Honoring Colombia’s Civil War Victims

Colombia’s civil war has been raging for more than fifty years. Beginning in 1964 as a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union, the civil war pit the government of Colombia, allied with right-wing militias, against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), two left-wing paramilitary groups backed by communist governments. Throughout the conflict, all sides have been accused of drug trafficking and terrorism, and the death toll has exceeded 220,000 people, the vast majority of which were civilians.

Recent advances in the peace talks have given Colombians hope, and negotiations between FARC, the ELN, and Colombia’s government appear to be making headway. One of the most symbolically important tasks has been to excavate the many mass graves that dot the countryside.

What do you think? Will Colombia’s civil war finally be brought to an end? What will peace in Colombia look like after more than fifty years of civil war? And how can that peace be made to last?

President Obama’s Visit to Africa

President Obama arrived in Kenya yesterday, the country where his father was born and where he still has close family. The trip is part of a short, two-nation trip that will also see him visit Ethiopia. The trip appears to be part of broader effort to counter growing Chinese influence in the region, and marks the first time a sitting US President has visited either country. President Obama was quick to make points, noting that Africa is “on the move,” growing economically and will be an important economic center for global trade in the future.

The trip has a broad agenda. China’s growing economic influence is one concern, but Kenya is also seen as a key outpost in preventing the spread of radical Islam in north and central Africa. President Obama is also using the trip as an opportunity to pressure the Kenyan government to improve its record on human rights, particularly gay rights, which have been under threat from a reactionary government.

What do you think? Will President Obama’s effort to improve relation with Kenya and Ethiopia be successful in achieving its multiple goals? Why?

Banning Social Media to Prevent Islamization

The Turkish government today announced a series of restrictions on social media, blocking access to Twitter and other social media websites in an effort to prevent the spread of images from the circulation of images from the Suruc bomb attack. Critics argue it’s a broader effort to prevent mobilization of anti-government protests by Kurds dissatisfied with the government’s approach to the crisis in Syria.

Yesterday a massive suicide bomb attack targeted a protest organized by youth activists in the southern Turkish town of Suruc. At least 32 people were killed and more than 100 injured in the bombing, believed to be the work of Islamic State militants. Located along Turkey’s southern border with Syria, the town had seen a massive influx of Kurdish refugees fleeing fighting in Syria. The protestors, mostly members of the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations, had been planning a relief trip to the Syrian town of Kobane and were angry at the Turkish government for not doing more to combat the Islamic State and support Kurdish fighters in Syria.

What do you think? Is the Turkish government right to block access to social media to prevent the publication of images from the bombing in Suruc. Or is it merely trying to stifle anti-government protests?

A New Era of US-Cuban Relations?

The United States formally reopened its embassy in Cuba yesterday, reestablishing formal diplomatic relations that were terminated in 1961 amid Cold War tensions. For more than 50 years, the United States maintained an “Interest Desk” at the Swiss Embassy, permitting it to engage in discussions with the Communist-led government in Cuba without extending formal diplomatic recognition.

The move is the latest in a series of agreements between the United States and Cuba intended to normalize relations between the two countries. Separated by less than 100 miles, the two countries had tense relations throughout much of the 20th century.  The Cuban government regularly accused the United States of attempting to interfere in its domestic affairs, including launching several attempts to assassinate the country’s former President, Fidel Castro, and attempting to invade the island during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. For its part, Cuba welcomed Soviet missiles on to the island, sparing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

What do you think? Should the United States restore diplomatic relations and normalize relations with Cuba? What effects might such a move have on the stability of the Communist government here?

The Iranian Nuclear Deal

The United States and Iran reached agreement placing limits on Iran’s nuclear regime in exchange for ending Western sanctions on Iranian exports.  In a press conference announcing the agreement, President Obama said the agreement would guarantee Iran could not produce nuclear weapons. In exchange for ending the sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations Security Council cost Iran an estimated $150 billion per year in lost oil export revenue and resulted in the seizure of billions in Iranian assets held in Western banks. The deal ends those sanctions but keeps the weapons embargo on Iran in place for an additional five years. The deal permits weapons inspectors to access “any site they deem suspicious,” an apparent rejection of Iran’s position that military sites be excluded from inspections.

The deal still faces opposition from a Republican-controlled Congress, which had previously passed legislation requiring Congressional approval of any deal reached on Iran’s nuclear program. But as the New York Times reported, President Obama is likely to get the deal implemented despite Republican opposition.

Under the terms of legislation passed in May, Congress has 60 days to scrutinize the accord between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany, and then to vote to accept or reject it — or to do nothing. The president can veto any resolution of disapproval. Congress needs a two-thirds majority in each house to override the veto, so to put the deal into force, Mr. Obama only needs one-third of one of the houses to stand with him.

That said, the Israeli government was also critical of the deal, arguing that the new agreement does nothing to prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and only delays its progress for a short period of time.

What do you think? Does the new deal represent a significant diplomatic achievement for the Obama administration? Will it be effective in preventing Iranian efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon? Why?

A New Cold War?

In testimony before the Senate’s Armed Services Committee last week, General Joseph Dunford, President Obama’s nominee to become the next Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the primary military adviser to the president, asserted that Russia poses an existential threat to the United States. Citing Russia’s close ties to Iran, General Dunford asserted that Russia continues to push for elimination of Western sanctions on Iran, a move that would permit the open sale of Iranian oil on international markets. Such a development could generate billions in revenue for the Iranian government, fueling acquisition of advanced Russian missile systems that could make potential airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities more challenging.

General Dunford testified in his confirmation hearing, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia…And if you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”

Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to reject the General’s statement. According to US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner, Secretary Kerry,

“The secretary doesn’t agree with the assessment that Russia is an existential threat to the United States, nor China, quite frankly…You know, these are major powers with whom we engage and cooperate on a number of issues, despite any disagreements we may have with them. Certainly we have disagreements with Russia and its activities within the region, but we don’t view it as an existential threat.”

The conflicting statements highlight a divide inside the Obama White House as to the nature of US-Russian relations in the context of tensions in Ukraine, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and elsewhere. While the United States and Russia clearly have competing foreign policy objectives, do you think that Russia poses an “existential threat” to the United States? What do you think are the primary security challenges facing the United States today? And what are the implications of apparent disagreements in the assessment of Russia (and potentially other national security challenges) inside the White House for US foreign policy?

What Impact Will China’s Stock Market Plunge Have?

Investors around the world are closely watching the Chinese stock market, which suffered a massive sell-off this week. The Shanghai Composite fell by 8 percent yesterday, and markets in Shenzhen and Hong Kong also fell. In all, the Shanghai composite has lost one-third of its value since June, while the Shenzhen market is down by over 40 percent. All told, Chinese markets are down more than $3.25 trillion. Yesterday’s decline came after the Chinese government attempted to inject money into the markets, ordering government-owned companies to purchase billions of dollars’ worth of stick and the Central Bank cut interests rates to record lows.

International observers note that most Chinese citizens hold their wealth primarily in real estate, so the domestic impact of the stock market declines should be limited. The political impact inside China will similarly be blunted. But the decline highlight China’s slowing rate of economic growth. China is currently experiencing its lowest rate of annual economic growth since 2009, and slowing growth in China is affecting commodity markets for everything from copper to oil.

What do you think? If the Chinese stock market continues its fall, will the sell-off have a domestic impact on China? How might a continued decline affect Chinese politics, if at all? And what might the international impact of a continued decline in Chinese markets be?