On Wednesday, Pakistan successfully tested its new and improved Hatf Shaheen 1-A ballistic missile, which is capable of carrying the nuclear weapons that Pakistan has demonstrated it is capable of producing. The Pakistan missile test comes just days after India tested its own improved ballistic missile, the Agni-V, which is capable of carrying nuclear payloads as far away as Beijing or Shanghai.
But the fact that these tests are seen by the news media of each country as no big deal is an indication of how much the political mood in each country has changed over the past decade.
These tests follow an extraordinary set of meetings between the president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi earlier this month, in which the two nations pledged to increase trade ties and to fight against extremism.
While these missile testsmight have seemed to be a setback in earlier times, they have now become a kind of kabuki theater of virility, separate from any political discourse. Light up one of those multimillion-dollar candles, and you can demonstrate to the world that your nation is not to be messed with. You can also know that your neighbor will quickly follow your test with one of his own.
(There is a second cheaper test of virility, of course. It’s called cricket.)
Retired Pakistan army Gen. Talat Masood, now an independent analyst, says that these tests have now become a predictable part of South Asian politics.
"This is what has been happening over the past few years," said Masood in an interview with the Associated Press. "The tests by Pakistan and India follow each other to show that their programs are robust."
After India conducted underground nuclear tests in May 1998, and Pakistan followed up with its own nuclear tests later that same month, relations between the two rival countries became distinctly frosty. Attempts to patch up relations were made, such as at a meeting of Pakistan’s then-President Pervez Musharraf and India’s then-Prime Minister Atul Behari Vajpayee in Agra in July 2001, but those talks collapsed in acrimony.
India and Pakistan certainly have reasons to be annoyed with each other. They both claim to be the rightful owners of the Himalayan mountain region called Kashmir, but neither has the military capability or stomach to take away the portion of Kashmir occupied by the other. As a Muslim majority region, Kashmir should have been handed over to Pakistan at the time of partition in 1947, the Pakistani government reasons, but India counters that the princely leader of that region decided to opt for Indian rule instead.
Wars have been fought over this rocky turf, but in recent years, Pakistan has turned to a set of extremist militant groups, such as Lashkar-e Taiba, to act as its proxies. Initially, these Pakistani based terror groups focused on Kashmir, but in Nov. 2008, they struck India’s financial capital of Mumbai, killing more than 100. Pakistan denied any link to the Mumbai attack, but the surviving member of the attack team admitted being a member of Lashkar-e Taiba, and intercepted phone calls from the attack group were made to contacts in Pakistan, where Lashkar-e Taiba operates openly.
With these elements still in play – disputes over Kashmir, use of terrorist proxies – it’s striking that India treats Pakistan in such a light manner. Perhaps the main reason has to do with economics. India’s fast-growing economy has left its rival in the dust, allowing India to focus on a bigger rival, China. And if India believes that the powerful US military has its back – actively hunting extremists in the mountains of Afghanistan at least until 2014 – then perhaps it can rest assured that Pakistan won’t be able to use extremist proxies – or non-state actors, as Pakistan calls them – for much longer.
Where are the liberal Christians?
If you look at the American political environment over the past decade or two, you’d think that the only room for Christian activists was to be found on the right side of the political spectrum. That’s because the religious movement making the most noise in American politics is that of Christian conservatives, arguing for heterosexual marriage and against birth control and taxation. Liberal Christians exist, to be sure, but their voice is muted.
It wasn’t always like this, writes John Stoehr, a Yale political scientist, in a well-researched opinion piece for Al Jazeera’s English website. He argues that just as liberal Christians like William Jennings Bryant led the charge against growing corporate control in the early 20th century, they should also “fight fire with fire,” and reclaim the proud position that liberal Christians held in more recent fights such as the American civil rights movement.
“[L]iberals are supposed to be the voice of reason, pragmatism and enlightenment.... Liberalism, as the late Daniel Bell suggested, is the ideology of no ideology. It is the practical application of technical knowledge to situations in need of repair.”
How democracy may shape 'Political Islam'
Those Americans who are proud of the prominent role that religion has in shaping politics here often find it terribly creepy and dangerous when it happens in other societies.
Consider the rise of Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt following the Arab Spring movement that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood is most decidedly conservative, and in its early days it was prone to violence; some worry that the wave of attacks on Egyptian Christians and other minorities is a presage of future repression if they come to power.
But Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute, argues in a piece excerpted on Foreign Policy’s website, that the Islamists – while they may not have embraced the liberal democratic spirit of the Tahrir Square protests – may need to adjust their methods and mind-set to suit the times.
