Tag Archives: Hamas

Establishing a Truce in the Middle East

Israeli and Hamas negotiators announced an unconditional 72-hour humanitarian cease fire in Gaza, effective from 8am Gaza time Friday. While Israeli forces will remain in Gaza during the ceasefire, both sides have agreed to continue negotiations in Egypt with the goal of reaching a “durable ceasefire.” Two Israeli civilians and 61 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the fighting on the Israeli side. Almost 1,500 Palestinians—mostly civilians—have been killed in Gaza.

Previous efforts to establish a lasting ceasefire have been unsuccessful. Do you think that this effort will be more successful in establishing a lasting truce in Gaza? Why? What conditions are necessary to establish a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East?

Israel, Gaza, and the Challenge of Deterrence

Israeli medics evacuate a person injured in the attacks of August 18.

Thursday’s deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, allegedly perpetrated by militants from Gaza, illustrate the limits of deterrence.  Deterrence involves the use of threats to prevent undesired actions.  Deterrence threats take the form “don’t do X, or else,” where X is the undesired action and the “or else” is the threatened punishment.

Israel has relied on the threat of costly retaliation to prevent militants in Gaza from attacking Israelis, but recent changes in the security environment have made these deterrence efforts much more difficult.  Specifically, the chaos in post-Mubarak Egypt has reduced Egypt’s ability or willingness to police the Sinai Peninsula, opening up a vast new territory from which Gazans (who can easily escape Gaza through tunnels into Egypt) can attack Israel.

Successful deterrence requires the ability to pinpoint the actor who took the undesired action so that actor may be targeted for retaliation.  However, as noted in a Christian Science Monitor article on Friday, “Unlike attacks launched from Gaza – a small, densely populated territory run by Hamas – attacks launched from the Sinai are potentially harder to trace to a specific group, and thus harder to assign ultimate responsibility for.”

This problem of identification and accountability is the reason why some scholars and policymakers, particularly since 9/11, have concluded that we cannot rely on deterrence to prevent states from giving weapons of mass destruction to non-state, terrorist organizations.  That is, if a state’s leaders believe the weapons it gives to terrorists can’t be traced back to the source, they will not be deterred from doing so.  This, of course, is a key argument in support of preventive war, as articulated by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks.  Preventive war involves striking an enemy (or potential adversary) before the threat has fully materialized.

What other factors besides the problem of identification/accountability may undermine efforts to deter unwanted behavior in world politics?  Is there any way to overcome these problems?  When deterrence cannot be achieved, is preventive war the answer?

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

With the Congress in recess, the U.S. political scene has been dominated by coverage of town hall debates over health care reform. In the debate, the British National Health System (NHS) has been trotted out as representative of the dangers of government-run health care, charges to which the British government has responded. The Financial Times on Friday offered a balanced comparison of the U.S. and British health care systems, which debunks the selective use of statistics in the current debate.

In news from outside the U.S. health care debate last week:

1. The Taliban has stepped up attacks in Afghanistan ahead of nation-wide elections scheduled for Thursday. On Saturday, the Taliban launched a suicide bomb attack against NATO’s heavily fortified Afghanistan headquarters in Kabul, killing eight and wounding nearly 100 people. With observers already worried about the ability of the Afghan government and international elections monitors to conduct a nation-wide poll in the country, observers fear that the Taliban may attempt to disrupt the elections. The relative period of peace which had preceded Saturday’s attack had led some to believe that the Taliban would allow the elections to take place.

Thursday’s poll will pit incumbent President Hamid Karzai against former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Although many observers believed Karzai’s campaign enjoyed an insurmountable advantage, Abdullah’s campaign has managed to close the gap, and some are now forecasting the need for a run-off election in October. A runoff would be necessary if neither candidate manages to secure an absolute majority of the vote.
 
2. Palestinian authorities in Gaza engaged in a series of small battles against Jund Ansar Allah, on Friday. The shootouts resulted in at least 13 deaths and dozens wounded. The battles represented the latest—and perhaps most serious—challenge to the Hamas-led government in Gaza. Jund Ansar Allah is one of several small extremist groups pushing for the introduction of strict Sharia law in Gaza. Jund Ansar Allah, which claims ties to al-Qaeda, had labeled Gaza an Islamic emirate subject to theocratic law, a claim which Hamas rejects. For its part, the Hamas government has dismissed challenges to its leadership as “Zionist propaganda” sponsored by the Israeli government.

