It may be the biggest news to break in Latin since Julius Caesar's death.
Pope Benedict XVI provided vindication for Latin teachers everywhere on Monday by breaking the news of his upcoming resignation via a speech in the oft-dismissed ancient language:
More satisfying still for those who maintain Latin is not dead, the Huffington Post Italy reports that the news was first broken by a reporter for Italy's ANSA news agency, who apparently beat out journalists from France, Mexico, and Japan thanks to her superior language skills. Giovanna Chirri initially could not reach a Vatican spokesman to confirm the news, AFP reports:
In a heated debate with her editor, the journalist insisted her Latin knowledge was sound and they could alert the news.
The difficult part was "understanding the Latin," he said. "At a certain point, for example, I caught the word 'incapability' in the pope's speech. I turned around and spoke with my Mexican colleague. We noticed that Pope Benedict had a sad look on his face, not his usual look. Something wasn't right. Then, when cardinal Sodano mentioned the 'sadness,' we finally understood."
The choice of Latin for a major announcement was likely no accident: Benedict has long indicated that he considers a Latin revival important for the future of the Church. In November of last year, he established a Pontifical Academy of Latinity with the goal of promoting the language, saying in a letter at the time that even among priests and seminarians, the study of Latin has become "more and more superficial." He further demonstrated his determination to take Latin into the modern world in January when he began tweeting in the language. Still, Benedictus PP. XVI has just 17,816 followers so far -- the fewest of any of the pope's nine Twitter accounts.
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
The marching chant by Chilean sailors in the video above is the kind of thing that probably worked better in the pre-YouTube era. CNN translates:
"Argentineans I will kill; Bolivians I will shoot; Peruvians I'll behead."
The government has opened an investigation into the incident after the video surfaced, prompting complaints from the Argentinian, Bolivian, and Peruvian governments. The chant is likely to be particularly offensive to Bolivians, who are locked in a long-running dispute with Chile over the coastline they say was taken from them during a war in the late 19th century.
Veterans say the chant has been around for decades.
The most dramatic legacy of Dmitry Medvedev's presidency may have been his impact on Russia's clocks. In addition to dropping 2 of the country's 11 time zones, Medvedev also eliminated daylight savings time.
The move was never popular and current President Vladimir Putin has suggested changing it, but Medvedev is apparently digging in his heels. Bloomberg reports:
“There is no clear conclusion about this issue, and this is proved by surveys,” Medvedev told a televised Cabinet meeting today. “That’s why the government believes that changing the system at the current time is not a good idea.”
Izvestia, a newspaper owned by Putin ally Yury Kovalchuk, reported earlier that an announcement would be made soon to switch permanently to winter time by turning the clocks back an hour. Putin said in December that Medvedev’s time switch bothered him and had been criticized by international sporting bodies for increasing the time difference in winter with London to four hours and with major European cities to three hours. Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
Medvedev's decision was meant to benefit farmers, but as Masha Gessen explained a few months ago, the rollout didn't go so smoothly:
The problem is, Medvedev stopped the clock in early autumn, while the country was still on summer time, or daylight saving time. That froze it one hour ahead of Russia’s standard time, which, in turn, in much of the country was an hour ahead of its astronomical time. So last winter the sun began rising after 9 a.m.; adults were already at work and children at school by the time daylight established itself. And it was dark when they left their respective buildings, not having seen the light all day.
Then there was the issue of electronics. Apple’s operating systems, for one, never recognized Russia’s new time. The publishing house where I worked kept all its Apple computers set back an hour otherwise they could not be synchronized with the server. To reflect Medvedev time, Muscovites had to set their smartphones to Baku or Yerevan time zones — a politically uncomfortable gesture for some.
When antigovernment protests broke out in December, some of the participants carried signs demanding that winter time be brought back. As the dark winter dragged on, doctors and medical writers increasingly sounded the alarm on the risks of doing violence to the body’s quotidian clock. Medvedev’s decision came to symbolize Russian government work in general: ill-considered, dismissive of people’s needs and, ultimately, both pointless and dangerous.
Government imposed time changes can be politically fraught. As I wrote recently for Smithsonian, when the U.S. adopted a national in the late 19th century -- under pressure from railroads, who had been the first to adopt nationwide time -- local governments objected to be forced to change their clocks. “Let the people of Cincinnati stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars,” one newspaper wrote.
More recently, Hugo Chavez moved Venezuela half an hour off the rest of the world's time zones in 2007, but initially provoked widespread confusion as to whether he was moving the clocks forward or backward.
In Medvedev's case, an analyst quoted by Bloomberg says the keeping the time change in place is could be "psychologically crucial" for him as its one of the few tangible legacies of his presidency.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
While the debate over the use of drones overseas plays out in Washington, some groups in the U.S. are pushing for action on the local level. On Monday, the city of Charlotteville, VA became the first municipality in the country to pass legislation restricting the use of drones:
The resolution means that Charlottesville will be a no-drone zone and the use of drones for surveillance and other uses will not be allowed.
The law is based on model legislation prepared by the Rutherford Institute, a libertarian group based in the city. According to the Institute's website, the law places a 2-year moratorium on the use of drones in the city limits and "urges the Virginia General Assembly to prevent police agencies from utilizing drones outfitted with anti-personnel devices such as tasers and tear gas and prohibit the government from using data recorded via police spy drones in criminal prosecutions."
They didn't have long to wait. On Tuesday, the Virginia legislature passed a bill that would bar state and local agencies from using drones for two years. Governor and rising GOP star Bob McDonell, who has supported the use of drones by law enforcement in the past, has not yet decided whether he will sign the bill.
The obvious comparison here is to the "nuclear-free zone" ordinances passed by many left-leaning cities, including my old town of Oberlin, Ohio during the 1980s. The success of these was pretty mixed -- Berkeley's law, for instance, has done nothing to stop the nuclear research going on at the university in the city but has been criticized by some for putting onerous restrictions the city government's purchasing decisions.
Unlike nukes, of course, it's not hard to imagine applications for drones at a local level. The Virgina laws may be a prelude of political disputes to come. And in a state with stark political divisions, drone concerns also appear to be remarkably bipartisan.
Xavier ROSSI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Last August, I wrote on the epidemic of plagiarism scandals which have hit a number of prominent European politicians including Romania's prime minister and education minister and Hungary's former president. Two prominent German politicians -- Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and European Parliament Vice Presdient Silvana Koch-Mehrin -- have already been forced to step down after they were found to have lifted past academic work from other sources.
The next casualty may be Education Minister Annette Schavan, who has been stripped of her doctorate by the University of Dusseldorf:
Based on an internal university analysis of Schavan's doctoral thesis, which she submitted in 1980, and on her own statement regarding her work, the committee voted 12 to 2 to invalidate her academic title, Bleckmann said. There was one abstention. "As a doctoral candidate, she systematically and deliberately presented intellectual efforts throughout her entire dissertation that were not her own," Bleckmann said. Large sections of the work, he continued, had been taken from elsewhere without adequate attribution. As such, she was guilty of "intentional deception through plagiarism."
Schavan is fighting the decision, saying that citation standards were different at the time. If the charges stick, there's a good chance she will be dropped from Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet. Perhaps ironically, the paper was on "Person and conscience—Studies on conditions, need and requirements of today's consciences."
NBC News has revealed a 16-page Justice Department memo laying out the conditions under which the government can authorize the killing of a U.S. citizen. Mark Ambinder has a good summary of the memo, which essentially says the person must represent an "imminent threat" of an attack in the United States and must be in a place where capturing them must be infeasible. Spencer Ackerman looks into the increasingly flexible definition of "imminence" here.
Some readers might be confused about why American al Qaeda members such as Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan are still U.S. citizens. You may have noticed text on your passport noting that you "may lose your U.S. citizenship" by "serving in the armed forces of a foreign state." Why isn't joining a terrorist organization and advocating attacks against the United States grounds for losing your citizenship?
In the 1967 case Afroyim v. Rusk, the Supreme Court ruled that under the 14th amendment, U.S. citizens cannot be involuntarily stripped of their citizenship. (That case involved a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who had his U.S. citizenship revoked after voting in an Israeli election, but the precedent applies to military service as well.)
