Bowe Bergdahl was “an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield” who “served the United States with distinction and honor,” asserted Susan Rice, the president’s national security adviser.
Rice was speaking to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos the morning after Barack Obama’s Rose Garden celebration of Bergdahl’s release. When she spoke last Sunday, could Rice have been ignorant of the widespread reports that Bergdahl had deserted?
Before last Sunday, her credibility was already in tatters.
Five days after Ambassador Chris Stevens and three Americans were killed in Benghazi, Rice went on five Sunday shows to describe the terrorist attack as a spontaneous riot ignited by an anti-Muslim video.
Not only has her credibility now suffered a second near-lethal blow, her competence as a presidential adviser is open to question. How could she let the president strut into the Rose Garden to celebrate the release of a soldier whose reported desertion triggered a province-wide search that may have cost the lives of half a dozen American soldiers?
As The Hill reported, a Pentagon investigation in 2010 concluded Bergdahl had walked out on his unit and left a note in his tent saying he was disillusioned with the Army and no longer supported the war. Was Rice ignorant of this? Did she think it not relevant, when she approved the president’s hosting of Bergdahl’s parents in the Rose Garden? Is Rice not responsible for the humiliation President Obama has endured all week and the fiasco that diverted national and international attention from his trip to Warsaw, Brussels and Normandy?
Forty-eight hours after Obama celebrated Bergdahl’s release, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs was promising an investigation of the soldier on the charge of desertion and related allegations he may have defected and collaborated. If Gen. Martin Dempsey was aware an investigation into charges so serious that they carry the death penalty was ahead for Bergdahl, did he not flag the White House before the president went before the nation to celebrate Bergdahl’s return? Read More…
When Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and King Albert II of Belgium abdicated last year, royal succession went on more or less according to procedure, without any large-scale demands for abolishing the monarchies. Even last year’s most controversial European abdication, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, proceeded from pope to pope as calmly as could be expected. So why is the abdication of Spain’s reigning monarch of 39 years, Juan Carlos, inspiring young protesters to drape a pre-Civil War Spanish Republican flag over a guillotine and demand a referendum on the monarchy?
The event’s logistics indicate the answer. When King Juan Carlos announced his intention on Monday to abdicate in favor of his son, Felipe, the Spanish Parliament immediately had to begin scrambling to put together a legal and constitutional framework to administer the change. The absent mechanics are a reminder of just how young the reinstated Spanish monarchy is, and just how central parliamentary democracy has come to be to Spanish self-conception.
Juan Carlos became one of the world’s most beloved monarchs after he saved Spanish democracy in 1981 by publicly denouncing, and so defeating, an attempted right-wing military coup. The king’s inability to survive revelations of philandering, extravagant elephant-hunting, and family financial fraud seems odd, then, given the scandals that have plagued but not defeated other European monarchies (such as the late ’90s tabloid frenzies over British royalty). But the Spanish monarchy lacks both the British monarchy’s longevity and its non-ceremonial powers that, however minimal, lend credibility to the institution. If Spain’s monarchs are considered more disposable, it is because Spain has centuries of practice in disposing of them.
Republicanism and monarchy have contended for domination of Spain, with interruptions for military dictatorships, since the First Spanish Republic was proclaimed in 1873. Juan Carlos himself was plucked out of exile during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship after the Spanish Civil War, explicitly fought between Republicans and Nationalists (monarchists without a monarch). The ongoing protests show that these tensions are still unresolved.
But as Noah Millman has pointed out, a perhaps even more distinguishing feature of the Spanish monarchy is its relative powerlessness.
You have to ask why a monarch would be particularly good at occupying his particular square without also possessing significant temporal power. At which point you need to start looking at how a particular society and political system evolved. King Juan Carlos I of Spain was able to preserve Spanish democracy in 1981 because of the ideology of the coup plotters compelled them to respect the orders of their crowned king. His predecessor, Alfonso XIII, provides an excellent illustration of how a clueless monarch can help lead his country to ruin – and wind up getting himself deposed. Meanwhile, Juan Carlos I himself is no longer as secure in his place at the head of the state as he once was, and his status as monarch has no limited numinous power to help him keep that place.
