Santa Monica, California (CNN) -- Google is working on a mobile application that would allow users to snap pictures of people's faces in order to access their personal information, a director for the project said this week.
In order to be identified by the software, people would have to check a box agreeing to give Google permission to access their pictures and profile information, said Hartmut Neven, the Google engineering director for image-recognition development.
Google's Profiles product includes a user's name, phone number and e-mail address. Google has not said what personal data might be displayed once a person is identified by its facial-recognition system.
"We recognize that Google has to be extra careful when it comes to these [privacy] issues," Neven told CNN in an exclusive interview. "Face recognition we will bring out once we have acceptable privacy models in place."[there is no "acceptable privacy models in place" and never can be for what Google is doing]
While Google has begun to establish how the privacy features would work, Neven did not say when the company intends to release the product, and a Google spokesman said there is not a release timeline.
The technology wouldn't necessarily be rolled out in a separate app, a Google spokesman said. Instead, facial recognition could be issued as an update to an existing Google tool, such as its image search engine.
Google has had the technical capabilities to implement this type of search engine for years.
Just as Google has crawled trillions of Web pages to deliver results for traditional search queries, the system could be programmed to associate pictures publicly available on Facebook, Flickr and other photo-sharing sites with a person's name, Neven said. "That we could do today," he said.
But those efforts had frequently stalled internally because of concerns within Google about how privacy advocates might receive the product, he said.
"People are asking for it all the time, but as an established company like Google, you have to be way more conservative than a little startup that has nothing to lose," said Neven, whose company Neven Vision was acquired by Google in 2006. "Technically, we can pretty much do all of these things."
Neven Vision specialized in object and facial recognition development. The object-related programs are reflected in an image search engine, called Goggles. The face-recognition technology was incorporated into Picasa, Google's photo-sharing service, helping the software recognize friends and family members in your computer's photo library.
In 2009, Google acquired a company called Like.com, which specialized in searching product images but also did work in interpreting pictures of people. Google has also filed for patents in the area of facial recognition.
As Google's size and clout grow, so does the chorus of critics who say the company frequently encroaches on people's privacy. Over the years, Google has made various missteps.
The company agreed to pay $8.5 million last year in a legal settlement over grievances that its Buzz social-networking service published the names of people with whom Gmail users regularly communicated. Google quickly fixed the problem, but its repercussions are still being felt: On Wednesday, Google announced it had reached an agreement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to receive an independent review of privacy procedures once every two years.
Google also faces numerous inquiries from governments regarding information collected by its Street View vans. Developers who report to Neven work on aspects of that street-level photography initiative -- mainly privacy-minded features such as the automatic blurring of faces and license plates, he said.
Google also is concerned about the legal implications of facial recognition. Even during trials among its own employees, Google has taken steps to ensure testers have explicitly agreed on record to try out the service.
The novelty of this sort of product may help attract early adopters. But policies would need to be uncomplicated and straightforward to keep users from abandoning it over privacy concerns, experts said.
"Online, people don't think about the privacy concerns; they think about the fun activities they're doing," said Karen North, director of a University of Southern California program that studies online privacy. "They're going to have to figure out a way where people who like the ease and fun of some of these technologies ... online don't feel burned at any given point. Because once they feel burned, they'll opt out."
North said she believes Google has a tendency to push boundaries in order to outdo competitors. The service could push too far by, say, aggregating every photo of a user it finds on the internet without giving that user an easy way to erase certain images, she said.
"Google, in all the best ways, has put itself in a very difficult position -- that no matter what they do, they have to do it biggest and best," North said. "They have trouble starting small and building up because they're Google."
A 'cautious route'
Google acknowledges the nefarious ways someone could leverage facial-recognition technology. [no, it doesn't]
Many people "are rightfully scared of it," Neven said. "In particular, women say, 'Oh my God. Imagine this guy takes a picture of me in a bar, and then he knows my address just because somewhere on the Web there is an association of my address with my photo.' That's a scary thought. So I think there is merit in finding a good route that makes the power of this technology available in a good way."
Neven and a Google spokesman described the facial-recognition app concept as "conservative" in relation to privacy.
