With the U.S. presidential election now closer than ever, the press is brimming with speculation about whether Barack Obama, after turning in a lackluster performance in the first debate, can reverse Mitt Romney's momentum during his second outing tonight. And not just the U.S. media. News outlets from India to Israel are busy dissecting Obama's setback, Romney's comeback, and what the new state of play in the race means for their countries. Here's a snapshot of some of the most colorful coverage in recent days:
The British press has at times been rather brutal in assessing the shifting dynamics in the presidential race (sample Daily Mail headline this week: "Preparing for a new job already? Obama delivers pizzas to campaign workers as he gets ready for make-or-break TV debate at golf resort"). But commentators have also speculated about what a Romney win would mean for Britain. Over at the Telegraph, Tim Stanley argues that David Cameron and his Conservative Party have expressed their preference for Obama too openly. "By airing these views in public the Tories have gambled too much on Obama winning the election," he maintains. "And if he doesn't, then they'll have a President on their hands who they have routinely insulted. That can't be good for the Atlantic alliance." (Stanley, for the record, thinks tonight's debate will end in a draw or Romney win.)
Meanwhile, Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to the United States, writes in the London Evening Standard that an Obama victory would be best for Britain:
Romney could turn out to be an excellent foreign policy president, yet right now, his foreign policy team is split between neo-con hawks and those of a more pragmatic, "realist" world view, similar to our own. We don't know which faction will come out on top. In the circumstances, we're better off with the devil we know - and that's Obama.
The state-run news agency Xinhua has a warning today for the presidential candidates: "[I]t would be both politically shortsighted and detrimental to China-US relations if they turned the town-hall-style meeting into a China-bashing competition" (the news outlet appears to be confusing tonight's debate with the third and final debate on foreign policy, which will touch on topics such as "the rise of China and tomorrow's world"). Sure, both candidates' tough talk on China may be nothing more than campaign bluster, Xinhua observes. But "these chameleonic politicians should not always expect that the wounds they have inflicted to the China-US ties would heal automatically" once they assume office.
In an article on the possibility that India could be dealing with several new world leaders in a matter of months, the Times of India marvels that "from being a candidate who could barely control his own Republican Party, Mitt Romney has surged forward to be a surprisingly competent debater and a more than credible opponent." Still, the paper adds, the outcome of the U.S. election may not have a major impact on bilateral relations. "The Indo-US relationship has now become institutionalized and isn't actually dependent on a president," the article notes.
In a debate preview at the Hindustan Times, the U.S.-based journalist Rashmee Roshan Lall argues that Romney is unlikely to endear himself to India or the world during Tuesday night's event. True, she notes, the "New Delhi punditocracy has always thought Republican presidents suit India much better than Democratic ones." But Romney doesn't mention India on the campaign trail and wants to "reinstate the US as globocop, albeit with a makeover that borrows heavily from some of the darker manifestations of Lord Voldemort." She concludes with a question: "Is it better to be steamrollered or simply ignored or might the best option for India and everyone else be four more years of Obama?"
As the U.S. race has tightened -- "The presidential race has begun anew," one Israel Hayom headline proclaims -- the editorial boards at Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post have published explanations for why they'll be remaining neutral during the election. Haaretz notes, in rather vivid language, that "Romney would stick with Israel's prime minister and they would become flesh of one flesh" but adds that the substantive differences between the candidates are minor. Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev, meanwhile, muses about the various leadership permutations that could result from elections in Israel and the United States.
As for the upcoming debate, Israel Hayom's Abraham Ben-Avi thinks it is "Obama's last window of opportunity to rehabilitate his status as a leader" while Haaretz's Adar Primor argues that the world will still favor Obama over Romney even if the candidates sharpen the distinctions between them on foreign policy tonight. "Those [around the world] who have shaken off their Obama fixation have done so largely because in certain areas of policy he is seen as having adopted the Republican agenda," Primor writes.
Russia's RT didn't buy the widespread verdict that Romney trounced Obama in the first debate, noting that the "tepid" forum had shown the candidates to be "two sides of the same coin." But Romney's post-debate bounce has spurred the Russian press to give the GOP candidate a closer look. News outlets covered Romney's Russia comments during his recent foreign-policy address in Virginia but cautioned against reading too much into the aggressive rhetoric (the state-run Voice of Russia did note that "a serious politician should avoid making that kind of remarks with respect to another leading country"). One Russian lawmaker, meanwhile, accused Romney of embracing George W. Bush's failed policies and presiding over the "last convulsion of the American-style world."
In the most creative commentary, the Voice of Russia compares the debates to chess matches and quotes the chess player Vladislav Tkachev:
"Very often the real moves, such as the candidate's plan of actions and package of reforms, remain in the background and the psychological factor comes to the fore. Suffice it to look at the footage of the confrontation between Karpov and Kasparov to see that the duel of the eyes, a springy step and an overall aggressive look were of paramount importance. It is common knowledge how difficult it is to give the right answer when exposed to the rival's glare. The response of the audience can also either pep one up or completely demoralize. Barack Obama with downcast eyes did not look his best this time, side by side with his opponent who radiated confidence."
However, there are more debates ahead and the results could change. After all, Obama is leading in public opinion polls. The main thing for him now is to get rid of the image of a serious, thoughtful and humane but not very determined leader because this is the wrong style for the time of change. However, chess practice shows that the style of playing games cannot change overnight.
The German press has adopted the Mitt-mentum narrative -- as U.S.-based journalist Gregor Peter Schmitz wrote in Der Spiegel, Joe Biden's vice presidential debate performance "almost single-handedly revived the Obama campaign, which was in danger of being put on life support after the president's disastrous debate performance in Denver." But news outlets have also pointed out that the race would look very different if it were held in Germany (or many other European countries, for that matter), where more than eight in ten people would support the Democrats. "Obama has assured victory -- among Germans," a headline in Die Welt declares (an article in Berliner Morgenpost suggests that Obama's overwhelming popularity in the country helps explain why Romney didn't visit Germany during his overseas trip this summer).
The Pakistani press has covered the narrowing race. "Even the New York Times, which favours Mr Obama, concedes that Mr Romney has continued to surge since the debate," an article in Dawn observes. But in an op-ed for the same newspaper, Muhammad Ali Siddiqi argues that the weeks since the first debate have shown Obama to be the true victor. "Mr Obama was consistent, without flamboyance, and stood his ground" while "Mr Romney played to the gallery," Siddiqi notes. He adds that "Mr Romney would like to conduct his foreign policy in Cold War fashion" but admits that, contrary to the impression in Pakistan, foreign policy has "taken a back seat in the campaign."
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Tonight's presidential debate will be conducted in Town Hall format. Every election, we're promised that this will make the event more "unpredictable," but in reality, it means we're likely to get pre-screened questions along the lines of, "So, what are you going to do about jobs?" If there are any "unpredictable" questions, they will probably be something like, "Sanchez or Tebow?" (This is Long Island, remember.)
If, by chance, some of Dan Drezner's foreign-policy voting 5 percenters do make it into the audience, they're likely to ask about issues that have already been discussed ad nauseum on the campaign trail: Iran, Israel, Afghanistan, Arab Spring. It's not that these aren't important countries. It's just that we pretty much know what the candidates are going to say about them.
In the spirit of making things more interesting, here are a few suggested questions for the audience if they really want to throw these guys off their game.
1. What is your stance on the Scottish independence referendum? (Follow-up question: If you could pick one U.S. state to leave the union, which would it be?)
2. Do you believe the prosecution of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed is politically motivated?
3. Nagorno-Karabakh. Thoughts?
4. Who will be the first to put a human on Mars: the U.S., China, Russia, or Red Bull?
6. Falklands or Malvinas?
8. Is Joyce Banda a genuine reformer?
9. What are your thoughts on Ollanta Humala's political evolution? (No, gentlemen. We will not remind you what countries these are the leaders of.)
10. Given our military presence in Diego Garcia, does the U.S. have an obligation to help resolve the Chagos archipelago dispute?
11. Do you have any concerns about the global potash supply?
12. Is there any reason for Belgium to exist?
13. Japan is about to replace China as America's biggest creditor. Could you please offer us some meaningless bluster about "getting tough with Tokyo?"
14. Who is America's most embarrassing ally?
15. Who would you call if you wanted to call Europe?
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GettyImages
The State Department's decision to remove the Iranian exile group Mujahedin-e-Khalq from its Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list certainly looks depressingly cynical, coming after the group waged a years-long PR, lobbying, and advertising campaign, paying political VIPs including Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Tom Ridge, and Ed Rendell tens of thousands of dollars to endorse their cause. The idea that a group blamed for the killing of six Americans in the 1970s, as well as dozens of deadly terrorist bombings against Iranian targets afte,r that is “the largest peaceful, secular, pro-democratic Iranian dissident group” -- as its advertising boasts -- doesn't pass the laugh test.
But it's also true that the group, despite its creepy cultlike behavior, hasn't carried out a terrorist attack in years. As FP contributor Karim Sadjadpour tells the New York Times, “I don’t think the world really looks that much different. U.S.-Iran relations will remain hostile, and the M.E.K. will remain a fringe cult with very limited appeal among Iranians.”
Under the PATRIOT Act, for a group to be included on the list, it's required that the "terrorism of the organization threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States." But a quick glance at the most recent edition of the FTO list shows quite a few groups that don't -- or no longer -- meet that standard either:
Some other groups, including the Real IRA and Jewish extremist organiztaion Kahane Chai, have been a bit more active recently, but have few members and can't really be said to pose much a threat to U.S. national security. Some groups, such as the Libya Islamic Fighting Group, have been reconstituted, or are operating under different names than the ones on the list.
According to the State Department website, before 2004, a group had to be redesignated every two years to appear on the list. But now, the onus is on the group to make its case -- as the MEK did that it is no longer a terrorist:
IRTPA provides that an FTO may file a petition for revocation 2 years after its designation date (or in the case of redesignated FTOs, its most recent redesignation date) or 2 years after the determination date on its most recent petition for revocation. In order to provide a basis for revocation, the petitioning FTO must provide evidence that the circumstances forming the basis for the designation are sufficiently different as to warrant revocation. If no such review has been conducted during a 5 year period with respect to a designation, then the Secretary of State is required to review the designation to determine whether revocation would be appropriate. In addition, the Secretary of State may at any time revoke a designation upon a finding that the circumstances forming the basis for the designation have changed in such a manner as to warrant revocation, or that the national security of the United States warrants a revocation.
