Despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai's and Chinese leader Hu Jintao's best efforts, Iraq is creeping back into the headlines. Militants struck for the third straight day Wednesday with two deadly attacks that killed at least seven people and wounded over ninety north of Baghdad in Diyala province. In the larger assault, a bomber blew up an ambulance "packed with explosives" outside Iraqi police headquarters. Then, again on Thursday (making it the fourth consecutive day of attacks), three suicide car bombers killed at least fifty-two and wounded one hundred fifty Shia Muslim pilgrims marching toward a shrine in Karbala, sixty miles south of Baghdad. Ten million people are expected to participate in the march over ten days, which has "has been an annual flash point for sectarian violence." All this after "the worst single attack in Iraq since late October" on Tuesday in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit that killed forty-nine Iraqis. And although the "three-month gap since the last major attack" is proof of "the progress made by Iraq security forces," there's still "a steady trickle of deadly attacks, most often focused on security forces, government officials, or in recent months, Iraq's Christian minority." (The last major attack on a single target was an October seige on a Baghdad church that killed sixty people.)
With the focus on Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to DC, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented yesterday about Chinese firms and Iran sanctions. She said, “We think that there are some entities within China that we have brought to the attention of the Chinese leadership that are still not as, shall we say, as in compliance as we would like them to be.” Washington is stressing the issue with Beijing, and Clinton said the administration is even considering putting more unilateral sanctions on the table. Beijing is Tehran’s closest trading partner.
Also on China, Vice President Joe Biden will be going east to have a sitdown with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. Biden accepted the invitation from Hu Jintao to meet the Chinese president’s likely successor.
And yesterday, Secretary Hillary Clinton gave Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader in Myanmar that was recently released from house arrest, a call and offered Washington’s support. According to the department’s spokesman PJ Crowley, Clinton told Suu Kyi that she would “work with her to strengthen civil society and promote democracy.” He shared the news with everyone not in a press conference but on Twitter. The call marked the first discussion between Suu Kyi and a member of the U.S. cabinet in over 15 years.
The Washington Post has a sensible editorial about a case the Supreme Court is hearing this week concerning application of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the statutory basis for orderly (i.e., not leaked) release of information held by the federal government. The case involves a claim that corporations should be considered “persons” for purposes of exempting—as the statute provides—from disclosure under FOIA information that would be a breach of “personal privacy”. The case was brought by AT&T, which seeks to prevent release of information that was uncovered in a federal investigation and is the subject of a FOIA request submitted by a trade association that includes AT&T's competitors. The Post argues that for the court to stretch the personal privacy provision to cover corporations (beyond trade secrets and other proprietary business information, which the law already explicitly exempts from disclosure) would be as big a mistake as the court's determination last year that unlimited corporate campaign contributions are to be considered a personal exercise of free speech.
The Mexican government recently admitted that the death toll for 2010 in the country’s drug war topped 15,000. That is a new annual record by a considerable margin, and it represents a whopping 60 percent increase from 2009—the year that held the previous bloody record. The carnage in the government’s effort to neutralize the powerful and well-armed cartels now exceeds 34,000 during the first four years of President Felipe Calderón’s administration.
In addition to the overall level of violence, the turmoil is spreading well beyond the border cities, such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, the usual epicenters of the fighting. The resort city of Acapulco was just rocked by an incident in which 15 people were abducted and beheaded. Monterrey, Mexico’s economic engine and once an oasis of stability, is now just another battleground in the drug war.
Yet President Calderón refuses to budge from his strategy of using the military to confront the cartels. Prominent former officials, including Calderón’s predecessor Vicente Fox, have urged him to rethink his policy—all to no avail.
President Obama is calling in some new faces for a meeting today with Chinese executives. CEOs from a host of U.S. companies—Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein, GE’s Jeffrey Immelt and more—will head to the White House to talk about the “important commercial relationships that our CEOs have and want to expand in China,” according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. One Chinese executive, Lu Guanqui of the Wanxiang Group, said that the executives are welcomed by people in the United States because they are “solving [Americans'] employment problems.” Meetings between U.S. officials and Chinese President Hu Jintao, who was met at the airport yesterday by Vice President Joe Biden, are of course also scheduled.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on CBS’s Early Show yesterday talking about her future plans and her “very happy past.” About whispers that she might be the next secretary of defense, Clinton said, “As far as I know, these are just rumors. I'm happy to stay where I am.” And she commented that she has no plans to seek office in the future.
