World

Apology Silliness, Foreign Policy Edition

I apologize for these pastries. (White House photo by Pete Souza)
We're now negotiating the terms of our sort-of-departure from Afghanistan, and there's no doubt the Afghan government needs America more than America needs it. Imagine, if you would, that we just packed up and left. There would almost certainly be a full-on civil war, one the Afghan government would be hard-pressed to win. And back here, we'd pay about as much attention as we do now to the river of blood flowing through Iraq, which is to say, every once in a while we'd see a news story and say, "Gee, that's terrible," and then go back to wondering how long it'll be before Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan go on a cross-country crime spree. So if you were the Afghan government, you probably wouldn't want to drive too hard a bargain in negotiating the terms of the future American presence there. And it's all getting hung up on whether the Americans are going to apologize for killing Afghan civilians, and whether they might offer an apology that isn't really an apology, and whether they can...

Europe's Miserable Credit Score

Without access to credit, the European South is unlikely to bounce back anytime soon.

AP Photo/Michael Probst,File
E uropean Central Bank president Mario Draghi surprised markets last Thursday by cutting the Bank’s benchmark interest rate to a record low 0.25 percent (as low as the federal funds target rate in the U.S.). Explaining his decision, Draghi—the person who deserves most of the credit for the lull in the euro crisis over the past 15 months—noted that “monetary and, in particular, credit dynamics remain subdued” and that monetary policy must remain accommodative in order to “assist the gradual economic recovery” taking hold in the Eurozone. In other words, monetary policy must remain extremely loose to prevent Europe from sliding into a Japan-style period of protracted stagnation. The Eurozone recovery, which materialized in the second quarter of 2013 after a year-and-a-half of double-dip recession, is weak and, more importantly, uneven— as the head of the ECB is well aware. While Germany and Finland grew 0.7 percent quarter-on-quarter and France followed closely behind with 0.5 percent,...

Moderating Influences

AP Images/FRANKA BRUNS
“How do you define an Iranian moderate? An Iranian who is out of bullets and out of money.” This was what Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk had to say Wednesday after a briefing by his former Senate colleague, Secretary of State John Kerry, on the state of play in nuclear negotiations with Iran. Last weekend, the talks came tantalizingly close to closing a deal on a first phase agreement to halt to Iran’s nuclear work in exchange for limited and reversible sanctions relief, creating space for a broader comprehensive deal addressing the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. The thrust of Kirk’s remark is that, whatever friendly noises any Iranian leader might make—and new President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been making a lot of them—these do not represent any genuine difference of opinion within the Iranian political system, are only the result of pressure that’s been brought to bear on Iran, and should not distract us...

Super Sad Spy Story

AP Images/Julian Stratenschulte
AP Images/Julian Stratenschulte L et’s face it, unless Democrats win back the House in 2014, Obama will soon become a lame duck president. To some degree or another, it is a universal truth that second-term presidents turn to foreign policy to burnish their historical legacy. Yet the continuous drip of revelations about the National Security Agency’s vast array of surveillance programs is not only shaping up to be the biggest headache for the Obama administration. It's potentially primed to be part of its defining legacy. And that is sad. Super sad. The latest news centers on allegations that the NSA has been tapping the cell phones of over 35 heads of state, from Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff to German chancellor Angela Merkel. Originally reported last week by the German magazine Der Spiegel , the shock waves from Berlin continue to ripple throughout the globe. Foreign governments everywhere are now scrambling their intelligence agencies’ best and brightest to see if they were...

The Other Default?

AP Images/Yves Herman
AP Images/Yves Herman In Brussels they had a word for it: Shutdownfreude . As the standoff between the President and Congress reached its fever pitch last week, officials at the European Commission were relieved that, this time at least, it wasn’t their political system at the center of a potential global meltdown. Now that the United States won’t default on its debt due to a few dozen Tea Party radicals, things are returning to normal. Or should we say the new normal in Europe—serial crisis. Amid Congress’s desultory lurch toward a government shutdown, Euro assets were looking good—growth continued to be anemic, but then again, no one in any European government was intentionally trying to force a debt default. However, that North American storm now seems to have passed. The usual fears about sovereign debt still haunt European markets, but what is driving concern today is the uncertainty surrounding the continent’s banking system. In policy circles, everyone seems to agree that the...

