|   March 27, 2014   12:59 PM ET

With beaming smiles, Barack Obama and Pope Francis have emerged from their first 52-minute discussion in the Vatican.

But while controversial subjects were on the agenda, the content of their first meeting remains, for now, shrouded in mystery.

Greeting each other warmly with gifts, two of the world's most powerful men had much to talk about. Contraception and Obamacare, causing great conflict between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church in the US, were on the table for discussion.

Immigration too, and inequality, were a safe bet as topics for the meeting in the Vatican City.

obama pope


Heading into the library, Obama turned to the Pope and said: “It is a great honour. I’m a great admirer. Thank you so much for receiving me.

“I bring greetings from my family. The last time I came here to meet your predecessor, I was able to bring my wife and children.”

So far, so pleasant.

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"In general, they'll be looking for areas of conversation where there is great agreement between the Vatican and the administration," said Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, told CNN.

"The Pope will likely bring up immigration in a broad way ... and I do think there's a possibility the bishops' concerns about contraception in the (Affordable Care Act) might be mentioned."

TOP STORIES TODAY

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The meeting has taken place just two days after the Supreme Court heard a challenge to contraception offered under Obamacare.

It excludes churches from the requirement to provide contraception cover, but religious charities are not exempt, resulting in outrage from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Both men have given each other gifts, with Obama presenting the pope with a specially-designed seed chest featuring seeds of the fruit and vegetables grown in the White House Garden.

The chest itself was made from reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, according to the New York Times.

Mehdi Hasan   |   March 27, 2014    7:59 AM ET

Here are the five things you need to know on Thursday 27 March 2014...

1) NICK VS NIGEL, THE MORNING AFTER

It was Chairman Mao who said that, in a counter-insurgency war, "the government loses by not winning but the guerilla wins by not losing". Yesterday evening in London, Ukip leader Nigel Farage, the premier political guerilla of our age, the self-styled political 'outsider', took on the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in a live debate on Europe and, by not being flattened, smashed or humiliated, won. Merely by standing his ground, by avoiding any major gaffes, by preventing Clegg from landing any killer blows, he emerged victorious from their LBC-hosted clash.

Farage was pretty sweaty and angry for most of the night and deployed some dodgy stats, but he managed to get through questions over his employment of his wife with EU funds and his position on gay marriage without tripping up. And, as Tory peer Lord Ashcroft noted on Twitter: "One reason @Nigel_Farage was a winner tonight irrespective of how the 2 performed was simply his exposure to a wide audience."

An instant YouGov poll of 1,000 voters straight after the debate found 57% of them thought that the Ukip leader performed best in the LBC debate while just 36% plumped for Clegg.

The deputy PM may be regretting his decision to have challenged Farage to this two-parter - and will be thinking hard about how he takes on Farage in the sequel on the BBC next Wednesday. As my colleague Ned Simons reports, Lib Dem party president Tim Farron told reporters in the 'spin room' afterwards that Clegg needs to be "bolder" in round 2.

The Telegraph's sketchwriter Michael Deacon thinks both party leaders will have gained from last night's debate:

"So who won? Possibly they both did. Mr Clegg spoke with far more selfassurance than when being barracked in the Commons; Mr Farage held his own. Both will have satisfied their respective followers. Whether they will have won any new ones is another question. Round two follows next week, on BBC Two. Will either of them have anything different left to say? A nation holds its breath."

Will last night's debate also prompt David Cameron and Ed Miliband to avoid having any leaders' debates in the general election... in order to avoid having to include Farage? A political and media class holds its breath...

2) THE WAR ON MIGRANTS, PART 78

Yesterday, much of the 'Europe' debate was actually a debate over immigration. Farage claimed that all migrants should be required to have a work permit and said it was mad to have an 'open door' to 500m Europeans. The Ukip leader will be delighted, therefore, to see the splash on the front of today's Times.

The paper reports:

"David Cameron is facing Tory demands to expel jobless EU migrants after Germany signalled that it would adopt the radical measure. Allies of the Prime Minister said the German plan showed that Mr Cameron was winning support in his attempt to overhaul rules allowing migrants to move freely throughout Europe. However, there were suggestions that the move could also revive Tory infighting over immigration. Some of the party’s MPs said that yesterday’s draft proposals from a German government panel, under which EU migrants would be removed if they failed to find work within three months, should be adopted by Britain."

The paper adds: "Amid questions over whether expelling EU migrants would be legal, European Commission sources said that member states were entitled to refuse residency if a migrant was unemployed after three months and did not have the financial means to avoid being a burden on the host country."

3) 'BIG SIX' FACE BIG PROBE

Ed Miliband will be doing a little jig in his office this morning. Yesterday, energy supplier SSE said it planned to freeze domestic gas and electricity prices at their current levels until 2016 - a not dissimilar proposal to his own. This morning, the 'big six' energy suppliers face a competition inquiry - from the BBC:

"Regulators will investigate whether the 'big six' UK energy suppliers are preventing effective competition in the UK energy market. The investigation will be by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and is expected to take 18 months... Last autumn the government ordered a review of competition in the energy retail sector following a public outcry over high prices. The big six - SSE, Scottish Power, Centrica, RWE Npower, E.On and EDF Energy - account for about 95% of the UK's energy supply market. But the Ofgem report does not accuse the major energy firms of colluding over prices. However, it does find 'possible tacit co-ordination' on the size and timing of price rises."

Who says you can't set the political agenda from opposition?

BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this video of Arnold Schwarznegger hilariously trying to sell a food processor on a mock-QVC item on late-night US television.

