South African President Jacob Zuma announced on Thursday night the death of Nelson Mandela. He was 95.
"Our nation has lost its greatest son," Zuma said in announcing Mandela's death on South African television. The iconic leader of the country's struggle against racism and its first post-apartheid president, Mandela died after a long battle with lung disease, an aftereffect of the tuberculosis he contracted during his 27-year imprisonment.
While Mandela's health has been in decline during the past several months, his death on Thursday nonetheless came as a shock and sparked an outpouring of grief.
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Poor Silvio Berlusconi. On Wednesday, his colleagues in the Italian Senate effectively declared him unfit for office and voted to expel him from the body.
The vote effectively caps the former prime minister's tumultuous fall from grace, one that has featured rampant allegations of tax fraud, underage prostitutes, and wholesale corruption. In short, Europe is losing arguably its worst and most entertaining politician.
That has headline writers around the world in dismay, and no one would like to see Berlusconi launch a second act more than the journalists who have gleefully covered his time in politics.
To that end, here at FP we have some ideas about how good ol' Silvio might spend his retirement. Without further ado, here are some suggested career paths for how Italy's most polarizing politician can put his sunset years to good use.
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Wu'er Kaixi is homesick.
Wu'er Kaixi, an exiled Chinese dissident and the "second most wanted" man among the student activists of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, has tried to turn himself in to the Chinese government four times. Each time he has received the same, utterly baffling response from the communist regime: We don't want you. His most recent attempt to return to his native China, this time via Hong Kong, ended with his deportation to Taiwan on Monday.
Wu'er Kaixi is number two on a list of Tiananmen's "21 Most Wanted" -- former student activists who, in 1989, helped to organize massive political demonstrations that ended with a brutal government crackdown in Tiananmen Square. The 21 are purportedly sought for arrest but are also, ironically, prohibited from returning to China -- even if they, like Wu'er Kaixi, have every intention of turning themselves over to they authorities.
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If John Larkin, Northern Ireland's attorney general, has his way, crimes perpetrated before the end of the country's three-decade conflict between mainly Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant loyalists will no longer be prosecuted. That conflict, better known as the Troubles, left 3,500 people dead and ended in 1998 with the Good Friday agreements. But 15 years after the conflict's end, over 3,000 killings remain unsolved and unprosecuted. In short, Larkin is proposing to the close the book on the darkest chapter of Northern Ireland's history.
On the heels of Larkin's announcement Wednesday to end pre-Good Friday prosecutions, the attorney general has come under a hailstorm of criticism. (Notably, the announcement came as former U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland Richard Haass visited Belfast for his own reconciliation project.) "Murder is murder, is murder. It has no sell-by date," said Jim Alluster, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party; Patrick Corrigan, a representative from Amnesty International, called the plan "an utter betrayal of victims' fundamental right to access justice."
If Larkin's plan is adopted, it could mean an end to prosecutions in such famous incidents as 1972's Bloody Sunday killings, the massacre of 13 Irish protesters by British soldiers; the alleged kidnapping and murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10, at the hands of the Irish Republican Army later that year; the 1976 Kingsmills massacre, where 11 Protestant workers were gunned down by republican paramilitary members; and the unsolved murders of hundreds of "Disappeared," as those who were taken by the IRA and never heard from again are known.
As a result, Larkin's proposal has been roundly criticized as a de facto amnesty law. But that's only half true. According to Larkin and others involved in building pre-Good Friday cases, there are hardly any prosecutions to speak of, and there probably aren't going to be many more.
That reality raises a painful question for the people of Northern Ireland. Thousands of victims from the Troubles will likely never see justice, and Larkin's proposal is a surprisingly frank acknowledgement of that reality. But is that a reality the country is prepared to live with?
If Michel Djotodia, the Central African Republic's rebel leader turned interim president, is to be believed, Joseph Kony, the head of the infamous Lord's Resistance Army, is about to emerge from the jungle and surrender. "It's true, Joseph Kony wants to come out of the bush," Djotodia told the Guardian. "We are negotiating with him." Reports suggest that Kony is sheltering near the town of Nzako and asking intermediaries for food and supplies.
Let's just say that analysts tracking Kony are, well, skeptical about that claim. What's more likely, they say, is that the government is talking to a group of LRA fighters, possibly defectors, who may have no affiliation with Kony.
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It's a political divide that could only materialize in France. On one side, 343 "bastards" telling their countrymen and government not to "touch my whore." On the other side, a feminist minister crusading to end prostitution. These are the battle lines over a proposed law that would penalize those who pay for sex, a measure aimed at cracking down on prostitution.
The legislation would fine those who purchase sex with a $2000 penalty and is part of an effort by Women's Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem to tighten restrictions on the world's oldest profession. Citing human trafficking and rights abuses, the government wants to eventually eradicate the practice.
