Not that terrorism is ever defensible as a political tactic, but it's at least possible to determine the political motivation behind a terrorist attack. That's not really true of the Real IRA's latest bombing, carried out just hours before London relinquished control of Northern Ireland's criminal justice system:
The Real IRA splinter group admitted responsibility for forcing a Belfast cabbie to drive the bomb to the gates of Palace Barracks, the high-security home of the anti-terrorist agency MI5 in Northern Ireland.
Senior police officers said the bomb could easily have killed or maimed civilians living beside the base in Holywood, a prosperous Belfast suburb, but for the bravery of the taxi driver. He had been ordered by three dissident gunmen to deliver the bomb to the base and not raise any alarm - or else he or his family members would be executed. But police said the man, who was not publicly identified, shouted "It's a bomb!" as soon as he parked outside a perimeter entrance.
Twenty minutes later, officers were still evacuating elderly couples and families from nearby houses when the bomb detonated, showering the roofs and front yards with shrapnel and debris but hitting nobody.
It's become a political cliche to describe terrorist attacks as "cowardly," but it's hard to think of another word for kidnapping a taxi driver's family and forcing him to drive your bomb into a residential neighborhood. The incompetence and rarity of the Real IRA's attacks make them unlikely to inspire widespread terror in the population, but their callousness and political tone-deafness make them unlikely to win any sympathy.
Plus, mainstream Republican politicians like onetime IRA commander turned Deputy Prime Minister Martin McGuiness don''t seem to have any reluctance to criticize the group's actions, calling them "a waste of time, totally futile, because the political landscape has changed forever."
Probably time to pack it in.
PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images
As survivors and the descendants march at Auschwitz today for Holocaust Remembrance Day, election results yesterday in nearby Hungary, where the far-right Jobbik party earned 16.7 percent of the vote, evoked memories of that time in a very different way:
Jobbik’s leader, Gabor Vona, 32, is a former history teacher who tapped into a growing nationalism fanned by economic hardship. He is a founding member of the Magyar Garda, an association whose uniforms are reminiscent of those worn by the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s wartime Nazi party. The group, which was outlawed last year but has not disbanded, has revived dark memories of World War II, when Jews and Roma were deported to concentration camps.
Analysts said Jobbik’s growing popularity illustrates how the economic crisis was helping to fuel a regional backlash against minorities, as people look for someone to blame. In Hungary, at least five Roma have been killed in the past two years and Roma leaders have counted about 30 firebomb attacks against their people’s homes.
Hungary’s Jewish population of nearly 100,000 has also been one of its targets, with Jobbik claiming that “foreign speculators,” including Israel, want to control the country. A recent edition of the party magazine showed a statue of St. Gellert — an 11th-century martyred bishop — holding a menorah instead of a cross. “Is this what you want?” it asked.
Pope Benedict's personal preacher Father Raniero Cantalamessa also had the Holocaust on the mind last week when he compared attacks on the church over the ongoing sex abuse scandal to the "collective violence" inflicted on Jews by the Nazis. A retired Italian bishop also reportedly blamed the scandal on "Zionists," though he has denied making the comments.
While it's certainly not fair to say sentiments like these are widespread, these incidents provide a disturbing contemporary backdrop to a day of historical commemoration.
JACEK BEDNARCZYK/AFP/Getty Images
LUEBBENAU, GERMANY - APRIL 09: Jutta Pudenz, an employee of German postal carrier Deutsche Post DHL, arrives to deliver mail from her falt-bottomed canoe in the narrow canals in the Spreewald forest on April 9, 2010 in Luebbenau, Germany. Pudenz has been delivering mail via the waterways for 20 years and is the only postwoman in Germany to deliver mail door to door by boat. The Spreewald forest is interlaced with canals that are still used by locals for delivering goods, ferrying tourists and even collecting garbage. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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A Greek man has taken umbrage over the use of his face on Swedish containers of Turkish yoghurt. The offended party is not interested in reconciliation, either: he has sued Lindahls, the dairy company that puts out the item, for almost $7 million.
The man only found out his moustachioed face featured on the containers of Turkisk Yoghurt made by Lindahls when a friend living in Stockholm told him.
Athanasios Varzanakos told Swedish Radio his friend "was annoyed and asked how it was possible" when informed.