“The development of both political Islam and democracy now appears to go hand-in-hand, albeit not at the same pace. The new political scene is transforming the Islamists as much as the Islamists are transforming the political scene.”
Extremist views on trial act as repellent
Islamists, of course, are the bogeymen of the early 21st century, and just as some Americans warn of “creeping sharia” or accommodation of Muslim citizens in a diverse American society, there are right-wing factions in Europe that warn of the same thing.
If Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian right-winger who is on trial for killing more than 70 people to make a statement against what he saw as the Islamicization of Norwegian society, intended for his trial to be a showcase for his weird and hateful ideas, he seems to be alienating the very people he had hoped to attract.
The Atlantic magazine’s Max Fisher says it’s possible that a trial of America’s own political demon, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused “mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks,” might have had the same effect on young disenfranchised Muslims, if the American civilian court system had been given the chance to operate.
“KSM and Osama bin Laden’s violence ended up alienating Muslims not just from al-Qaeda but from radical Islamist movements more broadly. Breivik’s violence seems to have alienated immigrant-weary white Europeans – his intended audience – from the far-right movements of which he was a fringe loner. His trial is exacerbating that trend; wouldn’t KSM’s trial have done the same?”
A novelist's tour of the Hajj
As a non-Muslim, I will never experience firsthand the Islamic pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. I see two possible solutions here: (a) convert to Islam, or (b) read novelist Basharat Peer’s account of his own pilgrimage in The New Yorker. Mr. Peer touches lightly on Islam itself, but tells a brief history about the Saudi kingdom that hosts the hajj. While many other societies with holy sites do their utmost to preserve a sense of the ancient, Saudi Arabia aspires to create and keep creating an entirely modern city in which to host the nearly 1,400-year-old pilgrimage.
Why journalism still rocks
Finally, amid all the bad news about the demise of journalism, now we have a survey that finds journalism to be one of the world’s worst jobs, after waiting tables. But while the pay is lousy, the hours are long, and the industry seems to be in an unending tailspin, Forbes staff writer Jeff Bercovici writes this week that it’s still the Best. Job. Ever. Reason No. 1: Journalism is like college.
“You’re always building new mental muscles. You start out on a new beat or a new story as ignorant as a child, and within a few weeks or months you’re an expert. Wait, you didn’t like college? Don’t be a journalist. Problem solved.”
Unsurprisingly, I find his arguments persuasive.
Although relations between the two countries started out well, hostilities had been brewing almost from the very beginning, over how the two countries would share revenues from the sale of oil – most of which is now within South Sudan’s territory, and all of which must be transported through Sudan’s oil pipelines to foreign markets. The final spark, though, appears to have been over the borders between the two countries. South Sudan had long banked on receiving the Abyei region, including the oil fields nearby at Heglig. Last week, South Sudanese troops took Heglig by force, prompting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to proclaim a state of war.
While there is no formal declaration of war, Bashir told troops at a rally that they would be marching to Juba, South Sudan's capital.
"Heglig isn't the end, it is the beginning,” President Bashir was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying on a Thursday visit to South Kordofan state, where Sudan is facing a separatist rebellion by Nuba Mountain militants. “And we shall go all the way to Juba."
This is no mere fight between siblings over an inheritance.
South Sudan is resource rich and has assiduously cultivated friendships with its southern neighbors, Uganda and Kenya. South Sudan maintains close military and trade ties with Uganda’s leader, Yoweri Museveni, and it has also proposed to build a new oil pipeline to the sea at the Kenyan port of Lamu. South Sudan has also been rumored to support the Darfur rebel group Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). And Time magazine this week reported witnessing JEM fighters in Heglig alongside members of South Sudan’s own Sudanese People’s Liberation Army troops.
Sudan’s President Bashir, meanwhile, is increasingly isolated. He faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes and genocide during the Darfur insurgency. And he is struggling to pay the costs of a bloated government and security structure even as he loses 80 percent of the oil revenues he once had when South Sudan was just a region in his country.
It was once thought that Bashir would recognize the increasing weakness of his bargaining position, and that he would eventually come to the negotiating table, willing to compromise. But with his troops taking a drubbing in South Kordofan and Heglig, and with his own future in question as an accused war criminal, Bashir may have decided that war is his only option.
Bashir may also be hoping to win some sympathy from Islamists, from whom his National Congress Party has always drawn heavy support.
On Thursday, Bashir described the fight against South Sudan to be a “jihad” or holy struggle. It’s a word that may be intended to stiffen the backs of his own army, the vast majority of whom are Muslims, or it may be a call for help from Muslims worldwide. Many Muslims consider jihad to be a collective effort, where any Muslim country under threat must be defended by any faithful Muslim who is capable of fighting on its behalf.
