Posts tagged ‘terrorism’

On Charlie Hebdo and the culture of free expression

By , 11 January, 2015, 1 Comment

I’ve been trying to avoid writing about Charlie Hebdo, so I’ll keep this short. I won’t add to the debate about whether the cartoons were offensive to Muslims, or racist to France’s minorities, or just crude, because the best thing about writing online is that you can link to stuff rather than repeat it.

What concerns me is the idea that the only ‘right’ response to the attack is to re-circulate the paper’s cartoons. Jon Chait and Ross Douthat have argued that the right of free expression is meaningful specifically because it protects expression that some find objectionable. And we have to promote that objectionable speech, to show that we’re still protecting it, or the terrorists win.

But the reason liberal societies protect free expression, including offensive speech, is the belief that there’s a market for ideas. And that bad ideas, if they circulate freely, will lose out: people won’t buy those magazines, or watch those TV shows, or download those songs, and the ideas will disappear.

A central component of that ideal is that we have to be as free to not consume or circulate speech as we are to make it in the first place. Insisting that everyone who believes in free expression share a Charlie Hebdo cover or they’ll be an apologist for terror is entirely out of spirit with what free expression means. It is thought policing, which is as fundamentally illiberal when it appears in the pages of New York Magazine as when it comes from the mouths of clerics.

The best response to the attacks is to actively have these debates – about whether the cartoons were good satire or bad satire and why, about how terrorism comes about and what to do about it, about identity in modern Europe – not silence them all as somehow demeaning the dead, because debate is how free societies work out what they believe. If we don’t have debate anymore, we’ve got nothing.

What John Kerry, age 27, would tell John Kerry, age 69, about drone strikes

By , 24 January, 2013, No Comment

I’ve got a new post up at Forbes today (finally!) about John Kerry’s confirmation hearing today. I look back at his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 and ask what relevance it should have today.

Asked by senators to offer insights on Vietnam after any potential cease-fire, and on whether a limited U.S. air presence would be required after ground troops exited the country, Kerry said:

We veterans can only look with amazement on the fact that this country has been unable to see there is absolutely no difference between ground troops and a helicopter, and yet people have accepted a differentiation fed them by the administration.

No ground troops are in Laos, so it is all right to kill Laotians by remote control. But believe me the helicopter crews fill the same body bags and they wreak the same kind of damage on the Vietnamese and Laotian countryside as anybody else, and the President is talking about allowing that to go on for many years to come.

Swap Vietnam for Afghanistan, Laos for Somalia or Yemen and helicopter for unmanned drone and Kerry’s comments could have been made yesterday. “There are no ground troops in Yemen, so it’s okay to kill Yemenis by remote control” is a pretty accurate, and chilling, description of the position the current Administration has taken.

As a young man, Kerry understood that position to be ludicrous.

More, on the critique Kerry made and its contemporary resonance, here. The confirmation hearing can be see live here.

Thoughts on the 3rd Presidential Debate: Foreign Policy

By , 23 October, 2012, No Comment

I watched last night’s presidential debate with a group of wonks and journalists at the Council on Foreign Relations. It was interesting to be among people who care deeply about international affairs, given that most voters don’t.

Indeed, knowing that foreign policy won’t win them this election, both candidates took every opportunity to pivot the discussion to the economy. Moreover, the candidates agreed with one another on almost all the issues they touched on. Together, the tactics of agreement and evasion made for an uninformative 90 minutes.

But, a few things that jumped out at me:

1. As expected, the candidates used the question on ‘America’s role in the world’ to spar over the defense budget. Most viewers will remember this segment for President Obama’s quip equating Romney’s push for greater naval spending to a demand for ‘horses and bayonets.’

But what I found notable was the contrast between Romney’s planned cuts to government social spending and his desire to double down on military spending that even the Pentagon doesn’t recommend. The important thing to understand about this debate over defense spending is that it has very little to do with foreign policy and everything to do with economic stimulus. As Daniel Drezner put it in his comments at CFR yesterday, defense expenditures are about the only form of Keynesianism the contemporary GOP supports.

2. I tweeted on Sunday that it would be a big surprise to see either candidate talk seriously about the centrality of women – their empowerment, their role in public life and in civil society – to American foreign policy. Last night, I was pleasantly surprised to see the topic come up, and even more astonished to find that it was brought up by Mitt Romney. Most likely, that’s because Romney has a wide gap to close with women voters, but I welcomed the comments nonetheless.

