Tag Archives: United States

Photo of the day: A haunting victim of Aleppo’s siege

A dazed child receives medical assistance after another horrific day of urban warfare in the battle of Aleppo.
A dazed child receives medical assistance after another horrific day of urban warfare in the battle of Aleppo.

It’s important for the rest of the world to see what’s happening in Aleppo. Even when it’s ugly. Even when it means a child dazed and confused by the horrors of war. The video is even more heart-breaking. Our hearts should cry for what’s happened in Syria for 5.5 years. It’s disgusting.Syria Flag Icon freesyria

It’s going to get worse in Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, now divided between a western half still controlled by Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian army and an eastern half held by Sunni, anti-Assad rebels. The fighting is now fierce, and it has been for weeks. Both sides have committed atrocities. Dwindling water, food, power and medical care for over 2 million residents means that Aleppo could also spiral into a humanitarian crisis.

Russian bombs are making it worse.

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RELATED: Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

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Here in the United States, as we indulge ourselves in a presidential election focused on xenophobia, division and isolationism, when we should be thinking deeply about economic and social policy and global leadership, we may even hear the cries to ‘do something’ above the cowardly screeching  of Trumpismo.

Given the huge American military, most will naturally think first of a military solution. But of course the most effective things that the United States could do are things that it will not. One is to provide more financial aid to Lebanon that can assist the country in assimilating and caring for a deluge of around 1.5 million refugees (though the US government did find $50 million to fund the country’s military earlier this month).

Even more effective would be granting refugee status to more of the victims of Syria’s civil war here in the United States when a trickle of just 10,000 refugees — itself a massive increase — remains deeply inadequate and uncharitable for a country built on immigration.

Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)
Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)

Aleppo, the most populous city in Syria, has become in August the center stage for one of the most tragic urban battles of the country’s five-and-a-half year civil war.freesyria Syria Flag Icon

The first battle of Aleppo that began in July 2012 and lasted for months, brought some of the worst of the earliest fighting to an industrial and cultural capital home to some 2.5 million Syrians before the war.

By early 2013, after thousands of deaths and widespread urban destruction (including parts of Aleppo’s old city and the Great Mosque of Aleppo), a stalemate developed between the eastern half, controlled by various Sunni rebel groups and the western half, controlled by the Syrian army that supports president Bashar al-Assad.

Last week, rebel forces — including the hardline militia formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra — broke through to Ramouseh, a key sector in the southwest of the city. Among other things, Ramouseh is home to some of the most important bases in the area for the Syrian army. More importantly, the rebel offensive hoped to open and secure a corridor between the besieged eastern half of Aleppo to other rebel-controlled areas to the south of Aleppo that could provide a pathway to food, water, power and other supplies to the rebel-controlled portions of Aleppo.

As of last week, the rebels had the upper hand after pushing into Ramouseh. Over the weekend, however, the Syrian army reclaimed some of its territory and effectively halted the rebel advance with punishing support from the Russian military.

(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)
(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)

Meanwhile, civilians across Aleppo (in both the government- and rebel-controlled areas) face a growing risk of a humanitarian crisis, lacking access to basic necessities like electric power, food and water in fierce summertime conditions. Intriguingly, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu also claimed over the weekend that Russian and U.S. forces were close to taking ‘joint action’ on Aleppo. It’s odd because Russian president Vladimir Putin firmly backs Assad, while US officials have expressed the view that Assad’s departure alone can bring about a lasting end to the civil war. One possibility is a pause in hostilities to allow aid workers to provide food, water and medical care to civilians caught in what has become one of the deadliest battles in the Syrian civil war to date.

As the battle for Aleppo dominates headlines about Syria’s war, it is quickly becoming a symbolic fight for Syria’s future. Continue reading Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Is Hillary Clinton really a hawk?

Then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visits American troops in Tripoli in 2011. (US Embassy in Libya)
Then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visits American troops in Tripoli in 2011. (US Embassy in Libya)

In Vox on Tuesday, Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky argued that, as president, Hillary Clinton would be too focused on her domestic political agenda to be too bothered with foreign policy, whether she’s really a hawk or a dove or [name your bird of prey].USflag

I worry that lets Clinton off the hook for some poor policy decisions over the course of her career, both as a senator from New York and as the nation’s leading diplomat as US secretary of state. After all, it was vice president Joe Biden who proclaimed in Jeffrey Goldberg’s famous piece for The Atlantic earlier this year on the ‘Obama doctrine’ that Hillary ‘Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir.’

