Archive for the ‘The Moustache of Wisdom’ Category

Friedman and Bruni

November 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food. Shelter. Play. Love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early reading is one of the remedies.

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

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

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


Friedman, solo

November 18, 2015

Oh, this is too rich…  Tommy “Friedman Unit” Friedman comes now with a piece titled “Cabs, Camels or ISIS” in which he tells us that disruptive choices in the Arab world are having far-reaching effects.  Not a word about that little foray by W that he was so, so in favor of…  Here he is, writing from Dubai:

Today, I’ll talk about the Paris attacks, but before I do I want to share two news stories here, in case you missed them: The first calf to come from a cloned camel was born at a research center in Dubai and a local taxi start-up is taking on Uber in the Arab world.

You may think that these emirates start-ups — cloning camels and cabs — have nothing to do with Paris, but they do. Bear with me.

A newspaper here, The National, quoted Dr. Ali Ridha Al Hashimi, the administrative director of the Reproductive Biotechnology Center in Dubai, announcing “that Injaz, the world’s first cloned camel, gave birth to a healthy female calf weighing about 38 kilos on November 2. Injaz, whose name means ‘achievement’ in Arabic, was cloned in 2009 from the ovarian cells of a dead camel.” Previously, when the pregnancy was disclosed, the center’s scientific director, Dr. Nisar Wani, said, “This will prove cloned camels are fertile and can reproduce the same as naturally produced camels.”

Also last week, a hot local Arab ride-sharing start-up,, raised $60 million more in venture financing to take on Uber in the Arab world, using technology that allows for pre-booking of vehicles through its mobile app — ideal for Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive and need chauffeurs to take them and their kids everywhere.

So, about 1,000 miles south of the Islamic State start-up in Iraq and Syria — where jihadists are using technology to spawn disruption on a massive scale — another group of Muslims (and non-Muslims) in another Arab country are disrupting the world of camels and cabs.

The message? The context within which Arabs and Muslims live their lives really matters. And in too many places they’ve had only two choices — SISI or ISIS — the iron fist of generals, like Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who is trying to stifle all dissent, or the ISIS madness that says the only way forward is to take the Arab-Muslim world backward.

Fortunately, there is a third way: the autocracies, monarchies and a few frail democracies that have invested in their people and created islands of decency — Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Kurdistan, Kuwait, Morocco and the U.A.E. — where more young Arabs and Muslims can realize their full potential and build their dignity by disrupting camels and cabs — not Paris and Beirut.

For me, the big strategic question in Iraq and Syria is: What would it take to uproot ISIS and create a Sunni island of decency in its place? For starters, that requires an honest assessment of how big the challenge is.

Sixty years ago Asian dictators told their people in effect, “I am going to take away your freedom — but give you the best education, export-led economics and infrastructure that money can buy — and in a half-century you’ll build a middle class that will gradually take your freedom back.” In the Arab world, 60 years ago dictators told their people, in effect, “I am going to take away your freedom and give you the Arab-Israeli conflict, a shiny object to distract you from my corruption and predation.”

That difference, 60 years later, has produced the Asian economic miracle and fueled the Arab civilizational meltdown/disorder in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq.

Given that, I believe U.S. foreign policy out here should progress as follows: Where there is disorder, help create order, because without order nothing good can happen. I will take Sisi over the Muslim Brotherhood. But where there is order, we need to push for it to become more decent and forward-looking. That is where Sisi is failing: His vision is just order for order’s sake, with no positive slope. Where there is decent order, like the U.A.E., Jordan or Kurdistan, encourage it to gradually become more open and constitutional. And where there is constitutional order, as in Tunisia, protect it like a rare flower.

An Iraqi friend with family still in ISIS-controlled Mosul tells me that President Obama’s stepped-up bombing and special operations with the Kurds are hurting ISIS a lot. It was in part to disguise this that ISIS unleashed its death parade in Paris. But these ISIS guys are smart and still very dangerous. I’d support more bombing and special ops to further weaken and contain them.

But before we go beyond that, we need to face this fact: To sustainably defeat bad ISIS Sunnis you need good non-ISIS Sunnis to create an island of decency in their place. And right now, alas, finding and strengthening good non-ISIS Sunnis is the second priority of all the neighbors.

Turkey cares more about defeating Kurds; Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies care more about defeating Iran and its proxies in Iraq, Yemen and Syria; Qatar cares more about promoting the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and annoying Saudi Arabia; Iran cares more about protecting Shiites in Iraq and Syria than creating a space for decent Sunnis to thrive; and many of the non-ISIS Sunni activists in Syria and Iraq are still Islamists — and they’re not going away. How do you weave a decent carpet from these threads?

I don’t know — and until I do I’d be cautious about going far beyond what we’re already doing. Paris may be totally different today. The Middle East is not.

And let’s not gloss over that thing about how Saudi women “can’t drive.”  No, Tommy, it’s not that they “can’t,” is that they’re forbidden by religious extremists.  The same ones who financed and supplied the 9/11 attack.

Friedman and Bruni

November 11, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom says “Voters, You Can Have Everything!” and that there’s no end to the promises of the presidential candidates.  Mr. Bruni watched “A Troubled G.O.P. Debate for Donald Trump and Jeb Bush” and tells us that the billionaire is wearing thin, the scion is fading away and the youngsters have the thunder.  Here’s TMOW:

I confess, as much as I am troubled by Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-free-trade tirades, I do find The Donald’s campaign strategy truly interesting. He’s not, as people say, an “anti-politician.” He’s actually caricaturing politicians. And like any great caricaturist, Trump identifies his subject’s most salient features and then exaggerates them.

In Trump’s case the feature he’s identifying is the ease with which career politicians look right into a camera and lie or embellish. Since so many politicians had come to Trump’s office seeking his money or endorsement when he was just a businessman, and told him whatever they thought he wanted to hear, he’s obviously an expert in their shtick. And so Trump has just taken the joke to the next level.

Indeed, if I were writing a book about this campaign, it would open with Trump’s Sept. 27 CBS “60 Minutes” interview. Trump touts his plan for universal health care, telling Scott Pelley, “I am going to take care of everybody.” And when Pelley asks how, Trump gives the greatest quote so far of the 2015 campaign:

“The government’s gonna pay for it. But we’re going to save so much money on the other side. But for the most [part] it’s going to be a private plan and people are going to be able to go out and negotiate great plans with lots of different competition with lots of competitors, with great companies — and they can have their doctors, they can have plans, they can have everything.”

I just love that last line: “They can have their doctors, they can have plans, they can have everything!

And the best part is that it was not said on “Saturday Night Live.” It was on “60 Minutes.” Poor Jeb Bush, he just can’t go that far. He’s just a standard-issue political exaggerator. (See his economic plan.) Trump is the caricature, the industrial version. That’s why you can’t tell the difference when he’s on “S.N.L.” or on “60 Minutes.”

Mario Cuomo famously said: “‘You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.’” Trump says, in effect: That’s for normal hack politicians. I will campaign in fantasy and govern in prose. Why not?”

Given how ludicrous some of the G.O.P. presidential tax plans are, Trump seems to have started a you-can-have-everything arms race. Even Bernie Sanders is promising free tuition at public colleges, more Social Security benefits and free child care to be paid mostly by taxing the top 1 percent — no trade-offs necessary for the middle class.

And the new House speaker, Paul Ryan, who isn’t even running, has joined in. Ryan described Obama’s decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline project as “sickening,” adding: “If the president wants to spend the rest of his time in office catering to special interests, that’s his choice to make. But it’s just wrong.”

That is truly Orwellian: At a time when the G.O.P. has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil and gas industry, Ryan accuses Obama of catering to special interests; he calls the president’s decision to block a pipeline to transport tar sands oil, one of the dirtiest fuels in the world, “sickening” and labels combating climate change a “special interest.” This guy belongs in the Republican debates.

Alas, though, the next president will not be governing in fantasy — but with some cruel math. So the gap between this campaign and the morning after is likely to make for one really cold shower.

Start with geopolitics. The size of the governance hole that would have to be filled to simultaneously destroy the Islamic State, or ISIS, defeat Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and rebuild Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya into self-sustaining governments is staggering. And yet the cost of doing too little — endlessly bleeding refugees into our allies Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and the European Union — is also astronomical. When the cost of action and the cost of inaction both feel unaffordable, you have a wicked problem.

