsequently, when they realized that they needed some justification, did they reach for Islam.

The day before, Earnest had conceded that there are lists of recent ‘examples of individuals who have cited Islam as they’ve carried out acts of violence.’ Cited Islam? According to the Earnest theory … purposeless violent extremists rummage through the scriptures of great faiths, looking for some verses to cite to support their mayhem and often happen to settle on the holy texts of Islam.”

President Obama knows better. I am all for restraint on the issue, and would never hold every Muslim accountable for the acts of a few. But it is not good for us or the Muslim world to pretend that this spreading jihadist violence isn’t coming out of their faith community. It is coming mostly, but not exclusively, from angry young men and preachers on the fringe of the Sunni Arab and Pakistani communities in the Middle East and Europe.

If Western interventions help foster violent Islamic reactions, we should reduce them. To the extent that Muslim immigrants in European countries feel marginalized, they and their hosts should worker harder on absorption. But both efforts will only take you so far.

Something else is also at work, and it needs to be discussed. It is the struggle within Arab and Pakistani Sunni Islam over whether and how to embrace modernity, pluralism and women’s rights. That struggle drives, and is driven by, the dysfunctionality of so many Arab states and Pakistan. It has left these societies with too many young men who have never held a job or a girl’s hand, who then seek to overcome their humiliation at being left behind, and to find identity, by “purifying” their worlds of other Muslims who are not sufficiently pious and of Westerners whom they perceive to be putting Muslims down. But you don’t see this in the two giant Muslim communities in Indonesia or India.

 Only Sunni Arabs and Pakistanis can get inside their narrative and remediate it. But reformers can only do that if they have a free, secure political space. If we’re not going to help create space for that internal dialogue, let’s just be quiet. Don’t say stupid stuff. And don’t hold airy fairy conferences that dodge the real issues, which many mainstream Muslims know and are actually starved to discuss, especially women.

The Arab journalist Diana Moukalled, writing in the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat last week, asked: “Don’t all these events now going on around us and committed in our name require us to break the fear barrier and begin to question our region and our societies, especially the ideas being trafficked there that have led us to this awful stage where we are tearing at one another’s throats — to mention nothing of what as a result also happens beyond our region?”

And a remarkable piece in The Washington Post Sunday by Asra Q. Nomani, an American Muslim born in India, called out the “honor corps” — a loose, well-funded coalition of governments and private individuals “that tries to silence debate on extremist ideology in order to protect the image of Islam.” It “throws the label of ‘Islamophobe’ on pundits, journalists and others who dare to talk about extremist ideology in the religion. … The official and unofficial channels work in tandem, harassing, threatening and battling introspective Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere. … The bullying often works to silence critics of Islamic extremism. … They cause governments, writers and experts to walk on eggshells.”

I know one in particular.

Well, when you find yourself quoting Rich “Sparkle Pants” Lowry you’ve pretty much told everyone exactly where you stand.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Leaving aside all of the other good arguments both for and against it, I have one big problem with the proposal for free community college that President Obama recently outlined and described anew in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

It’s awfully late in the game.

I don’t mean that he should have moved on it earlier in his presidency. I mean that our focus on getting kids to and through higher education cannot be separated from, or supplant, our focus on making sure that they’re prepared for it. And we have a painfully long way to go in that regard.

College is somehow tidier to talk about; I talk about it quite a bit myself. It’s an attractive subject for several reasons. There’s a particular mythology and romance to college, a way in which it’s synonymous with the passage into adulthood and with a lofty altitude of competence, knowledge and intellectual refinement.

It’s totemic. And it comes with handy metrics: specifically, data showing that the acquisition of a college degree translates into various benefits over the course of a lifetime, including higher earnings. So we look to, and lean on, college as a way to increase social mobility and push back against middle-class wage stagnation. That’s important context for not only Obama’s frequent invocations of college but also for a new report, “Expectations and Reality,” by America Achieves, a nonprofit organization that does educational research, policy development and advocacy. I was given an advance copy.

It demonstrates, for starters, that while hope may spring eternal, it springs in error where college is concerned. Using a survey of hundreds of parents and looking at college graduation rates, the report concludes that middle-class parents who expect their kids to finish four-year college degrees are wrong more than half the time.

The same survey, conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group for America Achieves, revealed some cold-eyed realism amid that unwarranted optimism. More than 70 percent of parents expressed the worry that their children’s chances of achieving a middle-class lifestyle would be diminished if their pre-college education didn’t become more challenging.

They’re right. We need to raise standards. That’s in fact what the Common Core is ideally about, and that’s why the education secretary, Arne Duncan, under harsh attack, remains wedded to a certain amount of testing. High standards without monitoring and accountability are no standards at all.