That same profile gave us the following nugget into Clinton’s mind on international affairs:

Many people, I noted, want the president to be more forceful in confronting China, especially in the South China Sea. Hillary Clinton, for one, has been heard to say in private settings, “I don’t want my grandchildren to live in a world dominated by the Chinese.”

Suffice it to say that, as the 45th president of the United States, Clinton wouldn’t quite welcome the end of unipolarity just yet.

But I also worry for another reason, summed up in four words by former British prime minister Harold MacMillan: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ George W. Bush, until September 2001, wasn’t supposed to be a foreign policy president, either. You don’t choose your issues in the Oval Office; the issues choose you. (One reason, among many, why Donald Trump remains such a terrifying presidential nominee).

To steal a concept from Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution, who might be the only person left in the United States who’s managed to turn the 2016 general election into an exercise in intellectual growth, I’d like to engage in my own version. I’ll call it  ‘foreign policy hindsight 20/20 for me, but not for thee.’ Continue reading Is Hillary Clinton really a hawk?

NATO comments show why Trump could inadvertently start a global war

Donald Trump enters the convention stage on the first night of the Republican gathering in Cleveland.
Donald Trump enters the convention stage on the first night of the Republican gathering in Cleveland.

The theme of this week’s convention could have already been ‘I Took a Pill in Cleveland,’ because it’s clearly more Mike Posner than Richard Posner.Russia Flag IconUSflag

All eyes last night were on Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who lost the Republican nomination to Donald Trump and, notably, Cruz’s pointed refusal to endorse his rival in a rousing address that is one of the most memorable convention speeches in recent memory. Trump’s allies instructed delegates to boo Cruz off the stage, and they spent the rest of the night trashing Cruz for failing to uphold a ‘pledge’ to support the eventual nominee.

But shortly after Cruz’s speech, David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times published a new interview with Trump about foreign policy, in which he indicated that he would be willing as president to break a far more serious pledge — the mutual collective defense clause of Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty that essentially undergirds the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the organization that has been responsible for collective trans-Atlantic security since 1949:

Asked about Russia’s threatening activities, which have unnerved the small Baltic States that are among the more recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing if those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”

“If they fulfill their obligations to us,” he added, “the answer is yes.”

Mr. Trump’s statement appeared to be the first time that a major candidate for president had suggested conditioning the United States’ defense of its major allies. It was consistent, however, with his previous threat to withdraw American forces from Europe and Asia if those allies fail to pay more for American protection.

The comments caused, with good reason, a foreign policy freakout on both sides of the Atlantic. The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, ‘It’s Official: Hillary Clinton is Running Against Vladimir Putin.’ In The Financial Times, a plethora of European officials sounded off a ‘wave of alarm.’

In successive waves, NATO’s core members expanded from the United States and western Europe to Turkey in 1952, to (what was then) West Germany in 1955, Spain in 1982, the new eastern and central European Union states in 1999 and 2004 (which include three former Soviet republics, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), and Albania and Croatia in 2009. Of course, many of the more recent NATO member states spent the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain subject to Soviet dominance.

Above all, so much of eastern Europe joined NATO to protect themselves from Russian aggression in the future. Article Five provides that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all NATO countries, entitling the NATO country under attack to invoke the support of all the other NATO members. This has happened exactly once in NATO’s decades-long history, when the United States invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

It’s not the first time Trump has slammed NATO during the campaign; he called it ‘obsolete’ in off-the-cuff remarks at a town hall meeting in March:

 

“Nato has to be changed or we have to do something.  It has to be rejiggered or changed for the better,” he said in response to a question from an audience member.  He said the alternative to an overhaul would be to start an entirely new organisation, though he offered no details on what that would be.

He also reiterated his concern that the US takes too much of the burden within NATO and on the world stage. “The United States cannot afford to be the policeman of the world, folks.  We have to rebuild this country and we have to stop this stuff…we are always the first out,” he offered.

NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, meeting earlier this year with US president Barack Obama, has challenged Donald Trump's criticisms of NATO. (Facebook)
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, meeting earlier this year with US president Barack Obama, has challenged Donald Trump’s criticisms of NATO. (Facebook)

The latest attack on NATO and, implicitly, the international order since the end of World War II, came just days after NATO’s secretary-general, former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, announced a new plan for NATO cooperation on the international efforts to push back ISIS in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Stoltenberg, it’s worth noting, is the first NATO secretary-general to come from a country that shares a land border with mainland Russia. So he, more than anyone, understands the stakes involved.  Continue reading NATO comments show why Trump could inadvertently start a global war

Where is the scrutiny of 70-year-old Trump’s health?

