After a concerted effort to walk back -- or at least soften -- its "red line" on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, it looks as if the Obama administration may have just gotten off the hook. According to Reuters, U.N. human rights investigators now have evidence that rebel forces used sarin gas -- a revelation that, if confirmed, would vindicate the president's studied approach to the Syrian conflict and reduce the political pressure on him to act immediately.
In an interview Sunday with a Swiss-Italian television station, Carla Del Ponte, a former prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and a current member of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said that testimony gathered by U.N. human rights researchers reveals "strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas." She added: "This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities."
After the Obama administration reluctantly acknowledged on April 25 that the Syrian regime had most likely used chemical weapons, it looked as if the president had backed himself into a corner. In August 2012, Obama declared the use of chemical agents a "red line" for U.S. involvement in the conflict, later reiterating that it would be a "game changer."
How exactly the administration would respond was never made explicit, but most assumed it would trigger deeper U.S. engagement, whether by directly arming members of the opposition or instituting a no-fly zone. After all, the president warned in December: "If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."
But when Britain, France, and Israel all claimed that the regime had indeed crossed the red line, the White House responded cautiously, downplaying what one official called "low-confidence assessments by foreign governments." Even after acknowledging in a letter to Congress that the U.S. intelligence community believes "with varying degrees of confidence" that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons "on a small scale," the president resolved to conduct further investigations before taking action.
The United States should not rush to judgment without "hard, effective evidence," Obama said in an April 30 press conference in which he appeared to shift responsibility for the U.S. red line to the international community. "When I said the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, that wasn't a position unique to the United States...The use of chemical weapons would be a game changer. Not simply for the United States, but for the international community," he said at one point.
Despite such efforts to blur the red line -- which the New York Times reported Saturday was never intended to trap the president into "any predetermined action" -- the White House announced that it was rethinking its position on arming the rebels, a sort of least-worst option that would shield the president from charges of inviting rogue states like Iran and North Korea to defy the United States.
My guess is that this latest report will give the administration enough space to put plans for arming the opposition on hold. After all, what business does the United States have arming rebels who are violating international law? Even if the testimony turns out to be unreliable -- something the Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy points out is entirely possible -- it plays into the administration's fog-of-war narrative that calls for a measured and methodical approach to a crisis that is increasingly difficult to read.
How Israel's apparent success in striking Syrian missile sites over the weekend will impact the debate remains to be seen. Critics of the president, like Arizona Sen. John McCain, are spinning it as proof-positive that the United States could take out Syria's air defenses, easy peasy, like it did in Libya. The reality is no doubt more complicated than that. Armed with additional reasons to err on the side of caution, my bet is that the administration, which has shown no interest in getting dragged into another conflict in the Middle East, isn't about to change its mind.
It's every diplomat's worst nightmare: being summoned back to the mother country after getting trounced in a supermarket slapfest. But that's exactly what happened, at least temporarily, to Rodrigo Riofrío, Ecuador's ambassador to Peru, who on April 21 in Lima was caught on a supermarket video camera swatting a number of women with a rolled-up magazine as they slapped and yanked his hair.
Riofrío appears to have fallen into an argument with the women in the checkout line, where he allegedly struck and insulted them with racist slurs. (The YouTube video below shows the ambassador getting some pretty impressive extension as he goes on the offensive.)
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the story, however, is that Ecuador is standing behind its diplomat. Despite being temporarily recalled, Riofrío will apparently remain at his post. According to a statement issued by Ecuador's Foreign Ministry, there is no reason to replace the ambassador: "If this happened, it would set a terrible precedent that would involve punishing someone who, as in this case, is the victim of an assault." That's right, Ecuador is claiming that Riofrío was the victim of an assault (the AP is reporting that the women involved in the clash were a mother and daughter, and that the daughter slapped Riofrío's wife first in reaction to an insult before the ambassador turned on them).