3. The French Minister for Urban Regeneration, Fadela Amara, sparked a national debate last week when she called for a nation-wide ban on wearing the burka in France. Amara, a French national of Algerian decent, said that the burka represents “the oppression of women, their enslavement, their humiliation.” Banning the burka, she said, must be part of a broader effort to welcome moderate Islam while fighting the “gangrene, the cancer of radical Islam which completely distorts the message of Islam.” Amara’s comments are part of a broader debate in France. The national parliament in July established a committee to determine whether the wearing of the burka is “compatible with France’s republican tradition of equality between men and women,” and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in June said the burka “will not be welcome on the territory of the republic.” An estimated 5-10 percent of the French population is Muslim, though only a few thousand wear the burka.

4. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak last week attempted to re-open talks with North Korea, offering to negotiate troop reductions along the border between the two countries. The border between North and South Korea is among the most militarized in the world, with more than one million troops, including 30,000 U.S. troops, based in the area. However, in his offer, Lee reiterated the South Korean position that a comprehensive peace deal between the two countries would be predicated on North Korea abandoning its nuclear efforts, a proposition with the North has consistently rejected in the past.

5. Continuing her Africa tour with visits to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out on several of the continent’s hot spots. Last week, she urged political reconciliation in Kenya and offered support for Somali efforts to fight piracy and Islamic extremism, During her tour, she has not shied away from provoking controversy. In Nigeria, she criticized “the lack of transparency and accountability [which] has eroded the legitimacy of the government.” She also called for African governments to toughen their stance on Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The major news story this week was the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to replace David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court. If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic and only the third woman appointed to the highest court in the United States. Politically, Sotomayor’s nomination was a brilliant move on the part of the Obama administration. While President Obama did not take advantage of the opportunity to appoint a liberal counter-weight to the conservative ideologues of Justice Antonin Scalia, the President did manage to force Republicans into a difficult spot. Republicans had been gearing up for a protracted fight against any Obama nomination as a way to mobilize their softening political base and increase fundraising in anticipation of next year’s Congressional elections. But in nominating Sotomayor, Obama forces Republicans to balance their desire to mobilize their base against their need to expand the base of the party to include the country’s largest and fastest growing minority group.

In news from outside Washington DC last week:

1. The United States is still struggling to figure out how to deal with the challenges posed by North Korea’s increasingly belligerent policy stance. Over the past two weeks, North Korea has engaged in a nuclear warhead test (on Monday) and several missile test fire operations. While the United States has officially downplayed the situation, describing North Korea’s actions as “nothing out of the ordinary” and dismissing it as mere “posturing,” it has discussed the need for a tougher approach. Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council seems unlikely to moved on fresh sanctions against the North Korean regime.

2. After a week of intense fighting, the Pakistani military has regained control of Mingora, the main town in the disputed Swat valley. The government of Pakistan has been fighting against Taliban militants, who have turned to terrorist  bombings in their fight against the Pakistani government. On Thursday, for example, four bombs exploded in Peshawar, a city in north-west Pakistan. Observers are speculating that the Pakistani government may turn its attention to the Waziristan region along the Afghanistan border once operations in the Swat valley are completed. But the ability of the Pakistani government to continue to exercise sovereignty over the border regions will depend on its ability to establish governmental institutions and expand the reach of the country’s central institutions into the border regions—something the central government has not been able to do so far.

3. Political tensions within the Palestinian Authority intensified on Sunday after forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (from the Palestinian Liberation Organization faction) raided a safe house belonging to Hamas, the other party in government. The clash–the bloodiest since the Abbas government revived peace talks with Israel in 2007, resulted in six deaths, including two high-ranking Hamas officials. The attack came just four days after Abbas met with President Barack Obama in Washington, DC. Obama encouraged Abbas to improve his efforts to fulfill his obligations under the road map for peace, including maintaining law and order in the West Bank. Observers believe this attack was part of that effort, intended to demonstrate to the United States that the Palestinian Authority is following through on its promises.

4. Fighting in the Niger River Delta region continued over the past week, as the government of Nigeria continued its attacks on militants in the region. The government is hoping to reopen oil wells in the Ogoniland region. But observers fear that the government’s increasingly militarized efforts to address the crisis may backfire. Groups in the Niger Delta region claim that they have received few benefits from the country’s oil wealth, suffering from severe environmental degradation and severe human rights violations resulting from oil production, but seeing little benefit from the industry. Militants in the region have already launched attacks against some oil production facilities, hoping to cut off production and increase the cost of operating. Activists in the United States have taken a different approach, attempting to sue in U.S. courts the multinational oil giant Royal Dutch Shell for their alleged involvement in the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other human rights activists in the region.