"I think we are taking a sort of cautious route with this," the spokesman said. "It's a sensitive area, and it's kind of a subjective call on how you would do it."
While the opt-in requirement limits the app's utility, Neven foresees many circumstances where people would agree to be found.
"If you're an actor in L.A., you want to have everyone recognizing you," he said, sitting outside in the sun at Google's beachside office some 12 miles from Hollywood.
A facial-recognition app could tie in to social-networking initiatives Google is said to be working on. For example, people looking to connect online could use their phones to snap each other's pictures and instantly navigate to that person's profile, rather than having to exchange business cards or remember a user name.
This month, Google redesigned its Profiles pages in a change that more closely resembles Facebook's site. On Wednesday the company announced a new social-search tool, called +1, that allows people to share helpful search links with their friends.
The Longer The Western Fiasco In Libya Lasts, The Better
U.S. officials, opposition warn Libya could get bloodier
March 31, 2011 8
Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- From the halls of Congress to the shell-pocked streets of Libyan cities, intertwined themes rang clear Thursday: Leader Moammar Gadhafi is determined to prevail, and the opposition needs more training and allied air strikes to have a chance.
"Gadhafi will "kill as many (people) as he must to crush the rebellion," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told the House Armed Services Committee.
The rebels, who were regrouping after several setbacks, pinned their hopes on more coalition air power, which will likely increase as weather improves.
"We want more to bring a speedy end to this," Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, an opposition spokesman, told CNN. "A strike is not a strike unless it kills," he said.
CIA operatives have been in Libya working with rebel leaders to try to reverse gains by loyalist forces, a U.S. intelligence source said.
The United States, insisting it is now fulfilling more of a support role in the coalition, shifted in that direction as NATO took sole command of air operations in Libya.
The ferocity of this month's fighting and Gadhafi's advantage in firepower was clearly evident in Misrata, which has seen snipers, significant casualties and destruction.
A witness told CNN Thursday there "is utter madness" and Gadhafi's men are going door-to-door evicting and terrorizing people.
"I am afraid it will be one big massacre here in Misrata" if the international forces "do not do more," he said. CNN did not identify the witness for security reasons.
Saddoun El-Misurati, a spokesman for the Libyan opposition in Misrata, described intense fighting and casualties in the city.
"We managed to get two shipments, so far, of badly needed medical supplies to the hospitals. But obviously we still need more supplies in dealing with the day-to-day casualties and the situation on the ground," he said.
Gadhafi's military capabilities had been steadily eroded since the onset of U.N.-sanctioned air strikes, U.S. officials have said.
But the dictator's forces outnumber the rebels by about 10-to-1 in terms of armor and other ground forces, Mullen noted.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, also speaking before the House committee, warned that the Libyan rebels still need significant training and assistance.
"It's pretty much a pickup ballgame" right now, he said.
U.S. and British officials say no decision has been made about whether to arm the opposition.
Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN's "The Situation Room" she opposes doing that. The Democratic senator cited failures of such a move in other conflicts.
Bani -- asked whether he is open to the idea of ground forces from outside Libya joining the rebels' effort -- responded that "all options are open to us."
"It has been very hard the past few days because the freedom forces have been facing heavy tanks and artillery weapons with very light weapons," the spokesman said.
While some members of the Libyan military reportedly defected to join the opposition, the rebels include many volunteers who have not been trained.
Over the weekend, CNN reported that rebels had taken al-Brega, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, and reached a town just east of Sirte. But in the past three days, opposition fighters have been pushed back eastward.
CNN's Ben Wedeman, reporting Thursday from near al-Brega, said the rebels, armed with light mortars and machine guns, have displayed no strategy in their running battles with loyalist troops.
Gates reiterated the Obama administration's promise that no U.S. ground forces will be used in Libya, telling committee members that the rebels had indicated they didn't want such an intervention.
But the United States does have CIA personnel on the ground.
A U.S. intelligence source said the CIA is operating in the country to help increase U.S. "military and political understanding" of the situation.
