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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.

2017
October
19
Thursday
Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

Freedom of speech, for whom?

The question has come up repeatedly, even before a torch-wielding mob of white supremacists marched across the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The next day, Heather Heyer was killed, police say, after a Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a group protesting the Unite the Right event.

The University of Florida in Gainesville was the latest testing ground Thursday. The organizer of the Unite the Right event, Richard Spencer, was giving his first speech since Charlottesville. Florida's Republican governor called a state of emergency. More than 500 police officers were on campus, and the Florida National Guard was mobilized. Security costs were estimated at $500,000.

Only people who “look like” "alt-right" supporters were to be allowed inside, the sheriff’s department told reporters. The racist overtones were not lost on students, who braced for violence. Spencer's National Policy Institute reportedly determined which journalists could come in.

Some on the left want limits on what they deem hate speech. Some on the right want limits on what they consider unpatriotic speech. Pocket-sized editions of the United States Constitution have become fashionable accessories, though sometimes they appear to be more brandished than read.

On Thursday, a former president spoke to the document’s principles. “People of every race, religion, ethnicity can be fully and equally American,” George W. Bush said in Dallas. “It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”

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Now to our five stories for today, highlighting vision, self-determination, and renewal.

1. An empowered China picks a path. It’s not democratic reform.

President Xi Jinping's opening speech for the Chinese Communist Party Congress reaffirmed a party-first path for China, with a central role for it – as well as him – on the world stage. Left waiting in the wings: liberal reforms and a budding civil society.

Yvonne
Delegates attended the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Oct. 18.
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Jason Lee/Reuters
 

The 30 Sec. ReadAs President Xi Jinping addressed 2,300 delegates of the Chinese Communist Party on Wednesday, kicking off a twice-per-decade congress, he described a China on the cusp of greatness – and forging its own path to get there. Don’t “mechanically copy the political systems of other countries,” he urged his comrades, reaffirming the party-first vision of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Mr. Xi is already China’s most powerful leader in decades, and all but certain to receive a second five-year term at this week’s meetings. Central to that rise have been his efforts to revitalize the Communist Party, threatened by corruption and infighting when he took power in 2012, and its vision of ideological uniformity – in contrast to the democratic reforms many observers once assumed would follow China’s growth. But at a time when Western democracies face severe challenges, and with the global leadership of the United States seemingly in retreat, the appeal of Xi’s newly bolstered “China Path” as an alternative to democratic values may not be limited to China, some analysts say.

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1. An empowered China picks a path. It’s not democratic reform.

In the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, few, if any, countries have repudiated the hope that liberal democracy was on an inevitable march across the globe as much as China.

That was on full display Wednesday at the opening of a twice-per-decade congress convened by the Chinese Communist Party. The party will soon surpass its Soviet forebear as the longest-ruling communist party in history. And in case there was any lingering uncertainty about its intended trajectory, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged his comrades not to “mechanically copy the political systems of other countries.” Instead, he said in his opening address, they would work together to build a “modern socialist country.”

“Through a long period of hard work, socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era,” Mr. Xi, who also heads the Communist Party, told 2,300 party delegates assembled in the Great Hall of the People near Tiananmen Square. “This is a new historical direction in our country’s development.”

Xi delivered his speech – which lasted nearly 3-1/2 hours – as China’s most powerful leader in decades. He’s all but certain to receive a second five-year term at the week-long, mostly closed-door congress. With Xi in firm control, liberal reforms in China appear as remote as ever, squashed by the party’s return to its ideological roots.

The general secretary appears determined to return his country to the center of the world stage, bringing an end to China’s so-called century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers. In its place is the “China Dream,” a phrase he has popularized and defined as the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” But at a time when Western democracies face severe challenges, and with the United States’ global leadership seemingly in retreat, the appeal of Xi’s newly bolstered “China Path” as an alternative to democratic values may not be limited to China, some analysts say.

Road-construction workers in southwestern China's Guizhou province watch a screen showing a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping during the opening ceremony of the 19th Party Congress on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. Xi on Wednesday urged a reinvigorated Communist Party to take on a more forceful role in society and economic development to better address "grim" challenges facing the country as he opened a twice-a-decade national congress.
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Chinatopix/AP

Party discipline

Central to Xi’s rise have been his efforts to revitalize the Communist Party and its vision of ideological uniformity. Analysts say he is haunted by the fate of the Soviet Union: its collapse a cautionary tale of a party that lost its way.

When Xi came to power in 2012, widespread corruption and infighting threatened party’s long-term viability. To help restore its prestige and legitimacy, Xi quickly ordered the largest anti-graft campaign in modern Chinese history. He’s since leveraged this crackdown to sideline political rivals and invigorate party control.

He hasn’t stopped there. To ensure the party remains firmly in command of an increasingly wealthy and diverse society, Xi has tightened party discipline and shown no patience for political dissent. Human rights lawyers have been silenced, while a once-budding civil society has largely vanished under the expansion of vast domestic surveillance. Not all of this started under Xi, but he has zealously taken on the task of ensuring loyalty to party.

“Government, military, society and schools, north, south, east and west – the party is the leader of all,” he said on Wednesday.

All of this has led Xi to become China’s strongest leader since Mao Zedong. The party gave Xi the title of “core leader” a year ago, an honor bestowed on only three previous leaders. He could cement his power even further if the political ideology he unveiled in his speech Wednesday – “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” – is incorporated into the party’s constitution at the end of the congress, joining “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory.”

Extending influence?

On Wednesday, Xi spoke with confidence as he described a China that is on the cusp of greatness. He called its political system the broadest, most genuine, and most effective way to safeguard the fundamental interests of the people. He said the Chinese model of growth under communist rule was “flourishing,” adding that it had offered “a new choice” for other developing countries.

