Y2K has finally hit... about ten years late. Millions of Germans are currently coping with the effects of a systemic breakdown in the country's credit and debit card services. The episode is -- amusingly, except to those affected -- reminding many of the much-feared millennium computer bug.
"A piece of software on the affected cards, programmed by our suppliers, is defective, and cannot correctly recognize this year's number, 2010," the German DSGV banking association said on Tuesday.
Germans have been caught without massive supplies of bottled water, canned food, flashlights and first-aid kits -- but it seems life will go on. Fewer than half of German cards are affected, though that's little comfort to the many that've had their credit card eaten by the ATM.
Banking officials are claiming the problem will be fixed by next week.
JOHN MACDOUGALL AFP/GETTY IMAGES
The official website for Spain's European Union presidency was briefly hacked this morning by an unidentified hacker who posted a smiling picture of British comedian Rowan Atkinson's famous character Mr. Bean. Apparently the resemblance of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Maria Zapatero to the bumbling character has been a running joke in Spain for years. Never thought of it before but I can see it.
Screenshot via elmundo.es
A number of strange a contradictory reports have emerged about the Somali national who attempted to kill controverisal Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard with an axe in his home on New Year's Day, but it's becoming clear that someone dropped the ball in allowing the man to take up residency in Denmark.
One Danish paper is reporting that Danish intelligence services were aware that the man -- who has not been named because of privacy laws -- was held for seven weeks in Kenya in September for helping to plot an attack against U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. U.S. officials and the Danish embassy in Kenya have both denied the report and say the man was held for having incomplete travel documents.The Danish embassy says it was never made aware by Kenyan authorities that he had been suspected of terrorist activity:
However, while not acknowledging the Clinton plot, the Danish intelligence agency PET acknowledged the man's ties to African terrorist groups:
“The person arrested. has close links with the Somali terrorist organisation al-Shabaab as well as with the heads of al-Qaeda in East Africa,” the agency said in a statement.
“He is also suspected of being implicated in terrorist activities when he was in east Africa. The individual arrested has also been a member of a terrorist network implanted in Denmark that has been under surveillance by PET for a long time.”
The statement doesn't really say whether the individual himself was under observation or when they had become aware of his background before or after he was granted residency in Denmark. There will probably be a lot more investigation in the coming weeks of whether it was the Kenyans or the Danes who messed up.
I generally think it's not fair to expect authorities to take every report of a potential security threat seriously, but this case as well as the U.S. plane bombing both highlight how much ground the international community needs to make up on intergovernmental intelligence sharing on terrorism suspects. I have to think that a concerted effort in this area should be a higher priority than new airport scanners or security procedures.
BRIAN RASMUSSEN/AFP/Getty Images
If anything good has come from the Flight 253 terror attack -- in which a 23-year-old Nigerian man attempted to detonate an explosive on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day -- it has been the tale of the Flying Dutchman.
Jasper Schuringa, a 32-year-old Dutch filmmaker, heard a popping sound and saw smoke emanating from the would-be terrorist's pants. He leaped to the rescue, jumping over other passengers to wrestle Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and put out the fire on his pants, burning his bare hands in the process. (Abdulmutallab had hidden a plastic explosive in his underwear.) Schuringa then restrained Abdulmutallab in a headlock and helped the stewards handcuff him in first class. Needless to say, the tabloids are in love.
And the story underscores the point that, in the words of security expert Bruce Schneier, "Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers."
Photo from Facebook
Poor Nigeria. As if it didn't already have a terrible reputation, the alleged terror attempt by a 23-year-old Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab yesterday on a flight from Amsterdam to Detriot seals the deal. But as you're reading the news, a few caveats to remember:
First, much of the information coming out about the suspect's origin comes from the Nigerian newspaper This Day. While often a good source of initial information, this report probably shouldn't be taken as fact without other confirmation. The press in Nigeria, while vibrant, growing, and home to countless incredible journalists, has still been known to exagerate or assume at times. I have no reason to believe that is the case this time, but skepticism is warranted.
Second, if the suspect does indeed come from a family of means, as his residence in London suggests (forgive a generalization, but anyone who is anyone in Nigeria has got a house in London), it says much about where the real terror "threat" is (and is not) coming from in Nigeria. Security analysts have been worrying about Nigeria since the Sept 11. attacks -- fearing that this about half-Muslim country of 140 million people would be a potential host to extremists. But at the end of the day, something that I've learned about Nigeria is that it takes money and connections to get things done. Just think back to the violence earlier this summer by the Boko Haram sect. The mostly-impoverished members of the group raised hell in the local context ... but that was it. Taking "jihad" international from Nigeria is still a long ways and a lot of financing off (if it is on the way at all).
