March 5 - 11
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for March 5-11!
The Syrian government allowed both the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (the local Red Cross affiliate) and the UN Humanitarian Chief to visit Baba Amr after spending several days blocking access to the city. Rebels accused them of cleaning up signs of bloodshed and atrocities, but even after the army was done, the destruction was evident. The UN also sent a special envoy, former Secretary General Kofi Annan, to try to negotiate a cease fire, a possibility rejected by both Assad and the rebels.
The attempt to clean up the city is a quaint notion in the age of YouTube.
John McCreary, author of NightWatch, has been highly skeptical of reports of the size and strength of the Syrian Rebellion. On Thursday, he wrote a comment which more clearly defines the size of the Syrian uprising (The section on Syria is midway down the page). In trying to assess the uprising, he broke Syria down not as the 14 governates (“states,” roughly) that comprise it but as the 61 districts (“counties”) that make up those states. He found that the rebellion was active in only 12 different districts, and much of the action was small street demonstrations. He points out the level of activity is much, much lower than during the insurrections against NATO forces in either Afghanistan or Iraq: there’s an uprising, but it looks more like a police problem than a legitimate threat to the regime. This is a much different view of events than has been presented in most of the media, and goes some way in explaining both why Assad is still in power and why the US (and many others) have been extremely reluctant to get involved.
This is, of course, only one analysis from one person, but John is an extremely well-respected analyst, and his read on this squares with an awful lot of the reports coming from the region.
The New York Times wrote this week about the incredible levels of graft and corruption in Afghanistan, a problem NATO has found impossible to unroot thanks to complicit courts and political interference. More worryingly were guidelines on the role of women issued by the Ulema Council, Afghanistan’s top clerics. The guidelines are not legally binding, but were published by President Karzai’s office, and later endorsed by the President himself.
Combined with last week’s Koran burnings, subsequent riots, and the deaths of several American and British soldiers at the hands of their Afghani partners (followed by this week’s killing of 16 Afghani citizens by an American soldier), we have a pretty good picture of the Afghanistan we leave behind. After 11 years, untold dead on both sides, and trillions spent, Afghanistan is a country rife with corruption, slipping to the Taliban, and hostile and distrustful of the West. The best one can hope is that this serves an object lesson the next time we consider military adventurism.
The former head of the ISI admitted in court to spending more than $15m attempting to sway the 1990 Parliamentary elections. While the admission doesn’t come as a shock to most Pakistanis, the ISI has long been seen as untouchable, so the trial itself is already quite incredible, and that the ISI has actually been forced to admit and identify its wrongdoings is unprecedented.
The Iranian government made two moves which could be seen as conciliatory: First, the Iranian government agreed to resume talks on its nuclear program, which the international community hopes will help stop Iran’s uranium enrichment programs. The Iranian Supreme Court also overturned the conviction of an American convicted of spying and sentenced to death, another source of friction between the US and Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu visited the US, urging President Obama to take a harder line on Iran. Obama, for his part, urged the Israelis to have patience, cautioning against too hasty military action and delivering a stern rebuke to Republican lawmakers who have been calling for harsher action on Iran. Some good news for Israel, though: Hamas declared they would take no part in an Iran/Israel conflict.
It seems that both Iran and the US are working towards the same goal: preventing Israel from engaging in a military strike against Iran. Israel’s stance does seem to be having an effect on Iran, though: the Iranians have been expending a good amount of effort to try to convince the rest of the world they’re not building a nuclear bomb. Iran has a range of reasons for wanting their nuclear program to continue — there are legitimate domestic reasons to enrich uranium — but events of the past few months have severely undermined Iran’s strategic position, and I suspect they don’t want to risk an Israeli strike at the moment. For now, it pays to play the international game, and that means giving the Americans more reasons to keep the Israelis at bay.
