Archive for the ‘The Moustache of Wisdom’ Category

Friedman and Bruni

September 2, 2015

In “Our Radical Islamic BFF, Saudi Arabia” TMOW says the greatest purveyors of radical Islam aren’t the Iranians, as a general says. The Saudis win that title hands down.  Well, put me in the oven and call me a biscuit…  I never thought I’d live to see the day that a Very Serious Person actually said that out loud, in front of God and everyone.  Mr. Bruni, in “The Joe Biden Delusion,” says thed vice president commands enormous affection. That doesn’t mean he can win the Democratic presidential nomination.  Here’s TMOW:

The Washington Post ran a story last week about some 200 retired generals and admirals who sent a letter to Congress “urging lawmakers to reject the Iran nuclear agreement, which they say threatens national security.” There are legitimate arguments for and against this deal, but there was one argument expressed in this story that was so dangerously wrongheaded about the real threats to America from the Middle East, it needs to be called out.

That argument was from Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, the retired former vice commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, who said of the nuclear accord: “What I don’t like about this is, the number one leading radical Islamic group in the world is the Iranians. They are purveyors of radical Islam throughout the region and throughout the world. And we are going to enable them to get nuclear weapons.”

Sorry, General, but the title greatest “purveyors of radical Islam” does not belong to the Iranians. Not even close. That belongs to our putative ally Saudi Arabia.

When it comes to Iran’s involvement in terrorism, I have no illusions: I covered firsthand the 1983 suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, both believed to be the handiwork of Iran’s cat’s paw, Hezbollah. Iran’s terrorism, though — vis-à-vis the U.S. — has always been of the geopolitical variety: war by other means to push the U.S. out of the region so Iran can dominate it, not us.

I support the Iran nuclear deal because it reduces the chances of Iran building a bomb for 15 years and creates the possibility that Iran’s radical religious regime can be moderated through more integration with the world.

But if you think Iran is the only source of trouble in the Middle East, you must have slept through 9/11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. Nothing has been more corrosive to the stability and modernization of the Arab world, and the Muslim world at large, than the billions and billions of dollars the Saudis have invested since the 1970s into wiping out the pluralism of Islam — the Sufi, moderate Sunni and Shiite versions — and imposing in its place the puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam promoted by the Saudi religious establishment.

It is not an accident that several thousand Saudis have joined the Islamic State or that Arab Gulf charities have sent ISIS donations. It is because all these Sunni jihadist groups — ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Nusra Front — are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.

And we, America, have never called them on that — because we’re addicted to their oil and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.

“Let’s avoid hyperbole when describing one enemy or potential enemy as the greatest source of instability,” said Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, who is an expert on Islam at the Hudson Institute.

“It is an oversimplification,” he said. “While Iran has been a source of terrorism in supporting groups like Hezbollah, many American allies have been a source of terrorism by supporting Wahhabi ideology, which basically destroyed the pluralism that emerged in Islam since the 14thcentury, ranging from Bektashi Islam in Albania, which believes in living with other religions, to Sufi and Shiite Islam.

“The last few decades have seen this attempt to homogenize Islam,” claiming “there is only one legitimate path to God,” Haqqani said. And when there is only one legitimate path, “all others are open to being killed. That has been the single most dangerous idea that has emerged in the Muslim world, and it came out of Saudi Arabia and has been embraced by others, including the government in Pakistan.”

Consider this July 16, 2014, story in The Times from Beirut: “For decades, Saudi Arabia has poured billions of its oil dollars into sympathetic Islamic organizations around the world, quietly practicing checkbook diplomacy to advance its agenda. But a trove of thousands of Saudi documents recently released by WikiLeaks reveals in surprising detail how the government’s goal in recent years was not just to spread its strict version of Sunni Islam — though that was a priority — but also to undermine its primary adversary: Shiite Iran.”

Or consider this Dec 5, 2010, report on BBC.com: “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned last year in a leaked classified memo that donors in Saudi Arabia were the ‘most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.’ She said it was ‘an ongoing challenge’ to persuade Saudi officials to treat such activity as a strategic priority. The groups funded include al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, she added.”

Saudi Arabia has been an American ally on many issues and there are moderates there who detest its religious authorities. But the fact remains that Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahhabi puritanical Islam has been one of the worst things to happen to Muslim and Arab pluralism — pluralism of religious thought, gender and education — in the last century.

Iran’s nuclear ambition is a real threat; it needs to be corralled. But don’t buy into the nonsense that it’s the only source of instability in this region.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Many politicians seem intent on holding themselves as far back from us as possible, on parceling themselves out in only the smallest and most controlled bits. Even as they implore us to love them and insist that we trust them, they’re stingy. Cagey. Coiled.

Not Joe Biden. Where others say too little, he says too much. Where others depend on extravagantly compensated swamis to contrive their authenticity and coax them toward it, Biden needs help tamping down his irrepressible self.

How I’ve loved watching him over his decades in public life.

How I’d hate to see him enter the presidential race and punctuate those years with a final defeat.

Biden, Biden, Biden. The drumbeat swells, coming from all directions, even from Dick Cheney. He recently did an interview with CNN, the first snippets of which were shown on Monday, and offered Biden the following counsel about 2016: “Go for it.” This is probably the most compelling evidence that Biden shouldn’t. When Cheney itches for an intervention, beware.

Biden’s own moves, including a scheduled appearance next Thursday on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” further stoke speculation and hopes.

But while many Democrats have enormous respect for him and he’s done plenty to deserve it, this isn’t really about him. It’s about Hillary Clinton: her presumptuousness, the whole email mess, the sloppy administration of the Clinton Foundation, the sense that scandals are as inextricable from her political identity as pantsuits.

Some Democratic leaders and operatives would desperately like an alternative — an alternative, that is, with better general-election prospects than a 73-year-old socialist with little support from minorities. Martin O’Malley hasn’t come through: He might as well be an apparition for all the impact he’s made. Someone else is needed. Cue the Biden talk.

We journalists eagerly amplify it, because nothing improves a narrative like the addition of an especially colorful character. We disingenuously pretend that his favorability ratings and other flattering poll results have the same meaning as corresponding numbers for Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

They don’t, because he’s a hypothetical candidate and they’re actual ones, and it’s the difference between a courtship in its dawn and a marriage in its dusk. Once someone has really moved into the house and is leaving dirty dishes in the sink, the electricity dims and everything droops.

Even while drooping, Clinton holds onto a great deal of support, and she stands on the very territory that Biden, to get the nomination, would need.

“He’s neither to the left of her, where the energy of the party is, nor is he newer than her,” one Democratic strategist said. “He personifies neither progressivity nor change. And you need to have one of the two — preferably, both — to win.”

Clinton’s familiarity is mitigated by the possibility that she’d make history: the first woman in the White House. Biden has nothing like that going for him.

He’s a profoundly awkward fit for this strange political moment, this season of outsiders and insurgents.

Voters are sour on career politicians, and Biden’s career in politics spans about 45 uninterrupted years.

Voters are anti-Washington in particular, and more than 42 of those years have been spent in the national’s capital, as a senator from Delaware and then as the vice president.

Aspects of his legislative record are more troubling for him now than ever before. As Nicholas Fandos noted in a recent story in The Times, Biden pushed for, and later crowed about, tough-on-crime legislation in the 1980s and 1990s that preceded the mass incarceration of today. That would be a wedge between him and the Democratic Party’s black voters especially.

And as Steve Eder noted in another recent story in The Times, Biden was, of necessity, an ambassador for the financial services industry in Delaware. That hardly positions him to win the favor of liberal Democrats who yearn for a crackdown on Wall Street.

Biden has twice before pursued the Democratic nomination and never won a single state. The last time, in 2008, he got less than 1 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses and then quickly dropped out.

And while much about circumstances and about Biden has changed since then, what hasn’t, at least not significantly, is the uncorked, uncensored quality that contributed to his troubles before.

He rolls his eyes. He reaches out with his hands. He talks and talks, in sentences that sometimes go too far, with words that haven’t been weighed as carefully as they could be. The route from his brain to his lips is direct and swift. None of the usual traffic cones there.

Sometimes this is enervating. Mostly it’s endearing. For better or worse, it’s not the means to a promotion, not for this remarkable man at this remarkable time.

Friedman and Bruni

August 26, 2015

In “Bonfire of the Assets, With Trump Lighting Matches” TMOW says China burns money for its stock market, Russia burns food as a nationalist distraction and the U.S. is now burning pluralism for politics.  Mr. Bruni, in “Trump-ward, Christian Soldiers?”, says the veneration of The Donald affirms the selective morality of the religious right.  Here’s TMOW:

Normally, when your main geopolitical rivals are shooting themselves in both feet, the military manual says step back and enjoy the show. But I take little comfort in watching China burning money and Russia burning food, because in today’s interdependent world we’re all affected.

I also find no joy in it because we Americans, too, have started burning our most important source of competitive advantage — our pluralism. One of our two political parties has gone nuts and started following a pied piper of intolerance, named Donald Trump.

First, we watched China’s leadership burn money — trying to prop up a ridiculously overvalued stock market by buying falling stocks with government savings, and then seeing that market continue to collapse because the very fact that the government was intervening suggested no one knew what these stocks were worth.

The Wall Street Journal reported on July 30 that the “state-owned China Securities Finance Corporation has been spending up to 180 billion yuan a day ($29 billion) to try to stabilize stocks.” Since the Shanghai exchange has fallen sharply since then, the amount of money China burned trying to prop up already unrealistic valuations must be staggering.

The economic management team in Beijing has seriously lost its way. But leaders do funky things when the ruling party’s bargain with its people is “we get to rule and you get to get rich.” Collapsing markets can quickly lead to collapsing legitimacy.

Ask the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. He burned the eastern quarter of Ukraine to distract the Russian middle class from his economic mismanagement and illegitimacy.

Putin decided that building his own Silicon Valley — the Skolkovo Innovation Center outside of Moscow — was too hard. So to build his legitimacy he chose nationalism and seized Crimea instead. Putin prefers to manufacture chips on his shoulder than microchips. When the Crimea annexation nationalist sugar high wore off, Putin started burning food imported from countries sanctioning Russia for seizing Crimea from Ukraine.

As The Times reported on Aug. 6, “Following an order by President Vladimir V. Putin, officials threw huge piles of pork, tomatoes, peaches and cheese into landfills and garbage incinerators. The frenzy, remarkable even by the standards of Russia’s recent politicization of food supplies, was gleefully reported by Russian state television.” This is in a country where food prices have soared because of the collapse of the ruble.

My fear is that once Putin’s food-burning nationalist sugar high wears off, he’ll burn up another neighbor. Estonia, please beware.

Alas, though, America has joined this assets bonfire. We’re now in a world where all top-down authority structures are being challenged. It’s most obvious in the Arab world where you have pluralistic countries that lack pluralism and so could be held together from the top-down only by an iron fist — and when that iron fist got removed they spun apart. America’s greatest advantage is its pluralism: It can govern itself horizontally by its people of all colors and creeds forging social contracts to live together as equal citizens.

It not only makes us more stable but also more innovative, because we can collaborate internally and externally with anyone anywhere, leveraging more brainpower. Who is the new C.E.O. of Google? Sundar Pichai. Who is the new C.E.O. of Microsoft? Satya Nadella. Mark Zuckerberg’s family did not come over on the Mayflower.

But right now we’re messing around with that incredible asset. Yes, we must control our borders; it is the essence of sovereignty. It has been a failure of both our political parties that the Mexican-American border has been so porous. So I am for a high wall, but with a very big gate — one that legally lets in energetic low-skilled workers and the high-I.Q. risk-takers who have made our economy the envy of the world — and for legislation that provides a pathway for the millions of illegal immigrants already here to gain legal status and eventually citizenship.

