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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
April
02
Monday

The Dow closed down 459 points Monday, showing how skittish investors are about President Trump’s attacks on Amazon as well as a potential trade war between the United States and China. And for good reason. Presidents usually don’t pick on individual companies, and trade wars aren’t generally good for business, hence the name.

Mr. Trump and the rest of the world have had some provocation for their anti-China moves. For years, many analysts agree, China has manipulated its currency, subsidized state-owned enterprises, and used various schemes to keep foreign companies out unless they hand over their technology. A free market requires rules. When a nation the size of China bends them, you can’t send it to its room. Options are limited.

Yet there’s also another vision of tariffs and trade wars – a protectionist view. The hope is that they can boost a domestic economy. In limited cases, that can be true. But the concept misses one of the most categorical points in the history of human progress. Our prosperity depends on each other. Not as Americans. As people.

Wealth is not finite. It grows. And it has grown fastest as the world’s capacity to connect and collaborate has grown. The answer to any economic stagnation is always, How can we work better together? The bigger the “we,” the greater the potential. That doesn’t mean governments have always managed that growth well or fairly. But, as investors know well, that also doesn’t mean closing a country’s front door.

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Here are our five stories for today, including a question of conscience in Yemen, a one-word look into the Russian soul, and a group of South African grandmothers you really don't want to mess with. 

1. Yemen sees Saudi aid – but also no end to its onslaught

Saudi Arabia’s generous humanitarian aid to Yemen comes with an unusual asterisk. The country’s war with Yemen is responsible for much of the suffering, meaning Saudi Arabia is actively working against itself – or trying to deflect criticism.   

Mark
A ship unloads a cargo of wheat at the Red Sea port of Hodeida, Yemen, April 1. The port, controlled by Shiite Houthi rebels, is key to feeding the capital, Sanaa, and Houthi regions. Some 17.8 million Yemenis are considered 'food insecure.'
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Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters

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Shortly after the third anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented $930 million to the United Nations. The sum is nearly a third of the $2.96 billion that the UN is seeking in 2018 to address the human costs of the war, which the UN blames for creating the “worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world.” But analysts say the vast donation is aimed more at repairing the kingdom’s own damaged reputation than at ending a war where it plays the decisive role. Indeed, the crown prince presented the donation in New York amid an extensive visit to the United States, part of a charm offensive meant to improve the kingdom’s image. “It’s very clear the Saudis are taking the reputational damage seriously, and they are mobilizing resources to address it,” says April Longley Alley of the International Crisis Group. “But the larger picture has to be that humanitarian aid is a Band-Aid, and the reason we need that humanitarian aid is because of the conflict,” she says. “So as long as the conflict continues, it’s just going to create more of a need.”

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Yemen sees Saudi aid – but also no end to its onslaught

By the third anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen last week, the coalition it leads – backed by the United States and Britain – had carried out 16,749 airstrikes against one of the poorest nations on earth. The United Nations blames coalition bombs for causing two-thirds of the more than 10,000 deaths in the conflict.

Shiite Houthi rebels marked the three-year anniversary of a war the UN blames for creating the "worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world” by launching seven missiles deep into Saudi territory. Three fell on the capital Riyadh, killing one civilian, in the most extensive counter-strike of its kind.

But two days later, while Yemenis braced for a military response, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave a strong indication that the kingdom has also begun to focus on humanitarian needs in the war, which has created widespread hunger and a raging cholera epidemic.

The crown prince presented $930 million from Saudi Arabia and its chief coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to UN Secretary-General António Guterres in New York – a sum that meets nearly one-third of a $2.96 billion UN appeal for 2018.

That philanthropic largess will be welcomed tomorrow in Geneva, where the UN is convening a high-level pledging conference for Yemen. The cash is part of a $1.5 billion package announced by Saudi Arabia in late January, which is meant to include the expansion of Yemen’s port capacity and opening of 17 “safe passage corridors” for aid supplies, mostly in non-Houthi areas.

But Yemenis affected by the war and analysts alike say the Saudi donation aims more at repairing the kingdom’s own damaged reputation than at ending a war where it plays the decisive role. Indeed, the Saudis have also hired American and British firms to wage a concerted public relations campaign.

“The money the Saudis are giving is like make-up on its face,” says Abdulrashid Al-Faqih, executive director of the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, which has been under Houthi control since 2015.

“All the warring parties are responsible for this suffering, but first is the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition,” says Mr. Al-Faqih. “What would be better than this [money] would be if Saudi Arabia stopped the war in Yemen. It’s not enough for Yemen to receive humanitarian aid as long as the war continues.”

April Longley Alley, project director for the Arabian Peninsula for the International Crisis Group (ICG), articulates only a slightly more positive view of the Saudi initiative, though she reaches a similar conclusion.

