It's a bit of an exaggeration to say that the FBI has "released" its 207-page file on Muammar al-Qaddafi. The documents are so heavily redacted that most of what you get is a series of headings, dates, and corrections of the spelling of the late Libyan leader's name. But there are a few nuggets that are sure to intrigue and frustrate Libya watchers.
The files, most of which date from the 1980s, contain several references to Qaddafi possibly putting out a contract for the assassination of Ronald Reagan -- something that has long been a matter of speculation. The most complete section refers to a possible connection between these assassination plots and the Chicago street gang the El Rukns, an Islamist offshoot of the infamous Blackstone Rangers whose leaders were convicted of planning terrorist attacks on behalf of Libya in a landmark case.
A file from February 1989 refers to a plot the investigators seem to have concluded was bogus. (Don't let all the "redacted" notes below fool you: Believe it or not, this is the least-redacted section of the documents.)
During 1986 and 1987, the Chicago division successfully indicted and convicted five (5) members of a well established Chicago street gang known as the El Rukns. These five (5) members of the El Rukn organization were convicted of conspiring to commit terrorist acts in the United States on behalf of the government of Libya. Their conviction marked the first time in the history of the United States that American citizens had been found guilty of planning to commit terrorist acts in the United States for foreign government in return for money.
On February 29, 1989, [redacted] telephonically contacted the Chicago division. [Redacted] advised that one [redacted], an [redacted] had stated that Qadhafi of Libya had put a contract out on the life of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Initially [redacted] told [redacted] that Qadhafi had [redacted] for information of [redacted].
[Redacted] also told [redacted] that [redacted] then told [redacted] who is [redacted] was also [redacted] in conspiring to commit terrorist acts in the United States. Subsequently, [redacted] supposedly [redacted] of this threat.
Immediately upon receiving this information, the Chicago case agent in the Rokbom matter telephonically informed the U.S. secret service, at Chicago, Illinois, and advised them of the facts outlined supra.
On February 23, 1989, the Rukbom case agent and a U.S. secret service agent from Chiago [redacted] and interviewed [redacted]. It was learned during the course of the interview that [redacted].
[Redacted] was then extensively interviewed regarding his knowledge of any threat to the life of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan as a result of Qadhafi of Libya. [Redacted] After an extensive interview, it is the opinion of the Chicago case agent in the Rukbom matter that [redacted] is exaggerating [redacted] with Qadhafi of Libya. It should also be noted that the Chicago agent of the Rukbom matter and the U.S. Secret Service agent who conducted the interview noted numerous inconsistencies in [redacted] statements while the interview took place.
There's also a totally redacted 1987 telex from the bureau's San Diego office titled, "Libyan dissident plans to overthrow Libyan leader Moummar Khaddafy," as well as quite a few follow-ups from offices throughout the country. It's tempting to wonder if these had anything to do with the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the exile group known for several assassination attempts on Qaddafi -- efforts that, according to some reports, may have been supported by the CIA. The group's leaders, several of whom are now active in Libyan politics, were living in the United States at the time.
An August 1986 cable from Sacramento -- entirely redacted -- concerns an interview with a "contract worker concerning Moammar Qadhafi compound." That was, as it happens, a few months after the U.S. bombed Qaddafi's compound.
In one intriguing 1986 document, political activist and perennial longshot presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche makes a mysterious cameo:
Changed: [Redacted] alleged plot to assassinate president Ronald Reagan during the New York statue of Liberty celebration July 3-6, 1986.
This communication is classified
"secret"in its entirety.
Title marked changed to more clearly state the the substance of this case. Title formerly carried as "Libyan terrorist activities: IT-Libya: [unreadable] Muammar Qadhafi, Lyndon Larouche: International terrorism, information concerning.[...]
The purpose of this teletype is to report the resolution of captioned matter as unfounded.
I don't know of any connection between LaRouche and Libya. This was shortly before the politician's headquarters was raided by the FBI as part of a fraud investigation, but I can't imagine that's related.
There are several reports on Qaddafi's travels as well. A May 1985 cable discusses a visit by the leader to Palma de Mallorca and identifies his traveling companions, including a number of Libyans, an Egyptian, a Tunisian, and a Yugoslavian. The names are all redacted.
That same year, the bureau noted a trip to Moscow to sign a "treaty of friendship and cooperation" with the U.S.S.R.
The FBI's analysis conclues that for Moscow, the treaty is "probably a payoff for Qadhafi's support of Soviet foreign policy in the region.... Qadhafi's invitation from the Moscow and the prospect of the treaty signing indicate the Kremlin sees some value in Qadhafi's openly hostile anti-U.S. activities." It's not entirely clear why the FBI was taking note of this foreign-policy development.
There are also discussions of security arrangements for Qaddafi's visit to the U.N. General Assembly in 1985. A telex requests the names of the "Libyan females accompanying Qadhafi family," a reference to his famous bodyguards.
Overall, as the cliche goes, the files raise more questions than they answer. One thing we do know for sure is that there was absolutely no bureau consensus on the spelling of Qaddafi.
ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
First the United Nations, now Google. On Thursday, the Palestine News Network noticed that the Internet giant had changed the tagline for the Palestinian edition of its search engine, Google.ps, from the "Palestinian Territories" to "Palestine." The decision comes after a November vote by the U.N. General Assembly to recognize Palestine as a non-member state over the objections of Israel and the United States.
Here's how Google.ps looked earlier this year, according to the Wayback Machine Internet archive. The gray words in Arabic below the word "Google" say, "Palestinian Territories."
And here's how the same page looks today, with the word "Palestine" instead:
The change is obviously a minor one, but within the context of the fraught politics of the Middle East, Google's decision could be interpreted as a victory for advocates of Palestinian statehood who supported Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's recent decision to circumvent the long-stalled, U.S.-supported peace process with Israel.
This isn't the first time Google has found itself at the center of a geopolitical dispute. In 2010, for instance, a Nicaraguan commander cited a border demarcation on Google Maps to justify a raid on a disputed area along his country's border with Costa Rica. And in China, Google has been locked in a long-running dispute with the government over censorship and what materials to make available on its search engine.
As for the company's latest foray into international relations, something tells me it won't be enough to jumpstart the moribund peace process.
As U.S. intelligence agencies take heat for their response to Russian warnings about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, we're learning that the National Counterterrorism Center added the now-deceased Boston bombing suspect to its massive terrorism watch list with incorrect dates of birth and a variant spelling of his name, which prevented Tsarnaev's 2012 trip to Dagestan and Chechnya from triggering a travel alert, according to the New York Times.
The blunder isn't all that surprising. After all, many foreign names have different spellings in English. There are at least 112 different ways of spelling the late Libyan leader's name in English, for example (We at FP go by Muammar al-Qaddafi).
China, however, has the opposite problem: millions of people across the country share the exact same name. Renren, a Chinese social media site, has a function called "Same First Name Same Last Name Big Gathering" where you can see how many other people on the site share your name. Wang Wei, the name of an eighth-century Chinese poet, has 30,639 hits. But the poet uses a more obscure spelling. If you use a different character for Wei, which means "great," Renren returns 164,430 hits. Even imprisoned Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo shares his relatively uncommon name with 1,617 other people on the site.
The most common name in China, according to the 2007 census, is Zhang Wei, which 290,607 people claimed (there doesn't appear to be a list of the most common names for the 2012 census). At least 49 other names are shared by more than 150,000 people, and reading through the list feels a bit like scrolling through my old Chinese cell phone. Wang Yong, which at number 22 is a name shared by 198,720 people, was my cleaning lady, whom we called Auntie. Liu Wei, number nine, was a landlord of mine, while Wang Gang, number 47, was an author and real estate developer I interviewed for a story.
When it comes to last names, a more recent census by the Public Security Bureau found that 21.4 percent of China's population, or 270 million people, have the name Li, Wang, or Zhang, "making them the world's three most common last names," according to an April article in the Beijing Morning Post. And the phenomenon is regional: In the northeast, where Auntie was from, roughly 10 percent of the population has the surname Wang, while in the south, Chen, the fifth-most common name nationwide, is shared by about 10.6 percent of the population. In the United States, by contrast, roughly 90 percent of the population uses 151,671 surnames, according to the 2000 census (the last year in which data is available), there are over six million surnames total in the United States.
In China, 87 percent of the population shares 100 names, according to the Beijing Morning Post. This is why common people in China are still known by the term "hundred common name," a phrase I heard most often when someone was either declining to answer a question about politics -- "I'm just a hundred common name, I don't understand" -- or complaining about politics -- "they don't pay any attention to us hundred common names."
A 2007 article from Xinhua, China's state news agency, argues that having the same name as another person, like "when a man gets put into a woman's dorm, a company sends money (to the wrong person), or when one class has 'three myselfs,' makes life more interesting." However, "when nearly 300,000 people have the same name, and an innocent person gets mistaken for an escaped criminal, having the same name is no longer an amusing episode." In an illustration of this problem, a December 2012 notice on the website for the Chinese embassy in the Philippines reminded travelers who have common names "to prepare their ID, a copy of their ID," as well as a document showing that they have "no criminal record" to ensure that they could enter the country in the event that they were mistaken for someone with a criminal record.
So, why do so many Chinese people share the same name? This, unfortunately, might be one of those blog posts where the question posed doesn't get answered. Chinese online question-and-answer sites like Baidu Knowledge offer intriguing but not entirely convincing answers on the limited number of Chinese characters. One commenter put it succintly: "1. There are many people. 2. There are not many names."
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
There haven't been many feel-good stories coming out of the tribal regions of Pakistan, which for several years now have served as the front line in the American-led fight against the Taliban and the remnants of al Qaeda. The Pakistani army has launched several offensives to dislodge militant groups, the CIA has periodically carried out drone strikes in the area, and since 2008 at least 163,000 families -- the actual number is likely much higher -- have fled the violence. But all of this violence and unrest has resulted in an unlikely beneficiary: the local falcon population.
Pakistan's falcons are thriving, according to an Inter Press Service report. The violence, it seems, has made it too dangerous for hunters and poachers to operate in the area, freeing falcons of their main threat. In 2005, when the birds were labeled an endangered species, there were only 2,000 falcons in the tribal region; by 2008 the population had swelled to 8,000.
Falcons are prized birds in the Arab world, where they are used for hunting, and a prime Pakistani falcon can fetch as much as $100,000. With money like that at stake, it is a testament to the intensity of the violence that hunters and poachers have been largely flushed from the area.
The bitter irony of a brutal civil war creating significant environmental benefits is not something that has environmentalists looking to Pakistan as a model for conservation strategies. Still, the falcons are probably happy.
TARIQ MAHMOOD/AFP/Getty Images
Today, the United States sent a warning to North Korea by deploying two nuclear-capable B-2 bombers to drop munitions near North Korea in a joint military drill with South Korea. The Associated Press called the muscle-flexing "unprecedented." Time's ace defense writer Mark Thompson deemed the military's announcement "unusual."
