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This Q&A took place between 6/8/15 and 6/17/15. Unanswered questions have been hidden
16 questions
Product Guy / Fellow @ Harvard Ash Center
During the Arab Spring, you were among the most optimistic about the future of the Arab world. I was too. In retrospect, what issues do you think were overlooked or overhyped?
Dear Wael, Thanks for your question and for the opportunity to interact with the Parlio community. I am impressed by what you and your team are building.

On your specific question, I never thought of myself as optimistic or pessimistic about the Arab Spring. I would count myself, though, as strongly HOPING it would succeed. For that I make no apologies. Having been in Tahrir Square to witness the uprising first hand in early 2011, though, I was keenly aware of the challenges. On May 14, 2011, I wrote an NYT column that began this way and pretty well summed up my feelings:

"Watching the Arab uprisings these days leaves me with a smile on my face and a pit in my stomach. The smile comes from witnessing a whole swath of humanity losing its fear and regaining its dignity. The pit comes from a rising worry that the Arab Spring may have been both inevitable and too late. If you are not feeling both these impulses, you’re not paying attention."

The smile? A Libyan friend remarked to me the other day that he was watching Arab satellite TV out of Benghazi, Libya, and a sign held aloft at one demonstration caught his eye. It said in Arabic: “Ana Rajul” — which translates to “I am a man.” If there is one sign that sums up the whole Arab uprising, it’s that one. As I’ve tried to argue, this uprising, at root, is not political. It’s existential. It is much more Albert Camus than Che Guevara. All these Arab regimes to one degree or another stripped their people of their basic dignity. They deprived them of freedom and never allowed them to develop anywhere near their full potential. And as the world has become hyper-connected, it became obvious to every Arab citizen just how far behind they were — not only to the West, but to China, India and parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

This combination of being treated as children by their autocrats and as backward by the rest of the world fueled a deep humiliation, which shows up in signs like that one in Libya, announcing to no one in particular: `I am a man' — I have value, I have aspirations, I want the rights everyone else in the world has. And because so many Arabs share these feelings, this Arab Spring is not going to end — no matter how many people these regimes kill. So to embrace the downfall of these dictators is to hope that their own people can come together to midwife democracy in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya. But here one must honestly ask: Is the breakdown in these societies too deep for anyone to build anything decent out of? Was the Arab Spring both inevitable and too late? My answer: It’s never too late, but some holes are deeper than others, and we are now seeing that the hole Arab democrats have to climb out of is really, really deep. Wish them well.’’

It turned out, at least so far, that, other than in Tunisia, the hole was too deep. That is, these regimes had so deprived these societies of any civil society institutions there was just too little to build on. And the Muslim Brotherhood had been living in exile and underground for so long, it was simply unprepared to run a modern country. And there was no Nelson Mandela around whom everyone could rally during a transition. There was some hope early on that the Egyptian army could play that role. But the army in Egypt was not the neutral player it tried to depict itself as being. It was a very powerful and interested political and economic unit -- looking out, first and foremost, for its own interests and privileges.

Today I think even more of my friend Raymond Stock’s translation of Naguib Mahfouz’s “Before the Throne,” which, as I wrote in that May 14, 2011, column, is a novel in which ``each Egyptian leader challenges his successor. In this case, Mustafa al-Nahhas, the head of the liberal Wafd Party, which was crushed when Gamal Abdel Nasser led a military coup in 1952, berates Nasser for eroding Egypt’s constitutional heritage. `Those who launched the 1919 Revolution were people of initiative and innovation in ... politics, economics and culture,' Nahhas tells Nasser. "How your highhandedness spoiled your most pristine depths! See how education was vitiated, how the public sector grew depraved! How your defiance of the world’s powers led you to horrendous losses and shameful defeats! You never sought the benefit of another person’s opinion ... And what was the result? Clamor and cacophony, and an empty mythology — all heaped on a pile of rubble."