According to a parliamentary report, as many as 90 percent of France's 40,000 sex workers are migrants, and if Vallaud-Belkacem has her way that number may drastically decrease -- but with potentially disastrous consequences for French prostitutes.
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More than a week after Super Typhoon Haiyan killed nearly 4,000 people and displaced another 4 million, relief efforts remain hampered by poor roadways, congested airports, and a host of other logistical nightmares. While the Red Cross says they have more than enough emergency supplies for devastated regions, the government's slow response and a lack of infrastructure have made it difficult to quickly reach affected areas. But what dry goods have been dispersed by the national government are being frequently diverted by local politicians who waste valuable hours or even days repackaging relief items to bear their names, campaign slogans, or party colors. It all adds up to an ugly introduction to the personality-centered world of Philippine politics, one marked by feuding dynasties, rampant cronyism, and, above all, dysfunction.
The storm struck just as some of the country's uglier political practices were being exposed -- and with the spotlight on the Philippines in the aftermath of the storm, those practices have become impossible to ignore. An unfolding corruption scandal that began in July implicated 18 senators in the misuse or embezzlement of at least $25.5 million, money that had been intended for local development projects. Another exposed 97 local officials who plundered up to $20 million earmarked for relief and rehabilitation efforts following the 2009 typhoons Ketsana and Parma, which also killed thousands. Now, in Haiyan's wake, many worry that relief funds will, again, end up padding the pockets of shameless politicians. Churches and civil society groups have been quick to point out that the sheer scope of the devastation -- exacerbated by substandard housing and woefully undeveloped disaster response systems -- is evidence of endemic political pilfering.
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Yemen has sentenced eight sailors for smuggling arms to local rebels. The crew of the Jihan sailors received sentences ranging from one to six years in prison; the alleged mastermind of the operation, tried in absentia, received ten. No one in the Jihan's crew is Iranian, but Tehran's presence was certainly felt during the trial -- and is the answer to what the Jihan and its deadly cargo were doing in the Gulf of Aden in the first place.
On Jan. 23, the Yemeni military, working closely with the U.S. Navy, stopped a 130-foot sailboat off the coast of al Ghaydah, a Yemeni city near the Oman border. A search of the ship, according to Yemeni officials, revealed that it was carrying an entire arsenal of Chinese surface-to-air missiles, C4 explosives, rocket propelled grenades, mortar shells, and other military equipment bound for Houthi rebels, a Shia revivalist movement that has waged an intermittent war for autonomy in Yemen's northern Saada province over the past decade. The eight-person crew of the ship, all Yemenis, was arrested for arms smuggling.
Almost immediately, Iran was fingered as being behind the deal. It wouldn't be the first time -- the Yemeni government has accused Iran of supporting the Houthis for years, with little evidence to show for it. But starting in 2012, as other ships smuggling arms were intercepted, including some shipments being directed through Turkey to mask their origin, U.S. officials started finding the Yemeni accusations more credible. These shipments, Yemeni officials said, contained heavy weapons and the materials for making explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), a lethal variety of roadside bomb that was commonly used by Iranian-allied Shiite militants against U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The timing, though, was strange. After fighting a half-dozen "Saada wars" under President Ali Abdullah Saleh between 2004 and 2010, the Houthis had been relatively quiet since the start of the country's revolution in early 2011, some even coming to the capital, Sanaa, to participate in sit-in protests against the government.
That lull has come to an end this month with a fresh round of fighting between Houthis and Salafists in the city of Dammaj, which was a flashpoint during the Saada wars. Over several decades, Salafism that has spread from Saudi Arabia, along with the kingdom's large patronage network among the Yemeni tribes, has reshaped Yemen's religious landscape. Dammaj's Dar al-Hadith institute, a center of Salafist study, is emblematic of the growth of Salafism in Yemeni society that the Houthi movement was in many ways a reaction against. Clashes over Dar al-Hadith over the past two weeks, which have killed over 100 people and persisted despite attempts to find a diplomatic solution, has drawn the attention of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which announced its "total solidarity with our Sunni brothers in the centre in Dammaj," adding that the Houthis's "crimes against the Sunni people will not pass without punishment or disciplinary action."
Iran has been a vocal supporter of the Houthis, part and parcel with Tehran's self-appointed role as the defender of the Middle East's Shiite communities -- though the Iranian leadership practices a different variation of Shiism than the Houthis. "Salafis Continue Attacking Houthis in Northern Yemen," begins one recent Iranian report on the fighting in Dammaj, "Al-Qaeda threatens Yemeni Shia community," reads another. But Iran's interest in Yemen goes beyond cheerleading and quietly smuggling weapons to the Houthis based on their shared Shia heritage: It's also a contested sphere of influence in the Saudi-Iranian cold war. Iran has also tried to make inroads with Yemen's democracy activists, as well, regardless of their religion. Supporting the Houthis is "an indirect means to attack the Saudis," Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told FP. When it comes to the different sects of Shiism practiced by Iran and the Houthis, Iran "is ecumenical about these things, especially when the shared foe is the Saudi family."
