Archive for the ‘The Moustache of Wisdom’ Category

Friedman and Bruni

May 20, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom is having the vapors.  In “Hillary, Jeb, Facebook and Disorder” he moans that huge disruptive inflections in technology, the labor market and geopolitics have the 2016 presidential candidates in a leadership quandary.  He launches into his piece with a whine that the candidates don’t want “to engage with major issues of the day.”  Gee, Tommy — maybe if someone in your cohort of “journalists” would, you know, actually ASK them to address issues we could find out what they think, or if they’re even capable of thinking.  Christ…  In “Platinum Pay in Ivory Towers” Mr. Bruni says that the excessive salaries of some college presidents send a message at odds with higher education.  Here’s TMOW:

For a presidential campaign that has started so early, it’s striking how little most of the candidates want to engage with major issues of the day, let alone the future. Hillary Clinton won’t take a clear stand on two big issues she helped to negotiate as secretary of state: the free-trade deal with Pacific nations and the nuclear deal with Iran. Jeb Bush’s campaign seems stuck on whether he is or is not his brother’s keeper. Marco Rubio was for comprehensive immigration reform before he was against it. While Senators Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders are motivated by clear ideologies, the others, so far, evince much more compelling ambitions to be president than compelling reasons for why they should be.

That can’t last. Just follow the headlines. We’re in the middle of some huge disruptive inflections in technology, the labor market and geopolitics that will raise fundamental questions about the future of work and the social contracts between governments and their people and employers and employees. These will all erupt in the next presidency.

What are the signs of that? Well, my candidate for best lead paragraph on a news article so far this year goes to Tom Goodwin, an executive at Havas Media, whose essay March 3 on Techcrunch.com began: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”

There sure is. We’re at the start of a major shift on the question of what’s worth owning. What all of the above companies have in common is that they have either created trust platforms that match supply and demand for things people never thought of supplying: a spare bedroom in their home or a seat in their car or a commercial link between a small retailer in North Dakota and a small manufacturer in China. Or they are behavioral platforms that spin off extremely valuable data for retailers and advertisers or they are behavioral platforms on which ordinary people can generate reputations — for driving, hosting or any skill you can imagine — and then market themselves globally.

This is a result of the exponential growth in computing power, storage, networking, sensors and software generation and interoperability, which is allowing us to both gather massive amounts of data and apply software to that data to see patterns at a speed and scope unknown before. And it is taking friction out of so many things at once: from hailing a cab to reserving a room in someone’s home in Timbuktu to buying groceries to learning from anyone anywhere to designing an airplane part on a 3-D printer in a week instead of six months. Complexity is becoming free.

A recent study by the Oxford Martin School concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being taken by smart machines and software in the next two decades. And what is interesting, notes James Manyika, a director of the McKinsey Global Institute and co-author of “No Ordinary Disruption,” is that, contrary to expectations, “knowledge workers at the middle and the top” may be more threatened than those doing physical work. For example, The Associated Press now uses computers, not reporters, to generate more than 3,000 financial reports per quarter. This can free up workers to do more creative work, but they have to be trained for it.

On geopolitics, we still have great power rivalries, but the most relevant divide in the world will no longer be East-West, capitalist-communist. It will be the World of Order versus the World of Disorder, as environmental, sectarian and economic pressures are pulverizing weak and failed states. Every day now you read about people fleeing the World of Disorder for the World of Order. Rohingyas, a mostly Muslim group, from Myanmar and Bangladesh are trying to get into Thailand and Malaysia; Africans and Arabs are trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe; Central American parents have sent thousands of their kids to the United States. Israel’s government has started sending letters to 45,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees — who walked, rode and sailed to Israel in search of order and work — telling them they have 30 days to accept $3,500 in cash and a one-way ticket home or to an unnamed third country in Africa or face prison,The Washington Post reported last week. Last year, the U.N.’s refugee agency said there are more displaced people worldwide — some 50 million — than at anytime since World War II.

But here’s the rub: We don’t know what to do. We used to rely on empires, colonizers and dictators to control a lot of these places, but we’re now in a post-imperial, post-colonial and, in many places, post-autocratic age. No one wants to touch these disorderly zones because all you win is a bill. And most are incapable of democratic self-governance. Who will control these areas? What if the answer is nobody? It will be one of the big leadership challenges of the next decade.