Lindahls claims to have bought the image legitimately from a photo agency. Hopefully, this won't have too much impact on the ongoing rapprochement between Greek and Turkish Cyprus.
OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images
For anyone who just can't wait any longer for the premier of the next season of Mad Men, the next best thing might be following the Ukrainian political scene.
Not to be outdone by President Yanukovich, who told Yulia Tymoshenko during a February campaign event that she should either take responsibility for herself or "demonstrate her whims in the kitchen," last Friday Prime Minister Mykola Azorov declared that:
Some say our government is too large; others that there are no women.... There's no one to look at during cabinet sessions: they're all boring faces. With all respect to women, conducting reforms is not women's business."
At the very least, Yanukovich and Azorov are true to their word: there's not a single woman to be found among the government's cabinet ministers. I wonder what Alexandra Starr would have to say about this.
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Greece's latest deficit-cutting measures may help the country escape its debt crisis, but higher taxes and wage cuts will be a hardship for many Greek citizens, who already are the most likely in Europe to report problems paying their bills.
Fully fifty-seven percent of Greeks answered that they are "Constantly struggling and have fallen behind with some/many bills." This number is twelve percent higher than the three runners-up, Latvia, Bulgaria, and Cyprus. Furthermore, forty-three percent of Greeks claimed that though they had no problems paying bills in 2008, they had begun having problems in 2009 and expected them to continue in 2010 -- a number also twelve percent higher than the E.U. average of 31 percent.
It looks like this big, fat Greek economic collapse will last well into the future.
France was poised to become the first major economy to tax carbon emissions, but thanks to legal and political setbacks, it's not to be:
A tax would have to be introduced at a European level in order "not to harm the competitiveness of French companies," Francois Fillon was quoted as saying by several MPs of the governing UMP party who attended a meeting with him.[...]
Speaking after the UMP was badly beaten in regional elections seen as a punishment vote for Sarkozy, Fillon said the government's reform priorities were "growth, jobs, competitiveness and fighting deficits," the MPs told AFP.
Given the tricky logic of climate change regulations, in which no country wants to make painful cuts without assurances that other countries aren't gaining advantage, this is an international setback as well.
In the latest development in the Armenian genocide resolution row, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted at expelling thousands of Armenians from the country. The threat was made as a result of genocide resolutions progressing in the U.S. Congress and Swedish parliament.
About 100,000 undocumented Armenians live in Turkey (and another 70,000 legal residents), many performing menial work.
Obviously Erdogan's words aren't helpful (and would seem particularly crass given the issue), but they're nothing new. Aris Nalci, editor at Agos, a Turkish-Armenian weekly, downplayed the remarks:
We are not taking it as a serious threat.
Checking the scorecard, the impact of the committee vote is now a threat to the use of Incirlik Air base, a crucial link in the supply train to Iraq; damaging the peace process and rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia; and now a warning that tens of thousands of poor, migrant Armenians might get deported.
Does the foreign affairs committee still think it was worth it?
The State Department's 2010 Human Rights Report examines abuse and discrimination the world over, featuring China, Iran, and... Western Europe?
Europe is not exactly at the forefront of one's mind when thinking of places with poor human rights records. But creeping into European society are widespread and insidious anti-Muslim sentiments, says the report. These prejudices are increasingly visible across the Continent, with numerous cases last year highlighting the issue. The document puts it rather bluntly: "Discrimination against Muslims in Europe has been an increasing concern."
The biggest headline grabber was the Swiss ban of minaret construction, passed by a significant majority (57.5 percent in favor) in a popular referendum. (Notably, the ban was opposed by majorities in parliament and the Federal Council, but still won handily.) Compared to its bigger neighbors, Switzerland has a relatively tiny Muslim community, and there are only four minarets in the entire country -- making the ban mostly symbolic. But the message, another contribution to the growing trend of Swiss hostility towards Muslims, resonated. The report further stated,
Islamic organizations have complained that authorities in many cantons and municipalities discriminated against Muslims by refusing zoning approval to build mosques, minarets, or Islamic cemeteries.
