Obama Sends Message to Cuba

Monday, October 26th, 2009

I first caught sight of this news-piece from an on-line article in L’Humanité, the newspaper of the French Communist Party. I know, sad but true – but L’Humanité to me is nothing more than just another entry in my “France” RSS feed, I swear! And anyway, somehow the same thing has also been covered on-line on the Fox News site (but not more mainstream sources, like the Washington Post or even the New York Times), working from a Reuters report (which the Fox editors actually kept strictly factual – no vituperations against the President here at all!). Anyway, it seems that President Obama took advantage of the meeting he had in the Oval Office with José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, prime minister of Spain, on 13 October to ask him to tell his foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, to pass along a personal message to Cuba – actually, to “the Cuban authorities.” The message was basically that the US was working to improve relations with the island-nation, but “if they don’t take steps too, it’s going to be very hard for us to continue.”

Perusing L’Humanité will further inform you – as looking at the Fox News article will not – that the paper that originally broke this story, appropriately enough, was Spain’s El País. So let’s go there and take a look: we can also handle the Spanish beat here on EuroSavant, though we don’t do it often. (more…)

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Obama Nobel Peace Prize A Close Call

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Still interested in President Obama being awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize? Hope so, because I’ve got some revelations here about what went on behind-the-scenes. They come from a Ritzau report taken up in Berlingske Tidende (Nobel committee was split about Obama). “Split”? It seems that, for most of the time, three of the Peace Prize committee’s five members definitely did not think Obama should be awarded the Prize – he had only been in office as President for nine months, for Heaven’s sake!

Actually, the Ritzau/Berlingske coverage here is really at-one-remove, as they basically pass on original reporting that appeared in the Norwegian newspaper VG. That article you can find here (“Nobel-majority argued against Obama”), and even if you don’t understand Norwegian you really should click through to take a look, because it offers a great prize: there you can see in a photograph, sitting around a table, the actual group of Norwegian notables (“socialists,” “muddled-headed Europeans,” “Obama-groupies,” “Devil’s spawn,” however you want to characterize them) who were directly responsible for him receiving the prize. The three ladies with their heads circled were actually the doubters; in fact, Berlingske quotes the right-most of them (i.e. turning to her left to address the camera) as remarking later to the press “I had expected more debate, especially over the fact that I myself regard as problematic, namely the war in Afghanistan.”

By the way, the committee doesn’t have six members, but five, so that one of the gentlemen off to the right is not actually a voting-member and doesn’t belong there. I’m guessing that the bona fide guy is probably with the red necktie, and that would be the committee chairman, former Norwegian prime minister and current Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland. He’s really the one Obama can thank for his Prize (assuming that Obama is actually grateful for the Prize; there are reasons for thinking that he isn’t): despite the three nay-sayers dismissing the President’s candidacy from early in the selection-discussions, Jagland persevered as chairman (with some support from the one lady whose head is not circled, Sissel Rønbeck) and finally got his way. “The rest,” as they say, “is history” – but one can still speculate on what the outcome would have been had the three dissenters been male and the committee chairman female.

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Obama’s Peace Prize: Danish Reaction

Friday, October 9th, 2009

Let’s take a quick look at what they’re saying in the Danish press about the awarding today to President Barack Obama of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize – “Danish” because that is as close as I can come linguistically to the Swedish deliberations behind its awarding (and the Norwegian arrangements for the conferring ceremony on December 10).

– From the Danish Christian newspaper, Kristeligt Dagblad (Obama gives Nobel money to a good cause): Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama intends to give the 10 million Swedish kroner prize-money to a good cause, which he has not yet had time to specifically identify, according to a White House spokesman. He will also travel to Oslo on December 10 to accept the award there; Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg has already discussed this with him. Ah, but you may also be asking: How will this sudden new Scandinavian appointment affect the US president’s involvement at the UN’s climate-change conference in Copenhagen which will be going on at the same time? According to this report, it does not necessarily increase the chances that Obama will actually decide to attend that climate change conference.

(Note: This is a report from the Ritzau news agency, so the identical text appears in several other Danish newspapers as well. But in one of those we get the added detail that the “expert” behind the above calculation that Obama’s appointment in Oslo in December won’t necessary mean he shows up for the climate conference in Copenhagen – which, by the way, I don’t believe for a second – is namely Aarhus University Professor of Contemporary History Thorsten Borring Olesen.)

– The daily Berlingske Tidende offers some commentary in one article (Obama: Both a certain and a controversial choice), but doesn’t bother to credit the journalist(s) involved. Anyway: Awarding the prize to Obama was certain (sikkert): he is popular everywhere on this Earth, the nearest thing to every man’s friend. Awarding the prize to Obama was, however, controversial: Obama has been all about promises so far, not results. Maybe the Nobel committee was impressed with the resolution calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons that he managed to have the UN Security Council pass a few weeks ago while he functioned as its Chairman – on the other hand, in reality none of the nuclear powers, including the US, has done anything to fulfill the promise they made to the rest of the world at the time of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, back in 1968, that they would work to reduce and then eliminiate their nuclear arsenals, in exchange for that rest of the world giving up any idea of developing nuclear weapons of their own. Or perhaps it’s about his efforts to counteract climate change, or to shut Guantánamo – except, again, there actually hasn’t been tangible progress in these areas, either. No, the purposes the Nobel committee had in giving this prize to the President was both to give him “a tremendous moral pat on the shoulder” and to pointedly remind other countries (the exact Danish phrase is “hint with a wagon-pole”) that the American president is going to need some help from them if what he has promised is going to come true – so that that Nobel committee doesn’t find itself embarrassed a few years down the road at what it did today.