New groups, like Pakistan's Haqqani network or Lebanon's Abdallah Azzam Bridgades, are added with some regularity. Though as some of the names still on the list indicate, groups aren't removed that often unless -- like MEK -- they are in a position to mount a public case for their delisting. (Thankfully, it's hard to imagine Aum Shinriyko advertising on the Washington metro!)
Categorizing miltiant groups, which don't always have one universally used name, or a fixed membership, is always a bit tricky. As Aaron Zelin, recently explained for FP, a surprising number of jihadi groups have emerged in different countries in recent months, all calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia.
Back in June, I noted that the State Department had decided not to list Nigeria's Boko Haram -- a group that is more active and arguably much more of a threat to U.S. economic and political interests than many of those on the list -- though it did list some Boko Harma leaders as "Specially Designated Global Terrorists," a different category.
At the time, Reuters reported that Boko Haram as a whole had not been added to the FTO list so as "not to elevate the group's profile." That makes a certain amount of sense, but it also suggests a need for a larger housecleaning on the list. Their American FTO status is about all the militant credibility some of these groups have left.
Polling this week suggests that Barack Obama is pulling ahead of Mitt Romney in key swing states and erasing the Republican candidate's advantage on the economy. But the results include one piece of bad news: According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey conducted in the days after the attacks on U.S. missions in Egypt, Libya, and other Middle Eastern countries, the president's approval rating on foreign policy dropped to 49 percent from 54 percent in August. That's the first time since before the Osama bin Laden raid that support for Obama's handling of international affairs has dropped below 50 percent in the survey.
The worst news for the White House is that, in an election that no longer revolves solely around the economy, all-important independent voters are souring on the president's performance on foreign affairs -- a key strength for the Democrats this election cycle. Forty-one percent of independents approved of Obama's handling of foreign policy in September, compared with 53 percent in August.
But there's more to the picture. Not only could the decline in approval prove temporary (depending on how events play out in the Middle East) but, as NBC's First Read suggests, the drop may have more to do with increasing political polarization as the election heats up than with Obama's handling of the protests per se. According to the NBC/WSJ survey, Republican approval of Obama's foreign policy fell from 19 percent in August to 10 percent in September.
What's more, if Obama emerged from the crisis looking bad, Romney may have looked even worse. A Pew Research Center poll released this week found that 45 percent of respondents who followed news about the U.S. mission attacks approved of Obama's handling of the crisis, while only 26 percent supported Romney's criticisms of the president's response. Among independents, 44 percent approved of the president's actions and 23 percent approved of Romney's critiques.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the NBC/WSJ survey did not see any change between August and September in the percentage of respondents who felt Obama (45 percent) would be a better commander-in-chief than Romney (38 percent). Another Pew poll released on Wednesday indicates that 53 percent of registed voters believe Obama would do the best job of making wise decisions on foreign policy, while 38 percent think Romney would. More to the point, the survey finds that Obama enjoys a 50-39 advantage over Romney on dealing with problems in the Middle East (and these big leads hold among swing voters). "The recent turmoil in the Middle East appears to have had little impact [on] opinions about Obama's approach to foreign policy and national security issues," Pew notes.
While we can't conclude with certainty that the Mideast unrest is the proximate cause of Obama's sagging approval on foreign policy among swing voters in the NBC/WSJ poll (after all, last week also featured tensions between Israel and the United States over Iran), it's a likely culprit. The damage that the U.S. mission attacks inflicted on both candidates helps explain why the Obama and Romney campaigns quickly pivoted to other issues after a day of intense sparring over the events.
The lingering question is whether Obama's approval ratings on foreign policy would be even worse had Romney decided not to say anything at all about attacks -- and let the violence in the Middle East speak for itself.
Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images
For months now, the right and the left have argued about whether this year's contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is a repeat of the 1980 race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It's a comparison that benefits Republicans, who want to portray Obama as helpless on the economy ('Are you better off than you were four years ago?'), feckless on foreign policy (both Carter and Obama faced attacks on U.S. embassies), and politically vulnerable (Reagan surged ahead of Carter in the homestretch; the Romney campaign has its fingers crossed).
On Wednesday, National Journal's Sophie Quinton argued that Romney's criticism of Obama in the wake of Tuesday's assaults on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya was a marked departure from Reagan's response to the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and ensuing hostage crisis in 1979-1980. When Carter's effort to rescue the American hostages in Iran failed in April 1980, Quinton points out, Reagan took the high ground, asserting that "this is the time for us as a nation and a people to stand united." When Reagan later debated Carter in the fall, she adds, he refrained from answering a question about how he would handle a similar crisis because of the sensitivity of the issue.
That's some impressive restraint. But while Reagan did ocassionally express support on the campaign trail for Carter's responses to the Iranian hostage crisis (praising the decision to freeze Iranian assets, for example), he was far less diplomatic on many other occasions.
In fact, the debate between Carter and Reagan over the Iranian crisis was remarkably similar to the rhetoric we're hearing now from the Obama and Romney campaigns. Let's take a look at some examples:
U.S. weakness at fault
Reagan: In November 1979, just weeks after radical Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Reagan argued that Carter's policies had diminished respect for the United States around the world. "[L]et us be respected to the point that never again will a demented dictator dare to invade an American embassy and hold our people hostage," he said. The Associated Press reported at the time that "Reagan repeatedly said he wouldn't comment on the Iranian situation because remarks by presidential candidates might upset possible secret negotiations" to free American hostages. "But in each case," the news outlet added, Reagan "followed his refusal with criticism" of Carter's Iran policy.
Romney: Romney, it seems, is far less conflicted about speaking out, but he too has suggested that Obama's failure to lead created the conditions under which attacks on U.S. missions could occur. "The attacks in Libya and Egypt underscore that the world remains a dangerous place and that American leadership is still sorely needed," he said at a press conference on Wednesday. Romney surrogate John Bolton was more blunt in an interview with the Washington Post. "The perception of American weakness that provided the foundation for these attacks is largely because of Obama administration mistakes and lack of resolve," he argued.
Embassy attack symptomatic of bigger issues
Reagan: In November 1979, the Washington Post also reported the Reagan quote above, but with some additional context. Reagan claimed that the lack of respect underlying the embassy attack stemmed from the Carter administration's destructive desire to be liked, whether by supporting the SALT II nuclear arms deal with the Soviet Union or transferring control of the Panama Canal to Panama. "Isn't it about time that we said to the administration in Washington that we're not so concerned if other countries like us?" the Republican candidate asked. "We would like, once again, to be respected by other countries."
Romney: Romney cited his differences with Obama on Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, and Syria during his press conference, and Romney surrogate Dan Senor made a more explicit connection between the events of the last couple days and these larger issues during an appearance on CNN. The violence, he contended, is a reminder of the "chaos that a lot of the policies of this administration has sowed. Chaos in the Arab Spring. Chaos where allies in Israel feel that they can't rely on us. You saw the flare up over the last couple of days with the prime minister of Israel and the president."
Violation of American principles
Reagan: In the weeks after the attack in Tehran, Reagan lashed out at the Carter administration for violating an "American principle" by not granting Iran's deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi permanent asylum. "If you read those words on the face of the Statue of Liberty, we have a history of being an asylum for political exiles," Reagan asserted. "And he certainly was as loyal an ally for a great many years as this country have possibly have had."
Romney: Romney has also appealed to American values in denouncing the Obama administration, arguing that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, in publishing a statement and tweets condemning an anti-Islam American film before a crowd gathered at the compound, had issued an "apology for America's values." The first response to an embassy breach "should not be to say, 'Yes, we stand by our comments that -- that suggest that there's something wrong with the right of free speech,'" Romney declared.
'Shoot first' mentality
Carter: During his convention speech in August 1980, Carter noted that "while we Democrats grapple with the real challenges of a real world, others talk about a world of tinsel and make-believe," adding that "[i]t's a make-believe world, a world of good guys and bad guys, where some politicians shoot first and ask questions later." (h/t: Washington Examiner)
Obama: In an interview with CBS on Wednesday, Obama criticized Romney for swiftly denouncing the administration's foreign policy while news of the U.S. mission attacks was still developing. Intentionally or not, the president echoed Carter. "Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," he observed. "And as president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that. That, you know, it's important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts."
No time for politics
Carter: In October 1980, ahead of his only debate with Reagan during the race, chastised the Republican candidate for breaking a pledge to refrain from discussing the Iranian crisis. "The fate of the hostages is too important ... to be made a political football," Carter explained. Reagan, for his part, claimed the hostage issue was fair game. "Breaking my pledge might be if I waited until 7:15 on Election Day and then brought the subject [up] as he did in the Wisconsin primary," Reagan retorted (he was referring to Carter's surprise news conference on Iran on the morning of the state's primary).
Obama: In an interview with Telemundo on Wednesday, Obama argued that the aftermath of the U.S. mission attacks was not a "time for politics." As president, he added, "my obligation is to focus on security for our people ... and not having ideological arguments on a day when we're mourning."
There are some differences between the two periods, of course. Reagan did not publicly criticize Carter for several days after students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iran, while Romney issued a statement hours after the attacks in Egypt and Libya. But within weeks, Reagan was weighing in forcefully on the issue. And by December 1979, the Washington Post reported that Reagan was "finding it hard to restrain himself" on Iran and had "suggested for the first time that he might make the Iranian issue a major theme of his political campaign once the hostage question is decided."
That day never came during the race. But that didn't stop Reagan from seizing on an issue that ultimately helped propel him to victory.
Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades got a lot of reporters scratching their heads last week when he suggested that James K. Polk could be a historical model for Mitt Romney's presidency in an interview with the Huffington Post:
[W]hen I asked [Matt] Rhoades in July how Romney would govern if elected, and what Romney might do with the budget and entitlement reform plans Ryan had already outlined, Rhoades' eyes lit up. He gave me a name: James Polk.
Don't Yawn. There's a history lesson in that name. Rhoades and the rest of the members of Romney's inner circle think a Romney presidency could look much like the White House tenure of the 11th U.S. president.
Polk, who served from 1845 to 1849, presided over the expansion of the U.S. into a coast-to-coast nation, annexing Texas and winning the Mexican-American war for territories that also included New Mexico and California. He reduced trade barriers and strengthened the Treasury system.
And he was a one-term president.