Since Afroyim, it's been nearly impossible for someone to be involuntarily stripped of U.S. citizenship. Even if you join a foreign army fighting against the United States, the law says you will only lose your citizenship if you do so "with the intention of relinquishing United States nationality." That intention can be tough to prove, and in Awlaki's case, the administration made no effort to do so.
GOP House members have introduced legislation to investigate whether joining a terrorist organization constitutes a renunciation of citizenship. But frankly, given that U.S. citizenship doesn't seem to provide much protection when a drone has you in its sights, I'm not sure there would be any point.
Radio Free Europe reports that the Belarusian government, a last bastion of authoritarianism in Europe frequently blasted by Western government and human rights organizations for its crackdowns on the media and opposition groups, has struck back with a human rights report of its own. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs report, titled, "Human Rights Violations in Certain Countries in 2012," aims to highlight “human rights violations in those countries that traditionally represent themselves as “developed democracies”.
The report surveys 23 European countries plus the United States. The U.S. section makes for interesting bizzaro-land reading. There are a few real-world issues that are frequently brought up by activists in the United States, such as the police crackdowns on Occupy Wall Street and last year's anti-NATO demonstrations in Chicago, concerns about privacy wiretapping, and drone strikes, as well as the fact that "600 thousand of Washington’s residents are not entitled to elect their representatives to the Senate and the House of Representatives."
The authors also seem to relish pointing out the difficultires faced by OSCE observers during last year's election in some parts of the country.
There are also some strange inaccuracies, such as the reference to "G. Stein, a candidate from the Green Party, [who] has on several occasions during the electoral campaign been subjected to administrative arrest, owing to his participation in peace protests." Jill Stein, who is a woman, was arrested at an environmental protest. With some unclear wording the report alsoseems to imply that the U.S. government paid to broadcast the Innocence of Muslims on Pakistani TV rather than ads disavowing it.
Then there's the report's bizarre fixation on U.S. state secession campaigns:
In November, people in seven American federal states collected sufficient numbers of signatures necessary for a secession from the USA. The civil petitions have been posted on a White House website’s special section, where people can leave their submissions or join those posted earlier. To begin dealing with a petition, the White House needs to receive at least 25 thousand signatures in 30 days. Once this requirement is met, an official response will be published on the website.
The Texas’ petition gathered more than 125 thousand signatures. The petition points out that the US economic travails resulted from the Federal Government’s failure to reform fiscal policies. In addition to Texas, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee have also collected the required numbers.
So far, the White House has not considered the civilian petitions, which can be regarded as violation of the right to self-determination.
It appears that if Texas ever did secede, Belarus might be the first to recognize it.
The North Korean gulag, which popped up this week on Google Maps, has incited a smarty-pants insurgency. As Passport reported yesterday, the glib "user reviews" of locations in the isolated totalitarian state are rolling in. Consider what virtual tourists have written about the notorious Camp 14, whose image is now just a click away.
"Man, I loved this place! The public executions were amazing!" observed Patrick.
"Hands down best place I have ever visited! Definitely would recommend this place for anybody who wants to have the full North Korean experience," opined Bradley.
Satellite imagery, citizen cartography, and Google mapping technology have enabled everyone with an attitude and an Internet connection to rubberneck a human-rights catastrophe -- and leave behind an ironic apercu. I happen to have written a totally not ironic book about a boy who was born and bred in Camp 14. Guards chose his parents, ordered them to have sex and then raised Shin Dong-hyuk to be their disposable slave.
He was starved, tortured, and forced to witness the execution of his mother and his brother. He escaped in 2005, but he still struggles to understand what it means to be a human being. Western governments and human rights groups estimate there as many as 200,000 prisoners in five or six sprawling political labor camps in North Korea.
Shin finds nothing amusing about the gulag images now available on Google Maps (or in the far more detailed satellite photographs that Shin has annotated on Google Earth).
But he can put up with black humor. At least the easy and instantaneous availability of visual evidence on Google is helping to build momentum for an investigation into crimes committed in the camps over the past half a century. The images dovetail with the testimony of 60 former camp prisoners. Their stories -- and satellite photographs they have annotated -- have been published in a 200-page report called Hidden Gulag.
Policymakers seem to be paying more attention. Secretary of State John Kerry, in his confirmation hearing last week, said global leadership means "speaking out for the prisoners of gulags in North Korea."
More urgently, the chief human rights official at the United Nations, Navi Pillay, said in mid-January that the time has come for a full-fledged international inquiry.
"The highly developed system of international human rights protection that has had at least some positive impact in almost every country in the world seems to have bypassed [North Korea]," Pillay said. "I believe an in-depth inquiry into one of the worst -- but least understood and reported -- human rights situations is not only fully justified, but long overdue."
North Korea has for years flatly refused to cooperate with U.N. questions about the camps. It has refused to allow the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights to visit the country. In a recent statement, the official Korean Central News Agency described reports of concentration camps in the North as "fictions."
Pillay's demand for an investigation will soon go before the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council, which meets in Geneva in February and March. There is a good chance that it will actually go somewhere. China, Russia, and Cuba -- which have defended North Korea in the past -- will not be on the council this year. And Japan last week made clear that it would push for the inquiry.
An international investigation, of course, is unlikely to change the way North Korea does business. The country's young dictator, Kim Jong Un, seems in no mood to accept criticism. When the U.N. Security Council (with the support of China and Russia) approved new sanctions last week against Pyongyang for its launch of a long-range missile, Kim's government threatened to explode a third nuclear device.
But that should not matter. Anything that focuses public attention on the camps is worthwhile. Pillay noted that nuclear weapons and long-range missiles have for too long "overshadowed the deplorable human rights situation in [North Korea], which in one way or another affects almost the entire population and has no parallel anywhere else in the world."
Google Maps of the gulag have the potential to focus world attention on North Korea as never before -- even if some of that attention is snarky. Smart-aleck awareness is better than ignorance.
Blaine Harden, a former Washington Post reporter, is the author of Escape from Camp 14.
Forget nuclear ducks. This morning Iran revealed its latest science and technology development: a space monkey. According to Iran's Al-Alam TV, a monkey, launched in a Kavoshgar rocket, successfully reached a height of 120 kilometers, before returning safely to earth.
This launch comes on the heels of a tragic failed attempt to send a monkey into space in October of 2011. After having successfully launched a turtle, a mouse, worms, and even a monkey doll into space, Iran's first actual monkey did not return alive.
These forays into space travel have prompted Western concerns that this is all really part of Iran's growing nuclear program:
Western countries are concerned the long-range ballistic technology used to propel Iranian satellites into orbit could be used to launch atomic warheads. Tehran denies such suggestions and says its nuclear work is purely peaceful.
Iran joins a long list of countries who have employed monkeys and other mammals to bravely go where no man has gone before, including the US, China, France, and Russia. Unlike these other countries, Iran doesn't seem to name their animals. Maybe it's better not to get too attached.
Said al-Shihri is dead again, maybe this time for good. As the deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, he is the highest ranking official in AQAP to be killed since the organization emerged in January 2009. He's had some near misses since then, and sources in the Yemeni military have been known to jump the gun in claiming his death. This time the news has been issued by the Yemeni government and its state news agency, and been confirmed by Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in Washington.
Shihri was last reported killed in September 2011. We wrote about him at the time:
Shihri, who went by the pseudonym Abu Sufyan al-Azdi, had fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya before being captured by U.S. forces in December 2001, soon after returning to Afghanistan. After several years of detention at Guantanamo Bay, Shihri went through a rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia and was released in September, 2008. Four months later, he appeared in a video announcing the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an aggressive offshoot led by a former bin Laden aide Nasir al-Wuhayshi, which quickly gained the attention of Western journalists and the intelligence community with a series of high-profile attempted attacks and flashy online periodicals.
Shihri is believed to have helped plan a 2009 assassination attempt against Saudi prince Muhammad bin Nayif, then-head of Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism program and a proponent of the jihadi rehabilitation program Shihri underwent. He also worked to raise funds and recruits from Saudi Arabia. Some of his efforts were met with criticism from within the al Qaeda network. Documents recovered from bin Laden's safehouse in Abottabad include a letter from bin Laden criticizing Shihri's communiqués demanding the release of a Saudi fundraiser for AQAP, and suggesting that the al Qaeda franchise clear their press releases with al Qaeda Central.
