With the loss of power for the Danish center-left party of Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the European moderate left is in crisis. Few left-wing governments remain. Left-wing parties, leftist think tanks, and leading politicians all wonder where it went wrong. They might start by asking themselves why they have remained so silent on the one centerpiece of their ideology that sets them apart from the rest: solidarity.
Politics has always been a game of chicken or egg. Do you stick with your convictions, or do you follow whatever direction a majority of the electorate is taking? In the past 20 years, the left and right across Europe have converged on the political center, leading moderate left-wing parties to adopt policies from the moderate right, and vice versa.
A famous example was Tony Blair and his New Labour. With his stance on crime - "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" - Blair sought to bind the strict-father narrative of the right with the nurturing-parent narrative of the left into a single platform. Blair proved to be the epitome of center-ground politics, uniting large swaths of traditional Labour voters with large numbers of traditional Tories. Judging purely by election results, it worked. Blair won three elections in a row.
Yet by the time Blair left office, more and more voters on the left had started to wonder what their Labour government was doing for them. They felt increasingly left out by the state and by society. Whether Blairites agreed with this perception or not is beside the point. Large numbers of Labour voters felt left to their own devices, even with a Labour government in office. For them it became harder and harder to tell the difference between Labour and the Conservative Party.
And so they left Labour. On the other end of the spectrum, Tories who had voted for Blair's version of Labour walked back to the Conservative Party when Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, signaled that he wanted to walk Labour a little back to its traditional leftist positions. Thus when Blair departed, his coalition of voters quickly fell apart. The ideological blandness of Blair's Labour left people yearning for politicians who speak out more pointedly about issues. Those politicians fill the ranks of parties such as the popular United Kingdom Independence Party, which marries a cocktail of Blairite socioeconomic ideology and Tory conservatism with tough nationalism and an outspoken anti-immigration platform.
Throughout all this, in Britain and everywhere else, one (former?) pillar of European progressive politics seems to have been dropped from political messaging: why progressive politicians do what they do; which is solidarity. Solidarity among generations, throughout income brackets, and across education levels. In many places in Europe, increasing numbers of self-identifying progressive voters wonder why they should pay for the welfare benefits of others. They ask this aloud during election campaigns, clearly seeking a satisfactory answer, but it appears that progressive politicians have either forgotten the answer themselves, or they dare not reply, because they are afraid voters may not like the answer.
Either way, if Europe's moderate left wants to regain its standing, it had better start talking about solidarity again, and about why and how solidarity in the long term benefits all. It is the one thing that sets those parties apart from the rest.
Last week's commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo brought to mind a satirical poem, The Expiation, written by Victor Hugo about the decline of Napoleon Bonaparte's glory. The poem kicks off with a reference to the French emperor's first major military reversal: the fiasco of his Russian campaign in 1812. Aware that the retreat would severely hobble his ambitions to rule the European continent, Napoleon in the poem wonders whether the setback was inflicted by a divine force in retribution for some of his wrongdoings. He asks the God of armies: "Is this my punishment?" A mysterious voice replies, "No."
Cue the Waterloo rout. Napoleon asks once again the same question, and again hears the same voice telling him, "No".
After Waterloo, the dethroned emperor suffered the humiliation of exile at Saint Helena, a British territory where he counted the last of his days guarded by the troops of his archenemy, England. This time Napoleon is left with no doubt, and he apostrophizes Providence: "Oh Lord, to whom I beg, this is my punishment!" The enigmatic voice replied in no less emphatic a tone: "Not yet!"
In Victor Hugo's poem, the real punishment came after Napoleon's death. It consisted in leaving as his political heir a figure lacking brilliance and charisma, namely his nephew, Napoleon III, who established the so-called Second Empire in 1852 by means of a coup d'état.
Hugo famously utilized his rhetorical skills to overemphasize Napoleon III's deficiencies. All the same, The Expiation turned out to be a premonitory poem: Two decades after it was written, Napoleon III led France to a major defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870), which irreversibly wiped Bonapartism off the European geopolitical chessboard.
Ghosts of Hugo in Latin America
More than a century later, a similar chain of setbacks has been at work in the so-called Cuban Revolution, which has held power since 1959.
The disintegration of the Soviet bloc was to the Castro regime something very similar to what the Russian campaign's failure meant for Napoleon. It brought an end to the assistance the Soviet Union extended to Cuba's dysfunctional economy and, no less important, it shattered the myth of the superiority of socialism over capitalism - a quintessential dogma of the Revolution. In the same way, the outcome of the Russian campaign represented the fall of the myth of Napoleon's invincibility.
The end of Soviet aid forced the Cuban regime to impose draconian economic restrictions on the population during what was called the Special Period (the last decade of the 20th century). That period had a point in common with Napoleon's exile in the island of Elba: In both cases, the prospects of regime survival were near to nil.
And yet, in the same way Napoleon managed to return to power during the so-called Hundred Days government after his exile on Elba, so the Castro regime has managed to survive - and for a much longer period - thanks to the transfusion of $5 million to $15 billion per year from Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. Aid and investment from Venezuela contribute an estimated 22 percent of Cuba's gross domestic product.
The problem is that Chavez's so-called 21st Century socialism has wrought havoc on Venezuela's economy. Not even that country's huge reserves of oil - the biggest in the world - can sooth Venezuela's economic despair.
The Castro brothers know the assistance coming from Caracas is bound to vanish; indeed, it is thinning already. And with no new benefactor on the horizon, the Cuban regime has had no other choice than to bet on the development of commercial, financial, and technological ties with the United States.
The Castro regime and like-minded Latin American allies have tried to frame the thaw in Cuba's diplomatic relations with Washington as a major success of the Revolution. But the resumption and development of economic ties with the United States may instead prove to be the Castro brothers' Waterloo. Indeed, here you have a regime whose raison d'être was to do away with capitalism, but it is now obliged to tie its fate to the capitalist economy par excellence - its own archenemy.
The bet is risky. As economic links with the United States grow, it will be difficult for Cuba's ruling class to limit those ties without jeopardizing their country's fragile economy. This foreseeable dependence on the U.S. economy will, in turn, give future U.S. governments a powerful tool to push for concrete and meaningful progress in regards to the respect of human rights and free enterprise in Cuba - concessions that could sound the death knell for the island's repressive political order. Just as Napoleon Bonaparte spent his last days under the watch of enemy troops in Saint Helena, so the Castro brothers will live out their last years fighting the encroachment of political and economic liberalization in Cuba.
Today's tropical socialism has, too, its Napoleon III. His name is Nicolas Maduro, the current president of Venezuela who to a significant extent is a creation of the Castro regime. Not only was Maduro trained in the Cuban schools of agitprop, he was also anointed president of Venezuela - with the lobbying of the Castro brothers - by a moribund Hugo Chavez with waning intellectual faculties who was receiving medical treatment in Cuba.
The role of the Cuban regime in bringing Maduro to power crystallizes the economic ineptitude of the Castro brothers.
In 1959, the regime inherited Latin America's third economy by measure of per capita GDP. They wrecked it in a few years by putting in place a socialist model that had succeeded nowhere in the world. When Hugo Chavez assumed power in Venezuela in 1999, they acquired a decisive influence over that country. They allowed and probably encouraged the Venezuelan leader to repeat the same mistakes that had stifled the Cuban economy.
Finally, when given the opportunity to make amends and advise a moribund Chavez to appoint a successor with a minimum ability to run a country's economy, they advocated instead for their own pawn, Maduro, a man visibly mesmerized by the Cuban Revolution but demonstrably lacking the skills needed to form a coherent economic policy (as even prominent Chavistas have begun openly to acknowledge).
Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821 - well before his political legacy was squandered by his nephew, Napoleon III. The Castro brothers have not been so lucky: They have lived long enough to witness the irreparable damage caused by their pupil, Nicolas Maduro, to whatever remained of popular sympathy for Latin American socialism. This, more than any other setback or defeat, is the worst punishment that destiny will have inflicted on the brothers who have tyrannically ruled Cuba for over half a century.
Let there be no more doubt about how badly Russia is still smarting from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990-1991. Anyone still questioning the power of Russian grievance need only take heed of the Russian Prosecutor General's Office, which is currently reviewing the legality of the 1991 decision by the USSR State Council to recognize the independence of the Baltic republics - Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia - and their exit from the Soviet Union.
The pro-Putin United Russia party, which dominates the State Duma (Russia's parliament) as much as it controls Russian political discourse, submitted the inquiry to the country's main supervisory authority. According to United Russia lawmakers, the Soviet State Council was an unconstitutional body at that time, so its recognition of Baltic independence should have no legal value. The State Council, a Soviet ruling body created in the chaos of 1991, officially recognized the independence of three Baltic states in September that year - a decision many Russians regard today as leading to the irreversible breakup of the Soviet Union.