So now I have no smile on my face -- only a pit in my stomach.
Thanks everyone. If all online forums were as civil, intelligent and curious to both learn and engage as Parlio's I would come out of my cave more often!! It was a pleasure.
Co-founder and executive director of Civic Hall
Wait, is there no chance of you coming back?
Micah, Nice to hear from you! Alas, I am working on a new book and it is taking up all my spare time. But I have been very impressed with what Parlio is doing to elevate debates. Best wishes, Tom
Researcher @ Harvard | Parlio community manager
Thank you Mr. Friedman for answering our questions!

What are your thoughts on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank? As the US and China are increasingly becoming "one country-two systems," do you think that the US should be as threatened of China establishing the AIIB? Should we join? Continue to lobby allies to stay out (though no one, except for Japan, is listening)? Better that China tries to influence the world via infrastructure investment than guns and tanks.

Would love to hear your opinion on how the US should view AIIB. Thank you!
Dear Jieun, Thanks for your thoughtful question. I am a supporter of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and I was very disappointed that the Obama Administration tried to block it. That was really stupid on two levels: 1) It failed. All our key allies ignored us and signed onto the Chinese-led project anyway. And 2) it flew right in the face of everything we claim to be trying to do with China and that is get Beijing to be a stakeholder in an international system whose rules America has had the leading role in shaping since World War II. If China wants to start a bank for Asian lending based on the best practices of the World Bank and the IMF -- and that should be our criteria for joining or not -- that will make China an even more intimate stakeholder in the international system, why in the world would we oppose that? Really dumb, which is why the Obama team basically reversed itself.
Palestinian struggle to have an Independence state according to UN resolutions 242 and 338 is far away from reality. US politics is facing year over year more rejections by Israel gov and people and latest election proves that Israelis' voters are supporting more extreme and right-wing parties. You were closer to the Israeli's view of the "idle" peace arrangements and you were the one behind King Abdulla in Saudi for his famous peace offer. Where do you see today this is going? who should do what to achieve the fair peace to Palestinians?
Since I was 15 I have supported a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians and I am now 61 and have never changed my mind. It is the only sustainable and fair way to resolve the conflict. That is why I helped to stimulate King Abdullah's peace plan that became the Arab Peace Initiative. We know the way, but the parties lack the will. I wish I could tell you that I see that changing, but I don't. Sigh.
Good start, but allow me to understand it more by highlighting the following points:

1- As the two-state solution is not working, why you dont promote a one state solution, trying for 40+ years with no much success may be we need to re-look at it, no? One-state is a workable option, both parties will live together as they used to do before 1948, they will elect who represent them and who will be the best for the state, A state that is fair to all the citizens and practice democracy on all the people not part of the nation.

2- I think it is fair to highlight who is the one that stopping any solution from happening and why? can you help with sharing your thoughts on this?

Thank you so much
Research Associate @ Stanford & Co-Editor @ Jadaliyya
What books have informed your understanding of the Arab uprisings and their aftermath? And what do you read regularly to stay informed about the region in general?
Hesham, ``Arab Politics in the Liberal Age'' by my great Oxford tutor Albert Hourani remains one my favorite books about the region. I am also a huge fan of everything the late Lebanese historian Kemal Salabi wrote and what Samir Khalif, the AUB sociologist writes. Malcolm Kerr's ``The Arab Cold War'' still holds up very well. (And his son Steve is doing a great job coaching the Golden State Warriors! Sadly, I covered Malcolm's assassination in Beirut.) I read the Beirut Daily Star, Haaretz and The National online. Besides the great reporting done by my own paper, I always keep an eye on the FT's Middle East reporting. I find Monitor and Memri quite useful as well.
Reporting about what the Arab Spring accomplished is pretty dismal. There are certainly a lot of problems, dashed hopes for democracy, and violence. But are there reasons for optimism in the longer term? What foundations are being put in place now that will make the Middle East a better place over time?
Shelly, I wish I could tell you I see any, but other than in Tunisia I really don't. Tunisia had secular civil society -- unions, syndicates, associations, women's groups. It also had a large cohort of educated women. But it is the only Arab society, other than Lebanon, that had this key element -- civil society -- to mediate between the government and the people, and could serve as such a mediator when the government collapsed, so there was not just a raw naked power struggle between secularists and Islamists. I don't see that kind of civil society being tolerated in Egypt today, which is still the biggest and most influential Arab country. In fact, I see its last vestiges being removed from General/President Sisi. So right now, other than Tunisia, it seems that, as an Israeli analyst once pointed out, there are now just two governing paradigms in the regime: SISI and ISIS. Sisi or the Islamic State.

