January 1st - 7th
Hello all, and thanks for reading! This is the first real dispatch for 2012, for January 1st through the 7th. I’m still working on the tone and formatting, as well as my organization and schedule on the back end, so please do stick with me. As always, the “Ask” link is at the top and comments are at the bottom, so let’s get started!
The top story comes from the Taliban, who announced this week they’ll be opening a political office in Qatar. Long seen as a necessary step for peace and an orderly NATO departure, negotiations with the Taliban have faced numerous setbacks, including impostors masquerading as Taliban representatives, resistance from all parties (including the Afghan government), and rumored interference from Pakistan. The move to open an office, especially in a neutral country like Qatar, is therefore a huge positive step: even if it bears little short-term fruit, an open official line of communication could well be crucial to Afghanistan’s future.
As part of the arrangement, the US will apparently be releasing several Taliban prisoners. Whatever else the deal may contain, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a one-sided deal or a move of desperation on the part of the Taliban. Over 11 years, the mission in Afghanistan has evolved to the point that success now rests on reaching an agreement with a group whose removal was once Goal #1.
Ripples of the Arab Spring arrived in Palestine this week as a philosophical divide manifested within Hamas. The group’s exiled leader in Damascus announced a strategic shift towards non-violent protests and popular uprisings — an announcement quickly disputed by leadership on the ground in Gaza. The dispute shows the tension between the group’s ideological leadership and the practical concerns of the people on the ground: Political overtures aside, Hamas still feels itself a group under siege.
The Muslim Brotherhood won a plurality of seats in the parliamentary elections, and the United States has backed away from a longstanding opposition to dialogue with the group, a policy dating to the Mubarak era. The elections in Egypt should provide a template for how to engage with Middle Eastern governments which actually reflect popular will.
A less positive note from Iraq this week, as Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki began reaching out to Asaib al-Haqi, a violent militant group allegedly tied to Iran. The latest in a series of discouraging moves from the Malaki government, it seems to be a response to moves by Moktada al-Sadr, formerly of the Madhi Militia, to capitalize on popular concerns over the Malaki government’s attempts to marginalize the Sunnis in Iraq. The move is particularly disheartening coming less than a month after the US departure.
Our second negative story this week comes from West Africa, where Boko Haram capped a 10-day spree of attacks with a bombing of a Christian church, killing 14.
Editor’s Note: Boko Haram is a hard group to pin down. Originating in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north, the group was relatively peaceful until their leader was killed in 2009. Their identity and the constitution of the group is ill-defined and highly disputed, and tensions in the northern region are extreme, with rumors of widespread police violence. Boko Haram’s capabilities are increasing, though, suggesting ties with other groups in the region and a more solid group identity - a dangerous trend.
Fallout from the Euro crisis continues to dominate Europe, with Spain this week reporting an unemployment rate of 22.9%. While potentially mitigated by a large ‘grey’ economy, the number is still deeply troubling. Spain must continue the austerity track, and growth estimates for the next year vary from 0 to -1.5%.
Hungary’s new constitution, pushed through by the ruling party, took effect this week, to the chagrin of both domestic protestors and outside observers, including the UN, European Commission, State Department, and IMF. Among the controversial provisions are restrictions on the media and the dissolution of key checks on legislative power.
Chinese president Hu Jintao reiterated this week concerns about western cultural dominance in China. Describing the proliferation of western culture as an international attempt to weaken and divide China, the president indicated both increased state support for Chinese cultural projects and further restrictions on media the government finds “unacceptable.” Among the restrictions are regulations affecting microblogging sites, which have become a popular forum for discussing government policy and popular opinions.
The Iowa Caucus was held this week on Tuesday. To little surprise, Romney won, though far less expected was Rick Santorum’s second place finish, losing by only eight votes. The strong finish effectively establishes him as the candidate of the evangelical wing of the Republican party; Michele Bachmann suspended her campaign, and Rick Perry is preparing to make a last stand in South Carolina. The New Hampshire primary is this week, and while Santorum is far less likely to succeed as he did in Iowa, it remains to be seen how strong a showing Mitt Romney can make. The 2008 election wasn’t clinched until Super Tuesday, and McCain was hardly the frontrunner in Iowa. The GOP field is still open.
President Obama made four recess appointments this week, most notably Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The move is noteworthy because the Senate is technically “in Session” – continuing a practice started by Harry Reid during the Bush years, Mitch McConnell has been using a procedural loophole to keep the Senate “in session” to block just such appointments. The appointments appear to be legal, but they’re likely to face a strong challenge, and in either case they certainly won’t help mend fences.
We’ll end the week on a more positive note: the economy added more than 200,000 jobs in December. The numbers are preliminary, and still far, far lower than ideal, but they extend a good run on jobs recently. We need more, but it’s a good trend.
In the future I’ll be using this section for some closing commentary and a few predictions, but other than some commentary on organizational methods or perhaps some platitudes on rocky starts in new ventures, I simply don’t have a lot to offer tonight, I’m afraid.
Thanks for reading, and I hope the week to come sees you well! Eric