One of the reasons the U.S. warning shot is atypical is because the United States rarely announces the location of its top-secret B-2 bombers. But another reason this is uncharted territory is because of the exorbitant expense of taking B-2 bombers out of their home base in Missouri to frighten a bellicose regime on the other side of the world. As the Center for Public Integrity reported last year:
The B-2s are actually not used much now, partly because few targets justify risking aircraft that cost $3 billion apiece in today's dollars, and partly because their flights by some estimates cost $135,000 per hour - almost double that of any other military airplane.
$135,000 per hour of flight? That's a steep price tag, especially considering the flight was round-trip and involved two stealth bombers. Per the military's statement:
This mission by two B-2 Spirit bombers assigned to 509th Bomb Wing ... involved flying more than 6,500 miles to the Korean Peninsula, dropping inert munitions on the Jik Do Range, and returning to the continental U.S. in a single, continuous mission.
The military didn't say how many hours the B-2s were in the air. But even if the B-2s were traveling at top speed the entire way (628 mph), which they most certainly were not, it would mean 10.3 hours each way -- a tally that doesn't even include the amount of time it took to drop the munitions on the South Korean island. Adding it all up, that's 20.6 hours of flight time for two B-2 bombers -- for an estimated cost of $5.5 million.
That may be a rounding error given the scope of the Pentagon's budget, but the costs don't stop there. According to a Los Angeles Times report on the B-2 bombers in 2010, the after-flight maintenance costs of such an operation will really burn a hole in your pocket. "For each hour it's in the air, a bomber spends 50 to 60 hours on the ground undergoing maintenance," reported the paper. "The Air Force spent more than $800 million last year upgrading, maintaining and overhauling the stealth bomber fleet."
Let's just hope the Dear Leader was sufficiently spooked. This could get expensive.
If you're having a hard time keeping track of the multitude of threats issued by North Korea in the last few weeks, you're not alone: Kim Jong Un's young regime is on a seemingly endless tear of warnings and provocations. From threats of a nuclear holocaust to artillery strikes near disputed borders, here are the latest shots across the bow from the Hermit Kingdom, beginning with those that followed international sanctions over Pyongyang's third nuclear test in February:
To be continued...
The United States and Pakistan have not had the greatest year -- or decade -- from a diplomatic perspective. Just today, for instance, Pakistan and Iran launched a natural gas pipeline that Washington has vigorously opposed. Reflecting on the state of U.S.-Pakistani relations at the end of 2012, one senior State Department official told reporters:
Obviously, if you sort of step back a little bit, for us, 2011 was as hard a year in U.S.-Pakistan relations as you can imagine.... And so we tried in 2012 to sort of get back into some sensible business with them. Our philosophy has been that it ought to be possible between Pakistan and the United States to systematically identify our shared interests and act on them jointly.
Apparently, 12-year-olds have no trouble doing just that. Through the Marshall Direct Fund's Global Kid Connect program, Aspen Country Day School in Colorado has been taking part in a pen pal exchange with Lahore Grammar School in Pakistan. In their letters, which the organization has posted online, the elementary and middle schoolers go beyond identifying "shared interests" (Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift), broaching some touchier subjects as well.
Audra, a seventh-grader, writes:
Not many of the Pakistani students' letters have been posted online. But judging from the responses by Aspen students, terrorism is a recurring theme in the exchanges, Here's Tristan, 13:
To answer your question. We don't think your country is all terroriscs [sic] but we think that your country has terrorists in it. Are there terrorists in your country?
Meanwhile, Sarah, a seventh-grader, unequivocally states her lack of an agenda when it comes to Pakistan:
Here's my personal favorite, from Andrew, 13, and Mat, 9:
You have to give these kids credit. It might be time for the State Department to recruit some junior ambassadors.
The mythology surrounding Dr. Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani physician who may have helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden, reached new heights Wednesday with a bipartisan resolution declaring Afridi an "American hero."
"All Americans owe Dr. Afridi a debt of gratitude for what he did to help us find Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), the sponsor of the resolution. "He risked his life to provide the intel our forces needed to locate and eliminate Osama bin Laden and he now languishes in a Pakistani prison."
matter-of-fact way in which the resolution describes Afridi's actions suggests
his efforts to assist the CIA are well-known. In reality, however, the nature in which
Afridi aided the United States remains shrouded in mystery.
What is known is that Afridi agreed to run a phony vaccination campaign for the CIA with the hope of confirming the location of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. The plan was to collect DNA samples of bin Laden's family members surreptitiously, but, according to multiple reports, the plan failed. "Dr. Afridi never gained DNA samples from the compound," reported The New York Times. U.S. officials such as former CIA director Leon Panetta have since claimed Afridi assisted in other ways, but have never offered specifics. "This was an individual who in fact helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regards to this operation," Panetta told 60 Minutes last year.
When FP asked Rohrabacher if he could list specific ways Afridi helped the CIA, he leaned back on the Panetta quote. "He provided information American officials, including former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, have confirmed was very important in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice," he told FP.
of details has not deterred Afridi's advocates.
Last September, for instance, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) threatened to hold up the Senate until his colleagues froze aid to Pakistan for sentencing Afridi to 33 years in prison. The United States "should not give foreign aid to a country whose government is torturing the man who helped us kill Osama bin Laden," he said.
Two days before the 2012 presidential election, Afridi's role in the bin Laden raid was immortalized in Harvey Weinstein's film SEAL Team Six. But the film erroneously depicted Afridi as cognizant of his role in helping the CIA find bin Laden from beginning to end. In fact, both U.S. officials and the real-life Afridi acknowledge he was not informed that bin Laden was the target. (The CIA did not trust him with that information.)
"I stand by my characterization of Dr. Afridi as a hero who willingly worked secretly for the CIA at great risk to his life and his family's safety," Rohrabacher insisted. "Even if he didn't know who the target was."
But if Afridi risked and achieved so much, where is his bounty for bin Laden's capture? In one of the most detailed reports following the May 2011 bin Laden raid, ABC News journalist Matthew Cole noted that no one would receive the government's $25 million reward for information leading to the capture of bin Laden because it was the result of "electronic intelligence, not human informants." A U.S. official told Cole, "We do not expect a reward to be paid." White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated that point during a press briefing back in May 2011.
sense of how difficult it has been to pin down Afridi's tradecraft, consider this: GQ magazine spent 6,700 words on the question last month but wound up with little more than
speculation and rumor. "No one has been able to determine what exactly he
accomplished," wrote Matthieu Aikins.
The article was not without intrigue, however. It turns out, Dr. Afridi may not be the type of "American hero" members of Congress think he is.
In interviews with Pakistanis who knew Afridi, Aikins describes a womanizing doctor who solicited prostitutes and carried out medical malpractice.
"He liked the ‘taxi girls,' " said Abdul Karim Mehsud, a lawyer in Peshawar, using a local term for prostitutes. "I saw many going into his room, down the hall from mine." He smirked in recollection. "Fresh Afghan-Persian girls, from the refugee camps."
There were persistent accusations that the self-trained Afridi performed unnecessary operations in order to make money and that his patients sometimes suffered grievously as a result.... [I]n Peshawar, I spoke to Ahmed Saeed, a student living in Bara, who told me that in 2007 he took his father to see Afridi after his father complained of chest and abdominal pains. Saeed left to buy some medicine next door, and when he came back he found that his father and Afridi had disappeared. "They went to his clinic," one of the nurses told him. When Saeed finally arrived at Afridi's private practice, he found his father unconscious. "I operated on his kidney," the doctor told him. Afridi charged them about $200. After the surgery, his father's condition worsened, and Saeed took him to a government hospital in Peshawar. The doctors there diagnosed his problem as a heart condition and, according to Saeed, said his kidneys had been damaged in a sloppy and unnecessary operation. Less than a month after being operated on by Afridi, Saeed's father died at home. His family blamed the doctor. "He was a cheater, and he betrayed his profession," Saeed said.
A Reuters report published last May painted a similarly negative picture of Afridi. In it, reporter Michael Georgy spoke with a man who had fired Afridi when he was working at a hospital in Pakistan's Khyber tribal region. Here the allegations ranged from sexual harassment to theft of medical supplies.
[Tariq] Hayat said he met him twice to question him over allegations that he had sexually assaulted a nurse at his hospital and had stolen its electrocardiograph machines for his private practice.
"I made him stand ... I told him you are a characterless person, you have no principles," said Hayat, adding he had Afridi fired and expelled him from Khyber. "I said 'you are a thief, doctor'."
A senior health official who said he saw a record of the case said a nurse had complained about sexual harassment to the regional health director. That account was confirmed by a senior police official who investigated Afridi.
U.S. officials have dismissed these claims as a smear campaign by Pakistani officials. When FP asked Rohrabacher whether the doctor's alleged personal indiscretions were befitting an "American hero," he rejected the notion that any of the allegations were true.
"The charges against his personal and professional conduct are from Pakistani officials, members of the same regime who sentenced him to 33 years in prison on trumped up charges strictly because he helped the United States." he said. "They have every reason to lie about Dr. Afridi and smear his reputation to head off pressure to have him released."
Despite the fact that Aikens's GQ report makes no mention of undue influence by Pakistani officials, Rohrabacher held firm.
"Dr. Afridi took a risk for us and we cannot abandon him," he told FP. "If we leave him out in the cold, what message does that send to other people who are considering working with our government to help protect our homeland and American interests overseas from acts of terror?"
In that, Rohrabacher hits an important note. Clearly, Afridi was a CIA asset regardless of how helpful he was. If the United States were to abandon him, it would send a damaging message to other CIA assets around the world. The simple fact that Afridi agreed to help the CIA may be enough to compel U.S. officials to now do all they can to protect him.
Bank robber "Slick Willie" Sutton famously - maybe apocryphally -- said that he robbed banks because "that's where the money is."
Sutton's principle is worth keeping in mind when considering the latest massive heist to hit the diamond trading center in Antwerp, Belgium. On Monday, some $50 million (Update: The Wall Street Journal is reporting it may have been up to $350 million) in diamonds en route from Antwerp to Switzerland were stolen from the cargo hold of a plane at Brussels' international airport. The robbery may have been "one of the biggest" ever, as a source at the Antwerp World Diamond Center said, but it's actually at least the fourth heist on this scale to hit the Antwerp market in the last decade.
The most audacious heist was probably the 2003 theft from the safes at the Antwerp trading center itself. 123 out of the center's 160 safes, protected behind 10 layers of security, were hit by an Italian gang known as the "School of Turin." In a highly entertaining 2009 Wired article on the theft, one of the robbers speculates that the heist may have been part of a larger insurance fraud scheme.
The scale of the 2003 job was matched by the 2005 theft of approximately $99 million in Antwerp-bound diamonds and jewelry from an armored car at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. There was also a $28 million diamond heist from an Antwerp bank in 2007 by a man who had spent more than a year posing as a wealthy diamond merchant under the amazing name Carlos Hector Flomenbaum and had gained the bank staff's trust to the point that he was able to walk into the vault with a key and help himself to the rocks.
The problem probably isn't so much that Antwerp's security is bad. But even with "2,000 surveillance cameras, police monitoring and countless identity controls," Antwerp and the shipments that come in and out of it will continue to be targets for thieves because that's where the diamonds are: about 84 percent of the 118.5 million carats of uncut stones mined in 2011 passed through the city.
