Monthly Archives: July 2009

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been an interesting week in the news. While the domestic political scene has been dominated by President Barack Obama’s comments regarding the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, the real issues of health care reform and reforming the U.S. financial regulatory system appear to have fallen by the wayside, at least temporarily.

In news from outside the United States in the last week:

1. George Mitchell, President Barak Obama’s special Middle East envoy, met with Syrian officials on Sunday. Although no specifics of the meeting were reported, it is believed that Mitchell’s visit is part of Obama’s strategy of improving relations with Syria as part of the broader goal of achieving a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. The visit was Mitchell’s second trip to Syria in two months.

2. The political situation in Iran appears ready to destabilize, as the government faces both opposition from opposition political parties as well as a standoff between fundamentalist elements within President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s cabinet. On Monday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned opposition leaders that they faced “collapse” if they continued protests over last month’s disputed presidential elections. Last week, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president, lent support to the opposition, speaking at a protest against Ahmadi-Nejad’s re-election. Rafsanjani’s position was closely watched, particularly given his position as head of two powerful conservative bodies in Iran, the expediency council and the experts assembly.

In other developments, over the weekend, President Ahmadi-Nejad fired two cabinet ministers, Hossein Saffar-Harandi, culture minister, and Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, intelligence minister. The firings, which are rare in Iranian politics, represent the latest developments in a political standoff between Ahmadi-Nejad and conservative forces in his government. It was reported on Wednesday that four ministers, including the two fired over the weekend, debated the president’s decision to name Esfandir Rahim Mashaei as first vice president. Mashaei is a close ally of the president, but managed to draw the criticism of conservatives when he argued last week that the position of the Iranian government should maintain a friendly disposition towards the Israeli people. After the appointment was made public, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who as the country’s supreme leader has the final word in governmental affairs, wrote to Ahmadi-Nejad, urging him to fire Mashaei. Ahmadi-Nejad initially refused, but Mashaei nevertheless stepped down over the weekend.  

3. The International Monetary Fund approved a new $2.6 billion loan for Sri Lanka on Friday. The loan is intended to help Sri Lanka rebuild after its 25 year civil war, which ended several months ago after the government launched a series of attacks which incapacitated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebel group. Despite the end of the fighting, however, the government continues to hold thousands of ethnic Tamils displaced by the fighting in detention camps. The detention of so many people led some human rights groups to condemn the IMF’s decision, arguing, as Human Rights Watch did, that the loan “is a reward for bad behavior, not an incentive to improve.” The United States and the United Kingdom both abstained from the decision, an unusual move for the two countries which collectively control almost 22 percent of the voting shares in the organization.

4. Government services in townships across South Africa have been disrupted by a strike by municipal workers demanding higher pay. The strike follows weeks of protest by residents of poor black urban areas in South Africa, who are demanding improvement of water and electricity delivery, better government housing, and reductions in corruption. The protests represent the most significant political challenge to President Jacob Zuma’s government, which came to power on the platform of reducing poverty and addressing corruption. Zuma promised last week to crack down on protestors, but such a strategy appears likely to exacerbate the political crisis facing the government.

5. The standoff in Honduras continued to develop last week, as ousted President Manuel Zelaya visited the Honduran border on Friday. Zelaya vowed to return to power and symbolically crossed the border, briefly stepping in to Honduras before quickly stepping back into Nicaragua to avoid arrest. Talks between Zelaya and the interim government of Honduras appeared to break down this week, as both sides have refused to cede any ground on the most fundamental question: who should be president. Meanwhile, western governments have stepped up pressure on the interim government of Honduras. On Monday, the European Union announced it was suspending all aid to Honduras while the United States has suspending military aid to the country and has threatened to suspend economic aid if progress is not made. Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, heavily reliant on coffee for export earnings.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The U.S. political scene this week was dominated by coverage of Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings in the Senate. After the hearings, Sotomayor appears to be headed for an easy confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, a fact conceded by Republican Senator Lindsay Graham on the first day of the hearings.

Also on the domestic political scene, the battle over President Barack Obama’s proposed health care reform heated up this week, with both sides spending increasingly large sums of money on television advertising. So far, Obama has been content to allow Congressional Democrats to lead the reform effort, but that strategy appears to be in danger after several moderate Democrats expressed hesitation over the bill introduced in the House last week.

In news from outside the United States last week:

1. A suicide bomb attack in Jakarta, Indonesia, killed 9 people and injured more than 50 on Friday. Although no group has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing, the police investigation is focusing on Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda. The group was responsible for a series of attacks between 2002 and 2005, including the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed more than 200 people.