According to Interfax, a Russian news agency, a source familiar with the situation said the prosecutor's answer to the deputies most likely "will be the same as a recent analogous request about Crimea. Legally, the decision to recognize the independence of the Baltic States is defective due to the fact that it was taken by an unconstitutional body." On June 27, the Prosecutor General's Office deemed illegal the decision to transfer Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. Moscow already offered the same claim as legal justification for its annexation of the region in 2014. In February 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, then-first secretary of the Communist Party, officially transferred the Crimean peninsula to the administration of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Khrushchev's motivations included gaining the political support of Ukrainian communists in the power struggle for the country's top leadership post - a post that he received in 1957.
While Moscow may regard Crimea's recent forced return to Russia as a fait accompli, many questions remain about prosecutor general's eventual decision on the Baltics. Today, Baltic states are part of NATO and the European Union, and attempting to exercise any kind of "punishment" against them, or shifting the dialogue in favor of their eventual return to direct Russian influence, would entail moves fraught with consequences. Even if today NATO appears weak and indecisive in the face of Russian actions in Eastern Ukraine, any aggressive maneuver against Baltic nations would cross a red line. While we are likely seeing mere political posturing meant to satisfy domestic audiences, this latest step is alarming, given the enormous economic and military disparity between Russia and her small Baltic neighbors.
Any legal justification for Russian moves against the Baltics is also tenuous at best, since the entity that granted the Baltics their exit - the Soviet Union - ceased to exist in 1991. Russia's assumption now of the legal mantle of a vanished state raises questions about other former Soviet republics that departed the Union that year - will their independence also be legally questioned down the line?
An election campaign largely focused on immigration helped take down the Danish left, leaving Denmark's leading anti-immigration party as a big winner. A block of right-wing parties is now expected to form a new government. The campaign should serve as a warning to parties in other European countries where anti-immigration movements are thriving.
"Never let your opponent pick the battleground on which to fight. If he picks a battleground, let him fight there by himself." So spoke Franklin D. Roosevelt, four-time U.S. president and political animal extraordinaire. This wise lesson went unheeded over the three weeks of the hard-fought Danish election campaign. The staunchly anti-immigration Danske Folkeparti (Danish People's Party, or DPP) has for years been a kingmaker in Danish politics. The DPP routinely came in as the third or fourth party on the right and supported right-wing coalitions while never joining the government itself.
Left-wing parties usually succeeded in making the economy, education, or the environment the centerpiece of election campaigns. However, this time the Social Democrats - the biggest party on the left, headed by now-former Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt - decided to help push immigration into the spotlight. This was a gift to the DPP.
Thus Thorning-Schmidt committed the cardinal error; she fought on the battleground picked by the Danish People's Party. Other parties joined in, with the expected results: Nearly all parties on the Danish right lost seats to the DPP, allowing it to score a record win. The DPP secured the second-largest allotment of seats in the Folketing, the Danish parliament.
The election campaign followed a classic path. Whenever moderate right-wing parties proffered new, stricter anti-immigration measures to lure voters away from the DPP, the party simply moved to the right, thus leaving its competitors looking soft on immigration. The DPP not only picked off voters from its direct competitors on the right - its more extreme positions also enthused normally apathetic voters, who turned out and voted DPP.
The election campaign should serve as a warning to moderate parties throughout Europe who are faced with the rise of anti-immigration movements. Only rarely do moderate parties succeed in wrestling the immigration issue away from more extremist competitors without turning extremist themselves. In the Netherlands - a country highly comparable to Denmark in its political makeup - the right-wing Liberal Party (VVD), does constant battle with Geert Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) over immigration. Thus far the VVD has succeeded in keeping the PVV at bay by making elections revolve around issues like the economy, crime, and security. In other words, the VVD has so far been able to pick the battleground, forcing the PVV to fight there and lose.
In many other Western European nations (France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Norway, and most recently Germany), moderate parties are increasingly faced with popular anti-immigration parties.
The challenge to the moderate parties is to mitigate immigration through smart policies, and continue to choose the battleground on which the election is fought, regardless of what the focus groups advise. That is the lesson of the Danish election campaign for the rest of Europe.
It's the middle of 2015, and contenders for the French presidency are already gearing up for the 2017 elections. The center-left and center-right both seem to be banking on strategies that could leave France with the worst of all worlds.
The upcoming French presidential election will likely revolve around three candidates: current Socialist president Francois Hollande, center-right challenger Nicolas Sarkozy, and surefire Front National candidate Marine Le Pen.
Of the three, Hollande is faring worst in the polls. In fact, by the current numbers he may well be the most unpopular president France has ever had. The current prime minister, Socialist Manuel Valls, is doing better in the polls than his political boss, but voters on the left don't yet trust Valls, a reform-minded firebrand.
On the center-right, former president Nicolas Sarkozy is seeking to avenge his loss to Hollande. By rebranding his political UMP party, now christened Les Republicains (The Republicans), he also hopes to neutralize voter angst about him.
For now, Sarkozy's efforts are failing. At just the moment he hoped to begin a phoenix-like rise to renewed political prominence, graft affairs implicating the former president popped up in the press. Alain Juppé, a former prime minister, is doing better in the polls than is Sarkozy, who is the party leader.
The most unencumbered candidate at the moment appears to be Marine Le Pen. Le Pen expelled her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, from the party he founded after he refused to disavow repeated racist remarks about the Holocaust. With her father's forced departure, Marine Le Pen hopes that she will have once and for all dispelled any lingering doubts about her revamped, non-racist Front National.
Le Pen is banking on the weakness of Hollande to beat him in the first round of voting. That would lead to a rerun of 2002, when her father beat Socialist Lionel Jospin in the first round. He was then trounced by Jacques Chirac after leftist voters held their noses and voted for Chirac to keep the elder Le Pen out. In 2002, the Front National still occupied the extreme right, with its leader calling the gassing of the Jews in World War II "just a detail."
That made the Front National toxic - too toxic for even strongly conservative voters to vote for the party. Marine Le Pen wants a rematch of 2002, and if she gets it, she hopes to be at the helm of a party that won't scare voters as much as her father did.
Still, Le Pen's platform is strongly anti-immigration, staunchly nationalist, and hyperchauvinist. She wants France to leave the European Union, close its borders and return to the glorious days of French tax-and-spend étatism, while supporting Vladimir Putin. She's succeeding; these days more center-right voters find the Front National an acceptable alternative.
Back in 2002, Chirac (Sarkozy's political predecessor) wasn't very popular among leftist voters either, but at least he wasn't as toxic as Jean-Marie Le Pen. Nicolas Sarkozy, however, embodies everything that many center-left Francais despise. It is highly doubtful that such voters would turn out to support Sarkozy in a run-off with a Le Pen, as they did in 2002.
Marine Le Pen's best chance at taking the presidency is with Hollande and Sarkozy running as the official candidates for their parties. If around this time next year - one year before the elections - the polls look as bad for those leaders as they look today, they may have to consider stepping back and letting others carry the banner. Otherwise, France may actually wake up to a Front National president.
The first warning is that the government of the Castro brothers' 2015 vision of the United States is exactly the same as it was when the guerrillas came to power in January 1959.
To them, Cuba's huge and powerful neighbor, with its purported predatory economic practices, is at the root of mankind's basic problems.
The second warning, an offshoot of the first, is that that regime, wholly consistent with its beliefs, will continue to try to effect harm on the United States in each instance that presents itself.
In a former age, the Castro regime placed itself under the Soviet umbrella. In the post-Soviet era, it built the foundation for the São Paulo Forum and later for the circuit known as 21st Century Socialism, which extended to the countries of the so-called ALBA. Today, it allies itself firmly with Iran and is lining up with the Sino-Russian side in the gestating and dangerous New Cold War. Anti-Americanism is a moral crusade the Castros will never renounce.
The third warning is that the Cuban dictatorship has not the slightest intention to begin a process of liberalization that might allow political pluralism or make way for increased freedoms as these are understood among the world's most developed nations.
Opposition democrats are tolerated so long as their movements and communications can be regulated and watched by the political police.
The regime perfectly manages the techniques of social control. Aside from using the conventional police to keep the opposition in check, it has at least 60,000 counterintelligence officers under the Interior Ministry, and tens of thousands of collaborators. To them, repression is not a dark and shameful behavior but a constant and patriotic task.
The fourth warning is that the economic system being put in place by Raul Castro has not been conceived to nurture a civil society, a society that someday will magically overthrow the dictatorship. Instead, it is a model of Military Capitalism of State, built around the backbone of the Army and the Ministry of the Interior, institutions that control most of the country's productive apparatus.
Within that scheme, as can be surmised from the words of official economist Juan Triana Cordovi, the State (in reality, the military sector) reserves for itself the management and exploitation of the country's 2,500 medium and large businesses, leaving to the self-employed entrepreneurs a large number of small activities that it does not care to sustain.
Contrary to the thinking in Washington and among the non-governmental Cuban sectors that support those economic reforms, Raul Castro and his advisers assume, correctly, that the self-employed entrepreneurs will be a source of stability for the Military Capitalism of State, not because of ideological affinity but because they do not want to lose the small privileges and advantages they gain.