So, to paraphrase Trotsky once more: Our presidential candidates may not be interested in talking seriously about the future yet, but the future will be interested in talking to them.

Gee…  Maybe the Times could program a computer to generate columns about the flat earth and Tommy could be trained to do something creative…  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

Gregory Fenves recently got a big promotion, from provost to president of the University of Texas at Austin. A raise came with it. Instead of his current base of about $425,000, he was offered $1 million.

And he rejected it — as too much.

“With many issues and concerns about administrative costs, affordability and tuition, such a salary will affect the ability of the president to work with the Texas Legislature,” Fenves wrote to a university official, in an email obtained by The Austin American-Statesman and published last week.

He suggested, and agreed to, $750,000.

That’s hardly chump change. But in the context of the shockingly lucrative deals that have become almost commonplace among college presidents, the sum — or, more precisely, the sentiment behind it — is worthy of note and praise.

Too few presidents give adequate thought to the symbolism and dissonance of extraordinarily generous compensation packages, which are in sync with this era of lavish executive pay and glaring income inequality but out of line with the ostensible mission of academia.

Ideally, higher education is dedicated to values different from those that govern Wall Street and corporate America. It supposedly calls students to more soulful concerns, even to sacrifice.

But that message is muddled when some of the people who run colleges wallow in payments and perks that would once have been considered vulgar.

For E. Gordon Gee’s final year as the president of Ohio State University, which he left in 2013, he got a package of more than $6 million, as waswidely reported. It was a one-time bonanza, including deferred payments and severance, but he’d earned roughly $2 million annually over the previous years.

The Chronicle of Higher Education analyzed salary information for private colleges from 2012, the most recent year available, and found that Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, received a package worth over $7 million.

John L. Lahey of Quinnipiac University: about $3.75 million. Lee Bollingerof Columbia University: almost $3.4 million.

Fenves’s salary as the president of the University of Texas puts him well behind that of his counterpart at Texas A & M University, who has an annual base of $1 million plus $400,000 in additional compensation, according to The American-Statesman.

Each profligate compensation package breeds more like it, as schools’ trustees convince themselves that they must keep pace in order to recruit, retain and receive the precious fairy dust of the heaviest hitters.

They reason that “this is a winner-take-all society and that people with extremely high levels of talent are richly rewarded,” said Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

“But I think that things are getting out of hand, especially given the tax-exempt nature of universities,” he told me. “They’re in privileged positions, and they were given these privileged positions not to enrich themselves but to serve society. These presidents are expected to live quite nicely but not exorbitantly and not extravagantly.”

Their extravagance strikes an especially discordant note in light of the challenges confronting higher education today, and it undercuts their moral authority.

How do you defend the transfer of teaching responsibilities to low-paid, part-time adjuncts when the president is sitting so pretty? How do you cut administrative costs, which indeed need cutting? How do you explain steep tuition increases, mammoth student debt and the failure to admit more children from poor families?

How do you summon students back to the liberal arts and away from mercenary priorities?

The high salaries are frequently defended on the grounds that a university president’s job is all consuming. But if it is, how do so many of them find time to serve, for hundreds of thousands of extra dollars, on corporate boards? Rensselaer’s Jackson was at one point on five boards simultaneously.

The high salaries are also defended in terms of the fund-raising that certain presidents reputedly excel at, covering their compensation many times over. But do they deserve sole credit for those donations? And at nonprofit institutions, should money be the main yardstick and currency? Shouldn’t ethics compete with economics, as they sometimes do when a school invests its endowment?

The lofty pay of college presidents is part of higher education’s increasingly corporate bent, of the blurred lines between the campus and the marketplace.

And like the private enrichment of many political candidates who speak of “public service,” it’s not just a mirror of our pervasive money culture. It’s a green light for it, from precincts of principle where a flashing yellow would be more appropriate.

