Foreign Policy Israel

“We must say openly the things we hold in our hearts.”

[digg-reddit-me]Laura Rozen has probably covered the growing surprise from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies about the Obama administration’s actions better than anyone:

Referring to Clinton’s call for a settlement freeze, Netanyahu groused, “What the hell do they want from me?” according to his associate, who added, “I gathered that he heard some bad vibes in his meetings with [U.S.] congressional delegations this week.”

In the 10 days since Netanyahu and President Barack Obama held a meeting at the White House, the Obama administration has made clear in public and private meetings with Israeli officials that it intends to hold a firm line on Obama’s call to stop Israeli settlements. According to many observers in Washington and Israel, the Israeli prime minister, looking for loopholes and hidden agreements that have often existed in the past with Washington, has been flummoxed by an unusually united line that has come not just from the Obama White House and the secretary of state, but also from pro-Israel congressmen and women who have come through Israel for meetings with him over Memorial Day recess. To Netanyahu’s dismay, Obama doesn’t appear to have a hidden policy. It is what he said it was.

“This is a sea change for Netanyahu,” a former senior Clinton administration official who worked on Middle East issues said. [my emphasis]

This helps set the stage for what appears to be one of the key elements of Obama’s Middle East policy – honest dialogue. As Obama explained in his interview with Tom Friedman in the New York Times shortly before his Cairo speech:

Obama, in an interview with The New York Times before leaving Washington, said that a key part of his message during the trip would be, “Stop saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly.”

“There are a lot of Arab countries more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon than the ‘threat’ from Israel, but won’t admit it,” he said.

He then added that there were a lot of Israelis “who recognize that their current path is unsustainable, and they need to make some tough choices on settlements to achieve a two-state solution – that is in their long-term interest – but not enough folks are willing to recognize that publicly.”

And there were a lot of Palestinians, Obama said, who “recognize that the constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel” has not gained them anything, and that they would have been better off “had they taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground.”

Obama concluded:

When it comes to dealing with the Middle East, the president noted, “there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly…”

In his Cairo speech – as well as in his Middle East policies generally – Obama seems to be trying to do this. This has been especially noticeable – as noted above – with regards to Israel’s policy on the settlements. Fittingly, Obama expressed this best in his Cairo speech:

I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.

Obama here seems to sum up his theory of how political progress is made:

[T]o speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.

Congressman Barney Frank – in another setting – criticized Obama for precisely this sentiment – which, depending on what results we see on his different policies, may prove to be his Achilles heel:

I think he overestimates his ability to get people to put aside fundamental differences.

Frank was speaking about an intra-American fight – but in the Middle East the fundamental differences run much deeper.

But I think Frank missed back in January what many who have been critical of Obama’s Cairo approach missed in the immediate aftermath of the speech: Obama is not asking people to “put aside fundamental differences,” but to engage in civil and constructive dialogue – something which has been a theme throughout his campaign and was especially evident in his Notre Dame and race speeches. This is only worthwhile if one believes that a dialogue that is guided by the principles of honesty and reason leads us to understand that what unites us as human beings outweighs what divides us.

In Obama’s view – we may disagree – and disagree strongly on fundamental issues – but we cannot long demonize our opposition if we are engaged in frank and honest dialogue with them.

So it seems that the first step in unfolding Obama’s new Middle East policy is to clarify where everyone stands publicly – and he has started doing so by stating explictly his position in Israeli settlements and sticking to it.

China Financial Crisis Foreign Policy Politics The Opinionsphere

Signs of the Coming Upheaval

Andrew Ross Sorkin and Mary Williams Walsh in the New York Times:

The loss that A.I.G. is preparing to report on Monday would be the largest ever by any company in a single quarter.

Tom Friedman quoting Ian Bremmer:

“As we look at 2009, on every issue, with the single exception of Iraq, everything is worse…Pakistan is worse. Afghanistan is worse. Russia is worse. Emerging markets are worse. Everything big out there is worse, and some will be made even worse by the economic crisis.”

There is a geopolitical storm coming, concluded Bremmer, “and it is not priced into the market yet.”

Tim Bowler of the BBC reports:

The biggest challenge facing China is not slowing growth but unemployment, which could trigger social unrest, a Chinese government minister has said.

