Tom Friedman’s Gimmick Column

May 2, 2007

Friedman does this from time to time, writing a hypothetical speech for a leader that is far more blunt and ham-handed than would ever happen in reality. Today’s topic is the conference on Iraq that Condi Rice will be attending in Egypt.

President Bush should go instead and give this speech:

I want to take this opportunity to speak to the Arab and Muslim nations gathered here today and to the world at large. I begin with a simple message: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I rushed into the invasion of Iraq. I honestly believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I was wrong, and I now realize that in unilaterally launching the war the way I did, you all feel that I breached a bond of trust between America and the world. Not only did that alienate you from us, it made us less effective in Iraq. We had too few allies and too little legitimacy. I apologize — sincerely.

Right. And maybe then Bush will announce that he’s repealing his tax cuts and beginning a major new initiative on global warming. Really, what is the point of writing such an outlandish column?

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Friedman Forgets Clinton’s Popularity Abroad

April 18, 2007

Tom Friedman’s Wednesday column says an advantage of Obama as president is that people in Kenya really like him.

Yes, Mr. Obama’s father was Kenyan, but nevertheless, that poster and those pictures got me thinking: when was the last time you saw a U.S. president or politician being held up as a role model abroad? It’s been awhile. And that got me thinking about Mr. Obama. It seems to me that the strongest case one could make for an Obama presidency right now is rarely articulated: it is his potential to repair the broken relationship between America and the world.

To Friedman’s “when was the last time?” query, here is my answer.

Clinton Africa poster

I don’t know if he was held up as a “role model” exactly, but Bill Clinton was pretty popular overseas. Here’s an account of one of the stops during Clinton’s 1998 Africa trip:

President Clinton began a six-nation tour of Africa on Monday with a brief stop in Ghana, speaking to a wildly enthusiastic crowd on the benefits of democracy, trade and justice — and taking a side-swipe at military rule in Nigeria.

On his way to Independence Square, Clinton was cheered in the muggy streets of the capital by scores of school children wearing orange and brown school uniforms and waving American and Ghanaian flags. Ten of thousands of citizens crowded the route.

Accra was festooned with cheerful banners reading, “Akwaaba, Bill Clinton,” welcoming the president. Billboards showed painted photographs of Clinton and Rawlings shaking hands.

The foreign affection for Clinton persists in his post-presidency as well. In 2005 the Washington Post reported that Clinton dreams of being the UN Secretary-General some day, and Europeans sounded supportive of the idea.

In the United States, the debate over Bush’s approach to the world and Clinton’s — between force and persuasion — remains unsettled. But it seems apparent which approach is more winning abroad. While Bush has generated deep suspicion, especially in Western Europe, Clinton is highly popular, European commentators said.

Europeans who chafe at Bush respond to Clinton’s “inclusive, soft-toned way of communicating with the world, and especially with Europeans,” said Arnout Brouwers, a prominent Dutch editor who has studied American politics in Washington with the German Marshall Fund. “His personal history, his charms, even his personal failings, helped people identify with him as ‘one of us.’ ”

Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, a friend of Clinton’s, agreed. “The reason Bill Clinton is popular in Europe is very simple: He just is. He is a man of great charisma,” Kohl said in a brief interview after a meeting with Bush in Washington.

Asked about Clinton’s dream of heading the United Nations, Kohl said: “I do not know if Bill wishes to go to the United Nations. If he wants, I would support him.”

This is all to say that holding up Barack Obama — whom I generally like — as some sort of aberration in this regard seems wrong to me. Whether Hillary could get the benefit of the doubt from foreign leaders on account of residual good will from her husband’s presidency might be a more interesting question.


Tom Friedman Likes Visiting Call Centers in Other Countries

April 4, 2007

Tom Friedman’s Wednesday column is another example of the man’s self-parody. In this episode, Friedman gets excited about the fact that operators in Kenya, working near an “abandoned avocado processing plant,” answer 1-800 calls from Americans.

This schtick sounded familiar to me, and sure enough Friedman wrote about an Indian call center in 2004. He also talked about a call center located in Bangalore in one of those Discovery Channel documentaries and in his book The World is Flat, leading to this response:

Friedman completely ignores the problems created by the Indian call center industry, such as the imposition of fake Western identities and the harshness of constantly working at night. He talks to timid employees and industry flacks and comes to the conclusion that all is well. In Friedman’s world, “Indian call center operators adopt Western names of their own choosing.” And the night shift fits “in very nicely with the Indian day,” as he told Terry Gross of Fresh Air. He would have had a much less one-sided evaluation if he had talked to people like Arjun Raina, a call center trainer and theater performer featured on 60 Minutes who has written a play, A Terrible Beauty Is Born, on the plight of call center workers.

None of these factors are even hinted at in Wednesday’s column either. Instead, Friedman discusses the politics of getting the higher bandwith that makes the call centers  in Kenya possible. He concludes with classic Friedman silliness in the final paragraph.

Don’t give up on Africa. KenCall is a reminder that with a little less government regulation, a little more democracy and a lot more bandwidth, African entrepreneurs can play this game too. “In the old days, ‘landlocked’ meant you didn’t have a harbor,” said Mr. Nesbitt. “In the new days, it means you don’t have fiber broadband to the rest of the world. This whole market here is just waiting for that.”

Kind of like in the 1990s, this kind of writing actually seemed somewhat original. Not so much any more.