Friedman and Bruni

April 29, 2015

In “On Trade: Obama Right, Critics Wrong” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that President Obama’s trade agreements can enhance our national security as much as our economic security.  In the comments “HDNY” from New York, NY had this to say:  International trade agreements should not be cloaked in secrecy and kept from the view of those whose jobs they are going destroy. If this deal is good, there should be a way to show that to the American people. You can’t just say, “You won’t like this, and it’s going to hurt, but we know what’s best and we’re doing this for your own good.””  Mr. Bruni, in “Love, Marriage and Music,” says the Supreme Court should give us an anthem of true equality.  Here’s TMOW, writing from Berlin:

I strongly support President Obama’s efforts to conclude big, new trade-opening agreements with our Pacific allies, including Japan and Singapore, and with the whole European Union. But I don’t support them just for economic reasons.

While I’m certain they would benefit America as a whole economically, I’ll leave it to the president to explain why (and how any workers who are harmed can be cushioned). I want to focus on what is not being discussed enough: how these trade agreements with two of the biggest centers of democratic capitalism in the world can enhance our national security as much as our economic security.

Because these deals are not just about who sets the rules. They’re about whether we’ll have a rule-based world at all. We’re at a very plastic moment in global affairs — much like after World War II. China is trying to unilaterally rewrite the rules. Russia is trying to unilaterally break the rules and parts of both the Arab world and Africa have lost all their rules and are disintegrating into states of nature. The globe is increasingly dividing between the World of Order and the World of Disorder.

When you look at it from Europe — I’ve been in Germany and Britain the past week — you see a situation developing to the south of here that is terrifying. It is not only a refugee crisis. It’s a civilizational meltdown: Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq — the core of the Arab world — have all collapsed into tribal and sectarian civil wars, amplified by water crises and other environmental stresses.

But — and this is the crucial point — all this is happening in a post-imperial, post-colonial and increasingly post-authoritarian world. That is, in this pluralistic region that lacks pluralism — the Middle East — we have implicitly relied for centuries on the Ottoman Empire, British and French colonialism and then kings and dictators to impose order from the top-down on all the tribes, sects and religions trapped together there. But the first two (imperialism and colonialism) are gone forever, and the last one (monarchy and autocracy) are barely holding on or have also disappeared.

Therefore, sustainable order — the order that will truly serve the people there — can only emerge from the bottom-up by the communities themselves forging social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens. And since that is not happening — except in Tunisia — the result is increasing disorder and tidal waves of refugees desperately trying to escape to the islands of order: Europe, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

At the same time, the destruction of the Libyan government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, without putting boots on the ground to create a new order in the vacuum — surely one of the dumbest things NATO ever did — has removed a barrier to illegal immigration to Europe from Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Eritrea, Syria and Sudan. As one senior German official speaking on background said to me: “Libya had been a bar to crossing the Mediterranean. But that bar has been removed now, and we can’t reinvent it.” A Libyan smuggler told The Times’s David D. Kirkpatrick, reporting from Libya, now “everything is open — the deserts and the seas.”

Here’s a prediction: NATO will eventually establish “no-sail zones” — safe areas for refugees and no-go zones for people-smugglers — along the Libyan coast.

What does all this have to do with trade deals? With rising disorder in the Middle East and Africa — and with China and Russia trying to tug the world their way — there has never been a more important time for the coalition of free-market democracies and democratizing states that are the core of the World of Order to come together and establish the best rules for global integration for the 21st century, including appropriate trade, labor and environmental standards. These agreements would both strengthen and more closely integrate the market-based, rule-of-law-based democratic and democratizing nations that form the backbone of the World of Order.

America’s economic future “depends on being integrated with the world,” said Ian Goldin, the director of the Oxford Martin School, specializing in globalization. “But the future also depends on being able to cooperate with friends to solve all kinds of other problems, from climate to fundamentalism.” These trade agreements can help build trust, coordination and growth that tilt the balance in all these countries more toward global cooperation than “hunkering down in protectionism or nationalism and letting others, or nobody, write the rules.”

As Obama told his liberal critics Friday: If we abandon this effort to expand trade on our terms, “China, the 800-pound gorilla in Asia will create its own set of rules,” signing bilateral trade agreements one by one across Asia “that advantage Chinese companies and Chinese workers and … reduce our access … in the fastest-growing, most dynamic economic part of the world.”  But if we get the Pacific trade deal done, “China is going to have to adapt to this set of trade rules that we’ve established.” If we fail to do that, he added, 20 years from now we’ll “look back and regret it.”