A former counterterrorism official with knowledge of U.S. Libya policy said there is a presidential finding authorizing the CIA to conduct operations in support of U.S. policy in Libya, including assessing the opposition and determining their needs.
Specific activities by CIA officers will be determined by conditions on the ground and would need further approval from the White House, the source said.
A former senior intelligence official said officers "might be advising [rebels] on how to target the adversary, how to use the weapons they have, reconnaissance and counter-surveillance."
Presidential findings are a type of secret order authorizing some covert intelligence operations.
The CIA has had a presence in Libya for some time, a U.S. official told CNN earlier this month. "The intelligence community is aggressively pursuing information on the ground," the official said. The CIA sent additional personnel to Libya to augment officers on the ground after the anti-government protests erupted, the official said, without giving details.
CIA officers assisted with the rescue of one of two U.S. airmen whose fighter jet crashed in Libya on March 21, a knowledgeable U.S. source said.
NATO emphasized Thursday that the U.N. resolution authorizing action in Libya precludes "occupation forces."
NATO Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola, chairman of the NATO Military Committee, indicated that the presence of foreign intelligence personnel does not violate U.N. Security Council 1973, which authorized action in Libya.
Rebel forces have been demanding an end to Gadhafi's nearly 42 years of rule in Libya. They have faced sustained attacks by a regime fighting to stay in power and portraying the opposition as terrorists backed by al Qaeda.
Rebel forces have lost Bin Jawad and the key oil town of Ras Lanuf and are backed up to the al-Brega area, Bani said Wednesday.
Ajdabiya, which is east of al-Brega, will be prepared as a "defense point" if the withdrawal continues farther east, he said.
Amid the setbacks faced by rebels, a significant crack in Gadhafi's armor surfaced when Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa fled to London on Wednesday and told the government there that he has resigned, the British Foreign Office said.
Koussa -- a former head of Libyan intelligence -- was a stalwart defender of the government as recently as a month ago. But in recent weeks his demeanor had visibly changed. At one recent media briefing, he kept his head down as he read a statement and left early.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Koussa had not been offered any immunity.
Koussa's defection provides evidence "that Gadhafi's regime ... is fragmented, under pressure and crumbling from within," said Hague, adding that Koussa is voluntarily speaking with officials in the United Kingdom.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Thursday that Koussa did not tell the government he planned to resign before he flew to Britain. Ibrahim said Koussa asked for sick leave and the government gave him permission to leave the country and receive intensive medical care.
The government had another setback Thursday, with news that an official who was picked as Libyan ambassador to the United Nations has defected.
A relative and an opposition leader said Thursday that former Foreign Minister Ali Abdussalam Treki was in Cairo.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has a new American critic.
Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.)(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)
On Thursday, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, rapped Mr. Assad for not following through on his recent commitments to initiate political reforms.
Syrian officials have suggested in recent days that a national address Mr. Assad gave Wednesday would unveil sweeping new political changes for the Arab country. It didn’t.
“President Bashar al-Assad did not use his speech yesterday to promise concrete reforms, including lifting the emergency law,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement. “With large protests scheduled for tomorrow, it is essential that his government refrain from using violence against its own people.”
The Massachusetts Democrat has been perhaps Assad’s staunchest supporter in Washington. The two men have met a half-dozen times in recent years, according to Kerry aides, to discuss the Arab-Israeli peace process, Iraq and Lebanon. The two men have also mapped out specific ways to forge an agreement between Syria and Israel aimed at ending their dispute over the Golan Heights region.
Just two weeks ago, Mr. Kerry gave an address at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington where he raised hopes of Mr. Assad playing a stabilizing role in the Middle East.
“President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” Mr. Kerry said. “I think it’s incumbent on us to try to move that relationship forward in the same way.”
Mr. Kerry’s statement could presage a hardening Washington line toward Damascus as political protests are expected to continue in Syria. So far, the White House has taken a cautious approach. The U.S. has criticized the Syrian government’s use of forces against its people. But President Barack Obama’s administration hasn’t indicated it might pursue punitive measures against Syria, such as new economic sanctions, in response.
