Thomas Friedman Has Some Dumb Ideas About Who Should Be Secretary Of State

Thomas Friedman Has Some Dumb Ideas About Who Should Be Secretary Of State
SILVER SPRING, MD - JUNE 16: Thomas L. Friedman speaks onstage after a screening of the film, 'Addicted to Oil: Thomas L. Friedman Reporting' at Silverdocs on June 16, 2006 in Silver Spring, Maryland. (Photo by Nancy Ostertag/Getty Images for AFI)
SILVER SPRING, MD - JUNE 16: Thomas L. Friedman speaks onstage after a screening of the film, 'Addicted to Oil: Thomas L. Friedman Reporting' at Silverdocs on June 16, 2006 in Silver Spring, Maryland. (Photo by Nancy Ostertag/Getty Images for AFI)

As most of you may know, Hillary Clinton will be stepping down from her current position as the U.S. Secretary of State, and the reelected President Barack Obama will want to fill her shoes rather quickly. The smart money, at the moment, is that he will appoint U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice to the position, over (or, perhaps, because of) the objections of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his pals Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), and not Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D). Kerry, while qualified, would trigger a special election in Massachusetts, which could return Scott Brown to the Senate, which would make the margins the Democrats would have to defend in 2014 tighter, et cetera.

Of course, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has his own idea about who the Secretary of State should be, and, as you might expect, it is a stupendously idiotic notion:

I don’t know Rice at all, so I have no opinion on her fitness for the job, but I think the contrived flap over her Libya comments certainly shouldn’t disqualify her. That said, my own nominee for secretary of state would be the current education secretary, Arne Duncan.

Terrific. Thomas Friedman hasn't bothered to check into Susan Rice's qualifications, but he's pretty sure the thing to do here is to install Obama's mediocre secretary of education and his zero years of foreign policy experience, to run the State Department. Why would Thomas Friedman -- who, I'll remind you, is supposed to be a credible voice on geo-political thinking -- think this is a good idea?

"I’m nominating him," he says, "because I think this is an important time to ask the question of not just who should be secretary of state, but what should the secretary of state be in the 21st century?"

The 21st century has actually been going on for some time now, so this question actually has already has been answered, but let's see where this is going.

Let’s start with the obvious. A big part of the job is negotiating. Well, anyone who has negotiated with the Chicago Teachers Union, as Duncan did when he was superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools before going to Washington, would find negotiating with the Russians and Chinese a day at the beach. A big part of being secretary of education (and secretary of state) is getting allies and adversaries to agree on things they normally wouldn’t — and making them think that it was all their idea. Trust me, if you can cut such deals with Randi Weingarten, who is president of the American Federation of Teachers, you can do them with Vladimir Putin and Bibi Netanyahu.

Wait. Is Thomas Friedman -- respected, Davos-attending, Cairo hotel-staying, paywall-enhanced Thomas Friedman -- seriously telling his readers that negotiating with teachers unions is the equivalent of negotiating with Vladimir Putin and Bibi Netanyahu? That would be, say, a fine joke for TV host Jay Leno to tell at Duncan's roast, but surely Friedman is not framing his rationale around the sincere belief that deal-making with the AFT prepares you to sit at the table with Likud Party powerbrokers, right? In his next paragraph, he is going to tell us he is kidding, and then get to the real point he wants to make.

A big part of the job of secretary of state is also finding common ground between multiple constituencies: Congress, foreign countries, big business, the White House, the Pentagon and the diplomats. The same is true for a school superintendent, but the constituencies between which they have to forge common ground are so much more intimidating: They’re called “parents,” “teachers,” “students” and “school boards.”

No, no. I see that Friedman truly believes that negotiating with the players in the public school system actually qualifies you to run the State Department, somehow.

So, okay, here are a bunch of things that shouldn't actually need to be said, but we'll say anyway, because Thomas Friedman is an airhead. Unlike, say...Vladimir Putin, no one has ever had the occasion to wonder, "Hmmm. What's Randi Weingarten playing at?" That's because it's no mystery what Weingarten is after -- she wants better pay and benefits and job security for public school teachers.

What's more is that "negotiating with teachers' unions" is not actually that special an activity. People successfully broker deals with teachers' unions all the time. There are literally hundreds of people who have "cut deals" with Weingarten. By Friedman's reckoning, we should thus be drowning in people capable of taking on Putin. This is not to say that Weingarten isn't a shrewd negotiator or tough-minded, but I rather think that dealing with Weingarten is a task that doesn't come with a whole bunch of dire risks or odd surprises. (I'm prepared to re-assess this if Weingarten starts successfully assassinating journalists, though.)