5. Oil prices reached a six-month high on Friday, trading at $66 per barrel. OPEC is projecting that oil should reach $70-$75 per barrel by the end of the year. While the fighting in the Niger Delta region certainly contributed to increasing prices, observers also believe that speculators are coming back into commodities markers, leading to price increases. In a move certainly linked to the higher prices, the government of Brazil announced that it would reopen its vast offshore oil fields to international bidders. Meanwhile, the oil giant Chevron is being sued in Ecuadorian courts, facing damage liabilities as high as $27 billion for alleged damage to the environment and human health caused by their operations in the country.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

A new report issued by the International Monetary Fund on Saturday suggests that the globally economy will contract by 1.3 percent in 2009 with a slow recovery beginning in 2010. While the United States has been pushing countries to expand stimulus spending, the IMF said that existing stimulus spending already committed for 2009 should be sufficient to address the crisis. A Friday meeting of the finance ministers of the G7 countries was more cautious, concluding that, “the pace of decline in our economies has slowed and some signs of stabilization are emerging,” but simultaneously warned that “downside risks persist.”

In news outside the global economic crisis from the last week:

1. The outbreak of a new flue strain has raised concern in Mexico, as 68 people have died and more than 1,000 have been infected. The World Health Organization is monitoring the situation to determine if it is likely to reach pandemic status. While the Mexican government is urging people to remain calm, authorities have already canceled more than 500 public events and many residents in Mexico City have opted to stay home rather than travel for shopping and work. Tests have also confirmed the virus has made people in California, Texas, Kansas, and New York ill.

2. Elections in Iceland have produced the country’s first center-left government. The previous government of Iceland had been forced to resign as a result of the devastating impact of the global financial crisis on the country. Preliminary election results give Johanna Sigurdardottir’s Social Democrats 30 percent of the vote. With their coalition partner, the Left Greens’ 22 percent of the vote, the coalition appears well-positioned to drive the political agenda in Iceland. Sigurdardottir becomes the first openly gay person elected head of state in the modern world. The first item on her agenda: Icelandic membership in the European Union.

3. While the Obama administration is hoping to resume the six-party talks with North Korea, the government of North Korea appears to be taking a more hardline stance. Earlier this month it test fired a long-range missile, sparking a confrontation with the UN Security Council. Last week, the government of North Korea last week announced it would put two U.S. reporters on trial, charging them with illegal entry and “hostile acts.” Additionally, after expelling international atomic inspectors two weeks ago, North Korea has announced its intention to resume plutonium extraction. It is widely believed that North Korea already possesses enough plutonium for six to eight nuclear bombs. According to some observers, the deteriorating relations between North Korea and the West may be part of the country’s efforts to force the United States into direct, bilateral negotiations.

4. The sharp upsurge of violence in Iraq, including two suicide attacks that killed 75 people outside a Shia shrine in Baghdad on Friday, have raised concerns that Iraq is sliding back into civil war. Recent attacks raise the concern of sectarian violence, suppressed by a strong U.S. presence over the past year, but never entirely defeated.

5. Reversing a longstanding policy of the Bush administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Thursday that the United States would be willing to work with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas so long as the organization met international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.  The Bush administration had refused to work with Hamas, which has effectively controlled the Palestinian government since it defeated its rival, Fatah, in elections in 2007. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure to engage meaningfully in international diplomacy and to be seen acting.

And because it was such a busy week internationally, here are two bonus stories from this week:

6. The rebel Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka on Sunday declared a unilateral ceasefire, a move almost immediately rejected by the government. An operation launched by the government last month has effectively confined the Tamil Tigers to a small enclave in the northern part of the country, and the government is expected to announce the defeat of the Tigers any day. But the United Nations has described the situation as a humanitarian disaster, with more than 6,500 civilians already killed and as many as 100,000 refugees created as a result of the fighting.

