Mr. Varsavsky met over dinner with former President Bill Clinton a couple of days ago in New York, where he had the opportunity to share some of his personal ideas on International Affairs. Topics of discussion included the following: Clinton’s view on a potential Hillary Clinton presidential bid, John McCain, Vladimir Putin, Google and Yahoo in China, the oil prices, elections in the US, school vouchers, public education, health care, Iraq, Iran, Hugo Chavez, the Dubai port issues, Michelle Bachelet, evangelical Christians, and FON.
PRESIDENT CLINTON IS THE PERSON THAT I ADMIRE the most in the world, it’s that simple. Readers of my blog and those close to me are well aware that I am rarely a fan of anyone in the true sense of the word, but when it comes to Clinton I cannot help but make the exception. Whilst in NY I was invited to attend a dinner in his honor. As usual I found the President’s views fascinating (a not to non American readers in America people call ex presidents…Presidents).
Now before I share the Presidents views with you I would like to remind you that I am not a journalist and that I did not take notes during dinner so some of my recollections maybe wrong. Still I believe that they are worth a try as they are original and challenging.
The dinner was held at the home of New York financier Marc Lasry who I thank for his kind invitation. The whole event consisted of two parts. The dinner itself during which approximately seven of us asked an array of questions to the President on current affairs; and an after dinner conversation in which I personally followed up on a number of issues.
Here are my recollections, a brief summary of the three hour conversation.
ON HILLARY CLINTON
I have been a trustee of President Clinton’s foundation for 5 years and have been with the President at many meetings in which the Hillary question came up. However, last night I had the impression that for the first time Bill Clinton has fully realized his wife may in fact very well become the next President of the United States. Clinton made clear that if she chooses to take this on, he will provide just as much support for her as she did him. He is not certain however that Hillary will run. But if she does run and wins the Democratic nomination, he is certain that she will defeat any Republican opponent she faces.
ON JOHN MCCAIN
President Clinton has a great deal of respect for John McCain. He cited two examples that illustrate where he relates to McCain: Global Warming is not a myth and that torture under all circumstances is wrong. Now my impression after listening to him, and I emphasize this is only my impression because the President did not say anything pertaining to this, is that a John McCain vs. Hillary Clinton 2008 election is a possibility.
ON ELECTION PSYCHOLOGY
President Clinton said that unfortunately the Republicans have the upper hand in using psychology in their campaigning. He offered many examples but one that stuck to mind is the current trend among Republicans to tag Hillary as an “angry woman.” Personally, I met Hillary a few times and would hardly say that she is an “angry” woman; if anything I would say that she is a “concerned” woman. But Clinton went on to explain how the American electorate expect men to be angry but not women and how this label is part of the psychological warfare (my words) that the Republicans are good at. Another very vivid point he made is that this psychological machinery sometimes is used among Republicans against each other. He illustrated this with the attacks made on John McCain, a man as brave as they come, portraying him to be a person not brave enough when it came to pursuing aggressive American Foreign Policy.
ON VLADIMIR PUTIN
President Clinton had dinner last week with Vladimir Putin and had many interesting comments to make about him. Clinton asked Putin why he invited the Iranian leaders to the Kremlin. Putin’s response was that Iranian nuclear capability is a great concern to Russia seeing as they are even closer to Iran than Israel. It is in part because of this that Russia would prefer to engage in dialogue as opposed to not pursuing any means of communication.
ON GOOGLE AND YAHOO IN CHINA
When I asked the President about Google and Yahoo in China I was at first surprised to the level of detail that he was informed about the different problems that these two companies have encountered in China. His comment was that whilst they were both difficult situations he felt Yahoo’s dilemma to be the tougher one. In general he feels there is great difficulty in knowing with any certainty which strategies lead down the road to positive change and that no one approach can be good for all circumstances.
ON THE AMERICAN DEFICIT AND THE PRICE OF OIL
The President believes that the amount of oil now consumed in America for transportation needs, combined with the budget deficit, has created a very dangerous downward spiral for the American economy. He is concerned about the fact that most of the nations who finance American deficits are also huge oil importers and should the price of oil rise to $100 a barrel America will find itself with the double danger of having to pay much more for oil imports while at the same time seeing the natural buyers of American debt, nations such as China, Japan, impoverished as a result of the oil price hike. President Clinton believes it is urgent America start a brand new energy policy based on conservation and promotion of alternative energies. He thinks that whilst America cannot compete in oil production, it can greatly benefit by developing the technologies necessary that will lead to an energy revolution.