Donald Trump would be the oldest American president at inauguration, but his doctors claim he would be... the healthiest?
Donald Trump would be the oldest American president at inauguration, but his doctors claim he would be… the healthiest?

A thought exercise.USflag

Donald Trump just turned 70.

That makes him (slightly) older than Hillary Clinton. It would make him older than any other president in US history, though obviously not older than many other world leaders who were active well into their 80s, including Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle or, more recently, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Cuban president Raúl Castro and former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh.

But where are the stories about his health?

He has released exactly one report — last December — about his health, and it’s far from authoritative. In fact, by the standards of presidential campaigns, it was more comical than informative:

“If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual elected to the presidency,” [Dr. Harold] Bornstein wrote.

If Trump has eviscerated traditional norms about releasing tax information as the presumptive nominee, he’s done the same with health disclosure.

His father, Fred Trump, died at the age of 93, but he suffering in his final years from Alzheimer’s disease, and so it’s worth knowing if Donald Trump is at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease over the next eight years. Though you might agree with his rhetoric, his statements are sometimes so incoherent (‘I know words…’) and so inconsistent that you wonder sometimes if he suffers from some kind of cognitive impairment. A clean bill of health from a neurologist could help ameliorate that doubt, but it’s an important question. Many advisors to Ronald Reagan (and even his son) admit that the late president may have been suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s in his second term. Continue reading Where is the scrutiny of 70-year-old Trump’s health?

Clinton clinches nomination after 24 years as national political figure

Hillary Clinton isn't the first woman to run for president in the United States, but she is the first to be nominated by a major party. (Facebook)
Hillary Clinton isn’t the first woman to run for president in the United States, but she is the first to be nominated by a major party. (Facebook)

This is a very good piece, and Hillary Clinton’s nomination is of course a milestone that means that, long after many other democratic countries in the world, the United States has, for the first time, a real chance to elect its first female president.USflag

From Victoria Woodhull in 1872 (whose running mate was Frederick Douglass) to Shirley Chisholm in 1972 to Pat Schroder in 1988 to Carol Moseley Braun in 2004, there’s a long line of credible women who have challenged for the presidency, and Clinton’s accomplishment builds upon the stepping stones that they laid down (not least of all her own run for the presidency in 2008).

But without denying this moment’s importance, what’s even more fascinating to me is that someone who has been at the center of American political life for 24 years (I’m not counting over a decade as Arkansas’s first lady), with a record, warts and all, in the first Clinton administration, eight years in the US Senate and four years at State has won a major-party nomination.

The trend, increasingly, has been rapid-fire rises to the top from people who seemingly come out of nowhere. Barack Obama. In a way, George W. Bush, too. Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton. Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico, Justin Trudeau in Canada, Tony Blair and David Cameron in Britain. There’s just something undeniably attractive about a ‘shiny new toy’ in electoral politics.

Whatever else, Hillary Clinton is not a shiny new toy. Continue reading Clinton clinches nomination after 24 years as national political figure

Libertarians nominate party’s 1st viable presidential ticket in US history

Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson looks on during National Convention held at the Rosen Center in Orlando, Florida, May 29, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Kolczynski - RTX2EQ7N
Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson looks on during National Convention held at the Rosen Center in Orlando, Florida, May 29, 2016. (Reuters / Kevin Kolczynski)

Will it be ‘groovy Gary’ or ‘goofy Gary’?USflag

With over five months to go in what’s already become a nasty presidential election, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump hasn’t shied away from abusing his competitors, often giving them pejorative nicknames on Twitter and everywhere else on the campaign trail. Amused Americans might wonder whether Trump will welcome the Libertarian Party’s freshly minted 2016 presidential nominee, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, to the campaign with a similarly dismissive nickname as his other competitors — ‘low-energy’ Jeb Bush, ‘little’ Marco Rubio, ‘lyin” Ted Cruz and, most recently, ‘crooked’ Hillary Clinton.

The Libertarian Party nominated Johnson for a second consecutive time Sunday night at its national convention in Orlando, on a holiday weekend when most Americans were more concerned with summertime diversions than politics. But with Johnson leading the ticket, and with Libertarians, however reluctantly, nominating Johnson’s preferred running mate, former Massachusetts governor William Weld, as its vice presidential candidate, the party has for the first time since its inception in 1972, nominated a viable presidential ticket.