That’s the only thing he got wrong. We will regret it much sooner.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

At some point in my childhood, just before my teens, I was struck by the fact that almost all of the songs that I was hearing on the radio, half-consciously humming along to or committing to memory were about love.

Different shades of love, yes, and different stages of it: the heat and hunger of its infancy, the expansive warmth of its maturity, the bleeding pain when all that’s left of it is shards. But love nonetheless.

Starland Vocal Band mulled the naughty pleasures of an “Afternoon Delight.” Daryl Hall pined for the sweet validation of a sweetheart’s gesture in “Sara Smile.” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” Elton John implored Kiki Dee, and back then he hadn’t informed the world, or fully accepted, that the people most likely to hold that kind of power over him didn’t have names like Kiki.

Those were all huge hits in 1976, which is when I turned 12. And the No. 1 single that year?

“Silly Love Songs,” which Paul McCartney thought that “people would have had enough of.” No way, because there’s nothing silly about love, and when it comes to music, love is almost all there is.

When it comes to life, too.

On Tuesday love went to the Supreme Court, where the lawyers and the justices spoke of “equal participation” and “equal protection,” of “due process” and “animus,” of the Constitution and states’ rights.

There were legal terms and points of reference aplenty. It’s easy to become lost in them, and just as easy to follow the leads of journalists who are framing the proceedings as a high drama starring enigmatic actors: Justice Anthony Kennedy with his swing vote, Chief Justice John Roberts with his sensitivity to the court’s legacy.

But it’s important to step back and remember what this is really about: the most exquisite emotion that any of us can have, the most exalted bond, and whether we’re content to tell one group of Americans that their love is less dignified — and less worthy of celebration — than another group’s.

There’s no alternate message for gays and lesbians to read into prohibitions against same-sex marriage, because our society, like so many others, decided long ago that marriage was the most formal recognition of love, the ultimate blessing bestowed on it.

For many years now the tireless, dauntless advocates who blazed the trail to Tuesday have eloquently detailed the practical reasons for legalizing same-sex marriage, the measurable rights that it establishes or ensures.

It eliminates anxieties and injustices regarding hospital visits, medical decisions, estates, Social Security benefits, child custody, child care, immigration and more. It’s the best way to replace limbo with stability, freeing good people to get on with the rest of their lives.

But the expansion of marriage to include gays and lesbians does something even broader and deeper than that. It alters the very soundtrack of our existences, removing a refrain of disapproval, however minor, however muted.

I long detected that refrain in all of those silly love songs, which dominated the pop charts of my youth and dominate the pop charts now, because they traced a landscape that I would almost certainly have to tiptoe across, that was only partly hospitable to the likes of me.

So while they filled me with longing, as they were meant to, they also filled me with an unintended sadness. With envy, too, because I knew that for other people — straight people — worry and shame didn’t intrude on the melodies.

So much has changed. One of the most widely played love songs of last year, “Stay With Me,” is performed by Sam Smith, whose fans are fully aware that he’s gay. They’re aware, too, that the “one-night stand” that he mentions in the opening line is with another man.

At a music festival later this year, he’s scheduled to appear with Elton John,now out of the closet, now knighted and now with kids and a husband, whom he married under British law, which allows it.

American law remains a patchwork: equality in this state, inequality in that one. That’s where the Supreme Court comes in.

It can endorse inconsistency. Or the justices can do what’s right and what’s necessary, acknowledging that there’s no way to divorce a person’s way of loving from his or her humanity — that they’re entwined, like verse and chorus, and to treat one as inferior is to treat both that way.

We’ll probably get a ruling in June.

And with any luck, that judgment will turn all the love songs of yesterday, today and tomorrow into universal anthems that make the same promise to every listener, no matter the object of his or her affection.

Friedman and Bruni

April 22, 2015

In “Deal or No Deal?” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us about the challenges the Obama administration faces in negotiating with Iran.  Mr. Bruni, in “Hollywood Trumps Harvard,” says there are sad morals to the stories of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Mehmet Oz.  Here’s TMOW:

The Obama team’s effort to negotiate a deal with Iran that could prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear bomb for at least a decade is now entering its critical final stage. I hope that a good, verifiable deal can be finalized, but it will not be easy. If it were, we’d have it by now. Here are the major challenges:

First, you can negotiate a simple arms control agreement with an adversary you don’t trust. We did that with the Kremlin in the Cold War. By simple, I mean with relatively few moving parts, and very clear verification procedures that do not require much good will from the other side — like monitoring Soviet missile sites with our own satellites. You can also negotiate a complicated arms control deal with a country that shares your values: Japan and South Korea regularly submit their nuclear facilities to international inspections.