Though Xi has positioned himself as the leader to guide this “new era,” he did not say so directly. Nor did he explicitly condemn liberal democracy. That work was left to China’s state-run media, which frequently points out its shortcomings. “While some Western countries are stagnating and struggling,” says a recent report from Xinhua, the country’s official news agency, “China remains a beacon of stability across the globe.”

“The Chinese style of governance has gained global attraction,” says Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of research on public policy and society at the Mercator Institute of China Studies in Berlin, citing Pakistan, Eastern Europe, and parts of Africa as particularly susceptible to its influence. Closer to Beijing, some analysts have argued that China holds increasing sway in countries like Cambodia and Thailand. Longtime Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, for example, has overseen a political and press crackdown criticized by the West as Chinese support stays steady.

But the appeal of an alternative to liberal democracy may extend farther, Dr. Shi-Kupfer says. “It’s probably helpful in forcing us in the West to reflect on our democracies, but this is a governance style which comes with no moral foundation. I am worried that our self-reflection could lead us to deny values that I believe are universal.”

Choices ahead

A major focus at the congress will be on whether Xi is able to gain even more power by appointing loyal officials to top positions within the party. Observers will also be watching for signs of whether Xi will appoint a successor or open the way for holding on to power beyond his second term.

Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University in Beijing, says Xi’s concentration of power over 1.4 billion Chinese poses serious risks. “People will make mistakes,” he says. “Where is your control mechanism?”

For now, little appears to be standing in the way of Xi. Still, his attempt to create a unified national ideology – with the party at its center – is far from a done deal. Xi’s top-down approach has been undermined by a fragmented public opinion in popular online chat forums, according to a paper released earlier this month by the Mercator Institute in Berlin. It found that pro-Western, economically liberal arguments continue to skirt censorship, particularly among educated urban Chinese.

The paper goes on to say this ideological competition isn’t limited to China, where it will determine the level of popular support for Communist Party rule. “It will also become a defining factor in global politics,” the paper concludes. “Many countries and regions will now have a choice between Chinese and Western developmental models and methods.”

Xie Yujuan contributed reporting.

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2. The risky political calculus behind Bannon’s party ‘war’

Since Steve Bannon declared “war on the GOP,” headlines have focused on the verbal bomb throwing. But there may be a deeper strategy going on.

Yvonne
 

The 30 Sec. ReadSteve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, is targeting most incumbent GOP senators up for reelection next year, and recruiting primary challengers in his own (and Mr. Trump’s) populist, nationalist image. His stated goal is to oust Mitch McConnell from his perch as Senate Republican leader, and install a new leader who can pass Trump’s agenda. But the president needs success soon on big legislation, like tax reform – so there’s another likely purpose to Mr. Bannon’s maneuvering: to be Trump’s secret “whip” and put pressure on Republican lawmakers who might be tempted to go rogue. “Trump giving some level of approval to Bannon can actually help him win votes [on legislation],” says Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for George W. Bush. Trump softened Bannon’s full-on war cry on Monday. With Senator McConnell at his side in the Rose Garden, the president said he’d try to talk his former aide out of going after the senators Trump thinks are “great people.” To Mr. Fleischer, Trump’s attempt to straddle both worlds – the GOP establishment and the Bannon insurgency – is smart politics and might stop defections on key votes. But Bannon’s gambit also contains considerable risks. By targeting even safe incumbents, Bannon risks taking sure-thing reelections and making them competitive. But he seems undeterred.

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2. The risky political calculus behind Bannon’s party ‘war’

Steve Bannon’s declaration of “war” on the GOP establishment has certainly raised eyebrows – and raised hackles within the Republican Party.

Mr. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, is targeting most incumbent GOP senators up for reelection next year, and recruiting primary challengers in his own (and Mr. Trump’s) populist, nationalist image. His stated goal is to oust Mitch McConnell from his perch as Senate Republican leader, and install a new leader who can pass Trump’s agenda.

But Trump needs success soon on big legislation, like tax reform – so there’s another likely purpose to Bannon’s maneuvering: to be Trump’s secret “whip,” and put pressure on Republican lawmakers who might be tempted to go rogue.

“Trump giving some level of approval to Bannon can actually help him win votes [on legislation],” says Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to the last Republican president, George W. Bush.

Trump softened Bannon’s full-on war cry a bit on Monday. With Senator McConnell at his side in the Rose Garden, the president said he’d try to talk his former aide out of going after the senators he thinks are “great people.”

‘Smart politics,’ but not without risks

To Mr. Fleischer, Trump’s attempt to straddle both worlds – the GOP establishment and the Bannon insurgency – is smart politics. The senators Trump is unhappy with know who they are, and “fear of a primary from the Trump wing of the party, which is a rather sizable wing,” might stop defections on key votes, he says.

But Bannon’s gambit contains considerable risks. On Monday, McConnell rattled off the names of failed GOP Senate nominees who lost winnable races, costing their party the majority – in 2010, Christine O’Donnell of Delaware and Sharron Angle of Nevada, and in 2012, Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana.

By targeting even safe incumbents, Bannon risks taking sure-thing reelections and making them competitive. But he seems undeterred. “Just voting [with the party] is not good enough, you have to have a sense of urgency,” he said Monday night on Fox News, referring to GOP Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Deb Fischer of Nebraska, both up for reelection in solid red states.

Two GOP Senate incumbents, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada, entered this midterm cycle already endangered, and now face Bannon-backed primary opponents. Both challengers, Kelli Ward in Arizona and Danny Tarkanian in Nevada, make establishment Republicans uneasy.

In July, Ms. Ward, a former state senator, said that Arizona’s other senator, John McCain (R), should step down after a diagnosis of brain cancer, and suggested she should replace him. Mr. Tarkanian has run for various offices without success. For now, both are polling well among GOP primary voters.