Monarchy as a form of government relies strongly on tradition and power, but it also relies on a sense of national unity and the felt need for a uniting figure. Spain lacks that impulse more than any other contemporary European monarchy. The growth of independence movements in politically and economically powerful regions like Catalonia that maintain their cultural and political autonomy from the Spanish state speaks to this. (Catalan separatists, for their part, seem ambivalent about the monarchy only because their priority is not a rethought model of the Spanish state, but rather independence from it altogether.)
If Felipe is to maintain his father’s reborn institution, he will need to appeal to the one feature monarchs seem to be able to rely on: unquestionable personal conduct. Read More…
Oddly enough, I have few large professional regrets, things I really wish I had done differently. But there are many small ones. Here’s one. Sometime in TAC‘s first year, perhaps even before we published our first issue, I don’t recall exactly, I got a call from an associate of Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean Marie, leader of the French Front National. She would be in Washington in a day or two—was I free for lunch? As it happened, I wasn’t really. There were some complicated personal matters at home, I was commuting back and forth to New York, and hadn’t planned to be in DC that day.
But I also wasn’t that eager. I thought that Jean Marie Le Pen was getting a bit of bad rap by being labeled an anti-Semite, if not a fascist, all of the time. But I was aware of some of the things he had said which could well give that impression, and was also aware that I wasn’t paying much attention to France in those days, and that if I was, I might agree with the charge.
So did I want to have lunch? Not really. There might be some requests for favorable coverage, or overtures towards linking TAC to the general European populist (or far) right. I didn’t feel TAC was far right, and didn’t want to give anyone that impression. Much as I was curious to meet Marine Le Pen, there were good reasons (besides my personal ones) for not rearranging my schedule. I replied that regrettably, I would be out of town.
Marine Le Pen has for years now succeeded her father as head of the National Front, the party which has—in the limited but far from unimportant elections for the European Parliaments, scored higher than any party in France, besting the ruling socialists, besting the center-right parties. Marine Le Pen has changed the FN’s image, modernized it, softened it, without repudiating her garrulous father, whom she always refers to publicly as “Jean Marie Le Pen.” Generally speaking the Front National is the French anti-immigrant party—the one that worries about whether a multicultural society with an expanding and pious Muslim minority is really possible or desirable. I think this is a reasonable argument to make, though difficult to carry off without attracting racists and bigots and turning the party into something potentially worse than the perceived problem. I suspect that vast majorities of Frenchmen would agree with the FN’s premise: De Gaulle, who once said that trying to hold on to French Algeria would ensure that his village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises would become Colombey-les-Deux-Mosques, almost certainly would.
Marine Le Pen’s argument is buttressed by the fact that none of the “mainstream” French parties showed the slightest desire to protect the values and interests of the French who were troubled by mass immigration. The center-right of Sarkozy campaigned on a fierce law and order line, but failed to stem France’s rising crime rate. And mass immigration—if it produced some discomfiture about public prayer, or rising crime, or complicated governmental services—also was a symbol of the larger issue, loss of nationhood, loss of sovereignty over the French space. The steady rise in power of the Brussels bureaucracy and the European Union gave the FN another issue to campaign about—though it might have been essentially the same thing: globalization. The FN and Marine Le Pen were opposed. For France’s elites, membership in “Europe”, even at the expense of France’s currency and control of borders, was considered a closed question and certainly not one to be put before the French people. Read More…
News that Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, plans to buy Britain’s AstraZeneca for $106 billion, renounce its U.S. citizenship, and declare itself a British company, has jolted Congress. Pfizer is being denounced as disloyal to the land of its birth, and politicians are devising ways to stop Pfizer from departing.
Yet Pfizer is not alone. Hedge fund managers are urging giant corporations like Walgreens to go nation-shopping for new residences abroad to evade the 35 percent U.S. corporate income tax. Britain’s corporate income tax is 20 percent, and Pfizer stands to save over $1 billion a year by moving there.
In what are called “inversions,” dozens of U.S. companies have bought up foreign rivals, and then moved abroad to countries with lower tax rates, cutting revenue to the U.S. Treasury. But Pfizer is far and away the biggest.
The real question, however, is not why companies are fleeing the USA, but why our politicians continue to drive them out of the country.
Consider. Here in America we do not tax charities, churches or colleges. Yet these institutions produce a fraction of the jobs that businesses produce. If, as a nation, we are committed to “creating jobs,” does it make sense to impose the highest corporate tax rate in the Western world on our biggest and best job creators? Is this not economic masochism?