Not only do the tax-cutting plans offered by the leading Republican candidates create eye-popping deficits, but some Democratic tax hike proposals don’t quite add up, either. As the Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson reported last week, a Brookings Institution study found that even if the top income tax rate were increased to 50 percent from 39.6 percent, it would cover less than a quarter of the deficit for the 2015 fiscal year, let alone generate funds for increased investment.

If we want to invest now in more infrastructure — as we should do — and make sure we don’t overburden the next generation to pay for all the retiring baby boomers, something will have to give, or as Samuelson put it: “If middle-class Americans need or want bigger government, they will have to pay for it. Sooner or later, a tax increase is coming their way. There is no tooth fairy.”

And finally, with carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere having just reached heights not seen in millennium, if we want to “manage the unavoidable” effects of climate change and “avoid the unmanageable” ones, it will surely require a price on carbon — soon.

So enjoy the fun of this campaign while it lasts, because the next president will not be governing in poetry or prose or fantasy — but with excruciating trade-offs. The joke is on us.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Going into the latest debate, the trending question about Jeb Bush on Google was whether he was “still running for president.”

The answer is yes, and on Tuesday night, he tried, yet again, to put an exclamation point on it.

After a week of fresh attention to the rococo psychology of the Bush dynasty, after huddles with new media advisers, after countless requiems for his campaign, Bush gave his troubled, increasingly quixotic quest one more shot, maybe his last.

But he couldn’t quite run. The best that Bush has in him, in the end, is a vigorous limp.

He started the night well, staring down Donald Trump on the question of illegal immigration and sarcastically thanking Trump for giving him some speaking time.

“What a generous man you are,” he told Trump before going on to attack his supposed plan to deport millions of immigrants as wrong and mean.

“It’s not embracing American values and it would tear communities apart,” Bush said emphatically.

But during a subsequent argument over federal spending, one in which the insertion of Bush’s voice would have made complete sense, he stood mute, unable to find a way into the discussion even as John Kasich successfully butted in and took up residence there.

And in the second half of the debate, when Bush said that Trump’s statements about Vladimir Putin, Syria and the Islamic State made the world sound like “a board game,” he had his thunder stolen by Carly Fiorina.

She went bolder, louder and snarkier, noting that when she met Putin it was “not in a green room.” She thus dismissed Trump as nothing more than a frivolous TV presence, a talking head with a tepee of hair.

And she really got under his skin.

“Why does she keep interrupting everybody?” Trump said, seemingly forgetting that he’d been trying to make nice with her ever since that sexist, ugly comment about her face. He was booed.

And it wasn’t the first time.

Earlier, when he spat out some nastiness at Kasich, there were also boos.

Trump’s bullying is getting as old as his bellicosity is wearing thin, and this debate, the fourth meeting of Republican candidates, made that abundantly clear.

Here’s what else came into focus:

Kasich and Bush have each made a firm, last-ditch decision to play the seasoned, reasonable veteran among interlopers spouting nonsense and hard-core conservatives who could never beat Hillary Clinton. Sadly for Bush, Kasich played the part with more passion.

“On-the-job training for president of the United States doesn’t work,” Kasich said, alluding to President Obama and taking a dig at Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz without mentioning their names.

Rubio is not just smooth but clever and disciplined. Eager to live up to the buzz that he’s really the front-runner, and even more eager to put to rest the chatter that he’s too young and callow, he stood tallest and spoke most forcefully when talking about issues of global leadership. It was as if he’d come dressed in a T-shirt that said “Commander in Chief.”

But he was scary, charting a course of unrestrained interventionism, and when he fielded a final question about how he’d stack up to Clinton, he reverted to talking points.

Cruz then grabbed the ball, skewering Clinton more sharply and showing that he could out-eloquent Rubio and out-nasty anyone. Has a young politician ever managed to be so impressive and so repulsive all at once?

That’s the fascination of Cruz, and the most fun Tuesday night was his stumble on the very ground that tripped up Rick Perry four years ago. During a debate back then, Perry said he wanted to eliminate three federal departments or agencies and could name only two. Cruz said he wanted to eliminate five and named the Commerce Department twice.

Neither Cruz nor Rubio did anything to destroy the momentum they carried out of the last debate. Fiorina may get another brief bounce. AndBen Carson? He was again so low-key he almost seemed sleepy. He sounded utterly out of his depth on foreign policy. But he wasn’t rattled at all by a question (too brief, with no follow-up) about his exaggerated autobiography. He meanders on.

The stage was strangely denuded, like a forest after overzealous logging. There were eight contenders where there had once been 11 — back in the glory days of Scott Walker.

Even so, Bush couldn’t and didn’t stand out the way he, more than anyone else, really needed to.

He can take some solace though, in the No. 1 questions about two rivals that were trending on Google.

“Who is Rand Paul?” was one.

And the other, my favorite: “Why do Republicans hate Ted Cruz?”

Friedman, solo

October 28, 2015

In “Telling Mideast Negotiators, ‘Have a Nice Life’,” The Moustache of Wisdom says the Israelis and Palestinians need America to be blunt about reality if they are to break the paralysis in their internal politics.  Here he is:

In the Times review of the American Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross’s important new history of Israeli-U.S. relations, “Doomed to Succeed,” a telling moment on the eve of the 1991 Madrid peace conference caught my attention. The Palestinian delegation had raised some last-minute reservations with the secretary of state, James A. Baker III. Baker was livid, and told the Palestinians before walking out on them: “With you people, the souk never closes, but it is closed with me. Have a nice life.”

I was struck because that kind of straight talk has been all too absent from U.S. Middle East diplomacy lately. Israelis and Palestinians — way too long at war — are trapped in political hothouses of their own making, incapable of surprising each other with anything positive, and desperately in need of a friendly third-party dose of common sense.

Listening to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel claim last weekthat the Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini — who met Hitler in the early 1940s — gave Hitler the idea for mass murdering all the Jews, you can only conclude that Bibi is in a sealed bubble, with no one around him able to say: “You know Bibi, that is provably historically false. You might want to keep that one to yourself.”

We forget how much the parties need America at times to play the reality principle to break the paralysis in their internal politics. Sometimes their leaders need to say to their cabinets: “I would never agree to this, but those damn Americans broke my arm. See it dangling here! It’s broken! I had to say yes!” Israeli and Palestinian internal politics are brutal. As Baker learned, if you don’t get in their faces on a regular basis, you’re listed as “nap time” on their daily schedules.

What would such a U.S. message sound like today? It would start by saying publicly to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, “You rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s unprecedented September 2008 offer of a two-state solution, in which, as The Jerusalem Post later reported, ‘Olmert essentially agreed to forgo sovereignty of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site, and proposed that in the framework of a peace agreement, the area containing the religious sites in Jerusalem would be managed by a special committee … from five nations: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, the United States and Israel.’

“The Post also said, ‘Olmert laid out for [Abbas] … a large map upon which he outlined the borders of the future Palestinian state,’ which included a roughly equal swap of Palestinian land in the West Bank to house Israeli settlements in return for parts of Israel.

“Abbas, Olmert is still waiting for your answer.

“It’s clear that with the Palestinians now split between Hamas-led Gaza and your Fatah-led West Bank, there is no single, legitimate Palestinian Authority to formally approve a comprehensive peace deal. And it is also true that you have been committed to nonviolence — and bless you for that. But where is your creative plan for an interim solution that can at least move the process forward? Why do you just sit there like Buddha, rejecting creative ideas like the one put forward by Secretary of State John Kerry?”

As for Netanyahu, the blunt U.S. message might be: “You are going to be a historic figure: the Israeli leader who left Israel with nothing other than a one-state solution, in which Israel will gradually give up being Jewish or democratic. We know exactly what a one-state solution looks like. Just look out your window: Palestinians grabbing a kitchen knife and stabbing any Israeli Jew, and masked settler vigilantes retaliating back.”

I visited Monday with Israel’s very decent defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon. Hearing him describe Israel’s strategic theater is hair-raising: The nation has nonstate actors, dressed as civilians, armed with rockets, nested among civilians, on four of five borders — Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria — and he does not want to chance opening a fifth one by just evacuating the West Bank. I get it.