4) 'NASTY PARTY' ON PRISONS

The Tories are the “nasty party” when it comes to running the prisons system, according to Labour's shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan.

Khan is giving a big speech today on prison reform - the Independent reports:

"Companies that run struggling jails would have their contracts ripped up under Labour in an attempt to drive up prison standards. Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, will say today there should be 'zero tolerance' of substandard institutions that fail to tackle rates of reoffending. The party would put work, education and training at the heart of prison life, and successful governors would be given extra freedom to handle their budgets."

Writing for the PoliticsHome website ahead of his speech, Khan writes: “Gone are the compassionate Conservative days. Indeed all talk of work in prisons and a rehabilitation revolution have been quietly forgotten, replaced by a desire to pack as many prisoners as possible into ‘super-sized’ jails.”

5) ET TU, BARACK?

The one thing you could always say about Barack Obama: at least he opposed the Iraq war. Except yesterday, he tried to put a positive spin on it, in order to defend the US from the accusation of double standards. He didn't do a very good job - as my US colleage Ryan Grim reports for the Huffington Post:

"President Barack Obama defended the American invasion of Iraq Wednesday in a high-profile speech to address the Russian takeover of Crimea. Russian officials, Obama noted, have pointed to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq as an example of 'Western hypocrisy.' Obama struggled, however, in his attempt to defend the legality of the invasion. The war was unsanctioned by the United Nations, and many experts assert it violated any standard reading of international law. But, argued Obama, at least the U.S. tried to make it legal. 'America sought to work within the international system... We did not claim or annex Iraq's territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain,' Obama argued. In fact, the U.S. forced Iraq to privatize its oil industry, which had previously been under the control of the state, and further required that it accept foreign ownership of the industry."

PUBLIC OPINION WATCH

From the Sun/YouGov poll:

Labour 37
Conservatives 35
Ukip 11
Lib Dems 9

That would give Labour a majority of 18.

900 WORDS OR MORE

Rafael Behr, writing in the New Statesman, says: "Miliband can’t rely on the Tories to keep hurting Cameron for him."

Suzanne Moore, writing in the Guardian, says: "I'm all for 'weird' Ed Miliband if it means a genuine alternative."

Benedict Brogan, writing in the Telegraph, says: "Nigel Farage shows David Cameron how he might lose by standing on the sidelines."


Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Mehdi Hasan (mehdi.hasan@huffingtonpost.com) or Ned Simons (ned.simons@huffingtonpost.com). You can also follow us on Twitter: @mehdirhasan, @nedsimons and @huffpostukpol

Chris York   |   March 26, 2014   12:51 PM ET

World leaders congregated in Holland on Tuesday to attend a rather lavish event hosted by King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima.

As they entered the Royal Palace Huis ten Bosch, each guest was greeted by Her Royal Highness and.... well, no one really noticed the other guy...

  |   March 26, 2014   11:40 AM ET

A Secret Service agent tasked with protecting President Barack Obama in the Netherlands was reportedly found passed out drunk in a hallway of an Dutch hotel, one of three agents sent home for "disciplinary reasons".

The Washington Post reported that one of the men had been so inebriated he had been unable to make it back to his hotel room. He was found unconscious by the staff at the Huis Ter Duin Hotel in Noordwijk, a resort close to the Hague.

The other two are believed to have been disciplined for not intervening. Agents are forbidden to drink alcohol in the 10 hours leading up to an assignment.

obama

President Barack Obama Obama at the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, Netherlands

WaPo said the trio belonged to the Counter Assault Team, tasked with the personal protection of the president, and said one had been a team leader.

A Secret Service spokesman told the BBC the three had been put on administrative leave, and an investigation was pending.

Spokesman Ed Donovan said the latest incident happened before the US president arrived in the Netherlands for a nuclear security summit, and that his security had never been compromised.

The scandal follows a damaging story from April 2012 when several agents were dismissed for hiring prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia in the days before the President's arrival there.

Some Pity for Putin

Gregor Smith   |   March 26, 2014    2:03 AM ET

Good old Vlad is propping up the news again as the shiftiest world leader. Apart from Kim Jong Un. Or Xi Jinping. Or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Or - who's that bloke who controls the biggest, most notorious 'intelligence' agency in the world? Oh, of course, US President Barack Obama. Or, for that matter, his chum David Cameron.

Despite whatever they're doing, media attention of late has been focused almost entirely on Vladimir Putin. He's sent his troops into Crimea (which is interchangeably also called "the Crimea" by a ton of news networks, and is known as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to those people who like to add extra words onto countries - I'm looking at you, Democratic People's Republic of Korea).

Crimea was a state within Ukraine, as well as the city of Sevastopol, which was a city not in the Autonomous Republic but within the Crimean Peninsula. It was all very complicated, but now they've had a vote and decided to become part of Russia, which would have made things much simpler. However, the West didn't like that and decided the vote was "illegitimate" before it had even happened.


These Russian troops have invaded Crimea, and look like they've gained the precious territory of the local allotments.

Now, I have absolutely no idea whether the vote was legitimate or not. I wasn't there, I'm not an electoral observer, I'm not Ukrainian, I have little to no personal connection with the region. But I do harbour some pity for Putin.

Firstly, to call a vote "illegitimate" before its occurrence is the very definition of presumptuous. Of course, Putin had troops occupying the area, but that was "for security reasons". Sure, you might argue that "security reasons" is just a euphemism, and you might be right.

