Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Fallout from Greece’s Election

On Sunday, Greece’s far-left Syriza coalition won over 35 percent of the popular vote, placing it first among all parties and securing the party’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, the position of Prime Minister.  The party campaigned on a strong anti-austerity platform that promised to renegotiate relations between the Greek government and its primary lenders, including the European Union (EU), the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank.

The Greek elections are reflective of a broader trend across Europe, where mainstream centrist parties are losing ground to both far-right and far-left parties amid ongoing economic crises, the implementation of austerity programs, concerns over immigration, and the perceived growing authority of EU bureaucrats. And the growing influence of such parties threatens the stability of the Eurozone and raise questions about the future direction of the European Union.

What do you think? Should the Greek elections be a cause for concern for the European Union? Do you think the possibility of Greece exiting the Eurozone is realistic? How would such a move affect the politics in other crisis-prone EU members, like Portugal and Ireland?

Should the US Negotiate With ISIS?

The official policy of the United States government has long been that it will not negotiate with terrorists. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has numerous hostages, including a Japanese security contractor and a Jordanian pilot. ISIS has demanded $200 million for the Japanese contractor and wants to exchange the Jordanian pilot for Sajida al-Rishawi, a female jihadi imprisoned for her role in a 2005 suicide bomb attack.

What do you think? Should the United States broker negotiations with ISIS to secure the release of hostages held by the organization? Or do such negotiations undermine security in the region? Would you support negotiations? Why?

Yemen’s Coup and US Anti-Terror Operations in the Middle East

Houti rebels celebrate advances in Sanaa, Yemen.

Houti rebels celebrate advances in Sanaa, Yemen.

The government of Yemen fell yesterday after Houthi rebels captured the Presidential compound and much of the capital, Sanaa. President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and his entire cabinet tendered their resignations and most foreigners and embassy personnel fled the country. Mansour had been a key US ally in anti-terror operations in the region, particularly in operations targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the al Qaeda branch widely recognized as one of the most active in the world. AQAP had claimed responsibility for the attacks against the satirical French journal Charlie Hebdo and had conducted dozens of operations in Yemen.

In a news briefing yesterday, the White House asserted the coup would make no difference in US operations and would continue anti-terror operations in Yemen. The Houti have regularly spoken out against any foreign intervention in Yemen, and US drone strikes in the country have been widely unpopular. The United States suspended drone operation in Yemen in December but remains ready to launch operations using drones and/or special forces to target al Qaeda forces in the region.

What do you think? How will the change in government in Yemen affect US anti-terror operations in the region? Should the United States seek to work with the Houti rebel groups in Yemen? Should it respect the request of the Yemeni government to refrain from intervening in the country? Why?

Stepping on Toes? Congress and US Foreign Policy Making

In a move described by observers as an unprecedented breach of protocol, Speaker of the House John Boehner announced today he had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on the issue of Iran without consulting with the White House. The invitation highlights a sharp division between the Congress and the White House over how best to address Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In defense of his move, Speaker Boehner said he is “not poking [the President] in the eye,” but seeking to “address a serious threat in the world [that] the President is papering over.”

Foreign policy has traditionally been the domain of the executive branch, led by the White House and the State Department.

What do you think? Was Speaker Boehner right to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress without consulting with the White House? How might the obvious divisions between the White House and the Congress on the question affect the US negotiating position with Iran?

Freedom of Expression in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi government appeared to give in to international pressure yesterday after it announced it would delay the next round of 50 lashes for Raif Badawi. Badawi is a blogger who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years imprisonment for insulting Islam. His sentence provoked sharp criticism from the global community. Amnesty International has led a campaign to draw attention to the sentence, and a number of states have condemned it. Yesterday, the Saudi government announced it would “delay” the second round of 50 lashes for medical reasons, and the Saudi Supreme Court announced it would “review” the decision.

Badawi’s case raises a number of important questions, both centering on liberal notions of freedom of expression and more broadly on the effectiveness of public pressure on state behavior. What do you think? Should liberal notions of freedom of expression constrain governmental behavior? Do claims that the decision here is intended to protect religious freedom mitigate concerns over freedom of expression? Why? And do you think that international pressure, such as that brought by Amnesty International, can be effective in changing the behavior of the Saudi government in the longer term? Do states care about international public opinion? Why?

Terror in Paris vs. Terror in Nigeria

Michelle Obama holds the #BringBackOurGirls message after the April 2014 kidnapping of 273 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria. Approximately 230 remain missing.

Michelle Obama holds the #BringBackOurGirls message after the April 2014 kidnapping of 273 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria. Approximately 230 remain missing.