A ‘Never Trump, Never Clinton’ option in all 50 states

No one disputes that it will be an uphill fight, though the Libertarian Party will likely be the only third party to make the presidential ballot in all 50 states. But, at least on paper, the Libertarian ticket looks formidable. Johnson is enough of an ‘outsider’ to harness the same kind of energy as Trump and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side of the race. For now, the Libertarian ticket is the only one with experience in executive government (not counting, of course, Clinton’s eight years in the East Wing as first lady).

Republican-leaning voters who believe Trump lacks the maturity, temperament, tone or experience for the Oval Office will be cheered by the shared ideological values with Libertarians, such as fiscal restraint and limited government. Democratic-leaning voters who mistrust Clinton will prefer the traditional Libertarian social liberalism on many cultural issues, such as abortion, LGBT marriage and drug decriminalization. Sanders supporters, in particular, who credibly hope that Sanders can defeat Clinton in the June 7 Democratic primary in California and who less credibly hope that Sanders can wrest the nomination from Clinton at July’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia, will find in Johnson a kindred spirit. Johnson would be smart to target Millennial voters who overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and who even more overwhelmingly back Sanders against Clinton.

The ticket includes two proven vote-winners who, in aggregate, won four gubernatorial elections in the 1990s and the 2000s as ‘small-l’ libertarian Republicans in Democratic-leaning states. Even before his formal nomination and his decision to name Weld as a running mate, some polls were already showing that Johnson could win up to 10% of the vote in November. The most important polling threshold, however, is 15%, which would entitle Johnson and Weld to participate in the formal series of presidential and vice-presidential debates later this autumn that millions of American voters will watch. That, alone, would be an impressive achievement for the Libertarian Party.

Red governors in blue and purple states

Johnson, who briefly ran for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination before winning the Libertarian nomination in the same election cycle, served as the governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, coming to politics after a successful business career in construction. As governor, Johnson widely used veto powers to limit state spending and pushed for both marijuana decriminalization and education reform to introduce greater choice and competition among schools.

Johnson can point to his experience spent eight years governing a state with the most proportionally Latino/Hispanic population in the United States (47% as of the 2010 census). In 2016, Latino voters are expected to be crucial in determining the next president. It’s a group of voters than has grown from just 7.7 million in 1988 to 23.3 million in 2012 (and a projected 27.3 million in 2016). Johnson, an avid outdoorsman, Ironman enthusiast and mountain climber who has scaled Mt. Everest, can nevertheless be awkward and a bit wooden on the stump. But he radiates sincerity, and in a race against Trump and Clinton, neither of whom voters seem to like or to trust, his lack of bombast or glib soundbites could appeal broadly, especially among authenticity-craving Millennials.   Continue reading Libertarians nominate party’s 1st viable presidential ticket in US history

A populist, nationalist neophyte rises in the Americas

presumptivetrump

A popular figure from television and a neophyte to national politics rides a wave of populist protest against corruption, incompetence and the status quo to the top of the polls. First, he co-opts the nationalist message of conservatives, rattles against the supposed wrongs of neighboring countries and aligns himself with some of the country’s most reactionary forces. He then faces off against a former first lady, whose social democratic credentials are  overshadowed by suspicions and whispers of corruption and foul play. Easily, that man wins the presidency, making easy work of both the country’s conservative movement and the former first lady. guatemala flag icon

Sound familiar?

It’s not the United States and it’s not Donald Trump, now the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party.

It’s Jimmy Morales, the populist comedian who won an overwhelming victory in last September’s presidential election in Guatemala.

But you might be excused for confusing the two.

For much of the last 11 months, as Trump has come to dominate American politics, the most immediate comparison in international politics has been former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. It’s true that there are many similarities — both are wealthy, older- than-average figures and both are right-wing populists with a penchant for blunt talk who rose to prominence as political outsiders.

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RELATED: Why Trump isn’t quite an American Berlusconi

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But unlike Berlusconi, who owns much of the private Italian media, Trump doesn’t actually control any of the American media. What’s more important, though, is that Trump has done so well in presidential politics in spite of his wealth and business prowess. Michael Bloomberg and dozens of other businessmen are far wealthier and far more powerful, but they’re not presumptive nominees of a major U.S. political party.  Trump won the Republican nomination without deploying significant personal wealth and, indeed, he won with just a fraction of the amounts spent by competing Republican campaigns and their various super PACs.

Rather, Trump’s political success is due to his amazing abilities for self-promotion and self-branding, honed after decades of selling the ‘Trump’ brand and after 14 seasons starring in the reality television series The Apprentice. At this point, Trump-as-presidential-nominee owes his success to media personality, not any particular real estate canny.