In June 2013, the Senate, including 14 Republicans, passed a bill that would do all that. But the extremists in the G.O.P. House refused to follow, so the bill stalled.

And now we have Trump shamelessly exploiting this issue even more. He’s calling for an end to the 14th Amendment’s birthright principle, which guarantees citizenship to anyone born here, and also for a government program to round up all 11 million illegal immigrants and send them home — an utterly lunatic idea that Trump dismisses as a mere “management” problem. Like lemmings, many of the other G.O.P. presidential hopefuls just followed Trump over that cliff.

This is not funny anymore. This is not entertaining. Donald Trump is not cute. His ugly nativism shamefully plays on people’s fears and ignorance. It ignores bipartisan solutions already on the table, undermines the civic ideals that make our melting pot work in ways no European or Asian country can match (try to become a Japanese) and tampers with the very secret of our sauce — pluralism, that out of many we make one.

Every era spews up a Joe McCarthy type who tries to thrive by dividing and frightening us, and today his name is Donald Trump.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Let me get this straight. If I want the admiration and blessings of the most flamboyant, judgmental Christians in America, I should marry three times, do a queasy-making amount of sexual boasting, verbally degrade women, talk trash about pretty much everyone else while I’m at it, encourage gamblers to hemorrhage their savings in casinos bearing my name and crow incessantly about how much money I’ve amassed?

Seems to work for Donald Trump.

Polls show him to be the preferred candidate among not just all Republican voters but also the party’s vocal evangelical subset.

He’s more beloved than Mike Huckabee, a former evangelical pastor, or Ted Cruz, an evangelical pastor’s son, or Scott Walker, who said during the recent Republican debate: “It’s only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed.”

When Trump mentions blood, it’s less biblical, as Megyn Kelly can well attest.

No matter. The holy rollers are smiling upon the high roller. And they’re proving, yet again, how selective and incoherent the religiosity of many in the party’s God squad is.

Usually the disconnect involves stern moralizing, especially on matters sexual, by showily devout public figures who are then exposed as adulterers or (gasp!) closet homosexuals. I’d list all the names, starting with Josh Duggar and working backward, but my column doesn’t sprawl over an entire page of the newspaper.

Or the disconnect is between evangelists’ panegyrics about Christ’s penury and their hustle for funds to support less-than-penurious lifestyles. John Oliver, the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” has been making brilliant satirical fun of this by promoting his new tax-exempt church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption. Last Sunday he apologized to viewers that his wife, Wanda Jo, “cannot be with us this evening.”

“She’s at our summer parsonage in Hawaii,” he continued, “for a week of spiritual introspection and occasional parasailing.”

What’s different and fascinating about the Trump worship is that he doesn’t even try that hard for a righteous facade — for Potemkin piety. Sure, he speaks of enthusiastic churchgoing, and he’s careful to curse Planned Parenthood and to insist that matrimony be reserved for heterosexuals as demonstrably inept at it as he is.

But beyond that? He just about runs the table on the seven deadly sins. He personifies greed, embodies pride, radiates lust. Wrath is covered by his anti-immigrant, anti-“losers” rants, and if we interpret gluttony to include big buildings and not just Big Macs, he’s a glutton through and through. That leaves envy and sloth. I’m betting that he harbors plenty of the former, though I’ll concede that he exhibits none of the latter.

In 2012, inexplicably, he was invited to Liberty University, where he digressed during his remarks to extol the prudence of prenuptial agreements. But all was forgiven: His host, Jerry Falwell, told audience members that Trump could be credited for “single-handedly” forcing President Obama to release his birth certificate. Oh how they cheered, as if ugly, groundless partisan rumor-mongering were on a saintly par with washing lepers’ feet.

Maybe it’s Trump’s jingoism they adore. They venerated Ronald Reagan though he’d divorced, remarried and spent much of his career in the godless clutch of Hollywood.

Maybe their fealty to Trump is payback for his donations to conservative religious groups.

Or maybe his pompadour has mesmerized them. It could, in the right wind, be mistaken for a halo.

I’m grasping at straws, because there’s no sense in the fact that many of the people who most frequently espouse the Christian spirit then proceed to vilify immigrants, demonize minorities and line up behind a candidate who’s a one-man master class in such misanthropy.

From Trump’s Twitter account gushes an endless stream of un-Christian rudeness, and he was at it again on Monday night, retweeting someone else’s denigration of Kelly as a “bimbo.” Shouldn’t he be turning the other cheek?

For politicians as for voters, devotion and grace can be fickle, convenient things. Courting the evangelical vote, Cruz used his own Twitter account last week to say that his “thoughts and prayers are with President Jimmy Carter,” whose struggle with cancer was riveting the nation. But then Cruz pressed on with a speech that bemoaned the “misery, stagnation and malaise” of Carter’s presidency. He couldn’t have hit pause on the Carter bashing for a week or two?

Carter pressed on, too — with his usual weekend routine of teaching Sunday school, which he has long done with little fanfare. His own Christianity is not a bludgeon but a bridge.

As for Trump, I must not be watching the same campaign that his evangelical fans are, because I don’t see someone interested in serving God. I see someone interested in being God.

Friedman and Bruni

August 12, 2015

In “If I Were an Israeli Looking at the Iran Deal” TMOW says that his  thinking as an Israeli grocer would be different from as an Israeli general, and that would be still different from as the prime minister.  Boy, is that ever profound…  Mr. Bruni has a question:  “Can We Interest You in Teaching?”  He says the  teacher shortage compels us to look harder at a crucial profession’s inadequate allure.  Here’s TMOW:

With the U.S. and Israel openly arguing over the Iran nuclear deal, I’ve asked myself this: How would I look at this deal if I were an Israeli grocer, an Israeli general or the Israeli prime minister?

If I were an Israeli grocer, just following this deal on the radio, I’d hate it for enshrining Iran’s right to enrich uranium, since Iran regularly cheated its way to expanding that capability, even though it had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. After all, Iran holds “death to Israel” marches and in 2006 sponsored a conference to promote denial of the Holocaust. Moreover, Iran’s proxy, the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah, in 2006, started an unprovoked war with Israel, and when Israel retaliated against Hezbollah military and civilian targets, Hezbollah fired thousands of Iranian-supplied rockets all across Israel. No — no matter the safeguards — I as an Israeli grocer would reject this deal from my gut.

If I were an Israeli general, I’d share my grocer’s skepticism, but end up somewhere else (as many Israeli military officers have). I’d start by recalling what the Israeli statesman Abba Eban used to say when Israeli hawks would argue against taking risks for peace with the Palestinians, that Israel is not “a disarmed Costa Rica.” It not only possesses some 100 to 200 nuclear weapons, it also can deliver them to Iran by plane, submarine and long-range rocket. I’d also note the reason Hezbollah hasn’t launched an unprovoked attack on Israel since 2006 is it knows, by experience, that Israel’s core strategic doctrine is this: No enemy will ever out-crazy us into leaving this region.

Israel plays, when it has to, by what I’ve called “Hama rules” — war without mercy. The Israeli Army tries to avoid hitting civilian targets, but it has demonstrated in both Lebanon and Gaza that it will not be deterred by the threat of civilian Arab casualties when Hezbollah or Hamas launches its rockets from civilian areas. It is not pretty, but this is not Scandinavia. The Jewish state has survived in an Arab-Muslim sea because its neighbors know that for all its Western mores it will not be out-crazied. It will play by local rules. Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah know this, which is why Israel’s generals know they possess significant deterrence against an Iranian bomb.

And Iran’s ayatollahs have long demonstrated they are not suicidal. As the Israeli strategists Shai Feldman and Ariel Levite wrote recently in National Interest: “It is noteworthy that during its thirty-six-year history the Islamic Republic [of Iran] never gambled its survival as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein did three times” — by launching a war against Iran in 1980, invading Kuwait in 1990 and betting that George W. Bush would not attack him in 2003. If I were an Israeli general, I wouldn’t love this deal, but I could see its advantages, especially if the U.S. enhanced its deterrence.

If I were Israel’s prime minister, I’d start by admitting that my country faces two existential threats: One, external, is an Iranian bomb and the other, internal, is the failure to separate from the West Bank Palestinians into two states, leaving only a one-state solution where Israel would end up governing so many Palestinians it could no longer be a Jewish democracy.

To deal with the Iran threat I would not, as Israel’s leader, be pressuring U.S. Jews to go against their own government to try to scuttle the deal — when I have no credible alternative.

This deal sharply reduces Iran’s bomb-making uranium stockpile for 15 years, and pushes Iran’s ability to break out with a nuclear weapon from three months — where it is now — to a year. I’d be very confident that if I can keep Iran one year away from a bomb for 15 years, during that time Israel’s defense technologists will develop many more ways to detect and eliminate any kind of Iranian breakout.

And I’d recognize that if my lobbyists in Washington actually succeeded in getting Congress to scrap this deal, the result wouldn’t be a better deal. It would be no deal, so Iran would remain three months from a bomb — and with no intrusive inspectors, with collapsing sanctions and Israel, not Iran, diplomatically isolated.

So rather than fighting with President Obama, as prime minister I’d be telling him Israel will support this deal but it wants the U.S. to increase what really matters — its deterrence capability — by having Congress authorize this and any future president to use any means necessary to destroy any Iranian attempt to build a bomb. I don’t trust U.N. inspectors; I trust deterrence. And to enhance that I’d ask the U.S. to position in the Middle East the U.S. Air Force’s Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a precision-guided, 30,000-pound “bunker buster” bomb that could take out any Iranian reactor hidden in any mountain. The Iranians would get the message.

And then I’d put all my energies as Israel’s leader into trying to securely disengage from the West Bank Palestinians to preserve Israel as a Jewish democracy. That — plus the Iran deal plus enhanced U.S. deterrence — would make Israel more secure against both its existential threats.

Unfortunately, Israel has a prime minister whose strategy is to reject the Iran deal without any credible Plan B and to downplay the internal threat without any credible Plan A.

Why a grocer instead of a taxi driver, I wonder…  He’s always been very familiar with taxi drivers and their thoughts.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Teaching can’t compete.

When the economy improves and job prospects multiply, college students turn their attention elsewhere, to professions that promise more money, more independence, more respect.

That was one takeaway from a widely discussed story in The Times on Sunday by Motoko Rich, who charted teacher shortages so severe in certain areas of the country that teachers are being rushed into classrooms with dubious qualifications and before they’ve earned their teaching credentials.

It’s a sad, alarming state of affairs, and it proves that for all our lip service about improving the education of America’s children, we’ve failed to make teaching the draw that it should be, the honor that it must be. Nationally, enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped by 30 percent between 2010 and 2014, as Rich reported.

To make matters worse, more than 40 percent of the people who do go into teaching exit the profession within five years.

How do we make teaching more rewarding, so that it beckons to not only enough college graduates but to a robust share of the very best of them?

Better pay is a must. There’s no getting around that. Many teachers in many areas can’t hope to buy a house and support a family on their incomes, and college students contemplating careers know that. If those students are taking on debt, teaching isn’t likely to provide a timely way to pay it off. The average salary nationally for public school teachers,including those with decades in the classroom, is under $57,000; starting salaries in some states barely crest $30,000.

There’s also the issue of autonomy.

“The No. 1 thing is giving teachers a voice, a real voice,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said to me this week.

