Tuesday, January 25, 2005

How much freedom does a man need?

Cyber Age/ND Batra/From The Statesman

“And then there came a day of fire,” Bush said at his second inaugural indirectly referring to terrorists’ attacks that pulled the United States out of a long slumber. Rather too soon, the end of communism had brought about a sense of complacency, a grand illusion as if it were the end of history seen as struggle in the Hegelian sense, and the final triumph of freedom. As Francis Fukuyama prematurely gushed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “What we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Of course that did not happen. It did not happen in Russia after the Soviet Union dissipated; and it did not happen in China in spite of 1989 Tiananman Square pro-democracy protests and in spite of rapid economic growth and broadening prosperity under state controlled market capitalism. China has been growing at the rate of 8-9 percent for more than a decade and is on the path to become an economic and military superpower in the next few decades. If the authoritarian rule has not hindered China from growing at a phenomenal rate to which there seems to be no end, one might wonder: How could they do it without civil liberties? How much freedom does a man need?

Democracy did not happen in the Muslim-Arab world where Islamic fundamentalism, partly as a reaction to the Soviet communism and partly due to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, has been taking hold of the hearts and minds of the people. In fact after the collapse of the Soviet Union worldwide tyranny might have increased, if metrics were available. China has ceased to be an imminent threat as its economic growth became increasingly tied up with exports to the United States and foreign direct investments. Along with that human rights including Tibet too ceased to be an issue in the United States and China relations. Between the United Sates and Saudi Arabia or other pro-American Arab countries in the region where Islamic fundamentalism has been holding a long sway, human rights and freedom were seldom an issue. After the 2001 terrorists attacks, the United States clasped Pakistan with financial and military ties to make it an ally against the Taliban and Ala Qaeda terrorism. And to maintain its hold over Pakistan, the United States overlooked even the black-marketing of nuclear technology by one of its most revered scientists, AQ Khan. Unelected generals rule the land.

Is this diplomatic paradigm shift from the realpolitik of supping with the devil to the messianic fervor of universally spreading freedom for the real? Or was the inaugural rhetoric of liberty a latter-day rationale for the invasion of Iraq where though weapons of mass destruction could not be found, the tyrant had to be removed nonetheless for the spread of liberty?

Bush said that the United States would remain vulnerable to terrorism so long tyranny and hate ideology prevailed abroad and for which there’s no other solution except to expand freedom. “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world…. Across the generations, we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government because no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave.” Bush has come to the same conclusion as Abraham Lincoln had reached at the time the Civil War, “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” So the ultimate guarantee for freedom at home is to end tyranny abroad by supporting “the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture….” But what about poverty and disease?

Bush is not going to challenge every authoritarian nation: Democratize or else. He may not push guns for freedom but he is certainly not going to give up what he has already undertaken. With Iraq in mind, Bush said, “Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon. Yet, because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom.”

Elections in Afghanistan and the Palestinian Authority have kindled some hope that eventually elections and sharing of power in Iraq might bring about the beginning of law and order in Iraq too. And keeping in mind the forcefulness and the tenor of his inaugural address, Bush cannot run away from his commitment to establish a semblance of democratic regime in Iraq. The January 30 elections in Iraq in many ways would be a momentous event to watch, probably another bloody day to which the world has become used to do, nonetheless, a new day when millions of Iraqis would exercise their freedom.

But a free country too could harbor terrorists. Nor does freedom mean the end of poverty and unemployment, a fertile ground for terrorism. The Bush freedom package must include economic aid including preferential trade for poor countries.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Bush's second term: Making elephants fly

FromThe Statesman BY ND BATRA

Although the ghost of weapons of mass destruction has been finally laid to rest with the release of the latest official report, George Bush has shown no regret for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein. In spite of the fact that now a majority of Americans believe the Iraqi invasion was a mistake, Bush continues to believe regime change was the right thing to do to prevent Iraq from becoming a sanctuary for terrorists.

Of course, foreign policy cannot be run on public opinion polls, which heave up and down so often that it would be politically crazy to be solely guided by them. National leaders at times take measures that are unpopular but necessary according to their perception of the problem the country faces and their political vision. What hurts their cause, however, is the language in which they frame their thoughts and deeds.