– The preeminent Danish opinion weekly, Information hasn’t yet gotten around to providing its own judgment or study of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama. For now, it presents an analysis (again from Ritzau) from Prof. Peter Viggo Jacobsen, of the Copenhagen University Social Sciences Faculty (Obama is a highly surprising choice). Along with about a billion other people around the world, he interprets the prize as being awarded in anticipation of future achievements, not of past accomplishments since “he has not been able yet to carry out anything at all.” Further Jacobsen:

Normally there should be more then words [behind the award]. There should also be some action. And action is what we haven’t seen much of yet. This has to be in anticipation of something later, that the [Nobel] committee believes that he is capable of realizing some of the good intentions he has.

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Danish Reflections on Obama Visit, Chicago’s Olympic Loss

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

In light of Chicago’s surprise last-place finish in the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) deliberations over which city would get to host the 2016 Summer Games, considering that the Committee met in Copenhagen it’s perhaps worthwhile to take a look at the Danish press to try to answer various questions. Like: What happened? How could Chicago have lost? (more…)

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French Applause for Obama Missile Non-Deployment

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Readers of this weblog – a smallish, hard-core elite, to be sure, but we’re trying to do something about that – will have known the news already, but last Thursday President Obama came out in public to announce that his administration did not intend to proceed with the planned deployment of anti-ICBM missiles to Poland and supporting radar to the Czech Republic. Reaction to the decision was swift and vociferous, both for and against, domestically and internationally. Presseurop has a good survey of that reaction in the Eastern European press, although I feel that it tends a slight bit too much to the alarmist side. It seems many of those newspaper headline-writers have forgotten how fundamentally unpopular the American deployment was among ordinary Czechs and Poles; in this light, Obama’s cancellation of the program per se is not so regretable, but rather the considerable trouble both governments had to take to gain the political approval for their participation, now all achieved for nothing.

Not to worry, though, because French president Nicolas Sarkozy praised Obama’s move as an “excellent decision,” and the editors at Le Monde make it clear that they agree (Hand extended). Yes, the proposed deployment was going to be expensive, for a weapons system about which there remained significant doubts that it ever would actually be able to do what was designed for. But don’t forget the diplomatic dividends, either, Le Monde reminds us. These mainly involve Iran, which is supposed to start multilateral talks with a range of western countries starting on October 1; Obama’s action sends them a message of “good will and realism.” And Russia? Obama’s gesture was directed there to an even greater extent, but Le Monde’s editors unfortunately do not expect to see any corresponding gesture from the Kremlin anytime soon.

By the way, mention should also be made of the announcement by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, noted in Le Monde’s news coverage of the American announcement, that the “SM-3” missiles which are now to be the replacement anti-missile system will be deployed in turn from 2015 in Poland and the Czech Republic. First of all, that is a bit over-determined: mainstream US news reports put it instead that deployment of those missiles to those countries is but a possibility. And that’s a good thing, too: recall that the original ten defensive rockets that were to be intalled in Poland were designed to counter Iranian missiles of intercontinental range. Poland presumably is a good spot to deploy those – just take a string to your globe to check out the great circle route from Iran to the USA – but that is probably not also the case for defense against the short- and medium-range missiles which are now assumed to be the only Iranian threat for many years to come. In light of this, these suggestions that Warsaw and Prague will eventually get their missiles after all have to be regarded as sheer political bull-headedness – “We won’t let anyone tell us we can’t station missiles in Eastern Europe!” – rather than anything based on considerations of military effectiveness.

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Copenhagen: We Don’t Need Obama

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

We all know that President Obama would be tickled pink to have his home city of Chicago win the nod to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. He has made his engagement to that cause plain – but, clearly, there are many other important matters on his plate right now. That’s why, at a promotional event yesterday on the White House lawn for “Chicago 2016,” he nonetheless made it clear that he would not be showing up personally at the meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen next month that is supposed to decide whether the Windy City or one of its competitors (Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, or Madrid) gets that prize.

In a report from the Danish news agency Ritzau that appears in the leading daily Politiken (Copenhagen will manage without Obama) city spokespersons reacted calmly to the development. Said Morten Mølholm Hansen of the Danish Sporting Union (Idræts-Forbund) which will be the IOC’s host:

Of course we would have preferred to see Obama come to the city. But on the other hand I will say that the congress will attract such attention by itself that that is not decisive. So many big names will come to Copenhagen, and the the decision itself about who will become the host-city is so interesting for the entire world, that this will not disturb our concept.

This assessment is shared by communications consultant Henrik Byager, who points out that, after all, Barack Obama may not be coming but it seems that Michelle and Oprah Winfrey will – “the two most prominent women of all in the USA.” Besides, there is also that big United Nations climate change conference scheduled for Copenhagen for this December. Obviously it would not do to have the US president attend both, and if they had to choose one the Danes would prefer that he be at the latter, which actually has to do directly with Danish interests.

UPDATE: Ah, but it seems they’ll get Obama early anyway! Twice within three months, in fact, since he is certainly going to the December UN climate change conference as well. So much for “Obviously it would not do . . .”

FURTHER UPDATE: OK, who really knows whether Obama will actually show up again in Copenhagen in December?

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Obama’s Health Care Speech: French Reax (& Preax)

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Obama gave his big Health Care speech to a joint session of the US Congress early this morning (Central European Time). Let’s take a look at some material about that from the national press of France, the country which, it is widely admitted, has much to teach the Americans about how to run a national health care system.