Polk is an allegory for Rhoades: He did great things, and then exited the scene, and few remember him. That, Rhoades suggested, could be Romney's legacy as well.
Citing Polk as a model for your presidency feels a bit like a hipster's record recommendation. ("Oh, you're into Andrew Jackson? He's okay, I guess, but you should really check out Polk.") But it's interesting to consider exactly what a Polkian presidency would look like.
It's certainly true that given the extroadinary political changes that took place under his presidency, the 11th president doesn't get nearly enough attention. (Nor, for that matter, do any of the presidents between Jackson and Lincoln.) It's certainly I'm no Polk scholar but having recently read journalist and historian Robert W. Merry's very good A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent , I had a few quick thoughts on the pros and cons of the Polk model:
An exceptional exceptionalist: You want to talk about national greatness conservatism? In just four years, Polk -- Andrew Jackson's protege -- expanded the size of the United States by a third, incorporating Texas, the Northwest, and and Southwest. Polk envisioned the United States as a continental power with Pacific ports giving it access to emerging Asian markets. And in just four years he made it happen. The Monroe doctrine could just as easily be called the Polk doctrine, as the Tennessean repeatedly took action to prevent European influence in the Western Hemisphere.
Getting it done: Polk came into office in 1844 with four main goals. On the international front, he wanted to reach a favorable agreement with Britain on the Oregon territory, which was then in an ambiguous state of joint governance between the two countries. He also wanted to acquire California from Mexico. On the domestic side, he wanted to reduce tariffs and create and independent treasury. (Yes, he was a free-market guy as well.) All these goals were accomplished. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put Polk in the same category as much better known figures including Thomas Jefferson, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, as presidents who were "able to impose their own priorities on the country."
Leading from the front: By 1844 it was fairly obviously that Oregon would fall into U.S. hands eventually. Americans were migrating west at a rapid rate and vastly outnumbered the British in the territory. Many argued at the time that the U.S. should simply let the demographics run their course, but as Merry writes, "Patience was not a trait to be found in the personality of James Polk... he wasn't about to leave to successors the accomplishment he could himself obtain." In his inaugural address, Polk asserted America's "clear and unquestionable" title to Oregon and took a hard line in territorial negotiations that brought the two countries to the brink of their third war in less than 70 years. In the end, Britain would back down and the U.S. acquired the territory that would become the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
Left on top: A compromise candidate after a contentious Democratic primary, Polk pledged to only stay in office for one term and stuck to it, despite allies urging him to run again. As Ross Douthat writes, "he's a fascinating figure precisely because seems to have chosen retirement less out of necessity than out of a genuine belief that his service to the republic was complete." His health may also have played a role: He died just three months after leaving office.
More war-war than jaw-jaw: Polk's confrontational approach to the Oregon question looks shrewd in retrospect, but the course of U.S. history might have turned out quite differently if the U.S. had found itself fighting simultaneous wars with Mexico and Britain. In the case of Mexico, Polk seemed to recognize that a war would be the only way to accomplish his territorial aims and set out to create the conditions for one, most notably by ordering Gen. Zachary Taylor to march troops into disputed territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande in January 1846, setting in motion a series of events that would eventually lead to war. Polk may not have been the most aggressive hawk of his era -- there were members of his cabinet that favored the outright conquest of Mexico -- but the Mexican war was about as close as the U.S. ever got to an outright war of conquest, not a practice that even the most aggresive hawks usually endorse.
Bad manager: The Polk administration was a mess. His ostensible allies in the Democratic congressional delegation were divided over the war -- and increasingly over slavery -- his own secretary of State consistently undermined him, and his generals and diplomats were often outright insubordinate. The Polk cabinet leaked like a sieve, with confidential information frequently appearing the press, generally traced back to Secretary of State James Buchanan, who violated a pledge to Polk not to campaign for president while still secretary. Despite Buchanan's behind the scenes machinations and frequent failures to carry out Polk's orders, the president repeatedly backed off from threats to fire him. Mitt Romney may "like being able to fire people," but Merry writes that Polk "lacked the fortitude for the face-to-face encounter that must attend a dismissal.
Civil military relations weren't that great either. Polk's senior generals, Winfield "Old Fuss and Feathers" Scott and Zachary Taylor frequently clashed with the president, disobeying orders and engaging in unauthorized freelance diplomacy with the Mexicans, and Taylor actually left the battlefield to campaign for -- and win -- the presidency on a Whig ticket. The Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican war was negotiated by an envoy who Polk had fired weeks earlier. Polk's bizarrely effective brand of organized chaos would seem an odd model for Romney, a candidate who has sold himself as businesslike and managerial.
Missed the big picture: Polk was mostly uninterested in the question of increasingly controversial question of slavery throughout his presidency, focusing instead on the goal of territorial expansion that he believed would bring Americans together in the goal of national greatness. He reacted with annoyance when an antislavery congressional Democrat introduced the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in the territories won from Mexico, and seemed flummoxed that North-South disputes were inserting themselves into the war debate. By the end of his presidency, abolitionist Democrats had split off to form the Free Soil party -- later absorbed into the Republicans -- and the fault lines had developed for the conflict that would literally tear the country apart 13 years later. It's not clear that Polk could have done anything to prevent this, but his lack of interest in the issue seems remarkably shortsighted in retrospect.
(Also, if Romney adopts Polk as a model, the GOP may have to drop the "party of Lincoln" line before Honest Abe turns over in his grave. In the view of Lincoln, then a freshman Whig legislator who idolized Polk's longtime rival Henry Clay, the president had deliberately instigated the war with Mexico and "talked like an insane man" with a "mind taxed beyond its power.")
Other than a vague free-market hawkishness, it's hard to divine what a Polkian approach to contemporary issues such as Iran's nuclear program or healthcare costs might entail. But give some credit to Rhoades, a discussion of the merits of the Polk presidency is more interesting than hearing about Reagan for the 47,000th time.
The 14-year-old boy in me is extremely excited about the tantalizing possibility that CIA director David Petraeus, the most talented general of his generation and one of the few broadly respected figures in American political life, is being mooted as a potential veep pick for Mitt Romney. Picking Petraeus would inject some real excitement into a race that has turned into the second coming of Clinton-Dole: a real snoozefest. It would instantly transform the 2012 election from a race over taxes, jobs, and health care (boring!) into one about the good stuff: foreign policy and national security.
But the grownup in me realizes that this a pundit's fantasy, not to mention a diversion of dubious provenance (I mean, come on -- are we supposed to believe Obama bundlers go around whispering sweet nothings in Matt Drudge's ear?). So here are five reasons why -- sorry, Bill Kristol -- it ain't gonna happen. (See also Chris Cillizza's convincing debunker.)
1. Petraeus doesn't want the job
How many times has David Petraeus disavowed holding any political ambitions? Here he is in March 2010: "I thought I'd said 'no' about as many ways as I could. I really do mean no ... I will not ever run for political office, I can assure you." Here he is in August 2012 in an exchange on Meet the Press:
PETRAEUS: Well, I am not a politician, and I will never be, and I say that with absolute conviction.
GREGORY: Well, that's what he said. But does that mean that you're totally clear? That you'd never run for President?
PETRAEUS: Yeah, I really am. You know, and I've said that I'll adopt what Sherman said and go back and look at what has come to be known as a Shermanesque answer on that particular question.
GREGORY: No way, no how?
PETRAEUS: No way, no how.
Of course, political figures go back on their word all the time. But as Petraeus himself has pointed out, it wouldn't be very auspicious for his first political act to be a flip-flop.
Not yet convinced? NBC's Andrea Mitchell tweeted earlier today: "sources close to Gen David Petraeus laugh off Drudge report he is a Romney veep possible - #notgonnahappen."
2. He's head of the CIA, for Pete's sake
Why would Petraeus want to leave his post as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, still one of the top jobs in Washington even after the post-9/11 "reforms," to be Mitt Romney's pilot fish? The vice presidency is still, even in the wake of powerful veeps like Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, a dog's breakfast. Or, as America's first No. 2, John Adams, once put it, "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." (Or, if you prefer, "not worth a pitcher of warm piss," in the immortal words of FDR's otherwise unmemorable veep John Nance Garner.) Even if you see Petraeus as an ambitious climber always looking for the next branch, the vice presidency would be a step down, not a step up. In any case, he'd probably rather run the Pentagon.
3. Petraeus doesn't do domestic policy
Like Condi Rice, Petraeus doesn't do domestic issues. And if anything, he's got even less of a paper trail on things like education, where at least Rice showed some private interest. Can you imagine Petraeus weighing in on heated debates about abortion or tax policy? Me neither. Domestic issues may bore people like you and me, dear FP reader, but they are full of pitfalls for amateurs who aren't fully schooled in constituent politics. In any case, if Romney is clear about anything, it's that this election will be about jobs and the economy. And I don't think Petraeus's strong record of creating jobs for drone manufacturers is going to cut it.
4. Romney doesn't think outside the box
Even if you ignore the fact that Petraeus wouldn't take the job, would Romney even offer it to him? That's highly doubtful. The Romney campaign is all about avoiding John McCain's mistakes -- and one of those mistakes was thinking outside the box to choose Sarah Palin, then the little-known governor of Alaska. And we know how that worked out. No wonder Team Romney is thought to be in the hunt for an "incredibly boring white guy." The former Massachusetts governor is not known for flights of fancy -- one associate told New York magazine that Romney "never took big risks" as a business executive. As a politician, he's been even more cautious.
5. The White House categorically denied it
In his item, Drudge attributed the speculation that Romney might tap Petraeus to none other than POTUS himself. "President Obama whispered to a top fundraiser this week that he believes GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney wants to name Gen. David Petraeus to the VP slot!" he wrote.
But in Tuesday's press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney left no room for interpretation as to whether Obama had said such a thing. "I can say with absolute confidence that such an assertion [has] never been uttered by the president," Carney said, adding a swipe at Drudge for good measure. "And again, be mindful of your sources."
One usually has to parse White House statements for ye olde non-denial denial, but that's pretty categorical.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Who says there are no second acts in American life?
You may remember L. Paul Bremer III as the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) immediately following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Astute readers may also recall that he presided over such decisions as the dismantling of the Iraqi army, the "de-Baathification" of Iraq's government, some questionable financial decisions involving hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of Iraqi money, and the scandal over prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
But the real question is, what's he up to now?
