Elections in Nigeria

Elections are taking place in Nigeria this weekend, pitting incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan against Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler.  As is often the case in Nigerian politics, the election highlights some of the sharp internal divisions in the country. Jonathan is a Christian from the southern part of the country, while Buhari is a Muslim from the north. Overlaying the election, Nigeria has faced ongoing unrest, particularly in the north, where the terrorist organization Boko Haram has repeatedly attacked villages, kidnapped civilians, and attempted to destabilize the regime and impose its own system of rule. The government’s response has been sharply criticized by many in the country—particularly those in the north—as entirely insufficient.

The election this weekend is expected to be close, and the government has imposed a strict voter identification system employing identification cards and biometric scans in an effort to stem fraud. But critics contend that the system itself is being employed to make it more difficult for critics of the regime to vote.

What do you think? Is the government of Nigeria taking sufficient steps to ensure that all citizens can vote? Is the voter identification system—and accompanying rulings limiting the ability of internally displaced person in the country to vote—an effort to retain control in a sharply contested election? Or is it an effort to ensure the integrity of the voting process? Why?

Price Controls, Trade Restrictions, and Global Competition

Venezuela’s economy has been hit hard in recent years by the sharp decline in global oil prices. According to OPEC, oil accounts for about 95 percent of all of Venezuela’s export earnings and about a quarter of its total gross domestic product. Declining oil revenue has sparked an economic crisis in the country, leading to anti-government protests. In an effort to stem discontent, the government has imposed currency controls and limited the prices of key consumer goods—all in an effort to stabilize the economy and limit inflation estimated at about 60 percent.

But broad economic policies are felt on the ground as shortages of key commodities and long lines for basic supermarket goods. The unintended consequence of price controls combined with high inflation has led to shortages and hoarding. Meanwhile, the government of Venezuela asserts that the country’s economic collapse has been driven by US efforts to destabilize the regime, once seen as an alternative to American influence in the region.

What do you think? What was the primary cause of the crisis? What balance of international and domestic factors explain the crisis? How might Venezuela address its ongoing economic crisis? And how might it be resolved?

The Status of Yemen

Less than 24 hours after ISIS-affiliates launched suicide attacks at two Zaydi Shiite mosques in Sana, Yemen, killing more than 130 people, the United States announced it would withdraw its remaining ground forces in the country. The United States closed its embassy in January after Houthi rebels deposed the country’s president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Despite closure of its embassy and the formal withdrawal of diplomatic personnel from the country, the United States continued to maintain a special operations force operating on the ground in Yemen, attempting to counter what it saw as the growing influence of al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates.

Commentators now worry that the withdrawal of US Special Forces from the country could undermine counter-terror operations in the region and embolden al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIP).

What do you think? What effect, if any, will the withdrawal of US Special Forces from Yemen have on the region? Will AQIP seek to destabilize the Houthi regime? Will it expand its operations beyond Yemen and target US and Western assets elsewhere? Should the US have withdrawn its forces? Why?

Implications of the Israeli Elections

Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party defined pre-election polls and won a resounding (and surprising) victory in yesterday’s election, capturing 23.2 percent of the popular vote (and 30 seats), finishing well ahead of Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union, which garnered 18.7 percent of the vote (and 24 seats).

Polling data had suggested that Netanyahu’s party would lose control of the Knesset (parliament), causing Netanyahu to tack to the right in recent days. In campaign interviews over the past few days, Netanyahu declared his strong opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state, effectively declaring there would be no two-state solution during his tenure. He also promised to expand Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem, the portion of the city viewed by Palestinians as the future capital of their country. Earlier, Netanyahu had also declared a hardline stance against Iran. On all three issues, Netanyahu broke with the United States. The results are also likely to catalyze pressure on the Palestinian Authority to move forward with a human rights lawsuit against Israel at the International Criminal Court.

What do you think? How will Netanyahu’s reelection affect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program?

A Declining “Special Relationship”?

The United States and the United Kingdom have long maintained close ties. Since World War II, the two countries have maintained a “Special Relationship” characterized by deeply rooted connections across politics, trade, arts and sciences, government and military operations.  But a decision by the British government to join the Chinese-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) appears to be straining that relationship.

The AIIB is envisioned by China as an alternative to the other multilateral development institutions, which China asserts are dominated by Western interests. And while China has actively recruited additional countries to join the AIIB, American pressure has led countries like Japan, Australia and South Korea to resist joining.

The United State criticized Britain’s decision, which the British government described as being “in-line” with British national interests. But the United States said the British move was made “without any consultation” with the United States, and decried Britain’s “constant accommodation” of Chinese interests.

What do you think? Does Britain’s latest move signal the declining importance of the special relationship? What strategy should middle powers like the United Kingdom employ in addressing growing tensions between the United States and China?

The Senate and the Politics of US Foreign Policy

An interesting exchange took place between Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) today. Senator Rubio challenged Secretary Kerry on the question of Iran and how the US strategy in dealing with ISIS, and Secretary Kerry pushed back. The United States is currently engaged in negotiation with Iran in an effort to prevent it from securing a nuclear weapon. At the same time, the United States and Iran share a desire to weaken the position of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

US foreign policy on both questions were complicated earlier this week when 47 Republican Senators wrote an open letter to Iran’s hardline government warning them that any agreement with the United States would need to be approved by the Senate. Iran’s Foreign Minister dismissed the letter as a “propaganda ploy” while Vice President Joe Biden decried the letter as an attempt to “undercut a sitting President in the midst of sensitive international negotiations” and “beneath the dignity [of the Senate].”

The most recent exchange between Secretary Kerry and Senator Rubio highlight the ongoing tensions between the Obama White House and the Republican-controlled Senate over US foreign policy, and suggest that foreign policy may be a central point of debate in the 2016 Presidential elections.

What do you think? Do recent efforts by Republican Senators to affect the outcome of US negotiations with Iran undermine the effectiveness of President Obama’s foreign policy initiatives? Has the Senate overstepped traditional boundaries in US foreign policy? Are the right to attempt to limit the White House’s autonomy in this area? And how would you address the situation if you were a Senator?

The Safety of Diplomatic Personnel

The US Ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant yesterday, suffering severe but non-life-threatening wounds and being rushed to hospital. The attacker was detained after the attack. He proclaimed his opposition to US military cooperation with South Korea and his desire for a unified Korean state.

The attack highlights the vulnerability of diplomatic personnel around the world, and the difficulty of protecting them as they undertake their day-to-day business.

What do you think? Should additional steps be taken to protect diplomatic personnel aboard? Would such steps undermine their ability to work effectively to achieve their goals? Why?