We first need to consult the French paper-of-record, and that is still Le Monde, which provides initial coverage in a piece jointly credited to it, the AFP news agency, and Reuters (Obama’s big oral exam on health) and put on-line only a couple of hours after the event itself. Graphically, the article stands out due to the two YouTube videos embedded within it, which feature no dubbing or subtitles or any other concessions to French-only readers but which of course include that electric passage when the president was loudly heckled (Vous mentez!, he shouted – or would have, in French, if he had had any bit of class) by South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson. The main insights of note here come at the very beginning – Barack Obama joue le tout pour le tout, or “Barack Obama is going all-in,” in poker-speak – and at the end: the piece remarks that Obama knows he needs to achieve something this year, as it will be even harder to do so next year, an election year. (more…)

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Countering Threats to the President

Saturday, August 8th, 2009

It’s fascinating and horrifying at the same time to read the recent news reports about the violent, intimidating turn the debate in the US over health care reform has taken. But that is not going to be the subject of this particular post per se, mainly because I have not picked up any European coverage of the same – yet, I’m sure. Arthur Touchot of Le Figaro instead gives us a bit of this flavor with a brief piece: Obama receives thirty death-threats daily. Touchot here draws mainly upon a book brought out just this month by Ronald Kessler entitled In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect. (Kessler is a former New York Times and Washington Post reporter who has written a number of other books such as The CIA at War – and in 2006 Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady, which I confess does hurt his credibility with me a tiny bit. But he’s clearly a James Bond fan.)

Yes, as Kessler reports in his new book for which he interviewed scads of Secret Service operatives, Barack Obama is on the receiving-end of about 30 death-threats per day, as opposed to the “only” nine per day that George W. Bush enjoyed. (Now, America is a country of some 300 million, but still . . . perhaps that is a tad much?) The main thrust of his message, as reported by Touchot, is fairly predictable: in these days of government cut-backs, the Secret Service also considers itself to be rather alarmingly starved of resources to be able to respond appropriately to this level of threat against the President’s person. They have only half the level of personnel that they consider necessary, and too often those agents who are on the job have to forego training in order to go investigate and/or guard against various new hazards. If they complain, then they are apparently met with a Marine-type, hoo-ha attitude from their superiors: “You can get it done, and with the resources you have, because you are a Secret Service Agent!” You are Clint Eastwood!

Touchot passes on something else that also isn’t very surprising, namely that Obama has stayed cool in the face of these threats, both on the campaign trail and as president. He then unfortunately feels the need to pad out his piece by reciting the Secret Service code-names for Obama and his brood: the President is “Renegade,” Michelle is “Renaissance,” and on down. Isn’t it obvious that, once revealed like this (and we all know that they were made public long ago), these “code-names” rather lose any functionality they ever had as tools to keep anyone eavesdropping on the Secret Service from knowing who they’re talking about? It’s clear that there must be some other reason for them, and for their repeated revelation, probably having to do with PR and Americans’ love for spy-thrillers and all appurtenances thereto. If the Ph.D. thesis about this phenomenon from some sociology student has not yet been written, I’m sure it will be forthcoming soon.

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Afghanistan Disillusionment Grows in Germany

Friday, August 7th, 2009

Close observers of the NATO effort in Afghanistan (including EuroSavant) have always been aware that there is something strange about the deployment of German troops there, which now has passed the eight-year mark. For starters there is their exclusive placement in the north of the country, when all the meaningful anti-Taliban action is in the south (or at least used to be!), this deployment also features fairly absurd rules-of-engagement designed to restrict the German Army (or Bundeswehr) there to defensive duties only. Now you can add into this mix a strong and growing skepticism among the public back home whether the Bundeswehr should be there in the first place, if we can credit an article by Hauke Friederichs in the prestigious German opinion newspaper Die Zeit, entitled Germany’s self-delusion in the Hindu Kush.

That caustic title is actually the very same as that of a new book out by Stefan Kornelius, head of the foreign affairs department at Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. The expanded list he provides of “defense-only” rules under which the German troops have to work is truly ridiculous. They may fire at targets only after they have first been attacked, and even then may not pursue those enemy forces if they should then try to flee; no night flights are allowed by either fixed-winged or helicopters – and, in any case, anything German pilots may learn up there in the way of intelligence on the enemy cannot be radioed back directly (i.e. in “real-time”), but must be debriefed only after that aircraft is back on the ground. For the rule that takes the cake I almost chose the one reading “No counter-narcotics activity; you’re not here for that,” which among other things supposedly has resulted in opium poppies for harvesting being grown right next to a German base! But no, that has to yield pride-of-place to Friederichs’ mention that German government lawyers are still filing legal complaints against soldiers who fire their weapons in self-defense when it’s not clear that the Taliban have indeed fired first! (more…)

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Obama’s Church Choice Still Pending

Monday, July 13th, 2009

It’s not quite yet summer vacation-time for President Obama, so the world media’s attention continues to track his activities in detail as he undertakes his trips to Europe and Africa and deals back home with important issues like the economy and health care. Presumably once he does take his family off for a spell at Martha’s Vineyard the press will issue their usual analyses of the deeper implications of where specifically he chooses to stay while there, whom he’ll specifically be spending time with, his choice of pastimes, etc., and then maybe back off and leave him alone for the rest of his visit.

Until then, his actions are out there, free to analyze according to whatever ideological leanings one might hold. Those of the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad, for example, are clear: Denmark and Christianity (especially the Danish flavor of state-Lutheranism). Obama has had little to do with Denmark lately, but the question of which church he intends to make his and his family’s own during their four-/eight-year stay in Washington is still open, and so it is to this subject that that newspaper’s correspondent Marie Louise Bruun Jørgensen recently turned (Obama considers various churches).

“We are still figuring out how to approach the choice of a church for when we are here in Washington, D.C.” is what Obama said while meeting with Catholic journalists just prior to his overseas trip last week, which of course included an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. (He more-or-less said that: keep in mind that that is my own translation back into English of Obama’s original remarks which were translated into Danish for the KD’s readers.) An early favorite, though, seems to be Evergreen Chapel, which is not in Washington at all but rather in the vicinity of the Camp David presidential retreat, where he was impressed by the the sermon he heard while on a visit there. Of course, Evergreen’s true appeal might lie closer to that characteristic marketing textbooks always define as the most vital for retail success: “Location, location, location!”

