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Obama, Zuckerberg meet – Silicon Valley Getting Hot Again!!

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By Cecilia Kang

PALO ALTO, Calif. – President Obama and 26-year-old Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, a billionaire college dropout, may seem like an unlikely duo.

But when the two took the stage together Wednesday to talk about the nation’s poor fiscal health and plans to cure it, the pairing highlighted the increasing interdependence between the president and Silicon Valley.

Obama was introduced to much of the nation through Facebook and Google’s YouTube, companies he says are bright spots in the economy. They produce the kinds of jobs that he believes will maintain the nation’s economic edge in the future.

“The administration recognizes that companies like Facebook and so many other tech companies are at the forefront of job creation and hold the key to economic recovery,” said Ray Ramsey, president of Silicon Valley trade group TechNet. “The administration also understands they can’t take the Valley’s support for granted and their actions are showing this.”

To understand the importance of high-tech firms and Obama’s association with them, it’s only necessary to look at the tech-heavy Nasdaq stock index, which on Wednesday hit its highest level since last October.

Meanwhile, Facebook needs to have good relations with Washington regulators and lawmakers. It is under increased scrutiny by federal officials over how its social networking business – where information is the currency for business online – could curtail the privacy of consumers.

As it tries to expand globally – particularly in China – Facebook’s ambitions may also rub against a U.S. diplomatic agenda that aims to bring to the rest of the world an ethos that opposes censorship and endorses online activism.

(Washington Post Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Donald E. Graham sits on Facebook’s board of directors, and the newspaper and many Post staffers use Facebook for marketing purposes.)

Facebook has promoted Obama’s visit as a major honor, a validation of the firm’s influence as a communications platform. The White House has boasted that the audience it will reach through Facebook’s live video broadcast is comprised largely of middle class, typically younger Americans who would be harder to approach through traditional media.

Even increased government scrutiny of Facebook and other Bay Area firms such as Twitter and Google is unlikely to dampen the mood surrounding Obama’s visit here. He’ll attend three San Francisco fundraisers to tap into deep pockets of Democratic donors in the Bay Area.

They like his promise to bring mobile high-speed Internet connections to all Americans, and they tend to support him because of their individual political leanings, tech lobbyists and political strategists say. And they want to have more exposure to the president whose administration says Internet privacy rules are needed.

“There has been tremendous support for Obama and in part that’s because he understands the Internet and appointed people who have technology expertise. But policy-wise, business leaders approach those policies like libertarians,” said Markham Erickson, a tech lobbyist and partner at Holch & Erickson in Washington. “There has been a view among tech companies that you can invent or design around what Washington does.”

Some tech lobbyists say privately that they are disappointed that Silicon Valley firms find themselves on the defensive with the Federal Trade Commission on the privacy question. Meanwhile, they believe the bottom-line issues where they want government help, such as patent reform and tax repatriation, aren’t being addressed fast enough.

“There is some disappointment on bottom-line tech policies,” said one tech lobbyist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to do so by his tech clients. “The stuff he’s accomplished on tech policy so far won’t directly impact these Internet firms today and maybe not for years.”

Facebook, just seven years old, is responding to the increased government focus on its company by expanding its lobbying operations. Still small by K Street standards, the company’s Dupont Circle office grew from one person three years ago to 10 today, and it has hired outside lawyers as consultants. A source familiar with the company’s thinking said it has plans to grow even more.

There are a number of former high-level White House officials on Facebook’s staff: former Obama White House economic adviser Marne Levine heads its policy shop and former Bush administration aide Cathie Martin is also on its policy team.

Facebook wants to enter China and it is facing criticism for its approach to Internet policy abroad. Google and Twitter have actively protested government regimes that require censorship and worked with State Department officials to help dissidents protest and organize against repressive regimes such as in Iran and Egypt. But Facebook has a more nuanced approach, saying it abides by the policies of local governments.

Zuckerberg, who wasn’t personally engaged in Obama’s 2008 campaign like Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, joins his business contemporaries relatively late. He and Apple CEO Steve Jobs only began to interact more closely with Obama in the past year. In February, both were part of an exclusive presidential dinner with a handful of CEOs, hosted by Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr.