Which brings me to one more point about extremism in Nigeria. Much of the religious violence that the country has seen in recent years has been less about religion and more about a country rife with corruption and wanting for institutions. When sharia law was introduced in the North earlier this decade, most analysts believe that it had more to do with a desire for the law -- any law -- to function. Since the secular government had failed for years, many sought refuge in the laws of religious fundamentalism.
And that brings us back to the alleged terrorist in questioning today. His grievances are different from these, one might imagine, since the lack of rule of law often works in favor of (rather than against) the elite. In short, what I'm trying to say is that there are two different phenomena going on here: mass dissatisfaction among many impoverished in the country's Muslim North, and the different brand of extremism that would incite a well-off 23-year-old to blow up a plane in Detroit.
Finally, in the time that I've written this blog post, I have recieved several requests from news agencies and papers to help me connect them with reporters in Nigeria. An unfortunate reminder that the press in my former-resident country is drying up. And with each correspondent that leaves, it is trickier and trickier to piece together developments that unfold. For the last two years, editors have asked me why Nigeria matters. Case and point.
In the absence of real progress to report, news coverage of the ongoing U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen has lately begun to focus on the protestors.
Here is what we know: There are a lot of them (estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000). They've got some nifty signs and face paint (slogans include: "Planet not profit" and "There is no Planet B"). They've come from around the globe. And several hundred have been thrown in jail.
What we don't know is: What do they want?
For all the stories I've lately read about whether the protests were generally peaceful, whether the anarchists were a fringe minority, or whether jail time for anyone was warranted, I'm still a bit hazy on the larger point.
Where have all the good protestors - and message disciplinarians - gone?
Once upon a time, there was a grand tradition of protestors channeling their energies toward some clearly defined goal. I've written about this before for the Washington Monthly, so please excuse the zeal for history. But here's a quick run-down of the golden age of American protests:
The very first protest march on Washington, DC took place in the midst of an economic depression in 1894 when populist leader Joseph Coxey led an army of 500 jobless men to the Capitol steps to demand a public works program that would provide jobs for the unemployed.
Two decades later, in what must have been the first counter-inaugural protest, 28-year-old Alice Paul organized 8,000 women wearing white to march down Pennsylvania Avenue a day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. The women were there to lobby for women's suffrage, a demonstration that was rewarded by the passage a few years later of a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.
In 1941, the mere threat of a public protest was enough to force political change: When A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, announced plans for a march on Washington, Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination in defense industry and federal jobs.
And the granddaddy of all protests, the March on Washington in 1963, drew a quarter million people to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to demand voting protections and desegregation of public spaces; shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
You get the point. In each of these cases, a specific goal was identified; people were rallied behind the cause; a plan was devised; and often, as in the case of the women's suffrage and civil rights marches, a button-up dress code was enforced. The objective was for the message to be taken seriously. Everyone was more or less on the same page, and there was a clear benchmark for success.
Fast-forward to Copenhagen. Not only are the protestors' intentions and goals scrambled, but reporters have even stopped asking about them. It's no longer expected that protestors should have much purpose beyond self-expression. Which is a shame.
If today's tens of thousands of Copenhagen protestors wanted their efforts to amount to more than color for reporters' stories, they would do well to recognize the real reason why the marches of yesteryear are still remembered. It wasn't just about the messengers showing up; it was about the message - and a clear goal.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Here's your freaky story for the day:
Grave robbers stole the corpse of former Cyprus President Tassos Papadopoulos after digging up his coffin on the eve of the first anniversary of the statesmen's death, police said Friday.
Papadopoulos was a hardline Greek Cypriot nationlist who opposed reconciliation with Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus, so attention is probably going to be focused on Turkish Cypriot groups.
While most of the media coverage regarding Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's trip to the United States has looked east, to Turkey's burgeoning relationship with Syria and Iran, the real breaking news may concern Turkey's faltering relationship with the European Union.
In a speech at SAIS on Monday, Erdogan argued that Turkey's accession is being followed closely by the Islamic world, as a sign of hope that old cultural divisions can finally be bridged. However, he attacked proposals to offer Turkey a "privileged position" with the EU instead of outright membership, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel had previously supported. Instead of making up new classifications of countries midway through the process, he said that those who did not support Turkey's accession to "just come out and say it."
In a meeting with Erdogan's senior foreign policy advisor Ibrahim Kalin and Suat Kiniklioglu, the spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Turkish Parliament, it was clear that Turkish frustrations run even deeper than Erdogan had let on. Kiniklioglu let it be known that his patience with the Europeans had run out, and that he was "tired of being lectured by French senators." According to him, European foot-dragging on Turkey's accession had little to do with the lack of progress on the reforms called for in the accession process, but rather "the identity issue" - Europe is simply leery to let an overwhelmingly Muslim nation into its club.