7. It was announced on Friday that China has become the world’s fifth largest holder of gold reserves, with 1,054 tones of gold. Seen as part of a broader strategy to diversify its nearly $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, the government of China has slowly been building its gold reserves over the several years. However, even with the recent purchases, China has a level of gold reserves (as a percent of its total reserves) far below that of the United States and other developed countries.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The G20 (which actually has 22 states attending this year) met this weekend in London. The ongoing economic crisis, of course, dominated discussions. The meeting produced a communiqué in which the states commit themselves to restoring financial growth and strengthening the global financial system. Discussions were dominated by several important divisions between the member states, particularly between the developed and developing countries (largely over reform of the International Monetary Fund) and between the United States and Europe (over the urgency and scope of economic stimulus efforts). In the end, the only real, concrete policy initiative was the agreement to enlarge the membership of the Financial Stability Forum to include all G20 members. Created in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the FSF monitors the global financial system and coordinates policies between the international financial institutions.

In news from outside the G20 meeting:

1. On Friday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao expressed concern over the mounting U.S. deficit and the future stability of the U.S. economy. The Chinese government currently holds an estimated 70 percent of its $2 trillion foreign exchange reserve in dollar-denominated assets and is the single-largest buyer of U.S. Treasury Bills. A decline in the value of the U.S. dollar therefore threatens China’s massive reserves. But while the Premier is pressuring the U.S. to ensure the stability of its currency, Luo Ping, the director general of the Chinese Banking Regulatory Commission, reassured the U.S. government (and dollar markets more generally), that the investment in the dollar remains the “only option” for Chinese foreign reserve holdings.

2. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, fresh off her trip to the Middle East and Europe, will be visiting Mexico later this month to discuss the crisis resulting from the growth of drug cartels in the country. The U.S. and Mexico already have an ongoing anti-drug effort (currently valued at approximately $750 million). However, the effort has not been successful in curbing the growing influence of the cartels, and many observers fear that Mexico may fall to the cartels. The situation in Mexico has become so stark in recent weeks that the U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory, and the U.S. Joint Forces Command has begun gaming exercises based on the assumption that Mexico could undergo a “rapid and sudden collapse.”

3. The deepening political crisis in Pakistan continues. Over the last week, the government has increased its crackdown on opposition party members, which they accuse of attempting to undermine Pakistan’s fragile parliamentary democracy. A series of nationwide protests led by many of the country’s lawyers has been demanding the “restoration of democracy and the rule of law.” On Sunday, the government placed Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, under house arrest and attempted to block protests in Islamabad, the country’s capital.

4. On Tuesday, Madagascar’s the army gave the country’s president, Marc Ravalomanana, a 72-hour ultimatum to resolve the ongoing crisis or resign from office. Madagascar has been suffering from an economic malaise due the collapse of the vanilla market, Madagascar’s main export. While the country has begun to attract foreign investment, Madagascar remains incredibly poor, with a GDP per capita of just $330, and inequality between rich and poor remains very high. Ravalomanana remains defiant. On Saturday, he addressed his supporters to say he would not be resigning.

5. In a new statement released on Saturday, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden warned Arab leaders against cooperating with the West and renewed calls for his followers to prepare for jihad. Bin Laden singled out Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, as countries headed by leaders that “have plotted with the Zionist-crusader coalition against our (Muslim) people.” Bin Laden also made reference to the recent conflict between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, describing it as a “holocaust.”

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Poor economic news continues to flow out of most of the world. In the United States, new jobless figures released last week show unemployment up to 8.1 percent, the highest rate in 25 years. Malaysian exports have collapsed, placing pressure on the government to find a solution to the ongoing crisis. And the banking sector in South Africa, Canada, and Mexico (among others) continues to face problems, and the International Monetary Fund is urging greater coordination to address the crisis. 

But the Chinese government is asserting that things are improving there already, forecasting 8 percent growth this year and denying the economy is in a downturn. If they’re correct, perhaps we’re starting to see the beginning of the end of the global economic crisis. I, however, remain cautious.

Here’s important five stories from the previous week:

1. Hillary Clinton continued her charm offensive in Europe last week. After shifting to a more diplomatic strategy with Syria, the new Obama administration has announced its intention to conclude a new arms control agreement with Russia by the end of the year. The effort to improve diplomatic relations with both Syria and Russia are seen as part of a wider effort by the Obama administration to distance itself from the hardline policies of the previous president.

2. A suicide bomb attack against Baghdad’s main police academy killed 28 people on Sunday. Although the number of attacks has declined since the height of the sectarian violence in 2003, the attack nevertheless illustrates the challenges that Iraq continues to face.  On Thursday, a car bomb attack in Babil province—a region that has enjoyed relative peace for months—killed 12 people and injured 40. 