Switzerland was hardly the only country the Report criticized. France's anti-headscarf laws were criticized, as was French President Nicolas Sarkozy's claim that burqas are "not welcome" in France. In the Netherlands, right-wing politician Geert Wilders is cited for frequently stoking anti-Muslimsentiments
The spiraling child sex abuse in the European Catholic church keeps getting closer and closer to Pope Benedict XVI himself:
The man, identified only as H., was allowed to stay in a vicarage while undergoing therapy — a decision in which then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger was involved, the statement said. It said officials believe it was known the therapy was related to suspected "sexual relations with boys." However, it says a lower-ranking official — Gerhard Gruber — then allowed him to help in pastoral work in Munich.
The archdiocese says there were no accusations against the chaplain relating to his February 1980 to August 1982 spell in Munich. However, he was convicted of sexually abusing minors during a stint in nearby Grafing between September 1982 and 1985.
The church continues to maintain that Benedict was unaware of the decision to reassign the priest:
Gruber told The Associated Press by telephone Friday that he was in sole charge of staffing decisions. "Personnel matters were delegated," Gruber said. "I decided that on my own."
Gruber also said Benedict would not have been aware of his decision because the case load was too big. "You have to know that we had some 1,000 priests in the diocese at the time," Gruber said. "The cardinal could not deal with everything, he had to rely on his vicar general."
Gruber's statement nominally protects Benedict but also implies that the reassigning of a priest suspected of sexually molesting children was such a non-issue that if fell under the general category of "personnel matters" to be handled by a lower-ranking official. It also implies that Benedict knew about the priest's case but didn't consider it worth following up.
In any event, even if Benedict had no idea what was happening, he should still take responsibility for the decisions of subordinates under his command. If it's true for the CEO of Toyota, it should at least be true for the spiritual leader of millions of people.
Sex abuse scandals have rocked the catholic communities in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Ireland in recent months. Patsy Mcgarry of the Irish Times wrote recently for FP about how this has undermined Catholic institutions in Ireland.
Looks like Silvio Berlusconi's off the hook again. The upper chamber of the Italian Parliament passed a new law today allowing the prime minister to excuse himself from attending court hearings on the grounds that his day-to-day obligations as premier constitute a "legitimate impediment" to doing so. The law will allow Berlusconi to suspend all pending court hearings for up to 18 months. As Nick Squires of the Telegraph observes, assuming Berlusconi isn't unexpectedly ousted, 18 months should be sufficiently long enough for him to ride out the statute of limitations on his current charges.
Lauding Parliament's decision, Maurizio Gasparri, a senator from Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party, declared that the new law would "balance the relationship between the executive and judiciary" branches of government.
If you find that line tough to swallow, I suggest reading Portuguese novelist and Nobel Prize winner José Saramago's blistering attack on Berlusconi, which was originally published as an editorial titled "The Berlusconi Thing" in the Spanish newspaper El Pais (English translation available here).
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Earlier today, former U.S. President George W. Bush called British conservative leader David Cameron to try to convince him to urge his allies in the Northern Irish Ulster Unionist party to support a deal that would give the government in Belfast control over police.
As one source told the Guardian, "This is the most active thing George W Bush has done in his post-presidency period." Declan Kelly , the U.S. economic envoy to Northern Ireland aparrently asked Bush to make the call after the White House became increasingly concerned over Belfast's inability to strike a deal.
It might seem odd that Bush would choose break his radio silence on Northern Ireland, an issue on which his track record isn't well known. But as the Guardian's Henry Macdonald writes, his role in the peace process is more substantial than many realize:
Nationalist Ireland has enjoyed a love affair with former US president Bill Clinton since the earliest days of the search for peace in Northern Ireland. His high profile post-ceasefire visits to Belfast were meant to set the seal on the process.
However, it was arguably his successor in the White House, George Bush, who drove the political process forward to the once unthinkable scenario of the Democratic Unionists sharing power with Sinn Féin.
The deal that led to power sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin was sealed at the St Andrews negotiations in 2006. Central to that deal was Sinn Féin agreeing to drop its historic opposition to the police in Northern Ireland - a key DUP precondition before entering government with the republican party.
The key figure in the Americans persuading the DUP and Sinn Féin to come together was Bush's special envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss. Reiss, in the summer of 2006, won the confidence of the DUP by insisting Bush's ban on Sinn Féin raising funds in North America would remain in place.