The Saada conflict is often overlooked amid Yemen's al Qaeda insurgency and Southern separatist movements. But the recent flare-up on Yemen's forgotten battlefield is and the Jihan sentencing are quiet signs that Iranian-Saudi cold war is still heating up where their proxies meet.
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The police chief who initially reported that Super Typhoon Haiyan had killed 10,000 people has been fired, according to the Philippines News Agency. Soon after Chief Supt. Elmer Soria told reporters on Saturday that "initially there are 10,000 casualties," the figure took on a life of its own. Countless media reports repeated the errant estimate, often attributing it to unnamed Philippine officials, in spite of the fact that the the country's National Disaster Risk and Management Council was reporting substantially lower numbers.
Philippine President Aquino managed to quell the rumors in an interview with Christiane Amanpour Tuesday, saying, "Ten thousand I think is too much and perhaps that was brought about by, how should I put it, being in the center of the destruction. There was emotional trauma involved in that particular estimate."
Since then, Soria has been removed from his post. Another official, Tacloban city administrator Tecson Lim, propagated the false estimate, as well.
Perhaps following Aquino's example, the Philippine National Police spokesperson was quick to blame the mistake on Soria's proximity to the devastation. He told the Wall Street Journal: "We all know for one thing, Police Chief Supt. Elmer Soria has been through a lot for the past days and may be experiencing what you call ‘acute stress reaction.'"
The latest figures released by the government put the number of casualties at 2,537.
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On Nov. 11 1918, the end of World War I, Poland regained its place on the map of Europe, after having been wiped off for 123 years. Now, on Poland's Independence Day, the capital's sky gives off a red glow and its streets are enveloped in smoke. That's not because there's been an elaborate fireworks show. It's from the bright flares held by violent nationalist protesters. This November, young men in balaclavas set fire to two significant elements of the Warsaw landscape: a huge rainbow in the city center, seen by many as a symbol of tolerance and openness -- or gay rights -- and the guard post at the Russian embassy, reflecting age-old tensions between the two countries.
In recent years, the country's capital has regularly spun into complete mayhem on Independence Day. On a supposedly joyous national holiday, in a stable country that has been called Europe's "green island" during the financial crisis, having never descended into red while the rest of Europe was hurting, cars are trashed, Molotov cocktails fly in the air and parents warn their children to stay at home. This year, on the 95th anniversary of Polish statehood, the violence was particularly pronounced.
EPA/LESZEK SZYMANSKI POLAND OUT
The rapper Macklemore's body may have been at the MTV European Music Awards on Sunday. But in the wake of supertyphoon Haiyan, his heart was evidently in the Philippines... or, at least, in "the Philippians." In an unfortunately misspelled but surely well-intentioned tweet sent during the awards ceremony, the hip-hop artist informed his Twitter followers: "Over 10,000 people died as a result of the typhoon in the Philippians... If you want to help those affected go to http://nafconusa.org."
He quickly tweeted a correction, in which he implicated iPhone's autocorrect feature and his "6th grade teacher" for the spelling error. But that's beside the point. More interesting is his choice of aid organization: Not the Red Cross or UNICEF -- both of which are on the ground adminstering aid -- but NAFCON, a small alliance of grassroots Filipino groups in the U.S. that is also affiliated with a number of left-leaning, nationalist political groups in the Philippines.
While it's true that NAFCON is fervently raising funds to provide disaster relief assistance to affected communities in the Philippines, its work is occuring largely under the radar. So how did Macklemore, a rapper from Seattle, even hear about the group?
Credit might go to another Washington-based artist with whom he's collaborated: Geo of the Blue Scholars (A.KA. Prometheus Brown A.K.A. George Quibuyen). He's a vocalist, long time Filipino-American activist, and frequent critic of U.S. foreign policy; in one song, he characterizes it as "imperial aggression." NAFCON wouldn't confirm the connection, but did say that members were grateful for the shout-out and had no hard feelings about the misspelling. Following Typhoon Ondoy in 2009, which killed about 800 people, NAFCON delivered 700 boxes of food and emergency supplies to some of the hardest hit communities in the country.
According to the most recent figures, the typhoon has killed 1,774 people since making landfall on Friday, and many expect casualties to reach as high as 10,000. Which means the Philippines will need the help... wherever it comes from.
