Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Obama’s Global War on Terror

“Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them. Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.” 
Rabindranath Tagore 

There is much about Obama’s leadership or lack thereof that I remain critical of; by no means am I a fan. In fact, in my eyes he has thus far failed the test of leadership, feeling more like an erudite college professor and less like leader of the Western world. Given his predecessor's shoot from the hip mentality and the unmitigated disasters that followed, it was clear when Obama took office that America’s moral high ground, diplomatic clout and financial muscle were all in shreds. It was not so much that America was no longer a global superpower, but that the world had changed dramatically while America seemed to have moved backwards. America seemed to have lost its way with two messy long wars and the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression. She felt rudderless, leaderless and isolated on the world stage. By this time it was also clear that the overthrow of Saddam had no relevance in fighting the war on terrorism and had made the world a less safe place. However, one thing Bush was right about is that there was a global war on terrorism; and every nation needed to get involved. But Bush was incapable of leading the world and bringing them on board to fight this common threat, instead choosing to distract and further divide the world with an unnecessary war and with his 'my way or the highway' attitude.

Obama has been called an apologist because after he was elected he chose to show a softer and more cerebral side of American foreign policy. Being the only President who has actually lived abroad, perhaps he uniquely understood that the need of the hour was to apologize for America’s many misguided foreign policy endeavors, especially in the Muslim world. However, what he did not seem to grasp is that apologies alone would not rid us of the real evil we are facing. In trying to contrast his legacy from his war-mongering predecessor, he also went too far in the other direction, choosing to lead from the back. He failed to understand that America still needs to lead, and that pushing allies to take the lead is not the same thing. It has taken him a while to understand that you cannot right the wrongs of the past; you can only chart a course for the future that avoids the same failed policies and pitfalls. So instead of a wiser, nobler and morally stronger America he has until now offered an awkward, embarrassed and trepidatious America. Syria is a case in point where, while right to not intervene at the outset and not unilaterally, he should have acted once Assad crossed his own “red line.” America setting an ultimatum and then failing to act sets a very dangerous precedent.

It is the rapid rise of ISIL that has finally woken Obama up to the fact that war, while still a last resort, is going to be necessary. I believe he will not make the same mistakes that Bush did in America’s last global war on terror. Obama understands two things that his predecessor was unable to grasp. First, in the 21st century America is no longer the unequivocal superpower with the economic might it once had, to go it alone, and expect the rest of the world to fall in line based on diplomatic pressure or threats to cut US aid. Today there are many nations who can play benefactor and use their own cheque books to help countries resist US will. Second, he understands that no country can bestow democracy upon another, and especially not through a military invasion. The people of that country must be willing to fight and die for their freedom, much like they did in India, South Africa and will in Tunisia and Egypt in the years to come. All American military intervention can achieve, like it did in Iraq, is to put a temporary Band-Aid on a dangerous power vacuum that it leaves behind. To this end, he is aware that almost all the countries in the Middle East are run by dictators (many supported, armed and propped up by America). These countries have no civil institutions, public infrastructure or independent judiciaries that are the necessary bedrocks of democracy and take generations to build.

Even today Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are the largest financiers (some state funded but mostly by private individuals and religious institutions) and potent breeding ground for terrorists. The fact is that all these countries have brutal and oppressive regimes with no press, religious or personal freedoms. In all three countries, successive US administrations have supported dictators, giving them carte blanche and billions in military aid. So it is not hard to imagine why the average person on the street does not feel thankful to the American people for their generosity – and is it any wonder that they produce the largest number of terrorist recruits? Obama is acutely aware that this type of US intervention, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, has failed miserably. So instead of choosing to apply the definition of insanity, he decided to stay on the sidelines in Egypt, Syria and most of the other North African internal conflicts. If Obama attacked Syria with the aim of removing Assad (not the same as punishing him for crossing the red line) we would likely have ended up with a messier Iraq, with the same sectarian strife, or at best an American puppet administration which would have been more hated than Assad.

Obama’s strategy to use US military support as a bargaining tool to get rid of Nouri Al-Maliki, and replace him with a unity government in Iraq, was absolutely correct. Whether this new government will succeed or not is hard to say, but it certainly has a much greater chance based purely on the proportional representation it now has from all three sects. More importantly, by doing this Obama took away the most potent recruiting tool ISIS had - discontent Iraqi Sunnis.  Al-Maliki had been systematically removing Sunni’s and replacing them with incompetent cronies in an effort to create a Shiite dominated Iraq. Now, with US air and military support, the new unity government has actually re-enlisted the same disillusioned army men who ran at the first sign of trouble from Sunni dominated Mosul, and a strong Kurd army is fighting to save a unified Iraq and not just defending Kurdish territory.