While Erdogan and his advisors all maintained that Turkey's decision to push for EU accession is still a "major strategic choice" of the country, frustration is building - and Turkey is not keen to remain in limbo on this issue forever. The Turks are trying to sell their admission into the EU by emphasizing how their large population and steady economic growth, not to mention their strategic location, could revitalize Europe's role in international affairs. They are discouraged that this pitch seems to be greeted in Europe with a shrug. Kiniklioglu specifically pointed to the appointment of Herman Van Rompuy as president of the European Council. "What does this tell you about the EU?" he asked rhetorically, that Europe would select a politician not well-known throughout Europe - "or even, from what I've heard, among Belgians?"
Woven into all of this Europe-bashing was praise for the Obama administration's ability to adapt quickly to the changing dynamics of Turkish politics. This could be explained as a simple courtesy visiting diplomats bestow on the host country, but there is good reason to believe it is sincere: Obama gave a gracious speech in the Turkish Parliament soon after his inauguration, which unambiguously declared Turkey a part of Europe, and his openness to negotiating with dirty regimes is in line with the Turkish outlook. The trip was certainly not all happy talks and hugs (to wit: the startling resignation of Turkey's ambassador), but Obama should look closely at leveraging his good reputation with the Turks, and with the Europeans, into patching up this failing relationship.
Ireland is cautious when it comes to defending its stance against abortion. Voters approved the Lisbon treaty on EU integration earlier this year only after stringent guarantees from other EU countries that EU law would not force Ireland to relinquish its ban on the procedure, which was backed by a 1983 referendum.
So, after all that, it's ironic that the challenge to its constitutionally enshrined "right to life of the unborn" is instead coming in the form of a human rights case before a different European body: the 47-member Council of Europe. The case could have continent-wide implications, if the European Court of Human Rights rules in favor of the three women bringing the case, establishing some protection of abortions sought on medical grounds.
As a signatory of the European Human Rights Convention, Ireland would have to change its laws if the court finds in favor of the women -- identified as A, B and C in the court documents. Abortion is currently permitted only in cases of significant risk to the mother, but the women's lawyer argued today that even in those cases abortion is effectively out of reach due to doctor's fear or unwillingness to risk falling afoul the narrow parameters allowed.
The court's ruling, expected in a few months, might have implications for other EU countries, such as Poland and Malta, which have very restrictive abortion laws. Two years ago, the same court found in favor of a Polish woman denied an abortion despite medical recognition that the pregnancy endangered her eyesight, forcing the government to pay her compensation and provide a legal framework for access to lawful, medical need abortions.
Research published in the British Medical Journal says there is no public evidence that Tamiflu reduces complications associated with influenza. Researchers attempting to review data about the Roche produced drug -- dubbed "our best line of defence" against swine flu by the British health secretary -- found the Swiss laboratory wouldn't permit public access to the studies on the drugs.
Tamiflu might shorten influenza suffering by a day or so they said, based on information in the public domain, but it's not clear that chances of serious complications, like pneumonia, would be affected by Tamiflu. Such meager results mean it might not be worth confronting the side-effects, which include: "insomnia, nausea, bad dreams, abdominal pain, headache and a rare neuropsychiatric disease that caused some users to attempt to harm themselves."
This is understandably a problem for the governments around the world who have stockpiled huge quantities of the drug to prescribe for H1N1, contributing to Roche's estimated $2.65 billion in revenues this year from Tamiflu. In a very entertaining, but not too enlightening analogy, a Brit scientist tried to explain the situation policy makers now find themselves in when deciding to use the drug:
But I suppose that once you've gone and bought lots of doses, then it's a bit like the situation with gun control in the US. If you have a gun in the house, it is much easier to use it. But it does not mean it's the right thing to do."
ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images
It hasn't been a great year for Israeli-Swedish relations. First there was the controversy over an anti-Semitic article about Israelis stealing organs in a Swedish tabloid, which both governments blew up into a much bigger issue than it needed to be. Then this week, Sweden, which holds the rotating European Union presidency, issued a proposal calling for the EU to recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. EU foreign ministers adopted a somewhat watered-down version of the draft today, but the war of words between Israel and Sweden continues:
"The peace process in the Middle East is not like IKEA furniture," one official said, making a reference to the do-it-yourself Swedish furniture chain. "It takes more than a screw and a hammer, it takes a true understanding of the constraints and sensitivities of both sides, and in that Sweden failed miserably."
The Foreign Ministry said that Tuesday's EU statement was substantially softer than Sweden's initial draft, once again demonstrating Sweden's failure as the rotating president of the union. "Sweden has done nothing over recent months to advance the Middle East peace process," the Foreign Ministry officials said. "The EU's only saving grace is that some of its members are responsible and moderate nations that didn't support the Swedish draft, which looked like something taken out of the Fatah platform at the Bethlehem conference."
