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2019
February
15
Friday

By declaring a national emergency to build his border wall, President Trump may have just made it easier for future US presidents to take the easy way out.

Being president can be hard; it’s designed to be. Negotiating with Congress over your priorities can be lengthy, contentious, and center on minute details. Given the network of competing powers established by the United States Constitution, you’re almost guaranteed to fall short of your goals.

Just signing a declaration would be so much less trouble – and more effective, in terms of enacting your plans.

Mr. Trump’s emergency declaration is his way of trying to bypass a frustrating situation, in which he has gotten much less than he wanted for his border wall, and do what he wants.

Is it a true emergency? He said on Friday the US is facing an “invasion” of criminals and drugs. But border crossings are at record lows, according to government figures. Democrats say the emergency is political, not real.

And a Trump expansion of the meaning of “emergency” could provide future presidents a shiny new tool. Climate change? That’s a big issue. Solutions might be difficult, expensive, and really hard to hammer out with lawmakers. Declaring an emergency and acting unilaterally? That would be tempting – and a whole lot easier.

Federal courts will certainly rule on Trump’s decision. But the law gives chief executives a huge amount of leeway to make national security decisions.

If Trump prevails, it will be a major, maybe unprecedented, expansion of American presidential power.

Now to our five stories for today, which range from difficult negotiations of a different sort in Afghanistan to ice skating on Ottawa’s Rideau Canal.

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1. US-Taliban talks: Is Afghanistan ready for real peace?

Finding a path to peace involves taking risks and building trust. In Afghanistan, the US seems eager to end its longest war, and Afghans yearn for peace. Despite some hopes, issues of trust loom large.

Peter
Pavel Golovkin/AP
Taliban Mullah Abbas Stanikzai (c.) attends ‘intra-Afghan’ talks in Moscow. On Feb. 12, 2019, the Taliban announced a 14-member negotiating team, led by Mr. Stanikzai, ahead of talks with US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been meeting with the insurgents to try to end the US’s longest war.

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A series of contacts between US officials and the Taliban have raised hopes for peace in Afghanistan. Yet concerns abound. Even as the Taliban mount a charm offensive, they refuse to speak to the Afghan government and identify as representatives of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which ceased to exist in 2001. For many Afghans who have seen advances in women’s rights and other gains in civil society, the question remains: How much have the Taliban changed?

“The new situation we are facing is a combination of optimism and fear,” says Orzala Nemat, director of a think tank in Kabul. “The optimism comes from the fact that there seems to be a serious opportunity to end the bloodshed,” she says. “The fear that I have is: What will this new peace look like? Is it taking us back to the Stone Age?”

For Abdul Hamid Wardak, whose uncle and brother-in-law were executed by the Taliban, even a glimmer of peace brings some level of hope. “When I heard that peace is coming, I was very happy,” he says. “I felt good for the whole country.”

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US-Taliban talks: Is Afghanistan ready for real peace?

With the United States eyeing a withdrawal from America’s longest war, a fledgling peace process in Afghanistan involving direct talks between the US and Taliban insurgents has created the most optimism in years.

But serious concerns abound, not least due to reports the Taliban are preparing for a new fighting season even as they negotiate.

The colossal challenges yet to come in bringing the Islamist Taliban and Afghan government to a peace agreement are encapsulated in a story surrounding a single “hanging” tree in Wardak Province, southwest of Kabul.

It was from that tree that the Taliban, three years ago, hung the body of Rahmatullah, an off-duty army officer and father of seven, after kidnapping, starving, and torturing him for two weeks.

Attached to the tree they left a small note of explanation: “Anybody working with the government, this is the result.”

“It is not only our family that has made sacrifices; every family in Afghanistan has losses like this,” says Rahmatullah’s brother-in-law, Abdul Hamid Wardak, a quiet 26-year-old who was shocked to see the state of his relative’s body. Months later Mr. Wardak’s uncle also was murdered, accused of being a government spy and shot dead by Taliban gunmen. Wardak had to move away and today runs a vegetable shop in Kabul. 

“That’s clear, how bad the Taliban are,” says Wardak. He says he can’t forgive the Taliban for the killings that have devastated his family, but he sees a higher aim in a peace that could end the bloodshed – a trade-off that will have to be embraced by many Afghans if a peace deal is to prevent future slaughter.

“When I heard that peace is coming, I was very happy. I felt good for the whole country,” says Wardak. “Conflict and war are not only in my province; they are all over Afghanistan.... We urgently need peace.”

US sense of urgency

That peace is not imminent, and the “most optimism in years” is a low bar. But analysts say factors are lining up in ways they have not before: President Trump has expressed a determination to withdraw the 14,000 US troops from Afghanistan, and while the Taliban have made battlefield gains for years, few analysts expect that outright military victory over the government – backed for now by US and NATO forces – is possible.

Signs of progress are plentiful: Taliban negotiators have met several times with US officials in recent months and agreed in principle to a framework that would exchange a US troop withdrawal for the Taliban ensuring that Afghan soil is never again used to mount terrorist attacks abroad.