But there has to be some alternative to doing nothing or doing everything. It needs to be an alternative that at least tests Palestinians to really control some territory — and creates some hope that the two communities can separate securely. And it has to involve Israel at least stopping all settlement-building in the heart of the West Bank, in the areas long designated for a Palestinian state. Some 70,000 of Israel’s 400,000 settlers now live in those areas, and it’s making any separation increasingly impossible.

This is what Israel’s friends are missing. Israel has so much creative energy — in science, tech and medicine. But you don’t see it today in diplomacy. It’s true that Israel can survive this war of the knives. But will it thrive? Will it remain a place people will want to visit and raise their kids?

It may be that Israel has no choice.

But Israel is a really powerful country. It’s not a disarmed Costa Rica. No one expects it to give up everything. But fewer and fewer can understand why it puts so much energy into explaining why it can’t do anything, why the Palestinians are irredeemably awful and why nothing Israel could do would affect their behavior. I truly worry that Israel is slowly committing suicide, with all the best arguments.

Friedman and Bruni

October 21, 2015

In “Are You Sure You Want the Job?” The Moustache of Wisdom says battles between superpowers and superempowered angry men and teams of cybercriminals and cyberterrorists await our next president.  Mr. Bruni ponders “The Scary Specter of Ted Cruz” and says the Texas senator lurks ever larger in the 2016 presidential race, which grows scarier by the week.  Here’s TMOW:

Having watched all the debates and seen all these people running for president, I can’t suppress the thought: Why would anyone want this job now? Do you people realize what’s going on out there? Obama’s hair hasn’t gone early gray for nothing. I mean, Air Force One is great and all, but it now comes with Afghanistan, ISIS and the Republican Freedom Caucus — not to mention a lot of people, places and things all coming unstuck at once.

Consider the scariest news article this year. On Friday, The Washington Post reported that “the Justice Department has charged a hacker in Malaysia with stealing the personal data of U.S. service members and passing it to the Islamic State terrorist group, which urged supporters online to attack them.” The article explained that, in June, Ardit Ferizi, the leader of a group of ethnic Albanian hackers from Kosovo who call themselves Kosova Hackers Security, “hacked into a server used by a U.S. online retail company” and “obtained data on about 100,000 people.”

Ferizi, it said, “is accused of passing the data to Islamic State member Junaid Hussain, a British citizen who in August posted links on Twitter to the names, email addresses, passwords, locations and phone numbers of 1,351 U.S. military and other government personnel. He included a warning that Islamic State ‘soldiers … will strike at your necks in your own lands!’” F.B.I. agents tracked Ferizi “to a computer with an Internet address in Malaysia,” where he was arrested. Meanwhile, Hussain was killed by a U.S. drone in Syria.

Wow: An Albanian hacker in Malaysia collaborating with an ISIS jihadist on Twitter to intimidate U.S. soldiers online — before we killed the jihadist with a drone!

Welcome to the future of warfare: superpowers versus superempowered angry men — and a tag-team of cybercriminals and cyberterrorists. They’re all a byproduct of a profound technology-driven inflection point that will greet the next president and will make the current debates look laughably obsolete in four years.

I was born into the Cold War era. It was a dangerous time with two nuclear-armed superpowers each holding a gun to the other’s head, and the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” kept both in check. But we now know that the dictators that both America and Russia propped up in the Middle East and Africa suppressed volcanic sectarian conflicts.

The first decades of the post-Cold War era were also a time of relative stability. Dictators in Eastern Europe and Latin America gave way to democratically elected governments and free markets. Boris Yeltsin of Russia never challenged NATO expansion, and the Internet and global supply chains drove profitability up and the cost of labor and goods down. Interest rates were low, and although the income of men without college degrees declined, it was masked by rising home prices, subprime mortgages, easy credit, falling taxes and women joining the work force, so many household incomes continued to rise.

“Up until the year 2000, over 95 percent of the next generation were better off than the previous generation,” said Richard Dobbs, a director of the McKinsey Global Institute. Therefore, even though the rich were getting even richer than those down the income ladder “it did not lead to political unrest because the middle was moving ahead, too” and were sure to be richer than their parents.

But, in the last decade, we entered the post-post-Cold War era. The combination of technological, economic and climate pressures is literally blowing the lid off nation-states in the Middle East and Africa, unleashing sectarian conflicts that no dictator can suppress. Bad guys are getting superempowered and “mutually assured destruction” to ISIS is not a deterrent but an invitation to heaven. Robots are milking cows and IBM’s Watson computer can beat you at “Jeopardy!” and your doctor at radiology, so every decent job requires more technical and social skills — and continuous learning. In the West, a smaller number of young people, with billions in college tuition debts, will have to pay the Medicare and Social Security for the baby boomers now retiring, who will be living longer.

“Suddenly,” argues Dobbs, “the number of people who don’t believe they will be better off than their parents goes from zero to 25 percent or more.”

When you are advancing, you buy the system; you don’t care who’s a billionaire, because your life is improving. But when you stop advancing, added Dobbs, you can “lose faith in the system — whether that be globalization, free trade, offshoring, immigration, traditional Republicans or traditional Democrats. Because in one way or another they can be perceived as not working for you.”

And that is why Donald Trump is resonating in America, Marine Le Pen in France, the ISIS caliph in the Arab world, and Vladimir Putin in Russia. They all promise to bring back the certainties and prosperity of the Cold War or post-Cold War eras — by sacking the traditional elites who got us here and by building walls against change and against the superempowered angry men. They are all false prophets, but the storm they promise to hold back is very real.

And now we have Mr. Bruni:

Since leaving the White House, George W. Bush has taken pains not to insert himself into the events of the day. Not to weigh in. Not to utter statements bound to become headlines.

When he breaks that habit, you perk up and wonder why.

He broke it in regard to Ted Cruz.

According to a report in Politico on Monday, Bush used his unscripted remarks at a fund-raiser for his brother Jeb over the weekend to make clear that among Jeb’s rivals for the Republican nomination, one in particular rubs him the wrong way.

He described Cruz as cynically opportunistic and self-serving. And this assessment was so starkly at odds with Bush’s anodyne, even warm, remarks about other Republican presidential candidates that listeners were stunned, wrote Politico’s Eli Stokols.

Bush reportedly summed up his sentiments about Cruz, who worked as a policy adviser on Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, with this blunt declaration: “I just don’t like the guy.”

I think a great many Americans — including a majority of Cruz’s colleagues in Congress — know exactly how he feels.

But there’s no solace in his words. Quite the opposite. He wouldn’t have felt compelled to utter them if Cruz wasn’t a possible factor in the race — if he wasn’t a menacing, stalking, relentless force to watch for and run from, like the body-hopping spirit in this year’s most celebrated horror movie, “It Follows.”

In fact Bush’s remarks at the fund-raiser apparently included a heads-up about Cruz’s potency, especially in primaries across the South.

The slow torture of the Republican primary knows no limit. First Donald Trump turns it into a carnival, then Ben Carson comes along with his insanity about the Holocaust and guns. Between them they own nearly 50 percent of the Republican vote, according to recent national surveys.

Examine those polls closely and your stomach clenches tighter. Cruz is “fourth in an average of the last three live-interview polls, at 8 percent,”wrote Harry Enten late last week on the website FiveThirtyEight. In a subsequent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Cruz was again fourth, a few points behind Rubio and a point ahead of Bush.

It follows.

His campaign has more cash on hand than that of any other Republican in the hunt. If you add “super PAC” money that’s been officially disclosed so far to the tally, he trails only Jeb and Hillary Clinton.

It follows.

In a column earlier this month, I noted that alarmed Republican operatives were paying greater heed to Cruz, who seems to be positioning himself as the ultraconservative fallback — the rabble rouser in the bullpen — if angry voters rethink Trump or Carson and want an establishment-vilifying candidate with at least some government experience. Cruz is in his first term as a senator from Texas.

And what a first term it’s been, beginning with his insinuations that Chuck Hagel was a traitor, continuing through his preening “Green Eggs and Ham” quasi-filibuster, cresting with his public denunciation of the Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, as a liar and culminating with his call for a government shutdown to prevent any federal funding of Planned Parenthood, a replay of his call for a government shutdown to do away with Obamacare.