The goal is to lift children from all income groups up — and to maximize their chances of success with higher education. Their failure to complete higher education isn’t just a function of financial hardships and related stresses, though those are primary reasons. Academic readiness factors in.

Jon Schnur, the executive chairman of America Achieves, said that there’s a significant difference in graduation rates between students who need remediation after they’ve enrolled and those who don’t. The failures of elementary, middle and secondary schools shadow them.

Those failures persist, and they’re demonstrated every three years when PISA tests — which compare 15-year-olds in countries around the world — are done. American kids tend to perform in the middle of the heap.

The America Achieves report, looking at PISA results from 2003 to 2012, which is when the tests were last administered, had a bit of good news. While American kids from middle-class families haven’t markedly improved their international standing in math and science over recent years, kids from poorer families have done precisely that.

Poverty may well make educational advancement much harder, but doesn’t prohibit it. If we take the right steps — including more aggressive recruitment and rewarding of exemplary teachers and the continued implementation of higher standards — we can help kids at every rung of the economic ladder.

“All of these need to be backed by funding,” Schnur, who has advised the Obama administration on education, told me. “There are great examples of what works, such as quality preschool and early learning for low-income children.”

In the State of the Union both last year and the year before it, President Obama called for universal preschool (to no avail). Some studies have shown that disadvantaged children start falling behind even before that point.

The moral is this: Education is a continuous concern and must be a continuous investment, cradle to Ivory Tower. If we don’t recognize and act on that, our reality will never meet our expectations.

Friedman and Bruni

January 14, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom says “We Need Another Giant Protest.”  He asks how about a million-person march by Muslims for Muslims?  In “Mitt and the Melee” Mr. Bruni says Romney and Perry and Santorum and Huckabee? Here we go again, but even more chaotically.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

President Obama was criticized for failing to attend, or send a proper surrogate to, the giant antiterrorism march in Paris on Sunday. That criticism was right. But it is typical of American politics today that we focus on this and not what would have really made the world feel the jihadist threat was finally being seriously confronted. And that would not be a march that our president helps to lead, but one in which he’s not involved at all. That would be a million-person march against the jihadists across the Arab-Muslim world, organized by Arabs and Muslims for Arabs and Muslims, without anyone in the West asking for it — not just because of what happened in Paris but because of the scores of Muslims recently murdered by jihadists in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria and Syria.

Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, one of the most respected Arab journalists, wrote Monday in his column in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: “Protests against the recent terrorist attacks in France should have been held in Muslim capitals, rather than Paris, because, in this case, it is Muslims who are involved in this crisis and stand accused. … The story of extremism begins in Muslim societies, and it is with their support and silence that extremism has grown into terrorism that is harming people. It is of no value that the French people, who are the victims here, take to the streets. … What is required here is for Muslim communities to disown the Paris crime and Islamic extremism in general.” (Translation by Memri.org.)

The truth is there is a huge amount of ambivalence toward this whole jihadist phenomenon — more than any of us would like to believe — in the Arab-Muslim world, Europe and America. This ambivalence starts in the Muslim community, where there is a deep cleavage over what constitutes authentic Islam today. We fool ourselves when we tell Muslims what “real Islam” is. Because Islam has no Vatican, no single source of religious authority, there are many Islams today. The puritanical Wahhabi/Salafi/jihadist strain is one of them, and its support is not insignificant.

Ambivalence runs through Europe today on the question of what a country should demand of new Muslim immigrants by way of adopting its values. Is Stratfor’s George Friedman right when he argues that Europeans adopted multiculturalism precisely because they didn’t really want to absorb their Muslim immigrants, and many of those Muslim immigrants, who went to Europe to find a job, not a new identity, didn’t want to be absorbed? If so, that spells trouble.

Ambivalence runs through Washington’s ties with Saudi Arabia. Ever since jihadists took over Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca in 1979, proclaiming that Saudi Arabia’s rulers were not pious enough, Saudi Arabia has redoubled its commitment to Wahhabi or Salafist Islam — the most puritanical, anti-pluralistic and anti-women version of that faith. This Saudi right turn — combined with oil revenues used to build Wahhabi-inspired mosques, websites and madrassas across the Muslim world — has tilted the entire Sunni community to the right. Look at a picture of female graduates of Cairo University in 1950. Few are wearing veils. Look at them today. Many are wearing veils. The open, soft, embracing Islam that defined Egypt for centuries — pray five times a day but wash it down with a beer at night — has been hardened by this Wahhabi wind from Arabia.

