Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Thomas Friedman on Leadership

The world is in crisis.

Europe and perhaps even America are suffering from a financial crisis. The Middle East and perhaps even China are suffering from a political crisis.

In a time of crisis a true leader steps forth. He might not be able to make the crisis go away, but he will take charge, manage the crisis, and limit the damage.

As Thomas Friedman argues in his column today, when we look around the world today we do not see any real leaders.

In his words:

One of the most troubling features of today’s global economic crisis is the lack of political leadership anywhere. No one has the courage to tell people the truth. And the truth, alas, is that four of the pillars of today’s global economy — Europe, America, China and the Arab world — have, each in their own way, squandered huge dividends they enjoyed in recent decades, and now they have to dig out of their respective holes with fewer resources, less time and, almost certainly, more pain.

Actually, political leadership involves more than truth telling, but Friedman makes an important point here.

Unfortunately, his idea that there are four pillars to the world economy is misleading and inaccurate.

Europe, America, and Asia are far more important economically than is the Arab world, absent petroleum. Friedman reduces Asia to China, but certainly Japan and India and South Korea are major economic players.

Be that as it may there is only one nation today that can exercise leadership in time of international crisis: the United States. And there is only one individual who can take charge of that situation.

If we find ourselves in a leaderless world that is another way of saying that President Obama is AWOL from the world stage.

Perhaps Obama is not up to the job. Perhaps he does not believe in American international leadership any more than he believes in American exceptionalism.

The world is in crisis and Obama is out campaigning for re-election.

However much we admire Obama’s drone campaign against al Qaeda leaders—and I am confident that we all support his efforts—the picture of the president safely ensconced in the Oval Office conducting foreign policy via what looks like a videogame is not encouraging.

There is nothing wrong with taking out al Qaeda leaders. There is a great deal wrong with giving the appearance of being detached and insouciant while the world burns.

Friedman’s article is best read as a way to deflect attention from Obama’s failed leadership on the world stage.

When we start looking at the substance of Friedman’s argument things do not get much better. In a typically clunky metaphor Friedman suggests that the dividends were eaten by locusts, but that is not the same as saying that Greece and Spain spent a lot of money that they did not have.

They both borrowed more than they could repay in order to maintain lifestyles that they could not afford. The bills have come due and their creditors are terrified of the consequences of default.

I do not see which benefits the deposed despots in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia squandered. Friedman believes that they missed opportunities to democratize peacefully, the way South Korea and Taiwan did.

Friedman has a very soft spot for liberal democracy. When he was cheering on the Egyptian revolution a year ago from Tahrir Square, it made him soft headed.

To believe that North African despots might have followed the path of South Korea and Taiwan is delusional.

Friedman might not have noticed but there are no democratic Arab nations. He fails to recognize that instituting democratic reforms in a Confucian culture is not the same as introducing them into an Islamic Arab culture.

Friedman does not mention that the current mess in the Middle East unfolded while the crack Obama foreign policy team was in charge.

If the situation continues to degrade then the responsibility lies with a president who simply did not know what he was doing and with political pundits who failed to see what was happening.

Obama’s foreign policy failures have not inspired anyone to believe that he can provide consequential leadership.

As for the situation in China, Friedman is probably right to say that China does need to institute political reforms. Of course, people have been saying this for at least two decades now. During that time China has become an economic colossus, having implemented serious free market reforms while eschewing the liberal democracy that Friedman craves.

He is struck by the outgoing Chinese foreign minister’s prediction that without political reforms China risks seeing a reprise of the dread Cultural Revolution. So am I. 

Finally, Friedman offers his analysis of the situation in the United States. As a rank partisan, he lays the blame on the Bush administration.

In Friedman’s mind we are in financial trouble because the Bush administration squandered the peace dividend. You recall the peace dividend: it was all the money we were going to save once the Cold War ended.

Bush got us into the mess because he cut taxes and passed a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Strangely enough, Friedman has nothing to say about the rampant entitlement culture that is doing to America’s finances what it did to Southern Europe. Nor does he have anything to say, here, about the problems in the mortgage market.

Anyway Friedman has his own ideas about how President Obama should exercise leadership. Or better, to continue to exercise the same misleadership.

One pays attention to Friedman’s suggestions because we suspect that Barack Obama does. But then, would you have confidence in a leader who was reading from a script devised by Tom Friedman?

Anyway, here’s Friedman’s advice to Obama:

If I were President Barack Obama, I’d focus my entire campaign now on an effort to reforge a “grand bargain” with Republicans based on a near-term infrastructure stimulus tied with a Simpson-Bowles long-term fiscal rebalancing. At a minimum, it would show that Obama has a sensible plan to fix the economy — which is what people want most from the president — and many in business would surely support it. We cannot wait until January to do serious policy making again. We, and the world, need America to be a rock of stability — now.

This is more the problem than the solution. Obama has not provided consequential leadership internationally—fact that has made him very popular around the world—so Friedman recommends that Obama spend more money on infrastructure and adopt the provisions of the Simpson-Bowles commission.

Naturally, he assumes that Republicans would be happy to line up behind Obama’s grand bargain. One can only wonder what he is smoking.

While Friedman is reflecting on what might make America a rock of political stability he might cast a cold eye on recent events in Wisconsin.

There the sore loser labor unions produced turmoil in the state, set neighbor against neighbor, wasted time and resources in order to retain a privileged status that the voters of the state did not want them to have.

The first rule of the kind of liberal democracy that Friedman craves is to respect the results of elections. The second is to promote civil conduct.

On both these scores Obama’s political base has failed.

In terms of fiscal policy the government led by Scott Walker has turned Wisconsin into a rock, based on sound fiscal policies.

At least, somewhere in America, leaders are telling the truth. One wonders what it will take for the message to get through to Tom Friedman.

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