Five & One: April 15, 2011

5. General Petraeus may switch post to CIA

A potential major reshuffling of senior officials in Washington may soon be underway, with possible open positions including Secretary of Defense, CIA Director, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. CIA Director Leon Panetta is seen as the front runner to become Secretary of Defense when current Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush Administration, steps down. If this occurs, his position at the CIA has been frequently mentioned as a possible job for General David Petraeus. General James Cartwright is the favorite to become the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Petraeus, the current commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, and former Commander of US Central Command, would be an unusual choice for the position of CIA Director. The CIA has a reputation of being very insular and wary of outsiders, although generals have become the director in the past. The CIA position could be seen as the only spot available for Petraeus, as there are very few other positions in Washington that would not be seen as a step down from his current position. This could also be a sign that President Obama wants to keep Petraeus within the administration. Early on in the Obama presidency, they reportedly had a distant relationship. However, since the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and Petraeus’ shift back to commander there, many speculate that their relationship has grown and Obama has come to value his advice more highly.

4. Chicago school bans home packed lunches

In an unprecedented attempt at combating childhood obesity, Little Village Academy, an elementary school on Chicago’s West Side, is prohibiting its students from bringing homemade lunches to school. Principal Elsa Carmona instituted the ban after seeing students bring “bottles of soda and flaming hot chips” for lunch on field trips. The school now mandates that students eat the meals provided to them by the cafeteria. The move has sparked controversy in the local community and nationwide over the role that schools play in deciding what is best for students outside of explicitly educational circumstances.

The policy marks the furthest any school has gone in the larger war against childhood obesity. Last year saw similarly controversial, but smaller scale health changes at some schools. To some, however, Little Village Academy’s policy seems to go too far and dangerously disregards parental responsibility for children, instead placing that responsibility in the hands of the state. Some also worry that children with individual dietary needs will be underserved as well.

3. BRICS nations meet to discuss economic policy

This week marked the end of the third annual BRICS conference. Leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China and, for the first time this year, South Africa, gathered to discuss issues of economic policy. The group, headed by China, began meeting three years ago and is positioning itself as a coherent negotiating bloc with an active role on the world stage. The intention is to offset the US and Western European states who have traditionally held far more power in international organizations.

The emergence of a competing bloc of states could pose significant challenges to the existing international order. Academics have long posited a “rise of the rest”—nations not well represented in major international bodies such as the United Nations Security Council or G-8. The formation of a distinct group, in the form of BRICS, would represent a heretofore unprecedented challenge to US leadership, both explicitly in terms of military commitments and agenda setting, and implicitly in issues such as the use of the dollar as the dominant international reserve currency. BRICS is still in it’s infancy but the potential for growth in terms of future global influence is real.

2. France begins enforcing veil ban

This week, a French ban on facial veils officially went into force, specifically targeting Islamic coverings such as the niq?b and the burqa. The ban immediately resulted in a series of arrests and threatens to further harm the French government’s relationship with its Muslim population. The public reaction to the ban has been strong on both sides even though only a small minority of women actually wear some sort of veil in France.

The ban seems to be an attempt by Sarkozy to sway voters. Far behind in most public opinion polls, Sarkozy is still considered a troubled candidate for the upcoming 2012 French election. A series of steps taken by the French government in recent weeks, such as the interventions in Ivory Coast and Libya as well as a crackdown on gypsy and Roma populations months ago, could be a means for Sarkozy to galvanize popular support. The source of this support, given Sarkozy’s recent activities, would likely be far right voters who currently identify with the National Front which performed historically well in recent local elections. Whipping up anti-minority sentiment and taking military action abroad are historically easy, if ultimately destructive, ways to raise a leader’s short term popularity. Unfortunately, Sarkozy seems content to make this his course.

1.With one budget down, Congress starts on another

Washington’s high-stakes fight over the federal deficit is not over, despite coming to a budget agreement and narrowly averting government shutdown last week. As the 2011 budget compromise moved toward final passage Thursday, political leaders were already preparing for conflict over raising the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget. The debate over raising the debt ceiling will likely be just as contentious as the recent budget compromise and once again involve Republican attempts to attach spending cuts to the legislation. The debt ceiling limits how much the federal government can borrow and needs to be raised in order for the government to continue borrowing the funds necessary to finance its expenditures.

Heated fiscal battles seem likely to stay for the immediate future. Republicans issued their opening shot in the fight over the 2012 budget last week with the publication of their 2012 budget plan, dubbed “The Path to Prosperity.” The plan, authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, largely echoes familiar Republican policy proposals in calling for lowering tax rates, cutting non-security discretionary spending, and cuts in entitlement programs. These are some of the programs that are held most dear to Democrats however, and would likely result in an even more heated and partisan debate later on this year. The debt ceiling is a much more immediate issue, as it will have to be raised likely in mid-May. Republicans will use it as yet another chance to push for democratic fiscal concessions. A continued conflict is President Obama’s especially outspoken criticism of Ryan’s proposal in his primetime speech on Wednesday.

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0. China issues list of U.S. human rights violations

Just two days after the United States issued its annual list of global human rights violations, China issued a report of its own, focusing solely on U.S. human rights abuses. Although the American report includes denunciations of human rights abuses across the world, its criticisms of China brought particularly strident reaction. The U.S. report listed “principal human rights problems” which include “extrajudicial killings […] enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention [...] torture and coerced confessions of prisoners […] [and] a coercive birth limitation policy.”

China responded with a report, released Sunday by the the country’s State Council, that asserts that “the United States turn[s] a blind eye to its own terrible human rights situation.” The Chinese report provides a lengthy account of America’s faults, including increasing poverty and violent crime, lack of gun control laws, violations of Internet privacy, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The reports, while harshly critical, hardly indicate a cooling of U.S. and China relations. The two countries often issue competing resolutions and their rhetorical competition has become a largely normalized part of their relations. Some suggest, in fact, that having open communication about human rights violations in all countries will promote greater international cooperation against human rights violations.