The ‘Mean Greens’ Are Forcing Exxon to Clean Up Its Act

Since the 1990s, the wisest oil-producing countries and companies have regularly reminded themselves of the oil patch adage that the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; it ended because we invented bronze tools. When we did, stone tools became worthless — even though there were still plenty on the ground.

And so it will be with oil: The petroleum age will end because we invent superior technology that coexists harmoniously with nature. When we do, there will be plenty of oil left in the ground.

So be careful, wise producers tell themselves, don’t bet the vitality of your company, community or country on the assumption that oil will be like Maxwell House Coffee — “Good to the last drop” — and pumped from every last well. Remember Kodak? It underestimated the speed at which digital photography would make film obsolete. It didn’t go well for Kodak or Kodachrome.

Alas, though, not every oil company got the memo.

One that most glaringly did not is the one that in 2013 was the biggest public company in the world! It’s ExxonMobil. Today, it is no longer the biggest. As a result of its head-in-the-oil-sands-drill-baby-drill-we-are-still-not-at-peak-oil business model, Exxon lost over $20 billion last year, suffered a credit rating downgrade, might have to borrow billions just to pay its dividend, has seen its share price over the last decade produce a minus-30 percent return and was booted from the Dow Jones industrial average.

But last week — finally — Exxon got the memo, in the form of a shareholder revolt in what was one of the most consequential weeks in the history of the oil and gas industry and shareholder capitalism.

I’ve long argued that if environmentalists want to have an impact on the climate they can’t be “nice greens.” They have to be “mean greens.” They have to be as mean and tough, as diligent and vigilant, as the industry they’re trying to change.

Well, last week a little hedge fund called Engine No. 1 delivered an unprecedented master class in mean green using the tools of democratic capitalism. A plucky, purpose-driven investment fund, Engine No. 1 set out to force Exxon to improve its financial returns by getting much more serious about gradually transitioning — through innovation and acquisitions — into being an energy company, not just an oil and gas company.

At Exxon’s annual meeting, Engine No. 1 offered up a slate for four new members of Exxon’s 12-member board. The four represent deep energy expertise and climate solutions. The slate committed to push the oil giant to a net-zero emissions strategy by 2050, more investments in clean energy systems and more transparency about Exxon’s energy transition, with metrics and milestones, as well as disclosure of its lobbying payments and partners, suspected of undermining the science around climate change.

And darn if half the slate — Gregory Goff and Kaisa Hietala — wasn’t immediately elected by wide margins, and at least one other member might be as well when ExxonMobil finishes counting the votes from its very, very bad day.

Engine No. 1 was successful because it got three of the four biggest pension funds in America — fed up with Exxon’s relentless value destruction — to vote for its nominees. We’re talking about the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System and the New York State Common Retirement Fund. Also, three of the world’s biggest fund managers, Vanguard, State Street and Black Rock, which together own more than one-fifth of all Exxon stock, each voted for part of the dissident slate.

And if you are keeping score at home — on your Stone-Age-ending-before-we-run-out-of-stones scorecard — on the same day that Engine No. 1 landed at least two energy/climate experts on the Exxon board, Barron’s reported: “A Dutch court ordered European energy giant Royal Dutch Shell to slash its carbon emissions by a net 45 percent by 2030. And, at Chevron’s annual meeting, shareholders supported a nonbinding proposal to ask the company to cut carbon emissions generated by the use of its products.”

Engine No. 1 and its allies are not playing around, and for good reason. As CNN reported a few days earlier, citing a newly published Harvard study, “For decades, ExxonMobil has deployed Big Tobacco-like propaganda to downplay the gravity of the climate crisis.”

“The study used machine learning and algorithms to uncover trends in more than 200 public and internal Exxon documents between 1972 and 2019,” according to CNN, which quoted this statement from the study: “These patterns mimic the tobacco industry’s documented strategy of shifting responsibility away from corporations — which knowingly sold a deadly product while denying its harms — and onto consumers.”

Exxon’s existing board was noteworthy for one thing: Other than the C.E.O., it had one member — appointed only this year — who I would call an energy expert, and none steeped in climate expertise that could help the company adapt.

The two new directors will definitely help, but getting the third — conservationist Andy Karsner — would really shake things up. Exxon says the voting results are too close to call, and it needs more time to certify if Karsner won a seat.

Bloomberg reported: “Exxon telephoned investors the morning of the ballot — and even during an unscheduled, hourlong pause during the virtual meeting — asking them to reconsider their votes, according to several of those who received calls. Some said they found the last-ditch outreach and halt to the meeting unorthodox and troubling.”