AQAP, though, seems to have made it a point to assert its independence from al Qaeda central command. In the same letter, bin Laden also advised against trying to hold territory in Yemen to establish an Islamic emirate -- a suggestion the AQAP leadership pointedly disregarded. Bin Laden's reasoning that it would leave AQAP tied to targets and exposed proved true.
AQAP disregarded those instructions and -- in concert with a more locally-focused affiliate organization -- briefly occupied portions of Jaar and Abyan provinces, including the town of Zinjibar. They were driven out by a joint U.S.-Yemeni campaign in the spring of last year. Since then, the organization has been scattered. Airstrikes have targeted suspected AQAP members in Hadramawt, a large, sparsely populated province east of AQAP's former stronghold. Shihri was reportedly wounded in Yemen's northern Saada governorate, where AQAP has engaged in sectarian clashes with the Houthis, a tribal-religious group agitating for government autonomy.
Unconfirmed rumors of Shihri's death have been circulating for several days, and the circumstances of his death remain murky. According to the Yemeni government, Shihri was seriously wounded in Saada on November 28. The Yemeni government did not comment on the nature of the attack, and refrains from discussing clandestine U.S. operations on Yemeni soil. After the strike, Shihri then slipped into a coma and later died and was buried by AQAP. As with previous reports of Shihri's death, it should probably be taken with a grain of salt until confirmed by AQAP. Or denied by Shihri himself, as he has done before.
Freedom House released its 2013 Freedom in the World rankings today. Over on the main site, David Kramer and Arch Puddington make some recommendations for the Obama administration's second-term prioritiesbased on the report's findings.
Overall, it's not great news, with more countries showing declines in freedom than gains for the seventh year in a row. The most dramatic improvement was probably in Libya, formerly classed among the reports "worst of the worst" but is now classified as "partly free". Mali saw the most dramatic fall, going from "free" to "not free" thanks to this year's military coup and the Islamist takeover of much of the country.
But for my money, though it's still classified as "not free," the most eye-catching change may be Myanmar (Burma). Following this year's dramatic events, the country's political rights score improved from 7 to 6 and the civil liberties rating improved from 6 to 5 due to, as Freedom House puts it, "the successful participation of opposition parties in legislative by-elections and the continued easing of long-standing restrictions on the media, private discussion, public assembly, civil society, private enterprise, and other activities."
The improved scores mean tha a country that was until recently an international pariah and still partly under U.S. sanctions, is -- according to this survey anyway -- more free than the world's second largest economy.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Back in December, after Queen Elizabeth attended a Cabinet meeting -- the first British monarch to do so since the American revolution -- I wrote a half-serious post wondering what's actually keeping her from taking back political power. But according to a Guardian investigation, she may already have more than most people realized:
Whitehall papers prepared by Cabinet Office lawyers show that overall at least 39 bills have been subject to the most senior royals' little-known power to consent to or block new laws. They also reveal the power has been used to torpedo proposed legislation relating to decisions about the country going to war.
The internal Whitehall pamphlet was only released following a court order and shows ministers and civil servants are obliged to consult the Queen and Prince Charles in greater detail and over more areas of legislation than was previously understood.
The new laws that were required to receive the seal of approval from the Queen or Prince Charles cover issues from higher education and paternity pay to identity cards and child maintenance. In one instance the Queen completely vetoed the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill in 1999, a private member's bill that sought to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament. She was even asked to consent to the Civil Partnership Act 2004 because it contained a declaration about the validity of a civil partnership that would bind her.
Prince Charles has been asked for consent on 20 pieces of legislation. The law gives royal family power to review laws affecting their "hereditary revenues, personal property or personal interests of the Crown," though apparently those interests have been interpreted pretty widely, as the Guardian reports that the Queen's consent has been sought for bills dealing with subjects such as corporate manslaughter and child support payments.
JOHN STILLWELL/AFP/Getty Images
With the French government shocking many around the world by dispatching troops to push back Islamist insurgents in Mali, Somalia's al-Shabab militants took to social media today to taunt the French government after a failed raid to rescue an intelligence officer resulted in the deaths of two French soldiers.
"François Hollande, was it worth it?" the group's official Twitter account, HSMPress (warning: Very graphic), wrote as a caption on a picture of one of the slain soldiers. Another image takes note of the crucifix the man is wearing, with the caption, "A return of the crusades, but the cross could not save him from the sword."
France's defense minister had predicted earlier in the day that al-Shabab was "preparing to organise a disgraceful and macabre display" of the bodies. As the AFP notes, this incident recalls the 1993 dragging of U.S. soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu.
But while it's not exactly unprecedented, I suspect al-Shabab's posting of the photos will renew calls for Twitter to shut down the accounts of violent extremist groups. I recognize that a blanket ban on images like this would do more harm than good, hampering the ability of activists to publicize atrocities in countries like Syria. But Twitter already prohibits users from posting "direct, specific threats of violence against others," which pretty much describes everything written by HSMPress. As I wrote back in October, it's possible that authorities may find the intelligence they gain from following these accounts outweighs whatever propaganda value groups like al-Shabab are getting out of them.
For the past week or so, Beijing has suffered from some of the worst pollution it has seen in years. The pollution levels seemed to peak on Saturday when the U.S. Embassy in Beijing's popular @BeijingAir twitter feed, which uses standards from the Environmental Protection Agency, posted a reading of 755 on the Air Quality Index standard. The scale only goes up to 500. Ed Wong in the New York Times reported that "levels between 301 and 500 are ‘Hazardous,' meaning people should avoid all outdoor activity. The World Health Organization has standards that judge a score above 500 to be more than 20 times the level of particulate matter in the air deemed safe."
Three quick points:
1. What's different this time?
Besides the scale; which, though depressing, is not unprecedented, Chinese media is more openly reporting on the weather. This is cannibalized from an email from a friend in Beijing, who wants to remain anonymous:
China's state broadcaster CCTV used to call pollution "heavy fog" (dawu) they're now using the term that means something close to "haze". (wumai) On Friday they dedicated a surprising amount of time to the issue, and a Jan. 12 article on the Chinese weather service website reported that the air pollution was higher than the index is designed to handle.
The friend in Beijing also mentioned changing attitudes among Chinese towards pollution:
"Before the outrage over the discrepancy between official statistics, American embassy PM2.5 statistics, and individual perceptions of pollution, I had not one example of someone using the Chinese word for haze in casual conversation nor in weather reports. With this first bout of bad winter pollution I am shocked by the level of coverage but more so that air pollution is no longer "heavy fog" but now "haze."
PM 2.5 refers to the smaller polluting particles that have not typically been included in government air quality statistics. This Wall Street Journal blog post offers a comprehensive explanation of the term and how it entered the Chinese lexicon, as well as further examples of state media referring to China's ivory skies.
2. How do foreigners deal with the pollution?
Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a Beijing-based correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, writes about her family rules: "Above 100, and the air purifiers -- all four of them -- go on. Above 200, we wear face masks outdoors. Above 300 and no one exercises or plays outside, even with a face mask on. Above 500 and we try not to go out at all."
For my last 2+years in Beijing I lived in an apartment that, when I leaned out the window, had an unobstructed view of the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, a pair of roughly 100 feet high structures that were just over 2 miles away. When I could see the towers, I would run outside; otherwise, no deal.
3. What do you call pollution this gross?
Ed Wong writes of a day "when all of Beijing looked like an airport smokers' lounge," and cited Beijing residents online described the air as "postapocalyptic," "terrifying" and "beyond belief." The second worst day I remember in China, the skies were the color of gargled milk. The worst day the sky managed to turn colorless.
Having done some reading on John Brennan yesterday, I'm not surprised to see criticism from the left of his appointment as CIA director. After all, back in 2008, the former Bush-era CIA official was forced to withdraw his name from consideration for the job because of concerns from the president's base over his defense of the agency's right to "take the gloves off in some areas" while interrogating terrorism suspects.