But U.S. presidents never confront Saudi Arabia about this because of our oil addiction. As I’ve said, addicts never tell the truth to their pushers. The Saudi government opposes the jihadists. Unfortunately, though, it’s a very short step from Wahhabi Islam to the violent jihadism practiced by the Islamic State, or ISIS. The French terrorists were born in France but were marinated in Wahhabi-Salafi thought through the web and local mosques — not Voltaire.

Also, the other civil war in Islam — between Sunnis and Shiites — has led many mainstream Sunni charities, mosques and regimes to support jihadist groups because they’re ferocious fighters against Shiites. Finally — yet more ambivalence — for 60 years there was a tacit alliance between Arab dictators and their Sunni religious clergy. The regimes funded these uninspired Muslim clerics, and these clergy blessed the uninspired dictators — and both stifled the emergence of any authentic, inspired, reformist Islam that could take on Wahhabism-Salafism, even though many Muslims wanted it. An authentic reformation requires a free space in the Arab-Muslim world.

“Muslims need to ‘upgrade their software,’ which is programmed mainly by our schools, television and mosques — especially small mosques that trade in what is forbidden,” Egyptian intellectual Mamoun Fandy wrote in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. (Also translated by Memri.org.) “There is no choice but to dismantle this system and rebuild it in a way that is compatible with human culture and values.”

In short, jihadist zeal is easy to condemn, but will require multiple revolutions to stem — revolutions that will require a lot of people in the Arab-Muslim world and West to shed their ambivalence and stop playing double games.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

There’s an adage in my business that it’s not news when a dog bites a man, only when a man bites a dog.

By that reasoning, the political story of the year so far is Paul Ryan’s announcement that he will not run for president.

Seemingly everyone else in his party will. Rick Santorum’s back. George Pataki’s back. Mike Huckabee’s back, with an alliterative new book (“God, Guns, Grits and Gravy”) that sounds like an agenda hijacked by a Denny’s menu, or maybe a sequel to “Fried Green Tomatoes” starring Mel Gibson and a howitzer.

Even Rick Perry’s back. I’d tick off three reasons that he’s crazy to try again except that I can remember only two. He’s a whole new candidate, at least on the accessories front. It’s been said that Americans give you 10 additional I.Q. points if you have a British accent; he’s betting on an extra five for eyeglasses.

And now — the heart quickens and the flesh quivers — Mitt Romney’s back. That’s the word this week: that he’s inching ever closer to another presidential bid, which we know because he’s articulated as much to donors.

Doesn’t it pretty much say everything about our political process right now that candidates flag their intentions first to the people they’ll be hitting up for money? And that the way they attempt to clear the field isn’t with a surge in polls but with a fortune in the bank? I bet some of them form PACs before they bother to tell their spouses what’s up. It’s called priorities.

By one count that I just came across, there are 25 Republicans of some standing who have signaled at least a flickering interest in the 2016 race. This certainly explains the dip in unemployment. Thousands of Republican presidential strategists and advisers have been added to payrolls.

It also explains the difference between the parties. Democrats want to expand government. Republicans want to expand auditions for it.

A Romney candidacy would be curious in the extreme. In 2000, Al Gore beat George W. Bush in the popular vote and lost the presidency by dint of a Supreme Court ruling; he nonetheless let someone else carry the Democratic banner in 2004.

That person was John Kerry, who came closer to winning than Romney did, and yet he, too, didn’t circle back four years later for more punishment.

From what I hear, Romney began mulling a third bid for the presidency months ago, when the Republican establishment remained skeptical of Chris Christie and when it wasn’t at all certain that Jeb Bush would join the race. Romney was poised to rush in like a cinematically coifed superhero and save the party from the deliriums of Rand Paul and the diatribes of Ted Cruz.

By the time Bush began all the maneuvering of the last four weeks, Romney had developed the itch. He also apparently believes that Bush’s support for Common Core educational standards and immigration reform will cripple him in the primaries.

If Bush formalizes a candidacy and Romney follows suit, he’d run to Bush’s right. But Bush is the one with the truly conservative record as a governor, in Florida, while Romney is the one with a moderate record from Massachusetts. He’d be flipping the script, and if his political orientation was confusing last time around, it would be only more so this time.

He’s reportedly concerned that Bush’s financial dealings will make him acutely vulnerable to attacks. So the solution is … Romney?

His campaign would be predicated on buyer’s remorse: Voters could have had him and now get a do-over. But the buyers may be growing less remorseful. Romney had promised them that by the end of his first term, unemployment would be at or under 6 percent. It’s there already, in half the time.