More quietly, Sudan may also draw on support from some of its larger trade partners, including China. According to Africa Confidential, a respected journal, a trio of UN experts found evidence that Chinese ammunition has made its way to pro-Khartoum militias in the Darfur region. The trio’s report was rejected by the UN Secretary General’s office, but the experts simply sent the report on to the UN Security Council. If the evidence proves true, it could indicate a covert violation of UN weapons embargo against a state that is accused of launching an ethnic cleansing and genocide campaign against several tribes in the Darfur region.
China’s state-owned oil companies are part of a consortium that has exploration contracts along both sides of the Sudan-South Sudan border.
What we are witnessing now, therefore, could be the beginning of a wider conflict, one that draws in South Sudan’s friendly neighbors such as Uganda and Kenya on one hand, and that draws in Chinese military hardware, a disparate collection of Islamist volunteers for Sudan, along with all the remaining resources that Khartoum can muster.
All-out war is not inevitable. But if it truly starts, this is not likely to end well.
Following the death of Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, Africa now has two female heads of state. On Satuday, Malawi’s government announced the death of President Mutharika, the former World Bank economist, and the succession of his vice president, Joyce Banda. Sworn in on Saturday evening, Ms. Banda is the third-ever female African head of state, after Ethiopian Empress Zewditu and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Ms. Banda’s succession was shaky. The announcement of Mutharika’s death was delayed nearly two days, and some ministers had claimed that Banda was ineligible for the job, since she left the ruling Democratic Progressive Party after a dispute with Mutharika.
"I call upon all Malawians to remain calm and to keep the peace during this time of bereavement," Banda said at a press conference, where members of the cabine and the heads of the Army and the police were present.
The relatively smooth transition of power, thus far, comes as a relief to Malawians and to the country’s southern African neighbors. Just nine months ago, thousands of Malawians took to the streets to protest high food and fuel prices in demonstrations that appeared to be inspired in part by the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In response, Mutharika launched a crackdown, with at least 20 demonstrators killed. In a press conference, Mutharika blamed Banda for the protests and was unapologetic for his strong-arm methods.
“Even God knows that I have been the most patient president on the continent,” Mutharika said at a police commissioning ceremony, after the mid-July 2011 protests. “Enough is enough. You wanted to take government by force, which is against the laws of the land. This time I will follow you into your homes. I will smoke you out.”
Malawi is one of the poorest countries of the world, with more than 75 percent of the population earning less than $1 a day. Many Malawians initially welcomed Mutharika as an “economist in chief” because of his experience as a World Bank economist. But as president, Mutharika had frequent disagreements with both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund over his government’s decision to continue subsidies to farmers for fertilizer.
Mutharika also had problems with individual donor nations, including Malawi’s former colonial ruler, Britain. Last year, Mutharika expelled Britain’s high commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, after a leaked diplomatic cable quoted the British envoy as describing Mutharika to be “ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism." In response, Britain froze further development aid to Malawi.
As president, Banda comes in as something of an unknown quantity, but she does not lack spunk. A women’s rights activist and former parliamentarian taken on as Mutharika’s vice presidential candidate in 2009, Banda was informed months later that Mutharika intended to have his brother Peter take over as presidential candidate in the 2014 elections. Banda objected, left the ruling DPP, and former her own opposition People’s Party. Mutharika attempted to have her removed as vice president, but under Malawi’s Constitution, it is the parliament and not the president who can remove a vice president. Relations between Mutharika and Banda had remained tense ever since.
It will take more than spunk to solve Malawi’s economic crisis, however. Financial mismanagement, government incompetence, and unpredictable rainfall have increased Malawi’s debt to crushing levels. By 2005, some 30 percent of the agricultural country’s national budget went to servicing its $2.9 billion debt. Much of that, about $2.3 billion, was forgiven by the IMF and World Bank, but Malawi’s economic isolation under Mutharika pushed the country back into an economic hole. Banda’s challenge will be to restore international relations without sacrificing Malawi’s ability to direct its own economic affairs.
In America, US citizens fret about what they see as the decline of their nation and its influence in the world. The economy is ho-hum, confidence is shaken, and smaller nations like Iran, South Africa, and Venezuela are increasingly talking back. Here in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is planning to gradually draw down military forces as it did in Iraq a few years back.
But the US hasn't halted its use of military force against US enemies abroad. Instead, the US is making greater use of new tools, such as the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, commonly known as a drone. Once used primarily for surveillance, drones now carry smart bombs and other precision weapons, and they are increasingly used against certain individuals seen by the US as dangerous, often in places where the US is not technically at war.