But there also seems to be an emerging case against Brennan building on right-wing blogs. Apparently, the waterboard-defending drone champion is too soft on radical Islam.
The Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper jumps on the fact that the Brennan once used the Arabic name for Jerusalem -- al Quds -- in a speech in New York. Breitbart's Kerry Picket dings him for calling "jihad" a legitimate tenet of Islam. (It is.) Powerline's Paul Mirengoff calls Brennan an "Arabist," noting that he has referred to "Palestine" and described the "beauty and goodness of Islam."
Yes, Brennan is an "Arabist" in the sense that he speaks Arabic, clearly has a strong interest in the culture, and spent years living in the region (as a CIA agent and station chief, it should be noted, not a Peace Corps volunteer). Regional experts tend not to despise the people they study. But perhaps it's only acceptable to study Arabic and Islam if you do it from a perspective of cool hostility.
Brennan should by no means be exempt from criticism or scrutiny -- and not just over the obvious issues of drones and torture. The highly inaccurate press briefing he gave after the bin Laden raid, for instance, irritated many in the Pentagon and seems to me to be more problematic than the post-Benghazi comments that scuttled Susan Rice's nomination, since Brennan was actually involved in the events he was describing.
But seriously, the guy who, according to David Sanger, makes "the final call on authorizing specific drone strikes from his cramped office in the basement of the West Wing" is too sympathetic to Islamist radicals? Ask Anwar al-Awlaki about that.
A 15-year-old Icelandic girl is suing the state for the right to use her own name:
In a country comfortable with a firm state role, most people don’t question the Personal Names Register, a list of 1,712 male names and 1,853 female names that fit Icelandic grammar and pronunciation rules and that officials maintain will protect children from embarrassment. Parents can take from the list or apply to a special committee that has the power to say yea or nay.
Blaer Bjarkardottir -- the girl filing the suit -- is a particularly good test case since her name comes from a female character in a novel by Halldor Laxness, the nationally beloved Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic author. It's a bit like a French girl not being allowed to be named Cosette, and the government might be more receptive to Blaer than they were to the conceptual artist who wanted to be called "Curver" are few years ago.
Iceland has one of the stricter naming regimes, but it's not the only country where Apples, Suris, and Blue Ivys would not be tolerated.
Swedish children's names must meet with the approval of the country's tax authorities. Past offenders have included kids named Metallica, Ikea, and Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116 (pronounced Albin). Interestingly, they were OK with "Google."
German children "must be given names that clearly denote gender and they cannot be given family names as first names," and there are complicated restrictions on combining last names with hyphens.
Danish parents must pick a name from an approved list of "7,000 mostly West European and English names -- 3,000 for boys, 4,000 for girls." Recently, a few non-European names such as Ali and Hassan have been added to accommodate immigrants.
It's not just the Northern Europeans. China has a law against names using Arabic numerals, foreign languages, and symbols that do not belong to Chinese minority languages, which was bad news for the parents who tried to name their kid "@" in 2007.
As recently as the 1960s, French children had to be named after Catholic saints thanks to a Napoleon-era law. The regulation was eventually relaxed thanks to legal appeals from the Breton community.
The rest of these countries will presumably loosen up eventually thanks to immigration, globalization, shifting gender norms, and pop culture. But perhaps not soon enough for young Blaer, who is still referred to unceremoniously as "stulka," or "girl," on her official documents.
In light of the recent brutal gang rape on Dec. 16, which led to the death of a 23-year-old medical student in India, there have been substantial criticisms of the government for not doing enough to protect women. Protestors say they will continue till they are satisfied that real action is being taken.
But in demanding action, the protesters should keep in mind the people who they're appealing to. According to a recent report, a shockingly high number of members of India's national parliament (MPs) and members of state-level legislative assemblies (MLAs) have actually been accused themselves of crimes against women, including rape.
The Association for Democratic Reforms (an affiliate of the Indian Institute of Management) compiled the report, using the affidavits filed by candidates as part of their nomination papers that are submitted to India's Electoral Commission. In other words, this was all public information at the time these members were elected.
According to the report, in the past five years:
These were hardly the only crimes listed in the report. Other included: assault, murder (one man had 8 charges of attempted murder), defiling a place of worship, promoting enmity between different groups, rioting and dacoity (banditry). Many of these crimes also included violence against women.
The Association for Democratic Reforms has advocated that "cases against MPs and MLAs should be fast tracked and decided upon in a time based manner." This presumably would be similar to the recently inaugurated fast track rape courts created to deter tragic incidents like Dec. 16. Though, in typical fashion, police were late to submit evidence on time (something about difficulty in using a thumb drive).
But with so many accused rapists in government, it's little wonder that it has taken so long for rape to be taken seriously as a problem.
Photo by NARINDER NANU/AFP/GettyImages
It's a little hard to believe now, but during the 1990s, Gerard Depardieu was probably France's biggest international star, representing a quintessentially French archetype for moviegoers around the world. But the legion d'honneur winner and Oscar nominee's legacy in his home country is a bit more complicated now after he announced he was renouncing his French citizenship and has now -- apparently -- been granted a Russian passport by order of Vladimir Putin himself.
In the last month, Depardieu has become the public face of France's tax exiles, wealthy citizens who have moved to places like Brussels and Switzerland to flee the steep taxe rates -- up to 75 percent -- that President Francois Hollande is looking those with an income of more than more than €1 million. (In an FP piece last August, former governor Haley Barbour suggested Mississippi as a destination for France disaffected 1 percenters. Strangely, Depardieu doesn't seem to have considered the Hospitality State.)
Depardieu decided to take the extra step of giving up his French passport last month after Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called his decision to relocate to Belgium "shabby" and not "patriotic." During a televised press conference a few weeks ago, Putin -- seemingly joking -- suggested that Russia's arms would be open to Depardieu and the French actor apparently took him up on the offer:
[O]n Thursday, the Kremlin announced that Mr. Putin had kept his promise and had signed a decree making Mr. Depardieu a citizen of Russia.
A spokesman for Mr. Putin, Dmitri Peskov, said that Mr. Depardieu had recently applied for citizenship, and that it was granted in honor of his cultural achievements.
“The thing is that Depardieu has been a part of large film projects and has acted many parts, including the part of Rasputin,” Mr. Peskov told the Interfax news agency. Referring to a television movie about the mad monk, he added, “This film has not been shown here, but it is a very bold and innovative interpretation of the character.”
Depardieu is likely attracted by Russia's 13 percent income tax. There are places in the world with even lower rates -- some Gulf States and Carribean Islands have no income tax at all -- but they presumably wouldn't be as enthusiastic about making him a citizen. (Given the number of Russian billionaires who have fled the country since Putin came to power, he must relish the opportunity to claim a few well-heeled refugees from Western Europe.) The actor hasn't decided for sure on moving to Russia -- he's reportedly also considering staying in Belgium or moving to Montenegro.
Depardieu also likely has few objections to Putin's human rights record, as he has also appeared at the birthday of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and has agreed to star in a movie written by Gulnara Karimova -- the president of Uzbekistan's socialite daughter. Given Depardieu's recent citizenship troubles, a post-Soviet remake of Green Card might be timely.
ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
On Dec. 26, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg both published exposés on the intersections between business and politics in the Chinese government. Bloomberg's article focused on the offspring of the Eight Immortals. The Immortals refers to a group of top officials close to China's former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, whose children are an elite sub-section of princelings -- the sons and daughters of current and former high-ranking Communist Party officials. The Journal's article explored how some of China's wealthiest businesspeople used politics to expand their empires.
Together, they run to almost 8,000 words, and that's not including the visual analysis of China's rich that the Wall Street Journal published the same day, the graphic that Bloomberg included on mapping the connections between a section of Chinese aristocracy or their companion story on a princeling who's a U.S. citizen and who voted for Obama. They're all worth a read, but if you want the abbreviated version, here's what you should know:
Princelings and their networks dominate the economy.
Bloomberg "traced the fortunes of 103 people, the Immortals' direct descendants and their spouses" and found that "twenty-six of the heirs ran or held top positions in state-owned companies that dominate the economy." Three princelings alone "headed or still run state-owned companies with combined assets of about $1.6 trillion in 2011. That is equivalent to more than a fifth of China's annual economic output," Bloomberg found.