I first got to know and respect Karsner watching him in action in 2007, when

he was an assistant secretary of energy for George W. Bush. He oversaw the U.S.’s National Laboratories’ applied science programs and negotiated America’s re-entry into the U.N.’s Convention on Climate Change at the Bali conference, which laid the pathway for the Paris global climate deal. Before that, Karsner built power plants in Pakistan and solar plants in Morocco.

He has been a longtime member of the board of Conservation International, as was my wife. In full disclosure, Karsner and I are now friends, but it’s his experience and outlook that recommend him here. If there were a picture in the encyclopedia of a “mean green,” it would be Karsner: tough as nails and green as grass.

Karsner, the other Engine No. 1 nominees and Engine No. 1 itself are out to strengthen Exxon, not destroy it. They view it as one of the world’s greatest collections of scientific and engineering talent. They welcome Exxon’s sudden enthusiasm for the idea of creating a $100 billion public-private carbon-capture facility along the Houston Ship Channel to sequester planet-warming carbon dioxide. They also know that demand for oil and gas for transportation, power generation and plastics is not disappearing overnight. Wisely managed money will be made there.

But in a world where Ford just unveiled an all-electric version of its F-150 full-size pickup truck, one of its top-selling vehicles, and says that it envisages electric cars and trucks making up 40 percent of its production by the end of the decade, they think Exxon has got to stop betting that the good ole days of oil and gas profits will return — and start becoming a more diversified energy company. That means not only investing more in future carbon capture, batteries and other renewables, but also using its engineering prowess to invent that future — while it still has an income stream from oil and gas.

Everyone knows it won’t be easy. Making the kind of profits that Exxon once piled up from oil and gas will be very, very hard as a more diversified energy company. But it beats becoming a corporate fossil by betting the house on increasingly unprofitable, increasingly obsolete, increasingly unhealthy fossil fuels.

Trump’s Wag-the-Dog War

The president is looking for a dangerous domestic enemy to fight.

Some presidents, when they get into trouble before an election, try to “wag the dog” by starting a war abroad. Donald Trump seems ready to wag the dog by starting a war at home. Be afraid — he just might get his wish.

How did we get here? Well, when historians summarize the Trump team’s approach to dealing with the coronavirus, it will take only a few paragraphs:

“They talked as if they were locking down like China. They acted as if they were going for herd immunity like Sweden. They prepared for neither. And they claimed to be superior to both. In the end, they got the worst of all worlds — uncontrolled viral spread and an unemployment catastrophe.

“And then the story turned really dark.

“As the virus spread, and businesses had to shut down again and schools and universities were paralyzed as to whether to open or stay closed in the fall, Trump’s poll numbers nose-dived. Joe Biden opened up a 15-point lead in a national head-to-head survey.

“So, in a desperate effort to salvage his campaign, Trump turned to the Middle East Dictator’s Official Handbook and found just what he was looking for, the chapter titled, ‘What to Do When Your People Turn Against You?’

“Answer: Turn them against each other and then present yourself as the only source of law and order.”

America blessedly is not Syria, yet, but Trump is adopting the same broad approach that Bashar al-Assad did back in 2011, when peaceful protests broke out in the southern Syrian town of Dara’a, calling for democratic reforms; the protests then spread throughout the country.

Had al-Assad responded with even the mildest offer of more participatory politics, he would have been hailed as a savior by a majority of Syrians. One of their main chants during the demonstrations was, “Silmiya, silmiya” (“Peaceful, peaceful”).

But al-Assad did not want to share power, and so he made sure that the protests were not peaceful. He had his soldiers open fire on and arrest nonviolent demonstrators, many of them Sunni Muslims. Over time, the peaceful, secular elements of the Syrian democracy movement were sidelined, as hardened Islamists began to spearhead the fight against al-Assad. In the process, the uprising was transformed into a naked, rule-or-die sectarian civil war between al-Assad’s Alawite Shiite forces and various Sunni jihadist groups.

Al-Assad got exactly what he wanted — not a war between his dictatorship and his people peacefully asking to have their voices heard, but a war with Islamic radicals in which he could play the law-and-order president, backed by Russia and Iran. In the end, his country was destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Syrians were killed or forced to flee. But al-Assad stayed in power. Today, he’s the top dog on a pile of rubble.

