While his father's regime was being overthrown back in Kyrgyzstan, Maksim Bakiyev -- who was the head of the country's Agency for Investment and Economic Development -- was on his way to the U.S. for a series of meetings in Washington. The new government charged Maksim with embezzlement and abuse of power on Friday, the only problem is that no one now knows where he is.
RFE/RL's Richard Solash explains:
During an April 14 press briefing, U.S. State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley was asked by a reporter whether Maksim Bakiev was seeking asylum stateside -- one of the various rumors that have been swirling in recent days.
Crowley’s response: “We don’t believe his [Kurmanbek Bakiev’s] son is in the United States. We don’t know where he is.”
Someone going by "maksimbakiyev" was posting on Livejournal last week, but gave no clues about his whereabouts.
He's not the only one laying low. No one is currently answering the phone at the Kyrgyz embassy in Washington and a recorded message says the voicemail-box is full.
Barack Obama's emerging reputation is as a president who doesn't put much stock in personal relationships with other world leaders, but he apparently told an Australian interviewer that he felt a particular bond with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd:
O'Brien says during his 20-minute interview with Mr Obama, the US president shed some light on his relationship with Australia's Prime Minister.
"It was interesting. Diplomats and politicians say nice things about each other when they're having international chats," O'Brien said.
But O'Brien says Mr Obama spoke candidly about their relationship - which has in the past been described as a "meeting of minds".
"He was quite expansive and quite genuine on what he saw as the commonality and connections between [he and Mr Rudd]. One of which was humility," O'Brien said.
Granted, Obama was playing to the Australian public, but he hasn't exactly taken the bait on similar opportunities to say nice things about his relationship with, say, Gordon Brown.
Obama is also not the first U.S. president to talk up Rudd. Bill Clinton told FP last December that Rudd was a leader everyone should be paying attention to because he "has a thirst to know and figure out how to do things." At a bloggers' round-table I went to with Clinton last year, he positively gushed about Rudd, calling him one of the smartest world leader's on the scene today. The Australian PM has also reportedly wowed Chinese President Hu Jintao with his knowledge of Chinese.
Rudd doesn't get the international press of a Sarkozy or a Lula, but he seems to be emerging as the world leader's world leader.
Raul Castro has made some modest reforms since taking over in July 2006. A few token changes, including the introduction of cell phones, DVD players, microwaves and computers, have been made - but access to these amenities has been prohibitively expensive. New salary incentives were also introduced in 2008, although such moves are not completely new.
All in all, the expected moves towards a market-oriented economy have been lacking. But now there are some small signs that the leadership is planning to liberalize some sectors of its economy. Where will they start, you ask? It might not be where you would expect: barber shops and beauty salons.
According to the measure -- which state run media has not yet announced -- all barbers and hairdressers in small shops will be allowed to charge market prices and pay taxes (15 percent of average revenue) instead of getting a set monthly wage:
Daisy, a hairdresser in an eastern Guantanamo province, told the Reuters news agency that under the old system the government took in 4,920 pesos per month per hairdresser.
Now she will pay the government 738 pesos per month and keep any earnings above that.
‘We have to pay water, electricity and for supplies but it seems like a good idea,' Daisy said.
She said that while the plan did not turn the shops into co-operatives, employees would have to join forces to decorate and maintain the establishments."
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
In a speech today at a Labour Party rally held in his old constituency of Sedgefield, former Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly threw his weight behind incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown. While some may have been surprised or even amused by Blair's endorsement of Brown, given their strained relationship, what I found most interesting was Blair's description of Conservative Leader David Cameron's campaign slogan "Time for Change" as "the most vacuous [slogan] in politics."
"Time for Change." Sound familiar? The slogan, of course, sounds eerily like Barack Obama's "Change We Can Believe In." But the Tories haven't just cherry-picked a popular catchphrase from the Obama campaign; in addition, they've hired a number of campaign strategists and consultants who've worked with candidate and President Obama, including media-savvy former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn.
What's so risible about Blair's comment is the awkward position in which it puts him: by mocking Cameron's "Time for Change," he also mocks Obama's "Change We Can Believe In." There just really isn't any way to simultaneously skewer "Time for Change" and hold up "Change We Can Believe In" as a paradigm of pith and profundity. Not exactly the nicest way to thank the guy who awarded you "first friend" status, is it?
On the other hand, maybe Blair's comment will throw some cold water on "change" enthusiasts. The change conceit does, after all, make for a vacuous campaign slogan. Given the highly polarized contemporary political atmosphere in the United States and the United Kingdom, to say that electing a president or prime minister from the opposition represents Change is nothing but an empty truism.
Owen Humphreys - WPA Pool/Getty Images
At a Monday lecture in Los Angeles, Bush presidential advisor Karl Rove was given a very, very warm welcome. Audience members called him a war criminal and yelled that he would "rot in hell." One member of activist group Code Pink even approached him with handcuffs to make a citizen's arrest.
This is not the first time Rove's been greeted by a less-than-friendly mob. In March, 2008, Rove spoke at the University of Iowa in front of more than 1,000 people. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the University of Lecture Committee, which invited Rove, and planned and hosted the lecture.) There were a few Rove-sympathizers among the crowd, but the vast majority took the opportunity to scream at him, attempt citizen's arrests, etc., etc., for over an hour. The fracas was later made the first chapter of Paul Alexander's Machiavelli's Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove.
But onto the real question: Is Karl Rove a war criminal? The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 reads:
Art. 146. The High Contracting Parties undertake to enact any legislation necessary to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing, or ordering to be committed, any of the grave breaches of the present Convention defined in the following Article...