Who else would need to put troops in a country to oversee an election on the basis of security? The United States of America, apparently. To celebrate my birthday, the people of Afghanistan are having elections, but US security forces will still be present in the country against the wishes of its democratically elected President, Hamid Karzai. Those forces have been present in every single Afghan election since 2001. That's thirteen years.

If having foreign troops in a country really biased an election turnout, then what will the rest of the world have to say about the upcoming Scottish independence referendum? Westminster doesn't just have some of its armed forces in Scotland, it has its entire nuclear arsenal. That's quite a threat, and it's certainly not elected representative Alex Salmond who gets to choose which buttons get pressed and when.

I appreciate that it's totally ridiculous to say that Westminster might nuke Scotland in the event of a vote in favour of independence, and even more ridiculous to think that might swing Scottish voting. However, it's still a possibility. So, what makes Russia's situation so different?

Huw Edwards, on the BBC News at Ten, managed to explain the difference, probably without intending to:

Good evening. President Putin of Russia has tonight signed a decree recognising Crimea as an independent state, despite the warnings of the USA and the European Union.

As news-monitoring blog Media Lens put it, "obviously, the 'warnings' from those peaceful, democracy-loving entities must come before the wishes of the plebiscite in Crimea".

One could argue that the result of the vote wasn't truly representative of the population. A good proportion of them boycotted the vote, and the ballot paper itself only gave voters the option to change rather than maintain the status quo.

This is probably a good time to remind people how this all kicked off in the first place. Last month, Ukraine was in conflict, with civilian riots, police shooting on unarmed citizens - the whole place was collapsing into turmoil. At that point, if your central government was swimming in that level of dog mess, would you want to maintain the status quo?

There's also another brilliant set of double standards here, and it comes from another link to Scottish independence. Most Scots support 'devolution max', which won't be on the ballot paper come October. I have a sneaking suspicion the rest of the western World won't claim the Scottish independence vote is "illegitimate" if it swings towards Westminster's "better together" wishes.

As far as boycotting the vote goes, that's almost a Russell Brand level of stupidity. If you don't vote, then don't complain about the result of the vote. If the Crimean Tatar demographic had all gone out to vote, Putin wouldn't have got the ridiculous, over 90% majority he did.

Bizarrely, Vlad's also being a good Russian representative in that he's doing what his electorate want. His popularity ratings were already at a high of 67% after the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but the deployment of troops in Crimea has sent them soaring to 80%.

Those are popularity ratings the government in France, Germany, the UK, or the USA would kill for. (Obama and his security drones may well be doing that already.) Yet those wealthy nations, formerly known as the G8, have decided Putin was getting too popular, and have therefore excluded him from their club, which will henceforth be known as the G7.


They've even set up the media with shots like this to explicitly highlight the fact Russia isn't allowed to play any more. I wish I was joking.

Rather than getting all the world leaders to talk to each other and work out their problems, they've actually decided to have a meeting about how much we can punish them. The international community has taken childish politics to a new level.

On top of that, President Obama is going to Saudi Arabia on Friday. As I'm sure most readers of my blog are aware, the Saudi regime has a human rights record that is more than substandard. The French also have their own problems they ought to be worrying about, such as the fact pollution levels in Paris surpassed those of smoggy Beijing last week. Our own government have more than enough mirrors to be looking in before they go around judging others (I would link to an example, but honestly? Just pick up any newspaper).

While it's impossible to fully defend Putin's actions, you do get the feeling he's being singled out rather unfairly by a diplomatic world that's consistently cautious of his power. Poor Putin.

The last word on the farce of the whole Crimean issue ought to go to the people in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which was originally founded by a Welshman. As a result, residents of Donetsk have bucked the Scottish trend and started an online referendum to secede from Ukraine and join the United Kingdom. You win some, you lose some...

Ten Big News Stories Flight MH370 'Overshadowed'

Adam Isaacs   |   March 25, 2014    5:42 PM ET

An exciting story, and a poignant one in equal measure: a clear blue day, a reliable Boeing 777, and an experienced crew. Then, nothing. You've thought about the paradoxical nature of the story for weeks. You've followed the story on the evening news, you've caught up with it again on a number of websites, you've been thinking about it in the bath and on the way to work. You've brought it up with friends. You've formulated your own theories, rational and nonsensical.

However, I like many, feel that the story has gone too far. The public, thirsty for information have driven the media on to report about the non-story for over a fortnight in a perennial cycle whereby each bit of information drives on excitement and interest further. Essentially news channels are now dedicated MH370 24 hour report stations- nothing else matters much. But the other lesser-reported news deserves equal, if not more scrutiny; so below I have detailed ten other news stories each important and overlooked.

1) George Osborne's 2014 Budget.

  • Earners now don't pay tax until they earn over £10,500.

  • Beer duty cut by 1p; Duty on spirits and cider frozen; Bingo duty halves (to 10%)


2) A new 12 side £1 coin is to be introduced in 2017

  • 'Most secure coin in the world' from counterfeiting


3) Vladimir Putin escalates Ukraine tension with Crimea annexation

  • Crimea voters choose to secede in disputed referendum despite last years polls showing no interest in secession.


4) World leaders vamp up pressure on Putin

  • G8 leaders boycott Sochi meet, opting for a G7 meeting in Brussels convening without Russia

  • Economic Sanctions are tightened


5) Miliband (almost) rules out EU referendum

  • Still determined to reform the EU


6) The Tories closed the gap to Labour in Sunday's polling

  • Two separate polls show Labour's lead at just a single point


7) Death toll rises in Washington State Mudslide

  • Death toll rises to 14

  • 176 people unaccounted for

  • Obama declares emergency status


8) Republicans say SNAP cuts will remain

  • $8 Billion was cut from the food stamp programme in the US leaving thousands without means for food.