While the world’s attention has been focused on the fallout from the Paris terror attacks, Boko Haram, a terrorist organization dedicated to establishing an Islamic state in Nigeria, has intensified its operations in the country. While social media has been dominated by the message #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie), referring to the attack against the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo in Paris, much less attention has been paid to the message #JeSuisNigeria.

Meanwhile, new satellite photos suggest that as many as 2,000 people have been killed and more than 3,600 structures in Baga, a town in northern Nigeria, have been destroyed. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced as a result of the attacks and ongoing fighting between the Nigerian military and Boko Haram terrorists.

Boko Haram, officially known as the People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad, has been implicated in a series of attacks and kidnappings, including the kidnapping of more than 270 girls from Chibok last April. That kidnapping launched a social media campaign featuring celebrities, politicians and others holding a sign with the message #BringBackOurGirls. In total, as many as 1.5 million people have been displaced as a result of the group’s activities in northern Nigeria, and Boko Haram has recently threatened to expand its operations into Cameroon and other countries in the region.

What do you think?  Why have the activities of Boko Haram generated significantly less international attention than the Paris terror attacks? Do you think that the international community should respond to Boko Haram? If so, how? If not, why not?

Palestine, Israel, and the International Criminal Court

Palestine-ICCAfter failing to secure full membership in the United Nations earlier this month, the Palestinian government received approval from the UN Secretary General to join the International Criminal Court. Palestinian membership in the ICC opens the possibility of Palestine filing suit against Israel in the ICC, though such a move would likely provoke a sharp response from both Israel and the United States. Both countries opposed both full UN membership and membership in the ICC for Palestine.

Recent moves by the Palestinian Authority signal a growing frustration with US-led negotiations, which have failed to produce significant results to date. The Palestinian government is seeking to pressure the US and Israel by using other international forums. For their part, both the United States and Israel have threatened to withhold funding for Palestine if it continues with such efforts, maintaining that a negotiated settlement is the only foundation for a lasting peace in the Middle East.

What do you think? Is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ strategy of shifting the locus of attention from US-led negotiations to international forums like the United Nations and the ICC likely to increase pressure on Israel to move the peace process forward? How will the US and Israel likely respond? And will their responses be effective?

The Paris Terror Attacks

FranceShootingDemonstrators took to the streets of Paris this afternoon, less than twelve hours after a terrorist attack on a satirical newspaper resulted in the death of twelve people, mostly journalists and cartoonists working at the paper. Protestors were expressing solidarity with the dead, holding signs that read “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie), in honor of the paper, Charlie Hebdo. The paper had been threatened by extremists after publishing several images critical of the prophet Mohammed, a violation of Sharia law. The paper had previously been the target of a firebomb attack in 2011. Paris police are searching for the three terrorists who escaped in a car after the attack.

Some observers are warning that this style of attack is likely to become more common. Local attacks supported by a larger organization have proven much harder to detect that the al Qaeda-style cells that were responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

What do you think? Does the attack in Paris signal a rise in the threat posed by terrorists on the global stage? How will the strategies employed by the United States and its allies change to adapt to the new threat?

Russia’s Economic Crisis

rubleThe Russian ruble continues to plummet despite a last-ditch effort by the Kremlin to stabilize the currency by sharply increasing interest rates. Since December, the Central Bank of Russia has nearly doubled its benchmark one-week rate, from less than 9.7 percent at the start of the month to 17 percent by month’s end. Meanwhile, the Russian ruble continued its slide, falling more than 45 percent against the US dollar. Inflation is sharply higher, and the Russian government forecast the country’s economy would shrink by half a percent for 2014.

Russia’s economic crisis has been driven by two factors. First, Western sanctions against Russia are starting to have an effect. Sanctions were imposed after Russia took control of Crimea, a region formerly under the control of Ukraine. Second, and more importantly, the sharp decline in global oil prices have sharply curtailed Russia’s foreign exchange earnings, making it difficult for the country to finance governmental operations. Oil and natural gas exports account for about one-third of the country’s gross domestic product and about half of the federal budget.  Oil is trading at just over $55 per barrel today, down from more than $115 per barrel less than a year ago. This is by far the biggest drag on the Russian economy today.

All of this is having a dramatic impact on the lives of ordinary Russians, who now face savings that have little real value, higher mortgage and interest rates, declining real wages, and higher prices for most consumer goods.

What do you think? How will Russia’s economic crisis affect President Vladimir Putin’s popularity? Will the country’s economic crisis affect Russian policy in Crimea? Why?