Humanitarian 'Band-Aid'

“Over the last several months, it’s very clear the Saudis are taking the reputational damage seriously, and they are mobilizing resources to address it,” she says. “This is especially true around their humanitarian plan for Yemen that they just announced.

“In some respects, it’s very good, right? They are now focusing on the humanitarian crisis…. The UN has a humanitarian plan. It needs to be funded. That’s a very positive development,” says Ms. Alley, speaking from Dubai after visiting Yemen’s southern, coalition-controlled port city of Aden.

“But the larger picture has to be that humanitarian aid is a Band-Aid, and the reason we need that humanitarian aid is because of the conflict,” she says. “So as long as the conflict continues, it’s just going to create more of a need.”

Displaced Yemeni students attend a class in a tent at a refugee camp located between Marib and Sanaa, Yemen, March 29, 2018. Recent surveys have found a high incidence of PTSD among Yemeni children.
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Ali Owidha/Reuters

The Saudi-led military intervention was initially meant to last just three months, to reverse a Houthi takeover of Yemen and restore the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

But as “Operation Decisive Storm” dragged on it was renamed “Operation Restoring Hope.” Mr. Hadi is still the nominal president, but rules from exile in Riyadh, and steady coalition bombing has devastated civilian infrastructure, from hospitals and factories to bridges – and led to war crimes charges.

A strict air, land and sea blockade – which Saudi Arabia promised to ease last November, with little follow-through so far – has meant that critical food and goods are too expensive for most. The UN says a “record” 22.2 million Yemenis, some 75 percent of the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance in 2018, 3.4 million more people than last year.

Children face trauma

Marie-Christine Heinze, a Yemen expert and president of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), a think tank in Bonn, Germany, argues that despite the Saudi humanitarian plan, the kingdom is not likely to scale down its military campaign.

“They continue the blockade, they continue to bombard civilian infrastructure, all of which continues to impact the humanitarian situation on the ground.... I don’t see this as a change,” says Ms. Heinze.

More broadly, the scale of bombing has “traumatized a whole population,” especially a generation of children, she says.

“Even if the war came to an end tomorrow, we would have to deal with the consequences of this for decades,” says Heinze. “You also have the conflict on the local level, the sectarian undertones, the hatred, the propaganda that is now not only dividing regions, north and south, but dividing governorates, villages, whole communities, dividing families – that’s going through the social texture in a way that [can’t] be easily mended.”

More than 79 percent of children experienced “severe symptoms” of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as being “unable to cry or unable to feel happy,” according to an independent survey published by CARPO. More than 900 Yemeni children were examined after the first year of the Saudi intervention, during which the coalition bombed Sanaa several times a day.

By comparison only children in northern Iraq, in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign against Iraqi Kurds in 1988, registered similar levels of PTSD, according to this study. Today that impact would be greater, since Yemen’s children have been subject to two more years of conflict.

Yet the coalition air war – supported by American and British intelligence and advisers, and critically by US aircraft mid-air refueling capacity – is just one factor in Yemen’s suffering.

Food security

“Yemen is one of the most food insecure countries in the world,” where vulnerable populations in one out of three districts “are facing heightened risk of famine and require integrated response efforts to avert a looming catastrophe,” the UN states in its current appeal.

The conflict “exacerbated the poverty and vulnerabilities that were entrenched in Yemen before 2015,” says the UN. The result today is that 17.8 million Yemeni are “food insecure,” with 8.4 million of those “severely food insecure and at the risk of starvation.”

Such figures, and the widespread perception that Saudi Arabia is responsible for the bulk of Yemen’s civilian agony with little military result, has stung in Riyadh. Crown Prince Mohammed, 32, is the Saudi defense minister and architect of the war. He is nearing the end of a three-week visit to the US, where he met President Trump, lobbied for support for his shock-therapy reform program at home, and defended the Yemen war.

He told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that the Houthis are “using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy,” and charged that the Houthis “block humanitarian aid in order to create famine and a humanitarian crisis.”

Early in the prince’s visit, the Senate narrowly defeated a bipartisan bill to end US refueling of coalition jets and intelligence support. Defense Secretary James Mattis argued that both the refueling and US advice on how to target were aimed a “reducing the risk of civilian casualties” by preventing “rash or hasty” decision by pilots running low on fuel during bombing runs.

It’s not clear how the announced Saudi plan will mesh with the multibillion dollar UN aid strategy.

Those Saudi steps are “very problematic” because they are not yet defined, says the ICG’s Alley. In the case of the ports they appear to be a bid to shift away from reliance on the crucial, Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah, which feeds the capital and Houthi regions.

“Three years in, there is no longer a Yemeni state, per se. There is no longer one country, [it] has fragmented along historical divides, and you have various power centers,” she says. “This is a largely stalemated, grinding war of attrition on many of these fronts…. It’s a multi-layered conflict, even inside Yemen.”