In Libya, As Everywhere, There Will Always Be Civilian Casualties
These civilian casualties are, given the nature of attacks from the air, and where Qaddafy chooses to deliberately place his barraks and anti-aircraft fire, unavoidable. These casualties do not make the Libyan intervention morally wrong, Nor should the defense against such charges confuse anyone into thinking this must endow the Libyan intervention with geopolitical sense.
Tripoli air strikes killed 40 civilians claims Vatican official
Vatican envoy in Libya Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli says reliable reports that residents in Tajoura died during raid
In Libya, Some Americans Want This And Some Want That
Some want "regime change" to end the "brutal oppression."
Some want America to "do what's right, as America always does," and come down on the "side of humanity." (whatever that is).
Some want America to be "on the right side of history."
Some want America to "do what the international community has declared must be done." 9India, China, Russia, Brazil, and Germany, most of sub-Saharan Africa, and several countries in Latin America, are apparently not part of the 'international community")
Some whose tired old eyes have seen it all want America to make sure it does not fall into a long-term commitment.
But no one seems eager to say what in another age might be so obvious it would not need saying:
1. Any war among Muslims, within a country, or between countries, should go on as long as possible.
2. Non-Muslims should watch the war, and the images of violence and general chaos and conspiracy-theorizing and lying on all sides should be taken in, and understood to be a feature common to Muslim societies, and explained by Islam itself.
3. Non-Muslims should not intervene or give aid except, possibly, to help the weaker side not to succumb at once, so as to allow the conflict to be prolonged.
In Libya, as in Iraq, the goal -- of a stable and relatively peaceful country -- is exactly the wrong goal.
And in Libya, as in Iraq, not only will that goal not be achieved, but the intervention meant to achieve it will have quite different, unexpected, but highly desirable consequences.
In Iraq, the American intervention made possible, made inevtiable, the transfer of power from Sunni Arabs to Shi'a Arabs, a new dispensation which rankles Sunnis inside and outside Iraq, and will have consequences, in sectarian strife, not only in Iraq but in many other countries in the Middle East, and even in distant Pakistan.
In Libya, the American intervention made possible, made inevitable, a much longer battle between the forces based in Tripoli, those of the Qaddafy family and its courtiers, and those who do not want the Qaddafy family to continue to rule in any part of Libya. American air attacks, and then American refusal to put "boots on the ground," have ensured that the conflict will not be settled quickly.
Two good outcomes. Both unintended. It's apparently going to be the Age of Unintended But Certainly Consequential Consequences.
Geert Wilders Wants Debate on 'Real Nature' of Mohammed
THE HAGUE, 01/04/11 - Party for Freedom (PVV) leader Geert Wilders wants a public debate on the "real nature and character of Mohammed." Such a debate can give insight and support to Muslims worldwide to leave Islam, says Wilders in an article in newsmagazine HP/De Tijd.
Wilders maintains that Islam is highly dangerous and that this becomes clear from reading the Koran, but also by looking at the character of Mohammed. "The historic Mohammed was the harsh leader of a band of robbers from Medina, who plundered, raped and murdered without scruples. The sources describe orgies of savagery in which hundreds of people had their throats cut, hands and feet hacked off, eyes put out and whole tribes wiped out. . . When we are confronted today with the madness of Islamic terrorists, it is not difficult to discover where this madness comes from,"
The debate on Mohammed is necessary, Wilders claims, because those who want to escape from the grip of Islam and Mohammed may pay for this with their life. "It is time that we help these people by unmasking Mohammed."
Wilders quotes the Iranian ex-Muslim Ali Sina, founder of an organisation for Islamic apostates. Sina called the Prophet "a narcissist, a paedophile, a mass murderer, a terrorist, a misogynist, sexually obsessed, a sect leader, a lunatic, a rapist, a torturer, an assassin and a robber."