Romney, Perry and others forget that when they’re not candidates, they’re well loved. When they are, they’re well trashed. Today’s fascination is tomorrow’s flop on “Meet the Press,” a hapless porterhouse for the panel to carve up.

Some Republicans (and Democrats) are simply chasing higher speaking fees, maybe a book like Huckabee’s, hold the gravy.

But there’s a cost to us. An overcrowded field of candidates doesn’t mean a more spirited exchange of ideas; it means so many voices that none get properly heard (or vetted).

Remember those early Republican debates during the last cycle, when so many contenders fanned out across the stage that they looked like misbegotten Rockettes? We could have twice that number in 2016. We could have a crowd scene in “Cats.”

So I’d say to Romney what he said to The Times’s Ashley Parker when she asked him early last year about one more campaign:

“Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no.”

Friedman and Bruni

December 24, 2014

The Moustache of Wisdom asks “Is Vacation Over?”  He says we haven’t seen the ramifications of the drop in global oil prices yet.  In “The Pope, Beyoncé and Me” Mr. Bruni says that by reaching out to Cuba while admonishing his own cardinals, Francis sends the right Christmas message.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

More than we may realize, the world has been riding a lucky streak since the global financial meltdown in 2008. How so? The years between 2008 and late 2013 were — relatively speaking — a rather benign period of big power politics and geopolitics. This allowed the major economic powers — the United States, the European Union, China, India, Russia, Brazil and Japan — to focus almost exclusively on economic rehabilitation. But now there are strong indications that our vacation from geo-instability is over.

The last time the world witnessed such a steep and sustained drop in oil prices — from 1986 to 1999 — it had some profound political consequences for oil-dependent states and those who depended on their largess. The Soviet empire collapsed; Iran elected a reformist president; Iraq invaded Kuwait; and Yasir Arafat, having lost his Soviet backer and Arab bankers, recognized Israel — to name but a few. Admittedly, other factors were involved in all these events. But, in each case, steep drops in direct or indirect oil revenues played a big role.

If today’s falloff in oil prices is sustained, we’ll also be in for a lot of surprises. Some will have happy endings. Cuba’s decision to bury the hatchet with America had to have been spurred in part by Havana’s fears of losing some or all of the 100,000 barrels of subsidized oil a day it gets from the now cash-strapped Venezuela. Others could be very destabilizing. Today’s world is much more tightly interconnected and interdependent than in the last oil price drop-off, which was before the spread of the Internet. And today’s world has so many more actors — superpowers and superempowered individuals and hackers who can destabilize companies and countries with cyberweapons. See dictionary for “Sony” and “North Korea.”

When I hear President Vladimir Putin of Russia bragging that lower oil revenues won’t affect the Russian people because they are stoic — look what they tolerated in World War II — my reaction is: “Mr. Putin, that was before there was a significant urban middle class in Russia, one you helped to build with trickle-down oil and gas revenues.” A lot more Russians today have gotten used to traveling abroad, owning a car (note Moscow’s traffic jams), consuming Western goods and seeing how the rest of the world lives. Let’s see how stoic they are today. Russia’s former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin was quoted by The Financial Times on Monday as saying, “There will be a fall in living standards. It will be painful. Protest activity will increase.”

The Western sanctions on Putin’s banks, combined with the sudden sharp drop in oil prices and capital flight also triggered by the sanctions, mean that Russia has a dangerous gap between the funds flowing into its economy and what it needs to send out to pay its debts and finance its imports. Putin can’t relieve the pressure without a lifting of Western sanctions. That would require him to reverse his seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine.

If Putin admits his Ukraine adventure was a mistake, he will look incredibly foolish and the long knives will be out for him in the Kremlin. If he doesn’t back down, Russians will pay a huge price. Either way, that system will be stressed with unpredictable spillovers on the global economy. Remember: Russia’s 1998 economic collapse — also triggered by low oil prices and the moratorium it declared on payments to foreign debtors — helped to sink the giant American hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management, sparking a near meltdown on Wall Street.

A prolonged drop in oil prices will impact Algeria, Iran and Arab Gulf states, where aging regimes have used high oil prices to increase government salaries to buy quiet from their people during the Arab Spring. Also, in an age when machines and software are ensuring that average is over for workers in developed countries, and everyone needs to be upgrading their skills, what happens to the developing Arab states and Iran, who have used oil money to mask their deficits in knowledge, education and women’s empowerment? Egypt’s military-led government is highly in need of Arab oil money to get through its crisis. A bit of good news: The Islamic State, which depends on oil smuggling, will fail at governing even faster than it already has.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s increasingly tyrannical president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been arresting domestic opponents, is looking like “Vladimir Putin Jr.” Erdogan is a tragic figure because he did much to build Turkey’s economy into a powerhouse. But, today, according to The Financial Times, Turkey now “needs more than $200 billion of foreign financing a year, more than a quarter of gross domestic product, to maintain its current level of growth.” There will be less Arab and Russian oil money for that and, last week, with Erdogan being criticized by the European Union (a big source of investment income) for arresting his opponents, the Turkish lira hit a low against the dollar. Watch that space.