Even Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, has weighed in on the fiasco, saying that the video clearly shows that the women were the aggressors. One of the women was "very young," according to Correa. "And you know, the ambassador is no longer a young man."
Peru's minister for women, Ana Jara Velásquez, isn't buying it, however: "There is no single argument that justifies violence against women," she fired back on Twitter.
No existe argumento alguno q' justifique actos de violencia y menos contra la mujer! Confío en las acciones q' adoptará nuestra Cancillería.— Ana Jara Velásquez (@anajarav) May 2, 2013
Perhaps this kerfuffle has yet to run its course.
With its "national information network" nearing completion, Iran may soon be able to seal itself off from the World Wide Web. The ambitious project to create a second, Halal Internet -- launched eight years ago at the beginning of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first term -- is already up and running in government ministries and state bodies, where it shields users from what Iranian Minister of Communication and Information Technology Reza Taqipour has called "untrustworthy" material controlled by the "hands of one or two specific countries" (presumably, Israel and the United States). Now, it could be on its way to households and Internet cafes across the country. The BBC reports:
For months now, Iranian social media sites have been full of postings about slow download speeds and intermittent access...
While some put the blame on the country's overloaded and outdated internet infrastructure, others have a more sinister explanation for what is going on.
'When we get old we'll be able to tell our grandchildren about the time when a demon came along and nationalised the internet,' wrote Habil, an angry internet user from Tehran.
What Habil was referring to was the Iranian government's plan to create what it is calling a 'national information network' -- in effect a sort of corporate intranet system for the whole country.
The Wall Street Journal has more on why the regime is following in the footsteps of Cuba and North Korea:
"The leadership in Iran sees the project as a way to end the fight for control of the Internet, according to observers of Iranian policy inside and outside the country. Iran, already among the most sophisticated nations in online censoring, also promotes its national Internet as a cost-saving measure for consumers and as a way to uphold Islamic moral codes...
The unusual initiative appears part of a broader effort to confront what the regime now considers a major threat: an online invasion of Western ideas, culture and influence, primarily originating from the U.S. In recent speeches, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top officials have called this emerging conflict the "soft war."
No doubt, the 2009 post-election protests, which were at least partly enabled by Internet communication, are also on the supreme leader's mind heading into this year's electoral contest. That said, officials seem to be doing their best to sell the regime's story: Over the weekend, the news website YJC quoted one Internet police official as saying that Facebook, a "dangerous and disgusting spy tool," is responsible for a third of all divorces in Iran.
It's been an exciting month for the funniest man in Egypt. Not only was Bassem Youssef, a heart surgeon-turned-satirical television host, briefly detained for "belittling" President Mohamed Morsy and "insulting" Islam, he was also named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine (here he is giving a toast at the Time 100 gala). Bassem found himself at the center of a minor international incident as well when the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted a link to the Daily Show's Jon Stewart taking Morsy to task for arresting the satirist, prompting the Egyptian president's office to accuse the American mission of spreading "negative political propaganda."
Tonight, the "Egyptian Jon Stewart" will be back with the American Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, no doubt reflecting humorously on what has turned out to be a not-so-humorous time in Egypt's history. In anticipation of his appearance, here are five obscenely funny clips from his own wildly popular show El Bernameg (The Program), which premiered in Egypt back in 2011.
Here's Bassem declaring his complete and utter support for President Morsy ... 55 percent of the time. Later in the episode, he talks about some of the challenges facing the media in Egypt, at one point quipping that every episode "can either take you toward fame" or "to Abu Zabal Prison."
In the clip below, Bassem pokes fun at Islamists for claiming that the opposition is only opposed to the new constitution because they're "jealous." (He also takes a swipe at Morsy for apparently ordering his bodyguards to protect his shiny new car.)
Here's Bassem taking Morsy to task for claiming that the solution to all of Egypt's problems is ... love. (The president at one point ludicrously claimed that "I no longer have power over anyone, except the power of love.")
Bassem on the "purification" of the media...
