Commentary Magazine


Topic: Twitter

Human Rights Watch Doesn’t Understand Terrorism

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, is a prolific tweeter. And as with most policymakers, analysts, and activists who expound on Twitter, often their tweets can provide windows into their minds more illuminating than carefully edited essays.

Alas, from this recent tweet, it appears that Roth doesn’t really understand terrorism. He opines, in twitterese, “Abusive #Nigeria army is big part of why we have Boko Haram. Leahy Law key to ensure US aid doesn’t reinforce abuse.” Now, don’t get me wrong: Nigeria is an extraordinarily corrupt country and its army is often dysfunctional. Nor is the Nigerian army by any means a paradigm of human rights.

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Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, is a prolific tweeter. And as with most policymakers, analysts, and activists who expound on Twitter, often their tweets can provide windows into their minds more illuminating than carefully edited essays.

Alas, from this recent tweet, it appears that Roth doesn’t really understand terrorism. He opines, in twitterese, “Abusive #Nigeria army is big part of why we have Boko Haram. Leahy Law key to ensure US aid doesn’t reinforce abuse.” Now, don’t get me wrong: Nigeria is an extraordinarily corrupt country and its army is often dysfunctional. Nor is the Nigerian army by any means a paradigm of human rights.

But even if the Nigerian army is complicit in human rights abuses, Boko Haram doesn’t exist as a protest against the army. It exists because of the influence of Saudi-funded preachers who have for decades sought to introduce radical theological interpretations into Western Africa and elsewhere in the world, some of which have taken root. The speech by Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau, which I have previously written about and in which he justified his kidnapping of the still-missing Nigerian school girls, is quite illuminating. It is at once a rant against Christianity, a call for the re-institution of slavery and what in Shekau’s mind would be a perfect Islamist order, and finally a general condemnation of both democracy and the West.

Too many academics and diplomats—and it seems organizations like Human Rights Watch—prefer to ignore the ideology which underpins Islamist-inspired terrorism and instead see the world through the prism of grievance: That’s comforting, because it deludes its adherents into believing that they can resolve problems like Boko Haram simply by addressing concrete grievances. But it is also foolish and deluded because men like Abubakr Shekau, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Hassan Nasrallah, Ismail Haniyeh, and Ali Khamenei put their own narrow, extreme, and radical religious ideology above all else. They welcome concessions or incentives simply because it makes their fight easier, but they will never embrace their hateful doctrines. When it comes to Boko Haram and other Islamist terrorist groups, it is disappointing that men like Kenneth Roth and Human Rights Watch, the organization he represents, still ignore ideology and seem to believe that the fault lies more with the men and women putting their lives on the line to fight terrorism.   

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Why Do Diplomats Tweet?

Whatever one’s opinion of Obama administration policies—and even on these pages there are different assessments—it is clear that President Obama and his administration have embraced social media far more than his predecessors.  During the 2012 campaign, journalists noted that Obama had an order of magnitude more Twitter followers than his challenger, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even if those counting deducted the millions of Obama’s fake followers.

Not only does the State Department tweet, but so does John Kerry. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweets constantly, even if at times nonsensically. While it’s all well and good to embrace the new communications tool, the technology is no substitute for substance.

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Whatever one’s opinion of Obama administration policies—and even on these pages there are different assessments—it is clear that President Obama and his administration have embraced social media far more than his predecessors.  During the 2012 campaign, journalists noted that Obama had an order of magnitude more Twitter followers than his challenger, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even if those counting deducted the millions of Obama’s fake followers.

Not only does the State Department tweet, but so does John Kerry. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweets constantly, even if at times nonsensically. While it’s all well and good to embrace the new communications tool, the technology is no substitute for substance.

Last month, the Public Diplomacy Council published an insightful interview with Laurence Pope, an experienced diplomat with long service in the Middle East. Pope was asked a long-overdue question with regard to the State Department’s Twitter outreach:

Q:  The Department has embraced the social media to re-shape public diplomacy and transform American diplomacy.  What contribution can it make?

POPE:  There is nothing wrong with the use of Twitter and Facebook and Zillow and Youtube and all the rest of it, but diplomacy requires speech on behalf of the state, and social media are individual expressions by definition.  This can easily create confusion —think for example of Susan Rice tweeting about the need to bomb Syria while the President was changing his mind about that.  I don’t know how many Facebook pages and Twitter accounts there are at the State Department —hundreds if not thousands.  When individuals speak through them, one of two things are true: either they are expressing American policy, in which case 140 characters is unlikely to be a useful way of doing so, or they aren’t, in which case their views may be interesting, but there is a risk of confusion… The Youtube videos newly minted ambassadors make are downright embarrassing.  They give an impression of proconsular self-regard which is in bad taste.  Diplomacy is premised on a world of sovereign states.  The State Department’s  fascination with social media suggests that it no longer thinks that is the world we live in, a strange notion for a foreign ministry.  

Just as diplomatic correspondents and the secretaries of state they cover err by seeming to conflate miles flown with success, so too does the State Department fail by believing tweets matter. Russian President Vladimir Putin must laugh when, against the backdrop of ordering the invasion of Crimea, he faced little more than a cavalcade of angry tweets from Power. The sad thing is that the State Department now spends millions on public diplomacy, Twitter, and translations of its Twitter feed without once asking what good its Twitter feed does. That is not to deny that outreach can be positive, but it’s silly to spend such money without ever establishing metrics by which to judge Twitter diplomacy—and sillier to treat new communications technology as a substitute for substance.

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When Terrorists Tweet

My 1999 Ph.D. dissertation examined the introduction of the telegraph to 19th century Iran. At first, the Shah supported the telegraph: the wires made the Iranian government more efficient in a time of dwindling resources and power. Over the years, however, the opposition learned what a powerful tool the telegraph could be. The late-19th century was a time of battle for the new technology as both the government and opposition fought for the upper hand. Ultimately, the opposition won: the government lost its communications monopoly and the opposition was able to organize a mass movement culminating in a constitution revolution. There was a financial side to the technology as well: For much of the 19th century, Iran did not use paper money. It had done so once under the Mongols, but that experiment had failed. Caravans carried tons of coin over weeks in order to complete transactions. With the telegraph, however, various agents could complete trades in a matter of hours, with money changing hands not in Tehran but in London and St. Petersburg.

Twitter and other social media tools are the 21st century equivalent of that 19th century technology. They have empowered ordinary citizens in their fight for freedom and liberty against oppressive governments like those in Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Twitter was also a powerful tool, of course, in the Arab Spring protests that led to the ouster of dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Too often, however, Twitter is depicted as a panacea just as the telegraph once was 150 years ago. In the wrong hands Twitter can be used to undercut life and liberty as terrorists embrace the technology to raise funds and solicit support.

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My 1999 Ph.D. dissertation examined the introduction of the telegraph to 19th century Iran. At first, the Shah supported the telegraph: the wires made the Iranian government more efficient in a time of dwindling resources and power. Over the years, however, the opposition learned what a powerful tool the telegraph could be. The late-19th century was a time of battle for the new technology as both the government and opposition fought for the upper hand. Ultimately, the opposition won: the government lost its communications monopoly and the opposition was able to organize a mass movement culminating in a constitution revolution. There was a financial side to the technology as well: For much of the 19th century, Iran did not use paper money. It had done so once under the Mongols, but that experiment had failed. Caravans carried tons of coin over weeks in order to complete transactions. With the telegraph, however, various agents could complete trades in a matter of hours, with money changing hands not in Tehran but in London and St. Petersburg.

