Focal Points Blog

The Government Shutdown From a European Perspective

ObamaBoehner

As a German student studying in Washington, it’s sometimes hard for me to believe the absurdities the U.S. political system produces. The ongoing U.S. government shutdown—the product of an inability by political elites to forge lasting compromises, as well as the conservative party’s distorted view of social rights—is but the latest example.

The problems underpinning the shutdown are not inherent to democracy, as European models show, but on the contrary are antithetical to it.
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Netanyahu Unfazed by Historic Diplomacy Between U.S. and Iran

Netanyahu

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dedicated the lion’s share of his UN General Assembly Speech last week to rebuking the recent diplomatic efforts of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Netanyahu, who last year took to using cartoons at the UNGA to demonstrate the “threat” posed by Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, delivered a speech this year that was less overtly ridiculous—but no less calamitous—in its warnings about Iran.

“It’s not that it’s hard to find evidence that Iran has a nuclear program,” Netanyahu said. “It’s hard to find evidence that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program.”
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Did Kenyan Army Use Shock Doctrine in Nairobi Mall Attack?

Westgate

It’s bad enough that the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, site of the vicious Al Shabab attack last month, has reduced to ruins, but it’s been looted to within a month of its life, too. The New York Times reports:

Witnesses said that the most they saw militants loot was a couple of cans of soda, and shopkeepers cited no instances of panicked shoppers helping themselves to merchandise as they ran for their lives, leading to the widespread conclusion that the security forces must have been involved.
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Leak of an Al Qaeda Plot Presents Larger Problem for U.S. Intelligence Than Snowden

Snowden, Edward

In the New York Times, Eric Schmitt and Michael S. Schmidt report that documents Edward Snowden released might have caused less short-term damage than leak of an Al Qaeda plot in August. After media reports, Al Qaeda significantly reduced its use of a major communications channel that U.S. intelligence had been monitoring. In the interim, they write:

 One way the terrorists may try to communicate, [an] official said, is strictly through couriers, who would carry paper notes or computer flash drives. If that happens, the official said, terrorists will find it very difficult to communicate as couriers take significant time to move messages.

“The problem for Al Qaeda is they cannot function without cellphones,” said one former senior administration official. “They know we listen to them, but they use them anyhow. You can’t run a sophisticated organization without communications in this world. They know all this, but to operate they have to go on.”
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Latin American Leaders Bring Drug Policy Debate to the UN

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina

At the annual UN General Assembly meeting held in New York, presidents from around the world have the chance to state their views on the key international issues of the day. Not surprisingly, the crisis in Syria, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Millennium Development Goals took center stage this year. Yet a careful viewing of the speeches of the Latin American presidents illustrates the growing voice of Latin American leaders calling for meaningful reform of drug control policies. Across the region, a dynamic debate – focused on the failure of present drug control policies to achieve their desired objectives and the need for more effective and humane alternatives – is underway, most recently evident in an innovative report on drug policy released by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Declaration of Antigua from the June 2013 OAS General Assembly meeting calling for an Extraordinary Session focused on drug policy to be held in 2014. Last week at the UN, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico united in bringing this regional debate to the General Assembly meeting, calling for consideration of alternative approaches to the drug issue, and for the efforts underway within the OAS to be used as tools for debate within the UN in the lead up to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs to be held in New York in 2016.
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Syria and What Exactly the Constitution Says About the Use of Force

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

President Obama has been criticized from both the left and right for his handling of the ongoing civil war in Syria. One of the most curious critiques, however, has to do with his decision to seek Congressional approval for a military strike against regime targets in Syria. Even several of his senior advisors were reportedly surprised by his decision and were opposed to seeking Congressional approval.

Since then many other prominent foreign policy practitioners have publicly endorsed this critique denouncing President Obama’s appeal to Congress. Former Defense Secretary Panetta just last week said he too would have advised against doing so observing that “this Congress has a hard time agreeing as to what the time of day is.”  Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations who served in senior foreign policy positions in previous administrations, characterized seeking Congressional approval “as inept as asking Putin to save him from having to send in the cruises [missiles].”  Several others have expressed concern that doing so will establish a historical precedent that will restrict future presidents in their ability to undertake military action overseas.
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Bashir Embarrassment Avoided. Now What?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Cross-posted from the United to End Genocide blog.

A colossal embarrassment was avoided when Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, apparently changed his mind about coming to the United States to address the United Nations.

But what is to be done to avoid future similar situations that call into question the commitments of the United States and UN to human rights, genocide prevention, and international justice and accountability?

First, the UN General Assembly and/or the UN Secretary General could act to waive the U.S. obligation to facilitate Bashir’s travel to UN Headquarters. As argued by law professor John Cerone on Opinio Juris “The General Assembly could authorize the Secretary General to waive the US obligation by a majority vote of those member States present and voting.” Given the 122 countries that are party to the ICC Statute and the number of delegations likely to have walked out on Bashir, this does not seem such an unachievable number.
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U.S. Needs to be R2P’d

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Writing for the Guardian, and re-posted at AlterNet, Henry Porter makes the case that the scale of gun violence in America renders it, in effect, a civil war. Figures, especially if they’re staggering, can render us none. But the way Porter has framed the number of gun fatalities in the United States can’t help but shock and move. He writes:

… it’s worth trying to guess the death toll of all the wars in American history since the War of Independence began in 1775, and follow that by estimating the number killed by firearms in the US since the day that Robert F. Kennedy was shot in 1968 by a .22 Iver-Johnson handgun, wielded by Sirhan Sirhan.

See what Porter is doing? He’s about to compare 238 years to 45 years.
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Nairobi Mall Attack Harkens Back to Electoral Violence Five Years Ago

Nairobi's Kibera slum. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, the New York Times reported:

Kenya is now entering an official three-day period of mourning to mark one of the most unsettling episodes in its recent history. The authorities here, in a country widely perceived as an oasis of peace and prosperity in a troubled region, are struggling to answer how 10 to 15 Islamist extremists could lay siege to a shopping mall, killing more than 60 civilians with military-grade weaponry, then hold off Kenyan security forces for days.

“Oasis of peace and prosperity?” File under “How quickly they forget.” Yes, Kenya is a democracy, and, as far as international optics go, it’s become famous for its Olympic runners. But it’s one of the most corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2012.
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The Former Yugoslavia: “We Were So Close to Preventing Genocide”

Marko Hren/John Feffer

Marko Hren/John Feffer

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

In 1990, when I was in Romania, inter-ethnic conflicts broke out in Transylvania. Although the cause of the conflict in March 1990 in Targu Mures is disputed, the most likely story concerns a bilingual sign — in Hungarian as well as in Romanian – that a pharmacist put up on a shop in the city. There was a protest. Various wild rumors spread. Tensions escalated, and a full-scale riot broke out. Several people died, and hundreds were injured.

Today, there are bilingual signs all over Targu Mures. Relations between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians are quite peaceable. Sure, there are plenty of things to complain about in Romania today. But the country certainly did not go the way of Yugoslavia.
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