The Week of April 16th, 2012

Ceremony for Afghan National Army NCO Graduation on September 6, 2010. Creative Commons photo by isafmedia.

1. NATO Looks Toward Future In Afghanistan
The meeting of representatives from NATO countries in Brussels last Thursday concerned Afghanistan and is considered the precursor to NATO’s Chicago Summit in May. The general consensus to continue following the 2010 NATO plan to pull out all troops in 2014 was supported even as Australia starts to draw down their forces sooner than expected from the still violence ravaged country. Funding Afghanistan’s security forces became the main topic of debate, and at least an estimated annual $4 billion will be needed to supply an Afghan military that will likely be fighting the Taliban well into the future. The US and other NATO nations hope that even uninvolved nations like Japan and the Arab Gulf States will pledge funding to keep Afghanistan’s security forces afloat. Beyond the issues of funding, the US and Canada have suggested that they may keep special forces in the country to help with training and special missions.

Afghanistan does not have the readily available resources, like oil reserves, that Iraq had to fund their reconstruction, so continued foreign aid will be extremely necessary. Before the American withdrawal of troops from Iraq there was a comparative calm. In contrast, Afghanistan still experiences instances of heavy fighting; even the Afghan capital, Kabul, was hit in a series of large scale attacks this past week. Afghanistan still faces extreme challenges with many experts believing that forces like the Taliban and the Haqqani network will destabilize the country once NATO forces withdraw. Even with NATO troops out of the country, Afghanistan will presumably continue to be an issue for America and NATO, and the necessary funding will be a struggle to guarantee in the future due to the West’s struggle with austerity and contraction.

2. Argentina Announces Plan to Re-Nationalize Oil Conglomerate
On Monday, Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner introduced a bill that would purchase a 51% share in Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF), the leading oil production firm in Argentina. A significant portion of the newly nationalized share had been owned by Respol, a Spanish oil company that is currently the world’s 15th largest petroleum enterprise. The partial nationalization was supported by a number of other Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, but also has provoked serious concern within the European Union and the US, and inspired a bitter sparring match between the Spanish and Argentine governments.

Founded in 1922, YPF was run as a public company until 1993 when it was privatized along with a sweep of free-market reforms. Recently, YPF’s malperformance has made it an unpopular symbol of wasted money and the administration has criticized Repsol for repatriating 90% of its profits from YPF and not reinvesting them in other Argentine oil projects, favoring instead to send the money back to Spain. Because of this, the move was supported by Argentine officials and gained broad-based approval from the electorate. This is the second time in recent years that Argentina has nationalized a private industry-- Aerolineas Argentinas, Argentina’s largest airline, was taken back into state control in 2008. International criticism, however, overshadows the event; and whether this is a genuine effort to reign in a misperforming industry, or a tangential attempt of the Argentine government to gain support amidst economic concerns remains unclear.

3. Egyptian Presidential Candidates Banned From Election
The Egyptian election commission announced that it was definitively banning front-running presidential candidates Hazem Abu-Ismail, Khairat el-Shater, and Omar Suleiman from the race scheduled for this May after the three failed to appeal their cases on Tuesday. The decision comes after the body made the sudden declaration that it was barring a total of ten candidates from the election last Saturday, including the three aforementioned men. Abu-Ismail, of the puritanical Salafist party, was banned due to reports that his mother had US citizenship, violating strict nationality rules that forbid candidates, along with their families, from having foreign citizenship; el-Shater was removed from the race due to his prior political criminal record as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood; and former Mubarak-era spy chief Suleiman was disqualified after it was shown that he had fallen short of the required number of signatures necessary to become a candidate.

The election commission’s final decision has drastically altered the presidential playing field, and has been viewed by some observers, especially Abu-Ismail’s supporters, as another misstep in Egypt’s convoluted transition to a post-Mubarak era. At the same time, both Islamists and nationalists equally benefit from the disqualifications, which were spread out somewhat evenly among the ideological spectrum. Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League and foreign minister under deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, can count on less competition among voters fearing the rise of Islamists now that their other rallying candidate Suleiman is out. At the same time, Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, a former leading member of the Brotherhood and a liberal Islamist, now has fewer religious rivals to contend with after the disqualifications of Abu-Ismail and el-Shater. While the situation of Egyptian electoral politics continues to remain fluid, as the commission’s decisions suggest, it would appear that a clearer picture of the Egyptian revolution’s final result is nonetheless slowly, if erratically, taking shape.