  • States pushing individually to overturn cuts


9) David Cameron's daughter is to go to a state secondary school

  • Michael Gove also to send his daughter to a comprehensive

  • Still both highly sought after school


10) Rhetoric stepped up over Scottish Independence Referendum

  • Key figures such as Danny Alexander and even Andrew Marr (to a controversial extent) speak out against Scottish independence

  • As does Kermit the Frog!


So there is life outside the sphere of the Indian Ocean! Who Knew?

15 Years on From Serbia - Why Does the UN Still Exist?

Marko Kasic   |   March 25, 2014    2:44 PM ET

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Eldridge Clever said 'If you are not part of the solution, you are a part of the problem". The UN was created to be a solution to international conflict, yet today it is firmly part of the problem. Improved industrial relations notwithstanding, the UN has failed to bring representative international governance on our world's most desperate issues. Their idle complicity to illegal foreign policies has fostered several modern day holocausts and contributed to the greatest threat to internationalism since it was created over 60 years ago. So, why then does the UN still exist?

It is quite likely the UN saved my life. When the entire world turned its back on Yugoslavia, the UN didn't. Though my memory is cloudy, I remember distinctly that the first black person I ever saw was a United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) solider and I remember being absolutely fascinated that while his skin was much darker than anyone I had ever seen; his palms were almost the same colour as mine. And while to me, the bullets, bombs and underground shelters were all just a game, the reality was that we had a man from Africa on the other side of the world in Knin, risking his life for a cause he neither understood nor cared for. It was the essence of what the UN was created; to help those who cannot help themselves.

While some cried for international intervention, the then U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, said: "We don't have a dog in this fight," and President George Bush, Sr. asked U.S. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft: "Tell me again what this is all about". When the US had no cause to protect, the UN did; preservation of human life.

In 1999, the USA did have 'a dog in the fight'. It was Bill Clinton's fight against impeachment and national ridicule. The US-led 79-Day NATO bombing of Belgrade, without approval of the UN Security Council (UNSC) exposed the ineffectual and derisory power of the UN. And while a "humanitarian catastrophe" was propagandised as justification, the truth and human cost were subordinate to the personal and national interest of but one UN signatory.

In 2001, and less than 24 hours after 19 extremists hijacked and deliberately crashed four commercial aircraft to cause mass devastation on U.S. soil, UNSC condemned the attacks and under resolution 1368. The UN argued for peace while bringing the non-state actors responsible to justice. The Bush Administration decided to declare war on an entire country of 35 Million innocent people. This time Article 51 of the UN Charter was propagandised as justification, and the UN just watched as over 3,000 innocent civilians perished to the U.S. bombardment in just the first six months of the illegal invasion.

In 2003, Iraq happened. Another holocaust the UN did not approve. However, this time UN Security General, Kofi Annan actually called the war 'illegal'. The propagandised rhetoric was Weapons of Mass Destruction. Then there was Libya, more aggression and, death, though this time with the approval of the UNSC. Today Syria suffers as Ukraine wonders if she will be next. The new episode is an old paradigm illustrating just how the UN has become little more than a waste of resources and a plethora of deferential and submissive organisations run by sycophantic bureaucrats trading morality for a pension with benefits.

I have no standing in passing judgement on the actions of those entrusted with making enormously difficult decisions, most of which are far beyond my comprehension. However, I do believe I am entitled, just like every other person, to ask the question of why the UN has not been sacked?

The very organisation, intended to diplomatise the international community has abysmally failed. Its incompetence in failing to restrain bloodthirsty leaders has contributed to the deaths, displacement and, innate sense of vengeance in millions of innocent people. Moreover, it's immobilisation at failing to hold to account all international acts of terrorism permits future dictators intent on masterminding imperialistic foreign and domestic policy to reign over the most vulnerable and defenceless people.

From starting out as the solution to international disharmony, it has become the very problem to international harmony. Today, there are 193 members in the UN, yet, over 22% of the UN funding came directly from the USA. NATO has 28 members and with the USA again providing almost 20% of total NATO funding. The UN can no longer be called a coalition of international members; it simply being used as a very clever hygiene instrument for illicit and often complicit political greenwashing tactics.

Perhaps I should be more grateful that the UN saved my life. Indeed, some of my peers are. But the UN was not created to save the lives of the few; it was created to preserve the life of the most vulnerable, all of the vulnerable. But who will sack the UN, or at minimum redefine their charter accordingly? I doubt anyone cares enough.

For the surviving fatalities, we'd rather criticise and cry Serbophobia when a failed musician and former brute for kicks, says 'We bombed the crap out of the Serbs'. Why would we possibly care enough to instil change, when it's so easy to sell hate. And so, the UN will stay for as long we commoditise hate.

The American Code Rush

Preetam Kaushik   |   March 24, 2014    6:47 AM ET

Hadi Partovi is a man on a mission. He wants every American child in school to learn how to code. That figure is 1 in 10 right now, so Partovi and his organization, Code.org have an uphill task before them, but they have some of Silicon Valley's best and brightest on their side.

But what is this obsession with code? And where are we going with this?

The American Way

Like so many others in America, Partovi's story is that of an immigrant. However, long before his family emigrated from native Iran, he was hooked onto computers, much like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg in their formative years.