So while there is no doubt Obama badly fumbled and delayed in leading this fight, now that he is in it, he has also shown a shrewd understanding of the region by getting support of the most important allies he needs to fight this war. The US-led coalition launched with active participation from the militaries of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE and Bahrain, as well as publicly stated support from the governments in Oman, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon and Qatar. So far the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands and Belgium have also contributed fighter jets and other allies are lining up to offer everything from training to equipment. In contrast, when Bush and Cheney rushed into Iraq there was a sum total of four countries in their collation that had active military involvement. The US with 148,000 and the UK with 45,000 troops provided the lion’s share. Australia contributed 2,000 and Poland 194 soldiers (Source: Wikipedia). Not a single Arab nation sent troops and no other major European or Asian power was involved. In fact, America's oldest allies like France, Germany, and New Zealand were strongly opposed to the Iraq invasion.

This is the fundamental difference in Obama’s global war on terror. Obama understands not only that America must lead this fight, but also that unless America can get the Arab and Muslim world to recognise the threat posed by this cancer and actively participate in it we cannot win this war. The only question that remains is whether Obama will have the resolve to send in US and Arab ground troops that will no doubt be needed to finally defeat this enemy and finish the military aspect of this war.

NOTE:  This article was updated on 9th October, 2014.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Indian Pride and Acche Din


“The time has come to think seriously about whether we have a national character or not,” Today, unfortunately, the atmosphere is that if you go to anybody for work, that person will immediately ask, ‘What is in this for me?’ When he learns that there is nothing for him, he will say, ‘Why should I?”
Narendra Modi 

My father always told me that there is no substitute for good honest hard work. He used to say that what you do is much less important than how you do it. Whether you are mopping a floor or finding a cure for cancer, do your job to the best of your abilities and take pride in doing it. What happened to the work ethic of our fathers and grandfathers? Why do Indians today seem to lack pride in everything we do, including being Indian?

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we all grew up during the license Raj, when graft was just as much a part of our daily routine as brushing our teeth. The postman wanted his baksheesh to deliver our letters, the garbage man to take out the trash, the policeman to file a complaint, and the politician for doing absolutely nothing other than being elected to office. It seemed nobody wanted to do his job, just to sit back and collect money from the same taxpayer who was paying his salary. We could not renew our passports without bribing someone or having a connection high up in the bureaucracy. We could pass our driving test but not be issued a license unless we were willing to grease a palm. In fact, we had to bribe someone for virtually every basic right we had as citizens of the world’s largest democracy; for our water, electricity, to pass through toll booths, to get a telephone line and even to park our car in a free public parking lot.

After we got rid of the license Raj, ushering in an era of liberalisation, instead of ridding us of the disease of graft, we may have just spread it further afield. Today, it has been extended into a willingness to use money as a means to get ahead in every aspect of life. We seem to have become content using our increasing disposable income to willingly pay people to help us cut queues, get our kids into school, to avoid penalties for wrongdoing, and even to help us escape the clutches of the law, after we have knowingly and brazenly broken it. Is this what we want to accomplish with our growing economic prosperity: the ability to buy people and cut corners without earning anything rightfully or on merit? We seem to have become a society of rule breakers for those with means and money, content to apply a different set of rules for those without.  As our new Prime Minister stated in his Independence Day speech, the only thing a growing majority of people seem to care about is what’s in it for them. It has reached a point where people are not willing to perform their paid obligations or help their fellow Indians in need, unless they are incentivized in some way. We call ourselves a democratic society, yet how many times have citizens been assaulted and told that it is better not to go to the police or that it would be wiser to buy justice? I even know of a well-respected surgeon in Bombay who decided to negotiate the amount he would be paid in “cash” (or black money) before allowing the patient to be wheeled into the operating theater for the life-saving surgery he was about to perform. It seems neither education nor upbringing have any effect on this mentality of pure and unadulterated greed. We have become a society that never cares to ask what we can do for our fellow man, woman or country.

