Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Diplomats as Political Appointees

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) and U.S. Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin (R).

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) and U.S. Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin (R).

One of the unique features of the U.S. Foreign Service that it’s highest ranking personnel are not generally professional diplomats. Sure, for some posts—mostly places people don’t want to spend a lot of time—they are. But for many posts, including in many important U.S. allies, the ambassador is a political appointee who raised a lot of money for the winner of the presidential election.

When President Barack Obama was elected, 32 of the 58 ambassadorial appointments he made were to large campaign contributors. And less you think that Obama is an anomalies, he was simply following a longstanding tradition. Fifty of Preside George W. Bush’s ambassadors were each responsible for campaign donations of at least $100,000. Since the Eisenhower administration, approximately 30 percent of all ambassadorial appointments have been to campaign donors. That is an exceedingly high figure when you think that the United States has embassies in approximately 198 countries around the world.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this process can create problems. As one blogger put it,

American political appointee Ambassadors are usually neophytes – all too often innocents abroad – as opposed to career people who have worked their way up the ranks of the all too hierarchical U.S. foreign service and have had extensive exposure to the country, language and culture to which they are being assigned – e.g. the professionals usually know something about the country of their posting, or if not, know how to make an Embassy function, the policies of whatever the administration is in the White House and how to deliver them as well as basic Ambassadorial does and don’ts.

But a recent story in The Atlantic suggests that the use of political appointees as ambassadors is not necessarily a bad thing. Profiling Charles Rivkin, the U.S. Ambassador to France, The Atlantic argues that political appointees can carry greater connections to the White House, often bring a fresh perspective on relations and issues between the two countries, and frequently possess significant management and leadership skills developed during their time in the business world.

What do you think? Does the appointment of campaign donors to key posts in the U.S. Diplomatic Corps undermine U.S. foreign policy and national security? Or can business leaders make effective diplomats? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

The (New?) Obama Foreign Policy

President Obama's 2012 Acceptance Speech

President Obama’s 2012 Acceptance Speech

Now that the US presidential election is behind us, several bloggers have turned to ask, “What’s next for US foreign policy?” It’s a fair question, particularly given how little attention was paid to foreign policy during the presidential campaigns.

Bloggers from across the internet have offered their take. Examples include Mark Goldberg, who blogs at the UN Dispatch, and David Bosco at the Multilateralist.

To be clear, several key questions about President Obama’s second-term foreign policy remain outstanding. These include:

  1. Who will serve as Secretary of State? By all accounts, Hillary Clinton has done an outstanding job as Secretary of State. But she has made her intention to step down clear. Some have cited John Kerry, who currently serves as the Foreign Relations Committee Chair in the US Senate as a possible successor, but to date President Obama has not been particularly forthcoming about his intentions.
  2. How will the Arab-Israeli peace process move forward? It was clear during the election that there was no love lost between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s also painfully obvious that there has been little progress in addressing the issue during Obama’s first term. Yet historically presidents have often pivoted to foreign policy during their second terms, seeking to establish a lasting presidential legacy. Making significant progress on the Palestinian question would certainly do that. But it’s not clear how Obama might do that.
  3. Will our political leaders start talking about climate change? Both presidential campaigns were remarkably silent on the question of climate change, particularly given the entrée to discuss the question provided by the impact of Sandy on the US Northeast. The marginal shift towards the democrats in the Senate provides reason to hope that climate change may at least make it back on to the national agenda.
  4. What to do about Iran? Iran’s nuclear ambitions didn’t disappear. In fact, it seems likely that Iran’s path to progress in nuclear technology is moving forward, and many observers believe Iran will acquire develop a nuclear weapon within the next four years. Sanctions have been effective in isolating the country and severely weakening its economy. But will the Obama administration support the more aggressive action so strongly favored by Netanyahu? And what would the impact of such action be across the region?
  5. Will there be any change to our Pakistan policy? Drone strikes are highly unpopular in Pakistan but remain an effective way of weakening the strength of militant Islamic groups in the Waziristan region.
  6. How will we respond to developments associated with the Arab Spring? It’s now been two years since the Arab Spring started, bring massive change to the Arab world. Longstanding dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen fell. Protest movements emerged in countries from Algeria to Kuwait. The ongoing crisis in Syria remains a key contemporary challenge. And, of course, the tragedy in Benghazi rocked the foreign policy establishment. There are many outstanding questions, but perhaps none is more profound that whether or not democratization in the Arab world will result in increasing radicalization or moderation.
  7. Will the Global Economic Crisis come to a close or continue to drag on? The economic crisis in Greece appears to be continuing, and the European Union is cutting economic forecasts. The US economy appears to be headed towards an exceedingly slow economic recovery which, while better than continued economic depression, does little to improve the outlook or give reason for heady optimism. How will the global economy affect US foreign policy? Can the United States work with its (economic) allies to improve the state of the global economy? Or will we continue along the current trajectory?