While perusing a Tablet magazine profile of Dan Senor, we happened to notice this gem of a parenthetical: "Bremer wound up retiring to Vermont to become a landscape painter." Do go on!
Apparently, Bremer turned to painting around 2007 and has been going strong ever since, as you can see on his website. He appears to favor landscapes, mostly of rural Vermont, in various muted shades. But as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Let's look at some highlights. From the "private collection," we have a rare female nude, the title of which -- Nude with Matisse Colors (2009) -- refers to innovative French artist Henri Matisse:
Next up, we swing to his preferred subject matter, landscapes.
A muted rural scene from Vermont. We're not sure what the classical influence on this one is, but the skewed perspectives and somber coloring bring to mind certain elements of the Oval Office circa 2003.
Here's another landscape, this one titled Fishing on the Potomac River.
Really, they're all gems. You can see the entire collection here.
Correction: This post originally identified Bremer's primary medium as watercolors. He actually uses primarily oil paints.
L. Paul Bremer
News of a new "seal flu" has many fearing a repeat of the 2009 swine flu outbreak that infected more than 5.7 million in the United States before peaking as a level 5 on the WHO's 6-point pandemic alert. The H3N8 flu virus was discovered after the mysterious death of nearly 200 harbor seals off the United States' northeastern coast. Describing it as "a combination we haven't seen in disease before," researchers warned that the new strain of influenza A could have severe repercussions for human health.
The real shock of the story may be the public realization that such doe-eyed creatures could cause harm. While mosquitoes and ticks, those pesky harbingers of West Nile, dengue fever, cholera, Lyme disease, and Kyasanur fever (among other assorted viral, fungal, and bacterial pathogens) are universally hated, it's hard to believe the Earth's more cuddly creatures could breed evil. Here's another 13 to ruin your next trip to the petting zoo:
Peacocks are dying in droves in Pakistan's Thar Desert region in an outbreak scientists believe is linked to Newcastle disease. Highly contagious in birds, the viral infection is currently rare in humans. Its unique replication properties make it a potential candidate for agroterrorism, but more positive headway been made in its use as a human cancer treatment.
Found primarily in Latin America, armadillos are better known for their unique defense mechanism than their role as a global disease vector. Beneath their shell, however, these mammals shield leprosy, a rare bacterial infection that attacks the skin and nervous system. Though associated more with the bible than modern medicine, the disease remains active throughout the world -- with armadillos responsible for more than a third of infections in the United States.
The world's largest mammal offers plenty of real estate for influenza A, a viral flu strain with the most potential for interspecies transmission. Luckily, the chances for accidental contact remain slim -- just another reason to skip the whale meat.
Monkeys and apes
Described by malaria researchers as a "reservoir for human disease," monkeys and apes are widely known for harboring emerging zoonotic diseases. The HIV virus originated in African monkeys and strains of malaria, Ebola, and monkeypox virus continue to be created or transmitted by monkey and ape populations -- not to mention the cases of measles, rabies, tuberculosis, salmonellosis, shigellosis, amebiasis, balatidiasis, herpes B, giardiasis and helminthes believed to have appeared first in man's closest relative.
Dogs and cats
While many a dog-lover cheered reports of a feline parasite's negative impact on human dopamine production, man's best friend carries its own risks. Though undulant fever is more commonly associated with other species, human cases of the leptospirosis bacteria, an infection whose effect ranges from flu-like symptoms to liver and kidney failure, encephalitis, and pulmonary involvement, have been reported to originate in dogs.
More commonly associated with rats, plague seems to have chosen prairie dogs as its modern rodent host. One leg of a complex threesome that includes mice and fleas, prairie dog coteries across North America have been struck by a mass outbreak of bubonic and sylvatic plague. In an effort to cull the epidemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has implemented a mass fumigation campaign.
While flying foxes are their natural reservoir, the Hendra and Nipah viruses have adapted to survive within horses where they take residence alongside anthrax. Worse, equine encephalitis virus, a pathogen listed as a global priority by the Global Early Warning System for Major Animal Diseases, Including Zoonoses, has spread globally. Transmitted by mosquitos, the virus can be fatal in both horses and humans.
Rabbits and hares
Guinea pigs and hamsters
However popular with the preschool set, guinea pigs and hamsters are still rodents. Next time your kid asks to bring one home remember - these furry beasts are disease vectors of lymphocytic choriomeningitis, leptospirosis, yersiniosis and salmonellosis. Handle with gloves.
TIMM SCHAMBERGER/AFP/Getty Images
India's dark days continue. When two of the country's five power grids collapsed today, the number of powerless Indians neared 700 million. With stranded trains, unresponsive ATMs, and dark traffic lights abounding, it's been an unprecedented disaster only somewhat mitigated by the fact that the majority of Indians aren't connected to the power grid in the first place.
India's outage is now the largest blackout in history, surpassing yesterday's power outage for the record. But it's not the only time the world has seen millions without power. Here are a few more of the world's recent memorable blackouts:
Number affected: 120 million people in Java and Bali
When three power stations went down, three provinces -- including the capital city, Jakarta -- were plunged into darkness. Fires erupted across the capital when resourceful residents turned to candles to light their homes.
Number affected: 97 million across Brazil and Paraguay
The blackout was caused by lightning hitting an electricity substation, causing the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to grind to a hault. Just two years later, the Brazilian government was forced to ration power to prevent more blackouts during a national drought.
Number affected: 60 million across Brazil and Paraguay
Ten years after Brazil's biggest blackout, the Itaipu dam along the border of Paraguay shut down completely, affecting large parts of both countries. Many at the time thought the blackout (shown above) was the consequence of a cyberattack.
Number affected: 57 million across Italy
The blackout occurred the night of Italy's annual "Nuit Blanche" or "White Night" festival in Rome. It's safe to say festivities ended earlier than expected.
Number affected: 50 million in New York, Michigan, and Ohio, as well as Toronto and Ottawa, Canada
The biggest blackout in U.S. history cost an estimated $6 billion dollars. Remarkably, the massive outage began with a single high-voltage power line in Northern Ohio brushing against overgrown trees.
Number affected: 30 million across parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, and Ontario, Canada
The initial cause of the blackout was the tripping of a transmission line near Ontario, though at time, many linked the outage with supposed UFO sightings.
Number affected: 10 million across Europe
After a routine shut down of a high-voltage transmission line to allow a ship to pass on the Elms river in Germany supposedly caused this blackout. France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, and Spain were also affected.
Number affected: 10 million
Keeping the lights on does, indeed, appear to be an Achilles heel for the fast-growing economy, provoking fears ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
Hope springs eternal, I guess:
“I am not an old politician yet,” Medvedev said in an interview with the Times newspaper in London where he attended the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games on July 27. The Times published the interview on Monday.
“I have never ruled out that I would run for president in the future (and I am not planning to quit politics soon), if Russians are interested in this,” he said in the interview, according to the Russian-language transcript published on Medvedev’s official website.
In 2024, assuming Vladimir Putin serves two full six-year terms and is once again constitutionally barred from running, Medvedev will only be 58. Maybe we can do this whole awkward maneuver over again. Putin would be 77 in 2030 after Medvedev serves a term, which seems a bit old to make it a threepeat, but who knows?
Those hoping for an Iran-Israel Judo showdown will be disappointed after a "critical digestive system infection" prevented Jahvaad Majoob -- the only Iranian athlete scheduled to compete alongside an Israeli -- from boarding the plane to London. Yet, from the North Korean flag mix up to the ongoing controversy over a Saudi Arabian judo fighter's headscarf, those itching for some geopolitical proxy battles will have their fill. Here are another seven matches to watch:
Table Tennis: North Korea vs. South Korea
August 3, 2:00 pm EST
For big tension on a very small court, viewers should tune in to the first found of men's team table tennis where North Korea will face off against its archenemy South Korea. The nations remain technically at war despite a July 27, 1953 armistice, and the demilitarized zone remains one of the most dangerous borders in the world with Pyongyang threatening to turn Seoul into a "sea of flames." In this match at least, paddles are certain to fly.
Lightweight Double Sculls: South China smackdown
July 29 5:40 am EST
Poor Germany is stuck in the middle of China, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea in the women's lightweight double sculls. As the Asian nations squabble over islands in the East and South China Seas and the potential for naval war looms, the title of best rower may mean more than just a medal.
Handball: Britain vs. Argentina
August 2, 11:15 am EST
Despite insisting in February that her country would not boycott the games, Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner announced this week she will not attend the opening ceremony. Her absence is a protest against Britain's claims to the Falklands, which Argentine maintains at their rightful territory despite their military defeat in 1982. As the island nears a referendum to determine its political status, Argentinean and British Olympic teams will have the chance to fight it out on men's handball court. If the losing country isn't satisfied, it will get another chance -- they're scheduled to play in field hockey too.
Pair Rowing: Greece vs. Germany
July 28, 7:00 am EST
Blood pressure will be high as Greece's Nikolaos Gkountoulas and Apostolos Gkountoulas race Germany's Anton Braun and Felix Drahotta in the men's pair rowing race. As debtor faces creditor, viewers should hope it'll be a repeat of the 2012 Euro Cup. Team loyalty got political when creative German fans mocked the Greeks "Without Angie, you wouldn't be here." Not to be beat, the Greeks struck low: "We'll never pay you back. We'll never pay you back." The question remains-if Greece wins, who gets the gold?
Soccer: U.S. vs. North Korea
July 31, 12:15 pm EST
Opponents on every issue ranging from human rights to nuclear weapons, the United States and North Korea will face off in match 15 of the women's group G. Though the United States won the FIFA 2008 Championship title after defeating North Korea in the final round, their 2010 quarterfinal losses prevented a rematch. It remains to be seen if young leader Kim Jong Un is as harsh as his dad when it comes to international soccer failure.
Fencing: China vs. Japan
August 5, 5:30 am EST
While Beijing and Tokyo diplomats have so far limited themselves to lobbing rhetorical barbs over the latest territorial row, fencers Kenta Chida, Ryo Miyake, Lei Sheng and Jianfei Ma will face off in the men's team foil. Though fencing is lauded as a game of strategy, not force, the fighters' long history is certainly bloody.