Yet, every Indian likes to talk about India becoming a global super power. We yearn for respect on the world stage, and want to stand shoulder to shoulder with America, but we do not feel ashamed to pee on the street or outraged by the fact that 60% of Indians still defecate in the open due to lack of toilets. Nor do we seem embarrassed by the fact that our flyovers and highways, many built a mere decade ago, are already crumbling (or are yet to be completed). It took us almost as long as we have been an independent nation to build one sea-link in traffic-congested Bombay; however we were content talking about building it for more than fifty years. We love to talk, but when it comes to action we don’t seem to care about following through or doing it with pride. The great irony in all this is that this seeming apathy has nothing to do with our lack of talent or smarts. When we put our minds to it and our country first, we can build on time and under budget the world’s best and most advanced underground metro in New Delhi and a smart airport terminal in Bombay. A terminal on the strength of which Bombay (the only Indian city) has made the recently released A-list on National Geographic's list of "smart cities," across the world.  What’s more, people all over the world marvel at the work ethic, brilliance and innovation of Indian immigrants. From high-tech and engineering to the arts and the corporate world, Indians excel in virtually every field that we compete in. Indian immigrants who left India with nothing now own the majority of homes in the affluent suburbs of North London, and rule the boardrooms of Silicon Valley. There was a time when Indians left due to the lack of opportunities within India. This is also no longer true. In fact, India today is one of the greatest lands of opportunity and potential in the world and more attractive than China because we have a stable government and democratic systems that work (for the most part) - so why are we seemingly still unable to unleash this potential we have on paper and fulfill our destiny on the world stage? At the moment it seems like the more we liberalise and open up our economy, the more we seem to encourage a society where the shortest, fastest and least honest and hardworking path to success seems to be the correct one. Success is measured almost entirely by the increased number of zeroes in our personal bank account. What would happen if we spent one decade giving back to our country and helping everyone grow?

I am proud to be an Indian. I am prouder yet to be part of a civilization whose origins date to before Christianity; but that is the past. I want to be proud of our present and future through tangible successes, not just words and chest beating. I want to be proud of the great public institutions we build, of world-beating product innovations and brands we create, of our indigenous missile defense systems that become the envy of the world. I want to be proud of our space program and 23rd century urban infrastructure and transportation systems. I want footpaths in every city, toilets in every home, educational institutions that rival Harvard and Cambridge, attracting the brightest and best student minds from every corner of the globe. I want clean city streets and paved rural roads. I want teachers and parents to once again instill a civic sense and pride in the next generation of children. I want us to take pride in what we can accomplish, collectively as a nation, if each of us were to put his mind to it, point his heart in the right direction. If we can see put aside just a small amount of our selfish needs and desires and think for a moment about how we can contribute to building a better, stronger and more developed India, then we will all see Acche Din...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Value of Privacy

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

There has been much furor and attention in the news regarding the NSA’s blatant overreach and invasion of privacy but the reality is that the manner in which the private sector has been invading our personal lives is far more intrusive and concerning. What’s more, nobody really knows how much is actually being collected, which companies are doing the collecting or the methods they are using. In this regard the internet remains the Wild West. In the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, “A digital Magna Carta is required if we are to stand any chance of halting the Internet’s steady infringement of our right to privacy.” What is scarier is that the information being collected, on each of us, is also being compiled and sold to third parties without our knowledge or consent. 

For many years we were assured that the information we shared via online searches, sites we visited and ads we clicked was being collected and stored in a non-personally identifiable manner. And that it was being collected with the intention of improving our online experiences and adding a greater degree of personalisation for marketing to us. It turns out that this is far from the truth. Today, there are numerous companies compiling dossiers on us; gleaned not only from our online behaviours and habits, but then supplemented with information from the real world. Frighteningly, these dossiers are not anonymous. They identify us by name and contain comprehensive profiles that include everything from political and religious affiliations to medical and criminal histories to shopping and surfing habits. These dossiers are being openly sold to everyone from prospective employers and research companies, to marketers and financial institutions. Watch 60 Minutes report: “The Data Brokers” 

The argument used by marketing companies, internet firms and these so called data brokers, to defend this gross invasion of privacy, is to say that anything we disclose on the internet (as well as data that exists in the public domain) should be considered fair game. They argue that people are fully aware of the information they are sharing online, doing so willingly, and free to read the terms and conditions on each website about how their data is being handled. In their estimation, consumers are willingly parting with all this personal information. They further contend that the internet is a marketing medium, so people need to accept that information gleaned off it can and will be used not only to personalize experiences, but also to better advertise and market to us. Based on this flimsy argument they also staunchly believe that there is no need for government regulation to prevent anyone willing to pay money to know more about us, than a spouse or parent ever would. Then there are those who argue that if we have nothing to hide, why should we be concerned?  They ask why we care if every term we search, product we buy, page we visit, prescription we fill and gift we send is tracked by companies or sold on to third parties. To me this is a totally false argument because an individual’s right to privacy has nothing to do with having something to hide. Everyone has a reasonable expectation to privacy in a democratic society. It is a fundamental right. 