The Supreme Court has doubts as to whether a domestic, if gruesome, argument is exactly like a full-blown civil war, and whether a scorned wife who burned the thumb of her husband's mistress is in the same category as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The high court, led by Justice Roberts, heard arguments on Nov. 5th in the controversial case of Carol Anne Bond, the microbiologist-turned-Poison-Ivy of suburban Philadelphia who spread a toxic mixture on her husband's lover's doorknob, car door and mailbox, after she found out about the affair and the mistress's pregnancy. As the mixture was orange, Bond's target got away with a mere burn to the thumb.
Bond has been tried under a federal law implemented to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty. Solicitor General Donald Verilli wrote in his brief that the "law generally prohibits use of a chemical that can cause death, temporary incapacitation, or permanent harm to another, unless such use is for a peaceful purpose." And because trying to poison your former best friend cannot be described as a "peaceful purpose," Bond was accused of using a chemical weapon.
Several Supreme Court justices expressed their shock during the November hearing that the local case was prosecuted under the chemical weapons law. It is "unimaginable that you would bring this prosecution," said the "flabbergasted" Justice Anthony Kennedy. Six of the court's justices agreed with Bond's lawyer who said that a treaty cannot give Congress "police power," which is reserved for the state.
Conservatives are up in arms about the Bond case, accusing the Obama administration of governmental overreach, as the case could have been brought under Pennsylvania criminal law instead of a federal one.
"The questions raised by this case go to the heart of our constitutional system: Does the federal government, through the treaty power, have authority to trump our system of federalism and separation of powers? " asked Republican Senator Ted Cruz in a Washington Post Op-Ed.
But the case raises another larger question -- the definition of "Weapons of Mass Destruction." Carol Anne Bond in her inept retaliation effort used an arsenic-based mixture, the ingredients for which she stole from her company and bought online. Bashar al-Assad's government declared 1,290 tons of chemical agents and precursors.
Saudi authorities have found a novel way of punishing women who defy the country's driving ban: jailing the men who support them.
Around 50 women got behind the wheel on Oct. 26, in an act of civil disobedience. While some of the women were stopped and fined, none were arrested. Instead, police apprehended Tariq al-Mubarak, a male columnist who worked closely with organizers and who had penned an op-ed promoting women's rights.
"This time they are not after women, they are after men who supported the women," women's activist Manal al-Sharif told Foreign Policy. "They're too afraid of people's reaction."
Women have organized against the driving ban twice before, each time eliciting swift and heavy-handed responses from the government. In 1990, authorities suspended women from their jobs and restricted their ability to travel outside of the country. Following a 2011 protest, police inciting international outrage when they jailed Sharif for nine days, and sentenced another woman, Shaima Jastaina, to 10 lashes (Jastaina was later pardoned by the king).
The latest demonstration was the largest and most widely publicized, as women uploaded YouTube videos of themselves driving, and supporters broadcast the event on social media. "The whole country went into an emergency state on Saturday," Sharif said, "As if it was in a war - just because of women drivers."
Yet, the government's official response was markedly tamer than in years past -- in part, perhaps, because of the verbal lashing Saudi delegates received at a U.N. Human Rights Council session last week. Following the demonstration, women reported being followed by secret police, and were criticized for choosing October 26 (Hillary Clinton's birthday) for their protest, but Mubarak remains the only person in custody.
Human Rights Watch characterized his detention as a retaliation against supporters of women's rights.
But the government's focus on Mubarak may bear more pernicious implications: By making one man responsible for the protest, authorities invalidate the women behind the campaign -- implying that the movement will come to little without male support. It's par for the course in a country where women are regarded as the legal minors of male guardians -- unable to marry, go to college, or undergo certain medical procedures without the permission of fathers, husbands, brothers or even sons.
Sharif argues that, since the 2011 protest, public perceptions of women are rapidly changing.
"I see men commenting on the movement," she said. "They say, ‘Oh my god, we never thought a single woman would have the bravery of 1,000 men. You go online, they say, ‘if you want to get your rights, listen to women.'"
The women's driving campaign enjoys broad support, bolstered by the ease and availability of social media. An online petition circulated before the October 26 protest collected nearly 17,000 signatures in one week. Just two years ago, a similar petition only garnered 3,000 signatures. "It showed that the society - and even men - was fed up," Sharif said. "This is huge, because women are realizing how powerful they are."
The next women's driving day is scheduled for November 30.
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The Philippines boasts one of Asia's oldest democracies. But as it struggles to rein in political violence and corruption, that distinction is exactly a point of pride.