The statement from Hamas should help calm some nerves in Israel. There’s a couple items wrapped in that bit of news: most immediately, the Hamas/Iran relationship is clearly over. Israel still has to worry about Hezbollah in Lebanon, but that’s an awful lot better than having to worry about both groups. In the longer run, the statement reinforces some of the other recent promising signs from Hamas, and that’s very good news for both the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSEC) stated that, while the Russian presidential elections were cleaner than the Parliamentary elections in December, there were still numerous instances of fraud, and, more to the point, no actual opposition. Protests continued on Monday, though at a more subdued pace, and mostly petered out by the end of the week. Still, reports of higher turnout and some local council wins by protestors offered a silver lining to an otherwise dismal display of democracy.
The OSEC’s report cuts to the crux of the matter: Putin may be unpopular in the city, but there’s simply no credible, independent opposition anywhere. Part of this is because Putin’s government has actively opposed dissent, but part of the problem is that Russia is still living in the shadow of the Soviet Union and its collapse. The protest movement in this election show Russia’s politics may be opening up: it didn’t happen this election, and it may not by next election, but there’s enough new blood voting now to generate a legitimate opposition party. In light of this, seeing some of the protestors winning council seats is a very good sign, since it could provide a new party with a “bench” of people with some experience to draw from.
A group of tribal leaders declared a large swath of eastern Libya a semi- autonomous state, rebuking the National Transitional Council which is nominally in charge of Libya. The NTC decried the move, threatening to retake the area by force before later admitting they don’t have the troops necessary to do so.
Fundamentally, the NTC is an unelected group of Benghazis who were the first ones to get the West involved. There’s been conflict even before Gaddafi fell over the NTC’s leadership, and they’ve never been able to really assert themselves as the ruler of Libya. The goal for the group right now needs to be reaching an accord with the other rival tribes on what the Libyan state should look like, holding elections to get there, and then stepping out of the way — and doing so quickly, because they don’t have the authority to hold Libya together by themselves.
The China Development Bank announced an agreement with its counterparts in Brazil, India, Russia, and South America promoting trade in Chinese Renminbi and cross-country loans in each country’s respective currencies.
In search of economic independence, all five countries have been looking for an alternative to the US dollar for trade purposes, and for obvious reasons the Euro’s off the list. The hope is to gain some insulation from the economies of both the US and the Eurozone - the five nations’ economies have all grown far faster than either the US or the EU, and having an alternate trade currency will help maintain some distance from the headwinds against both those economies.
Brazil surpassed the UK to become the 6th largest economy in the world, despite growth slowing to only 2.7% last year.
The news follows a spate of good news from Brazil, and nearly a century of South America being a byword for corruption and economic collapse. I was lamenting the lack of news from Latin America in the Dispatch - I’m pleased to have some rather good news from the region here.
A brief note on the Kony 2012 video, care of Foreign Policy. The cliff notes: Joseph Kony is no longer in Uganda. His supporters number slightly above 100, not 30,000. There’s an international manhunt, supported by the US, against him right now. The US has shown no signs that it’s considering cutting its commitment to the hunt. One can’t but wonder, then, what the Invisible Children group actually intends to do with the Kony 2012 money (which certainly shouldn’t go anywhere near the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, who’s been in power for 25 years amid charges of corruption and human rights abuses).
Greece managed to get 86% of its private lenders on board for the debt swap deal — lower than hoped, but more than enough to invoke the “collective action” clauses to force the deal on the remaining 14%. Because the collective action clause was used, the ISDA voted that the Credit Default Swaps would pay out, a reversal from their stance last week.
The debt swap deal is sufficient to release funds from the IMF that Greece needs to stay afloat, but between a horrific recession, negative growth, and deep austerity measures, there’s good reasons to continue to be pessimistic about Greece’s future. Even after the debt swap (which reduced debt to private holders by around 80%), Greece’s Debt/GDP ratio is still 120%, well in excess of what’s considered ‘stable.’ It still looks like there’s a high probability of a Greek default or an exit from the Eurozone. The upshot to this deal, though, is that it gets a lot of Greece’s debts off the books of outside entities, which means that when Greece does default, the contagion should be far more limited — which, frankly, was probably the entire point of the exercise.