Twitter and other social media tools are the 21st century equivalent of that 19th century technology. They have empowered ordinary citizens in their fight for freedom and liberty against oppressive governments like those in Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Twitter was also a powerful tool, of course, in the Arab Spring protests that led to the ouster of dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Too often, however, Twitter is depicted as a panacea just as the telegraph once was 150 years ago. In the wrong hands Twitter can be used to undercut life and liberty as terrorists embrace the technology to raise funds and solicit support.

Alas, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are together showing how such technology can be used to kill rather than save helpless populations. Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaisani, who regularly uses Youtube to solicit funding for Al Qaeda-linked extremists in Syria, has now taken to Twitter to raise money for an Al Qaeda-style jihad. He is not shy about listing the Qatari and Turkish phone numbers to collect the pledges. That, of course, is simply further evidence that those two nominal U.S. allies are complicit in supporting terror.

(When I was in Syria in January, most everyone relied on Turkish cell phones, as it seemed that Turkey had bolstered its network’s power in order to cover more of northern Syria than it did before the conflict. Turkey therefore has good intelligence on almost everything occurring in that region of Syria, including the activities of the Nusra Front and the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham).

Al-Muhaisani’s feed is illuminating: According to this tweet, 650 Saudi riyals (about $175) buys 150 Kalashnikov bullets or 50 sniper bullets. Muhaisani’s official twitter account has almost 300,000 followers.

In the right hands, Twitter is a wonderful tool that threatens the autocratic monopoly over information and assembly. But, in the wrong hands, it enables terrorists to become more active and more lethal. The answer is not to ban the technology, but to monitor it closely. There is no need to tap it: Simply following it can provide an intelligence trove. Let us hope that the U.S. government and its counter-terror analysts will never be so gun shy, nor American diplomats too language-poor to tune into a source that is far more illuminating than so many of the classified cables that the likes of Edward Snowden dealt in.

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Twitter and Turkey’s Slide Into Dictatorship

The government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been gradually chipping away at every vestige of democracy in that country for years. Independent press outlets have been suppressed and more journalists are in prison in Turkey than in any other place on earth. Political opponents of his AKP and much of the secular leadership of the military have been jailed, and demonstrators have been brutalized. Despite this terrible record the West, and in particular the Obama administration, have largely turned a blind eye to Turkey’s excesses. But by trying to ban the use of Twitter, Erdoğan may have finally picked a fight that he can’t win in the long run.

The Turkish government is standing by an order issued by a judge who is friendly to the prime minister to block the use of Twitter in Turkey. The reason for the effort is that social media, such as Twitter and YouTube, is the vehicle for spreading evidence of corruption by Erdoğan’s son and other prominent scions of the country’s Islamist elite. While social media plays an increasingly critical role in the spread of news throughout the free world, it is especially critical now in a country like Turkey because the mainstream press in that country has been effectively silenced by the dictatorial policies of the AKP and its leader. That forced the flow of information elsewhere and Erdoğan’s courts have responded with demands that Twitter and other venues remove the embarrassing content from their sites.

But by adopting a stand that undermines the notion that Turkey is a modern state that is ready to be integrated into the international economy and the European Union, Erdoğan may have worsened his problems rather than solve them. After 11 years in power during which he has ruthlessly wielded influence, the Turkish leader may have finally crossed the line that separates a feared dictator from a laughingstock. By banning Twitter, Erdoğan has begun to resemble a parody of a despot rather than the strongman who has transformed Turkey from a secular state to an Islamist tyranny.

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The government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been gradually chipping away at every vestige of democracy in that country for years. Independent press outlets have been suppressed and more journalists are in prison in Turkey than in any other place on earth. Political opponents of his AKP and much of the secular leadership of the military have been jailed, and demonstrators have been brutalized. Despite this terrible record the West, and in particular the Obama administration, have largely turned a blind eye to Turkey’s excesses. But by trying to ban the use of Twitter, Erdoğan may have finally picked a fight that he can’t win in the long run.

The Turkish government is standing by an order issued by a judge who is friendly to the prime minister to block the use of Twitter in Turkey. The reason for the effort is that social media, such as Twitter and YouTube, is the vehicle for spreading evidence of corruption by Erdoğan’s son and other prominent scions of the country’s Islamist elite. While social media plays an increasingly critical role in the spread of news throughout the free world, it is especially critical now in a country like Turkey because the mainstream press in that country has been effectively silenced by the dictatorial policies of the AKP and its leader. That forced the flow of information elsewhere and Erdoğan’s courts have responded with demands that Twitter and other venues remove the embarrassing content from their sites.

But by adopting a stand that undermines the notion that Turkey is a modern state that is ready to be integrated into the international economy and the European Union, Erdoğan may have worsened his problems rather than solve them. After 11 years in power during which he has ruthlessly wielded influence, the Turkish leader may have finally crossed the line that separates a feared dictator from a laughingstock. By banning Twitter, Erdoğan has begun to resemble a parody of a despot rather than the strongman who has transformed Turkey from a secular state to an Islamist tyranny.

As the New York Times reports, his inability to suppress the incriminating information about his son and his regime has sent Erdoğan over the edge:

The shutdown, which Turks began to notice around midnight, occurred 10 days before local elections and came after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lashed out at Twitter in an election rally in Bursa, a western town, on Thursday, saying that he did not care about international reactions if national security was at stake.

“Twitter, mwitter! We will wipe out roots of all,” Mr. Erdoğan declared in a campaign speech before the pivotal elections on March 30. “They say, ‘Sir, the international community can say this, can say that.’ I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the state of the Republic of Turkey is.”

Mr. Erdoğan had faced perhaps the biggest challenge in his 11 years in office when unidentified critics began using Twitter and YouTube to leak dozens of phone calls and documents that seemed to tie government officials and business circles close to the government to a graft inquiry that began last December.

One of the recordings purports to be of the prime minister himself telling his son to get rid of large sums of cash on the morning of Dec. 17, when the homes of three former ministers’ sons were raided. Mr. Erdoğan has repeatedly — and angrily — insisted that the recording was fake.

This is far from the first instance of Erdoğan’s dictatorial manner. He has run roughshod over all legal opposition and shut down journalistic outlets that were not in his pocket. But perhaps by taking on the popular social media in such an absurd and transparently self-interested manner, a turning point may be reached on international opinion of his regime.

This is, after all, the same man President Obama described as his best friend among foreign leaders. While other Western heads of state were not quite so fulsome in their praise for Erdoğan, the result was the same, as the AKP’s excesses at home and its support for Hamas in Gaza were ignored because of Turkey’s membership in NATO and its role in supporting opposition to the Assad regime.

While the United States has slowly started to edge away from Erdoğan, Washington needs to do more now than merely state its displeasure with the antics of the president’s friend. The same applies to Turkey’s bid for EU membership. Relations with this increasingly despotic Islamist state need to be put on hold until the country and its dictator come to their senses.