The biggest threat to Antwerp probably isn't thieves but globalization. In recent years, the city's diamond cutting monopoly has been facing competition from emerging competitors like Mumbai, Shanghai, Dubai, and Tel Aviv. Last year, Antwerp took a major blow when De Beers - the world's largest diamond producer - moved its sorting and trading facility from London to Botswana. (Antwerp's proximity to London had been one of its main competitive advantages as a trading center.)
These rising alternative diamond centers have yet seen robberies on the scale of the recent Antwerp jobs. This is a bit surprising given the lax security Jason Miklian described at the diamond polishing center in Surat, India in a recent FP article. The fact that the big-game robbers seem to still focus on Antwerp suggests either a vote of confidence for the city's place in the industry or lack of imagination by the criminals. (Or it could lend credence to the conspiracy theory that many of these thefts are inside jobs, as the jailed School of Turin robber suggested to Wired. Smuggling and embezzlement aren't exactly unheard of in Antwerp, so insurance fraud doesn't seem beyond the pale. )
As Slate's Matthew Yglesias suggests, the seeming ease of the thefts doesn't really help Antwerp make the case for its relevance in an increasingly crowded marketplace. When cutting, polishing, and trading can be done for a fraction of the price in India, why ship diamonds to Belgium when security's not guaranteed?
BRUNO FAHY/AFP/Getty Images
The big story out of the British Isles this week is that consumers in Ireland and the U.K. have been unwittingly eating horse meat in several products -- including burgers and packaged lasagna -- labeled as beef. As the New York Times notes, "Few things divide British eating habits from those of continental Europe as much as a distaste for consuming horse meat."
Horse meat is an interesting cultural case. While considered disgusting in Britain and the United States ("So hungry I could eat a horse" is an expression here for a reason), over 200,000 horses are slaughtered for their meat every year in the European Union, according to the Humane Society International. It's also a staple in some Central Asian countries -- Kazakh Olympians brought along their own supply of horse sausages to the London Olympics. It seems to be something of an Anglo taboo, though an often hypocritical one. Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders don't generally eat horses, but they do slaughter them for export.
Economist Alvin Roth, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize, uses horse meat as a central example in his famous paper, "Repugnance as a Constraint on Markets." The idea of the paper is that cultural biases against certain transactions serve as market constraints that economists would do well to take seriously rather than dismissing as irrational. He discusses well-known examples such as organ-exchange markets and beliefs about the charging of interest in the Islamic world, as well as more outré practices such as dwarf-tossing.
Here's what he has to say about horse meat:
Why can't you eat horse or dog meat in a restaurant in California, a state with a population that hails from all over the world, including some places where such meals are appreciated? The answer is that many Californians not only don't wish to eat horses or dogs themselves, but find it repugnant that anyone else should do so, and they enacted this repugnance into California law by referendum in 1998. Section 598 of the California Penal Code states in part: "[H]orsemeat may not be offered for sale for human consumption. No restaurant, cafe, or other public eating place may offer horsemeat for human consumption." The measure passed by a margin of 60 to 40 percent with over 4.6 million people voting for it (see http://vote98.ss.ca.gov/Returns/prop/00.htm).
Notice that this law does not seek to protect the safety of consumers by governing the slaughter, sale, preparation, and labeling of animals used for food. It is different from laws prohibiting the inhumane treatment of animals, like rules on how farm animals can be raised or slaughtered, or laws prohibiting cockfights, or the recently established (and still contested) ban on selling foie gras in Chicago restaurants (Ruethling, 2006). It is not illegal in California to kill horses; the California law only outlaws such killing "if that person knows or should have known that any part of that horse will be used for human consumption." The prohibited use is "human consumption," so it apparently remains legal in California to buy and sell pet food that contains horse meat (although the use of horse meat in pet food has declined in the face of the demand in Europe for U.S. horse meat for human consumption).
He would argue that laws against horse meat are irrational in a society where eating cows, pigs, and other similar animals is considered perfectly acceptable. After all, the British consumers who are outraged about having been fed Polish horse meat were perfectly willing to buy lasagna made from cows that were likely raised and slaughtered in brutal factory farms and felt few moral qualms about it.
But Roth also suggests that the fact that they are irrational doesn't mean such attitudes aren't real factors that should be taken into account by economists designing markets. In other words, if you want to stay in the packaged-lasagna business, don't sell horse meat to the Brits. And certainly don't pretend it's something else.
The new user-generated Google Map of North Korea unveiled with some fanfare on the company''s blog Monday is a bit less than it initally seems. It isn't the most detailed publicly available map of North Korea. It's not even the most detailed map produced by Google -- that title belongs to the North Korea Uncovered project, produced by Google Earth, which has truly extensive mapping of the isolated country from its dams to its power stations and even its restaurants. (The head of that project, Curtis Melvin, comes off a touch bitter about all the attention the new Google Maps project has received in this Wall Street Journal story).
Where Google Maps does win out, however, is in easy accessibility (North Korea Uncovered requires a few downloads before it's usable). As an added bonus, the user review feature has produced a bit of a snarkfest. Users have left reviews on North Korean landmarks ranging from parks and monuments to gulags and nuclear testing facilities. While some are earnest, the vast majority are decidedly not. Here's a sampling of what's been posted:
Nuclear Test Facility, North Hamgyong, North Korea
Of all the barren, post-nuclear, wastelands I have visited this was by far the best. Of course Los Alamos is the classic, but no where else do you feel the warmth of the radioactive decay take you in its soft embrace quite as vividly as in the Hamgyong Nuclear Test Facility. However, be warned, reservations are required, as Hamgyong, is very exclusive. In fact, it is not uncommon to encounter the upper echelons of North Korean society. Once, I even met the North's biggest film star, Zao Xioping, who has stared in such famous films as, "Glory to the Industrial Proletariat in Their Moment of Triumph Over the Decadent Capitalists," and of course who could forget his appearance in the 2010 classic "Kim Il Sung and the Temple of Doom." If you're visiting the nearby Hamgyong Concentration Camp, the Nuclear Test Facility is a must!!
Whilst it doesn't have the international reputation of Bukchang, Hwasong is certainly worth a visit for any gulag enthusiast.
Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Pyongyang
I found the fish tacos to be really underwhelming
East Pyongyang Market, Pyongyang
Service is good, but selection is sub-par.
Just a handful of what's out there, and there will surely be more to come
After weeks of polling showing him with a comfortable lead, it appears that Benjamin Netanyahu will sneak back into office with his Likud/Yisrael Beiteinu alliance taking just 31 seats. (The two parties had more than 40 between them before the vote.) Overall, exit polls suggest right-wing parties will take 61-62 seats with 58-59 for the center-left.
The big surprise of the day will probably be the rise of the centrist Yesh Atid party, which came in second with 18-19 seats. Yesh Atid had gotten relatively little covereage in the Israeli andinternational media (certainly compared to Naftali Bennet's annexationist "Jewish Home" party) until it began to rise in the polls just days before the vote. Yesh Atid is led by journalist-turned-politican Yair Lapid, son of the legendary secularist crusader Tommy Lapid. Yair may not go as far as his dad in expressing stridently anti-religious views, but his apparent success should lead to some questioning of the popular "death of Israeli secularism" narrative.
There's likely to be quite a bit of discussion in the coming days about why no one saw Lapid coming. Though of course, as Netanyahu well knows, even the exit polls in Israel are not always that reliable. On May 30, 1996, most Israelis went to sleep believing that the heavily favored Shimon Peres, who had served as caretaker Prime Minister since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, six months earlier, would remain in power. They awoke to find that Likud's then young and inexperienced leader, Netanyahu, had pulled off a historic upset.
As the Times of Israel's Raphael Ahren notes, it wasn't the last time Israeli pollsters would get it wrong:
In 2006, most pre-election polls shortly before election day predicted two seats for the Pensioners' party; four polls said the party wouldn't get any seats at all. It won seven - a substantial showing given that the Knesset has only 120 members.
The final polls ahead of the 2009 elections - published four days before the voting day opened - were all wrong to a greater or lesser degree. Four out of six polls predicted 23 seats for Likud, which ended up winning 27. Four surveys forecast Yisrael Beytenu winning 19 mandates, four more than it actually received.
According to Haaretz, the final polls before of the 2006 and 2009 elections erred by an average of 18 and 19 Knesset mandates, respectively. Nate Silvers, they were not.
So what makes predicting Israeli elections so tough? Ahren's very thorough article blames small sample sizes -- Israeli pollsters often survey as few as 400-500 people -- as well as poor methodology: In a year when voter apathy was high, most pollsters surveyed "eligible" voters rather than "likely" voters, for instance.
The blogger "Carl in Jerusalem" says Israelis are poor poll-takers by character:
This is a country in which polling is not always accurate. Respondents often deceive the pollsters. Some respondents - like me - slam down the phone (otherwise you get called nearly every day because Israel is very politically active and there's a relatively small population).
But I suspect it's not that Israeli polls are particularly bad or Israelis are particularly uncooperative than the fact that Israel is simply a very small country with very complicated politics. Before this election, there were 17 parties in a Knesset with only 120 seats. A party going from 3 to 12 seats, as Jewish Home appears to have, counts as an earth-shattering development. In short, pollsters have a lot less margin for error in a country with fewer people than New Jersey.
There's also the fact that political alliances in Israel have a habit of shifting quickly and -- particularly this year -- it's much harder to define any given party's natural base. As Noah Efron recently wrote:
Unsurprisingly, this growing diversity within parties has come at a time when old voting blocs have begun to disintegrate. Although the million or so immigrants from the former Soviet Union still tend to oppose territorial compromise with the Palestinians and reject welfare-state economic policies that recall the brutal socialism of their birthplace, their political affiliations are increasingly spread across the political spectrum. Israeli Palestinians, though they are largely ignored by Jewish media and politicians during elections, will vote in larger numbers than ever for majority-Jewish parties, chiefly Labor. Settlers' votes are also spread among more political parties than in the past (though almost exclusively on the right). The same is true of Mizrahim, Haredim, and, no less, secular cosmopolitans.
The decline of the old voting blocs has come with a decline of old ideologies as well, on the right and on the left. Among the most notable losers in the Likud primaries was Benny Begin, son of Menachem Begin, the legendary founder of Likud and its first prime minister. The younger Begin represented perhaps the last of the old Likud ideologues, whose commitment to retaining the West Bank was matched, perhaps incongruously, by a commitment to liberal democracy blind to religious and ethnic background. Most politicians today, on the right and left, insist that they maintain consistent political opinions; few, however, will cop to having an ideology. In the past, ideology was de rigueur; now it is vaguely déclassé.
Taken together, these trends suggest that Israeli politics have recently lost definition and grown shaggier. They have changed from a French garden, sharp of line and in fine trim, into an English garden in which the shrubs and the trees have expanded into one another, and a skein of ivy stretches from this plant to that.
Efron's primary argument is that there are dramatic developments happening just below the surface in Israeli politics that are a lot more complicated than they look from they outside. Today's results would seem to bear that out.
(Plus, to be fair to Israeli pollsters, even Nate Silver hasn't fared so well when trying to apply his model outside the two-party, data-rich environment of American politics.)