Civilian casualties

Saudi Arabia has addressed criticism of the war in other ways. A reporter for The Wall Street Journal was allowed rare access last month to the command center in Riyadh, for example, from which Yemen military operations are conducted.

Saudi officers spoke of trying to minimize civilian casualties in its mostly combat missions over Yemen.

“We’ll watch for hours, days sometimes, and not strike to protect civilians,” Maj. Gen. Abdullah al-Ghamdi was quoted as saying, while watching a live feed from a drone over Yemen that he said showed a group of fighters hiding in a compound.

The Houthi missile strike was a “message” to Saudi Arabia on the war anniversary, Alley says.

“The perception from their side is that, until Saudi Arabia feels pain from its side domestically, they are not going to be serious about negotiations,” she says. “That’s the Houthi perspective.”

For human rights activist Al-Faqih, in Sanaa, the deaths of civilians on any side is condemned. But the Houthi’s seven-missile strike a week ago pales in comparison to the coalition’s near-17,000 airstrikes – a figure from the Yemen Data Project.

“The airstrikes were almost all focused on destroying the interests of people, like attacking factories, the markets,” says Al-Faqih. “The military campaign conducted by the coalition is against the people, it’s not really against Houthis – it’s against Yemenis.”

“We do see the suffering every day on the streets and even on the faces of the Yemeni people,” he says.

“What could be worse than the current situation?” he asks. “All forms of normal life have been fading. It’s started to disappear.”

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Patterns

Tracing global connections

2. Why the US undervalues nuts-and-bolts diplomacy at its peril

In this week’s column, Ned Temko notes that President Trump’s high-stakes diplomacy has lacked the behind-the-scenes efforts typical of past breakthroughs. Can one man’s skill and force of will reshape the world? Mr. Trump is banking on it. 

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With two nuclear-proliferation standoffs to be dealt with in the weeks ahead – Korea and Iran – a reality check about nuts-and-bolts diplomacy is timely. It’s been part of every successful attempt to avert military conflict since World War II. Of late, it has been undervalued and even denigrated. Career policy experts rely on two core assumptions: International affairs are complex and every major decision is likely to cause counteractions and consequences. Many experts agree with President Trump’s aims: to rein in the dangers posed by an aggressive dictatorship in Pyongyang, and by an increasingly well-armed, expansionist regime in Tehran. They worry about the potential implications of how Mr. Trump, who may soon become the first US president to meet with a North Korean leader, wants to achieve this. Experts point to the paucity of advance diplomatic spadework that characterized breakthroughs such as President Richard Nixon’s 1972 opening to China, given that other interested and influential parties have made it clear they will have their say. On Iran, Trump says the 2015 nuclear deal must be strengthened or the United States will pull out. That could have repercussions for Iran and the Western alliance. One in particular could affect North Korea: a weakening of US credibility in negotiating.

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Why the US undervalues nuts-and-bolts diplomacy at its peril

It wasn’t exactly Air Force One. But the heavily armored green-and-yellow train that clunked its way into Beijing last week didn’t just bring the prospect of a high-stakes nuclear summit between North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and US President Trump a step closer. It highlighted the critical importance, in what comes next, of an increasingly undervalued part of every successful attempt to avert military conflict since World War II.

It’s old-fashioned, nuts-and-bolts diplomacy, and the many thousands of often unheralded men and women who have made it work. They haven’t just been undervalued of late. Some of Mr. Trump’s most vocal cheerleaders have denigrated them as part of a “deep state,” suggesting they’re somehow plotting to frustrate and hobble him on the world stage.

With two nuclear-proliferation standoffs to be dealt with in the weeks ahead – North Korea as well as Iran – a reality check is timely. These career policy experts, whether in the State Department or Defense Department, the National Security Council or the CIA, are exactly what the label suggests. Many have spent years studying the politics, economics, history, and language of the countries in which they specialize. Crucially, they rely on two core assumptions: that international affairs are complex, and that every major decision by the United States or other countries is likely to cause counteractions and carry consequences.

That explains why many are worried about the next two months. They agree with Trump’s policy aim: to rein in the dangers posed by an oppressive, aggressive dictatorship in Pyongyang, and by an increasingly well-armed, expansionist regime in Tehran. What unsettles them is the lack of attention they feel is being paid to the potential implications and complications in how Trump wants to achieve this.

If all goes to plan, he will soon become the first US president to meet with a North Korean leader. To judge from his occasional public statements, and less occasional tweets, his hope is not merely to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear program, but do away with the warheads and ICBMs it already has. He has been understandably emboldened by his success in tightening international sanctions, and also by his hints at US military action, which he believes have put Kim on the back foot. Trump seems confident that this presumed advantage, along with his own negotiating experience as a businessman, will deliver a summit deal leading to North Korea’s nuclear disarmament.