So what is this really all about? Is there a deeper point here?

There is a deeper point here: The biggest issue in the world today is growth, and, in this information age, improving educational outcomes for more young people is now the most important lever for increasing economic growth and narrowing income inequality. In other words, education is now the key to sustainable power. To have a secretary of state who is one of the world’s leading authorities on education, well, everyone would want to talk to him. For instance, it would be very helpful to have a secretary of state who can start a negotiating session with Hamas leaders (if we ever talk with them) by asking: “Do you know how far behind your kids are?” That might actually work better than: “Why don’t you recognize Israel?”

This is not so much a "deeper point" as it is a flurry of Friedman's favorite buzzwords, jammed together in one paragraph that doesn't actually mean anything. What sort of "growth" is Friedman talking about? Economic growth? Institutional growth? Better Wi-Fi in hotel bars? Were educational outcomes really not an important lever of economic mobility, prior to the "information age," as Friedman says? What does he mean by "sustainable power?" Is he talking about political power? Or is he literally talking about energy?

If, as Friedman suggests, "everyone would want to talk" to a person who is "one of the world’s leading authorities on education," how does he explain the fact that there are no examples, in history, of a foreign leader demanding to talk to the secretary of education -- or, indeed, any education expert ever -- before they'd consent to a diplomatic deal with the United States?

The real question, right now, is what is it that Duncan has done, in particular, that makes Friedman believe that he should be the secretary of state in Cloudcuckooland?

Math is the answer. Education is the answer. Getting the Middle East to focus on that would do more to further our interests and their prosperity than anything else. As we are seeing in Egypt, suddenly creating a mass democracy without improving mass education is highly unstable.

At the same time, as our foreign budget shrinks, more and more of it will have to be converted from traditional grants to “Races to the Top,” which Duncan’s Education Department pioneered in U.S. school reform. We will have to tell needy countries that whoever comes up with the best ideas for educating their young women and girls or incentivizing start-ups or strengthening their rule of law will get our scarce foreign aid dollars. That race is the future of foreign aid.

Sweet fancy Moses. Really? "Race To The Top" is what has convinced Friedman that Duncan is ready to take on Putin?

Let me try to talk some sense here. "Race To The Top" is actually not a new or special thing. It's not some exciting, "information age" innovation for this hot and flat and crowded epoch. It is not even a "race" to the "top!" You should actually think of "Race To The Top" as a collection of grant applications from school systems that are already at the top, competing with one another for federal money. (You should also think of "Race To The Top" as "not a particularly effective education initiative," but Diane Ravitch already wrote that column.)

So, let's think about what Friedman is saying here for a minute (which is about 54 more seconds than Friedman himself thought about this). According to Friedman, we should award foreign aid according to the same principles that "Race To The Top" rewards school systems. But in order to win "Race To The Top" money, you already have to have a high-performing, high-functioning school system. I can completely understand the need to keep foreign aid from falling into the hands of corrupt, despotic regimes, but Friedman is implying that the "future of foreign aid" entails our taxpayer dollars flowing to the countries that need our aid the least. This basically defies all logic and good sense.

Friedman says that what powers his belief that the secretary of education should be the secretary of state is that "today’s secretary of state has to deal with so many more failed or failing states." But that's precisely why his "Race To The Top" analogy doesn't work -- "Race To The Top" is explicitly designed to boost the efforts of "states" that are already runaway successes.

Friedman can't seem to grasp the distinction. He says that, in terms of the State Department's activities, that a "lot of countries will need to go back to the blackboard, back to the basics of human capacity building, before they can partner with us on anything." If that is true, then Duncan is perhaps the least suited to the task, because his key innovation is a challenge-grant competition that rewards school systems that demonstrate that they have no "need to go back to the blackboard." School systems that "need to go back to the blackboard" do not win Race To The Top funding.

"So while we’re not likely to shift our secretary of education to secretary of state," Friedman insists, "let’s at least understand why it is not such a preposterous idea."

Well, one person who thinks it is a preposterous idea is Duncan himself, who compares Friedman's article to a piece from The Onion that suggested he should become an "erotic dancer." Says Duncan: "The Onion is probably more accurate than Tom Friedman."

The irony, of course, is that by correctly assaying the comparative value of The Onion versus the value of Thomas Friedman, Duncan is actually demonstrating some small amount of foreign policy acumen.

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