With the continuing turmoil in Tunisia—and other Arab governments looking on nervously—Tunisian novelist Kamel Riahi provides an inside look at the protests in the New York Times. A night spent dodging police batons, bullets and tear gas. Huddled with his wife and baby, standing guard with a kitchen knife—then an ax, having flashbacks to his time in "violent Algeria." Speaking of the government, he writes: "A civilized nation is announcing its independence from keeping the peace." The next morning Riahi and his neighbors roam the streets searching for bread and milk that is nowhere to be found. The author says even though he agrees that dissolving the ruling party will send "the country into choas, I think we have no choice by to try." Then: "an overwhelming happiness" at the realization he'll "be able to write freely."
Rare is the magazine that has not suffered upheaval in the past few years. Newsweek was dumped by the Washington Post. The National Journal has reinvented itself, shedding numerous writers and editors. Now Harper's, the proud bastion of traditional liberalism, is cracking up.
In a piquantly illuminating piece in New York magazine, Gabriel Sherman, who cut his journalistic teeth at the New Republic, discloses that Harper's, whose staffers view it as ceding too much ground to the Atlantic, confronts a homegrown revolt in the form of a union, a development that publisher Rick MacArthur, who has poured millions into keeping the enterprise going, apparently views with horror. MacArthur, as Sherman is not slow to point out, is hoist on his own petard, having entered the lists previously to bemoan the decline of "middle-class unionism."
According to Sherman,
The Harper's union has been locked in a bitter dispute with MacArthur since July. And now he's trying to lay off Harper’s' literary editor, Ben Metcalf, who’s worked at the magazine since the mid-nineties and who played a key role in the union drive—a move the union says is pure retaliation.
Ehud Barak’s break from Israel’s Labor Party, taking several other ministers with him to establish a new party called Independence, is to be mourned on several counts. Barak acted in connivance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rewarded the breakaway ex-Laborites with ministerial positions, including Barak retaining his job as defense minister. The once-proud Labor Party—a party descended from Israel’s founding fathers, the party of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin—has been reduced to single-digit representation in the Knesset.
Those identifying with Labor or with the overall Israeli left understandably feel betrayed. Ari Shavit in Ha’aretz says that unless Barak quickly demonstrates otherwise, he will be perceived as a “good-for-nothing opportunist” who “will be remembered as the captain of Labor who, instead of leading his ship to safe havens, opted to crash it into the reef and abandon it.” Shavit adds his own opinion that Barak “has a warped personality and value system” and is “not loyal to people and doesn’t comprehend the democratic process.”
The sudden collapse of the Tunisian government on Friday underscores the turmoil toward which the Muslim world* seems inescapably drifting.
In December, a young man, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself ablaze in the town of Sidi Bouzid after Tunisian police barred him from selling fruit without a permit. The dramatic death touched off weeks of riots that forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia, ending twenty-three years of autocratic, one-party rule.
In recent years, American officials have lamented the previous despotic regime’s endemic corruption and crony capitalism. A U.S. Embassy cable uncovered by Wikileaks reveals:
President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic and there is no clear successor. Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom...Compounding the problems, the GOT [Government of Tunisia] brooks no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Instead, it seeks to impose ever greater control, often using the police. The result: Tunisia is troubled and our relations are too.
Back in 2006, then U.S. Ambassador William Hudson opined, “Given the fact Ben Ali has a dictatorial hold, it is hard to believe he’ll voluntarily step down.” Even so, “the mere fact an increasing number of Tunisians are talking about the end of the Ben Ali era is remarkable.”
The White House is making final preparations for Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit. He’ll arrive in Washington today and is set to get the royal treatment. Hu will dine with President Obama tonight (a smallish private affair) as well as tomorrow (a big state dinner). Vice President Joe Biden will also host a lunch for the head of state. (Some, remembering the missteps of Hu’s last visit to DC four and a half years ago—such as referring to China as Taiwan—are hoping this trip is gaffe-free.)
Over the past few weeks, the administration has been laying the groundwork for the visit. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Beijing last week for meetings and was greeted with a test flight of a brand new Chinese stealth fighter jet. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner stayed at home and continued to press China to open up its markets and revalue its currency, at the same time calling for a fresh start. And on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized China’s human rights stance, including the treatment of Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobao (who is currently in jail).