What do you think? What are the most pressing foreign policy issues facing the Obama administration in its second term? Leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts.

Presidential Politics and US Foreign Policy

Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney.

Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney.

Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney last week sparked a new controversy when he criticized President Barak Obama’s response to the ongoing crisis in the Libya. On Tuesday, just hours after US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stephens and three other Americans were killed in an attack by Islamic militants against the US Embassy in Benghazi, Romney asserted that the United States should not apologize for American values to appease Islamic extremists.

However, Romney soon came under intense criticism, including criticism from within his own party, for distorting the chain of events in Libya and appearing to try to score political points from the tragedy. The statement Romney referenced in his comments was apparently issued by the US Embassy in Libya before the attack which killed Stephens and his colleagues, in an effort to diffuse the growing crisis there. That statement, which was not approved by State Department or Administration officials in Washington before its release, read in part, “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

Because of missteps during his recent trips to Great Britain and Israel, Romney’s foreign policy credentials were already under suspicion. And following his statements on the Libyan attacks, Romney suffered even more criticism. In its coverage, CBS News asked, “How Badly did Romney Botch His Response to Libya Attack?” Their answer: pretty badly. A growing chorus of critiques from key Republican figures has been heard. Among those chiming in have been Steve Schmidt, senior campaign advisor to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, John Sununu, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee Peter King (R, NY). Others, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House John Boehner have been silent.

However, it remains to be seen how Romney’s misstep will affect the presidential election. Obama was already polling ahead of Romney, following the closure of the convention season. And there’s an old belief in presidential politics that foreign policy doesn’t win an election. Still, with the campaign season growing short, Romney would likely better be served focusing on the domestic economy rather than developments in the Middle East if he hopes to best Obama come November.

What do you think: Was it a mistake for the Romney campaign to release its statement? Will it affect the November election? Or will the electorate focus on domestic issues instead?

Obama’s Peace Prize Acceptance Speech

President Barack Obama on Thursday delivered his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Already there has been much analysis, and Stephen Walt has called for us to ignore the speech, describing it as “thoughtful, self-effacing, nuanced, balanced, eloquent, lucid, well-delivered, etc. etc. (yawn)” but “suggest[s] we focus our attention henceforth on what he actually does.”

But Daniel Drezner beat me to the punch, noting that Obama’s speech illustrates many concepts and theories in international relations, including realism, Neoliberal institutionalism, social construcivism, democratic peace theory, feminist IR theory, and human security, among others. He actually suggests that it would make a great final exam question for professors wrapping up the semester.

Drezner is certainly correct, but what struck me most about Obama’s speech was the irony. Just days after he announced a massive increase in the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, he is in Stockholm accepting the Peace Prize. In his speech to the committee, Obama said,

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

He may well be right, but it’s certainly an interesting way to accept a speech promoting peace. And while it may be presented in a more elegant light, the underlying policy reflects the same priorities and goals as the previous administration espoused.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been a weekend of high-profile political resignations in the United States and China. On Sunday Morning, President Barack Obama’s top environmental policy adviser, Van Jones, reigned after it became public he had signed a petition alleging U.S. government involvement in the September 11th attacks. Jones had also been a key player in the Color of Change group, which has spent considerable money trying to influence the tenor of the health care debate in the United States. His resignation comes at a poor time for the administration, which is simultaneously trying to salvage passage of health insurance reform legislation in the U.S. Congress, address the ongoing economic downturn, and beginning to consider efforts to address climate change and green jobs, Jones’ area of expertise.