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
Americans, U.S. President Barack Obama said yesterday during his inaugural address, "are made for this moment."
Why? Because "we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive, diversity and openness, endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention."
It's a reassuring thought, but do we Americans really possess these qualities more than any other countries?
Without a doubt, the U.S. is not particularly youthful when compared to other countries around the world. The median age in the U.S. is 37.1; the world's median age is 28.4, placing us well on the older end of the spectrum. We're younger than most of the OECD countries, but are still beaten out by Brazil (29.6), Chile (32.8), Ireland (35.1), Israel (29.5) and Mexico (27.4).
Is the U.S. very diverse? Not really, according to Stanford political scientist James Fearon. Fearon tried to measure diversity in 160 countries around the world in a 2003 study, and (with all the appropriate caveats that ethnicity is a difficult thing to define) found that the the U.S. comes in as the 85th most diverse country in the world. The most diverse western country is actually Canada, with an "ethnic fractionalization index" of .596 (the U.S.'s is .491), and we're outranked by almost every country in sub-saharan Africa, as well as Brazil (.549), Mexico (.542) and Israel (.526), among others.
How about our appetite for risk? A little trickier to measure, but a group of researchers at the Social Science Research Center in Berlin tried last November, through a study in which they conducted experiments to measure the risk tolerance of 80-100 students in 30 countries, to see how their results compared with development and growth levels. The U.S., despite our "have gun, will travel" reputation, is actually somewhat risk averse, according to this research: they give us a risk tolerance score of about .-07 - still above those stodgy Germans, but slightly below France. Meanwhile, the Brazilians (again!) seem to be a little more inclined to put some skin in the game:
Finally: do we have more capacity for reinvention than other countries? This might be the hardest characteristic to find a proxy for, but one might be how likely a country's workers are to find new jobs within a certain time period. This study, from 2004, looked at 25 countries, and found that while U.S. workers are fairly likely to keep on moving, they are still less likely to change jobs in a twelve month period than Canadians (again!) or Russians.
Whether these particular characteristics are really the ones that will count in the years to come is the subject of a separate blog post. But if Americans are "made for this moment," as Obama says, it seems that Canadians and Brazilians might be too -- or maybe even more so.
As he's wont to do, Matt Drudge has kicked up a fuss today by plastering photos of Hitler and Stalin above the headline "White House Threatens 'Executive Orders' on Guns." FP contributor Michael Moynihan has a good piece at Tablet looking into what's accurate and inaccurate in the commonly cited narrative that Nazi laws curtailing Jewish gun ownership were a prelude to the Holocaust. But Godwin's law violations aside, I was curious about whether there's any evidence in the modern world for the old notion that a well-armed populace is the best defense against tyranny. Do countries with high gun-ownership rights tend to be more democratic? Or more likely to overthrow dictatorships?
I haven't been able to find any published academic studies to this effect (if readers know of any, please post in the comments), but from a look at the Small Arms Survey's international rankings from 2007, it's hard to detect a pattern. (I wrote about this data in greater depth here.)
The top 10 gun-owning countries in the world (after the United States) include both democracies like Switzerland and Finland, as well as authoritarian countries like Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
With 34.2 guns per 100 people, Iraq is ranked eighth on the survey. More to the point, the country already had a well-established gun culture and a high rate of gun ownership before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. We can't know for sure if a well-armed population could have stopped Hitler's genocide, but it certainly didn't stop Saddam's.
Given the advanced deadly weaponry available to governments these days -- as opposed to the late 18th century -- most tyrants aren't all that threatened by citizens with conventional weapons. Like the Iraqis, Libyans were fairly well armed under Muammar al-Qaddafi -- 15.5 guns per 100 people as of 2007 -- but it still took an assist from NATO air power to finally bring him down.
On the other extreme, the country ranked last on the survey -- with only 0.1 guns per 100 people -- is Tunisia, which as you'll recall was still able to overthrow a longtime dictator in 2011. With only 3.5 guns per 100 people, the Egyptian population that overthrew Hosni Mubarak was hardly well armed either. On the other hand, Bahrain, where a popular revolution failed to unseat the country's monarchy, has 24.8 guns per 100 people, putting it in the top 20 worldwide. A relatively high rate of 10.7 guns per 100 people in Venezuela hasn't stopped the deterioration of democracy under Hugo Chávez.
I don't mean to suggest there's a negative correlation between dictatorship and gun ownership. The countries where there are virtually no guns in private hands include places like North Korea and Eritrea along with places like Japan and Lithuania. I'd love to see a more sophisticated analysis on this, but from looking at the data, it's hard to see a trend either way.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
On Friday, China's largest English-language newspaper, China Daily, launched Africa Weekly, a supplement that "will look at the precise nature of Chinese involvement in Africa and also the prominent role many Africans play in China." The announcement on the government-owned China Daily featured quotes from Chinese and African diplomats falling over each other to praise how this initiative will improve mutual understanding, especially Africans' understanding of China: "Minister of Culture Cai Wu said the new weekly will give African people a comprehensive and reliable guide to China" and "Abdul'ahat Abdurixit, president of the Chinese-African People's Friendship Association, said the launch of an Africa edition by China Daily 'will surely help improve communication between China and Africa.'"
understanding of Chinese is a great goal, though it probably wouldn't hurt if Chinese
expanded their views of Africans. During a China-Africa summit in 2006, billboards lining the road to the airport featured some purporting to "glorify" Africans, though at least one, featuring a tribesman with a bone through his nose, depicted a Papua New Guinean. A month before a 2012 China-Africa summit in July, Africans rioted in Guangzhou after a Nigerian was found dead in police custody; "the Chinese social media response to the latest protest in Guangzhou was dismayingly xenophobic," wrote Time's Hannah Beech, who also noted that the districts where Africans congregate in Guangzhou are known as "chocolate city."
While there's plenty of anecdotal evidence out there, it's hard to generalize about what Chinese think about Africans without being hypocritical, so I'll just quote what a Chinese English-teaching recruiter once told me in Beijing: "We try not to hire black people. They tend to scare the children."
One prominent example of the gulf in racial understanding between Chinese and Africans is "Black People Toothpaste," one of the most popular toothpaste brands in China, which I wrote a story about for Newsweek in 2010, and which a Colgate spokesman I spoke with on Friday confirmed is still 50 percent owned by his company. The logo features a minstrel singer wearing a top hat, backed by a white halo, and flashing a smile of blindingly white teeth. The brand is so widespread it's even engendered a popular knockoff brand, "Black Younger Sister Toothpaste."
Black People Toothpaste used to be called Darkie in English, but an outcry against Colgate when the news was reported in the United States in the late 1980s caused the brand to change the English name to the less offensive Darlie, and to change the logo from offensive and sinister to just offensive. "The only difference between black people and white people is that black people have whiter teeth," Wu Junjie, who works for a Taiwanese fast-food restaurant in Beijing, told me in 2010. Before China Daily and other state organs can successfully highlight the "prominent role" Africans play in China, it probably wouldn't hurt if fewer Chinese people associated black people with toothpaste.
New Zealand is once again going hobbit-wild, thanks to the new Peter Jackson epic, which opens in the United States tonight. A 13-meter Gollum statue greets visitors in the Wellington airport, and the country's mint has issued commemorative coins featuring Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and Ian McKellen as Gandalf. The country's tourism slogan was changed from "100 percent pure New Zealand" to “100 percent Middle Earth”. More dramatically, New Zealand's capital officially changed its name from Wellington to "the Middle of Middle Earth" for three weeks last month and spent nearly $1 million on hobbitses-related festivities including a parade and free public screenings throughout the city.
Internationally successful films have long been a great way to get your country on the international cultural map. Exodus gave American audiences of 1960 not just a Jewish Paul Newman but a heroic vision of the founding of Israel. The 1972 cult classic The Harder They Come introduced the world to Jamaican music and Rastafarian culture, making an international star of Jimmy Cliff and paving the way for Bob Marley.
But New Zealand's embrace of the Lord of the Rings movies is still pretty unique, particularly given that the movies don't take place in that country -- but in a mythical world of orcs and elves. It's not hard to understand why. The Tolkein movies have been a major cash cow (cash crebain?) for the country.
First, there's been the impact on the country's film industry. Before Jackson set up shire there, New Zealand was known in the film world mainly for high-quality but depressing indie films like The Piano and Once Were Warriors and as the filming location for schlocky TV shows like Xena: Warrior Princess. Now, the secret of New Zealand is out. The combination of its dramatic and diverse landscape ("Every element of Middle Earth is contained in New Zealand," says Elijah "Frodo" Wood. "There are so many different geographical landscapes: mountains, woods, marshes, desert areas, rolling hills ... and the sea." ) and skilled local film workers have made it the location of choice for fantasy and historical films including the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Last Samurai, and Jackson's own King Kong remake. A 2002 report comissioned by the New Zealand government estimated that the original triology contributed about $298 million dollars to the country's film industry.
Then there's the impact on tourism, which you can get an idea of just from googling "New Zealand Lord of the Rings tour". The original trilogy essentially functioned as a 9-hour travel advertisement for the country and it shouldn't be a surprise that tourism hit record levels in the years after the films came out. Including tourism, the total economic impact of the original films on the country has been estimated at more than $590 million.
But Ring-fever has waned a bit since then, so it's understandable that New Zealanders are thrilled about the new film, which will be the first in a trilogy, naturally. The expected windfall of the new Hobbit movies has been estimated at $1.5 billion, which is about 1 percent of the country's GDP.
I suspect that figure may be a bit optimistic, but it does put Wellington's festivities in context. New Zealand authorities are willing to do nearly anything to keep the hobbits happy. That included ramming through ammendments to the country's labor laws in 2010 after Jackson threatened to move production somewhere cheaper and angry New Zealanders took to the streets of the shire to protest.
"Making the two Hobbit movies here will not only safeguard work for thousands of New Zealanders, but it will also follow the success of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy in once again promoting New Zealand on the world stage," Prime Minister John Key said at the time. (They also threw in a generous tax break to Warner Brothers.)
Other countries may be looking to follow the Kiwis' lead. Northern Ireland has been preserving Game of Thrones filming locations with Westeros-themed bus tours are planned. Thee HBO fantasy series has provided a nice change of pace for a local film industry best known internationally for grim Troubles-era dramas.
Belfast should beware though. Wellington's legal accommodations to Jackson to keep Middle Earth in New Zealand show that, like any non-renewable resource, a country can get hooked on swords and sorcery.
Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Paris Hilton, darling of tabloid papers and the star of a notorious sex tape, has opened a new store in the most bizarre of locales: the Islamic holy city of Mecca. What could go wrong?
"Loving my beautiful new store that just opened at Mecca Mall in Saudi Arabia!" Hilton tweeted on Nov. 14, causing disgruntled tweeps to engage in a heated discussion about the implications of the starlet's decision to open her store in a city that is considered the holiest site in Islam.
