January 23rd - 29th
Welcome to the Dispatch for January 23 through 29!
Most of the Dispatch this week centers on the Middle East. This isn’t due to lack of activity in other parts of the world. Europe continues to deal with economic woes, Boko Haram is making life miserable in Nigeria, and opposition to Putin continues to grow in Russia. Much of the week’s events seemed to be a continuation of the prior week: movement in one direction or another, but no real change in the narrative. The general rule for inclusion in the Dispatch is that a story must be significant (“likely to be remembered in a decade”) and have changed from the prior week. That second criteria is why Syria is making its first appearance in the Dispatch: While the uprising’s been ongoing, this week seems to have been a watershed week, and it’s the first time I’ve felt enough has changed to warrant an entry.
With that in mind, let’s get started!
The unrest in Syria deepened as the opposition arrived at the outskirts of the capital Damascus. The deteriorating security situation hamstrung the Arab League’s mission, leading the group to pull its monitors out of the country, and the leadership of Hamas has also fled the country. Meanwhile, Russia reaffirmed its commitment to the Assad regime in the face of international pressure, thwarting UN action against Syria.
The uprising in Syria has been building since March of 2011 amid serious and severe crackdowns. Until recently, though, the government still seemed firmly in control of the country, and it was fair to ask if the media was overstating the extent of the protests. In recent days, though, something changed: the protestors are more violent, better armed, and seem capable of taking and holding territory. The failure of the Arab League’s mission and Russia’s staunch refusal to allow sanctions or other UN resolutions against Syria means the situation can only be resolved by the factions on the ground. For all intents and purposes, this is now a civil war.
The EU agreed to an embargo on Iranian oil starting July 1. The Iranians responded by threatening to cut off European oil preemptively, but the damage to the Iranian economy is already starting to show.
Iran has stated that an embargo would be tantamount to a declaration of war, and it’s hard to see what else the US and EU can do to Iran at this point. The goal of the sanctions is to get Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program, but it’s unlikely the Iranians will make any serious concessions on that point. Iranians want a bomb because it’s the only iron-clad security guarantee they’re going to get. To put it mildly, the Iranians don’t trust the US - again, a position not without historical merit.
In this light, the sanctions have two fundamental flaws. The first is that, as mentioned, it’s awful difficult to see what the next step is. What’s left on the table after this set of sanctions fails shy of all-out war? The second, and potentially larger, issue is that these sanctions are having serious economic bite. A prosperous country is a peaceful country, but a country in dire economic straits is a country prone to violence and upheaval. This may be what the US is hoping for, but history doesn’t warrant much confidence in uprisings born of economic depressions, especially economic depressions caused by outside forces. An unstable, ultra-nationalistic country on the cusp of getting a nuclear bomb is perhaps not the ideal outcome.
The New York Times published an in-depth article on Israel’s position on attacking Iran, drawn from interviews with top Israeli officials including the Defense Minister, head of Mossad, and others. It’s a great read and includes a lot of backstory on Israel’s actions in Iran - I highly recommend it.
The Deputy Chief of Libya’s National Transition Council resigned in response to growing protests from across the country. Bigger news came from Bani Walid, where a group of fighters from the Warfalla tribe, previously strong supporters of Qaddafi, forced the NTC Militia from the city. The NTC Defense Ministry said their aims were not counter-revolutionary, but by the end of the week the NTC had yielded control of the city to the tribe.
Outside of a few areas, Libya is still an intensely tribal country, and the fighting in Bani Walid is best read in this light. The Warfalla tribe were supporters of Qaddafi, but so far they’ve made no move except to expel the NTC Militias to take back what they consider their city. This isn’t the first tribal conflict to emerge in the post-Qaddafi era, and it won’t be the last. The most likely outcome for Libya is a limited national government and local control in the hands of whatever group can claim the mantle of a regional government. This is a good blueprint to keep in mind for Yemen as well.
The Federal Reserve announced it will keep interest rates near zero through late 2014 amid extremely low growth and inflation forecasts.
The Fed acknowledged some of the recent growth in the economy, but still feels the economy isn’t growing fast enough. This is true. Not only do we need to get back to positive growth and increased job creation, but we need to make up for the lost output from four years of nearly zero growth. Until then, it’s going to feel like a recession for an awful lot of people.
State of the Union Address
President Obama gave his State of the Union address this week, concentrating mostly on the economy and issuing a call for economic fairness. Included in the speech were calls for tax policies to stimulate manufacturing and more investigation into unfair trade practices, and a more general call for a sense of shared responsibility.
The speech gives a better preview of the Obama 2012 campaign than any specific policies: the administration has basically written off any grand policy movements until the election. Still, it’s good to see a more assertive side of Obama.
The Romney campaign unleashed a withering string of attacks that have pushed Newt Gingrich back to second place in Florida polls. The payoff comes on Tuesday at the Florida Primary, where Mitt Romney is favored to win by more than 10%.
Newt Gingrich this week discovered what Romney’s been spending all his money on this week. Mitt’s campaign is extremely well-run and well-funded, and while so far Romney has been able to spend most of his efforts on attacking Obama, the performance this week in Florida showed what kind of teeth his campaign can have. Obama’s campaign is in swing and has collected an enormous sum already. This campaign season is going to get ugly.
I touched briefly on the moral and political aspect of the economy when talking about Iran, but it’s incredibly important to recognize the importance of economic prosperity for peace and stability. A country in which the average person has the means to provide for themselves and their family tends to be a stable and peaceful country. In countries where this is not the case, we see extremism and violence; desperation makes fools of reasonable people. Al Qaeda and its offshoots are born of the economically disadvantaged, as were the fascist movements in Germany and Italy - the memories of which should be at hand as we work our way through the aftermath of the financial crisis. Justice is a cornerstone of free society, but it’s a double-edged sword: it’s no more just for a man to die penniless in the street by no fault but chance than it is for him to die by another man’s hand. Justice is not a concept confined to criminality, and societies in which men die injust deaths tend to be short lived and violently undone.
Thanks again for reading this Dispatch, and all my best for the week ahead!