That would be a truly historic accomplishment. The concern among the policy experts is that there has been so little of the kind of diplomatic spadework that has led to past breakthroughs on similarly complex issues – for instance, President Richard Nixon’s 1972 opening to China. Only two leaders will be at the upcoming summit. But other parties, with both interests and influence, are in the picture: US allies like South Korea and Japan, and China as well. The Chinese, by setting aside their own frustrations with Mr. Kim to welcome his railway car into Beijing, served notice they intend to have their say. President Xi Jinping wants to expand Chinese influence in Asia, and reduce America’s footprint. He’s already been given a boost by the Trump administration through what the policy experts see as a perfect example of the rule of ripples and consequences: Washington’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the regional trade agreement negotiated with Asian countries, minus China, during the Obama administration.

The concerns over Iran involve ripples and repercussions of a different sort. By May 12, Trump has indicated that the 2015 agreement to put Iran’s nuclear program on hold will have to be hugely strengthened, or the US will pull out. Yet look at interests and influence again. Russia and China are signatories. So are key NATO allies – Britain, Germany, and France – and the European Union. They’ve all signaled opposition to withdrawing.

Some old-fashioned diplomacy is under way to head off a US withdrawal. The Europeans are trying to find a separate mechanism to deal with areas left out of the existing agreement, such as Iran’s continued development of ballistic missiles. But at least so far, they won’t countenance Washington’s insistence on ending the so-called “sunset clauses” in the agreement, most of which is due to expire by 2030, meaning that a US withdrawal is still looking more likely than not.

A particular fear is that if Washington duly imposes so-called secondary sanctions – to try to prevent European companies, not just US ones, from doing business with Iran – there will be new tensions in the Western alliance. But the main concern involves Iran itself. It is the prospect that a US withdrawal would strengthen the most hardline parts of the Iranian regime; that Tehran might be further emboldened to use its considerable non-conventional force in Syria and southern Lebanon; and that if the 2015 agreement collapses in the wake of a US pullout, only unilateral American or Israeli military action could prevent Iran from resuming its program to develop nuclear weapons.

Finally, they’re concerned about a repercussion that could affect North Korea as well: a weakening of US credibility in negotiating the terms of denuclearization with Kim at a time when America’s commitment to the deal with Iran is proving so fragile.

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3. Feeling besieged, some Russians reach back to retitle their leader

Amid growing reverence for Vladimir Putin, one word hints at how entwined the Russian president has become with his country and its rekindled identity of alienation from the West.

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Vozhd is an ancient Russian term imbued with mythic connotations. It signifies a chieftain who stands above history. Joseph Stalin was the last Russian leader to be called vozhd, and as a result the term still carries the baggage associated with Stalin’s harsh rule. So the fact that the staunchest of President Vladimir Putin’s supporters have begun to use vozhd to describe him is significant. “Before, he was simply our president,” tweeted Margarita Simonyan, head of the English-language RT television network. “Now he is our vozhd.” The term's reemergence in Russian discourse appears to be due to the sense of ongoing crisis brought about by the confrontation with the West, which began in earnest four years ago with Russia's annexation of Crimea and has escalated ever since. As Mr. Putin looks to find a formula to place Russia on a stable long-term basis before his fourth and likely final presidential term ends, the fact that some of his strongest supporters are adopting the vozhd label must be an irritating distraction – or, just maybe, a temptation.

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Feeling besieged, some Russians reach back to retitle their leader

The current issue of Time Magazine features a Rodney Dangerfield-esque Vladimir Putin on the cover, with an insouciant smirk on his face and a tiny imperial crown perched upon his head. The headline reads: “Rising Tsar.”

That represents a pretty typical Western commentary on the Kremlin leader’s huge reelection victory last month. Mr. Putin has labored long and hard to project himself as a normal, modern president who wins elections and abides by constitutional rules. But that Time cover and others like it signify that few in the West are inclined to see him that way.

But Russians, too, seem to increasingly view their long-time leader as something much more than a standard politician, though the image some are reaching for is not that of a czar. The word that keeps cropping up is vozhd, an ancient term imbued with mythic connotations that signifies a chieftain who stands above history, one who embodies the enduring will of the entire nation.

In the not-too-distant past, the term was embraced by Joseph Stalin as the core of his adulatory “personality cult,” but was eschewed by his successors.

The term’s reemergence in Russian discourse appears to be due to the sense of ongoing crisis brought about by the confrontation with the West, which began in earnest four years ago with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has escalated ever since. Even as Putin was being reelected last month with his biggest margin ever, a war of words was raging between Moscow and London over the attempted murder of former double agent Sergei Skripal with allegedly Russian-made nerve gas.