3. I was pleased that Bob Schieffer raised the topic of drone warfare. At CFR, Rachel Kleinfeld of the Truman Security Project noted that her organization’s polling of its audience indicates that drone warfare is among President Obama’s most unpopular policies, rivaled only by his failure to close Guantanamo Bay. Given that, it’s a shame that Mitt Romney didn’t use the opportunity to push back against the policy: the American public deserves to hear the issue debated in full.

It’s not just a humanitarian issue – though the civilian casualties from drone warfare are an outrage. It’s also a strategic issue, in that the use of a deeply unpopular policy hurts American soft power around the world.

Most concerning to me is the fact that this kind of high-tech war often takes place away from the public eye. We focus heavily on the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of a broader debate about the ground war there. But how many Americans know that the U.S. is also using drones to intervene in Yemen, or Somalia? Because drone warfare can be pursued without putting any boots on the ground, those interventions have happened with little to no public scrutiny. To my mind, a military technology that can be deployed without public debate is a technology that makes wars more likely, and that’s dangerous.

I talked about this, and the rest of the Afghanistan portion of the debate, on Huffington Post Live this morning. You can watch my segment here.

UN Week Blogging

By , 8 October, 2012, No Comment

Belatedly, taking note of two blog posts I’ve written for Forbes recently based on events I attended during UN Week.

1. The UN hosted an event on energy access and sustainability that was notable because it tried to bridge the gap between environmental activism and anti-poverty work.

Energy access is a critical prerequisite to poverty reduction, necessary for everything from heating homes to delivering public services to powering the businesses that create jobs.

Emerging powers sometimes paint these economic imperatives as incompatible with the fight against climate change. They see emissions caps as an unfair restriction on their economic advancement. But they’re wrong.

The IEA’s most recent World Energy Outlookconcluded (see p. 488) that achieving universal electricity access by 2030 would result in only a 2% increase in global emissions. That’s because the 1.3 billion people living without electricity today live in the world’s poorest countries. And poor countries that do have universal electricity today draw far less power, on a per-capita basis, than rich ones.

Of course, the ultimate aim of expanding energy access is to spur economic growth and allow poor countries to become richer. But even with dramatic economic growth, these countries won’t be approaching the kilowatt-hours consumed in the developed world until long after 2030. And by that time, we could and should have viable, affordable carbon-neutral energy systems in place.

Read the rest here.

2. The Concordia Summit held a panel discussion on women in Afghanistan that was notable because it highlighted the role the U.S. government has played in helping Afghan women achieve economic and political freedom, just days before U.S. government officials began telling the press that the U.S. won’t have much role in the postwar peace.

But the most important, and least frequently discussed danger (it gets no mention in the Timesstory) is the fate of Afghan women. One of the few goods to have come of the ISAF presence in Afghanistan is an Afghan constitution that gives women equal legal status to men (Article 22), the right to go to school (Articles 43 and 44), access jobs (Article 48) and hold political office (Article 84). Not only would a postwar government with Taliban members reverse such gains, but many woman who have made social, political and economic gains in the last decade would be in danger of suffering violent retribution and shaming from the men in their communities.

Read it all here.

I’ll be discussing what NATO withdrawal means for Afghan women on HuffPost Live today at 10:30AM Eastern. You can watch it here.

Bin Laden Dead: The Sovereignty Debate

By , 6 May, 2011, 1 Comment

A post on the legal status of U.S.-Pakistan relations right now. Verdict: they’re pretty ambiguous.

Thankfully, for the moment, the United States doesn’t need to defend its actions on Sunday because Pakistan is not pushing it. For this particular raid. But the Pakistani government has been very clear that a future raid–on other high value targets believed to also be in Pakistan, say–would be received as a hostile act and merit retaliation.

Legally, most scholars I’ve spoken to say an official statement saying ‘no’ has to be respected. Or at least, explains Gabriella Blum, a professor at Harvard Law School, it constitutes a reclaiming of sovereignty temporarily, a resetting of the accountability clock, and has to be taken–whether this seems plausible or not–as a promise to try again. The United States would have to build up a new case for Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to combat terrorism if it wanted to go in again. To continue to pursue covert raids without a break now could very easily be described as a attack on Pakistan. That’s quite concerning, since it appears from the recent re-shuffling of CIA and Pentagon leadership, that more covert raids and other intelligence-heavy operations are going to be a staple of the Obama Administration’s war on terror.

If you need further enticement, there’s a clip from the West Wing. Read here.

Bin Laden Dead: Pakistan Responds

By , 3 May, 2011, No Comment

Have started a new post tonight, with some information from the Pakistani government on their role. Probably best to read yesterday’s post as background first.

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.

India and Its Neighbors

By , 9 November, 2010, 35 Comments

I’ve got a piece in today’s Christian Science Monitor on India, China and the battle for South Asia.

