February 13 - 19
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for February 13 through 19!
The Dispatch this week is shorter than normal - surprisingly few stories bubbled up, though I’m pleased to say there’s news from Syria, including a link to an excellent interview about the opposition movement.
Let’s get started!
On Monday, a bomb severely wounded an Israeli diplomat in India, and another was discovered attached to an Israeli car in the Eastern European country of Georgia. Another bombing was thwarted in Thailand when one of the bombs detonated prematurely, injuring one bomber, now in custody. The Israeli government claimed Iran was behind the attacks.
Three nearly simultaneous attack attempts in three different countries across the world, targeting Israeli citizens, using the same “sticky bombs” Iran accused Israel of using on its nuclear scientists: it’s hard to conclude this was anything but a message to Israel. Iran has shown it has global reach and it’s not afraid to target Israeli citizens should Israel attack. The other message is that Iran isn’t nearly as good as Mossad yet: not a single person was actually killed in the attacks.
The Guardian’s Middle East editor Ian Black wrote an excellent piece this week about the true danger posed by Iran; I highly recommend a read.
The UN General Assembly voted for a resolution of disapproval against the Syrian government over its continued crackdown, a largely symbolic move. On Thursday, the head of NATO declared that, even with UN support, NATO would not intervene in Syria, stating that the situation on the ground was too complicated for NATO to take action. This assessment was buttressed by US officials’ statements linking al Qaeda to the bombings in Aleppo last week. On Saturday, anti-government protestors marched in Mezze, a middle-class neighborhood in Damascus that sits near the Presidential palace.
The marches in Damascus are a very good sign. Protests in Mezze imply a larger, more stable, and more widely supported movement than what we’ve seen already.
Al Jazeera published two Q&A sessions with a reporter who’s been on the ground in Syria over the last few months. If you’re interested in the Syrian situation, these are a must-read: by far the best, most well-rounded reports I’ve seen about the Syrian uprising. Part One - Part Two
After a day of rioting in Athens in response to Greece’s latest austerity measures, Eurozone finance ministers indicated Greece would have to wait to find out whether the measures were sufficient to secure the loans they desperately need to avoid default. By Thursday, word spread that Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, was pressing to let Greece default.
Schäuble isn’t the only EU minister pushing for a Greek default, though he may be the only one in a position to make it happen. If the Greeks don’t get the bailout money and are forced into default on top of the austerity measures they just passed, expect things to get very ugly in Greece very fast. Unfortunately, the math doesn’t work an awful lot better for many of the other members of the EuroZone. The EU continues to press fiscal austerity upon its members, an affront to national sovereignty that isn’t playing well anywhere outside Germany.
The Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, largely expected to be the next President, visited the US this week, meeting with both lawmakers and citizens across the country.
Xi was notable for his openness and charm, a striking contrast to current president Hu Jintao. This may lead to better communication between the US and China, but it’s unlikely to change the relationship much: China and the US have a relationship built on shared interests and mutual respect. Despite the image promoted by both the media and some politicians, the two nations are surprisingly close already, if not in agreement on all issues.
President Obama unveiled his budget proposal for 2013 this week. The plan contains both tax increases on the wealthy and plans to boost infrastructure spending.
Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate Republicans, called the budget a “campaign document,” and he’s not off the mark: the budget expresses many of the same themes Obama pushed in the State of the Union and other recent speeches. That said, it’s a good move in a direction that many Obama supporters wish he’d gone much sooner.
The House and Senate passed an extension of the payroll tax cut in a surprisingly bipartisan vote that gave quite a few victories to the Democrats.
This was a rare victory for the Democrats: the extension got passed without accompanying cuts, without cutting insurance, without giving almost anything up at all. The Republicans’ claim to victory is that the Democrats can no longer use this as an election year issue; it takes a lot of effort to call that a silver lining.
A federal law passed this week requires the FAA to create new guidelines allowing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles by both fire and law enforcement groups and by commercial entities. The guidelines for emergency services must be finalized within 30 days; commercial groups should be covered by September of 2015.
Drones have the potential to be one of the most disruptive of the new technologies emerging in the 21st century. The US Army has shown their effectiveness as a force multiplier abroad, and their combination of low cost and high utility bring a suite of capabilities into the hands of the average individual previously restricted to militaries and government agencies. In the hands of law enforcement agencies, drones may help prevent crime and keep officers out of harm’s way, but the same drones can be used by criminal groups to collect intelligence on police movements or border security, and weaponizing a drone can be as easy as attaching some explosives and a remote detonator. As prices get lower (the Parrot drone is down to $300 now) and capabilities expand, drones will become a game-changing technology.
In forming our opinions of the world around us, we must always be wary of biased and incomplete information. Recently, the coverage in Syria and Iran have been particularly difficult to navigate. In Syria, until the Al Jazeera interviews mentioned above, it was extremely difficult to find credible accounts of the opposition. Western news sources were almost pollyannaish in their coverage, but that didn’t square with events on the ground, and much of the reports critical of the opposition were of questionable veracity. The same problem has dogged coverage of Iran: much of the media coverage has hewed to a narrative that tacitly endorses the Israeli view of Iran. Again, though, this is a hard narrative to swallow. Most of the Iranian rhetoric has been around national security and sovereignty, and even a cursory look at their history would affirm Iran’s fears in that regard. The Guardian’s editorial is one of a few pieces I’ve seen recently that acknowledges what recent events ought to have made clear about the size of the threat posed by Iran; in the meantime the good money is on the US and Israel attacking Iran sometime this year based largely on the reported Iranian threat.
The problem is that even when a news source intends to promote a balanced view, both the writing process and the editing process are editorial in nature. Every fact that is or isn’t reported, every line that gets cut, every quote used, every word chosen is an editorial decision - and this process can only work from the available information, which suffers its own biases. This makes it difficult, even with outlets that intend to be balanced (such as this one), to find non-biased coverage, and that makes it extremely difficult to form a balanced and well-informed opinion.
I encourage you to read with a critical eye. My golden rule is moderation: If something seems too good, too bad, or too incredible to be true, it normally is. The most reliable fact I’ve found is that people are just about the same everywhere: there’s no such thing as an “other”, and reports claiming such a thing exists deserve a high degree of scrutiny.
Thanks again, and my best for the week ahead! Eric