"R u kidding?" was one person's response, while others commented on the absurdity of such a controversial female celebrity marketing her goods in a country where women aren't permitted to drive cars. Here are some more reactions posted by folks on Twitter:
NO JOKE: Paris Hilton store just opened at Mecca Mall! O, 'tis most sweet,When in one line two crafts directly meet- parishilton.com/loving-my-beau…— Hussein Ibish (@Ibishblog) November 17, 2012
Shiite Muslims considered infidel Officially in Saudi Arabia and not welcome in kingdom But Paris Hilton’s new storein Mecca gets welcome.— Syed Haider (@haiderworld) November 18, 2012
So Paris Hilton opened a handbag store in MECCA? The world is a corrupt place at the moment. Someone please send me to Mars.— Brown Power Ranger (@OfficialEtty) November 19, 2012
Hilton has tried her hand at many careers, with varying success, including acting and singing. However, her notoriety has helped her fashion brand triumph in the global marketplace. The Mecca store is Hilton's fifth in Saudi Arabia, bringing the grand total of Paris Hilton shops to 42. "So proud to keep growing my brand!" Hilton tweeted. The store will sell perfumes, handbags, and footwear, along with other items in the hotel heiress's fashion line.
One thing's for certain -- it seems doubtful that Hilton will be invited to Saudi Arabia to promote the opening of her new store. She might have some problems with the dress code.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Judging from the social media reaction, this was probably the most memorable line of Monday night's debate:
You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military’s changed.
This got us wondering, does the military still use bayonets?
Sort of. The Army eliminated bayonet charges from basic training in 2010. The last U.S. bayonet battle was in 1951, when Capt. Lewis Milett led a charge against a fortified position on a hill in Soam-Ni, Korea, earning the medal of honor in the process. In 2004, a group of British troops running low on ammunition, launched a bayonet charge against a group of Mahdi Army militiamen. According to the after-action report, the charge "achieved tactical success primarily because of psychological and cultural factors. ... this case, the value of surprise, countering enemy expectations, and strict troop discipline were three deciding characteristics of the bayonet charge."
While no longer all that useful on the battlefield, military historian Richard Kohn told the Christian Science Monitor in 2010 that the U.S. Army kept bayonet training for as long as it did as a way "to develop in soldiers aggressiveness, courage, and preparation for close combat” and “basically to try to mitigate or eradicate the reluctance of human beings to kill each other.”
While Army recruits no longer charge dummies with bayonets fixed to their rifles, they do still receive training on how to use a knife or bayonet as a handheld secondary weapon in close combat. And as the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran notes, U.S. marines still train with bayonets and many are issued them as standard equipment.
As for horses, the military does still have some -- both for ceremonial purposes and for training Special Forces troops. In 2001, U.S. Special Forces famously joined with Northern Alliance fighters in a horseback assault on the Taliban at Mazar-e-Sharif. Mules have also played an important role in transporting supplies over Afghanistan's rough terrain.
So the military does indeed* have fewer horses and bayonets these days, but they haven't completely gone the way of the dreadnought.
*Update: The Wall Street Journal's Julian Barnes points out that there were only about 200,000 Army troops in 1916, make it unlikely that there were more than the 419,155 that the Army still has in inventory. It's a veritable golden age of the bayonet we're living in.
Barry Williams/Getty Images
With the U.S. presidential election now closer than ever, the press is brimming with speculation about whether Barack Obama, after turning in a lackluster performance in the first debate, can reverse Mitt Romney's momentum during his second outing tonight. And not just the U.S. media. News outlets from India to Israel are busy dissecting Obama's setback, Romney's comeback, and what the new state of play in the race means for their countries. Here's a snapshot of some of the most colorful coverage in recent days:
The British press has at times been rather brutal in assessing the shifting dynamics in the presidential race (sample Daily Mail headline this week: "Preparing for a new job already? Obama delivers pizzas to campaign workers as he gets ready for make-or-break TV debate at golf resort"). But commentators have also speculated about what a Romney win would mean for Britain. Over at the Telegraph, Tim Stanley argues that David Cameron and his Conservative Party have expressed their preference for Obama too openly. "By airing these views in public the Tories have gambled too much on Obama winning the election," he maintains. "And if he doesn't, then they'll have a President on their hands who they have routinely insulted. That can't be good for the Atlantic alliance." (Stanley, for the record, thinks tonight's debate will end in a draw or Romney win.)
Meanwhile, Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to the United States, writes in the London Evening Standard that an Obama victory would be best for Britain:
Romney could turn out to be an excellent foreign policy president, yet right now, his foreign policy team is split between neo-con hawks and those of a more pragmatic, "realist" world view, similar to our own. We don't know which faction will come out on top. In the circumstances, we're better off with the devil we know - and that's Obama.
The state-run news agency Xinhua has a warning today for the presidential candidates: "[I]t would be both politically shortsighted and detrimental to China-US relations if they turned the town-hall-style meeting into a China-bashing competition" (the news outlet appears to be confusing tonight's debate with the third and final debate on foreign policy, which will touch on topics such as "the rise of China and tomorrow's world"). Sure, both candidates' tough talk on China may be nothing more than campaign bluster, Xinhua observes. But "these chameleonic politicians should not always expect that the wounds they have inflicted to the China-US ties would heal automatically" once they assume office.
In an article on the possibility that India could be dealing with several new world leaders in a matter of months, the Times of India marvels that "from being a candidate who could barely control his own Republican Party, Mitt Romney has surged forward to be a surprisingly competent debater and a more than credible opponent." Still, the paper adds, the outcome of the U.S. election may not have a major impact on bilateral relations. "The Indo-US relationship has now become institutionalized and isn't actually dependent on a president," the article notes.
In a debate preview at the Hindustan Times, the U.S.-based journalist Rashmee Roshan Lall argues that Romney is unlikely to endear himself to India or the world during Tuesday night's event. True, she notes, the "New Delhi punditocracy has always thought Republican presidents suit India much better than Democratic ones." But Romney doesn't mention India on the campaign trail and wants to "reinstate the US as globocop, albeit with a makeover that borrows heavily from some of the darker manifestations of Lord Voldemort." She concludes with a question: "Is it better to be steamrollered or simply ignored or might the best option for India and everyone else be four more years of Obama?"
As the U.S. race has tightened -- "The presidential race has begun anew," one Israel Hayom headline proclaims -- the editorial boards at Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post have published explanations for why they'll be remaining neutral during the election. Haaretz notes, in rather vivid language, that "Romney would stick with Israel's prime minister and they would become flesh of one flesh" but adds that the substantive differences between the candidates are minor. Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev, meanwhile, muses about the various leadership permutations that could result from elections in Israel and the United States.
As for the upcoming debate, Israel Hayom's Abraham Ben-Avi thinks it is "Obama's last window of opportunity to rehabilitate his status as a leader" while Haaretz's Adar Primor argues that the world will still favor Obama over Romney even if the candidates sharpen the distinctions between them on foreign policy tonight. "Those [around the world] who have shaken off their Obama fixation have done so largely because in certain areas of policy he is seen as having adopted the Republican agenda," Primor writes.
Russia's RT didn't buy the widespread verdict that Romney trounced Obama in the first debate, noting that the "tepid" forum had shown the candidates to be "two sides of the same coin." But Romney's post-debate bounce has spurred the Russian press to give the GOP candidate a closer look. News outlets covered Romney's Russia comments during his recent foreign-policy address in Virginia but cautioned against reading too much into the aggressive rhetoric (the state-run Voice of Russia did note that "a serious politician should avoid making that kind of remarks with respect to another leading country"). One Russian lawmaker, meanwhile, accused Romney of embracing George W. Bush's failed policies and presiding over the "last convulsion of the American-style world."
In the most creative commentary, the Voice of Russia compares the debates to chess matches and quotes the chess player Vladislav Tkachev:
"Very often the real moves, such as the candidate's plan of actions and package of reforms, remain in the background and the psychological factor comes to the fore. Suffice it to look at the footage of the confrontation between Karpov and Kasparov to see that the duel of the eyes, a springy step and an overall aggressive look were of paramount importance. It is common knowledge how difficult it is to give the right answer when exposed to the rival's glare. The response of the audience can also either pep one up or completely demoralize. Barack Obama with downcast eyes did not look his best this time, side by side with his opponent who radiated confidence."
However, there are more debates ahead and the results could change. After all, Obama is leading in public opinion polls. The main thing for him now is to get rid of the image of a serious, thoughtful and humane but not very determined leader because this is the wrong style for the time of change. However, chess practice shows that the style of playing games cannot change overnight.
The German press has adopted the Mitt-mentum narrative -- as U.S.-based journalist Gregor Peter Schmitz wrote in Der Spiegel, Joe Biden's vice presidential debate performance "almost single-handedly revived the Obama campaign, which was in danger of being put on life support after the president's disastrous debate performance in Denver." But news outlets have also pointed out that the race would look very different if it were held in Germany (or many other European countries, for that matter), where more than eight in ten people would support the Democrats. "Obama has assured victory -- among Germans," a headline in Die Welt declares (an article in Berliner Morgenpost suggests that Obama's overwhelming popularity in the country helps explain why Romney didn't visit Germany during his overseas trip this summer).
The Pakistani press has covered the narrowing race. "Even the New York Times, which favours Mr Obama, concedes that Mr Romney has continued to surge since the debate," an article in Dawn observes. But in an op-ed for the same newspaper, Muhammad Ali Siddiqi argues that the weeks since the first debate have shown Obama to be the true victor. "Mr Obama was consistent, without flamboyance, and stood his ground" while "Mr Romney played to the gallery," Siddiqi notes. He adds that "Mr Romney would like to conduct his foreign policy in Cold War fashion" but admits that, contrary to the impression in Pakistan, foreign policy has "taken a back seat in the campaign."
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Tonight's presidential debate will be conducted in Town Hall format. Every election, we're promised that this will make the event more "unpredictable," but in reality, it means we're likely to get pre-screened questions along the lines of, "So, what are you going to do about jobs?" If there are any "unpredictable" questions, they will probably be something like, "Sanchez or Tebow?" (This is Long Island, remember.)
If, by chance, some of Dan Drezner's foreign-policy voting 5 percenters do make it into the audience, they're likely to ask about issues that have already been discussed ad nauseum on the campaign trail: Iran, Israel, Afghanistan, Arab Spring. It's not that these aren't important countries. It's just that we pretty much know what the candidates are going to say about them.
In the spirit of making things more interesting, here are a few suggested questions for the audience if they really want to throw these guys off their game.
1. What is your stance on the Scottish independence referendum? (Follow-up question: If you could pick one U.S. state to leave the union, which would it be?)
2. Do you believe the prosecution of former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed is politically motivated?
3. Nagorno-Karabakh. Thoughts?
4. Who will be the first to put a human on Mars: the U.S., China, Russia, or Red Bull?
6. Falklands or Malvinas?
8. Is Joyce Banda a genuine reformer?
9. What are your thoughts on Ollanta Humala's political evolution? (No, gentlemen. We will not remind you what countries these are the leaders of.)
10. Given our military presence in Diego Garcia, does the U.S. have an obligation to help resolve the Chagos archipelago dispute?
11. Do you have any concerns about the global potash supply?
12. Is there any reason for Belgium to exist?
13. Japan is about to replace China as America's biggest creditor. Could you please offer us some meaningless bluster about "getting tough with Tokyo?"