Education leaders disagree over how much of a voice and in what. Weingarten emphasizes teacher involvement in policy, and a survey of some 30,000 teachers and other school workers done by the A.F.T. and the Badass Teachers Association in late April showed that one large source of stress was being left out of such decisions.

Others focus on primarily letting teachers chart the day-by-day path to the goals laid out for them, so that they’re not just obedient vessels for a one-size-fits-all script. Hold them accountable, but give them discretion.

The political battles over education, along with the shifting vogues about what’s best, have left many teachers feeling like pawns and punching bags. And while that’s no reason not to implement promising new approaches or to shrink from experimentation, it puts an onus on policy makers and administrators to bring generous measures of training, support and patience to the task.

Teachers crave better opportunities for career growth. Evan Stone, one of the chief executives of Educators 4 Excellence, which represents about 17,000 teachers nationwide, called for “career ladders for teachers to move into specialist roles, master-teacher roles.”

“They’re worried that they’re going to be doing the same thing on Day 1 as they’ll be doing 30 years in,” he told me.

He also questioned licensing laws that prevent the easy movement of an exemplary teacher from one state to another. Minnesota recently relaxedsuch requirements; if other states followed suit, it might build a desirable new flexibility into the profession.

Teaching also needs to be endowed with greater prestige. One intriguing line of thought about how to do this is to make the requirements for becoming a teacher more difficult, so that a teaching credential has luster. In the book “The Smartest Kids in the World,” Amanda Ripley noted that Finland’s teachers are revered in part because they’re the survivors of selective screening and rigorous training.

Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, told me that in this country, “It’s pretty firmly rooted in college students that education is a fairly easy major.” Too often, it’s also “a major of last resort,” she said.

Dan Brown, a co-director of Educators Rising, which encourages teenagers to contemplate careers in the classroom, said that teaching might be ready for its own Flexner Report, an early 1900s document that revolutionized medical schools and raised the bar for American medicine, contributing to the aura that surrounds physicians today.

He also asked why, in the intensifying political discussions about making college more affordable, there’s not more talk of methods “to recognize and incentivize future public servants,” foremost among them teachers.

There should be. The health of our democracy and the perpetuation of our prosperity depend on teaching no less than they do on Wall Street’s machinations or Silicon Valley’s innovations. So let’s make the classroom a destination as sensible, exciting and fulfilling as any other.

Friedman, solo

August 5, 2015

In “My Question for the Republican Presidential Debate” TMOW says he would certainly pay a nickel for the candidates’ thoughts.  Which is more than they’re worth…  Here he is:

If I got to ask one question of the presidential aspirants at Thursday’s Fox Republican debate, it would be this: “As part of a 1982 transportation bill,President Ronald Reagan agreed to boost the then 4-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax to 9 cents, saying, ‘When we first built our highways, we paid for them with a gas tax,’ adding, ‘It was a fair concept then, and it is today.’ Do you believe Reagan was right then, and would you agree to raise the gasoline tax by 5 cents a gallon today so we can pay for our highway bill, which is now stalled in Congress over funding?”

The gasoline tax is currently 18.4 cents a gallon, and was last hiked by Bill Clinton in 1993, after a raise by George Bush in 1990. Average gasoline prices have fallen roughly a dollar a gallon in the last year, so a 5-cent increase would hardly be noticed. No matter, the Senate last week passed a six-year transportation bill, but funded it for only three years. And because Senate Republicans refused to pay for any of it with a gas tax, they raise the funds instead, in part, by selling oil from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is our insurance against another oil crisis. I’m not making this up.

House Republicans have yet to weigh in. Perhaps they’ll propose paying for it by selling gold from Fort Knox or paintings from the National Gallery.

Why is this such a key question? Because it cuts to the core of what is undermining the Republican Party today and, indirectly, our country: There is no longer a Republican center-right that would have no problem raising the gas tax for something as fundamental as infrastructure. Sure, there are center-right candidates — like Jeb Bush and John Kasich. But can they run, win and govern from the center-right when the base of their party and so many of its billionaire donors reflect the angry anti-science, anti-tax, anti-government, anti-minorities, anti-gay rights and anti-immigration views of the Tea Party and its media enforcer, Fox News?

America has more natural advantages to thrive in the 21st century than any other country on the planet. But we prosper only by making the right investments and adaptations to maximize our strengths. That can happen only if there is a center-right party offering creative, market-based solutions to meet these opportunities and challenges — ready to compromise with a center-left party offering more government-oriented approaches. Bernie Sanders notwithstanding, the Democratic Party is still dominated by its center-left — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In today’s G.O.P., the far-right base is setting the agenda.

The Republican Bruce Bartlett, writing in Politico last week, said he hoped that Donald Trump becomes the G.O.P. presidential nominee, riding the Tea Party wave, and is so badly defeated in the national election that the party has to return to the center-right. “The Trump phenomenon perfectly represents the culmination of populism and anti-intellectualism that became dominant in the Republican Party with the rise of the Tea Party,” wrote Bartlett, who served in Reagan’s administration. “I think many Republican leaders have had deep misgivings about the Tea Party since the beginning, but the short-term benefits were too great to resist. A Trump rout is Republican moderates’ best chance to take back the G.O.P.”

What does it mean to be a center-right Republican? It means starting each day by asking, What world am I living in and how do I best align the country to thrive in that world? Offering market-based responses to science- and fact-based problems and opportunities. Being ready to compromise to get fundamentals like a transportation bill passed and making a distinction between an “expenditure” and an “investment.” There is a big difference between funding energy research, bioscience or a new university — and some pork-barrel project.

Making cuts across the board, like the sequester, is stupid.

What do center-right policies look like? On infrastructure, it’s a gas tax. On immigration, it’s a high wall, to assure citizens that we can control our borders, but with a very big gate to promote legal immigration of the high-I.Q. knowledge workers and high-energy less-skilled workers who have always propelled our economy. On climate, it looks like a recent paper by Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, making a conservative case for a carbon tax.

Taylor argues that “the risks imposed by climate change are real, and a policy of ignoring those risks and hoping for the best is inconsistent with risk-management practices conservatives embrace in other, non-climate contexts. Conservatives should embrace a carbon tax (a much less costly means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions) in return for elimination of E.P.A. regulatory authority over greenhouse gas emissions, abolition of green energy subsidies and regulatory mandates, and offsetting tax cuts to provide for revenue neutrality.”

The center-left wouldn’t agree with all of his trade-offs, but if that were the G.O.P. position — climate change is real and here’s our market solution — I guarantee you we’d have had a serious compromise national climate policy by now. We’re paying a huge price for the way the Tea Party has marginalized the center-right.

Marginalized?  MARGINALIZED???  The “center-right” has been hanged, drawn, quartered, embalmed, cremated and buried.

Friedman and Bruni

July 29, 2015

I’m sorry about yesterday, but the computer was in the DOSpital with a bad case of gremlins.  Today TMOW says “For the Mideast It’s Still 1979” and that events 36 years ago still shape the region, but that could change.  And pigs could fly…  Mr. Bruni, in “Today’s Exhausted Superkids,” says overpacked days lead to restless nights, and more experts are rightly questioning the sense — and safety — of that.  Here’s TMOW:

I started my career as a foreign correspondent in Beirut in 1979. I didn’t know it at the time, but 1979 turned out to be one of the great vintage years for foreign news — particularly from the Middle East. It set in motion the most important dynamics still shaping that region today. In fact, it’s been 1979 for 36 years. And the big question about the Iran nuclear deal reached this month is, Will it ultimately be a break on the history set in motion in 1979, and put the region on a new path, or will it turbocharge 1979 in ways that could shake the whole world?

What happened in 1979? For starters, there was the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist extremists who challenged the religious credentials of the Saudi ruling family, accusing them of impiety. The al-Sauds responded by forging a new bargain with their religious conservatives: Let us stay in power and we’ll give you a freer hand in setting social norms, relations between the sexes and religious education inside Saudi Arabia — and vast resources to spread the puritanical, anti-women, anti-Shiite, anti-pluralistic Sunni Wahhabi fundamentalism to mosques and schools around the world.

This Saudi lurch backward coincided with Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, which brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. That revolution set up a global competition between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Muslim world, and it also led to a big surge in oil prices that gave both regimes more money than ever to export Shiite and Sunni fundamentalism. That is why the Egyptian scholar Mamoun Fandy liked to say, “Islam lost its brakes in 1979.”

That competition was further fueled by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 — which spawned the Sunni jihadist movement and eventually Al Qaeda — and by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, also in 1979, which basically ended all new building of nuclear power plants in America, making us more dependent on fossil fuels. Of course, the Islamic Revolution in Iran also led to a break in relations with the U.S. — and shifted Iran from a tacit ally of Israel’s to a country wishing “death to Israel.”

So the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal marks a big change — but because it will lead to an end to economic sanctions on Iran, it could turbocharge 1979 as easily as end it. That depends on a lot of factors: Will the nuclear deal empower the more moderate/pragmatic majority inside Iran rather than the hard-line Revolutionary Guards Corps? The reason to be worried is that the moderates don’t control Iran’s nuclear program or its military/intelligence complex; the hard-line minority does. The reason to be hopeful is the majority’s aspiration to reintegrate with the world forced the hard-liners to grudgingly accept this deal.

A lot will depend also on Saudi Arabia moderating the anti-modernist trend it imposed on Sunni Islam. On Tuesday the Middle East Media Research Institute released a translation of a TV interview by the Saudi author Turki al-Hamad about the extremist discourse prevalent in Saudi Arabia. “Who serves as fuel for ISIS?” he asked. “Our own youth. What drives our youth to join ISIS? The prevailing culture, the culture that is planted in people’s minds. It is our youth who carry out bombings. … You can see (in ISIS videos) the volunteers in Syria ripping up their Saudi passports.”

That’s why another factor determining if 2015 is a break with 1979 or a multiplier of it will be the energy revolution in America — efficiency, renewables and fracking — and whether it keeps putting downward pressure on oil prices. Give me five years of $25-a-barrel oil and you’ll see reformers strengthened in Iran and Saudi Arabia; they’ll both have to tap their people instead of oil.

But while that oil price decline is necessary, it is not sufficient. Both regimes also have to stop looking for dignity and legitimacy in combating the other — and Israel — and find it, instead, in elevating their own people. Saudi Arabia’s attempt to bomb Iranian influence out of Yemen is sheer madness; the Saudis are bombing rubble into rubble. Will Iran spend its windfall from this nuclear deal trying to dominate the Arab world? Maybe. But Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen today are like a giant Superfund toxic cleanup site. Iran wants to own that? It will sap more of its strength than strengthen it. We know.

On July 9, Agence France-Presse reported that the International Monetary Fund estimated Saudi Arabia, whose population tripled since 1975, would run a budget deficit this year exceeding “$130 billion, the largest in the kingdom’s history,” and “to finance spending Riyadh has already withdrawn $52.3 billion from its fiscal reserves in the first five months of the year.” Iran’s population has doubled since 1979, and 60 percent of its residents are under 30 and it has 20 percent unemployment. Last April, Issa Kalantari, a former Iranian agriculture minister, warned that because of dwindling water resources, and over-exploitation, if Iran doesn’t radically change its water usage “50 million people — 70 percent of Iranians — will have no choice but to leave the country,” Al-Monitor reported.

Nukes are hardly the only threats for this region. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia desperately need to make 2015 the end of the 1979 era. It would be fanciful to predict that they will — and utterly realistic to predict the destruction that will visit both if they don’t.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

There are several passages in the new book “Overloaded and Underprepared” that fill me with sadness for American high school students, the most driven of whom are forever in search of a competitive edge. Some use stimulants like Adderall. Some cheat.