Neither one can give young Arabs what they want most -- decent, non-corrupt, consensual government and the tools to realize their full potential.
Thank you. In response here and also to your thoughtful comments to Wael, I think it is very complex. I am writing a book about the Middle East after the Arab Spring. One question I asked in interviews in Egypt was, "What do you think the revolution accomplished?" I heard one answer over and over.

Even people who were very discouraged said a variation of: "Not much in the short term. But the Egyptian people found their voice. There is a new sense of agency among the people; they know what they can do. This change is intangible, and it is irreversible. Other revolutions in history often took several decades to reveal their accomplishments; Egypt may be the same. While this has not translated into institutions yet, even with a heavy handed government, there are signs that this is starting."

Some examples given were
- The two-term limit on the presidency in the constitution that will enforce some kind of accountability (with a special constitutional clause that the two term limit cannot be amended)
- Unprecedented public debate about the violent crackdowns and a resulting defensive posture in communication by the government - a sign that Egyptian institutions may start to be self-correcting
- Rebellious leaks of information out of the bureaucracy.

That said, this generation will not be able to enjoy the results of their revolution. But what will happen in two decades when the generation of youth who overthrew the government because of shared ideals will have more presence in leadership roles in Egyptian society?
Head of Multicultural Marketing at Google
What keeps you up at night? Who inspires you by challenging your way of thinking?

Thank you for taking the time to connect with us and answer our questions.
What keeps me up at night? Well, I can ruin any dinner party when I really get cranking about all the climate, environmental, financial and geopolitical problems I see emerging today. But what keeps me up most is America. I am a big believer that America is far from perfect, needs to earn and re-earn its ``exceptional'' badge every year-- it and makes more than its share of mistakes. But on balance, I also believe that America, when it is at its best, is a beacon of hope, an example of democratic capitalism and the provider of an enormous number of free global public goods -- by the way it has helped balance Europe and Asia since World War II and the trade and international financial systems we support and the way we catalyze action against thugs like Putin when they take a bite out of the country next door. If America goes weak or into decline, I believe my kids won't just grow up in a different America. They will grow up in a fundamentally different world -- one that is less stable and less dedicated to expanding the universe of free markets and free people. And my view is that right now America is in a slow decline -- just slow enough for us not to stop and do everything we can and must do to reverse that decline. All those things are big and hard --and you can only do big hard things when you do them together. They require collective action. And right now our political system is so broken and dysfunctional we cannot do anything big and hard together. So all the things we know we should be doing are ``off the table.'' Right now the pile of things that are off the table is so high it has reached the height of the table.

We kick our country around like it is a football. But as a friend of mine likes to say: it is not a football, it is a Faberge egg and we can drop it and break it. We are in danger of doing just that.
Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions on Parlio! I am originally from Singapore, and we have always played the role of a middleman between the East and the West, between China and the US.

As the world becomes more interconnected, and as you famously proclaimed in your book "The World is Flat", what role will a small country like Singapore do, and what can we continue to do well to stay relevant in this increasingly integrated role? I am speaking with regards from an economic, political, and technological perspective, as these are three key aspects I am interested in, and that I believe are key building blocks for any country.