Tea party, take 2

In some ways, Bannon’s “war” is Tea Party 2.0 – with all the risks and excitement that the earlier insurgency brought. Plenty of tea-party candidates won office, including Ted Cruz of Texas – the only Republican senator up for reelection whom Bannon isn’t targeting. (He and Bannon share financial patrons, Robert and Rebekah Mercer.)

But today, the stakes are arguably higher. Trump now faces an outside chance that Republicans could lose their slim 52-48 majority in the Senate, dooming his agenda altogether.

“I still think it’s unlikely” that the GOP will lose control of the Senate, “but a month ago I would have told you it was mathematically impossible,” says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor and Senate-watcher at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

With two GOP-held seats already competitive, if just one more goes into the toss-up column, then the Democrats can conceivably take over – assuming they can hold all 23 Democratic seats up this cycle. Again, that’s a tall order, but the Republicans need to be careful, says Ms. Duffy.

“Resources are not infinite,” says Duffy. “Your first job is to protect your incumbents…. Then you go after Democrats.”

Another problem for Bannon and Trump is that most of the renegades in the caucus are not up for reelection in 2018. One who was – Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, who has been openly feuding with Trump – opted to retire instead of run again. Sens. McCain, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Rand Paul of Kentucky have all bucked Trump on key votes, or threatened to vote no, but none are up this cycle. So it’s not clear that Bannon can intimidate them into voting with Trump on big legislation.

It’s also worth noting that Bannon and the GOP establishment seem to agree on some Senate candidates, such as those running in Tennessee and Missouri. That blurs the lines a bit on the image of a GOP locked in civil war. A report Thursday that Trump had called three senators this week – Sens. Barrasso, Fischer, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi – to reassure them he would support their reelection bids further eased the sense of internecine GOP conflict even as it added to the tension between Trump and Bannon.

Maverick effect?

Then there’s this question: What if Bannon succeeds in electing a group of populist mavericks in the Trump mold? There’s no guarantee they’d be able to replace McConnell with one of their own. And more fundamentally, getting things done in the Senate is all about working constructively with other senators; a bunch of mavericks may not be so inclined.

One key harbinger in all this could be the special Senate election in Alabama on Dec. 12. Former Judge Roy Moore, whom Bannon backed, beat the establishment (and Trump) pick, incumbent Sen. Luther Strange – an outcome that was held up as a sign that the Bannon revolution is on the march. But Judge Moore is controversial, and a recent Fox News poll now shows the race in a dead heat. That poll may be an outlier, but if Democrat Doug Jones actually wins the race in deep-red Alabama, that could be a game-changer.

Still, to some Republican strategists, Bannon’s war isn’t such a big deal, as he is targeting only a handful of GOP senators.

Only eight Republicans are up for reelection this cycle, and of those, one is not running and three already have firm or likely primary opponents. “It shouldn’t be that hard in this environment for someone of Bannon’s profile to recruit [enough] challengers,” says Constantin Querard, a Republican consultant in Phoenix.

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3. In cool stance on Amazon, a new view of ‘pro business’?

What does it mean to really be pro-business? Instead of bidding wars that result in large companies avoiding paying their share of taxes, some say why not focus on improvements that make cities places that people, and businesses, will flock to on their own?

Yvonne
 

The 30 Sec. ReadWhen Amazon said it was looking for a city to host its “HQ2” – a second headquarters for the giant corporation – it’s little wonder that US metro areas jostled to pitch themselves as ideal locations. The chance to snag an estimated 50,000 good jobs doesn’t come along every day. Will it be Denver? Atlanta? Boston? But as cities finalized their bids today, the frenetic competition has also raised some deeper discussion about the limits of such bidding wars as a tool for economic development. Mayors in San Antonio, Texas, and San Jose, Calif., publicly dropped out of the race to capture HQ2. Development experts say it’s not that incentives for employers will go away, but the best jobs strategy for states and cities may be to invest in things like education, an inclusive social culture, and infrastructure. That’s perhaps why Joe Straus, a Republican who’s speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, said last week, “Being pro-business isn’t just about tax breaks and cash incentives…. It’s also about education, tolerance, empathy, quality of life.”

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3. In cool stance on Amazon, a new view of ‘pro business’?

In early September Ron Nirenberg was one of the hundred-plus city mayors who felt their ears prick up when online retail giant Amazon announced its desire to set up a second headquarters outside of its Seattle home.

He is now one of just three who declined to throw their hat in the ring before today’s deadline to submit proposals to the company.

Attracting large companies to an area has long been viewed as a golden ticket to economic prosperity – such deals have ticked up in frequency and cost since the Great Recession – and Amazon’s “HQ2” project is the latest and shiniest of those. The company is promising to invest $5 billion in the facility and to create as many as 50,000 high-paying jobs.

Yet what bidders are being implicitly forced to provide in return – most notably, a more generous tax incentives package than their rivals – has seen some cities and economists questioning the wisdom and fairness of this bidding-war approach to economic development. Instead of letting megacompanies avoid their fair share of taxes, they wonder, why not focus on city improvements so that businesses show up even without special subsidies?

Amazon’s highly publicized HQ2 process has already become a platform for that conversation, alongside a wider scramble by cities that has been frenzied, and at times comical.

Officials in Tucson, Ariz., tried to deliver a 21-foot-tall saguaro cactus to Amazon’s headquarters. The city council in Stonecrest, Ga., voted to rename part of the city “the city of Amazon” if the company moves in there. Mayors from Washington to Danbury, Conn., have posted videos of themselves asking Alexa – Amazon’s intelligent personal assistant device – where the HQ2 should be located. The answer every time: that mayor’s city.