Obama, meanwhile, has nurtured strong high-tech relationships throughout his tenure. Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, joined Zuckerberg and the president at the town hall. She sits on Obama’s council of economic advisors. AOL founder Steve Case heads his Startup America initiative to help small business growth. Eric Schmidt of Google, Cisco CEO John Chambers, and Intel CEO Paul Otellini regularly attend meetings at the White House as economic advisers.

Those leaders bring expertise and money to economic initiatives. Intel, Microsoft and IBM have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to science education programs. They also widen Obama’s campaign network with big donations and lucrative events.

He will attend an exclusive fundraising dinner at the home of Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce.com, a cloud computing company that provides business software applications on-demand. That firm on Wednesday saw its stock rise 8 percent.

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Obama, Bush and America’s Limits

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The release of George W. Bush’s memoirs and his successor’s ten-day trip to Asia complemented each other in a sobering way this last week. Bush’s book, “Decision Points,” brought back the folly of his early unilateralism. At the same time, President Barack Obama’s troubled Asia trip showed the limits of America’s influence even when it tries to work with others.

If there was one philosophy that dominated the Bush administration’s early years it was the notion that the best way to preserve American power was to exercise it unilaterally. The more constraints the U.S. voluntarily acquiesced to, the weaker it would become, and by bucking international institutions and even abrogating existing treaties, America would strengthen our position. The prime advocates of this approach–Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle and John Bolton–were effectively arguing that might made right.

Plenty of American foreign policy experts disagreed, usually less on moral grounds than on practical ones: by shaping international institutions to our liking while we had the power, the multilateralists argued, we would ensure they served our interests when we were less influential. But back then it was hazardous for politicians to make that argument. The Romans, the Turks and the British may have eventually faded (none of them, incidentally, thanks to too much international cooperation), but any suggestion that America might not be number one forever was taken as passive acceptance of that fate.

Now the idea that we won’t be number one forever is more widely credited. One of the most-discussed ads of this last election cycle showed a fully risen China looking back in 20 years and laughing at our decline. A post-midterms CBS poll showed 62% of the country thinks it’s headed on the wrong track, with only 29% saying it’s going in the right direction. The theme of American decline has been a touchstone for Obama’s opponents during his two years in office. That malaise, real or imagined, combined with the “shellacking” Democrats took in the midterms, created a difficult set of expectations into which Obama would be walking on his Asia trip. A few perceived wins would have been welcome for him; losses were likely to make him, and the U.S., look worse than they might in other circumstances.

Managing perceptions on international trips is the job of White House, State department and sometimes Treasury department aides; somehow all managed to fail the president at a bad moment. Typically, staffers are assigned to manage negotiations for months before a bilateral or multiparty summit to ensure there are no surprises once the President arrives. The aides are supposed to figure out what can be achieved, precooking the agreements and writing them up beforehand. Then with a little stagecraft, the principles show up, pretend to do some last minute negotiations (or not), and sign a document, often an irrelevant one, but nevertheless a “deliverable.”

Expectations were not so expertly handled on Obama’s Asia trip. In an attempt to boost worker protections, Obama had reopened negotiations on a free-trade treaty with South Korea that Bush had been unable to advance through Congress. Obama had sworn to seal the deal on the trip, which didn’t help, but when troubles arose in the run-up the administration did not telegraph them, leaving expectations of success higher than they should have been. Likewise, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s public effort to get a G-20 deal on trade imbalances was thrown together rapidly and largely in public, leaving Obama without a safety net and facing headlines like this in the New York Times when it fell short of the American target.

Bungled expectations are short-term setbacks, and the administration is quick to argue that it may still have success on the South Korean deal or G-20 trade imbalances. But the reasons behind Obama’s failure to nail them down on a presidential trip abroad are more concerning. Obama, on his flight back to the U.S. Sunday, tried to play down the larger implications. “Sometimes because we’ve gone through a tough couple of years, there’s a tendency for us to think that somehow Asia is moving and we’re forgotten,” Obama said, “And in fact, I think everywhere in Asia, what I heard from leaders and people is that we are still central, and they want us there.” That may be, but the American president’s influence has clearly diminished in recent years: a more powerful America likely would have succeeded in tightening the trade deal with South Korea and might have convinced the G-20 to agree to fixed targets for limiting trade imbalances.