China is certainly flexing its muscle. Last month, it sought to restrict exports of rare earth minerals to Japan, made overtures to a secession movement in southern Sudan, and wrestled with the G20 over its currency and trade imbalance.

Nowhere has China been more assertive than in South Asia. In a strategy it calls the “string of pearls,” China is building ports and infrastructure in Bangladesh and Pakistan; digging up minerals in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and refining hydropower in Nepal and Afghanistan.

According to the International Monetary Fund, China’s trade with India’s neighbors totaled $16 billion in 2008, growing at 14 percent annually. India’s regional trade was barely holding steady at $11 billion.

Yet China’s success in the Subcontinent reflects India’s own foreign policy blunders.

The takeaway: if India doesn’t improve its own regional relationships, it will not only lose South Asia to China, but it will be prevented from exercising power elsewhere. Don’t believe me? Read the whole piece.

Kudos to CNN on Bombay coverage

By , 26 November, 2008, 3 Comments

I don’t have the answers to how and why this happened, but being a media junkie, I do have some reflections on the way it was covered for audiences here in the States.

After an election season where I thought they did an innovative job, MSNBC completely failed today. Granted, they’re not an international network so they don’t have an army of correspondents to call on. But still, in the few segments I saw, I didn’t get the sense they were even trying to make heads or tails of the situation. Instead, what we got was some panel discussions about how a terror attack might be read as a test of Barack Obama as President-elect. I flicked to Fox for a split second; they were debating the same question, but the concern was about the strength terrorists might gather in the interregnum before January 20th. Never mind that none of this makes sense given when it’s Bombay, not Baghdad; at 4:30 EST, when people around the world are still trying to get the basic who-what-when of casualties and injuries, the U.S. political ramifications are manifestly NOT the story.

Meanwhile CNN rose to the challenge. They have the institutional advantage of bureaus and affiliates everywhere that can feed them live footage and photography, and they’ve been ahead of the curve in using the internet to get similar footage from citizen-journalists. [I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, that this is the way citizen-media is likely to achieve its potential: by presenting itself as a resource to the established media and capitalizing on the establishment’s brand and reach; not by taking down the big names.]

Moreover, CNN showed today they had mastered the 21st century version of established expertise: today’s expert is not a news anchor, a la Cronkite, telling us what to think; it’s an individual professional, a reporter, interpreting the facts on air, thinking outloud. And there aren’t yet enough citizen-bloggers who’ve been reporting on conflict for 20+ years who can think aloud at the level of CNN’s best.

Allow me to explain: there was a moment when Miles O’Brien was getting confused about who the splinter group claiming responsibility for the attack is (poor thing, he’s just the substitute anchor in for Wolf Blitzer this week and he certainly hadn’t planned on covering a big story after markets closed on a holiday eve). It’s someone named Dekkan Mujahideen and until this morning, no one had heard of them, but as every analyst remarked, they have obviously been at this long enough, given that they launched a coordinated, multisite attack and somehow infiltrated official facilities to get access to a police van and uniforms.

Anyway, O’Brien kept trying to do the old-style anchor thing (where you give the viewer a clear worldview) by painting the level of coordination as a sign that this was al-Qaeda-esque. He had 5 sources on at once and wanted each of them to be his ‘yes’-men in promulgating that view. The reality, however, is that the reporters are the real experts and the silver stroke came when Barbara Starr, who’s been covering the Pentagon and US national security for a zillion years, changed the subject in the middle of O’Brien’s chat with her to tell him, by the way, that this al-Qaeda link was messy. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, she said (I paraphrase), al-Qaeda uses suicide attacks and bombs, not hand grenades and hostage-takings. This, she said, smacks more of the domestic kidnapping economy that has plagued developing countries for decades, now mixed with the ideology of militant fundamentalism, and that’s how officials will likely tackle the case. The FBI correspondent agreed, explaining to O’Brien that U.S. agents will do everything they can to offer support, but that we should (as MSNBC failed to) recognize that not every news story is an American one first. To his credit, O’Brien got the message and spent the next half-hour trying to understand domestic Indian conflicts and what the parameters of international jurisdiction are in such cases.

Finally, the whole team at CNN gets brownie points for recognizing that in crisis moments, the first role of journalists is to inform the public with news they can use. Zain Verjee kept reminding us that the State Department is running a hotline to help Americans get in touch with relatives who might have been staying at the Oberoi and Taj hotels. O’Brien kept apologizing for the time lag on the video feed, “it’s not live, but it’s as live as we can get,” and even for his own ignorance. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but you really got the sense these guys were trying to be public servants. On Thanksgiving Eve, I owe them a little gratitude.