February 26 - March 4
Welcome to the Dispatch for February 26 - March 4!
I’m whole and healthy again, and we’re back to a full-length dispatch this week — so, without further ado, let’s get started.
The Free Syrian Army abandoned the Baba Amr district of Homs after nearly a month of bombardment by the Syrian government, calling the move a “tactical retreat” and citing the increasing humanitarian costs to the remaining residents. The Red Cross was barred from entering the district by the Syrian government, drawing further sharp rebukes from the international community.
The stalemate continues: Neither the rebels nor the government can effectively hold territory in Syria. The rebels don’t have the organization, support, or supplies to mount a fully cohesive opposition, while the Syrian regime can’t rely on its own army, limited to security forces which lack the size and strength to put down the rebellion once and for all.
A Uygher attack on a crowd in western China underscored ethnic tensions in the region, where both Uyghers (a Turkic Muslim minority) and Tibetans have been under increased pressure from Chinese state police.
China’s ethnic conflicts — and the government’s preferred method of resolving them — is instructive in parsing China’s reluctance to take a hard line on the Syrian regime.
North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear enrichment and weapons programs in exchange for 265,000 tons of food and a statement of non-aggression from the US.
North Korea tends to vacillate between aggression and famine; the country hasn’t been able to feed itself effectively for more than 20 years. These agreements seem to crop up whenever a harvest fails or the Chinese get angry, and aren’t terribly indicative of policy directions. Still, it’s positive news, and should help defuse tensions on the peninsula.
The Pakistani Supreme Court revived a 13 year old vote tampering case against the ISI, the second challenge to the powerful group by the courts in less than a month. The PPP, the party of embattled president Zardari, won an overwhelming victory in senate election this week, securing 32 of the 49 seats.
It was a good week for civilian government in Pakistan, though observers warn against placing too much stock in the Supreme Court’s case against the ISI. The Senate elections are a clearer victory: the PPP has been under intense pressure by the military, but the decisive electoral win shows the people still support the first civilian government since Musharraf. The military started the year aggressively pushing its way into politics, but both the courts and the civilian government have shown themselves much stronger than expected.
The Iranian government reported a very high turnout for this week’s parliamentary elections, though their claim is disputed by reports from individuals in Iran. Early reports show gains for the ultra- conservatives, though the elections were boycotted by most opposition groups.
Most reformist candidates were barred from running, leading to a contest between the conservatives who support President Ahmadinejad and the ultra- conservatives who support Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. To the reformists, the election was essentially rigged: most of their candidates were under house arrest for weeks ahead of the election. Gains for ultra- conservative hard liners at a time when Iran is already under extraordinary economic pressure in large part due to Ali Khamenei’s nuclear ambitions are unlikely to contribute to long-term stability in Iran.
Al Jazeera published an excellent editorial on the current state of internal politics in Iran.
Despite several weeks of protests in Moscow, Vladimir Putin won the Russian presidential elections with 65% of the vote, more than enough to avoid a runoff. Opposition leaders promised protests, citing strong evidence of voter fraud.
Putin’s victory was never really in doubt: with strong support from the electorate and a shallow field of opponents, the election was all but a foregone conclusion. Given that, the widespread evidence of voter fraud, with thousands of reports of tampering from around the country, is absolutely bizarre. Russia’s demography at this point seem to be split between those who remember the Soviet Union and the disastrous collapse afterward and those who do not: the former are far more likely to vote for stability, safety, and Putin, and as long as that group continues to vote, Putin and his supporters will continue to hold sway in Russia.
The International Swaps and Derivatives Association decided that Greek bonds had not suffered a “credit event,” and therefore Credit Default Swap (CDS) contracts would not be required to pay out.
In Layman’s terms: The ISDA decided that a 70% loss in the value of Greek bonds was not a default or a loss significant enough to warrant a payout to those who had taken insurance contracts against losses on the bonds. This would be like having the back half of your car taken off by a semi and your insurance company refusing to pay out because they didn’t deem the event an “accident.” By no rational standard at this point can one consider a CDS an effective hedge against loss, a point that should have been abundantly clear after the collapse in 2008. No insurance company in the world can insure against the sort of systemic risk manifest in something like the Greek default, and anyone who assumes they can is either delusional or cares more about what things look like on paper than whether they take a loss or not.
Mitt Romney got back into stride, starting with primary victories in Michigan and Arizona and capping the week with endorsements from Rep. Eric Cantor and Sen. Tom Coburn, two highly influential Conservatives.
The endorsement from Cantor deserves note: Cantor is highly influential, extremely conservative, and, for most of the Obama administration, has been the face of the Tea Party in Congress. Romney’s problem so far has been appealing to Republicans like Cantor - his endorsement could signal the GOP is finally coalescing around Romney. This Tuesday, also known as Super Tuesday, 10 states hold their primaries. A strong win could finally cement Romney’s nomination.
Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine announced this week she would not seek reelection this fall, citing the hyper-partisan atmosphere of Congress. Snowe is a liberal Republican, and has been one of the few senators to regularly support the Democrat’s bills. Snowe’s withdrawal opens up a seat that was considered secure: she had no credible opposition from either party.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!