Think about a really simple analogy in the real world. Imagine you walk out of your house to run some errands on a beautiful Saturday morning. You stop at Starbucks on the corner for a latte and doughnut. Next you cross the street to go over to the pharmacy to pick up the prescriptions your doctor called in. The pharmacist asks you to verify your home address. On your way home you decide to run a few more errands. First, you stop at another drugstore to talk to their pharmacist about recommending something for a nasty rash you have on your inner thigh (Note: you choose not to ask your regular pharmacist who knows your whole family by name, because you are feeling embarrassed and not because you have something to hide). Then it’s a stop at the local grocery store, where you use some email coupons on your phone. You then make a quick stop at the wine store to pick up a nice bottle of wine for yourself and a few bottles of bubbly for the party you are attending this weekend. You spend some time browsing at your favourite local boutique, on your way to the final stop at the dry cleaner. The clerk at the dry cleaner asks for your home phone number to look up your account. Arguably, you have been in what can be described as the 'public domain' while running all your errands. Much like if you had stayed home and transacted entirely on the internet. In both cases, you were required to divulge and share various bits of personal and private information, including your home address, phone number, medical history and credit card information in order to complete your transactions. 

Now imagine that you are running through the same schedule, except that from the moment you leave your home, you have a dozen random strangers physically following you around and secretly take down all the little bits of information you are legitimately required to and willing to divulge along the way. These strangers would be doing this without your prior consent or knowledge. These shadowy figures are simply leaning in closer as you give the pharmacist your insurance information and prescription list, or peering over your shoulder to look at your grocery cart, trying to determine if you are gluten intolerant. In fact, they are keeping track of everything you say, see and do. Now imagine that these strangers follow you around every day for months or even years collecting, storing and then combining this data with every other bit of information they can find from public records. They include your past employers, home addresses, credit history, political and charitable donations, etc. and then they put it all together to create a file on you that they can legally sell to any third party willing to pay for it.  

These exact dossiers compiled by data brokers are now being used by many financial institutions to gauge your 'social' ranking and credit-worthiness, based on who your Facebook friends are. Such compilations are even being used by prospective employers to determine your character. This gross violation of trust is actually happening today, completely in the shadows and without our consent. I understand that technology has reshaped our lives in many ways and with these conveniences there is a reasonable and necessary loss of privacy. With this I don’t believe anyone has an issue. However, to say that if we are bothered by the extent to which we have lost control over our private information, and the solution is to simply stop using the internet or sharing personal information on it (which is impossible) – it is akin to saying we should not leave the house if we are worried about getting mugged. It is a totally nonsensical argument and an unrealistic expectation in a world that has become completely dependent on technology. The point is not to have zero, or even total, privacy, but that information gathering should not be done surreptitiously. It should be conducted in a way that clearly informs us, gives us the choice to participate or not, and allows us to limit the amount of information we are willing to share.

It is an absolute right to expect privacy and be aware of how our information is being used and by whom; especially when sharing information in a specific situation for a very specific purpose, e.g. at a pharmacy to get a prescription filled. It is not unreasonable to expect that the same pharmacy will never share this information or start to combine it with other habits, behaviours, etc. and then sell the information to a third party. Equally, it would be ludicrous to try to regulate the entire internet by creating even more complex and detailed privacy laws that cover every possible situation or transaction; not to mention trying to do this globally in some uniform way. 

The solution is to make the whole process completely transparent and allow people to make the choices regarding information they are willing to share. Make it simple and clear about how and for what purpose our information will be used on every site. For example, if you shop on Amazon. then the baseline should be that this site alone would have access to only the most basic information required (name, address, credit card) for someone to complete a transaction; and this information would never be shared or sold to a third party without our prior consent. Amazon should also allow us to delete personal browsing and shopping history, if I choose not to save it or be marketed to more accurately. Further, Amazon could build incentives for people who are willing to share more of their shopping history, or even more detailed information about themselves, their habits and behaviours; even around the rest of the web. The same should hold true for tracking companies; they too can create incentives for people willing to sign up and give them permission to follow them across the web, on their mobile phones, etc. 

Finally, every company that sells and profits off individual data should also share that revenue with the individual; creating a sort of human-information exchange. However, the default on the web and every site should always be that people are opted out and not the other way around, as it is today.