Art.147. Grave breaches to which the preceding Article relates shall be those involving any of the following acts, if committed against persons or property protected by the present Convention: wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile Power, or wilfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed in the present Convention, taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.
Given that Rove, a political and communications strategist, was in no position to authorize any use of military force, and had no authority to order detention or interrogation policies, it'd seem that he does not in anyway qualify as a war criminal. Looks like these protesters need to get a new line.
Justin Sullivan/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
Just to bring you up to speed on the recent antics of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, he was ousted in a 2006 military coup due to corruption and cronyism and was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for a corrupt land deal. His assets in Thailand were frozen and he was later stripped of his Thai passport but, don't worry, he continues to be a glass-half-full kind of guy; he suavely globe-trots his way out of the grasp of authorities (allegedly holding six other passports). And, finally, his little princess made it into our list of worst-behaved daughters. Oh, and don't forget his latest business venture: a lotto service in Uganda, which he hopes will "benefit the people of Uganda." Nothing like gambling to really help people in need, eh Thaksin?
If you think all this means he's not so well liked back home, you would be wrong. In Thailand's impoverished and neglected northeast, Thaksin is seen as a champion of social equality, mostly due to his hands-on governing style, a low-interest lending program and low-cost healthcare program that he enacted as PM. In fact, his appeal has probably increased in the last few years.
And Thaksin hasn't let his money, or popularity, go to waste. He's been funneling money to supportive political parties and his grassroots supporters, called "The Reds", ever since he left Thailand. Now, as a reaction to the government's confiscation of $1.4 billion of his assets in late February, "The Reds" are planning to hold mass demonstrations in Bangkok, starting tomorrow. With an expected turnout anywhere between 100,000 and 600,000 the Thai authorities aren't messing around. They've already deployed 50,000 troops on the streets in order to stop things from getting out of hand.
Oh Thaksin, you just never cease to stir the pot.
PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images
Uganda's Chief Magistrate's court dismissed a landmark case on Wednesday that had been filed by two Ugandan journalists, Angelo Izama and Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi. The file was introduced by the journalists as an attempt to use Uganda's Access to Information Act to force the Ugandan government to release the details of five oil Production Sharing Agreements that it has signed with oil companies. The government and the oil companies has resisted pressure to divulge even the smallest details to the public -- both attempting to deflect criticism by citing the other's insistence in maintaining secrecy over the deals.
Oil explorers have long been skeptical of Uganda's potential for holding large oil deposits but in the last few years oil exploration has proved wildly successful. The estimates now lie upwards of 6 billion barrels of oil -- if on the higher end, Uganda would surpass Sudan for the fifth largest oil reserves in Africa.
Observers are not optimistic at the implications of Uganda's oil finds. Although it would inject billions of dollars annually into Uganda's economy, widespread corruption (Uganda was ranked 126th out of 179 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index) increases the risk that the country could slip into the feared "resource curse". While the government and the oil companies paint a rosy picture for the public, analysts are less sanguine. As Taimour Lay writes in The Guardian, the components for a bad situation are all there:
The ingredients for the so-called "resource curse" are all in place: contract secrecy, government corruption, commercial disinformation campaigns, with environmental protections ignored, and a simmering border dispute with the Democratic Republic of the Congo frozen rather than resolved.
Although the Chief Magistrate's reasoning behind the dismissal of the case was less than convincing (he cited "national security"), it certainly highlighted Uganda's press freedom, right? That is, until Angelo Izama was slapped with a charge of libel and driven to jail on the very next day. The complaint? A December 2009 article in which Izama suggested parallels between President Yoweri Museveni and Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Although this is not a new tactic -- typically used by the Ugandan government to intimidate journalists -- such cases have certainly picked up in the last year. In a country where press freedom is one of the most important aspects of its "partly free" rating by Freedom House, this is a disturbing trend.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports on the Ugandan government's widespread use of defamation statutes to coerce its critics:
"If anything proves that a government is authoritarian, it's jailing journalists who raise questions about the government," said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. "It's regrettable that the magistrate charged Angelo Izama and Henry Ochieng with criminal libel. It's time for Uganda to join the ranks of democracies by eliminating criminal defamation statutes."
Izama and Ochieng are among several Monitor journalists facing criminal charges in connection with their coverage, according to CPJ research. Sedition charges also hang over radio journalists Robert Kalundi Sserumaga and Betty Nambooze, while a government ban remains on popular debate programs and Central Broadcasting Services, the station of the traditional kingdom of the Baganda, Uganda's largest ethnic group, since last September.
Election fever for the 2011 presidential elections starts in the next few months and President Yoweri Museveni will be running for his fourth term. A potential resource curse and press intimidation are not the best of omens for a free and fair election. Ugandan journalists will play an essential role in pushing for transparency -- and I have a hunch they won't be cowed.
(Hat Tip: Michael Wilkerson)
Chris Jackson/Getty Images
There's no two ways about it: The last year of foreign policy had more drama than a Scorsese epic and enough thrills to put Avatar to shame. From the fearsome battle in the Afghan hills to the U.S.-China love-hate relationship, and from the serious al Qaeda threats in Yemen to the hard-to-take-seriously pirates off the Somali coast, 2009 was arguably a much more interesting year for global politics than for movies. So with Oscar nominations due tomorrow, we're taking nominations for our own FP Oscars.
Who would you pick for the best actor of the year? Is President Barack Obama holding his own in an unfriendly world, or does the ubiquitous Brazilian President Lula deserve an Oscar? Is Muammar Qaddafi's persona just too good to be true, or do you prefer the smooth, suave diplomacy (and wacky domestic antics) of France's Nicolas Sarzoky?