That’s exactly the same skill set that Morales used in his spectacular run to the presidency in Guatemala last autumn. It’s also nearly the same platform — a lot of populist slogans heavy on identity, nationalism and throw-the-bums-out rhetoric, but light on actual policy details.  Continue reading A populist, nationalist neophyte rises in the Americas

Philippines considers both presidential strongman, Marcos restoration

Fists in the air, Rodrigo Duterte is leading the polls to become the next president of the Philippines. (Facebook)
Fists in the air, Rodrigo Duterte is leading the polls to become the next president of the Philippines. (Facebook)

It’s hard not to think of Rodrigo Duterte as the Donald Trump of the Philippines.philippines

But in truth, he’s more like Joseph Arpaio — a conservative, tough-on-crime kind of guy willing to do whatever it takes to clean up his city, human rights or the justice system be damned.

At age 71, ‘Rody’ Duterte, who has served for a total of 22 years as mayor of Davao City, has vaulted to a lead in the polls to become the leading presidential choice among voters in the Philippines when they go to the polls on May 9. It’s an election in which Philippines might turn from liberalism to illiberalism not only by electing a Duterte presidency, but also by supporting the restoration of the Marcos family — the son of Ferdinand Marcos, the country’s autocratic ruler from 1965 to 1986, is running for the vice presidency as well.

Duterte is a presidential candidate with tough talk on crime, corruption

Known domestically as the ‘punisher,’ Duterte is not a man to cross. He brags about killing criminals, especially drug dealers, with his own gun, taking extrajudicial justice into his own hands where he sees fit. He openly admitted last November to killing three rapists and kidnappers in Davao City, and he said last week that he would kill his own kids if he found out they were using drugs. Duterte has trekked across the country delivering a fiery nationalist stump speech, often with his fist raised in the air, a variant of which serves as his campaign logo. It’s not a subtle appeal Duterte is making to supporters, who also casually refer to him as ‘Duterte Harry.’

For the United States, the Philippines figures heavily in the growing US strategic and military interest in the Pacific Rim, and the outgoing Obama administration hopes that, in particular, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will draw the Philippines closer to the United States and further, economically speaking, from China. Today, officials in the administrations of both outgoing US president Barack Obama and outgoing Philippine president Benigno ‘NoyNoy’ Aquino III view the growing cooperation as mutually beneficial.

In no uncertain terms, a Duterte victory next Monday in the presidential election would make US-Philippine relations much more difficult.

It’s not a small matter. The Philippines is the world’s 12th-most populous country, with 103 million people and growing.

Davao City, the fourth largest in the country, lies in the far tropical south, and Duterte has presided over its transformation from a hub for communist and left-wing radicals to a case study in law and order. In a country where everyone seems to be worried most about corruption and crime, Duterte and reports of how he’s tamed Davao City over 20 years in power have captured the national zeitgeist. Elected to national office just once (18 years ago) throughout his  decades-long career, Duterte can also style himself as an outsider, relatively speaking. Like most politicians in the Philippines, Duterte comes from an influential family — his father was an attorney and a former governor of what used to be Dávao province.

But that’s where the similarity to most Philippine politicians ends.

Braggadocio about personally killing drug dealers in Davao City and his ‘take no prisoners’ approach to anti-crime efforts have touched a chord with voters. Reporters questioned him when he kicked off his campaign last December about organizing death squads and killing over 700 people; Duterte responded (only half-jokingly) that he had killed more like 1,700 people. Continue reading Philippines considers both presidential strongman, Marcos restoration

A few thoughts about the New York primary

Hillary Clinton strode to victory in New York, a state that twice elected her to the US senate in the 2000s. (Facebook)
Hillary Clinton strode to victory in New York, a state that twice elected her to the US senate in the 2000s. (Facebook)

The New York primaries are over, and it’s clear that they will be yuuuuuge victories for Republican frontrunner and businessman Donald Trump and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.new york flagUSflag

Of course, New York is central to both politicians’ careers. Trump built his real estate empire in New York City, and he launched his campaign from his now-iconic Trump Tower last summer. Clinton transitioned from activist first lady to public official when she won a seat in the US senate from New York in November 2000, a position she held through her presidential campaign in 2008.

Neither Clinton nor (especially) Trump will become their party’s presumptive nominee, but their victories most certainly give their opponents little comfort. Primaries next week in Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania do not seem likely to change the narrative.

One silver lining comes for Ohio governor John Kasich, who continues to wage a longshot campaign. He easily won second place last night, though Trump defeated him by a 60% to 25% margin. It will be good for at least some delegates, though, as Kasich took all of New York County, which corresponds to Manhattan.