Image

A banner depicting the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad hanging in late 2018 in Douma, Syria. The town was retaken months earlier by the government from rebels after heavy fighting and airstrikes.
Credit…Marko Djurica/Reuters

Image

Syrians walking amid the rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike in 2018.
Credit…Mohammed Badra/EPA, via Shutterstock

I have zero tolerance for any American protesters who resort to violence in any U.S. city, because it damages homes and businesses already hammered by the coronavirus — many of them minority-owned — and because violence will only turn off and repel the majority needed to drive change.

But when I heard Trump suggest, as he did in the Oval Office on Monday, that he was going to send federal forces into U.S. cities, where the local mayors have not invited him, the first word that popped into my head was “Syria.”

Listen to how Trump put it: “I’m going to do something — that, I can tell you. Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these — Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country.”

These cities, Trump stressed, are “all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by radical left. If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.”

This is coming so straight from the Middle East Dictator’s Handbook, it’s chilling. In Syria, al-Assad used plainclothes, pro-regime thugs, known as the shabiha (“the apparitions”) to make protesters disappear. In Portland, Ore., we saw militarized federal forces wearing battle fatigues, but no identifiable markings, arresting people and putting them into unmarked vans. How can this happen in America?

Authoritarian populists — whether Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, or al-Assad — “win by dividing the people and presenting themselves as the savior of the good and ordinary citizens against the undeserving agents of subversion and ‘cultural pollution,’” explained Stanford’s Larry Diamond, author of “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.”

In the face of such a threat, the left needs to be smart. Stop calling for “defunding the police” and then saying that “defunding” doesn’t mean disbanding. If it doesn’t mean that then say what it means: “reform.” Defunding the police, calling police officers “pigs,” taking over whole neighborhoods with barricades — these are terrible messages, not to mention strategies, easily exploitable by Trump.

The scene that The Times’s Mike Baker described from Portland in the early hours of Tuesday — Day 54 of the protests there — is not good: “Some leaders in the Black community, grateful for a reckoning on race, worry that what should be a moment for racial justice could be squandered by violence. Businesses supportive of reforms have been left demoralized by the mayhem the protests have brought. … On Tuesday morning, police said another jewelry store had been looted. As federal agents appeared to try detaining one person, others in the crowd rushed to free the person.”

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, according to The Post, found that a “majority of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement and a record 69 percent say Black people and other minorities are not treated as equal to white people in the criminal justice system. But the public generally opposes calls to shift some police funding to social services or remove statues of Confederate generals or presidents who enslaved people.”

All of this street violence and defund-the-police rhetoric plays into the only effective Trump ad that I’ve seen on television. It goes like this: A phone rings and a recording begins: “You have reached the 911 police emergency line. Due to defunding of the police department, we’re sorry but no one is here to take your call. If you’re calling to report a rape, please press 1. To report a murder, press 2. To report a home invasion, press 3. For all other crimes, leave your name and number and someone will get back to you. Our estimated wait time is currently five days. Goodbye.

Today’s protesters need to trump Trump by taking a page from another foreign leader — a liberal — Ekrem Imamoglu, who managed to win the 2019 election to become the mayor of Istanbul, despite the illiberal Erdogan using every dirty trick possible to steal the election. Imamoglu’s campaign strategy was called “radical love.”

Radical love meant reaching out to the more traditional and religious Erdogan supporters, listening to them, showing them respect and making clear that they were not “the enemy” — that Erdogan was the enemy, because he was the enemy of unity and mutual respect, and there could be no progress without them.

As a recent essay on Imamoglu’s strategy in The Journal of Democracy noted, he overcame Erdogan with a “message of inclusiveness, an attitude of respect toward [Erdogan] supporters, and a focus on bread-and-butter issues that could unite voters across opposing political camps. On June 23, Imamoglu was again elected mayor of Istanbul, but this time with more than 54 percent of the vote — the largest mandate obtained by an Istanbul mayor since 1984 — against 45 percent for his opponent.”

Radical love. Wow. I bet that could work in America, too. It’s the perfect answer to Trump’s politics of division — and it’s the one strategy he’ll never imitate.

Email Author: https://www.nytimes.com/by/thomas-l-friedman

Trump’s Wag-the-Dog War

The president is looking for a dangerous domestic enemy to fight.

Some presidents, when they get into trouble before an election, try to “wag the dog” by starting a war abroad. Donald Trump seems ready to wag the dog by starting a war at home. Be afraid — he just might get his wish.

How did we get here? Well, when historians summarize the Trump team’s approach to dealing with the coronavirus, it will take only a few paragraphs:

“They talked as if they were locking down like China. They acted as if they were going for herd immunity like Sweden. They prepared for neither. And they claimed to be superior to both. In the end, they got the worst of all worlds — uncontrolled viral spread and an unemployment catastrophe.