But the part of the book that somehow got to me most was about sleep.

It’s a prerequisite for healthy growth. It’s a linchpin of sanity. Before adulthood, a baseline amount is fundamental and nonnegotiable, or should be.

But many teenagers today are so hyped up and stressed out that they’re getting only a fraction of the rest they need. The book mentions a high school in Silicon Valley that brought in outside sleep experts, created a kind of sleep curriculum and trained students as “sleep ambassadors,” all to promote shut-eye.

The school even held a contest that asked students for sleep slogans. The winner: “Life is lousy when you’re drowsy.”

Sleep ambassadors? Sleep rhymes? Back when I was in high school in the 1980s, in a setting considered intense in its day, the most common sleep problem among my peers was getting too much of it and not waking up in time for class.

Now the concern isn’t how to rouse teens but how to lull them. And that says everything about the way childhood has been transformed — at least among an ambitious, privileged subset of Americans — into an insanely programmed, status-obsessed and sometimes spirit-sapping race.

Take one more Advanced Placement class. Add another extracurricular. Apply to all eight Ivies.

Lose a few winks but never a few steps.

“Overloaded and Underprepared,” published on Tuesday, was written by Denise Pope, Maureen Brown and Sarah Miles, all affiliated with a Stanford University-based group called Challenge Success, which urges more balanced learning environments. The book looks at homework loads, school-day structures and much more.

And it joins an urgently needed body of literature that pushes back athelicopter parenting, exorbitant private tutoring, exhaustive preparation for standardized tests and the rest of it. This genre goes back at least a decade and includes, notably, Madeline Levine’s “The Price of Privilege” and Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed.”

But it has expanded with particular velocity of late. “How to Raise an Adult,” by Julie Lythcott-Haims, came out last month. “The Gift of Failure,” by Jessica Lahey, will be released in two weeks.

There’s a unifying theme: Enough is enough.

“At some point, you have to say, ‘Whoa! This is too crazy,’ ” Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford, told me.

Sleep deprivation is just a part of the craziness, but it’s a perfect shorthand for childhoods bereft of spontaneity, stripped of real play and haunted by the “pressure of perfection,” to quote the headline on a story by Julie Scelfoin The Times this week.

Scelfo wrote about six suicides in a 13-month period at the University of Pennsylvania; about the prevalence of anxiety and depression on college campuses; about many star students’ inability to cope with even minor setbacks, which are foreign and impermissible.

Those students almost certainly need more sleep. In a study in the medical journal Pediatrics this year, about 55 percent of American teenagers from the ages of 14 to 17 reported that they were getting less than seven hours a night, though the National Sleep Foundation counsels 8 to 10.

“I’ve got kids on a regular basis telling me that they’re getting five hours,” Pope said. That endangers their mental and physical health.

Smartphones and tablets aggravate the problem, keeping kids connected and distracted long after lights out. But in communities where academic expectations run highest, the real culprit is panic: about acing the exam, burnishing the transcript, keeping up with high-achieving peers.

I’ve talked with many parents in these places. They say that they’d love to pull their children off such a fast track, but won’t the other children wind up ahead?

They might — if “ahead” is measured only by a spot in U-Penn’s freshman class and if securing that is all that matters.

But what about giving a kid the wiggle room to find genuine passions, the freedom to discover true independence, the space to screw up and bounce back? Shouldn’t that matter as much?

“No one is arguing for a generation of mediocre or underachieving kids — but plenty of people have begun arguing for a redefinition of what it means to achieve at all,” wrote Jeffrey Kluger in Time magazine last week. He noted, rightly, that “somewhere between the self-esteem building of going for the gold and the self-esteem crushing of the Ivy-or-die ethos, there has to be a place where kids can breathe.”

And where they can tumble gently into sleep, which is a gateway, not an impediment, to dreams.

Friedman and Bruni

July 22, 2015

In “Backing Up Our Wager With Iran” TMOW says we can do things to increase the odds that our bet against Iran getting a bomb pays off.  Mr. Bruni has a question in “To Trump or Not to Trump” — as Donald Trump becomes bigger, we become smaller. How should we size him up?  Here’s TMOW:

From the minute Iran detected that the U.S. was unwilling to use its overwhelming military force to curtail Tehran’s nuclear program — and that dates back to the George W. Bush administration, which would neither accept Iran’s right to a nuclear fuel cycle nor structure a military or diplomatic option to stop it — no perfect deal overwhelmingly favorable to America and its allies was ever going to emerge from negotiations with Iran. The balance of power became too equal.

But there are degrees of imperfect, and the diplomatic option structured by the Obama team — if properly implemented and augmented by muscular diplomacy — serves core American interests better than any options I hear coming from the deal’s critics: It prevents Iran from producing the fissile material to break out with a nuclear weapon for 15 years and creates a context that could empower the more pragmatic forces inside Iran over time — at the price of constraining, but not eliminating, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and sanctions relief that will strengthen Tehran as a regional power.

Supporting this deal doesn’t make you Neville Chamberlain; opposing it doesn’t make you Dr. Strangelove. Both sides have legitimate arguments. But having studied them, I believe America’s interests are best served now by focusing on how to get the best out of this deal and cushion the worst, rather than scuttling it. That would be a mistake that would isolate us, not Iran, and limit our choices to going to war or tolerating an Iran much closer to nuclear breakout, without any observers or curbs on the ground, and with crumbling sanctions.

“The nuclear agreement is a deal, not a grand bargain,” argued the Wilson Center’s Robert Litwak, author of “Iran’s Nuclear Chess.” “Obama and Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei are each making a tacit bet. Obama is defending the deal in transactional terms (that it addresses a discrete urgent challenge), but betting that it will empower Iran’s moderate faction and put the country on a more favorable societal trajectory. Khamenei is making the opposite bet — that the regime can benefit from the transactional nature of the agreement (sanctions relief) and forestall the deal’s potentially transformational implications to preserve Iran’s revolutionary deep state.”

We can, though, do things to increase the odds that the bet goes our way: 1. Don’t let this deal become the Obamacare of arms control, where all the energy goes into the negotiation but then the implementing tools — in this case the verification technologies — don’t work. President Obama should appoint a respected military figure to oversee every aspect of implementing this deal.

2. Congress should pass a resolution authorizing this and future presidents to use force to prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear weapons state. Iran must know now that the U.S. president is authorized to destroy — without warning or negotiation — any attempt by Tehran to build a bomb.

3. Focus on the Iranian people. The celebrations of this deal in Iran tell us that “the Iranian people want to be South Korea, not North Korea,” notesKarim Sadjadpour, Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment. We should reach out to them in every way — visas, exchanges and scholarships — to strengthen their voices. Visiting Iran taught me that Iranians have had enough Islamic fundamentalism to know they want less of it and they’ve had enough democracy to know they want more of it. (Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guards know this well, which is why they are still trying to persuade Iran’s supreme leader to reject this deal and its opening to the world.)

4. Avoid a black-and-white view of the Middle East. The idea that Iran is everywhere our enemy and the Sunni Arabs our allies is a mistake. Saudi Arabia’s leadership has been a steadfast U.S. ally in the Cold War; many Saudis are pro-American. But the Saudi leadership’s ruling bargain is toxic: It says to the Saudi people that the al-Saud tribe gets to rule and in return the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment gets billions of dollars to transform the face of Sunni Islam from an open and modernizing faith to a puritanical, anti-women, anti-Shiite, anti-pluralistic one. The Saudis have lost control of this puritanical-Salafist transformation of Islam, and it has mutated into the ideology that inspired the 9/11 hijackers — 15 of 19 of whom were Saudis — and the Islamic State.

Iran aided the U.S. in toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and, at the same time, Tehran, and its cat’s paw, Hezbollah, have propped up the Syrian regime while it has perpetrated a genocide against its own people, mostly Syrian Sunnis. We need to confront Iran’s regional behavior when it contradicts our interests, but align with it when it comports with our interests. We want to balance the autocratic Sunnis and Shiites, not promote either. Neither share our values.

Finally, when it comes to the Middle East broadly, we need to contain, amplify and innovate: Contain the most aggressive forces there, amplify any leaders or people building decency there, and innovate on energy like crazy to keep prices low, reduce oil money to bad actors and reduce our exposure to a region that is going to be in turmoil for a long, long, long time.

Gee, Tommy — can the class think of anything that might have exacerbated that turmoil?  Something that happened during the last administration?  A show of hands, please…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Bob Kerrey served in the Senate with John McCain, is also a Vietnam veteran and has run for president, so he has been asked incessantly over recent days to appear on television and weigh in on Donald Trump’s vile besmirching of McCain’s military record.

He accepted only one of those invitations, from a friend. Otherwise he mostly stayed mum, lest he abet Trump’s ultimate goal, which is to turn his name into a news media mantra: Trump, Trump, Trump.

But on the phone on Tuesday, Kerrey’s frustration — no, let’s call it disgust — boiled over, and he, too, talked about Trump, Trump, Trump. I recount our conversation because I think Kerrey speaks for most Americans and because his comments capture what a conundrum many of us face.

If we discuss Trump, as I’ve done in several columns, we reward his bad and transcendently self-serving behavior, no matter how negative our assessments of him or how many larger truths we engage.

If we don’t discuss him, we ignore something real, in a fashion that’s irresponsible.

By something real, I mean the fact that Trump has measurable support, at least for now. In a nationwide ABC News/Washington Post poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents that was released Monday, he was in the lead for the party’s presidential nomination, the favorite of 24 percent of respondents. The next closest contenders were Scott Walker (13 percent) and Jeb Bush (12).

And yet.

“This is not a national primary,” Kerrey said, noting that Trump’s 24 percent has dubious predictive power for a consequential handful of individual contests in early states that aren’t exactly mirrors of America. “So who the hell cares what his numbers are nationally?”

“He’s not going to do that well in Iowa,” Kerrey continued. “There’s nothing about Trump that indicates that the evangelical community there is going to embrace him. And does anyone seriously think he has the kind of ground organization in New Hampshire to turn people out to vote?”

“He’s got no ground game,” Kerrey continued. “It’s all up in Donald’s head! Everything’s in Donald’s head. It’s the political version of ‘Being John Malkovich.’ ”

“The people running the networks know this,” he added, sighing. But they deliberately play it down as they seize almost every opportunity — including the McCain insult — to Trump anew and to Trump ad nauseam.

Kerrey groaned. “They’ve got a good sideshow going: ‘Are veterans offended?’ ‘Donald, are you going to apologize?’ For insulting McCain? He’s been insulted by better than Trump.”

Television has succumbed to the mantra more than other media, because it in particular thrives on theater, which Trump provides in excess. But those of us at newspapers and websites have definitely done our part, uncertain of the best approach.

The Huffington Post’s answer was to relegate Trump coverage to its entertainment section, explaining that he’s putting on a show, not running a serious campaign. So it was there that readers found a story about Trump’s latest attention-getting prank: During a televised rally on Tuesday, he ratcheted up his continuing feud with Senator Lindsey Graham by publicly divulging Graham’s cellphone number.

But for all Trump’s antics and nonsense, he placed second to Bush in a New Hampshire poll late last month. In a more recent Iowa poll, he trailed only Walker.

Kerrey conceded: “I don’t think you can really ignore it. But you have to evaluate, with some expertise, what his odds of being the Republican nominee are. And they’re practically zero.”

“Yeah, 5,000 people showed up at your event,” he said. “I could get 5,000 people to show up at the bearded lady. He is, in his way, a freak show.”