This also raises the prospect, however, that the President is contemplating spending most of his free weekends over at that Maryland-mountains retreat. People can evaluate whether that would be a good thing or not – and they will, in print, on the air, etc. – but that is also not yet a firm decision, so that Washington churches are still in the running. “And I believe that we’ll come to a decision in the course of the fall or winter,” Obama further informed the journalists. “Maybe we’ll choose to attend several different churches rather than choose one single one.”

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, Justin Webb is unequivocal on this subject: “THE MAN IS A QUAKER” – he just doesn’t know it yet. Okaaay . . . well, Webb might conceivably know what he is talking about, after all for years he has been “North America editor” for the BBC.

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His Last Moonwalk – Why Bother?

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

I’m afraid I devoted zero time yesterday to witnessing any portion of those ceremonies in Los Angeles in tribute to the late Michael Jackson, despite the eagerness of eighteen US TV channels and at least four German broadcasters, etc. to bring it to me. (Are you kiddin’?! Of course I didn’t watch . . . ). But I confess that I did at least read Christian Kortmann’s review of the same in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung (Michael Jackson: His last moonwalk). And I’m glad that I did, for I can easily identify with the stance towards that inevitably lugubrious orgy of hagiography that Kortmann adopts, namely that of someone who also would have greatly preferred to devote zero time to the proceedings, but whose editor cut off any such option.

(But do let me mention here some aspects of his piece that will appeal even to non-German-reading MJ-lovers, like the videos of the ceremony that he embeds within his text and the fantastic panorama-photo at the very top – even I liked this! – of Janet and the remaining elements of the Jackson 5 plus Randy, all sitting in a row and in a sort of uniform that includes shades, black suit, canary-yellow tie, and one white glove – this “uniform” business excluding Janet, at least for the most part.)

Some interesting observations out of Kortmann’s review: (more…)

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Obama Visits Moscow

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

As usual, the Economist provides an excellent cover-story editorial (Welcome to Moscow) discussing President Obama’s tricky task ahead as he pays a visit to Moscow prior to his attendance, starting next Wednesday, at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy. One conclusion their writer draws is that nuclear arms control is probably the area where he can expect the most success (or even the only tangible success) out of that visit.

A report out of the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende (Hope for atomic agreement between USA and Russia, sourced to the Ritzau news-agency) largely confirms that assessment and adds further detail. For one thing, this will actually be the second time Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev will discuss the subject. When they first met in London, at that G20 summit of early last April, they agreed to begin negotiations during this upcoming visit on strategic nuclear arms – which may have been somewhat of a no-brainer, as the current START-1 treaty that regulates the US-Russia strategic nuclear balance expires on 5 December of this year. In any case, it’s not like things have been quiet on this front (unfortunately); there is still that plan by the US to set up an anti-missile system in Central Europe, ostensibly aimed against Iran, with the control radar in the Czech Republic and the actual missiles in Poland, a topic which Medvedev is guaranteed to bring up into the conversations. Plus, the Russian president’s initial idea for greeting Obama’s election last November was to announce his intention to station short-range, nuclear-tipped “Iskander” missiles to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad as a counter-move to that anti-missle system, although he has not followed through yet with the actual deployment.

But there’s another problem that the Economist article did not bring up, and that is NATO’s current difficulties with its supply line to Afghanistan. Routing provisions through Pakistan via the Khyber Pass has been a risky proposition for some time, and a few months ago it also looked like the US would be losing access to a key airbase in Kyrgyzstan, although recently the two governments signed an agreement to open it up again for American military use. Still, it would be handy also to be able to use Russian facilities – as well as Russia’s considerable influence on the Kyrgyz government – so that cooperation here would be very welcome. The BT article says American officials likewise have hopes of being able to settle this during the upcoming Russo-American summit.

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One French Hand Clapping for Waxman-Markey

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

. . . er, yes, I know that Michael Jackson died, I’m just trying to see whether I can hold off having to write about that. Though if I get any more e-mail requests, I guess my hand will be forced.

For now, though, I’d rather discuss the Clean Energy and Security Act, otherwise known as the Waxman-Markey bill after its leading Congressional sponsors, that was passed in the US House of Representatives yesterday by a narrow 219-212 vote. This is the legislation that would move the US towards a “cap and trade” approach to regulating greenhouse-gas emissions. One key to understanding the push for such a law is clearly the issue’s whole international aspect: the rest of the world rather expects the United States to embark on something of this sort, whether it is Europe that already is further ahead in its environmental legislation or it is China and India who are definitely behind, but looking on to see whether there will ultimately be American inaction that can justify their own.

That’s why it is good to see an article in the authoritative French newspaper Le Monde such as the one just written by Corine Lesnes. Obama launches his green revolution, she proclaims in the piece’s very title, which features at the top an oddly hagiographic photo of Obama standing in front of what seems to be an early-American wilderness mural, perhaps during a visit to the Department of the Interior. (more…)

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Angela Merkel to Washington Next Week

Monday, June 15th, 2009

The well-respected German opinion newspaper Die Zeit is now reporting that a spokesman for German Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel has announced that she is planning to visit President Obama in Washington on Thursday and Friday next week (25-26 June). The main items on the agenda are said to be coordinated preparation for the upcoming G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy (8-10 July) and the Mideast peace process – oh, and yes, what is happening in Iran, as well. (more…)

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Meanwhile, Back in the West Bank . . .

Monday, May 18th, 2009

While Benjamin Netanyahu heads to the White House later today for his first official meeting with President Obama, is anyone listening to the Israeli Armed Forces Radio? At least the ANP, the Netherlands national press agency, is listening, and it provides the information that enables the Algemeen Dagblad to report on what is going on under the radar back in the Middle East while the American and Israeli heads of government have their discussions.