2. The standoff between President Manuel Zelaya and the leaders of the military coup in Honduras remains unresolved. On Friday, Zelaya attempted to return to Honduras, only to be denied entry. He is currently in Nicaragua. Meanwhile, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a close ally of Zelaya, has become increasingly vocal in his condemnation of the coup, accusing it of being backed by the United States. On Thursday, Chávez said, ““The Honduran army wouldn’t have gone forward without the approval of the state department. I don’t think they told [US president Barack] Obama, but there’s an empire behind Obama.” The de facto government of Honduras has filed a complaint against Venezuela with the United Nations Security Council, claiming that the Chávez government is interfering in its domestic affairs. But the Security Council has so far refused to deal with the complaint.

3. It’s been a month of relatively good economic news out of Zimbabwe. Although efforts at developing a new constitution to deal with the ongoing political standoff between the country’s two leading political parties appear to have stalled, the economy is slowly recovering. Finance Minister Tendai Biti announced on Thursday that the government would have a balanced budget this year, with total spending increasing 39 percent to U.S. $1.39 billion. After peaking at more than 231 million percent last year, inflation has been brought under control and the economy has effectively been dollarized, with foreign currencies used for most transactions. Nevertheless, the government is forecasting a sharp increase in agricultural production and a smaller increase in tourist revenues, which should offset a decline in mining revenue caused by the global economic crisis. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund issued a statement describing Zimbabwe as experiencing a “nascent economic recovery” facilitated by “a more liberal economic environment, price stability, increased financial intermediation and grater access to foreign credit lines.”

4. The Russian economy is currently experiencing its worst economic decline since the transition from communism in the early 1990s. According to a Financial Times report issued on Wednesday, the Russian economy contracted by 10.1 percent in the first half of 2009, a much sharper decline than the 7.9 percent forecast by the World Bank just one month ago. Russia’s current economic woes have been caused largely by the sharp decline in global oil prices, which have recovered to $60 per barrel after falling as low as $35 per barrel earlier this year. Russia is also experiencing its own financial crisis, as commercial banks there are bogged down with bad loans. The Russian government may be forced to turn to international markets, barrowing to offset the sharp decline in tax revenues caused by the economic downturn. Based on the new figures, its projected deficit for 2010 could reach as much as 7.5 percent of GDP, a figure far above the 5 percent originally projected. Unemployment has increased from 6 to 10 percent and continues to grow. Meanwhile, many Russians are responding to the economic crisis by returning to the soil, growing their own food on small plots just outside the city.

5. Natalia Estemirova, a human rights activist in Chechnya, was murdered on Wednesday. Estemirova was kidnapped as she left her house in Chechneya on Wednesday morning, and was found shot to death in Ingushetia, a neighboring Russian republic. Protestors fathered in Moscow on news of her murder, and the international community has condemned her death. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has promised those responsible for Estemirova’s death would be punished, but the Russian human rights community remain skeptical of his reassurances. Estemirova was the third human rights activist killed this year. She was also a close friend of Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist murdered in Moscow in 2006. No one has yet been punished for any of the deaths. Estemirova’s murder, however, raises concerns that the Caucasus region may be headed toward greater instability.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been another busy week for President Barack Obama, who started the week laying the foundation for a new arms control agreement with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, then moved on to discuss a range of issues including food security and climate change at the G8 summit in Italy, before concluding the week with a visit to Ghana, where he delivered a speech calling for more effective and accountable leadership in Africa.

In other news from the previous week:

1. In a surprising move, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced on Friday that Russia was still interested in securing membership in the World Trade Organization. In doing so, President Medvedev reversed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s June announcement that Russia was ending its bid to secure WTO membership, moving forward instead with a customs union incorporating several of the former Soviet republics. While Medvedev’s spokesperson sought to minimize the differences between Medvedev and Putin’s approaches the policy reversal nevertheless represents the most dramatic policy clash between Russia’s two top political leaders. The uncertainty surrounding Russia’s position on WTO membership further complicates ongoing talks between Russia and its trade partners.

2. A series of denial-of-service attacks against the United States and South Korea on Wednesday were likely the result of a North Korean cyber attack. In a denial-of-service attack, thousands of simultaneous electronic information requests are made, causing computer servers to crash. Wednesday’s attacks were directed against South Korean and U.S. financial sector and government computers, including Department of Defense and FBI networks. The attacks followed a series of increasingly aggressive missile test launches by North Korea, including several launched over the July 4th weekend, and highlighted the vulnerability of U.S. computer networks to relatively simple cyber attacks. Many analysts believe this sort of denial-of-service attack—in an effort to inhibit communications—would precede a North Korean military attacks against the South.

3. Israel’s National Security Advisor, Uzi Arad, considered by many to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closed political advisor, announced that Israel would not return the Golan Heights to Syria as part of any peace deal. The two countries are currently engaged in indirect talks aimed at reaching a “comprehensive peace.” But the status of the Golan Heights remains disputed, as both countries seek control of the region, which is of strategic importance, as well as being a major source of water and a popular tourist destination in the water-scarce region. Israel seized the Golan Heights in 1967, after the Syrian army used the strategic position to shell Israeli positions in the Hula Valley below. The status of the Golan Heights, along with the status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, remains the major stumbling blocks for a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors.