Kerrey thinks that Trump is principally interested in promoting his brand and padding his net worth, even if he has perhaps suffered a few short-term setbacks because of companies’ severing ties with him.

I think that Trump has an ego as ravenous as they come, with dimensions remarkable even for the political arena, and that his presidential bid is a splendiferous buffet for it. Watch it sup. See it swell. Look now: It’s a marvelous blimp.

But is his engorgement our debasement?

“It is not good for American politics,” Kerrey said.

I noted that some of his fellow Democrats were reveling in Trump, who was causing the Republican Party grief.

“I’m not putting my partisan hat on,” Kerrey said. “I’m putting my American hat on and saying: I want us to elect a great leader. And it’s going to be difficult as it is, because the money spent will be in the billions. It’s going to be hard enough to keep our balance and select a great leader even without this clown.”

I’d advise investing heavily in popcorn futures.  The Republican debates are coming…

Friedman and Bruni

July 15, 2015

In “Obama Makes His Case on the Iran Nuclear Deal” TMOW says that in an exclusive interview, President Obama says the deal is “the most definitive path by which Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.”  Mr. Bruni, in “Haste, Hustle and Scott Walker,” says less authentic than ambitious, the Wisconsin governor typifies too many candidates today.  Here’s TMOW (the interview itself is available after his column if you’d rather watch than read):

Only hours after the conclusion of an agreement with Iran to lift oil and financial sanctions in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, President Obama is a man who evinces no second thoughts whatsoever about the deal he struck. In a 45-minute interview in the Cabinet Room, the president kept stressing one argument: Don’t judge me on whether this deal transforms Iran, ends Iran’s aggressive behavior toward some of its Arab neighbors or leads to détente between Shiites and Sunnis. Judge me on one thing: Does this deal prevent Iran from breaking out with a nuclear weapon for the next 10 years and is that a better outcome for America, Israel and our Arab allies than any other alternative on the table?

The president made clear to me that he did not agree with my assessment in a column two weeks ago that we had not used all the leverage in our arsenal, or alliances, to prevent Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear power, by acquiring a complete independent enrichment infrastructure that has the potential to undermine the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. Personally, I want more time to study the deal, hear from the nonpartisan experts, listen to what the Iranian leaders tell their own people and hear what credible alternative strategies the critics have to offer. But the president certainly argued his case with a conviction and internal logic with which his critics and Congress will have to seriously contend.

“We are not measuring this deal by whether it is changing the regime inside of Iran,” said the president. “We’re not measuring this deal by whether we are solving every problem that can be traced back to Iran, whether we are eliminating all their nefarious activities around the globe. We are measuring this deal — and that was the original premise of this conversation, including by Prime Minister Netanyahu — Iran could not get a nuclear weapon. That was always the discussion. And what I’m going to be able to say, and I think we will be able to prove, is that this by a wide margin is the most definitive path by which Iran will not get a nuclear weapon, and we will be able to achieve that with the full cooperation of the world community and without having to engage in another war in the Middle East.”

To sell this deal to a skeptical Congress, President Obama clearly has to keep his argument tight. But I suspect his legacy on this issue will ultimately be determined by whether the deal does, in the long run, help transform Iran, defuse the U.S.-Iran Cold War and curtail the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East — not foster their proliferation. That, though, will be a long time in determining. For the near term, the deal’s merit will be judged on whether Iran implements the rollback of its nuclear enrichment capabilities to which it has agreed and whether the deeply intrusive international inspection system it has accepted can detect — and thereby deter — any cheating.

Here are some highlights from the interview: Asked about whether we failed to use all of our leverage, including a credible threat of force, the president said: “I think that criticism is misguided. Let’s see exactly what we obtained. We have cut off every pathway for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. The reason we were able to unify the world community around the most effective sanctions regime we’ve ever set up, a sanction regime that crippled the Iranian economy and ultimately brought them to the table, was because the world agreed with us, that it would be a great danger to the region, to our allies, to the world, if Iran possessed a nuclear weapon. We did not have that kind of global consensus around the notion that Iran can’t enjoy any nuclear power whatsoever. And as a member of the nonproliferation treaty, the NPT, their argument was, ‘We’re entitled to have a peaceful nuclear program.’

“And what we were able to do,” the president continued, “is to say to them, ‘Given your past behavior, given our strong suspicion and evidence that you made attempts to weaponize your nuclear program, given the destabilizing activities that you’ve engaged in in the region and support for terrorism, it’s not enough for us to trust when you say that you are only creating a peaceful nuclear program. You have to prove it to us.’ And so this whole system that we built is not based on trust; it’s based on a verifiable mechanism, whereby every pathway that they have is shut off.”

The president argued that his approach grew out of the same strategic logic that Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan used to approach the Soviet Union and China.

“You know, I have a lot of differences with Ronald Reagan, but where I completely admire him was his recognition that if you were able to verify an agreement that [was negotiated] with the evil empire that was hellbent on our destruction and was a far greater existential threat to us than Iran will ever be,” then it would be worth doing, Mr. Obama said. “I had a lot of disagreements with Richard Nixon, but he understood there was the prospect, the possibility, that China could take a different path. You test these things, and as long as we are preserving our security capacity — as long as we are not giving away our ability to respond forcefully, militarily, where necessary to protect our friends and our allies — that is a risk we have to take. It is a practical, common-sense position. It’s not naïve; it’s a recognition that if we can in fact resolve some of these differences, without resort to force, that will be a lot better for us and the people of that region.”

Asked if he believed that, given the depth of Iran’s civil society, which in 2009 launched a “green revolution” challenging clerical rule, the forces there for greater integration with the world would be empowered by this deal, the president said:

“With respect to Iran, it is a great civilization, but it also has an authoritarian theocracy in charge that is anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, sponsors terrorism, and there are a whole host of real profound differences that we [have with] them,” said the president. “And so, initially, we have a much more modest goal here, which is to make sure Iran does not have a nuclear weapon. …

“What’s interesting, if you look at what’s happened over the last several months, is the [Iranian] opponents of this deal are the hard-liners and those who are most invested in Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, most invested in destabilizing Iran’s neighbors, most virulently anti-American and anti-Israeli. And that should tell us something, because those hard-liners are invested in the status quo in which Iran is isolated, and they are empowered. They become the only game in town. Not just militarily they call the shots, but economically they’re able to exploit the workarounds from sanctions in order to fatten themselves in a situation in which you have a different base of business people and commerce inside of Iran that may change how they think about the cost and benefits of these destabilizing activities.

“But we’re not counting on that,” the president stressed, “and that’s the thing I want to emphasize, because even over the last several weeks and today, as we announce the deal, what’s been striking to me is that, increasingly, the critics are shifting off the nuclear issue, and they’re moving into, ‘Well, even if the nuclear issue is dealt with, they’re still going to be sponsoring terrorism, and they’re going to get this sanctions relief. And so they’re going to have more money to engage in these bad activities.’ That is a possibility, and we are going to have to systematically guard against that and work with our allies — the gulf countries, Israel — to stop the work that they are doing outside of the nuclear program. But the central premise here is that if they got a nuclear weapon, that would be different, and on that score, we have achieved our objective.”

Asked if President Vladimir Putin of Russia was a help or a hindrance in concluding this deal, Mr. Obama said: “Russia was a help on this. I’ll be honest with you. I was not sure given the strong differences we are having with Russia right now around Ukraine, whether this would sustain itself. Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me, and we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-Plus members in insisting on a strong deal.

“I was encouraged by the fact that Mr. Putin called me a couple of weeks ago and initiated the call to talk about Syria. I think they get a sense that the Assad regime is losing a grip over greater and greater swaths of territory inside of Syria [to Sunni jihadist militias] and that the prospects for a [Sunni jihadist] takeover or rout of the Syrian regime is not imminent but becomes a greater and greater threat by the day. That offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them.”

My biggest concern and that of many serious critics who would actually like to see a deal work is that Iran is just not afraid of a serious U.S. military retaliation if it cheats. I asked the president, Why should the Iranians be afraid of us?

“Because we could knock out their military in speed and dispatch if we chose to,” he said, “and I think they have seen my willingness to take military action where I thought it was important for U.S. interests. Now, I actually believe that they are interested in trying to operate on parallel levels to be able to obtain the benefits of international legitimacy, commerce, reduction of sanctions while still operating through proxies in destructive ways around the region. That’s been their pattern, and I think it is very important to us to make sure that we are surfacing what they do through their proxies and calling them into account. That is part of the conversation we have to have with the gulf countries.”

With such a crowded pool of Republican presidential candidates competing over the right-wing base, it seems unlikely the president will get much support for this deal from G.O.P. members of Congress.

”I think it’s doubtful that we get a lot of current Republican elected officials supporting this deal,” Mr. Obama said. “I think there’s a certain party line that has to be toed, within their primaries and among many sitting members of Congress. But that’s not across the board. It’ll be interesting to see what somebody like a Rand Paul has to say about this. But I think that if I were succeeded by a Republican president — and I’ll be doing everything that I can to prevent that from happening — but if I were, that Republican president would be in a much stronger position than I was when I came into office, in terms of constraining Iran’s nuclear program.

“He will be in a position to know that 98 percent of their nuclear material has been shipped out. He would know that the majority of the centrifuges had been removed. He would know that there is no heavy reactor there. He’d know that the international community had signed on to this. He would know everything that we’ve learned from the inspection regime. And he’d still be in possession of the entire arsenal of our armed forces, and our diplomatic and intelligence services, to deal with the possibility that Iran was cheating. … They’re not going to admit that now. And that’s entire hypothetical, because I feel good about having a Democratic successor. But I think that this builds on bipartisan ideas, bipartisan efforts. We could not have succeeded without the strong support of Congress on a bipartisan basis to impose the sanctions we did on Iran. They deserve enormous credit for that. And as we implement this I think it will prove to be not just good for us but good for the world.”

The president spoke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel by phone just before the start of the interview. Mr. Obama did not try to sugar coat their differences, but he hinted that his administration has in the works some significant strategic upgrades for both Israel and America’s gulf allies.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to discuss specific details about security agreements or work that we may be doing,” the president told me. “What I can tell you is that that process is in train. Now, with respect to the Israelis, I think it’s fair to say that under my administration, we’ve done more to facilitate Israeli capabilities. And I’ve also said that I’m prepared to go further than any other administration’s gone before in terms of providing them additional security assurances from the United States. The thing I want to emphasize is that people’s concerns here are legitimate. Hezbollah has tens of thousands of missiles that are pointed toward Israel. They are becoming more sophisticated. The interdiction of those weapon flows has not been as successful as it needs to be. There are legitimate concerns on the part of the gulf countries about Iran trying to stir up and prompt destabilizing events inside their countries. So they’re not just being paranoid. Iran is acting in an unconstructive way, in a dangerous way in these circumstances. What I’ve simply said is that we have to keep our eye on the ball here, which is that Iran with a nuclear weapon will do more damage, and we will be in a much worse position to prevent it.”

The president argues that preventing Iran from having any enrichment capacity is simply impossible. The key, he insists, is how well you curb it and verify its limitations: “Now, Prime Minister Netanyahu would prefer, and many of the critics would prefer, that they don’t even have any nuclear capacity. But really, what that involves is eliminating the presence of knowledge inside of Iran. Nuclear technology is not that complicated today, and so the notion that the yardstick for success was now whether they ever had the capacity possibly to obtain nuclear weapons — that can’t be the yardstick. The question is, Do we have the kind of inspection regime and safeguards and international consensus whereby it’s not worth it for them to do it? We have accomplished that.”