Whether the Israeli Armed Forces Radio broadcast in question is an explicit advertisement or not is unclear, but its point is to announce the opening of registration to purchase one of twenty new houses in Maskiot, a Jewish settler colony in the occupied West Bank. In fact, as we learn from its very own Wikipedia article, Maskiot is so deep into the West Bank – it’s way over on the other side from Israel, right on the Jordan river, for Heaven’s sake – that past attempts to expand it have drawn the publicly-expressed ire of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the British government, and even George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

Where is the public anger now? Clearly this sort of thing, in addition to being a direct slap in the face to the Palestinian Authority, is tremendously counter-productive to the sort of two-state solution and peace negotiations which are the main elements of the desired American approach to achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Does Netanyahu really remain unaware of this as he heads to meet with President Obama over precisely such measures, or is he just breathtakingly cynical?

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Dry Presidential Groupie

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

After Barack Obama finished up his speech on Sunday to the tens of thousands present on Prague’s Castle (Hradčanské) Square, he decided to wade into the crowd a bit. In the process, one enthusiastic Czech got so close as to pat the head of the Most Powerful Man on Earth.

An article in the largest-circulation quality Czech daily, Mladá fronta dnes (I patted Obama on the head. He hugged me.), has the details about this character, as well as a couple of pictures of the incident in question so you can decide just how outraged you’d care to be. That guy’s name is Jaroslav Suchý (a fairly common Czech last-name; it means “dry”), and he’s no stranger to the Czech security service. But hold on, it’s not what you think: as the head of that organization, Lubomír Kvíčala, told MFD:

That person who lightly touched the president on his hair I know. We already encountered him a couple of times at previous visits of the American president Bush and at a visit by Mrs. [Condoleezzaa] Rice. He is just enthusiastic about such visits and loves them. He’s definitely not dangerous.

According to Suchý himself, he was waiting at the checkpoint offering access to Castle Square from midnight Saturday, i.e. seven hours before the gates were opened for the public, and other on-the-scene MFD reporters confirm that he was among the first to be admitted by police, which enabled him to rush up to grab a prime position up front (into what generally would be termed the “mosh pit” in a rock-concert context – here, it turned into the “press-the-flesh zone”). As one such reporter states, “[f]or a whole three hours he loudly let people in his vicinity know how he was looking forward to the speech.” And Suchý himself also told MFD that “although I don’t really speak English, I clapped at every one of Obama’s sentences. Despite the fact that I was mainly looking at the president rather than the [translated] sub-titles.”

The article goes on to note that, when Jaroslav Suchý is not tracking down and applauding high-ranking American officials, he is pursuing a case in the Czech courts seeking compensation for being forced to attend “special schools” (i.e. schools for the handicapped), which he claims he was forced into solely because of the color of his skin. Perhaps some of you, examining the article’s photos again, may think this is some sort of joke, but it likely is not: the Czech Republic does still have an ethnic-discrimination problem, although it is not directed against black people (who are exceedinly rare) but against the Romany, or “gypsies.” So apparently the authorities where Suchý grew up kept classifying him as a gypsy.

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Denmark’s Rasmussen To Head NATO

Monday, April 6th, 2009

You likely missed it in the thick series of happenings and photo-ops that have flooded the world’s front pages since Barack Obama first took flight last Tuesday for London, but there was a bit of a mini-crisis brewing at the NATO summit (his next stop after the G20 meeting in London) even as he addressed all those German and French students in Strasbourg at that “town hall” meeting on Friday. It wasn’t very complicated: the current Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was lined up to succeed Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as NATO Secretary-General at the summit, but there was a serious monkey-wrench in the works: the top Turkish leaders did not want Rasmussen in that post, and they were ready to insist that he not get it and so exercise the effective veto they and every other one of NATO’s 28 members have on such a top position. (The Turkish complaints against him related to the late 2005/early 2006 Danish cartoons affair, plus a Kurdish-language TV station – “Roj TV” – that broadcasts in Denmark.) Things even reached the point that – horrors! – the news conference scheduled for 1:00 PM on Saturday afternoon did not happen until a good two-and-a-half hours later, which is when De Hoop Scheffer could finally appear on the stage shaking hands with his Danish successor.

As befitting its status as one of Denmark’s best-regarded daily newspapers, Berlingske Tidende has some good coverage of this affair (NATO’s declaration-of-confidence in Denmark), written by Ole Bang Nielsen. First off, Nielsen makes it clear just what this appointment means to the Danes themselves, namely a recognition that Denmark is no longer just a “footnote-nation and hesitant member of NATO,” as well as a personal vote of support to Rasmussen himself. To get there past the Turkish opposition, though, truly took a tremendous diplomatic full-court press – “the large European NATO lands finally threw in all their political ballast against Turkey,” as Nielsen writes. Breaking up that NATO meeting without having Rasmussen in place as the Secretary-General would have been a humiliation – especially for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who basically had announced the day before that Rasmussen would be named – so those European countries did indeed throw in everything, including Turkey’s prospective EU membership. Yes, EU matters generally do not belong being linked to NATO issues (the memberships of the two organizations don’t match very exactly, anyway), but Nielsen writes that certain threats were made nonetheless against Turkey’s EU membership process should it continue to hold out against the Dane. It seems even that the EU enlargement commissioner (Olli Rehn, a Finn) was on-hand personally to utter authoritative remarks toward the Turks such as “This does not look good from a European perspective, if Turkey does not give way.” There you have it: ordinarily Rehn did not even belong there at the NATO meeting at all, since he is an EU official, and because Finland is not a member of NATO anyway. (more…)