The Spanish government announced its deficit target this year was 5.8%, higher than the 4.4% agreed upon with the European Commission. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy asserted the issue was a matter of national sovereignty, saying that given the country’s current economic performance, the previous target was no longer realistic.
The problem the Eurozone has always faced is the distance between what happens in Brussels and the facts on the ground in its member countries. The EU is fundamentally an economic agreement without the accompanying political alliance, and because of that it has massive internal tensions between member governments, who must answer to their voters, and the strength of the union itself. Spain is the first of the “troubled” countries to test the EU’s new rules, but it’s not likely to be the last: one look at what the EU’s austerity rules are doing in Greece is enough to rouse the populist in any self- preserving politician.
Super Tuesday came and went: Romney won 225 of the 416 available delegates to Rick Santorum’s 89.
There’s not much to be said here. I’ve written the last thing I intend to write on the GOP nominations on my other blog. The short version: Mitt Romney gets the nomination and loses to Obama in the elections. Unless something dramatic happens to upset that prediction, I’m not covering this story again.
The recent controversy over the mandated birth control coverage in the Affordable Health Care act has sparked a spate of action across the country concerning Women’s health and reproductive rights.
Texas passed a rule blocking any of the $35M in federal money earmarked for women’s health under Title X from going to Planned Parenthood because the organization provides abortions. The Federal government declared the rule illegal and has threatened to cut all $35M in funding from Texas; Governor Rick Perry said the state would cover the loss, though he didn’t specify where the money would come from.
Governor Bob McDonnell signed into law a bill requiring women undergoing an abortion to have an ultrasound, though they wouldn’t be required to actually look at the screen. The bill was amended to only require an abdominal ultrasound, not the transvaginal ultrasound required by the original text.
In the wake of the birth control controversy and other women’s rights issues, the New York Times found rising sentiment against the Republican party among women across the political spectrum. The Obama re-election campaign is eager to take advantage of the Republicans’ rising disfavor among women, planning a nationwide push to attract female voters.
In a year full of bizarre politics, the debate over contraception takes the cake. I didn’t live through the original culture wars, but between Rush Limbaugh’s horrendous, invective-filled, and downright creepy attacks on a college activist, the GOP’s non-repudiations of those attacks, the farcical attempts to reframe the issue as one of religious liberty, and the nationwide drive to see who can pass the most offensive bill targeting women, I feel like I’m getting a pretty good review. It seems a bit odd addressing the original contraception question, because the response to the matter shows well that the controversy was only nominally ever about who pays for contraception, but in the interest of addressing anything that could even pass as a reasonable defense of this sort of blatant misogyny, I think it’s worth taking a look at the health insurance issue.
In the US, Health Insurance has typically been treated as part of the overall employee compensation package, along with wages, 401k matching, and vacation time. With the new rule from the Obama administration, the responsibility for providing birth control to employees of religious organizations is placed solely in the hands of insurance companies. The insurance companies are paid in part by the employer, but again, this is considered in the same way as your wages: your insurance plan, for all intents and purposes, is the same as your salary, a payment provided to you as compensation for your labor. The idea that your employer has some right to dictate how you use any part of your compensation would be a dramatic infringement on your rights as a worker: your employer has no more right to tell you not to get birth control than they do to tell you not to eat pork or drink alcohol in your free time. That employees can spend their salary on whatever they please hasn’t been up for discussion at any time in the modern era in this country, and neither the Catholic Church nor anyone else has successfully tried to prevent by legal means its employees from buying condoms or any other manner of sinful product. Either we need to redefine insurance as something other than a form of compensation, in which case we’re opening the door to much larger questions, or we accept insurance for what it is, an inducement to work, and place it in the broader context of the Employer-Employee relationship — which is to say, neither the property nor the tool of the employer, and therefore unaffected by any particular quibbles the employer may have about its usage.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!