That the result of the Iraqi invasion turned out to be much different, much bloodier than expected, has not lessened the Bush administration’s newly framed resolve to bring about changes in West Asia through democratic processes. As secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld – the man who coined terms like “Old Europe” and “New Europe” and widened the Atlantic Ocean with his tongue wagging – said recently: “Just having elections in Iraq is an enormous success and a victory. Following the elections in Afghanistan and the one held recently in the Palestinian Authority, the Iraqi vote will mark still another success for democracy and a defeat for pro-dictatorship and extremist elements in the region.”

This epitomises the new policy, which has moved beyond fighting terrorism to include what Bush has been calling as exporting and spreading freedom abroad. Bush now admits that his ill-famed utterances like “Bring ‘em on,” challenging insurgents to attack US forces in Iraq was a mistake, though he still does not realise how much damage the expression “Axis of Evil” has done to US diplomacy. Evil is of course everywhere and the world has become a dangerous place. No nation is safe from evildoers, jihadis and non-jihadis, but by characterising that evil is limited to a small axis of three countries, Bush absolved others by default.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis says: “The terrorists of 11 September exposed vulnerabilities in the defences of all states,” which necessitated for Bush to preside over “the most sweeping redesign of US grand strategy since the presidency of Franklin D Roosevelt. The basis for Bush’s grand strategy, like Roosevelt’s, comes from the shock of surprise attack and will not change. None of FDR’s successors, Democrat or Republican, could escape the lesson he drew from the events of 7 December 1941 (Pearl Harbour): that distance alone no longer protected Americans from assaults at the hands of hostile states. Neither Bush nor his successors, whatever their party, can ignore what the events of 11 September 2001, made clear: the deterrence against states affords insufficient protection from attacks by gangs, which can now inflict the kind of damage only states fighting wars used to be able to achieve. In that sense, the course for Bush’s second term remains that of his first one: restoration of security in a suddenly more dangerous world.”

The USA was not the first country to bear the brunt of terrorists. India had long suffered terrorist attacks sponsored by its neighbour, which brought the two countries to the brink of war a few years ago. But by then, the USA had begun to look at the situation differently. Terrorism was a global phenomenon and had to be eliminated from all corners of the earth. The horrific events of 9/11 necessitated the establishment of US presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat the Taliban and fight Al-Qaida terrorists. But the US presence has had an unintended consequence in the region, in the sense that Pakistan felt persuaded to withdraw its support from terrorist groups operating from its territory against Kashmir. India and Pakistan have been opening up to each other at several levels and the cease-fire is holding up along the Line of Actual Control. The prospects of settlement of disputes including Kashmir and long-term peace are brighter today than ever before. Albeit indirectly, the Indian sub-continent has been the greatest beneficiary of Bush’s pre-emptive policies, regardless of their partial failures and successes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To make elephants fly, the second term Bush administration needs a new diplomatic tongue (and good manners, especially), to reframe its policy of pre-emption in terms of international cooperation, to eliminate terrorism and to save the nation state system itself. Saudis and Pakistani military rulers know that breeding and financing terrorists can boomerang. The Bush administration should help EU, especially France and Germany, so that the Islamic terrorism growing in their bellies is purged. Prof Gaddis says: “The President and his advisors preferred flaunting US power to explaining its purpose…. It is a failure of both language and vision that the USA has yet to make its case for pre-emption” in terms of the self-interest and survival of each nation; and a collective security system, which could best be under US leadership. Well, at least for the present, until China rises and challenges the USA.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Notoriety Pays

How bad girls bite back

Damien Cave of The New York Times says, “Women, it seems, have finally upended the double standard that allows scandal-slagged men to re-emerge to a hero's welcome while the ladies are pushed back down into the muck” ReadMe

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

When the earth goes out of balance

Cyber Age/ND Batra/From The Statesman

A few days ago my neighbor Cindy called to say hello and asked if my family in India was doing okay. And the next day the school principal phoned to inquire about a little girl Medha Gopal in our neighborhood who had gone to India with her parents and had not reported back to the school. I was deeply touched; but if you multiply these small gestures by the millions of unheard voices, you would know how ordinary Americans feel about the massive tragedy. And they give generously. I explained to them what parts of India were ravaged by the tsunami and how the people were coping with it.