Fooling around with a Commodore 64 at age 10 during the Iran-Iraq war ignited a passion that led to a computer science degree from Harvard, a job at Microsoft, and finally a jump into entrepreneurial waters. After exiting his startups successfully, Partovi was a man at the heights of professional and financial success.

Then Steve Jobs died.

While Jobs had demystified computing's technical aspects and made it a mass consumer product, Partovi knew that it took a bunch of highly talented computer science professionals--in Apple's case Steve Wozniak--to make that happen. The massive gap between the technology jobs out there and trained professionals alarmed Partovi.

Since you don't produce 1 million software professionals overnight, Partovi knew he had to catch folks early, and that's how Code.org was born. Its mission is to bring computer science to every public school district that doesn't have formal instruction-- that's 90% of public schools and an estimated $300 million in investment.

Mark's "Ism"

There is an apocryphal scene in the Facebook-chronicling movie The Social Network where Mark Zuckerberg is asked by his computer science teacher about what the eight status bits in some computer protocol would be. As Zuckerberg turns to leave the classroom, he answers in an offhand manner " One valid bit, one modified bit, one reference bit, and five permission bits."

While that geeky gobbledygook would have been pencilled in by writer Aaron Sorkin for dramatic effect that's precisely the kind of stuff that intimidates people from taking up computer science or to have the belief that they can hack it at coding.

Speak to übergeeks ranging from Gates to Zuckerberg though and you get a very different answer as to what makes for a good coder. The DNA to be a problem solver, to be naturally curious is what got these folks into coding. Even they admit that it's a tad intimidating at first, but then it gets fun!

It's no accident then that Partovi is trying to solve this "first mile" problem with Code.org's "Hour of Code" program--just trying to get students to try a few lines of coding, and letting their natural interest take it forward. Even Facebook's founder is doing his bit to inspire a new generation of homegrown American coders to do their thing.

Yet, a CEO of a multi-billion dollar valued company has more pressing problems to resolve in the short-term. Which is why Zuckerberg and others are lobbying US politicians to get with the program and relax visa restrictions so technology companies can import coders to compensate for the domestic shortfall.

Decoding Jobs

Those championing the cause of code realize that in today's economic environment the conversation over coding has to be job-centric.

Partovi contends that a single software job can create 3 or 4 jobs in the neighborhood. A Microsoft-sponsored research by IDC looked at 82 countries where the software giant was present and concluded that the company has created more than 14.7 million jobs due to its activities while the company's own headcount is around 100,000 employees.

The President seems to be on-message as well. In last year's State of the Union Obama not only talked about STEM education--under which computer science falls-- but also made the direct link with jobs when he said "We'll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math--the skills today's employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future."

There's another school of thought that says coding is not just about getting a job but going forward will become a key life skill, just as literacy is today. The reasoning is that the vast amounts of information around us requires us to become exceedingly efficient. With trends like the "Internet of Things"--everyday devices connected to the internet--the average individual is going to have to get programmatically inclined if he or she is to exist and progress.

Coding will empower individuals to construct their own personal and professional ecosystem, rather than just rely on the coding literate to solve our computing problems. If a Home Depot can feature a range of extensive DIY products and Ikea can get you to assemble your own furniture, the same parallels could soon apply to information technology.

A true coding revolution could result in everybody starting to code, and human productivity and value creation might increase manifold. Social networks will be as much about what you created and then shared than just liking someone's photo or status message. This is surely a utopian ideal, there's bound to be lots of bad code as well, but America and the world could benefit greatly from cracking the code.

Europe on the Brink

Robin Lustig   |   March 21, 2014   11:00 PM ET

Western leaders who'll be meeting for emergency talks in Europe next week have an unusually important judgement call to make: do they believe president Putin when he says he intends to go no further in Ukraine?

It may well be the most important decision facing Western policy-makers since they gave the green light to the reunification of Germany in 1990. Europe's future hangs in the balance.

If they decide that president Putin is likely to be satisfied with having reabsorbed Crimea back into the bosom of mother Russia, well, that's something the West can live with. Crimea is not a strategic Western interest, even if the principle of territorial integrity (one state does not gobble up bits of another state) has been flagrantly breached.

If, on the other hand, they suspect that the Russian president does intend to bite off another bit of Ukraine - the eastern part where most people are Russian-speakers and where many feel a closer affinity to Moscow than to Brussels - that will be a step too far.

And it's at that point that we would enter uncharted waters. No one envisages going to war with Russia, although it's worth reminding ourselves that if Mr Putin were to move against any of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia), all of which are members of both the EU and Nato, then there'd be no alternative to war. An attack on one Nato member state is regarded as an attack on them all, and a military response would be all but inevitable.

That's how serious this is. So far, there has been no sign that Russia does intend to up the ante, although the annexation of Crimea and Moscow's justification that it was defending its Russian compatriots does create a dangerous precedent.

(By the way, if you can't find the Moldovan region of Trans-Dniestr on a map, now may be the time to look for it. Some analysts are already highlighting it as a potential next flash-point.)

As for the Baltic states, what would Mr Putin do if ethnic Russians in Riga or Vilnius were suddenly to "ask" for protection? Could he blithely ignore them, having gone to the aid of ethnic Russians in Crimea? Has he perhaps embarked on a course without fully having considered where it might take him?

It's easy to assume that he's having things all his own way and that the annexation of Crimea was part of a carefully calibrated strategy. Maybe it was, but it may also have been a tactical response to a crisis in Kiev that from Moscow looked like being seriously damaging to Russian interests.