“Before, he was simply our president, and it was possible to change him,” tweeted Margarita Simonyan, head of the English-language RT television network, following the election. “Now he is our vozhd. And we will not let that be changed.”

A similar thought was earlier voiced by the Kremlin’s then-deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, as the current East-West crisis was heating up. “Today there is no Russia if there is no Putin,” he told an assembly of Western scholars and journalists in late 2014. “Any attack on Putin is an attack on Russia.” There is even a current popular song by the rock group Rabfak entitled “Putin is Our Vozhd.”

A loaded label

As Putin looks to place Russia on a stable long-term basis when his fourth and likely final presidential term ends – perhaps by changing the constitution to reinvent his own political role – the fact that some of his strongest supporters are adopting the vozhd label must be an irritating distraction – or, just maybe, a temptation.

Vozhd can have benign usages, signifying a preeminent leader in almost any field, such as a vozhd of science or literature. But in the modern political sense it is inextricably linked with the all-encompassing mass “personality cult” of Stalin in the 20th century, and its echoes bring back all the tortured and still very controversial memories of those times. The Stalinist notion of vozhd implied an infallible leader, one who navigates the shoals of history on behalf of his people, and who is to be trusted and obeyed implicitly.

Though Russians understandably bristle at the comparison, the word is similar in its meaning, usage, and historical baggage to the German “Führer,” and its return to political discourse sets off obvious alarm bells. That seems all the more true since recent opinion polls show that, for the first time in many decades, Stalin is viewed positively by a majority of Russians.

“Putin has two dimensions for Russians,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “In one, he is living flesh. He is a politician who manages the executive branch, sets policy, interacts with institutions, holds televised meetings with the public, and so on.

“But the second dimension is as a national symbol. He is the portrait on the wall that can never be removed. He is an instrument of self-identification for all Russians. Since this is essentially an authoritarian regime, the tendency will always be to view the first person as vozhd,” he says.

'Putin restored our identity'

Putin won his first presidential election in 2000, after being made acting president by a retiring Boris Yeltsin, winning just 53 percent of the vote. Four years later, as the incumbent in firm control of the electoral machinery, he took 71 percent. He ceded the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev for four years, but then staged a comeback in 2012. That time he got 64 percent, amid a great deal of public disgruntlement over his insistence on returning.

His substantial basic popularity had been established by the success of his first two terms in restoring political stability in a Russia still reeling from the catastrophic 1990s, making Russians feel part of a unified society again, and overseeing a wave of economic growth that significantly raised living standards for most people.

“Putin restored our identity. After the Soviet collapse all our social values turned to dust. We ceased to understand who we were, and our national psychology was dominated by our inferiority complexes,” says Olga Kryshtanovskya, a sociologist who specializes in studying Russia’s shifting elites. “It was Putin who started us on the road to national recovery, made people feel pride in being Russian again.”

But his popularity only began to spike to stratospheric levels after Crimea and the long, unfolding standoff with the West.

Despite economic recession and falling living standards over recent years, Putin achieved reelection to his new term with 77 percent of the votes.

“Why was he reelected, with such huge support, even in big cities?” says Leonid Gozman, former co-chair of the opposition Pravoye Delo party. “It's not something concrete. It's a new attitude to the world that has taken hold. He managed to convince many people that they are surrounded by evil gods, and that he is the only one who can protect them.”

Dmitry Babich, a commentator with the official Sputnik news agency, argues that “it wasn't Putin who made himself a hero to us, it was the West. It was the intense pressure on our country that caused Russians to rally behind him.”

Not a good word

But few believe that Putin would willingly embrace the title of vozhd, with its unpleasant historical baggage and Pharaonic overtones.

“Putin would regard vozhd as a word that's closely associated with Stalin, and all the ugly memories of that harsh, authoritarian system, and he would reject it,” says Sergei Markov, director of the independent Institute of Political Studies and a former Putin adviser. “It is true that Russians view him differently, now that he is the military leader of a country that’s under attack. But that special aura about him now is more like what Americans call a ‘war president’ than an old fashioned vozhd.”

Russian society has evolved since the 20th century and, the enthusiasm of some young people such as Ms. Simonyan notwithstanding, most Russian are unlikely to respond favorably to the old vozhd word, says Mikhail Chernysh, deputy director of the official Center of Theoretical and Applied Sociology in Moscow. 

Vozhd is not a good word, people associate it with ancient tribal politics. In the 20th century it was connected with ideological regimes; Stalin and Hitler were called vozhd [Führer], and no one today thinks well about that,” he says. “Putin has no ideology. He presents himself as an efficient manager, a good leader, but never a vozhd.”

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Point of Progress

What's going right

4. Texas landowners chip in to help restore a species – and some lands

Sometimes, nature needs a lovable face to help humans see an ecosystem in distress. In Texas, whooping cranes could help save the Gulf Coast. 