This includes the family of current chairman of the Communist Party Xi Jinping, who's extended family "amassed a fortune, including investments in companies with total assets of $376 million and Hong Kong real estate worth $55.6 million," (which Bloomberg reported on in June) and lesser known names, like Wang Jun. Wang, the 71-year-old son of Immortal general Wang Zhen, "is considered the godfather of golf in China. He's also chairman of a Hong Kong-listed company that jointly controls a pawnshop operator and of a firm providing back-office technology services to Chinese police, customs and banks."
As princelings move into business, private tycoons are entering the political sphere.
The Journal found that among the wealthiest people in China, those that "served in the legislature increased their wealth more quickly than the average member of the list. Seventy-five people who appeared on the rich list from 2007 to 2012 served in China's legislature during that period. Their fortunes grew by 81 percent, on average, during that period, according to Hurun [a consultancy that tracks China's wealthiest people]. The 324 list members with no national political positions over that period saw their wealth grow by 47 percent, on average, according to an analysis the firm ran for the Journal."
They cite the example of Chen Siqiang, the chief executive and controlling shareholder of New Oriental Energy & Chemical, a fertilizer company based in Henan.
In late 2010, the company, whose shares were then listed in the U.S. on the Nasdaq Stock Market, faced a cash squeeze, according to a filing made to the Securities and Exchange Commission at that time. In the filing, Mr. Chen asserted: "I will also use my political influence as a member of the National Committee of CPPCC to coordinate with government agencies and financial institutions to enforce government support."
About three months later, New Oriental announced that the government in its home region had arranged $3.3 million in new loans. Nasdaq delisted New Oriental in 2011 after its capital fell below required thresholds.
This is old news.
Little that the Journal and Bloomberg reported in these articles is new; or rather, the articles both serve to confirm long held impressions on the ties between politics and business in China. That doesn't make the reporting any less superb. Ever since the downfall of disgraced Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai in March, the ability of foreign reporters to uncover details and anecdotes about dealings among the elite has improved greatly.
Part of the reason for this is that several major Chinese news stories in the last year caught the world's attention, and allowed foreign correspondents in China the column inches and the budgets to explore. These include everything from Bo's downfall, to the May escape of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, to the once-in-a-decade power transfer in November.
Additionally, there seems to be a consensus in the United States that China deserves to be understood. Ever since Bo's downfall, Chinese with high level political access seem to be more open to speaking with foreign media. And Bloomberg, the multi-billion dollar behemoth with probably the world's best financial databases, has been doing an excellent job of sending its reporters to follow the money.
China is not on the brink of revolution.
The Bloomberg article compares princelings and their cohorts in present-day China to the robber barons of 19th century United States (and Russia's post-communist oligarchs, though I think that's a stretch). The increase in corruption/dissatisfaction with the princely class means that Chinese will continue to work/fight within the system to improve their lot/improve the system. This does not mean that they are planning to take the streets.
Christmas, it seems, came early for Western governments looking to strike a blow about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Following reports that former Syrian spokesman Jihad Makdissi had fled to Washington, a well-known activist released private Twitter messages that show Makdissi had been in contact for months with the opposition.
"Do you think that I am blind to the heroic actions of the Syrian people?" Makdissi wrote to Rami Jarrah, an activist who has worked to disseminate Syrian citizen journalism, on July 21. "The main problem that prevents me or I can say most Syrian diplomats from openly joining the movement are the opposition ‘representatives'."
Makdissi, a former diplomat at the Syrian embassy in London and a member of the country's Christian minority, had been the face of the Syrian regime to the English-speaking world. In early December, he abruptly disappeared from public view amidst reports that he had defected or, according to the Syrian government's narrative, taken a three-month administrative leave. On Dec. 24, the Guardian's Martin Chulov reported that Makdissi had indeed defected and was in Washington, where he was debriefing U.S. intelligence officials about the thinking within President Bashar al-Assad's regime as it attempts to crush the 21-month revolt.
The messages released by Jarrah show two conversations: His first conversation with Makdissi on July 7, and then a running dialogue that stretches from July 20 to July 22. Jarrah introduced himself as someone who had been arrested for attending peaceful demonstrations, and subsequently beaten and falsely told by Syrian intelligence agencies that his wife had been raped. Makdissi refused to endorse Jarrah's version of events in that first conversation, but his rhetoric was a far cry from the regime's hardline rhetoric.
"We are not perfect Rami but we need to have faith in new Syria," he wrote. "We need all to Support the political process."
By July 21, however, Makdissi was even more receptive to Jarrah's suggestions that he abandon the government. Between the two conversations, the regime had been shaken by a July 18 bombing in Damascus that had killed a number of figures in the regime's inner circle, including Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha, and intelligence chief Hisham Ikhtiyar.
"When I see that I am not able to help stop the bloodshed from my position I will leave," Makdissi wrote on July 21. He followed that up with a message on July 22, saying that he would take Jarrah's suggestions "into consideration."
A recurring theme of the conversations is both Makdissi and Jarrah's frustration with the Syrian National Council, then the primary coalition of opposition groups. Makdissi assailed the opposition's "childish political behavior," and said that leaving his post would not mean joining their ranks.
The $1 million question is whether Makdissi solely corresponded with activists such as Jarrah back in July - or whether he also reached out to anti-Assad governments at the time. Makdissi visited New York in October for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly - while much of this tale remains murky, the trip could have presented him with a chance to reach out to the diplomats and intelligence officials who now seem to be benefiting from his defection.
The more I think about it, the more I think John Kerry was a great choice for Obama's second-term secretary of state. Granted, he wasn't the president's first choice. But Obama may have stumbled into a pretty good decision.
The main reason is that Obama's second term is going to involve a number of lines of sensitive, patient diplomacy that could be politically unpopular at home, or at least easy to attack. Let's take them one by one.
First, there's the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which may or may not involve serious discussions with the Taliban. If it happens, and depending on the parameters of that conversation, that's going to be hugely politically risky, and controversial even within the Obama administration itself. I'm not as optimistic as David Ignatius, but there are already signs that at least some factions of the Taliban are willing to come to the table, if only to explore their options. Kerry knows this terrain well, having managed to develop good relations with both Karzai and the Pakistani leadership.
Second, Iran. Kerry has long thought that the United States needed to find a way to strike a deal. He's skeptical that military action will work. He understands all too well the limits of sanctions. I think he's willing to get creative, and really try to exhaust all options before he signs on for a bombing campaign. He won't just check the diplomacy box -- I think he will really give negotiations a chance to play out.
Third, North Korea. The Obama administration's approach has been "strategic patience" -- a fancy way of saying do little and hope for the best. There were some good arguments for waiting out the North Koreans, chief among them that the South Koreans wanted to take a different tack. But it hasn't worked, and now even the conservative president-elect, Park Geun-hye, wants to explore engagement once again. The United States will be under pressure to join in.
Fourth, Syria. If the administration is serious about brokering some kind of negotiated solution (and it's far from clear this is the case), it will require some pretty deft multidimensional diplomacy with the regime, various factions of rebels, the neighbors, the Europeans, the Iranians, and the Russians. File this one under "mission impossible." But Kerry has been out ahead of the administration on Syria, at least. Maybe he'll be able to make the case for a more less terrible strategy.
Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a dog of an issue, and it seems very far from solvable at the moment. Obama would be foolish to have another tilt at a peace deal. But the Middle East has a way of dragging you in against your will. As long as it is propping up the Palestinian Authority and sending hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to Israel, the United States won't be able to walk away from this mess. Kerry will need to find a way to at least credibly pretend that the Obama administration has a strategy -- and above all, work to prevent things from getting worse.
