François Hollande’s triumphant visit to Timbuktu — and next steps for Mali



Earlier this weekend, French president François Hollande flew to Timbuktu in Mali, where French forces have only in the last week cleared the historic city of Islamist control.France Flag IconMali Flag Icon

I was quick to argue that the intervention in Mali wasn’t some neocolonial retreat to Françafrique, and for a three-week military campaign, I’ll be the first to agree that Hollande’s intervention seems to have saved Bamako, Mali’s southern capital, from pending capture — or at least from pressure from Islamist rebels that were quickly closing in on Bamako after locking down control of the northern two-thirds of the country.

But given that the Timbuktu trip had a ‘mission accomplished’ feel to it, after just three weeks of French military effort, I’m not sure whether Hollande will ultimately come to regret such a high-profile event — as former U.S. president George W. Bush learned, prematurely spiking the ball is not smart politics.

For a country that’s often had a troubled post-colonial relationship with its former colonies, especially in north Africa, it’s perhaps an odd thing to see huge crowds of French-speaking Africans praising Hollande over the weekend:

As Mr. Hollande, ringed by security guards, plunged into the crowd to shake hands, some waved banners that said “Papa François, the mysterious city welcomes you.”

“Hollande is our savior,” said Arkia Baby, a 24-year-old college student, who wore a purple batik dress of a style banned by the Islamists. “He gave us back our freedom.”

You might think that Hollande’s success so far in Mali should be helping him at home politically, but budget woes, tax policy and continued economic weakness have nonetheless kept Hollande’s approval ratings incredibly low as he enters only his 10th month in office — only 35% of French voters continue to have confidence in Hollande, opposed to 61% who do not, pursuant to a TNS Sofres poll from January 30.

First and foremost, where does Mali go from here? If and when the French forces leaves, won’t the Islamist and Tuareg rebel forces simply re-emerge from their northern rural enclaves?

In contrast, if French forces really stay long enough to push the more radical Islamist elements out of Mali, won’t they just create a new problem in another country?

Mauritania doesn’t seem like an incredibly bad place for al-Qaeda in the Maghreb to target next.

Given that the French-backed effort to arm rebels in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi might have destabilized Mali by flooding north and west Africa with additional weapons, it’s not too early to wonder if the Mali effort will result in further unintended consequences, like so many falling dominoes.  It’s no secret, too, that U.S. aid to the mujahideen in the 1970s and 1980s in Afghanistan empowered the radical Islam that bloomed in the 1990s and turned against the United States by sponsoring al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and, indirectly, resulted in the current U.S. quagmire in Afghanistan.

So there’s no way to know what follow-on effects the French offensive will have.

And that, of course, is probably a best-case scenario — there’s a risk that France could get stuck fighting an increasingly unpopular stalemate in Mali if it stays.  Continue reading François Hollande’s triumphant visit to Timbuktu — and next steps for Mali

Lombardy looks to post-Formigoni era in toss-up regional elections

Inside Vittorio Emanuel II

Although Italy will hold national elections on February 24 and 25, three regions will hold elections as well — Lombardy, Lazio and Molise.

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None of those will be more important than those in Lombardy (or Lombardia in Italian), the most populous region of Italy and, as home to Milan, Italy’s financial and fashion capital, also its wealthiest region.

Since the fall of the so-called ‘first republic’ with the implosion of Italy’s Christian Democratic party in the early 1990s, the centrodestra (the center-right) has dominated regional politics in Lombardy and, since 1995, Roberto Formigoni has served as Lombardy’s regional president, consistently winning outsized victories against the centrosinistra (the center-left) in 2000, 2005 and most recently, 2010.

Formigoni (pictured below), however, is not running for reelection — he announced the resignation of the regional legislature in October 2012 after his colleague, Domenico Zambetti, was arrested for purchasing votes from the ‘Ndrangheta — the local organized crime operation of Calabria — during the 2010 elections.

As such, ending corruption in the region’s government has taken center-stage in one of Europe’s wealthiest regions.