Mark
Endangered whooping cranes fly over Kentucky on their way to their wintering sites in Florida. Hunting and loss of habitat drove the iconic birds to the brink of extinction by the 1940s. Today, populations are more robust, but whooping cranes continue to face threats.
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Joe Duff/Operation Migration/AP/File

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On a warm, mid-March afternoon, three whooping cranes wing their way over a freshwater pond just a few feet from the Gulf of Mexico. The gangly birds used to be a rare sight along the Coastal Bend of Texas. Thanks to regulation and decades of “Give a Whoop” public education campaigns, the cranes have been pulled back from the brink of extinction. As the species continues to expand across this rural, sparsely populated stretch of coastline, locals and conservationists are hopeful that the iconic birds can encourage a rare, ecologically friendly approach to coastal development. Along the Texas coast, conservation groups are working with private landowners to convince them to set aside portions of their land for conservation use only. One such landowner, Bill Ball, has set aside one-third of a 6,000-acre ranch he purchased in 2005. “It’s one of the last areas in the United States where there’s a big, big amount of acreage being conserved,” he says, “We wanted to be part of that.”

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Texas landowners chip in to help restore a species – and some lands

Whooping cranes are, in many ways, a lot like us.

They mate for life. They maintain small, close-knit families. They go through a few years of aloofness and soul-searching between childhood and adulthood. And like the thousands of “winter Texans” who migrate to this stretch of the Gulf of Mexico every year, they like to spend the colder months surrounded by warm, salty air.

Humans, however, only seemed to begin to appreciate these similarities after pushing the birds to the brink of extinction.

More than a century of hunting and the widespread conversion of wetlands to farmland in the American Midwest meant that by the time World War II broke out there were fewer than 20 individuals left overwintering in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in this stretch of what is known as the Coastal Bend of Texas. Thanks to regulation and decades of “Give a Whoop” public education campaigns, the cranes’ numbers have since increased to more than 300.

As they continue to expand across this rural, sparsely populated stretch of coastline, locals and conservationists are hopeful that the iconic birds can encourage a rare, ecologically-friendly approach to coastal development in a time of mounting human and environmental pressure on coastlines around the world.

“They like the same things the whooping crane likes, including solitude and being able to get away, but as more people want that and come here it gets a little bit harder to find those areas,” says Elizabeth Smith, who leads the Corpus Christi-based Texas office of the International Crane Foundation (ICF).

“We’ve lost 50 percent of our wetlands along the coast, we can’t afford to lose any more,” she adds. “We’re at the crossroads, and I think a lot of people get that.”

Growing together

Coastal systems in general “are at a pinch point right now,” says Jeffrey Wozniak, an ecosystem ecologist at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

Aransas County, which includes the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and most of the whooping crane wintering grounds, saw its population increase 10 percent between 2010 and 2017, twice the national average. Half the US population is projected to be living in coastal counties in 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects. As those populations grow they can cut through and overrun habitats critical to coastal wildlife.

“That brings lots of habitat fragmentation, a lot of habitat loss,” adds Dr. Wozniak. As the coastal bend follows that path, “if we [don’t] have the birds, if we don’t have ecology in general as part of that [development] plan, we’re not going to be in a good situation.”

It also exacerbates a number of environmental pressures that are conspiring to stifle the whooping crane resurgence. The birds have outgrown the ANWR and can now be found foraging during the winter on the neighboring peninsula and barrier islands. Some have even begun to venture into urban areas, locals say. This could harm their regrowth as a species, experts say. The more time cranes spend scanning for predators, or searching unfamiliar areas for food, the less time they spend feeding and nurturing their young.

Elizabeth Smith, head of the Texas office of the International Crane Foundation, surveys a plot of land the organization is hoping to buy and preserve as future habitat for endangered whooping cranes that overwinter in the area. Local conservationists hope the species will help guide a new, conservation-minded approach to development in the region.
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Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor

So as they expand, conservationists in the coastal bend are working to secure as much secluded habitat for the birds to move into as possible. Groups such as the ICF and the Nature Conservancy are trying to buy land and give it to the state or federal government to protect, and they’re working with private landowners – many of whom own large ranches on the coast – to convince them to set aside portions of their land for conservation use only.

Bill Ball is one such landowner. When his real estate company bought the Falcon Point Ranch in 2005, he knew that one-third of the 6,000-acre ranch in Calhoun County was considered critical whooping crane habitat. With guidance from the Nature Conservancy and US Fish and Wildlife Service, his company set up four sanctuaries for cranes that cover roughly two-thirds of the ranch. Homes only take up one-thirtieth, and none are directly on the water.

“It’s one of the last areas in the United States where there’s a big, big amount of acreage being conserved, and we wanted to be part of that,” says Mr. Ball, a real estate developer in Austin.

