the lexus and the olive tree

An engaging fictional dialogue between former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and former Syrian President Hafaz el-Assad, from Thomas L. Friedman’s 2000 National Bestseller

the_lexus_and_the_olive_treeTo illustrate this ever-present tension between today’s globalization system and the olive trees in us all, I once tried to imagine how a discussion would go if a very decent American Secretary of State, such as Warren Christopher, were to try to explain globalization to a not so decent leader, such as Syrian President Hafez el-Assad—a man of olive trees and the Cold War. It would sound like this:

Warren Christopher: “Hafez—you don’t mind if I call you Hafez? Hafez, you are yesterday’s man. You’re still living the Cold War. I know you’ve only traveled outside the Middle East a few times, so let me tell a little bit about the new world. Hafez, Syria debated for years whether to allow its people to have fax machines. Then you debated for five years whether to allow them all to have the Internet. That’s sad. That’s why your per capita income is only 1,200 dollars a year. And you can barely make a lightbulb. Since 1994, your entire private sector has barely exported 1 billion dollars a year. We have dozens of companies no one has ever heard of that export 1 billion dollars a year. Now, Hafez, the reason I’m telling you all this is because during the Cold War, it didn’t matter whether Syria made computer chips or potato chips, a Lexus or a lightbulb, because you could make a good living just by milking the superpowers for aid and blackmailing your neighbors.

Yes, I see you smiling, Hafez. You know it’s true. You milked the Saudis for billions by letting them know that there could be, as the Mafia would say, ‘an unfortunate accident’ in the Saudi oil fields if they didn’t pay up. You milked the Russians on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the Europeans Tuesdays and Thursdays and the Chinese on Sunday. The Soviets even bought that junk your state-owned factories produced and gave you arms and aid in return for your friendship. It was a good living, Hafez, a good living, and you played them all off against each other brilliantly. Chapeau.

But, Hafez, those days are over. The Saudis can’t pay your extortion anymore, your own oil supplies are running out, you will be a net oil importer within ten years, and you have the highest birthrate in the Middle East. That’s not a pretty picture, Hafez. What’s worse for you is that there is a new global architecture. There are no longer two superpowers to play off against each other. The Soviets are kaput and we’re running a balanced budget. Instead of superpowers, Hafez, there are Supermarkets. And let me tell you, Hafez, you don’t play the Tokyo bond market off against the Frankfurt bond market off against the Singapore bond market off against Wall Street. No, no, no, Hafez. They play you. They play Syria off against Mexico off against Brazil off against Thailand. Those who perform are rewarded with investment capital from the Supermarkets. Those who don’t are left as roadkill on the global investment highway. And, Hafez, you are destined to be roadkill.

“By the way, Hafez, I noticed that you and Turkey have been skirmishing along the border lately, but I also notice you are desperate to avoid a real war with Turkey. We both know why, don’t we, Hafez? It’s because the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore, and you know that any weapon you lose in a war with Turkey, or with Israel, or with anyone else, is a weapon that you will have to replace with your own money— cash on the table. Show me the money, Hafez! Show me the money! There is no more Soviet Union that is going to give you new weapons orbarter them to you in return for the garbage you produce in your state-owned factories. And there are no Arab oil producers who are going to buy these weapons for you, because they’re broke too. So you’re screwed, Hafez. I always say there is no better constraint on the leader of a developing country than telling him that he has to pay cash for his weapons, especially in this day and age, when just one advanced fighter aircraft can cost fifty million dollars.

Tell you what, Hafez, I’m going to leave you my cellular satellite phone. It’s the latest model from Motorola, linked up with their new Iridium satellite system. You can reach me in Washington in seconds. Because, Hafez, I don’t intend to make any more trips out here. These nine-hour history lessons on the Crusades that you put me through each visit are not an efficient use of my time. Why don’t you digitize them, put them on a compact disc and just hand them out to every visiting Secretary of State, or put them on a Web site so my staff can download them. You see, Hafez, I’ve got too many other important places to be: Mexico, Thailand, China. Who should rule the Golan Heights is a fascinating question, but it’s utterly irrelevant to American interests today. But, hey, we’d still love to hear from you. When you’re ready to do business, just dial 001-202-647-4910, press SEND, and ask for Chris. Otherwise, Hafez, stay out of my life.”

