World

The Chemical-Weapon Taboo and America's Next War

A Canadian World War I soldier with mustard gas burns. (Wikimedia Commons)
Back in December, when the White House first declared that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would constitute a "red line" whose crossing would produce some kind of response (they never said what kind), I wondered why the taboo against chemical weapons exists. Now that it looks like we're about to start bombing Syria , it's worth revisiting the question of what lies behind the taboo and how it is guiding our feelings and actions. Why do we have this international consensus saying that while it's bad for someone like Assad to bomb a neighborhood full of civilians and kill all the men, women, and children therein, it's worse for him to kill that same number of civilians by means of poison gas than by means of "conventional" munitions that merely tear their bodies to pieces? Indeed, we act as though killing, say, a hundred people with poison gas is worse than killing a thousand or ten thousand people with conventional weapons. After all, the Obama administration (not...

Back to the Future in Egypt

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
It’s too soon to say whether the Egyptian coup that overthrew the elected government of Islamist Mohamed Morsi—and the ensuing crackdown that has now killed more than a thousand people—has squashed any chance for democratic reform in Egypt. I think it’s safe to say that its short-term prognosis is grim. What seems clear, however, is that the Egyptian military crackdown has ended talk of George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.” At the very least, it has revealed that many of its supporters weren’t that serious about it to begin with. One of the great (and little-noticed) ironies of the post-9/11 era is that, in an effort to justify its grandly transformative policies in the Middle East, the Bush administration and its supporters latched upon a leftist critique of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, America’s interest in stability in the Middle East had led it to support a set of undemocratic, authoritarian regimes that promised to keep the peace if we didn't bother them about human rights. The...

Mind Eraser: Israel Forgets Its Own Border

The country's leaders and much of its public have repressed memories of where pre-1967 national boundaries lie.  

AP Images/Sebastian Scheiner
I stood on the silent street that circles a hilltop industrial park called Har Hotzvim in Jerusalem. The name means Stonecutter Mountain, but nothing as loud or low-tech as cutting stones happens there. Intel has a plant in the park, and the giant Israeli pharmaceutical company, Teva, has two. Software and biotech firms fill office buildings. I turned my back to the buildings and looked at the steep slope descending to the north. Below the street, unmarked on the hillside, runs the Green Line, the pre-1967 border of Israel. The City of Jerusalem's veterinary institute, hidden by trees in the valley below, is past that border, in land Israel conquered in June 1967. The tech companies and Teva's pharma factories are within pre-1967 Israel. Keep this in mind: dog doctors over the Green Line; pill production inside. It's not difficult if you have a map that shows the line, but the government of Israel got it wrong—top government agencies are accusing each other of publicly labeling the...

The Unsettling Question of Israeli Settlements

AP Images/Uriel Sinai
A s if the challenges to productive Israeli-Palestinian talks—set to begin today in Jerusalem—weren’t already monumental, over the past several days the Israeli government has announced the building of over 3,000 new settlement units, and has identified a number of settlements located deep in the West Bank as “priority areas” for future development. If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s hesitance to return to direct talks in the absence of a publicly declared Israeli settlement freeze was ever really confusing, it should no longer be. No sooner did he agree to come back to the table than the Israelis seemingly go out of their way to make him look like a fool for doing so. The building announcements, certainly not welcomed by the Palestinians and the United States, are not exactly a surprise. Briefing reporters upon the restart of talks in July, a senior State Department official warned , “I think it would be fair to say that you are likely to see Israeli settlement...

Fashioning Justice for Bangladesh

AP Images/Ismail Ferdous
AP Images/Ismail Ferdous O n April 24, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,129 workers and injuring at least 1,500 more. Most were young women earning about $37 a month, or a bit more than a dollar a day. The collapse was the worst disaster in the history of the global garment industry, evoking the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City. The Rana Plaza factory made apparel for more than a dozen major international fashion brands, including Benetton, J.C. Penney, and Wal-Mart. This was the third major industrial accident in Bangladesh since November, when 112 people were killed in a fire at a garment factory producing mainly for Wal-Mart. At Rana Plaza, cracks appeared in the eight-story building the day before it collapsed. Police ordered an evacuation of the building. But survivors say they were told that their pay would be docked if they did not return to the factory floor, and most did. Bangladesh, a nation of more than 160 million, has...