The fifth warning is that the Castro brothers' regime is not at all interested in propitiating the enrichment of foreign businessmen. They despise the capitalists' zest for profit, which they find repugnant, although they themselves practice it discreetly.
Investments from abroad will be welcome only if they help strengthen the Military Capitalism of State that the Castros are forging. To the Cuban government, those investments are a necessary evil, like someone amputating his own arm to save his life.
If anybody thinks that that regime will permit the emergence and growth of an independent entrepreneurial fabric, it is because he has not taken the trouble to study the writings and speeches of the officials of the regime or even to examine their behavior.
Real estate investor and renowned millionaire Stephen Ross was absolutely right when, after returning from a trip to Cuba, he declared that he had not seen on the island the tiniest serious opportunity to do business. There is none, except in those activities that provide a clear profit for the government or those that are absolutely indispensable for the survival of the regime.
It is obvious that the Castros' priority is to cling to power, and not to develop a vigorous entrepreneurial fabric that will bring Cubans out of misery. To explain their shortfalls, they resort to the alibi of revolutionary austerity and criticism of consumerism (the attraction to "junk") as a heroic and selfless form of confronting poverty.
The sixth warning is that, in the face of this depressing picture of abuse and insistence on the usual blunders, Washington's rejection of containment, and its substitution with engagement (accompanied by an abandonment of the objective of trying to promote regime change, as Obama announced in Panama) is a dangerous and irresponsible oversight that will harm the United States, encourage its enemies, dishearten its allies and harm the Cuban people, who desire freedoms, real democracy, and an end to their misery.
What is the sense of the United States -- and the Catholic Church -- helping strengthen a Military Capitalism of State, a foe of freedoms, including economic freedom, a violator of human rights? The regime perpetuates a collectivist dictatorship that has destroyed Cuba, and today contributes to destroying Venezuela, because it is incapable of anything other than what it has done for 56 years.
The seventh warning is that the democratic opposition has never been more fragile and less protected than today, despite the impressive number of dissidents and the heroism they display. It has never been more alone.
Why would anyone take that opposition into account when the United States has renounced regime change and is willing to accept the Cuban dictatorship without demanding anything in exchange?
The United States has stopped telling Havana in a clear voice that true change begins when the top level of the dictatorship accepts dialogue with the opposition, and admit that societies are pluralistic and harbor differing points of view.
What argument can be wielded now by the silent and always cowed reformists in the regime to ask -- sotto voce -- for political and economic changes from the Castros' government, when nobody else demands them?
In sum, Obama has made a serious mistake by abandoning the policy followed by the 10 presidents, Democratic and Republican, who preceded him to the White House.
Nobody can state by decree that his enemy has suddenly turned into his friend and has begun to think along one's lines. That's childish.
This is not a question of criticizing Obama for having ventured to try a new policy. The problem is that it is a bad policy.
Ignore reality, and the price you eventually pay will be high. What is sad is that we Cubans will pay that price.
Several key Russian foreign policy experts and commentators have recently voiced some very interesting opinions about the future of Russia and its place in the world.
Yulia Latinina of Novaya Gazeta, one of the country's few remaining independent media outlets, analyzed the impact of American inventor Elon Musk's inventions on the global economy, and on Russia in particular. She specifically singled out Musk's recently unveiled solar battery:
"First, car exhaust is really poisonous of the environment," she wrote. "Second, his battery ensures that the house can be truly autonomous - after the invention of electricity, the house seized being an independent entity throughout the world. And third, this battery will change the world as much as shale gas could, and much more than the results of any election and any revolution."
Latinina feels that Musk's breakthrough - along with other creations such as the hyperloop - will shift power away from presidencies and official heads of state, and move us toward a world where entrepreneurs have bigger sway and greater influence on international affairs. She is clearly impressed with the influence America's top high-tech companies have, both at home and around the world. While she may overstate that influence, she importantly laments the absence of like initiatives in Russia, where major inventors and entrepreneurs must toe the government line:
"President Putin is seriously waiting for the United States to finally come to its senses and to sit down to negotiate with him, as with Joseph Stalin at Yalta in 1945 and divide the world into spheres of influence ... The problem is that the ‘zone of influence' of the United States in the modern world is not established by Barack Obama, but by Sergey Brin, Elon Musk, and Steve Jobs. But since Putin's policy is not to allow a Musk or a Jobs in Russia - since every independent entrepreneur is a potential threat to the authorities - the underlying principle for such negations practically does not exit."
Striking a much darker tone, Russian political scientist Andrei Pointkovsky is convinced that a major war in the Middle East is made inevitable by Russia's promise to deliver its S-300 missile system to Iran. Pointkovsky noted that in such a scenario, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be able to solve all of his "Russian World" projects. Not only will Ukraine decline as a priority for the Americans and Europeans, but the Baltics and the Caucasus may also be threatened.
"Putin checkmated Obama's so-called military option with the S-300 delivery to Tehran. The S-300 is a masterpiece - the pinnacle of Soviet military technology - and it will be placed around key Iranian nuclear infrastructure, cancelling Israeli capabilities (to strike nuclear reactors). The United States will retain some striking capacity - the Russian system cannot help against stealth bombers - but everything else will be much more difficult and dangerous, and Obama will never politically commit to such a course of action." Pointkovsky emphasized that Obama counts on Israel to do all of the dirty work in any scenario involving a military strike. Once the S-300 is in place, Israel will no longer have this opportunity.
"It took Putin 10 years to get to this point, including his policies of not allowing tough sanctions that could halt Iran's nuclear program. Putin's strategy has been to ensure that such actions would sooner or later provoke an Israeli attack," he wrote.
Pointkovsky is also convinced that the broader Arab Sunni world will give Israel cart-blanche to push back against Iranian Shia influence: "I think a mega war in the Middle East is inevitable ... this is eagerly anticipated in Moscow - imagine the price of oil when this unfolds."
Across Russia, the media is celebrating the one-year anniversary of declarations of independence by two separatist entities in Ukraine - the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics - and the start of war against Kiev. According to the Russian military's official online magazine, Krasnaya Zvezda, or RedStar, "due to Kiev's termination of funding and support for (Donetsk) state institutions, its curtailment of banking activities, and its failure to fulfill social obligations... people's republics set up their own management structures and social security agencies."
Russian authorities and the media are highlighting their view that the war in Donetsk had nothing to do with Moscow, but was a reaction to events in Kiev in early 2014: "This armed struggle was not the choice of Donbas residents," the journal insisted, using the name given to the regions of Southeastern Ukraine, "they were forced to confront the military actions of Ukrainian politicians who seized power in Kiev as a result of the February 2014 revolution.
"Today, Donetsk and Luhansk continue to insist on a peaceful settlement of the conflict within the framework of the Minsk Agreement (between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France). Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the DNR's government, said that he will utilize every opportunity to resolve the conflict peacefully in the Donbas region."
Red Star also quoted the head of the Luhansk government as seeking peace, but on the separatists' own terms: "Luhansk... is hoping to preserve its autonomy, but within the borders of the 'other Ukraine,' provided the full range of agreements is carried out, including changes to the (Ukrainian) constitution and support for a decentralization of power."
On the other hand, a separatist official promised a new round of fighting if the separatists don't get what they want.
Much to Kiev's frustration, it appears that senior-level international leaders also support broad autonomy for the breakaway regions. According to former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, decentralization and the creation of autonomous regions within Ukraine will help resolve the conflict in the east. "Within the boundaries of Ukraine, there are people with different histories...There is serious tension between them, particularly between the people in the east, the population in central Ukraine, and residents of Polish descent in the west. In this case, the solution is already known - broad decentralization, where the central government does not interfere in all the details of life in the country," he told the Russia-24 TV channel.
D'Estaing pointed to the relations between Scotland and the United Kingdom, and between Catalonia and Spain, as providing the model to follow. "In Scotland, there is a prime minister, as well as a separate budget and tax policy. That is the model you want to apply in Ukraine, and not try to have one side beat the other. If you do this, the Europeans will be quite happy." D'Estaing made these comments after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sounding a note of dark humor, residents of Odessa, a port city in southern Ukraine and the site of recent tensions between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian elements, hung red neckties all over their town as a response to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's appointment of former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili as governor of the Odessa region. Saakashvili was the leader of the bloodless 2003 Rose Revolution that swept away pro-Russian leadership in Georgia and brought a pro-Western government to power. The neckties are a reference to the infamous video of Saakashvili nervously chewing on his tie during Georgia's 2008 conflict with Russia.
While Russian troops are again massing at the Ukrainian border, and the first reports of renewed fighting are heard, Russian President Vladimir Putin is cracking down hard on the free flow of information in his republic. What is Putin preparing for? And what can be done to break the hold he imposes on his people?