But the bids to recruit Amazon have involved much more than stunts. In particular, some observers believe the HQ2 incentives package could end up as one of the largest in American history. New Jersey, for example, is offering Amazon tax breaks worth over $7 billion over the next decade, an incentives package worth more than double what Wisconsin offered to Taiwanese electronics company Foxconn to build a factory there last month.

It was that race to the bottom that turned off Mr. Nirenberg, the mayor of San Antonio, Texas. Last week, he and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff (who’s jurisdiction includes San Antonio), wrote Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to say they were pulling out of the HQ2 race.

Nirenberg says that trying to match the kinds of incentives being offered by other bidders would hamper the city’s goals of attracting companies like Amazon in the future.

“It’s a difficult proposition to contend with when a company [is] intending to get cities across the country to compete in an incentives arms race,” he adds. “We’re willing and open to negotiate with a big toolkit of economic development opportunities with Amazon, but we’re not willing to mortgage our future to do it.”

Nirenberg says his team had already been crafting their letter to Mr. Bezos when he read about Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose, Calif., making a similar declaration in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

“It was heartening to see another city focus on the future [and be] not willing to play games with the future of its city,” Nirenberg says. “Hopefully that will begin to turn the tide of the expectations for economic development.”

A tipping point?

Siting deals like HQ2 have become increasingly common in recent years. The number of $50 million-plus deals between a company and a city or state has more than doubled since 2008, according to an analysis by Good Jobs First, a research group on development policy.

A long-term decline in entrepreneurship is the main reason these megadeals have become more attractive to local officials, says Greg LeRoy, the group’s executive director.

“That means there are fewer ribbons to cut, fewer deals for politicians to compete for, [but] a lot of pressure [to create jobs] because the economy is still soft,” he adds.

What people like Mr. LeRoy fear is that Amazon could bring a surge in population and income to a community without investing a commensurate amount in improving the city’s infrastructure and services. Then either taxes will go up or the quality of public services will go down.

Writing in Fast Company on Tuesday, LeRoy probed the option of another path. “Will Amazon’s hubris be met with public demands for community benefits instead?”

‘We can’t compromise that future’

Officials like mayors in San Antonio, San Jose, and Toronto (which decided not to expand existing incentives to win the HQ2 prize) are already making those kinds of demands of Amazon, and they represent a potential shift in how cities view economic development.

“Economic development in the old days used to be mostly about [creating] jobs, but now it’s [also] about communities developing high quality infrastructure, a skilled workforce, environmental stewardship and quality of life,” says Thomas Tunstall, senior research director at the University of Texas, San Antonio’s Institute for Economic Development.

Cities are starting to realize that “if you focus on high quality of life, develop your local workforce, those are the things companies are looking at anyway,” he adds.

Mr. Liccardo said that his how San Jose has been able to bring companies like Adobe, Google and Apple to the city recently “without a single cent of taxpayer money being used for subsidies.” Nirenberg is trying to get San Antonio to that point.

“That’s why the investments we’re making in infrastructure and education and housing are so important to us,” he says. “Our people come first. The jobs will be filled by those people. We can’t compromise that future.”

Professor Tunstall sees an obstacle to popularizing that approach. It’s easier for an economic development corporation to show that a specific recruiting deal brought jobs than to show how an improving quality of life is bringing families and companies to a place, he says.

And “quality of life” can be hard to define. When Tunstall asked city managers across Texas what it meant – as part of a study last year – “There was often significant discrepancy in the definitions,” he says. “One fellow who had moved to Texas from Louisiana said back there, it was defined more by crawfish boils and being close to mama.”

The role of the ‘intangible’

Tax incentives are unlikely to disappear, experts say. That is especially the case now, with entrepreneurship at such a low ebb, says Bernard Weinstein, an economist in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

But what may be changing is that incentives become a less decisive factor than they have been in the past, and more intangible factors like quality of life and a community’s social culture become more important.

That is a shift that could cost any Texas city the HQ2, experts say. Debates in the state legislature this year on controversial bills – including one related to transgender rights (which didn’t pass) and one related to local cooperation with federal immigration officers (which did pass) – have been cited as factors that could lead Amazon to look elsewhere.

This is perhaps why Joe Straus, Republican speaker of the state House of Representatives, announced last week the formation of a new committee to look at the state’s economic competitiveness.

“The formula isn’t as simple as it used to be – being pro-business isn’t just about tax breaks and cash incentives,” Rep. Straus told the chamber last week. “It’s also about education, tolerance, empathy, quality of life.”

That was music to the ears of Nirenberg.

“For a city that’s interested in partnering with a corporation, it would be ludicrous to compromise its ability to build the kind of city worth investing in,” he says, by agreeing to an unbalanced partnership.

Smart, big businesses like Amazon, he adds, “are looking for much more than a net gain on incentives. They’re looking for communities to invest and have a solid, durable, and equitable future, and that’s what we’re interested in.”

Amazon has said it will announce the winning site next year.

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4. Turkish move into a Syrian province hints at broad power shift

In Syria, Turkey has allied itself with Russia and Iran to achieve a series of cease-fires. The agreements so far are military in nature, but some analysts are hopeful it could lay the groundwork for peace.

Yvonne
 

The 30 Sec. ReadWhen Turkey sent troops into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province this month, it fit a certain logic. The move put Turkish forces in close proximity of Afrin, home to a Syrian Kurdish faction that Ankara regards as a threat. But the incursion, analysts say, was also a clear sign Turkey was responding to a dramatic shift in Syria’s balance of power. Alarmed at increased US support for Kurdish militias, NATO member Turkey is aligning itself with Russia and Iran – the two main powers supporting Syria – and with a Russian-led diplomatic process begun in Astana, the Kazakh capital, in May. The Idlib operation fits into a Russian strategy of brokering local truces to reduce the violence and lock down the territorial gains made by pro-Syrian forces. Unlike United Nations-led Syria talks in Geneva, the Astana talks have not sought to broker a comprehensive peace. But the so-called de-escalation zones have been credited with reducing the overall level of violence. And some analysts say Astana could help lay the foundations for greater success in Geneva. “The Astana process delivers military results,” says one, “and a political process has to build on that.”