“Part of the attraction for us is, within reason, people will be able to see whooping cranes and enjoy whooping cranes,” he adds. “The population is going to grow, and if people are going to take care of the resource they need to appreciate it and understand it.”

Making room for 1,000 cranes

There is enough protected land available now from the Nueces Bay, where Corpus Christi sits, to Galveston Bay about 200 miles north to support more than 1,000 whooping cranes.  That would be a large enough wild population to reclassify the birds from endangered to threatened, a goal shared by every conservation group and state and federal agency in the region.

But as whooping cranes branch out into the surrounding wetlands, the landscape could change dramatically as the sea level rises and fresh water from rivers diminishes from drought and overuse upstream.

The more immediate problem is that the coastal bend struggles to get enough fresh water to keep its wetland habitats healthy.

“Figuring out how to maintain economic growth and protect the environment and have enough water for everybody, including the cranes, is a challenge for all of us,” says Allen Berger, chairman of the San Antonio Bay Partnership, a local conservation group for the bay that borders the Aransas refuge. “It would be [a more] difficult challenge without the cranes, because they are a marquee species that attract people’s attention.” 

With climate change, the pressures of drought are not going away. Much of Texas is currently back in a state of drought. Warmer winters have allowed tropical black mangroves, which are so thick that cranes can’t walk through them to look for food, to move deeper into some coastal estuaries.

The slow-burning threat of sea level rise has conservationists fighting on two fronts. With three feet of sea level rise, the protected land that could support over 1,000 whooping cranes today would only support 465 cranes in 2100, according to Wade Harrell, the coordinator for whooping crane recovery at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. So habitat further inland needs to be protected today as well before it gets sold for development, he says.

“Uplands [today] are tomorrow’s wetlands,” says ICF's Dr. Smith. “Can we protect that land for one thousand cranes as soon as possible? Because it’s for sale.” 

Building a legacy

A final wild card in this conservation effort is that there are still several fundamental questions about whooping cranes that researchers haven’t been able to answer. So as scientists rush to identify and secure new habitat for cranes, they are also learning new things about their diet, behavior, and lifestyles.

During the 2010 drought, for example, a nonmigratory flock of cranes in Louisiana flew over to some nearby rice fields and began feeding and nesting there.

“Being able to adapt potentially to different food sources” is going to be important for their continued growth, says Nicola Davis, an ecosystem scientist with the ICF. “Will they be able to feed off the rice fields and the crawfish [further east]? Or can they switch to some sort of mussel?”

And perhaps the biggest question of all: “We still don’t know what human influence means for them,” she adds. “As their population grows they’re going to have to go off the reservation, and we don’t know how that will affect them.”

As significant a challenge as it is, people like Ball also see it as an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy – and to offer an alternative to the intensive development that has occurred in other stretches of the US coastline.

He is helping some friends sell part of their ranch further down the coast so it can stay undeveloped. “These guys love the fact that part of their legacy will be selling a piece of property for preservation as opposed to development.”

“It’s not all about money,” he adds. “I don’t want to develop a property that has the bay as its major selling point without being beneficial to the bay.”

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5. Finding vitality – and community – in a South African gym

This story is about boxing grannies in South Africa. What more do you need to know, really?

Mark

In this working-class suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, the boxers strap on bright red gloves and jog slowly back and forth across the gym, their heads bent in concentration. This particular group includes the most dedicated boxers who train here, says Claude Maphosa, the gregarious former bodybuilder who runs the facility. They’re also notable in another way: They’re all women, all above the age of 60 – some of them nearly two decades above. But you wouldn’t know it watching them train. Dubbed the “boxing gogos” – a local word for “grannies” – the women have been training at the gym twice weekly for about five years, running drills that would exhaust a boxer half their age. For 90 minutes, the gogos jab, hook, and uppercut their way around the gym. Afterward, many walk several miles home. For the women, the rewards of boxing are many – among them a feeling of vitality, a greater sense of security in a dangerous city, and, of course, a community, one of like-minded grannies with mean right hooks. – Ryan Lenora Brown, in Cosmo City, South Africa

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The Monitor's View

What to make of a North Korean apology

Two ways to read the story

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On April 1, a North Korean official offered an apology to South Korean journalists after they were excluded from a concert where the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was watching a performance of musicians from the South. In most countries, such a mea culpa would not be news. But North Korea is a place whose leaders are glorified and portrayed as infallible. Apologies suggest a willingness to change one’s behavior. Rather than appear as weakness, they hint at an alternative type of power. They indicate a commitment to interdependence and a respect for a code of moral conduct. The power of apology could be the missing link in the North Korea saga. Even if offered over a minor mistake, apologies help break down perceptions of “the other.” When each side looks in the mirror first to see what they can change in themselves, it is a victory over fear, an invitation for peace, and a call for healing.

