American Foreign Policy: Should US citizens care?

28 Aug

People around the globe have always been mystified by American public’s seeming indifference towards the style of foreign policy that American government conducts. Yes, there are occasional rallies and protests but the overwhelming impression, and correctly so, is that most Americans just don’t care. This brings up the inevitable question – why don’t Americans care?

The answer really is fairly straight forward – Americans don’t need to care. Despite of all that is happening in Iraq and all that happened in Vietnam, America has emerged from it virtually unscathed. American economy is doing well, and life hums on as usual. Yes, the oil prices have shot up and three quarters of all news now is solely about terrorizing tyrannical freedom-hating terrorists, at least until drum beating about wrong arrests in child beauty queen murder fills up every ticking minute of news for days on end. But fundamentally nothing has changed; at least no discernible echo of doubt has survived Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Jon Benet. I think the ability of these pop news items to wipe news clean of terrorism is indicative of how much of a concern terrorism is in itself to average Americans.

Color coded terror alerts and the rabble-rousing shenanigans of political pundits on television have reduced the topic of terrorism to nothing more than some form of macabre entertainment. Americans may seem to people around them to be living in this self-proclaimed post-9/11 mindset perennially under collective fear psychosis but doesn’t mean that they will miss a good sale at Macy’s or the latest gossip about Tom Cruise. The fact is that while America may seem to be in grip of the collective memory of past trauma, in the meantime they will also do business and do biotechnology and browbeat countries to get better trade deals. Let me summarize the point that I am trying to make since it is not all that obvious, Americans don’t care about the foreign policy ramifications even their self proclaimed “post-9/11” world and all the concern is more or less skin deep. The fact that American don’t care that deeply about the perils of terrorism, even though it may look otherwise, shouldn’t come as a surprise because as I mentioned earlier the footprint of terrorism on US has really been a minor one, as compared to other countries. So in a way there really is no cause for alarm since there really never was a fire, well not at least as big as one made out to be.

So in all a lot of pundits may cajole people into thinking that America needs to worry about how the world thinks about us and one must just switch channels. American companies are still selling a lot of goods in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and China (yes –selling) and will continue to do so as long as they stay away from drawing cartoons about Muhammad.

All is hunky dory but still the world is in midst of conflict. It may be the natural state of world, the uncivilized freedom-hating barbarians, or the chaos may have been financed by US; it doesn’t really matter. Except if Americans are willing to answer the moral question. As luck would have it, they have answered that too. Americans will tell you that they have all along been waging a moral war – from Ho-Chi-Minh to Baghdad and if the world doesn’t want to become free – well too bad. Whether Americans have arrived at the right answer is immaterial for whatever the answer, they will continue to thrive.


Walmart trips on ‘Young’ one’s words

18 Aug

“In the Sentinel interview, Young was asked about whether he was concerned Wal-Mart causes smaller, mom-and-pop stores to close.

“Well, I think they should; they ran the `mom and pop’ stores out of my neighborhood,” the paper quoted Young as saying. “But you see, those are the people who have been overcharging us, selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it’s Arabs; very few black people own these stores.”

Washington Post

Andrew Young, respected civil rights leader, was hired expressly to improve Walmart’s public image.

Brand power: Are consumers in charge now?

10 Aug

“Not long ago, the value of a company consisted largely of its “book value”: physical assets such as factories and equipment plus money in the bank. But today book value accounts for only about a third of the stock market capitalization of the top 150 U.S. companies, down from three-quarters two decades ago. In the new economy, corporate value lies in intangible assets: patents, databases, know-how — and brands,” notes Sebastian Mallaby in his latest column for the Washington Post, A New Brand of Power.

As the importance of brand to a company’s bottom-line has grown, so has the money spent to market the brand. Today companies spend millions of dollars to market to you what kind of cereal is cool to eat and what kind of footwear is “in”. The reliance on marketing (or information control) has provided an unexpected chink in the armor of the behemoths. “As brands have grown bigger, they have also grown more vulnerable,” notes Mallaby. The vulnerability stems from two sources – aware consumers and the distributed nature of the Internet. Consumer awareness, generally limited to certain brands and causes and primarily propelled by NGOs like GreenPeace etc., has put pressure on corporations to reform their practices – e.g. Nike paying its sweat shop employees better or McDonald’s, the erstwhile king of transfat, introducing a line of salads. The other, and by far more challenging problem comes from the distributed information architecture of the Internet that makes it all but virtually impossible to control information, a vital need for brands. As the recent fiasco of AOL, in which a recorded phone conversation with an aggressive sales rep. was released on the Internet, has shown brands are increasingly vulnerable.