While drones can be incredibly effective, on a mission-by-mission basis, killing suspected radicals such as Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen, for instance, they can also be equally controversial. Pakistan’s government, for instance, has come close to breaking its military cooperation because of the US use of drones inside Pakistani airspace. And in a persuasive opinion piece in Foreign Policy, David Rohde (who has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one as a former Christian Science Monitor correspondent in Bosnia), writes that excessive reliance on drones may actually backfire politically on the Obama administration.
For every suspected terrorist killed by a drone, there may be dozens of others who are drawn to open hostility toward the US, or in worst cases, to terrorist causes because of what they see as overbearing US power. Mr. Rohde is no tie-dye-wearing peacenik. Captured and held by the Taliban for seven months, he says he believes that “drone strikes should be carried out -- but very selectively.”
“For me, the bottom line is that both governments' approaches are failing. Pakistan's economy is dismal. Its military continues to shelter Taliban fighters it sees as proxies to thwart Indian encroachment in Afghanistan. And the percentage of Pakistanis supporting the use of the Pakistani Army to fight extremists in the tribal areas -- the key to eradicating militancy -- dropped from a 53 percent majority in 2009 to 37 percent last year. Pakistan is more unstable today than it was when Obama took office.”
How dangerous are hackers?
Unlike Taliban or Al Qaeda militants, computer hackers generally don’t carry weapons. But in the eyes of the US government, they are no less dangerous. A US National Security Council assessment warned last year that computer hacker organizations had the potential to shut down America’s electrical power grids. Technically speaking, the Security Council is right. A well-designed computer virus can do a lot of damage. Ask the Iranians, whose nuclear power development system was nearly destroyed by a computer worm called Stuxnet.
But not all computer hackers are alike. Some like Kim Schmitz – recently arrested in New Zealand for music piracy and criminal copyright infringement – use their powers to make money, and lots of it. Some, like Julian Assange of Wikileaks and the secretive hackers collective of Lulz Security (LulzSec) and Anonymous, use their powers to make a political point. This latter group of “hacktivists” gets more attention, largely because their efforts are aimed at major political issues, and because the target of their attacks are branches of the US government and major multinational corporations that they view as loathsome. After the company PayPal shut down all future payments to WikiLeaks, because of pressure from US law enforcement, an untold number of computer hackers allied with Anonymous briefly shut down the PayPal site.
But how dangerous are these people, really? Yochai Benkler argues in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs that Anonymous is more interested in using “distributed denial of service” attacks like the one against PayPal to make a political point. Few computer hackers are violent, in the same way that only a few antiwar protesters in the 1960s were violent. Overreacting to them through heavy law-enforcement operations or new restrictive laws, he writes, would do long-term damage to America’s major strengths of freedom of expression and innovation: “…surely there must be a place for civil disobedience and protest that is sufficiently disruptive to rouse people from complacence. Viewing Anonymous purely as a matter of crime reduction or national security will lead governments to suppress it and ignore any countervailing considerations. A more appropriate, balanced response to Anonymous’ attacks would err on the side of absorbing damage and making the hacks’ targets resilient, rather than aggressively surveilling and prosecuting the network and its participants.”
US-style abortion battles make their way to the UK
One final note. There was a time when Britons would watch American domestic politics and shudder. Issues that got precious little attention in Britain, such as public health care or abortion rights, dominated American politics. Polite by nature, Brits would confide in each other that the Americans were, well, “mad.”
Now, according to Liam Hoare, in an article in The Atlantic magazine this week, the abortion issue has crossed the pond to Britain, and British evangelicals are using much of the same rhetoric and techniques of protest that their American brethren use. In his piece, Hoare describes a host of tactics that will be familiar to many Americans: rallying outside abortion clinics with photos of aborted fetuses, equating abortion with murder, and comparing the number of abortions to the number of Jews killed during the Nazi Holocaust. To date, British pro-life activists haven’t turned to violence, such as homemade bombs or the assassination of gynecologists, as has occurred in the United States. But abortion rights activists worry that with as the debate in Britain becomes more emotional, this may just be a matter of time.
● Its economy has taken a beating, its politicians are calling for cost-cutting and a reassessing of priorities, and polls show the American people are tired of all its wars. Call it what you will – decline or maybe just a breather – but American attitudes toward the world are increasingly tinged with exhaustion. So, time now to write the Great Zeitgeist Book that explains why Americans are so exhausted and what it will mean for, you know, all of humankind. Fortunately, there are plenty of academics who have just finished writing such books, and even better, London’s The Economist magazine has read and compared all these books and judged which ones are essential reading and which ones are pass-up-able.
