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The Middle East at a "Tipping Point" By: ABCNews.com
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 24, 2005

Below is the transcript from last night's Nightline, which featured Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-selling book Tipping Point, and The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. Gladwell and Friedman contend that the successful elections in Iraq, along with the Lebanese peoples' push against Syrian occupation and prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, make the Middle East a tipping point. The situation could be compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and peace in that region of the world hangs in the balance -- The Editors.


ABC News Transcripts

February 22, 2005 Tuesday

TED KOPPEL: And joining me, here in Washington, "New York Times" columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Tom Friedman. And from London, where he is promoting his new book, "Blink," Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm, is it ever possible to view the tipping point in anything other than a rear-view mirror? In other words, can you see it when it's happening?

MALCOLM GLADWELL: Sometimes. Of course, it's easiest to see these kinds of things in retrospect. But I think there are moments, and occasions, when it is obvious to us when we're going through one of these kind of cataclysmic shifts. And I think there are -- I mean, I think, clearly the reason we're here is that we have a very, very strong suspicion that what's going on in Iraq right now with the election is such a shift. I mean, I think we can develop a strong suspicion that this is something worth examining and watching.

TK: All right. Tom Friedman is clearly the expert on that region. But before we go to Tom, Malcolm I'd like you to sort of spell out for us, if you can, what some of the factors are that might cause you, as the developer or one of the developers of the theory of the tipping point, that might cause you to believe that what happened last month with the elections meets the necessary standards.

MG: Well, the most important thing in trying to analyze whether something is at the verge of a tipping point, is whether it -an event causes people to reframe an issue. So, for example, an example of reframing is -- a dumb example is the Atkins' diet, which reframes dieting from thinking about it in terms of avoiding calories and fat to thinking about it as avoiding carbohydrates. Which really changes the way people perceive dieting. It becomes a much simpler concept to handle, a much simpler strategy to follow. That, to me, is the first thing I would look for. Is, have we -- when we think about a particular issue, in this case, Iraq -- have we shifted our concept of what that issue means, what it tells us? What comes to mind  is -- what comes to mind when we first think about it dramatically different than before this event that we think is the tipping point?

TK: All right. Let's look at the elections last month. And Tom Friedman, I'm an avid reader of your column. So, I know that you, in fact, believe that something fundamental has shifted here. Have we reframed the way we think about Iraq, as seen through the prism of those elections? And if so, why?

TOM FRIEDMAN: I think we have, Ted. And I like the way Malcolm really defined the tipping point as a reframing. I would argue that before the election in Iraq, Iraq was perceived -- the meta-story in Iraq was "Iraqi insurgents, against American occupiers and their Iraqi lackeys." I would argue after the election, the whole issue in Iraq has been reframed much more as a civil war between a tiny Jihadist insurgency and Baathist insurgency, against what is clearly an overwhelming Iraqi majority that aspires to some form of constitutionalism and pluralism. And so, I like the way Malcolm has defined it because in that sense, Iraq -this election is a tipping point. I believe it has begun to reframe the issue. I think for it to successfully reframe the issue, the insurgency has to be defeated now by that Iraqi majority.

TK: All right. So, it may or may not be the tipping point. Malcolm, let me come back to you and ask you whether in the course of events -- and let me use a sports analogy: in an exciting football game or an exciting basketball game, there can be half a dozen tipping points. They can turn it first in favor of one team and then back again in favor of another team. When one talks about the tipping point, as you do in your book, it suggests that there's one and that's it. But that's not the way life is.

MG: Yeah. No. There's no question that -- what the whole idea is behind the tipping point is that systems, organizations, institutions, situations, are far more volatile than they appear. So, I think we always have to be on-guard, under the notion. Once we granted the inherent volatility of situations, on guard against the notion that things could go in the other direction just as quickly.

TK: Tom, let me ask you to look at what's been happening over the last two years. I can point to two or three events, you know quite literally, the tipping of Saddam's statue, which symbolically gave the impression that we were way ahead. The sense that when the President made his famous declaration on the aircraft carrier about major combat being over in Iraq, that seemed like a tipping point in one direction. May have proved to be a tipping point in a totally different direction later on. Pick up from there and point out to me, if you will, where you think the tipping points have gone over the past couple of years. And why you think this one may be "the" rather than simply "a" tipping point.

TF: Well, for me, Ted, as someone who is following this issue, I had my own tipping point in my head, what I was looking for. And I was looking for two things. One was an Iraqi majority that was ready to come together and claim ownership of Iraq. Number one. And for that, we needed an election. And then, that same majority being willing to fight and die for it. And it seemed to me that to have a unified -a decent Iraq, we really required those two things. And that's why, when the election happened, I, for one, you know, was very excited about it because I felt I was seeing the necessary but still not sufficient. Now, this majority's going to have to fight or negotiate to see that its will is sustained for Iraq to really have that outcome we want. And so, in that sense, I always had my own criteria for a tipping point. And the reason I jumped on it in my own column, these elections, is because I started to see it play out in the real world.