“And then the story turned really dark.

“As the virus spread, and businesses had to shut down again and schools and universities were paralyzed as to whether to open or stay closed in the fall, Trump’s poll numbers nose-dived. Joe Biden opened up a 15-point lead in a national head-to-head survey.

“So, in a desperate effort to salvage his campaign, Trump turned to the Middle East Dictator’s Official Handbook and found just what he was looking for, the chapter titled, ‘What to Do When Your People Turn Against You?’

“Answer: Turn them against each other and then present yourself as the only source of law and order.”

America blessedly is not Syria, yet, but Trump is adopting the same broad approach that Bashar al-Assad did back in 2011, when peaceful protests broke out in the southern Syrian town of Dara’a, calling for democratic reforms; the protests then spread throughout the country.

Had al-Assad responded with even the mildest offer of more participatory politics, he would have been hailed as a savior by a majority of Syrians. One of their main chants during the demonstrations was, “Silmiya, silmiya” (“Peaceful, peaceful”).

But al-Assad did not want to share power, and so he made sure that the protests were not peaceful. He had his soldiers open fire on and arrest nonviolent demonstrators, many of them Sunni Muslims. Over time, the peaceful, secular elements of the Syrian democracy movement were sidelined, as hardened Islamists began to spearhead the fight against al-Assad. In the process, the uprising was transformed into a naked, rule-or-die sectarian civil war between al-Assad’s Alawite Shiite forces and various Sunni jihadist groups.

Al-Assad got exactly what he wanted — not a war between his dictatorship and his people peacefully asking to have their voices heard, but a war with Islamic radicals in which he could play the law-and-order president, backed by Russia and Iran. In the end, his country was destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Syrians were killed or forced to flee. But al-Assad stayed in power. Today, he’s the top dog on a pile of rubble.

I have zero tolerance for any American protesters who resort to violence in any U.S. city, because it damages homes and businesses already hammered by the coronavirus — many of them minority-owned — and because violence will only turn off and repel the majority needed to drive change.

But when I heard Trump suggest, as he did in the Oval Office on Monday, that he was going to send federal forces into U.S. cities, where the local mayors have not invited him, the first word that popped into my head was “Syria.”

Listen to how Trump put it: “I’m going to do something — that, I can tell you. Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these — Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country.”

These cities, Trump stressed, are “all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by radical left. If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.”

This is coming so straight from the Middle East Dictator’s Handbook, it’s chilling. In Syria, al-Assad used plainclothes, pro-regime thugs, known as the shabiha (“the apparitions”) to make protesters disappear. In Portland, Ore., we saw militarized federal forces wearing battle fatigues, but no identifiable markings, arresting people and putting them into unmarked vans. How can this happen in America?

Authoritarian populists — whether Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, or al-Assad — “win by dividing the people and presenting themselves as the savior of the good and ordinary citizens against the undeserving agents of subversion and ‘cultural pollution,’” explained Stanford’s Larry Diamond, author of “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.”

In the face of such a threat, the left needs to be smart. Stop calling for “defunding the police” and then saying that “defunding” doesn’t mean disbanding. If it doesn’t mean that then say what it means: “reform.” Defunding the police, calling police officers “pigs,” taking over whole neighborhoods with barricades — these are terrible messages, not to mention strategies, easily exploitable by Trump.

The scene that The Times’s Mike Baker described from Portland in the early hours of Tuesday — Day 54 of the protests there — is not good: “Some leaders in the Black community, grateful for a reckoning on race, worry that what should be a moment for racial justice could be squandered by violence. Businesses supportive of reforms have been left demoralized by the mayhem the protests have brought. … On Tuesday morning, police said another jewelry store had been looted. As federal agents appeared to try detaining one person, others in the crowd rushed to free the person.”

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, according to The Post, found that a “majority of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement and a record 69 percent say Black people and other minorities are not treated as equal to white people in the criminal justice system. But the public generally opposes calls to shift some police funding to social services or remove statues of Confederate generals or presidents who enslaved people.”

All of this street violence and defund-the-police rhetoric plays into the only effective Trump ad that I’ve seen on television. It goes like this: A phone rings and a recording begins: “You have reached the 911 police emergency line. Due to defunding of the police department, we’re sorry but no one is here to take your call. If you’re calling to report a rape, please press 1. To report a murder, press 2. To report a home invasion, press 3. For all other crimes, leave your name and number and someone will get back to you. Our estimated wait time is currently five days. Goodbye.”