There is a sense of urgency engendered by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, who said a week ago there was “a lot of work” still to be done but that he hoped a deal could be finalized before July, when Afghanistan is due to hold presidential elections.

Mr. Khalilzad will next meet the Taliban Feb. 25 in Doha, Qatar.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
The special US representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, approaches the microphone to speak on the prospects for peace, Feb. 8, 2019, at the US Institute of Peace, in Washington.

The Taliban, however, refuse to speak to the Afghan government, which they call a puppet of the US. And so far the government is not part of the US-led process, nor was it invited earlier this month to Moscow, where the Taliban met other Afghan politicians, including former President Hamid Karzai. US officials increasingly speak of the need to bring all Afghan parties together.

President Ashraf Ghani nevertheless called Monday for a national loya jirga, or consultative assembly, by the end of March.

“We have to determine those values which should not be compromised,” said Mr. Ghani, who recently stated that 45,000 Afghan security force members have died since he took office in 2014. “The scale of flexibility and the cost of peace must be clarified.”

Yet there is no agreement on how the Taliban might be integrated into current state structures – which the Taliban have fought for years, with widespread assassination and intimidation campaigns – or even if the Constitution might be changed.

Among women, concerns

And crucially, for many Afghans who, since the US toppled the Taliban in 2001, have seen advances in women’s rights and education, the rule of law, a free press, and other gains in civil society, the question remains: How much have the Taliban changed?

During Taliban rule, Afghan women were not allowed to work. Nor were they allowed to leave their home without wearing an all-enveloping burqa. Girls were forbidden from going to school.

“The new situation we are facing is a combination of optimism and fear,” says Orzala Nemat, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), a think tank in Kabul.

“The optimism comes from the fact that there seems to be a serious opportunity to end the bloodshed, to end the killing of Afghans, [because] I see the graveyards getting larger across the country,” she says. “The fear that I have is: What will this new peace look like? Is it taking us back to the Stone Age?”

Aside from stopping the fighting, Ms. Nemat says, peace “also means that, when I am engaging in my public life, I will not feel threatened by anyone. So that’s the other side, and women take that very seriously.”

Taliban delegates to the talks present themselves in public as members of a wiser, media-friendly organization that has learned from mistakes in the past. Analysts note in recent years that, despite the violence, the Taliban have often shown increased flexibility to accommodate local wishes in areas under their control.

And yet the Taliban also publicly downplay the scale of civilian casualties, suggest vaguely that women’s rights will be beholden to Islamic law – their interpretation of it – and speak in the name of their former regime, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which ceased to exist in 2001.

The result, says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, is that much more needs to be done.

“Let’s not expect that all the mess of 40 years of conflicts in Afghanistan can be cleaned out in six months, because in the last 17 years there was progress here and there, but also new problems,” he says.

“We are at the very beginning of a very long way, and it is not a smooth path,” says Mr. Ruttig. “There is potential conflict about every meter of that way, because it is about rights, about what a future state should look like.”

‘There should be peace forever’

To maximize their leverage, the Taliban appear to be on a diplomatic charm offensive.

“We know that ... taking the whole country by [force] will not help, because it will not bring peace in Afghanistan,” Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban political chief, told the BBC in Moscow.

“We wanted to solve these things on the table, in a peaceful manner,” said Mr. Stanikzai. “So after the withdrawal of foreign forces, there should be no fighting among Afghans. There should be peace forever.”

Stanikzai said that after the withdrawal of US forces, “we want to be friends with you in the future. So the Americans should come back to Afghanistan and work with us in rehabilitation and reconstruction.”

But those optics are misleading, says Nader Nadery, a senior adviser to the Afghan president.

“America’s efforts for peace are very much welcomed, but we need to be mindful that, if we rush things, that will send the wrong signal to the Pakistanis and the Taliban,” he says, referring to Pakistan’s long-term, deep support for the Taliban.

“That sense of urgency we understand; we Afghans have that sense of urgency. But rushing it through is making the Taliban more arrogant, to feel that they have the upper hand and feel that the US is desperate,” says Mr. Nadery. “The outcome will not give the Afghan people and the Americans what they want: a stable country that will build on the gains that have been made in the last 17 years, at the cost of blood and treasure.”

The Taliban’s baggage

How far the Taliban’s diplomatic rhetoric affects the battlefield is hard to gauge, since it comes after a stepped-up American bombing campaign that has killed more than 30 Taliban commanders since December, according to Western and Afghan sources. In fact, the peace effort comes after US airstrikes hit a decade high in Afghanistan, with 7,362 weapons released in 2018 – more than the previous three years combined – according to the US Central Command.

At the same time, the Taliban have been preparing through the winter for a new season of fighting as if peace were not an option, says an Afghan intelligence officer of the National Directorate of Security, who asked not to be named. Replacement commanders installed by the Taliban have been among the most hardened.

“I am on the front line; I am collecting information from everywhere,” says the intelligence officer. “Every day we see [Taliban] restructuring, and new responsible people coming from Pakistan. They are distributing weapons, preparing suicide attackers, preparing car bombs.”