Imagine what the world looks like as you stare out of a Kremlin window. The US is worn down by wars of attrition in Afghanistan and Iraq - and the EU has barely emerged from a financial and economic crisis that threatened to tear it apart. This, surely, is the moment to reassert your right to defend your own backyard: no more Nato encroachment up to your borders, no more EU blandishments to tempt your neighbours.

Since 1989, Moscow has watched helplessly as the Baltic states, plus Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the former east Germany, and the former Czechoslovakia have all moved out of the Soviet/Russian orbit and into the EU/Nato camp. It has been, in the eyes of Mr Putin, a massive humiliation -- and the West's forays into military adventurism (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya) have simply rubbed salt in the wounds.

Now, president Putin has decided that enough is enough. He's under growing political pressure at home as the Russian economy splutters, so what better time to wrap the Kremlin in the nationalist flag and unite Russian voters in support of their compatriots in neighbouring states? In the words of the former British ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer: "Putin and his cabal of close advisers are moved by a poisonous combination of grievance and ultra-nationalism."

That's why, he says, "there is no possibility that any combination of economic sanctions and visa restrictions currently under consideration in the West will check the Kremlin. Crimea is gone for good."

On the other hand, Russia's economic weakness may turn out to be the West's strongest card. That, at least, is the thinking that underlies the current taste for imposing sanctions. It was, after all, economic weakness that played a significant role in the ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire - and it may turn out to be an equally significant factor again. Two credit rating agencies have already downgraded Russia post-Crimea, and that does mean a real added cost to Russian borrowing on international markets.

The response so far from Western leaders to president Putin's Crimea-grab has been, in effect, to shout loudly while wielding a stick so small as to be almost invisible. They must do better next week. By all means keeping turning the sanctions screw, but more importantly, lay out unambiguously the nature of the Nato mutual defence commitment as it applies to the Baltic states.

Mr Putin may well be thinking that just as the US could get away with doing pretty much whatever it liked in the first 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, now it's Russia's turn again. He must be disabused of that notion as quickly as possible - for our sakes as well as for Ukraine's. A world in which one superpower can operate overseas unchecked is a highly dangerous one. Surely that's one lesson we should have learned by now.

UN Week: What Was Trending on Social Media?

Nikita Malik   |   March 21, 2014    2:27 PM ET

I was live on AlHurra TV-MBN on the 25th of September 2013 discussing the role of the Middle East in UN week. Alhurra is a United States-based Arabic-language satellite TV channel funded by the U.S. Congress.

Click here to watch the interview

These were the main points of my argument.

UN week: What was trending in social media?


Important trends on twitter and social media, in my opinion, were the following:

(i) John Kerry signing a global arms trade treaty, with the Senate threatening to block it,
(ii) Climate change,
(iii) The correlation between strong health systems and econic growth, such as in Japan,
(iv) Universal health coverage,
(v) Obama's speech,
(vi) America's discourse with Hassan Rouhani,
(vii) Obama's foreign policy doctrine, and
(viii) Syrian refugees.

UN week: What were the reactions?

The reactions on social media were divided into two camps: the positive and the negative. There were those who viewed UN week as a success, and these tweets emphasied that current endeavors reitirated mutual respect among members states, highlighted policy interests and needs of different countries, and, on a larger scale, focused on the creation of an ambitious agenda. On the other end, tweets of critics stressed that the issues discussed by world leaders were covered awkwardly and inconsistent,ly, with the logic of dialogue between the parties being strained and contradictory.

Will the UN team visit to Syria be any different from previous endeavors to unearth nuclear weapons?

In the interview, I argue that the upcoming UN visit will be a complete game changer because we are now facing a different playing field.

Why?

The UN team visit earlier this year dealt with the Syrian regime denying the existence of chemical weapons. The use of chemical weapons, at that moment, was conjecture. As such, the UN team's mandate focused on three things - finding whether chemical weapons were used, discovering the scope of weapons and usage, and while doing that, figureing out whether weapons were used at all. Subsequent to this, however, the Syrian regime signed the treaty and agreed to remove chemical weapons over time - here, we have a specific time frame, and milestones under UN supervision - something which Syria never accepted in past. Now, the UN team has different tasks and roles - not tactical or related to one specific incident (chemical weapons have been used 14 times over 30 month period!) but, rather, working with the Syrian regime's chemical stockpile. It is hoped that there will be a proper timetable to be implemented with demands, what weapons should be removed from Syria, where should they be taken to, and who should supervise it. Perhaps a binding UN resolution is needed on the issue.

Which topics were discussed in social media regarding UN week?

The topics discussed were many - almost 200 countries have stepped on the global stage to express to the world what they want. Economic development, equality, education, trade, growth, are all popular hashtags on Twittter. Certain topical interests focus on the geopolitical stability of Middle East: users were tweeting about Iran, Syria, Israel, and Palestine: indicating a Middle East orientated approach. Other countries of interest were China, though Japan, India, and Korea (both South and North) were less popular tweeting.

In my opinion, the popularity of tweets focusing on the Middle East region signals a need for long-term public engagement in the Middle East. Three main schemes follow:

Iran: Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is a major source of instability in the United States. It is encoruaging that President Hassan Rohani received a mandate to pursue more a moderate course from the Iranian people, and this is positive. But diplomates have been walking out of the room as Hassan Rohani takes to the microphone. On the ground, Iran's halting of nuclear enrichment will ease tough economic sanctions. In Iran, Obama's speech has been met with a positive response in the media.