There's No Nate Silver in Middle Eastern Politics

AP Photo/Israeli Army Photo, File
Sipa via AP Images T wo months ago, no one was forecasting that Egyptian democracy activists and generals would join forces to overthrow the country's president. Two months ago, sensible experts all knew that Kerry's Folly—the secretary of state's attempt to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks—would never succeed. The Middle East is not kind to expectations. It has no Nate Silver who can scientifically calculate the odds of when war, revolution, or even peace will break out. Morsi is gone; the talks have begun. Viewing the two events through the same lens leads to—well, let's not call it a prediction, but a word of caution: The toughest issue for the Israeli, Palestinian, and American negotiators could be what to do about Hamas-ruled Gaza. With Morsi's fall has come the reversal of Hamas's standing in Cairo. It's not just that the deposed president represented the Muslim Brotherhood and that Hamas, born as the Brotherhood's Palestinian branch, is tarred by association. The Egyptian...

Kerry's Heavy Lifting Begins on Israel-Palestine

Preliminary peace talks begin in Washington next week amid hopes that the U.S.'s efforts will engender much-needed change in the region. 

 

AP Images/ Fadi Arouri
Defying the skeptics, Secretary of State John Kerry announced last Friday that Israelis and Palestinians had “established a basis” to return to peace talks, which have stalled since 2010. Kerry is wisely keeping a close hold on details so as not to create opportunities for spoilers in advance of negotiations actually taking place, but the latest is that preliminary talks, in which the Palestinians will be represented by longtime negotiator Saeb Erekat and the Israelis by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu’s “personal envoy” Yitzhak Molcho , will begin in Washington next Tuesday . Now that new talks are imminent, critics are hard at work detailing the challenges ahead. As Daniel Levy noted in a recent piece, “Predicting the difficulties for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is about as challenging as predicting the media interest in a British royal birth.” The more important question now is whether, having successfully brought the parties back to the table, Kerry will be...

Our Passivity Surplus

As recent calamities show, change takes empathy—plus insisting on making yourself heard.

AP Images/A.M. Ahad
AP Images/A.M. Ahad O nce in a while, disparate news events make visible a thematic convergence, something wonderful or disturbing that had been coursing unseen through the culture. Since the mass murder of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the nation’s attention has frequently been riveted by events that call into question what we owe to one another and what we owe to ourselves. Can we, like the inspiring, relentless parents of those dead kids, rouse ourselves to care about our fate? Recently, two terrible yet at least partially hopeful episodes occurred: one in a familiar American city, the other thousands of miles from the U.S. We were horrified to learn of the kidnapping, torture, and sexual assault of three girls (now women) over a ten-year period by Ariel Castro, a middle-aged man seemingly as nondescript as his house in Cleveland. Charles Ramsey, a generous, charismatic neighbor in a down-on-its-heels neighborhood, heard a cry for help and helped kick...

Obama's Silence on LGBT-Rights Abuses in Russia

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell President Barack Obama at a joint press conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall last month R ussian President Vladimir Putin wasn't kidding about cracking down on LGBT rights. On Sunday, four Dutch filmmakers were arrested under the country's new "gay propaganda" law. Signed by Putin on June 30 after passing unanimously in the State Duma, the measure bans both private and public expressions of support for gay rights deemed to be accessible to minors and prescribes fines of up to 100,000 rubles ($3,000) for violations. The filmmakers, who came to the country earlier this month to shoot a documentary about gay life in Murmansk, were taken into custody after police went through their footage and found an interview with a 17-year-old gay man (a minor under Russian law). While the foursome was fined for visa violations and let go, it is the first instance of the anti-gay law being enforced against visitors to the country. The gay blogosphere and...

Netanyahu versus the EU

EU sanctions against Israeli settlements are a warning from friends that their patience has run out.

Sipa via AP Images
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File "T his is the chronicle of a crisis foretold years in advance," said the Israeli ex-ambassador to Germany, in that petulant tone of a diplomat working very hard not to sound infuriated. Shimon Stein was trying to explain new European Union sanctions against Israeli settlements. Neither journalists nor politicians should sound so shocked by the EU move, he lectured the anchor of state radio's morning news program. He was right, but he was trying to outshout a hurricane of public anger and disbelief. The anchor herself had begun the show with a riff of indignant surprise that the EU considered her Israeli neighborhood in East Jerusalem to be a settlement. Of course, the EU position has consistently been that the country called Israel is defined by its pre-1967 borders, or Green Line—and that anything built beyond those borders is not part of Israel. The sanctions are designed to give more teeth to that position. Under new budget guidelines, EU bodies must...

Transatlantic Trouble

How much has America's spying on European allies damaged the transatlantic trade deal once thought to be one of Obama's best opportunities for shaping his foreign policy legacy?