Barack Obama Economics India

Friedman is annoying, but essentially correct

Tom Friedman apparently spent last week talking to a slew of Indian businessmen – after all, he is in Bangalore – and he found that they were attempting to say something to him, that they were:

trying to make a point that sometimes non-Americans can make best: “Dear America, please remember how you got to be the wealthiest country in history. It wasn’t through protectionism, or state-owned banks or fearing free trade. No, the formula was very simple: build this really flexible, really open economy, tolerate creative destruction so dead capital is quickly redeployed to better ideas and companies, pour into it the most diverse, smart and energetic immigrants from every corner of the world and then stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat.”

The prose and the formulation is Tom Friedman at his insufferable worst. And I think Friedman is fundamentally wrong in his point – America did not get to be “the wealthiest country in history” by acting as Friedman describes. No – we got there by building up our infrastructure, exploiting our vast natural resources, and creating an enormous manufacturing base. Friedman was right about the immigrants part.

The reason we stayed enormously wealthy as a nation after this old manufacturing economy began to be outsourced is our higher education system – and the other stuff that Friedman mentions. 

Which is to say that Friedman’s frustratingly dumbed-down “letter to America” that many Indian businessman are trying to speak to Friedman – is essentially correct in its prescriptions if not it’s history. We cannot have institutions “too big to fail” – and we cannot allow the massive government intervention into the economy to last. (On this though, Obama and Geithner seem if anything overcautious.) We cannot prop up “zombie” institutions. We cannot “protect” jobs – except temporarily. We need to create new jobs. We need smaller and more nimble companies. 

This is what we need to keep our nation strong as we enter the period of the market-state – in which governments will succeed based on the amount of opportunity they are able to offer their citizens.

Frustratingly, I think Friedman – even with such dumb prose – is essentially correct.

Barack Obama Domestic issues Economics Election 2008 Energy Independence Financial Crisis Green Energy Politics The Opinionsphere

The Generation That Sucked

[digg-reddit-me]With apologies to all those Baby Boomers I know – I, of course, don’t mean you.

There is something so very right about trashing the Baby Boom generation. Tom Friedman – a member of said generation – suggests a few names in his column on Sunday:

“The Greediest Generation?” “The Complacent Generation?” Or maybe: “The Subprime Generation: How My Parents Bailed Themselves Out for Their Excesses by Charging It All on My Visa Card.”

Barack Obama himself wrote in The Audacity of Hope:

In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago.

Perhaps this passage is what led Andrew Sullivan to describe Barack Obama’s candidacy (back when he was a long shot) as America’s only chance for a much needed truce in the long civil war fought by the Baby Boom generation:

…the most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting. The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a confluence of events, from one traumatizing war in Southeast Asia to another in the most fractious country in the Middle East. The legacy is a cultural climate that stultifies our politics and corrupts our discourse.

Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly—and uncomfortably—at you.

At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a mo­mentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.

The point of all of this is that the Baby Boom generation was quite terrible. While the “Greatest Generation” tackled a Great Depression and won a World War, and then came home and created an age of prosperity and the United Nations – and then, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, fought for and won civil rights, finally erasing the official discrimination against African Americans that had blighted America since it’s inception – the Baby Boomers – the children of the Greatest Generation – started an American civil war, focused initially on Vietnam, and then later on the role of government, on abortion, and on religion’s place in public life. While these are worthy issues to argue about, the culture war of the Baby Boomers kept them from tackling many of the urgent challenges of their day – from global warming to infrastructure deterioration to America’s place in the world. As the Baby Boomers entered adulthood, their national cohesion that was evident in the Greatest Generation dissolved into squabbles and then by 1968, into a virtual civil war.

Since the 1960s, America has failed to invest in our roads, our utilities, our energy infrastructure; America’s dependency on foreign oil was demonstrated in the 1970s, yet we did nothing and blamed it on Jimmy Carter’s bad leadership; at the same time, a radical brand of extremist Islam began to grow – and our government encouraged it, seeing it as a tool to use against the Soviet Union; some two decades ago, global warming was accepted as a fact by the greatest majority of scientists, yet we have failed to take any significant steps.