It is hardly surprising that Putin would fear his own, in a nation that has seen more than its fair share of revolutions and uprisings. Putin was around when the governments of Warsaw Pact countries were toppled by their own people. More recently, he witnessed the revolutions of the Arab Spring - however shortlived they may have been. Putin saw firsthand how easily information, when freely spread, can rile a population. And while Russians may support his aggressive stance against Western interference in Russian affairs, the past months have shown that Russians don't like news reports about dead Russian soldiers.
Reports show that Putin is gearing up for something. He has made it illegal for anyone to report on deceased Russian soldiers in peacetime, and he has organized mobile crematoriums in a bid to prevent burials of the corpses of Russian soldiers. The first law basically forbids mothers from talking about their dead sons, while the crematoriums keep parents from paying their last respects to their sons. No body, no crime. As has so often been the case in Russian history, Russia's sons are seen by their ruler as expendable pawns.
Despite his best efforts to quell reports about dead Russians in Ukraine, news stories about burials, the discovery of graves evidently containing Russian soldiers, and mothers grieving their sons' deaths, have been finding their way to Russian society thanks to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and various blogs. Consequently, after earlier obliging bloggers to only post stories under their real names and to register with the authorities, Putin has threatened to block said social media services if they don't comply with his strict rules on information.
So Putin shows the world what he fears most. The next question is how to play on that fear. Instead of simply accepting that there's nothing that can be done, Putin's adversaries should actively direct Russian people to Russian stories about fallen Russian soldiers. Russians should be informed about ways to circumvent censorship and blocking, using free tunneling software such as Psiphon, which is also available for Android phones.
This approach requires the United States and its European allies to put some serious muscle into information warfare. The piecemeal approach used so far of handing out some money here and there is not helping the Russian people. And right now help is what they deserve - especially as events at the Russian-Ukrainian border point to a very blood summer.
It is very painful to watch the images coming from Iraq and Syria. It has often been said that our history began in the Sumerian city of Ur, about 5,000 years Before Christ. There is a continuous cultural line that runs from that remote Mesopotamian city to New York, Paris, or Montevideo. And thus the new jihad unleashed by the Islamic State affects all of us. The caliphate being forged in blood and fire, in the regions joining Iraq to Syria, not only revels in the slaughter of Shiites, Christians, and Yazidis, but also in the destruction of what remains of a splendid pagan past.
Many of these predatory Islamists are young men raised in the West. Why do they do it?
What is the sense of pulverizing with hammer blows a centuries-old winged man-bull, or a majestic Assyrian lamassu belonging to a religion whose origins are whispers long lost to the past?
Certainty is to blame. The violent fanaticism of the jihadists comes from their absolute conviction that they know who the true God is and have no doubt that they are faithfully executing the orders conveyed to them by their sacred book, the Quran.
If we are to believe the Bible, when Moses descends from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments imparted to him by Yahweh, he knows that the fifth of those precepts is "thou shalt not kill." Yet the anger provoked in him by the sight of the Israelites worshiping a golden calf forged by his brother Aaron leads him to order the execution of 3,000 people. Moses was certain that this act was the will of God.
Constantine, who in 313 issued in Milan the Edict of Toleration, cowardly retracted it in 354 and ordered the destruction of hundreds of pagan libraries and temples. The calcinated rocks gave origin to limestone factories. Five years later, the Christians in Syria, then an illustrious corner of the small Hellenic world, preceded the Nazis by 1,700 years when they organized the first extermination camps for pagans and Jews, in the city of Skythopolis.
Since then, and for centuries, the Jews have been the target of persecution. Pope after Pope, region after region persecuted them, crushed them and expelled them. The Germans, English, Italians, Polish, Russians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Christians, and Muslims all did it. Everyone who could do it, did it, generally in the name of some true God.
Unquestionably, killing enemies of the true God has been a universal and widely practiced sport. In the Middle Ages, Pope Innocent III unleashed the genocide of the heretical Albigenses, also known as Cathars. Tens of thousands were executed. When he was cautioned that he was murdering the just and the wicked, he answered that it did not matter. God would sort them out and send the former to heaven and the latter to hell. That was just the preamble to the terrible religious wars that devastated Europe during the Renaissance and the Reformation, exterminating literally millions of people.
At the same time, in the Americas, while building cities and universities, the priests and the conquistadors massacred Indians, burned codices and destroyed temples or turned them into churches, to destroy forever any vestige of pagan beliefs that they considered demonic because some of them practiced human sacrifice.
Might it be less dangerous to be an atheist? Not at all. The Marxist-Leninists, convinced that "religion is the opium of the people" (a phrase from Karl Marx), persecuted Christians in Russia and Europe, while the Chinese and Cambodians have added Buddhists to the list of victims.
In atheist states, thousands of temples have been destroyed, or confiscated and put to other use. Albania's Enver Hoxha turned the negation of God's existence into a national dogma and even created a Museum of Atheism in which students learned to hate believers. Mosques and churches alike became lay buildings.
In Cuba, more than 200 Catholic and Protestant schools were expropriated, and dozens of priests had to seek exile. To rub salt on the wound, the most pitiless and sinister detention center of the Communist political police is "Villa Marista," a former Catholic school. In the words of a former prisoner who lost his teeth, hair, and religious faith in that prison: "They used to save your soul there. Now they crush it."
Let's admit it: only uncertainty makes us flexible and accepting. Whoever does not doubt is a very dangerous being. He can kill with a steady hand. Just like the jihadists.
Russia and China recently have signed and executed a number of large-scale economic and military agreements - enough to make Russia's own so-called pivot to Asia, and toward the dynamic Chinese economy, seem a success. Multi-billion dollar oil-and-gas agreements and recently concluded Sino-Russian naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea point to strengthening relations between these major Eurasian powers. For Russia, the growing relationship presents many challenges. Foremost among these for the Kremlin is to ensure that such a relationship is balanced, and does not make of Moscow a junior partner to Beijing just as Russia seeks to re-establish its global prominence.
China's vast geopolitical and economic potential certainly entices Moscow - but Russian leaders have to worry that China will seek to use Russia as a means to its own imperial ends. Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda recently interviewed Professor Alexei Maslov, head of the School of Oriental Studies of the National Research University - Russian Higher School of Economics, to put a measure on Russia's tightening embrace with China.
Referring to the Russian agreement to deliver natural gas via pipeline to China for the next several decades, Maslov said "it will cost nearly 1 trillion rubles to build (the pipeline) - but this is a government strategy and we are laying the foundation for an energy relationship for the next 30 years. However, we are not replacing our European deliveries - this project simply augments our existing energy posture."
When KP inquired about the ever-sensitive topic of whether Russia could become a rentier state under China's inevitable economic dominance, Maslov said that in order to change the current economic reality wherein Russia delivers the natural supplies that fuel Chinese consumer technology, "it is necessary to attract Chinese investments in our country, to establish joint ventures. The Russian Direct Investment Fund, for example, has recently transferred to China a number of priority investment projects in which China could invest...such as the construction of strategically important factories, development of land, and raw materials deposits. We are already allowing Beijing to become deeply involved in our economy, and Chinese investments in these areas should be around $20 billion. But so far, Chinese investment during the years of our bilateral cooperation amounts to less than $5 billion. We need a breakthrough."
Can Russia diversify its economy?
When asked to clarify how Russia can change its current economic pattern and emerge with a stronger and more diversified development model, Maslov confirmed the existence of several regional development projects where "China will use its own technology and investments, but 80 percent of products for the construction will be manufactured in Russia. That way, we will get the necessary technology for industrial development - in fact, Russia has finally started doing what China did in the 1980s" to attract foreign investment and spur economic growth. When KP implied that China's recent New Silk Road Initiative could rescue Russia from its current economic crisis, Malsov was dismissive:
"China will only solve its own problems - and we need to look where our interests intersect. For example, this Silk Road is the creation of a huge space that profits China on the territory of many countries. It will include financial cooperation, as well as infrastructure and political integration... and China is willing to fund this gigantic infrastructure to facilitate their access to foreign markets. Our nation is a key component of the initiative, but until recently it competed with Russia's own leadership of the Eurasian Economic Union. This May, we finally were able to create a formula for coordination of these projects. But this Silk Road is not just about the infrastructure - it is a model of a new world order that China offers to all countries."
The Chinese model or the American model?
Maslov said the Chinese model resembles American economic dominance at its height, with the key difference that China will not use it as a vehicle to spread its model of "Confucian socialism" or impose its own ideology. "Soon we may have a situation where China will dictate oil and commodity prices without actually mining for these resources on its own territory. But they want more - and Russia is included in this model to achieve Beijing's goals. Now we need to understand what we ourselves want from China and how to get there," he said.
Lack of academic (and broader) understanding of China as a state is cited as a major gap in Russia's perception of its rapidly developing neighbor. According to Maslov, following the Cold War, Russia was "unprepared for the rapprochement with China. We have very few really knowledgeable specialists on East Asia. Our companies have rushed to China for loans, investments, without realizing that these are not the Europeans, with whom we have a similar way of thinking. There's a totally different business culture and mentality in China." He lamented the fact that the U.S. government, unlike Russia, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1990s on China-centric think tanks, and in the training of specialists.