He’s the patron saint of lost causes, at least if they bring the spotlight his way. In that sense he’s emblematic of the flamboyantly uncompromising comrades in the so-called Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives, who similarly confuse attention with accomplishment.

All of them, with Cruz as their spiritual leader, have turned petulance into a theory of governing, or rather anti-governing, as they breezily disregard the contradiction of their ravenous lunge to become monarchs of a kingdom that they supposedly want to topple, to gain power over a system that they ostensibly intend to enfeeble.

Cruz doesn’t propose remedies. He performs rants. He’s not interested in collaboration or teamwork. His main use for other politicians, even in his party, is as foils and targets. Paul Ryan got a taste of that over the weekend, when Cruz, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” was asked if Ryan was a true conservative and dodged the question, withholding his blessing.

He should be careful about genuineness versus phoniness, given the problems with his own prairie-populist pose.

Cruz’s law degree is from Harvard and he did his undergraduate work at Princeton, where the 250-year-old debating club that he belonged to is called the American Whig-Cliosophic Society. Cruz’s wife is on leave from a job with Goldman Sachs.

Keep that in mind when he rails against the establishment and the elites. And remember that when someone is as broadly and profoundly disliked as Cruz is, it’s usually not because he’s a principled truth teller.

It’s because he’s frightening.

Well, Frankie, which of the mole people running isn’t?

Friedman and Bruni

October 7, 2015

In “Stuff Happens to the Environment, Like Climate Change” Mr. Friedman says we’re wearing down the planet, and the next president, even a Republican, will be faced with that reality.  Mr. Bruni, in “Carly Fiorina’s Shameless Promotion,” says the rising presidential candidate burns with conviction — when the cause is herself.  Here’s TMOW:

With both China and India having just announced major plans to curb their carbon emissions, the sound you hear is a tipping point tipping. Heading into the United Nations climate summit meeting in Paris in December, all the world’s largest industrial economies are now taking climate change more seriously. This includes the United States — except for some of the knuckleheads running to be our next president, which is not a small problem.

When, at CNN’s G.O.P. presidential debate, the moderator Jake Tapper read statements from Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state George Shultz (who drives an electric car powered by solar panels on his home’s roof) about how Reagan urged industry to proactively address ozone depletion, and why Shultz believes we should be just as proactive today in dealing with climate change, he got the usual know-nothing responses.

Senator Marco Rubio said, “We’re not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government that we are under now wants to do,” while Gov. Chris Christie opined of Shultz, “Listen, everybody makes a mistake every once in a while.”

They sure do, and it’s not Shultz, who has been wisely and courageously telling Republicans that the conservative thing to do now is to take out some insurance against climate change, because if it really gets rocking the results could be “catastrophic.” Hurricane Sandy — likely amplified by warmer ocean waters — caused over $36 billion in damage to Christie’s own state, New Jersey, in 2012.

But hey, stuff just happens.

There was a time when we could tolerate this kind of dumb-as-we-wanna-be thinking. But it’s over. The next eight years will be critical for the world’s climate and ecosystems, and if you vote for a climate skeptic for president, you’d better talk to your kids first, because you will have to answer to them later.

If you have time to read one book on this subject, I highly recommend the new “Big World, Small Planet,” by Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center, and Mattias Klum, whose stunning photographs of ecosystem disruptions reinforce the urgency of the moment.

Rockstrom begins his argument with a reminder that for most of the earth’s 4.5-billion-year history its climate was not very hospitable to human beings, as it oscillated between “punishing ice ages and lush warm periods” that locked humanity into seminomadic lifestyles.

It’s only been in the last 10,000 years that we have enjoyed the stable climate conditions allowing civilizations to develop based on agriculture that could support towns and cities. This period, known as the Holocene, was an “almost miraculously stable and warm interglacial equilibrium, which is the only state of the planet we know for sure can support the modern world as we know it.” It finally gave us “a stable equilibrium of forests, savannahs, coral reefs, grasslands, fish, mammals, bacteria, air quality, ice cover, temperature, fresh water availability and productive soils.”

It “is our Eden,” Rockstrom added, and now “we are threatening to push earth out of this sweet spot,” starting in the mid-1950s, when the Industrial Revolution reached most of the rest of the globe and populations and middle classes exploded. That triggered “the great acceleration” of industrial and farming growth, which has put all of earth’s ecosystems under stress. The impacts now are obvious: “climate change, chemical pollution, air pollution, land and water degradation … and the massive loss of species and habitats.”

The good news is that in this period many more of the world’s have-nots have escaped from poverty. They’ve joined the party. The bad news, says Rockstrom, is that “the old party” cannot go on as it did. The earth is very good at finding ways to adapt to stress: oceans and forest absorb the extra CO2; ecosystems like the Amazon adapt to deforestation and still provide rain and fresh water; the Arctic ice shrinks but does not disappear. But eventually we can exhaust the planet’s adaptive capacities.

We’re sitting on these planetary boundaries right now, argues Rockstrom, and if these systems flip from one stable state to another — if the Amazon tips into a savannah, if the Arctic loses its ice cover and instead of reflecting the sun’s rays starts absorbing them in water, if the glaciers all melt and cannot feed the rivers — nature will be fine, but we will not be.

“The planet has demonstrated an impressive capacity to maintain its balance, using every trick in its bag to stay in the current state,” explains Rockstrom. But there are more and more signs that we may have reached a saturation point. Forests show the first signs of absorbing less carbon. The oceans are rapidly acidifying as they absorb more CO2, harming fish and coral. Global average temperatures keep rising.

This is what will greet the next president — a resilient planet that could once absorb our excesses at seemingly no cost to us, suddenly tipping into a saturated planet, sending us “daily invoices” that will get bigger each year. When nature goes against you, watch out.

“For the first time, we need to be clever,” says Rockstrom, “and rise to a crisis before it happens,” before we cross nature’s tipping points. Later will be too late. We elect a president who ignores this science at our peril.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Carly Fiorina gives one heck of a speech.

That was my first impression, a positive one, when I caught up with her in Sacramento in 2010 to chronicle her bid for the Senate.

She had focus, urgency and a brimming arsenal of barbs, just as she does now. She liked to mention an incident in which Senator Barbara Boxer, the incumbent Democrat, once upbraided an Army bigwig for calling her “Ma’am” rather than “Senator,” and she told Californians that if they gave her Boxer’s job: “You may call me ‘Ma’am.’ You may call me ‘Senator.’ You may call me ‘Carly.’ You may call me, ‘Hey, you, remember, you work for me.’ ”

She presented herself as a woman of the people, at our service.

But that wasn’t my impression of her after about a week of attending her campaign events, riding around California with her and interviewing her about her drive and her desires.

Even more so than is usually the case, the candidacy seemed to be all about the candidate. She yearned to silence forever all of the naysaying about her stewardship of Hewlett-Packard, to be validated by voters, to have the final say.

She failed, and she failed big, losing to Boxer by 10 points.

Her response? To seek a promotion. She’s running for president.

Give her credit for dauntlessness.

But look closely and you see its ugly sibling, shamelessness, not just in the way she treats facts but in the way she treats others.

The Washington Post just published a humiliating account of her sluggishness to pay bills from that 2010 campaign. That she stiffed several vendors until January 2015 wasn’t really the damning part: That’s sadly common in politics.

But The Post reported that one of the people stiffed was the widow of the pollster Joe Shumate, who dropped dead of a heart attack, “surrounded by sheets of polling data” for Fiorina, shortly before Election Day in 2010. Fiorina mourned him as “the heart and soul” of her operation, then neglected for years to fork over at least $30,000 that she owed him.

Martin Wilson, who managed that campaign, told The Post that he occasionally implored her to settle up. “She just wouldn’t,” he said.

It’s striking that he’d tattle like that on Fiorina. She apparently doesn’t leave much love in her wake. Reuters interviewed about 30 people who worked for her in 2010, 12 of whom said: Never again. “I’d rather go to Iraq,” one unidentified campaign aide groused.