Bush's intervention doesn't seem to have had much effect. The Unionists are still opposed to the deal. But coming after Obama sent Bush, along with Bill Clinton, on a mission to Haiti in January, it does seem like something of an olive branch to the former president. It's hard to imagine there are too many international constituencies that are looking forward to receiving a call from Bush -- Ulster Unionists, Kosovar nationalists, the Georgian government -- but there's no reason not to enlist his services when they may be of help.
Eric Draper/The White House via Getty Images
A setback for animal-rights activists in Switzerland:
Voters in Switzerland have rejected a proposal to introduce a nationwide system of state-funded lawyers to represent animals in court. Animal rights groups had proposed the move, saying that without lawyers to argue the animals' case, many instances of cruelty were going unpunished.
But the measure was rejected by around 70% of voters in a referendum.
U.S. "regulatory czar" Cass Sunstein wrote in favor of establishing something like this as a law professor, which led to hunting rights activists Saxby Chambliss and John Cornyn holding up his senate confirmation for a time. It's a safe bet that Sunstein won't touch anything like the Swiss proposal with a ten-foot poll now that he's actually in government, but it would still be interesting to know his thoughts on it.
On a slightly related note, I have a short piece in the last print magazine about circumstances under which animals observe human national borders.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Image
Daniel Charbonnier, co-founder of Minds in Motion, an international hospitality advisory and services company, has recently partnered with concept artists Frank and Patrik Riklin to transform the 'Zero-Star Hotel' into a worldwide business opportunity. The 'Zero Star Hotel' is an art installation, a Swiss nuclear bunker converted into an 'eco-luxury' hotel that can host 14 guests in a configuration of 6 single beds and 4 double beds. Larger groups can also be accommodated in an adjacent room highlighting original military-style bunk-beds.
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FP Editor in Chief Moisés Naím and the Carnegie Endowment's Uri Dadush have an op-ed in today's Financial Times arguing that Europe's excessive fear of inflation is preventing it from taking the action necessary to prevent a potentially catastrophic crash of the Greek economy:
There are ways to mitigate the pain. For example, Germany and other countries could adopt more expansionary fiscal policies for a while. Or, more powerfully, the wider euro area could adopt more expansionary monetary policies for several years. Today, this second option is anathema as the “inflation fundamentalists” will have none of it. This elite of central bankers, top economic officials, politicians, academics and journalists maintains the risks of allowing inflation to climb above 2 per cent are unacceptable.
Their view is informed by the disastrous experience with hyperinflation in Germany in the 1930s and stagflation in industrial countries in the 1970s and 1980s. Undoubtedly, moderate inflation can creep up to become high inflation. But, like many good ideas that take on the mantle of a cult, inflation fundamentalism can hurt. There is little if any empirical evidence that moderate inflation that stays moderate hurts growth. In most countries, cutting actual wages is politically difficult if not altogether impossible. But, to regain competitiveness and balance the books, real wage adjustments are sometimes inevitable. A slightly higher level of inflation allows for this painful adjustment with a lower level of political conflict.
Read the whole thing here.
The Controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders is feeling pretty confident after his freedom party gained ground in local elections, seeting the stage for parliamentary elecitons in June:
"Today Almere and The Hague, tomorrow the whole of the Netherlands. This is our springboard for success in parliamentary elections," Wilders said as the returns came in.
"We're going to take the Netherlands back from the leftist elite that coddles criminals and supports Islamization," said Wilders, who campaigned in Almere for banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public.
On Friday Wilder will travel to Britain -- from which he was banned last year -- to show his anti-Islam film Fitna in parliament at the invitation of the U.K. independence party. He also showed his film at the Capitol last year at the invitation of Sen. Jon Kyl.
The efforts to shut Wilders up -- prosecuting him for hate speech, banning him from traveling, not to mention the numerous death threats he's received -- have clearly not worked. Wilders has only used them to his advantage portraying himself as a free-speech martyr. As odious as opponents may find his views, Wilders clearly has a growing constituency and mainstream Dutch politicians are going to have to find a way to defeat his arguments in the cout of public opinion, rather than criminal courts. He's not just a sideshow anymore.
The Greek prime ministry announced a third austerity program yesterday, prompting protests from public sector workers. But some German MPs apparently felt it was not enough and recommended rather impolitic further measures: the fire sale of uninhabited Greek islands and cultural assets like, well, the Acropolis. This did not please the Greeks, who called for a boycott of German goods.
