Internet of the Enlightenment

Internet of the Enlightenment

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Much hand-wringing is dedicated to the unintended consequences of the “Internet Age.” The evaporation of privacy, drones, the Big Brother/Little Brother arms race, NSA, Stuxnet, banks and card companies getting hacked, Network-Centric Warfare, the list goes on and on. Essentially, it’s “Computers-are-Going-to-Take-Over” 2.0 – yet another new, surprising technology has been sprung upon us. In policy circles these developments bring about what is called “disruptive change” – a paradigm-shifting new capability.

What seems to make the internet so scary to many is the utter ubiquitousness of the thing. It’s metastasized into everything – you can buy a refrigerator that will order replacement items from your online store; you can turn your house lights on and off from your smart phone (from anywhere in the world); you can monitor the inside of your home from work, there are kitchen appliances that are networkable; your purchases are itemized and archived by the corporate offices of your grocer (sporting goods store, department store, drug store, pet supply store, auto parts store, on and on). It’s famously called “information.” Actually, it’s knowledge.

This is an age of a vast democratization of knowledge. I marvel every morning that I can read an almost unlimited number of the world’s newspapers. I get the day’s first news from the morning papers in Melbourne, Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul. The downside, of course, is that al Qaeda can also make its Inspire magazine, a veritable terrorist’s cook book, available to all.

But we’ve been here before.

Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing press in 1450 that utilized moveable type, meaning that its owner could mass produce any written material desired. This brought books out of the salons of the wealthy (and the Church), and enabled ever-wider circles of ordinary people to own and read them. The printing press did no less than allow the Enlightenment – the philosophical principle upon which America built its experiment. A disruptive technology indeed.

Not only did the Gutenberg press disseminate the classics to a hugely larger audience, it also vastly widened the talent-pool of writers that could now get their thoughts into print. The availability of the Bible gave resonance to the liberals of the day’s claim that the time was past for a priestly monopoly on the holy tract. “Let he of no lesser mind than the priest decide for himself what God is telling him. God’s messages to his prophets always had to do with something the people should do (or stop doing), and Jesus spoke directly to the people. Their messages weren’t for the priesthood – they’ve always been for the people.” Thus went the reasoning, and writ large, it brought the writings of the Egyptian, Greek and Roman Empires to a wider public as well. It was from this democratizing of knowledge that we “remembered” the Platonic Doctrine – that the ability to reason (to choose among options) intimated free-will, which itself postulated some form of self-rule as the highest form of governance – written in the 4th Century-BC, and largely hidden by a Church that frowned upon popular sovereignty (self-rule).

Very quickly on the heels of the printing press came the working press – newsletters began circulating, and the popular ones evolved into newspapers. Pamphlets were the common form of political discourse – Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was one such publication. An unnoticed Brit teaching secondary school in Scotland was able to publish his thoughts, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, sparking the Industrial Revolution and setting the intellectual tone for market republicanism – the American experiment. The divine right of kings was pierced by the Magna Charta in 1215 and the Vatican’s heavy-handed role in the monarchies of Europe was ended by the Westphalia Treaties of 1648, but self-rule was made possible only by the dissemination of general knowledge – the widespread availability of uncensored information. In other words, the widespread dissemination of printing presses.

The profound impact of the availability of knowledge is almost impossible to overstate. It ushered in modernity. It raised possibilities and dangers previously unconsidered. It catapulted mankind into a new paradigm – literacy exploded, science exploded, literature and political discourse exploded, universities flourished, and most importantly, people began questioning the legitimacy of aristocratic rule.

Overall, I would have to say that we have done well in the glow of the exponential effects of allowing the unfettered spread of knowledge. The Industrial Revolution and free trade have done more in reducing world poverty than all of previous human effort. While there were no examples of popular rule before the printing press, Western Civilization is now based upon it. I am equally optimistic about the afterglow of the internet.

The NSA disclosures illuminate the dangers involved, but the remedy is the same as that ushered in by Gutenberg – an informed populace. NSA isn’t the problem, elected officials that permit NSA to expand its authority is the problem, and in a republican form of government, the final arbiter of government performance is the electorate. These people work for us not the other way around. The only reason these arrogant, self-serving politicians are allowed to recidivate is we keep asking them to. The problem is in Washington, the remedy, as it always is, is us.

Egyptian Summer

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Egypt, like all non-Western states, was bound to prove problematic in the post-Cold War world. Where we didn’t prop up autocrats, we went out of our way to make like miserable under Soviet stewardship. Either way, the view in the street of American diplomacy wasn’t worth much.

