Tag Archives: George Mitchell

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 annual meeting of the World Economic Forum took place in Davos, Switzerland, over the weekend.  The forum is intended to provide world economic leaders an opportunity to meet to discuss issues of global importance.  The meeting is normally incredibly cordial, as the economic focus of the conference provides an opportunity to move beyond traditional political wrangling that characterizes official meetings of heads of state.  This year, however, the Gaza crisis prompted the Turkish prime minister to leave the meting in protest and tension filled the air.  In general, this year’s forum has been dominated by discussion of the global economic crisis  British Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned against a rising tide of protectionism similar to the trend that occurred leading into the Great Depression, while bankers cautioned the U.S. government against political interference in banking operations

In news outside Davos this week:

1.  Provincial elections in Iraq on Saturday were generally peaceful.  Although the final tally will take more than two weeks to complete, preliminary results indicate voter turnout was 51 percent, a slight decline from 2005.  Turnout in Sunni provinces, which had previously dismissed the electoral process as biased against their interests, was particularly high.  With more than 14,000 candidates competing for just 440 seats, there are bound to be a large number of disappointed political parties and candidates.  The question that worries observers now is: how do those who lose the vote respond?

2.  A last-ditch effort to craft a government of national unity in Zimbabwe appears to have been successful, as Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change agreed on Friday to join Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union, Popular Front to govern the country.  Once one of the wealthiest and most productive countries in the region, Zimbabwe has gradually collapsed into economic chaos.  With the unemployment rate at an estimated 95 percent, the World Food Programme estimates that up to 70 percent of the country’s population may require food aid in the next six months.  In an effort to deal with the crisis and bring the country’s rampant inflation—currently believed to be running as high as a quadrillion percent (that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000%, incase you’re wondering) under control, the government last week also removed restrictions on using foreign currencies for economic transactions within Zimbabwe.  It is now possible—indeed likely—that bread, gas, and other basic commodities will be priced in U.S. dollars, pound sterling, South African rand, or other foreign currencies.

3.  The crisis over the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which was at the heart of a diplomatic standoff between the United States and Russia lat year, has once again reemerged on the international stage.  Russia has announced plans to construct a new naval base in Abkhazia, a move which Georgia claims will undermine its national sovereignty.  Meanwhile, in an apparent overture to the west, Russia has suspended plans to deploy a missile station in Kaliningrad.  Russia had announced its intention to deploy cruise missile batteries in the enclave last year after the United States moved forward with plans to deploy its missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. 

4.  The Mexican government announced on Tuesday that the country is likely headed into recession, with the economy estimated to contract by as much as 1.8 percent in 2009.  The Mexican economy is heavily dependent on exports to the Untied States, with exports to the U.S. accounting for 80 percent of all Mexican exports and representing about 25 percent of all economic activity in the country.  Already, Mexico’s central bank has cut interest rates in an attempt to stimulate the domestic economy.  Meanwhile, an ongoing conflict between powerful drug cartels and the central government has led some analysts to forecast that Mexico could achieve “failed state” status if it is unable to assert control over the cartels.

5.  Although the fragile ceasefire in Gaza has officially held, a number of fractures are beginning to appear.  On Thursday, Hamas launched rockets into Israel in response to an Israeli airstrike against a suspected arms factory in Gaza on Wednesday.  President Barack Obama named George Mitchell his Middle East envoy, and Mitchell appears to have his work cut out for him.  Arab states are demanding an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Israel during the conflict in which more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed and more than 5,000 were injured. 

And in a bonus story this week:

6.  A moderate Islamist leader, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, was declared the winner of Saturday’s presidential elections in Somalia.  Ahmed was the head of the country’s sharia court system that brought stability to southern Somalia in 2006.   But the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops earlier this year has led to even more instability in Somalia, and the political process, now to be led by Ahmed, has been dislocated from the country, now based in neighboring Djibouti.  Somalia has become a haven for piracy in recent months, and the World Food Program was forced to halt shipments to the country due to insecurity.