But the only way I could feel the pain and suffering of those who lost their children and other loved ones in the tsunami that struck death and destruction in the Indian Ocean communities was to ask myself, What if my family were there? In fact only last May my son and his friends were vacationing in one of the island holiday resorts in Thailand. The hypothetical question and the thought-experiment simply horrified me. I get creeps whenever I think about it. The tragedy became all the more made shocking by the daily flow of television images of floating corpses being hauled out from the ocean and carted away; grief-stricken parents holding their dead children in their arms; orphaned children lost in a sea of hopelessness, nowhere to go. Nature red in tooth and claw, no, sometime you cannot pour pain and suffering into a metaphor.

Distanced from the huge tragedy and yet feeling its pain vicariously, the only deed I could think of doing was to send a handful of dollars to the prime minister’s national relief fund, hoping that it would reach the needy. Someone would buy a boat or raise a new roof over her surviving family. And millions of people like me have been doing the same, out of compassion or just being thankful that we were not there. It could happen to us, the thought struck again and again. We are all in it together, as we were on 9/11, the man-made horrific event which in caparison, though spectacular, was puny in magnitude.

When the earth goes out of balance, as it happened on 26 December, boundaries disappear, fences collapse and sovereignties become meaningless. Everything is reduced to the least denominator, the survival by chance and of the fittest. The ocean that sustained life for millennia has done its terrible job of killing more than 150,000 people: in a heartbeat. Now the question is, Can we reach and lift someone from the rubbles and make him stand up and walk again? The nightmare for survivors has only just begun. Hundreds and hundreds of people who were injured while escaping the tsunami desperately need urgent medical care. Many need to be on the operating table to have their infected limbs amputated to save their lives. Malaria, dysentery, diarrhea, cholera and other infectious diseases that thrive on putrid water would in the long term be no less dangerous than the tsunami.

It requires more than writing a check from the comfort of one’s living room, so no one should underestimate the problem of logistics, of actually delivering help to the needy, keeping in mind the damaged or non-existent infrastructure, shortages of hospital equipments and medical instruments for performing life saving surgeries, and inadequate supply of clean drinking water and amenities for daily hygiene. International response in financial terms has been so quick and amazing, with most coming from Australia, Germany, Japan; and Uncle Sam, in spite of all the commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, offering a decent sum of $350 million and that’s apart from the sea and airborne infrastructure and manpower support for delivering help to the stricken people.

India has courageously stood up to manage the disaster and help Sri Lanka too, while politely declining to accept international aid. India’s self-help has diverted the international resources to the most stricken areas of Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The question is how far the international community would help the tsunami victims. Would they be abandoned once television cameras are not on them? I hope not.

Major powers are paying special attention to Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, in order to wean it away Arab-Islamic militants’ grip and establish a beachhead of political influence there. There is nothing morally wrong with combining humanitarian aid with diplomatic goals. The United States, EU and other major powers in the region including India, China, Japan and Australia have a genuine interest in the stability of Indonesia to fight Islamic terrorism. But other people who have suffered the tsunami devastation, particularly, Sri Lanka, should not be forgotten simply because they are not a terrorist threat to major powers as Islamic terrorist are.

Natural calamities of this magnitude require well-organized pre-emptive efforts on an international scale so that their adverse effect on human life is minimized. A substantial portion of the $ 4 billion pledged aid should be spent on extending the Pacific Ocean tsunami early warning system to the Indian Ocean. Although India has refused to accept international aid, it cannot afford to forget its responsibilities in the Indian Ocean and must take an aggressive lead in establishing not only the early warning system but also pre-emptive measures to minimize the impact of a natural disaster of this magnitude when the next time the Indian Ocean hiccups.

Sunday, January 9, 2005

Why Europe is drifting away from America

“It is not so much, then, that militaristic Americans are from Mars and pacifistic Europeans from Venus. It would be more accurate to say that from an evangelical point of view, Americans are bound for heaven and Europeans for hell.”

Niall Ferguson in The Atlantic Monthly

Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Beyond goodwill hunting in tsunami’s destruction

The only way you could feel the pain and suffering of those who lost their children and other loved ones in the tsunami that struck death and destruction in the Indian Ocean communities was to ask yourself, What if my family were there?