And The Daily Beast examined Fiorina’s recent campaign-finance filings and noticed that almost no one at Hewlett-Packard had given more than $200 — the minimum amount for which a donor must be identified — to her presidential quest.

She has her loyalists, including some glass-half-full revisionists. Consider this from the Post story: “Her supporters cautioned that little could be gleaned from her California campaign. They maintain that Fiorina’s corporate experience is more akin to managing a presidential campaign than a bid for office in one of the nation’s most liberal states.”

In other words, the Boxer contest was small potatoes — peculiar ones, too — and a leader of Fiorina’s vision and scope is suited only to a giant spud.

For someone so caustic about others’ shortcomings, she’s awfully cavalier about her own.

“It was a mistake,” she said to me in 2010 about her failure to vote in elections in New Jersey, where she’d once lived for 10 years, and in more than half of the 18 elections in California in which she could have participated.

Then she qualified that confession, explaining that she hadn’t been “running my life to seek political office,” as if such a goal were the only reason to show up at the polls.

In the cause of others, she’s not so quick, exuberant or deft. She campaigned as a surrogate for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election but had to be sidelined after saying that neither McCain nor Sarah Palin, his running mate, could run a big corporation. It was a fascinating lapse, in that she was denying them the chops to do precisely what she had done (albeit poorly, by many measures).

In her calculus, the corporate world qualified her for governing, but government experience didn’t qualify others for the corporate world. What self-flattering, self-serving arithmetic.

It has been correctly observed that her ascent in the polls, coupled with Donald Trump’s enduringly strong showing, reflects the currency of political outsiders right now.

But it also reflects the potency of an insatiable hunger for approbation and an unshakable belief in your genius. She and Trump share that, and of course she gives one heck of a speech. She thrills to her own voice.

Friedman and Bruni

September 30, 2015

In “Syria, Obama and Putin” TMOW says it’s better to be wary of getting involved in Syria than rushing to do so.  What a surprise — he’s not immediately banging on his little tin war drum.  Mr. Bruni has written a disgraceful POS called “Hillary Clinton’s Pajama Party” in which he channels MoDo and hisses that with Lena Dunham, the candidate gives us a fresh glimpse of her labored spontaneity.  In the comments “Rosa” from CA had this to say:  “It was your choice to write this silly article about pajamas and penises. Too bad you wasted the space. But I’m getting used to wasted space when it comes to the Times and Clinton. Whether it is Benghazi or emails, I am so beyond caring. I no longer listen to you. No matter what it is, she won’t get a fair shake and I won’t get any information on what she REALLY is doing…. unless I go elsewhere, and I do.  Now, here’s a real news flash for you: It seems that Kevin McCarthy may not be a shoo-in. The Hard Right Crazies are working to get Trey Gowdy to replace Boehner. You know Gowdy: the one who’s run the Benghazi Committee for years. He hates her with a passion. Swears he’ll get her on something. I believe he has a penis, too. You can write about him. You can even write about him in glowing terms like you and the Times do on all those Klowns.  Don’t become as irrelevant as Maureen Dowd, Frank.”  Amen, sister.  Here’s TMOW:

Your Honor, I rise again in defense of President Barack Obama’s policy on Syria.

Obama has been right in his ambivalence about getting deeply involved in Syria. But he’s never had the courage of his own ambivalence to spell out his reasoning to the American people. He keeps letting himself get pummeled into doing and saying things that his gut tells him won’t work, so he gets the worst of all worlds: His rhetoric exceeds the policy, and the policy doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, Obama’s Republican critics totally lack the wisdom of our own experience. They blithely advocate “fire, ready, aim” in Syria without any reason to believe their approach will work there any better than it did for us in Iraq or Libya. People who don’t know how to fix inner-city Baltimore think they know how to rescue downtown Aleppo — from the air!

Personally, I’ll take the leader who lacks the courage of his own ambivalence over the critics who lack the wisdom of their own experience. But ambivalence is not a license to do nothing. We can do things that make a difference, but only if we look at our enemies and allies in Syria with clear eyes.

For instance, today’s reigning cliché is that the wily fox, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, has once again outmaneuvered the flat-footed Americans, by deploying some troops, planes and tanks to Syria to buttress the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and to fight the Islamic State forces threatening him. If only we had a president who was so daring, so tough, so smart.

Really? Well think about this: Let’s say the U.S. did nothing right now, and just let Putin start bombing ISIS and bolstering Assad. How long before every Sunni Muslim in the Middle East, not to mention every jihadist, has Putin’s picture in a bull’s eye on his cellphone?

The Sunni Muslims are the vast majority in Syria. They are the dominant sect in the Arab world. Putin and Russia would be seen as going all-in to protect Assad, a pro-Iranian, Alawite/Shiite genocidal war criminal. Putin would alienate the entire Sunni Muslim world, including Russian Muslims.

Moreover, let’s say by some miracle the Russians defeat ISIS. The only way to keep them defeated is by replacing them with moderate Sunnis. Which moderate Sunnis are going to align with Russia while Putin is seen as the prime defender of the barrel-bombing murderer of more Sunnis than anyone on the planet, Bashar al-Assad?

Putin stupidly went into Syria looking for a cheap sugar high to show his people that Russia is still a world power. Well, now he’s up a tree. Obama and John Kerry should just leave him up there for a month — him and Assad, fighting ISIS alone — and watch him become public enemy No. 1 in the Sunni Muslim world. “Yo, Vladimir, how’s that working for you?”

The only way Putin can get down from that tree is with our help in forging a political solution in Syria. And that only happens if the Russians and the Iranians force Assad — after a transition — to step down and leave the country, in return for the opposition agreeing to protect the basic safety and interests of Assad’s Alawite community, and both sides welcoming an international force on the ground to guarantee the deal.

But to get there we need to size our rhetoric with our interests in Syria as well. Our interests right now are to eliminate or contain the two biggest metastasizing threats: ISIS — whose growth can threaten the islands of decency in the region like Lebanon, the Kurds and Jordan — and the tragedy of Syrian refugees, whose numbers are growing so large they are swamping Lebanon and Jordan and, if they continue, could destabilize the European Union, our vital partner in the world.

If we want something better — multisectarian democracy in Syria soon — we would have to go in and build it ourselves. The notion that it would only take arming more Syrian moderates is insane.

During the weekend The Times reported that “nearly 30,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Iraq and Syria from more than 100 countries since 2011.” So 30,000 people have gone to Syria to join ISIS to promote jihad and a caliphate. How many Arabs and Muslims have walked to Syria to promote multisectarian democracy? Apparently zero.

Why do we have to search for moderates like a man with a dowsing rod looking for water, and then train them, while no one has to train the jihadists, who flock there? It’s because the jihadists are in the grip of ideals, albeit warped ones. There is no critical mass of Syrian moderates in the grip of ideals; they will fight for their own homes and families, but not for an abstract ideal like democracy. We try to make up for that with military “training,” but it never works.

Are there real democrats among the Syrian opposition? You bet, but not enough, not with the organization, motivation and ruthlessness of their opponents.

Everyone wants an immaculate intervention in Syria, one where you look like you’re doing something, but without the political cost of putting troops on the ground or having to make unpleasant compromises with unsavory people. There is no such option.

I think Putin’s rash rush into Syria may in the end make him more in need of a deal, or at least a lasting cease-fire, that stops the refugee flows. If we can do that, for now, we will have done a lot.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni’s disgraceful offering:

She had a law career, an ambitious agenda as first lady, an industrious stint in the Senate, those years and miles as secretary of state.

And it has come to this: In a bid to seem less stuffy and turn the page on a beleaguered (yet again) presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton is chatting with Lena Dunham about the singer Lenny Kravitz’s penis.

You can watch the video yourself. It’s a jokey promotion for an interview of Clinton just published in a new newsletter that Dunham is putting out. You can also see a comedic sketch of Dunham’s arrival at Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Brooklyn and the make-believe refusal of a Clinton gatekeeper to let her in. There’s even a cameo by Amy Schumer.

The interview itself covers Clinton’s biography and some serious terrain, including feminism and the relationship between African-Americans and the police.

But it’s in large part a Dunham-Clinton love-in, a pajama party minus the pajamas, ostensibly in keeping with the Clinton campaign’s recent pledge to roll out a warmer, funnier version of the candidate. I’ve lost count of which version we’re on.