But what is hard to implement is a complex arms control deal with an adversary you don’t trust — like Iran or North Korea. Each moving part requires some good will from the other side, and, because there are so many moving parts, the opportunities for cheating are manifold. It requires constant vigilance. Are the United States, Russia, China and Europe up for that for a decade? After the Iraq invasion, we took our eye off North Korea, and it diverted nuclear fuel for a bomb. With Iran, the U.S. Energy Department is planning to put a slew of new, on-the-ground monitoring devices into every cranny of Iran’s nuclear complex, which should help. But there also has to be zero-tolerance for cheating — and a very high price if there is.

Second, for us, this is solely an arms control agreement. For Iran, this is “an identity crisis” that it’s being asked to resolve, and it’s still not clear it can do so, says Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center and the author of “Outlier States: American Strategies to Contain, Engage, or Change Regimes.”

America’s engagement with Iran, said Litwak, is like “the Cuban missile crisis meets the Thirty Years’ War.” For us, this is a pure nuclear negotiation, but, for Iran, the nuclear issue “is a proxy for what kind of country it wants to be — an ordinary state or an Islamic revolutionary state. And this divide goes back to the origins of its revolution” in 1979. Most revolutions eventually go through some cultural rebalancing that breaks its fever and turns it toward normalcy and integration, Litwak added: “But Iran has never gone through that process. It tantalized us with reformist presidents who didn’t really hold power and when push came to shove never challenged the fundamentals of the revolutionary deep state that had the monopoly on the use of force” and control of its nuclear program.

There is a hard core in Tehran for whom nuclear weapons are not only a hedge against foreign invasion but also a deliberate thumb in the eye of the world meant to block the very integration that would open Iran to influences from America and the West — an opening they fear would dilute whatever revolutionary fervor is left in its youths, many of whom are fed up with Iran’s isolation. That is why Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was telling the truth when he recently said that he has not made up his mind about this deal. He’s having an identity crisis. He wants sanctions relief without integration. After all, if Iran is a normal state, who needs a medieval cleric to be the “supreme leader?”

The challenge for Obama is whether he can do a deal with an Iran that, as Litwak puts it, “doesn’t change character but just changes behavior.” Obama’s bet — and it is not crazy — is that if you can get the right verification procedures in place and deprive Iran from making a bomb for a decade (that alone is worth a deal, given the alternatives) then you increase the odds of Iran’s own people changing Iran’s character from within. But then so much rides on implementing a fail-proof verification regime and “snapback” sanctions if Iran cheats.

I think President Obama believes that nothing has stymied U.S. Mideast policy more in the last 36 years than the U.S.-Iran cold war, and if that can be prudently eased it would equal a Nixon-to-China move that opens up a lot of possibilities. Again, that’s not crazy. It’s just not easy given the forces in Iran who have an interest in being isolated from the West.

Finally, you have the regional challenge. Iran, with about 80 million people, is simply a more powerful and dynamic state today than most of the Sunni Arab states to its west, half of which have collapsed. Iran, even if it had good intentions, almost can’t help but project its power westward given the vacuum and frailty there. When Nixon opened to China, and helped unleash its economic prowess, China was largely surrounded by strong or economically powerful states to balance it. But an Iran enriched by billions in sanctions relief would be even more powerful vis-à-vis its weak Arab neighbors. Our Gulf Arab allies are deeply worried about this and are looking to the U.S. for both protection and more sophisticated arms. I get that. But unless we can find a way to truly ease tensions between Shiite Persians and Sunni Arabs, we will find ourselves unleashing Iran to the max while arming the Arabs to the teeth. Maintaining that balance will not be easy.

These are not reasons to reject the deal. They are reasons to finish it right.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Call me an idealist, but I’d like to think that the halls of higher education are less vulnerable to the siren calls of fame and fortune than other byways of American life are. I’d like to believe in a bold dividing line between academic virtues and celebrity values, between intellectual and commercial concerns.