"Yo, yo, yo. Ikhwan G in the house, baby." Yep, you're just going to have to watch this one yourself.
Last week, I blogged about some of the exciting technological advances Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas, predict in their new book, The New Digital Age, which comes out on April 23. Today, I want to focus on one of their more sobering predictions -- what they see as the future of news reporting.
On a very basic level, Schmidt and Cohen just put into words what deep down we already knew: that the proliferation of technology has turned everyone into a reporter and that media organizations will only lag further and further behind platforms like Twitter and Facebook, both of which are now regularly the first to serve up important breaking news. "If everyone in the world has a data-enabled phone or access to one -- a not-so-distant reality -- then the ability to 'break news' will be left to luck and chance," the authors write.
In a hyper-connected world, the mainstream media will have to get out of the business of breaking news (with the exception of investigative reporting) since "people will have little patience or use for media that cannot keep up." To survive, the authors predict, established media organizations will "report less and validate more." With huge amounts of unverified data floating around, readers will increasingly look to these outlets to identify what is important and separate rumor from fact. Analysis and contextualization will also become increasingly valuable, as more and more stories appear in the form of disjointed 140-character vignettes.
So far so good. But Schmidt and Cohen also foresee a far more frightening prospect. In one of the more distressing passages of the book, they suggest that celebrities might one day start their own "news portals" focused on pet issues that compete head-to-head with established news media. "[L]et's call it Brangelina news," they write, with no trace of irony. "In short order, they become the ultimate source of information and news on the conflict because they are both highly visible and have built up enough credibility in their work that they can be taken seriously."
Such outfits would effectively subsidize coverage of an issue area -- be it the conflict in Darfur or the hunt for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony -- displacing established news outlets whose coverage is sparse, whether because of insufficient funds or lack of interest. Some of these new media outfits "will be solid attempts to contribute to public discourse," the authors write, "but many will be vapid and nearly content free, merely exercises in self-promotion and commercialized fame." (One might easily imagine other outlets that are explicitly pernicious, established solely for the purpose of obscuring the truth or countering narratives seen as detrimental to sponsors' interests.)
But Schmidt and Cohen don't think the rise of Brangelina news is cause for particular concern: "If a celebrity outlet doesn't provide enough news, or consistently makes errors that are publicly exposed, the audience will leave," they write. In this, I'm not sure they're right. Consistently bad (or fictitious reporting) from celebrity tabloids -- of which these new outfits would be a logical extension -- is clearly good for business. (People magazine is reportedly the most profitable publication in the world.)
Even news organizations that style themselves as more serious outlets appear to benefit from facts-free reporting. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, for example, both CNN and the New York Post did remarkably well despite shoddy coverage. (CNN managed to attract one of its biggest audiences of the decade on Friday, April 19, after four days of hit-and-miss coverage that earned it a shout-out on the Daily Show.)
I couldn't find any hard data on how traffic to the New York Post's website fared during the week, but according Google Trends, searches for "New York Post" spiked to roughly five times the typical level (it's hardly an exact proxy for web traffic, but I think it's revealing nonetheless).
Here's the same data for CNN.
Meanwhile, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, both of which did standup jobs covering the bombing, saw more modest spikes in their Google Trends data.
Of course, the Google Trends data for the Boston Globe -- which also did a solid reporting job -- blows my whole theory out of the water, but I'm going to chalk it up to people wanting to hear what the local papers had to say.
Long story short, Schmidt and Cohen paint a believable picture of where news media is headed, but I'm not sure they recognize just how destructive it all might be. Even the business model they describe for Brangelina news is one that militates against substantive coverage. ("[T]hey might not even need to compensate reporters and stringers, some of whom would work for free in exchange for the visibility.") This model will no doubt be successful -- assuming no one asks Nate Thayer to contribute -- but it's certainly not a recipe for high-quality copy.