In the promotional video, Clinton kids that because Dunham’s newsletter and the website associated with it are called Lenny, she half expected that the person coming to question her might be Kravitz.

Dunham then mentions some viral footage of a Kravitz wardrobe malfunction: “His stuff fell out of his pants.”

Clinton feigns fascination. “I’ll look for that,” she says.

I blame us in part. For years we’ve demanded that she show us something more raw, that she weep or bleed or chirp or quip, that a policy wonk isn’t enough, that a résumé is only the start.

We’ve reminded her of how nimbly her husband pivoted from noonday speech to late-night saxophone. We’ve insisted that our presidents and would-be presidents not only inspire but also divert us. And we’ve pumped up the scandals, ratcheting up the pressure on her to feed us distractions.

But still I’m baffled. How can her response to charges that she’s too packaged and calculating be this packaged and calculated? And to counter her image as entrenched political royalty, why would she enlist stars whose presence merely emphasizes her pull with, and membership in, the glittery world of celebrity?

“Insane,” said one Democratic operative when I sought his reaction.

“It’s a transparent and ham-handed attempt to appeal to a niche audience that the campaign has identified as a critical target,” he added, referring to progressive young women. “But if they’re not already getting Lena Dunham and her cohorts, they’re in even bigger trouble than I thought.”

I think that Clinton is actually in less trouble than we sometimes speculate. She remains the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination.

But her campaign so far is an unimpressive dress rehearsal for the general election. It’s devoid of soul and sweep, a series of labored gestures and precisely staked positions. Constituency by constituency, leftward adjustment by leftward adjustment, she and her aides slog and muscle their way forward.

And they contradict the adage that a politician campaigns in poetry and governs in prose. Clinton campaigns in something more like a PowerPoint presentation. Prose would be an upgrade. Poetry is light years away.

That’s what the Democratic strategist David Axelrod was getting at when, about two weeks ago, he tweeted: “It’s still HRC’s to lose, despite new polls. But it’s hard to inspire w/grinding, tactical race. ‘Hillary: Live With It’ is no rallying cry!”

No it isn’t, not even if Dunham and Schumer put funny faces on it.

It’s to Dunham’s shrewd credit that she grabbed a piece of the action. It serves her well.

But for Clinton? It’s a contrivance.

Earlier this month, The Times’s Amy Chozick interviewed her aides and reported that there would be “new efforts to bring spontaneity to a candidacy that sometimes seems wooden and overly cautious.”

An effort at spontaneity: that’s the prompt for sitting down with Dunham — who assures Clinton that she’s a fashion icon and implores her to wear dresses that show her shoulders — and it’s the oxymoronic story of Clinton’s political life.

She is routinely reintroducing herself, forever trumpeting the real Hillary this time, constantly promising the unguarded Hillary at long last.

But the real Hillary has always been there, the thread running through all the changes in costumes and hairstyles and campaign events.

She is fiercely intelligent but, yes, wildly defensive. She does her homework with uncommon diligence and earnestness but can be a dud on the stump. She’s impressively controlled. She’s distressingly controlling.

There’s more than enough good in that mix for voters to make peace with it. But first Clinton has to make peace with it herself.

He should be ashamed of himself.  Actually, he should write an apology and then STFU about politics and go back to being a restaurant reviewer.

Friedman and Bruni

September 23, 2015

In “Politicians Seeing Evil, Hearing Evil, Speaking Evil” TMOW says that a new film about Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination in Israel could serve as a warning about Donald Trump and Ben Carson’s divisive, bigoted campaigns.  Mr. Bruni considers “Scott Walker’s Cocktail of Ignorance” and says too many Republican candidates are too cavalier about the knowledge and preparation that a president should have.  Here’s TMOW:

There is a movie I’m looking forward to seeing when it comes to Washington. It seems quite relevant to America today. It’s about what can happen in a democratic society when politicians go too far, when they not only stand mute when hateful words that cross civilized redlines suddenly become part of the public discourse, but, worse, start to wink at and dabble in this hate speech for their advantage.

Later, they all say that they never heard the words, never saw the signs, or claim that their own words were misunderstood. But they heard and they saw and they meant. Actually, I don’t need to see the movie, because I lived it. And I know how it ends. Somebody gets hurt.

The movie is called “Rabin: The Last Day.” Agence France-Presse said the movie, by the renowned Israeli director Amos Gitai, is about “the incitement campaign before the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin” and “revisits a form of Jewish radicalism that still poses major risks.” This is the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination by Yigal Amir, a right-wing Jewish radical.

“My goal wasn’t to create a personality cult around Rabin,” Gitai told A.F.P. “My focus was on the incitement campaign that led to his murder.” Sure, the official investigating commission focused on the breakdowns in Rabin’s security detail, but, Gitai added, “They didn’t investigate what were the underlying forces that wanted to kill Rabin. His murder came at the end of a hate campaign led by hallucinating rabbis, settlers who were against the withdrawal from territories and the parliamentary right, led by the Likud (party), already then headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, who wanted to destabilize Rabin’s Labor government.”

The film, A.F.P. said, “relied on documents, photos and videos, particularly from the months before Rabin’s assassination, including those showing speeches from politicians such as Netanyahu at rallies against the Oslo accords, where Rabin was depicted in a Nazi uniform.”

I hope a lot of Americans see this film — for the warning it offers to those who ignore or rationalize the divisive, bigoted campaigns of Donald Trump and Ben Carson and how they’re dragging their whole party across civic redlines, with candidates saying, rationalizing or ignoring more and more crazy, ill-informed stuff each week.

Trump actually launched his campaign on June 16 with a message of polarization, saying: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column gave him four Pinocchios, its highest rating for not telling the truth, noting: “Trump’s repeated statements about immigrants and crime underscore a common public perception that crime is correlated with immigration, especially illegal immigration. But that is a misperception; no solid data support it, and the data that do exist negate it.”

And then Trump insulted John McCain, saying he was only a war hero because he got captured, adding, “I like people that weren’t captured, O.K.?” McCain spent five and a half years as a P.O.W. in Vietnam and was repeatedly tortured and had his bones broken. As CNN reported, “Trump, meanwhile, received four student deferments and one medical deferment to avoid serving in the Vietnam War.”

What does it mean to impugn a man who has sacrificed so much for his country? It means you can smear anyone.

Last week another redline was crossed. At a Trump town hall event, the first questioner began: “We got a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. We know he’s not even an American. But anyway. We have training camps brewing where they want to kill us. That’s my question. When can we get rid of them?”

Trump responded: “A lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking into that and plenty of other things.”

Trump could have let the man ask his question and then correct his racist nonsense, without blocking his free speech, which is exactly what McCain did in a similar situation. Instead, he later said it was not his place to defend Obama. As someone who aspires to be president it is his place to defend the truth, but since Trump himself has been the source of so much birther nonsense about Obama, I guess that would be hard. Instead he tweeted: “Christians need support in our country (and around the world), their religious liberty is at stake! Obama has been horrible, I will be great.”

And then, like clockwork, Ben Carson saw Trump blurring another civic redline and leapfrogged him. Carson stated, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”

So a whole faith community gets delegitimized and another opportunity for someone to courageously stand up for what’s decent is squandered. But it will play well with certain voters. And that is all that matters — until something really bad happens. And then, all of it — the words, tweets, signs and boasts — will be footage for another documentary that ends badly.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

With the arrival of the pope, our spirits lift.

With the departure of Scott Walker, they plummet.

There’s so much we’ll never know, such as how far he was willing to take his single issue. For Walker it was unions at dawn, unions at dusk, unions in his dreams. Having hobbled them in Wisconsin, he vowed to cripple them nationally, and who’s to say it would have stopped there? I feel certain that he was mere weeks away from a big speech advocating the deployment of ground troops to stamp out collective bargaining among the Sherpas in Nepal.

I feel certain, too, that his best gaffes were still to come, though he gave us several gems. In an era lacking visionary leadership, he envisioned a great wall along our northern border to keep out the tides of Canadians fleeing the tyranny of free health insurance. And we learned that years back, he mangled an intended “mazel tov” in a letter to a Jewish constituent, instead writing: “Thank you again and Molotov.”