But Henry Louis Gates Jr., a renowned Harvard professor, and Mehmet Oz, a surgeon on the faculty at Columbia, get in my way.

I link the two because they’re both in the news, not because they’re equally in thrall to the television camera or identically unabashed peddlers of something other than fact. Oz is by far the more compromised figure.

But Gates, too, exemplifies what happens when a lecturer is bathed in bright lights and gets to hang with Ben Affleck, who will soon be on-screen in Batman’s billowing cape.

Affleck was a guest last October on the PBS documentary series “Finding Your Roots,” in which Gates takes luminaries — Sting, Stephen King, Angela Bassett — on journeys into their pasts. Affleck signed up for the trip.

But when he learned that he had a slave-owning ancestor, he asked that the detail be excised, according to communications between Gates and his friend Michael Lynton, the chief executive of Sony Entertainment. Their exchange was part of the hacked Sony emails recently shared by WikiLeaks.

“We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found,” Gates wrote to Lynton, going on to fret over the “integrity” of the series. “He’s a megastar. What do we do?”

Gates left the detail out.

After the disclosure of this late last week, he insisted, unpersuasively, that the cut reflected nothing more than the need to make room for other ancestors of Affleck’s who warranted inclusion in the episode.

Regardless, it exposed Gates, a trusted authority on the African-American experience, to accusations that he’d sold out. It diminished him.

But wasn’t that inevitable from the moment he hitched scholarship to show business?

“We conflate what a PBS special is with academic work,” Carol Anderson, who teaches at Emory University, told Jamil Smith in The New Republic. “We have to understand that so much of what we see there is packaged for a nonacademic audience that wants the picture of really deep, intellectual discussion, but is not quite ready for what that means.”

What does the audience of “The Dr. Oz Show” want?

To judge by what Oz gives them, it’s winnowed thighs, amulets against cancer and breathless promises of “magic” and “revolutionary” breakthroughs.

Oz has morphed not just willingly but exuberantly into a carnival barker. He’s a one-man morality play about the temptations of mammon and the seduction of applause, a Faustian parable with a stethoscope.

Many Americans probably had no idea that he remained affiliated with Columbia — he’s vice chairman of its surgery department — until they read last week about an email sent to the university by 10 physicians around the country. They accused him of “promoting quack treatments” for “personal financial gain” and urged Columbia to sever its ties with him.

He’s expected to defend himself on television later this week, and his publicity machine has gone into overdrive, seeking to discredit the physicians and frame the issue as one of free speech.

But don’t forget that he was called before a United States Senate panel last year to explain his on-air gushing about green coffee extract, raspberry ketones and other faddish weight-loss supplements. Admonishing him, Senator Claire McCaskill noted that “the scientific community is almost monolithic” in its rejection of “products you called ‘miracles.’ ”

Also remember that the British Medical Journal published a study of scores of his show’s medical recommendations, saying more than half didn’t have sound scientific backing.

And bear in mind that the Sony emails included one that showed Oz to be eager, as Vox reported, “to use his platform on the show to help expand Sony’s fitness and health-tracking devices market.” Sony is one of the producers of “Dr. Oz.”

But well beyond Oz, there’s an unsettling corruption of academia by celebrity culture.

Many professors do double duty as television pundits, even though sound bites, which are inherently unsubtle, run counter to what scholarship exalts. And educational institutions choose speakers largely — and sometimes solely — for their star power. The University of Houston spent $155,000 to schedule Matthew McConaughey for its commencement next month.

Maybe he’s more learned than we realize. Or maybe erudition counts for less than buzz, even in those enclaves that are supposed to be about deep, durable things.

Friedman, solo

April 1, 2015

In “Tell Me How This Ends Well” The Moustache of Wisdom tells us that reading the newspapers in China can be very interesting.  Here he is, writing from Hong Kong:

I’ve been in China for the last week. It’s always instructive to see how the world looks from the Middle Kingdom. Sometimes the best insights come from just reading the local papers. On March 25, The China Daily published an essay detailing how “Beijing authorities” had “launched inspection tours of kindergartens this week to ensure that children are not overburdened with schoolwork. Although Chinese, mathematics and English are supposed to be taught to primary school students, it is not uncommon to see pre-school-age children across China being forced to study these subjects.” The essay went on to explain why it wasn’t healthy to “begin preparing for the college entrance exam” in preschool.