Bomb Me, Big Sheldon

AP Photo/Stanley Troutman, File
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File T he world is full of crazy old men. America has its share. But most of those crazy old men don’t go out in public to advocate America nuking other countries. And most of them aren’t major donors to right-wing American and Israeli politicians and think tanks. Speaking on a panel New York’s Yeshiva University on Tuesday night, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson suggested that the U.S. launching a nuclear weapon into Iran would be the appropriate way to handle negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. “And then you say, ‘See? The next one is in the middle of Tehran,’” he explained. “’You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development.’” The audience applauded. Adelson got a lot of coverage during the 2012 presidential campaign for the amount of money he threw around. He contributed over $93 million to Republican super PACs, making him the single biggest donor to such groups “by a wide margin,” according...

Israel's Brain Drain

AP Images/Eric Risberg
AP Images/Eric Risberg Nobel Prize-winner and Israeli citizen, Michael Levitt. A band was warming up for a free concert on the green quad of Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus before noon yesterday. The vocalist belted out a few lines of Amy Winehouse in English—"They tried to make me go to rehab"—then switched into Hebrew to talk to the soundman. Across the crowded lawn in front of the neural computation and life sciences buildings, a student was learning to walk a low tightrope stretched between two trees, and mostly falling off. The Israeli academic year starts only in October, and classes are finally back in session. Givat Ram is the physical sciences campus of Hebrew University. Among the scientists who do not have labs there, and who will not be teaching there or at any other Israeli university this year, are Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt. Warshel and Levitt were named earlier this month as two of the three winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Warshel , who was born in...

Are Hawks in Congress Trying to Scuttle Iran Talks?

Negotations over the county's nuclear program have been deemed fruitful by both sides, so why are GOP hardliners making trouble just when things seem to be going well?

AP Images
F or the first time in a long time, the news out of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which took place Tuesday and Wednesday in Geneva, Switzerland, was extremely positive. In a statement at the close of talks Wednesday—the first ever such joint statement from the Iranian and P5+1 delegations (the permanent five UN Security Council members plus Germany)—European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif hailed “two days of substantive and forward looking negotiations.” “I've been doing this now for about two years, and I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before,” said a senior U.S. official after the talks. “And I would say we are beginning that kind of negotiation to get to a place where, in fact, one can imagine that you could possibly have an agreement.” The official continued, “I think if you talk to any of the P5+1 members–and some of them have been...

An Ignoble Prize

Eugene Fama, one of the winners of this year’s Nobel in economics, is the fellow who proposed that all markets are efficient all of the time—more precisely that market pricing accurately captures all available information and thus creates “correct” prices. Fama also insisted that there is no such thing as a price bubble. Somehow, the man missed one of history’s great bubbles and the collapse that followed—an epic case of markets getting prices wrong. He also missed the fact that markets have incorrectly priced carbon, leading to global climate disaster, which Lord Nicholas Stern correctly termed “history’s greatest case of market failure.” For this, they give the man a Nobel. What timing! The mind boggles in search of an apt comparison. It’s like giving a posthumous Nobel in physics to Ptolemy rather than Copernicus for demonstrating that the sun revolves around the earth. Or maybe in biology not to Gregor Mendel or Charles Darwin but to Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s court geneticist, for...

In Catalonia, a Warning on One-State Solutions

AP Images/Paco Serinelli
AP Images/Paco Serinelli F rom the balconies above the narrow stone-paved streets of Girona hung gold-and-red striped flags. A blue triangle and white star adorned most of them, transforming the banner of the autonomous region of Catalonia into the standard of Catalonian independence. Here and there a legend emblazoned a flag: Catalunya, Nou Estat D'Europa —"Catalonia, A New State in Europe." I'd taken the train north from Barcelona to see Salvador Dali's personal museum in Figueres and then explore Girona's medieval old city. I was on vacation from the Middle East. But a political writer's time off can so easily become a busman's holiday. I looked at the flags and thought of the arguments about how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, about political scientist Ian Lustick's very recent New York Times essay despairing of a two-state outcome, and about the furies that the late Tony Judt released almost precisely 10 years ago when he came out for a one-state solution. Nationalism...