Maslov dismissed the oft-cited concern that China will absorb Russia economically and might even physically conquer entire regions such as the Russian Far East. But he cautioned that Russia needs to develop its own economy to prevent such a scenario: "We already have several regions that, in essence, only work with China. That is why it is important to build a gas pipeline to China - our social and economic development will follow this project and revitalize the country. If we don't do that, some Russian territories may really go to China - but not through physical capture."
Maslov advocates for closer Russian engagement with China's neighbors - countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. In how own words, in order to prevent Russia and Europe from "losing voice in the coming Sino-American bipolar world order, Russia needs to have closer relations with Europe. We need both East and West."
I will never forget my first trip to Germany.
My father-in-law was at the wheel as we drove across the Polish border into the German state of Brandenburg. The countryside highway was immaculate: Free of potholes and lined with trees for as far as the eye could see. It was crystal clear from the scenery alone that we had entered a very different land.
As we made our way into the nation's capital, I saw two things that shocked me, but for entirely different reasons. The first was a bumpersticker advertising a website called dildoking.de. "Huh, dildoking, that's an interesting German word," I thought to myself. Then, it slowly dawned upon me that it wasn't a German word at all. It was English. And it was two words, not one: Dildo King. Trust me, don't visit that website.
The second shocking thing I saw was a man wearing a shirt that said, "American Military Tour," and it listed many of the cities that U.S. forces had bombed over the past several years. It was not meant to be a compliment.
As it turns out, anti-American sentiment is on the rise in Germany. The Economist recently noted that "anti-Americanism has always been endemic in Germany," mainly on the ex-communist Left. But now, it has become more mainstream. The euroskeptic Alternative für Deutschland party, which has made international headlines for its opposition to the EU and Muslim immigration, is also anti-American.
Anti-Americanism in Germany has become such a problem that it appears to be affecting policy at the highest levels. Many Germans oppose the U.S.-EU free trade deal known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) largely because of anti-Americanism. As the WSJ reports, the same irrational thinking applies to the war in Ukraine, a conflict that is clearly an act of aggression committed by Russia. Despite this, Germans are reluctant to side with Uncle Sam in supporting Ukraine.
Polling has shown a calamitous drop in support for America in Germany. A recent high point, achieved in 2009, was in reaction to the election of Barack Obama. Then, more than 75% of Germans saw America as a trusted partner; today, that number has been cut roughly in half. (A Pew poll on U.S. favorability shows a similar drop, but not nearly as large; the favorability rating dropped from 64% in 2009 to 51% in 2014.) The NSA spying scandal, in which it was revealed that Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone had been tapped, is largely to blame.
German outrage over the incident has now manifested in blatantly anti-American public art displays. In Alexanderplatz, one of my favorite destinations in Berlin, members of the Green Party recently erected statues of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and borderline traitors Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Many Germans find their harmful acts praiseworthy.
From these events, there are two points worth making. First, Germany is so repulsed and guilt-stricken by its Nazi (and then Stasi) past, that it has completely lost its appetite for strong action by either military or national security forces. Thus, the country shies away from taking moral stands on even black-and-white issues, such as the war in Ukraine. And because the U.S. remains the world's only superpower, German angst is directed at us.
Second, then-Senator Barack Obama's campaigning in Berlin, in retrospect, seems rather pointless. Not only do Germans still distrust America, but they provided no electoral votes. Trying to please Europeans, and Germans in particular, is not always time well spent.
The fear of voter anger is pushing European leaders to step back from saving people. Indeed, Europe's heads of state shot big holes in the European Commission's immigration plan concerning refugees in the Mediterranean. Yet however much they may wish it, there is no way to solve the refugee crisis without accepting some electoral risk.
"Last night went to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by a shot of a fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopter gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea around him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter while he sank."
Thus wrote George Orwell in his famous novel 1984, describing a civilization utterly desensitized to scenes of pain and hardship thrown onto other people.
One could be forgiven for thinking that this desensitization has taken hold in Europe as well. As was written here, the EU heads of state considered a plan put forward by the European Commission. The plan on one hand would have dispersed a number of refugees among various EU member states, while on the other hand bombing boats presumably used by people smugglers as they sit empty in Libyan ports.
The 20,000 refugees the Commission proposed be taken in were just 10 percent of the total 200,000 expected to make it to Europe's southern shores this year. Among a European population of about 500 million souls, 20,000 seems insignificant. It translates to 0.004 percent. Yet some countries went ballistic in reaction to the plan. Spain, Hungary, the United Kingdom, France and Poland, among other nations, outright refused to take on their share of refugees.
In some of these nations, refugees from the Third World are not looked upon kindly by voters. In certain Eastern European countries, discrimination against foreigners is rife. Other nations were offended by what they perceived to be an effort by the European Commission to circumvent existing national veto rights on asylum policy, setting a precedent.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that Europe doesn't want the refugees, even though every statistic shows that most European nations are headed for demographic disaster. Too many people are getting older and are soon leaving the labor force, while not enough people are being born to replace them.
Futhermore, having jet fighters strafe dinghies and fishing boats in civilian ports in Libya is a fool's errand. As a Libyan coast guard officer said this week on Dutch television, it would cause more havoc without solving anything. People smugglers would simply fan out to other, smaller ports and use even more dangerous boats. The money is simply too good.
The coast guard officer proposed a far simpler and less deadly plan: Have the European Union buy all unused boats in Libyan ports and then have them destroyed or towed to Europe. There is no doubt that this would probably be a boon to the Libyan boat-building industry and to the officer himself, who helpfully suggested that he could seize the boats in his port and sell them to the Europeans personally.
Nonetheless, it was a plan worth considering. The current Australian prime minister actually proposed the same plan to combat the influx of refugees who come over on boats from Indonesia; but Indonesia would have none of it. There is no doubt about what Jakarta's reaction would have been had Australia proposed strafing boats in Indonesian ports.
It is not yet clear whether the scrapping of the refugee quota proposal now means that the entire plan by the European Commission is off the table. If so, good riddance, because it was a bad plan brought on by a desire to shirk responsibilities - responsibilities such as carrying out true, force-backed nationbuilding in Libya. The European Commission mulled this option over as well, but astonishingly, the idea was politically dead on arrival. The heads of state of the EU member nations - the real power in the union - refused even to discuss it.
And so Europe stumbles on, impotent in the eyes of all the world, while its future lies in the Mediterranean.
There is a larger context that must be considered if we are to understand the struggle with the Islamic State for control of Ramadi. That context is geographical in part and involves the group's control over Fallujah and Mosul, its designs on Anbar Province, and all of the Islamic State's Syrian holdings. The larger issue does not concern only territory, however. It is of vital importance to prevent the Islamic State from establishing an actual, recognizable state to give substance to its declared religious-political caliphate. A state is a government, but a government is not necessarily a state. The Islamic State has established several city, town, and village governments, but these in combination do not constitute a state.
It is imperative to prevent Islamic State from establishing any kind of state. Even a state built initially on war and savagery would become in due course a regime - one that has, as a matter of realistic international diplomacy, a de facto legitimacy because it controls and governs significant territory and looks to be permanent. Gradually, the origin of the ISIS state would become a moot point, as is the case with any revolutionary government that becomes permanent.
As time passes, the psychology of international attitudes would change toward an ISIS state. Its existence, and the necessity of dealing with reality as it is, would become assumptions of international diplomacy. International public opinion would get accustomed to thinking of Islamic State as a proper state, even if it is not part of the so-called international community. (Imagine a certain number of years from now an Islamic State foreign minister taking a seat at an international negotiating table.)
In short, containing the Islamic State writ to local governments is vital, so that destroying it remains a matter of ousting its fighters from given areas, rather than invasion.
Let us imagine how an ISIS regime would be developed. First, the claim of having established a caliphate would be supplemented with a declaration of statehood. As a matter of becoming an established state, ISIS would create a permanent public government with the usual institutions of government (a Cabinet, government ministers, a permanent military, a bureaucracy to administer institutions and policies, a judicial system). In addition to establishing the institutions of a state that might, for example, apply for United Nations membership, ISIS leaders would add the specific, supplementary religious, political, and social dimensions that would wield authority over the entire regime: the caliph himself as a supreme leader, a Sharia council that shares authority with him, and others. The existing clandestine Islamic State caliphate structures are, in other words, a prefiguration of what it would look like as a permanent regime. Finally, to declare a state would appear to be a qualitative leap in Islamic State's success, and this could inspire a new wave of recruits from abroad.
Developing an explicit plan and strategy to contain and destroy the Islamic State is necessary. Everyone knows it will not be easy - it would take years, as President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and our military leaders emphasize. But showing that our military action is not grounded in mere improvisation, which leaves the initiative to the adversary, will get the Islamic State's attention. Putting ISIS on the defensive as often as possible will change the battlefield. Planning efforts, furthermore, should assume that grinding up ISIS will happen in stages, with gains and retreats. ISIS was ousted from Tikrit weeks ago and just took Ramadi this past weekend, for example.