“If such a thing [peace] will be their next plan, why are they working on their new war strategy for the next year?” he asks. “There is also a difference between the Taliban. Some of them want peace and accept the voice of the leadership. And some of them don’t know who they are or what they are doing. They only need to be at war. Their lifestyle is like this.”

And the Taliban have another problem as they try to reenter politics. When they first took control in 1996, they were welcomed by many, despite their strict Islamist rules, for ending years of brutal fighting between mujahideen warlords.

“The Taliban today have a much harder time to convince people that they are not going to deceive Afghans by saying, ‘Oh, we are the peace-bringers in this country,’ ” says Nemat of the AREU think tank. “Because [they have] the fresh blood [on their hands] of young journalists being killed, young teachers, young students, young girls and boys, and even the elderly, with no reason.”

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2. Ahead of election, Nigerians reassess an old promise of safety

Nigeria is Africa’s largest democracy, and Saturday’s elections are a chance for voters to reset its course. But when it comes to an essential and growing challenge – security – many say they see few new options.

Peter

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Four years ago, when Nigeria’s former military leader Muhammadu Buhari was elected president, he vowed to vanquish Boko Haram. Then, after less than a year in office, he informed Nigerians that the terror group had been “technically defeated,” a claim his administration more or less maintains.

Today though, on the eve of general elections, many voters in Africa’s largest democracy are skeptical that the incumbent – or his main challenger, for that matter – can quell their country’s many conflicts. Boko Haram continues to rout an under-equipped Nigerian military, and a splinter faction of the group that pledges allegiance to the Islamic State is gaining strength. Meanwhile, several other violent conflicts have ballooned under Mr. Buhari’s tenure, including ethnically and religiously tinged farmer-herder fighting that killed more than 2,000 people last year alone.

But while security issues seem like a place for leading challenger Atiku Abubakar to attack Buhari’s record, they are often too deeply entrenched for easy political point-scoring – and he has shied away from making them central to his campaign.

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Ahead of election, Nigerians reassess an old promise of safety

Maryam Abubakar was bent in prayer when she heard the first blast crack over Kano’s central mosque, a sound so loud it felt like the stately building had cracked in two. Before she could react, she felt another explosion rip over her, and then the pop-pop-pop of approaching gunshots. Barefoot and trying not to trip on the bodies splayed all around her, she ran for the street.

It was Nov. 28, 2014, and in the nerve center of Nigeria’s largest Muslim-majority city, the terror group Boko Haram was sending a message: Nowhere is safe.

Afterward, residents say, they tiptoed through their own city.

“You saw a woman in a hijab who you didn’t know, and you wondered, is she one of them?” says Kemi Fadipe, a teacher, referring to Boko Haram’s infamous use of female suicide bombers. Everyday tasks, like walking into a crowded market to buy food for your family, began to feel both brave and stupid, she says.

But six months after that blast, which killed more than 120 people, a former military leader named Muhammadu Buhari stood on a stage in Abuja and made the country a promise. He would defeat Boko Haram, once and for all.

“We must not succumb to hopelessness and defeatism,” he said as he was inaugurated as Nigeria’s president in May 2015. “We can fix our problems.”

Today, many here believe he has done exactly that.

“Since the day he was declared winner, there has never been bombings again in Kano, alhamdulillah [Praise God],” Ms. Abubakar says. “I will vote for him on Saturday. He is my champion.”

Ahead of general elections Saturday, the country’s 84 million voters are tallying Mr. Buhari’s successes and failures, weighing whether he deserves a second term at the helm of Africa’s largest democracy. For many, questions around how the president has handled the country’s several violent conflicts will be central to that accounting.

But despite many Kano residents’ support for Buhari, security is a subject on which Nigerians are deeply divided. Many say they have received few promising commitments from either the president or his leading challenger, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party. With security issues often proving too deeply entrenched for easy political point-scoring, leading candidates frequently avoid tackling them head-on.

Sani Maikatanga/Reuters
Nigeria's main opposition party presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, stands atop a bus as he greets supporters during a campaign rally ahead of elections, in Kano, Nigeria, Feb. 10.

Since Buhari took office, Boko Haram has retreated from the north’s major cities. Then in control of 20,000 square miles of territory, it now rules over only tiny pockets of rural land, far from the country’s centers of power. The president maintains that his administration has “beaten” the group.

But Boko Haram continues to rout an under-equipped Nigerian military, and a splinter faction of the group that pledges allegiance to the Islamic State is gaining strength. On Wednesday, gunmen opened fire on a convoy carrying the governor of Borno State, killing at least three people, and many here worry they will attempt to disrupt voting Saturday.

Meanwhile, several other violent conflicts have ballooned under Buhari’s tenure, from brutally violent banditry in the country’s northwest to a separatist movement in its southeast. But perhaps most notable among them is the rise in running battles over access to land between groups of farmers and nomadic herding communities across the country. 

The conflict is concentrated in the country’s diverse and poorly policed Middle Belt, a kind of religious equator running through the center of Nigeria, dividing a mostly-Muslim north from a mostly-Christian south. Conflicts between herders and farmers have intensified as climate change and a rapidly rising population shove them toward each other. In 2018, more than 2,000 people were killed in such conflicts, according to Amnesty International.