Syria: It is almost certain that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on August 21st in Damascus. Therefore, there is a lot of attention on enforcement: if the Security Council can't agree on a resolution including conditions for Syria to comply with commitment to destroy chemical weapons, the would imply that the UN cannot enforce basic international law. These concerns have been paralleled on social media - where people have been stating that military action won't achieve peace. Assad is delegitimised in a fractured country, and Syria has been a hot topic for two years, but really, not much has been accomplished.

Jordan: Aid to refugees is particularly important.


Israel/Palestine:
On twitter, the focus has been on Palestine becoming a recognised member state, here members of both sides are expressing frustration over prose and action.

Watch the interview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tRvlw--xZM

Nikita Malik is a researcher from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. You can follow her on www.nikitamalik.com or @nixmalik on Twitter.

Obama's on His Way to Brussels to Negotiate a 'Polluters Pact'

Keith Taylor   |   March 21, 2014   10:56 AM ET

Across Europe, anti-fracking campaigns have been picking up momentum. Yet this movement could soon be spectacularly crushed.

From Romania to Poland to the UK, local uprisings amongst affected communities have quickly escalated into wider protests.

In the European Parliament, attempts by the Greens and other groups to bring in proper regulations on fracking have been blocked largely by the pro-industry lobby. We came close to ensuring a minimum level of protection through environmental impact assessments, but this was squashed at the last moment by countries (such as the UK) desperate to exploit another fossil fuel. And so the push by Green MEPS for adequate laws continues.

It appears that in some countries, the fight against fracking is being won, at least for now. 9 European countries have implemented either regional bans or national moratoriums (Luxembourg, France, Bulgaria, Czech Rep, Austria, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Denmark). In a world where people increasingly feel powerless, we have seen the peoples of these countries gain local, regional and sometimes Governmental support in their fight against major fossil fuel companies. However these moratoriums are temporary, and we see at international level that these same countries do not always defend their national bans.

These triumphs, and the successes we're hoping to achieve in the future are fragile, and could soon be abruptly reversed. Barack Obama's arrival in Brussels on Wednesday for a EU-US summit will see further negotiations of an EU US trade deal that's being labelled as the 'polluters pact'.

The deal aims to ramp up trade relations by removing protections such as tariffs and regulations, and by 'harmonizing' EU and US laws. It could well impinge on our food, environmental and social standards, in order to enhance trade between the countries.

For citizens calling for an end to fracking in Europe, this deal could destroy all progress made so far. This is because if the deal goes ahead, the harmonization of EU and US laws could force the EU to reduce protections which regulate energy extraction including shale gas.

Companies have been able to drill all over the US because of a lack of regulation, basically doing as they please with little regard for human health and environmental protection.

A new EU US trade deal could make Europe compromise on safety and regulation even further, at the expense of its citizens. Such an agreement could sabotage the important steps made so far by so many campaigners, activists, Greens and other environmental groups.

The deal could also force countries such as France to lift their bans on fracking. This is due to a particular part of the current deal which would enable countries to sue national governments when they believe their investment opportunities are restricted by a given law. It's possible that fracking companies wanting to frack in a country with a ban could then take that country to court for restricting its investment opportunities.

In the UK, the Government is, all too often, a servant to the profiteers. So unsurprisingly, it backs the companies who are determined to frack our countryside. To provide a glimpse of this support: the UK Government are offering financial incentives to the companies themselves, and to local Councils who allow fracking in their areas.

Test drilling has already taken place in three British Counties, and the Government's paving the way for more. It's now eyeing up more than 60% of the country to licensing for the shale gas industry, mistakenly assured of the economic benefits it could have. So it's no surprise then that the UK government is backing the new EU US trade deal which could make things even easier for fracking firms.

This trade deal, which is being negotiated by top officials behind closed doors, is a genuine threat to our environment, and our democracy. It's time to stop this polluters' pact in its tracks, before it's too late.

  |   March 21, 2014    6:25 AM ET

EU leaders have added 12 more individuals to its sanction list, following talks in Brussels last night.

Senior figures from Moscow have been slapped with sanctions designed to discourage escalation of political tension in Crimea, since Russia's annexation of the region from Ukraine.

At a summit of European Union leaders, which included David Cameron, it was agreed to add 12 names to the list of senior figures from the Moscow regime to face travel bans and asset freezes in response to what the Prime Minister described as "unacceptable" actions by Russia.

crimea

Russian armed forces stand guard around military base in Ukraine's Autonomous Republic of Crimea on March 20, 2014

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said any further steps by Russia to destabilise Ukraine would have "far-reaching consequences".

A trade deal designed to give economic support to the beleaguered state will also be signed today.

US President Barack Obama stepped up action against Moscow by putting billionaire oligarch businessmen - including Vladimir Putin's banker Yury Kovalchuk - on a blacklist of regime figures who will face sanctions from America.

But opposition leader Alexey Navalny - a former candidate for Moscow mayor - said there should also be sanctions against oligarchs who have made a home in the West, like Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich.

"Real sanctions, such as blocking access to their plush London apartments, will show that Mr Putin's folly comes with serious costs," wrote Mr Navalny in the New York Times.

Crimea Referendum Rejected By UK As 97% Back Move To Russia, And Secession From Ukraine

After talks which continued into the early hours in Brussels, European Council president Herman van Rompuy announced the decision to extend sanctions against Russian officials, and said that a planned EU-Russia summit in June had been cancelled.

"Russia's annexation of Crimea and of Sevastopol is a clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and of international law," said Mr Van Rompuy.