Karen Norris/Staff
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4. Turkish move into a Syrian province hints at broad power shift

For most of the Syrian civil war, there have been two constants of Turkish policy: support for opposition forces seeking the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, and concern about the growing strength of the Kurds in northern Syria, whom Ankara regards as a direct threat.

But Turkey has watched with alarm as its NATO ally, the United States, directly armed and increasingly supported the Syrian Kurdish forces chasing the so-called Islamic State from its northern Syrian strongholds.

So when Turkish forces sent scouts, and then troops, into the opposition-held province of Idlib this month, it fit a certain logic. The move put Turkish forces in close proximity of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, home to a Syrian Kurdish faction, the Democratic Union Party, whose military wing the US has armed.

In fact, the incursion into the northwestern province represents a significant shift in Turkish thinking and the even more dramatic change in the balance of power in Syria.

Amid a rapprochement with Syrian ally Russia that was long in the making, Turkey’s move is part of a so-called “de-escalation” agreement reached with Russia and another Assad ally, Iran, in the Kazakh capital of Astana in May.

That trio’s memorandum of understanding stipulates the creation of four de-escalation zones, in a move optimists hope will help reduce hostilities, facilitate humanitarian and medical access, and encourage the return of refugees.

Critics say the Astana process is entrenching fault lines and contributing to the fragmentation of the war-zone country, with each power carving out spheres of influence. The trio in September demarcated the monitoring responsibilities in Idlib province.

Under the May agreement, up to 500 Turkish monitors could be deployed in Idlib, along with the same number of Russian and Iranian forces to be stationed in areas controlled by the Syrian government and its allies.

The Astana process

According to analysts, the incursion reflects Turkey’s realization that the best avenue to protect its interests in Syria is not through conversations with Washington and other NATO capitals, but through Moscow, the dominant diplomatic and military player in Syria.

“With the Idlib operation it has become clear that Turkey is now working under the Russian umbrella in Syria,” says Gonul Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies in Washington.

President Trump “took the decision to further this alliance with the Kurds,” Ms. Tol adds. “Turkey feels it is cornered and has nowhere else to turn, so it turned to Russia and Iran.”

Russia’s direct military involvement in Syria began in September 2015 and was instrumental in shifting the balance of power in favor of Assad, although it hasn’t put the Syrian regime in the position to assert its authority across a country that has split into multiple enclaves.

The Idlib operation fits into the Astana diplomatic process but also the broader Russian strategy of brokering local truces in Syria to reduce the violence and lock down the territorial gains made by the array of forces supporting the Syrian government.

The Russian-led Astana talks have not, for now, aimed to broker a comprehensive peace or reach a political solution to the Syrian conflict. However, by gathering the direct belligerent factions, they have succeeded in altering facts on the ground.

There have been six rounds of talks to date in the Kazakh capital, with the seventh just scheduled for Oct. 30-31.

Headwinds at Geneva

The Astana talks offer a sharp contrast to the years-long, United Nations-led diplomatic process in Geneva, and have succeeded in a way that the efforts led by a valiant series of UN envoys never could, not even in the brief moment they enjoyed high-level US support.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has consistently described the Astana and Geneva tracks as complimentary, rejecting the notion that military talks in Astana could derail the political and diplomatic process Geneva.

The talks in Switzerland started in 2012 and have been consistently hamstrung by a Syrian regime unwilling to negotiate any substantive issues, a weak and divided opposition, and low engagement by the United States.

In contrast, Astana has been more modest in its ambitions and become the go-to venue for military talks and more.

While imperfect and subject to multiple violations, local truces and de-escalation zones have been credited with reducing the overall level of violence in Syria. Astana has also helped Damascus to lock down its territorial gains and shift its forces to fight ISIS in the east.

“This is a valve that the Russians and the regime can turn on and off,” warns Paris-based Syria expert Salman Shaikh, noting the cease-fires’ temporary nature. “But it is the only thing that has contributed to some sense of movement and momentum, and that is what the UN envoy is trying to get on the back of.”

Ball is in Russia's court

With ISIS defeated in Raqqa, observers hope that Washington and Western capitals will engage more seriously in the search for a solution to the conflict in Syria, now in its seventh year. But all say no political process will move forward before Moscow’s endorsement.

They see signs of hope in talks of an “early national dialogue” and Russia’s growing engagement with concepts such as power-sharing, separation of powers, or, simply, transition, even if it comes with the caveat of not before 2021, when Assad’s term as president expires.

Noah Bonsey, the senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, says it is impossible to determine at this stage whether the Astana talks will feed into the Geneva process. The ball, he stresses, is in Russia’s court, and much depends on its capacity to bring Damascus and Tehran on board.

“Geneva hasn’t been effective at all in shaping events on the ground,” he says, and it can’t achieve a negotiated agreement absent the “political will from the conflict’s internal and external players to negotiate something.”

The Syrian opposition is under pressure to take a more pragmatic and united approach in Geneva. Ankara, despite the occasional statement by Turkish President Recep Erdogan and other ruling party officials to the contrary, has dropped the demand for Assad to go.

Some in the Syrian opposition view the deployment of Turkish troops in Idlib as a betrayal. It was Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, rather than what is left of the moderate opposition, who reportedly escorted Turkish personnel to their posts. But they also acknowledge that there is no other game in town.