The sale of cultural assets surely goes a touch far. For one, Greece has a massive tourism industry. I doubt all those Americans would bother visiting the site where the Parthenon once sat. More importantly, and obviously, Greek cultural artifacts might be valuable to someone, but are invaluable to Greeks.
The sale of uninhabited or unused land actually strikes me as a decent idea -- the question is how it would be enacted. The idea of Greece marketing and selling an island to a billionaire might be crass, but seems workable. The idea of Greece selling sovereign land to Turkey? Less so.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Yesterday, the Greek government announced a spate of emergency austerity measures, designed to help the country close its yawning budget gap. Half are new taxes, and half are spending cuts, including:
Other measures include: an additional 1 percent tax on income over 100,000 euros, reducing government overtime hours by 30 percent, cutting public-sector benefits 10 percent, and taxing the commercial activities of churches. And it's still not quite enough -- Greece needs an additional bailout to help it pay off debt due this spring.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Image
Though Iranian-Italian relations don't often make the headlines, trade between the two countries is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $9 billion. That makes Italy Iran's largest trading partner in the EU.
But perhaps the $9 billion figure should be revised upwards in light of some of the most recent news to come out of Rome: on Tuesday, March 2, Italian police arrested seven people -- five Italians and two Iranians -- on suspicion of engaging in illegal arms trafficking to the Islamic Republic. After making the arrests, police seized a variety of equipment, including rifle scopes, military scuba-diving jackets, flak jackets, mobile phones, and life vests.
While few details have been made publicly available, what has been released makes "Operation Sniper," the code name for the police investigation that ultimately led to the seven arrests, sound like something out of one of the Bourne movies.
According to Italian police, the dealers began their smuggling operation in 2007. After buying arms in Europe, the dealers would then launder the arms by transporting them to the U.K., Romania, and Switzerland before selling them to clients in Iran. Although Italian authorities haven't released any information regarding the identity of these clients, some have speculated that based on the nature of the equipment that was seized, the intended recipients were probably members of the Iranian secret service.
Though the smuggling operation was initially a success, it hit a snag in Romania when a customs official seized 200 gun sights that were illegally headed from Italy to Iran. Details remain sketchy, but this seizure appears to have tipped off police in other countries, as related arrests and seizures were soon made in Switzerland and Brtain. Thanks to the information gathered from these maneuvers, Italian police were able to successfully identify the smugglers in Italy and arrange a sting operation against them.
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Last weekend, the Dutch coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, fell apart. The Labor Party wanted all of the Netherlands’ troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2010; the Christian Democrats wanted to agree to a NATO request to extend their stay. Labor pulled out, and now Balkenende needs to scramble to create a new government. It’s all a bit less dramatic than it sounds; Balkenende’s last three coalitions governments disintegrated as well.
But it’s ginned up some very dramatic bellowing from across the pond. None less than Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lamented the Dutch pull-out (the Orwellian New York Times headline, sadly now changed, read "Gates Calls Europe Anti-War Mood Danger to Peace").
The real stick the U.S. and NATO seem ready to use to punish the Dutch? Ejecting them from the G-20. Granted, it sounds a bit wet noodle-ish. But the Dutch have tried to get into the G-20 for years, and won their observer status by being strong international partners during the financial crisis. It's going to smart.
Theres seems to be more trouble at the top in the Europe's strange new leadership structure with NATO defense ministers blasting the EU High Representative Baroness Catherine Ashton for skipping their meeting:
“Isn’t it rich that this morning, to display the ties between Nato and the EU, we have the Nato SecretaryGeneral [Anders Fogh Rasmussen] here but not the High Representative for the first meeting since the Lisbon Treaty came into effect,” Hervé Morin, the French Defence Minister, said.
His Dutch counterpart, Jack de Vries, chimed in on Twitter: “Madame Ashton was notable by her absence.” He noted that Javier Solana, her predecessor, always found time for defence ministers’ talks.
Carme Chacón, the Spanish Defence Minister and host of the defence talks while her country holds the rotating EU presidency, also “regretted Ashton’s absence” because of the important subjects discussed, a European diplomat said.