Because farmers in many parts of the Middle Belt are largely Christian, and herders largely Muslim, some politicians and media have cast the battle as one for religious survival, particularly for the region’s minority Christian population, long marginalized in local politics. The conflict has drawn national interest, with 71 percent of Nigerians saying they were concerned about the conflict in a 2018 survey by the polling group Afrobarometer.

“Buhari told us his administration has technically defeated the dreaded Boko Haram in the North East and was in the process of ridding the nation of sundry crimes like kidnapping, armed robbery, herders/farmers clashes [but] instead we are witnessing an unfortunate rise in insurgency and other criminal activities,” said John Mamman, national chairman of the Middle Belt Forum, a lobbying group, at a press conference Monday. “I wish to call on President Buhari as an officer and gentleman to publicly apologize to Nigerians for his administration’s abysmal performance.”

But while security seems like an easy place for Mr. Abubakar to score points against his beleaguered opponent, he has shied away from making it central to his campaign.

In large part, this is because it is difficult for either man to wield the conflict as a political weapon against the other, says Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, a think tank in Abuja.

Both men are Muslim and ethnically Fulani – the same groups that most herding communities are drawn from – making it hard for either to cast the fighting as the kind of us-versus-them battle that effectively galvanizes voters, she says.

As in many countries, major political candidates here often win voter blocks by sharpening the blurry boundaries between groups of people from different regions, religions, or ethnic groups. That kind of politicking has particular effectiveness, however, in a place like Nigeria, a staggeringly diverse country whose boundaries were carved out not by a shared history, but by British colonialism.

So for many Nigerians, local forms of identity are stronger than any national sense of belonging, which in turn allows politicians to play up divisions. But many wedges typically used to divide voters have been ineffective this time around, says Ms. Hassan, because of the similar backgrounds of the two main candidates.

In the far northern state of Jigawa, for instance, vigilante attacks between farming and herding communities have also spiked in recent years. But there is no political wedge between the two sides in the fighting, both of whom say they ardently support the president. 

“We believe Buhari is the one who can develop our communities,” says Ahmadu Musa, chairman of a local association of herders in the area of Rano.

“Buhari believes in equal justice for all people – that’s why we will vote [for] him,” agrees Ali Mainao, an elder in the nearby farming town of Marma, saying that Buhari’s ban on rice imports has helped them sell their crops for higher prices. Above him, makeshift brooms dangle from ropes strung between houses – the symbol of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress and its promise to sweep away corruption.

“Yes, we need a better solution to what is happening here, but that takes time,” he says. “We need to give him more time.”

Muhammad Reza Suleiman contributed reporting to this story.

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3. Trial by fire? Pelosi proves she’s still in the game

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi weathered a storm of criticism before the midterms, including from Democrats. Now her experience has paid off in facing down the president, polishing her image nationally and at home. 

Peter

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One year before the 2018 midterms, Nancy Pelosi faced withering criticism, including from some in her own party. In her home state of California, more Democrats wanted to replace her as their leader in the House than keep her. But a sweeping victory in the House and a subsequent showdown with President Trump over border funding has restored Ms. Pelosi’s standing.

Gil Cisneros, a first-time Democratic representative from California, was among the critics. But he’s since changed his tune. Pelosi is “leading the party down a great path … standing up to the president,” he says. And it’s what Californians want to see. Nearly half say they approve of how she is handling her job. “They don’t want us to give in,” Representative Cisneros says.

Democrats’ earlier calls for new voices at the top seems to be shifting. Pelosi, who has held on to the top rung of the leadership ladder since 2003, is 78. Her fellow California officeholder, octogenarian Sen. Dianne Feinstein, was just reelected. Analysts say experience in political leadership and in the workings of Congress matter at a juncture when Mr. Trump is declaring a national emergency to defy Congress.

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Trial by fire? Pelosi proves she’s still in the game

One thing you can say about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: People have definite views about her. “She’s an obstructionist,” says Julianna, outside a post office here in the city where Richard Nixon was born. “I don’t like her politics,” says Ken Barber. “I’m a conservative. She’s a liberal.”

On the other hand, Jesus Pucan, a Filipino-American, praises Representative Pelosi for a “job well done,” while Emma Brinkley, a first-time Californian voter at 18 last year, says she likes the speaker’s ability to block President Trump even if she doesn’t know much about her as a politician.

Despite these opposing stances, public opinion about the most powerful and vilified Democrat in the nation is shifting. Her favorability ratings are rising on a swell of support from Democrats who see her as an effective opponent to the president. Even some Republicans express a certain admiration for her political skill.

“I was wrong. I completely underestimated how powerful and how strong she is,” said Meghan McCain on ABC’s “This Week” after the nation’s longest government shutdown ended last month on the speaker’s terms. Far-right commentator Mike Cernovich tweeted: “Nancy Pelosi is alpha.”

