February 6 - 12
Welcome to the Dispatch for February 6 - 12! There’s no administrative news this week, so let’s get right to it.
The assault on Homs continued this week. With no real prospect of outside intervention, the Syrian Government continued its bombardment of the city.
30 years ago, Bashir al-Assad’s father ended an Islamist uprising by shelling the city of Hama to the ground, killing more than 20,000 people. His son is continuing in his tradition. Last week, it was unclear how strong the rebellion actually was. Reports conflicted on the cohesiveness of the group, its support among the general populace, its accomplishments, and its resources. The question as of a week ago was whether this was a movement that reflected the will of the people or an isolated uprising. None of that matters this week. This week, the Syrian army moved in on Homs, and this may well be the last we’ll hear of Syrian opposition for another 30 years. I sincerely hope I’ll have something new to write about Syria next week, because there’s nothing good about “no news” in this case.
After a week of tense negotiations, increasing demands, and riots in the streets, the Greek government voted in favor of a package of austerity measures demanded of them as a condition of receiving $33Bn in IMF loans. The loans will help Greece avoid a default, but come with extremely harsh conditions, including a 22% cut in private sector wages.
I previously asserted that the EU would find some way to keep Greece solvent and in the Eurozone, but it appears that was predicated on the EU actually wanting Greece to stay. The Guardian’s Larry Elliot thinks Germany wants them out, a conclusion that’s hard to escape in the face of the incredible austerity demands. At some point, one must wonder what exactly the Greeks gain by both staying in the EU and not defaulting; it’s hard to see a scenario in which a 20% wage cut leads to the sort of growth needed to allow the country to pay its bills without outside assistance. In either case, the situation is far from over: the Greeks are out in the streets for the sixth day, there have already been several resignations from the Greek government, and the unemployment rate is already 21% - and that’s before the austerity measures kick in. The Greek debt is unsustainable, but the political situation is increasingly so as well.
The Pakistani Supreme Court called the ISI, the Pakistani Intelligence Service, to account on two cases this week. The first case centers on eleven suspected militants who disappeared shortly after their trials, the second around charges of vote-rigging from the 1990 elections. The court also rejected the Prime Minister’s appeal to avoid a contempt of court charge, stating proceedings will begin on the charges on Monday.
My original prediction minimized the role of the court, but that looks to be inaccurate. The Court seems intent on putting itself back as the third center of power in Pakistan. The charges against the ISI are welcome by many, and are certainly an interesting challenge to an organization seen as outside the law. This represents an interesting change in the dynamic in Pakistan: the story thus far has largely been of conflict between the military and the civilian government. The Pakistani courts have a long history of respectability and integrity; their involvement in what’s been a rather sordid affair all around may offer some welcome news.
Hamas and Fatah announced progress this week in forming a unity government: Mahmoud Abbas, the president of Fatah, would become the Prime Minister of a joint Hamas/Fatah government. The agreement is another step in the fulfillment of an agreement signed in May 2011, and removes a particularly sticky roadblock from the process.
Israel is understandably upset: much of the world considers Hamas a terrorist group, and the group has been the driver of many of the attacks against Israel. Despite its checkered history, there’s reason to believe the group can be negotiated with. It has offered long-term truces in the past, and has indicated its willingness to work within the peace process in recent years. The biggest concern, however, is the cohesiveness of the group and its ability to control other militants in the region. As the largest and most active group in Palestine, Hamas is frequently held to account for any attacks against Israel, but its control over the territory is not absolute: it may be impossible for the group to fully stop attacks on Israel from Gaza, and that could severely undermine the peace process.
The Guardian this week reported on a widespread campaign to pay bloggers and internet users to push pro-Kremlin and pro-Putin articles, comments, and videos. The campaign was revealed in hundreds of emails obtained by a Russian group under the Anonymous umbrella.
The Financial Times reported that the Chinese government has instructed its banks to roll over nearly $1.7Tn (Rmb10.7tn) in loans issued as part of the country’s stimulus plan.
It’s long been known that the skeleton in China’s closet is the outstanding municipal loans used to fund the enormous boom in construction and development over the last decade. China’s hope is that it can grow fast enough to wipe out the debt before its banks are forced to acknowledge the size and scale of the outstanding loans. The pattern is the same as was faced by Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and many others: Growth, fueled by debt, followed by a financial crisis, and eventual recovery. The size of China’s economy, though, gives one pause when considering a potential financial crisis.
A federal court this week ruled that Proposition 8, the prohibition against same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional, stating in their decision that, “Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gay men and lesbians in California.”
This is the second court ruling against Prop 8. In both cases, the courts have ruled that the law serves no purpose except discrimination, and such laws are plainly unconstitutional. The next step, should Prop 8’s defenders choose to appeal, is a Supreme Court challenge.
Rick Santorum won the Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado primaries this week in a stunning victory. Mitt Romney came back with a win in Maine, avoiding a completely devastating week, but Santorum’s three victories mean the GOP race is far from over.
It’s still extremely likely that Mitt Romney will be the GOP nominee, but Santorum’s wins show how far the GOP is from consensus. As the Guardian’s Michael Cohen put it, the big winner so far is Obama.
The Senate and House this week both passed the STOCK act, designed to outlaw insider trading by members of Congress. The House’s version of the bill, however, strips a provision requiring “Political Intelligence Consultants,” professionals who collect information from Congress members to sell to hedge funds and other clients, from registering their activities in the same way that lobbyists do.
History repeats itself: The Syrian President shelled a city like his father did, the Chinese flirted with a financial crisis like the one that took down the Asian Tigers, and the Greeks got hit with a modern Treaty of Versailles. The sense of inevitability in some cases can be overwhelming. That said, Martin Luther King’s long arc of history bent a bit closer to justice in California, and the trend across most of the world still seems to be towards democracy: in Russia, the existence of a paid government propaganda group was unveiled by an avowedly pro-democracy group, and in the US, popular outrage lead to Congress voting away some of its own power. It’s easy to get discouraged, but there’s hope for us yet.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!