On Monday, more than 40,000 villages in the Philippines voted in municipal elections and, in the run-up, at least 22 candidates and supporters were killed in election-related violence, according to the Associated Press. Across the country, 27 others were wounded in shootouts between rival candidates, and 588 were arrested for violating the election gun ban. (Police also confiscated some "500 firearms, 4,000 rounds of ammunition, 191 knives and 68 grenades.") Before the polls opened on Monday, the Commission on Elections (called Comelec) had announced that 889 areas of the country were on their watch list because of the presence of private armies, intense political rivalries, and hrecent histories of election-related violence. Some 94 villages failed to hold elections at all, while more than 300 others reported massive vote buying.
Elections -- the most visible mechanism of a representative government -- are regularly the impetus for chaos and bloodshed in the Philippines, where even the lowest levels of government are plagued by violence, fraud and the weak rule of law.
In the worst case of election violence to date, 58 people were massacred on November 23, 2009, by the private army of a powerful political family in Maguindanao. Among the dead were relatives of a rival candidate, as well as 30 media workers covering the election. The killers used a backhoe to bury the bodies in a mass grave, some still alive. About 200 people have been charged in association with the murders, but no one has been convicted.
In theory, the Philippines has the makings of a vibrant democracy: an engaged electorate, a strong constitution, and a history of successful popular movements. But political clans, rather than political parties, continue to dominate public discourse and control public office. The historic concentration of wealth in the hands of a few families has helped to create powerful, political dynasties, while a measure signed by former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ensured the proliferation of private armies and state-backed militias, often used to secure political victories for wealthy candidates. Though President Aquino revoked the measure last year, and promised to dismantle private armies ahead of the 2013 elections, cracking down on political violence has proven much more difficult than expected.
Election-related violence usually begins 90 days before polling day (sometimes well before, as in in the case of the Maguindanao massacre), and often continues for up 30 days afterwards. In Mindanao, losing candidates have been known to engage in kidnappings and violence to recoup the financial losses associated with their unsuccessful bids. Winning, of course, offers huge financial rewards. Congressional representatives, for example, receive millions of dollars per year in discretionary money from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) -- purportedly for the purpose of local infrastructure projects. In reality, members of Congress have been using the money as a slush fund for re-election efforts or for other types personal gain.
The Aquino administration's much-touted anti-corruption campaign has borne some small successes -- such as the impeachment of an unscrupulous chief justice -- but has yet to meaningfully address the culture of corruption and cronyism plaguing the country's political system.
It's often said that one of the Philippines' proudest moments came after the People Power Revolution in 1986. when CBS reporter Bob Simon declared that the Filipinos were "teaching the world" about democracy. But as the country struggles to hold elections free of violence nearly 30 years later, it seems the Philippines still has a lot to learn.
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You may not have heard of Gennady Onishchenko, but if his own accounts are to be believed, he's the Russian government official who single-handedly averts major public health crises posed by foreign countries' dangerously lax and unsophisticated food safety standards (including those in a certain country where the federal government has ground to a halt). To others, Onishchenko, Russia's chief sanitary inspector, is also Russia's chief manufacturer of elaborate food safety scares to wage geopolitically motivated trade wars with other countries, particularly former Soviet republics.
On Wednesday, Onishchenko, the director of Rospotrebnadzor, Russia's consumer-protection agency, announced a ban on 28 Georgian alcoholic products, a mere seven months after a 2006 ban on Georgian beverages was lifted. Earlier this week, he added Lithuanian dairy products to the long list of (mostly) ex-Soviet state-made products that ostensibly threaten Russian consumers. Further down on that list are Ukrainian chocolates, Moldovan wine, and -- yes -- meat from the United States. Notably, many of these bans came on the heels of warming trade relations between the banned countries and NATO or the European Union -- moves that aren't popular with the Kremlin, which is trying to strong-arm its neighbors into joining a Russian-led customs union.
Onishchenko feels strongly about the value of eating Russian food -- and only Russian food. At a press briefing earlier this year, he implored Russians to suppress their hankering for foreign foods in favor of "food patriotism."
"We put our faith in the high level of consciousness and food patriotism of our citizens, the ones who have long abandoned the use of such food in their diet," he said.
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The Letter from Birmingham Jail it is not. Since September, former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who is serving out a 25-year sentence for human rights abuses in the 1990s, has been engaged in a particularly rare form of opposition politics, tweeting out political commentary to his now-10,000 followers from behind bars.
Last month, the Twitter account -- along with an accompanying Facebook page -- launched with an inaugural YouTube message and photo montage of Fujimori, along with a written message to his queridos amigos announcing that he would be sharing his thoughts and memoirs on social media, and that "some young people and close collaborators" would be administering the accounts:
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On Saturday, U.S. Navy SEALs captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Anas al-Libi, in a brazen raid on his home in Tripoli, Libya. Libi was indicted in New York in 2000 for his role in al Qaeda's bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and is believed to have played a role in revitalizing al Qaeda's operations in North Africa in recent years. The SEALs whisked Libi to the USS San Antonio, which was waiting offshore, where he is "currently lawfully detained under the law of war" as an enemy combatant, according to the Pentagon.