Today’s protesters need to trump Trump by taking a page from another foreign leader — a liberal — Ekrem Imamoglu, who managed to win the 2019 election to become the mayor of Istanbul, despite the illiberal Erdogan using every dirty trick possible to steal the election. Imamoglu’s campaign strategy was called “radical love.”

Radical love meant reaching out to the more traditional and religious Erdogan supporters, listening to them, showing them respect and making clear that they were not “the enemy” — that Erdogan was the enemy, because he was the enemy of unity and mutual respect, and there could be no progress without them.

As a recent essay on Imamoglu’s strategy in The Journal of Democracy noted, he overcame Erdogan with a “message of inclusiveness, an attitude of respect toward [Erdogan] supporters, and a focus on bread-and-butter issues that could unite voters across opposing political camps. On June 23, Imamoglu was again elected mayor of Istanbul, but this time with more than 54 percent of the vote — the largest mandate obtained by an Istanbul mayor since 1984 — against 45 percent for his opponent.”

Radical love. Wow. I bet that could work in America, too. It’s the perfect answer to Trump’s politics of division — and it’s the one strategy he’ll never imitate.

Biden Should Not Debate Trump Unless …

Here are two conditions the Democrat should set.

I worry about Joe Biden debating Donald Trump. He should do it only under two conditions. Otherwise, he’s giving Trump unfair advantages.

First, Biden should declare that he will take part in a debate only if Trump releases his tax returns for 2016 through 2018. Biden has already done so, and they are on his website. Trump must, too. No more gifting Trump something he can attack while hiding his own questionable finances.

And second, Biden should insist that a real-time fact-checking team approved by both candidates be hired by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates — and that 10 minutes before the scheduled conclusion of the debate this team report on any misleading statements, phony numbers or outright lies either candidate had uttered. That way no one in that massive television audience can go away easily misled.

Debates always have ground rules. Why can’t telling the truth and equal transparency on taxes be conditions for this one?

Yes, the fact that we have to make truth-telling an explicit condition is an incredibly sad statement about our time; normally such things are unspoken and understood. But if the past teaches us anything, Trump might very well lie and mislead for the entire debate, forcing Biden to have to spend a majority of his time correcting Trump before making his own points.

That is not a good way for Biden to reintroduce himself to the American people. And, let’s not kid ourselves, these debates will be his reintroduction to most Americans, who have neither seen nor heard from him for months if not years.

Because of Covid-19, Biden has been sticking close to home, wearing a mask and social distancing. And with the coronavirus now spreading further, and Biden being a responsible individual and role model, it’s likely that he won’t be able to engage with any large groups of voters before Election Day. Therefore, the three scheduled televised debates, which will garner huge audiences, will carry more weight for him than ever.

He should not go into such a high-stakes moment ceding any advantages to Trump. Trump is badly trailing in the polls, and he needs these debates much more than Biden does to win over undecided voters. So Biden needs to make Trump pay for them in the currency of transparency and fact-checking — universal principles that will level the playing field for him and illuminate and enrich the debates for all citizens.

Of course, Trump will stomp and protest and say, “No way.” Fine. Let Trump cancel. Let Trump look American voters in the eye and say: “There will be no debate, because I should be able to continue hiding my tax returns from you all, even though I promised that I wouldn’t and even though Biden has shown you his. And there will be no debate, because I should be able to make any statement I want without any independent fact-checking.”

If Trump says that, Biden can retort: “Well, that’s not a debate then, that’s a circus. If that’s what you want, why don’t we just arm wrestle or flip a coin to see who wins?”

I get why Republican senators and Fox News don’t press Trump on his taxes or call out his lies. They’re afraid of him and his base and unconcerned about the truth. But why should Biden, or the rest of us, play along?

After all, these issues around taxes and truth are more vital than ever for voters to make an informed choice.

Trump, you will recall, never sold his Trump Organization holdings or put them into a blind trust — as past presidents did with their investments — to avoid any conflicts of interest. Rather, his assets are in a revocable trust, whose trustees are his eldest son, Donald Jr., and Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer. Which is a joke.

Trump promised during the last campaign to release his tax returns after an I.R.S. “audit” was finished. Which turned out to have been another joke.

Once elected, Trump claimed that the American people were not interested in seeing his tax returns. Actually, we are now more interested than ever — and not just because it’s utterly unfair that Biden go into the debate with all his income exposed (he and his wife, Jill, earned more than $15 million in the two years after they left the Obama administration, largely from speaking engagements and books) while Trump doesn’t have to do the same.