Basketball: U.S. vs. China
August 5, 11:45 am EST
The U.S. women's basketball team faces China in game 52. U.S. - Sino relations have begun to sour as the United States pivots its forces to Asia and populist rhetoric has entered the U.S. presidential race. Bruised by an embarrassing 62-100 loss to the U.S. in May, seventh-ranked China is thirsty for revenge.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
The worldwide rate of obesity more than doubled between 1980 and 2008 and over 500 million people are obese around the world today. Once confined only to wealthy countries, obesity rates are skyrocketing in developing powers like Brazil and China as well. The economic effect is substantial as well, with 21 percent of annual medical spending in the United States going to obesity related illness.
But what does it mean for your portfolio? A new Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Global Research report looks at how investors can take advantage of what they call the "globesity" trends. Opportunities include:
- Pharmaceuticals and Health Care: We look at companies taking advantage of the FDA's increased support for obesity drug development. We also highlight companies tackling related medical conditions and needs including diabetes, kidney failure, hip and knee implants. We also consider equipment such as patient lifts, bigger beds and wider ambulance doors.
- Food: We position companies on their efforts to access the $663 billion “health and wellness” market, as well as on how they are reformulating their portfolios to respond to increasing pressure such as “fat taxes” to reduce sugar and fat levels.
- Commercial Weight Loss, Diet Management and Nutrition: Up to 50 percent of some western populations pursue dieting, targeted nutrition and behavioral change making it a $4 billion market in the U.S. and growing globally.
- Sports Apparel and Equipment: This is the longer-term play, but we believe that promoting physical activity will become a key priority for more government health policies.
All seems pretty sound. Though it might also be worth keeping a position in Big Gulps as a hedge just in case there's a backlash to the backlash.
PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images
Word on the street here in Cairo is that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has become an Islamist overnight.
It's not a joke. Clinton was greeted by protests upon visiting Egypt this weekend -- but this time it wasn't just Islamists who were denouncing the United States. Rather, opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood rallied to object to what they saw as Clinton's support for President Mohamed Morsy, who hails from the Islamist movement's ranks. Tawfiq Okasha, a staunch supporter of Egypt's military establishment, led a protest outside the Four Seasons hotel, where Clinton was staying. In the city of Alexandria, protesters taunted Clinton with chants of "Monica, Monica" -- a reference to Monica Lewinsky -- and threw tomatoes and shoes at her motorcade.
The dissatisfaction can't be dismissed as the work of a few rabble-rousers. Leading members of Egypt's Coptic Christian community refused to meet with Clinton due to the U.S. government's "support for Islamism over other political and civil forces." The meeting with Coptic leaders who did show up apparently did not go any more smoothly: According to human rights campaigner Hossam Bahgat, one speaker accused the White House of being infiltrated by Islamists -- and pointed to Clinton's deputy chief of staff, Huma Abedine, as evidence.
If Hillary Clinton is indeed a covert Islamist, she's not doing a very good job eliminating the tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the U.S. government. The list of potential issues goes on and on: The Brotherhood's uncertain guarantees of equal rights to Copts and women, its shaky commitment to inclusive democracy, and its antagonism toward Israel are just a few of the subjects that could trip up relations with the United States. Decades of built-up antagonism and suspicion can sabotage even the most basic cooperation: Just this month, a spokesman for the Brotherhood's political party accused the American NGO workers who were arrested under the former military government of being involved in "intelligence work." (start at 34:40)
As Clinton said at the presidential palace in Cairo on Saturday, being forced to choose between Egypt's diverse political forces is exactly what the United States doesn't want to do. "President Morsy made clear that he understands the success of his presidency -- and indeed, of Egypt's democratic transition -- depends on building consensus across the Egyptian political spectrum," she told the assembled media. Only such a coalition, she said, will allow him "to assert the full authority of the presidency."
Egypt's leaders, however, have shown little sign that they are willing to accommodate Clinton's ecumenical approach. Supreme Council of the Armed Forces chief Mohamed Hussein Tantawi seized the opportunity following his meeting with Clinton to say that the military would prevent Egypt from falling under the control of a "certain group" -- a reference to the Brotherhood. If the conflict does reach a crisis point, we may finally see how far Clinton's sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood goes.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
It pains me that I even need to explain this to some smart people who should know better -- I'm looking at you, Tyler Cowen -- but here are 5 reasons why Mitt Romney is not going to pick Condoleezza Rice as his running mate, no matter what Matt Drudge would have us believe. As Red State's Eric Erickson colorfully put it, "I don’t know who is hitting the crack rock tonight in the rumor mill, but bull shiitake mushrooms."
1. She's pro-choice. Among the many things conservatives dislike about Mitt Romney is the fact that he once espoused pro-choice views. He needs them to donate money and knock on doors and turn out on election day, so he's unlikely to do something so clearly guaranteed to alienate ye olde base. And this is to say nothing of the fact that the right has plenty of other reasons not to like her, from her torture fights with the Dick Cheney wing of the Bush administration to the fact that she has never married.
2. She's not interested. How many times has Condi Rice explained that she's just not that into politics? These are not the usual protestations of not being enamored of the veep job in particular; they are blanket denunciations of the very concept of being a politician. Condi doesn't want to kiss babies; she doesn't want to shake hands; she doesn't want to dial for dollars; she doesn't want to eat rubber chicken every night; she doesn't want to be Mitt's attack dog. When she says she'd rather be commissioner of the NFL, she means it.
3. She has no experience. Condi served as a not-so-great national security advisor and a pretty good secretary of state. She's generally a well-liked and well-respected public figure, and she's been smart about distancing herself from George W. Bush. But she has no record -- none -- of being interested in the big domestic policy issues like health care, jobs, entitlement reform, education, and so on. To foreign-policy wonks, these are deadly dull subject, and commenting on them is fraught with real pitfalls. Remember when Wesley Clark, a retired general, tried to talk about domestic policy? Yeah. And what's he doing now? Running a game show on NBC.
Romney, although he's a former governor, still comes across as a n00b when he talks policy. He'll want someone well versed in the ins and outs of Medicare, Social Security, and tax reform. That's not Condi.
4. She's being floated as a distraction. You don't have to be a political genius to recognize misdirection when you see it. Romney was having a tough news cycle yesterday, fueled by the Boston Globe's reporting that the candidate had spent longer as the official head of Bain than his campaign claims -- a tar-baby of a story that gets more difficult to explain the more you try.
Hey look, media, over there! Veep rumors! Condi's the perfect kind of story to get the chattering classes going -- an out-of-the-box pick that shows how tolerant and moderate Romney is. An elegant distraction, however transparent. And it seems to have worked.
5. Her name was leaked. The very fact that her name was given to Drudge -- assuming that actually happened -- suggests that she's expendable and therefore not a serious contender. Wake me up when we get a lot closer to the convention.
As my colleague Uri Friedman discussed in today's Morning Brief, the Spanish government has unveiled tough new austerity measures to reduce its deficits after securing a nearly $37 billion bailout from the European Union. The measures, part of the conditionalities attached to the bailout money, include cuts to unemployment benefits, the elimination of Christmas bonuses for civil servants and a rise in the value-added-tax.
The government is already facing a backlash, including protests by miners over subsidy cuts, but data on past interactions between governments and international financial institutions suggests that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government is actually in the safest period of the crisis. When economic conditions improve is when he will have to worry about his government's political prospects.
A paper recently published in the journal International Organization seeks to answer the question of whether IMF and World Bank interventions induce political crises. The authors, Axel Dreher of Heidelberg University and Martin Gassebner of the Swiss Economic Institute, began their research before the recent round of European bailouts but in an interview with Foreign Policy, Dreher said he sees similar dynamics at work in the recent crises.
The paper examines more than 90 developing countries between 1970 and 2002 and finds that intervention by one of the two international financial institutions significantly increases the likelihood of political crisis. These crises can be anything from coups and assassinations to mass demonstrations and general strikes.
An illustrative example discussed in the paper is the political turmoil which struck Bolivia in 2003, when more than 100 people were killed in political protests spurred by governments moves to raise taxes and increase natural gas exports. This followed 15 years of IMF-imposed structural adjustment program. The violent clashes led to the resignation of President of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and, three years later, the rise of populist President Evo Morales.
The paper's other significant finding is that the likelihood of a political crisis actually increases as economic prospects improve under assistance from an international financial institution. When times are really tough, the Dreher argues, the "government's leeway is increased due to the availability of additional loans." Governments are able to blame unpopular programs on the necessity of cooperating with the outside institution and voters are unable to tell is the government is merely incompetent of if its hand are tied by the conditions of the loan.
"If the government remains under an arrangement while the economy performs better, this signals that the government is more incompetent because a really competent government would no longer need the help of the international organizations," Dreher says.
Countries like Spain, Italy and Greece may have more robust democratic institutions than developing countries like Bolivia, but they are no less susceptible to moral hazard.
"You can see that [European governments] are able to implement certain conditions by using the troika -- the EU, the ECB and the IMF -- by way of a scapegoat," he says. "They say, we don't want to implement these conditions, we think they are too harsh, but we need the support of these organizations to stay in the Euro."
This is essentially the case Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy made to voters today, according to the New York Times, telling the public, "I know these are not pleasant measures but they are necessary."
But Dreher suggests that this kind of excuse won't work forever. "If the situation becomes better and the government remains in these partnerships with the conditions that come with the money, probably voters would turn against the government," he says."
Dreher and Gassebner's research suggests that if governments like Greece and Spain want to stay in power, "they would have to try to get out of these programs as soon as the situation becomes better."
Of course, given the scale of the economic woes these governments are currently facing, that's probably a problem they wouldn't mind having right now.
LUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images
WikiLeaks' document dump of emails from Syrian government officials has so far been light on scandalous details about either the Assad family or the opposition. But today's release did provide one unexpected revelation: Bashar al-Assad appears to be an avid student, and critic, of English. It's not exactly George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," but the Syrian president forwarded the following Internet joke to his translator with the subject line "ENGLISH IS A STUPID LANGUAGE!"
Let's face it. English is a stupid language.
There is no egg in the eggplant,
No ham in the hamburger
And neither pine nor apple in the pineapple.
English muffins were not invented in England.
We sometimes take English for granted,
But if we examine its paradoxes we find that
Quicksand takes you down slowly
Boxing rings are square
And a guinea pig is nighther from Guinea nor is it aa pig.
If writers write, how come fingers don't fing?
If the plural of tooth is teeth
Shouldn't the plural of phone booth be phone beeth?
If the teacher taught,
Why didn't the preacher praught?
If a vegetarian eats vegetables
What the heck does a humanitarian eat?