"Warsame is the model for this guy," an unnamed official told the New York Times. That would be Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, an al-Shabab military commander seized in Somalia on April 19, 2011. He was then held and interrogated by a special American interrogation team comprised of representatives from the Department of Justice, the intelligence community, and the military aboard the USS Boxer for two months, before being read his Miranda rights and turned over to the FBI. After another week of interrogation, Warsame was indicted on June 30, 2011 and formally arrested on July 3. While only the testimony he gave the FBI was admissible in court, the intelligence he shared with U.S. interrogators before being read his Miranda rights could be used to inform U.S. military strikes or CIA operations against terrorist groups. Warsame later pleaded guilty and elected to cooperate with U.S. officials.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sabrina Fine/Released
Yes, the U.S. government shutdown is equal parts embarrassing and infuriating. Yes, it is putting the kibosh on services as basic as food programs and flu shots. But no, the United States is still not a failed state, much as many people seem to be enjoying asking the question --at least not according to the judgment of the folks at the Fund for Peace, who put together the annual Failed States Index in collaboration with FP.
The United States currently ranks a solidly not-failed 159th out of 178 states on the Fund's annual index, which orders countries based on how they score across 12 indicators, and it would take a big hit to push America into failed territory.
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President Vladimir Putin's direct appeal to the American people in the pages of the New York Times is just one part of his government's messaging strategy on Syria. Russia's English-language media outlets are busy blasting out the Kremlin line on the conflict as well.
A few articles have focused on the American reaction to Putin's editorial on Thursday (see, for example, "White House Pokes Russia over Putin's Syria Op-Ed"), but many outlets have drawn attention to other criticisms of President Obama's stance on Syria. RT, the flashy Kremlin-financed news channel, is covering a range of critiques -- from former President Jimmy Carter to Madonna. The Russian media has also tried to gauge the American mood through polling: RT notes that a recent survey by the libertarian magazine Reason found that two-thirds of Americans feel that Obama's handling of foreign policy has been as bad or worse than President George W. Bush's. But that doesn't mean Americans are thrilled with the Russian disarmament plan; the state-owned RIA Novosti pointed to a Pew poll showing that the majority of Americans distrust Russia.
The Russian press is most interested in discrediting the story that the Assad regime used chemical weapons -- an allegation that has been supported by evidence collected by the Obama administration, the French government, the United Nations, and Human Rights Watch, among others. These efforts to present a counternarrative -- in which the rebels gassed themselves and civilians -- range from the credible but circumstantial to the just plain silly. On the more intriguing side, there's the account given by two kidnapped Europeans, who traveled to Syria as supporters of the rebels but wound up being held hostage until last week. They claim to have overheard a conversation with a rebel commander suggesting that the rebels were involved in the attack, but have not discussed details of what they heard. Less compelling is the idle speculation of Ray McGovern -- a former CIA analyst, 9/11 conspiracy theorist, and RT favorite, that the CIA fabricated evidence implicating the Assad regime in the chemical weapons attacks, and the video analysis of a Syrian nun. Across the Russian media, there's consensus on at least one thing: the rebels are "terrorists."
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Russian President Vladimir Putin made a direct appeal to the American public in an editorial in Thursday morning's New York Times. "The potential strike by the United States against Syria," he writes, "despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.... It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."
But Putin seemed notably less concerned about civilian deaths and the second-order effects of military intervention when he took to the same opinion page in 1999 to make the case for intervention -- in Chechnya. In an editorial titled "Why We Must Act," he defended Russian military action, writing that "in the midst of war, even the most carefully planned military operations occasionally cause civilian casualties, and we deeply regret that." Despite international concerns, though, he assured readers that the Russian counterinsurgency operation would not cause widespread harm to civilians. "American officials tell us that ordinary citizens are suffering, that our military tactics may increase that suffering," he wrote then. "The very opposite is true. Our commanders have clear instructions to avoid casualties among the general population. We have nothing to gain by doing otherwise." Because when the Russians stage a military intervention, it's different.
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As of Monday morning, the majority of U.S. legislators still have yet to announce their position on whether they'll vote to authorize the use of military force against Syria. They're running out of time to come to a decision, though; the resolution passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Wednesday and a vote by the full Senate is expected this week, with the House likely to follow soon after.