Please. The original draft praises both Israel's settlement freeze and U.S. mediation efforts. You can debate whether or not it's productive for Sweden to be issuing proclamations on where the Palestinian border should be drawn, but in the end, these declarations have only about as much weight as the parties involved choose to give them. Which, judging from the righteous outrage out of Avigdor Lieberman's shop, seems to be quite a lot. This sort of thing might play well to Lieberman's political base, but internationally it just gives the EU's East Jerusalem critique way more publicity than it would have had before.
The Holy See apparently has no barriers to the types of jams it rocks. The Vatican's MySpace playlist includes artists such as the rock band Muse, the folksy Fleet Foxes and the thuggish ruggish beats of the late, great Tupac Shakur. The Vatican joined figures such as Lady Gaga and R. Kelly in publishing their "celebrity" playlist, part of the new MySpace Music initiative.
Not to dwell on the outlier issue, but the Vatican is advertising the fact that it listens to songs glorifying the life of Black Power advocate Huey P. Newton, and this is extraordinary. Most media outlets are making much ado about the graphic nature of many Tupac lyrics, but his underlying message of relief for the poor and suffering seems to fit. The 12-song playlist is rounded out by songs you would expect men of the cloth to listen to; Mozart and some other classical music.
As far as the infallible-one's affinity for Fleet Foxes, one need not look farther than the striking resemblance of front man Robin Pecknold to, well... you get the point.
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
In yesterday's New York Times, Ross Douthat argued that the populist backlash that led to Switzerland's minaret ban is the result of the European Union's increasingly undemocratic style of governance, notwithstanding the fact, as he acknowledges, that Switzerland is not an EU member:
The European Union probably wouldn’t exist in its current form if the Continent’s elites hadn’t been willing to ignore popular sentiment. (The Lisbon Treaty, for instance, was deliberately designed to bypass most European voters, after a proposed E.U. Constitution was torpedoed by referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005.) But this political style — forge a consensus among the establishment, and assume you can contain any backlash that develops — is also how the Continent came to accept millions of Muslim immigrants, despite the absence of a popular consensus on the issue, or a plan for how to integrate them.
The immigrants came first as guest workers, recruited after World War II to relieve labor shortages, and then as beneficiaries of generous asylum and family reunification laws, designed to salve Europe’s post-colonial conscience. The European elites assumed that the divide between Islam and the West was as antiquated as scimitars and broadswords, and that a liberal, multicultural, post-Christian federation would have no difficulty absorbing new arrivals from more traditional societies. And they decided, too — as Christopher Caldwell writes in “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe,” his wonderfully mordant chronicle of Europe’s Islamic dilemma — that liberal immigration policies “involve the sort of nonnegotiable moral duties that you don’t vote on.”
Better if they had let their voters choose. The rate of immigration might have been slower, and the efforts to integrate the new arrivals more strenuous. Instead, Europe’s leaders ended up creating a clash of civilizations inside their own frontiers.
I'm not exactly sure how European politics can be both dominated by non-democratic liberal technocrats and in the grips of a xenophobic populist backlash. I'm not quite sure how Douthat can bring up France's proposed restrictions on the burka, which are supported by President Nicolas Sarkozy -- hardly a fringe figure -- and argue that European governments are dominated by multiculturalist elites who ignore popular sentiment.
I haven't read the data in Caldwell's book, but from what I understand, the widespread public opposition to Muslim immigration developed after the population was already in place. Attitudes toward immigration are rarely static and respond to economic conditions and the relative size of the immigrant population, as well as unpredictable events like the 9/11 attacks.
It seems to me that if the Swiss can get enough votes together to ban minarets in 2009, they should have been just as able to get the votes together to oppose liberal immigration policies decades ago.
Douthat doesn't seem to support bans on minarets or burkas or that the European populist attitudes toward Muslims are correct (though he lends credence to some of their fears). Instead, he seems to want to blame the "elites" -- rather than Europeans or Muslims themselves -- for the existence of these attitudes and conflicts.
Update: Sarkozy defends the minaret ban.
Sicilian Mafioso turned snitch Gaspare Spatuzza needs to re-watch a pivotal scene from Goodfellas. While testifying against Marcello Dell'Utri, an Italian politican, Spatuzza dropped a dime on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for having ties to the Mafia. Spatuzza is serving life in prison for two murders.
Dell'Utri was earlier convicted of Mafia associations and sentenced to nine years in jail, something he is now appealing. He was a co-founder of Berlusconi's political party, Forza Italia and a senior advisor to the prime minister. As is common for political heavyweights in Italy, Dell'Utri hasn't served any jail time, despite convictions.