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What to make of a North Korean apology

Sunlight can shine through the smallest crack. That may be the best way to judge a very rare apology from a high-ranking official in North Korea – who once was its chief of spies – just before negotiations with South Korea and the United States over the North’s nuclear program.

On April 1, Kim Yong-chol, head of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s United Front Department, offered an apology to South Korean journalists after they were excluded from a concert where the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was watching a performance of musicians from the South.

“On behalf of the North’s authorities, I offer an apology and ask for your understanding for the wrong committed,” he said, with all apparent sincerity. He blamed uninformed bodyguards for the error.

In most countries, such a mea culpa would not be news. But North Korea is a place whose leaders are glorified and portrayed as infallible. Their ideology is supposedly on the correct path of history. The people are taught their nation is the greatest on earth, an envy of the world. Those who oppose North Korea’s actions are mocked with stinging adjectives, not openings for compromise.

So rare indeed is a humble admission by a prominent person in Pyongyang. Even though the apology was over a minor incident, it is worth recalling how small gestures have helped end conflicts in world trouble spots. In many difficult talks between adversaries, negotiators stepped outside the rational self-interest of a nation or group. They laid anger and revenge aside and then offered apologies that hint at self-reflection.

To end Colombia’s long civil war, for example, leaders of a rebel Marxist group made several emotional apologies to victims, such as the families of kidnapped victims and villagers who suffered a massacre. Both the government and the rebels have recognized their respective atrocities against civilians. The effect has been profound, helping to cement a peace deal in 2016.

Apologies, either for small mistakes or large, suggest a willingness to change one’s behavior. Rather than appear as weakness, they hint at an alternative type of power. They indicate a commitment to interdependence and a respect for a code of moral conduct. They help restore the dignity of victims, which could result in forgiveness. They build a relationship of trust that allows for compromises on tough decisions in a negotiation.

After a quarter century of failed talks with North Korea, the US and its partners may need to probe if the regime of Kim Jong-un now has a change of attitude, not only about its nuclear weapons but its aggressive and violent behavior toward South Korea.

The power of apology could be the missing link in the North Korean saga. Even if offered over a minor mistake, apologies help break down perceptions of “the other.” When each side looks in the mirror first to see what they can change in themselves, it is a victory over fear, an invitation for peace, and a call for healing.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Easter – wisdom or foolishness?

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Today’s column explores how we can take small steps to prove for ourselves the veracity of the Easter story.

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Easter – wisdom or foolishness?

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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This year Easter fell on what’s called April Fools’ Day in the United States and several other countries. The coincidence of these days got me thinking that some people might feel anyone who believes a man named Jesus literally rose from the dead is a fool of sorts.

The Bible says, “The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (I Corinthians 3:19). What is wisdom – the obvious appearance that death is inevitable and irreversible? Or could there be a wisdom Christ Jesus and a few others in history have had that overcame death?

Common science describes human life as made of material elements that finally die. Yet it’s becoming more accepted in physics today that consciousness, rather than matter, may be the foundational reality.

Christian Science accepts that premise, not just intellectually but as something that can be proved by degrees in daily life. It takes the Bible accounts of Jesus’ power to heal disease and injury and even raise people from death as evidence that he understood each life as the expression of an indestructible Principle called God. His advanced consciousness of life as wholly spiritual could restore what we observe as physical life.

It’s a big claim to say that even one person actually rose from the dead, but one way to think of it as not just a legend is to begin taking small steps ourselves toward proving it. For example, it’s possible to rise from the death of joy regarding something we’re missing by gaining the consciousness that happiness isn’t in something physical but is always present if we live to give it to others. Many people have risen from the death of hope and have overcome fear or shame or sickness through the consciousness that they are loved by the perfect Love that gives life.

Easter is a celebration of healing possibilities for those who accept that consciousness, rather than physicality, constitutes life. That’s not foolishness. It’s the promise of expanding life for everyone, one risen thought at a time.

A version of this article aired on the March 29, 2018, Christian Science Daily Lift podcast.

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Viewfinder

A fight for funding

Thousands of teachers from across Kentucky fill the state Capitol in Frankfort April 2 to rally for increased funding and to protest last-minute changes to their state-funded pension system. Thousands came to protest teacher pension changes, and schools were closed statewide in Oklahoma as thousands more educators rallied there for increased education funding. (Watch for Monitor coverage of the widespread teacher protests later this week.)
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Timothy D. Easley/AP
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( April 3rd, 2018 )

Thanks for joining us today. Tomorrow, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of “2001: A Space Odyssey” with a look at the inscrutable show-stealer, HAL 9000. Today, we continue to wonder: Will artificial intelligence help us go to Jupiter, or just shut us out of the air lock? 

Monitor Daily Podcast

April 02, 2018
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