Five Best Friday Columns

Richard Haass on foreign policy, Paul Krugman on inequality, David Gardner on Saudi Arabia, Arthur L. Caplan on medicine, and Michael Hirsh on Obama. 

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Richard Haass in The Washington Post on why the U.S. needs a more comprehensive foreign policy. Haass suggests that our policy in Russia and the Middle East is not broad, nor far reaching enough. With respect to Russia he writes, "... sanctions are an instrument of policy, not an objective. They are at best a means to an end. But what end? If Russian capitulation is unlikely and escalation a real danger, the challenge is to find an outcome that would leave the United States, its European allies and Ukraine better off." Haass advocates for a similarly all encompassing approach to the Middle East. "In the turbulent Middle East, the United States has been promoting a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. But now it should use the crisis to attempt something larger... The United States, Israel, the E.U. and select Arab countries should offer a generous economic package to the people of Gaza, including a sharp reduction in economic controls — but only if it can be shown that there will be no tunnels or rockets in Gaza. The goal would be to demonstrate that the path to higher living standards and a Palestinian state lies in political dialogue, not armed resistance."

Paul Krugman in The New York Times on why inequality is hurting the American economy. Krugman writes that although inequality has been much talked about as a moral issue, it is ultimately detrimental to economic growth. "Specifically, if you look systematically at the international evidence on inequality, redistribution, and growth — which is what researchers at the I.M.F. did — you find that lower levels of inequality are associated with faster, not slower, growth. Furthermore, income redistribution at the levels typical of advanced countries (with the United States doing much less than average) is 'robustly associated with higher and more durable growth.' That is, there’s no evidence that making the rich richer enriches the nation as a whole, but there’s strong evidence of benefits from making the poor less poor." He explains that while economic assistance programs may not have an immediate effect on the larger economy, they ultimately increase productivity in the long term. "The historical evidence does indeed suggest that making food stamps available somewhat reduces work effort, especially by single mothers. But it also suggests that Americans who had access to food stamps when they were children grew up to be healthier and more productive than those who didn’t, which means that they made a bigger economic contribution."

David Gardner in The Financial Times on why Saudi Arabia is partly to blame for Middle East extremism. Gardner suggests that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long endorsed religious absolutism by promoting Wahhabi Islam worldwide. "Saudi Arabia not only exports oil, but tanker-loads of quasi-totalitarian religious dogma and pipelines of jihadi volunteers, even as it struggles to insulate itself from the blowback; and King Abdullah, in his end of Ramadan address, warns against the 'devilish' extremism of 'these deviant forces'. Jihadi extremism does present a threat to the kingdom. But in doctrinal terms it is hard to see in what way it 'deviates' from Wahhabi orthodoxy, with its literalist and exclusivist rendering of Sunni Islam." Gardner contends that this fundamentalism has inadvertently fueled extremist groups like ISIL whom the Saudis condemn as a threat to the Middle East. "The Isis rampage of destruction of shrines and mosques, for instance, continues the two centuries-old record of Wahhabi iconoclasm. Nor should it be forgotten that the House of Saud used Wahhabi zealots as its shock troops in the last century to unite by force most of the religiously diverse Arabian peninsula – won by the sword in 52 battles over 30 years. There are no churches in Saudi Arabia, and permits to build Shia mosques are rarer than desert rain."

Arthur L. Caplan in The Los Angeles Times on why Missouri's new program for medical school graduates will help the U.S. shortage of primary care doctorsCaplan writes that the Missouri program, which lets recent medical school graduates become "assistant physicians" in poor areas could be a blueprint for the nation. "In the U.S., at least one year of residency after medical school is usually required to practice medicine independently. Most medical school graduates spend at least three years in residency before starting to practice on their own. Under the new law, an assistant physician must have passed the first two sections of the national licensing exam for doctors but not the final one. If they want to become full-fledged physicians, they will still have to pass the last test and do a one-year residency." Caplan contends that while the ultimate success of the program is unclear, implementing creative solutions to our national shortage of doctors is laudable. "The real question is, can someone who successfully got through four years of medical school, including a lot of clinical time, who is supervised and certified by another doctor for a month and by the state board but who is probably not near the top of their class, deliver high-quality primary care to people who currently have nothing? I think we don't know. But I think it is very likely that most can. And Missouri, and other states like Michigan that are considering following its lead, are right to give assistant physicians a chance. Fairly good primary care is a lot better than no care at all."

Michael Hirsh in POLITICO on what Barack Obama's golf game tells us about his presidency. Ahead of Obama's vacation to Martha's Vineyard this month, Hirsh looks at how Obama's golf game reflects the shortcomings of his politics. "What tells us even more about this particular president than his escapist passion for golf, however, is his routinely narrow choice of playing partners over the past five and a half years. Let’s start with the basics: Golf is probably the most social of sports. It is a game virtually designed for getting to know people and expanding one’s networks... In five and a half years of slashing his way through courses from Maryland to Hawaii, the president has managed to turn this most gregarious of games into an intensely private obsession, one he has shared almost entirely with the handful of close friends." Hirsch contends that Obama's tendency to isolate himself from back and forth has affected the way he approaches policy as well. "Obama’s contacts with the Hill are often limited to big holiday or Super Bowl parties that lack any intimate conversation—the kind you can sometimes have on the golf course or in the clubhouse... It’s not just Congress; he’s distanced himself from his own cabinet. Early on his advocates let it be known that he loves big policy debates. But in fact the big sloppy one that his administration had over Afghanistan—which spilled scandalously into the news in 2009-10—was so traumatic that it turned out to be one of the last. 'He thinks dissent is messy,' says one long-time ally who is familiar with many administration deliberations." 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.