Friday, August 27, 2010

A President, a Poll and a Mosque: Factors to be Considered by Netanyahu and Abbas

At an event entitled “Beyond Arab Poll Results” a panel consisting of Dr. Shibley Telhami and Amjad Atallah reflected on the general discontent in the Arab world for President Obama and his policies, and discussed the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll recently released by the Brookings Institute. They concluded that the upcoming negotiations between Israel and Palestine, to be conducted in Washington, DC, are different than those of the past because of one unavoidable fact: if the U.S. cannot mitigate a peace solution in the near future, it may well have lost its opportunity to play a role in the ongoing conflict. The panel met at the New America Foundation and addressed a room packed to the brim with interested Washingtonians.

“There is an assumption,” said Dr. Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, “if this administration cannot do it, who can?” Dr. Telhami’s comments stem from the aggressive efforts made by the Obama administration to bring both sides back to the table for peace talks. The Brookings poll offers a small ray of hope on the upcoming talks, the most significant being overwhelming support on both sides of the issue, as well as throughout the Arab world, for a two-state solution.

Despite these efforts, many obstacles stand in the way of a peaceful resolution. To a large extent,” Telhami continued, “…Washington misinterpreted how Arabs and Muslims saw Obama.” Most of the hype arose after the famed Cairo speech, where he extended his hand to the Muslim world at large. That same speech has been the subject of much political fodder in the United States, as controversy over the proposed Islamic center at Ground Zero (I would link that, but if you haven’t heard about it the odds that you’re reading this are very small). The perception of the United States in the wake of the controversy, and the “Islamophobia” being proliferated by the right, may lessen the U.S. in the eyes of Arabs, and consequently hinder its ability to form a legitimate solution. Additionally, the lack of innovation on Obama’s part, as well as the perceived kowtowing to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has hurt his image in the Arab world, and conversely may hinder negotiations.

"[He] attempted to take the corpse over the finish line," said Atallah, who is the co-director of the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force. He was speaking in reference to the Obama administration’s proposed solutions, which are virtually unchanged from those introduced by the Oslo accord in 1993. In regards to the possible failure to reach an agreement centered on U.S. mediation, he said Israeli and Palestinian leaders “need a Plan B.”

Finally, Netanyahu‘s loyalty to his conservative Likud party may prevent him from making concessions necessary for peace, however, Telhami seemed to think party ties may not play a significant role. Solutions that may seem unpopular at the time often gain approval after they have been adopted. “If you build an agreement,” he said, “they will come.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Internet is a two-way street

From July 27, 2010

Just as you and a stranger from Australia can exchange cobbler recipes, so too can Kim Jong-il and Hugo Chavez share tactics on persecuting dissidents.

Paying special attention to countries like China and Iran, a panel of experts on censorship of the Internet espoused their views on the war between internet activists and authoritarian regimes. The panel stressed power of the Internet as a tool for dictators, and the growing role of companies like Google in the international community.

Hosted at the Google offices in Washington, DC, by the Foreign Policy Initiative, the panelists drew a crowd of around sixty people with the promises of refreshments and topical knowledge of what Google is doing to combat censorship. Bob Boorstin, Director of Corporate and Policy Communications to Google, explained that his company has an explicit place in the battle.

“[Our role] is to do everything we can do to maximize access to information,” he said. What this means is that total absence of censorship is rarely going to come to fruition in non-free societies. Citing a partial block on certain
Youtube videos in Thailand, Boorstin stated that partial bans are better than complete bans. If sacrificing a few videos that mock the Thai King means the country gets access to everything else on Youtube, then so be it. It is not the place of Google, he affirmed, to dictate policy and social norms to nations with different cultural beliefs.

Boorstin went on to warn governments that they should recognize the “dual-use” aspect of many technologies. Just as a hundred thousand freedom fighters can organize and plan meetings on Facebook, so too can governments use those groups to easily target opposition leaders. Cynthia Wong of the Center for Democracy & Technology echoed his concerns.

“The halcyon days of assuming the internet is all about liberation are over,” said Wong. Speaking in regards to China, she explained how regimes can practice censorship while avoiding economic sacrifices. Normally, hindering free speech comes at the cost of hindering business.
China has avoided this conundrum.

The panel offered little advice for the common activist on the internet, but Robert Guerra of the Internet Freedom project at Freedom House reminded the audience that “offline” subversive measures remain, and should not be forgotten. Guerra warned that because of the anonymity of the recent reports published by
Wikileaks on the war in Afghanistan, some governments are now working to make all published information require an identifiable author.

In regards to democracies such as the United States, the panel agreed that they have an important role to play in raising the issue of censorship at the highest levels. Additionally, they agreed that, in terms of its abilities as a liberator, the Internet is a bit over-hyped. While Twitter and Facebook have helped opposition movements around the world, they have rarely begat actual regime change. In Iran, the so-called
“Twitter Revolution” only had the effect of showing Ahmadinejad’s regime how to use social media.

Speaking to the ever changing nature of the Internet, Boorstin reminded the audience that “anything that any of us says could likely be wrong tomorrow.”

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My TV debut

A little over a year ago, the good people at Good Morning America asked me to be as awkward as possible while modeling a pair of sandals. I surpassed their wildest expectations.

Friday, July 30, 2010

In Pakistan, American image remains poor, concern of extremist takeover slipping

Yesterday, The Pew Research Center has published a report on the opinions of the Pakistani people regarding, among other topics, America, the Taliban, India and the issue of extremism. The results indicate India is by and large the biggest threat to Pakistan, and that the American war on terror is anti-Muslim. Pew President Andrew Kohut spoke at the New America Foundation to discuss the results.

“There is not a Muslim public in the world that supports the U.S. war on terror,” said Kohut to a room of a few dozen students, reporters, and government officials. He explained that because the effort seems to be targeting only Muslims regardless of political ideology, it is “not legitimate” in the eyes of Pakistani people. That sentiment contributes to the mere 17% of people who have a favorable view of the U.S., and the 8% that have confidence in President Obama. This news comes just as U.S. officials are revamping their efforts to work with Pakistan to oust the Taliban from the region.

When asked about the greatest threat facing Pakistan, 53% named India. The Taliban came in second with 23%. Kohut commented that because of the strong ties between India and the U.S., the countries are viewed as virtually one and the same. As concern over the Kashmir region of India grows, extremists such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda tend to fall by the wayside in the eyes of Pakistanis. In a similar poll conducted last year, 69% of participants said they were “very/somewhat worried” about extremists taking control of Pakistan, compared to 51% this year. 30% stated they are “not too/not at all worried”.

In regards to the Pakistani government itself, the military, specifically General Kayani, had a much higher approval rating (61%) than President Asif Ali Zadari (20%). Nawaz Sharif, Zardari’s political rival, boasted a 71% approval rating, one of the highest in the country. The majority of Pakistani people expressed support for harsh criminal punishments, including stoning of adulterers (82%) and the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim faith (76%). Kohut commented that these figures contrast sharply with the people’s desire to modernize, a discrepancy that he could not explain.

Pew researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with 2,000 Pakistani Muslims representing mostly urban areas. The report is a part of the Global Attitude Project, which has spanned 57 countries in order to get a clear picture of issues affecting local citizens around the world.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

We're Back

Glad to have you with us. To celebrate my return to the interweb from my long hiatus, here's a video of me and my former lawn jockey chasing each other around. Cheers to director Alex Leibowich for bringing out my inner McConaughey:

Chase from Alex Leibowich on Vimeo.