The Economist, of course, views everything through a political perspective that is pro-democracy and pro-free markets, and so it clearly sees any talk of American decline as something to be mourned, not celebrated. And while it genuinely sees the United States retreating on a number of fronts – from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and more recently from Afghanistan – it sees this retreat as creating a kind of vacuum that nature will fill. The big question of the next decade will be what fills that vacuum: China or India alone? The BRICS, as a group? Or, even worse, nothing?
As the Economist’s reviewer puts it, “America is irrepressible. Even authors fixated on its decline are optimists in disguise. Times may be hard and the world order is changing, but America has what it takes to bounce back, according to five new books on foreign policy. Indeed, it has to bounce back, because no successor stands ready to shoulder these responsibilities.”
Up-and-comer nations diverge
● No successor? There are a few up-and-coming nations that would dispute that, most notably the group of nations composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa that now calls itself BRICS. The BRICS group met on March 29 in New Delhi to see where their common national interests lie, and to coordinate those interests into a coherent common policy that counterbalances the dominance of the US and Europe.
SEE ALSO: Who are the BRICS?
To date, the BRICS don’t have much to show for their relationship. But unlike the Non-Aligned Movement, which some of these nations were members of during the cold war, the BRICS have the potential to be defined positively, for what they stand for, rather than for what they stand against. BRICS are among the fastest-growing developing countries in the world, with potential to continue growing even if the rest of the global economy stalls. Each has substantial hunger for raw materials, strong manufacturing capabilities, cheap labor, and the challenge of raising its standard of living. But getting these nations to coordinate common interests into a coherent policy is, as the saying goes, like herding cats.
In New Delhi, The New York Times’s Jim Yardley does a stellar job of explaining why it’s so hard for these folks to get along. Perhaps the fatal flaw, he writes, is that BRICS includes both democracies and authoritarian regimes. India, Brazil, and South Africa are democracies that already agree on many economic and political issues and even have a trilateral group called IBSA to put across this developing-world perspective at the United Nations and elsewhere.
Mr. Yardley writes, “Russia, however, has drifted away from democracy toward strongman rule under Vladimir V. Putin. China is the world’s largest authoritarian state and has by far the largest and most powerful economy in BRICS, which creates a complicated dynamic. China is the heavyweight, and thus the natural leader of the group, except that it is the political outlier.”
Piracy fight shows enduring Western power
● For all this talk about the decline of the West, however, it should be noted that the West is not dead yet. On March 23, European Union leaders met to discuss the EU’s ongoing naval operations against piracy in the Gulf of Aden and along the Somalia coast. The EU’s naval protection force has created a corridor that protects commercial shipping coming from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal. Proponents point to the number of pirates captured and ships protected. Critics say the operation has pushed the pirates farther out to sea and accelerated attacks.
Everyone agrees that piracy is a global problem with a strong impact on everything from oil prices to the availability of food in Africa, and that it won’t stop as long as pirates are given haven on Somalia’s shores. As such, the EU recently decided to extend operations onto Somali soil itself, giving itself permission to launch land raids up to two kilometers (1.2 miles) inland.
Der Spiegel’s Matthias Gebauer has the best story covering this development, and he notes that the EU has specifically ruled out ground troops. Instead, the shore operations would rely on precision bombing. If carried out, the attacks could pose an existential threat to pirate gangs that live openly in Somali society, but they could also have a dramatic impact on Somali public opinion toward the war, similar to how many Afghans feel about the NATO war.
Mr. Gebauer says there are significant misgivings about expanding the EU naval operation. “In a recent closed-doors discussion, experts from Germany’s foreign intelligence agency ... argued that the pirates’ small bases could hardly be distinguished from fishermen’s facilities from the air. Such air attacks, they said, carried a high risk of so-called collateral damage – in other words, civilian casualties.”
Tuareg rebels in Mali’s north claim to have taken the fabled city of Timbuktu on Sunday, the latest in a string of military successes following the Malian Army’s overthrow of the elected government last month.
A wave of Tuareg military victories is the direct result of instability following a March 21 coup, led by junior officers in the Malian Army. It’s an ironic fact, given that the junior officers who launched the coup did so because they felt the government of President Amadou Toumani Toure was not providing them with the funding, arms, or supplies to defend the country against a resurgent Tuareg rebellion in the north. Now, within the past few days, Tuareg rebels have taken the major garrison towns of Kidal, Gao, and now Timbuktu (see map), raising concerns for Mali’s West African neighbors about the Army’s capacity to retain control of the country.
Coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo – increasingly isolated by Mali’s West African neighbors -- announced on Sunday that he would reinstate the country’s Constitution and would hand over power to a civilian government as soon as elections can be held.