These are hard problems, and they are exactly the sorts of thankless tasks that Kerry excels at -- the kind that Hillary Clinton was either too busy thinking about 2016, spread too thin, or too disempowered by the White House to do much about. Remember: She wasn't a diplomat when she took the Foggy Bottom job; she was a politician. Yes, she has excelled at public diplomacy -- "townterviews" and the like. That was important in the wake of the Bush years. And yes, the State Department has done some solid diplomatic work in Asia under Clinton's watch. But there are only a few episodes (that we know of) where the secretary's personal, private involvement was crucial to a deal. In one of these cases, the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, she had a strong incentive to get involved -- because not to give her all to get Chen released would have been a stain on her legacy. But on the really tough issues, she's worked through envoys, a tactic that minimized the risks to Clinton herself. (And it worked: Nobody, for instance, seems to blame her for the administration's spectacular failures on the Israel-Palestinian front, or for its less than vigorous Syria policy. Even Benghazi hasn't really affected her reputation.)
Kerry is of course also a pol, but he has nothing left to lose. He's already run for presidency and lost. He seems at peace with himself. He'll shrug off personal attacks. Yes, he can be pompous and long-winded at times. But I think he's going to throw himself into this task, and the arc of his career shows a man willing to take risks when the moment demands it. And the moment certainly demands it now.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
I don't have much to say about NRA chief Wayne LaPierre's remarks about the Newtown shooting. I'll leave that to the domestic guys. But my ears did perk up at this bit:
With all the foreign aid, with all the money in the federal budget, we can't afford to put a police officer in every school? Even if they did that, politicians have no business -- and no authority -- denying us the right, the ability, or the moral imperative to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm.
Grousing about how much taxpayer money goes to foreign aid is one of America's great traditions. But Americans tend to have a wildly exaggerated sense of how much they spend on foreign aid each year. There are many different ways to count, but $50 billion is a good ballpark estimate, when you include military aid and various programs spread across the U.S. federal government. You could also exclude the military stuff and just count the State Department and USAID budgets, which works out to around the same amount. Either way, it's roughly 1 percent of the budget -- not 25 percent, as Americans routinely tell pollsters.
How much would it cost to put "a police officer in every school?" According to economist Justin Wolfers, about $8 billion annually. On average, he says, around 20 kids are killed in schools each year. "Implies: $400m per *potential* kid saved," he tweets.
So, would Americans be willing to take $8 billion out of the annual foreign aid budget and devote it to possibly saving 20 kids per year? I suspect many parents will take that trade, but to a policymaker, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Oh, and one more thing: Columbine High School had armed guards.
I think we can add Hugo Chavez to the list of Obama endorsements that Ohioans won't be seeing in the president's campaign ads:
"If I were American, I'd vote for Obama," Chavez said in a televised interview that aired Sunday.
The Venezuelan leader called Obama "a good guy" and said if the U.S. president were a Venezuelan, "I think ... he'd vote for Chavez."
Not surprisingly, Romney supporters are gleefully publicizing the endorsement.
No other leaders have have been quite as blatant in picking a candidate in the U.S. election. After all, they're going to have to deal with whoever gets elected and generally duck the question when asked. (See Hamid Karzai's diplomatic answer to Wolf Blitzer: " It's for the American people to decide their president. I like them both and have worked well with both.") But a number of other leaders have dropped some hints about who they'd rather see in the White House in November.
Probably leaning Obama:
Francois Hollande: The French president was not exactly subtle when asked about the U.S. election in New York last week. "I'm careful to say nothing because you can imagine if a Socialist were to support one of the two candidates that might be to his detriment," he said. He then quipped: : “So I suppose I should endorse Mitt Romney. But I won’t.”
Hollande may be a socialist, but Obama fandom seems to cut accross party lines in France. Nicolas Sarkozy set a precedent for this sort of thing, when he essentially endorsed Obama in 2008. He also said of Obama's mideast peace efforts in March, "President Obama, who is a very great president, won't take the initiative before he's re-elected -- and I hope he will be."
David Cameron: Conservatives on either side of the pond hoping for Thatcher-Reagan II if Romney is elected might be disappointed. From all the signals we've gotten, Cameron seems to be an Obama man. Visiting the United States in March, Cameron praised the president for his “strength, moral authority, and wisdom" as well as his "strong and beautiful words." The British tabloids had a field day over Cameron's "fawning" after taking in a basketball game with the president and U.S. conservatives complained about Camerons"unprecedented" Republican leaders while in Washington. Then came the GOP candidate's visit to London and the series of gaffes that came to be known as "Romneyshambles." Cameron, not surprisingly, differed with Romney's doubts about whether Britain could successfully come together to "celebrate the Olympic moment," saying, "We'll show the world we've not only come together as a United Kingdom but are extremely good at welcoming people from across the world." (London mayor Boris Johnson was a lot more blunt.)
Vladimir Putin: Putin was the only foreign leader mentioned by name in Romney's convention speech, so it makes sense that he takes the U.S. race a bit personally. The Russian president suggested in an interview with the satellite network RT that Obama would probably be easier to work with than the candidate who has described his country as America's "number one gepolitical foe." “Is it possible to find a solution to the problem, if current President Obama is re-elected for a second term? Theoretically, yes,”Putin said. He continued: "My feeling is that he is a very honest man, and that he sincerely wants to make many good changes. But can he do it? Will they let him do it?”
He has also paid a backhanded compliment to Romney: “I’m grateful to him for formulating his stance so clearly because he has once again proven the correctness of our approach to missile defense problems... The most important thing for us is that even if he doesn’t win now, he or a person with similar views may come to power in four years. We must take that into consideration while dealing with security issues for a long perspective.”
Probably leaning Romney:
Benjamin Netanyahu: Romney has made his support for Netanyahu, whom he has known since the 1970s, a centerpiece of his campaign. Anonymous sources close to Netanyahu say would prefer to see Romney in the White House. As Romney notes in his now infamous hidden camera fundraising speech, some of his campaign consultants also worked for Netanyahu and the two share a number of major donors as well. All the same, Netanyahu has denied that his recent comments asserting that Obama has no "moral right" to prevent Israel from attacking Iran were not meant to undermind the adminsitration. "What's guiding me is not the election in the United States but the centrifuges in Iran,"he recently told an Israeli newspaper. This hasn't really satisfied his American critics.
Donald Tusk/Lech Walesa: As recently as 2011, despite past disagreements over issues like the planned missile defense system in Poland, Tusk told Obama “We feel that you are one of us” during a visit to Poland. But this May, Tusk responded with rare vitriol to a reference made by the president to "Polish death camps" -- as opposed to Nazi death camps located in Poland -- during a White House ceremony. Tusk said the remarks smacked of " ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions" and rejected the White House's explanation that the president has simply "misspoke." Tusk met with Romney during the GOP candidate's trip to Poland in July but hasn't said anything that can be construed as an endorsement of either side.
Former Polish President and anticommunist icon Lech Walesa was not so subtle, telling Romney, “I wish you to be successful because this success is needed to the United States, of course, but to Europe and the rest of the world, too." Walesa had refused to meet with Obama in 2011. Romney has made confronting Russia a centerpiece of his foreign policy and has accused Obama of abandoning Poland in the name of the "reset" with the Kremlin. Though feelings toward the U.S. haven't really changed much in Poland in recent years.
Fidel Castro:Back in 2008, Castro called Obama "more intelligent, refined, and even-handed" than John McCain. But this time around, he has argued that a robot would do a better job preventing "a war that would end the life of our species". (Jokes about his personality aside, Castro's no fan of Mitt Romney. He says Republicans have "more nuclear arms on their backs than ideas for peace in their heads.") Really, he just seems excited about the robot idea, writing, "I'm sure 90 percent of voting Americans, especially Hispanics, blacks, and the growing number of impoverished middle class, would vote for the robot."
Am I missing any endorsements or near endorsements? Write them in the comments.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
As has been covered extensively during the campaign, Mitt Romney believed humans caused climate change before he didn't believe it and before it became a punch-line in his speeches. In response to a question on the climate a science questionnaire from Nature this week, also filled out by Obama, Romney seems to be trying to have it both ways:
I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences. However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk — and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community. Ultimately, the science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response.
So he does believe that humans are causing climate change and that lawmakers should consider the subject, but doesn't believe the science is settled. And even if it were, the science shouldn't dictate a "particular policy response." This is what happens when statements are tailored to avoid any assertions that could later be contradicted by either real-world events or the speaker's own actions.
