A date with Clinton’s innovation tzar

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A Date With Clinton’s Innovation Tsar

ALEC ROSS, SECRETARY OF STATE CLINTON’S INNOVATION ADVISOR, RECENTLY SPENT SOME TIME IN BEIRUT MEETING POWER BROKERS, STUDENTS AND EVEN A FEW JOURNALISTS AND DIGITAL ACTIVISTS. BUT LITTLE OF SUBSTANCE CAME OUT OF IT 

By Habib Battah

Published January 2013 // Bold Magazine

How does one calculate the benefits of a diplomatic tour? A multi-country trip, flights, logistics, heavy security? When Alec Ross, the innovation advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arrived in Beirut, he was whisked around town to speak at a number of events, first headlining a panel at the American University of Beirut titled ’Digital Diplomacy’ with the British Ambassador. 

At least 100 students showed up to see the 41 year-old described as Clinton’s ’tech guru’ and listed among Newsweek’s Digital Power Index top 100 influencers. The audience was generally receptive, save for a question from a grown-up about the US vote against Palestinian statehood hours earlier at the UN. Ross responded by parroting the official propaganda along the lines of ’The road to peace only goes through Jerusalem or Ramallah, not New York.’ Luckily for him, no student disputed the irony in dictating what type of recognition Palestinians deserve, while on tour promoting engagement, ’digital diplomacy’ and the like. 

Of course Ross, who supports Clinton’s $30 million initiative to train Middle East web activists, wanted to come out strong on the side of digital freedom. He condemned Syria’s shutdown of the internet, saying that Syrian telecom mogul – and president’s cousin – Rami Makhlouf, was a designated terrorist. Incidentally, Ross would be having lunch later that day with Firas Bakour, a Syrian elite businessman who was also once very close to the president, according to leaked US embassy cables. 

If all this were not enough for a day’s work, Ross had a third meeting that day, this one featuring an odd mix of digital media activists, entrepreneurs and journalists, myself included. Why I was invited remains a mystery to me – as does the aim of our discussion, which was largely driven by questions for rather than from Mr. Ross.

Ross speaks to AUB students during a “Digital Diplomacy” summit.



So we listened as he briefed us on the highlights of his career -how he had worked in inner city schools, how he was trying to convince Silicon Valley to help civil society and how committed he and the president were to internet freedom. Then he underscored his instrumental role in the whole process: ’You cannot become a US ambassador without being trained by me.’ 

So was Ross here to train us as well? I wondered. 

If so, I hope he was joking when, while preparing to tell an anecdote I can barely now remember, he asked: ’Do you guys have Pepsi and Coke over here?’ Later a participant would highlight the success of social media campaigns in Lebanon, particularly those of Boycott Divest Sanctions (BDS), the global movement challenging Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. ’What’s BDS?’ Ross asked, crinkling his eyebrows. 

Of course we couldn’t expect the innovation advisor to know everything about foreign policy or soda consumption. Yet, despite the advent of new digital tools, our hour-long conversation was so diplomatically vague, I can barely make sense of my own notes. Perhaps that was the point. 

Thus Ross did not entertain any questions about his meetings earlier that afternoon with the higher-up folks, including one with our telecom minister, Nicolas Sehnaoui, who presides over one of the most abominable internet connections on the planet. Ross could only say that the US may have offered to provide some assistance in the process of tendering bids for 4G. But this remains the stuff of ministerial fantasy, considering Lebanon’s current dixie-cup like infrastructure is barely capable of supporting a voice over IP phone call longer than 15 seconds. 

Even if you can get a signal, the current cost of bandwidth on 3G (up to $100 per gigabyte) is so prohibitive that most Lebanese cannot afford to watch videos at all, let alone upload them – a real boon to digital activism. 

Accepting little of the blame for this – though he has refused to lower prices – Minister Sehnaoui has pointed the finger at the previous administration, headed by Saad Hariri, a staunch US ally, whose appointees continue to obstruct connectivity, the minister frequently alleges. So what did Ross think about that? ’Send me an email,’ he said, moving on to the next topic. 


Alec Ross meets with Telecom Minister Sehnaoui and Syrian businessman Firas Bakour among other officials.


Still hoping, perhaps quixotically, to get something tangible out of the meeting, I then asked about the recent life sentencing of a Qatari poet for reportedly insulting that country’s emir. In fact, despite Qatar’s billions of dollars invested in education and innovation, crowned by the television slogan ’Unlocking Human Potential,’ criticizing the regime is punishable by law, while calling for its overthrow subject to the death penalty. Still the US government has chosen the tiny oil rich nation to host Centcom, its most important forward operating base in the region, housing thousands of troops and over a hundred aircraft. How does that fit into Ross’s freedom pursuing, digital empowerment narrative? 

’The US doesn’t have an army base in Qatar,’ Ross told me, looking confused. But having been to the base myself to interview troops during the last invasion of Iraq, I began to wonder whether I had imagined the whole experience or if the troops had magically disappeared since my last visit. A quick internet search reveals US defense spending has only expanded the billion-dollar Qatari base since, investing hundreds of millions more over the last decade. 

After the meeting was adjourned, Ross’s incredulity with my comments continued on Twitter. He had taken issue with my tweet during his morning speech: ’State Dept’s @alecjross tells AUB students Rami Makhlouf is designated terrorist. Was that true when Syria was a US ally?’ 

Ross tweeted to me in response: ’Syria under Al-Assad was never an ally, by the way. Not even close!!!’ 

Punctuation rules aside, those of us who have lived in Lebanon know that is not true, having witnessed American acquiescence to Syria’s involvement during the civil war here and its 30-year occupation, which continued as late as 2005. Syria was a key ally during the first Gulf war and Ross’s own State Department alumnus Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even attended the funeral of the previous president, Assad’s father Hafez. 

More recently Syria has played an infamous role in ’the War on Terror,’ serving as a destination for torture renditions according to reports featured in The New Yorker, Time Magazine and other major publications, with recent headlines such as : ’From valued ally to ’vicious enemy’’ in The Nation and ’Syria has made a curious transition from US ally to violator of human rights’ in The Guardian. 

But what difference does context make when you are a top US diplomat; young, ambitious and full of tweets? Ross may not be well-versed on US military bases or the history US-Syrian ties, the BDS movement or the worldwide availability of American soft drinks, but he was named a ’top global thinker by Foreign Policy magazine last year. And before that one of ten ’game changers’ by Huffington Post and one of Politico’s ’five people bringing transformative change to government.’ Even in Beirut, many of those select few politicians, businessmen and journalists that made his acquaintance were lining up to have pictures taken with him. Clearly the world will be seeing a lot more of Alec Ross.