Tonight, at a black-tie gala in New York, the International Crisis Group is scheduled to honor Thein Sein, Burma's president, with its top peace award. Since he initiated the country's political and economic liberalization two years ago, Thein Sein has been remarkably successful at winning over the international community. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, for example, has praised the former general's "vision, leadership, and courage to put Myanmar on the path to change." President Barack Obama, meanwhile, told reporters during a historic visit to Burma last year: "I shared with President Thein Sein our belief that the process of reform that he is taking is one that will move this country forward." (Here at Foreign Policy, we even made him our top Global Thinker of 2012 along with Aung San Suu Kyi)
But like Saif al-Islam Qaddafi and Gamal Mubarak before him, Thein Sein may not live up to the reformist ambitions attributed to him by his Western admirers. The first inklings that something might be amiss came in June 2011, when the former general launched an offensive against the Kachin rebels in northern Burma, forcing as many as 100,000 people to flee their homes. Then came his regrettable proposal for resolving ethnic tensions between Rohingya Muslims, many of whom settled in Burma in the 15th century, and other ethnic groups in the country: resettlement to a third country or, as the Diplomat put it, the "mass deportation of an unwanted ethnic minority."
Now, a new report by Human Rights Watch accuses Burma's government of complicity in the ethnic cleansing of 125,000 Rohingya Muslims in the country's southwest. From the report:
Human Rights Watch research found that during the period following the violence and abuses in June , some security forces in Arakan State -- rather than responding to the growing campaign to force Rohingya out -- were destroying mosques, effectively blocking humanitarian aid to Rohingya populations, conducting violent mass arrests, and at times acting alongside Arakanese to forcibly displace Muslims.
In response, according to Human Rights Watch, Thein Sein issued a critical report on Arakan State forces to parliament, established a commission to "reveal the truth behind the unrest" and "find solutions for communities with different religious beliefs to live together in harmony," and organized a follow-up workshop a few months later -- efforts that Human Rights Watch calls "patently insufficient to stop the visible and mounting pressure in Arakan State to drive Rohingya and other Muslims out of the country."
Something tells me tonight's gala is going to be a little awkward.
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, the 31-year-old director of Google Ideas, make some pretty bold predictions in their new book, The New Digital Age, to be published by Knopf on April 23. The future they envision is full of technological wonders -- from holograms that attend meetings you can't make to thought-controlled motion technology -- but also of heightened vulnerability. Thanks to automated, machine-precise hairdressing you may never suffer another lousy haircut, but you may also find yourself in need of Internet identity insurance, lest your online presence be hijacked by criminals looking to make a buck on the virtual-identity black market. "Virtual honor killings" and commercial drone warfare may be just over the horizon, but so might a world with better healthcare, government accountability, and technological efficiency.
The authors speculate about what enhanced connectivity will mean for citizens and states, NGOs and corporations. But the most striking passages of the book are what you would expect from a couple of Google guys: a look through the silicon looking glass at the future of technological advancement. And the authors aren't bashful. As they explain up front in the introduction: "Some of the predictions you'll read in these pages will be things you've long suspected but couldn't admit ... while others will be wholly new." Here's a look at the five craziest predictions in The New Digital Age:
Holographs in your living room:
Future videography and photography will allow you to project any still or moving image you've captured as a three-dimensional holograph.... If you're feeling bored and want to take an hour-long holiday, why not turn on your holograph box and visit Carnival in Rio? Go spend some time on a beach in the Maldives.... Frustrated by the media's coverage of the Olympics in a different time zone? Purchase a holographic pass for a reasonable price and watch the women's gymnastics team compete right in front of you, live.
The diagnostic capability of your mobile phone will be old news. (Of course you will be able to scan body parts the way you do bar codes.) But soon you will be benefiting from a slew of physical augmentations designed to monitor your well-being, such as microscopic robots in your circulatory system that keep track of your blood pressure, detect nascent heart disease and identify early-stage cancer. Inside your grandfather's new titanium hip there will be a chip that can act as a pedometer, monitor his insulin levels to check for the early stages of diabetes, and even trigger an automated phone call to an emergency contact if he takes a particularly hard fall and might need assistance. A tiny nasal implant will be available to you that will alert you to air-borne toxins and early signs of a cold.