These failures take on a particular light against the backdrop of Bush’s memoirs. It would have been wise to seal these deals when the U.S. had more power to persuade other countries to agree to them. The U.S. is still by far the most powerful country on earth and is likely to stay that way for a long time to come: the markets’ confidence in U.S. treasuries and America’s continued economic and military power make that clear. But America is going through a cyclical waning of influence. Perhaps the experience will bolster arguments for multilateralism in the future.

The general’s DC wishlist

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By: C. Raja Mohan

As General Ashfaq Kayani arrives in Washington this week to lead what has been billed as a comprehensive strategic dialogue with the United States, there is considerable anticipation in Rawalpindi about the goody bag that might await the Pakistan army chief.

With the Army GHQ in Pindi demanding strategic parity with India and primacy in Afghanistan in return for the recent services rendered to Washington, there is some concern in Delhi about where the US-Pakistan relationship is headed and what it might mean for the geopolitics of the region.

Pindi’s expectations from Washington as well as Delhi’s fears about the direction of the US-Pakistan relationship might, however, turn out to be somewhat exaggerated.

If there is always a big gulf between the Pakistan army’s reach and its grasp, the Indian foreign policy establishment has a habit of reading too much into Pakistan’s relations with the US.

While Delhi cannot stop Pindi from overplaying its hand, it must respond calmly to the likely results from the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue this week. Even more important, Delhi must prepare to shape the evolution of the US-Pakistan relationship rather than merely protest against it.

A self-confident India that builds on its own partnership with Washington and works its undervalued levers in Islamabad can explore the many contradictions in the current US-Pakistan partnership and influence its future direction.

For one, both the US and Pakistan say the purpose of their strategic dialogue is to construct an enduring relationship rather than an instrumental one. The Obama administration has indeed apologised for the past American habit of using and discarding the Pakistan army.

Only a bold man will bet that the US-Pakistan relationship will now evolve into something more than the marriage of convenience it has been for decades. After all, there are little commercial or societal ties that bind the US to Pakistan and it might be difficult to sustain the US-Pakistan partnership once the current expediency passes.

To be sure, the American interest in Pakistan will continue so long as it has troops in Afghanistan. This surely will not be a permanent condition.

In Washington, the rhetoric is all about looking beyond the military/ security relationship with Pakistan. The Obama administration wants to channel the expanded American assistance to Pakistan into such areas as agriculture and education. Any amount of money that America and the world might mobilise for Pakistan’s economic development will be a drop in the bucket.

Pakistan’s ruling party – the GHQ – is under no obligation to win political mandate from the people, let alone renew it periodically. It has little incentive, then, to promote economic and social transformation in Pakistan.

For all the American hopes to move the relationship beyond security cooperation, Kayani’s focus in Washington this week will be on geopolitics and not the social sector.

Given his recognition that the American connection might once again be a short-lived one, Kayani would naturally want to extract, quickly, whatever he can from the Obama administration on India and Afghanistan.

Although Pakistan’s leverage in Washington today is real, Kayani might be over-estimating its value. Kayani’s American wishlist is said to have four key demands. First, re-establish strategic parity with India in the atomic domain with a civil nuclear deal of the kind Delhi gained from President George W. Bush.

Second, Pindi wants substantive conventional weapons transfers to redress what it sees as India’s threatening military modernisation. Third, Kayani wants Washington to press India to make major concessions on its disputes with Pakistan, including the old one on Kashmir and the newly minted one on the Indus waters.

Finally, Pakistan wants the US recognition of its case for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and to have a decisive say in the construction of new political arrangements across the Durand line.

There is no way the US can meet the entirety of Pakistan’s demands. Nor can the administration deliver on them unilaterally; some of them – like the nuclear deal – require congressional consensus as well as unanimity in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. There are others that are simply not possible – force Indian concessions on Kashmir.

On Afghanistan, where the US needs Kayani’s troops, there will be some give and take; but India will have to be super-paranoid to believe Washington will simply hand over Afghanistan to the Pakistan army.