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For Leftists, the Personal Is Still the Political

Here are a few brief thoughts on the controversy surrounding MSNBC’s Twitter feed, in which–in response to a Cheerios ad (!)–the following message was sent out: “Maybe the right wing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new#Cheerios ad w/ biracial family.”

1. This kind of racial slander is the coin of the realm for MSNBC. Its president, Phil Griffin, apologized for the tweet and fired the staffer responsible for it. Fine and good. But it’s not clear why he acted on this occasion and not the hundreds of outrageous libels against Republicans and conservatives that have happened prior to it.

2. This incident demonstrates how for some on the left virtually everything is reduced to politics–even a cereal ad. It reveals an obsession with politics that is distorted and unhealthy. And it’s something that frankly one doesn’t find as prevalent among conservatives, at least in my experience. The slogan popularized during the social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, “the personal is the political,” helps explain this progressive cast of mind. For the left, politics is the primary means toward social progress and fulfillment, whereas for the right, our private lives are considered far more separate and distinct. Conservatives, I think, tend to view politics as important but not as all consuming, which is a far better way to understand life and reality.

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Here are a few brief thoughts on the controversy surrounding MSNBC’s Twitter feed, in which–in response to a Cheerios ad (!)–the following message was sent out: “Maybe the right wing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new#Cheerios ad w/ biracial family.”

1. This kind of racial slander is the coin of the realm for MSNBC. Its president, Phil Griffin, apologized for the tweet and fired the staffer responsible for it. Fine and good. But it’s not clear why he acted on this occasion and not the hundreds of outrageous libels against Republicans and conservatives that have happened prior to it.

2. This incident demonstrates how for some on the left virtually everything is reduced to politics–even a cereal ad. It reveals an obsession with politics that is distorted and unhealthy. And it’s something that frankly one doesn’t find as prevalent among conservatives, at least in my experience. The slogan popularized during the social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, “the personal is the political,” helps explain this progressive cast of mind. For the left, politics is the primary means toward social progress and fulfillment, whereas for the right, our private lives are considered far more separate and distinct. Conservatives, I think, tend to view politics as important but not as all consuming, which is a far better way to understand life and reality.

3. There’s a cautionary tale in all of this, which is that the right shouldn’t become like the left. Leave the hateful attacks, the venom, and the name-calling to them. Conservatives don’t need it, we shouldn’t want it, and it’s not consistent with our best tradition. If the left wants to give refuge to the haters, then that’s up to them. The right, on the other hand, should be characterized by people who are principled, passionate, decent and who don’t (as Ronald Reagan used to remind his staff) consider our opponents to be our enemies. Some conservatives seem to make a rather good living on doing the opposite, on engaging in ad hominem and often childish attacks, and it’s discrediting to them and to the movement they claim to represent.

 

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Tweet Tweet

What is it about communicating in 140 characters or less that makes people stupid? Idiotic Twitter faux pas are now just something we’ve come to expect. And the latest Twittiocy might seem to put even Anthony Weiner to shame (if such were possible). 

Justine Sacco, head of corporate communications for media conglomerate IAC, just before hopping on a plane for a vacation in South Africa, tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” 

As Ms. Sacco wended her Internet-less way through the skies in blissful ignorance, her tweet went viral, and all hell broke loose. She was given the heave-ho by her bosses pretty much as soon as her plane landed, and her Twitter account disappeared. Ms. Sacco has now issued the obligatory apology for the “insensitivity” of her tweet and for the “pain” she caused–to AIDS victims, to black people, to South Africa.

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What is it about communicating in 140 characters or less that makes people stupid? Idiotic Twitter faux pas are now just something we’ve come to expect. And the latest Twittiocy might seem to put even Anthony Weiner to shame (if such were possible). 

Justine Sacco, head of corporate communications for media conglomerate IAC, just before hopping on a plane for a vacation in South Africa, tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” 

As Ms. Sacco wended her Internet-less way through the skies in blissful ignorance, her tweet went viral, and all hell broke loose. She was given the heave-ho by her bosses pretty much as soon as her plane landed, and her Twitter account disappeared. Ms. Sacco has now issued the obligatory apology for the “insensitivity” of her tweet and for the “pain” she caused–to AIDS victims, to black people, to South Africa.

This incident was not, it turns out, Ms. Sacco’s first venture into Interweb … um … liveliness. Her now-defunct Twitter profile, for example, describes her thus: “CorpComms at IAC. Troublemaker on the side. Also known for my loud laugh.” And a couple of years ago, she tweeted, “I had a sex dream about an autistic kid last night.”

This woman is (or was, anyway) in the PR biz! Now, I happen to be in that business myself, and one of its key tenets has always been, “never say anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.” So, what in the world was she thinking?

The answer (obviously)? Not much. Was she trying to squeeze tragic irony into her allotted 140? Perhaps; maybe even likely. But, really, tragic irony can’t possibly translate well in four sentences dashed off on the way from one plane to another. Especially when your goal is to impress the blogosphere with your snappy cleverness. 

Soberer heads are in the process of turning Twitter into a rather more sedate business and political communications tool; but it’s safe to say that the careless, the feckless, and the downright stupid will find themselves a new digital pathway.

Let’s not forget, after all, that the social media revolution was brought to us by those models of thoughtless, insensitive stupidity (and here I do apologize in advance for any pain I may cause)–college kids.

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Why Do U.S. Embassies Bungle Twitter?

Back in September, as Egyptian rioters sought to attack the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, allegedly over a video depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light, the embassy tweeted out a note effectively condemning the controversial speech rather than those who would resort to violence against it. There followed confusion in both the embassy and the State Department about free speech, American values, and the appropriateness of apologies.

It would not be the last twitter controversy for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Two months ago, after Egyptian police arrested a satirist who had poked fun at the Islamist government, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted a link to a Jon Stewart episode in which the American comic condemned the arrest of his Egyptian equivalent. That evidently upset the Egyptian government even more. Rather than stand up once again for free speech, diplomats caved, and the embassy temporarily disabled its Twitter feed, deleting the offending tweet.

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Back in September, as Egyptian rioters sought to attack the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, allegedly over a video depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light, the embassy tweeted out a note effectively condemning the controversial speech rather than those who would resort to violence against it. There followed confusion in both the embassy and the State Department about free speech, American values, and the appropriateness of apologies.

It would not be the last twitter controversy for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Two months ago, after Egyptian police arrested a satirist who had poked fun at the Islamist government, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted a link to a Jon Stewart episode in which the American comic condemned the arrest of his Egyptian equivalent. That evidently upset the Egyptian government even more. Rather than stand up once again for free speech, diplomats caved, and the embassy temporarily disabled its Twitter feed, deleting the offending tweet.

Now it seems the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, is getting in on the act. Many Middle Eastern rulers incite anti-Americanism in order to bolster their own popularity, and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no different. After having precipitated a revolt through a combination of arrogance and undemocratic tendencies, Erdoğan sought to downplay the police violence by suggesting—falsely—that the United States is far more brutal in its alleged suppression of political protests.