But we got ourselves into deep doo-doo across the Greater Middle East with our bungling of the Mubarak ouster in 2012. At first, we backed the president. When it became obvious that the military was backing the demonstrators, we knew that Mubarak’s time was limited, and sent veteran diplomat Frank Wisner, former US Ambassador to Egypt, to Cairo with a deal for Mubarak – agree not to run for office in September so as to facilitate an orderly peaceful transition to a new regime. Ambassador Wisner swiftly accomplished his mission. But in a press conference back home, President Obama publicly called on Mubarak, our longtime ally, to resign, and to resign “now.” The following day, his press secretary was asked what the president meant by “now.” He responded that “now” meant “yesterday.” But “yesterday” was completely inconsistent with the settlement Wisner had faithfully agreed upon with Mubarak. Wisner left Egypt in dismay. His own president had cut the ground out from under him, and we lost a settlement that would have been far more constructive for American interests than what was to transpire[1].

The ambassador was not alone in his bewilderment. A leading Saudi in Europe expressed his shock: “Mubarak was your longest and most loyal ally in the Middle East. He worked with you on every counterterrorism measure over the last 30 years; he kept the Suez Canal open; he supported the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Camp David peace agreement arranged by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat; and he continued to support efforts to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian compromise, and to that end he even helped blockade Hamas in Gaza. Yet in the first week that Mubarak was in trouble, you backstab him.” What all the regional leaders in the Middle East now believe, he says, is that “the minute I get into trouble the same will happen to me[2].”

These events terrified Israel. Mubarak, while not an ally to Tel Aviv, had been, as leader of the largest Arab nation, Israel’s guarantor of non-war with her Arab neighbors, and had even blockaded Hamas fighters from transiting from Sinai to Gaza and back[3]. The sudden abandonment of Mubarak, and our tacit acquiescence to the Muslim Brotherhood’s claim of turning over a new leaf, left Israel in the lurch – would the Camp David Accords still be honored? Would Egypt still police her end of the Gaza tunnels? Would a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo still act as a suppressant on Syrian-Hizbollah-Jordanian kinetic ambitions toward Israel? The epicenter of Greater Middle East stability – such as it is – rested in Mubarak’s Cairo, and we had, without consultation with Tel Aviv[4], just thrown that away.

American influence in the Middle East has been severely compromised by mixed messages being sent almost daily, starting with the “apology speech” given in Cairo by President Obama on June 4 2009 and extending through our current eagerness to negotiate with the Taliban even as they kill and maim American troops in Afghanistan[5]. The Middle Eastern mind was nicely illuminated in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, not to mention Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by TE Lawrence himself. Arabs are died-in-the-wool Realists – they see balances of power as the viscera of political survival. Osama bin Laden, citing al Qaeda’s quickness, shorter decision cycles and decisiveness, claimed to be on the “strong horse” compared to the US, and that is very Bedouin … very Arab. They, geopolitically, respect power and disdain all else.

On June 18, Anne W Patterson, US Ambassador to Egypt and a veteran diplomat, gave a speech in Cairo in which she stated, that “[w]hile the US supported Egypt’s democratic development, it still had to deal with those in power,” insulting those in power as being somewhat less than desirable to Ambassador Patterson; and then went on to say, “I don’t think the elected nature of this government is seriously in doubt, moreover, [I am] deeply skeptical that street action will produce better results than elections,” thereby insulting the demonstrators who only too well remember “street action” that brought down Mubarak and empowered Morsi. I honestly don’t know what Ms Patterson was trying to accomplish by sticking one thumb in the eye of the Muslim Brotherhood and another in the eye of the opposition, simultaneously. This is hieroglyphical thought beyond the Rosetta Stone’s ability to translate.

Our disjointed approach to foreign policy seems wishy-washy to the Arab mind (read: weak), and so we get the worst of both worlds – our Arab allies don’t trust us and our Arab enemies don’t respect us (read: fear us). We need to remember two things when negotiating with the Middle Eastern mind (Arab and Persian): there is no Qur’anic prohibition against lying to infidels (anyone who does not share the speaker’s brand of Islam); and in Henry Kissinger’s words, “the only moderate Islamist is one who’s out of ammunition.” Their internal politics and diplomatic excursions may seem labyrinthian and Byzantine, but it all rests on a rather simple calculus – winding up on the “strong horse” when the music stops. Strength and weakness resonate in the Middle Eastern mind, all else is noise.


[1] Mortimer B Zuckerman, Obama Is Costing the US Credibility in the Middle East, in US News & World Report, October 29 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] STRATFOR, July 18 2012.

[4] President Obama doesn’t much care for Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and thinks that he [Obama] is the better judge of policy for Middle Eastern stability than him [Netanyahu].

[5] The treatment of the murder of four government personnel in Benghazi as an inconvenience during an election cycle was not lost Middle Easterners, either.