TK: All right. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, though, I'd like you, Malcolm, in particular, to spell out some sort of rules of thumb as we can apply them to what we see happening in Iraq today. Back with both of our guests in a moment.

TK: And I'm back once again with Tom Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm, I'm not going to let you off as easily this time around. I want you to use, quite literally, some of the rules of thumb that you developed in your book and apply them to the situation that now appears to exist in Iraq, in terms of making some projections if you can. Go ahead.

MG: Well, a couple of things. I mean, when I describe tipping points in the book, it strikes me that one of the most important factors is that institutions change, reaches tipping points, when there is a small group of socially influential people who get behind an idea. There has to be some diversity in the elements of change. To use an example, from many years ago, there was a tipping point with rock music in the early 1960s. And that had to do with music but also technology. Right? Portable radios, which had to do with -in turn with the development of special kinds of batteries and the transistor. And there was a confluence of -- in other words, of cultural forces and technological forces that combined to create a tipping point in that area. I would like to see if this is to serve as a tipping point for Iraq, some similar combination of factors. It's not enough for this simply to be a political transformation. There has to be some other kind of transformation that joins forces with this to create some kind of lasting and permanent change. I'd like to see, for example, you know, some sort of economic -- similar economic tipping point. Or I would like to see some change on the religious front that permits the political change to have much more legs.

TF: I think it's very useful way to think of it. The reinforcing thing. Well, what would you like to see as reinforcing? You would like to see now a dialogue between the Sunni insurgents and the Shi'a Kurdish majority that's won the election. And I think we're beginning to see that. You would like to see some broad understanding begin to take shape on the role of religion within the new constitution. I think we're going to see that, as well. Those would be the reinforcing things that would tell us that actually, a majority for a reasonably decent, reasonably progressive Iraq has emerged and is sustainable.

TK: Do we need to see some dominant personalities? In other words, can you have that kind of a crucial turnaround in an entire country without the emergence of a leader who is acceptable to all?

TF: I think, again, that is necessary, Ted. Where that and when that leader will emerge, I think, is unclear right now. Because Iraqis are actually going through their first horizontal dialogue ever, basically, in a free way. And I think it's going to take a little time for them to create a kind of understanding of that single leader. But again, I think that would be an enormously reinforcing thing. I would simply add, also, we've seen two nearby tipping points, as well, which are both triggered by Iraq and will reinforce Iraq. In Lebanon, we've seen Lebanese stand off and say for the first time ever, "Syria did this." Referring to the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister. Lebanese, as Malcolm said, privately they may have spoken that way. But now, we see them step out of what was a private dialogue and make it a public dialogue. And in Palestine and Israel, we see an Israeli government agree to uproot Jewish settlements and evacuate the Gaza Strip and turn it over to a Palestinian authority and what will be a Palestinian state. Again, a whole new tipping point there. And each one of these three are now reinforcing each other in a virtuous cycle. And I think in some ways, even strengthening each other. So, you could get more tipping points as this goes along.

MG:  It's a wonderful illustration of how powerful fully contagious these kinds of changes are. You know, I can't help thinking in all of this back to the example of what was going on in Eastern Europe, particularly East Germany, in the month leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. 'Cause you had a similar kind of -- many different aspects of society, this kind of contagious element. And the notion, the idea that there could be a different future for people in that region spread so quickly from one area of society to another, that you had change happen far more quicker than you would ever have imagined. And, you know, I wonder when I see all of the things that Tom just described, there does seem to be a kind of contagious phenomenon at work here. That this notion that people of this region can powerfully reshape their futures seems to be spreading. You know, it resembles a spread of a virus. A kind of uncontrolled -- in this case a positive spread, though. An uncontrollable phenomenon whereby an idea spreads from one person to another.

TK: Final question to you, Tom. Conceding that, as Yogi Berra famously said, it ain't over until it's over. Is it your sense that a critical point has been reached and that now we can look at what's happening in Iraq with a far more positive view than, perhaps a month ago?

TF: I think the chance for a decent outcome there has been elevated enormously because of the election, Ted. But, you know, as I noted the other day, I think if we put all the events in the Middle East together, we're seeing the equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall there. That is truly good news. The bad news is, is that Vaclav Havel and the Solidarity Trade movement are not on the other side. That is, the level of civil society that we saw in Eastern Europe, already there, ready to almost jump into the West, isn't there in the Middle East. And that's why all of these tipping points, while necessary, are still not quite sufficient for the kind of decent progressive outcome that we all hope for. But they are necessary. And that's why they're hugely important.

TK: Tom Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, thank you both.

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