Big regional powers, especially Turkey, must be persuaded that their own interest demands a foray into the fight, militarily as well as politically. The more threatening ISIS becomes to Turkish, Iranian, and Egyptian territory, the greater the pressure to act with military force. Turkey successfully avoided the fight to save Kobani from ISIS. But further down the road its calculation may change. Tehran is already active in Iraq and Syria, in part to keep the Islamic State away from its own borders. The Islamic State, in its long-game maps and ideological declarations, pinpoints the Islamic Republic of Iran as a target country. Saudi Arabia might find itself threatened as well - logically so, because its territory contains the holiest sites in Islam: Mecca and Medina. The Islamic State claims authority over global Islam as a whole, therefore its ultimate goal must be to overthrow the Saudi regime and rule in its stead.
Realistically, in spite of all the dire scenarios that can be conjured, the Islamic State is all but certain to fail and will be destroyed. But the Middle East is changed forever, geopolitically and in human terms. The fundamental issue is how much havoc will be wreaked along the way.
As the U.S. Congress this week continues to debate legislation to address President Barack Obama's proposed nuclear deal with Iran, some critics howl that the bill would usurp presidential authority. They are very wrong.
The Iran Nuclear Review Agreement Act, or S.615, is modest. The measure, introduced by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., sets no negotiating terms, nor does it force the president to define the deal as a treaty subject to approval by two-thirds of the Senate. Instead, it asks the president to submit the proposed agreement and a report to Congress, and then to permit a vote. If the legislature approves the deal, it is done and Obama wins. If it disapproves, Obama can veto the resolution, and Congress likely does not have the votes to override that veto. Again, Obama wins. If Congress fails to vote within 60 days, the agreement, yet again, is approved. Once more, Obama wins.
So what is the big deal? Some observers have gotten it into their heads that the president should have an unfettered hand in foreign affairs.
Steve Coll of the New Yorker recently vented about a 1936 decision in which the Supreme Court endorsed the president's prerogative to lead foreign policy. The court opined that the president alone "has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation." According to Coll, the case, U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., "has influenced law and the conduct of foreign policy for almost eight decades," and modern Republicans ignore this history. "They have meddled in unprecedented fashion to undermine President Obama's nuclear diplomacy with Iran," Coll writes.
In fact, the president never has been the sole organ of foreign policy. The U.S. Constitution assigns the president limited powers in foreign affairs. He may receive foreign nations' ambassadors and ministers. He is commander in chief of the Armed Forces, but only when the military is called into service. He also may make treaties "by and with the advice and consent of the Senate."
By contrast, Article I grants Congress the authority to raise and support armies, to provide and maintain a navy, and to declare war. Congress established the Department of State and the Department of War (now the Department of Defense) in 1789. Congress funds these foreign policy agencies, and per the Constitution it has the power to make rules for their operation. The Senate also must approve those the president selects to head these departments and to serve in top diplomatic positions.
The tradition of congressional involvement in foreign policy dates to the start of the republic. George Washington came to the Senate in August 1789. He wanted, as Charlene Bickford recounts in the latest Federal History journal, to discuss with the legislators how to proceed in his dealings with the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws and Creeks. Washington wanted money and specific instructions on the conditions for negotiating with the tribes. The Senate fell into debate, and the president left, as did Secretary of War Henry Knox. A couple of days later, Washington returned, and a mutually satisfactory arrangement was concluded.
This early instance of consultation in foreign affairs set the template for the future: Foreign affairs was to be a collaborative effort. Both chambers of Congress have foreign affairs committees, and the Senate's dates back to 1816. Members of Congress have been involved in many foreign negotiations. President James Madison appointed congressmen to help negotiate the Treaty of Ghent in 1814. Congressmen participated in the 1945 gathering that produced the United Nations charter.
Presidents and Congress, unsurprisingly, often have found themselves at loggerheads over foreign affairs. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Senate rejected 10 treaties. Sen. Robert Byrd, , D-W.Va., went to Russia in 1979 while the SALT II negotiations were ongoing. Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., traveled along with two other congressmen to Iraq in 2002 to denounce the Bush administration's move to war. That is the nature of things in a system where separate branches share power.
The proposition that the president leads on foreign affairs, and that Congress should not meddle, has matters exactly backward. The Constitution gives all lawmaking authority to Congress and demands the president "take care the law be faithfully executed." Treaties and other diplomatic agreements have the force of law, so Congress has every right to vote to approve their enactment. Let it be remembered, when President Franklin Roosevelt imposed an arms embargo in 1934 that the Curtiss-Wright Export Co. violated, he was drawing upon authority granted to him by an act of Congress.
Raul Castro traveled to the Vatican and met with Pope Francis. Their conversation, behind closed doors, apparently satisfied the Cuban dictator. He declared that, if the Pope stayed the same, "I'll go back to praying and go back to the Church." After all, he added, "I was always in Jesuit schools."
Despite Castro's opportunistic promise of a return to the faith, this was really a meeting between two heads of state, not one between religious brethren. Raul is the president of one of the world's few remaining communist nations, and the Pope, aside from his status as head of Catholicism, is the monarch of a miniscule state legitimized after the Lateran Accords signed in 1929 between Benito Mussolini and a representative of Pius XI.
From a political point of view, these states are two eccentric phenomena with some formal resemblance.
The Pope, as the chief of state, is a kind of king endowed with absolute powers, elected by a small number of cardinals - celibate males, generally elderly. Raul is a president, also endowed with absolute power, supposedly selected by the Council of State (in reality by his brother Fidel), a miniscule group of deputies (many of them military officers) in the National Assembly of the People's Power, whose members are chosen in single-party elections.
Strictly speaking, the authority enjoyed by the two heads of state has nothing to do with the pluralistic and open processes of liberal democracy. That may explain the Vatican's traditional frigidity in the face of an absence of freedoms. That is why concordats with Franco's Spain in 1953 and with Trujillo's bloodstained Dominican Republic in 1954 were acceptable. To neither country did Pope Pius XII demand a change in conduct in order to sign agreements. The objectives of the Church were of another nature.
What are those objectives? The Catholic Church follows three basic imperatives: to spread the Gospel, to educate, and to participate actively and publicly in the moral debate within society. To this, it adds a clear emphasis on the exercise of charity, an activity that functions as the institution's grand earthly mission and as a cohesive element that keeps it united.
The three tasks are intimately linked, but developing any of them requires, at the very least, the neutrality of the state, which forces the institution into a painful obsequiousness - an attitude of complacency toward power that emerged in the Fourth Century after the Edict of Thessalonica dictated by the Emperor Theodosius, the initiator of Caesaropapism. That act transformed the Church. Previously the target of occasional persecution, it became a frequent persecutor.
The Church has since been part of the state or has placed itself next to the state - sometimes in the performance of vile tasks such as those that defined the Inquisition - but it has almost never confronted the state, even when the latter is manifestly criminal. That is not in the Church's nature. Its kingdom, it says, is not of this world.
It is true that Pope Francis has every good intention of helping the Cubans solve many of their material problems. But judging from the jubilation with which Castro has greeted the Pope's mediation and support, the Havana regime sees the Holy See's behavior as a big boost to its political project to consolidate a neo-communist dictatorship with a single party and a mixed economy - an even more conservative variant of the Chinese experiment.
It is likely that the Church's hierarchy in Rome (or Cardinal Jaime Ortega in Cuba) is not excessively worried by the strengthening of a neo-communist model along Chinese ideological lines. (Just as in the past no one in the Vatican lost any sleep over its good relations with Somoza, Trujillo, the Argentine generals, and a shameful etcetera.). But I fear that this could very negatively affect those who aspire to democratic change on the island, similar to what took place in Eastern Europe.
Those Cubans want a transition to a liberal democracy, not to a single-party capitalist dictatorship like the ones in China and Vietnam. Evidently, the Pope is satisfied with that outcome. And that's lamentable.
As another spy scandal involving the U.S. National Security Agency bristles over Europe, one wonders why everybody keeps rubbing up to the snoops at Fort Meade, Maryland. The truth is simple: The United States has for decades put its money where its mouth is. The Americans invested big in intelligence gathering. It is high time others do the same.
"If you're good at something, never do it for free." So said The Joker in the movie The Dark Knight, in response to gangsters who had asked him why he had not already killed Batman.
The Joker's motto could well be that of any country's intelligence agency, as we witnessed again last week in the spy scandal that has electrified German politics. German magazine Der Spiegel reported that the the country's intelligence organization, the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst), and the German government have for years allegedly helped the United States spy on German companies - and even on European politicians and institutions.
The revelations sparked outrage both in Germany and outside the country. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is directly responsible for the BND. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, Merkel's coalition partner but a political rival, lashed out publicly at Merkel. Meanwhile, the German national prosecutor's office is seriously considering an investigation that may well prove a political threat to the still-popular Merkel.