I miss him already. And I wonder: Was it his shallowness that undid him? Just how little learning will Republican voters abide in a candidate? Did he test the limit?

One of his former aides, Liz Mair, suggested as much, firing off tweets on Monday about his errors, including “not educating himself fast enough” on national and world affairs.

Walker evaded foreign policy questions, apparently petrified of being tripped up. He bungled domestic policy questions, seemingly unable to cling to a sturdy position.

But whether that doomed him is impossible to say in a Republican primary season with mixed messages about the party’s appetite for ignorance, at once prodigious and inconsistent.

Donald Trump has prospered, and he’s utterly unapologetic about all of the matters that he hasn’t taken the trouble to bone up on and all of the experts whom he hasn’t bothered to consult.

When NBC’s Chuck Todd asked him where he gets his military advice, he said: “I watch the shows.” He presumably meant “Meet the Press” and “Face the Nation,” though I don’t think we can rule out “Survivor” or “Game of Thrones.”

Time and again, Trump pledges to amass the proper information just before he needs it — no point in doing so now, before he finds out if he’s hired — and he predicts that he’ll shame everyone then with his abracadabra erudition. He’s a procrastinating college freshman planning an all-nighter before the final exam.

But here comes Carly Fiorina, and her brand is aced-it-already and know-it-all. I’ve seen this firsthand.

For a magazine story in 2010, I followed her around and interviewed her over several days. Someone would mention a flower; she’d rattle off a factoid about it. I’d ask her about a foreign language that she’d studied; she’d make clear that she’d dabbled in two others as well. Her husband would tell a story; she’d rush to correct him and fill in the details.

Her fresh bounce in the polls reflects a debate performance last week that was all about policy fluency, and Marco Rubio, who flaunted similar chops that night, also seemed to benefit from his show of smarts.

So do Republicans want finesse or fire? A cool intellect or a hothead?

Walker was no doubt as confused about this as he is about so much else, and no wonder. Well beyond the Republican primary and the Republican Party, we’ve exhibited a curious habit in this country of forgiving intellectual blind spots and refashioning a contempt for schooling as an embrace of common sense.

A whole subgenre of nonfiction is devoted to this. Don’t sweat the brain work, because there’s “Emotional Intelligence.” Don’t think, “Blink.” Obtuseness in a leader can be redeemed by “The Wisdom of Crowds.”

I’m being somewhat loose in my description of those books. And I’m not rejecting the importance of instinct.

But I’m weary and wary of politicians whose ambitions precede and eclipse any serious, necessary preparation for the office they seek. Walker is a perfect example.

I kept hearing and reading — after he’d obviously decided to run for president — that he was being briefed by an emergency crew of wonks. Shouldn’t that have happened first? Shouldn’t he have been paying attention all along, out of a genuine interest in this sort of material rather than a pragmatic one?

He wasn’t, and so this candidate — who had begun gaming out his political future all the way back in college, where he gave his classes short shrift — took an international trip during which he refused to discuss international relations, oddly claiming that it wouldn’t be polite.

Etiquette prevailed.

He didn’t.

Molotov, Governor Walker.

Friedman, solo

September 16, 2015

Mr. Bruni is off today, so TMOW has the place to himself.  In “Iran Deal Players’ Report Cards” he says it’s time to rate the performances of a number of the people who worked hard to get the agreement or to stop it.  Here he is:

The Iran nuclear deal is now sealed — from Washington’s end. But since this has been one of America’s most important foreign policy shifts in the last four decades, it’s worth looking back and grading the performance of the key players.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Grade: A.

His prediction last week that Israel won’t be around in “25 years” was perfectly timed to complicate President Obama’s effort to get the deal through Congress. Khamenei is a bad guy. When I asked a Middle East expert friend to explain Khamenei’s behavior, he invoked a Yiddish curse on the Iranian: “May all his teeth fall out, except the ones that hurt.”

But he’s also a clever guy. Through this deal Khamenei gets Iran out from under crippling sanctions, which his people want, by pushing the breakout time for Iran to make a nuclear bomb from two months to a year — for 15 years — but getting the world to bless Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear enrichment program, even though it cheated its way there. And he’s done it all while giving his hard-line base the feeling that he’s still actually against this deal and his negotiators the feeling that he’s for it. So all his options are open, depending on how the deal goes.

Hat’s off, Ali, you’re good. When I sell my house, could I give you a call?

But here’s a note to his parents: “Ali got an A, but he has a tendency to get cocky. He is confident that he can pull off this deal without any transformation in Iran’s domestic politics. I suggest you buy him a good biography of Mikhail Gorbachev.”

Dick Cheney. Grade: F.

I cite Cheney because his opposition to the deal, which he’s been peddling along with a new book, was utterly dishonest, but in a way that summed up much of the knee-jerk Republican opposition: This is a bad deal because Obama was a wimp.

No, this deal is what it is because it reflects the balance of power, and the key factor in that balance is that the Iranians came to believe America would never use force to eliminate their nuclear program. But that’s not all on Obama. Republicans, and Cheney personally, played a big role in the loss of U.S. credibility to threaten Iran with force.

After briefing Congress on Sept. 10, 2007, Gen. David Petraeus told Fox News that Iran was supporting and directing Iraqi Shiite insurgents who have “carried out violent acts against our forces, Iraqi forces and innocent civilians.” Iran was cited for making specially shaped roadside bombs responsible for killing hundreds of U.S. troops. Yet, even though our commanders said that publicly, their bosses — George W. Bush and Dick Cheney — refused to ever order retaliation against Iranian targets. Iran noticed.

Ditto on nukes. As Peter Beinart wrote for The Atlantic last week, Cheney stopped by “Fox News Sunday” to bash Obama’s nuclear deal, “but moderator Chris Wallace, to his credit, wanted to ask Cheney about his own failings on Iran. On the Bush administration’s watch, Wallace noted, Iran’s centrifuges for enriching uranium ‘went from zero to 5,000.’ Cheney protested, declaring that, ‘That happened on Obama’s watch and not on our watch.’ But Wallace held his ground. ‘No, no, no,’ he insisted. ‘By 2009, they were at 5,000.’ Cheney paused for an instant, muttered, ‘right,’ and went back to his talking points.”

Note to his parents: “Dick has a problem telling the truth, and he’s not alone. Some G.O.P. critiques of this deal should be looked at, but they’ll never be taken seriously if the party isn’t straight about its own role in our loss of deterrence vis-à-vis Iran.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Grade C.

No one had more impact in getting the world to impose sanctions and take Iran’s nuclear threat seriously than Netanyahu. But his reckless spat with Obama, which went beyond substance to openly endorsing Obama’s G.O.P. rivals and colluding with G.O.P. House leaders to address Congress — without the president’s support — hurt him, Israel and the deal.

Had Bibi hugged Obama, he could have made Israel effectively the sixth party in the P-5 side of negotiations with Iran and stiffened every spine. Instead, Netanyahu marginalized Israel. And by calling elections in the middle of it all, and forming a far-right cabinet with extremist Jewish settlers, Netanyahu is playing right into Iran’s hands: Iran wants a one-state solution, where Israel never leaves the West Bank and is in permanent conflict with Palestinians and Muslims, so Iran can better delegitimize and isolate Israel.

Note to Netanyahu’s parents: “Bibi won’t be punished for any of his mistakes; domestic U.S. politics will ensure that. But beware: That will only increase the odds that he’ll lead Israel into a permanent, corrosive occupation of the West Bank, make support for Israel an increasingly Republican cause and lose the next generation of American Jews.”

President Obama. Grade: I (Incomplete).

Note to Obama’s parents: “This deal makes sense; it can keep Iran away from a bomb. But Barack should go to bed every night for the next 15 years worrying whether Iran is living up to it. That’s the best way to ensure that he, his party and his successors will stay vigilant and put in place an effective deterrence to Iran ever building a bomb. I hope he gets an A, but only history can give it to him.”