There must be something in those tax returns that Trump really does not want the American public to see. It may be just silly — that he’s actually not all that rich. It may have to do with the fact that foreign delegations and domestic lobbyists, who want to curry favor with him, stay in his hotel in Washington or use it for corporate entertaining.

Or, more ominously, it may be related to Trump’s incomprehensible willingness to give Russian President Vladimir Putin the benefit of every doubt for the last three-plus years. Virtually every time there has been a major public dispute between Putin and U.S. intelligence agencies alleging Russian misdeeds — including, of late, that the Kremlin offered bounties for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan — Trump has sided with Putin.

The notion that Putin may have leverage over him is not crazy, given little previous hints by his sons.

As Michael Hirsh recalled in a 2018 article in Foreign Policy about how Russian money helped to save the Trump empire from bankruptcy: “In September 2008, at the ‘Bridging U.S. and Emerging Markets Real Estate’ conference in New York, the president’s eldest son, Donald Jr., said:

‘In terms of high-end product influx into the United States, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. Say, in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo, and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.’”

The American people need to know if Trump is in debt in any way to Russian banks and financiers who might be close to Putin. Because if Trump is re-elected, and unconstrained from needing to run again, he will most likely act even more slavishly toward Putin, and that is a national security threat.

At the same time, debating Trump is unlike debating any other human being. Trump literally lies as he breathes, and because he has absolutely no shamethere are no guardrails. According to the Fact Checker team at The Washington Post, between Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, and May 29, 2020, he made 19,127 false or misleading claims.

Biden has been dogged by bone-headed issues of plagiarism in his career, but nothing compared to Trump’s daily fire hose of dishonesty, which has no rival in U.S. presidential history. That’s why it’s so important to insist that the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates hire independent fact-checkers who, after the two candidates give their closing arguments — but before the debate goes off the air — would present a rundown of any statements that were false or only partly true.

Only if leading into the debate, American voters have a clear picture of Trump’s tax returns alongside Biden’s, and only if, coming out of the debate, they have a clear picture of who was telling the truth and who was not, will they be able to make a fair judgment between the two candidates.

That kind of debate and only that kind of debate would be worthy of voters’ consideration and Biden’s participation.

Otherwise, Joe, stay in your basement.

Thomas Friedman, Iraq war booster

The New York Times columnist broke down what the Iraq was really about for Charlie Rose on May 29, 2003.

Jerome Delay/AP
So that’s what that was all about?

At the end of May 2003, America was on the verge of one of its longest-running, most expensive wars in Iraq. Yet Iraq war boosters were feeling vindicated by the swift march on Baghdad, which had fallen within weeks, and the swift collapse of the regime.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a fan of the Iraq war, appeared on Charlie Rose to crow about this rousing success on May 29 2003. The brief clip below from that interview (the full interview can be found here) is a fascinating glimpse into the id of Washington insiders like Friedman before the invasion in March of that year and for the first few months, at least, of what was to prove a long occupation.

He appears to still think it was the right choice. He wrote last June, in a column on Syria, that: “You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America” and “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, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics.”

I don’t ever remember a time in my five years in Iraq where the US was generally seen as a trusted “midwife” by a majority, or even a large minority, of people. Whether or not Iraq might have a found a better, less bloody way out from the shadow of Saddam Hussein without an invasion and occupation, is now something forever unknowable.

(I just made the below transcript from the above clip. I’ve omitted most “uhms” and the like, and may have made one or two errors since the audio is a bit compromised):

Rose: “Now that the war is over and there’s some difficulty with the peace, was it worth doing?”

After Russian trolls target black Americans, one city fights back

Friedman: “I think it was unquestionably worth doing Charlie, and I think that looking back that I now certainly feel I understand what the war was about and it’s interesting to talk about it here in silicon valley because I think looking back at the 1990s I can identify there are actually three bubbles of the 1990s, there was the Nasdaq bubble, there was the corporate governance bubble, and lastly there was what I would call the terrorism bubble, and the first two were based on creative accounting and the last two were based on moral creative accounting. The terrorism bubble that built up over the 1990s said flying airplanes into the World Trade Center, that’s Ok. Wrapping yourself with dynamite and blowing up Israelis in the pizza parlour, that’s Ok. Because we’re weak and they’re strong and the weak have a different morality. Having your preachers say that’s Ok? That’s Ok. Having your charities raise money for people who do these kinds of things? That’s Ok. And having your press call people who do these kind of things martyrs? That’s Ok. And that build up as a bubble, Charlie. And 9/11 to me was the peak of that bubble. And  what we learned on 9/11 in a gut way was that bubble was a fundamental threat to our society because there is no wall high enough no INS agent smart enough no metal detector efficient enough to protect an open society from people motivated by that bubble. And what we needed to do was to go over to that part of the world and burst that bubble. We needed to go over there basically uhm, and, uh, uhm take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble. And there was only one way to do it because part of that bubble said ‘we’ve got you’ this bubble is actually going to level the balance of power between us and you because we don’t care about life, we’re ready to sacrifice and all you care about is your stock options and your hummers. And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad uhm, and basically saying which part of this sentence don’t  you understand. You don’t think we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy we’re going to just let it go, well suck on this. Ok. That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. We could have hit Pakistan,  We hit Iraq, because we could. And that’s the real truth. “