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To Prague, With Reluctance

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

hradcanskaIf this is Saturday, and you’re the American president, then that countryside you see down below, outside of the windows of Air Force One, must be the Czech Republic. Yes, today Obama and entourage flies on to Prague, and Dan Bilefsky in the New York Times already has the details about how he has the tricky task before him of visiting a country’s capital while taking care to have very little to do with top leaders of the government there – and pulling all this off without seeming impolite or ungrateful for the hospitality. The first trick involves invoking a presidential desire for a night off in scenic Prague, to grab the chance for an intimate dinner with Michelle at a “secret location,” in order to avoid any extended encounter-over-a-meal with either Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek (who publicly labeled Obama’s domestic budget plans a “road to hell”* only a few days ago; is a rather stolid, apparatchik-type guy anyway; speaks little English – and, most vitally, is now but a “caretaker” prime minister after his government fell this past week) or President Václav Klaus (speaks excellent English, now is in whip-hand position to determine composition of the next Czech government – but who could also bring on an attack of extreme presidential indigestion, no matter how excellent the food served, with his outspoken and negative opinions about the EU and climate change; for more about this in English, from the Economist, see here). (more…)

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Obama in Europe

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Did you know that Barack Obama’s first visit to Europe as US President actually begins tonight? I didn’t know that, but that’s only one of the interesting facts you can pick up (if you read Dutch) from Frank Poosen’s preview of the president’s visit published today in the Flemish newspaper Het Nieuwsblad (The Obamas tear through Europe).

Yes, the US first couple (and the rest of their 500-person entourage) fly into London’s Stansted airport (misspelled in the article) sometime tonight, to be then helicoptered promptly to their hotel in London proper. Poosen adds that up to six helicopters will be taking off from Stansted at roughly the same time, each heading to London by a slightly-different route – it’s a helicopter shell-game designed to befuddle any terrorist stationed just outside the airport with an anti-aircraft missile, you see. (more…)

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Obama is a Democratic Socialist!

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Sssssshhhhhh – keep it down, will ya? That’s exactly what Rush Limbaugh together with just about the rest of the Republican Party have been loudly declaiming these past few weeks, and we all know that is hogwash. Who is this guy who is piling on this organized campaign of slander against the President?”

Actually, it’s Josef Joffe, one of the publishers of the prestigious German weekly commentary newspaper Die Zeit, who in a new article (title: “The Monster Budget”) calls Obama a “social democrat,” i.e. in the European style. OK, he actually doesn’t call Obama a “social democrat” directly, but instead writes about the “social-democratization” of America that he detects Obama is aiming for on the evidence of the Federal government budget that he just submitted to the Congress. His lede reads “Barack Obama’s proposed budget drives expenditures, debts, and taxes to new heights.” It all sounds like we still might prefer to keep Rush Limbaugh in the dark about this, don’t you think? (Do you remember if Rush understands any German?) (more…)

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Poles Down the River?

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

The big news the past week on the international relations front was President Obama’s “secret letter” he had hand-delivered to Russian president Medvedev last month. In it, he supposedly suggested – or at least hinted at – a possible deal whereby the US would stop the planned deployment of an anti-missile system with the radar installations in the Czech Republic and the actual anti-missile missiles in Poland, in return for Russia’s assistance in stopping the alleged drive by Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

Even if nothing ultimately comes of it, this move certainly denotes some new thinking being applied to both Russo-American and Iranian-American relations. Then again, what about the Czechs and the Poles? As is so rightly pointed out in that NYT article (the one I link to above), in those countries “leaders invested political capital in signing missile defense cooperation treaties with the United States despite domestic opposition.” (more…)

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Of Protectionism and Hypocrisy

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

I’ve had this editorial in the Frankfurter Rundschau by Mario Müller (title: “Every man for himself”) held off to the side for a couple days until I could find the chance to address it adequately, because it reminds us of a simple but bald fact that we would all do well to remember: state aid to help the auto industry survive, or even an individual auto company, is precisely protectionism, plain and simple. So many of the heads of government circulating around the world today piously declaring “Protectionism! No indeed, we can’t allow that,” if they nonetheless are willing to extend financial support to their countries’ auto interests, are simply the usual sort of political hypocrite that we have all come to know rather too well.

Given that such pronouncements were apparently the main output coming out of the otherwise disappointing special EU summit last Sunday over the economic crisis, we probably need to include under that “hypocrite” rubric President Sarkozy of France. Chancellor Merkel of Germany potentially belongs there, too, depending on what she decides to do about Opel in particular, and decision time is coming very soon now that GM has indicated that that division will run out of money in a month. It probably would also include the leaders of some other EU members who themselves have more recently built up a thriving auto sector – like the Czech Republic and Slovakia – except that those governments simply don’t have the money to spend on any such thing. And sad to say, it could also include Barack Obama – again, depending on what he decides to do about the new requests for mega-money from GM and Chrysler.

They don’t like being hypocrites, of course, but from Obama on down the political impulse to supply some assistance to your national auto manufacturers is usually pretty overwhelming. So let’s follow along with Müller why that’s really not the thing to do. As he points out, blatant and ham-handed instruments of protection, like tariffs assessed at the incoming port or airport, while still prevalent, are no longer so much in vogue. Instead, governments (yes, even those within the EU, where it is supposed to be a completely open market) pursue their protectionism in more subtle ways, such as giving native companies certain tax breaks, or awarding subsidies – which is precisely the aid that the auto-makers from the US to France to Germany are asking for. Quite simply, this provides native firms with an unnatural advantage, enabling them to sell their wares for less and/or to gain a greater profit by doing so even though they probably are not the most-efficient producer. Meanwhile, of course, it’s the taxpayer who is paying for this dubious privilege of shifting production to a less-efficient producer.

Again, all of this will likely butter no parsnips when it comes to the political decisions whether to accede to the auto firms’ calls for help, as economically-distorting as such subsidies can be shown to be. It’s at least refreshing to be able to get such a public reminder of the point in the (on-line) pages of a major newspaper in a country whose economy is dominated by the auto industry to an even greater extent than it is in the US.

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Brought to Heel

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Just in case it might be of interest, here is the article on the Obamas’ choice of a White House dog from the Financial Times Deutschland. Yes, that’s right: the article in the Financial Times Deutschland about the Obamas’ dog. (It’s entitled “There will always be more dogs”.)