A horde of economists and analysts have said that this is a virtually un-pluggable hole and hence committed activists and distraught consumers can launch successful action against brands. Unfortunately, this positive prognosis of the growing influence of consumer power doesn’t always hold true. Yes, the Internet is distributed but users still rely on a very narrow range of websites for their daily information. If the recent mergers and acquisitions on the internet are any indication, the future of the Internet looks a lot more like the current media environment. It may very well be so that the little openness we saw while the conglomerates hesitated to join the Internet bandwagon may just be a small window that will shut down as the media agglomeration gathers pace. More importantly, the channels through which Internet is run is almost all owned by large conglomerates that may change the way information is delivered as in the two-speed Internet where corporate content is prioritized while “some websites” can only be accessible via a special fee, much like cable. The other damning piece to this is that today companies can easily build successful “underground” Internet marketing campaigns by buying ad space on blogs, sponsoring bloggers and starting up their own sites and blogs to funnel propaganda.

The analysts also seem to underestimate the corporation’s ability to spin given their vast resources. For example, “BP” has gone “beyond petroleum” without ever quitting petroleum and McDonald’s is selling salads with dressings that lace them with more calories than some of their sandwiches. Add to this the fact that corporate marketing departments are perfectly positioned to take advantages of the rapid advances in our understanding of cognitive science that are coming our way. And with rapid advances in IT, that allow data mining and cognitive science, they will have a far better understanding of each of us.

Lastly, it is important to realize that information rarely translates into action. A lot of people in this country know that eating fatty food is bad for health and yet they consume it in ever increasing amounts. And thats why consumer awareness hasn’t always translated into consumer action. We all want sweat shop labor to stop but then “Walmart is just to close by” or “the prices so cheap” or “I don’t want to think about it”. Billions of dollars rides on consumer apathy and millions are spent to keep the consumer apathetic. So it is no wonder that consumer chooses against his/her conscience or health. This, unfortunately, is the biggest spanner in the sunny optimism of the brand power enthusiasts. The future doesn’t look bright.

Muslim issues, humanitarian issues

4 Aug

The latest Lebanese crisis [I cringe at using the word crisis for it seems news organizations use it all too frequently to condense all human suffering and all other news into this pointless pithy] has been covered in the Arab media as a predominantly Muslim affair where a Jewish state is attacking Muslims. While the thrust of the statement remains true, the fact of the matter is that what is happening in Lebanon is a humanitarian crisis, a human tragedy if you will and has little or nothing to do with people there being Muslims or non-Muslims. The portrayal is all the more bankrupt given the fact that Lebanon has about 40% Christian population. Kashmir, Chechnya, Palestine, Lebanon or Bosnia are and should be treated as humanitarian crisis and not as Muslim crisis by the Arab media. There is a subtext in all the coverage in the Arab media that a Saudi resident or an Arab should feel more about the Lebanese than say someone sitting in EU. There is subtle and not to subtle racism that accentuates the us vs. them schism that has opened up between the world and Islam as a whole. There are mitigating reasons that are offered including the fact that Arab press is deliberately framing it as a Muslim issue to demand action from their ostensibly Muslim governments but then again I think it is giving too much credit to the Arab media for this deep rooted problem that finds its face in all major Muslim media from Indonesia to Pakistan.

Of course the Western media can’t go scot-free either. Western media outlets eager to portray Hezbollah as a Shiite militia backed by Iran and eager to portray Lebanese as a bunch of ‘enemy terrorists’ have overlooked the fact that “Hezbollah is principally neither a political party nor an Islamist militia. It is a broad movement that evolved in reaction to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982” NY Times

Roger Pape, in his NY Times op-ed piece, adds,

“Evidence of the broad nature of Hezbollah’s resistance to Israeli occupation can be seen in the identity of its suicide attackers. Hezbollah conducted a broad campaign of suicide bombings against American, French and Israeli targets from 1982 to 1986. Altogether, these attacks — which included the infamous bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983 — involved 41 suicide terrorists.