Spatuzza told his story from behind a screen in the courtroom, testifying that his former employer, mob boss Guiseppe Graviano used to brag about how close he was with Berlusconi in the 1990s.
"Two names were mentioned, one of them was Berlusconi's," he said. "Graviano told me that thanks to the seriousness of these people, we had the country in our hands."
A Berlusconi spokesman denied the allegations, saying the Mafia was trying to harm the prime minister's credibility because of his recent crackdown on organized crime. Dell'Utri thinks Berlusconi has bigger things to worry about.
"Of course Berlusconi is completely calm about it too - he's more afraid of his wife than Spatuzza," he said, referring to Berlusconi's pending divorce after he allegedly pulled a Tiger Woods.
The mounting pressure against Berlusconi was evident in Saturday's rally in which tens of thousands came together in Rome calling on the prime minister to resign.
VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images
Der Spiegel reports that Copenhagen's mayor has sent postcards to local hotels asking delegates to the upcoming climate conference not to patronize prostitues during their stay in the city. But the city's sex workers are not taking this...er...lying down, and have made it known that they will offer free sex to any conference delegate who can produce one of the postcards:
According to the report, the move has been organized by the Sex Workers Interest Group (SIO).
"This is sheer discrimination. Ritt Bjerregaard is abusing her position as Lord Mayor in using her power to prevent us carrying out our perfectly legal job. I don't understand how she can be allowed to contact people in this way," SIO Spokeswoman Susanne Møller tells avisen.dk.
Referring to the United States's NATO partners, President Obama last night asked, "that our commitment be joined by contributions from our allies. Some have already provided additional troops, and we're confident that there will be further contributions in the days and weeks ahead." A conference will be held in London in January to discuss international contributions to the effort.
NATO Chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen promised 5,000 troops, but it's a little unclear where he's going to get them:
Reacting to Obama's call for more help, a Polish official said the government will likely send 600 combat-ready reinforcements, mainly for patrolling and training, to beef up its existing 2,000-strong contingent.
Albania pledged to increase its 250-member unit by 85 troops, army trainers and medical workers, Prime Minister Sali Berisha said.
Spain's El Pais daily said the defense ministry was considering adding 200 soldiers to its 1,000 contingent. Italy declared it would do its part and Finland confirmed that it had been asked to consider sending more troops and would do so next week. [...]
Britain announced before Obama's speech it is sending 500 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing its numbers there to 10,000.
France and Germany are holding off on any troop decision until an international conference in January, though French President Nicolas Sarkozy has previously pledged that he "won't send an additional soldier."
The other big question is the Netherlands, whose parliament voted for a non-binding resolution in favor of withdrawal when the Dutch mission ends next August. If the Dutch government follows through and pulls out its 2,160 troops, that would more than negate the 1,385 troops already pledged by Britain, Spain, Poland and Albania. Canada has already passed a withdrawal plan for 2011 as well and seems unlikely to add more troops.
Even in a best-case scenario in which the Dutch keep current troop levels and the countries mentioned are able to follow through through on their commitments, NATO will still need get more than 3,500 troops from the Italians, the Australians, the deeply ambivalent Germans and a hodge-podge of smaller nations, none of whom currently have more than 1,000 troops in the country.
It doesn't seem too likely.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Silvio Berlusconi saying something offensive is hardly big news. But as RFE/RL Luke Allnut notes, on a recent state visit to Belarus, he managed to do it without being sexist or racist:
"Thank you and thanks to your people who, I know, love you, as is demonstrated by the election results which everybody can see," Berlusconi told [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka.
Berlusconi is referring to the 2006 Presidential election, in which Lukashenko received 83 percent of the vote in a poll that was widely considered rigged by international observers and led to massive demonstrations by the opposition. Lukashenko joked at the time that he had actually received 93.5 percent of the vote but had lowered it a an acceptable "European figure."
Hilarious. I wonder if it bothers Berlusconi that all his best friends are dictators these days.
The concensus on this weekend's Swiss minaret ban seems to be that it "heralds a new surge in populist, anti-immigrant sentiment," and contradicts Switzerland's images as "a place where peace, democracy and human rights are valued above all else." There are a few problems with this narrative.
First, the "famously tolerant" Swiss didn't just suddenly become paranoid xenophobes last weekend. The Swiss People's Party, the primary sponsors of this referendum, succeeding in essentially banning non-European unskilled immigration drastically increasing requirements for asylum speakers in through a referendum in 2006 and won a national election the following year on the strength of highly enlightened policy ideas like this one.
