January 7 - 21
Welcome to the first Dispatch of 2013!
This is the first dispatch in the new, shorter format. I’ve tried to focus the analysis a bit more on the conclusions, though that comes at the expense of more general background info. I’d love feedback, and suggestions are always welcome.
France started military activities in Mali after the Islamists advanced towards Sévaré, a major Malian military outpost. While French airstrikes halted that advance, the Islamists took over Diabaly, another Malian city to the west. The French have now deployed several hundred soldiers and plan to deploy up to 2000 total to fight the Islamists.
France’s intervention in Mali has finally shed some light on the nature of the Islamists controlling the country’s north, and it’s not good: the fighters seem well-armed, capable, and dedicated. The French are in for quite a fight — which, frankly, is why nobody else wanted to get involved.
Shortly after the French began operations in Mali, a group of Islamist militants took over a BP gas field and refinery in the Algerian desert. After a couple days’ standoff, the Algerian army assaulted the refinery. In the ensuing melee, 37 hostages were killed.
The militants’ attack has been called a response to the French action in Mali, but there are a couple inconsistencies: first, the attack seems to have been planned well in advance, and second, the militants who attacked the refinery are from a splinter group which broke off from the main al-Qaeda group in Mali. In all likelihood, this was an opportunistic attack that took advantage of a geopolitical crisis to draw more attention (in the same way the Benghazi attack did). The Algerian response to the attack, and its bloody aftermath, though, ought to temper demands the Algerians get more involved in the Malian crisis.
On January 8, Vice President Nicolás Maduro informed Congress that President Hugo Chávez was too sick to return from Cuba to take the presidential oath. Chávez, who won re-election to a third term in October, has been battling cancer for two years.
Chávez has been battling cancer for about two years now. Before returning to Cuba in December, he named Maduro his chosen successor, but it’s not clear the “Chavismo” movement would survive without Chávez. If Chávez doesn’t make it, this year is going to be chaotic in Venezuela, though it might be good for Venezuelan politics in the longer run - Chávez has played an outsize role in both Venezuelan politics and the region at large.
US Debt Ceiling
House Republicans offered President Obama a three-month increase of the Debt Ceiling, putting off the threat of a default, as long as the Senate agreed to pass a budget.
The “three month” number is significant: in March, Congress needs to authorize new spending for government agencies and the fiscal cuts deferred in January come due again. The GOP offer rearranges these cuts, meaning the GOP can duke it out with the White House over spending in March without having to risk an actual default. The GOP’s already lost a couple battles this year, so I’d expect March to get ugly.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the weeks ahead!