You tell us what scandals, dramas, tragicomedies, and personal stories are your picks for the history books in 2009. Listed below are the categories and a few sample entries. Send your own nominations to Joshua.Keating@foreignpolicy.com or paste them in the comments below. May the best news win!
Best picture: What one story encapsulates the year?
Best drama: Spies, dissidents, treachery, and truth. Were the adrenaline-pumping protests following the Iran elections the most dramatic event? Or perhaps it was the long, drawn-out U.S. decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. If you have a humanitarian bent, the crises in Haiti, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan might come a heart-wrenching first.
Best comedy: If it isn't a tragedy, the dysfunction of the U.S. Congress is certainly good for a laugh. Then again, how about the Copenhagen Climate conference that ended in a collective shrug? Or the British MPs who used their expense accounts to buy fancy rugs and re-dig their backyard swimming pools?
Best romantic comedy: Gordon Brown requested meeting after meeting with the U.S. president; Obama just didn't have time. Brown gave him a romantic antique biography of Churchill, and Obama gave him a DVD box set. Let's just say the special relationship isn't all it used to be. But then again, there are other comedies in Europe these days ... Berlusconi anyone?
Best romantic drama: Unclear whether this should be a drama or a comedy, but the Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladamir Putin certainly have a relationship worth noting -- as their press photographer has shown time and time again...
Best action: A U.S. ship is seized in the Gulf of Aden and devious pirates take the Maersk Alabama captive on the high seas, demanding a ransom for their deed. But lo and behold! A brave captain sacrifices his freedom to save his crew. And the U.S. whacks three pirates in the end, bringing everyone home safely! Phew!
Best special effects: Hmm, how about that missile launch in North Korea? It hit right on target: the Pacific Ocean.
Best director: Nicolas Sarkozy is a whirling dervish of diplomatic activity.
Best actor: Very few world leaders can also claim their own daily television shows -- and surprisingly humorous ones at that. "Alo Presidente" hasn't exactly skyrocketed Hugo Chavez to fame (his coup attempt back in the 1990s did that), but man has this guy mastered media in the Drudge Era.
Best actress: On a more serious note, few women leaders have been more powerful this year in asserting political freedom than Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi. Or does Hillary Clinton have your vote? As one FP staffer put it, "she's the queen of 'the show must go on.'"
Best supporting actress: Is Carla Bruni the perfect companion for a perfectionist French president?
Best supporting actor: Let's be honest: One man whose entire year has been a story about other people's interests is the ousted president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. For all his posturing and pontificating, he was never running the show.
Best costume: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi designs his own clothes.
Worst costume: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi designs his own clothes. You decide.
Lifetime achievement award: Fidel? Kim Jong Il? Mubarak? Most of the longest-lasting players on the world stage aren't particularly savory characters. Got someone better?
We'll post a full list of nominees based on your e-mails and comments on Monday, Feb. 8 and give you a chance to vote. The final winners will be announced at the end of the month.
We promise to keep the musical numbers short.
After months of resistance against international pressure to overturn Uganda's now-notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Uganda's politicians seem to be pulling back. In early January, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni expressed concern that the bill was too harsh and on Jan. 12th noted:
"Because it is a foreign policy issue, it is not just our internal politics, and we must handle it in a way which does not compromise our principles but also takes into account our foreign policy interests."
The U.N. and the U.S. government, along with countries such as Britain, Canada and Sweden, have expressed their strong disapproval of the bill. Their displeasure has had an effect: during a January 19th cabinet meeting, the Ugandan government agreed to form a committee to amend the bill, with cabinet members citing the possibility of aid cuts by Western governments as a chief reason behind their reservations. The bill's author, MP David Bahati, held strong for a little longer. That is, until today when he expressed willingness to change some key clauses of the legislation.
Of course, none of this means that gay Ugandans will be getting a fair shake anytime soon -- especially when 95 percent of those surveyed in the country believe homosexuality should continue to be criminalized.
Although the U.S. government has condemned the bill, the American evangelical influences behind it are widely known. For example, Rick Warren, who advised most of the bill's leading supporters (such as Pastor Martin Ssempa), was barely ahead of Museveni in distancing himself from it. Also heavily circulated were the allegations by Jeff Sharlet that President Museveni, his ethics minister Nsamba Buturo and David Bahati, all have ties to U.S. politicians linked to The Family (a secretive evangelical organization with plenty of political influence).
Now, with human rights activists and journalists fully in the mix, friction over the bill has led to a proxy battle over the U.S.' cultural influence in the region.
WALTER ASTRADA/AFP/Getty Images
Could Chile's political right return to power after two decades in the wilderness?
That's the question hanging over Santiago, the capital, as Chileans head to the polls today to vote in a runoff presidential election between Eduardo Frei, the moderate former president backed by the ruling center-left coalition, and Sebastian Piñera (left), the billionaire businessman backed by the right. Piñera won the first round with 44 percent of the vote to Frei's 30 percent, but the latest poll shows the race tightening in recent weeks. It's now a tossup, and nobody can say for sure who's going to win.
The New York Times has a good primer on the election here, but I think it doesn't quite capture one intriguing aspect of the campaign -- for a country that has only recently emerged from dictatorship, it's a surprisingly low-key contest. You don't see many signs for the candidates on the streets, and coverage in the newspapers has been overshadowed by the crisis in Haiti, where Chile has a few hundred peacekeeping troops. One obvious reason is Frei, who isn't exactly the most inspirational figure and is best remembered here for presiding over a nasty economic downturn when the Asian crisis struck Chile in the late 1990s. But another reason is that the candidates aren't as different as you might think.