Instead, since the late 1960s, we have fought and re-fought the war over the war in Vietnam. What happened in the rice paddies and jungles of that nation are almost irrelevant to the culture war. What is remembered is where people stood while they were here. John Kerry served with distinction, but spoke against the war when he came back – forever putting him on the liberal side of the war. Dick Cheney got one deferment after another, avoiding serving at all – yet he was enthusiastic about the war as long as he himself wasn’t fighting, making him a conservative. John McCain was captured and came home a hero and George W. Bush served stateside in a cushy National Guard unit for the sons and daughters of those politicians influential enough to prevent their children from serving – yet both are equally conservative because they both were annoyed at the hippies protesting. Barack Obama was only a boy, but as Sarah Palin never failed to mention, he served on a charitable board with someone who decided to fight an insurgency against the American government to oppose the war – which by association made Obama a far-left radical. Much less important than what these Baby Boomers actually did is how they felt about the war.

It is possible to determine with a great degree of accuracy whether a Baby Boomer is a Democrat or Republican simply by asking their position on a war that ended almost forty years ago. Those who protested the war and stood against it took one side in the culture war; those who supported the war took the other side. As a rule, the Democrats – Kerry, Clinton, Gore – were against the war. The Republicans – Bush, McCain, Cheney – were for it. (This was despite the fact that it was “the best and the brightest” under Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson who started the war.)

The obvious problem is that these divisions are barely relevant anymore.

The Baby Boomers pissed away the prosperity their parents bequeathed to them and squandered the opportunities presented to them – and now are busy using their children’s future earnings (our future earnings) to buy their way out of the mess they have created. They avoided the challenges of their times and found people to blame. They focused on OJ Simpson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Monica Lewinsky – on abortion, Vietnam, gays, and religion – and not on global warming, on campaign finance, on the corruption of our political process, on an overleveraged economy.

After decades of avoiding systematic problems – as the solutions became embroiled in the ongoing culture war – we now must face them. With two wars in the Mid-East, a failing world economy, a growing threat of catastrophic terrorism, and whatever else may come our way, procrastination is impossible. Now it’s time for us to try to salvage this wreck.

That’s what the 2008 election was really about. And that’s our challenge. It remains to be seen if we’re up to it.

Barack Obama Domestic issues Economics The Opinionsphere

The Biggest Decision Obama Will Make


The Obama presidency will be shaped in many ways by how it spends this stimulus. I am sure he will articulate the right goals. But if the means — the price signals, conditions and standards — that he imposes on his stimulus are not as creative, bold and tough as his goals, it will all be for naught. In sum, our kids will remember the Obama stimulus as either the burden of their lifetime or the investment of their lifetime. Let’s hope it’s the latter.

I think Tom Friedman understates matters here (which is unusual for him). Aside from some unexpected crisis (which of course is likely), Barack Obama’s presidency will not merely be “shaped” by how it spends this stimulus – but it’s historical significance will be determined by how it spends it. As David Brooks reccomended last week, channeling David Porter of Harvard Business School: “do nothing in the short term that doesn’t serve a long-term goal.”

Health care. Green energy. Energy infrastructure. Transportation infrastructure. Education. Barack Obama has laid out clear goals in all of these areas except the latter.

A crisis is always a time of opportunity – for mischief or ill gains if used exploitively; for needed reform if used wisely. Coming into office, Barack Obama will have more opportunity than any president – I would argue – in history. What Obama is able to accomplish with this opportunity will be his legacy.

Barack Obama Foreign Policy The Opinionsphere

Your Excuse for Doing Less Than You Could

I’ve just gotten around to reading this Sunday’s news columns – the ones I normally read on either Sunday or Monday. Tom Friedman’s column impressed me a great deal – even though it started out as the saccharine sales pitch I am so used to hearing from him – it ended with this tough talk:

So to everyone overseas I say: thanks for your applause for our new president. I’m glad you all feel that America “is back.” If you want Obama to succeed, though, don’t just show us the love, show us the money. Show us the troops. Show us the diplomatic effort. Show us the economic partnership. Show us something more than a fresh smile. Because freedom is not free and your excuse for doing less than you could is leaving town in January. [my emphasis added]

That last line is the one that gets me. It gets to the heart at much of the more reasonable conservative frustrations with the “international community” and Europe. (The less reasonable frustrations are another story.) But more important – Friedman identifies one of the arguments Obama will need to make in order to translate the goodwill generated by his election to motivate worldwide leaders to help him take on the global challenges we will are facing.

Also – I’ve decided to start linking to the regular version of New York Times articles rather than to the printable format which I prefer. As the Times will likely be facing some financial problems in the near future, I figure it’s the least I can do.

