Voice

And now a word about an even more important revolution…

There are revolutions and there are revolutions. Those sweeping across the Arab world hold out the possibility of breakthroughs that may improve the lives of millions and remake the geopolitics of the region. But there are other revolutions more difficult to capture on camera but far more sweeping in their implications, revolutions that can change the lives of billions and remake the geopolitics and the very economic and technological fiber of the planet.

We know the familiar signs of revolutions in the Middle East. Crowds assembled in public squares. Banners. Nervous governments sending out troops or shuffling cabinets. But the signs of these other revolutions are subtler, harder to spot.

Take for example a story carried by the BBC yesterday that will not earn its own logo and theme music from TV news producers, but which has profound implications whether measured in terms of the changes it portends or the number of lives it may potentially impact.

In that story, it is reported that China is on a course to pass the United States by one important measure to become the world's leader in scientific research within two years. It cites a study by the Royal Society, Britain's national science academy, that analyzes publication trends in scientific literature.

Citing the shifts in the world's scientific output as "dramatic", the Royal Society's report observes, "The scientific league tables are not just about prestige -- they are a barometer of a country's ability to compete on the world stage."

The report reveals that whereas in 1996, the U.S. produced approximately 290,000 scientific papers and China produced just over 25,000, by 2008, the United States had crept forward to just over 316,000 whereas China had increased to about 184,000. While estimates as to the speed China is catching up vary, the report concludes that a simple straight-line projection would put the Chinese ahead of the United States ... and every other country in the world ... in output by 2013.

How did China do it? Simple: They made it a priority. They increased research and development spending 20 percent a year or more every year since 1999 and now invest over $100 billion annually on scientific innovation. It is estimated that five years ago, the Chinese were already producing over 1.5 million new science and engineering graduates a year.

This data resonates on many levels. It suggests a profound shift in the world's intellectual balance of power. This shift is one that is historically linked to the economic vitality and consequent political and military clout of the countries that lead. It suggests a much better future for the people of the world's most populous country and knock-on benefits for their neighbors and trading partners. It suggests a relative decline in influence for the U.S. And, for the people of the Arab world, currently struggling with their own revolutions, it suggests the only true path to real reform, opportunity and empowerment.

It is an axiom of history that the silent revolutions -- like those that periodically come in science and technology -- are far more important than the noisier, bloodier and more publicized political kinds. That's why these subtle indicators of their progress can be even more momentous than the round-the-clock coverage of upheaval that seems to be dominating our attentions at the moment.

It is a certainty that the future of the world be far more greatly influenced by what is happening in a Chinese laboratory than what is happening in the Arab street.

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David Rothkopf

Why Libya? Because we could.

That was the message of Barack Obama's speech from the National Defense University tonight. His remarks were earnest, well-delivered, and framed in the uplifting rhetoric that usually surrounds America's international interventions. He spoke of national interests and our revolution-born spirit. He spoke with passion and made lawyerly arguments dismantling the position of both those who said we should not have acted, and those who said we were not going far enough.

But, at its heart, the president's speech was so committed to avoiding the articulation of a doctrine that it inadvertently created one. At the speech's core, when the president was trying to answer the question of "why Libya?" he framed it with the words, "in this particular country at this particular moment..." and then he went on to say we faced a grave threat and that we had "a unique opportunity" to stop that violence "without putting U.S. troops on the ground." He was trying to say why Libya was special and why he made the choice to act. But in effect, what he was saying was we will intervene to advance our eternal American values ... when circumstances permit.

For all the talk about our responsibilities to the international community and to humanitarian ideals, the message was: Libya, yes ... Congo, no ... Darfur, no ... Syria, probably not ... Yemen, unlikely ... Bahrain, heck no. Not to act in Libya would be a "betrayal of who we are." Not to act in these other places? That was not so clear.

Perhaps a non-doctrine doctrine should not be a surprise given that this is a non-war war in which we are leading without leading and in which our goal is not regime change except to the extent that it is. The administration that came into office decrying pre-emptive military action justified by unsubstantiated threats and inviting uncertain outcomes is now basing its foreign-policy reputation on a pre-emptive military action justified by unsubstantiated threats while inviting uncertain outcomes.   

Who is advising the president on this? Lewis Carroll

On the plus side, the president did announce that NATO would take the lead on both the no-fly zone management and on protecting the Libyan civilian population starting Wednesday. He was articulating a more wisely multilateralist American stance that is welcome and utterly appropriate. But while he noted the sweeping changes taking place across the region, he offered only platitudes about the degree to which our sympathies lay with reformers. There was no better sense of how America's Middle Eastern policies were changing as a result of the region's many upheavals, a chain of events that is potentially the most significant geopolitical shift since the end of the Cold War -- certainly a shift that far exceeds 9/11 in the changes it portends  for the world.

It is the significance of this shift and the importance of sending a clear message to regimes that are coming under pressure to change that makes answering the question "why Libya?" so important. And it is what makes the "we did it because we could" answer both so maddening and so dangerous. Because it suggests just how unlikely it is that we will actually intervene to stop anyone else from the abuses we feared from Qaddafi. That's because the conditions we have found "in this particular country in this particular moment" are so unlikely to be duplicated.  

I'll acknowledge it's a pragmatic answer. And it doesn't box in the president or the United States. But it also says, "read nothing into this, it may or may not mean something." In the town that gave us the non-denial denial, I suppose that's to be expected. I am certain realists will hail it as being wise while idealists will cling to the president's rhetoric and ignore the clear implications that for all our values we have no principles. Perhaps I should be more flexible but frankly I came away from the speech knowing little more than I knew going in.    

The president, I felt, held up a mirror to recent events and tried to persuade us it was a window to the future ... recounting in as sympathetic a way as possible what had happened as if that might give us some clue as to what would happen next.  

For me as a result, wondering where we go from here in the Middle East, it all therefore just gets, as Carroll's Alice would say, curiouser and curiouser. But then, perhaps I should just relax, take a big sip from the bottle marked "drink me" and go with the flow. After all, as Carroll wrote (presciently if inadvertently describing America's apparent foreign policy in the new Middle East): "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there."

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