Many governors understand that if you want something in your state, you do not drive it out with high taxes. You strengthen the magnet of low taxes. Florida wants residents of other states to move there and retire there, so it has no income, estate or inheritance tax. For years, Rep. Jack Kemp urged the creation of enterprise zones in poor communities like Benton Harbor, Michigan, and Harlan County, Kentucky. Businesses that relocated there would be exempt from corporate income taxes.
Why not make the United States the largest enterprise zone on earth—by abolishing the corporate income tax? Read More…
In his Kremlin defense of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin, even before he began listing the battles where Russian blood had been shed on Crimean soil, spoke of an older deeper bond.
Crimea, said Putin, “is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”
Russia is a Christian country, Putin was saying. This speech recalls last December’s address where the former KGB chief spoke of Russia as standing against a decadent West:
Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.
Heard any Western leader, say, Barack Obama, talk like that lately?
Indicting the “Bolsheviks” who gave away Crimea to Ukraine, Putin declared, “May God judge them.” What is going on here? With Marxism-Leninism a dead faith, Putin is saying the new ideological struggle is between a debauched West led by the United States and a traditionalist world Russia would be proud to lead. In the new war of beliefs, Putin is saying, it is Russia that is on God’s side. The West is Gomorrah.
Western leaders who compare Putin’s annexation of Crimea to Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria, who dismiss him as a “KGB thug,” who call him “the alleged thief, liar and murderer who rules Russia,” as Wall Street Journal‘s Holman Jenkins did, believe Putin’s claim to stand on higher moral ground is beyond blasphemous. Read More…
Last weekend, the New York Times and Der Spiegel reported that the NSA has been spying on and hacking into Chinese telecommunications company Huawei since 2009 according to documents released by Edward Snowden. The Chinese response has been swift and strident—high ranking officials condemned these actions and predictably called for an end to the espionage. This disclosure strains the already complicated relationship between the U.S. and China as both giants race to ensure their own economic growth and national security.
At the same time, China may be taking baby steps towards laying down underwater internet fiber optic cables similar to the infrastructure the NSA and British spy agency GHCQ have exploited, what the NSA called their “home-field advantage.” This tactic was among the first in a series of staggered revelations from Edward Snowden in June of 2013. Through a program called Tempora, GHCQ can store communication data for three days and can store metadata for up to 30, providing GHCQ with more metadata than the NSA’s program, with less oversight. This surveillance is conducted partly with assistance from private companies, known as “intercept partners.” It is also conducted without the companies’ knowledge, however, relying on geographic proximity and national familiarity to tap major cables and core internet switches. Now Huawei appears to be developing a similar “home-field advantage” for China. Its current scale is quite small, but Huawei intends to be “one of the top three in the industry.”
It has been well-established that Huawei’s leadership has ties to the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese Communist Party, and the Chinese government. The founder of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei was a PLA engineer, and Sun Yafang, a executive board member, previously worked at the Chinese spy agency, Ministry of State Security Communications Department. When Huawei was still a fledgling company, Sun provided Huawei with millions of dollars to keep it afloat. Since the 1990s, Huawei has repeatedly attempted to establish a foothold in the U.S. telecommunications market, with no success. The United States has remained wary of the Shenzhen-based company, and consistently thwarted Huawei’s efforts to break into the U.S. markets. Finally, at the end of 2013, Huawei announced its intention to seek other opportunities to expand. Huawei has repeatedly denied any significant ties to the Chinese military or government. Read More…
The turmoil and tension surrounding Ukraine has dominated the media as of late—and before that, war in Syria drove the news for many months. But a year ago Egypt was preeminent: the military overthrow of elected President Muhammed Morsi last summer brought both outrage and applause from various factions.
Now, Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the defense minister who led last summer’s takeover, is running for president. Sisi has been in charge since last year’s military takeover—this would just put a formal title to his rulership. New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick believes it’s likely, almost certain, he will win: “Several would-be candidates have declined to enter the presidential race, arguing that the support of the military and security services all but guaranteed Mr. Sisi’s election,” he writes.
Yahoo News reporters Maggie Michael and Lee Keath report that Sisi has surrounded himself with former President Hosni Mubarak’s circle of “politicians, technocrats and big businessmen,” suggesting his presidency would mark a return to the autocratic methods of bygone days.