On Saturday, the Chinese government fired the top party official in Urumqi, where ethnic unrest has been raging between ethnic Uighurs and the majority Han. Li Zhi, the Chinese Community Party Secretary for the city of Urumqi, was replaced by Zhu Jailun, who had previously served as the head of the regional law-and-order committee. Li’s firing has also raised speculation that regional party boss, Wang Lequan, may also be forced from office. In firing Li, the Chinese government is hoping to quell unrest and prevent another outbreak of violence like that of July, when almost 200 people were killed in ethnic violence.

And on Friday, the head of Google’s China operations, Lee Kai-Fu, resigned. Lee was responsible for the launch of Google.cn, Google’s Chinese-language search engine. But Google’s operations in China have been marred by tensions with the Chinese government and debates over the degree to which the company should allow the Chinese government to censor search results. Lee’s resignation came amid a new round of tensions, with some inside Google arguing that the company should reconsider its efforts to break into the Chinese market.

In other news from the last week:

1. The G20 concluded two days of meetings in London on Saturday with a preliminary outline for tougher regulations on financial institutions. While the final statement stopped short of imposing limits on financial bonuses, it would increase the size of capital reserves and require the development of “living wills” for banks, and require that banks retain a portion of loans they sell as asset-backed securities. But the G20 avoided dealing with some of the most controversial elements of banking reform, choosing instead to forward those issues to the Financial Stability Board, an institution comprised of central bank governors and treasury secretaries from around the world. 

2. The situation in Afghanistan continues to be marred by uncertainty. On Friday, a NATO airstrike against two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban killed an estimated 90 people, nearly all of whom were civilians, according to local village elders. The airstrike provoked an angry response among Afghans, and represented yet another setback for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. On Sunday it became apparent that the NATO airstrike was ordered by German commanders on the ground, a fact which will likely play an important role in upcoming German elections. The European Union issued a statement criticizing the airstrike on Saturday, one day before EU foreign ministers were scheduled to meet to consider efforts to improve stabilization efforts in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, results from the Afghan election continue to trickle in. By Sunday, the Independent Electoral Commission had tabulated returns from just almost ¾ of country’s polling stations. So far, incumbent President Hamid Karzai leads his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah 48.6% to 31.7%. Under Afghan law, the winner must receive an absolute majority of votes cast, so if Karzai is unable to secure at least 50% of the vote, a runoff election would be held in October. But accusations of voting rigging continue to be raised, particularly by Abdullah, who contends that the vote was characterized by widespread fraud. The IEC announced that it had excluded an unknown number of votes from 447 polling stations in which suspicious returns had been found. But the scope of electoral fraud remains unknown.

3. The World Trade Organization issued its preliminary ruling in the U.S. dispute against EU assistance to aircraft manufacturer Airbus. Although the report is still confidential and the final report will not be issued for several months, the WTO panel found that some of the estimated €3 billion offered by the EU to Airbus was an unfair subsidy. Nevertheless, both sides are claiming victory. The WTO panel dismissed 70% of the U.S. claims against the EU and several of its member states, including France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom, which the U.S. had claimed offered as much as $15 billion in illegal loans since the 1970s. Although the United States is celebrating the decision, the European Union is withholding its formal reaction until its case against U.S. subsidies to Boeing is resolved. In a case filed at the WTO several years ago, the European Union accused the United States of offering more than $27 billion in illegal assistance in the form of tax breaks, research contracts, and defense spending. A ruling on that case is expected within the next few months. 

4. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is moving forward with a plan to expand settlement activity in the West Bank, offering approval for the construction of hundreds of new homes. The United States government was quick to condemn the move, asserting, according to White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs, “The U.S. does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop.” Netanyahu is under pressure from rightwing member of his coalition to remove restrictions on new settlements in the West Bank. But the status of settlements in the West Bank remains a key stumbling block in negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and Israel’s decision to increase settlement activity will likely undermine hopes for progress in rekindling stalled peace talks when President Obama’s Middle East Envoy, George Mitchell, visits Israel next week.