In Frei's last campaign rally in La Granja, a lower-class neighborhood to the south of Santiago, he spoke obliquely, but at length about his coalition's role in ousting Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the rightist dictator who ruled Chile with an iron fist for 17 years after overthrowing Marxist President Salvador Allende in a military coup on Sept. 11, 1973. Last Monday, current president and Socialist Party leader Michelle Bachelet opened the Museum of Memory, a monument to the more than 3,000 people killed, and the nearly 30,000 tortured during Pinochet's regime. Many on the right -- a significant chunk of which still supports Pinochet -- saw the timing of the museum's opening as politically motivated. But just how much Chileans are still voting with Pinochet in mind is an open question.
My hunch is that Piñera -- who is running on the slogan "participate in change" -- has the better instincts here, but he carries some baggage of his own. His brother José was Pinochet's labor minister and led the neoliberal reform of Chile's pension system. In 2004, José, now a fellow at Washington's libertarian Cato Institute, penned a New York Times op-ed supporting George W. Bush's efforts to privatize Social Security, touting Chile as a model; two years later, his brother, running in 2006 against Bachelet, vowed to overhaul the pension system and said it required "deep reforms in all sectors."
For all the seeming drama of a rightist return to power, I suspect there's less room for radical change than many Piñera opponents here fear. After all, the four center-left governments that succeeded Pinochet never really overhauled his free-market economic program, choosing instead to tinker around the margins and focusing on infrastructure development and expanding social welfare programs. This blend of left and right is clearly working; last week, Chile became the first South American nation to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, marking the country's arrival as a developed state. And the country has weathered the economic crisis better than most, with a projected GDP growth rate of 4 percent in 2010 after a mild downturn in 2009. If something's not broken, why fix it?
UPDATE: Pinera wins. More in a bit...
Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.
As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.
We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.
"Dictators, corruption and foreign invasions," it seems to me, vastly understates the political turmoil of Haitian history. Haiti has experienced 34 coups in its history -- an average of one every six years. There's simply no way to develop institutions under those conditions.
Brooks' analysis also seems to assume that all dictators are created equal. While the Dominican Republic's late 20th century dictators Rafael Trujillo (who played a not insignificant role in Haiti's tragic history) and Joaquín Balaguer were certainly brutal, they did at least demonstrate some interest in building that coutry's infrastructure, unlike the Duvaliers whose most lasting contribution to Haiti's infrastructure was probably the 98 percent deforestation that makes Haiti's hurricanes so deadly.
Unlike Haiti, he Dominican Republic has also had a continuous, if flawed, democracy for the last three decades. Haiti's 2004 Hurricane hit just a month after the coup at Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the interim government was in no position to govern under the best of circumstances. Food riots and the four hurricanes of 2008 followed before the earthquake delivered the knockout punch. Skipping immediately to culture and religion while skipping over other factors, particularly political turmoil, seems far too simplistic.
As for why Haiti has never had good governance, there's certainly no simple answer, and I think Tyler Cowen is right to ask, "Is it asking too much to wish for an economics [or political science, or journalism] profession that is obsessed with such a question?"
THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images
In the days leading up to an interview with ABC News’ Charlie Gibson, aides were worried with Ms. Palin’s grasp of facts. She couldn’t explain why North and South Korea were separate nations and she did not know what the Federal Reserve did. She also said she believed Saddam Hussein attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
In an unusual turn of events, a Russian court has overturned the result of a mayoral election in the city of Derbent. Reportedly, riot police used tear gas and shot at voters, preventing them from entering polling stations. Threats were made to local election officials, frightening them enough that more than a third of the polling stations never opened.
The St. Petersburg Times reports that it is "extremely rare" for an election to be overturned, and that in the past cases, judicial interventions were seen as Kremlin machinations to oust successful opposition candidates. That makes the current decision even more noteworthy, since the incumbent, a member of the dominant United Russia party (UR), officially carried the election with 67.52 percent of the vote.
It's worth asking if the case is linked to a power struggle between Russian President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, who, in the 2012 elections, will be eligible to run for a third term as president. There has been growing speculation about a possible rift between the two men, even though Medvedev has said that he and his former political guardian would "agree on how not to elbow each other out and make a decision that is useful for the country."
Vanity Fair dubbed Putin the world's most influential person in 2007; Forbes puts him at #3 in 2009, topped only by Hu Jintao and Obama. UR is Putin's powerbase - after stepping down as president, he became the party's chairman. And it's a powerful group indeed, controlling 70 percent of the parliament's seats and exerting enormous influence on the country.
Putin handpicked Medvedev as his successor, tying him inextricably to UR. But since coming to office, Medvedev has also consolidated his own supporters, replacing officials appointed by Putin with his own men and women. And this court decision comes just days after Medvedev sharply addressed the UR's 11th Congress, making clear allusions to electoral fraud: "Sadly, some regional divisions of United Russia. . . show signs of backwardness and concentrate their political activity on intrigues and games within the apparatus," he said. That intrigue will no longer be tolerated, he suggested, saying "such people need to go, as do some other political customs."
But Medvedev's track record doesn't scream "liberal democrat!" The best indication of what to expect in 2012 might be Putin's take on elections in general, as he phrased it back in 1998. "One has to be insincere and promise something which you cannot fulfill," he said. "So you either have to be a fool who does not understand what you are promising, or deliberately be lying."
Photo:ELENA PALM/AFP/Getty Images
"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
According to opposition parties in Ethiopia, nearly 450 of their members have been jailed, as part of an effort by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to secure national elections being held this May. One opposition party reports that seven of its members have been murdered for political reasons during the course of this past year. The allegations fit Ethiopia's history of violent repression, including arrests and harassment of dissenting students and teachers.