14. Who is America's most embarrassing ally?
15. Who would you call if you wanted to call Europe?
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GettyImages
The State Department's decision to remove the Iranian exile group Mujahedin-e-Khalq from its Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list certainly looks depressingly cynical, coming after the group waged a years-long PR, lobbying, and advertising campaign, paying political VIPs including Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Tom Ridge, and Ed Rendell tens of thousands of dollars to endorse their cause. The idea that a group blamed for the killing of six Americans in the 1970s, as well as dozens of deadly terrorist bombings against Iranian targets afte,r that is “the largest peaceful, secular, pro-democratic Iranian dissident group” -- as its advertising boasts -- doesn't pass the laugh test.
But it's also true that the group, despite its creepy cultlike behavior, hasn't carried out a terrorist attack in years. As FP contributor Karim Sadjadpour tells the New York Times, “I don’t think the world really looks that much different. U.S.-Iran relations will remain hostile, and the M.E.K. will remain a fringe cult with very limited appeal among Iranians.”
Under the PATRIOT Act, for a group to be included on the list, it's required that the "terrorism of the organization threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States." But a quick glance at the most recent edition of the FTO list shows quite a few groups that don't -- or no longer -- meet that standard either:
Some other groups, including the Real IRA and Jewish extremist organiztaion Kahane Chai, have been a bit more active recently, but have few members and can't really be said to pose much a threat to U.S. national security. Some groups, such as the Libya Islamic Fighting Group, have been reconstituted, or are operating under different names than the ones on the list.
According to the State Department website, before 2004, a group had to be redesignated every two years to appear on the list. But now, the onus is on the group to make its case -- as the MEK did that it is no longer a terrorist:
IRTPA provides that an FTO may file a petition for revocation 2 years after its designation date (or in the case of redesignated FTOs, its most recent redesignation date) or 2 years after the determination date on its most recent petition for revocation. In order to provide a basis for revocation, the petitioning FTO must provide evidence that the circumstances forming the basis for the designation are sufficiently different as to warrant revocation. If no such review has been conducted during a 5 year period with respect to a designation, then the Secretary of State is required to review the designation to determine whether revocation would be appropriate. In addition, the Secretary of State may at any time revoke a designation upon a finding that the circumstances forming the basis for the designation have changed in such a manner as to warrant revocation, or that the national security of the United States warrants a revocation.
New groups, like Pakistan's Haqqani network or Lebanon's Abdallah Azzam Bridgades, are added with some regularity. Though as some of the names still on the list indicate, groups aren't removed that often unless -- like MEK -- they are in a position to mount a public case for their delisting. (Thankfully, it's hard to imagine Aum Shinriyko advertising on the Washington metro!)
Categorizing miltiant groups, which don't always have one universally used name, or a fixed membership, is always a bit tricky. As Aaron Zelin, recently explained for FP, a surprising number of jihadi groups have emerged in different countries in recent months, all calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia.
Back in June, I noted that the State Department had decided not to list Nigeria's Boko Haram -- a group that is more active and arguably much more of a threat to U.S. economic and political interests than many of those on the list -- though it did list some Boko Harma leaders as "Specially Designated Global Terrorists," a different category.
At the time, Reuters reported that Boko Haram as a whole had not been added to the FTO list so as "not to elevate the group's profile." That makes a certain amount of sense, but it also suggests a need for a larger housecleaning on the list. Their American FTO status is about all the militant credibility some of these groups have left.
Polling this week suggests that Barack Obama is pulling ahead of Mitt Romney in key swing states and erasing the Republican candidate's advantage on the economy. But the results include one piece of bad news: According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey conducted in the days after the attacks on U.S. missions in Egypt, Libya, and other Middle Eastern countries, the president's approval rating on foreign policy dropped to 49 percent from 54 percent in August. That's the first time since before the Osama bin Laden raid that support for Obama's handling of international affairs has dropped below 50 percent in the survey.
The worst news for the White House is that, in an election that no longer revolves solely around the economy, all-important independent voters are souring on the president's performance on foreign affairs -- a key strength for the Democrats this election cycle. Forty-one percent of independents approved of Obama's handling of foreign policy in September, compared with 53 percent in August.
But there's more to the picture. Not only could the decline in approval prove temporary (depending on how events play out in the Middle East) but, as NBC's First Read suggests, the drop may have more to do with increasing political polarization as the election heats up than with Obama's handling of the protests per se. According to the NBC/WSJ survey, Republican approval of Obama's foreign policy fell from 19 percent in August to 10 percent in September.
What's more, if Obama emerged from the crisis looking bad, Romney may have looked even worse. A Pew Research Center poll released this week found that 45 percent of respondents who followed news about the U.S. mission attacks approved of Obama's handling of the crisis, while only 26 percent supported Romney's criticisms of the president's response. Among independents, 44 percent approved of the president's actions and 23 percent approved of Romney's critiques.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the NBC/WSJ survey did not see any change between August and September in the percentage of respondents who felt Obama (45 percent) would be a better commander-in-chief than Romney (38 percent). Another Pew poll released on Wednesday indicates that 53 percent of registed voters believe Obama would do the best job of making wise decisions on foreign policy, while 38 percent think Romney would. More to the point, the survey finds that Obama enjoys a 50-39 advantage over Romney on dealing with problems in the Middle East (and these big leads hold among swing voters). "The recent turmoil in the Middle East appears to have had little impact [on] opinions about Obama's approach to foreign policy and national security issues," Pew notes.
While we can't conclude with certainty that the Mideast unrest is the proximate cause of Obama's sagging approval on foreign policy among swing voters in the NBC/WSJ poll (after all, last week also featured tensions between Israel and the United States over Iran), it's a likely culprit. The damage that the U.S. mission attacks inflicted on both candidates helps explain why the Obama and Romney campaigns quickly pivoted to other issues after a day of intense sparring over the events.
The lingering question is whether Obama's approval ratings on foreign policy would be even worse had Romney decided not to say anything at all about attacks -- and let the violence in the Middle East speak for itself.
Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images
For months now, the right and the left have argued about whether this year's contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is a repeat of the 1980 race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It's a comparison that benefits Republicans, who want to portray Obama as helpless on the economy ('Are you better off than you were four years ago?'), feckless on foreign policy (both Carter and Obama faced attacks on U.S. embassies), and politically vulnerable (Reagan surged ahead of Carter in the homestretch; the Romney campaign has its fingers crossed).
On Wednesday, National Journal's Sophie Quinton argued that Romney's criticism of Obama in the wake of Tuesday's assaults on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya was a marked departure from Reagan's response to the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and ensuing hostage crisis in 1979-1980. When Carter's effort to rescue the American hostages in Iran failed in April 1980, Quinton points out, Reagan took the high ground, asserting that "this is the time for us as a nation and a people to stand united." When Reagan later debated Carter in the fall, she adds, he refrained from answering a question about how he would handle a similar crisis because of the sensitivity of the issue.
That's some impressive restraint. But while Reagan did ocassionally express support on the campaign trail for Carter's responses to the Iranian hostage crisis (praising the decision to freeze Iranian assets, for example), he was far less diplomatic on many other occasions.
In fact, the debate between Carter and Reagan over the Iranian crisis was remarkably similar to the rhetoric we're hearing now from the Obama and Romney campaigns. Let's take a look at some examples:
U.S. weakness at fault
Reagan: In November 1979, just weeks after radical Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Reagan argued that Carter's policies had diminished respect for the United States around the world. "[L]et us be respected to the point that never again will a demented dictator dare to invade an American embassy and hold our people hostage," he said. The Associated Press reported at the time that "Reagan repeatedly said he wouldn't comment on the Iranian situation because remarks by presidential candidates might upset possible secret negotiations" to free American hostages. "But in each case," the news outlet added, Reagan "followed his refusal with criticism" of Carter's Iran policy.
Romney: Romney, it seems, is far less conflicted about speaking out, but he too has suggested that Obama's failure to lead created the conditions under which attacks on U.S. missions could occur. "The attacks in Libya and Egypt underscore that the world remains a dangerous place and that American leadership is still sorely needed," he said at a press conference on Wednesday. Romney surrogate John Bolton was more blunt in an interview with the Washington Post. "The perception of American weakness that provided the foundation for these attacks is largely because of Obama administration mistakes and lack of resolve," he argued.
Embassy attack symptomatic of bigger issues
Reagan: In November 1979, the Washington Post also reported the Reagan quote above, but with some additional context. Reagan claimed that the lack of respect underlying the embassy attack stemmed from the Carter administration's destructive desire to be liked, whether by supporting the SALT II nuclear arms deal with the Soviet Union or transferring control of the Panama Canal to Panama. "Isn't it about time that we said to the administration in Washington that we're not so concerned if other countries like us?" the Republican candidate asked. "We would like, once again, to be respected by other countries."
Romney: Romney cited his differences with Obama on Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, and Syria during his press conference, and Romney surrogate Dan Senor made a more explicit connection between the events of the last couple days and these larger issues during an appearance on CNN. The violence, he contended, is a reminder of the "chaos that a lot of the policies of this administration has sowed. Chaos in the Arab Spring. Chaos where allies in Israel feel that they can't rely on us. You saw the flare up over the last couple of days with the prime minister of Israel and the president."
Violation of American principles
Reagan: In the weeks after the attack in Tehran, Reagan lashed out at the Carter administration for violating an "American principle" by not granting Iran's deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi permanent asylum. "If you read those words on the face of the Statue of Liberty, we have a history of being an asylum for political exiles," Reagan asserted. "And he certainly was as loyal an ally for a great many years as this country have possibly have had."
Romney: Romney has also appealed to American values in denouncing the Obama administration, arguing that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, in publishing a statement and tweets condemning an anti-Islam American film before a crowd gathered at the compound, had issued an "apology for America's values." The first response to an embassy breach "should not be to say, 'Yes, we stand by our comments that -- that suggest that there's something wrong with the right of free speech,'" Romney declared.
'Shoot first' mentality
Carter: During his convention speech in August 1980, Carter noted that "while we Democrats grapple with the real challenges of a real world, others talk about a world of tinsel and make-believe," adding that "[i]t's a make-believe world, a world of good guys and bad guys, where some politicians shoot first and ask questions later." (h/t: Washington Examiner)
Obama: In an interview with CBS on Wednesday, Obama criticized Romney for swiftly denouncing the administration's foreign policy while news of the U.S. mission attacks was still developing. Intentionally or not, the president echoed Carter. "Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," he observed. "And as president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that. That, you know, it's important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts."
No time for politics
Carter: In October 1980, ahead of his only debate with Reagan during the race, chastised the Republican candidate for breaking a pledge to refrain from discussing the Iranian crisis. "The fate of the hostages is too important ... to be made a political football," Carter explained. Reagan, for his part, claimed the hostage issue was fair game. "Breaking my pledge might be if I waited until 7:15 on Election Day and then brought the subject [up] as he did in the Wisconsin primary," Reagan retorted (he was referring to Carter's surprise news conference on Iran on the morning of the state's primary).
Obama: In an interview with Telemundo on Wednesday, Obama argued that the aftermath of the U.S. mission attacks was not a "time for politics." As president, he added, "my obligation is to focus on security for our people ... and not having ideological arguments on a day when we're mourning."