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When will Texas senator Ted Cruz drop out, considering that he’s now playing such a spoiler role to Kasich? (I jest…)

California dreaming

Leaping ahead for a moment, though, it seems now obvious that the real fight for the Republican nomination will take place in California, which will go a long way in setting the stage for a convention where Trump, despite his stunning New York victory, is unlikely to win the 1,237 delegates he needs to clear a first-ballot victory.

California will, therefore, play an outsized role as the final major primary on June 7, just as Iowa and New Hampshire play outsized roles as first-in-the-nation contests.

Forget the delegate count for a moment. Continue reading A few thoughts about the New York primary

Why Obama will almost certainly visit Hiroshima

US secretary of state John Kerry became the highest-ranking US official to pay his respects to the victims of Hiroshima this week. (Telegraph)
US secretary of state John Kerry became the highest-ranking US official to pay his respects to the victims of Hiroshima this week. (Telegraph)

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, had not even appeared at Hiroshima’s peace memorial before word leaked that US president Barack Obama could visit Hiroshima at the end of May following the G7 meeting in Shima, Japan.JapanUSflag

The Obama administration, it’s safe to say, is in full legacy-building mode.

Last month, Myanmar’s government transitioned to a democratically elected government (and, yes, Kerry’s predecessor at State, Hillary Clinton, played a critical role in US support for Burmese democracy). There’s the landmark deal of the ‘P5 + 1’ countries with Iran to bring more transparency to its nuclear energy program and, possibly, its nuclear weapons ambitions. There’s the opening to Cuba after decades of isolation and resentment on both sides of the Straits of Florida, and Obama’s historic visit to Havana.

Kerry is now the highest-ranked US official to visit Hiroshima, but a presidential visit would be exponentially more important — and symbolic — for at least three reasons. Continue reading Why Obama will almost certainly visit Hiroshima

No, Bernie wasn’t right about Panama — and offshore havens have little to do with trade

Even before a bilateral free trade deal with the United States, Panama City was thriving as a center of commerce, banking and shipping in the Caribbean. (Kevin Lees)
Even before a bilateral free trade deal with the United States, Panama City was thriving as a center of commerce, banking and shipping in the Caribbean. (Kevin Lees)

During Barack Obama’s presidential administration, the United States entered into bilateral free trade agreements with not only Panama, but Colombia and South Korea as well.USflagPanama Flag Icon

It might surprise Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, but that didn’t transform Colombia and South Korea offshore tax havens.

Panama, like the British Virgin Islands or a handful of well-known jurisdictions (including Delaware), was known as a top offshore destination for foreign assets well before 2012, when the U.S.-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement took effect. Today, in the aftermath of the jaw-dropping leak of the ‘Panama Papers,’ a 2011 video clip of Sanders, the insurgent candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, is now going viral.

But it’s far from evidence that Sanders was somehow prescient, and the suggestion that the U.S.-Panama free trade agreement somehow led to Panama’s reputation as a tax haven is disingenuous.

The truth is that offshore jurisdictions have been under siege for years, and the United States has been at the forefront of that fight. It began in earnest in the 1990s, a result of efforts to stymie money laundering related to drug trafficking. But it accelerated to warp speed after the 2001 terrorist attacks in response to concerns about the intricate networks that financed terrorism. Both before and after the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008-2009, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development took steps to force many of the worst global offenders, named and shamed on its ‘blacklist’ and ‘graylist’ of violators, to weaken their bank secrecy regimes.

That included, perhaps most notably, Switzerland, once the gold standard of secret bank accounts, which agreed to relent its famous standards of bank secrecy in 2009 and 2010. For the record, neither Panama nor the United States signed a more recent effort from 2014 to introduce greater tax transparency. Yet, under the Obama administration, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) has put unprecedented burdens on foreign financial institutions in the effort to root out American tax cheats.

Despite the easy meme about Sanders, the U.S.-Panama free trade agreement was always about free trade.

Continue reading No, Bernie wasn’t right about Panama — and offshore havens have little to do with trade

Will Melania Trump make Slovenia great again?

Melania Trump could become the most influential Slovenian-born figure in American history. (Facebook)
Melania Trump could become the most influential Slovene-born figure in American history. (Facebook)

Donald Trump’s campaign to ‘Make America Great Again’ may be associated with halting immigration from Mexico or making deals with China, Russia or Japan. But a Trump administration might bring another country to the forefront of international relations. USflagslovenia

That’s because his wife, Melania Knauss Trump (in Slovene, Melanija Knavs) would be only the second First Lady born outside the United States.