Why would Merkel condone the snooping on German companies and politicians, as the media reports convincingly allege? Merkel herself hails from East Germany, the former communist German Democratic Republic, where the spooks of the Stasi spy agency eavesdropped on hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens. So why would the chancellor, of all people, keep silent on the troubling alliance between the NSA and the BND?
The fact is that the NSA does such a great job snooping that allied agencies go to great lengths to stay connected to its impressive data repository. No other country over the past 50 years has spent as much on signal intelligence gathering as has the United States. In the post-9/11 environment, the simple truth is that the free world cannot do without the NSA.
Spyworld lives by the quid pro quo. If you cannot give the NSA something they need or value, then you move to the back of the queue at its data shop - if you remain in line at all. Spy bosses everywhere know this.
Take the Netherlands, for instance. Despite an edgy political scandal that erupted in 2014 because of alleged illegal data sharing between its national agency, the AIVD, and the NSA, the government recently proposed expanding the AIVD's digital eavesdropping capabilities. And just last week, France's National Assembly granted its spy agencies the most far-reaching snooping capabilities in the nation's history. It is no accident that one of the provisions in the proposed Dutch law and the new French one are about allowing agencies to collect metadata in bulk.
As far as this writer knows, there is only one organization in the world that has the hardware to crunch all that raw data: the NSA. Because of this, the recent spy scandals involving the NSA and allied intelligence agencies are certain not to be the last.
This may change when European nations get serious about setting up their own variants of the NSA. The idea of the European Union's own version of the NSA is sometimes dusted off at dinner tables in Brussels, but the fact that no government has yet been willing to defer powers of its own intelligence agency to another governing institution probably shows the validity of another truism in spyland: All that friendly allied cooperation is just window dressing.
If you're good at something, never do it for free.
Sunday was a Sunday for Tories in Britain. Clouds metaphorical and meteorological had broken in the capital, leaving 20-odd degrees of celsius in the air, 100 days of tax cuts on the horizon, and five years of Conservative Party rule secured on the calendar.
The shock of Thursday's electoral result, which had delivered an outright majority to the Conservative Party against every prognostication except perhaps that of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, had shifted to euphoria in Tory circles, and to despair on the other side. Commentary quickly circled round to talk of Britain's role in the world - this part was expected, even after an election in which foreign policy had played little part. Everyone knows now without a doubt that a referendum on the United Kingdom's EU membership is coming - it will be in Prime Minister David Cameron's Queen's Speech on May 27. As if there could be any doubt, voices on the party's right immediately began clamoring for the referendum.
While many contemplate worst-case scenarios, the commentary is basted in optimism in some of the more blinkered Tory corners- on broadcast and in print, some enunciated a conviction that David Cameron now is poised to deliver for Britain. He can face down European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and talk to German Chancellor Angela Merkel from a position of strength; he has a strong mandate from the British people. Indeed, David Cameron may be Europe's next great statesman.
Well...maybe. Or, maybe the adrenaline is flowing faster than reason can keep up. Cameron indeed has that chance. But it will not be easy.
As anyone knows who followed the election, the upcoming Parliament will face questions that cut to the core of British identity and national interest. The country's membership in the European Union will indeed be put to a vote by the end of 2017, and a breakup of the United Kingdom itself is still possible.
With no coalition partner to serve as a useful foil the way Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats did for five years, this all now lands firmly on Cameron's desk. Domestic concerns aside, the prime minister's legacy will be created as much in Brussels and in Scotland as anywhere else. And Cameron, who does not wish his country to leave the European Union, much less to see it fragment into its constituent parts, faces constraints that will become more obvious as his government moves forward - constraints placed on him by his electorate and his party, by his European counterparts, and by the effects of his own maladroit handling of the European question.
The political landscape in two years' time
The moment of jubilation is understandable. The Conservative Party pulled 331 seats from a volatile electorate in a vote that served as a referendum on Cameron's leadership. But to understand how quickly constituents could sour on Cameron II, one need only put that number into 650 - the total number of seats in the House of Commons - and look at the map on this page. With no coalition partner, Cameron rules the whole of his nation by a mere five-seat majority - a margin acquired with the votes of 37 percent of Britons - and he only truly represents the southern half of it.
Former Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, who returns to Westminster as a Member of Parliament, let it be known just how obstreperous the Scottish opposition will be when he said in an interview that the Tory majority would "erode and change" within months. Salmond's relative clairvoyance aside, the Liberal Democrats have served as a brake on the more controversial elements of the Tory agenda for the last five years. With the opposition routed and the Conservatives freed up for a more vigorous pursuit of their priorities, it is not difficult to imagine Cameron's personal popularity taking a hit in the months and years to come. He has political capital now, undoubtedly. But how quickly, and how wisely, will he and his party spend it?
Why this matters to Europe
What has to worry the pro-European side is that, in a nation where the opposition has for now lost its footing, the answer to that question may be more relevant to Europe's future than it is to the Tories' near-term electoral prospects. David Cameron said that he would renegotiate Britain's relationship with the European Union, then sell that new settlement to his voters at the referendum. He will split his own party in doing so, facing pressure from his right, as well as from Labour's far left, and a UKIP that is not going away. The stay-in-Europe campaign was always going to get the backing of Britain's biggest political and business figures. The singularity of the general election vote, and the disarray of all other parties except a troublesome SNP, means that David Cameron can likely count on being the face of the pro-Europe campaign.
But first he has to get his deal from Europe. What Cameron wants has never been entirely clear, but Simon Hix outlined the basics:
Originally Cameron sent a list of demands that were about reforming the free movement of people, more powers for national parliaments, some limitations on the ECHR - which has nothing to do with the EU - a free trade agreement with the United States, protecting Britain's interests in the single market, a reform agenda for the single market, for a liberalizing agenda, and so forth.
The sticking point for Cameron is that a lot of his backbenchers want treaty reform for purely symbolic reasons. It's not clear why he wants treaty reform, maybe he's hoping there could be a sort of British opt-out from ever-closer union, some purely symbolic statement that says article such-and-such does not apply to the UK. It seems bizarre to the rest of Europe, but it's symbolic politics here in Britain.
It's impossible for there to be a new treaty by 2017. There may not even be treaty reform; most members don't want to open up the pandora's box of renegotiating the treaty.
Cameron has strained natural alliances in Europe, starting with his decision to take his party out of the staunchly pro-Europe EPP grouping in the European Parliament. And in Europe there are no guarantees anymore - and there is much ambiguity on Britain. Many Europeans see themselves as onlookers to a purely British drama - one that Britain must bring to an end itself. As Hix also pointed out, there are plenty in Europe who are happy to let Britain drift politely away. Any idea that a deal will come easy reflects Britain's growing parochialism: "We elected this man and send him to you with a mandate from the British people." Fine. Just ask Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis how much that's worth.
This is where statesmanship comes in. Cameron and his European counterparts surely recognize the importance of this moment, for Britain and for the European project. The United Kingdom is famously aloof - in the European Union but not of it. Its relationship with the European institutions is unique and has been tested in the past. As Robert Kaplan has written, Europe sits astride an arc of fire, and as its many crises spread, one of its main problems is that "European leaders are, in the main, gray, insipid ciphers who stand for little except finessing rather than dealing with the next crisis, and the next."
Cameron can be different. He has a chance to be bold - to talk to Europe, stand up to his own party, and deliver what used to be a clear message: Europe is better when unified, and Britain is stronger as part of that arrangement. Deliver it with confidence, whatever the domestic political conditions are, because it happens to be true. A British "yes" to Europe - an affirmation from a nettlesome partner at a time of deep crisis - could lend some much-needed muscle to the weakening decades-long project to keep Europe united, peaceful, and prosperous. A "no" to Europe could catalyze a chain reaction toward the disintegration of the European Union, and of the United Kingdom as well. The predictions of doomsayers may yet prove too dire - it is too early to tell. What is sure is that David Cameron will not be a cipher - he will leave a legacy. The job ahead of him will not be easy. Who does David Cameron want to be?
Concession speeches by politicians in America generally go something like this:
I called my opponent to offer my congratulations. [Crowd boos.] Though we didn't win this fight, I know our values are America's values. [Yay!] I will continue to fight hard for you. [Yay!] God bless America! [Yay!]
Notice that, despite losing, most American concession speeches somehow work in a humblebrag. There is also usually an implicit sentiment that the losing campaign was in reality far superior to the winning one, and that he really ought to have won if it weren't for all the knaves and buffoons who voted for his opponent. Finally, there is a nearly blasphemous appeal to the Almighty as a way to garner one final, cheap ovation from the adoring crowd, after which the defeated candidate prances off the stage, hand-in-hand with his spouse, pumping his fist in faux enthusiasm.
Now, compare that to the concession speech of Ed Miliband, the main opposition candidate to Prime Minister David Cameron:
Friends, this is not the speech I wanted to give today because I believe that Britain needed a Labour government. I still do, but the public voted otherwise last night... I take absolute and total responsibility for the result and our defeat of this election. I'm so sorry for all of those colleagues who lost their seats...