Why do people recite at a play
Yet play at a recital?
Park on driveways,
And drive on parkways?
How can the weather be as hot as hell on one day,
And cold as hell on another?
You have to marvel at the unique lunacy
Of a language where a house can burn up as
It burns down.
And in which you fill IN a form
By filling it OUT.
And a bell is only heard once it GOES!
English was invented by people, not computers
And it reflects the creativity of the human race
(Which of course isn't a race at all)
That is why when the stars are out they are visible
But when the lights are out they are invisible.
And why is it that when I wind up my watch, it starts,
But when I wind up this poem,
Assad also seems to have a fascination with American idioms (admittedly tricky devils). In another email to his translator, he includes a multiple-choice quiz with such questions as: "My friend likes hardcore trance music but it's not (my preference)." A) my cup of tea B) a fine kettle of fish C) the icing on the cake D) the cream of the crop.
Assad appears to be a very good student -- there are reportedly more than 800 emails between him and his translator in the WikiLeaks files.
Obviously this is not the blog for analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court's healthcare decision today, but as we get further into election season, I thought it might be worth noting that it's not a good day for frequently-cited prediction market InTrade, which as of two days ago was giving the individual mandate a 77 percent chance of being struck down.
Financial blogger Barry Ritholtz rounds up some more past examples of Intrade being spectacularly wrong on political predictions noting, "Futures markets are really a focus group unto themselves: When the group is something less representative of the target market, they get it wrong with alarming frequency. Indeed, the further the traders are as a group to the target decision makers/voters, the worse their track record." Given that the decision makers in this case were nine people deliberating in secret, it should have been a tip-off.
But even in the case of elections, the usefulness of Intrade is pretty questionable. As Slate's Daniel Gross noted in 2008 after Intrade's not-so-impressive performance in the Clinton-Obama primary, "The price movement tends to respond to conventional wisdom and polling data; it doesn't lead them."
Most of the people making bets on Intrade don't have access to better information than anyone else. It's not surprising that the betting market on Obama's re-election tracks pretty closely with his polling averages over the last year -- falling to a low point last fall, rising steadily over the summer, falling again in May. One could read some significance into the fact that InTrade gives Enrique Pena Nieto an 87.5 percent chance of winning this weekend's Mexican presidential election, or you could just take a look at the polls giving him a 17.4 percent lead.
The wisdom of the crowds -- or at least the wisdom of the crowds as filtered through Irish bookies -- may not be all that wise.
This morning, Turkey made the startling announcement that it had lost contact with one of its F-4 military jets near the country's southern border with Syria, and that it had launched search-and-rescue efforts for the plane's two pilots.
Details about the incident are still fuzzy. Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News is reporting that Syrian authorities have apologized to their Turkish counterparts for downing the aircraft (and cooperated on the rescue mission), while the BBC notes that the Turkish government has called an emergency security meeting and that witnesses in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia have told BBC Arabic that Syrian air defenses shot down an aircraft. But none of the key details -- the plane's mission, the cause and location of the crash, the whereabouts of the pilots -- have been nailed down.
"We've lost a plane and as yet we don't know have any information as to what happened and whether it was brought down," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a press conference on Friday.
Even with the shifting facts, it's worth asking: Could this incident -- or an incident like it -- trigger more aggressive action against Syria by the international community? After all, Turkey is a member of NATO, and Article V of the Washington Treaty outlines the alliance's commitment to collective security:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
A day after 9/11, NATO invoked this very provision for the first (and, to date, only) time, pledging to support U.S. military retaliation if it were determined that the terrorist attacks had been perpetrated by foreign nationals. The United States soon satisfied this condition in briefings with NATO members, but ultimately chose to topple the Taliban government in Afghanistan outside the NATO framework. (It's also worth noting that NATO forces are involved in plenty of operations that don't involve Article V.)
If Turkey has reason to believe that Syria shot down its plane, might NATO respond in a similar fashion? It's not an entirely unreasonable question. The bloody and protracted crisis in Syria has poisoned relations between Ankara and Damascus, and Turkey suggested in April that it might turn to NATO under Article V to help protect its border in response to incursions by Syrian forces -- a threat Syria condemned as "provocative."
But Kurt Volker, the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, points out that Article V simply offers NATO allies an opportunity to consult with one another and does not necessarily entail a military response. If Turkey wanted to bring today's incident to the alliance, it would most likely instruct the Turkish ambassador in Brussels to work with NATO's secretary-general on calling a formal meeting to discuss the episode and formulate an appropriate response.
"A response could be anything from a statement reiterating the inviolability of security guarantees to members coordinating activities so that they can respond to further attacks on Turkish interests," Volker says.
He doesn't believe today's incident alone will alter the international community's response to the Syrian conflict, but he does think a NATO meeting on the matter could nurture a broader discussion about how to intervene militarily in Syria outside the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have repeatedly opposed such action. One scenario, he adds, could be Western and Arab countries joining forces to create "safe zones" in Syria, support the Syrian opposition, and conduct aerial strikes against Syria's offensive military assets.
"I do get the feeling that the patience of the international community is growing thinner," Volker explains. "With the recent village-by-village slaughter [in Syria] and brazenness of the Russians in trying to arm the Syrians, I think we may be approaching a point at which this kind of coalition intervention is more thinkable than it was a couple months ago."
James Joyner, the managing editor of the Atlantic Council, points out that if Syria shot down the lost Turkish plane in Syrian air space, it would not be considered an attack under NATO's charter. Even if NATO determines that Syria attacked Turkey, he adds, he doesn't think the alliance has any appetite for going to war with Syria.
"It would be one thing if Syria sent ground troops into Turkey and started shooting," he says, "but shooting down a plane that might have been surveilling Syrian air space is just a different animal than that. This is more of a harsh words and sanctions kind of thing, and frankly there's not much more of that that we can do in terms of Syria."
Update: After an emergency security meeting, Prime Minister Erdogan's has issued a statement indicating that Turkey believes it was indeed Syria that shot down its fighter jet and that the pilots have yet to be found. Most ominously, the statement added that Turkey would respond decisively once it had established exactly what took place today, according to the BBC.
A Syrian military spokesman also issued a statement on the Turkish jet, noting that "an unidentified aerial target" had "violated Syrian airspace" on Friday morning and that "the Syrian anti-air defenses counteracted with anti-aircraft artillery, hitting it directly as it was 1 kilometer away from land, causing it to crash into Syrian territorial waters west of Om al-Tuyour village in Lattakia province, 10 kilometers from the beach." The aircraft, the spokesman added, "was dealt with according to laws observed in such cases."
Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images
Fidel Castro has never really been into the whole brevity thing. This is, after all, the man who gave the longest speech in the history of the U.N. General Assembly. But since June 11, Castro has dedicated his semi-regular newspaper column "Reflections" -- normally devoted to lengthy screeds against all manner of imperialist perfidy -- to mysterious paragraph length koans on a number of topics.
It began with this "reflection" on former East German Communist leader Erich Honneker, who died in 1994:
THE most revolutionary German I have known is Erich Honecker. Every human being lives in his or her era. The current one is of infinite change, in comparison with any other. I had the privilege of observing his conduct when he was paying bitterly for the debt contracted by the man who sold his soul to the devil for a few shots of vodka.
I retain for Honecker the most profound sentiment of solidarity.
His thoughts on former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping are not so fond:
HE thought of himself as a wise man and, doubtless, he was. But he made a small mistake.
"Cuba has to be punished," he said one day. Our country never even pronounced his name.
It was a totally unwarranted offense.
THE conditions have been created for the country to begin massively producing Moringa Oleífera and mulberry, which are sustainable resources [for the production of] meat, eggs, milk and silk fiber which can be woven by artisans, providing well-remunerated employment as an added benefit, regardless of age or gender.
YOGIS do things with the human body which are beyond our imagination. There they are, before our eyes, via images arriving instantaneously from vast distances, through Pasaje a lo Desconocido [Cuban TV program]
I respect all religions, although I do not share them. Human beings seek explanations for their existence, from the most ignorant to the wisest.
Science is constantly seeking to explain the laws which govern the universe. At this very moment, they see it during a period of expansion which began some 13.7 billion years ago.
The posts have provoked some bafflement among Cuba watchers:
For Miami analyst Eugenio Yañez, Castro needs to stay in the limelight. “Like a mediocre starlet of cheap and superficial shows, [he] needs to feel like he’s in the center of the spotlight, even though at his age he’s only getting boos and hisses,” Yañez wrote in an Internet column.[...]
“Evidently he does not feel coherent enough to write longer pieces,’’ said Jaime Suchlicki, head of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami.
And Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, joked in an Internet post that perhaps Castro “is getting in shape for Twitter,” which restricts users to 140 characters.
Many in Cuba are doubtless wondering if the 86-year-old has finally lost it completely, though something tells me he may be having a good laugh.
L'Osservatore Romano Vatican-Pool/Getty Images
The kerfuffle of the day is President Barack Obama making a reference to "Polish death camps" while posthumously awarding Polish resistance hero Jan Karski a Presidential Medal of Freedom last night. The White House says the president misspoke and was "referring to Nazi death camps operated in Poland," rather than inferring that the camps were operated by Poles, but that hasn't satisfied Prime Minister Donald Tusk who says he is looking for a “stronger, more pointed reaction” that could eliminate the phrasing “once and for all.” Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski went further, calling the remark a matter of "ignorance and incompetence."
There's been a concerted effort by the Polish government in recent years to combat the use of the phrase, which has succeeded in pushing a number of publications including the AP and the New York Times to update their style-guides. The Polish embassy, in the wake of the John Demjanjuk trial, posted a guide on its website urging readers to write web comments and letters to the editor when they see the phrase being used. The page also objects to the phrases "Sobibor camp, located in Poland," asking that "German-occupied Poland" be specified, and "Polish concentration camp survivor" since it "conveys that someone survived a Polish concentration camp, which, of course, is impossible since Polish concentration camps did not exist."
I understand why the phrase rankles, and as the Economist's Edward Lucas points out, it's not the first example of the Obama administration's clumsy handling of relations with Poland. But I also think that given the context in which Obama's remark was made -- honoring Karski for exposing the Nazi mass killing of Jews to the world -- no reasonable listener would assume that Obama was accusing Poles of running the camps, just as no one assumes the invasion of Normandy was targeted at Normans or that the North African campaign was waged by North Africans.
