Posts by Maha Rafi Atal

Raymond Davis and the Media

By , 5 March, 2011, 2 Comments

The Raymond Davis saga in Pakistan is far from over, and I’ll have a piece sooner or later on the implications, broadly, for US-Pak relations. But there’s a meta-story that’s worth taking note of now: the coverage of the story in the Pakistani and international press. Essentially, Davis’ CIA status was being floated in the Pakistani press for several weeks before it ‘broke’ in the Guardian. It turned out that the New York Times and other American news organizations had deliberately held back the information at the request of U.S. authorities. Though a similar request was made of the Guardian, the paper’s editors and reporters refused.

As a reader of the Pakistani press, I’d seen the CIA claim, but in part because of the easy way in which the CIA is used as a bogeyman in Pakistani political discourse, I must admit I was skeptical of the claim until the Guardian verified it. As a critic of the Times’ inconsistent policy about withholding information for ‘the safety of the subject,’ I’m disappointed, but unsurprised, by their call on this one. Points to the Guardian for getting it right. For more on the details, this video from Al Jazeera’s media-watch show, Listening Post, is good:

The story is amusing coming on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s takedown of the American media at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week. Clinton asserted that the U.S. is losing the global information war because of the frivolity in American journalism: you don’t feel when watching American news stations, she says, that you are getting real news.

Problematically, one reason American news outlets don’t deliver enough ‘real news’ is because they comply too readily with the intelligence agencies trying to win that information war. Yet another example of misaligned agendas coming from the State Department and the CIA.

Economic Peace: Some Thoughts from Barcelona

By , 1 March, 2011, No Comment

Returning from a brief (9 days) blogging hiatus with a post at Foreign Exchange. The subject: a panel I was asked to speak on at IESE’s sustainable business conference in Barcelona this weekend. My topic was ‘economic peace and the private sector’s role in fostering political stability.’ An excerpt:

Specifically, the reductive tendency leads us to place emphasis on macroeconomic growth as a cure-all, when as we’ve seen in Obasanjo’s Nigeria or Ben Ali’s Tunisia or Musharraf’s Pakistan, growth can correlate quite easily with increasing political instability and conflict. For one thing, there’s the question of distribution, of how much growth is trickling down the bottom of the economic ladder to those most likely to be embroiled in crime or violence.

But even if ‘economic growth’ is replaced by a genuine focus on job creation and the building of a stable middle class, a critical challenge remains. In a society which has chosen—and this is an ideological choice—to invest its resources in militarism or theocracy but not in education or health care, an angry young man with a steady income still can’t spend it providing for his family: the services he needs aren’t there to be purchased.

Instead, they’re available to him for free from the same crowd of ‘non-state actors’ responsible for his country’s turmoil. In other words, those actors—be they mobsters or terrorists or warlords—aren’t grafting an abstract ideology onto his poverty and rage; they are producing an alternative society, complete with the services the state does not provide. It’s an ideological battle, not an economic one, to transfer a whole society’s focus and collective, public, wealth into building the social structures that make an income valuable. Without those, a little money’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.

You can read the rest here.

One postscript: left to my own devices, I’d probably have parachuted into Barcelona for a day; attended the conference and jetted out. With encouragement and company from qwghlm, I took four whole days off work. I didn’t check Twitter and Google Reader every 5 minutes; I missed thousands of tweets and hundreds of news stories; and when we got back and I caught up, I found that nothing had fundamentally changed on the big stories I’d been following. Gaddafi? Still in power. Raymond Davis? Still in legal limbo. Me? Recharged and ready to report on both.

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.

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.