5. Last week’s presidential elections in the West African state of Gabon sparked violence after the ruling party candidate, Ali Ben Bongo, claimed victory. Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, had been Africa’s longest serving ruler, presiding over Gabon since 1967. Under his rule, Gabon’s oil and wood resources were used to expand his personal wealth.  At the time of his death, he was under investigation by the French government, which had identified 39 properties, 9 cars, and more than 70 bank accounts owned by the dictator in France alone. Sunday’s announcement that Ali Ben Bongo had won a plurality of the vote to win the presidency sparked unrest by the supporters of his two rivals, former interior minister Andre Mba Obame and opposition figure Pierre Mamboundou, each of whom received approximately 25 percent of the vote. Supporters of Obame and Mamboundou targeted the French embassy and facilities owned by foreign oil companies. But according to the French government, the election “took place in acceptable conditions.”

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 was a busy week for the Obama administration, as the president made the rounds. On Wednesday, President Obama met with King Abudllah of Saudi Arabia to discuss the “strategic relationship” between the two countries.  On Thursday, the President followed up on a campaign promise, delivering a major foreign policy speech in Cairo, Egypt, where he outlined his vision for Middle East peace. In typical Obama fashion, the speech was balanced and generally well-received. (The video footage of the speech is available on the White House blog). In the speech, he reiterated U.S. support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute, called on Israel to cease all settlement expansion in the West Bank, and called on Palestinians to renounce the use of violence. Demonstrating a cultural and technical sophistication, the White House ensured the speech was simultaneously available through Facebook and other social networking sites in English, Arabic, Urdu, and Turkish. On Friday, the President visited the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. And on Saturday, Obama participated in the 65th anniversary celebration of the D-Day landings before meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.

A busy week for the president, but here are five stories you might have missed if you were only watching his travels:

1. A new audio tape was released by Osama bin Laden, denouncing Obama’s policies as a mere continuation of the previous administration and warning the United States to prepare for war. According to many analysts, the release of the audio tape signals a growing concern from al Qaeda about Obama’s policies. Al Qaeda fears that Obama may be successful in reaching out to moderate Arab states, weakening support for the brand of radical Islam preached by al Qaeda.

2. Elections for the European Parliament took place last week. Although results are still being tabulated, the low level of voter turnout is expected to benefit smaller fringe parties, particularly those on the far right. In the Netherlands, unofficial results indicate that the Party for Freedom will become the second-largest Dutch party in European Parliament, capturing 4 of the country’s 25 seats. The party campaigned on a platform opposing immigration and Turkish ascension to the E.U. In the United Kingdom, voters are expected to hand the ruling Labour party a stinging defeat, with a real possibility that the party may place third in European elections. Similarly, in Ireland, the ruling centrist Fianna Fáil is expected to place second behind its center-right rival Fine Gael

3. The results of Iranian presidential election scheduled for Friday could hinge on…wait for it…the results of Saturday’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and North Korea. In order to qualify for next year’s World Cup finals in South Africa, Iran must win its three remaining matches: the first against North Korea on Saturday, then against the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, and finally against South Korea on June 17. A loss either of the pre-election matches could produce a sharp backlash against President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, particularly among the 60 percent of Iran’s citizens under 30—a group already inclined to support his rival, Mir-Hossein Moussavi.

4. In a dramatic sign of just how bad the global economic downturn has become, the government of Botswana was forced to turn to the African Development Bank last week for a record $1.5 billion loan. Botswana has long been heralded as one of Africa’s strongest and best-managed economies. Its president, Ian Khama, has a reputation as a reformer and statesman. But even he has been humbled by the problems faced by the economy of Botswana, which depends on diamonds for 80 percent of its foreign exchange earnings and about 30 percent of its gross domestic product. And as the price of diamonds has collapsed, the country has found itself increasingly facing economic difficulties.

5. On Friday, clashes between police and indigenous Amazonian protestors in Peru claimed more than 30 lives. Peru’s President, Alan Garcia, urged calm, but both sides appear to be escalating a standoff which has been ongoing for two months. At issue are indigenous land right claims, which they feel the government has abrogated in order to attract more foreign investment.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been a week of surprises by the Obama administration. On Saturday, President Barack Obama nominated Jon Huntsman to be the next U.S. ambassador to China. Huntsman was a surprising pick. With his experience as U.S. ambassador to Singapore, his previous tenure as deputy U.S. trade representative and as deputy assistant secretary of commerce, and his fluency in Mandarin, Huntsman appears to be a solid pick. However, Huntsman is a Republican currently serving as governor of Utah, and has widely been viewed as a potential Republican candidate for the presidency in 2012. Obama last week also reversed his previous position in two controversial areas. First, on Friday, Obama announced the U.S. government would revive the military tribunals created by the Bush administration but suspended by Obama in January to try some 20 prisoners currently held at Guantánamo Bay.  Obama also changed position on the release of hundreds of photograps showing U.S. soldiers abusing detainees. Obama had previously promised to release such photos, but on Wednesday said that their release would “not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals” but would further enflame anti-American opinion and…put our troops in further danger.” The reversal was criticized by the American left, and even managed to draw a response from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.  
 