Here’s what I think Assad would answer:

Assad: “Chris—you don’t mind if I call you Chris? I hope you’re comfortable in that overstuffed chair. I’ve had many Secretaries of State sink in there before you. Kissinger liked to regale me with stories about his dates with Jill St. John—such a lady’s man that Henry. Baker was always snapping his notebook shut and telling me if I didn’t accept his latest terms he would leave Damascus and never come back. Ah, but they always come back, don’t they, Chris? And so will you. You’ve been here twenty-one times already, and you’ve been to Mexico once. I’m glad to see you have your priorities right.

Now, Chris, you told me a lot about the world outside Syria. But let me tell you about my neighborhood. Politics and passion may have yielded to the bond market in America, but not in the alleyways of Damascus. Here tribal bonds, not corporate bonds, still rule the day. Here the iron fist of the ruling tribe, not the hidden hand of the marketplace, still dominates politics. We’re into olive trees here, Chris, not Lexuses. I come from a minority tribe in Syria, the Alawites. That means that if I show any vulnerability, the Muslim majority here will skin me alive and leave my body as roadkill. I’m not just speaking metaphorically, Chris. Have you ever seen a man skinned alive? I think about that every morning, Chris—not about I live in a real jungle, not the cyber version. That’s why I may be poor, but I’m not weak. I can’t afford to be weak, and my people don’t want me to be weak. They appreciate the stability my iron fist brings.

We have an Arabic proverb: ‘Better a hundred years of tyranny than one day of anarchy.’ It’s true we don’t have, how do you call it, McDonald’s, here. And our per capita income is not as high as Israel’s. But our currency is stable, nobody is starving or sleeping on the sidewalks, family ties are still strong and we are not stampeded by your greedy Electronic Herd. We’re in the Slow World here, Chris, not the Fast World. I can be patient. Do my people look impatient to you, Chris? Not at all. I won my last election by 99.7 percent of the vote, Chris. My aides came to me afterward and said, ‘Mr. President, you won by 99.7 percent of the vote. It means that only 0.3 percent of the people didn’t vote for you. What more could you ask for?’ And I said, ‘Their names.’

“Ha, ha, ha!

“No, Chris, I can afford to be patient. I will make peace with the Jews only in a way that establishes me as the one Arab leader who knows how to make peace with dignity—who does not grovel the way those lackeys Arafat and Sadat did. I won’t be another Sadat. I intend to be better than Sadat. I intend to give the Israelis less and get more. That is the only way I can protect myself from my own fundamentalists and domestic opponents and maintain the Arab leadership status that will always bring Syria money from someone. And if this means I have to use my proxies in Lebanon to make the Israelis bleed, no problem. It’s a bad neighborhood, Chris, and the Israelis have gone soft. Too many of those kosher Big Macs, Chris. All these Israeli boys who come to fight in Lebanon carry their cell phones with them so they can call their Jewish mothers every night. Such good little boys. Do you think we don’t notice that?

“So, Chris, if you want to forge a deal between me and the Jews over the Golan, you’ll have to pay for it in my currency. I’m not going to just fall into your lap. But, Chris, I’m worried. As I have watched the parade of Secretaries of State sitting in that overstaffed chair I have seen not only the end of the Cold War but the end of America as a superpower. From where I sit it looks like we’ve gone from a two-superpower world to a one-superpower world to a no-superpower world. You come here with empty pockets and a rubber fist, Chris. I would be better off negotiating with Merrill Lynch. At least they deliver on their threats. You also come here not willing to impose any restraint on the Israelis, because your Administration is so politically weak you are afraid of offending even one Jewish voter. Look at the Israelis. They’re still building settlements like crazy in the West Bank and you haven’t uttered a peep, Chris, not a peep. One thing a Syrian President learns to smell is weakness, and I smell it all over America right now.

“You know what really bothers me about you Americans—you want to have it both ways all the time. You want to lecture everyone about your values, about freedom and liberty, but when those values get in the way of your political or economic interests, you just forget about them. So spare me the values lecture, Chris. You’re the ones who need to decide whether you want to be a superpower that represents your super values or a traveling salesman that represents your Supermarkets. Make up your mind. Until then, stay out of my life. And, Chris, here’s your fancy cellular phone back. I have no one outside of Syria I need to call.

“Oh, and by the way, be careful when you press the SEND button. You never know what might happen …”