'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

America Enmeshed

Protestors in Cairo, during the disruption of domestic
internet traffic, capture images on their mobile phones.
Copyright NY Daily News
'Amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns, or nuclear power can either energize a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill. The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable al-Qaida to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent. And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.' 

'On the one hand, anonymity protects the exploitation of children. And on the other hand, anonymity protects the free expression of opposition to repressive governments. Anonymity allows the theft of intellectual property, but anonymity also permits people to come together in settings that gives them some basis for free expression without identifying themselves.'
--Hillary Clinton, Remarks on Internet FreedomNewseum, Washington, D.C, 21 January, 2010

Daniel Finkelstein's article in the London Times and in particular his comment, 'I desire that the President of the United States proves to be a ditherer, a weakling and a fool. I have suddenly realised that if he isn't, if Barack Obama is better than that, we're all in a whole heap of trouble', is indicative of the malaise in which punditry has found itself during this upheaval in the middle east and maghrib. In the aftermath of 9.11, experts bemoaned the paucity of confident leaders that could drive forward a cogent, balanced response to the tragedy and refuse to be drawn into an emotional, ill-conceived reaction that ultimately played directly into the hands of the very actors who had planned the attacks. 

Finkelstein laters qualifies his position by arguing that if Obama is in fact erudite and certain on the world stage, then his withdrawal of American planes from offensive action in Libya represents - rather than uncertain policy and vacillation - the first step in a return to American isolationism. Further, Finkelstein reverts to history, to the post-World War II foreign policy elites that shaped economic interventionism in Europe to assert that the world needs America as its policeman. In fact, the world has changed since the Marshall Plan and Bretton Woods. Pearl Harbor may have shown that a state could attack an American base, but 9.11 demonstrated that its position in the world whether it chooses to pursue isolationism or aggressive imperialism is part of a global nexus of unseen cause, myriad effects and that the rise of the non-state actor reorientates the world of state sovereignty. 

Obama has relentlessly shown his desire for engagement, whether with his Cairo speech in June 2009 in which he articulated a new era of cooperation, saying, 'I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,' Or at the United Nations, in September 2009, when he asserted that, 'The United States stands ready to begin a new chapter of international cooperation -- one that recognizes the rights and responsibilities of all nations'.

This engagement is partly ideology and partly a recognition that America stands in the middle of a giant web of connectivity. China's relative economic rise places even greater emphasis on American foreign policy, particularly as the former is pursuing an unabashed resource grab in Africa. The relative decline of American power is heralded in every new edition of Foreign Affairs, in which academics and policy-makers lament the draining wars pursued under the Bush administration, undertaken whilst sleeping Asian giants conducted various soft power offensives to secure mineral drilling rights across the globe (for the contrary, optimistic view of America's current trajectory, see Joseph Nye in a late 2010 Foreign Affairs article). 

Given this 'majority-view pessimism' it's little wonder that there has been no coherent voice emerge upon the matter of the middle east and maghrib uprisings. After all, what exactly are they? What will be the identity of the states that appear in their place? How will they impact upon the already precarious positions of American, Russia and the geographically adjacent Europe? In fact, the only unequivocal spin-off from the uprisings thus far has been to create a new impetus in the tech-world for mesh-networks. Mubarak's decision to close all domestic internet and telecommunication traffic in late January to combat the use of social media sites to coordinate the uprising was a seminal moment in history. It demonstrated both the coagulating power of instantaneous, free messaging as an instrument for protest, and it showed the ability of a 'democratically-elected' dictator to control communication among his people. 

Mubarak's play was a one time deal that didn't pay off. Ever since, the tech world has become galvanized. Shervin Pishevar wrote an important blogpost at the end of February entitled 'Humans are the Routers' in which he delineated a trajectory that could effectively prevent a regime from removing its population from the Net. The past two months have seen a rapid rise in the software/firmware associated with mesh-networking, which in theory could use mobile phones as nodes in a local platform to connect to Internet network satellites. The evolution has been conducted at a startling pace. Start-up dollars are already in place and OpenMesh has aligned with various other companies to create a software/firmware partnership. Mobiles and networks are the very latest idea in Net development, with some work having been done on this in late 2010. What it demonstrates is that technology, the ability to communicate and evolve a networked structure are being developed at paces that outstrip political action and response. The fallout from the uprisings hasn't even started but already the technology that wasn't there before is being built. The Net abhors a wall. 

I for one want Obama to be a strong leader and assertive. He has already demonstrated an understanding of the networked nature of the twenty-first century and a knowledge too that YouTube just may be the most important news broadcaster of our time. With a mobile phone, everyone is a potential reporter. Kilcullen in his 28 Articles, is instructive: 
‘Remember the global audience. One of the biggest differences between the counterinsurgencies our fathers fought and those we face today is the omnipresence of globalized media. Most houses in Iraq have one or more satellite dishes. Web bloggers, print, radio and television reporters and others are monitoring and commentating on your every move.
It's obvious that Obama doesn't want American planes engaged in bombing Libya, with the possibility of inflammatory images of civilian casualties on the ground that this could entail. That he has removed planes from the Libya action doesn't mean he wants, or even can, remove America from the world stage rather it shows he understands that military action in civilian theatres has consequences. 'Kinetic' activity can lead to severe, unintended consequences: When the Egyptian Islamic Jihad exploded a bomb by prime-minister Atef Sidiqi's armoured car in 1993, he was unhurt. Yet the blast killed a 12 year-old schoolgirl, Shayma Abdel-Halim. The death resonated with the population. When her coffin was carried through the streets of Cairo, mourners shouted, 'Terrorism is the enemy of God'. The backlash against the organization was severe and precipitated Ayman al-Zawahiri seeking closer ties with al-Qaeda.

If Obama doesn't understand that kinetic operations have the propensity to cause myriad consequences, then his staff do. Iraq and Afghanistan have been laboratories for the insurgent and the counter-insurgent, a cauldron of improvisation and evolution, with the Internet being the medium of choice for message. Obama is just careful how he chooses to engage and in which theatres he wants his nation to go kinetic. So don't worry Finkelstein, America is enmeshed.

Anne-Marie Slaughter's (moderator) Panel Discussion on Internet Freedom, 21 Jan, 2010 

16+ Projects & Initiatives Building Ad Hoc Wireless Mesh Networks
OpenMesh Project
Global Network Initiative is a voluntary effort by technology companies who are working with nongovernmental organizations, academic experts, and social investment funds to respond to government requests for censorship. The initiative goes beyond mere statements of principles and establishes mechanisms to promote real accountability and transparency.

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