The presumed endgame in Afghanistan will be a prolonged one and no final decisions are at hand in Washington this week. Having already written some big cheques to Pakistan since it came to power, the Obama administration too has demands on Pindi. These include more substantive army action against the Afghan Taliban and its associates and freedom of action for American use of force on Pakistan territory.

Since Kayani cannot return without a going-home present, India must expect that there will be some American rewards for him this week. Expanded supply of arms to Pakistan is certainly one possibility.

The temptation is strong in India to protest against any and all arms sales to Pakistan. Delhi must resist it, because such objections carry little credibility.

India’s main problem with Pakistan is not about a fragile conventional military balance that might be upset by American arms transfers. It is to change Pakistan’s belief that under the nuclear gun it can promote anti-India terror groups with impunity.

As it responds to the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue this week, Delhi’s message must be three-fold – global efforts aimed at a positive transformation of Pakistan are welcome; expanded economic and military assistance to Pakistan must be conditioned on Pindi’s commitment to dismantle its jehadi assets; India is ready to address all of Pakistan’s concerns – including Kashmir – if it gives up violent extremism as an instrument of state policy.

Written by rohitkumarsviews

March 24, 2010 at 7:37 am

Why the U.S. must talk to the Taliban

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By Ahmed Rashid

While the Obama administration is watching the battlefield in Afghanistan, hoping for a quick weakening of the Taliban, regional powers are ratcheting up tensions in and outside that country. Pakistan and Iran in particular want to ensure that by the time the United States is ready to talk to the Taliban, the region’s future will already be shaped by local powers, limiting Washington’s options. Afghanistan’s ethnic and sectarian divisions are being exacerbated in the process.

The United States still sees the battle in Afghanistan as a two-sided counterinsurgency, and its focus is on the military situation. In fact, Afghanistan is facing multidimensional threats involving all of its key neighbors.

Afghanistan and its neighbors are convinced, despite President Obama’s references to a gradual withdrawal, that U.S. and NATO forces will begin a total pullout next summer.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently visited Kabul, making clear that Tehran will jockey for influence after the Western withdrawal. Russia and the Central Asian republics are making themselves visible in wanting to discuss the eventual future of Afghanistan. But the most dangerous signal of instability on the subcontinent is the dramatic escalation of the proxy war between India and Pakistan in the past few weeks.

Events are reminiscent of the 1990s, when the bloody Afghan civil war was fueled by an alignment of India, Iran and Russia, which backed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban regime supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Today, however, the stakes are much higher. India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies in Pakistan and elsewhere are on the loose. NATO’s gains in Afghanistan are fragile. Afghan ethnic divisions already weaken the country; a divide fueled by neighboring states could spark a political and security meltdown.

The United States and NATO have said they support “reintegrating” low-level Taliban adherents with the Kabul government, but the Obama administration has not decided about the main demand of Afghan President Hamid Karzai: talking to the Taliban leadership. NATO countries, whose populations increasingly oppose the war in Afghanistan, have already publicly supported this move.

India, Iran and Russia have long been averse to any dialogue with the Taliban that could give Pakistan greater leverage in the region or with Washington. All see the various extremist groups based in Pakistan as threats to their security. India is working to rebuild the regional alliance that opposed the Taliban and Pakistan in the 1990s. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited India last Thursday, partly to discuss a common strategy on a post-U.S. Afghanistan. Senior Indian officials have met with Karzai in Kabul and are due in Iran later this month.

Yet Pakistan’s military clearly wants a role in shaping Afghanistan. Islamabad had given the Taliban leadership sanctuary since 2001, but in recent weeks the military has arrested several key Taliban leaders who went around the generals and the intelligence service and were using Saudi Arabia as an intermediary to talk to Kabul. Still left alone, however, are Taliban hard-liners who could promote Pakistan’s security needs in future dialogues with Kabul.

On a visit to Islamabad last week, Karzai acknowledged that Pakistan has legitimate security concerns in Afghanistan but also demanded that those arrested Taliban members be extradited to Afghanistan. Privately, senior Afghan officials were incensed, claiming that Pakistan was “sabotaging and undermining” their efforts to talk to the Taliban.

Written by rohitkumarsviews

March 18, 2010 at 9:26 am