Actually, if you’re willing to concede that a serious business newspaper like this is supposed to be reporting about dogs in the first place, the article (by Anja Rützel) is faintly amusing. As we all know by now, the First Pet is to be a Portuguese water dog, but Ms. Rützel lightly casts doubt upon what she clearly regards as a somewhat weird choice: “A properly-trimmed water dog looks like he has wrapped a bed-side rug around himself and is wearing to the rear some very tight stockings.” Then again, such dogs apparently have webbed feet and have been known to save drowning people – is the White House planning to cut payroll by doing without a lifeguard for the swimming pool?

Ms. Rützel also briefly examines the names for the dog brought forth so far (and immediately rejected) by Michele Obama. She claims “Frank” has been hailed by the election committee of Germany’s governing SPD party (whose candidate for Chancellor in the elections this year will be Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – get it?), but could ultimately prove problematic during international negotiation sessions at the White House. (“Heel, Frank!” the President might brusquely command.) As for “Moose,” she comes up with the (not-so-original) thought that this name might just tempt Sarah Palin to shoot the dog out of a helicopter.

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Sharp Eye on Obama from Flanders

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

Where did Obama’s political “honeymoon” go? I guess it comes down to the times being a little too serious for cutting much slack to any new presidential administration, especially one coming into office with so much committment to “change” and so many electoral promises to keep. And keep them he had better, or the Flemings (that’s the Dutch-speaking Belgians) will let him know about it; already their main daily, De Standaard has the headline up Obama breaks first electoral promise.

Now, to be sure, it does not seem to be the case that De Standaard has dispatched one or more of its reporters over to Washington to function as Flanders’ watchdog over the Obama administration for the rest of its term; newspapers around the world are trying to cut costs these days, not add to them. You’ve got to be smart in the news biz and get more out of less by leaning heavily on time-honored economic concepts like specialization and comparative advantage. So De Standaard relies mainly on the special website, called Politifact.com, that the St. Petersburg Times has set up to monitor (in great detail) Obama’s many electoral promises.

Sure enough, there is already problem about the speed with which President Obama is signing newly-passed bills from Congress into law. It’s not that he’s too slow; it’s that he’s too fast, since his “Sunlight Before Signing” promise entailed putting each bill on-line for five days before signing it, “giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website.” Yet the very first bill he signed into law, the “Lilly Ledbetter Pay Equity Bill,” was dispatched from the president’s desk a mere two days after the Senate passed it on to him, and in any case it does not seem that its text was put on-line even for that period. And then the next, the SCHIP bill extending children’s public health insurance, he signed into law a mere couple of hours after it was passed by the Congress.

The Standaard article continues: “An Obama spokesman confirmed that Obama wants to bring more transparency into government with the so-called “Sunlight Before Signing” measure, but said he hoped the measure would be implemented soon.”

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Russia Feels the Obama Effect

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

Even amid the general euphoria last Election Day at the gaining of America’s highest office by an African-American, there was still a sprinkle of rain on that parade. (Here at €S we are always on the look-out for the rain on the parade!) Do you remember? It was right on November 5, the day after, that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev offered his own form of congratulations by announcing that Russia intended to deploy short-range missiles (presumably nuclear-capable) to Kaliningrad, that little piece of Russia lying on the Baltic Sea, to the West of Lithuania – and just to the North of Poland, where the US still has signed a treaty paving the way for it to install an anti-missile system, controlled by radar itself stationed within the Czech Republic. Russia has always been sore about that anti-missile system, apparently fearing that it is aimed against itself some way and/or that the deployment would hinder her own capability to sway/intimidate her former satellite states in Eastern Europe, so that this deployment to the Kaliningrad enclave threatened to become the start of a Cold War-like missiles confrontation.

Now a somewhat more reassuring word comes from Germany’s paper-of-record, the FAZ: Russia stops rocket-deployment in Kaliningrad. The article cites the Russian news-agency Interfax as quoting a unnamed member of the Russian General Staff to the effect that this step was taken “since the new American government seemingly is distancing itself from forcing through the setting-up of parts of the planned anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.” (more…)

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Can’t Crack the Crackberry

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

“I’m addicted to it,” President Obama reportedly told his interviewers on CNBC recently when they asked about his Blackberry. Still, could he be allowed to have it? The two presidents America has had so far during the Digital Age of e-mail and Internet – Clinton and Bush Jr. – famously had nothing to do while in office with e-mail and were never seen toting a mobile telephone. The concerns had to do both with the law (e.g. the obligation to preserve any written communications and the legal standing any messages might have) and with routine communications security.

On that latter point, at least, there might not be that much to worry about, according to a recent analysis in the German newsmagazine Focus (Blackberry security: The enemy in the telephone). The lede:

In contrast to his predecessors, US President Barack Obama may make use of a smartphone – but within strict limits. How insecure are Blackberry & Co.?

Not as insecure as you may fear, as it turns out, and that from German experience. As the article relates, back in June 2005 the auto-producer Audi decided to ban Blackberry use among its employees out of fears of industrial espionage by its competitors. The company was particularly concerned about the fact that all Blackberry e-mails are routed through the servers of RIM, the device’s Canadian manufacturer. But RIM was able to persuade Audi that this traffic was encrypted in such a way that even RIM itself could not break the code and read any messages – even if directed to do so by some government authority. Later, in response to a pronouncement by the German Office for Information Technology Security (in German, the BSI) that the Blackberry was too vulnerable for use by government officials who had to send secure communications, RIM managed to gain for its equipment a Common Criteria security certificate, basically meaning that a process of independent testing (presumably by the Standards Council of Canada) confirmed the Blackberry’s adherence to a very strict set of international security standards – strict enough, in fact, that Common Criteria certification was routinely recognized as good enough for any equipment to be allowed for German government use without further question. Late last year the prestigious German Fraunhofer [Research] Institute also was willing to certify the security of the Blackberry’s encryption, to a 24-million-year-before-cracking standard.