In response to Erdoğan’s false claim that American police had killed 17 protestors breaking up Occupy Wall Street camps, the U.S. Embassy tweeted, “Reports related to the U.S. Occupy Wall Street movement are inaccurate. No U.S. deaths resulted from police actions in #OWS.”  The tweet signified how embassies should use Twitter: An instant response to correct a calumny.

It seems, however, that calling out Erdoğan for his outright lie was too undiplomatic for the embassy, which subsequently deleted the tweet. Alas, it seems that Ambassador Francis Ricciardone—infamous for his pro-Mubarak sycophancy while posted in Cairo—still confuses responsibility to protect America’s interests with ingratiation to foreign leaders.

It would be easy to blame technology for the embassies’ Twitter missteps, but it would be wrong. Twitter simply highlights in near-real time the State Department’s curious moral calculus. Perhaps it’s time for remedial education for America’s foreign servicemen and women: The lessons should not be hard: It neither is appropriate to apologize for free speech nor is violence in response to such speech ever justified. Nor should any ambassador hesitate when defending America against the rants of an anti-American ruler.

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Axelrod’s Disciples

Humorlessness and self-seriousness can be a difficult combination of traits for a national politician to overcome. But Barack Obama managed to do so in part because when he stayed on script he was eloquent and measured. Those who work for him, however, seem to possess all of his thin-skinned defensiveness with none of the charm.

So it was no surprise that eventually those employees would become ex-employees and saturate the Twittersphere with what Dylan Byers today calls “their frat-house banter” of social media aggression. Byers writes that the angry, score-settling aides shine a light on the mindset of those still toiling away in the West Wing:

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Humorlessness and self-seriousness can be a difficult combination of traits for a national politician to overcome. But Barack Obama managed to do so in part because when he stayed on script he was eloquent and measured. Those who work for him, however, seem to possess all of his thin-skinned defensiveness with none of the charm.

So it was no surprise that eventually those employees would become ex-employees and saturate the Twittersphere with what Dylan Byers today calls “their frat-house banter” of social media aggression. Byers writes that the angry, score-settling aides shine a light on the mindset of those still toiling away in the West Wing:

“Twitter offers a window into the internal frustrations of an administration and the arguments people make on the inside. So it’s not surprising that people coming out of this White House are skeptical of Washington, Congress and the media,” Lovett, a former White House speechwriter, told POLITICO. “If there was Twitter when John Adams was president, ex-John Adams staffers would probably have let loose on Thomas Jefferson.”

But of course, there wasn’t Twitter when John Adams was president, nor was Twitter an influential medium during the tenure of President George W. Bush. President Obama’s aides are the first to leave a White House in the age of social media. Where former administration staffers took their newfound freedom to cable news or the pages of an inside-the-White-House tell-all, Obama staffers are voicing their grievances — and building their post-White House brands — through social media.

It’s interesting that Lovett admits that the media would be a natural target. The political press, after all, consider themselves a kind of informational Secret Service for this president. But I suppose if most of the coverage you get is positive, that one Woodward op-ed and the occasional Washington Post editorial that goes the other way stand out that much more. Obama is also famously obsessed with his own press clips.

Social media is relatively young and a minefield, and you tend to want to have a bit of compassion for the occasional slip-up. But much of this group’s activity is by design, not mistake. And it predates their free agency. As I wrote back in January of 2012, even the New York Times was put-off by David Axelrod’s Twitter obsession with his counterparts on the Romney campaign. The attention was unrequited, so Axelrod beefed up his taunting until the Times had to step in. “Mr. Axelrod clearly does a lot of personal thinking about Mr. Romney,” the Times wrote, highlighting several examples of when Axelrod surely should have known better than to be on his phone taunting Republicans. Sample tweet: “At Bulls game with my daughter, Lauren, thinking about how turnovers late in game can kill you. Must be thinking same over at Romney HQ!”

It’s doubtful they were thinking the same thing over at Romney headquarters, and it’s doubly doubtful they were thinking at all about Axelrod while with their children at a basketball game. But silly season gets its name for a reason. There were also times Axelrod drifted into offensive waters, for example sending anti-Mormon tweets while working for a campaign that branded Romney in its ads “not one of us.”

Axelrod led by example and set a certain tone for the entire Obama campaign apparatus. Thus when the younger staffers who followed Axelrod into Twitter battle left the White House, they went looking for a fight anywhere they could get it, as they tell Byers:

“For the first couple weeks there was a feeling of being unleashed,” Favreau told POLITICO. “Tommy and I were at an airport waiting for a flight, and we were both in a Twitter fight with someone. After about an hour, we looked up from ours phones and said, ‘We have to stop.’”

Fights and potshots take up a fair amount of former staffers’ time on Twitter, and though the group has shared targets — Republican intransigence, the media’s obsession with minutiae, conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin — each individual has his favorite areas of combat.

It’s not just opinion writers or reporters; current White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer used his interview with Politico today to complain about the online news aggregator Drudge: “It hurts what we’re trying to do,” Pfeiffer said–which is: control the news cycle.

And that really gets to what is driving the relentless combat. When the Obama campaign put out ads accusing Romney of giving people cancer or of not being “one of us” or of wanting to kill Big Bird, there were two main concerns: first, whether someone else on the campaign was prepared to grab the wheel and steer it out of the gutter (there wasn’t), and second, that the Obama campaign might win the election and believe that their strategy was vindicated. Clearly, both concerns were right on the mark.

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Twitter Crackdown Exposes Saudi Fear

Various news outlets are reporting that Saudi Arabia is seeking to end anonymity for twitter users. At first glance, the Saudi move appears to be just one more example of American information companies knuckling under to pressure from wealthy, autocratic countries. That Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal holds a substantial stake in Twitter underlines how taking Saudi money (as both companies and many universities such as Harvard and Georgetown do) always comes with strings attached.

The Saudi move against Twitter has deeper roots, however. While American and European human rights activists have for more than two years rallied for justice and reform in Bahrain—Bahraini flags flew over the Occupy DC camp—and Bahrain is certainly in need of reform, the situation not only for Shi’ites but also for Sunnis in Saudi Arabia is worse.

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Various news outlets are reporting that Saudi Arabia is seeking to end anonymity for twitter users. At first glance, the Saudi move appears to be just one more example of American information companies knuckling under to pressure from wealthy, autocratic countries. That Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal holds a substantial stake in Twitter underlines how taking Saudi money (as both companies and many universities such as Harvard and Georgetown do) always comes with strings attached.

The Saudi move against Twitter has deeper roots, however. While American and European human rights activists have for more than two years rallied for justice and reform in Bahrain—Bahraini flags flew over the Occupy DC camp—and Bahrain is certainly in need of reform, the situation not only for Shi’ites but also for Sunnis in Saudi Arabia is worse.

The Saudi move comes against the backdrop of debates about political reform and popular Saudi cleric Salman al-Awdah—who has more than 2.5 million followers on Twitter—mocking government attempts to crackdown on Twitter. Al-Awdah may have broken with Usama Bin Laden, but no longer being an al-Qaeda sympathizer is a pretty low bar by which to describe reformism. Al-Awdah may be a reformer in the Saudi context, but no one should conflate reform with liberalism.