Thank you!
I believe that what has made Singapore successful has been the quality of its infrastructure, governing institutions, bureaucrats, government-funded scientific research and educational institutions. It is a hybrid somewhere between a democracy and an autocracy. I am not sure that model could be replicated outside this city state; and in time I suspect that it will move toward a more full-fledged democracy. But it is a country that has enabled large numbers of its people to realize their full potential. Outsiders may not agree with all its politics, but I was struck at how many Singaporeans waited in line for up to ten hours in the rain and heat to pay their last respects to their founding father Lee Kwan Yew. That has to tell you something...
Thank you for answering our questions.

What issue in foreign affairs do you think is not being talked about enough in the media?
The relationship between demographics, debt, entitlements and growth in the industrialized world -- including China -- is going to shape politics and stability in all of these countries. Their baby boomers are retiring, right when their debt levels have exploded and promised entitlements are coming due, and right when their populations in most cases are no longer having children at anywhere near replacement rates. Never will so few have to pay for so many entitlements for so many at once in the context of so much overall debt. The only way out are higher rates of growth and immigration and the first doesn't seem all that likely and the latter has all sorts of political implications.
Israeli generals have recently made statements that Hezbollah has had many people killed in Syria, the Assad regime has no real army, and that Russia might be pulling back some of its support for Assad. If Assad's regime collapses what response should we expect from the international community and how will it change the calculus of regional leaders in the Middle East (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran)?
Yisroel, Good question, vital for Israel to think about, but very hard to predict. I think everyone will try to grab a piece -- the Alawites will retreat to their coastal and mountain enclaves, the Kurds and Druze will carve out their regions and the Sunni Islamists will fight each other for the rest. Should Assad fall, Hezbollah will be very exposed in Lebanon. Nasrallah may look to change the subject of his disastrous decision to use his militia as a mercenary army for Tehran to support Assad by trying to provoke Israel into a fight. We will basically have a state of nature there that will take a long time to sort out. No one deserves to be ousted more than Assad but no one should have any illusions that his ouster will herald a multi-sectarian democracy in Syria. In the Middle East extremist tend to go all the way and moderates tend to just go away.
Now that Israel has openly declared the two-state solution null and void - where do you see its relationship with the US and the integration of Palestine heading towards in the near and long future?
Osman, Again, hard to predict, but I think Benjamin Netanyahu if he stays on his present course will be the most consequential Israeli Prime Minister since Rabin and maybe one of the most consequential of all time. He will be the father of the ``one-state solution'' and the man who ensured the unravelling of Israel as a Jewish Democratic state in its historic homeland. I don't know anymore if it is too late. But I am certain that if this new Israeli government is around for a full term all we will be talking about are the terms under which Palestinians in the West Bank seek the rights of citizenship and voting in Israel. Yes, Bibi is going to make history...
Thanks for participating in this AMA!

When you wrote "The World is Flat," you were one of the first people to spell out what globalization would mean for the way the world works and how we live our lives. Now that we're very firmly in a globalized world, what major dynamics do you think we'll she shift next? If you were to write another book titled "The World is ____" in 2040, what do you think would fill in that plant?
Amira: My next book, which I am writing now, is tentatively called ``Thank You for Being Late: Pausing to Reflect on the 21st Century.'' But in your formula it could really be called ``The World is Fast.'' First the world had to get flat and enough people had to have the tools to compete, connect and collaborate. And now that that is happening it is starting to get very fast. There is a change in the pace of change and it has enormous implications for jobs, governance and commerce. That is what I am researching right now.
Consulting Research Associate, Root Cause Institute
Journalism is increasingly is becoming a digital, crowd-sourced medium. Do you think this will have positive or negative effects on the journalist work force at large?
Dear Sarah, I welcome all the new platforms and all the new people contributing their voices about what is going on and their opinions as to what SHOULD be going on. In that sense, I am platform agnostic. And I read a wide range of materials. But I am not values agnostic. That is, I believe that good journalism is the product of good reporting, based on sound journalistic practices and ethics, and good analysis. And great journalism is the product of great reporting and great analysis. You can practice those values writing for your neighborhood newspaper, your own blog, Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal or the China Times or the New York Times. If you do, I and others will find you and stick with you. If you don't, I don't think your contribution will scale. So for me, it is all about the content and not about the platform. In the end, I believe quality will be valued and prove to be the killer app and most sustainable business model for whoever provides it.