From Holocaust Poetry for Our Time, translated from the Hungarian and edited by Thomas Ország-Land (April 2011)
Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944), poet & translator, was perhaps the greatest poet of the Holocaust. These pieces were found on his body in a mass grave of Hungarian prisoners executed because they were also Jewish. more>>>
He introduced himself like that everywhere----at Sunbreak City University, Clearhaeuser Timber Company, Dayfresh House, at Theodore Roethke Writers’ House and to Fontina, the woman he wanted as a girlfriend. He hoped others saw him as he saw himself: cheerful, tallish, broad-shouldered, long-haired, smiling, chipped-toothed, bobbing slightly----happy to be living in Sunbreak City. If they didn’t, oh well. Joffrey couldn’t worry about them. You came to the big city to do big things, to do what you wanted, to see if living and dreaming really had anything to do with each other. more>>>
The clocks went forward this weekend and I wish they hadn’t. I enjoy the spring mornings getting lighter and lighter. Now suddenly they are dark again and I will have to adjust my sleep pattern accordingly. And while the, as John Galsworthy put it, ‘artificially extended daylight’ is not too much of a trial in March; it is a real hardship to me in June when it is still light at my 10pm bedtime. The suggestion every year that we should stay on Central European time, and even move our clocks forward a second hour fills me with dread. more>>>
What follows is the full text of a short disquisition given to the Symposium held by NER in the Year of the Occluded Cesspit by Doctor N.E. Mesis, B. Horlog. M. Chr. Ph.D., Permanent (Permanent) Secretary of the Department of Time. It is not often that NER gets to publish such wonderful material from such an illustrious and respected person and we should all be grateful that the good Doctor spared us the time to explain some of the inner workings of his Department. Remember as you listen to him that the Departmental motto is Ab aeterno, ad litteram. more>>>
The Magic Mountain and The Middle of the Journey: Analogous Tales
by Sam Bluefarb (November 2011)
Although Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) is best known for his criticism, his unfinished, posthumous novel, The Journey Abandoned (2008), sparked a renewed interest in him as novelist without prejudicing his greater importance as a critic. This reawakening led to a reappraisal of what had been his first—and only--novel, the underestimated The Middle of the Journey (1947). For many years, I have ruminated over how that work might have been influenced by Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), and how it resembled the earlier novel in a number of ways. Mann’s of course is the incomparably greater work; yet both are quintessentially representative of their times. more>>>
J Street: Perhaps Pro-Peace, but Certainly not Pro-Israel
Remarks delivered to ACT, Middle Tennessee Chapter, February 8, 2011
by Matthew M. Hausman (April 2011)
Good evening. I’m speaking tonight as a proud Jew and committed Zionist, and I’m here to offer my thoughts on J Street, an organization that claims to be “pro-Israel and pro-peace.” In order to have some perspective, however, I think it’s necessary to delve a little into some of the historical background of the Jewish Left in order to understand how such groups could come to exist. more>>>
Z Street: A Jewish Organization in the Spirit of the Bergson Boys
by Jerry Gordon (April 2011)
Z Street was founded in 2009 by a veteran Philadelphia Jewish activist and former Zionist Organization of America (ZoA) official, Lori Lowenthal Marcus. Marcus is a Brandeis University and Harvard Law school graduate and legal educator, who also practiced as a First Amendment Rights lawyer and knew something about Constitutional rights of free speech. more>>>
Shame as the Master Emotion: Examples from Pop Songs
by Thomas J. Scheff (April 2011)
We are rarely proud when we are alone.