The "Polish death camps" controversy may be so controversial because it taps into a larger debate over actions perpetrated by some Poles against Jews during and immediately after the Holocaust. This debate kicked into high gear in 2000 with the publication of Polish-born Princeton historian Jan Gross's book Neighbors, which details a brutal pogrom carried out by the Polish residents of the town of Jedwabne against its Jewish residents during the Nazi occuption. The numbers, specifics, and methodology in Gross's work are controversial, but an official investigation confirmed its basic premise and President Alexander Kwasniewski made a formal apology at Jedwabne in 2001. Gross's follow-up Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, created yet another firestorm in 2006.
But of course, that clearly wasn't a debate Obama had any intention of entering into by giving an award to a man who risked his life to expose Nazi atrocities. In the wake of the Neighbors affair, public intellectual and former dissident Adam Michnik wrote a piece about the "schizophrenia" he felt: "I am a Pole, and my shame about the Jedwabne's murder is a Polish shame. At the same time, I know that if I had been there in Jedwabne, I would have been killed as a Jew."
For these people who lost their lives saving Jews, I feel responsible, too. I feel guilty when I read so often in Polish and foreign newspapers about the murderers who killed Jews, and note the deep silence about those who rescued Jews. Do the murderers deserve more recognition than the righteous?
Last night's award for Karski was an attempt to provide that kind of recognition. And that the remarks that accompanied it are being portrayed as an accusation against the country because of a poor choice of words may be the most unfortunate thing about this episode.
The Obama administration, this month, decided to take up the fairly unrewarding task of pushing for the ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. In a piece for FP today, James Kraska explains why ratification is long overdue. The treaty, which lays out rules for both military use of the seas and extraction of resources, went into effect in 1994, has been accepted by 161 nations, and was supported by both the Clinton and Bush administrations as well as U.S. Naval commanders. However it will still face a tough fight in Congress where many lawmakers feel it would constitute an unwarranted intrusion on U.S. sovereignty.
But the Law of the Sea is hardly the only major international agreement waiting for either a U.S. signature, or for Congress to approve ratification. Here's a quick look at a few of the other international treaties and conventions where the United Statates is conspicuous by its absence:
Entered into force in 1990, signed by U.S. in 1995
Number of states parties: 193 (Fellow non-ratifiers: Somalia, South Sudan*)
Signed by U.S. in 1980, entered into force in 1981
Number of states parties: 187 (Fellow non-ratifiers: Palau, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tonga)
Entered into force in 1999, never signed by U.S.
Number of states parties:159
Entered into force in 2008, signed by U.S. in 2009.
Number of states parties: 112
Entered into force in 2010, never signed by U.S.
States parties: 71
Entered into force in 2006, never signed by U.S.
Number of states parties: 63
Entered into force in 2010, never signed by U.S.
Number of states parties: 32 (91 have signed)
One could, of course, make the case that the fact that countries like Iran, North Korea, and Belarus have ratified many of these treaties suggests they don't actually accomplish very much. On the other hand, it doesn't look very good that the United States is considered a likely no vote when it comes to new human rights treaties, and at this point there's enough evidence from other states parties to suggest that ratifying an agreement on say, the rights of children, won't lead to U.N. bureaucrats telling parents how to raise their kids.
*In fairness to South Sudan, it has only been a country for about 10 months.
Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images
This story involving labor abuse, Cold War intrigue, and everyone's favorite discount furniture empire has been brewing for about a week but has gotten surprisingly little attention in the U.S. The Miami Herald reported last Friday:
A report that Swedish furniture and housewares company IKEA employed Cuban prisoners to build tables and sofas in the 1980s has provoked a strong reaction among Miami exiles.
The German daily newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, of Frankfurt, recently reported that in September 1987 Cuban authorities negotiated for 35,000 dining tables, 10,000 children’s tables and an unspecified number of sofas to be built for IKEA.
The newspaper said German reporters found the information while reviewing archives of the Cold War era and that East German officials facilitated the deal with Cuba.…
According to information in the archives, East German officials met with Lieutenant Enrique Sánchez, identified as the person in charge of a Cuban agency known as EMIAT, which supplied patio furniture to diplomatic houses and high-ranking Cuban officials. They discussed furniture to be built “in prison facilities of the Ministry of Interior.”
IKEA has already launched an internal investigation into allegations that it contracted to use East German prison labor during the 1970s and 1980s and now says it will broaden the scope of the inquiry.
According to a follow-up story today, records kept by East Germany's infamous STASI show that "an IKEA subsidiary in Berlin and an East German company had contracted for Cuban prison labor to build 45,000 tables and 4,000 sofa groupings in 1987" as part of a larger deal between companies run by Cuba's Ministry of the Interior and the East German government. The deal also "involved Cuban antiques, cigars and guns, according to a researcher in Berlin."
The six Cuban-American members of the U.S. Congress have written a letter demanding a meeting with IKEA executives.
This report is just the latest in a slew of bad press for the Swedish furniture giant in recent years, including allegations of bribery in Russia and a recent book alleging that founder Ingvar Kamprad's past ties to Swedish Nazi groups may have gone on longer than he has admitted.
John Moore/Getty Images
The first episode of Julian Assange's new TV show, The World Tomorrow, premiered on RT today with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as the first guest. Aside from a quick intro and a goofy theme song by M.I.A., it's a pretty spartan affair, consisting solely of Assange and his translators speaking with Nasrallah over skype. The newsiest quote was probably Nasrallah's fairly staunch defense of Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on protesters:
From the beginning of the events in Syria, we’ve had constant contact with the Syrian leadership. We’e spoken as friends, giving each other advice about the importance of carrying out reforms. Right from the beginning, I personally found that President Assad was very willing to carry out radical reforms. This used to reassure us regarding the positions that we took.[...]
We contacted even elements of the opposition to encourage them and to facilitate the process of dialogue with the regime. These parties rejectged dialoguel. Right from the beginning we’ve had a regime that is willing to undergo reforms and open to dialogue. On the other side, you have an opposition that is not prepared for dialogue and is not prepared to accept any reforms. All it wants is to bring down the regime.
The house-arrested Assange is a fairly generous interviewer by cable news standards, letting his guest do most of the talking. The questions were mostly softballs along the lines of "What was your earliest memory as a boy?," "How did you manage to keep your people together under enemy fire?" and "Why do you think the United States government is so scared of [Hezbollah satellite network] al-Manar?
Things got a bit odd with Assange's last question, in which he asked the reglious extremist, "Isn’t Allah, or the notion of God, the ultimate superpower? Shouldn’t you as a freedom fighter also seek to liberate people from the totalitarian concept of a monotheistic god?" Not surprisingly, Nasrallah didn't buy the premise of the question.
It wasn't the most penetrating interview -- interestingly, there was only one question about the contents of a WikiLeaks cable and Nasrallah denied the veracity of it -- but that's probably why Nasrallah was willing to talk with him in the first place. (According to Assange, this was his first interview with "western" media since the 2006 war with Israel.) If he can keep getting the kind of high-profile guests who would never go near a mainstream journalist with a ten-foot poll, the show will probably continue to be worth watching.
Who would you like to see sit down with Assange next?
In his classic essay Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell describes an experience he had as a colonial police officer in Burma. Under public pressure from a crowd of townspeople, he puts down an out-of-control elephant against his own wishes, describing it as the moment he "first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East." As the people of the town debate the merits and legality of his actions, he wonders "whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool."
It's tempting to wonder if any similarly penetrating insights or self-reflections have come to Spanish King Juan Carlos as he lies in the hospital, having injured his hip on an elephant shooting trip in Botswana that has ignited a firestorm of controversy.
In addition to being about the least politically correct way to spend your vacation (was the baby seal-clubbing junket all booked up?) the optics of this were pretty terrible at a time when more than half of young Spaniards are out of work and Spanish banks are facing yet another downgrade. Plus, it turns out that the king -- who is Spain's official head of state -- didn't inform the government that he was leaving the country and might have used public funds in the process.
Some leftist parties are calling for the king to abdicate or hold a referendum on returning to a republic. That doesn't seem to likely at the moment, but the king may still want to stick to the beach next time if he doesnt want to his country's surging ranks of unemployed.
Kilis, Turkey — Just as international efforts to reach a ceasefire in Syria intensify, the long-running crisis appears to be growing even bloodier. On Monday, the violence spilled over into both Turkey and Lebanon: A Lebanese cameraman was killed while filming from the northern town of Wadi Khaled, while two Syrians were killed and more were wounded when they were fired upon at a refugee camp inside Turkey. Two Turkish nationals attempting to help the fleeing Syrians were also injured in the crossfire.
The clash at the Turkish-Syrian border began when Syrian regime troops launched an offensive in the town of Azaz, on the Syrian side of the border, in the dawn hours of Monday morning. Syrians who lay wounded in the hospital in Kilis said that violence began when Syrian soldiers opened fire on refugees who walked to the border to protest the attack on Azaz.
The camp, which lies about a fifth of a mile from the border, was established to provide aid to the thousands of Syrians who have fled President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown. Over 9,000 refugees are living in the Kilis camp, and more are expected to arrive to alleviate overcrowding in other camps. As we drove from the Turkish province of Hatay to Kilis, five buses filled with Syrian refugees traveled ahead of us, making their way to a new place of supposed refuge.
In Kilis, we walked into a ward where three Syrian men lay sprawled on hospital beds, blood seeping from fresh wounds where bullets had just been removed. "We were watching the attack over the border," explained Betar, a Syrian man who was shot twice in the leg while inside the Kilis refugee camp. As Syrian forces attacked Azaz, refugees across the border in the camp looked on helplessly and began to protest the violence. "When [the Syrian Armed Forces] heard us say ‘Allahu Akbar' they started to shoot at us," he said.
Betar, who lives in the Kilis refugee camp with his family, thinks the Syrian regime is following them into Turkey to kill them. Snipers fired on the camp from less than 500 meters away, noted his friend, who recounted how he picked up bullets from rooms within the camp. Around 21 Syrians have been wounded and three have died, according to wounded Syrians within the Kilis hospital. (Other reports said that two Syrians had died).
Turkish officials, eager to prevent the cross-border violence from spiraling out of control, are limiting access to information for inquiring journalists. Police stopped us while we were interviewing a badly injured Syrian man and directed us to a small room, where we were questioned for two hours. They interrogated our Syrian translator on his opinions of the Assad regime. Two other French-speaking journalists were being questioned as well.