First of all, Mr. Miliband looked sick to his stomach. Though he expressed hope for and belief in the future of Labour and its ideas, there was no faux enthusaism. Here stood a man who was able to admit that he and his party had been thoroughly beaten. Then, he takes personal responsibility for the outcome and, amazingly, uses the word "sorry." Sorry? That word isn't even in American politicos' lexicon. And, as expected, he resigned from leading the Labour Party.
Also, consider the concession speech given by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister whose party, the Liberal Democrats, served as the junior partner in a coalition with the Conservative government. Mr. Clegg expressed sorrow that many talented friends and colleagues were booted from Parliament, and he accepted that the election was "immeasurably more crushing and unkind than I can ever have feared." And, as expected, he resigned from leading the Liberal Democrats.
How foreign this is to American voters! British politicians actually apologize, admit bitter defeat, and, most importantly, resign from leadership. That final point is worth pondering.
American politicians never seem to resign. Ever. Most are political careerists who treasure power more than integrity. American politicians only seem to resign when facing incessant media mockery or legal indictments. In Britain, losing an election is sufficient for a politician to bow out of his party's leadership. Actually, it's not uncommon in many countries for prime ministers to resign if they lose key votes in parliament.
In stark contrast, American politicians often hold onto power until it's pried out of their cold, rigor mortis-stricken hands. For instance, it is absolutely stunning that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid -- both of whom had their clocks cleaned in 2010 and 2014, respectively -- are still leading the Democratic party. Due to their lust for power, they haven't the decency to step aside to allow a colleague to steer the ship in a new direction. Such self-centeredness would not stand in Britain. It is not honorable.
The aftermath of the British general election should serve as a model for American politicians. It should also serve as a reminder that the country from which we revolted nearly 240 years ago still has a thing or two to teach us about government.
The people have spoken - magnificently. Contrary to all expectations, an absolute majority for the Conservative Party emerged at the UK General Election held on May 7.
One of the causes of this was the remarkable collapse in support for the Conservatives' minority partner in the 2010-2015 governing Coalition. Savagely cut from 56 seats to 8, the Liberal Democrats indeed emerged as the biggest casualty of the election.
The second biggest casualty is the polling industry. There isn't enough humble pie in all the land for the pundits - from which I do not exempt myself! Lord Ashcroft performed what we all thought was a fantastic public service in spending millions on the most sophisticated polling program this country has ever seen: The return on that investment looks rather questionable now.
What was foreseen, and was realized in spades, was the success of the Scottish National Party. Driven by a remarkably resilient mix of nationalism and grievance, they managed at this election (even more than they did during the recent referendum on independence) to ride two horses at once. The SNP portrayed an upbeat optimism about the sunny uplands that would blossom under Scottish self-rule, while maintaining their more traditional, dour, chestbeating resentment of what they portray as a perpetually anti-Scottish Westminster (a resentment wholly impervious to any facts to the contrary) - a faraway government from which, despite fully and skilfully partaking in its games, they portray themselves as being apart.
To make this ironic point about the SNP's professional political status even more stark, the party's rise to overwhelming success in Scotland (now holding 56 of the 59 available seats) was driven in part by their possession of not one but two of the country's most impressive politicians: current leader Nicola Sturgeon, who emerged as a remarkably strong performer in the campaign despite not even being a candidate for a seat in Westminster, and Alex Salmond, the former party leader who has now returned to Westminster. More than anyone, Salmond has transformed British politics in this generation as he pushed his movement from the fringe to the mainstream.
Incidentally, one feature often remarked upon about the modern SNP movement is the army of "cybernats." These online activists may or may not actually be members of the party, or even aligned with the SNP, but they certainly demonstrate some of the more charmless aspects of nationalism: thuggish bile and aggression delivered toward any criticism of them or their movement; persistent assertion of an apparent (and apparently superior) uniqueness in their character and nature, which excludes both participation in and understanding of their politics by others; and a high-handed, immediate dismissal of any "outsider" who dares to comment on their nationalist movement - such will no doubt manifest itself in the comments here.
The Rough Justice of Britain's Voting System
In any case, a real question about our voting system re-emerges as a result of the election. The system suits an environment in which two parties predominate, but the fragmenting of our party landscape produces results many find hard to justify. With 4.7 percent of the national vote, the SNP got 56 Members of Parliament. UKIP got 12.6 percent of the vote - and one MP. That's the rough justice of First Past the Post - but as support for so-called minor parties continues to grow, just how rough can we allow that justice to be?
(That said, the United Kingdom held a referendum on an alternative voting system during the last Parliament; the case for reform was overwhelmingly defeated.)
An outright triumph
Returning to party political issues, Cameron's triumph is difficult to overstate. He has led his party since 2005; now he will face a wholly new crop of opponents, as all of his main rivals - Ed Miliband of Labour, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage of UKIP - promptly resigned their party leaderships after the election results came in. Meanwhile, the leaders who remain in post - Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP, Natalie Bennett of the Greens, and Leanne Wood, socialist republican leader of the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru party - are not even in parliament. Two of them did not seek seats at this election. As an added bonus, former Labour Chancellor Ed Balls - something of a bête noir for the prime minister and for his close ally, Chancellor George Osborne - also lost his seat.
It is unfashionable to say so, but Nigel Farage's (temporary?) departure from the stage is to be lamented. Not just because it removes a character of great color and verve from the national stage, and not just because he speaks clearly and passionately for a hitherto voiceless part of our population. Most of all, Farage's departure is to be lamented because - notwithstanding the Conservative victory this week - if the broad right-of-center movement is to prevail in the United Kingdom, then in the long term, the rift on the political right must be healed. A City trader and an ex-Tory from the south, Farage's natural home is within a broad-church conservative party - a fact he sometimes hints at when talking about how it was the Tory Party that changed, not him. Farage's successor is very unlikely to be such a figure. Whether or not the party falls into post-election disarray, as some predict, his successor will most likely be much more absolutist, less inclined to reconciliation, probably less Tory in his soul. Farage is a man with whom a deal can be done. Most likely, his successor will not be.
So: what is to come in the new Parliament? A referendum on Britain's membership of the EU in due course. As I have discussed here before, securing long overdue boundary changes must sit very high on the agenda in the new Parliament - most likely in the first hundred days, when Cameron's political capital is strongest.
Within the parliamentary Conservative Party, it is time for the leadership to promote some figures on the party's political right for the sake of party unity. This is now all the more important given the fact that, because the Tories now govern as a single party, Cameron's second-term majority is actually smaller. Candidates should include Andrea Leadsom and Priti Patel (who have been generally loyal and are easy to promote); Graham Brady, Liam Fox, and Dominic Raab (for various reasons, these three are trickier); and finally, trickiest of all, Cameron's opponent for party leadership back in 2005, David Davis - now the standard bearer of the right.
There are policy issues that will promptly threaten the unity of the Conservative Party in government, too. The absence of the Liberals will almost certainly mean yet another attempt to introduce the Snoopers' Charter - which reflects the desire by government to retain data on the telephone calls, web browsing activity, and emails of British citizens. The charter treats us all as suspects and reverses the presumption of innocence. The proposal, beloved by power-grabbing bureaucrats, was defeated not once but three times in the course of the last Parliament. It splits some of the more libertarian-inclined party members - including, obviously, your correspondent - from the authoritarian securocrats who doggedly push this agenda.
Putting ideology to one side, in governing alone now instead of in coalition, Cameron is presented with a management problem. No longer needing to provide Liberal Democrats with ministerial roles, Cameron has 20 new jobs to allocate - and 100 MPs who are sure that they deserve them.
The appointment of defeated former Coalition ministers will attract accusations of cronyism, but that is misplaced. For government to work, patronage is essential to power - and not just for those on the up; the foot soldiers must see that a leadership rewards loyalty by rescuing the fallen, as well.
And what next for the left? They are in something of a quandary. Tony Blair had it right when he said that he suspected that the election would be a contest between a traditional left-wing party and a traditional right-wing party - with the traditional result. Anyone who thinks that Labour lost because they were not left-wing enough needs to examine the record. Leaving aside John Smith, who sadly died before he could contest an election while in the top job, Labour's last six leaders - Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Blair, Brown, and Miliband - can only boast three election victories between them; all three were won by the centrist Blair.
But all of this is "inside the beltway" analysis. Consider the big picture: It is all good for the Conservative Party and for the conservative movement. The victory in raw political combat is complete: Three opposition leaders felled in a day. Now the march of political ideas must resume, at a much higher tempo. Public spending must be reduced. Taxes must be cut. A referendum on our membership of the European Union must be held. For this was the clear and unambiguous agenda of the Conservative Party, and that agenda has prevailed. While aggressively opposed by a noisy, metropolitan, self-appointed elite, these policies have been unambiguously supported by our countrymen. These policies must be enacted. An election result this clear cannot mean otherwise.