Around the World (January 26, 2013)

French Military Involvement in Mali

The control of the very weak government over the Malian state was severely compromised back in April 2012, when an alliance of Tuareg rebels (who want an independent state in the north) together with hard-line Islamist groups took controlof almost two-thirds of Mali, in the northern part of the country, which includes the larger cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Since it would be unacceptable for both the other African states and for the rest of the world to allow fundamentalist groups (such as MUJAO, Ansar Dine, and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb) to establish such a strong foothold in northern Africa, and even take control of a state, last year was spent with (mostly failed) efforts to enhance the capacity of the Malian army, and with expressed (yet never-materialized) intentions to send African troops in support of the country’s government.

Finally, on Friday, January 11 France, who has a long-standing history of presence in the region, and military assets in neighboring countries, has launched a (mostly) aerial mission in support of the governmental army. French president François Hollande expressed his intention to continue to expand this involvement, including an estimated 2500 French ground troops. Although several African organizations or groups of states, including ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and the African Union, have pledged several thousands of troops, up to this point, mostly because of logistical and financial difficulties, only a couple hundred have arrived, from Senegal, Nigeria and Togo.  Other EU countries as well as the US have been asked or have already begun offering logistical help to the French and to the Malian troops, including  air-fueling capabilities, training resources and equipment.

In more recent developments, in what is the most significant military success of this campaign, French-led military forces have taken back control of the city of Gao from the Islamist groups.

Hostage Crisis in Algeria

In what is apparently a retaliation for the French intervention in Mali, an oil rig managed by BP, the Norwegian Statoil and the Algerian state oil company, located in a remote desert area about 40km / 25 miles from the town of In Amenas. was attacked and taken over on January 16 by a group associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Algeria has known decades of internal conflict (to the brink of civil war, and maybe beyond) between Islamist groups and the government, during which its military has built up an ethos (and a position in the society) that is based on an immediate and unmitigated response to violent actions from such groups. In consequence, and contrary to promises made to the British PM David Cameron, on the next day, January 17, the Algerian army launched a violent attach on the oil rig, where several hundred people were held hostage (among them about 700 Algerians and 100 foreigners) . During the resulting four days stand-off (detailed story) some 40 civilians and 23 militants have lost their lives (first-hand account).

Numerous victims were Japanese citizens, which gives us a sense of the complicated world created by the intersection of the interests of multinational corporations, trans-national terrorist networks and a political world ruled by states. Thus we have a situation where the governments of Japan and of Romania are equally concerned about a terrorist attack in Northern Africa (international death toll), attack that is linked to a French intervention in yet another country in the region.

US: White House and Cabinet Shuffles

When a US president wins re-election, i.e. when he starts a new term, it is usually expected, in the very fluid world of American politics, that he will change some of the key positions in the Cabinet and perhaps also among his staff. (The Cabinet is a key component of the executive, as it is composed of all the heads of executive departments – usually called “secretaries” (in most other political systems these are called government ministries and ministers, respectively). Since this is a presidential system, and the president “embodies” the executive, these “secretaries” do not represent specific constituencies, as it would happen in parliamentary systems, where they would be prominent politicians from the parties forming the governing coalition. Thus, the changes are relatively easy to make, since these people serve “at the pleasure of the president”. The reason why such changes are expected, on the other hand, is that the image and “energy’ projected by the president and his team, are key dimensions of their capacity to influence public opinion and the policy-making process (since constitutionally they do not play a direct role in the formulation or passing of legislation – again unlike other political systems).

Besides the Cabinet, another important institution in the US executive is the White House Office, part of the Executive Office of the President. These are the people who work most closely with the president, helping him exercise his duties and powers, but are also the closest to the president, physically (in the “West Wing“) and personally. However, unlike the heads of departments, who need to be approved individually by the Senate, as constitutionally mandated (as they are constitutionally described), these employees who work most closely with the President can be appointed (and dismissed) by him at will.

Among the recent changes made to the staff of the White House Office, the one that has to stand out is the new Chief of Staff, position that will go now to Denis McDonough, who until now worked mostly on foreign and security affairs (at least on paper; last position was Deputy National Security Advisor).

The changes to the Cabinet (who remains, who leaves) include John Brennan for CIA Director, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary, Senator John Kerry for Secretary of State (i.e. “foreign minister”), and Jack Lew (former WH Chief of Staff)  for Treasury Secretary (more on these appointments). Key positions, but overall safe choices, except for Chuck Hagel, whose nomination raised a truly bi-partisan storm, because of some past statements about US policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine; storm that has subsided, however, once he won over some key senators (especially Democratic ones, the upper house having  a Democratic majority).  Although it is customary for the US Senate to acknowledge and approve all the President’s nominees for the cabinet (and the Supreme Court), “deferring to him” on this issue, this is a tradition that stands because most nominees are generally acceptable (not too weak, not too controversial); in order to makes sure that they have such candidates, a careful vetting, formal and informal , precedes all such nominations, including private meeting with key senators. Sometimes presumptive nominees “lose their position” even before they are actually nominated. For example, Sen. John Kerry became the official name for the Secretary of State position only after the previously circulated name (Susan Rice) generated all too much public noise from the Republican Party and the media associated with it. The hearings for the Senate’s approval of these Cabinet positions have already started (John Kerry hearing), and at least one of them promises to be quite interesting.