The president said he knows he is going to have a fight on his hands with Mr. Netanyahu and those in Congress who share the prime minister’s views, but he seemed confident that in the end he would prevail.

Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Obama said, “perhaps thinks he can further influence the congressional debate, and I’m confident we’re going to be able to uphold this deal and implement it without Congress preventing that. But after that’s done, if that’s what he thinks is appropriate, then I will sit down, as we have consistently throughout my administration, and then ask some very practical questions: How do we prevent Hezbollah from acquiring more sophisticated weapons? How do we build on the success of Iron Dome, which the United States worked with Israel to develop and has saved Israeli lives? In the same way I’m having conversation with the gulf countries about how do we have a more effective interdiction policy, how do we build more effective governance structures and military structures in Sunni areas that have essentially become a void that [the Islamic State] has filled or that, in some cases, Iranian activities can exploit?”

The president added: “And what I’ve also tried to explain to people, including Prime Minister Netenyahu, is that in the absence of a deal, our ability to sustain these sanctions was not in the cards. Keep in mind it’s not just Iran that paid a price for sanctions. China, Japan, South Korea, India — pretty much any oil importer around the world that had previously import arrangements from Iran — found themselves in a situation where this was costing them billions of dollars to sustain these sanctions.

“In some ways, the United States paid the lowest price for maintenance of sanctions, because we didn’t do business with Iran in the first place. They made a significant sacrifice. The reason they did was because my administration, our diplomats, and oftentimes me personally, were able to persuade them that the only way to resolve this nuclear problem was to make these sanctions bite. And if they saw us walking away from what technical experts believe is a legitimate mechanism to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon — if they saw that our diplomatic efforts were not sincere, or were trying to encompass not just the nuclear program, but every policy disagreement that we might have with Iran, then frankly, those sanctions would start falling apart very rapidly. And so, maybe Iran wouldn’t get $150 billion, but they’d get a big chunk of that, because we would not be able to sustain that support.”

It strikes me that the one party that we have heard the least from, but in the end could count the most, is the Iranian people and how they ultimately react to this opening of Iran to the world as a result of this deal. What would Mr. Obama say to them?

“What I’d say to them is this offers a historic opportunity,” the president said. “Their economy has been cratering as a consequence of the sanctions. They have the ability now to take some decisive steps to move toward a more constructive relationship with the world community. … They need to seize that opportunity, their leaders need to seize that opportunity. And the truth of the matter is that Iran will be and should be a regional power. They are a big country and a sophisticated country in the region. They don’t need to invite the hostility and the opposition of their neighbors by their behavior. It’s not necessary for them to be great to denigrate Israel or threaten Israel or engage in Holocaust denial or anti-Semitic activity. Now that’s what I would say to the Iranian people. Whether the Iranian people have sufficient influence to fundamentally shift how their leaders think about these issues, time will tell.”

Maybe, I suggested, it was time for the U.S. to launch a new peace process — between Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia and Shiite Persian Iran. After all, without some lowering of tensions between the two any empowerment of Iran is only going to increase tensions between these two historic rivals, whose internecine war is tearing the region apart.

“I have long believed that we have to encourage at least a lessening of the hostilities that currently exist between Shia and Sunni factions in the region,” Mr. Obama responded. “Now, I think when I talked to my gulf allies when we were at Camp David, they’d be very clear in saying that ‘We view ourselves as Arab nations, not Sunni and Shia,’ and I think they mean that sincerely. And many of them would say that our Shia citizens are full citizens and are treated fairly, but what I think is undeniable is that the sectarian forces that have been unleashed are adding to the viciousness and destructiveness of what’s happening in a place like Syria, what’s happening in a place like Yemen, what’s happening certainly in Iraq. And that our best chance at at least reducing the scope of those conflicts is for the Saudis and other Sunni states or Arab states to be at least in a practical conversation with Iran that says, `The conflict we are fanning right now could engulf us all in flames.’

“Nobody has an interest in seeing [the Islamic State] control huge swaths of territory between Damascus and Baghdad. That’s not good for Iran. It makes it very difficult for them to sustain a buffer, which has always been a significant motivator for them since the Iraq-Iran War. It’s not good for the Saudis. It leaves them vulnerable in all sorts of ways, and the truth of the matter is that, most importantly, it’s not good for the people there. You watch the news reports preceding the Arab Spring, but certainly since the Arab Spring started to turn into more an Arab Winter, and you weep for the children of this region, not just the ones who are being displaced in Syria, not just the ones who are currently suffering from humanitarian situations in Yemen, but just the ordinary Iranian youth or Saudi youth or Kuwaiti youth who are asking themselves, `Why is it that we don’t have the same prospects that some kid in Finland, Singapore, China, Indonesia, the United States? Why aren’t we seeing that same possibility, that same sense of hopefulness?’ And I think that’s what the leaders have to really focus on.”

The president also said: “America has to listen to our Sunni Arab allies, but also not fall into the trap of letting them blame every problem on Iran. The citizens of more than a few Arab Gulf states have been big contributors to Sunni Jihadist movements that have been equally destabilizing.

“In some cases, for example, the Houthis in Yemen, I think Iranian involvement has been initially overstated,” said Mr. Obama. “When we see our intelligence, we don’t get a sense that Iran was strategically thinking, ‘Let’s march the Houthis into Sana.’ It was more of an indicator of the weakness of the government in Yemen. They now seek to exploit it. Oftentimes, they’re opportunistic. That’s part of the reason why my argument has been to my allies in the region, let’s stop giving Iran opportunities for mischief. Strengthen your own societies. Be inclusive. Make sure that your Shia populations don’t feel as if they’re being left out. Think about the economic growth. Make sure that we’ve got better military capacity for things like interdiction. The more we do those things, that’s the level of deterrence that’s necessary because it is highly unlikely that you are going to see Iran launch a direct attack, state to state, against any of our allies in the region. They know that that would give us the rationale to go in full-bore, and as I said, we could knock out most of their military capacity pretty quickly.”

I noted to Mr. Obama that one of the issues most troubling nonpartisan critics of the deal is what happens if we suspect that Iran is operating a covert nuclear program at a military base not covered by this deal. There is a process in place that allows for inspections, but it could take over three weeks for international inspectors to get access after raising a complaint. Couldn’t Iran use that time to just scrub clean any signs of cheating?

“Yeah, but here’s where having somebody like [Energy Secretary] Ernie Moniz is pretty helpful, because he assured us that if, in fact, we have good mechanisms to scoop up and sample earth, this stuff has got a long half-life. My high school physics probably isn’t equal to Ernie Moniz’s, but I do remember it’s not that easy to suddenly just hide potentially radioactive material that’s been developed. The same is true, by the way, for the possibility that Iran might import materials that could be used for nuclear programs but might have a dual use. We’ve set up unprecedented mechanisms to be able to look at each one of those imports and say, ‘You got to show us how this is being used to ensure that it’s not being converted.’ ”

The president added: “If you hear a critic say, `Well, this inspection regime is not 100 percent foolproof,’ I guess theoretically, nothing is 100 percent foolproof. But if the standard is what is the best, most effective, most rigorous mechanism whereby it is very, very, very difficult for Iran to cheat, then this is the mechanism, and it goes far beyond anything that was done, for example, in North Korea.”

In conclusion, I noted to Mr. Obama that he was now the U.S. president who’d had the most contact with Iran’s leadership since the 1979 Islamic Revolution there and the onset of the U.S.-Iran Cold War. What had he learned?

“Well, I haven’t learned yet to trust the Iranian leadership,” said Mr. Obama, “although I think that what John Kerry learned in his interactions with Foreign Minister Zarif — and that then traces back to President Rouhani — is that when you nail down an agreement, they do seem to follow it to the letter, perhaps thinking there may be a loophole here or there, which is why you have to button this stuff down. But the notion that once you put something down on paper that somehow they’re just going to ignore it and try to pocket what they’ve gained, that’s not what we saw during the last two years of the interim agreement. There is, I think, restraints that they feel when they have an agreement and they have a document, that they need to abide by it. So I think we’ve learned that.

“I think that we’ve also learned that there are different voices and different forces inside of Iran, and that those may not be consistent with our values. The so-called moderate in Iran is not going to be suddenly somebody who we feel reflects universal issues like human rights, but there are better or worse approaches that Iran can take relative to our interests and the interests of our allies, and we should see where we can encourage that better approach.

“And then I think the last thing that — this is maybe not something I’ve learned but has been confirmed — even with your enemies, even with your adversaries, I do think that you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes, and if you look at Iranian history, the fact is that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran. We have had in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq, and so, as a consequence, they have their own security concerns, their own narrative. It may not be one we agree with. It in no way rationalizes the kinds of sponsorship from terrorism or destabilizing activities that they engage in, but I think that when we are able to see their country and their culture in specific terms, historical terms, as opposed to just applying a broad brush, that’s when you have the possibility at least of some movement.

“In the same way that when Ronald Reagan and others negotiated arms agreement with the Soviet Union, you had to recognize, yes, this is an evil, terrible system, but within it are people with specific historic ideas and memories, and we have to be able to understand those things and potentially try to make some connection. And the same was true with respect to Nixon and Kissinger going to China, which ended up being a very important strategic benefit to the United States.”

If you prefer to watch the interview without TMOW’s ‘splaining it to you, here you go:

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/bcvideo/1.0/iframe/embed.html?videoId=100000003800515&playerType=embed

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

In the formal announcement of his presidential campaign on Monday, Scott Walker mentioned God right away, introduced himself as a preacher’s son and invoked religion repeatedly, as he has throughout a perpetual candidacy that stretches back to his college days, when he told the Marquette University yearbook: “I really think there’s a reason why God put all these political thoughts in my head.”

But what I see in him is the kind of soullessness too common in American politicians and the kind of careerism that makes American politics such a dreary spectacle.

I see an ambition even more pronounced than any ideology. I see an interest in personal advancement that eclipses any investment in personal growth.

These are hardly unusual traits in our halls of government. But they’re distilled in Walker, the governor of Wisconsin.

He’s styling himself as a political outsider, but that’s a fluke of geography, not professional history. While it’s true that he hasn’t worked in Washington, he’s a political lifer, with a résumé and worldview that are almost nothing but politics.

He’s been on one Wisconsin ballot or another almost every two years over the last quarter-century, and he’s only 47. Before the governorship, he was a state assemblyman and then a county executive.

We know from the biographies of him so far that he has been absorbed in those “political thoughts” since at least the start of college, before he could have possibly developed any fully considered, deeply informed set of beliefs or plan for what to do with power.

I suspect that we’ll learn, with just a bit more digging, that he was mulling campaign slogans in the womb and ran his first race in the neighborhood wading pool, pledging to ease restrictions on squirt guns and usher in a ban on two-piece bathing suits.

He has drawn barbs for the fact that he left Marquette before graduating and was many credits shy of a degree. But I know plenty of people whose intellectual agility and erudition aren’t rooted in the classroom, and his lack of a diploma isn’t what’s troubling.

The priorities that conspired in it are. He was apparently consumed during his sophomore year by a (failed) bid for student body president. According to a story by David Fahrenthold in The Washington Post, he was disengaged from, and cavalier about, the acquisition of knowledge. And he dropped out right around the time he commenced a (failed) candidacy for the Wisconsin State Senate — in his early 20s.

Walker’s cart has a way of getting ahead of Walker’s horse. Only after several flubbed interviews earlier this year were there reports that he was taking extra time to bone up on world affairs. This was supposed to be a comfort to us, but what would really be reassuring is a candidate who had pursued that mastery already, out of honest curiosity rather than last-minute need.