Why a Mali rebellion worries the region
In the days before Sept. 11, 2001, a rebellion in Mali would have caused few ripples outside of the capitals of West Africa. Tuaregs launched rebellions in the 1990s and as recently as 2006, and Mali has experienced coups – the president who was ousted in March, Mr. Toure, himself came to power in a March 1991 coup. But in the post-9/11 world, the combination of a military coup and a separatist rebellion is a matter of deep concern far beyond the arid sub-Saharan region known as the Sahel.
For one thing, the Tuareg rebels marching from one town to another seem to have been unintended beneficiaries of the military overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Qaddafi had established entire Tuareg battalions within the Libyan army and had funded separatist rebels in many of his weaker neighbors. Adding to the discomfort is the fact that a small but active chapter of Al Qaeda uses northern Mali as a base of operations, and any disarray for the Malian Army would only serve to strengthen this group, even if it has no direct relationship with Tuareg rebels.
The US military’s new African Command – known as Africom – has spent a good deal of time and millions of dollars training Mali’s army to fight a counter-insurgency campaign against the Islamist group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic lands of the Maghreb (AQIM). Those training programs and future funding for new military equipment have been suspended following the March 21 coup.
Mark Toner, the US State Department’s spokesman, condemned the coup and said that the US would back the efforts of West African leaders to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions on Mali until the coup leaders restore power to a civilian government.
"We echo ECOWAS's call for the mutineers to step down and allow for a swift return to democratic rule and for presidential elections to ultimately take place," Mr. Toner said at a press conference in Washington over the weekend, referring to the regional group, the Economic Community for West African States.
For humanitarian agencies, the war and the dispersal of some 200,000 Malian civilians from their homes, couldn’t come at a worse time. Lower than usual rainfall and higher temperatures had created a drought that threatened the ability of a number of West African nations, including Mali, to feed themselves, and UN and private aid agencies were struggling to provide food for as many as 15 million affected people. Now conflict in Mali makes the emergency even more difficult to respond to.
“We are in a race against time and some of the harshest climatic conditions on the planet,” said John Ging, director of operations for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, after a recent visit to to Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania.
A three-day deadline imposed by ECOWAS for coup leaders to step down passed on Sunday night. ECOWAS leaders are now studying coup leader Sanogo’s promise to hold elections soon.
On Sunday night, Sanogo promised that he would immediately reinstate the country’s 1992 constitution, effectively ending the broad military powers of a state of emergency. Sanogo also said he would create an interim team "with the aim of organizing peaceful, free, open and democratic elections in which we will not take part." He also said he would dispatch envoys to the north to negotiate a cease-fire with the Tuareg rebels.
For their part, the Tuareg fighters say that after the takeover of Timbuktu, their military mission is accomplished.
"Timbuktu was the final city to fall under our control," said Moussa Ag Assarid said, according to the Wall Street Journal. "In military terms, our mission has been accomplished."
But as the reported takeover of Timbuktu indicates, Tuareg fighters may not be in a negotiating mood. And as they advance across the north, one question emerges: How much of Mali will be left over for a new civilian government to control?
Keep Calm, a winking reference to the World War II slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On," aims to provide a bit of context to help make sense of confusing news events.
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade came to power in 2000 riding an electoral wave of reform. But by late last year, when he sought and received a court’s permission to run for a third term, despite the constitution’s specific ban on it, he angered the country’s voters. He did not defy them, however. In presidential elections that wrapped up yesterday, Mr. Wade conceded defeat and congratulated his opponent, Macky Sall.
Given the deadly riots that preceded the first round of elections in February 2012, this was a welcome end to what could have become an ugly political crisis.
Senegal is widely regarded as one of West Africa’s more stable democracies, largely because of its relative lack of military coups, but its leaders have shown a pattern of overstaying their welcome. Wade’s decision to step down will be greeted by regional leaders with relief, especially after last week’s sudden coup d’etat in the neighboring nation of Mali.
"The big winner tonight is the Senegalese people,” Mr. Sall said in a press conference overnight. “We have shown to the world our democracy is mature. I will be the president of all the Senegalese."
Wade, meanwhile, played the gracious loser. "Results coming in suggest Mr. Macky Sall has won,” Reuters quoted him saying last night. “As I always promised, I called him in the evening of March 25 to congratulate him."
Although Sall came in second behind Wade in the first round of elections in February, he was widely predicted to be the winner in the second round as Senegal’s many opposition parties backed him. A sluggish economy and growing unemployment worked against Wade, particularly in a country with a 30 percent jobless rate. Senegal has also begun to suffer the effects of a regionwide drought, leaving some 800,000 Senegalese hungry.