Second, despite the international shock and hand-wringing over the Swiss vote, I'm not sure that citizens of other Western countries would vote that differently if given the chance. The German media is already ruminating about this question. More than anything, the Swiss decision made me think about the survey data collected in Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson's recent FP piece, written in the wake of the Ft. Hood shooting:
According to a 2006 Gallup poll, a third of Americans admire "nothing" about the Muslim world. Nearly half of all Americans believe the U.S. government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslims. A July 2007 Newsweek survey indicated that 46 percent of Americans think that the United States is accepting too many Muslim immigrants, 32 percent consider American Muslims less loyal to the United States than they are to Islam, 28 percent believe that the Koran condones violence, 41 percent are convinced that Islamic culture "glorifies suicide," 54 percent are "worried" about Islamic jihadists in the U.S., and 52 percent support FBI surveillance of mosques.
light of these attitudes -- and ignoring whether the courts would
strike such a law down as unconstitutional -- is it absurd to think
that a well-organized, well-funded ballot initiative to ban minarets would have a chance of passing in many U.S. states?
I don't mean to suggest that Americans are either more or less anti-Islamic or xenophobic than the Swiss, but I do think there's someting to Tyler Cowen's argument that, "Sooner or later an open referendum process will get even a very smart, well-educated country into trouble."
SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images
The brunt of yesterday's hearing in the House committee about lifting the U.S. travel ban on Cuba came down the following: will allowing American visitors spread word of democracy, or will tourist dollars will just prop up the Castro regime? That is the wrong question according to a a Human Rights Watch report out this week, which documents how the Cuban government uses Orwellian laws to silence dissent and has become more abusive in recent years.
Other governments must also revise their stance towards Cuba with the aim of fomenting human rights, said the report.
Not only have all of these policies -- US, European, Canadian, and Latin American -- failed individually to improve human rights in Cuba, but their divided and even contradictory nature has allowed the Cuban government to evade effective pressure and deflect criticism of its practices."
The report lambasts the United States for allowing Cuba to play David to its Goliath, but it also critiques the ineffective Candian and European policies, and the pedestal/blind eye attitude of Latin American countries, whose silence:
[C]ondones Cuba's abusive behavior, and perpetuates a climate of impunity that allows repression to continue. This is particularly troubling coming from a region in which many countries have learned firsthand the high cost of international indifference to state-sponsored repression."
The ambivalence and outright support for Castro coming from Latin America speaks to the curious distinction people in the region often make between undemocratic regimes of the right and those of the left: those who support the coup in Honduras are the same ones who scream about Castro, whereas those who tolerate Castro are apoplectic about Honduras.
The idea then, as a European Union official said earlier this month, should not be regime change, but rather human rights. Jorge Castañeda, former Mexican foreign minister, urges a similar policy, calling on the U.S., Europe and Canada to work together. In short: the United States must back down and lift the embargo not only to help Cubans directly, but also to uncouple support of human rights from regime change, thus enabling the strong multilateral approach called for by Human Rights Watch.
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
It now seems close to certain that Herman Van Rompuy, the prime minister of Belgium, will be EU president, and Catherine Ashton, currently the EU trade commissioner and the former leader of the British House of Lords, will be foreign-policy czar.
The picks have a symmetry thought necessary in Europe: Rompuy and Ashton are male and female, from a small country and a large one, conservative and liberal.
They are also expected and surprising. Rompuy has for weeks been considered a frontrunner for president. Ashton -- decently known in Britain and on the continent, but barely known elsewhere -- is something of a surprise. The BBC and other outlets report that up until the very end of negotiations, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown pushed for former PM Tony Blair to win the top spot. Germany and other big continental countries advocated for Rompuy, and won; Brown and social-democrats then pushed Ashton through.
Ultimately, Ashton is the more interesting pick. I believe the foreign-policy gig will end up being the vastly more influential one -- Ashton will control thousands of civil servants and a large budget, and will have powers to set policy priorities for the EU. It is unclear just what Rompuy's staffing and responsibilities will be.
But is Ashton qualified enough? Prominent enough? And might any countries object? She has an important job as trade commissioner, but has only been in it for a year. We'll have answers to those questions -- as well as to how transformative these positions might be -- when she and Rompuy take office next month.
Matt Yglesias has some good commentary on the new team and the importance these positions might have, as well as a useful explanation of Ashton's formal title (she is known as Lady Ashton, Baroness of Upholland -- not because she inherited a barony, but because she won an honorific title when she joined the House of Lords). And we'll post any more interesting updates here.
Today, the way Europe functions as a political bloc might change dramatically. In a matter of hours, we should have official word from Brussels as to the new presient and foreign-policy chief of the European Union: positions hashed out over the course of a decade and finally approved by the passage of the Lisbon Treaty, which might -- just might -- give Europe a much more powerful and unified presence on the international stage.
We'll have the latest, as soon as we hear, here.