But Financial Times reporter David Gardner believes Sisi will amass more power than Mubarak, for a few reasons: first, “he has tilted power away from the security services towards the army,” and has used the new constitution to bolster military power. Second, branding the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group and throwing 15,000 to 20,000 of its members into prison has solidified his political prospects. While Sisi may hang up his uniform, notes Gardner, he hasn’t given up its power. Read More…
Taiwan, the semi-autonomous nation not known for making waves, is erupting over a trade pact with China. Last week, hundreds of student protesters occupied the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s unicameral legislative body, demonstrating against the Guomindang’s (KMT) unilateral passage of a service trade agreement signed last year. According to CNN, protesters successfully blocked riot police from the Legislative Yuan with chairs, and have been seated both in and outside the building, singing, chanting, and holding up signs. Police have since used force to clear the Legislative Yuan, with the prime minister saying that the students were “paralyz[ing] our administrative workings,” according to a New York Times report yesterday.
The pact’s passage breaks the KMT’s promise to collaborate with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), staving off an inevitable conflict with the opposition over the pact. The DPP’s longtime stance is rooted in advocating full Taiwanese independence and dissolving ties with China, with much of its energy expended attacking the KMT for colluding with China against local Taiwanese interests. One of the DPP party slogans is, “sell Taiwan”, implying that the KMT is a cowardly puppet government with no interest in advocating for Taiwanese independence.
The protests come at the tail of a long decline in popular opinion of Taiwanese president Ma Ying-Jeou, whose conciliatory stance with China has incited a slow-burning resentment among his political opponents, and has even caused those within his own party to distance themselves from him. Ma’s approval ratings have dropped close to the level of disgraced former DPP prime minister Chen Sui-bian, who was convicted of money laundering in 2009.
One possible outcome of these protests, especially if the trade pact is derailed, is that formal relations across the strait could begin to deteriorate. Damon Linker in The Week speculates that if China were to take Taiwan, it would herald the end of American expansionism in the region. He argues that in spite of written agreements to help Taiwan defend itself, the United States would be unlikely to join in such a war. American neutrality in a hegemon-underdog dispute would bespeak our weakening global image as the world’s national guard, in Linker’s view. While logically sound, this perspective overlooks one important aspect of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations: The United States’s ability to influence Taiwanese relations with China or in the international community was never very strong to begin with. Read More…
A week ago, in the St. George’s Hall in the Kremlin, Russia’s elite cheered and wept as Vladimir Putin announced the re-annexation of Crimea. Seven in 10 Russians approve of Putin’s rule. In Crimea, the Russian majority has not ceased celebrating. The re-conquest nears completion. In Eastern Ukraine, Russians have now begun to agitate for annexation by Moscow. Ukrainian nationalism, manifest in the anti-Russia coup in Kiev, has produced its inevitable reaction among Russians. While praising the Ukrainians who came out to Maidan to protest peacefully, Putin said that those behind the decisive events “resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup.” The Kremlin erupted in cheers.
But not only in Ukraine is ethnic nationalism surging.
“National Front Vote Stuns Hollande” was the headline on the Financial Times’ story about France’s municipal elections Sunday. Though the FN of Marine Le Pen, daughter of party founder Jean Marie Le Pen, did not field candidates in many cities, it won the mayoral race outright in Henin-Beaumont and ran first or second in a dozen medium-sized cities, qualifying for run-off elections on March 30. “The National Front has arrived as a major independent force — a political force both at the national and local levels,” declared Le Pen.
No one is arguing the point. Indeed, a measure of panic has set in for the socialist party of Francois Hollande, which is calling on all parties to unite against FN candidates. In early polling for the May elections for the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the National Front is running close behind the UMP of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, and ahead of Hollande’s socialists. Begun as an anti-immigrant, anti-EU Party, the FN has broadened its base to issues like crime and unemployment.
But the most startling news on the nationalist front last week came in Venice and the Veneto region, where 89 percent of a large turnout in a non-binding referendum voted to secede from Italy and re-establish the Venetian republic that vanished in 1866. Exulted Luca Zaia of the separatist Northern League, “The will for secession is growing very strong. We are only at the Big Bang of the movement—but revolutions are born of hunger and we are now hungry. Venice can now escape.” The proposed “Repubblica Veneta” would embrace five million inhabitants of Veneto. Should it succeed in seceding, Lombardy and Trentino would likely follow, bringing about a partition of Italy. Sardinia is also reportedly looking for an exit.