“We’ve gone from people saying she’s been around too long, we need fresh blood, to a pretty unanimous verdict, at least among Democrats and analysts, that she’s a legislative master, a tough negotiator. It’s a whole different set of images ascribed to her,” says Robert Shrum, who teaches at the University of Southern California and who advised the presidential campaigns of Democrats John Kerry and Al Gore.

Gallup, which has been tracking Pelosi since she became the House Democrats’ minority leader in 2003, found that 38 percent of Americans viewed her favorably in early December. That’s still low, but it’s up 9 points since June and higher than her historic average. Since the shutdown ended, other polls put her support among registered voters in the low 40s.

But her home state of California, which is at the forefront of the resistance movement, is giving her even louder plaudits. Forty-eight percent of California’s adults approve of how she is handling her job as speaker, according to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California taken in the last week of the shutdown.

“That’s a very positive rating, considering what the [low] rating is of Congress right now and the rating of the president” in the Golden State, says the institute’s president, Mark Baldassare. Two-thirds of Californians blame Mr. Trump and Republicans in Congress for the shutdown. The president has a 30 percent approval rating in California, compared with almost 44 percent nationally, according to the Real Clear Politics average.

From a drag to an asset

It wasn’t always this way with Pelosi, who was elected the first-ever woman speaker in 2007, then lost the gavel when Republicans gained control in the tea-party wave of 2010. With Democrats failing under her leadership to take back the House in 2012, 2014, and 2016, the grumbling about the septuagenarian was audible. 

Mark DiCamillo, another California pollster, recalls attending various conferences and lunches a couple years ago. “I would say, ‘Nancy’s just not that popular, and you could make a case that she’s a drag on congressional candidates in the country and in California.’ ” 

Indeed, a September 2017 poll by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, which Mr. DiCamillo directs, showed that larger proportions of Democrats in California wanted to replace Pelosi as leader, whether or not the Democrats retook the House.

In California and the rest of the country, Republicans ran ads in swing districts during last year’s campaign, pairing Democratic candidates with Pelosi as a threat. In southern California’s 39th district, a Republican stronghold that includes Nixon’s birthplace here in Orange County, Democratic congressional candidate Gil Cisneros said that while he “respected” all that Pelosi has done, it was “time for new leadership.”

But what a change a year made. On the eve of the election, an unpublished poll by DiCamillo found a huge majority of California Democrats wanted Pelosi as speaker – nearly 72 percent – if the party won. Suddenly Democratic voters focused and became pragmatic, DiCamillo says. The GOP’s warnings about Pelosi proved ineffective. Democrats took back the House, gaining 40 net seats, including seven in GOP strongholds in California. 

Among the winners was Representative Cisneros. In November he signed a letter saying he would not vote for Pelosi as speaker, later changing his mind once she agreed to serve no longer than four years in that role. Now he talks of her glowingly, telling the Monitor that “she’s leading the party down a great path … standing up to the president.”

It’s what voters back home want, he says, of the tough speaker who joked in her memoir that she eats nails for breakfast. “They don’t want us to give in. They want us to be an inclusive society. To welcome immigrants to our country. The speaker has been a great example of that.”

“Winning changes a lot,” says Rep. Ro Khanna (D) of California, with a grin.

Stand your ground

More than any other factor, it is anti-Trump sentiment that has fed a pro-Pelosi one, says DiCamillo. Opposition to the president drove women such as Ms. Brinkley, who spoke excitedly about taking part in the first women’s march in Los Angeles, to the polls, as well as Latinos, who showed up in numbers resembling a presidential election.

But that is not to discount Pelosi’s political skill in leading her party to a crushing victory, deftly winning over Democrats, and then holding her ground that there would be no negotiating with the president on border security without ending the shutdown first.

When it came time to forge a bipartisan bill to fund the rest of the government through September, Democrats agreed to only $1.37 billion for 55 new miles of border barriers. That’s far from the $5.7 billion the president wanted. Trump signed the bill on Friday but declared a state of emergency on the border so that he could redirect money from other government spending to build a border wall. Pelosi and Senate minority leader Charles Schumer of New York called the move a presidential “power grab” that violated Congress’s exclusive power of the purse and said they would pursue “every remedy” to stop it. 

Far from age being seen as a detriment for women in politics – or other fields, for that matter – it’s proving its usefulness. 

Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic adviser to California Sen. Dianne Feinstein – just reelected in her mid-80s – says the age issue for both Senator Feinstein and Pelosi is “irrelevant” in the face of their experience.

Pelosi’s skill set “is perfectly attuned with this particular moment in time,” says Mr. Carrick. “She’s got a grasp of the substance of the issues and how to move legislation both substantively and politically, and she’s just tremendously outflanking Trump at every moment.”

Monitor staff reporter Jessica Mendoza contributed to this story from Washington.

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4. Nearly 2 billion people depend on Himalayan glaciers. What if they melt?

Polar glacial melt has become one of the hallmarks of global warming. But what happens when glaciers disappear from more densely inhabited regions?

Peter

The largest area of permanent ice cover outside of the North and South Poles is under threat. The glaciers of the Hindu Kush Himalaya feed into 10 major river basins that sustain some of the world’s most populous and biologically diverse countries. Some 240 million people directly depend on them for fresh water; 1.9 billion benefit indirectly from their outflows.

