Good Reads: Amanda Knox released, Panetta in Israel, and US foreign aid cuts

With Amanda Knox's murder conviction overturned, the world's press can now return to other matters, such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and looming US foreign aid cuts contemplated by Congress.

US student Amanda Knox's smiles at the Leonardo Da Vinci airport in Fiumicino on Tuesday. Amanda Knox, cleared of the murder of British student Meredith Kercher, on Tuesday thanked supporters who believed in her innocence as she prepared to return home to the United States after four years in jail.

Good Reads highlights the best reporting and analysis available on the top international stories of the day – and other key topics you shouldn't miss.

Many of today’s papers lead with the news of American exchange student Amanda Knox's release from prison after an Italian appeals court overturned her conviction for the murder of Meredith Kercher. Of the three people originally convicted of the crime, only Rudy Guede remains in jail, where he is serving 16 years.

Henry Chu of the Los Angeles Times does probably the best job of summing up the controversy surrounding Ms. Knox’s trial-conviction-appeal-freedom, noting that the controversy over Italy’s justice system is just beginning for many Italians.

As Mr. Chu writes, “the acquittals are unlikely to quell public debate, especially among Italians who feel their judicial system has been smeared by the American media and others who accuse the authorities in Perugia of railroading Knox in a staggering miscarriage of justice.”

The New York Times’ Elisabetta Povoledo captures the drama of the moment, with Knox collapsing into her lawyer’s arms after the decision was announced, capable of saying only “thank you.” (It should be noted that the Times put its Knox piece further down on its website, the most prominent space to a fascinating science article on the evolutionary adaptation of slime.

Today’s Christian Science Monitor leads with a piece by diplomatic correspondent Howard LaFranchi about the visit of US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Israel, part of a larger jaunt through the Middle East before he attends a meeting of NATO nations. US relations with Israel – on a military level at least – have never been better, Mr. LaFranchi writes, but on a diplomatic level there is increasing disquiet over President Benjamin Netanyahu’s brinksmanship in handling Israel’s on-again off-again relationship with the Palestinian Authority.

Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, notably told Israel’s leaders that the country was an “ungrateful ally” because of its intransigence on peace talks with the Palestinians, and Panetta’s comments thus far have been no more rosy, saying that Israel risks “isolation” in the region if it continues its current foreign policy stance.

But as The New York Times’s Steven Lee Myers notes, it may be the US itself that risks the loss of influence, as Congress contemplates cutting back on foreign aid budgets in the ongoing budget crisis. Among items on the chopping block are food and medical aid to Africa, disaster relief in Pakistan and Japan, and political assistance in the Middle East.

As Mr. Myers writes,

The financial crunch threatens to undermine a foreign policy described as “smart power” by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one that emphasizes diplomacy and development as a complement to American military power. It also would begin to reverse the increase in foreign aid that President George W. Bush supported after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as part of an effort to combat the roots of extremism and anti-American sentiment, especially in the most troubled countries.

Given the relatively small foreign aid budget — it accounts for 1 percent of federal spending over all — the effect of the cuts could be disproportional.

If the US can no longer afford to wield influence outside its borders, it will have a lot less ability to engage with like Pakistan and Afghanistan, South Africa and Israel, Mexico and Indonesia, where the US has spent billions over the past decade in attempting to strengthen democratic institutions and citizen empowerment.

Consider this piece by Declan Walsh in the Guardian about how Pakistan's blasphemy laws have made that country's judicial system so dysfunctional that even judges now fear for their lives. The US is increasingly unwelcome in Pakistan these days, because of its military involvement, but abandonment of more peaceful and diplomatic engagement would mean that the bitter taste in many Pakistani mouths will be the one that lingers.

With the winds of change sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East, and now as far south as the African nation of Zambia, there is evidence that many of the values that America has spent so much time advocating are actually taking hold. Wouldn’t it be ironic if American foreign policy disengages now, just when its diplomatic engagement could do the most good?

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