High oil prices covered many sins and fostered many sins. If they stay low again for long, a lot of leaders will have to pay retail for their crazy politics, not wholesale. The political and geopolitical fallouts will be varied — good and bad — but fallout aplenty there will be.

Probably in a Friedman Unit or two…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

There was a Christmas Eve a little more than a decade ago when I did something that was, for me, rare, at least on a holiday typically spent in full-party mode, with booze, food, family and friends. I went to church.

No one had died. No one was getting married or baptized. This visit was entirely volitional — and, I told myself, ornamental, which was true to a point.

The church, you see, was St. Peter’s Basilica. I was The Times’s correspondent in Rome. And because I covered the Vatican, I had dibs on prime seats relatively close to the altar. Forgive the following mixture of profane and sacred, but you don’t have to be a Beyoncé devotee to say a quick yes to free tickets in the front rows. You go for the pageant and the privilege.

Pope John Paul II presided over the Mass, as best he could. He struggled to form coherent words, a man disintegrating before the world’s eyes, month by painful month. Many of us in the press corps who kept tabs on him and trailed him — to Guatemala, to Croatia, to Poland — were essentially on a deathwatch.

And some of us occasionally wondered if that vigil extended beyond him, to the Roman Catholic Church itself, and if he were both man and metaphor. Especially in Western Europe and the United States, the church was sliding into a sort of obsolescence.

It often resisted engagement with modernity. It denounced sin in the world while indulging it in the priesthood. And it spoke with a censoriousness that seemed antithetical to Christianity.

After John Paul came Benedict; little changed. More and more of the Catholics I knew located their faith as far outside of the Vatican as they could.

Now there’s Francis. And things are different. Not different enough, not by a long shot. The church remains wrong on women and wrong on gays, and I’ve noted repeatedly the shameful discrepancy between Francis’ kind words and the unkind firings of lesbian and gay employees by Catholic institutions in the United States.

But almost two years into his papacy, it’s impossible to deny the revolutionary freshness of his posture: humble, receptive, even casual. The pomp is gone and, with it, the air of thundering judgment. If the rules haven’t been rewritten, they seem less like bludgeons than in the past.

Francis doesn’t hold himself high, an autocrat with all the answers. He crouches to a level where questions can be asked, conversations broached, disagreements articulated.

He insists that other church leaders lower themselves as well, and used a traditional Christmas address on Monday not to chide the flock for its transgressions but to remind the shepherds of theirs.

He accused some of the cardinals, bishops and priests in the upper echelons of the church bureaucracy of straying so forgetfully from their true mission and ministry that they were afflicted with a kind of “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”

He said that they had fallen prey to the “pathology of power” and needed to beware the “terrorism of gossip.” All in all, the Vatican as described by Francis sounded like an Aaron Spelling drama, although with looser-fitting clothes, odder hats and lower Nielsen ratings.

By taking the church out of the clouds, he’s putting it into the fray. All accounts of the recent rapprochement between the United States and Cuba cast Francis as a key player, and that’s more than a diplomatic victory. It’s an assertion of the church’s sustained relevance.

He’s also putting the church within reach of those who would rather find a place for it in their lives than have to figure out a life without it. They are many.

I’ve never been able to believe in one dogma, one institution, as a possible repository for all truth and as a compass trumping any other. And I’ve been troubled by the frequency with which individual religions divide rather than unite. The Catholic Church has certainly been guilty of this.

But it has also done, and continues to do, enormous good. Its soldiers are present at almost every humanitarian crisis, their courage and caring inextricable from the best strands of the faith.

That faith provides many pilgrims with a harbor they can’t find elsewhere. They look to it not necessarily for a precise code of conduct but for a crucial inspiration to be less selfish, more charitable. It gives them a sorely needed peace, so long as they don’t feel shoved away.

By not shoving, Francis is serving them well. By not shouting, he’s being heard.

In St. Peter’s this Christmas Eve, he’ll be at center stage. Except he won’t, in another sense, because he’s redefined his role. If I were in the pews once again, it wouldn’t be to savor the spectacle. It would be to see the man.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 165 other followers