In readying their referendum, Venetians journeyed to Scotland to observe preparations by the Scottish National Party for the vote this fall to sever the 1707 Act of Union with England. Also observing in Scotland were representatives of Catalonia who will hold a similar referendum this fall on secession from Spain. Basque Country secessionists were present in Scotland as well.
In a report published this weekend, “Europe on Trial,” a poll of 20,000 British commissioned by Lord Ashcroft of the Conservative Party found that Russia (before the Kiev-Crimea crisis) was viewed more favorably than either the EU or European Parliament. By 49-31, British think the costs of membership in the EU outweigh the benefits and they are now evenly divided, 41-41, on whether to get out of the union altogether.
Prime Minister David Cameron has set a vote on EU membership for 2017. Now it appears the Labour Party, seeing the unpopularity of the EU, may also be open to changing the EU treaty and a referendum on saying goodbye to Europe, should they take power in 2015.
Why is the EU under rising centrifugal pressure? Why do so many nations of Europe seem on the verge of breaking up? There is no single or simple explanation.
Venice and Northern Italy feel exploited. Why, they ask, should we subsidize a less industrious and lazier south that consumes tax revenues we raise here. Many northern Italians believe they have more in common with Swiss than Romans, Neapolitans, or Sicilians. Flanders feels the same about the Walloons in Belgium. Scots and Catalans believe they are a people with a culture, history and identity separate from the nations to which they belong.
Across Europe, there is a fear that the ethnic character of their countries and continent are being altered forever against the will of the people. Western Europeans are recoiling at the Bulgarians, Rumanians and gypsies arriving from Eastern Europe. Asylum seekers, economic refugees and migrants in the scores of thousands arrive annually on the Italian island of Lampedusa and in the Spanish Canaries. Early this month, the New York Times reported a surge of 80,000 African migrants headed for the tiny Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast.
The goal these desperate people seek: the mother countries of the Old Continent and the wealthy welfare states of Northern Europe. What the children of Europe are rebelling against is what their fathers, paralyzed by political correctness, refused to prevent. It was predictable, it was predicted, and it has come to pass.
Advocates of education reform have pointed to Finland consistently over the past few years, urging the U.S. to take note of its educational success. The country has “consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA),” writes Atlantic contributor Christine Gross-Loh, yet their system “break[s] a lot of the rules we take for granted.”
In her interview with Finnish Education Chief Krista Kiuru, Gross-Loh highlights many of Finland’s most successful policies, and contrasts them with U.S. education reform policy to great effect. Through the interview, several of Finland’s best educational measures (some with rather conservative values) stand out:
Encouraging the principle of subsidiarity
As part of a series of educational reforms in the 1970s and ’80s, Finland “shook the classrooms free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation,” wrote Smithsonian Magazine contributor LynNell Hancock in September 2011. “Control over policies shifted to town councils. The national curriculum was distilled into broad guidelines.”
Additionally, Finland has eliminated mandated standardized testing, with one exception: the National Matriculation Exam, which all students take at the end of upper-secondary school (similar to an American high school). “Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves,” wrote Atlantic author Anu Partanen in December 2011. “All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.”
“There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions,” writes Hancock. Because of this, Finnish educators are somewhat puzzled by the U.S. “fascination” with standardized testing—Louhivuori told Hancock such tests are “nonsense”: “We know much more about the children than these tests can tell us.”
Instead of requiring a state inspections, veteran teacher and principal Kari Louhivuori told Hancock, “Our incentives come from inside.” Teacher accountability and inspections are the responsibility of teachers and principals, not federal officials.
Hancock compared Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, in which states compete for federal dollars using tests and standards like Common Core, to Finland’s flexible, decentralized system. Helsinki principal Timo Heikkinen told Hancock, “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.” And indeed, the “human aspect” seems very important to Finnish education.
Focusing on the human element, rather than numbers
Teachers spend fewer hours at school and less time in classrooms than their American counterparts. Rather, they use this extra time to create curricula, assess students, and continue their own education. Children spend more time playing outside, and homework is minimal, according to Hancock. Read More…