In terms of what these appointments mean, they have already received ample commentary; in any case, they do seem to reinforce the image of a president for whom loyalty and trust are essential, and who exhibits  a programmatic determination to go beyond his own party boundaries when choosing persons for the Cabinet (notwithstanding that these are people with whom he knows he can work together, on the specific policy area, and in whose institutional competence he trusts).

Portuguese Conman Revealed: In Search of Populist Heroes

Looking of voices that would express the public frustration with the austerity measures implemented by many governments in the recent years, movements and opinion leaders have appeared not because they have some miraculous solution, but because they seem to encapsulate the popular anger and dissatisfaction with the situation. A recent (and amusing) such process took place in Portugal, where a fake economic expert academic rose to prominence in the last ten months, his stormy anti-austerity tirades being received by the people with standing ovations (literally). It turned out, however, that instead of being an internationally recognized economic expert, Artur Baptista da Silva is a former inmate, who made up his international credentials (but who may or may not have some studies in the field).

Indeed,  populist movements (and leaders) rise as the very public and very vocal expression of inchoate but acute popular dissatisfaction, especially during significant (economic) crises. They tend to pass on, however, in almost as vertiginous a manner as they appear, because the content of their public presence is mostly the reaction to a situation -and thus it is hard for them to outlast that situation, or the lack of concrete, practicable solutions.

Violence in Egypt, Two Years After the Revolution

One of the consequences of revolutions is that they destabilize the established sources of authority for the institutions that maintain the control of the government over the state –  territory and population. Usually, we go along with these institutions of the state, which maintain order, because their legitimacy is unquestioned. However, especially after violent revolutions, this everyday, commonly assumed order is severely questioned. Unless the institutions that result after the revolutionary changes succeed in establishing themselves based on commonly accepted rules (elections) and of general conformity with the goals of the revolution, a state of disorder can follow. And even if they manage to establish themselves, that radical change in societal order that was the revolution (whether it was peaceful or not) will continue to leave open the possibility that “this was not the last – or the best – alternative that we can try”; take, for example, the entire century of instability and turbulence that followed the  radically disruptive French Revolution, or see, even today, the continued questioning in Central and Eastern Europe of the foundations of the order established (successfully!) after 1989.

Similar complaints are being heard in Egypt, two years after the beginning of the Revolution – that the public, societal order has not yet been re-established. Thus, the events of the last days, although not linked, are certainly connected in a deeper way; one has to remember that the lack of legitimacy mentioned above is even more acute, and felt like a vacuum, in the case of  a transition from an authoritarian reghime (which imposes a strict order) to a democratic society (where a slight “disorder” is the natural state). Thus, in the past week, Egypt has seen both deadly riots in Port Said, in protest of a court sentencing 21 local fans to death for their role in the clashes and chaos during a soccer game a year ago (that resulted in about 74 deaths) – as well as massive public protests in Cairo and other cities against what is felt to be President Morsi’s and his governing Muslim Brotherhood’s continued actions and intent to derail the establishment of functioning democratic institutions.

The Africa Cup of Nations – AfCon South Africa 2013

Meanwhile, the premier football (soccer) competition of the African continent, which takes place every four years, started on January 19, in South Africa. Over the following three weeks, the national teams that qualified to the competition will play each other, first in the group stage, and then in eliminatory matches, up to the final on February 10  (calendar). It is in the nature of international soccer both to transcend national boundaries, by the common sharing in the joy of the game, but also to vicariously represent national and local identities, in all their pleasant or ugly forms. (Very famously, during every game of the best club team in the world, FC Barcelona, tens of thousands of supporters reserve a good few minutes to call for the independence of Catalonia; the players of the team, most of them born or raised there, are truly “troops” battling for the pride and identity of the region.) Another attractive aspect of the competition is that soccer is a sport that does not require an advanced economy,  in order for it to be practiced at mass level, and on a daily basis; thus, some of the best players in the world come from Africa. Similarly, it is a pleasure to see at AfCon the national teams of some of the countries mentioned above, in less than fortunate circumstances; the teams of Mali, Algeria, but also those of DR Congo (Congo-Kinshasa), Ethiopia, Niger etc. Here is a taste of the competition:

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