Recent coups in the region
While most West African nations carry out the rituals of formal democracy, with freely operating opposition parties and regularly scheduled elections, ruling parties have a tendency of manipulating the process, intimidating opposition parties, and holding onto power for decades at a time. As a result, public frustration is periodically expressed through coups.
In Guinea, after the death of longtime President Lansana Conte, a Guinean army captain named Moussa Dadis Camara launched a coup in December 2008, promising to cede power after elections were held. Capt. Camara only ended up ceding power a year later after being shot in the head by one of his own aides. (Camara survived the attack, but retired from politics.)
In Ivory Coast last spring, former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat, leading to an armed revolt by the supporters of Gbagbo’s main opponent, Alassane Ouattara. Airstrikes by French and the United Nations helicopters against the president’s palace helped to end the four-month stalemate, in which at least 400 people were killed.
And in Mali last week, junior Army officers launched a coup d’état after repeated protests against the government’s failure to provide the army with adequate arms and food to fight against northern Tuareg rebels. The African Union has suspended Mali’s membership, and opposition parties have called for swift elections, leaving the mutineers politically isolated.
Senegal's democratic record
Senegal, by contrast, is one of the few countries on the continent that has not had a military coup, and this fact gives the country greater credibility in international forums and gives investors greater confidence in the country’s stability. Even under French colonial rule, Senegalese have exercised the right to vote since 1848, and have sent deputies to represent them in Paris.
Yet despite having the right to vote, Senegalese do not enjoy full rights to free expression, human rights advocates say. Human Rights Watch issued a report late last year warning of an increasing pattern of government repression against critics of the Wade administration, and the United States embassy in Dakar issued a rare public statement against Wade’s attempt to alter the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.
The US, the statement said, “is concerned that a constitutional law that would so fundamentally change the system used to elect Senegal’s President for the past 50 years has been proposed without the benefit of a thorough, meaningful and open debate among a broad spectrum of groups and concerned citizens, and that making this change so close to the next elections could result in weakening Senegal’s democratic institutions.”
* Keep Calm, a winking reference to the World War II slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On," is a new blog that aims to provide a bit of context to help make sense of confusing news events.
Get daily or weekly updates from CSMonitor.com delivered to your inbox. Sign up today.
● I’m just going to come out and say this: I’m no expert in economic policy.
I look at the economic crisis that began in 2007, and has puttered along ever since, and I think, sheesh, I’m glad I’m not the chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Being Ben Bernanke – the current Federal Reserve chairman – has to be the second-toughest job in the world, after Being Barack Obama. Mr. Bernanke gets begrudging credit for bailing out the US banking system and protecting the savings of millions of Americans. And because he is so powerful, pulling those magical financial levers like the Great and Powerful Oz, he gets blamed for almost everything else, such as a sluggish recovery, high unemployment, and for some hard-core believers in an unfettered free market, for simply being the chairman of the Federal Reserve.
In the April edition of The Atlantic, Roger Lowenstein has an excellent profile of Bernanke and his achievements and failures, provocatively entitled "The Villain." A lot of it has to do with the fact that fixing the US and the global economy is painful, and we blame the guy we think is responsible for it. But while Bernanke has become a political target for both the left and the right, a closer look at his record shows that he has done a remarkable job in restoring a sense of order and faith to a market that was threatening to come apart.
During the financial crisis of 2007–09, he bailed out a handful of large banks and devised a series of innovative lending operations to disperse credit to banks, small businesses, and consumers (virtually all of these loans have been repaid at a profit to taxpayers). He also lowered short-term interest rates to nearly zero and made private banks run a gantlet of stress tests to ensure some minimal level of solvency going forward. Although fierce anger against the bailouts persists, there is little argument that this first stage was a success. However untidily the rescue was managed, the financial crisis is over.
● As a boy growing up in a mainly Hispanic border town in Texas, I always envied my bilingual friends who learned Spanish in their homes, who griped about the Dallas Cowboys in Spanish at the dinner table, who could start jokes in English and then deliver up the tasty punchline – to my chagrin – in Spanish. For all the talk of “saving American culture,” these were kids who had assimilated to American culture, but were able to operate in two worlds at once.
I knew they were smarter than me, just because of their grades and their admission to Ivy League schools. But now science tells me why.
In The New York Times, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee writes on how learning a second language at an early age makes your brain work better. Psychologists once worried that kids who lived in bilingual households faced obstacles that “hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.” Turns out they were right, and that very hindrance turns out to be an advantage.
In a 2009 study led by Agnes Kovacs of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, 7-month-old babies exposed to two languages from birth were compared with peers raised with one language. In an initial set of trials, the infants were presented with an audio cue and then shown a puppet on one side of a screen. Both infant groups learned to look at that side of the screen in anticipation of the puppet. But in a later set of trials, when the puppet began appearing on the opposite side of the screen, the babies exposed to a bilingual environment quickly learned to switch their anticipatory gaze in the new direction while the other babies did not.