At the Democratic convention in Charlotte on Thursday evening, Vice President Joe Biden recycled a slogan he's often repeated on the campaign trail. "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive," he reminded a roaring crowd.
The line is more than just a crowd-pleaser. As Democratic pollster Jeremy Rosner notes, the fact that half of Biden's distilled pitch relates to foreign policy speaks to the rare advantage the Democratic Party has on national security in 2012, thanks to accomplishments such as ending the war in Iraq and killing Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders. An Ipsos/Reuters poll last month found that 51 percent of registered voters believe Barack Obama is stronger on foreign policy than Mitt Romney, while 35 percent believe the Republican candidate has the edge. The president also has a 47-38 advantage on national security and a 50-35 advantage on the war on terror.
"This is not so entrenched in the DNA of the modern Democratic Party," Rosner tells Foreign Policy. He points out that when his firm, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, asked respondents at the end of 2003 which party would do a better job on national security, 54 percent selected the GOP, while 25 percent chose the Democrats (in the 2004 election, George W. Bush racked up double-digit leads over John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, on Iraq and terrorism). That 30-point gap narrowed at times during the 2008 election, Rosner adds, and now the balance has shifted in the other direction.
Rosner says the last time a Democratic presidential candidate enjoyed such a foreign-policy advantage was 1964, when Lyndon Johnson argued that he was far more capable than Republican challenger Barry Goldwater of navigating the Cold War and averting a nuclear crisis. On the campaign trail, Goldwater had gotten himself into trouble for saying that America's intercontinental missiles were "not dependable" (Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara claimed the comment was "damaging to the national security") and that NATO should amass a stockpile of "small conventional nuclear weapons" ("How 'conventional' was the 'small' weapon over Hiroshima?" retorted Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance).
The low point for Goldwater was the Johnson campaign's famous "Daisy" ad, in which images of a little girl picking petals gave way to a mushroom cloud, as Johnson warned of the deadly stakes of nuclear war and a sober announcer encouraged Americans to vote for the president. In his convention speech, Johnson made sure to trumpet his foreign-policy credentials:
I report tonight as President of the United States and as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces on the strength of your country, and I tell you that it is greater than any adversary. I assure you that it is greater than the combined might of all the nations, in all the wars, in all the history of this planet. And I report our superiority is growing....
There is no place in today's world for weakness. But there is also no place in today's world for recklessness. We cannot act rashly with the nuclear weapons that could destroy us all.
Just four years later, the Democratic advantage on national security had subsided as the Vietnam War soured. But the Democrats sure were brimming with confidence (and wisecracks) again on the final night of this year's convention. Just look at some of the rhetoric from Thursday's speeches. Here's Obama:
So now we have a choice. My opponent and his running mate are new to foreign policy.
But from all that we've seen and heard, they want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly.
After all, you don't call Russia our number one enemy -- not al-Qaeda, Russia -- unless you're still stuck in a Cold War mind warp.
You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can't visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.
Bravery resides in the heart of Barack Obama, and time and time again I witnessed him summon it. This man has courage in his soul, compassion in his heart, and a spine of steel.
Kerry, meanwhile, chastised Romney for not mentioning the U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan in his convention speech, and called the GOP candidate and his running mate, Paul Ryan, "the most inexperienced foreign-policy twosome to run for president and vice president in decades." And that wasn't all:
Mr. Romney -- here's a little advice: Before you debate Barack Obama on foreign policy, you better finish the debate with yourself!
"President Mitt Romney" -- three hypothetical words that mystified and alienated our allies this summer. For Mitt Romney, an overseas trip is what you call it when you trip all over yourself overseas. It wasn't a goodwill mission -- it was a blooper reel.
Expect to hear much more of this rhetoric as we enter the final months of the campaign. But if 1964 has taught us anything, it's that a national-security advantage, once secured, can prove fleeting.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
So far, Pakistan hasn't been mentioned once at the Republican or Democratic conventions. But what was lost in all the talk last week about Mitt Romney not mentioning Afghanistan in Tampa was the fact that, only days earlier, a campaign advisor had made an interesting case for why the Republican presidential candidate would improve U.S.-Pakistani relations.
After expressing concern about extremism in Pakistan and the security of the country's nuclear weapons, Mitchell Reiss, a former head of policy planning at the State Department, told foreign journalists that a Romney administration would treat Pakistan with a "little bit more respect," according to a Press Trust of India report. In return, Reiss explained, the United States would expect "more cooperation" from Islamabad on Afghanistan.
That posture is a departure from the aggressive rhetoric we heard from some Republican candidates in the primary, when Pakistan was mentioned more than 80 times during a pair of debates in South Carolina and Washington, D.C. Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, you may recall, called for the United States to zero out foreign aid to Pakistan and predicate future assistance on Pakistani cooperation. "[Y]ou tell the Pakistanis, 'help us or get out of the way, but don't complain if we kill people you're not willing to go after on your territory where you have been protecting them,'" Gingrich asserted.
At the time, Romney staked out a middle ground on Pakistan. Expressing support for drone strikes (he said the Pakistanis were "comfortable" with the practice), Romney noted that Pakistan was "close to being a failed state" and had several competing power centers. "We have to work with our friends in that country to get them to do some of the things we can't do ourselves," he explained.
This year's Republican platform reflects that sentiment. Sure, the document urges the Pakistani government to "sever any connection between its security and intelligence forces and the insurgents." And it appears to denounce the sentencing of a Pakistani doctor for helping the United States track down Osama bin Laden, declaring that "no Pakistani citizen should be punished for helping the United States against the terrorists." But, crucially, the manifesto adds:
The working relationship between our two countries is a necessary, though sometimes difficult, benefit to both, and we look toward the renewal of historic ties that have frayed under the weight of international conflict.
Meanwhile, the Democrats, who called for a "new partnership" with Islamabad in their 2008 platform, focus on Obama's commitment to hunting down terrorists in Pakistan in this year's edition. The document does state that Islamabad can "be a partner" in establishing peace in South Asia and that the United States will "respect Pakistan's sovereignty and democratic institutions." But there's no mention of restoring U.S.-Pakistani relations, which have deteriorated over the past four years because of the bin Laden raid, the Obama's administration's embrace of airstrikes against militants, and, most recently, the U.S. debate about whether to designate the Pakistan-based Haqqani network a terrorist organization.
Why is the GOP advocating a reset, if you will, of U.S.-Pakistani relations? For one thing, the stance plays into Romney's larger argument that the Obama administration has alienated America's allies and emboldened its enemies. The Romney campaign can also fend off charges that the governor hasn't distinguished his Afghan policy from Obama's by pointing to Pakistan. As Romney's campaign website explains:
We will only persuade Afghanistan and Pakistan to be resolute if they are convinced that the United States will itself be resolute. Only an America that appears fully committed to success will eliminate the incentives for them to hedge their bets by aligning with opposing forces.
As for whether the GOP position is a popular one, that's more difficult to discern. Americans overwhelmingly support drone strikes against terrorists, but they're not sure how to feel about Pakistan. Few view the country as a grave threat to the United States, but a Rasmussen poll last year found that 62 percent of likely voters see Pakistan as something in between an ally and an enemy. Sixty-five percent, meanwhile, support cutting off all military and financial aid to Islamabad.
Given those numbers, perhaps treating Pakistan with just a "little bit more respect" is about all the Republicans can get away with.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
On Wednesday evening, former President Bill Clinton will issue a full-throated endorsement of Barack Obama at the Democratic convention in Charlotte. But as the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza recently pointed out, the frayed relationship between the two Democratic leaders -- tested by the bitter 2007-2008 primary contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton -- has never fully mended.
Before Hillary Clinton dropped out of the Democratic primary, the former president did have the occasional good thing to say about Obama when it came to foreign policy. In July 2007, for example, he refused to be drawn into a dispute between Obama and his wife over whether the United States should meet with the leaders of hostile nations without preconditions. All the Democratic candidates, he noted, had "a vigorous agreement on the big question, which is, 'Should we have more diplomacy?' The answer is yes."