But by century’s end, at least one-third – and as much as two-thirds – of the region’s glaciers could be gone, according to a landmark report by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

Loss of glacial mass is likely to feed into and create more glacial lakes, increasing flooding in a region already prone to natural disasters. This has crucial implications for the region’s agriculture and energy security, which depends on hydropower. Amid the troubling signs, however, researchers outlined a path to prosperity: large-scale, transnational investment, combined with closely coordinated local and national actions.

At the global level, nations must adopt transformative climate change policies, the researchers say. Locally, improved transportation and communication access can help alert residents to dangerous conditions and enable them to find safety. Particular attention should be paid to the education and empowerment of women, the report urges, as they already bear the majority of farming and nurturing responsibilities in high-risk mountain areas. Without intervention, climate could exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and gender inequity.

Combined efforts to reduce the effects of climate change and enhance disaster resilience at the community level, the researchers write, will help “enable a prosperous, peaceful, and poverty-free people.” – Clarence Leong

SOURCE: World Bank, ESA, NASA, Kraaijenbrink, P. D. A. et al. (2017). Impact of a global temperature rise of 1.5° Celsius on Asia’s glaciers
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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5. Bring on the ice and snow: Ottawa’s Winterlude celebrates a frozen north

Even as Canadians may debate whether they embrace – or merely endure – the harshest season, the Winterlude festival is one large effort to turn a liability into an asset for fun.  

Peter
Courtesy of Ottawa Tourism
Ottawa’s Rideau Canal Skateway, the largest natural rink in the world, is the heart of Winterlude, now in its 41st year. It’s a festival of ice slides, sledding, ice sculpture competitions, snowboard lessons, and iceboat racing down the canal.

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Once each season, Julie Smyth laces up her ice skates and touches every single part of the largest natural skating rink in the world, tracing the whole of Ottowa’s Rideau Canal Skateway. “It’s amazing to have this,” she says. “You can just go, and go, and go.” In a country that prides itself on its northern stoicism but increasingly finds itself begrudging the climate, the Winterlude festival is an ode to Canadian winter: from sledding and ice sculpture competitions to snowboard lessons and iceboat racing down the canal.

But with reports warning that classic Canadian winter recreation, like outdoor hockey or skating on lakes, will no longer be viable on a warmer planet, planners are also focusing beyond the festival’s centerpiece canal, which is often temporarily closed because of warm spells and rainfall. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of frigid days. “Someone said it is going to be freezing and snowing whether you are happy or not, so you may as well be happy and enjoy it,” says Ms. Smyth. “I think that’s a good motto.”

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Bring on the ice and snow: Ottawa’s Winterlude celebrates a frozen north

The polar vortex that dipped from the Arctic down through North America in January briefly turned the Canadian capital into the world’s coldest, with thermometers reading -24 C (- 11.2 F.). Ottawa has been walloped by blizzards, including one this week that dumped 31 centimeters (12.2 inches) of snow.

Not exactly the stuff of dream escapes. But here at Winterlude, Ottawa attempts to give the most dreaded wintry conditions – mounting snow, bursts of frigid air, even ice – a rethink. In a country that prides itself on its northern stoicism but increasingly finds itself begrudging the climate, the festival is an ode to Canadian winter.

At the heart of Winterlude, in its 41st year, is the Rideau Canal, where visitors partake in the most quintessential of pastimes, ice-skating for 7.8 kilometers (4.8 miles) nonstop, on the largest natural rink in the world. It’s also a festival of ice slides, sledding, ice sculpture competitions, snowboard lessons, and iceboat racing down the canal.

“It’s really an opportunity for people to say, ‘OK, you know what? I need to get out of my house, I need to put on my snow pants, I need to put on my toque, put a smile on my face, and get out there and enjoy it,’ ” says Mélanie Brault, director of capital celebrations at Canadian Heritage, the government department in charge of the festival. (And “toque,” if you were curious, is what Canadians call a winter hat.)

Roughly 600,000 visitors, from near and far, take part in the festival each year.

Julie Smyth, who works in government communications, is lacing down after a round-trip run. Once each season she touches every single part of the Rideau Canal Skateway, tracing the whole area. (She also saves this time of year for her annual BeaverTail, a fried dough pastry in the shape of its name.) “It’s amazing to have this,” she says. “You can just go, and go, and go.”

“Someone said it is going to be freezing and snowing whether you are happy or not, so you may as well be happy and enjoy it,” she adds. “I think that’s a good motto.”

Courtesy of Ottawa Tourism
Ice sculptures in Confederation Park, Ottawa, are a feature of Winterlude, a festival that concludes Feb. 18. This is Canada’s capital city’s 41st celebration of the season. Roughly 600,000 people participate in the indoor and outdoor events.

But this is what some might call selection bias. Josh Freed, who produced a documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called “Life Below Zero,” says Canadians have become reluctant winter revelers at best. He traveled from Russia to Scandinavia and back to Canada and concluded his compatriots have become a bunch of “winter wimps,” he says. “We can tough it out in winter weather in ways I think that would shock and awe most countries. But we don’t embrace it anymore like we once did. We endure it.”