Some members of Congress may just be keeping their opinions to themselves. Congressional offices have reported a sharp uptick in phone calls from constituents, almost all of them critical of a strike against Syria. The incentive to voice opposition to the resolution is stronger at this point -- both because it resonates with popular opinion and because it serves as a counterpoint to the Obama administration's campaign for strikes, which has included congressional hearings featuring Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey; public speeches (U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power spoke last week, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will speak today, and President Obama will deliver a speech tomorrow); private meetings; and appearances on the Sunday talk shows.
As both sides vie to sway the undecideds, here are the key congressional players to watch this week:
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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution this afternoon to authorize the use of U.S. military force against Syria. The resolution will be voted on by the full Senate next week, but since before this afternoon's committee decision, politicians and commentators have been trying to read the tea leaves on how the vote will go. And unlike on so many other issues, this vote probably will not follow party lines.
Whip counts by the Washington Post, Think Progress, CNN, and others have been shifting over the past day or so. The Post, for instance, moved Sen. John McCain from their "Against military action" column (he'd been placed there for saying earlier in the week that he didn't support the president's plan as proposed) to "For military action" after his SFRC vote this afternoon. Still, all the tallies so far leave about 300 of the House's 435 members unaccounted for, making them only modestly instructive.
The 10-7 committee vote this afternoon, however, may be a preview of next week's vote. Interventionism makes for strange bedfellows: McCain and fellow Republicans Bob Corker and Jeff Flake joined seven Democrats in support of the resolution, while Democrats Tom Udall and Christopher Murphy voted against it along with Republicans Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. Democrat Edward Markey of Massachusetts voted "present."
The latest -- but still early -- forecasts for the full Senate show signs of a similar split. This was the Post's count as of this afternoon:
The coalition between the interventionist wings of the Republican and Democratic Parties stands in sharp contrast with what occurred in the British Parliament's vote last week. On August 29, the House of Commons split nearly along party lines: The entire Labour Party stuck together, as did much of the governing coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties. But a handful of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voted against the motion -- and the efforts of their prime minister -- sinking David Cameron's proposal for a British role in a Syrian intervention, 272-285.
The vote next week will likely involve a greater commingling of political parties than in Britain. But, in keeping with the parliamentary outcome, whether or not President Obama's proposed strikes move forward will probably be decided by a very narrow margin.
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Barack Obama held a press conference on Friday afternoon, supposedly to announce reforms of the NSA's far-flung surveillance programs. In reality, the White House briefing was the start of a marketing campaign for the spy programs that have turned so controversial in recent months. And the president's message really boiled down to this: It's more important to persuade people surveillance is useful and legal than to make structural changes to the programs.
"The question is, how do I make the American people more comfortable?" Obama said.
Not that Obama's unwilling to make any changes to America's surveillance driftnets -- and he detailed a few of them -- but his overriding concern was that people didn't believe him when he said there was nothing to fear.
In an awkward analogy, the president said that if he'd told his wife Michelle that he had washed the dishes after dinner, she might not believe him. So he might have to take her into the kitchen and show her the evidence.
The tour of the NSA's kitchen appeared today in the form of two "white papers," one produced by the Justice Department, another by the NSA, that offered a robust defense of the legal basis for the programs, and their value, but offered practically no new details to the administration's already public defense. If the president meant to offer more proof that the programs really are fine, it was not to be found in the information his administration released today.
He's been counted down-and-out prematurely before, so those predicting that a decision on a tax-fraud conviction -- slated to come down from Italy's Supreme Court as early as Thursday -- will finally spell the end for the resilient Silvio Berlusconi may want to hold back. But even if the former prime minister really is temporarily banned from holding public office -- as this conviction, in theory, requires him to be -- those who fear that the Italian political scene will grow too boring (or too functional) without him need not worry: there's another Berlusconi waiting in the wings to carry on the family name.
Reports say Il Cavaliere is eyeing eldest daughter Marina Berlusconi to take over leadership of his center-right People of Liberty party -- perhaps as part of a larger rebranding of the party slated for this fall, when Berlusconi plans to change its name back to the original "Forza Italia" and "focus on young people." Marina, 46, is seen as better equipped to challenge Florence's dynamic 38-year-old mayor Matteo Renzi, a likely leader of the center-left in Italy's next elections.
So far, Marina maintains she doesn't want to succeed her father, professing that her heart is in business. But even without holding elected office, as head of the Berlusconi family holding company, Fininvest, and its publishing arm, Mondadori, Marina has become one of the most powerful people in a country where hardly any women have real clout in the realms of politics and business. Does that make the daughter of the man who brought Bunga Bunga into our vocabulary a lean in-style feminist?
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As Egypt braces for a day of rival protests tomorrow, Tunisia was also plunged into turmoil today with the assassination of secular politician Mohamed Brahmi, the head of the country's Constituent Assembly and the opposition Movement of the People party. Brahmi was shot by a motorcyclist outside his home in Tunis this morning.