Tol says that the limits of the Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance will be defined by how far Tehran and Moscow will go to address Turkish concerns over the growing influence of Syrian Kurds. Tehran appears to share Ankara’s concern over growing Kurdish autonomy.

Russia, for its part, sees the Kurds as a card to be used not only against Turkey but also the US. A recent declaration by the Syrian government that it was willing to discuss autonomy with the Kurds sparked alarm in Ankara.

Can Astana help Geneva?

Mr. Bonsey cautions that while the relationship between Ankara and Tehran is working out in Astana thanks to Russia’s dominance in the process, there is still a gap between their positions and a clear rivalry for influence at play in northern Syria.

Both think Astana could help lay the foundations for greater success in Geneva, which continues in the absence of a better approach.

“The Astana process delivers military results, and a political process has to build on that,” says Tol. “Astana was Russia’s way of dictating the military terms on the ground before launching the political process.”

The analysts concur that the political process will only begin once the military facts on the ground are to the liking of Russia and the regime. The question is whether they will do so in Geneva.

Mr. Shaikh says the real challenge now is how to turn localized efforts that have helped reduce the violence into a comprehensive national plan: not just de-escalation and cease-fire, but one that tackles civil governance.

“A national plan that doesn’t further embed the fragmentation and different realities across the country,” he stresses.

Sheikh adds that it is essential to broaden the process in Geneva to involve the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, as well as other types of actors, to get a serious discussion going on a political process. “Without that, Geneva is dead,” he says. “It is never going to go anywhere.”

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5. Moscow mayor’s bold bid for urban beautification

Depending on whom you ask, the multibillion-dollar remaking of Moscow is either a magical transformation that shows the capital city rising Cinderella-like from its Soviet rags, or a monumental fleecing of public funds by officials and construction magnates.

Yvonne
Visitors walk on a pedestrian bridge over the Moskva River at the newly opened Zaryadye Park off Red Square in central Moscow on Sept. 11.
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Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
 

The 30 Sec. ReadOver the past three years, Moscow’s downtown thoroughfares have been closed for months at a time and completely dug up, bringing howls of outrage from local residents and businesses whose lives were disrupted. Moscow traffic sometimes became an intolerable nightmare. Such has been part of the cost of the My Street project to modernize and humanize Russia’s capital. But the seeds of that project are finally bearing fruit. Many of those construction sites have re-emerged with tree-lined sidewalks, benches, flower beds, and bicycle lanes. Some have been transformed completely into pedestrian malls. Residents seem pleased. But there are costs. Although 40 Russian centers are currently undergoing urban renewal drives ordered by the Kremlin, the total budget for those cities is just $700 million. Moscow's My Street project alone costs $2 billion. “We can't help but notice that building Zaryadye Park in Moscow cost the same as our entire city budget,” says Sergei Kostarov, a professor of Omsk State University in western Siberia. “It just shows that the centralization of political power in Russia still results in the centralization of everything.”

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5. Moscow mayor’s bold bid for urban beautification

Moscow is a city that's notorious for its grand, overpowering architecture. Modernizing and humanizing it by enabling public access and convenience is no small task.

But that is what the $2 billion My Street project launched by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is attempting to do.

And depending on who you ask, the massive remaking is either a magical transformation that shows this glorious, ancient city arising Cinderella-like from its Soviet-era rags, or else it's an endless source of dust, noise, and traffic snarls, as well as a giant trough of public funds for greedy officials and construction magnates to wallow in. (And in Russia's far-flung provinces, you will only hear complaints about the exorbitant resources lavished on Russia's narcissistic capital at the expense of everyone else.)

Some of Moscow's major downtown thoroughfares have been closed for months at a time and completely dug up, bringing howls of outrage from local residents and businesses whose lives were disrupted. Outdoor kiosks, small businesses selling everything imaginable that proliferated after the collapse of the USSR, have been almost completely cleared from city streets. Moscow traffic, always verging on paralytic, sometimes became an intolerable nightmare; road rage incidents multiplied.

But over the past year or so, Muscovites have seen many of those same streets re-emerge from the construction hoardings with broad, tree-lined sidewalks, benches, flower beds, bicycle lanes, and traffic islands. Some have been transformed completely into pedestrian malls. Archaeological discoveries turned up by the works have made headlines and some have been turned into permanent outdoor museum displays. And residents seem more happy with the transformation than not.

A man walks past an excavator parked on a heap of wreckage during the demolition of street kiosks and stalls declared illegal by the city authorities in Moscow in August 2016.
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Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

“This had to be done a long time ago. It is long overdue,” says Nikolai Shumakov, president of the Russian Union of Architects. “There are some defects, of course. But these changes are basically welcome.”

Remaking the city

It's the newest iteration of Moscow, a city that has been overhauled many times in the past century. Ever since the Bolsheviks opted to move the capital here from St. Petersburg following the 1917 Revolution, Moscow has been the canvas for successive Communist leaders to impose their own visions of what the “capital of world socialism” should look like – often by ripping down some of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

Employing the labor of German prisoners of war, Joseph Stalin built the seven enormous “wedding cake” skyscrapers that still hover over central Moscow. Nikita Khrushchev demolished a vast swath of the ancient Arbat district to make way for a broad avenue lined with domino-like office towers, now known as New Arbat. Later Soviet leaders bequeathed cold, utilitarian public buildings, and the endless vistas of high-rise tenements that stretch to the city limits and house Moscow's teeming millions.

Today, the outlines of Vladimir Putin's Moscow are just coming into full focus. The Moscow City Center project, a gaggle of wildly shaped modern glass office towers resembling London's Canary Wharf, is testimony to the yet-unfulfilled Putin-era hopes of transforming Moscow into a global financial center.