Louisa Adams, the wife of the sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was born in England. Teresa Heinz Kerry, a Mozambican-born American, the wife of US Secretary of State John Kerry, would have also been a foreign-born First Lady, had Kerry won the 2004 presidential election.

With a staggering victory in Florida’s Republican primary on Tuesday, Trump has amassed around 673 delegates to July’s Republican convention in Cleveland — more than half of what he’ll need to reach 1,237 and the nomination, and much to the horror of a shellshocked Republican Party that’s watched Trump attack Mexican immigrants as racists, called for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the United States, threatened to sue journalists and encouraged physical violence at rallies.

So, even as Trumpmania sweeps right-wing voters across the United States, is the country ready for a Slovene-born supermodel in the East Wing?

For a candidate whose approach to presidential politics is anything but ordinary, Melania Trump’s approach to the campaign trail has been equally unorthodox in a race pitting her against former US president Bill Clinton for the title of ‘first spouse.’

If Bill Clinton’s role in a Hillary-led White House remains something of a mystery, so does Melania Trump’s. She hasn’t identified any particular key issues that she would champion as First Lady, such as Laura Bush’s focus on education and literacy or Michelle Obama’s focus on childhood obesity and fitness. But that’s also because she is raising a 10-year old son, Barron, the youngest of Donald Trump’s five children across three marriages. There’s more than a murmur of talk that Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, would fulfill more of the traditional roles of the First Lady.

vogue

Regardless, Melania Trump would certainly bring a level of elegance to the White House unseen since perhaps the 1960s when Jacqueline Kennedy lived there. As American voters focus on a general election showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Melania Trump’s most important role could be humanizing and softening her husband’s image — he would enter the general election as the most unpopular major-party candidate in recent US history.

Born in 1970 in the small town of Sevnica in southeastern Slovenia, the 45-year-old Melania Trump, is the daughter of a fashion designer, which propelled young Melania’s own modeling career in Milano and Paris and, finally, New York City. She first met Donald Trump at fashion week in the autumn of 1998, and they married in 2005. To date, it’s been Donald Trump’s longest and, seemingly, most successful marriage. Although she became a permanent resident of the United States in 2001, she obtained her citizenship a decade ago in 2006.

But the 45-year-old supermodel, who has graced the cover of Vogue and GQ but not Time, is not exactly a ubiquitous presence on the campaign trail. She rarely makes speeches or gives interviews, though that has changed as Trump’s candidacy gained traction. The rapid transition from supermodel to campaign trail spouse hasn’t been incredibly easy. Most potential first ladies spend a lifetime in politics becoming just as savvy in politics as their spouses. Melania Trump, whose first language isn’t English, has had exactly nine months.

Moreover, when she has ventured into the media, she’s faced tough questions about her husband’s statements about women and his strong anti-immigration stands. In particular, she has faced criticism that as a European model, her path to American citizenship, which involved a special kind of H1B visa, has been far easier than most immigrants. In a debate earlier this month, Donald Trump appeared to soften his stand against the kind of H1B visas available to workers in high demand (including models), only to harden his stand again a day later.

(GRID-Arendal)
(GRID-Arendal)

But the nature of the modern presidency means that Trump’s nomination or, especially, a Trump victory in November, will bring Slovenia squarely into the center of American consciousness for, let’s face it, probably the first time in US history. It would be a surprise if many Americans could even place Slovenia on a map or even know that it’s part of what used to be Yugoslavia.

Television news crews have already started descending on Sevnica, a trickle that is likely to turn into a flood by the time of the July convention or, despite the terror of Democrats and more than a few Republicans, next January’s presidential inauguration.

More importantly for Slovenia, the rash of attention means that even if the Trump candidacy somehow fades this spring or falls short of 270 electoral votes in November, interest in Slovenia, including tourism from the United States, could skyrocket for years to come. Since 2012, The New York Times has published just four items in its travel section on Slovenia. It’s a smart bet that will change as the Trump narrative dominates headlines in 2016 and the American electorate gets to know Melania Trump and her background.
Continue reading Will Melania Trump make Slovenia great again?

How Justin Trudeau became the world’s first Millennial leader

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau gets up close and personal with two panda cubs at the Toronto Zoo. (Facebook)
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau gets up close and personal with two panda cubs at the Toronto Zoo. (Facebook)

Technically speaking, Justin Trudeau belongs to Generation X.Canada Flag Icon

But you’d be excused for mistaking him for a Millennial because Trudeau is, in essence, the world’s first Millennial leader.

