Archive for February, 2011

Three Lessons in Bahrain

By , 19 February, 2011, No Comment

Post at Foreign Exchange this evening on Bahrain:

As Khalil Al-Marzooq a senior opposition leader and the first deputy to the speaker of Parliament put it to me earlier in the week, “Our demands are not born of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. Our demands date back to 2001.”

That is when, for the uninitiated, Bahrain adopted the National Action Charter, a truce intended to bring an end to over 10 years of violent political uprisings. Those uprisings joined together liberals, leftists and Islamists, but protesters referred to their movement as an intifada and it did develop a sectarian character, not least because a Sunni regime hit back particularly hard in Shi’ite areas. This is an important point: whether or not the content of political protest is Islamist, the demographics of government-opposition relations in Bahrain are sectarian in a way that has not been true in the countries we’ve seen flare up so far this year.

The other two lessons? Find them here.

Patrick Ball on the Perils of Misusing Human Rights Data

By , 17 February, 2011, No Comment

Belated post at Foreign Exchange on a talk I attended last week about problems in human rights data collection. A snippet:

In his lecture, Ball presented a number of cases like this, from Kosovo, Guatemala, Sierre Leone and Timor-Leste, where sound and verifiable data was used effectively to answer a small question, then stretched to answer a broader question for which it was not suited. The researchers in each case, Ball argued, had confused ‘what was observable’ with ‘what was true,’ failing to acknowledge the existence of all the data they hadn’t collected or hadn’t thought to ask for.

The second half of Ball’s talk focused on ways to work around this, starting with some quick math. A short, 7th grade example: Two NGO projects in a country report widely differing figures for killings over the same period, call then result-set A and result-set B. They have some overlap in the list of names, call that subset M. What’s a rough estimate for the total number of killings, N? [Solution at the bottom of the post.]

More on Ball, and the solution, in the post.

Indo-Pak Peace Talks Resume

By , 11 February, 2011, No Comment

Big news out of the Subcontinent this week: India and Pakistan are resuming peace talks after almost two years’ stalemate. The talks, which Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao is calling the ‘comprehensive dialogue,’ will cover political, economic and security issues and will be structured not only around meetings between the two countries’ heads of state and foreign ministries, but also the ministries overseeing commerce, culture and natural resources. This structure will prevent, significantly, progress on any one area from being held hostage by stagnation on another.

Will these talks bear fruit? I’m skeptical, though not for the usual reasons. Read why here.

Confusion in Foggy Bottom

By , 10 February, 2011, 1 Comment

An update on U.S. policy re: Egypt over at Foreign Exchange:

And today, I saw and heard a very simple explanation: there is, after the violence of last Wednesday and Thursday, a commitment to organic Egyptian democracy in some top quarters (notably the White House), and a commitment to a rapid technocratic transition in others (notably the Pentagon), and no capacity or mechanism to efficiently share information, forge a consensus across departments, and coordinate a message. The State Department, where I’m writing this, has the unfortunate task of representing that to the world.

It’s a common critique of this Administration—indecision combined with multiple centers of power—but it happens to be true. If there isn’t an official U.S. statement tonight, it’s because there isn’t an official U.S. position right now. In part, that is a reaction to a speech from Mubarak that came—according to both intelligence and diplomatic sources—as a surprise to the U.S. But it is not clear, based on the messages today and conversations with officials while I waited for the briefing-that-never-came, that there was a coordinated U.S. position before the speech either.

Read it all here.

Apocalypse 41: AOL Buys Huffington Post

By , 7 February, 2011, 3 Comments

Tim Armstrong’s game to make AOL a content company continues today with his $315 million acquisition of the Huffington Post. Deal details are here, but the key points are: the new Huffington Post Media Group will include HuffPo as well as AOL’s content sites, and Arianna Huffington will be its editor-in-chief.

I’ve been reasonably patient and benefit-of-the-doubt-giving about the new AOL, but this strikes me as a terrible idea. First, there’s the gap between how the two companies see ‘content.’ For all the heat it takes on the grounds that it doesn’t pay its writers (and that heat is deserved), the HuffPo is very much a place that believes there’s value to a publisher in originalreporting. The front page may still read like the liberal answer to Drudge that its founders had in mind, but of late, the site has made major expansions into more serious coverage, and I increasingly run into HuffPo reporters who are doing gumshoe work. It is much more than an aggregator with great SEO managers, though it is that too.

AOL when Tim Armstrong first took it over promised to be that, hiring a number of high-profile journalists from collapsing newspapers to work on a number of smart blogs, and even recruiting stringers as foreign correspondents. But in the last few months, the strategy has shifted. This presentation of AOL’s new metrics for success is pessimistic and unimaginative, a vision of digital media seems stuck in the noisy, SEO-obsessed world of five years ago. It’s certainly not a vision that’s compatible with the kind of place that HuffPo has grown up to be, nor with some of the more interesting elements of AOL’s current content stable. No surprise, then, that those elements are the first to be thrown overboard.

Second, the new ‘AOL way’ is all about mass appeal, and, as everyone knows, the Huffington Post is partisan project. I am not sure what is harder to imagine: that all of AOL’s platforms could conform to Ariana Huffington’s worldview, or that the Huffington Post could suddenly shift center, in the way that Armstrong and Huffington promised when talking about the deal to AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher.

Actually, the whole Swisher interview is worth watching, because it highlights these two culture clashes–on politics and on reporting–that make me skeptical of the deal: listening to Ariana and then Armstrong, it seems as though they are talking about separate mergers. AOL. has been down the dangerous route of a merger with a very different culture before, and it had disastrous consequences. It’s a shame it seems to be making the same mistake twice.

Assorted Questions on Egypt

By , 3 February, 2011, 2 Comments

A quick post at Foreign Exchange laying out what I see as outstanding questions as we head into the wee hours, Cairo-time. Here’s hoping one of the intrepid reporters there right now takes some of these on:

…for the last few years, the key value of Egypt’s relationship to Israel has been economic: some $500 million worth of total trade in oil, food crops, consumer products, growing at a remarkable rate-roughly doubled since 2007 alone. If the political peace holds, but relations are frostier post-Mubarak, as Israeli representatives say they will be, and if the borders around Gaza tighten as a result, what happens to that trade? Or, will the dependency of populations in both countries on that trade prevent a political regression?

The reporters themselves seem to have become the story in the last 36 hours in a way that reminds me somewhat of the press crackdown in Pakistan in the waning hours of the Musharraf regime, but even more of the press evangelism of the 1830 revolution in Paris which old readers will know I spent some time mulling over many moons ago. Actually, what we’re witnessing across North Africa and the Middle East is somewhere in between the two, and I’m still working out how they fit together. Stay tuned.