Economics Foreign Policy National Security Politics The Opinionsphere

Selling Tom Friedman

Stephen Kotkin reviews Thomas Friedman’s new book, Hot Flat, and Crowded, for the business section of the New York Times today. Friedman himself has a bi-weekly column in the opinion section of the Times, which makes Kotkin’s review all the more pleasurable. Kotkin captures the formula Friedman inevitably uses to write his columns – and his books:

The content and method will be familiar to Mr. Friedman’s legions of readers: source, anecdote, pop metaphor. Repeat point. In italics. The unfamiliar reader should prepare for hyperbole, neologisms and aphorisms. “Affluenza.” “Code Green.” “The new Energy Climate Era (E.C.E.).” “We’ve already hit the iceberg.” We’re “the proverbial frog in the pail on the stove” (boiled to death after failing to jump out because the temperature rose only incrementally). “We are the flood, we are the asteroid. We had better learn how to be the ark.”

I have to admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for Friedman. I generally read his column and have read several of his books. I read them with the same attention I give to reading a Grisham thriller – as both authors take big ideas and make them entertaining. (Grisham is a far superior entertainer however.) I find that reading Friedman forces me to think – because he describes great changes that are going on and then attempts to explain and solve them by using simple, salesmen’s terms: “The World Is Flat!” or “Obama-Cheny 08!” He takes interesting ideas and then trivializes them before their gravity sinks in. The New Republic, in an article written in 2004 or 2005, criticized Friedman for being a salesman for globalization rather than an analyst of it’s effects. And while Friedman certainly is enamored with globalization, I think the real issue with Friedman’s work is how he so crassly simplies every issue. However, it is probably this skill that has made his work so palatable and popular to those who shy away from serious writing on economic and foreign policy issues.

For all my criticism of him, I have to give Friedman credit for having been consistently pushing – for the past dozen years – what has become the obvious next step to achieve a greater measure of national security, to drain the funding of our strategic adversaries around the world, to stop climate change, and to establish America as a leader in a new worldwide industry. Again, from Kotkin’s review:

Mr. Friedman has an unabashedly American-centric solution: the United States can regain its national purpose and save the world via green innovation. This can happen, he says, if Americans recognize — in the words of John Gardner, founder of Common Cause — “a series of great opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.”

Friedman told the story on Meet the Press this morning of what he says to young Chinese who justify China’s increasing pollution:

Friedman: You know, I was just in China a week or 10 days ago, Tom, and you know, young Chinese, you know, whenever I go here, they say to me, you know, “Mr. Friedman, you guys got to grow dirty for 150 years, now it’s our turn.” To which I always say to them, “You know what, you’re right. It is your turn. Take your time. Grow as dirty as you want. Because I think we just need five years to invent all the clean power technologies you’re going to need before you choke to death and then we’re going to come over and we’re going to sell them to you and we’re going to clean your clock in the next great global industry.” That’s when I see the headsets of the translators adjusting, “What is he saying?”

Clearly, Friedman has become a salesmen for green technology. He’s not analyzing – he’s advocating. Even if his presentation rankles, it’s worth listening to – and hopefully, he’s changing some minds.

Election 2008 McCain Politics The Clintons Videos

Gas Tax Politics

Tom Friedman of the New York Times on the gas tax proposals:

The McCain-Clinton gas holiday proposal is a perfect example of what energy expert Peter Schwartz of Global Business Network describes as the true American energy policy today: “Maximize demand, minimize supply and buy the rest from the people who hate us the most.”

Good for Barack Obama for resisting this shameful pandering…The McCain-Clinton proposal is a reminder to me that the biggest energy crisis we have in our country today is the energy to be serious — the energy to do big things in a sustained, focused and intelligent way. We are in the midst of a national political brownout.

Paul Krugman – whose loathing for Barack Obama is one of the mysteries of this campaign – must have had some trouble writing these lines:

John McCain has a really bad idea on gasoline, Hillary Clinton is emulating him (but with a twist that makes her plan pointless rather than evil), and Barack Obama, to his credit, says no…

Oh wait – but he can hedge a bit. Krugman wouldn’t want anyone to think he might actually consider Obama an acceptable candidate because of the vast policy differences they have (a.k.a. two minor ones that have led to about a dozen columns of polemic attacks):

Just to be clear: I don’t regard this as a major issue. It’s a one-time thing, not a matter of principle, especially because everyone knows the gas-tax holiday isn’t actually going to happen.

Obama’s seeking to make some political hay out of this. Once again, he’s betting the American people will pay enough attention to what’s going on to give him credit for doing the right thing.