It is difficult to understand the importance of shame in modern societies because we live inside an ethos that is highly individualistic and focused on exterior matters. When interior matters are viewed, thought and perception are recognized, but little attention is given to emotions and relationships. This essay focuses on the social-emotional world, and proposes that shame should be considered the master emotion. more>>
I can’t remember when first I met Richard and I can’t remember how we became friends but it may have been through music. I have a vague recollection that I met him at one of those jam sessions which were not quite concerts, where young teenagers from different junior highs and high schools within a subway ride of our school, would converge in the basement of a local Catholic Church, Our Lady of the Assumption, to play rock and roll. more>>>
DalÃ and GaudÃ: Two Eccentric Catalan Geniuses and the RenaixenÃ§a
by Norman Berdichevsky (April 2011)
Two eccentric Catalan artists, Antoni (not Antonio) Gaudí and Salvador Dalí (Americans, please note, the accent is on the last syllable!) created a revolution in their respective fields of architecture and painting – and exemplified with their magnificent work the Catalan genius for non-conformism and innovation. These characteristics among many other behavioral traits set the Catalans apart and explain why they are so insistent on maintaining a separate identity from the Castilians even after coexistence in a united Spain for more than five hundred years.more>>>
The exemplary life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been brought to the attention of the world by Eric Metaxas (author of Amazing Grace: William Wilburforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery). Like his earlier book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy(A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich) is likely to be made into a compelling movie as well as a bestselling book. Bonhoeffer was the son of a prominent German family who was raised in the traditional German aristocratic liberal tradition. He became a pastor and theologian and then a key leader of the Christian resistance to Nazism, working in Germany, London and America. Eventually, his faith led him to join the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler which culminated in the failed von Stauffenberg plot. Bonhoeffer, in turn, was executed on Hitler’s orders on April 8, 1945 (just three weeks prior to the Fuhrer’s own suicide at the end of the war). more>>>
No feudal lord ever demanded more of his serf’s time or product than the British state now demands of its subjects: indeed, if he did, he would have provoked an immediate peasants’ revolt. Just as in the overpopulated parts of Nigeria the rule is ‘If it moves, eat it,’ such that there is hardly any bush-meat left, so in Britain the rule is, ‘If it moves, tax it.’ Even if you are not directly employed by the state in Britain, you spend almost half your working time working for it. This is what the French newspapers, as lazily incurious and ill-informed about Britain as the British newspapers are about France, call ‘savage liberalism.’ more>>
As President Bashar al-Assad’s regime tries to cope with growing unrest and protests throughout much of Syria, he will almost inevitably have to rely on his army to take a wider role in attempts to restore order. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that Syria is about to follow the path of Egypt. Unlike Egypt, few Syrians look at the army as a benign institution. Rather, it is as a palace guard, meant to keep the ruling Alawite sect in power.
The Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam, represent about 11 per cent of the population. It is only thanks to their control of the army (and intelligence services) that they keep their grip on Syria. So no matter how bad things become, Syrians would never trust them to oversee any reform, let alone democratisation.
When I was working in Syria in the 1980s, a Syrian officer offered me an insight into the reality of the country’s army. One night not long after the 1973 war, the officer was up late into the night keeping previous president Hafiz al-Assad company. Around three, he watched Assad as he picked up the phone from the side table and asked his operator to put him through to a frontline post on the Israeli border. A lieutenant came on the phone, sleepy and irritated that he had been woken up.
Assad asked him his name. Rather than answering, the lieutenant asked who his caller was. When Assad told him, the lieutenant naturally enough lost his composure and could only stammer his name. He became even more confused when Assad started to ask the lieutenant about his family and village, knowing all the names of his brothers. “Assad had no idea who would be on duty that night,” the Syrian officer told me. “But it is the very reason Assad has so tightly held on to power all these years. It was his army.”
Assad made it a habit to read every officer’s file, committing their personal details to memory. He also personally approved transfers and promotions. But more importantly, Assad instituted an unwritten rule that every large combat unit would be under the command of an Alawite officer. There would still be Sunni commanders, but in name only. They would have no real power over their units and were not permitted to put a single aircraft into the air or drive a tank out of cantonment – without the authority of the ranking Alawite. The Alawite officers were related either by blood or bonds of loyalty that could never be broken.
Assad’s son, having become his successor, has shown few of his father’s sharp political instincts but he has had the good sense to leave his father’s military system in place. Like every other Alawite, he understood that this is a matter of survival for his sect and his hold on power these last 10 years has depended on it.
Over the weekend an Alawite with ties to the Assad family messaged me in frustration about how little the west understands about Syria, what is at stake and how far the Alawites will go to hold on to power. He said the police in Dara’a – the town where the first demonstration started – had fired on the crowd in order to protect the lives of Alawites. At the same time he was worried that things might go too far. The hardliners around Mr Assad say that the Alawites cannot afford to make concessions to the street. If they do so they risk being forced from power. Only decisive and unanswerable force will work, as history has shown.