Ahston skipped the meeting so she could attend Viktor Yaunukovych's swearing-in as Ukraine's new president. While the EU relationship with Ukraine is undoubtedly critical, Yanukovych is visiting Brussels on Monday so it does seem odd that Ashton would prioritize a largely symbolic function.
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
Two weeks ago, European leaders tapped Germany to lead a bailout of Greece. Since then -- sturm und drang and chaos. Germans are infuriated over everything from Greece's hiring of Wall Street firms to hide its debt to the country's retirement age (in Germany, 67, in Greece, 61). In turn, Greeks have accused German papers of racism and western European leaders of paternalism.
Yesterday, a 60,000-person strike shut down Athens and turned violent, Theodoros Pangalos, the deputy prime minister of Greece, brought history into it. In an interview with BBC radio, he invoked the 1941 Nazi invasion of Greece, which caused an estimated 300,000 deaths:
[The Nazis] took away the Greek gold that was at the Bank of Greece, they took away the Greek money and they never gave it back. This is an issue that has to be faced sometime in the future. I don't say they have to give back the money necessarily but they have at least to say "thanks."And they shouldn't complain so much about stealing and not being very specific about economic dealings.
All in all, I can't see anyone benefiting from this diplomatic low blow. The Greeks don't want German help, and the Germans don't want to have to give it to them. But, the alternative is mass unemployment and emigration, deep cuts to social services, and a prolonged depression. As I understand it, even moderate austerity measures combined with very high taxes on the rich, the Greek populist proposal, simply will not work. And, just as an aside, I'll go ahead and guess that Angela Merkel saying "Thanks for the gold!" would not go down well in Athens at all.
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After almost two weeks of protest, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has dropped her charges of electoral fraud against Viktor Yanukovich, but not without a parting salvo. On February 20, after officially withdrawing her petition with the Ukrainian High Administrative Court to annul the election result, Tymoshenko declared that
"Sooner or later, an honest prosecutor's office and an honest court will assess that Yanukovich was not elected president of Ukraine, and that the will of the people had been rigged."
Bitter much, Yulia?
While Yanukovich has managed to weather the post-election fallout -- his inauguration is still scheduled for February 25, and the vast majority of Ukrainians view him as their legitimate president -- it remains to be seen how he will deal with Tymoshenko, who still retains her premiership. Although Yanukovich has called on Tymoshenko to resign her post, many suspect that she has other ideas in her mind: it has been reported that she is planning to initiate a parliamentary vote of no confidence against the newly elected president upon his taking of office.
Tymoshenko may be no Nigerien colonel, but it should still be interesting to see how the Yanukovich-Tymoshenko conflict plays out after the inauguration.
ALEKSANDER PROKOPENKO/AFP/Getty Images
How much does it matter that the Netherlands and other European countries appear to have little interest in continuing the war in Afghanistan -- or fighting wars in general? Quite a bit, says Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
“The demilitarization of Europe — where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it — has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st,” he told NATO officers and officials in a speech at the National Defense University, the Defense Department-financed graduate school for military officers and diplomats.
But in a piece in Foreign Policy's new print magazine, Andrew Bacevich takes a different view, arguing that it makes little sense to reast NATO -- a remnant of the Cold War -- as an American-led instrument of power projection. Europeans should focus on their own problems:
This doesn't mean that NATO is without value. It does suggest that relying on the alliance to sustain a protracted counterinsurgency aimed at dragging Afghans kicking and screaming into modernity makes about as much sense as expecting the "war on drugs" to curb the world's appetite for various banned substances. It's not going to happen.
If NATO has a future, it will find that future back where the alliance began: in Europe. NATO's founding mission of guaranteeing the security of European democracies has lost none of its relevance. Although the Soviet threat has vanished, Russia remains. And Russia, even if no longer a military superpower, does not exactly qualify as a status quo country. The Kremlin nurses grudges and complaints, not least of them stemming from NATO's own steady expansion eastward.
So let NATO attend to this new (or residual) Russian problem. Present-day Europeans -- even Europeans with a pronounced aversion to war -- are fully capable of mounting the defenses necessary to deflect a much reduced Eastern threat. So why not have the citizens of France and Germany guarantee the territorial integrity of Poland and Lithuania, instead of fruitlessly demanding that Europeans take on responsibilities on the other side of the world that they can't and won't?
What do readers think?