Nevertheless, Al-Awdah has become increasingly strident in his calls for political change in Saudi Arabia. According to the Open Source Center, he warned on March 16 that the Saudi people “will not remain silent.” Ten days later, he followed up by suggesting that should the Saudi government ignore calls for reform, “the only solution would be to go out into the square and counter argument with argument.”

I speculated six months ago that Saudi Arabia could be next. The autocratic kingdom is strictly off-limits to most Western journalists. Those who get in seldom move outside Riyadh or Jeddah. But if a riot breaks out in the Saudi hinterland and no one is around to cover it, that does not mean that all is well. It will be interesting to see if Saudi Arabia manages to constrain Twitter. Cutting communications, however, is a poor substitute for true reform. And the royal family is kidding itself if it believes it can remain aloof from political modernity forever.

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Did Twitter Alert NBC to Critical Tweets?

The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent Guy Adams — an outspoken critic of NBC’s Olympic coverage — is claiming he was unfairly censored after he had his Twitter account shut down for tweeting an NBC executive’s corporate email address. The tweet allegedly violated Twitter’s rules, and Adams was suspended after NBC filed an official complaint.

But NBC’s communication shop is now telling the Telegraph that Twitter actually contacted NBC about Adams’ tweet, and guided them through the complaint process.

Why would this matter? Because Twitter and NBC inked a partnership over Olympic coverage that began just last week. And it has some wondering whether that relationship led Twitter to shut down Adams’ criticism of their Olympic coverage:

One of the tweets urged his followers to send their views to Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics. Adams subsequently published Zenkel’s corporate email address and a complaint was filed by NBC.

But in an email to the Daily Telegraph, Christopher McCloskey, NBC Sport’s vice-president of communications, said Twitter had actually contacted the network’s social media department to alert them to Adams’ tweets.

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The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent Guy Adams — an outspoken critic of NBC’s Olympic coverage — is claiming he was unfairly censored after he had his Twitter account shut down for tweeting an NBC executive’s corporate email address. The tweet allegedly violated Twitter’s rules, and Adams was suspended after NBC filed an official complaint.

But NBC’s communication shop is now telling the Telegraph that Twitter actually contacted NBC about Adams’ tweet, and guided them through the complaint process.

Why would this matter? Because Twitter and NBC inked a partnership over Olympic coverage that began just last week. And it has some wondering whether that relationship led Twitter to shut down Adams’ criticism of their Olympic coverage:

One of the tweets urged his followers to send their views to Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics. Adams subsequently published Zenkel’s corporate email address and a complaint was filed by NBC.

But in an email to the Daily Telegraph, Christopher McCloskey, NBC Sport’s vice-president of communications, said Twitter had actually contacted the network’s social media department to alert them to Adams’ tweets.

Some of are framing this as a free speech issue, but it’s really not. Twitter is run by a private company and has the right to suspend users from its platform. Adams, a newspaper correspondent, obviously has other outlets he can use to exercise his speech rights.

Of course, Twitter would also damage its own reputation if it decided not to reinstate Adams. Which is probably the most confusing part of this whole story. Guy Adams isn’t exactly a household name, and while his criticism of the Olympic coverage may have been an annoyance for NBC and Twitter, 99 percent of their audience probably never heard any of it. Would Twitter really risk its public image by shutting him down without cause? Or was this an honest concern about rules violations?

The company has said in the past that it “strive[s] not to remove tweets on the basis of their content.” Strives is the key word. Most Twitter users would probably be uneasy with the idea of Twitter targeting critics of its business interests, if it turns out that was what happened here. Either way, this is a reminder of what Twitter is and what it isn’t. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Twitter isn’t just a giant, unbridled chat room full of everyone you know; it’s a private company-run community with limits, and the rules may not always be enforced evenly across the board.

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Obama Won Ruling But Lost His Dignity

Following the Supreme Court’s decision on ObamaCare, a degree of celebration was expected. Many in the pundit class have said the Court’s decision could be the single most influential event on the November election.

After the dust settled and it became clear that the healthcare law survived the gavel, officials in the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Obama administration went to their computers to let off some steam.

The executive director of the DNC took to Twitter and sent out the following message: “it’s constitutional. Bitches.” The DNC’s new media director vented on Twitter, immediately tweeting, “Overheard in the office: ‘TAKE THAT MOTHER******S!!'” The tweet was soon deleted, but nothing on the Internet disappears completely. Screen shots were taken and that soon appeared on Twitchy, which was then linked to by Drudge.

One might understand this momentary weakness and forgive the total loss of decorum if it wasn’t then replicated by the president’s digital and campaign staff. But it was.

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Following the Supreme Court’s decision on ObamaCare, a degree of celebration was expected. Many in the pundit class have said the Court’s decision could be the single most influential event on the November election.

After the dust settled and it became clear that the healthcare law survived the gavel, officials in the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Obama administration went to their computers to let off some steam.

The executive director of the DNC took to Twitter and sent out the following message: “it’s constitutional. Bitches.” The DNC’s new media director vented on Twitter, immediately tweeting, “Overheard in the office: ‘TAKE THAT MOTHER******S!!'” The tweet was soon deleted, but nothing on the Internet disappears completely. Screen shots were taken and that soon appeared on Twitchy, which was then linked to by Drudge.

One might understand this momentary weakness and forgive the total loss of decorum if it wasn’t then replicated by the president’s digital and campaign staff. But it was.

The official Twitter account of the president of the United States tweeted last night: “Still a BFD: http://OFA.BO/ayPgAZ” For those of you unsure of the definition it can be found here on a site that translates young people’s speak into everyday English. The president’s Twitter account quoted a hot-mic utterance of the vice president’s from when the bill was passed. Instead of repudiating the vice president’s total lack of class and dignity, the president decided to imitate it on the world’s stage. The link leads to the Obama campaign store – they’re selling a t-shirt to match the president’s tweet. You cannot make this stuff up.

Just in case you missed that tweet – just wait – there was even more classlessness from the Obama campaign last night. President Obama’s campaign manager sent a fundraising email with the subject line, “Let’s win the damn election.” “Win the damn election” was also repeated in the body of the email.

Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I would like to remind the Obama campaign of its target audience. Young people, if they make it out to vote in the same numbers as they did last time, are still more or less in the bag for Democrats. The target constituencies the Obama team should be focusing on are the middle-aged and middle class voters in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. This kind of behavior may have be seen as cutting edge from a young underdog in the race. Not from the president of the United States. While the president has a reelection campaign to run, one would hope he would keep in mind that the office of the president deserves more respect.

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Official Swede Tweeter: “Whats the fuzz with Jews.”

The New York Times was right. It’s not very often we say that. Two days ago, the newspaper began a story about the country of Sweden’s official Twitter account with, “Chances of embarrassment are unusually high when you are @Sweden, the nation’s official Twitter spokesperson.” Every week, a new Swede is handed control of the country’s Twitter feed and gives a personal face and voice to the country of more than nine million. The social media strategy behind the Twitter account is meant to showcase a “typical Swede” and promote the diversity of the Nordic country as a possible tourist destination. This morning, this week’s “tweeter” (and in my opinion the entire country) have some explaining and soul-searching to do.

That’s the first of a series of tweets sent this morning surrounding who is a Jew and how exactly one is supposed to identify one. Here’s another:

Sonja, this week’s tweeter, seems to believe there are no Jews in her country (despite there being more than 18,000 nationally).