During Ethiopia's last elections, held in 2005, widespread protests led to violent clashes with police, with about 200 protestors killed and many opposition leaders jailed. The ruling party, led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, said that the crack-down was simply to maintain law and order, and to stave off widespread ethnic conflict. Members of the opposition said it was a means of denying opposition parties electoral success.
The ruling party's bid for electoral dominance has certainly been effective -- during last year's local and bi-elections, the EPRDF and affiliated individuals lost only three seats, out of nearly 3.6 million contested seats. This past January, the government took another step towards consolidating its power by essentially outlawing human rights work and curtailing freedom of association. And according to a Reuters news analysis, the EPRDF's dominance is bolstered by a general sense that the West "would be comfortable with Meles staying on - as long as he remains a loyal ally in the volatile Horn of Africa and liberalises his potentially huge economy."
Even so, former Ethiopian Minister of Defense Seeye Abraha characterizes his country as a dormant volcano. A recent statement posted by the opposition party Ginbot 7 makes it abundantly clear that tensions remain high:
[One type of nation] is composed of countries that are ruled by corrupt tyrants whose governance is characterized by gross human rights abuse, economic polarization, ethnic conflict and political intolerance...almost all of these dictators have become turn coat democrats and hold sham elections to satisfy the demand of donor nations. The reality, however, is that they never respect election results, or care for democracy. A perfect example of one such government is the illegitimate regime of Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia that deviously preaches democracy, but has ruled the country with an iron fist for the past 18 years."
Tom Ricks shares an interesting theory from researcher Kyle Flynn about why the Obama administration is delaying a decision on a new Afghanistan strategy:
Nov. 3, gubernatorial elections in both Virginia and New Jersey. The latter of which is my reasoning why the decision was delayed this long. Corzine is in the fight of his life and Obama is going to piss people off either way.
I'm not sure I buy this. I doubt most voters have Afghanistan on the mind when they decide whether they should pull the lever for Jon Corzine or his Virginia counterpart Creigh Deeds. It's possible that there could be some protest votes from people infuriated with the White House's decision, but while Afghanistan is increasingly becoming "Obama's war," I don't think most people see it as the "Democrats' war." If anything, most of the opposition to an increased U.S. commitment comes from within Obama's own party.
Looking ahead to 2010, this raises the quesiton of how big a campaign issue Obama's Afghan strategy will be. Because this debate doesn't divide easily along party lines, the political questions are pretty complicated.
If Obama to go along with the McChrysrtal plan, it seems unlikely that the majority of Americans who oppose the war would vote for Republicans as a result. Some antiwar voters might choose to stay home out of apathy but it seems like the partisan fury brought on by the healthcare debate alone should be enough to drag them to the polls. If Obama chooses a more limited strategy, I can't image there are that many voters who would have gone Democrat but see Afghanistan as a dealbreaker.
I'm also not convinced that, despite the increased concern, Afghanistan will a dominant politicial issue in U.S. politics in 2010. Even with 40,000 more troops, the total number will be nowhere near the half million that were deployed at the height of the Vietnam war. Unless you know someone in combat, the war in Central Asia is still a farily abstract concept compared with, say, healthcare. And given that it's much more clear what side everyone's on, healthcare makes much better material for attack ads.
So while it's probably true, as it is frequently pointed out, that there's no political upside to the war in Afghanistan, the downside may not actually be that big. Whether or not that's a good thing is a whole other question.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
It seems that Karma is alive and well in the universe.
Allegations of fraud have surrounded recent elections in Russia. In 2007, in what has been described as "the least democratic election since the USSR collapsed," opposition parties alleged that campaign literature was seized and candidates were excluded from the ballot; The Kremlin apparently forced millions of public workers to vote; and a senior election official reported that he was instructed to make sure that United Russia, the ruling party, received double the number of votes expected -- the claim of rigging is strongly supported by a number of statistical anomalies.
The 2008 election of President Dmitry Medvedev also had plenty of allegations of stacking the deck; including further claims that public employees were pushed to vote for Putin's favorite, that local officials were told to produce a strong majority on Medvedev's behalf, and that potentially strong opponents were excluded from the ballot.
Yesterday, elections for a new city council in Moscow were held, and it should come as little surprise that there have already been more allegations of fraud. But even if Medvedev had a hand in ensuring the re-election of the sitting mayor, a member of the United Russia party, there was a twist of poetic justice. The president struggled to vote -- an electronic box repeatedly refused to take Medvedev's ballot.
Photo: VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Now that it seems Costa Rican President Oscar Arias' mediation has been de facto rejected by Honduras' de facto government, everybody seems to be proposing their own creative solutions.
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who has already contributed to the situation by holding up the Senate confirmation for proposed assistant secretary of state for the region, Arturo Valenzuela, is travelling to Tegucigalpa Friday -- skillfully avoiding maneuvers by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry to keep him in the United States, and blithely side-stepping the question of legitimacy altogether -- in order to lend his support to the coup government and express his belief that "Hondurans should be able to choose their own future."
They'll do so to the tune of Caribbean music and announcements of curfew times, about the only thing currently transmitted by obedient television channels, fearful of the repression suffered by intransigent media outlets earlier this week. This as deposed President Manuel Zelaya continues to be holed up in the Brazilian embassy, along with a shrinking number of family members, supporters and his cowboy hat.
Is compromise possible? Honduran business leaders, horrified by the revenue loss provoked by the curfews imposed by the coup government -- or perhaps more disturbed by the loss of their U.S. visas -- suggested a multi-party interim presidency until the Nov. 29 elections, after which point Zelaya would stand trial and face house arrest. The plan also calls for tossing coup president Roberto Micheletti a congressman-for-life position as a sop and bringing neighboring countries troops in to keep order. Faced with an array of unappealing options, others are turning to higher powers, in the form of the Virgin of Suyapaor.