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
Recent revelations that the U.S. government had been spying on European allies continue to rile public sentiment on the continent, just as officials from both sides of the Atlantic sit down for talks in Washington on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a wide-ranging deal that the Obama administration has been pushing as a key foreign policy initiative. If successful, TTIP would deepen the economic ties between North America and the European Union and represent the biggest trade deal in over two decades. But with public trust in the United States ebbing throughout the core countries of the European Union, President Obama will probably have to do more than simply downplay the scandal as a hyped-up, misunderstood policy detail. Old school Atlanticists have long touted the wisdom of deeper economic integration between the United States and the European Union, which is already vast and significant. U.S.-EU trade in goods and services totals about one trillion...

Drawing the Wrong Lessons from Egypt

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
AP Photo/Hassan Ammar T he military coup that removed Egypt’s elected President Mohamed Morsi from power last week marks a significant setback for Islamist movements in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood—to which Morsi belonged—is the most prominent and important. But, the coup also returns the Brotherhood to a position they are quite used to, that of the unfairly marginalized voice of the silent, oppressed majority. Egypt’s military government has signaled that it would move relatively quickly to new elections and a constitutional referendum. (It would probably be the first coup-led government in history to actually do so.) As for the future of the Muslim Brotherhood, as analyst Michael Wahid Hanna writes in Foreign Policy , “In the end, no functional political order can emerge, let alone a democratic transition, without the free, fair, and full participation by the Muslim Brotherhood.” Despite being removed from power, the Brotherhood remains a deeply rooted political force in...

Celebration and Confusion in the Cairo Streets

AP Photo/Khalil Hamra
AP Photo/Khalil Hamra CAIRO, EGYPT—People started filing into Tahrir Square in the early afternoon on July 4, the first full day after President Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the Egyptian military. Though it was a tumultuous day—which saw new interim President Adli Mansour sworn in, the arrests of many Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and the mass migration of Cairo’s residents to the square which became synonymous with the Arab Spring’s ebullient upheaval—Cairo was calmer than many expected. Once again, most Egyptians were celebrating as one disliked leader exited the stage, while their country’s future remained deeply uncertain. Morsi and other top Muslim Brotherhood officials repeatedly called for peaceful resistance. Muslim Brotherhood members gathered on Thursday afternoon on Nahdet Masr, the boulevard leading to Cairo University, answering Morsi’s cri de coeur. Close to 70 protesters marched to an abutting road to demonstrate near traffic. A stiff military cordon met them as soldiers—...

Putin Loves Me, Putin Loves Me Not

A conversation with the author of a new book about the Russian president, touching on fomenting dissent in the country, Syria, and the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File
AP Photo/Alexei Vladykin R ussian President Vladimir Putin has earned Western fascination with his over-the-top motorcycle riding and judo-fighting public persona, aggressive foreign policy, and his seemingly captivating power over the Russian people. However, Putin’s third term has quickly proven that, with a restless Moscow middle class increasingly discontent with his authoritarianism and local activists fed up with the corruption of the capital, the love affair between Russia and Putin may not be one for the ages. In his new book, Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin (Yale University Press) Ben Judah, who grew up the son of a Balkans reporter and whose earliest memories are of the collapse of communism in Bulgaria, explains Putin’s fall from popularity and its context in the greater narrative of modern Russia. Judah, a former reporter and current Russia analyst for the European Stability Initiative, spoke to the Prospect about Syria, dissent...

Is the World Facing the Next Pandemic?

A new deadly respiratory disease out of the Middle East is making the World Health Organization plenty nervous.  

AP Images/Anat Givon
GENEVA—Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, is a slight, Chinese woman prone to power shades of lipstick. At the World Health Assembly in Geneva, where ministers of health from the U.N.’s 194 member countries gathered to discuss the world’s most pressing illnesses, Chan’s lip-color ranged from a light rose to fire-engine red, but her attitude never swayed. As Hong Kong’s Director of Health during the 2003 bird flu outbreak, Chan became known for both her wry humor and whip-sharp demeanor. In the middle of that epidemic, she told the press, “I eat chicken every day, don’t panic everyone.” Outside, reluctant local officials were killing over 1.5 million chickens at her behest. At the World Health Assembly, held from May 20 to 28th, she introduced various ministers as “my brother,” and “my sister,” drawing both laughter and applause from the buttoned-down attendees. But Chan’s epidemic persona made a repeat performance at this year’s assembly as a recent...

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