If I weren't Annie in Washington, but were, say, Anthea in Athens, I'd consider moving right about now. The Greek economy is cratering. Unemployment is skyrocketing. Taxes are rising. Social services are being slashed. Greece's participation in the European Union means that I can move and get a job anywhere in it, without a visa. So, I'd figure -- I'm young, childless, and college-educated. I'll try my prospects in Strasbourg for a couple years.
The problem is: I'm useful to the Greek economy. I work hard and pay taxes, but don't use much in the way of social services like healthcare. I do spend plenty of my income on things like clothes and food, though, and might even open a business if given the chance. Alas, it seems, I am leaving Greece by the thousands.
I used Eurostat to make this chart of the growth changes in the Greek population, broken down by age group. Blue bands are growing and red are shrinking. Eurostat only had data up until 2009, but I imagine we will see trends accelerate in 2010, with a veritable exodus of young members of the work force. On one hand, this might leave jobs for other workers and therefore lower unemployment somewhat. On the other, the trend just does not bode well for the Greek economy.
This weekend, the New York Times reported that Greece, in the midst of a massive economic crisis, had none other than Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs help it keep its books in the black with some creative financial maneuvers, such as selling away the rights to future lottery earnings.
[Greece] engaged in a decade-long effort to skirt European debt limits. One deal created by Goldman Sachs helped obscure billions in debt from the budget overseers in Brussels. Even as the crisis was nearing the flashpoint, banks were searching for ways to help Greece forestall the day of reckoning. In early November...a team from Goldman Sachs arrived in the ancient city with a very modern proposition for a government struggling to pay its bills.
The story is a bit less fantastic than it seems at first blush. First, Felix Salmon notes, the world has known about the investment banks' advising the Greek government for the better part of a decade. In 2003, Nick Dunbar of Risk Magazine published a long piece on the giant swap deals Goldman was engineering for Athens.
Second, Greece is hardly alone in papering over or effectively doctoring its stats. The New York Times article notes that Italy partakes in similar banker-confabulated deals and implies that others do too. France pulled a similar 9 billion euro debt maneuver, revealed in 2006. China cooks its books to boost its GDP numbers. Name any of a dozen developing nations (Zimbabwe springs to mind) and someone will have plausibly accused it of lying with statistics.
But, of course, Greece is no Zimbabwe. The ousted Greek government knew better than to amp up the creative accounting as its economy was tanking. It made a bad situation worse, imperiled Greek livelihoods, hurt its partners in the eurozone, and possibly even destabilized the euro itself.
What I can't figure out is how much the Eurocrats and eurozone finance ministers knew about these deals. The European Monetary Union has bureaucrats aplenty to keep track of the eurozone economies and prudential measures to prevent countries from over-extending themselves, debt-wise. Is the issue that they didn't know enough -- or that they didn't act?
At the Financial Times, Harvard professor Martin Feldstein argues for letting Greece take a holiday from the euro, allowing it to devalue its currency and ease its severe economic woes. It's a nice idea, but a bit pie in the sky. Barry Eichengreen explains why:
The insurmountable obstacle to exit [is] procedural. Reintroducing the national currency would require essentially all contracts -- including those governing wages, bank deposits, bonds, mortgages, taxes, and most everything else - to be redenominated in the domestic currency. The legislature could pass a law requiring banks, firms, households and governments to redenominate their contracts in this manner. But in a democracy this decision would have to be preceded by very extensive discussion.
And for it to be executed smoothly, it would have to be accompanied by detailed planning. Computers will have to be reprogrammed. Vending machines will have to be modified. Payment machines will have to be serviced to prevent motorists from being trapped in subterranean parking garages. Notes and coins will have to be positioned around the country. One need only recall the extensive planning that preceded the introduction of the physical euro.
The introduction of the euro did require extensive planning -- and extensive costs, costs Greece might not want to pay for. Let's do a bit of back of the envelope math. When the eurozone adopted the physical currency, in 2002, the French bank BNC Paribas calculated the price tag for the switch at 160 to 180 billion euros -- 188 to 212 billion euros today. Greece is about 2.5 percent of the eurozone economy -- so the government might be looking at something like a 4.7 to 5.3 billion euro cost.