When allies and opponents talk about his strengths, they seem to focus not on his passion for governing but on his cunning at getting elected. “He’s a sneaky-smart campaigner, they say, a polished and levelheaded tactician, a master at reading crowds,” wrote Kyle Cheney and Daniel Strauss in Politico. “He learned the value of ignoring uncomfortable questions, rather than answering them.”

What an inspiring lesson, and what a window into political success today.

He tailors his persona to the race at hand. To win his second term as governor of Wisconsin and thus be able to crow, as he’s doing now, about the triumph of a conservative politician “in a blue state,” he played down his opposition to abortion, signaled resignation to same-sex marriage and explicitly supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

But with his current focus on the Iowa caucuses, he no longer supports a path to citizenship, flaunts his anti-abortion credentials and has called for a constitutional amendment permitting states to outlaw same-sex marriage. He even has a newfound affection for ethanol.

His advisers, meanwhile, trumpet his authenticity. Authenticity? That’s in tragically short supply in the presidential race, a quality that candidates assert less through coherent records, steadfast positions or self-effacing commitments than through what they wear (look, Ma, no jacket or necktie!) and even how they motor around. Walker is scheduled to trundle through Iowa later this week in a Winnebago, and of course Hillary Clinton traveled there from New York in that Scooby van.

“I love America,” Walker said in Monday’s big speech. That was his opening line and an echo of what so many contenders say.

I trust that they all do love this country. But from the way they pander, shift shapes and scheme, I wonder if they love themselves just a little more.

They’re the mole people.

Friedman and Bruni

July 1, 2015

In “A Good Bad Deal?” The Moustache of Wisdom says it’s too late for a great accord on limiting Iran’s nuclear program, but maybe not a worthwhile one.  Mr. Bruni, in “The Sunny Side of Greed,” asks are corporations as soulless and evil? He says not on the Confederate flag, same-sex marriage and a host of other recent issues.  Here’s TMOW:

Sometime after the 1973 war, I remember seeing a cartoon that showed President Anwar el-Sadat lying flat on his back in a boxing ring. The Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, wearing boxing gloves, was standing over him, with Sadat saying to Meir something like, “I want the trophy, I want the prize money, I want the belt.”

I’ve been thinking of that cartoon a lot lately as I listen to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lecturing the United States and its five great power partners on his terms for concluding a deal that would restrict Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon for 10 to 15 years in return for lifting sanctions. But in that draft deal Khamenei has managed to preserve Iran’s basic nuclear infrastructure, albeit curbed, and has continually insisted that Iran will not allow international inspections of military sites suspected of harboring covert nuclear programs.

It’s still not clear if the last remaining obstacles to a deal will be resolved. But it is stunning to me how well the Iranians, sitting alone on their side of the table, have played a weak hand against the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain on their side of the table. When the time comes, I’m hiring Ali Khamenei to sell my house.

You’d never know that “Iran is the one hemorrhaging hundreds of billions of dollars due to sanctions, tens of billions because of fallen oil prices and billions sustaining the Assad regime in Syria,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment. And “it’s Ali Khamenei, not John Kerry, who presides over a population desperate to see sanctions relief.” Yet, for the past year every time there is a sticking point — like whether Iran should have to ship its enriched uranium out of the country or account for its previous nuclear bomb-making activities — it keeps feeling as if it’s always our side looking to accommodate Iran’s needs. I wish we had walked out just once. When you signal to the guy on the other side of the table that you’re not willing to either blow him up or blow him off — to get up and walk away — you reduce yourself to just an equal and get the best bad deal nonviolence can buy.

Diplomatic negotiations in the end always reflect the balance of power, notes the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy specialist Michael Mandelbaum, writing in The American Interest. “In the current negotiations … the United States is far stronger than Iran, yet it is the United States that has made major concessions. After beginning the negotiations by insisting that the Tehran regime relinquish all its suspect enrichment facilities and cease all its nuclear activities relevant to making a bomb, the Obama administration has ended by permitting Iran to keep virtually all of those facilities and continue some of those activities.”

How did this happen? “Part of the explanation may lie in Barack Obama’s personal faith in the transformative power of exposure to the global economy.” But, adds Mandelbaum, “Surely the main reason … is that, while there is a vast disparity in power between the two parties, the United States is not willing to use the ultimate form of power and the Iranian leaders know this.”

Before you denounce Obama as a wimp, remember that George W. Bush had eight years to address this problem — when it was smaller — with either military force or forceful diplomacy, and he blinked for eight years.

But is it still possible to get a good bad deal — one that, while it does not require Iran to dismantle its nuclear enrichment infrastructure, shrinks that infrastructure for the next 10 to 15 years so Iran can’t make a quick breakout to a bomb? A deal that also gives us a level of transparency to monitor that agreement and gives international inspectors timely intrusive access to anywhere in Iran we suspect covert nuclear activity? One that restricts Iran from significantly upgrading its enrichment capacity over the next decade, as the bipartisan group of experts convened by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy proposed last week?

Yes. A good bad deal along such lines is still possible — and that will depend on the details now being negotiated at this 11th hour. Such a deal would enable the president to say to a skeptical Congress and Israel that he has gotten the best bad deal that an empty holster can buy, and that it has bought time for a transformation in Iran that is better than starting a war whose fallout no one can foretell.

But beware: This deal could be as big, if not bigger, an earthquake in the Middle East as the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. And what both had in common is that we were totally unprepared to manage the aftershocks the morning after. The Arab world today has almost no geopolitical weight. Egypt is enfeebled, Saudi Arabia lacks the capacity to project power and Iraq is no more. An Iran that is unshackled from sanctions and gets an injection of over $100 billion in cash will be even more superior in power than all of its Arab neighbors. Therefore, the U.S. needs to take the lead in initiating a modus vivendi between Sunni Arabs and Persian Shiites and curb Iran’s belligerence toward Israel. If we can’t help defuse those conflicts, a good bad deal could very easily fuel a wider regional war.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

In the dire prophecies of science-fiction writers and the fevered warnings of left-wing activists, big corporations will soon rule the earth — or already do.

Fine with me.

They’ve been great on the issue of the Confederate flag. Almost immediately after the fatal shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., several prominent corporate leaders, including the heads of Walmart and Sears, took steps to retire the banner as a public symbol of the South; others made impassioned calls for that.

And when Nikki Haley, the South Carolina governor, said that the Confederate flag at the State House should come down, she did so knowing that Boeing and BMW, two of the state’s major employers, had her back. In fact the state’s chamber of commerce had urged her and other politicians to see the light.

Eli Lilly, American Airlines, Intel and other corporations were crucial to the defeat or amendment of proposed “religious freedom” laws in Indiana, Arkansas and Arizona over the last year and a half. Their leaders weighed in against the measures, which licensed anti-gay discrimination, and put a special kind of pressure on politicians, who had to worry about losing investment and jobs if companies with operations in their states didn’t like what the government was doing.

And if it were up to corporations, we’d have the immigration reform we sorely need. Early last year, the United States Chamber of Commerce publicized a letter that urged Congress to act on “modernizing our immigration system.” It was signed by 246 enterprises large and small, including Apple, AT&T, Caterpillar, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Google, McDonald’s, Marriott and Microsoft.

Are these companies acting in their own interests? Absolutely. They’re trying to make sure that laws and local customs don’t prevent them from attracting and retaining the best work force. They’re burnishing their brands in a manner that they hope will endear them to customers.

But those efforts, coupled with whatever genuine altruism and civic obligation some corporate leaders feel, have produced compelling recent examples of companies showing greater sensitivity to diversity, social justice and the changing tides of public sentiment than lawmakers often manage to.

Corporations aren’t paralyzed by partisan bickering. They’re not hostage to a few big donors, a few loud interest groups or some unyielding ideology.

“They’re ultimately more responsive to a broader group of voters — customers — than politicians are,” said Bradley Tusk, whose firm, Tusk Strategies, does consulting for both private corporations and public officials.

“If you’re a politician and all you care about is staying in office, you’re worried about a small group of voters in your district who vote in the primary,” he told me, referring to members of the House of Representatives. “If you’re a corporation, you need to be much more in sync with public opinion, because you’re appealing to people across the spectrum.”

And so, he added, “Ironically, a lot of corporations have to be far more democratic than democratically elected officials.”

Newsweek observed as much in a story published this week, noting that inclusiveness “may not be good politics in this day of polarization and micro-targeting, but it seems to be good business. And that is making the business community the sort of ‘big tent’ political force that neither major political party can claim to be.”

Major financial institutions were well ahead of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other Democratic politicians when it came to same-sex marriage. The leaders of these banks and hedge funds lent their voices and considerable sums of money to its legalization in New York in 2011.

And Amazon, Starbucks, Nordstrom and other companies in Washington State worked to ensure passage of a marriage-equality referendum there back in November 2012.

Under the stewardship of Howard Schultz, Starbucks alone has been a paragon of corporate munificence and social consciousness in areas ranging from higher education to race relations. Back in 2011, Schultz used his corporate pulpit to bemoan congressional sclerosis and try to exert more cooperation among Democrats and Republicans on debt reduction; he succeeded in getting more than 100 other chief executives to pledge to withhold political donations until Congress made bipartisan progress.

Between 2010 and 2014, Unilever increased the fraction of materials it got from farms with sustainable practices to roughly one-half from less than one-fifth. And the software company Infor participated in a multimillion-dollar program to provide free tickets to “Selma” for American schoolchildren.

The list goes on. And while it doesn’t erase the damage that corporations wreak on the environment or their exploitation of workers paid too little, it does force you to admit that corporations aren’t always the bad guys. Sometimes the bottom line matches the common good, and they’re the agents of what’s practical, wise and even right.

Friedman, solo

June 24, 2015

Mr. Bruni is off today.  TMOW has been out in the sun too long, and has produced a thing called “Cold War Without the Fun” in which he tells us that the world has changed, and so has the way the game of nations is played.  In the comments “Kevin Rothstein” from somewhere east of the GWB had this to say:  “Mr. Friedman seems to have an illusion that the Cold War was “fun”. However tongue-in-cheek his assertion may be, there are millions of dead in numerous third world nations who, if they could still speak, would take issue with the notion that the Cold War was “fun”.”  Maybe it’s time for TMOW to sit down in the shade…  Here he is:

Let’s see, America is prepositioning battle tanks with our East European NATO allies to counterbalance Russia; U.S. and Russian military planes recently flew within 10 feet of each other; Russia is building a new generation of long-range ballistic missiles; and the U.S. and China are jostling in the South China Sea. Did someone restart the Cold War while I was looking the other way?

If so, this time it seems like the Cold War without the fun — that is, without James Bond, Smersh, “Get Smart” Agent 86’s shoe phone, Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe-banging, a race to the moon or a debate between American and Soviet leaders over whose country has the best kitchen appliances. And I don’t think we’re going to see President Obama in Kiev declaring, à la President Kennedy, “ich bin ein Ukrainian.” Also, the lingo of our day — “reset with Russia” or “pivot to Asia” — has none of the gravitas of — drum roll, please — “détente.”

No, this post-post-Cold War has more of a W.W.E. — World Wrestling Entertainment — feel to it, and I don’t just mean President Vladimir Putin of Russia’s riding horses bare-chested, although that is an apt metaphor. It’s just a raw jostling for power for power’s sake — not a clash of influential ideas but rather of spheres of influence: “You cross that line, I punch your nose.” “Why?” “Because I said so.” “You got a problem with that?” “Yes, let me show you my drone. You got a problem with that?” “Not at all. My cyber guys stole the guidance system last week from Northrop Grumman.” “You got a problem with that?