There is certainly some evidence to back up his claim. Just this year, Montreal organizers canceled the “Festival of Snow” one day because of … a snowstorm. “It was embarrassing,” Mr. Freed, a columnist at the Montreal Gazette, says.

Meanwhile Canada’s “snowbird” population is going strong. Federal statistics count about half a million of them wintering in Florida. Canadians make up the largest segment of all international visitors to Florida, at 25 percent.

Perhaps the most telling of all: The brains behind Winterlude, a man named Rhéal Leroux, is a snowbird himself. He has admitted to the local press on several occasions that he, in fact, hates the cold.

Freed places some blame on technology, like the “underground cities,” networks of tunnels that run for miles underneath the urban core of Montreal or Toronto, essentially allowing Canadians to avoid winter. If a century ago men and women dressed in furs for an entire day out, today most people dress only warmly enough to go from their homes to the cars.

And yet technology is behind a reimagining of winter itself. The city of Edmonton is trying to become the “world’s greatest winter city,” as urban planner Simon O’Byrne puts it. He’s the co-chair of Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy, a public-private partnership that has put winter at the top of the municipal agenda since 2012. “When [cities] think about winter, the only real policy they have is ... their snow clearing policy,” he says.

Their ideas include designing wind barriers and expanding opportunities for outdoor sun exposure. The public’s wish list includes “cross-country skiing through the river valley to work” and “hot chocolate carts” on the way home.

The plan involves viewing dark days as an asset too. “At 53 degrees latitude … you can see that darkness as a negative, or you could see that we have a palette of darkness to play with,” Mr. O’Byrne says. “And with that palette of darkness we want to do whimsical fun things with architectural lighting and landscape lighting ... make them really kind of magical, in some ways almost like a dancing aurora borealis.”

It’s ironic that a push for winter comes amid concerns over climate change, with reports warning that classic Canadian winter recreation, like outdoor hockey or skating on lakes, will no longer be viable on a warmer planet. Winterlude’s planners are also focusing beyond the Rideau Canal, which is often temporarily closed because of warm spells and rainfall.

“Because of environmental change that is happening not only in the national capital region but across our country and the world, there are fewer days that the canal is open versus maybe 41 years ago” when the festival began, says Ms. Brault.

In an archival photo of the first Winterlude in 1979, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau is holding his son, current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in his arms. They are attending a horse racing event – down the ice. “I don't know if we would do that anymore,” Brault says with a laugh.

For now, the canal remains the firm foundation of Winterlude. On a recent Thursday afternoon, the entire stretch is open. Sunlight glistens on the ice. As the canal turns a corner and the Skateway ends, the only sound is the swooshing of blades cutting the ice. One can almost imagine horses galloping by. No need for fancy lighting here. Just blades, a warm coat – and, of course, a toque.

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The Monitor's View

How Nigeria may raise the democratic bar

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

When Nigerians go to the polls Feb. 16, they may think they are simply electing a president among dozens of candidates. Not so. With more than 84 million registered voters in Africa’s most populous nation, the election is also the largest exercise of democracy in the history of the continent. Nigeria’s previous election in 2015 was remarkable for bringing about the country’s first democratic transfer of power. This one may have a more subtle distinction.

While the campaign has seen old patterns of personality-based politics and appeals of patronage along ethnic, religious, or geographic divides, the contest has been based on ideas more than in the past. Once-academic topics have become hot campaign issues. Should states be granted more power by Nigeria’s highly centralized government? What kind of economic development would keep terrorist groups like Boko Haram at bay?

Nigeria’s democratic progress may be part of a wider trend. According to a report last month by the Brookings Institution, Africa has experienced more than 27 leadership changes since 2015, reflecting greater demand for accountability and stable democracy. In 34 countries, governance has improved in the past decade.

More than half of Nigerians live in poverty. Yet despite such basic needs, Nigeria keeps raising the democratic bar for the rest of Africa. This election has elevated it to a realm where more voters differ over ideas rather than the kind of tactics that can drain a democracy.

   

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How Nigeria may raise the democratic bar

When voters in Nigeria go to the polls Feb. 16, they may think they are simply electing a president among dozens of candidates. Not so. With more than 84 million registered voters in Africa’s most populous nation, the election is also the largest exercise of democracy in the history of the continent. That means other Africans are likely watching it with an admiring eye.

Nigeria’s previous election in 2015 was remarkable for bringing about the country’s first democratic transfer of power. This one may have a more subtle distinction. While the campaign has seen old patterns of personality-based politics and appeals of patronage along ethnic, religious, or geographic divides, the contest has been based on ideas more than in the past.

In a country that saw a return of democracy only two decades ago, this shows a new maturity. Nigeria has become a digital-savvy nation with a median age of 18. Younger votes are demanding issue-based campaigns that focus on more than immediate benefits to themselves.

“Nigerians are tired of political abuses. What we want to be talking about are issues and track records of people involved in our elections,” Rochas Okorocha, governor of Imo State, told reporters.