It is the second high-profile political assassination in Tunisia this year. In February, gunmen shot and killed secular political leader Chokri Belaid. Brahmi's assassination comes just one day after an adviser to Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh announced that more information about Belaid's assassination would be forthcoming -- the investigation issued warrants for five people in April, but the adviser, Noureddin B'Hiri, hinted that the Interior Ministry was close to publicly accusing the assassination's planners.
Thousands of Tunisians flooded into the street as the news of Brahmi's assassination broke. Protesters swarmed the ambulance carrying Brahmi's body and gathered outside the hospital to which it was taken. Others rallied at the Ministry of the Interior and chanted, "Down with the rule of the Islamists," according to a Reuters report. Even in the relatively conservative town of Sidi Bouzid, where Tunisia's 2011 revolution began, protesters blocked roads and set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party. Protests after Belaid's death in February led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, a member of the Ennahda Party.
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Hayao Miyazaki, the renowned animator of critically acclaimed films like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle, is courting controversy in Japan and drawing the ire of the aggressively nationalist supporters of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Miyazaki's latest movie, Kaze Tachinu (which will be released in English as The Wind Rises), his first since Ponyo, five years ago, is a marked departure from his usual stories about spirits and magic. The new film is a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the inventor of Japan's World War II workhorse fighter, the Mitsubishi Zero. Japan's role in World War II has always been a fraught topic, but has been a point of contention since Abe's election (or rather, reelection; he was prime minister briefly in 2007) earlier this year. Abe has tried to reframe Japan's role in World War II: He's questioned "whether it is proper to say that Japan ‘invaded' its neighbors" and questioned the 1995 official apology to "comfort women," the conscription prostitutes provided to Japanese troops during the war. Abe is currently pushing for a revision of the Japanese constitution that would not only ease the country's prohibition on military aggression, but would also enshrine the emperor as the head of state and compel "respect" for symbols of Japan's pre-war heyday.
Egypt's liberals have a powerful, outspoken new critic, and he's one of their own: "My dear anti-Brotherhood liberal, allow me to remind you that just a few weeks ago you were desperately complaining about how grim the future looked, but now that you have been 'relieved' of them you have become a carbon copy of their fascism and discrimination," the critic appealed in Egypt's al-Shorouk newspaper.
That critic? It's Bassem Youssef, the popular satirist whose TV show, al-Bernameg ("The Program"), is an incisive Egyptian version of The Daily Show.
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More than half of Americans think Edward Snowden "is a whistle-blower, rather than a traitor," according to a widely discussed poll released by Quinnipiac University on Wednesday. The numbers -- 55 percent of those polled called him a "whistle-blower," compared to 34 percent who labeled him a "traitor" -- are pretty stunning, and have been picked up by a number of news outlets. A vindicated-sounding Glenn Greenwald cited the poll today as evidence that "Americans, to a remarkable extent, seem able and willing to disregard" what he calls "demonization campaigns" against Snowden by the New York Times and New Yorker.
Greenwald also quotes Quinnipiac Assistant Director Peter Brown, who writes in his report on the poll that "the verdict that Snowden is not a traitor goes against almost the unified view of the nation's political establishment." It's a bold assessment -- and more than a little misleading. A number of politicians have called Snowden a traitor, including Rep. John Boehner, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Dick Cheney, but no U.S. military officials have. Most notably, neither has the U.S. Department of Justice, which has charged Snowden with "communication of national defense information," "willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person," and theft -- but not treason.
But more than anything, what the poll demonstrates is that Americans are more willing to call Snowden a whistleblower than a traitor. After all, those were the only two options in the question Quinnipiac asked:
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As the Obama administration considers what the residual U.S. force in Afghanistan will look like after its planned drawdown in 2014, the general consensus has been that some troops -- particularly special forces for counterterrorism missions -- will be staying behind. But amid a new spate of disagreements between U.S. officials and Afghan President Hamid Karzai following his withdrawal from tentative peace talks with the Taliban last month, the New York Times reported this morning that the Obama administration is increasingly considering the "zero option" -- a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year.
Since a particularly contentious meeting with Karzai on June 27, the Times reports, "the idea of a complete military exit similar to the American military pullout from Iraq has gone from being considered the worst-case scenario -- and a useful negotiating tool with Mr. Karzai -- to an alternative under serious consideration in Washington and Kabul."
Or, then again, it could be a bluff. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that Washington has stared down its nominal ally in Kabul, or the other way around (despite Obama's insistence that he doesn't bluff). Just last year, Karzai told reporters that the United States was playing a "double game" and threatened to find a new weapons supplier, name-dropping India, China, or Russia.
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