So best of luck to DeMint, but if he fails, his colleague Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will get a chance during her visit next week -- also to support the coup government of course.
Earlier today, former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin gave a speech to a group of investors in Hong Kong, for which the brokerage firm CLSA allegedly paid her $300,000.
Former McCain foreign-policy adviser Randy Scheunemann and a bevy of other veteran Republican aides reportedly prepped Palin for the speech, which Politico and other outlets have suggested implies she's prepping herself for 2012.
No reporters were allowed into the private event, but some investors passed good information on to Bloomberg News (which dryly notes that Palin first got a U.S. passport in 2007). The Wall Street Journal also seems to have some inside sources. Washington Wire offers a number of lengthy quotes.
Let's take a look.
The foreign-policy sections were something of a snooze -- some gentle urging for China to become more responsible on human rights, some criticism of its treatment of ethnic minorities and aiming of arms at Taiwan, some commentary on the trade and currency imbalances, some criticism of the United States for utilizing China as a "lender of first resort."
Regarding economics and the recession, though, Palin got a lot more interesting.
Foremost, she pinned the blame for the financial crisis on the U.S. Federal Reserve. Not the interplay of investment-bank profits, trade imbalances, the rise of securitization, the creation of zero-deposit loans, oil prices, the housing bubble, the credit rating agencies, and other commonly cited factors. Just the Fed.
"How can we discuss reform without addressing the government policies at the root of the problems? The root of the collapse? And how can we think that setting up the Fed as the monitor of systemic risk in the financial sector will result in meaningful reform?," she said. "The words 'fox' and 'henhouse' come to mind. The Fed's decisions helped create the bubble. Look at the root cause of most asset bubbles, and you'll see the Fed somewhere in the background."
She added, "The government forced lending institutions to give loans to people who, as I say, couldn't afford them." (Emphasis mine. These assertions reportedly caused two observers to walk out, saying "It's awful." Notably, the Chinese government actually does force banks to lend.)
Finally: "[Alaskans] have much in common with Hong Kong. We're both young and transient, independent and libertarian. Places that continue to show the world, the power and the resilience of the free-market system at a time when too many are questioning it." (Emphasis mine.)
It seems Palin -- whose prior public pronouncements have been somewhat ideologically incoherent -- has finally picked her strand of conservatism: libertarianism. It's a choice that makes sense. If the economy recovers well by 2012, conservatives of all stripes will have, well, several trillion reasons to talk about government spending and U.S. deficits.
But, I really think if Palin wants to establish her economic conservative credentials she should head back to the statehouse and encourage the state to go Galt -- turning Alaska into the United States' Hong Kong, a relatively tax-free, regulation-free, federal government-free zone. It would be rough. Alaska receives more federal subsidies per capita than any other state. But managing the Last Frontier without this Washington cash would demonstrate her executive prowess -- and would show that no entity should need interventionist government life-support to thrive.
But, sigh, I guess she'll probably just continue to brush-up on foreign policy and beef up her conservative credentials in more conventional ways.
Photo of Palin's resignation speech by Eric Engman/Getty Images
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who was just reelected to a second term, is about as establishment as you get, a staunch defender of free trade and open markets.
But in the mid-1970s, soon after Portugal's transition to democracy, Barroso was a committed member of the Maoist Reorganising Movement of the Proletariat Party. Here he is at a meeting of leftwing students in 1976, laying into Portugal's bourgeois education system in a somewhat confusing statement:
Barroso switched to the mainstream Social Democratic Party in 1980, going on to become Portugal's Prime Minister two decades later.
Barroso has clearly come a long way since those days, though I would imagine that the mastery of bullshit jargon and obfuscation that he apparently acquired as a young Maoist must serve him well in Brussels.
In response to Admiral Mullen's testimony on the need for more troops in Afghanistan, Senator Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) asked, "Do you understand you've got one more shot back home? Do you understand that?"
The question is reflective of polls showing distinctly waning support of the war effort in the United States. A Washington Post-ABC News poll has found that only 46 percent of respondents thought that the war was worth fighting; 51 percent said that it wasn't.
It's certainly a dramatic change since the time of the U.S. invasion. According to Gallup numbers, a whopping 93 percent of respondents in 2002 agreed with the decision to send U.S. forces to Afghanistan. That number steadily declined to 72 percent by mid-2004. Between that point and mid-2007, however, that number was remarkably stable, dropping only two percentage points over the course of three years. That might be reflective of Afghanistan's status as "the forgotten war;" people's opinions probably don't change much if they aren't paying attention.
It's interesting to compare this trend to the United States's other war. In the case of Iraq, there's an obvious decline in the number of Americans who think sending troops to Iraq wasn't a mistake (from 75 percent in 2003 to 39 percent in 2009) and an increase in the number of people who think that it was a mistake (from 23 percent in 2003 up to 58 percent in 2009). But whereas opinion on Afghanistan has been steadily declining; virtually every poll on Iraq represents another significant fluctuation. In mid-2004, for example, the percentage of supporters swung from 58 percent down to about 44 percent, and then back up to about 56 percent.
In general, there certainly seems to be decreasing support for any war over time; another Gallup poll suggests that soon after wars end, there is a consistent increase of people who "feel that war is an outdated way of settling differences."
Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi goes on the offensive, great things happen for bloggers. He got worked up after a Spanish reporter asked whether he should resign for the rising scandal over his womanizing, including an escort who says she was paid to spend the night with him. Reuters reports Berlusconi's stunningly candid explanation for why he thinks he should stay:
"I sincerely believe I am by far the best prime minister Italy has had in its 150 year history (since unification in 1861)," Berlusconi said in televised news conference in Sardinia with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
Now, though struggling with corruption, Italy is a democracy, but I'm pretty sure that's what Robert Mugabe says too. But back to Berlusconi, it gets better. He has never denied sleeping with the woman accusing him, but forcefully explained why he would never pay for sex:
"Never in my life, not even once, have I had to pay for a sexual encounter," Berlusconi said. "And I'll tell you why: for someone who loves to conquer, the greatest joy is the conquest, so I ask, 'if you pay, what joy can there be?'"
That must make his wife feel even better about her decision to start divorce proceedings. But the press conference still gets better:
When Berlusconi apologized to Zapatero for his lengthy answer, the Spanish leader said there was no need and it was "very interesting."
ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images
Profiles of Japan's incoming Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama tend to use a lot of adjectives like "remote and charisma-challenged" and "blue-blood." Frankly, despite his reformist zeal, the guy seems pretty dull. His wife Miyuki, on the other hand, seems a lot more interesting:
Miyuki Hatoyama, wife of Japan's Prime Minister-elect, Yukio Hatoyama, is a lifestyle guru, a macrobiotics enthusiast, an author of cookery books, a retired actress, a divorcee, and a fearless clothes horse for garments of her own creation, including a skirt made from Hawaiian coffee sacks. But there is more, much more. She has travelled to the planet Venus. And she was once abducted by aliens.
The 62-year-old also knew Tom Cruise in a former incarnation – when he was Japanese – and is now looking forward to making a Hollywood movie with him. "I believe he'd get it if I said to him, 'Long time no see', when we meet," she said in a recent interview. But it is her claim in a book entitled "Very Strange Things I've Encountered" that she was abducted by aliens while she slept one night 20 years ago, that has suddenly drawn attention following last Sunday's poll.
"While my body was asleep, I think my soul rode on a triangular-shaped UFO and went to Venus," she explains in the tome she published last year. "It was a very beautiful place, and it was very green."
While her husband at the time dismissed her experience as a dream, she says that Yukio "has a different way of thinking." Maybe there's more to this PM than we thought...
Japan's voters have handed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party an unprecedented beatdown in the country's lower-house elections, meaning the opposition Democratic Party of Japan -- long the Washington Generals, if you will, of Japanese politics -- is coming to power. It's only the second time the LDP has been ousted since World War II.
What does it mean? We'll have more on that in a bit (and you can read smart takes on the subject by Tobias Harris [twice!] and Dov Zakheim), but my view is that's it's a healthy development for a country that has never been quite as democratic as most of us assumed it to be. Japanese voters have finally punished the ossified LDP for its economic management and arrogance ignoring their everyday concerns, and it's punishment well deserved. And as an editor, anything that makes Japanese politics more interesting is welcome.
The U.S. State Department has issued a statement congratulating the DPJ on its win and pledging "close cooperation" with the new government "in moving toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, addressing the threat of climate change and increasing the availability of renewable energy, bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and addressing international humanitarian and health issues," among other top priorities.
But will the DPJ be as easy to work with as its predecessor? Yukio Hatoyama, the likely new prime minister shown above, wrote last week in a frankly loopy New York Times op-ed that Japan would "aspire to move toward regional currency integration," making headlines around the world. He said it would probably take at least 10 years to accomplish, after which the goal would be EU-style "political integration" of the region. Hatoyama also made clear that he views the United States as a declining power and that Japan would be taking a more independent line in foreign policy.
We'll see if he carries it out. More on this later.
UPDATE: Jeff Kingston weighs in from Japan with his expert take on what the DPJ's win means for Japan and the world. He argues that Tokyo's new government may have a lot more trouble on the economic front, and a lot more success in foreign policy, than most folks think. Check it out.
... Tobias Harris has more.
Junko Kimura/Getty Images
Are voters more inclined to pitch their support to a candidate who looks comfortable kissing babies? It sure seems to have worked for Obama. But what about candidates who have babies?
Rumors that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his lovely wife Carla Bruni are planning to have their first child together in 2011 are spreading around France. The more vicious slant of this gossip is that the couple is orchestrating the pregnancy to secure Sarkozy's reelection.
The chatter comes from the French magazine Voici, which claims the story "has been circulating for several weeks" and that France's first couple is going to use the "'pregnancy card' ... to ensure public sympathy ahead of the next presidential campaign in 2012."
That's quite a charge, even for France's most amorous couple. Both Sarkozy and Bruni have children from prior relationships and while neither has announced plans for a pregnancy -- let alone such a well-timed delivery -- Bruni has said in the past that she'd love to have another child, and is open to adoption. (At 40 the former model has acknowledged conceiving may not be possible.)
There is something to be said for children and their ability to boost a candidate's image, painting him as the warm "family man." Some of the most beloved and iconic images to emerge from any president's time in the White House are those that feature the Kennedy children romping around the Oval Office. Sasha and Malia have certainly taken the world by storm with their adorableness and J.Crew ensembles.
Perhaps Paris will soon hear the pitter-patter of little Sarko-Bruni pieds. But whether or not they'll be dancing to the tune of an election victory may rest on more substantial political matters. Or at least we can hope...
PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images
If you got it, flaunt it. At least that's what my grandmother used to say, and I imagine if she could see the campaign ads coming out of Germany this week, she'd probably laugh. And Vera Lengsfeld, who is running for a parliament seat in Germany's upcoming September elections, is banking on the fact that constituents will have a sense of humor.