That is why I believe Parlio will succeed and why I have worked for the New York Times for 34 years.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions. You've written about the connections between climate change, resource scarcity (e.g., drought), and political instability and war. The chain of influence between climate change and violent conflict can be difficult to understand clearly. In your view, how do you think this chain of influence can be made clearer for the public and for governments?
Benjamin, There is only one way, by living it. And people in California who are now living this prolonged drought and people in San Paulo, who are running out of water because they have so deforested and destroyed their watersheds, are now wrestling with the political implications. Who gets what water? Maybe Mother Nature will bail both out for a while, but when we destroy more and more of our ecosystem services -- all the things nature provides for us free like watersheds that store and filter water -- we make ourselves more and more vulnerable and less resilient to climate changes. And as those bills come due there will be huge political battles over how we, as environmentalists like to say, ``manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable.''
Associate Professor at Northwestern University
What do you consider the most pressing domestic issue in the U.S. today that relates in whatever way to US geopolitics?
Dear Jessica. The short answer is to get back to our tried and true formula for success. We had a formula for success in this country that dates back to our first President and has been reinforced and reaffirmed by all the best ones since: 1) Educate our people up to and beyond whatever the level of technology is. When it was agriculture -- universal primary education, when it was the factory -- universal secondary education, when it is now services and the knowledge economy -- some form of universal post-secondary education. 2) Have the most open immigration policy to attract both the high-IQ risk-takers and the high energy aspirational workers. 3) Have the most government-funded basic research to push out the boundaries of science and technology so that our risk-takers can pluck off the most promising flowers and start new companies. 4) Have the best rules to incentivize risk-taking and prevent recklessness in financial markets; 5) Build the best infrastructure -- ports, roads, airports, water ways and fast rail.

Nothing will save us if we don't get back to this formula for success and no one can threaten us if we do.
Associate Professor at Northwestern University
Thanks for answering! I agree that education, immigration, and infrastructure are key areas we are falling behind on.
Thanks so much for taking the time to do this AMA. In 2012 you wrote, in the context of an article on Syria, "The only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife." Has the chaos of the last few years in the Middle East made you reconsider your characterization of the US as the benevolent midwife?
Andrew. Thanks for your question. It would take a short book to give you my fullest answer. Suffice it to say that I wanted Iraq to work because I believed that if we partnered with Iraqis to build a functioning multi-sectarian democracy in the heart of the Arab world we would have created a model that others might have followed. If you read my columns from back then you will see that I constantly talked about how hard that will be. I never under-estimated that. I coined the phrase in my column before the war, ``The pottery store rule: You break it, you own it.'' Colin Powell got that from me. What I underestimated is how broken Iraqi society was when we showed up to break it even more, how little the Bush Administration had planned in any way for the morning after, how stupid the Bush people would be in going for de-bathification and dissolution of the Iraqi army, how much many young Arabs hoped we would succeed in Iraq to they could bring that success to their own countries and therefore how much we disappointed them, how perverse the neighboring countries would be -- Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia -- in trying to make sure the Iraqi experiment failed so their people would never demand the same, how sick the jihadists would be in their willingness to indiscriminately kill thousands of Iraqi civilians -- in mosques, markets and restaurants -- just to insure that we and they failed and just how much mistrust Saddam had sowed into that society.

Some of those things I couldn't have known. Some of them I SHOULD have known. I weep for the lost opportunity and all of those Iraqis and Americans and others who paid such a terrible price. The deeper question is: Was the whole project doomed to fail, even if we had done everything right? I simply don't know. All I know is that the region is more broken now than I have ever seen it in my lifetime. Since I have many friends over there that makes me doubly sad.