● And finally, here are a few words about God, or gods.
In New Scientist magazine – not your usual source for matters of evangelism – Ara Norenzayan writes that religion is a key ingredient for small hunter-gatherer societies to become larger civilizations. When you are related to everyone in your group, it is easy to resolve conflicts and to regulate behavior. But what if you live in a larger society, where you have no personal or tribal relationship with your neighbor?
For most civilizations, the answer was to form a common belief system, and most importantly, an all-knowing God who would ensure that everyone behaved themselves, even if their neighbor wasn’t watching.
…as groups expand in size, anonymity invades relationships and cooperation breaks down. Studies show that feelings of anonymity - even illusory, such as wearing dark glasses - are the friends of selfishness and cheating (Psychological Science, vol 21, p 311). Social surveillance, such as being in front of a camera or an audience, has the opposite effect. Even subtle exposure to drawings resembling eyes encourages good behaviour towards strangers (Evolution and Human Behavior, vol 26, p 245). As the saying goes, "watched people are nice people".
Get daily or weekly updates from CSMonitor.com delivered to your inbox. Sign up today.
Angered by the government’s inability to provide the food and weaponry needed to fight an armed rebellion in the north, Mali’s army launched a rebellion of its own yesterday. By Wednesday evening, they claimed to have overthrown the government in a coup d’etat.
The first shots rang out at an army barracks near Bamako, the nation’s capital, in what has become a familiar sign of mutiny and unrest. But rebellious soldiers eventually moved toward the presidential palace, and after overpowering the presidential guard and arresting President Amadou Toumani Toure, they took to the airwaves and announced that the constitution was suspended and that the parliament and other democratic institutions would be dissolved until elections are held, reports CNN.
"Considering the incapacity of the regime in effectively fighting against terrorism and restoring dignity to the Malian people, using its constitutional rights, the armed forces of Mali along with other security forces have decided to take on their responsibilities to put an end to this incompetent regime of President Amadou Toumani Toure," said the soldiers’ spokesman, Amadou Konare.
Mali has been considered one of the more stable democratic nations in West Africa, although Mr. Toure, the current president, came to power in an armed insurrection in 1991 before submitting to elections in 2002. The US and France also view Mali as a key frontline state fighting against Islamist militants calling themselves Al Qaeda of the Islamic lands of the Maghreb (AQIM).
But for Mali itself, the main security threat has always been less about the relatively small AQIM and more about the country’s restive Tuareg population in the north. Funded and armed by Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi – who trained an entire battalion of Tuaregs in his own Libyan national army – Tuareg rebels have launched two major rebellions in recent years, first in the early 1990s and later in 2007-2009. When Mr. Qaddafi’s government was toppled late last year, an estimated 2,000 well-armed pro-Qaddafi Tuaregs returned to northern Mali and began attacking and taking towns.
Tuaregs are a nomadic collection of tribes who share a single language and cultural heritage, residing in a wide band of the Sahara Desert, stretching from Niger and Burkina Faso in the West to Mauritania in the east and up into the north African nations of Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Rebellions in the past have been fought to seek some kind of self-rule, and even to redraw the national boundaries to create a Tuareg state. It is the secular nature of their goals that makes them distinct from, and possibly rivals to, the more Islamist AQIM. The Tuaregs's most recent attacks in Mali have displaced some 200,000 people and exacerbated a growing food crisis in the country as a months-long regional drought has taken hold.
France, Mali’s former colonial ruler, condemned the mutiny, as did the African Union, according to the New York Times. Speaking to Europe 1 radio, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that his government “demands the re-establishment of constitutional order, and elections, which were scheduled for April, must take place as soon as possible.”
Reporters Without Borders issued a statement on Thursday, deploring the mutineers's takeover of Mali's state television along with a large number of journalists at the facility. "We deplore with the greatest energy that the state radio and television facilities have been occupied by the military, and that its antennae has been taken hostage," the group's statement said, in French. "We extend our concern for the journalists who are not able to do their work, and think of the Malian population who are deprived of numerous sources of information."
Even without a Tuareg rebellion, international attention was being focused on Mali because of a crushing drought. Oxfam estimated that 13 million people across the region could be affected by lower-than-average rainfall and inevitable crop failures, and had launched a $36 million appeal for immediate food assistance to reach a million of the most vulnerable. Now conflict in Mali has added to the numbers of the hungry, and the United Nations is launching a separate appeal to deal with those displaced by conflict.