But Obama and Clinton clashed over two of the defining issues of the campaign: the Iraq war and Obama's inexperience.
The spat over the war in Iraq began in November 2007, when Clinton told a crowd in Iowa that he had "opposed Iraq from the beginning," even though he was on record supporting the war in 2003. When asked about the comments, Obama quipped, "If he did [oppose it], I don't think most of us heard about it."
Then, during a talk at Dartmouth College in January 2008, Clinton mocked the Obama campaign for celebrating the candidate's opposition to the Iraq war back in 2002 (that same year, Hillary Clinton voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq).
"It is wrong that Senator Obama got to go through 15 debates trumpeting his superior judgment ... and never got asked one time, not once, well, how could you say that when you said in 2004 you didn't know how you would have voted on the resolution, you said in 2004 there was no difference between you and George Bush on the war ... and there's no difference in your voting record and Hillary's ever since?" Clinton asked. "Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."
Obama had indeed expressed support for the ongoing war effort during the 2004 presidential election, but he had also reiterated his opposition to the original invasion. Obama criticized Clinton for repeating "this notion that somehow I didn't know where I stood in 2004 about the war. He keeps on giving half the quote. I was always against the war."
Clinton also attacked Obama's lack of experience in interviews with Al Hunt and Charlie Rose in the final months of 2007, arguing that Obama was ill-equipped to handle foreign-policy issues like terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Rose noted that experienced officials had orchestrated the war in Iraq, Clinton responded:
I remember the first time Senator Obama said that, said, you know, [former Vice President Dick] Cheney and [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld had a lot of experience. And that has great superficial appeal. But let me make the argument in another context. That's like saying that because 100 percent of the malpractices case, medical malpractice, are committed by doctors, the next time I need surgery, I'll get a chef or a plumber to do it.
Here's the full video (the discussion of Obama begins at 24:00, and the quote above comes at 35:00):
With the debate over the Iraq war, the hand-wringing over Obama's lack of experience, and the rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama all things of the past, we'll hear Bill Clinton deliver a very different assessment of Barack Obama this evening. The question now turns to just how effectively he'll make the case for granting the president four more years in office.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Thomas Friedman has an interesting column in today's New York Times that raises the question of whether Mitt Romney is actually as hawkish on foreign policy as he makes himself out to be. Friedman writes:
I know Romney doesn't believe a word he's saying on foreign policy and that it's all aimed at ginning up votes: there's some China-bashing to help in the Midwest, some Arab-bashing to win over the Jews, some Russia-bashing (our "No. 1 geopolitical foe") to bring in the Polish vote, plus a dash of testosterone to keep the neocons off his back.
Some neocons are, indeed, worried that Mitt is only pretending to be a hawk to keep the party onside. Jennifer Rubin, the court scribe of the Romney campaign, channels some of that anxiety in a recent blog post. "[A]mong Republicans," she writes, riffing off of some of the candidate's recent speeches, "it is a segment of foreign policy hawks who are most aggrieved and feel overlooked by the campaign."
From the perspective of some hawks, Mitt Romney needs to state controversial, bold foreign policy positions as sort of a test of his seriousness. If he doesn't say now he'll finish the job in Afghanistan and he'll, if need be, set up a no-fly zone in Syria, he'll shrink from tough positions when in office. They don't think it is enough to have surrogates like former senator Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican, and senior adviser Richard Williamson give assurances, speak about Romney's devotion to American exceptionalism and remind conservatives of Romney's early support for the Syrian rebels.
I've heard similar whispers to this effect, and Bill Kristol likely spoke for many on the right when he dinged Romney for failing to even mention the war in Afghanistan during his convention speech, a bizarre unforced error when a perfunctory shoutout to the troops would have been fine.
Doubtless, the various foreign-policy wings of the GOP would battle it out for influence in a Romney administration, and the candidate has done a reasonably good job of staying vague enough that he won't limit his options once in office. But, like Jacob Heilbrunn, I think the realists would win most battles, and here's why.
Josh Barro, a Bloomberg writer and former Manhattan Institute fellow, has been promoting his theory that Romney has a "Secret Economic Plan." In a nutshell, the idea is that Romney can't possibly believe his own rhetoric about immediately imposing severe budget cuts. "To increase his chances of getting elected, he will have to implement policies that are likely to grow the economy," says Barro, and that in part means running up Keynesian deficits. Romney has already indicated that he wants to grow the defense budget, and has railed against defense cuts that he says would kill jobs (Keynesian!). He's also favorably cited a recent Congressional Budget Office report warning that the so-called fiscal cliff would provoke a sharp recession (Keynesian!). It seems pretty clear he doesn't believe in European-style austerity, even though he talks a lot about Obama's deficits and so forth. And the likely Republican-controlled Congress, newly de-radicalized by Obama's departure, would probably go along with heavy deficit spending, just as it did under George W. Bush.
What about foreign policy? Here's where the overseas component of the Secret Economic Plan comes in. Romney isn't going to be interested in getting involved in any foreign entanglements that threaten the Plan. His China comments are nonsense that he obviously has no intention of implementing. He's already said he's fine with Obama's timeline for winding down the war in Afghanistan -- and that means cooperating with No. 1 Geopolitical Foe Russia on the logistically complicated exit. He walked back an aide's comments suggesting he'd green-light an Israeli attack on Iran. He hasn't said much if anything about Pakistan, or about ramping up what remains of the war on terror generally. Even his hawkish advisor John Bolton, in a recent Washington Times op-ed, openly worried that Romney might not pull the trigger himself and bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. His foreign-policy team has bent over backwards to stress that the former governor is not planning to intervene directly in Syria. And his appointment of Robert Zoellick as the head of his national security transition team suggests at a minimum that top realists will play a prominent role in his administration.
It's not a slam-dunk case, I admit. As the New York Times' Peter Baker noted in a smart take on Romney's foreign policy last week, "The challenge is figuring out when the speeches are just words intended to highlight or even invent differences for political purposes and when they genuinely signal a change in America's relationship with the world." But if Romney is serious about earning himself a second term, logic suggests he'll tone it down if and when he gets behind the Resolute Desk.
Correction: Josh Barro informs me he's a *former* Manhattan Institute fellow. Apologies for the mistake.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Republican convention organizers may not have been able to accomplish much business on Monday, but they did make one dramatic statement: activating two prominently displayed clocks that will measure the national debt and how much that debt has accumulated during the four-day event. The clocks, party chairman Reince Priebus explained, will draw attention to the "unprecedented fiscal recklessness of the Obama administration."
The original National Debt Clock, which real estate developer Seymour Durst installed in Manhattan in 1989 to highlight the $2.7 trillion national debt that had piled up under Ronald Reagan, has spawned numerous imitations, including a makeshift clock the Romney campaign constructed last year out of green styrofoam, two flat-screen televisions, and two computers. (The National Debt Clock itself has grown more complex over time; whereas Durst used to collect federal data, calculate the debt level himself, and send the figure to the board by modem, the clock now relies on a computer algorithm that needs to be "trued up" with official statistics once a week.)
The United States, it turns out, isn't the only country to engage in these brooding public displays of indebtedness. In Britain, for instance, the TaxPayers' Alliance trotted out a truck-mounted UK Debt Clock at a rally in London last year to support public-spending cuts. The DebtBombshell website, set up by a "single concerned citizen of no political affiliation," displays the United Kingdom's mounting debt atop a frightening black bomb, partially cloaked in the British flag. In Germany, the taxpayer watchdog group Bund der Steuerzähler strategically installed a whirring debt clock near government buildings in Berlin (there's also an app for that).
The Taiwanese Ministry of Finance, meanwhile, unveiled a National Debt Clock in 2010 to deter wasteful government spending and followed up this year with a Local Government Debt Clock. While the opposition Democratic Progressive Party initially derided the idea, arguing that the clock underestimated the national debt, it has since pointed to the tally as evidence of the country's deteriorating finances. The Swedish National Debt Office has a similar debt counter on its website.
But the mother of all debt meters is the Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Debt Clock, which was released in 2009, with a color-coded map to visualize the rising tide of global public debt. Fittingly, the United States -- the country that introduced the national debt clock to the world -- appears in dark red.
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