Realistically, that means that the centrosinistra has its first real shot at winning regional power in Lombardy, though the centrodestra‘s strength is such that, despite its scandal-plagued woes, it remains very much capable of winning yet another term in power.

It would be nearly the equivalent of the Democrats in the United States taking control of the government of the state of Texas  — a political earthquake, even more of a surprise for the left than in the regional elections in Sicily in October 2012, when Rosario Crocetta became not only the island region’s first leftist president, but also its first openly gay president.

Voters will choose the regional president in a direct vote — the winner and the runner-up, as leader of the opposition, are guaranteed a seat in the 80-member Consiglio Regionale della Lombardia (Regional Council of Lombardy). The remaining 78 members of the Regional Council are selected pursuant to a proportional representation system, tied both to the presidential vote and to a separate party-list vote.

Polls show both the direct presidential vote and the vote for the Regional Council are incredibly tight.

Roberto Maroni, who became the national leader of the Lega Nord (LN, Northern League) in July 2012 after the resignation of longtime leader Umberto Bossi, is running as the candidate of the centrodestra — the Lega Nord‘s local branch in Lombardy is the Lega Lombardia (LL, Lombardy League), and it has been the longtime ally in Lombardy of the conservative Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) of Silvio Berlusconi.

Maroni (pictured below) has pledged to step down as the leader of the Lega Nord after the regional elections in February, regardless of whether he becomes the next regional president, apparently ending what’s been a long and fairly successful career in national politics.  Most recently, in Berlusconi’s previous government from 2006 to 2008, Maroni served as minister of the interior.


A victory for Maroni would not only showcase the strength of the centrodestra‘s hold on Lombardy, but would be a huge boost for the Lega Nord, which has advocated more autonomy for the relatively wealthier northeast and center-north of Italy — and, at times, even its complete secession from Italy.

The candidate of the centrosinistra, Umberto Ambrosoli, is the son of Giorgio Ambrosoli, an attorney murdered in 1979 as a result of his investigation into the irregularities of a the Mafia-connected banker, Michele Sindona.

Polls show each candidate winning between 35% and 40% of the vote, often trading leads. Continue reading Lombardy looks to post-Formigoni era in toss-up regional elections

A public interest theory of the continued U.S. embargo on Cuba


The New York Times recently examined the U.S. embargo on Cuba, noting that the opening of the Cuban private market, through Cuban president Raúl Castro’s push for privatization of parts of the state-run economy and other reforms, is giving a new rationale to lifting the embargo:USflagcuba

With Cuba cautiously introducing free-market changes that have legalized hundreds of thousands of small private businesses over the past two years, new economic bonds between Cuba and the United States have formed, creating new challenges, new possibilities — and a more complicated debate over the embargo.

The longstanding logic has been that broad sanctions are necessary to suffocate the totalitarian government of Fidel and Raúl Castro. Now, especially for many Cubans who had previously stayed on the sidelines in the battle over Cuba policy, a new argument against the embargo is gaining currency — that the tentative move toward capitalism by the Cuban government could be sped up with more assistance from Americans.

Which begs the question, a day after Cuba’s own sham parliamentary elections: why is the embargo still in place, 51 years after the Cuban missile crisis?

The easiest and obvious explanation is a public choice theory — Cuban Americans, especially those in Florida, remain adamant against lifting the embargo, and any politician’s move to open trade or travel restrictions on Cuba would risk the wrath of a key electoral bloc in not only a large U.S. state, but one with 29 electoral votes (i.e., more than 10% of the votes a presidential candidate needs to win an election).

Given the prominence of many Cuban-American representatives in Congress, including the likely new chairman of the U.S. Senate committee on foreign relations, U.S. senator Robert Menendez from New Jersey (if he can survive allegations of improper donations and dilly-dallying with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic), it’s easy enough to see how a small group of politicians and an active group of voters can block any change on the issue.

I find that a very compelling explanation for why the embargo remains in place, but is there a compelling public interest explanation for continuing the embargo?

