Five & One: May 12, 2011

Five stories from this past week you should explore and one you should ignore.

5. Clinton criticizes Chinese government

In an interview with Atlantic reporter Jeffery Goldberg published Tuesday, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton spoke about China with unprecedented frankness. Responding to a question about whether China is worried about the Arab Spring, Clinton remarked, “Well they are. They’re worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it. But they’re going to hold it off as long as possible.” The domestic Chinese press largely glossed over the remarks, while Chinese officials instead focused on the recent talks with Washington. These talks, which focused on economic cooperation, were widely viewed as successful.

While the U.S. has in the past pressed China on its human rights record, an official as high-ranking as the Secretary of State offering such a stinging critique of the Chinese Communist regime is truly rare. As the Arab Spring has pressured and even brought the downfall of seemingly stable repressive regimes, China has become increasingly wary. China’s caution is compounded by the leadership change set to occur in 2012, when General Secretary Hu Jintao steps down. The question remains as to why Secretary of State Clinton would choose to issue such a harsh statement and what the Obama Administration’s intentions may be going forward.

4. GOP switches stance on budget

The GOP position on the budget has shifted in at least one important way since Representative Paul Ryan issued his proposal weeks ago; Republicans have backed away from Ryan’s plan to change Medicare to a voucher system. The passage of Ryan’s bill in the House generated significant negative public reaction, especially from older voters, a core GOP constituency. John Boehner has now voiced a need for “trillions” in spending cuts, sticking to the traditional GOP position of lower spending without new taxes.

This change in approach, away from cuts to Medicare and Social Security is indicative of concern over the implications of low approval polling for welfare reform. President Obama has indicated a similar hesitancy toward reform, preferring to advance a combination of tax increases and defense spending cuts. The GOP is in an awkward position, caught between the fiscally conservative Tea Party and centrist Republicans who favor protecting the defense budget and tax reform. While Medicare, Social Security and Defense spending account for more than 50% of the budget, both Democrats and Republicans seem hesitant to make cuts, regardless of America’s fiscal situation.

3. Israel withholding tax revenue from Palestinian Authority

In response to recent moves towards reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, Israel announced it would cease transferal funds to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Gaza. Israel is responsible for transferring the taxes it collects on goods imported to the West Bank to the PA to fund civil servant salaries and public services. The Prime Minister of Palestine, Salam Fayyad, announced that because of the lack of funds, the PA would not be able to pay civil service employees
on time. Israel says it is concerned that the money may go to Hamas and fund terrorism against Israel.

This incident demonstrates Israel’s power to make or break any power sharing arrangements in Gaza. Although the PA may be able to strengthen its position among its populace, it is still heavily reliant on Israel. The only legal action Palestine seems to have is an appeal to the U.N. Security Council, where Israel has a close ally in the United States. The Arab revolutions seem to be having a dramatic effect on the region, but it appears that the relationship between Israel and Palestine has not seriously changed.

2. Coptic-Muslim tensions escalate in Egypt

Tensions between Egyptian Coptic Christians and Muslims surged onto the streets of Cairo Saturday. After claiming the lives of twelve people and injuring nearly 200, the violence was brought under control by the Egyptian military. The interim military government announced it will try all of the arrested rioters, adding that its actions should serve as a “deterrent to all those who think of toying with the potential of this nation.” Despite these reassurances, Saturday’s clashes mark the third major outbreak of violence against Coptic Christians since Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak relinquished power in February. In early March, a Coptic church was burned in a suburb outside Cairo and, in a separate incident, 13 died and 140 were injured due to sectarian violence.

The relationship between Coptic Christians, which comprise approximately 10% of Egypt’s population, and the Islamic majority has been strained in the past , but Egyptian Copts enjoyed relative security under Mubarak’s forceful rule. The instability which has resulted from the country’s regime change, however, has increased the likelihood of Muslim-Coptic tensions erupting in violence. The movement towards democracy in Egypt should be applauded and encouraged by the United States, but the dangerous reality of an unstable Egypt must also be recognized. The military government seems to be trying to alleviate Coptic concerns—it announced plans to reopen churches closed under ousted Mubarak—but its capacity to provide real security continues to be questioned.

1. Syrian protests continue despite harsh crackdown

The Syrian government intensified its crackdown on protesters this week, making mass detentions and deploying tanks in cities throughout the country. The unrest against President Bashar al-Assad, which has now continued for more than two months, has been especially violent. Reports indicate more than 700 people killed by Syrian forces. A spokesperson for Assad claimed Monday that the government has the upper hand, yet the opposition remains defiant.

In light of the emphasis often placed on the role of social media in other recent Middle Eastern uprisings, the stamina of Syrian rebels lacking these resources is impressive. Despite tight control over media and social networking services–Internet and wireless phone networks have been shut down and journalists have been detained–protests have not let down. This suggests that the recent infatuation with social media as an integral part of opposition movements is overstated. Rather, this is a signal that the Syrian protests are sustained by a sentiment of frustration deeply rooted in its history of political oppression.

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0. Newt Gingrich announces presidential campaign

Last week, Newt Gingrich announced his entrance into the 2012 presidential race via Twitter. Gingrich, who was Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999, is a well-known figure in the political arena. His campaign is already well under way; he has an experienced campaign manager, an established online presence, and plans for establishing headquarters in Atlanta and northern Virginia. He is also a member of an impressive network of political and non-profit organizations, from which he receives voter and donor contacts and raises money.

But despite some of these promising initial signs, Gingrich’s entrance will have minimal affect on the race for the GOP presidential nomination. His brand of conservatism and his adversarial nature may not appeal to Republican voters when contrasted with tentative front-runner Mitt Romney, especially in New Hampshire (the first primary-state and crucial to the rest of the race). Additionally, many observers argue that his considerable political baggage renders him largely unelectable. His two extra-marital affairs, pursued at the same time as his public denunciations of the Lewinsky scandal, hurt his profile as a promoter of traditional family values. Polls indicate that while his name recognition is very strong, few view him in a positive light. In sum, while Gingrich’s announcement gained public attention, it is unlikely to have any real affect on the upcoming primary.