The New York Times was right. It’s not very often we say that. Two days ago, the newspaper began a story about the country of Sweden’s official Twitter account with, “Chances of embarrassment are unusually high when you are @Sweden, the nation’s official Twitter spokesperson.” Every week, a new Swede is handed control of the country’s Twitter feed and gives a personal face and voice to the country of more than nine million. The social media strategy behind the Twitter account is meant to showcase a “typical Swede” and promote the diversity of the Nordic country as a possible tourist destination. This morning, this week’s “tweeter” (and in my opinion the entire country) have some explaining and soul-searching to do.

That’s the first of a series of tweets sent this morning surrounding who is a Jew and how exactly one is supposed to identify one. Here’s another:

Sonja, this week’s tweeter, seems to believe there are no Jews in her country (despite there being more than 18,000 nationally).

This led me to do a search for the history of the Jewish community in Sweden. Knowing Europe’s infamous relationship with anti-Semitism (increased attacks on French Jews, an attempted ban on kosher slaughter in the Netherlands, the rise of a neo-Nazi party in Greece, etc.) I wasn’t surprised to see this headline from a 2010 edition of the Telegraph, “Jews leave Swedish city after sharp rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes.”

Sweden’s tweeter seems to have backed off after getting some heated responses and already a few unflattering articles, but perhaps the country should take this as an opportunity to have a discussion about Sweden’s Jewish community and Swedish anti-Semitism. How has a country that was once known for being a safe harbor for Jews fallen this low? While the country’s seven-month-old Twitter account has pushed the edge a number of times (the vulgarity is what led to my unfollowing it several months back), today’s tweets moved beyond sensationalist. Instead of demanding an apology and moving forward, Sweden and the tweeter in question should evaluate why the tweets were so offensive and how this mother of two and other “typical Swedes” could learn about Jews both in Sweden and beyond.

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John McCain: Right Again on Foreign Policy. But Will Obama Listen?

Say what you will about John McCain, he has an unerring instinct in a foreign crisis. He was right about the surge in Iraq. He was right about the Russian invasion of Georgia. And now he’s right about Egypt. He has come to the conclusion that, as his Twitter feed put it, “Regrettably the time has come 4 Pres. Mubarak 2 step down& relinquish power. It’s in the best interest of Egypt, its people &its military.” Leaving aside the inelegance of announcing an important position via such a limited medium (one that I admittedly use myself), this is a principled stand. More important, it’s the right stand.

McCain understands what Obama apparently does not, or at least what Obama is not willing to come out and say publicly: that having Mubarak try to cling to office by violence serves no one — not the people of Egypt, not the United States, and ultimately not even Mubarak himself. Mubarak’s historical reputation will only grow worse if he is seen as inflicting bloodshed on his people to preserve his rule. Further fighting of the kind we have seen today, with pro-regime thugs attacking peaceful protesters, also has the potential to fracture the army and to provide an opening to the Muslim Brotherhood. At this point, it is imperative for Mubarak to leave quickly, opening the way for a transition government that with military support could prepare the way for free and fair elections. The U.S. does not have the option of voting “present” in this crisis. What we say and do matters. It’s time for Obama to follow McCain’s lead — not for the first time.

Say what you will about John McCain, he has an unerring instinct in a foreign crisis. He was right about the surge in Iraq. He was right about the Russian invasion of Georgia. And now he’s right about Egypt. He has come to the conclusion that, as his Twitter feed put it, “Regrettably the time has come 4 Pres. Mubarak 2 step down& relinquish power. It’s in the best interest of Egypt, its people &its military.” Leaving aside the inelegance of announcing an important position via such a limited medium (one that I admittedly use myself), this is a principled stand. More important, it’s the right stand.

McCain understands what Obama apparently does not, or at least what Obama is not willing to come out and say publicly: that having Mubarak try to cling to office by violence serves no one — not the people of Egypt, not the United States, and ultimately not even Mubarak himself. Mubarak’s historical reputation will only grow worse if he is seen as inflicting bloodshed on his people to preserve his rule. Further fighting of the kind we have seen today, with pro-regime thugs attacking peaceful protesters, also has the potential to fracture the army and to provide an opening to the Muslim Brotherhood. At this point, it is imperative for Mubarak to leave quickly, opening the way for a transition government that with military support could prepare the way for free and fair elections. The U.S. does not have the option of voting “present” in this crisis. What we say and do matters. It’s time for Obama to follow McCain’s lead — not for the first time.

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‘Getting Out in Front’ on Egypt?

The administration’s handling of the Egypt crisis — as typified by the bizarre set of mixed messages sent by Secretary of State Clinton yesterday as she wandered without point from Sunday morning show to Sunday morning show — has demonstrated a stunning lack of elementary preparation or thinking on a matter that has been under discussion among serious Egypt-watchers for at least six years now. That said, the demand that the administration “get out in front” on the need for democratic change with extreme haste is more a result of the increasingly hysterical tempo of the news in the age of Twitter than it is a central need for U.S. foreign policy.

The idea that Egyptians will like us better and that their new government will be friendlier to us because we said X on Sunday rather than on Wednesday is wishful thinking. A country of 80 million people with a complex economic and political structure and a radical Islamist wing will not make its future foreign-policy decisions based on when the U.S. said what. That might change if the army really opens fire on protesters and we do not instantly divide ourselves from Mubarak, or if we’re seen taking significant steps to bolster Mubarak’s regime, but that’s not the situation on the ground at present and looks unlikely to be the situation going forward.

Like many who supported the Bush push to open these closed societies to democratic change, I’m delighted to see the realists who pooh-poohed the agenda as unrealistic and foolish made to look unrealistic and foolish themselves — since if Mubarak had embraced rather than rejected the democracy agenda to the knowing nods of the foreign-policy cognoscenti, he might have ended his days as a hero of his nation rather than as a despised and rejected despot. And the fact that the Obama administration has come through two years without a clue when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East should be sobering for everybody.

But at this point, whatever part the U.S. plays in the Mubarak endgame is likely to be very, very minor. What our refusal to speak out forthrightly against dictatorships and for popular change says about us is more the issue.

The administration’s handling of the Egypt crisis — as typified by the bizarre set of mixed messages sent by Secretary of State Clinton yesterday as she wandered without point from Sunday morning show to Sunday morning show — has demonstrated a stunning lack of elementary preparation or thinking on a matter that has been under discussion among serious Egypt-watchers for at least six years now. That said, the demand that the administration “get out in front” on the need for democratic change with extreme haste is more a result of the increasingly hysterical tempo of the news in the age of Twitter than it is a central need for U.S. foreign policy.

The idea that Egyptians will like us better and that their new government will be friendlier to us because we said X on Sunday rather than on Wednesday is wishful thinking. A country of 80 million people with a complex economic and political structure and a radical Islamist wing will not make its future foreign-policy decisions based on when the U.S. said what. That might change if the army really opens fire on protesters and we do not instantly divide ourselves from Mubarak, or if we’re seen taking significant steps to bolster Mubarak’s regime, but that’s not the situation on the ground at present and looks unlikely to be the situation going forward.