What’s maybe most interesting about this bizarre set of views was that they were so commonplace back then. Al Qaeda has hit the United States, so we must hit back at them. Not just at Al Qaeda, or the people who might have directly assisted them, but a much bigger “them:” A whole civilization who had started to loom in the sight of people like Thomas Friedman as an existential threat to America.

Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. The Iraqi people had had nothing to do with 9/11. Were there people there who were delighted to see the US get a bloody nose from Osama bin Laden? Yes. The previous decade had seen a US-backed sanctions effort targeting Saddam Hussein that crippled the country. Never mind that Saddam brought that upon his people with the invasion of Kuwait. Average people were the ones who suffered the most. In 1999 UNICEF estimated that the mortality rate for children under the age of five had doubled in central and southern Iraq since sanctions were imposed, from 56 dead children per 1,000 between 1984-1989 to 131 per 1,000 between 1994-1999.

I don’t begrudge them their anger, not least because they weren’t doing anything to harm people here in the US. I never understood the terror that seemed to grip so many Americans after 9/11, perhaps because by that point I’d covered small wars and grasping poverty we haven’t seen the likes of in the US for generations across Southeast Asia. A few years prior, I covered the independence of East Timor. The murder of Monitor stringer Sander Thoenes there was what led me to getting picked up by the paper — and he was just one of over 100,000 excess deaths in the tiny country during Indonesia’s 24-year occupation. For comparison, that was one in seven people in East Timor. One in seven Americans dying as the result of war and occupation would be 44 million people.

I had schoolmates who died in the towers, one dear friend who departed from the heights of Tower Two just minutes before it would have been too late, and who struggled with survivor’s guilt about the colleagues who stayed at their desks, for years after (most reckoned the plane that had crashed into the first tower was an accident, not a terrorist attack). It effected me, as it effected almost all Americans.

But it didn’t seem that hard to keep some perspective. And having lived in Muslim majority Indonesia since 1993 and spending the years after 9/11 covering Al Qaeda and aligned militant groups in the region, I’d learned enough to know that a war that could be painted as against Muslims in general would suit Al Qaeda right down to the ground – such a reaction is what they wanted, since they reckoned that would yield them a bonanza of new recruits.

Mr. Friedman has gone from strength to strength in the years since, with handsome speakers fees for him to explain his theories about how the world is changing and evolving. But that brief clip above shows a man whose analysis is easily swayed by emotion, by sentiment.

“What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying which part of this sentence don’t you understand. You don’t think we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy we’re going to just let it go, well suck on this” is not the sort of comment that comes from dispassionate, reasoned analysis. It comes from fear.

We learned in a “gut way (that) bubble was a fundamental threat to our society?” That’s not really learning. As horrible as that attack on us was, there was no fundamental threat to our society. We have done a good job in the years since increasing security (to the point that, in some views, we have actually threatened our own open society ourselves) and preventing any further major attacks on our soil. Did the invasion of Iraq and taking out “a very big stick” accomplish that? No.

Finally, even the notion of a “terrorism bubble” in the 1990s was a bit of a myth. The decade that the 9/11 attacks began so horrifically was among the safest ones when terrorism in the skies is considered ever (since supplanted by the last decade). There were 469 fatalities for passengers, crews and passengers for commercial fliers in the 2000s, 256 of those on 9/11. In the 1990s, there were just under 400 fatalities. In the 1980s, there were about 1,400 and in the 1970s, there were just over 800 killed. When total number of commercial flights are included to make apples to apples comparisons, the most dangerous decade was the 1930s, with 616 fatalities per billion passenger flights. The 2000s had 22 per billion flights taken.

If there has been a “terrorism” bubble it appeared to have burst around 1991judging by this graph at the Global Terrorism Database maintained at the University of Maryland with funding from the Department of Homeland Security. Terrorism, though, surged again after 2003, largely with a rise in terrorist incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq associated with the wars being fought in those lands.