4. Talks intended to resolve the political crisis in Honduras began in Costa Rica on Thursday. The crisis began two weeks ago, when President Manuel Zelaya was removed from office and put on a military transport out of the country. Roberto Micheletti has been named interim president, but his government is not recognized by the international community. The Organization of American States has taken the lead on addressing the standoff, sponsoring talks to peacefully resolve the standoff. But so far, both sides are unwilling to compromise on the central question: who should rule in Honduras?

5. The United States and the European Union appear to be on a collision course with respect to new financial regulations intended to prevent another global financial crisis like the one that ripped through markets late last year. The U.S. Congress is currently considering a new regulatory system that would impose stricter regulation on derivatives, including bans on some of the riskiest financial instruments. But many are concerned that stricter regulations in the United States would encourage regulatory arbitrage, where financial companies would simply relocate to jurisdictions with weaker regulatory systems.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

President Barack Obama is in Moscow today, meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to lay the foundation for a new nuclear arms control agreement to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December. In an interesting twist to the meeting, Obama appears to be attempting to improve relations with Medvedev, leaving some to speculate that he is signaling the interest of the United States to work with Medvedev rather than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who most observers believe holds the real political power in Russia.

In news from outside the Moscow meetings:

1. Rioting by ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, China, has left 140 people dead. Protests broke out in the isolated region in western China over the weekend after police broke up an anti-discrimination protest in the capital, Urumqi. Tensions between Han Chinese and Uighurs had been increasing over the past year, as an oil boom in the Muslim-dominated region led to a massive increase in Han immigration. Security was increased in the region in the run up to the Olympic Games in Beijing last summer, but tensions continued to mount, culminating in this weekend’s violence.

2. Two protestors were killed and several were wounded in Honduras over the weekend. The protestors were awaiting the return of deposed President Manuel Zelaya, who was expelled by the country’s military last week. On Sunday, he attempted to return to Honduras from Costa Rica by plane, but his plane was unable to land. As a result of the coup, Honduras has been suspended from the Organization of American States, and the country faces the risk of future formal and informal sanctions, including risking sharp declines in foreign direct investment and reduced access to international credit flows.

3. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has stepped up attacks on Nigeria’s oil infrastructure, following an offer of amnesty from the government. Nigeria’s President, Umaru Yar,Adua, had offered a 60-day amnesty to militants in the region, hoping the offer would bring to a close attacks in the oil-rich Niger delta. But militants appear to have rejected the offer, instead launching a new round of attacks. At issue is the distribution of benefits from the oil industry. The Niger River delta region is one of Nigeria’s poorest regions, despite being home to the vast majority of the country’s oil wealth. Groups living in the delta region are seeking a larger share of the oil revenues and greater autonomy from the Lagos-based government. The conflict has a long history, predating Nigerian independence in 1960. But the most recent phase of the conflict dates to 2006, when MEND launched its attacks.

4. The G8 is preparing to launch a new food security initiative this week, pledging more than U.S. $12 billion over the next three years to support the program. The plan marks a dramatic shift in U.S. policy, which historically has emphasized the provision of emergency food aid sourced from American farmers rather than efforts to expand production of foodstuffs in the developing world. However, the recent global food crisis underscored the vulnerability of global food stocks. With an estimated 1 billion hungry people worldwide and the continuing global financial crisis, observers fear that the global food crisis may yet re-emerge.

5. Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee delivered the country’s new budget on Monday. The budget, which includes sharp increases in infrastructure spending and new protections for Indian farmers, immediately proved unpopular with investors. India has suffered from a slowdown in economic growth resulting from the global economic crisis, and the new budget would expand the country’s fiscal deficit to as much as six percent of gross domestic product. Nevertheless, the new government appears to be committed to is program of “inclusive growth,” moving forward with privatization and liberalization but maintaining protections for the country’s most vulnerable populations.

Robert McNamara and the Fog of War

Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara died on Monday at age 93. McNamara was often referred to as the architect of the Vietnam War, a label he was uncomfortable with in his later years. McNamara was also responsible for a dramatic shift in U.S. nuclear policy, moving the United States from a policy of massive retaliation (in which the United States promised al all-out nuclear strike in response to Soviet aggression) to a policy of flexible response, in which conventional forces played a more important role.

McNamara left the post as Secretary of Defense to take up a position as President of the World Bank, where he oversaw a massive increase in the size of the organization. Under his tenure the Bank focused on rural poverty and energy programs.

McNamara was a controversial figure, a “hawk who became a dove,” as the FT describes him. If you’ve never seen Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, the film interview with Robert McNamara, its well worth it. The film easily ranks in the top ten films on international relations ever produced.