Even his political enemies realize this. Preston Manning, who founded the Reform Party in 1987 (it eventually became the Western anchor of today’s Conservative Party), mocked the new Liberal prime minister and his state visit to Washington, D.C. last week:

In many respects he epitomizes the “it’s all about me” generation and its self-expression and promotion via social media. So let’s like him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter – and while we’re at it, why not a selfie?

What the 73-year-old Manning, who once led his party to such a failure that it won fewer seats in the House of Commons than the pro-independence Bloc Québécois, doesn’t realize is that social media fluency in the politics of the 2010s is currency. It’s a feature, not a bug. (Just ask Donald Trump, who might single-handedly be reinvigorating Twitter as a medium for political communication).

While Trudeau, at 44, might be too old to be a Millennial as a technical matter, he certainly mastered the political vocabulary of young voters. Twenty years ago, younger Canadian voters might have viewed the New Democratic Party’s Thomas Mulcair as the kind of prudent, centrist leader that would make a superb prime minister. Not in 2015, when young voters swarmed to Trudeau in record numbers, to the dismay of both the NDP and Conservatives.

In 2014, a year after Trudeau assumed the leadership of the Liberal Party, he was already leading 18-to-29-year-olds by a larger margin than any other age group. Polls in the immediate aftermath of last October’s Liberal landslide showed that young voters supported Trudeau at higher proportions than other age groups.  Continue reading How Justin Trudeau became the world’s first Millennial leader

Four foreign policy arguments Sanders could still deploy against Clinton

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, fresh off a win in Michigan's Democratic presidential primary, debated last night in Miami. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, fresh off a win in Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary, debated last night in Miami. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

If there’s one thing we know about Bernie Sanders, he sure doesn’t like Henry Kissinger.USflag

And if there’s one fact that he likes to deploy in his foreign policy case against Hillary Clinton, it’s her vote authorizing the Iraq War 14 years ago, when Clinton was just in her second year as a senator from New York.

But aside from the Kissinger snark and some minor back-and-forth over US policy in Cuba, foreign policy played only a little role in Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, and it’s played an equally minor role throughout the entire contest. On one hand, that’s because the Sanders insurgency has zeroed in on income inequality, the growing wealth gap and the role of wealthy donors in campaign finance. But it’s also because Clinton, whether or not you trust her judgment, is the most qualified non-incumbent candidate in decades when it comes to international affairs. In addition to her service in the US senate, she also served for four years as secretary of state and eight years as first lady. It’s truly formidable.

Yet, given Clinton-Sanders dynamic, there’s still a lot of space for Sanders to make a strong foreign policy case against Clinton, and time after time, Sanders just hasn’t made that case. Maybe that’s politically wise; shifting his emphasis from Wall Street and income inequality would dilute his message with an attack based on issues that seem far less salient to Democratic primary voters.

But it’s true that Clinton’s foreign-policy instincts have always been more hawkish than those in her own party and, often, those of president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden (who, according to Jeffrey Goldberg’s amazing piece in The Atlantic about Obama’s world view, said Clinton ‘just wants to be Golda Meir’).

To some degree, the problem with challenging Clinton on foreign policy is that Sanders would largely be challenging the Obama administration, and that’s tricky when you’re trying to win the votes of an electorate that still adores Obama. But Sanders certainly hasn’t shied away from stating clear differences with the Obama administration’s approach to domestic policy.

Moreover, to the extent that Sanders made a clear and cogent case on international affairs, he could claim that his more dovish approach represents true continuity with the Obama administration (and that Clinton’s more hawkish approach shares more in common with a  potential Republican administration). There’s no doubt that Sanders is a talented politician; in one fell swoop, he could use foreign policy to drive a wedge between Clinton and the Obama legacy. That’s a very powerful tool, and it’s one that Sanders, so far, hasn’t been interested in wielding.

Fairly or unfairly, Sanders is tagged as a one-issue protest candidate, and he suffers from the perception that his candidacy’s purpose is to nudge Clinton further to the left, not to win the Oval Office. By adding a foreign policy element to his critique of the Democratic frontrunner, Sanders could bend a more skeptical media into taking him more seriously and show voters that he really can fill out what Americans expect from a president. In the 21st century, like it or not, the president is the chief policymaking official when it comes to foreign policy.

Given the stakes involved, it’s not too late for Sanders to make this case as the Democratic contest turns to larger states like Ohio, Illinois and Florida next week and, after that, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and California. If he wanted to do so, there’s a long list of areas from which Sanders could choose.

Here are four of the most salient. Continue reading Four foreign policy arguments Sanders could still deploy against Clinton