Once-academic topics have become hot campaign issues. Should states be granted more power by Nigeria’s highly centralized government? What kind of economic development would keep terrorist groups like Boko Haram at bay? Should government-run refineries be privatized?

One reason for such issue-based politicking is the fact that the two front-runners are so similar in background. President Muhammadu Buhari and his main rival, Atiku Abubakar, are both senior members of the political establishment and come from largely Muslim northern Nigeria. Their major policy difference is over how much control government should have over private business.

It has also helped that the agency in charge of the election, the Independent National Electoral Commission, made this appeal at the start of the campaign: “Political parties are expected to conduct their activities in an organized and peaceful manner, devoid of rancor, hate and/or inflammatory speeches.”

Nigeria’s democratic progress may be part of a wider trend. According to a report last month by the Brookings Institution in Washington, Africa has experienced more than 27 leadership changes since 2015, reflecting greater demand for accountability and stable democracy. In 34 countries that represent 72 percent of Africa’s population, governance has improved in the past decade.

“As citizens get more educated, they are also becoming more vocal and more equipped to hold their elected officials accountable to the needs of the people,” the report found.

More than half of Nigerians live in poverty. In fact, it has the most people living in extreme poverty. Yet despite such basic needs, Nigeria keeps raising the democratic bar for the rest of Africa. This election has elevated it to a realm where more voters differ over ideas rather than the kind of tactics that can drain a democracy.

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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.

Looking up

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  • Read or Listen ( 3 Min. )

Today’s contributor has found that, in the face of difficult circumstances, looking to God – and not dwelling on the problem – makes a big difference in her life.

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Looking up

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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The day was damp and gray as I walked along with my hands shoved in my pockets. I was, well, depressed, and my head was down. All I was aware of were my problems and the trash and dirt filling the gutters.

Suddenly, something inside me very clearly said, “Look up now.” I did, and right in front of me was a huge geranium plant filling the window of a home with neon orange flowers. It was breathtaking. My mood shifted and was considerably lighter. I was certainly glad I’d looked up. 

I learned a good spiritual lesson from this experience. While focusing on my problems pulled me down, looking up gave me inspiration. That dreary day, the inspiration came in the form of a show-stopping flower; but in a bigger sense, I learned that looking up can actually mean lifting our thoughts from the downward pull of negativity and instead looking to God, our ever-present source of all good, for inspiration, uplift, and healing. At this point in my life I started to grow more confident turning to the infinite source of good – God – and this was a turning point for me. Very quickly, I saw improvements in many areas. Some tangled relationships were resolved. I returned to college after dropping out for a year. And my whole outlook on things became much sunnier.

My study of Christian Science has helped me understand more of God’s omnipresence and power. This understanding has allowed me to trust that God’s goodness can be expressed and felt in our lives. If God is all-powerful, doesn’t it stand to reason that looking to Him in difficult times not only comforts but can bring healing? A line from a poem written by the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, has given me guidance and promise in my efforts to look up instead of down. It reads:

“And o’er earth’s troubled, angry sea
I see Christ walk,
And come to me, and tenderly,
Divinely talk.”
(“Poems,” p. 12)

To me this says that Christ, or the divine message from God to humanity, is always present to comfort, inspire, and heal us. The Christ voices the truth of God’s presence. Whatever darkness we seem to experience fades as we understand this message of our loving God. But to experience this enlightening, tender divine message, we have to look up, mentally speaking, and stop dwelling in negative, dark thinking. Otherwise we’ll only perceive “earth’s troubled, angry sea.”

Bearing witness in our prayers to the power of God and His Christ enables us to pierce, at least individually, the darkness of the trying circumstances we face. Such prayer not only brings uplift to our own thought but also shines forth the light of God to bless our fellow man. The Bible says, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5).

Even if the pervasive mood of our times is one of confusion, frustration, and even hopelessness, I’m convinced we can help ourselves and others by persistently “looking up” and fastening our gaze, in prayer, on the goodness and all-power of God. Because God is ever present, each of us can gain this understanding that good is actually present wherever we are. Then we’ll see that this recognition has healing effects.

Sometimes it’s hard to look up when our thoughts feel dragged down by difficult circumstances or negative news. But the promise is there. And it can effect change. Looking up to God is a great habit to cultivate.

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Viewfinder

A bus ticket to the past

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor
An uncertain journey awaits an ethnic Albanian Kosovar refugee after she arrives in Morinë, Albania, from Yugoslavia in 1999. In a quest to document the human narrative, Monitor photographers have witnessed a vast spectrum of events, some large in historical scope, others seemingly mundane. The Time Capsule project allows us to dust off some of those smaller moments, which provide telling views into the past. In this installment we offer you buses.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( February 19th, 2019 )

Thanks for joining us. On Monday, for the holiday formally known as George Washington’s Birthday, in a video Monitor film critic Peter Rainer shares his thoughts on the best presidential movies. They’re sometimes inaccurate or irreverent, he says, but they can be “an invaluable indicator of our national aspirations.”

Monitor Daily Podcast

February 15, 2019
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