4. Arizona Passes Controversial Reproductive Health Laws
Arizona has received a notable amount of national attention in the past year, largely due to legislation proposed by its heavily conservative legislature and governor. Last week, the governor, Jan Brewer, signed into law three bills creating further barriers for those seeking abortions, including one which declares women legally pregnant two weeks before conception. This gives Arizona the earliest cutoff among all 50 states for late-term abortions; many others use 20 weeks as the definition of conception. In addition to these new regulations, the Republican-led state House has also approved a bill which would cut off all federal funding to Planned Parenthood clinics, including those slated for non-abortion health services. Although the Senate is currently deliberating about the bill, it is expected to pass and get signed into law, resulting in another blow to women’s rights groups in the state.

Many of these laws were able to pass due to the highly effective organization of the Tea Party, which also led the charge to elect many conservative members to state legislatures in Arizona. The state has a recent history of passing laws that appeal to the right wing of the Republican party on issues like abortion, immigration, and education. The Tea Party has been more enduring and resonant in the Grand Canyon State, the birthplace of Barry Goldwater and one of the founders of modern conservatism, than almost any other place in America.

The movement, while politically potent, has not stopped President Obama from campaigning in Arizona. In fact, he has targeted the state as a potential gain for the Democrats and has sent many activists to register voters, particularly Hispanics, who make up a third of the state population. With changing demographics, as well as a notable backlash among minority populations in the state, the Democrat’s hopes may be realized, but it will not be an easy battle.

5. Summit of the Americas Isolates US
While the Secret Service scandal involving Colombian prostitutes continues to grab headlines, the event that those agents were originally assigned to, the Summit of the Americas, ended this past week. Designed as a forum for leaders from North and South America to discuss common issues, the summit ended with disagreements over two perennially thorny topics. President Obama refused to sign an agreement that would have called for Cuba to be involved in the next summit, in strong contrast to the majority of other nations that attended. Furthermore, there was disagreement between the majority of South and Central American states and the US over America’s continued War on Drugs.

The Summit is important in highlighting the increase in participating countries willing to rebuke and openly disagree with the United States over these policy issues. While leaders such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia are well known for harboring anti-US sentiments and the above-mentioned US policies are opposed at every Summit of the Americas, the audacity of criticism from a wide range of attendant states was unsettling for US diplomats. Countries such as Guatemala openly criticized the US War on Drugs, and found wide support amongst their fellow Central and South American colleagues. The US has widely been able to ignore pressure from countries south of the border on drug and Cuba issues, but it seems that going forward these policies have the potential to deepen the division between the US and a growing number of nearby countries.

Don’t Care
0. Ted Nugent Comments Create Controversy
During an NRA convention earlier this week, rocker Ted Nugent made remarks that President Obama was “evil,” “criminal,” and that he and his officials needed their heads “chopped off.” Further, Nugent stated that if Obama won reelection, “I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.” These statements drew the attention of the Secret Service who, after speaking to Nugent, determined he did not reasonably threaten anyone. Some of Obama’s supporters seized upon the fact that Nugent has endorsed Romney for the presidency, and demanded that his campaign distance themselves from the comments. A similar incident occurred last week when negative statements by Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen about Ann Romney dominated the media, with the Romney campaign itself calling the remark an attack on stay-at-home mothers. In both the Nugent and the Rosen incidents, the campaigns disavowed the comments and separated themselves from the individuals.

With the GOP presidential nominee essentially decided, Republicans and Democrats involved in the campaign know who they will be facing in the general election and are aware of where their energy should be focused. However, with months to go until even the party conventions, neither side wants to start the costly affair of heavy campaigning. Incidents like these provide an easy and cheap way to keep the candidates in the news cycle, and are often exploited by advisors on the right and left without any serious effect. The Romney campaign’s response to the Rosen comments was to have Ann Romney set up a Twitter account, a negligible cost in a year that could have billions of dollars spent by superPACs and other donors. With no serious political moves being made by either side, the press uses any event to cover the campaigns, even unimportant comments made by an ageing rocker or a negative portrayal of Romney’s spouse. These attacks on individuals that are not substantively linked to candidates are likely to keep dominating the media until they become overshadowed by the inevitably larger, more expensive, and more informational debates.