In other news from the last week:

1. The Congress Party won a decisive victory over its rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s nation-wide elections Saturday. According to most observers, the election gives the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, a coalition of center-left parties, a mandate to push ahead with a series of economic reform. Because most Pakistianis view Congress as less hawkish than the Hindu nationalist BJP, the election could also provide an opportunity to improve relations with Pakistan, which have been strained since the terrorist attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai six months ago.

2. Parliamentary elections in Kuwait were also completed on Saturday. The country has been paralyzed by a standoff between conservative Islamists in the parliament and the government which wants to move forward with economic reforms. Kuwaiti elections are unusual insofar as there are no political parties; candidates run as individuals without formal political affiliations. Historically, the parliament has been dominated by religious figures and tribal authorities who oppose the power of the central government. Kuwait formally extended the right to vote to women in 2005, and analysts had hoped that the expansion of the franchise might moderate the parliament. But while women were elected to the national parliament for the first time in the country’s history—some sixteen of the 210 candidates for the 50 seat-assembly were women; and two women were actually elected into the parliament—the overall composition of the parliament changed little. Analysts now fear that the standoff between the government and the parliament will continue into the next legislative term.

3. A political scandal rocked Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour Party in the United Kingdom last week. On Saturday, Labour suspended MP David Chaytor after it was revealed that he claimed £13,000 of taxpayers’ money for a mortgage he had already paid off. Chaytor was the second Labour MP suspended due to allegations of misuse of taxpayer funds. The scandal has also claimed one junior minister, Shahid Malik, who is being investigated by the parliamentary oversight committee for accusations that he violated the ministerial code. David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, has tried to seize the initiative, accusing the government of failing to provide sufficient oversight. But with members of his own party also accused of wrongdoing, some analysts believe the only real winners in the scandal are likely to be left-wing Liberal Democrats and the far-right British National Party, neither of which have been implicated in the scandal. With local and euro-elections scheduled for June 4, voters will not have long to wait to express their frustrations.

4. The fuel shortage in Nigeria—one of the world’s leading oil exporters—appears to be drawing to a close. A standoff between Nigeria’s president, Umaru Yar’Adua, and a group of powerful Nigerian business interests had led fuel importers to cut off supplies to the country. Fuel importers receive extensive subsidies from the Nigerian government to keep domestic fuel prices artificially low. However, as the subsidies have become increasingly expensive, the government sought to reduce their levels, sparking a confrontation with fuel importers, who receive approximately $5.5 billion per year from the subsidies. The Nigerian oil industry is the primary source of foreign exchange for the country, but has also been a source of considerable controversy.

5. After announcing plans to seize more than 60 oil-servicing companies last week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez continued his efforts to nationalize the country’s food industry last week. On Thursday, Chávez announced that the government would seize control of a pasta factory owned by the U.S. food producer Cargill. In March, the government seized a rice mill owned by Cargill, a Coca-Cola plant, and several other food factories. The government accused the companies of violating price controls aimed at controlling inflation and maintaining a sufficient national food supply. Cargill owns another 22 plants around the country, and the Chávez government warned the country that it could see further nationalizations within 90 days if it continued its “marked non-compliance with the law.” Venezuela currently suffers inflation of almost 30 percent and shortages of key staple foods are becoming increasingly common.

And in a bonus follow-up story this week:

6. Concerns over the H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic appear to be waning, but several important stories nevertheless emerged last week in the wake of the crisis. First, the Mexican tourism industry is trying to encourage visitors to return to Mexico. Concerns over visiting Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, had led to a collapse of tourism in the country. The resort destination of Cancún, for example, is losing an estimated $6 million per day as a result of the downturn. To counter the decline, some Mexican resort destinations are now offering flu-free guarantees to lure back visitors.