Your apartment is an electronic orchestra, and you are the conductor. With simple flicks of the wrist and spoken instructions, you can control temperature, humidity, ambient music and lighting. You are able to skim through the day's news on translucent screens while a freshly cleaned suit is retrieved from your automated closet because your calendar indicates an important meeting today. You head to the kitchen for breakfast and the translucent news display follows, as a projected hologram hovering just in front of you, using motion detection, as you walk down the hallway.... Your central computer system suggests a list of chores your housekeeping robots should tackle today, all of which you approve. It further suggests that, since your coffee supply is projected to run out next Wednesday, you consider purchasing a certain larger-size container that it noticed currently on sale online. Alternatively, it offers a few recent reviews of other coffee blends your friends enjoy.
Haptic technologies -- this refers to touch and feeling -- will produce uniforms that allow soldiers to communicate through pulses, sending out signals to one another that result in a light pinch or vibration in a particular part of the body.... Camouflage will allow soldiers to change their uniform's color, texture, pattern or scent. Uniforms might even be able to emit sounds to drown out noises soldiers might want to hide -- sounds of nature masking footsteps, for example.... Solders will have the additional ability to destroy all this technology remotely, so that capture or theft will not yield valuable intelligence secrets.
Gestural interfaces will soon move beyond gaming and entertainment into more functional areas; the futuristic information screens displayed so prominently in the film Minority Report -- in which Tom Cruise used gesture technology and holographic images to solve crimes on a computer -- are just the beginning. In fact, we've already moved beyond that -- the really interesting work today is building "social robots" that can recognize human gestures and respond to them in kind, such as a toy dog that sits when a child makes a command gesture.
And, looking further down the line, we might not need to move physically to manipulate those robots.... The possibilities for thought-controlled motion, not only for "surrogates" like separate robots but also for prosthetic limbs, are particularly exciting...
If some of this sounds a little far-fetched, it's worth noting that the authors all but predicted the 2011 Arab uprisings at a time when political scientists, their heads in the sand, were preaching about durable authoritarianism. "Governments will be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cell phones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority," the duo wrote in a Foreign Affairs article published in Novermber 2010. So who knows, maybe these guys are on to something.
Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group responsible for more than 2,000 deaths in northern Nigeria, is apparently not interested in amnesty. In rejecting an offer (before it was actually put on the table) by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, the group appeared to respond with its own offer of sorts: "It is we that should grant you [a] pardon," said a man who sounds like Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in a recording translated by AFP. "Surprisingly, the Nigerian government is talking about granting us amnesty. What wrong have we done?"
In 2011, Boko Haram rejected a similar amnesty offer from Kashim Shettima, then governor-elect of Nigeria's Borno state, on the grounds that the group did not recognize the Nigerian constitution, only the laws of Allah. (No counteroffer of amnesty was made at that time.)
This time around, Boko Haram seems to have taken its cue from the Congolese Rally for Democracy, a rebel group active in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo during the Second Congo War, which greeted an amnesty offer from President Laurent Kabila with a similarly flippant riposte.
"Kabila is the one who deserves amnesty in the first place," the rebel group's vice president said in 1999. "Kabila should seek forgiveness from the rebels and all Congolese people. The only way to do so is to quit power and leave the Congolese in peace."
For what it's worth, the reverse-amnesty strategy was also tried (under slightly different circumstances) by the leader of a breakaway splinter of the Tamil Tigers in 2004. After receiving a "ridiculous" amnesty offer from the group's northern leadership, a spokesman for the rogue colonel, Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, said, "It is they who should think of being forgiven by our people [in the east] for the sacrifices made to protect the land and the people of Wanni [in the north]."
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