Like many who supported the Bush push to open these closed societies to democratic change, I’m delighted to see the realists who pooh-poohed the agenda as unrealistic and foolish made to look unrealistic and foolish themselves — since if Mubarak had embraced rather than rejected the democracy agenda to the knowing nods of the foreign-policy cognoscenti, he might have ended his days as a hero of his nation rather than as a despised and rejected despot. And the fact that the Obama administration has come through two years without a clue when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East should be sobering for everybody.

But at this point, whatever part the U.S. plays in the Mubarak endgame is likely to be very, very minor. What our refusal to speak out forthrightly against dictatorships and for popular change says about us is more the issue.

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Mubarak Moves to Shut Down Al Jazeera

Not content with restricting Internet and cell-phone use, this morning the Mubarak regime attempted to shut down the Al Jazeera Cairo bureau, which has been doing some of the most comprehensive reporting on the Egyptian mass protests:

Outgoing information minister Anas al-Fikki has “ordered the closure of all activities by Al Jazeera in the Arab republic of Egypt and the annulment of its licences,” Egypt’s official MENA news agency reported.

The press cards of all Al Jazeera staff in Egypt were also being withdrawn, it added.

Egyptian satellite operator Nilesat meanwhile halted its relays of Al Jazeera programming, although the Qatar-based television channel could still be viewed in Cairo via Arabsat.

But silencing dissent isn’t as simple as it used to be. Shortly after the shutdown, Al Jazeera began giving viewers instructions on Twitter, explaining how to access its broadcasts online or through other TV frequencies.

“If you’ve lost @AJArabic signal on NileSat, watch it on Hotbird 12111/V/27500,” the news organization Tweeted, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Egyptian government has dealt with these types of mass protests before, but its traditional tactics for clamping down on communication are useless today. At some point soon, probably, totalitarian regimes will figure out how to successfully suppress opposition in the age of social media. But for now, the eyes of the world are still glued to Egypt, and there isn’t a thing the government can do to stop it.

Not content with restricting Internet and cell-phone use, this morning the Mubarak regime attempted to shut down the Al Jazeera Cairo bureau, which has been doing some of the most comprehensive reporting on the Egyptian mass protests:

Outgoing information minister Anas al-Fikki has “ordered the closure of all activities by Al Jazeera in the Arab republic of Egypt and the annulment of its licences,” Egypt’s official MENA news agency reported.

The press cards of all Al Jazeera staff in Egypt were also being withdrawn, it added.

Egyptian satellite operator Nilesat meanwhile halted its relays of Al Jazeera programming, although the Qatar-based television channel could still be viewed in Cairo via Arabsat.

But silencing dissent isn’t as simple as it used to be. Shortly after the shutdown, Al Jazeera began giving viewers instructions on Twitter, explaining how to access its broadcasts online or through other TV frequencies.

“If you’ve lost @AJArabic signal on NileSat, watch it on Hotbird 12111/V/27500,” the news organization Tweeted, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Egyptian government has dealt with these types of mass protests before, but its traditional tactics for clamping down on communication are useless today. At some point soon, probably, totalitarian regimes will figure out how to successfully suppress opposition in the age of social media. But for now, the eyes of the world are still glued to Egypt, and there isn’t a thing the government can do to stop it.

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What We Don’t Know

I’ve been watching TV and reading the news and following everything I can about Egypt today. And what’s clear is … nothing. Changing channels and watching Twitter and reading blogs simultaneously create a sense of rapid change when in fact much of the footage is repetitive, the information is incredibly spotty, and reporters on the scene who have no way of knowing what’s going on six blocks from them are discoursing on the potential of regime collapse. It is very important in these circumstances not to extrapolate from people throwing things and tanks rolling about to world-historical change. This may be such a moment, but we’ve seen such footage innumerable times before — as in Thailand last year — without major result.

I’ve been watching TV and reading the news and following everything I can about Egypt today. And what’s clear is … nothing. Changing channels and watching Twitter and reading blogs simultaneously create a sense of rapid change when in fact much of the footage is repetitive, the information is incredibly spotty, and reporters on the scene who have no way of knowing what’s going on six blocks from them are discoursing on the potential of regime collapse. It is very important in these circumstances not to extrapolate from people throwing things and tanks rolling about to world-historical change. This may be such a moment, but we’ve seen such footage innumerable times before — as in Thailand last year — without major result.

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Jack Welch Nails Obama in 140 Characters

Of Obama’s partial spending freeze, the former GE chief writes on Twitter: “Increasing expenses 10-20 percent over a couple of years and then promising to ‘freeze’ them going forward is old management trick.”

Of Obama’s partial spending freeze, the former GE chief writes on Twitter: “Increasing expenses 10-20 percent over a couple of years and then promising to ‘freeze’ them going forward is old management trick.”

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Palestine Papers: 99 Percent Hype, 1 Percent News

You wouldn’t expect Al-Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper in Britain to do anything but spin the “Palestine Papers” — the leaked transcripts of late Bush administration negotiations between Israeli, Palestinian, and American officials — to the max. And so they have, today, with shocked responses from foreign-policy types. Indeed, an editor at Foreign Policy magazine went so far as to declare on Twitter that the “two state solution is dead” as a result.

But the reality of the papers themselves turns out to be incredibly boring. Yes, during the months surrounding the Annapolis summit in 2008, there were negotiations. Yes, these negotiations concerned issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, and settlements. Yes, the two sides discussed land swaps that would enable Israel to retain major settlement blocs. Yes, in private, the Palestinians acknowledged that the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem is not going to be handed over to them and that Israel will not consent to being flooded with millions of Arab refugees. Yes, in private, the negotiators treated each other with respect and even graciousness. No, the talks did not succeed. This is news?

The Palestine Papers, however, come off badly for the leader of Israel’s opposition, Tzipi Livni, who was then-PM Ehud Olmert’s foreign minister at the time and one of the dramatis personae of the negotiations. Livni’s political liability is that too many Israelis think she isn’t tough enough to be prime minister. She has a tendency to denigrate her own side as a way of ingratiating herself to hostile audiences. To this day, she forcefully criticizes her own country and government while abroad and in front of audiences who have little affection for Israel (see her recent appearance with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour). She seems to think this wins her points for impartiality.

The Palestine Papers show her doing much the same in private, offering to collude with the Palestinians to invent pretexts for letting terrorists out of jail and dismissing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights (“We’re giving up the Golan”). These indulgences may stick in voters’ minds in Israel and make it that much harder for her to dispel the fear that if awarded the premiership, she’ll give the store away.

But the biggest loser in the Palestine Papers is someone who was not even on the scene at the time. That is President Obama, who chose to make Israeli settlements the centerpiece of the peace process. The papers show that one of the only areas on which the sides had come close to an agreement was the acceptability of land swaps as a solution to the settlements controversy. Today, at Obama’s behest, the Palestinians insist on a complete settlement freeze before they’ll even talk — including in areas that just two years ago they had agreed were already de facto Israeli. Thus did Obama turn back the clock on one of the only points of relative consensus and progress between the two sides. The opener to this Jerusalem Post story captures the absurdity of the situation:

With the Palestinian Authority making an international incident over every plan to build in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, a cache of some 1,600 documents—mostly form [sic] the Palestinian Negotiating Unit—shows that in 2008 the PA was willing to recognize eventual Israeli control over all those neighborhoods, with the exception of Har Homa.