Reading that, I suddenly had a vision of a SWAT team from China’s Ministry of Education bursting through the doors of kindergartens and declaring: “Put those pencils and books down! Back away from your desks, and nobody gets hurt!”

What a problem to have! Kindergartens teaching math and English too soon.

In the same paper, there was also an article about the latest fighting between Shiite pro-Iranian and Sunni pro-Saudi factions in Yemen. Clashes there have focused on Yemen’s second-largest town, Taiz. Taiz? Wait a minute! I was in Taiz in May 2013 working on a documentary about how Yemen was becoming an environmental disaster. We focused on Taiz because, as a result of Yemen’s devastated ecosystems, residents of Taiz get to run their home water faucets for only 36 hours every 30 days or so.

So there you have it. The news out of China is the crackdown on kindergartens teaching math and English too early, and the news out of Yemen is that Sunni and Shiite factions are fighting over a town that is already so cracked up the water comes on only 36 hours a month and the rest of the time you have to rely on roving water trucks. And that was before the latest fighting.

But at least we’ve found the problem. I’ve read that it’s all President Obama’s fault. I wish. Obama has said and done some boneheaded things in the Middle East (like decapitating the Libyan regime with no plan for the morning after), but being wary about getting further embroiled in this region is not one of them. We’re dealing here with something no president has had to face: the collapse of the Arab state system after 70 years of failed governance.

Again, the comparison with Asia is instructive. After World II, Asia was ruled by many autocrats who essentially came to their people and said, “My people, we’re going to take away your freedom, but we’re going to give you the best education, infrastructure and export-led growth policies money can buy. And eventually you’ll build a big middle class and win your freedom.” Over that same period, Arab autocrats came to their people and said, “My people, we’re going to take away your freedom and give you the Arab-Israel conflict.”

Asian autocrats tended to be modernizers, like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who just died last week at 91 — and you see the results today: Singaporeans waiting in line for 10 hours to pay last respects to a man who vaulted them from nothing into the global middle class. Arab autocrats tended to be predators who used the conflict with Israel as a shiny object to distract their people from their own misgovernance. The result: Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq are now human development disaster areas.

Some saw this coming. In 2002, a group of Arab social scientists produced the U.N.’s Arab Human Development Report. It said the Arab world suffered deficits of freedom, knowledge and women’s empowerment, and, if it did not turn around, it would get where it was going. It was ignored by the Arab League. In 2011, the educated Arab masses rose up to force a turnaround before they got where they were going. Except for Tunisia (the only Arab country whose autocrat was also a modernizer), that awakening fizzled out. So now they’ve gotten where they were going: state collapse and a caldron of tribal, sectarian (Shiite-Sunni, Persian-Arab) civil wars — in a region bulging with unemployed, angry youths and schools that barely function, or, if they do, they teach an excess of religion not math.

I read President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt declaring that “the challenges facing our national Arab security are grave, and we have succeeded in diagnosing the reasons behind it.” And that was? Too little Arab cooperation against Persians and Islamists. Really? Some 25 percent of Egyptians are illiterate today after $50 billion in U.S. aid since 1979. (In China, illiteracy is 5 percent; in Iran, 15 percent.) My heart goes out to all the people in this region. But when your leaders waste 70 years, the hole is really deep.

In fairness, Sisi is trying to dig Egypt out. Nevertheless, Egypt may send troops to defeat the rebels in Yemen. If so, it would be the first case of a country where 25 percent of the population can’t read sending troops to rescue a country where the water comes through the tap 36 hours a month to quell a war where the main issue is the 7th century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis.

Any Chinese preschooler can tell you: That’s not an equation for success.

Friedman, solo

March 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cohen and Friedman

March 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friedman and Bruni

March 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yesterday.

It was all so very yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friedman and Bruni

March 4, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does she have a political death wish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that entitlement? Or hubris?

An inability to change? Or a refusal to?

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

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

Friedman and Bruni

February 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friedman, solo

February 4, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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