Friedman and Bruni

September 9, 2015

The Moustache of Wisdom ponders “Walls, Borders, a Dome and Refugees” and tells us that the fallout of collapsing countries continues to spill into our orderly world, and just isolating ourselves won’t change that.  Mr. Bruni, in “The Spirit and Promise of Detroit,” says we’re all invested in this city, a reflection of our neglect and a referendum on our resilience.  Here’s TMOW:

After Donald Trump proposed building a high wall all along the U.S.-Mexico border, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, not to be out-trumped, basically said, I see your wall and raise you one, stating that it was “legitimate” to consider building a wall along the 5,525-mile U.S.-Canada border as well.

Well, I see both your walls — and raise you a dome.

That’s right. I think we shouldn’t just put high walls on both borders, but also a retractable dome over the whole country and, for good measure, let’s mine our harbors, too — as Lindsey Graham jokingly suggested, criticizing his wall-obsessed fellow Republican presidential contenders.

I know, Walker’s proposal is crazy. But, alas, the fears that he and Trump are playing on with this wall theme are not crazy: Some very big tectonic plates are moving, and people feel it under their feet. The world is being redivided into regions of “order” and “disorder,” and for the first time in a long time, we don’t have an answer for all the people flocking to get out of the world of disorder and into the world of order.

But being surrounded by two oceans and friendly democracies in Mexico and Canada, the U.S. is actually less affected by this new era. (The net migration flow from Mexico to the U.S. is now zero.) In fact, we should keep enhancing our economic integration with both our neighbors in ways that can make all three nations more stable and thriving.

It is why, when it comes to our borders, I favor only high walls with big gates — yes, control the borders but with more efficient gates that enhance investment, common standards, trade, tourism and economic opportunity in all three countries. Nothing would make us more secure. When it comes to our neighbors, Trump and Walker are making Americans both afraid and dumb, purely for political gain.

But if either man were running for office in Europe today, his position on walls everywhere would be getting a big hearing, as masses of refugees from the African and Middle Eastern worlds of disorder try to walk, swim, sail, drive, bus and rail their way into Europe’s world of order.

And this is just the beginning. That is because the three largest forces on the planet — Mother Nature (climate change, biodiversity loss and population growth in developing countries), Moore’s law (the steady doubling in the power of microchips and, more broadly, of technology) and the market (globalization tying the world ever more tightly together) — are all in simultaneous, rapid acceleration.

This combination is stressing strong countries and blowing up weak ones. And the ones disintegrating first are those that are the most artificial: their borders are mostly straight lines that correspond to no ethnic, tribal or religious realities and their leaders, rather than creating citizens with equal rights, wasted the last 60 years by plundering their national resources. So when their iron fists come off (in Libya and Iraq with our help), there is nothing to hold these unnatural polygons together.

Since World War II, U.S. foreign policy has focused on integrating more countries into a democratic, free-market world community built on the rule of law while seeking to deter those states that resist from destabilizing the rest. This is what we know how to do.

But, argues Michael Mandelbaum, author of the forthcoming “Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era”: “There is nothing in our experience that has prepared us for what is going on now: the meltdown of an increasing number of states all at the same time in a globalized world. And what if China starts failing in a globalized world?”

Historically we’ve counted on empires, like the Ottomans, colonial powers, like Britain and France, and autocratic strongmen, such as kings and colonels, to hold artificial states together and provide order in these regions. But we’re now in a post-imperial, post-colonial and, soon, I believe, post-authoritarian world, in which no one will be able to control these disorderly regions with an iron fist while the world of order goes about its business as best it can with occasional reminders of the nasty disarray on its frontiers.

Your heart aches for the Syrian refugees flocking to Europe. And Germany’s generosity in absorbing so many is amazing. We have a special obligation to Libyan and Iraqi refugees. But, with so many countries melting down, just absorbing more and more refugees is not sustainable.

If we’re honest, we have only two ways to halt this refugee flood, and we don’t want to choose either: build a wall and isolate these regions of disorder, or occupy them with boots on the ground, crush the bad guys and build a new order based on real citizenship, a vast project that would take two generations. We fool ourselves that there is a sustainable, easy third way: just keep taking more refugees or create “no-fly zones” here or there.

Will the ends, will the means. And right now no one wants to will the means, because all you win is a bill. So the world of disorder keeps spilling over into the world of order. And beware: The market, Mother Nature and Moore’s law are just revving their engines. You haven’t seen this play before, which is why we have some hard new thinking and hard choices ahead.

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

I’m a glutton, always will be, so you’ll have to forgive me for beginning with food — and for tasting hope, or something like it, in a peanut butter cookie.

I bought the cookie at Sister Pie, a bakeshop that opened earlier this year in a resurgent neighborhood here. Sister Pie is unusual, and not just because it makes scones with cauliflower and puts rosemary in its shortbread.

Even more noteworthy is its location: a stone’s throw from dozens of the deserted houses and decrepit lots for which Detroit is notorious. Sister Pie shouldn’t be here. That was my first thought when I walked through the door last week to find the kind of hipster crowd and funky scene that I’m accustomed to in Brooklyn, where the shop’s owner, Lisa Ludwinski, lived for six years.

My second thought was that Sister Pie is exactly where it belongs, in a city whose future hinges on a new generation of entrepreneurs, the risks they take and the ingenuity they muster. The top of my cookie glittered darkly with paprika. I beamed. And what coursed through me as I ate it and then another wasn’t just pleasure but gratitude and elation.

I lived in Detroit in the early 1990s, in my 20s, so perhaps I feel an investment bigger than it would otherwise be. But we’re all tied to this city and reflected in it, because it’s so central to the American narrative, so emblematic of our triumphs and humiliations, such a referendum on what we’re capable of, in terms of neglect and in terms of salvation.

If New York is a measure of our financial might and Los Angeles a yardstick for our imagination, Detroit is a gauge of our soul.

“It’s one of the cities in the United States that the whole world looks at,” said Dennis Archer Jr. when I asked him about the stakes of its latest bid for rebirth.

Archer’s father was Detroit’s mayor from 1994 through 2001. His corrupt successor, Kwame Kilpatrick, ended up behind bars, and shortly before Kilpatrick’s reign ended, the recession hit. Detroit reeled. In 2013 it became the largest American city ever to file for bankruptcy.

And since then? There are all these shoots of growth, all these glimmers of promise. Archer and I sat in Central Kitchen + Bar, a dashing month-old restaurant on Cadillac Square downtown. He’s one of its owners, and Cadillac Square bustles in a way that it didn’t years ago, when I routinely passed through it.

He directed my gaze to a nearby diner who happened to be wearing a T-shirt that said “Detroit -Vs- Everybody.” It’s a popular logo on clothing from a local company, and it’s a distillation of the way many Detroiters feel.

“We’re taking on a lot of negativity and some bad circumstances that weren’t entirely our doing,” Archer explained, alluding to the travails of the auto industry and the racial prejudice that contributed to the city’s population decline.

“But we’re resilient. We’re going to win.”

By “we” he was referring to all of the businesspeople who insist on seeing opportunity in the blight, including Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans chairman, who famously purchased a big chunk of downtown and has been rehabilitating it.

But Archer was talking as well about a stubborn civic spirit that’s personified by Terrence Berg, a federal judge, and his wife, Anita Sevier, an urban planner.

When they moved to the Detroit area in 1989, they were dismayed by the white-black divide between suburbs and city. A white couple, they chose to live in Detroit itself, and over the ensuing years they happily stayed put.

One evening last March, two men approached Berg on his front porch, demanded to be let into the house and, when he refused, shot him in the knee. He endured three surgeries and has put in hundreds of hours of physical therapy so far.

Through it all, he and Sevier have been adamant that the shooting doesn’t, and shouldn’t, define Detroit. Right after it happened, Sevier pointedly told The Detroit Free Press: “This is not a reason to hate Detroit.”

The couple used the media attention that came their way to advocate for better education and more jobs for Detroiters. When I visited them on Friday, Berg said, “I grew up in this area, and there’s a certain underdog quality that you feel about Detroit that makes you love it in a way that you want it to succeed.

“There’s a certain rooting,” he added. “You root for Detroit.”

The next day I took a run along a stretch of Detroit riverfront more prettily landscaped and painstakingly maintained than I’d ever seen it. I had to work off the wages of Sister Pie.

I spotted a poster: “America’s Great Comeback City.” Yes, I thought. Please. If we can rebuild Detroit, we can rebuild anything.


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