Alright, but what if the President loses his “Obamaberry”? (President Bush Jr. famously lost the watch off his wrist in an adoring crowd of Albanians, after all.) That’s also not really a problem; off-the-shelf commercial products are available today to mere-mortal users for powerfully encrypting the data on the machine, and no doubt US Government experts can take that at least one step further. (Plus, there is not supposed to be that much contact information on the machine in the first place, since it’s only supposed to be used for communication with engste Bekannte – “closest intimates.” Although I suppose Disney and various other youth-marketeers would love to get a direct line to Malia and Sasha.) The same considerations can be applied to the prospect of bugging, as well as spam and malware.

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Ja, wy kinne!

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

Heard the latest? Barack Obama actually is descended from Dutch ancestors! And that word comes from a French source, namely Libération, which a few days ago, at the time of the inauguration, came out with Batavian rumor: Is Barack Obama of Netherlands origin? (“Batavian” is simply a historical adjective meaning “Dutch.”) However, that Libération article does make reference to an article from last November in the Dutch (tabloid-quality) newspaper De Telegraaf (The Dutch roots of Obama), which itself further references an even-earlier article in De Volkskrant (of February, 2008) as well as another investigation into the subject on a Dutch history website.

Fine, but what’s the point? The point is this: Barack Obama’s great-grandfather might have been a Dutchman resident in Kenya. The surname “Obama” is supposedly not really that common there in the land of origin of Barack Obama Sr. Indeed, it rather seems quite close to “Obbema,” a typical surname from Friesland, which is a section of the Netherlands along the North coast that still has its own language (Frisian), a different history, and even a slightly-different culture. This small detail prompted the family-lineage-researcher Koen Verhoeven to go discover records of a certain Jelle Obbema, from Friesland, who sometime around 1870 went to seek his fortune in Kenya, and in fact made it big there in the peppermint trade. While making all this money, Jelle still found time to chase the native women, but, as all these accounts make plain, “he took his responsibility,” i.e. to support those children he sired and to give them his last name. One of these was a son named Sjoerd-Bark, in the Frisian custom of giving children double names (as in “Geert-Jan”). The thought is that this Sjoerd-Jan was later connected to Barack Obama Sr. – the similarity of their given names (“Bark” – “Barack”) is supposed to make that connection.

To my mind, it is there that this tale loses its credibility, since “Barack” is well-known to be derived from the Arabic root for “to bless” or “to be blessed.” (Compare the president of Egypt: Mubarak. And remember that the transmission of Arabic influence into Kenya would have come via Swahili, that common East African language – an official language in Kenya, along with English – which gleaned much of its vocabulary from Arabic.) Still, as these Dutch articles point out, Jelle Obbema and the relatives he left behind in Friesland were all impressive athletes, although this in the field of ice-skating rather than basketball. And then there is inscription to be found under the Obbema family coat-of-arms: Ja, wy kinne!, which naturally means “Yes we can!”

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Obama Becomes President, Steals Sarkozy’s Limelight

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Yes We Can! Barack Hussein Obama is now 44th president of the United States!

Time to assess reactions to that historical event from over on this side of the Atlantic. I’m tempted just to see what the Netherlands press has to say, particularly because of the great cover on today’s editions of the local quality free paper, De Pers: The black Jesus has landed! (Careful with that link: it will download for you the PDF of the entire issue.) “And now Barack Obama, since yesterday the new boss of the world, must really get to work,” the headline continues. “He is being looked to for carrying out wonders for every Tom, Dick, and Harry.”

I like that sort of irreverent, tongue-in-cheek attitude (at least I think that’s what the De Pers editors intended there), but let’s briefly survey instead coverage from the French press, to which it seems I traditionally turn first in the wake of some significant global event. (more…)

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Barack Obama and the Establishment

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

We always like to go against the grain here at EuroSavant, so today – the historic day of Barack Obama’s inauguration as 44th president, note that coverage here of reactions to that event begins tomorrow – let’s take a look at an opinion piece from the German Frankfurter Rundschau, authored by Arno Widmanm, entitled Obama’s helplessness. Here’s the lede: “The historical event was the election. Once in office, the new president of the United States will be able to bring about less change [or Change, if you like] than many have dreamed about.”

Isn’t that what so many of us are worrying about even as we witness, each in our own way, the inauguration delirium now playing out in America’s capital city? That Obama: as Widmann is glad to put it, “The United States has in him one of the most intelligent, alert, and communication-gifted presidents in its history.” I mean, just go read his books, and compare them to other politicians’ tired, ghost-written literary output! (more…)

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As the Bush Administration’s Lights Go Out . . .

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

So now Israel has unilaterally decided to stop bombarding the Gaza Strip. Gee – why just now? Could it have anything to do with the inauguration of an entirely-new American administration on Tuesday? And could the timing of whole episode from the attacks’ very beginnings on 27 December be somehow connected to a desire to take advantage of the “hands-off” attitude of top American leaders while Israel still could?

For all the evident excitement about Inauguration Day, people need to stay on the alert on Monday, tomorrow: Pardon Day. That is the last day of George W. Bush presidential power, and so surely the day he will issue a set of shocking and unprincipled pardons to protect himself and his underlings from, among other things, war crimes charges. Isn’t this clear? Doing so at any point before would have spoiled the effect of (and probably increased the volume of flying shoes at) his rather pathetic “farewell tour” of self-justifying interviews and press conferences. So stay tuned.

Oh, and Obama has a fresh foreign policy crisis waiting for him as soon as the inauguration euphoria winds down. Yes, it’s Gaza too, but I’m referring more here to North Korea’s new “all-out confrontational posture” towards South Korea (the latter’s military is now on high alert) together with its claims to have procured enough plutonium for four or five nuclear weapons.

UPDATE: Well now, on the question of further pardons it looks like I was wrong!

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