In writing my book on suicide attackers, I had researchers scour Lebanese sources to collect martyr videos, pictures and testimonials and the biographies of the Hezbollah bombers. Of the 41, we identified the names, birth places and other personal data for 38. Shockingly, only eight were Islamic fundamentalists. Twenty-seven were from leftist political groups like the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union. Three were Christians, including a female high-school teacher with a college degree. All were born in Lebanon.”

Urban Landscapes: The coming inertness

3 Aug

Modern architecture with its heavy use of bleached wood, glass and aluminum has robbed countless buildings of charm and turned entire buildings into soulless boxes where people only have a tentative relationship with the environment.

Architecture has a huge impact on the way people interact with their surroundings. The severity of the lines, soulless glass vistas all together reflect a sense of oppressiveness detachment, making one feel lonelier and almost afraid of interacting with the environment. The sense one gets at being in the building is that of the powerlessness and of the fact that the environment is controlled by same faceless czar. This dehumanizing architecture today has become the most felicitated form of architecture and countless new architects use concrete, glass and aluminum to carve out a new form of social death every day.

When I look at buildings today, I can’t imagine how these buildings will age. It is hard to imagine that the building is even inhabited by people today and that these people have personalities and that the building will allow space so that people can leave an imprint of their personalities on them. The little poster boards on which people will stick their family photos in these vacuous orifices are dwarfed and overwhelmed by the almost too bright sunlight shining on the aluminum bar through the glass wall.

These inert architectural spaces are here for a reason and that the rapid commercialization of the social spaces. When you come to really think of it – where do we interact now with people – in malls and in movie theaters and restaurants. The public, non-commercial physical space in which we can interact with other people is rapidly coming to an end. We must reclaim our space before it overwhelms us.

Roger Cohen of the New York Times –Paris vs. Havana; 2008/12/08

“But squalor connects. When you clean, when you favor hermetic sealing in the name of safety, you also disconnect people from one another. When on top of that you add layers of solipsistic technology, the isolation intensifies. In its preserved Gallic disguise, Paris is today no less a globalized city than New York.”

Reforming the college application process

1 Aug

College application process in US is now overrun by blatant self-serving marketing and cronyism. We must reform the application process if we need to change the way students look at education.

Graduate application process:

While US based schools uniformly ask for a “Statement of Purpose” and occasionally a personal biography so as to mention things which “may not have been covered otherwise”, UK based schools like LSE only ask for a formal thesis proposal from their Ph.D. applicants. The subjectivity introduced by essays like the “Statement of Purpose” gives the admissions committee enough elbow room to fit in candidates whose backgrounds may otherwise be suspect. LSE’s demands only a formal thesis proposal, which includes research design and bibliography, and gives a better understanding of a student’s intellectual ability to handle research than say 3-4 pages of carefully crafted spiel to please the head honcho of the department or to whomever holds the key to your admission.

On to undergraduate application process:

Today an application to a top-echelon school passes through many rounds of editing before it reaches the desk of the admissions officer. There are numerous websites and books dedicated to the craft of writing a successful admissions essay. The key to a successful admissions essay is to have “an angle” around which you weave your life story and tell the admissions officer why your life has led you to ‘this’ particular program at this college. Of course the logic and events are sham or nip-tucked to give them the exaggerated appearance that is needed for the storyline. The sham stories, I believe, give admissions officers a poor idea of student’s interests and capabilities especially because they can so easily be spun around to sound and say what is wanted. In writing dishonest essays students also fail to analyze if they really want to join a particular school or a program. Still by far the more insidious effect of the growing importance of the extra-curricular activities in the college application process is that today high-school students are hustling to get into multiple extra curricular activities at the expense of studying. It may also be argued that the admissions essays unfairly favor the rich students who can carefully tend to the admissions essay with the help of online services. Let me actually refine my statement – I think the admissions essays reward the ‘hustlers’, and not the people with the best academic records. It is this thing, which is in fact unique to US, that it rewards entrepreneurship and salesmanship over scholarship.


Application process at undergraduate level should highlight the importance of academic achievement in schools and pay little or scant attention to frivolities like admission essays.