This is actually unfair to the Palestinians. They didn’t make construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem an “international incident.” That was Obama, who has criticized construction in these neighborhoods repeatedly. There is not much news in the Palestine Papers to anyone familiar with the Annapolis-era negotiations. But they do provide another example of how badly the Obama administration has handled the peace process.

You wouldn’t expect Al-Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper in Britain to do anything but spin the “Palestine Papers” — the leaked transcripts of late Bush administration negotiations between Israeli, Palestinian, and American officials — to the max. And so they have, today, with shocked responses from foreign-policy types. Indeed, an editor at Foreign Policy magazine went so far as to declare on Twitter that the “two state solution is dead” as a result.

But the reality of the papers themselves turns out to be incredibly boring. Yes, during the months surrounding the Annapolis summit in 2008, there were negotiations. Yes, these negotiations concerned issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, and settlements. Yes, the two sides discussed land swaps that would enable Israel to retain major settlement blocs. Yes, in private, the Palestinians acknowledged that the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem is not going to be handed over to them and that Israel will not consent to being flooded with millions of Arab refugees. Yes, in private, the negotiators treated each other with respect and even graciousness. No, the talks did not succeed. This is news?

The Palestine Papers, however, come off badly for the leader of Israel’s opposition, Tzipi Livni, who was then-PM Ehud Olmert’s foreign minister at the time and one of the dramatis personae of the negotiations. Livni’s political liability is that too many Israelis think she isn’t tough enough to be prime minister. She has a tendency to denigrate her own side as a way of ingratiating herself to hostile audiences. To this day, she forcefully criticizes her own country and government while abroad and in front of audiences who have little affection for Israel (see her recent appearance with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour). She seems to think this wins her points for impartiality.

The Palestine Papers show her doing much the same in private, offering to collude with the Palestinians to invent pretexts for letting terrorists out of jail and dismissing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights (“We’re giving up the Golan”). These indulgences may stick in voters’ minds in Israel and make it that much harder for her to dispel the fear that if awarded the premiership, she’ll give the store away.

But the biggest loser in the Palestine Papers is someone who was not even on the scene at the time. That is President Obama, who chose to make Israeli settlements the centerpiece of the peace process. The papers show that one of the only areas on which the sides had come close to an agreement was the acceptability of land swaps as a solution to the settlements controversy. Today, at Obama’s behest, the Palestinians insist on a complete settlement freeze before they’ll even talk — including in areas that just two years ago they had agreed were already de facto Israeli. Thus did Obama turn back the clock on one of the only points of relative consensus and progress between the two sides. The opener to this Jerusalem Post story captures the absurdity of the situation:

With the Palestinian Authority making an international incident over every plan to build in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, a cache of some 1,600 documents—mostly form [sic] the Palestinian Negotiating Unit—shows that in 2008 the PA was willing to recognize eventual Israeli control over all those neighborhoods, with the exception of Har Homa.

This is actually unfair to the Palestinians. They didn’t make construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem an “international incident.” That was Obama, who has criticized construction in these neighborhoods repeatedly. There is not much news in the Palestine Papers to anyone familiar with the Annapolis-era negotiations. But they do provide another example of how badly the Obama administration has handled the peace process.

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What Now for Keith Olbermann?

Since Keith Olbermann’s abrupt departure from MSNBC on Friday, there’s been a lot of speculation about where the liberal commentator will go next.

Though it seems clear that Olbermann had been anxious to leave the network for a while — the New York Post reported that he’s wanted out for at least a year — it also sounds like the breakup was mutual, and may have even preempted a firing. Olbermann was notoriously tough to deal with, and with the rise of other liberal stars on the network and a pending change in ownership, it wasn’t much of a loss for MSNBC to let him out of his contract.

Of course, the question is, Where will he go now? As far as liberal-commentary careers go, hosting a nightly show on MSNBC is the peak. You don’t really go up from there.

So far, there have been some interesting predictions. The New York Daily News wonders whether he’ll go back into sports commentary (based on one of his Twitter updates). The Huffington Post and Entertainment Weekly predict that he may change career direction and star in Aaron Sorkin’s new TV series Network.

And the Wrap reports that Olbermann is planning to stake out on his own and build a media outlet similar to the Huffington Post — which sounds far more likely:

With two years left on his $7 million a year contract, Olbermann was seeking a full exit package but he really has his eye on creating his own media empire in the style of Huffington Post, according to the individual. That way, Olbermann would control his own brand and, in his view, potentially earn far more as an owner.

Olbermann already has a high-profile brand as a liberal opinionater, and he might as well take advantage of it. The move also wouldn’t be without precedent. Former and current cable news hosts Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson have both launched pretty successful media outlets.

Since Keith Olbermann’s abrupt departure from MSNBC on Friday, there’s been a lot of speculation about where the liberal commentator will go next.

Though it seems clear that Olbermann had been anxious to leave the network for a while — the New York Post reported that he’s wanted out for at least a year — it also sounds like the breakup was mutual, and may have even preempted a firing. Olbermann was notoriously tough to deal with, and with the rise of other liberal stars on the network and a pending change in ownership, it wasn’t much of a loss for MSNBC to let him out of his contract.

Of course, the question is, Where will he go now? As far as liberal-commentary careers go, hosting a nightly show on MSNBC is the peak. You don’t really go up from there.

So far, there have been some interesting predictions. The New York Daily News wonders whether he’ll go back into sports commentary (based on one of his Twitter updates). The Huffington Post and Entertainment Weekly predict that he may change career direction and star in Aaron Sorkin’s new TV series Network.

And the Wrap reports that Olbermann is planning to stake out on his own and build a media outlet similar to the Huffington Post — which sounds far more likely:

With two years left on his $7 million a year contract, Olbermann was seeking a full exit package but he really has his eye on creating his own media empire in the style of Huffington Post, according to the individual. That way, Olbermann would control his own brand and, in his view, potentially earn far more as an owner.

Olbermann already has a high-profile brand as a liberal opinionater, and he might as well take advantage of it. The move also wouldn’t be without precedent. Former and current cable news hosts Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson have both launched pretty successful media outlets.

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PRESS MAN: R U Tweeting 2 Much?

I had most of the week in a far country, where the cell-phone coverage is poor. When I arrived at dawn on Saturday to make the only weekend flight home, I was glad to find, in the lounge of the tiny regional airport, a free Wi-Fi signal. Hungrily, I linked up to the wired world. I pressed the tiny Twitter icon. And the tweets rushed in like river water through a breached dam. I was back.

To read the rest of this article from the January 2011 issue of COMMENTARY, click here.

I had most of the week in a far country, where the cell-phone coverage is poor. When I arrived at dawn on Saturday to make the only weekend flight home, I was glad to find, in the lounge of the tiny regional airport, a free Wi-Fi signal. Hungrily, I linked up to the wired world. I pressed the tiny Twitter icon. And the tweets rushed in like river water through a breached dam. I was back.

To read the rest of this article from the January 2011 issue of COMMENTARY, click here.

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