"We strongly condemn the unconstitutional referendum in Crimea. We will not recognise the annexation, nor will we recognise it in the future. There is no place for the use of force and coercion to change borders on the European continent in the 21st Century.

"In the absence of de-escalation from Russia, the European Council has decided to expand the list of individuals subject to visa bans and asset freezes. We put forward a list of 12 names to add to the 21 agreed earlier this week."

Mr Van Rompuy added: "Any steps by Russia to destabliise Ukraine will have far-reaching consequences. By that we mean consequences on relations in a broad range of economic areas. We ask the Commission and the member states to prepare possible targeted measures."

crimea

Russia's armed forces have surrounded Ukraine's troops in the Perevalnoye neighborhood in Crimea

Mr Obama's announcement of travel bans and asset freezes was met with a Cold War-style tit-for-tat retaliation by Moscow, which announced its own blacklist of US politicians, including House Speaker John Boehner and former presidential candidate John McCain.

Mr McCain tweeted a defiant response: "I'm proud to be sanctioned by Putin - I'll never cease my efforts & dedication to freedom & independence of Ukraine, which includes Crimea."

Mr Obama signed a presidential order paving the way for measures targeting key sectors of the Russian economy if the situation in Ukraine worsens.

Officials at the Brussels talks stressed that the EU is offering a "carrot" of strengthened economic links with heavily-indebted Ukraine, as well as the "stick" of sanctions.

Elements of an association agreement with Kiev are set to be signed today, four months after former president Viktor Yanukovych stepped away from the deal in a move which eventually led to his overthrow.

Ukraine Officer Killed In Crimea As Former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev Supports Referendum

As well as the extension of sanctions to more individuals deemed responsible for violations of Ukrainian sovereignty, talks last night focused on preparations for the wider trade and economic measures threatened by the EU if Russia continues to escalate the situation.

One measure under discussion for possible immediate application was a requirement for imports from Crimea to carry a Ukrainian customs stamp, while other countries could agree their own suspension of arms export licences and military co-operation with Russia of the kind announced by Britain earlier this week.

Tensions remained high in Crimea itself, where pro-Russian forces seized three Ukrainian warships and Kiev said its troops were being threatened.

The lower house of Russia's parliament, the Duma, endorsed the absorption of the peninsula into their country by a near-unanimous vote of 445-1.

The blacklist of 20 individuals unveiled by Mr Obama in Washington also included prominent businessman Gennady Timchenko and billionaire brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, who were judo sparring partners of the Russian president, as well as Mr Putin's chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin and Russian Railways chairman Vladimir Yakunin.

crimea

Members of the Russian armed forces stand guard around the Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalne

Mr Kovalchuk's Rossiya bank, which counts many senior officials among its clients, was the first institution to face sanctions.

Justifying the move to sanction private businessmen, Mr Obama said he was targeting "individuals with substantial resources and influence who provide material support to the Russian leadership as well as a bank which provides material support to these individuals".

He added: "The world is watching with grave concern as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine.

"For this reason we have been working closely with our European partners to develop more severe actions that could be taken if Russia continues to escalate the situation.

"As part of that process, I signed a new executive order today that gives us the authority to impose sanctions not just on individuals but on key sectors of the Russian economy.

"This is not our preferred outcome. These sanctions will not only have a significant effect on the world economy, but can also be disruptive to the global economy.

"However, Russia must know that further escalation will only isolate it further from the international community."

Mr Obama is due to meet other G7 states - the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan - to discuss Ukraine on the margins of a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands next week, when proposals to eject Russia from the wider G8 group of world powers will be discussed.

  |   March 20, 2014    2:15 PM ET

Twitter has built a nifty tool to enable users to quickly find their first ever tweet. The results are a mixture of the weird, unintentionally funny and mundane. And that is no less true for our political leaders.

The prime minister, a relative newcomer to the site, began with a joke at his own expense.

Ed Miliband, as Labour energy secretary, told us about his exciting life as a minister.

Nick Clegg didn't even pretend to send this worthy tweet himself.

Ed Balls joined Twitter at the height of the expenses scandal. Sadly his first tweet was not "Ed Balls".

Alex Salmond wasted no time in harnessing Twitter as an election tool - and also apparently speaks in the third person.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles impressively managed to squeeze his favourite word, "chum", into 140 characters twice.

Lib Dem president Tim Farron is modern.

Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps couldn't find anything he fancied in the shops...

... while Barack Obama ended the war in Iraq.

  |   March 20, 2014    1:25 PM ET

Barack Obama has clearly not taken having his Twitter record broken by Ellen DeGeneres very well, joking that her infamous Oscars selfie was a "cheap stunt" during an appearance on her talk show.

President Obama previously held the record for the most retweets on Twitter following his re-election in 2012, but had the title taken from him earlier this month when Ellen hosted the Oscars and tweeted a selfie along with a number of famous faces.

oscars selfie

Ellen's selfie, which broke the record for the most retweets

Celebrities including Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper all posed alongside the talk-show host for the selfie, which quickly became the most retweeted post in Twitter history.

While speaking on the 'Ellen' show via a live video link, Obama addressed having his record broken, saying: "I heard about that. I thought it was a pretty cheap stunt myself. Getting a bunch of celebrities in the background."

Obama also joked that Ellen had to bribe the celebrities to pose with her by "giving them pizza", which she was seen doing during the ceremony.

Her famous selfie spawned a number of parodies, including a version featuring the characters from The Simpsons, and another that just featured actor Kevin Spacey.

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