It falls to Mr. Sobyanin, mayor since 2010, to apply the finishing touches. In addition to the My Street project, he has initiated a sweeping, controversial program to demolish thousands of old Soviet-era tenements and move their residents into new housing. Moscow has also seen a major expansion of its metro system, and the inauguration of a rapid transit network and several new expressways on his watch.

Next to the Kremlin, on the site once occupied by the giant, crate-shaped Rossiya Hotel, Moscow's first new park in 50 years is wowing visitors. Called Zaryadye, after an ancient district behind Red Square's market stalls, the $250-million park features vegetation from four separate Russian eco-zones, an underground concert hall, and a platform over the Moscow River that affords unprecedented views of the Kremlin and the city's historic river embankments.

In what looks like a typical Russian paradox, the park almost immediately had to be fenced-in, and now can be entered only via metal detectors and police searches, after it was vandalized within days of its opening.

Political implications

Polls show that inhabitants of Moscow increasingly like the project's growing results, which bodes well for the energetic mayor, Sobyanin, who faces re-election in less than a year.

“Focus groups show that the majority of Moscow's population support these changes,” says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “They like the fact that there are fewer cars, more sidewalks, more greenery. So, the wishes of the authorities and the population appear to be aligned. Opponents of the project object to this modernization from above. They believe the most important issue is that people aren't consulted, and the changes were not agreed with local communities.”

People rest at a glass dome with a greenhouse at the newly opened Zaryadye Park off Red Square in central Moscow on Sept. 11, 2017.
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Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

That does have political implications, he says. In last month's municipal elections, downtown Moscow districts – including those most affected by the renovations – surprised the establishment by electing large numbers of a liberal opposition bloc to local councils. These districts are traditional bastions of middle-class opposition, so the voting may not be a direct response to the city works. But authorities will now have to face much more focused criticism from newly elected deputies.

“Part of the opposition regards anything the authorities do as incompetent, and an excuse for corruption, and they are now sitting inside the councils,” says Mr. Makarkin.

‘Same country in a different way’

Not everyone agrees the beautification project is for the best. “Of course it's good to improve our city,” says Nikolai Lyzlov, a Moscow architect. “But I don't like it when everything is done to a single standard, in one style, by one company, everywhere and rapidly. Our city was created over centuries, every district has a different atmosphere, and here it is being homogenized. It would be so much better to do this as a slow process, directed by the municipalities and with the participation of citizens.”

And, although an astute reader of the Russian media can detect a distant sound of thunder, little heed has so far been paid to the growing chorus of voices across Russia's vast hinterland complaining of the disproportionate resources devoted to prettifying Moscow.

Although 40 Russian centers are currently undergoing urban renewal drives ordered by the Kremlin, the total budget for those cities, whose locations range from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, is just $700 million. Moscow's My Street project alone costs $2 billion.

“We are also trying to make our city of Omsk better and more comfortable for life but, the thing is, we seem to live in the same country but in a different way,” says Sergei Kostarov, a professor of Omsk State University in western Siberia. “We can't help but notice that building Zaryadye Park in Moscow cost the same as our entire city budget. It just shows that the centralization of political power in Russia still results in the centralization of everything.”

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The Monitor's View

Kneeling and shady dealing in sports

 

The 30 Sec. ReadThe NFL and the NCAA – America’s pro football and college sports leagues, respectively – face controversies, one over whether and how to engage with social issues, the other about a threat to the very idea of amateurism in sports. But underlying the harsh rhetoric, seeds of reform are already sprouting. NFL talks, while only a start, suggest that alternative means for players to express their concerns may be found. And at least 28 individual schools with NCAA programs have conducted or are conducting reviews of their recruiting practices amid a widening national scandal. Athletics at their best display human achievement in noble ways. They show the value of teamwork and the ability to break barriers of physical achievement. Amateur sports should build character and prepare participants for success later in life. And professional sports can provide a stage displaying awesome athletic talent. The light being shone on both of these controversies may lead sports back to a purer form.

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Kneeling and shady dealing in sports

Two stories have yanked the world of American sports onto front pages (and to the top of online news feeds).

In recent weeks some players in the National Football League (NFL) have knelt during the pregame playing of the national anthem to highlight what they see as racial injustice in society.

Meanwhile, the biggest college basketball recruiting scandal in many years – perhaps the biggest ever – has already taken down one of the best-known and most successful coaches, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, who has been fired by the university. Others, including four assistant coaches at major universities around the country, are now under criminal investigation just as another college basketball season is about to get under way.

The role of sports as a temporary escape from real-world issues seems to be at risk.

But underlying the harsh rhetoric of the NFL controversy, and the allegations of serious hidden wrongdoing in college basketball, seeds of reform are already sprouting.

After a meeting between NFL players and team owners Oct. 17, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and others who attended spoke of a productive exchange of ideas that included much more than whether kneeling was appropriate.

“Very little of the meeting was about the actual anthem,” said Malcolm Jenkins, a player for the Philadelphia Eagles. “We were really more talking about solutions and how we get the results that we want to get.” No specifics were revealed, and discussions are expected to continue. But the talks suggest that alternative means for players to express their concerns may be found.

“I will tell you that our players are men of great character,” Mr. Goodell said afterward. “They have a very deep understanding and tremendous knowledge of the issues ... in all our communities. Their commitment to addressing these issues is really admirable and something our owners look at by saying, ‘We want to support you.’ ”

The college basketball scandal involves the alleged funneling of money to high school stars to influence their choice of college and who they will select as advisers and agents as they plan for careers in pro basketball. In addition to four college assistant coaches, who may have acted as middlemen distributing cash, six others, including a top employee of athletic gear maker Adidas, were indicted.

Much more is likely to be revealed in the coming months. Even the Internal Revenue Service may investigate since unreported cash payments may be involved.