There are some differences between the two periods, of course. Reagan did not publicly criticize Carter for several days after students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iran, while Romney issued a statement hours after the attacks in Egypt and Libya. But within weeks, Reagan was weighing in forcefully on the issue. And by December 1979, the Washington Post reported that Reagan was "finding it hard to restrain himself" on Iran and had "suggested for the first time that he might make the Iranian issue a major theme of his political campaign once the hostage question is decided."
That day never came during the race. But that didn't stop Reagan from seizing on an issue that ultimately helped propel him to victory.
Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades got a lot of reporters scratching their heads last week when he suggested that James K. Polk could be a historical model for Mitt Romney's presidency in an interview with the Huffington Post:
[W]hen I asked [Matt] Rhoades in July how Romney would govern if elected, and what Romney might do with the budget and entitlement reform plans Ryan had already outlined, Rhoades' eyes lit up. He gave me a name: James Polk.
Don't Yawn. There's a history lesson in that name. Rhoades and the rest of the members of Romney's inner circle think a Romney presidency could look much like the White House tenure of the 11th U.S. president.
Polk, who served from 1845 to 1849, presided over the expansion of the U.S. into a coast-to-coast nation, annexing Texas and winning the Mexican-American war for territories that also included New Mexico and California. He reduced trade barriers and strengthened the Treasury system.
And he was a one-term president.
Polk is an allegory for Rhoades: He did great things, and then exited the scene, and few remember him. That, Rhoades suggested, could be Romney's legacy as well.
Citing Polk as a model for your presidency feels a bit like a hipster's record recommendation. ("Oh, you're into Andrew Jackson? He's okay, I guess, but you should really check out Polk.") But it's interesting to consider exactly what a Polkian presidency would look like.
It's certainly true that given the extroadinary political changes that took place under his presidency, the 11th president doesn't get nearly enough attention. (Nor, for that matter, do any of the presidents between Jackson and Lincoln.) It's certainly I'm no Polk scholar but having recently read journalist and historian Robert W. Merry's very good A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent , I had a few quick thoughts on the pros and cons of the Polk model:
An exceptional exceptionalist: You want to talk about national greatness conservatism? In just four years, Polk -- Andrew Jackson's protege -- expanded the size of the United States by a third, incorporating Texas, the Northwest, and and Southwest. Polk envisioned the United States as a continental power with Pacific ports giving it access to emerging Asian markets. And in just four years he made it happen. The Monroe doctrine could just as easily be called the Polk doctrine, as the Tennessean repeatedly took action to prevent European influence in the Western Hemisphere.
Getting it done: Polk came into office in 1844 with four main goals. On the international front, he wanted to reach a favorable agreement with Britain on the Oregon territory, which was then in an ambiguous state of joint governance between the two countries. He also wanted to acquire California from Mexico. On the domestic side, he wanted to reduce tariffs and create and independent treasury. (Yes, he was a free-market guy as well.) All these goals were accomplished. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put Polk in the same category as much better known figures including Thomas Jefferson, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, as presidents who were "able to impose their own priorities on the country."
Leading from the front: By 1844 it was fairly obviously that Oregon would fall into U.S. hands eventually. Americans were migrating west at a rapid rate and vastly outnumbered the British in the territory. Many argued at the time that the U.S. should simply let the demographics run their course, but as Merry writes, "Patience was not a trait to be found in the personality of James Polk... he wasn't about to leave to successors the accomplishment he could himself obtain." In his inaugural address, Polk asserted America's "clear and unquestionable" title to Oregon and took a hard line in territorial negotiations that brought the two countries to the brink of their third war in less than 70 years. In the end, Britain would back down and the U.S. acquired the territory that would become the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
Left on top: A compromise candidate after a contentious Democratic primary, Polk pledged to only stay in office for one term and stuck to it, despite allies urging him to run again. As Ross Douthat writes, "he's a fascinating figure precisely because seems to have chosen retirement less out of necessity than out of a genuine belief that his service to the republic was complete." His health may also have played a role: He died just three months after leaving office.
More war-war than jaw-jaw: Polk's confrontational approach to the Oregon question looks shrewd in retrospect, but the course of U.S. history might have turned out quite differently if the U.S. had found itself fighting simultaneous wars with Mexico and Britain. In the case of Mexico, Polk seemed to recognize that a war would be the only way to accomplish his territorial aims and set out to create the conditions for one, most notably by ordering Gen. Zachary Taylor to march troops into disputed territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande in January 1846, setting in motion a series of events that would eventually lead to war. Polk may not have been the most aggressive hawk of his era -- there were members of his cabinet that favored the outright conquest of Mexico -- but the Mexican war was about as close as the U.S. ever got to an outright war of conquest, not a practice that even the most aggresive hawks usually endorse.
Bad manager: The Polk administration was a mess. His ostensible allies in the Democratic congressional delegation were divided over the war -- and increasingly over slavery -- his own secretary of State consistently undermined him, and his generals and diplomats were often outright insubordinate. The Polk cabinet leaked like a sieve, with confidential information frequently appearing the press, generally traced back to Secretary of State James Buchanan, who violated a pledge to Polk not to campaign for president while still secretary. Despite Buchanan's behind the scenes machinations and frequent failures to carry out Polk's orders, the president repeatedly backed off from threats to fire him. Mitt Romney may "like being able to fire people," but Merry writes that Polk "lacked the fortitude for the face-to-face encounter that must attend a dismissal.
Civil military relations weren't that great either. Polk's senior generals, Winfield "Old Fuss and Feathers" Scott and Zachary Taylor frequently clashed with the president, disobeying orders and engaging in unauthorized freelance diplomacy with the Mexicans, and Taylor actually left the battlefield to campaign for -- and win -- the presidency on a Whig ticket. The Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican war was negotiated by an envoy who Polk had fired weeks earlier. Polk's bizarrely effective brand of organized chaos would seem an odd model for Romney, a candidate who has sold himself as businesslike and managerial.
Missed the big picture: Polk was mostly uninterested in the question of increasingly controversial question of slavery throughout his presidency, focusing instead on the goal of territorial expansion that he believed would bring Americans together in the goal of national greatness. He reacted with annoyance when an antislavery congressional Democrat introduced the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in the territories won from Mexico, and seemed flummoxed that North-South disputes were inserting themselves into the war debate. By the end of his presidency, abolitionist Democrats had split off to form the Free Soil party -- later absorbed into the Republicans -- and the fault lines had developed for the conflict that would literally tear the country apart 13 years later. It's not clear that Polk could have done anything to prevent this, but his lack of interest in the issue seems remarkably shortsighted in retrospect.
(Also, if Romney adopts Polk as a model, the GOP may have to drop the "party of Lincoln" line before Honest Abe turns over in his grave. In the view of Lincoln, then a freshman Whig legislator who idolized Polk's longtime rival Henry Clay, the president had deliberately instigated the war with Mexico and "talked like an insane man" with a "mind taxed beyond its power.")
Other than a vague free-market hawkishness, it's hard to divine what a Polkian approach to contemporary issues such as Iran's nuclear program or healthcare costs might entail. But give some credit to Rhoades, a discussion of the merits of the Polk presidency is more interesting than hearing about Reagan for the 47,000th time.
The 14-year-old boy in me is extremely excited about the tantalizing possibility that CIA director David Petraeus, the most talented general of his generation and one of the few broadly respected figures in American political life, is being mooted as a potential veep pick for Mitt Romney. Picking Petraeus would inject some real excitement into a race that has turned into the second coming of Clinton-Dole: a real snoozefest. It would instantly transform the 2012 election from a race over taxes, jobs, and health care (boring!) into one about the good stuff: foreign policy and national security.
But the grownup in me realizes that this a pundit's fantasy, not to mention a diversion of dubious provenance (I mean, come on -- are we supposed to believe Obama bundlers go around whispering sweet nothings in Matt Drudge's ear?). So here are five reasons why -- sorry, Bill Kristol -- it ain't gonna happen. (See also Chris Cillizza's convincing debunker.)
1. Petraeus doesn't want the job
How many times has David Petraeus disavowed holding any political ambitions? Here he is in March 2010: "I thought I'd said 'no' about as many ways as I could. I really do mean no ... I will not ever run for political office, I can assure you." Here he is in August 2012 in an exchange on Meet the Press:
PETRAEUS: Well, I am not a politician, and I will never be, and I say that with absolute conviction.
GREGORY: Well, that's what he said. But does that mean that you're totally clear? That you'd never run for President?
PETRAEUS: Yeah, I really am. You know, and I've said that I'll adopt what Sherman said and go back and look at what has come to be known as a Shermanesque answer on that particular question.
GREGORY: No way, no how?
PETRAEUS: No way, no how.
Of course, political figures go back on their word all the time. But as Petraeus himself has pointed out, it wouldn't be very auspicious for his first political act to be a flip-flop.
Not yet convinced? NBC's Andrea Mitchell tweeted earlier today: "sources close to Gen David Petraeus laugh off Drudge report he is a Romney veep possible - #notgonnahappen."
2. He's head of the CIA, for Pete's sake
Why would Petraeus want to leave his post as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, still one of the top jobs in Washington even after the post-9/11 "reforms," to be Mitt Romney's pilot fish? The vice presidency is still, even in the wake of powerful veeps like Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, a dog's breakfast. Or, as America's first No. 2, John Adams, once put it, "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." (Or, if you prefer, "not worth a pitcher of warm piss," in the immortal words of FDR's otherwise unmemorable veep John Nance Garner.) Even if you see Petraeus as an ambitious climber always looking for the next branch, the vice presidency would be a step down, not a step up. In any case, he'd probably rather run the Pentagon.
3. Petraeus doesn't do domestic policy
Like Condi Rice, Petraeus doesn't do domestic issues. And if anything, he's got even less of a paper trail on things like education, where at least Rice showed some private interest. Can you imagine Petraeus weighing in on heated debates about abortion or tax policy? Me neither. Domestic issues may bore people like you and me, dear FP reader, but they are full of pitfalls for amateurs who aren't fully schooled in constituent politics. In any case, if Romney is clear about anything, it's that this election will be about jobs and the economy. And I don't think Petraeus's strong record of creating jobs for drone manufacturers is going to cut it.
4. Romney doesn't think outside the box
Even if you ignore the fact that Petraeus wouldn't take the job, would Romney even offer it to him? That's highly doubtful. The Romney campaign is all about avoiding John McCain's mistakes -- and one of those mistakes was thinking outside the box to choose Sarah Palin, then the little-known governor of Alaska. And we know how that worked out. No wonder Team Romney is thought to be in the hunt for an "incredibly boring white guy." The former Massachusetts governor is not known for flights of fancy -- one associate told New York magazine that Romney "never took big risks" as a business executive. As a politician, he's been even more cautious.
5. The White House categorically denied it
In his item, Drudge attributed the speculation that Romney might tap Petraeus to none other than POTUS himself. "President Obama whispered to a top fundraiser this week that he believes GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney wants to name Gen. David Petraeus to the VP slot!" he wrote.