Economic sanctions rarely ‘work,’ unless virtually the entire world participates — note how the French, the Russians and the Chinese and other interests undermined sanctions on Iraq throughout much of the 1990s.  Likewise, despite a severe hangover from the end of the Cold War in the 1990s due to the abrupt termination of Soviet subsidies, Cuba has seen an increasing flow of Chinese investment over the past decade, not to mention a steady stream of European and Canadian tourists, delighted to find a haven from American tourists, who of course, aren’t legally able to visit Cuba.

The Cuban-American community often argues that the embargo is necessary to continue to punish and isolate the Castro regime, but the United States has no problem doing business with regimes that continue to feature authoritarian political control, including Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China.

But other than the Cuban-American lobby, I hear far fewer people trying to make the case for a public interest argument for retaining the embargo.  While I’m not necessarily advocating it (and I don’t want to list the many reasons, political, economic, humanitarian and otherwise, in favor of lifting the 51-year embargo), the case must go something like this:

If you are close in proximity to the United States (90 miles off those shore of Florida, no less!), and you collude with the chief geopolitical enemy of the United States to aim nuclear missiles at the United States, the U.S. government will not only punish you, but it will punish you for so long after the incident, holding the grudge for such a long time and beyond all expectations, that no one in Latin America will do anything to endanger U.S. national security to the same degree without thinking long and hard about the isolating aspects of the U.S. response.

On this theory, the embargo is less important for U.S.-Cuban relations and more important as a deterrent to, say, Venezuela or Nicaragua or whichever Latin American regimes in and around the Caribbean that happen to feature a relatively anti-American government.

I find this persuasive, in particular, given that the relative distance of the United States from Europe and Asia has been one of its key strategic strengths, especially in geopolitical affairs over the past century and a half — note that the trauma involved with both the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington in 2001 resulted in part from the relative scarcity of foreign attacks on the U.S. mainland.

Any other rationales?

Photo credit to Andrew Moore — Habana Vieja, on Calle Bayona, 1998.  Check out his latest book of photos from Cuba here.

First Past the Post: February 4


East and South Asia

Bhutan booming.

Indian president Pranab Mukherjee will back tougher laws against sexual assault and rape.

Why India doesn’t need a new rape law.

The Philippine economy may have grown at 6.5% in 2012.

Japanese finance minister Tarō Asō is looking to the 1930s in the United States as precedent for fiscal stimulus.

Japan’s government gears up for the fight over the next chair of the Bank of Japan, to be selected in April.

North America

New York City remembers Ed Koch, mayor in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Premier-designate Kathleen Wynne gives the Ontario Liberals a boost into a three-way tie in Canada’s largest province.

Latin America / Caribbean

Paraguayan presidential third-party candidate Lino Oviedo has died in an airplane accident.  [Spanish]  English story here.

Fidel Castro (pictured aboveemerged to vote in Sunday’s Cuban parliamentary elections.

Rafael Correa has a smooth path to reelection as Ecuador’s president.

What John Kerry means as U.S. secretary of state for Latin America.


A closer look at Swazi elections later this year.

An Ethiopian editorial weighs in against former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s kind words for Il Duce.

Ghanaian president John Dramani Mahama is not a liberal on gay rights.


More on a potential Cyprus bailout.

More on why Cyprus could be a problem.

Socialist opposition leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba has called on Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy to resign.

Silvio Berlusconi pledges to revoke an unpopular local property tax in the Italian election campaign.

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair talks to Andrew Marr.

Árni Páll Árnason, former minister of economic affairs, will succeed Icelandic prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir as leader of the Social Democratic Alliance.

But the center-right Independence Party leads polls in advance of Icelandic elections.

France’s gay marriage bill moves closer to passage.

Should Georgia’s parliament select the next president?

Middle East

Why Qatar is backing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Yair Lapid thinks he can oust Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister.

Checking in on the latest in Egypt’s political struggle.

A new twist in the generational saga surrounding the Saudi succession.


Australian prime minister Julia Gillard’s Labor Party is behind in polls.