The Cold War had a beginning, an end and even a closing curtain, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the post-post-Cold War has brought us full circle back to the pre-Cold War and the game of nations. There was a moment when it seemed as though it would all be otherwise — when it seemed that Arabs and Israelis would make peace, that China would evolve into a more consensual political system and that Russia would become part of Europe and the G-8. That was a lifetime ago.

Now Western reporters struggle to get visas to China, no American businessman with a brain takes his laptop to Beijing, Chinese hackers have more of your personal data now than LinkedIn, Russia is still intent on becoming part of Europe — by annexing a piece here and a piece there — and the G-8 is now the G-1.5 (America and Germany).

When did it all go sour? We fired the first shot when we expanded NATO toward the Russian border even though the Soviet Union had disappeared. Message to Moscow: You are always an enemy, no matter what system you have. When oil prices recovered, Putin sought his revenge for this humiliation, but now he’s just using the NATO threat to justify the militarization of Russian society so he and his fellow kleptocrats can stay in power and paint their opponents as lackeys of the West.

NATO’s toppling of the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Arab Spring and the Moscow street protests that followed rattled Putin, said Sergei Guriev, the noted Russian economist now based in Paris. “Putin understood that he lost the Russian middle class and so he started to look for legitimacy somewhere else” — in hypernationalism and anti-Americanism.

But Guriev makes an important point. “If not for the Western sanctions on Russia, East Ukraine would already have been part of Russia today,” he said, adding that there is nothing Putin fears more than Ukraine succeeding in diminishing corruption and building a modern economy that would be everything Putin’s Russia is not. Guriev is worried, though, that the anti-Western propaganda Putin has been pumping into the veins of the Russian public will have a lasting effect and make his successor even worse. Either way, “Russia will be a big challenge for your next president.”

The Chinese leadership is not as dumb or desperate as Putin — and needs access to U.S. markets more — so, for now, China’s leaders still behave with some restraint in asserting their claims in the South China Sea. But the fact is, as the Asia expert Andrew Browne noted in The Wall Street Journal,“the U.S.-China relationship has lost its strategic raison d’être: the Soviet Union, the common threat that brought the two countries together.” They have not forged a new one, like being co-managers of global stability.

In short, the attraction of the U.S. economy and the bite of U.S. sanctions are more vital than ever in managing the post-post-Cold War game of nations, including bringing Iran to nuclear talks. We may be back to traditional geopolitics, but it’s in a much more interdependent world, where our economic clout is still a source of restraint on Moscow and Beijing. Putin doesn’t disguise his military involvement in Ukraine for nothing; he’s afraid of more U.S. banking sanctions. China doesn’t circumscribe its behavior in the South China Sea for nothing; it can’t grow without exporting to America. It’s not just our guns; it’s our butter. It’s why we should be expanding U.S.-shaped free-trade deals with Asia and Europe, and it’s why the most important source of stability in the world today is the health of the U.S. economy. We can walk softly only as long as we carry a big stick — and a big wallet.

Well, Tommy wasn’t born until 1953 so maybe he doesn’t remember hiding under his desk during bomb drills at school, or the Cuban Missile Crisis…  Such fun.  What a putz…

Friedman and Bruni

June 17, 2015

In “None of the Above” TMOW moans about the fact that there are so many presidential candidates and so few daring ideas or trade-offs.  Mr. Bruni is also upset.  In “The G.O.P.’s Blinkered Contenders” he says the party’s 2016 field raises the question: How can you be forward-looking if you’re backward-acting?  Well, Frankie, you can’t.  Does that clear up the question for you?  It’s a clown car full of mole people.  Here’s TMOW:

I don’t recall a time when more people were running for president and fewer of them offered anything more than poll-tested generalities designed to rally their own bases. No one surprises you with any daring. If we could tax their clichés, we’d balance the budget.

The defeat by House Democrats — with an assist from hard-right House Republicans and praise from Hillary Clinton — of President Obama’s sensible plan to expand Pacific free trade and pair it with worker and environmental protections was a bad sign that many more Democrats are now polarizing toward the populist left. Since the Republicans have already purged their moderates, this trend does not bode well for the country. It means that the hybrid/centrist blends that on many issues can create the most resilient solutions are “off the table.” As long as that’s the case, there is little chance you will pass on the American dream to your kids.

Just go down the list. With interest rates this low, Washington should be borrowing billions to invest in infrastructure — roads, ports, airports and 21st-century connectivity and both medical and basic science research — to make us more productive and create jobs. And we should be pairing that with phased-in entitlement trims and means-testing to Social Security and Medicare to make sure that these safety nets, as well as discretionary spending on education and research, will be there for the next generation.

Given the knowledge age we are in, it is crazy that we are educating the world’s brightest kids in our colleges and then sending them home. We should be giving green cards to every high-I.Q. risk-taker who wants to work in America, as well as the energetic less-skilled immigrants. Yes, it must be done legally, with a plan and tight borders. We need a high wall — but with a very big gate. Look at how many start-ups today are led by recent immigrants.

Given the incredible power that new technologies give both governments and terrorists we need a strong American Civil Liberties Union and a strong National Security Agency. In a cyberage, you should want an A.C.L.U. watching the watchers. But you should also want an N.S.A. watching the superempowered, cyberempowered angry people. Civil liberties absolutists may think the 9/11 era is over, but do the jihadist fanatics who use Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp as their command and control system? We need to worry about Big Terrorist and Big Criminal as much as Big Brother if we want to prevent another 9/11.

How is it that we are not deploying a carbon tax and using that to reduce payroll taxes that discourage hiring and shrink corporate taxes that reduce investment? Many economists — left, right and center — agree that a carbon tax, with adjustments for low-income earners, makes a world of sense. How is it that our two parties cannot agree on imaginative solutions to ease the burden of $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loans — by, say, enabling graduates to pay off student loans with pretax income, the same way we allow workers to save in 401(k)s? The Highway Trust Fund, the primary source of financing for roads and mass transit is going broke primarily because House Republicans won’t agree to an increase in the federal gasoline tax, which has not been raised since 1993!

Finally, now that Obamacare is the law of the land, Republicans should be joining Democrats to strengthen it and expand its tools to cut medical costs — rather than keep trying to kill a market-based health care solution that was originally a Republican idea.

Partisanship is vital to a healthy democracy — but not when it becomes an end itself, just an engine for politicians to raise more money to win more elections to raise more money — without ever daring to stop and challenge their own base when necessary. In Silicon Valley, collaboration is how you build great products with others. In Washington, it’s how you destroy your career. In cars and crops, hybrids are the most resilient solutions; in politics today, they’re toxic. Eventually that will sap our strength.

I like the way Clive Crook, a Bloomberg View columnist, puts it: “Can any self-respecting political thinker any longer be a centrist? I’d say so. For me, the question is how any self-respecting political thinker can be anything else.” How can you have a serious public policy discussion without acknowledging trade-offs? Crook asked. “True believers of right and left organize their ideas around the hope that there aren’t any. For progressives, ‘fairness’ trumps everything; for conservatives, ‘freedom.’ Balancing either against anything else is a moral violation — but, as luck would have it, the need never arises. If you’re a progressive, you can raise tax rates without discouraging effort, and mandate higher wages without reducing the demand for labor. If you’re a conservative, you can cut taxes without harming essential public services, and roll back regulation without putting anybody at risk. If centrists didn’t always try to be polite, I’d call this aversion to trade-offs infantile.”

Centrism, noted Crook, isn’t automatically good or bad. It can be “pointless and productive, lazy and energetic, timid and brave.” At its best, it may rarely inspire, but, at its best, it has a lot better chance of prolonging the American dream than either party alone.

He really seems to think that the Republicans might come around to giving a flying fck about anything other than fattening their wallets, at the expense of everyone and everything else.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

The Republican Party keeps announcing its new modernity, declaring its new inclusiveness, swearing that it has changed and then showing that it hasn’t.

Witness Rand Paul, who is supposed to be one of its fresher, unconventional faces.

He spoke at a dinner here on Saturday, in a blazer and khakis instead of a suit, and once again presented himself as a Republican unusually in touch with the sensibilities of younger voters, especially concerned about the welfare of minorities and uniquely positioned to expand the party’s reach.

It was a refreshing pitch — until a medieval metaphor revealed an antiquated mind-set.

He was describing people’s need to feel that their personal information in cyberspace is as safe from indiscriminate government snooping as the documents in their dwellings have long been, and he mentioned the adage that “a man’s house is his castle.”

Then he updated it: “Now we would say a man or a wife’s home is their castle.”

A man or a wife’s?

Aiming for a less sexist, more sensitive vocabulary, he came up with a more sexist, less sensitive one, casting women as auxiliaries of men.

This was no way to rebrand the party, no way to retire any image of it as a preserve for old white guys.

But it was emblematic. For all the party’s self-congratulation about a field of official and unofficial presidential candidates who depart from the fusty norm, the truth is that they don’t depart nearly enough.

Yes, they’re a racially diverse group, including Bobby Jindal, who is Indian-American; Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who are Cuban-American; and Ben Carson, who is African-American.

Yes, Rubio and Bush speak Spanish, as Bush did in Miami on Monday during his formal campaign announcement, which had the multiethnic flourish of a Coca-Cola Super Bowl commercial.

Yes, Cruz and Rubio are both under 45. Rubio in fact looks young enough to be Bernie Sanders’s grandson. He advertises an affinity for hip-hop and rap. He name-checks Pitbull and Nicki Minaj.

Paul, an ophthalmologist, highlights his travels to Central America to perform eye surgery on indigent Guatemalans. He cuts his own hair. And he urges criminal justice reforms, including lighter punishments for marijuana possession and use.

But he came across as more backward-acting than forward-looking during that strange sequence of interviews with female journalists a few months ago, when he admonished and interrupted them.

And his Republican rivals, beneath their playlists and campaign choreography, aren’t so impressively in touch with the times either.

Although more than 70 percent of American adults under 35 support same-sex marriage, not one candidate in the sprawling Republican field has explicitly taken that position, and most have expressed impassioned opposition.

Although an increasing fraction of American adults, including about a third of those under 35, now pronounce themselves religiously unaffiliated, there’s no sense of that drift in the emphatic religious testimonials of most of the Republican candidates, including Bush, Rubio and Scott Walker, who introduces himself as a preacher’s son.

Almost all of them are at odds with young Americans’ belief in climate change and stated desire for immigration reform.

And none of the leading contenders has a pitch that strongly reflects arecent Gallup poll’s finding that more Americans label themselves socially liberal than at any point in the last 16 years. These Americans finally match the percentage of those who call themselves socially conservative.

Where’s the Republican presidential contender for them?

Where’s the Republican candidate who can enter into an important, necessary debate about the size, role and efficacy of government without being weighed down by a set of statements and positions on social issues that seem tailored to placate the religious right and to survive the primaries, not to capture voters in the center? You’re not allowed to say George Pataki unless he reaches 5 percent in the polls. Last I checked, he’s about four points shy of that.

Yet again there’s a void, and Hillary Clinton and her advisers have certainly noticed it. That awareness informed her own speech on Saturday, on Roosevelt Island, where she made many references to young Americans, to L.G.B.T. Americans, to minorities, to working women. Her remarks constituted a road map of the precise terrain that Democrats want to keep — or put — beyond Republicans’ reach.

And she sought to counteract the familiarity of her presence with the novelty of her promise. She pictured a woman in the Oval Office.

On the other side of the country, Paul pictured a woman in a castle — and all he saw was a wife. The ophthalmologist needs better vision. So does his party, if it wants passage across the moat to the White House.


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