The ad (shown above) pairs pictures of Lengsfeld and none other than Chancellor Angela Merkel, shoulder to shoulder showcasing the bountiful assets bestowed upon them by Mother Nature -- two very ample bosoms barely contained by two seriously wide and plunging necklines. The line that runs across reads: "We have more to offer."
No doubt, where there's more chest, there's more attention. Lengsfeld, who did not clear the ads with Merkel, reports that traffic to her blog has increased, getting as many as 17,000 visitors since this campaign went public.
Her takeaway on all this?
If only a tenth of them also look at the content of my policies, then I will have reached many more people than I could have done with classic street canvassing."
It's an interesting acknowledgement on Lengsfeld's part, she's clearly aware that the show-stopping photos aren't appealing to the thinking minds of men and women, though it sounds as though she's hoping the ad's wit will trump the old T&A approach.
Many of those not laughing are likely to be women who find the posters, and the ploy behind them, cheap and offensive. The glass ceiling runs far and wide, thicker over some places than others, and apparently the profiles of men cast long shadows, even over the most powerful women in global politics. Truthfully, I'd like to see a man foolish enough to market his campaign "package" in the same fashion ... Or has Berlusconi kind of done that already?
MICHAEL GOTTSCHALK/AFP/Getty Images
For decades, all that Japan knew of jury trials came from foreign legal dramas. Now, for the first time since 1943, Japan is watching a real jury decide the fate of a criminal, as six "lay judges" join three professional judges for four days of deliberations over the fatal stabbing of a 66 year-old South Korean woman by her 72 year-old neighbor.
Since the end of trial by jury during World War II, Japan's trials have been carried out under professional judges, which led to accusations of too much secrecy. The 99 percent conviction rate that currently accompanies these trials has increased concern that many innocent people are being convicted, and the reintroduction of juries, which was passed five years ago, is designed to bring the public into the judicial process (though only for serious crimes such as murder). However, the public has been skeptical of the new system, especially the hassle involved in taking time off to serve. Furthermore, many Japanese do not enjoy the open forum of deliberations; a New York Times article from 2007 reported that even a mock trial "had left [participants] stressed and overwhelmed." Overall, polls show that almost 80% of the public does not want to serve, and there have been intermittent protests (shown above) since the law's passage.
But while the hassle of serving and the confusion at a new system are at the top of the public's complains, the legal community is more concerned about something else: sentencing. Many critics in Japan have expressed unease at the power given to jurors to pass sentence on criminals, including the death penalty (though at least one professional judge must agree with the lay judges' recommended sentence). Since the accused has already pled guilty in this case, the jury will likely be focusing on the appropriate penalty -- as will the nation.
When Honduras's minister of communications, Enrique Reina, learned that his president had been ousted in a coup, he immediately tried to get to the state television station to send the people a message. He never made it -- but he did make it to the United States, where I spoke to him tonight, and where he has just been nominated to be ambassador of Honduras here in Washington. His predecessor's visa was revoked by the State Department today, due to his having supported the coup.
It's the latest intrigue in a story that is becoming increasingly complicated and increasingly dangerous -- both for Honduras and for the region. Reina expressed concern that tensions were rising back at home. His family, for example is still there. And being members of the old government, their water and electricity has been cut. The press has been silenced and a curfew has been imposed. The de facto government is digging its heels in, refusing to allow ousted President Manuel Zelaya back into the country.
Both sides are escalating the situation. Zelaya is parked on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua, rallying support. He's not ready to cross back into the country, Reina said, because he is trying first to contact supporters. For now, Reina says that Zelaya is waiting for his family to join him in Nicaragua. It's a détente that has everyone wondering how long the tense calm can really last. And both sides seem way too nonchalant about what might happen if things turn sour.
From Reina's public comments tonight, where he spoke at a gathering of more than a dozen ambassadors, and a handful more diplomats, scholars, and journalists, it looks like both sides are prepared to stand firm for now. Reina said the de facto regime was trying to pull any cards they could, for example portraying themselves as opponents of some of the leftist governments in Latin America that have been met with U.S. opposition in recent years (read: Hugo Chávez, first and foremost). It's a "Cold War" type of conspiracy theory, he said. "We might expect that this military regime, in their despair, and as a product of their lack of international recognition, might try to link President Zelaya to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, just to justify their actions."
So who might be able to break the deadlock? Many attending tonight's gathering seemed to think the answer is simple: the United States -- and Congress in particular. There, the debate seems to be split between those who condemned the coup and those who worry that Zelaya's government had taken a dangerous turn to the left -- warranting the military's actions. Both sides of the Honduran political system are working hard to win that debate: the de facto government through three Washington lobby groups, for example, and Zelaya through meetings with Reps. Barbara Lee and Eliot Engel and Senator Richard Lugar. Zelaya wants targeted sanctions, threats to remove or reduce U.S. aid to the country, and diplomatic intervention: "We thank and forsee more sanctions, like the ones taken by the World Bank, the IMF, the EU and MERCOSUR, the United States," Reina said in his remarks.
It has the makings of a political mess. But let's not forget the stakes: Honduras is a country of people -- people whose lives will be lived under one of several governments, all of which are likely to be dysfunctional in providing services until the business of who's in charge gets sorted. And that's assuming that tensions that are rising on ground fall before they rise much further.
A supporter of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya lies on the highway in Ojo de Agua, some 70 km from Tegucigalpa, in front of soldiers blocking the road to Las Manos border post between Honduras and Nicaragua on July 24, 2009. Honduras's de facto government shut down its southern frontier region bordering Nicaragua Friday, hoping to block Zelaya's bid to return home a month after he was ousted in a coup.
YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
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