At this time of looking back, let’s try to remember the track records and quality of argument presented by people whose views and advice are sought before the wars of our future.

Outsource Thomas Friedman’s column to India

At one point, Thomas Friedman pauses briefly but significantly in The World is Flat, his gushing endorsement for how technology is moving all kinds of American jobs to places like India. He chuckles, a little nervously. “Thank goodness I’m a journalist and not an accountant or a radiologist,” he writes. “There will be no outsourcing for me. . .”

But why not?
* Friedman has failed abysmally as a foreign affairs commentator.
* Accomplished columnists in India who are writing eloquently in English right now could replace him by tomorrow morning.

The New York Times is presumably paying Friedman for his knowledge and experience, but he has been wrong too often and for too long. He is supposedly an expert on the Middle East, but his analysis of the American invasion of Iraq and the calamitous, violent decade since then has been chronically misleading and worthless. Before the 2003 U.S. attack, while the genuine experts counseled diplomacy and caution, he told Americans: “My motto is very simple: give war a chance.” A few months after the invasion, he said that it “was unquestionably worth doing.” Some of his most offensive comments have been immortalized on Youtube, during an outburst in which he used a crude sexual metaphor that insulted people in the Middle East as part of an embarrassing rant that ended: “We hit Iraq because we could. And that’s the real truth.”

Let us set aside the immorality of cheerleading for a war in which nearly 4500 Americans and at least 160,000 (and possibly more) Iraqis have already died. Friedman failed to do his job – which was to accurately explain a far-off, foreign reality to his readers so that they could make informed choices. Among those he let down were: the U.S. voting public; business executives who may have been considering whether to invest in the Mideast; and, quite possibly even young people deciding if they should join the American army.

Friedman is fond of emphasizing that globalization is producing a competitive new world, which has no tolerance for inefficiency. If he worked for one of the big corporations that he likes to glorify, his blunders would have gotten him fired before the Iraq war had dragged into even its second year.

Fortunately, The New York Times would not suffer by losing him. There are newspaper columnists in India who could step right in immediately.

Palagummi Sainath, based in Mumbai, is the rural affairs correspondent for the English-language The Hindu. Sainath, who is one of India’s best known and respected reporters, is an elegant man in his late 50s, with a shock of gray hair. He has spent decades traveling through rural India, giving voice to the poor majority who have been left behind by the economic boom (which Friedman celebrates at every opportunity). Sainath spent part of 2012 in the United States, where he also wrote original columns about America. (His work is readily available on The Hindu’s website.) In today’s flat world, all he needs is his computer terminal, and his columns could be in the hands of his New York Times editors in nanoseconds.

Praful Bidwai, of New Delhi. Bidwai is a bearded bear of a man in his 60s, a tenacious, independent thinker. He spent years at the Times of India, but at present he freelances; thanks to the miracle of globalization, some of his work is instantly accessible at prafulbidwai.org. He writes about a broad range of subjects, including his regular indictments of India for developing nuclear weapons. By criticizing New Delhi’s atomic arsenal, he has shown the courage that a great newspaper columnist must have by speaking out about a subject on which the majority of India probably disagrees with him.

Arundhati Roy, of New Delhi. Americans who only know Roy through her remarkable novel The God of Small Things will be delighted to learn that she uses her mastery of the English language in outspoken essays on world politics, human rights, and war and peace. Some of her most effective articles denounced the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in the state of Gujarat, during which the state’s chief elected official stood by in complicit silence as mobs of Hindu extremists murdered 2000 people. (That official, Narendra Modi, is a strong candidate for India’s prime minister in this spring’s’s elections. Friedman’s 635-page-long The World is Flat is full of rejoicing about India’s high-tech industry, but he does not mention Modi and the mass killings once.)

This list of potential replacements for Friedman is only a beginning. Harsh Mander concentrates on hunger in India, which persists despite the much trumpeted economic miracle. Shubhranshu Choudhary spent seven years courageously reporting on the Maoist insurgency in east-central India, an uprising triggered partly by mining companies stealing land from the rural poor.

By replacing Friedman with one of these highly-qualified Indian candidates, The New York Times would not only improve its accuracy. The newspaper could also save money, which Friedman would agree is surely part of its responsibility to its shareholders. Back in 2005, he may have unwittingly composed his own pink slip.

“When the world is flat,” he wrote, “your company both can and must take advantage of the best producers at the lowest prices anywhere they can be found.”