At this point, the most-tipped favorite for president is Herman van Rompuy, the prime minister of Belgium. And British papers have already announced Catherine Ashton (the Baroness of Upholland, naturally), a somewhat obscure former leader of the House of Lords and current EU trade commissioner, as foreign-policy chief.
British ambassador to the United States Sir Nigel Sheinwald usually writes about climate change policy and the difficulties in Afghanistan on his blog, but today he chose to write about bloodsucking vampires.
It seems, as Sheinwald accurately points out, the Brits export a considerable amount of vampires to Hollywood. Robert Pattinson, Stephen Moyer, Kate Beckinsale, Gary Oldman, and Christopher Lee are all British, and all portrayed the undead at some point in their career.
The final paragraph from Sheinwald's piece shows his mastery of the art of pun, although the entire thing is worth reading.
So vampires aside, there is nothing undead about the vibrancy of the UK's cultural and media life. And am I confident of its continued transatlantic success? The "stakes" may be high, but you may most definitely "Count" on it!
Today, The Telegraph reported that Herman Van Rompuy, current Prime Minister of Belgium and "the new front-runner to be the first EU President," is looking to institute a European anthem. Van Rompuy could pull ideas from the EU's website, which nobly proclaims its aims as "Peace, prosperity and freedom for its 498 million citizens -- in a fairer, safer world." Or he might look to the Treaty of Lisbon; "Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law." These are the sorts of airy proclamations that are grist for a modern-day anthem.
But Van Rompuy may have to edit some member-states' anthems if he wants harmony across the Union. Germany already moved in the right direction, having dropped the infamous "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles/Über alles in der Welt," a couplet that doesn't quite smack of an all-for-one ethos.
Above all, countries just don't have the taste of peace: "March! March, Dabrowski! March from Italy to Poland!" enjoins the Polish anthem.
"To arms, to arms/On land and sea!" exclaims Portugal.
"Soldiers are we..." begins the Irish anthem.
"...in our hearts forever we glorify a name/Resounding of battle, the name of gallant Trajan," chant Romanians.
Photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images
A "scurrilous idea" -- better known as the Tobin tax, a levy on foreign-exchange transactions -- seems to be taking on a life of its own.
This week U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio is expected to propose a tax on all financial transactions (like stock purchases -- excluding those connected to health, education, and pensions). The idea of funding job creation in this way has the backing of a variety of groups, including the NAACP, AFL-CIO, and the National Council of La Raza.
Although the idea of a financial transactions tax has been floating around since Nobel economics prize winner James Tobin proposed it in the 1970s (to stabilize currencies), it has gained recent traction since Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown brought it up at a meeting of G20 finance ministers meeting earlier this month. He discussed using some form of a tax on all financial transactions, to stabilize whole markets.
Much of the debate focuses on justice, the idea seems to be to tax the bad guys and use the money for any number of just causes. It's hard to argue with that sort of logic. As Brown pointed out, the banks should have to bear some of the costs of the massive bailouts they received.
It cannot be acceptable that the benefits of success in this sector are reaped by the few but the costs of its failure are borne by all of us."
At the request of the G-20, the IMF is preparing a report on the tax -- despite opposition by IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Opponents avoid philosophy and stick to economics, arguing that countries instituting such levies might risk pushing financial operations into friendlier markets and that it would be technically difficult to implement.
In the meantime, Brazil has unilaterally implemented a tax on currency transactions, intended to stabilize the real by reducing speculation.
Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images
Reuters reports that an Italian judge has delayed the resumption of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's tax fraud trial until January, at least. Why? "Pressing state business" -- that is, presiding over a U.N. summit on hunger in Rome.
But Berlusconi has not managed to delay the other criminal case pending against him and is due in court later in November. The magnate/bon vivant/political leader allegedly paid a prominent British lawyer $600,000 to testify falsely on his behalf in a 1997 corruption case. (David Mills, who accepted the bribe, has already been convicted and is currently appealing his jail sentence.)
"Some people get the giggles after using cannabis -- you may laugh at the most random things" cautions "FRANK," the UK's anti-drug website. Despite declining drug use in the country, in January the British government changed marijuana's classification from a "Class C" to a "Class B" drug; possession now carries a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment, while dealing can get you 14 years in jail.
Professor David Nutt, formerly a member of the UK's independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, was fired for publicly disputing the decision; five other members of the 31-person Council have since resigned in protest of the politically-motivated firing. In a lecture (later published), Nutt argued that the use of illicit drugs like marijuana and ecstasy poses less severe health risks than the use of alcohol or tobacco. Nutt has also equated the dangers of ecstasy use and the risks of horseback riding.