The Kilis refugee camp has become an easy target for Syrian forces, and eye-witnesses within the camp say the Turkish police did not fire back when the attack began. Betar described how Turkish police in the camp fell to the ground to protect themselves, but did not retaliate.
With the end to the conflict nowhere in sight, Syria's refugees have found little comfort in escaping Assad's brutal crackdown. They left Syria in the hope of finding safety and peace, but violence still seems to follow them wherever they go.
Sophia Jones, a former editorial assistant at Foreign Policy, is an Overseas Press Club fellow and freelance journalist based out of Cairo. Erin Banco is a Cairo-based freelance journalist.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-American novelist whose books Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook enliven the farcical edges of living in a totalitarian society, returned recently from a two week reporting trip to China, the cruel and prosperous land of the future. "We suck," Shteyngart said over the phone. "The saddest flight in the world is Beijing Capital to Newark." FP interviewed Shteyngart about Jews in China, how to build a successful business, and the world outside Brooklyn, edited and condensed for clarity.
Foreign Policy: Did you tell people you were Jewish in China?
Gary Shteyngart: I did. They said ‘why are Jews so sad and anxious? Why can't you cheer up?' What I said to that, was, you know, the Holocaust. They said we were kind of similar that way. I don't know what happened [to the Chinese] exactly, I read about it on Wikipedia.
FP: You mentioned in a tweet that you started your own boutique investment firm in Shanghai but it failed after five hours. What did you get from it?
GS: A lot of dignity. You can't really monetize dignity.
FP: What did you talk to the Chinese about?
GS: A lot of people in the United States want to be Chinese. A lot of the Chinese want to be writers. They're adorable. I told them not to do it. It's so sweet -- I was talking to one young lady, she was so touched that I would speak to her. Kind of a rough and tumble society, China. We gentle Jewish professors of creative writing are just incredible to them.
FP: What did you feel after you came back from China?
GS: The saddest flight in the world is Beijing to Newark. Beijing is Charles De Gaulle, Newark is Burkina Faso. I'd feel better if America looked great -- but we don't. We've been working too hard, we need to retire now and let someone else do it. It's not easy. The pollution in China. I'm still coughing up some weird petro-chemical things out of my lung (and I've been back for ten days). My whole cardio-vascular thing is so affected.
FP: What did you perform at Racist Park [a Chinese theme park that shows all of the minorities living together in harmony, now known in English as China Ethnic Culture Park]?
GS: I did the ol' Fiddler in the Roof. I was the third daughter, the one who married a goy. Fiddler on the Smokestack.
FP: What about Shanghai?
GS: I went to Pudong and saw that they're building the (world's) tallest building there. It's going to be taller than the other buildings.
We went to a steampunk club, called #88; [people were wearing] all sorts of Victorian corsets -- I guess some people had the leisure time to look appropriate. The world is so fascinating, I'm telling you -- this is what I tell young writers: Get out of Brooklyn.
Oh, and I drank this horrifying thing. If there is one of thing chaining civilization back, its baijiu. You're burping sorghum for the rest of your life. There's no cure for baijiu.
FP: What do you recommend a young writer do in China?
GS: I'd start in the financial side -- young guy or girl, just out of Princeton, gets involved in some sort of private equity thing, learns about the corruption, and at the same time learn about the Asian work ethic. That's amazing that there hasn't been a great expatriate novel; it seems like half of the Ivy League is holed up in Shanghai.
FP: What about for the Williams environmental science grad?
GS: Well, they can go teach English. English teaching is sad, because everyone does it; it's the last resort. Or you could do NGO work. I met some NGO people, they were cute.
Writers, though. You have a lot of power as a writer here; anything with an embossed business card gives you face.
FP: Did you hand out copies of an embossed business card in China?
GS: No, I brought 800 copies of my book to give out to China, and handed them out with two hands to people all across the country, cab drivers...
FP: What did cab drivers think of your book?
GS: The cab drivers loved that it has both postmodern and traditional aspects.
FP: Best business idea in China that would last for more than five hours?
GS: We could have Communist Party youth league people collect used wire, and use this used wire in the penal system to flog people, or just to poke people with the wire. It's green. [environmentally friendly]. It's a good way to get in on China's growing penal system.
In media, timing is key to breaking news and getting recognized for original journalism. But it can also sting you, as Vogue and Condé Nast Traveler learned during the Arab Spring after publishing, respectively, a glowing profile of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad and a list of the "15 Best Places to See Right Now" that included Libya.
Today, the New York Times fell victim to the timing trap. The paper led its print edition with a story by Jeffrey Gettleman entitled "A Taste of Hope in Somalia's Battered Capital," only for a suicide bomber to attack a gathering of Somali officials this morning in Mogadishu's National Theater, killing the heads of Somalia's Olympic committee and soccer federation, among others.
Gettleman had even mentioned the National Theater in his piece (key lines in bold):
Outside, on Mogadishu's streets, the thwat-thwat-thwat hammering sound that rings out in the mornings is not the clatter of machine guns but the sound of actual hammers. Construction is going on everywhere - new hospitals, new homes, new shops, a six-story hotel and even sports bars (albeit serving cappuccino and fruit juice instead of beer). Painters are painting again, and Somali singers just held their first concert in more than two decades at the National Theater, which used to be a weapons depot and then a national toilet. Up next: a televised, countrywide talent show, essentially "Somali Idol."
Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, which had been reduced to rubble during 21 years of civil war, becoming a byword for anarchy, is making a remarkable comeback. The Shabab, the fearsome insurgents who once controlled much of the country, withdrew from the city in August and have been besieged on multiple sides by troops from the African Union, Kenya, Ethiopia and an array of local militias.
Today the theater is a scene not of cultural renaissance but of carnage:
Yet only weeks ago, when the theater was reopened, the atmosphere at the Chinese-built complex very much matched Gettleman's description:
On Twitter, some people are tweaking the Times for being a bit trigger-happy on the optimism ("NYT story on
#Somalia illustrates the danger of proclaiming peace in such
places; new violence was bound to happen," argued the Atlantic Council's Barbara Slavin), while others are simply discouraged ("Wanted so badly to believe NYT's article on Somalia today," photographer Ed Suter wrote. "Guess it was a bit premature").
The Times, for its part, has put the two stories into a dialogue of sorts on the World page.
And it's worth pointing out that Gettleman tempered his report with the sober assessment that Mogadishu "and the rest of Somalia still have a long way to go," citing a recent attack on the presidential palace in the capital as just one example.
"Who says it's just bad news coming out of Somalia?" Gettleman tweeted early this morning. Indeed, any positive news out of war-torn Somalia is welcome. In the news business, sadly, you can never pick the right day to highlight a heartwarming story.
Abdurashid Abdulle/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
In 2003, Volkswagen launched its first ever SUV, the Touareg. ‘"Touareg" literally means "free folk" and is the name of a nomadic tribe from the Sahara,'" they wrote in a press release, explaining their decision to borrow the name of the nomadic North African ethnic group. "A proud people of the desert, the Touareg embody the ideal of man's ability to triumph over the obstacles of a harsh land. To this day, they have maintained their strong character and self-reliance."
The "strong character" of the Tuareg -- as it's more typically spelled -- has been in the news lately. Tuareg rebels, formerly brought to Libya to be mercenaries for Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, have been steadily advancing though Northern Mali, capturing several military bases as well as the ancient city of Timbuktu. Believing themselves inadequately equipped to take on the heavily armed Tuareg fighters, a rogue group of Malian army officers overthrew the country's president last week.
The nominally Muslim Tuareg are reportedly working with local Islamists who have instituted Sharia law on some of the captured towns. Oxfam says that in some parts of the country as much as 70 percent of the population is facing "acute food insecurity."
I was curious as to whether, with the Tuareg in global headlines, Volkswagen was reconsidering its, in retrospect, odd, decision to name an SUV after an ethnic group that has been involved off-and-on in a low-level insurgency against the government of Mali and Niger since the 1960s.
"I cannot comment on whether we would consider changing the name of the car. We are not politically involved with this tribe. We don't have an opinion on this yet," said Christian Buhlmann, a spokesman for Volkswagen AG. "I wasn't even aware of that situation until you told me about it," he added.
Ron Sowell, a salesman at Martens Volvo and Volkswagen in Washington, DC, hadn't heard the news in Mali either, and doesn't think it will affect the car's sales to its target audience, which he describes as "people pretty well educated, degrees, making more than $100,000". He added, "I just think that an automobile and what a tribe does elsewhere doesn't have anything to do with the car they're driving."
What about VW customers a bit closer to the action? A salesman for Volkswagen based in Accra, Ghana said that "now everyone is hearing about the Touareg, but it hasn't affected the popularity of the car." People in Ghana "aren't concerned with what is happening in other countries," said the salesman, who wished to remain anonymous.
Buhlmann added that he could only comment on "what kind of engines we have in the car and where the name came from." He said the name comes from VW's view that people living in the desert are "peaceful," and that "our vehicle would be a very good desert vehicle."
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
Romney's camp seems to be pushing its luck with the aftermath of last week's "hot mic" incident judging by this response to a request from the Obama campaign for the candidate's tax records from his time at Bain capital:
“The Obama campaign is playing politics, just as he’s doing in his conduct of foreign policy," Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul wrote. "Obama should release the notes and transcripts of all his meetings with world leaders so the American people can be satisfied that he’s not promising to sell out the country’s interests after the election is over.”
The argument that all statecraft should be conducted in public so that voters can be sure there's nothing nefarious going on is a pretty impractical one, as quite a few people pointed out when WikiLeaks was making it. (Romney described the WikiLeaks CableGate release as "treason" for what it's worth.)
But questions of practicality aside, it's tempting to wonder just what might be in those transcripts -- or what Romney hopes is in them:
Obama: Mahmoud, I've got to keep up this sanctions stuff until the election. Then I'll get you those centrifuges.
Ahmadinejad: I will transmit this information to the Supreme Leader.
Obama: It's an election season, Hu. You know I've got to talk tough. Next year, I promise I'll get you those 100,000 American jobs I promised.
Hu: I will transmit this information to Xi.
Obama: Stephen, this Keystone stuff is just until November. Then we open up the border and roll out the plan for the Amero.
Harper: I will transmit this information to the NAFTA supercouncil.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images
This blog does not have any specific about information tied to it.