Tuesday, January 4, 2005

What's Superspeculation?

Cyberage by ND Batra From The Statesman

The American Tongue

I can’t stop wondering how the American tongue wags, twists and turns to create new expressions, reinforcing its dynamic character that reflects the restless innovative temper of the American people. Grammarians and linguists tell us that human language is a stable system, slow and conservative in assimilating foreign influences. But the American tongue is so open that it is never at loss to come up with something fresh to capture the meaning of a new phenomenon created by technological innovations, and in the process extends its own boundaries of expressiveness. Consider this, for example: Can you do superspeculation about the future of a product, corporation or even a country? But what is superspeculation? The dictionary is of no help.

Talking of unauthorised commercial messages, Nat Ives wrote in The New York Times, “There are agencies and creative executives working on what might be superspeculation, like the team in Vaughn Whelan and Partners in Toronto.” The ad agency created a gratuitous commercial for a beer company, Molson, to shock and awe the marketing guys, in a manner of speaking, and “show them five years of advertising, so they could see the future.” The agency wanted the Molson account and thought of doing superspeculation, imagining the future as it could be, better than the company was realising with its present marketing campaign.

Defending the practice of superspeculation, Harry Webber, the founder of Smart Communications was quoted saying: “If Madison Avenue is no longer the evangelist for creative thinking in the USA, then somebody has to take up the cause.” I thought evangelists were those frenzied religious folks who hectored the lost sheep back to the fold. Can Madison Avenue, the American hub for marketplace creativity, evangelise capitalism through superspeculation? Evangelism at the service of capitalism! That’s something new. Superspeculation counters failure of imagination, which creates myopia that leads to dystopia. Columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “Redolent of the myopia that has led to the administration’s dystopia.” She was referring to Rumsfeld’s insensitivity and indifference when he sent machine-signed letters of condolence to the families of the Iraqi war dead.

Absence of creativity or inability to do superspeculation leads to coarsening of behaviour as you could have seen in the full-page ad by World Wrestling Entertainment showing its chairman Vincent McMahon addressing the troops in Iraq: “So, if it is alright with you, when I get back home, I am going to look up some of these negative nay-say-types. I am going to tell them you said that they can go to hell.” Telling those who don’t agree with you to go to hell is not a sign of toughness. It is a sign of helplessness.

But at times you feel that being tough isn’t tough enough. So what do you do? Consider the expression “hardcore,” which is normally associated with pornography. The US Supreme Court ruled in the Miller case that “hardcore” porn has no socially redeeming value; therefore, it is not entitled to the First Amendment protection. In other words, it could be regulated by being zoned out of town or shoved to safe harbour (late hours, 12 midnight to 6 a.m., when kids aren’t there). But recently I found an unusual use of “hardcore.”

In an extremely provocative article, “What’s Next for Google?” in Technology Review, Charles H Ferguson says that “if Microsoft got “hardcore” about search (as Bill Gates has promised), then yes, Google would be in for a very rough time.” Getting “hardcore” is being more than single-minded. Microsoft notorious for its single-mindedness and brute force in crushing the competition could become “hardcore” and, as Ferguson says, the giant corporation could do “cashectomy” on Google and dominate the search ecology with its dominant architecture as it has done with its desktop operating system Windows. “Cashectomy” is an etymological despoliation, if I may say so, of vasectomy, a surgical act that induces permanent sterility in a man. But is it more benign than castration? Doing “cashectomy” is evocative of wealth and power.

Microsoft’s masochism evokes sexual images like “hardcore” and “cashectomy” and unless it is stopped, it might bring disaster to the competition and to society as well because absence of competition would give the company control over networked databases on which the search ecology is based. Ferguson’s article is an example of negative superspeculation, a future that must not happen.

But could this be done to prevent the consequences of a future that one could not prevent from happening, say, the tsunami in the Indian Ocean? Well, that would depend upon who lives in the vulnerable future. The multi-billion-dollar Thai tourist industry might do superspeculation and take pre-emptive steps to mitigate the consequences of the future that cannot be prevented, but why would anyone bother about the poor living on the seaboard of eastern India?