That is not much. In fact, it is so little Greece might be able to afford it; the government already needs to borrow 53 billion euros to service its debt this year. But that doesn't include the dramatic cost to businesses, individuals, and banks, or the political and plenary trouble of executing such a maneuver. Alas, Feldstein's is a nice idea, but not one I see working.
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Italy has now essentially banned talk shows on state broadcaster RAI from commenting on politics ahead of regional elections:
The ruling PDL Party's majority on the parliamentary watchdog that oversees public broadcaster RAI forced through rules that mean the state broadcaster's most popular talk shows will have to scrap their political content – or face a transfer from mid-evening to graveyard shifts. Programmes such as Ballarò and Annozero, which have frequently held Mr Berlusconi to account for alleged sex scandals and even Mafia links, will be the main victims of the month-long clamp down that prompted accusations of censorship.
Political content will be allowed – but only if all 30 or so parties standing in the elections are represented on every show, which programme-makers said would make their formats unworkable.
The rules will apply from 28 February until 28 March, when the country's regional elections are held. Governmentsupporters said the rules were needed to ensure political neutrality during the election campaign.
Naturally, broadcasters owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset will not be effected by the rule.
This joke of a law is the sort of thing one would expect out of Vladimir Putin's Russia or Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and makes one wonder if Berlusconi would be taken at all seriously as a democratic leader if he didn't happen to live in Western Europe. With his attempts to control Italy's media and judiciary, a trail of corruption charges involving 2,500 court hearings, and -- let's face it -- somewhat unbecoming personal behavior, Berlusconi is becoming an embarassment not just for Italy but for the European Union.
Can the E.U. really be an international voice for democratic reform with one of its core members behaving like a tinpot dictator?
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Here are a chart and a graph showing the PIIGS' and the United States' indebtedness -- more specifically, their public debt and 2009 deficit relative to GDP.
Just glancing at the chart, and remembering that the PIIGS are among the weakest economies in Europe, it seems that the United States isn't in great shape either. It's just on par with Spain, whose economy is struggling.
But the United States has a number of advantages that make its debt and deficit picture brighter. In the future, Washington might answer to Beijing when it comes to its debt addiction. But for now, it determines its own fiscal and monetary policy measures. Not so for the euro-using PIIGS. Washington can slash its interest rate to zero, devalue the dollar, and perform quantitative easing -- none of which the PIIGS can do. Plus, Washington has much lower debt costs; much of the country's debt is basically free, due to the dollar's status as the world's reserve currency.
In contrast, countries like Spain and Greece are mostly at the mercy of their partners in the Eurozone. At The Guardian, economist Claus Vistesen notes that there is no "systemic set-up," no playbook, for what the Eurozone should do to prevent or counter the default of one of its members.
The European Central Bank can't bail Greece out, per Europe's own rules -- the Maastricht treaty says that "the Community should not be liable for or assume the commitments of central governments, regional, local or other public authorities of another member state." Simon Johnson argues that the IMF might be the obvious player to step in, but throws cold water on the idea -- would it have enough money to bail all of the flailing PIIGS out? Would it provide the same sweetheart deals it did to Eastern European countries? Where would that leave the Eurozone?
I'm a bit more bullish on the prospect of the IMF stepping in with an emergency deal. But I think it is more likely the strongest of the big European economies, led by Germany, will eventually come around to coming together along with other partners to write a check and keep Greece afloat.
I continue to find the "Obama is ignoring Europe" meme pretty tiresome. A case in point is this Der Spiegel article which argues that "By declining to come to Spain for a trans-Atlantic summit, President Barack Obama made it clear that Brussels is far down on his priority list," then admits that Obama came to Europe six times last year, is coming to a NATO summit in the fall, and nothing much of any consequence happens at U.S.-EU summits anyway.
But, to my mind, the much more interesting subtext to this is the unclear power dynamic of post-Lisbon Treaty Europe:
Politicians in Washington are perplexed by the herd instincts of the political caste on the other side of the Atlantic. The situation was supposed to improve with the Lisbon Treaty, but the opposite has proven to be the case. The French daily Le Figaro reported that, during a recent visit to Brussels, Mongolian leader Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj complained that he had just "been received by the European Council president, yesterday by the president of parliament and that he was just about to meet with the president of the European Council. Uh."
It's not a good sign when protocol isn't even clear for a visit by the president of Mongolia.
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