ON SCHOOL VOUNCHERS
President Clinton surprised me by saying that the school vouchers that exist with any successful deployed today are at the college level. He exemplified this by showing how Universities, both State and Private, compete for school aid funds on an equal footing.
ON PUBLIC EDUCATION
President Clinton gave many examples of schools, including some in Harlem, that although in the same neighbourhoods yield very different results. President Clinton believes that the problem of public schools is that their management is not accountable for the performance of their students and cannot easily be fired if they perform poorly. He thinks that re-assessing and maintaining higher standards is necessary in public education.
ON HEALTH CARE
President Clinton is very concerned about factories moving to Canada because of health care costs. He says that the US spends 16% of its GDP on health care while other nations manage to provide care for all at 11%. He thinks the American health care system is unfair and inefficient. Should major, necessary changes not be made, American competitiveness is at risk.
ON THE NEXT ISRAELI ELECTION AND HAMAS
President Clinton made comments here that I do not want to quote him without authorization. I will ask for permission and then comment.
President Clinton believes that one of the worst consequences of the Iraqi war, other than the fact that it is not going well, is that it has drained vital financial and military resources, detracting from everything else America could be doing around the world. Examples? Very few resources have been left for Latin America. Iran has emerged as a big potential threat in the region but the enormous Shia population in Iraq makes it hard to act on Iran. The Darfour Genocide is also being neglected. In short, Clinton seems to believe (again this is my interpretation) that this administration put all its eggs in one basketâ€¦ and risks dropping it.
President Clinton believes that Iran is determined to get a nuclear bomb and that the majority of the Iranian people support their country’s nuclear aspirations. He also believes that it would be hard to attack Iranian nuclear installations without incurring many civilian casualties. At the same time he believes that the Iranians should be well aware of the US and European opposition to their plans and that Europe and the US must find a way to make it very costly for Iran to go nuclear.
ON HUGO CHAVEZ
President Clinton had interesting comments to make on Hugo Chavez but I would need his permission to publish these as well.
ON THE DUBAI PORT ISSUE
The common view here is that the Clintons found themselves at opposite ends on this issue. President Clinton said that this is not the case. He first clarified that whilst he is very positive about many developments in Dubai, he is not an advisor to the Dubai government nor employed by them. He said that he gives advice to many different peoples but that does not make him their advisor; and in this case he was not engaged by the Dubai government on this matter. He said he did tell the Dubai government that if they were going to make an offer here they would have to prove to the American people that the ports would be more secure under their management and that they failed to do so.
ON MICHELLE BACHELET
I told the President that I was impressed with Michelle Bachelet, the new President of Chile, and he agreed. He knew a lot about her (it never ceases to impress me how informed Clinton is about every person or issue on the planet). He knew a lot about her background, he had read about how professional her new cabinet is. He had great praise for departing President Lagos and for the Chilean people in general.
Finally a note on FON. I presented FON to the President with a concrete proposal: that FON gives away 1000 wifi routers on behalf of the Clinton Foundation to residents of Harlem who have broadband for them to create with FON a dual environment in which they use most of their bandwidth at home but share wifi with other Harlem residents, quickly turning Harlem into a wifi neighbourhood. I pointed out the benefits of FON compared with the municipal wifi deployments in the sense that FON is faster to deploy and it’s a people’s network as opposed to a municipal network with all the difficulties that these efforts entail for local governments in terms of management. The President appeared very intrigued and we agreed to further study the opportunity. Personally I will try to convince my investors at Google that rather than focusing on becoming a telco themselves and offer free wifi to residents of Silicon Valley as they are doing now, that they focus on the less developed communities of American and adopt a mixed approach in which some capital infrastructure is built, but most infrastructure is community based.
ON EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS
Presiden Clinton says that Democrats will never get the vote of around half of the evangelical Christians. Say the Falwell, Robertson types. But that the other half is up for grabs. According to him one of the main reasons he was elected was because he was the Democrat who got the most evangelical Christian votes, since then he said Gore got less of those votes and Kerry around 21% of them, an all time low for a Democrat. Democrats must learn to talk to people with strong religious values he argued.
Mr. Varsavsky is the President of Safe Democracy Foundation and has founded six successful companies in 15 years. He is currently Executive President of FON.