Because these individuals face felony charges they may be willing to give testimony that will lead to others higher up who were involved.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has now formed a special commission, led by former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to investigate. The Pac-12 Conference is also conducting an investigation, and The Associated Press reported that at least 28 individual schools have conducted or are conducting reviews as well.

At the heart of the problem is the contrast between huge amounts of money and amateur athletics. Today top college coaches receive multimillion-dollar contracts (in 39 states a college football or basketball coach is the highest-paid public employee in the state). Even bigger payouts await a select few college players who will be drafted into the professional National Basketball Association (NBA). TV contracts between the NCAA and TV networks run into the billions of dollars.

Some knowledgeable observers are calling for colleges to pay their athletes, making them professionals, ending what they claim is a charade, a system they see as already awash in payouts.

But other less drastic reforms may be possible. The “one-and-done” NCAA policy that allows top players to leave college for the NBA after their freshman year needs rethinking. So do the roles of those surrounding talented young players, including coaches and advisers.

While college basketball is dealing with an existential threat to amateurism in sports, the NFL is grappling with whether to engage with unresolved racial issues in society – and if so, how.

Athletics at their best display human achievement in noble ways. They show the value of teamwork and the ability to break barriers of physical achievement. Amateur sports should build character and prepare participants for success later in life. And professional sports can provide a stage displaying awesome athletic talent.

The light being shone on both these controversies may lead sports back to a purer form.

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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.

#MeToo and the potential for healing

 

The hashtag #MeToo has trended in response to the recent news focus on sexual harassment and assault. This contributor has had “me too” experiences and decided to post the hashtag on her social media, along with spiritual insights that have brought her healing. Prayer-affirming spiritual qualities, such as joy, wholeness, and peace, that make up everyone’s fundamental essence – none of which can be touched or harmed – have enabled her to say, “I am not weakened, I am not ashamed, and I am not stained. And I firmly believe that is true for everyone.” Prayer to see everyone in this spiritual light, both women and men, has been key to her response on social media, supporting and encouraging others.

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#MeToo and the potential for healing

Most of those active on social media recently will have seen posts in their feed including the hashtag #MeToo. The #MeToo campaign was started in 2007 by Tarana Burke, in order to help sexual assault survivors. It has trended since Oct. 15, when actress Alyssa Milano invited women to highlight the magnitude of the problem of sexual harassment and assault by using the hashtag and sharing their stories.

On Monday, as I saw an ever growing stream of #MeToo posts from both female and male friends, I wondered what to do. First and foremost, I love my friends and wanted to show them compassion and support instead of turning a blind eye. ​While I respect that some may choose not to speak up, eventually I also felt it was important for me to say “me too,” to briefly list the unsolicited and inappropriate advances I have experienced, and to offer some inspirational ideas.

Ms. Burke said that the phrase “me too” was intended as “a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.” I agree. As large as the problem of sexual harassment and assault is, it helps me to remember that the potential for prevention and healing is even more impressive.

All of my engagement along these lines is empowered by seeing and loving myself and others as God made us: as God’s spiritual children, composed of indestructible God-given qualities such as joy, peace, and wholeness. This does not mean turning a blind eye to evil. Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, illustrated through her founding of the Monitor that we must be willing to confront and handle even the most difficult trends and events in the world, while simultaneously striving “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind,” as its motto says.

In praying to respond to this (longtime) trend, I’ve found that the Bible provides a tremendous example of how to overcome evil without becoming bitter, particularly in the life of Christ Jesus. Though hated, slandered, put on trial, and executed in one of the most painful and demeaning ways possible, Jesus still rose above all he had been subjected to through a clear vision of his, and everyone’s, truly God-provided and God-sustained substance and purpose. Sexual assault can threaten to be a death-dealing blow to life, joy, and feelings of self-worth and safety. Speaking out about it can be an arduous trial. But I have found that prayer affirming the qualities that make up our fundamental essence – none of which can be touched or harmed – can make all the difference. It has empowered me to realize that I am not weakened, I am not ashamed, and I am not stained. And I firmly believe that is true for everyone.

Prayer to see everyone in this spiritual light has been key to my response to the #MeToo trend on social media, leading me to offer supportive comments on the posts of friends who spoke up – whether sharing their experience or posting simple but powerful phrases like “I believe you”; or individuals taking on the responsibility to rebuke unacceptable behavior and support others when they feel unsafe, responding to the call for better models of manhood and womanhood to be raised up in our society, and starting a discussion for fellow parents to offer insights into how we can best support our sons and daughters given the trending conversation.

I am heartened by the support I have received, and by all the prayers, conversations, and actions coming forward as a result of the #MeToo campaign. May it continue. And may we increasingly discover that evil is not inherently a part of anyone, male or female, nor is it the ultimate power. Instead, may all feel the tender but mighty touch of the infinite good that is God – omnipresent, omnipotent, divine Love – that protects us, washes us clean, reforms us, redeems us, and causes us to rise up renewed, in ever fresh and increasing expressions of mutual freedom, blessings, and love.

To read about one of Ms. Jostyn’s experiences and related ideas, check out her article published in the Nov. 7, 2011, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Still pouring in

Rohingya refugees, fleeing persecution in Myanmar (Burma), walk through Palang Khali, Bangladesh, Oct. 19. They had crossed the border from Myanmar two days before after receiving permission from the Bangladeshi military to advance toward refugee camps. The International Rescue Committee said today that 450,000 Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh, including 250,000 new arrivals, are in need of urgent assistance.
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Jorge Silva/Reuters
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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( October 20th, 2017 )

Yvonne Zipp
Deputy Daily Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow. We're working on a story on how Trump's new Afghanistan policy has changed the dynamic and the psychology of the conflict. 

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