And even more importantly, the H1N1 outbreak has also rekindled debates over the tradeoffs between intellectual property rights and the right to access essential medicines. The pharmaceutical giant Roche, manufacturer of the Tamiflu antiviral flu drug, has agreed to increase production. Roche currently sells Tamiflu for €12 ($16.30) per treatment for developing countries and€15 in developed countries. However, developing countries have been pushing the World Health Organization (WHO) to classify Tamiflu as an essential medicine, a move which would bypass Roche’s intellectual property claims and allow generic production to address public health concerns in the global South. Roche maintains that it can provide sufficient stockpiles of the drug to make such a move unnecessary. While the WHO has not yet issued its opinion, a leading Indian pharmaceutical company is nevertheless planning on moving forward with its plans to produce a cheap generic version of the patented Tamiflu drug, which its says it can sell for less than half the cost of the patented brand.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Recent data about the U.S. economy indicates that the current crisis is worse than economists had believed. On Wednesday, the government announced that initial jobless claims spiked unexpectedly, reaching the highest levels since 1982. About 667,000 people made initial claims fro the week ending February 21, sending the total number of unemployed people in the United States over the 5 million mark for the first time in the country’s history. The official unemployment rate stood at 7.6 percent, the highest level since 1992. Consumer sentiment also fell to record lows in February, as housing prices fell precipitously. Housing prices declined 18.5 percent over 2008, and have declined 26.7 percent from the peaks of July, 2006.  Although the Federal Reserve is forecasting an economic contraction of 0.5-1.3 percent this year with an unemployment rate of between 8.5 and 8.8 percent, many economists are offering more dire predictions, calling this the worst downturn in U.S. post-World War II historyThe U.S. economy shrank by an annualized 6.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008 (its worst performance since the recession of 1982).

And now for five important stories outside the ongoing economic crisis:

1. On Friday, President Barack Obama announced a plan that would see the majority of U.S. forces withdrawn from Iraq by August 2010.  Obama’s plan was greatly coolly by anti-war Democrats, who were disappointed that the plan did not accelerate the drawdown in forces. Congressional Republicans appeared more supportive of the president’s plan.

2. The Bangladeshi army has reaffirmed its support for the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina after an attempted mutiny by paramilitary forces was put down earlier this week. On Wednesday, a paramilitary force of border guards—the Bangladeshi Rifles—mutinied over a pay dispute, but violence quickly spread throughout the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. The government was able to reassert control over the region as members of the Bangladeshi Rifles surrendered. At least fifty people are believed dead in the fighting, and the whereabouts of 168 officers who were in the building where the mutiny began are still unaccounted for. The discovery of a mass grave in the building has led to speculation that the number of dead will rise. 

3. Tobias Billström, who is slated to become president of the European Union when Sweden takes over the position from the Czech Republic in July, has indicated that immigration reform will be on the agenda. Immigration and asylum have long been controversial issues in European politics, as countries have vastly different policies. But E.U. member states have been hesitant to transfer responsibility for coordinating policy to Brussels. Billström has suggested that the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg would have final discretion over asylum cases.

4. The new power-sharing government in Zimbabwe appears to be making good progress in addressing the economic meltdown in the country. According to the African Development Bank, Zimbabwe has made an impressive start on addressing the problems it faces. The ADB has called on Zimbabwe to make progress on repaying its external debt as a precondition for securing more outside assistance. The new Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangarai, has said that Zimbabwe urgently needs $5 billion in foreign assistance to repair the economy. Meanwhile, the power sharing agreement itself appears to be at risk, as President Robert Mugabe’s party has been accused of creating its own parallel government, effectively attempting to bypass the power-sharing agreement. Further, members of the opposition party remained jailed, and the push for land reform has intensified.

5. In an attempt to address growing concerns of farmers over poor forecasts, the government of Argentina has agreed to increase protectionist measures, including waiving some export tariffs and granting subsidies to small producers. Longstanding drought conditions in the country have led to declining yields, and farmers are forecasting the worst harvest in forty years. The crisis has exposed deep political divides in Argentina, resulting in a weakening in the ruling alliance and the resignation of four senators and two deputies over policy differences.