3.  Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on Saturday announced his intention to resign. Fayyad was appointed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. But Fayyad was a controversial figure, and Hamas regularly criticized Fayyad for being too closely aligned with the United States and Israel. Fayyad’s resignation is seen as an important step towards the development of a unity government for Palestine, which itself is viewed as an important first step in the Middle East peace process.

4. The Good Friday peace accord in Northern Ireland faces its most serious challenge since it was signed in 1998, after two British soldiers were killed Saturday night in an attack by Irish nationalist groups opposed to the agreement. Though no group has yet claimed responsibility, several groups, including the Real IRA, the Continuity IRA, and the Irish National Liberation Army, oppose Sinn Fein’s effort to develop a powersharing agreement and peace deal for Northern Ireland.

5. Last week, President Hugo Chávez stepped up his effort to nationalize foreign agricultural producers in Venezuela. After last month’s referendum, which granted Chávez the right to remain in office indefinitely, Chávez announced his intention to move forward with the nationalization of key industries, including oil, steel, and cement. Chávez accuses foreign agricultural producers of exacerbating the country’s economic problems.

And in a bonus story for this week:

6. Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai was injured in a car accident on Saturday, and Susan Tsvangirai, his wife of 31 years, was killed. According to witnesses, a truck swerved from the oncoming lane and struck his car, the middle in a convoy of three cars, head on. Some within Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change have accused Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, of masterminding the attack in an effort to eliminate his political rival. Although Tsvangirai has since said he did not believe the accident was part of a broader plot by Mugabe to eliminate him, Tsvangirai did accept an offer from Botswana’s President to recouperate across the border, fueling speculation about the nature of the accident. Zimbabwe’s national unity government remains an unstable coalition of rival groups, and the government has been unable to effectively address the ongoing economic crisis there.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The meeting of the Group of Seven, or G7, took place in Rome on Saturday.  And while anti-poverty campaigners appealed for the group to address the problem of increasing global inequality and rising poverty, the primary focus of the annual meeting was the global economic crisis.  Following the dispute over the inclusion (and subsequent removal) of buy-American provisions in the U.S. economic stimulus package, the G7 felt the need to include a commitment to use “the full range of policy tools” to address the global downturn while simultaneously renewing commitments to avoid protectionist measures.  This amid news that the Eurozone has now entered its worst slump in fifty years, with the Eurozone GDP falling 1.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, and the German GDP falling by 2.1 percent of the same period.  Amid the poor economic news, the European Central Bank is expected to cut its prime interest rate to 1.5 percent, its lowest rate ever.  The U.S. Federal Reserve’s federal funds rate has already been effectively reduced to 0 percent.

In other news from the previous week:

1.  A U.S. missile strike in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan (along the Afghan border) on Saturday killed at least 25 al Qaeda-linked militants.  The drone-launched missile was the third such strike since President Obama took office.  The Pakistani government has been undercut the influence of militants in the region, believed to be a bastion for al Qaeda.   But the continued strikes by the U.S. also threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the Pakistani government.

2. Israel announced it would not agree to a ceasefire with Hamas unless an Israeli soldier held since he was kidnapped in a cross-border raid in 2006.  The Israeli position appears to complicate efforts to reach a permanent ceasefire.  A series of rocket attacks and retaliatory strikes (or strikes and retaliatory rocket attacks, depending on whose press you read), has made establishing a lasting ceasefire between the combatants more difficult.  Further complicating the situation were Israeli elections held last week.  The elections handed Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadmina party a narrow one-seat victory over the rival center-right Likud party under Benjamin Netanyahu.  The close victory has left both parties scrambling to line up potential coalition partners, leaving the final outcome of the election uncertain.

3.  The outlook for the ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe appeared to brighten a bit last week, as a unity government took office.  Under the terms of the agreement, Robert Mugabe will remain President of Zimbabwe.  His political rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, will become the country’s prime minister.  The government of national unity appears to have—at least temporarily—brought to a close the country’s ongoing political crisis.  But how long this remains the case is unclear.  By Friday, the arrest of Roy Bennett, Tsvangarai’s nominee for deputy agriculture minister, on charges of treason raised questions about the degree to which the new government represents a real break with the past.    Further, the heavy lifting of addressing a national cholera outbreak and brining the country’s economy back from total collapse remains on the to-do list. 