In February 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood seized Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city. For several days Mr Assad’s father hesitated on how to respond. But when he heard that dozens of Alawites had been massacred, without a second thought, he ordered the army to shell the town. His commanders were told to spare no one in putting down the revolt.
I visited Hama one year later, seeing for myself how Assad’s artillery had all but removed the town from the earth. The Alawites I talked to were not happy, but they believed that the Sunni rebellion was snuffed out only thanks to the regime’s violent reprisal. Then, just as today, the Alawites recognised it was the Alawite-led army that safeguarded their survival.
There is no way to predict whether Mr Assad has the stomach for another Hama, or for that matter, whether things will get bad enough for him to consider it. But the one certainty is that if he and the Alawites are forced from power, Syria will not have an army to fill the vacuum. And then the question becomes whether or not the west intervenes to stop a civil war.
Only a fool would predict what is coming next in the Middle East. But if Hama is any guide, the potential for violence in Syria makes Libya and Yemen look mild. Moreover, chances are good that chaos in Syria risks spilling into neighbouring countries – notably Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and maybe even the Arab side of the Gulf, which is already riven by sectarian divisions. This is a worst-case scenario, but the point is if it comes about, there will be no way the west could just stand by and hope for the best. [no, this is not a "worst-case scenario." It is a "best-case scenario" and there is no need for the West to "hope for the best." That would be the best.]]
The writer is a former CIA operative in the Middle East
For those who still remember Roger Cohen’s shilling for the despicable anti-Semitic Iranian regime in early 2009, his current stand as a champion of democracy in the Islamic world still chafes. But ever since the crackdown in Tehran after the stolen presidential election that year, he has been a consistent critic of the tyrannical regimes that dominate the Middle East. However his animus toward Israel — the conceit behind his original dishonest claim that the Ahmadinejad government was actually benign — still informs his writing.
Hence although his ringing manifesto “Arabs Will Be Free” in today’s New York Times was ostensibly about the cause of freedom in the Arab world that he says won’t be denied, it paired a call for the end of the Assad regime in Syria as well as other autocracies with support for Hezbollah. What, you may ask, does the Iranian-supported Lebanese terrorist movement have to do with the Arab Spring? Isn’t Hezbollah the main ally of two of the most repressive regimes in the region: Iran and Syria?
As far as Cohen is concerned, we need to forget about that salient fact as well as the way Hezbollah has co-opted Lebanon and turned its south into a military base bristling with missiles pointed at Israel. That’s because he considers Lebanon to be one of the three democracies in the region, along with Turkey and Israel. That is an absurd assertion but not the only astounding thing in his column.
Lebanon may have elections and a parliament but the idea that the Lebanese government is anything like a functioning democracy is pretty silly. Its government is, even when it is functioning properly, divided strictly along sectarian lines. The parties there are not competing for votes on the basis of ideas but on that of ethnic and religious identity as well as their respective military power. Hence, Hezbollah’s current strength. But that’s okay with Cohen, who takes comfort in that fact that this hasn’t led to war. At least not yet.
Cohen believes that the West must “talk” to Hezbollah and in order to justify this stand, he compares the Shiite extremist group to Shas, Israel’s Sephardic religious party. While I agree that the power that Shas has in Israel’s truly democratic system is troubling, there is no comparison between the two. Shas may be a corrupt and cynical organization with no interest in anything but accruing patronage, but it is not a terrorist movement. Its leaders have been both thieves and fools, but they have murdered no one. Their ethnic appeal is based in a desire for representation, and not as a military organization.
He goes on to broaden the analogy with Hezbollah to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. All are, he says, problems, like Shas. But these are very different problems. Turkey’s ruling Islamic party is moving that formerly secular and Western-oriented country in the wrong direction but, unlike the Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah, it actually has adapted itself to democracy and is peaceful — even if worrisome.
The trouble with Cohen’s advocacy for democracy is that he is incapable of drawing the one meaningful distinction between groups bent on Islamist domination such as the Brotherhood and Hezbollah and a genuinely democratic though deeply flawed party like Shas. If the Arab spring winds up bringing parties such as these Islamist groups to power then the result will be the same kind of democracy that Cohen once lauded in Iran.