Nutt's firing and the subsequent resignations have caused quite a political row, with politicians and scientists making pointed attacks on home secretary Alan Johnson, who gave Nutt the axe. "Your leader on drugs policy is long on righteous indignation but short on logic" wrote Johnson in a defensive letter published in The Guardian.
Nutt fired back in a column published in The Telegraph, writing, "Some politicians find it easier to ignore the evidence, and pander to public prejudice instead."
Photo: SCOTT BARBOUR/Getty Images
"And they shall beat their swords into plowshares," could easily be turned into, "And they shall dismantle their nuclear warheads into enriched uranium for nuclear power plants."
The New York Times reports 10 percent of electricity in the United States is generated from old nuclear bombs. For comparison, hydropower accounts for 6 percent and solar, biomass, wind and geothermal combined account for 3 percent. No data exists for how much power bunnies contribute.
In recent years, disarmament has generated a wealth of nuclear fuel. As the New York Times article says, "the fuel from missiles that may have once been aimed at your home may now be lighting it."
45 percent of nuclear fuel in American reactors comes from old Soviet bombs. The problem is that the fuel is running out, and in order to keep powering 4.5 percent of the United States more disarmament is needed.
The old program, known as Megatons to Megawatts will end in 2013, but because nuclear plants need to buy fuel three to five years in advance, the issue is of utmost importance right now. A new supply of fuel would become available if the United States and Russia would agree to renew the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December. Currently the USA has 2,220 warheads and Russia has 2,800.
With or without the added Soviet fuel, the US is investing heavily in the old-bombs-to-new-fuel strategy, as a factory is being built in South Carolina to dismantle American warheads. It will be able to recycle 34 tons of nuclear fuel that can power a million homes for 50 years.
United Nations Photo/Flickr
At the end of his New York Times column today, Nick Kristof offers a, frankly, adorable apology to the country of Slovenia.
In several columns, I've noted indignantly that we have worse health statistics than Slovenia. For example, I noted that an American child is twice as likely to die in its first year as a Slovenian child. The tone -- worse than Slovenia! -- gravely offended Slovenians. They resent having their fine universal health coverage compared with the notoriously dysfunctional American system.
As far as I can tell, every Slovenian has written to me. Twice. So, to all you Slovenians, I apologize profusely for the invidious comparison of our health systems. Yet I still don't see anything wrong with us Americans aspiring for health care every bit as good as yours.
So true! And, we noted in FP's office, Slovenia is a total Central European jewel: beautiful, prosperous, calm, safe, wealthy, and Mediterranean (tucked between Italy and Croatia, with access to the ocean and the Alps) -- plus, apparently, with universal health care to boot.
Flickr user Ah_Zut
Today, an Italian court convicted 23 U.S. citizens, 22 of them acknowledged as CIA agents, for the daylight abduction and "extraordinary rendition" of cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, better known as Abu Omar.
The CIA snatched Abu Omar off of a street in Milan in 2002, sending him to the U.S. base in Ramstein, Germany, and then to Egypt, where he was allegedly tortured.
Adam Serwer at the American Prospect asks: "This case has always puzzled me -- Italy is an ally. Why was extraordinary rendition necessary? Such methods are usually reserved for apprehending individuals in countries that are not friendly to the United States precisely because those countries won't cooperate."
It's a good question, with a somewhat queasy answer: the CIA did it, I presume, because it was the most efficient way to do it, and, at the time, the CIA operated in extralegal channels with impunity. (The case that always confused me most was that of Ahmed Agiza -- human-rights respecting U.S. ally Sweden actually participated in that one.)
And it seems the Italian court is ensuring the CIA knows there's no impunity now, even if the only real effect is that former Milan station chief Robert Lady needs to cancel his European vacations.
Does Boris Johnson have a superhero alter-ego? Buffoonish mayor of London by day, cycling vigilante by night?
Environmentalist documentary maker Franny Armstrong would certainly argue that. Johnson swooped to her rescue yesterday, when she was pushed up against a car by a gang of girls -- she described them as "feral kids" -- wielding an iron pipe. Apparently he was cycling past and heard her cries for help. Reportedly calling the attackers "oiks," he gave a brief chase before returning to escort Armstrong home, in best super hero form.
So instead of asking watching political candidates debate, we should have them challenge each other to wrestling matches.
Armstrong admitted she did not agree with Johnson's politics, and had voted for his rival Ken Livingstone in the mayoral elections. But she added: 'If you find yourself down a dark alleyway and in trouble, I think Boris would be of more use than Ken.'"
Perhaps mayors across the world are united in their lonely quest against crime. Newark Mayor Cory Booker chased a mugger outside of city hall in 2006, while a Bloomberg deputy tackled a BlackBerry thief earlier this year.
What kind of tights does our cycling hero Boris have on beneath the pinstripes, I wonder.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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