Archive for January, 2011

The Difference Between Expertise and Intelligence

By , 21 January, 2011, No Comment

There’s a fair bit of web chatter about Peter Baker’s magnum opus in the NYT Magazine on the Obama Administration’s economic policy failures, which doesn’t actually contain much discussion of economics or policy. Why this shocks bloggers is a mystery to me: if the NYTM wanted a deep look at economic policy, they’d have commissioned a piece from David Leonhardt. [Oh, wait, they did that already, three times.] Baker is a political correspondent, and instead of evaluating whether Obama’s economic vision is sound or not, he asks why the Administration failed to provide the public with any vision at all.

As Felix Salmon has noted, the piece places a large share of the blame on Larry Summers (who, as Director of the National Economic Council, was responsible for forging consensus among the President’s economic team, and instead was busy fighting with several of the other key players) and goes a long way towards attempting to exonerate the rest. Salmon correctly adds to Baker’s critique of Summers’ personnel skills a critique of his economic principles, which have never lined up neatly with the Pro-Main Street expectations voters have of this White House.

That’s all fair, as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes very far.

A Brief Update on Sudan

By , 20 January, 2011, No Comment

Not so much a blog post as a quick selection of reporting nuggets over at Foreign Exchange. If you’ve been following the Sudanese Peace Process, potentially of interest.

Dust Settles in Tunisia

By , 17 January, 2011, 1 Comment

A second post on the Tunisian turmoil at Foreign Exchange:

Six members of Ben Ali’s government–technocrats, not core political advisors–have retained their posts or moved into new and equally senior ones, including the President, Prime Ministership and the ministries of defense and foreign affairs; three opposition leaders, from the centre-left have been granted minor cabinet posts; they are joined by a handful of trade unionists, lawyers and civil society figures. The new cabinet has committed itself–in addition to organizing the elections–to lifting the ban on NGOs, including the Tunisian Human Rights League, and on freedom of information and expression, or the lifting of Ben Ali’s censorship regime.

Here’s what’s not in the announcement: the three most radical opposition voices–the secular leftist academic Moncef Marzouki’s party, Hamma Hammami’s hard-left communist worker’s party, and the Islamist Ennadha led by Rached Gannouchi–were not invited to the talks. These three parties were banned from Ben Ali’s regime, while the three parties brought into the interim coalition were always considered by Ben Ali as ‘legitimate’ opposition. Under his dictatorship, to be legitimate was meaningless, as there were no free elections to contest. But carrying over that distinction–picking and choosing your political opponents–into a post-revolt government that plans to transition Tunisia to democracy is problematic, especially when those parties command such large support among the demographics–the young, the students, the poor–who were in the front lines of the revolt.

Read the rest here.

Ben Ali’s Rhetorical Alchemy, or How the West Was Duped

By , 15 January, 2011, No Comment

An opinionated post today at Foreign Exchange on the coup in Tunisia:

Like many journalists reporting on Tunisia this weekend, I’ve been dismayed by the response coming from France. To recap, the French government backed and defended Ben Ali’s regime throughout its tenure, including in the final weeks when his forces were clashing with protesters in the streets, and when other countries–notably the U.S.–were cutting their ties. Now the dam has burst, their statement to the press translates roughly to, ‘We’ll wait and see.’ Charmant.

So I am dismayed, yes, but not entirely surprised. It is not the first time that a major Western democracy has backed a dictator in the Muslim world and found their support meaningless in the face of popular revolt: the U.S. experience with the Shah in Iran and Musharraf in Pakistan are two important precedents.

In this case, as in those, two explanations are emerging for this behavior.

Don’t you desperately want to know what they are? Find out here.

The Wikileaks Subpoena

By , 14 January, 2011, No Comment

I’m getting to this a week late, because I was on the road on behalf of Public Business when the story broke, but some thoughts on the subpoena. Seems to me there are two conversations to be had:

One is from the perspective of individual consumer privacy and what kind of legal compliance policies companies ought to have when it comes to user data. Companies, plural, because, as Tom Phillips has noted, there’s a whole lot of language in the subpoena that’s got nothing to do with Twitter. And, I would add, several classes of company not covered in this subpoena who might be targeted for data in future lawsuits if this prosecutorial M.O. persists. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a while, at least since I had the chance at Columbia to take a course on privacy with a professor who prophesied that the ability to broadly subpoena Google + Microsoft + Citigroup + BofA would produce 21st century totalitarianism. While I thought his vision hyperbolic–and while we butted heads a lot in class–that the information subpoena was a scary tool was something on which we agreed.

The second conversation taking place is one about journalism and shield protection.

Sudan: What Do you Mean by Independence?

By , 13 January, 2011, No Comment

First of several posts up at Foreign Exchange today about the referendum for independence in Southern Sudan:

A rare bit of uplifting news in foreign policy land this week, as emerging returns from the independence referendum in Southern Sudan suggest minimal violence and 60% voter turnout, which is nothing short of remarkable given the distances people traveled to polling stations and the fact that any population figure for Southern Sudan includes a fair number of individuals who don’t actually live in Sudan anymore but in refugee camps in neighboring Kenya and further afield.

The positive headline aside, there are some very large unanswered questions about what independence means, substantively. The most important one, from the perspective of this blog, is that an independent South is going to be a landlocked, poor state with one valuable natural resource – oil – and no capacity to refine or export it.

Read the rest.

Thinking Long Term on India and Iran

By , 5 January, 2011, No Comment

New post at Foreign Exchange on the India-Iran oil deal and the challenges of securing funding for it amidst the US-led sanctions on Tehran. My take:

the U.S. position in recent years has been that India is most valuable as an ally when it is looking eastwards, and competing with China in the South China Sea or through trade relationships in South East Asia; that is the view favored too by a number of Indian policy wonks and popular in the Indian press.

But this banking move suggests that inside the halls of power, Indian leaders understand what I tried to argue in November: that India is most likely to challenge China, and thereby benefit other great powers, if it rectifies relations in South Asia and uses its relationship with Iran to build a trading zone to its west.

From Washington’s perspective, it’s a classic clash between short- and long- term policy objectives, between the nuclear issue and the need for an India that is strong in the region. There are no signs as yet that the U.S. government wants to shift its strategy towards the long-term and let this deal stand, but if it did, I for one would welcome it.

Read it all.

Turmoil in Pakistan: Personal and Political

By , 4 January, 2011, No Comment

Tragic news out of Islamabad this morning–the assassination of Salman Taseer, a liberal giant and provincial bigwig in Punjab. I’ve got a post up at Foreign Exchange on Taseer, what prompted the attack and what it means for the already testy political situation in the country:

Taseer was a staunch progressive, an outspoken defender of the rights of women and minorities, and a telco tycoon who launched an English-language newspaper, and a TV station, to promote his liberal, secular politics. As such, he was a divisive figure: reviled on the right for his ideas, admired (but cautiously) on the left given his melding of money and political power.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, the killer told police after his arrest that he was seeking retribution for Taseer’s criticisms of the country’s blasphemy laws, which are illiberal enough as written, but are often abused to settle differences over property or other personal disputes…

Importantly, Taseer was a member of the Pakistan People’s Party, currently at the head of a government with dwindling political authority. While the PPP’s liberal members are no friends of the blasphemy laws, the tenuous nature of the party’s hold on power at the federal level has precluded picking the fight with the religious right that repealing the blasphemy laws would entail…

It is possible that the assassination changes things…

For the full picture, go here.