4. The situation in Afghanistan appears to be deteriorating.   A series of bombings and well-coordinated attacks by gunmen over the last several days has left dozens of people dead.  While such attacks had become increasingly common in the Taliban-dominated areas along the Pakistani border, the most recent attacks occurred in what had historically been viewed as the safest region of the country—its capital, Kabul.  Analysts view the attacks as an indication of the increasing support and sophistication of Taliban-backed forces.  The attacks come amidst indications that the Obama administration is considering a request to increase by 30,000 the number of troops deployed to Afghanistan.

5. Disputes between European Union member states over the structure and nature of efforts to address the global economic crisis have led to tension within the Union.  On Tuesday, the Czech Republic’s prime minister (and current president of the European Union) accused the member state governments of engaging in policies that threaten to “deform” the Eurozone.  On Wednesday, in an indication of how serious the dispute is, the European Union scheduled two emergency summits to address the crisis, suppress protectionism, sustain employment, and prevent the bloc’s political fragmentation into old and new member states.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The global economic crisis continues to expand.  Despite the announcement of a tentative agreement on a $827 billion stimulus package in the U.S. Senate and announcement of a $200 billion lending facility by the U.S. Federal Reserve intended to encourage more lending by banks and credit card companies, the economic numbers continue to decline.  Despite being relatively insulated from global markets, Brazil announced a large slump in output and a decline in jobs last week.  Following an announcement that the national economy contracted by 4.6 percent in December—the largest contraction since reunification in 1990s—and more than 2 percent last year, the German Economic Minister, Michael Glos, offered to tender his resignation.  Many observers are also concerned that some of the stimulus packages proposed by national governments may rekindle protectionist measures.  (Indeed, the Financial Times now carries a special section, updated regularly, on “The New Protectionism.”)   

In news from outside the financial crisis last week:

1.  In the first major foreign policy speech of the Obama administration, Vice President Joe Biden proposed to “press the reset button” on relations with Russia, noting that despite policy differences in many areas, the U.S. and Russia could still work together on areas of mutual interest and concern.  The conciliatory tone did not include a review of the U.S. missile defense system, which has angered Russia.  In recent weeks, the Russian government has announced a series of initiatives, including plans to establish naval and air bases in Abkhazia, an air defense treaty with Belarus, and a collective security organization which includes many of the former Soviet republics.

2. A Pakistani court last week released Abdyl Qadeer Khan from house arrest.   Khan is the nuclear scientist responsible for the development of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.  He is also believed to have played a key role in the proliferation of nuclear equipment and know-how to North Korea, Iran, and Libya.  Khan’s role in the Pakistani nuclear program made him a national hero, and many Pakistanis believe the evidence against him was fabricated.  But under threat of sanctions, the Pakistani government placed Khan under house arrest five years ago.  His release was greeted by disappointment from the United States and France.  Despite the move, Pakistan is still hoping to woo more aid from—and potentially a closer relationship with—the United States.

3.  With elections for the Israeli Knesset scheduled for Tuesday, polling over the weekend suggested the race would be much closer than anticipated.  Early polling had suggested that the center-right Likud party would cruise to an easy victory, as most Israelis were identifying security as their primary concern and Likud was seen as strong on security.  But recent polling data suggests that neither Likud nor the center-left opposition Kadima party will win a majority, forcing either to enter into negotiations with minority parties to form a government.  Meanwhile, polls from Gaza show a sharp spike in support for Hamas following Israel’s three-week military offensive in the Palestinian territory,  suggesting that Hamas may actually have been strengthened by the campaign.

4.  The longstanding drought in Argentina continues.  The drought, the worst in nearly fifty years, threatens the collapse of Argentina’s agricultural exports.  As one of the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural commodities and livestock, the projected collapse of exports from Argentina threaten global food supplies.  World food prices had declined form their record highs set in 2007-08 in part on projections of increased production from Argentina.  Global market prices for rice, wheat, and soy have already increased 20 percent in the last two months, and with declines now projected for Argentina’s wheat, corn, and soy output, world prices are projected to continue to increase.  In an unrelated development, the Chinese government declared an emergency in response to drought conditions in central and northern China.  The Chinese drought undermined wheat production.

5.  Relations between British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy stumbled late last week after Sarkozy declared that Brown’s proposal to temporarily cut the value-added tax in an attempt to stimulate the economy would have “absolutely no impact,” arguing that Britain “doesn’t have any industry left” and its banks were “close to ruin.”  Brown is already facing strong domestic opposition from the opposition Conservative Party, whose leader, David Cameron, sized on the French president’s comments.

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.