Can Bibi Take Yes for an Answer?

AP Photo/Seth Wenig T he weeks leading up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday had been the most positive between the U.S. and Iran in decades. Conciliatory gestures from both sides, as well as a reportedly productive meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, culminated in a phone call between Presidents Obama and Rohani, the first ever between a President of the United States and a President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, on Friday. Netanyahu clearly saw it as his job to put the brakes on, like a sitcom father dashing down the stairs to stop the kids from making out on the couch. Except that Rohani hasn’t even gotten to first base. While Obama’s speech at the UN made clear that the U.S. desires a diplomatic solution, with the possibility of a better U.S.-Iran relationship in the future, he has also made clear that Iran’s deeds will matter more than its words. "...

Talking Second-Amendment Rights in China

AP Images/Vincent Yu
I’m a U.S. citizen, and I live with Chinese, British, and Brazilian roommates in Beijing. In China, introductions tend to elicit specific responses from locals, and it’s always an interesting representation of a given country’s warped reputation. When the Brit introduces himself, he’s often labeled a gentleman. When the Brazilian shakes hands, Chinese compliment him on his country’s soccer prowess and inquire whether he can dance the Rumba. When I introduce myself as American, I’m frequently asked whether I own a gun. This occurs in various situations, regardless of the background of who asks. I say no, but that my father, who grew up on a farm, owns a small pistol and has recently taken up skeet shooting. I never thought much about it as a kid, or even now, because guns were never a big part of my childhood. Only when someone asks do I remember we had one in the house. The American familiarity with guns is tough to explain to people in China—citizen gun ownership is banned and most...

Angela Merkel, Black Widow, Seeks Partner

AP Images/Michael Sohn
The American press has widely reported on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s nickname: “Mutti,” which translates to “Mommy.” Less noted is her second nickname, which is also familial but decidedly less affectionate: “The Black Widow.” She has earned this second sobriquet because she kills her partners with whom she governmentally cohabits. In Germany’s 2005 election, Merkel’s Christian Democrats edged out the then-governing Social Democrats by a single percentage point, 35 percent to 34 percent. The Social Democrats then entered into a coalition government headed by the Christian Democrats, with Merkel as chancellor. In the next election, in 2009, Merkel claimed credit for the government’s successes, while the Social Democrats had trouble defining themselves as a clear opposition party. As a consequence, not only did Merkel’s party win re-election, but the Social Democrats’ vote fell to an all-time low of 23 percent. Since 2009, the Christian Democrats have governed in partnership with...

Boom Times for the NRA

Flickr/Sea Grape
There's a lot happening at the moment—government shutdown, war in Syria, Iranian president sort of maybe not denying the Holocaust—so there was very little attention given to the fact that yesterday, the United States government signed the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), commonly known as the small-arms treaty. It's meant to prevent the arming of human-rights abusers—potential perpetrators of genocide, and the like—by obligating states not to sell conventional weapons, from small arms up to tanks and helicopters, to foreign governments or entities that are going to use them to commit war crimes and massacre civilians. When it was voted on by the UN, the only countries that voted against it were Syria, Iran, and North Korea. And today, the National Rifle Association is celebrating. That might strike you as odd, but the ATT is political gold for them. It's the international equivalent of a failed gun control effort in Congress, which is far, far better than no gun control effort...

Angela Merkel's Boring Brilliance

AP Images/Markus Schreiber
AP Images/Markus Schreiber F ew European politicians have survived the financial crisis of 2008 unscathed, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proved to be an extraordinary politician. While most of her counterparts across Europe have been swept away amidst the turmoil that has resulted from the euro crisis, Merkel keeps getting stronger. She just won her third general election, and this time, she brought her party within a hair of an absolute majority, something that hasn’t happened to the conservative Christian Democrats since 1957. She’s the first female chancellor in German history, and at the height of her power, which means her tried and true policy of slow, almost glacial change will continue. How boring. And how utterly genius. Not since Bismarck has a German politician managed to parry a dizzying array of domestic and international forces into a manageable agenda as well as she has. Known to friend and foe alike as “Mutti” (“mommy” in German), Merkel is not only the...

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