Annan finds his voice as end of term nears

26 Jul

Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, recently seems to have found his voice. His not-so-oblique statement calling Israeli air strike that led to the death of four UN peace keepers “apparently deliberate” was probably one of the most blunt statement of his tenure. Of course the evidence is damning,

“17 Israeli bombs fell within one kilometer, or .6 miles, of the post during the day, the initial U.N. investigation found. In addition, 12 Israeli artillery rounds landed within 150 meters of the post, four of them hitting it directly.”

[ Washington Post]

But then again Annan has shied away from ascribing ulterior motives to America’s favorite ally in the past. The thing that appears to have changed is the fact that now Annan is near the end of his second term and finally free of renomination worries.

Annan over the past five years has led a largely neutered UN. In fact post 9/11, UN has seemed like an organization sitting outside the door with a hang dog expression waiting for the master to finish up his job inside and come outside and pet it.

Now apparently trying to make the most of his position in the last few days, Annan has taken upon himself to issue a verbal rebukes about the many annoyances of leading a largely pointless organization with little credibility. Annan has chosen to vent his feelings through the media in almost a school boy fashion complaining to anybody who will hear.

Truth is that he squandered away his decade at the UN when he could have accomplished something more than aside from being America’s lapdog.

What now: After the bomb blasts

12 Jul

Nearly 200 people lost their lives in the serial bomb blasts in India’s financial capital of Mumbai. The number is insignificant in a country of a billion, but deliberate planned massacres have this cruel meaninglessness to them that rile up the hearts of even the stoics.

The immediate Indian response to the blasts has been muted as the government has refused to pin down the attack on Pakistan supported (or at least based) militant groups before corroborating evidence documenting such comes to the fore, against the norm. The response has been markedly different from the theatrical over-the-top response of the BJP led government, which deployed troops at the border after the attack on the Indian parliament.

The muted response comes amidst strong pressure on Indian government to take ’strong measures’. While a casual observer may take this to be a sign of pussyfooting, there is a pragmatic rationale behind toning down the response – the elbow room that India has when it comes to Pakistan is very limited given that outright conventional war is not an option and that hostile rhetoric will only play into the hands of right-wing elements in Pakistan. The argument in more abstract terms can be understood as follows – Negotiation without leverage is a failed enterprise; and any efforts to create leverage through hostile rhetoric are likely to backfire.

Pakistan government’s negotiating stance is likely to be governed by the fact that working with India to dismantle terrorist infrastructure is likely to be reasonably costly, given it is likely to be destabilizing in the short term, and politically costly given efforts are going to seen as towing the line of India. For Indian government, incentives to use this “opportunity” to address some of the issues at the root of the conflict – if not terrorist attacks – is likely to be non-existent given the following – any latent or explicit demands made by people conducting terrorist attacks are automatically seen as lacking legitimacy, sources and explanations of terrorism are seen to be external, and any attempt to deal with demands of terrorists is likely to provoke a backlash.

What is clear is that problem understood thus is likely to thwart dealing with issues that are likely to be rewarding in the longer-term. Both Pakistan and India would clearly benefit from not hiding behind temporary exigencies, and dealing with problems head on. In the long term Pakistan would benefit from tackling the terrorist infrastructure, though it may lose some leverage in Kashmir, which is probably fine. Similarly, India would likely gain by addressing Kashmir which will likely strengthen the hands of moderates in Pakistan. Political entrepreneurship can do much to reframe the problem. After all, considerable entrepreneurship (pandering) is behind the current understanding of the problem as a zero-sum game.

He said, She said

11 Jul

New York Times in its article on Mumbai blasts and Kashmir Grenade attacks, ended the story with the following, “New Delhi has continued to accuse Pakistan of training, arming and funding the militants. Islamabad insists it only offers the rebels diplomatic and moral support.”

It is amazing to see that a simple relatively incontestable fact that Islamabad arms and trains militants is hedged by words like “accuses” and the ‘accusation’ followed by a rebuttal by Pakistani Government. There is absolutely no doubt – and this comes from reports from numerous non-partisan experts and numerous stories from Pakistani, BBC and other creditable international journalists that Pakistan engages in all of these practices. This form of equivocation which borders on he said/she said kind of journalism in which even the most basic facts are shown as contestable do a great disservice.

‘Objectivity’ doesn’t imply (and certainly doesn’t demand) equivocation, or getting government hacks on either side to comment on issues. Compare this instance to how reporting is done say on 9/11, where the press doesn’t go out of its way to highlight ludicrous claims made by the opposition. And rightly so.