But in Tuesday's press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney left no room for interpretation as to whether Obama had said such a thing. "I can say with absolute confidence that such an assertion [has] never been uttered by the president," Carney said, adding a swipe at Drudge for good measure. "And again, be mindful of your sources."
One usually has to parse White House statements for ye olde non-denial denial, but that's pretty categorical.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Who says there are no second acts in American life?
You may remember L. Paul Bremer III as the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) immediately following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Astute readers may also recall that he presided over such decisions as the dismantling of the Iraqi army, the "de-Baathification" of Iraq's government, some questionable financial decisions involving hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of Iraqi money, and the scandal over prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
But the real question is, what's he up to now?
While perusing a Tablet magazine profile of Dan Senor, we happened to notice this gem of a parenthetical: "Bremer wound up retiring to Vermont to become a landscape painter." Do go on!
Apparently, Bremer turned to painting around 2007 and has been going strong ever since, as you can see on his website. He appears to favor landscapes, mostly of rural Vermont, in various muted shades. But as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Let's look at some highlights. From the "private collection," we have a rare female nude, the title of which -- Nude with Matisse Colors (2009) -- refers to innovative French artist Henri Matisse:
Next up, we swing to his preferred subject matter, landscapes.
A muted rural scene from Vermont. We're not sure what the classical influence on this one is, but the skewed perspectives and somber coloring bring to mind certain elements of the Oval Office circa 2003.
Here's another landscape, this one titled Fishing on the Potomac River.
Really, they're all gems. You can see the entire collection here.
Correction: This post originally identified Bremer's primary medium as watercolors. He actually uses primarily oil paints.
L. Paul Bremer
News of a new "seal flu" has many fearing a repeat of the 2009 swine flu outbreak that infected more than 5.7 million in the United States before peaking as a level 5 on the WHO's 6-point pandemic alert. The H3N8 flu virus was discovered after the mysterious death of nearly 200 harbor seals off the United States' northeastern coast. Describing it as "a combination we haven't seen in disease before," researchers warned that the new strain of influenza A could have severe repercussions for human health.
The real shock of the story may be the public realization that such doe-eyed creatures could cause harm. While mosquitoes and ticks, those pesky harbingers of West Nile, dengue fever, cholera, Lyme disease, and Kyasanur fever (among other assorted viral, fungal, and bacterial pathogens) are universally hated, it's hard to believe the Earth's more cuddly creatures could breed evil. Here's another 13 to ruin your next trip to the petting zoo:
Peacocks are dying in droves in Pakistan's Thar Desert region in an outbreak scientists believe is linked to Newcastle disease. Highly contagious in birds, the viral infection is currently rare in humans. Its unique replication properties make it a potential candidate for agroterrorism, but more positive headway been made in its use as a human cancer treatment.
Found primarily in Latin America, armadillos are better known for their unique defense mechanism than their role as a global disease vector. Beneath their shell, however, these mammals shield leprosy, a rare bacterial infection that attacks the skin and nervous system. Though associated more with the bible than modern medicine, the disease remains active throughout the world -- with armadillos responsible for more than a third of infections in the United States.
The world's largest mammal offers plenty of real estate for influenza A, a viral flu strain with the most potential for interspecies transmission. Luckily, the chances for accidental contact remain slim -- just another reason to skip the whale meat.
Monkeys and apes
Described by malaria researchers as a "reservoir for human disease," monkeys and apes are widely known for harboring emerging zoonotic diseases. The HIV virus originated in African monkeys and strains of malaria, Ebola, and monkeypox virus continue to be created or transmitted by monkey and ape populations -- not to mention the cases of measles, rabies, tuberculosis, salmonellosis, shigellosis, amebiasis, balatidiasis, herpes B, giardiasis and helminthes believed to have appeared first in man's closest relative.
Dogs and cats
While many a dog-lover cheered reports of a feline parasite's negative impact on human dopamine production, man's best friend carries its own risks. Though undulant fever is more commonly associated with other species, human cases of the leptospirosis bacteria, an infection whose effect ranges from flu-like symptoms to liver and kidney failure, encephalitis, and pulmonary involvement, have been reported to originate in dogs.
More commonly associated with rats, plague seems to have chosen prairie dogs as its modern rodent host. One leg of a complex threesome that includes mice and fleas, prairie dog coteries across North America have been struck by a mass outbreak of bubonic and sylvatic plague. In an effort to cull the epidemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has implemented a mass fumigation campaign.
While flying foxes are their natural reservoir, the Hendra and Nipah viruses have adapted to survive within horses where they take residence alongside anthrax. Worse, equine encephalitis virus, a pathogen listed as a global priority by the Global Early Warning System for Major Animal Diseases, Including Zoonoses, has spread globally. Transmitted by mosquitos, the virus can be fatal in both horses and humans.
Rabbits and hares
Guinea pigs and hamsters
However popular with the preschool set, guinea pigs and hamsters are still rodents. Next time your kid asks to bring one home remember - these furry beasts are disease vectors of lymphocytic choriomeningitis, leptospirosis, yersiniosis and salmonellosis. Handle with gloves.
TIMM SCHAMBERGER/AFP/Getty Images
India's dark days continue. When two of the country's five power grids collapsed today, the number of powerless Indians neared 700 million. With stranded trains, unresponsive ATMs, and dark traffic lights abounding, it's been an unprecedented disaster only somewhat mitigated by the fact that the majority of Indians aren't connected to the power grid in the first place.
India's outage is now the largest blackout in history, surpassing yesterday's power outage for the record. But it's not the only time the world has seen millions without power. Here are a few more of the world's recent memorable blackouts:
Number affected: 120 million people in Java and Bali
When three power stations went down, three provinces -- including the capital city, Jakarta -- were plunged into darkness. Fires erupted across the capital when resourceful residents turned to candles to light their homes.
Number affected: 97 million across Brazil and Paraguay
The blackout was caused by lightning hitting an electricity substation, causing the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to grind to a hault. Just two years later, the Brazilian government was forced to ration power to prevent more blackouts during a national drought.
Number affected: 60 million across Brazil and Paraguay
Ten years after Brazil's biggest blackout, the Itaipu dam along the border of Paraguay shut down completely, affecting large parts of both countries. Many at the time thought the blackout (shown above) was the consequence of a cyberattack.
Number affected: 57 million across Italy
The blackout occurred the night of Italy's annual "Nuit Blanche" or "White Night" festival in Rome. It's safe to say festivities ended earlier than expected.
Number affected: 50 million in New York, Michigan, and Ohio, as well as Toronto and Ottawa, Canada
The biggest blackout in U.S. history cost an estimated $6 billion dollars. Remarkably, the massive outage began with a single high-voltage power line in Northern Ohio brushing against overgrown trees.
Number affected: 30 million across parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, and Ontario, Canada
The initial cause of the blackout was the tripping of a transmission line near Ontario, though at time, many linked the outage with supposed UFO sightings.
Number affected: 10 million across Europe
After a routine shut down of a high-voltage transmission line to allow a ship to pass on the Elms river in Germany supposedly caused this blackout. France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, and Spain were also affected.
Number affected: 10 million
Keeping the lights on does, indeed, appear to be an Achilles heel for the fast-growing economy, provoking fears ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
Hope springs eternal, I guess:
“I am not an old politician yet,” Medvedev said in an interview with the Times newspaper in London where he attended the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games on July 27. The Times published the interview on Monday.
“I have never ruled out that I would run for president in the future (and I am not planning to quit politics soon), if Russians are interested in this,” he said in the interview, according to the Russian-language transcript published on Medvedev’s official website.
In 2024, assuming Vladimir Putin serves two full six-year terms and is once again constitutionally barred from running, Medvedev will only be 58. Maybe we can do this whole awkward maneuver over again. Putin would be 77 in 2030 after Medvedev serves a term, which seems a bit old to make it a threepeat, but who knows?
Those hoping for an Iran-Israel Judo showdown will be disappointed after a "critical digestive system infection" prevented Jahvaad Majoob -- the only Iranian athlete scheduled to compete alongside an Israeli -- from boarding the plane to London. Yet, from the North Korean flag mix up to the ongoing controversy over a Saudi Arabian judo fighter's headscarf, those itching for some geopolitical proxy battles will have their fill. Here are another seven matches to watch:
Table Tennis: North Korea vs. South Korea
August 3, 2:00 pm EST
For big tension on a very small court, viewers should tune in to the first found of men's team table tennis where North Korea will face off against its archenemy South Korea. The nations remain technically at war despite a July 27, 1953 armistice, and the demilitarized zone remains one of the most dangerous borders in the world with Pyongyang threatening to turn Seoul into a "sea of flames." In this match at least, paddles are certain to fly.
Lightweight Double Sculls: South China smackdown
July 29 5:40 am EST
Poor Germany is stuck in the middle of China, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea in the women's lightweight double sculls. As the Asian nations squabble over islands in the East and South China Seas and the potential for naval war looms, the title of best rower may mean more than just a medal.
Handball: Britain vs. Argentina
August 2, 11:15 am EST
Despite insisting in February that her country would not boycott the games, Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner announced this week she will not attend the opening ceremony. Her absence is a protest against Britain's claims to the Falklands, which Argentine maintains at their rightful territory despite their military defeat in 1982. As the island nears a referendum to determine its political status, Argentinean and British Olympic teams will have the chance to fight it out on men's handball court. If the losing country isn't satisfied, it will get another chance -- they're scheduled to play in field hockey too.
Pair Rowing: Greece vs. Germany
July 28, 7:00 am EST
Blood pressure will be high as Greece's Nikolaos Gkountoulas and Apostolos Gkountoulas race Germany's Anton Braun and Felix Drahotta in the men's pair rowing race. As debtor faces creditor, viewers should hope it'll be a repeat of the 2012 Euro Cup. Team loyalty got political when creative German fans mocked the Greeks "Without Angie, you wouldn't be here." Not to be beat, the Greeks struck low: "We'll never pay you back. We'll never pay you back." The question remains-if Greece wins, who gets the gold?
Soccer: U.S. vs. North Korea
July 31, 12:15 pm EST
Opponents on every issue ranging from human rights to nuclear weapons, the United States and North Korea will face off in match 15 of the women's group G. Though the United States won the FIFA 2008 Championship title after defeating North Korea in the final round, their 2010 quarterfinal losses prevented a rematch. It remains to be seen if young leader Kim Jong Un is as harsh as his dad when it comes to international soccer failure.
Fencing: China vs. Japan
August 5, 5:30 am EST
While Beijing and Tokyo diplomats have so far limited themselves to lobbing rhetorical barbs over the latest territorial row, fencers Kenta Chida, Ryo Miyake, Lei Sheng and Jianfei Ma will face off in the men's team foil. Though fencing is lauded as a game of strategy, not force, the fighters' long history is certainly bloody.
Basketball: U.S. vs. China
August 5, 11:45 am EST
The U.S. women's basketball team faces China in game 52. U.S. - Sino relations have begun to sour as the United States pivots its forces to Asia and populist rhetoric has entered the U.S. presidential race. Bruised by an embarrassing 62-100 loss to the U.S. in May, seventh-ranked China is thirsty for revenge.
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
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