The Week of February 6th, 2012

Egyptian government holds U.S. citizens, Marriage equality in Washington, FAA and drones, Overthrow in Romania, Russians into Syria, and Obama has a super PAC.


1. Arab League out of Syria as Russia Steps in
Member states of the Arab League have formally severed bilateral relations with Syria and withdrawn diplomatic personnel from the nation. At the same time, the Russian government dispatched a diplomatic mission, including the Russian Foreign Minister, to Damascus in order to negotiate a resolution to the ongoing civil conflict. The Arab League’s abandonment of Syria demonstrates the group’s continued inability to confront civil unrest within its member states. The League’s response to the Arab Spring was minimal and there was no coherent diplomatic effort to head off the Libyan mission by NATO during the uprising against Muhammad Qadhafi last year.

On Saturday, Russia, along with China, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned the violence in Syria and would have laid the groundwork for an international response. Russia has made it clear that it will defend its interests in Syria which include massive arm sales and a naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean. In addition to its explicit commercial and military interests, Russia is also wary of a successful revolution in Syria because it faces similar problems in the Caucasus, where Russia’s government is losing legitimacy and fundamentalist Islam has largely taken hold . Faced with an ineffective Arab League and opposition from an entrenched permanent member of the UN Security Council, the situation in Syria looks set to worsen in the foreseeable future.

2. Anger Over Austerity Measures Claims Romanian PM
After weeks of protest, the Prime Minster of Romania, Emil Bloc, has stepped down. The turmoil which led to his resignation started after he dismissed a popular health official. This discontent then boiled over into a general demonstration against government austerity measures. Protesters were upset about budget cuts and higher taxes, and evidenced a general belief that the government did not care about the Romanian people. In a quick turn of events, On the same day Bloc resigned, Romanian President Traian Basescu appointed the current Justice Minister as interim Prime Minister. And only three days later, the Romanian parliament approved a new government led by Mihai Razvan Ungureanu, the former  head of the foreign intelligence service.

This could be a political move by Bloc and Basescu, who are political allies, to consolidate support for their party before elections early next year. Yet the austerity measures put in place to secure loans from the IMF and the EU has made their government very unpopular. This shake-up makes Romania the latest of a series of European states to encounter unrest because of austerity measures: Greece and Italy have also faced changes in government because of internal and external pressure. Unlike those two, however,  Romania is not in the Eurozone. With neighboring non-eurozone state Hungary facing similar economic uncertainty, it appears that austerity-induced political turmoil is spreading. Even worse, the fact that the pressure to avoid the blame for austerity is serious enough to cause Romania’s to engage in this kind of political maneuvering is creating doubts about the country’s future ability to repay its loans. These events indicate that Eastern Europe’s financial situation looking ever more like Southern Europe’s.

3. FAA Reauthorization Act Paves Way for More Unmanned Surveillance
Although it took five years and caused a two-week shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, Congressional  proceedings over an FAA omnibus regulation bill have come to a successful close, as the Senate authorized $63.4 billion to the FAA last Monday. With this increased budget comes certain requirements, such as modernizing the air traffic control system to depend more on GPS and satellites and less on radar. This will allow more aircrafts to take off and will permit planes to land quicker and closer together, even in poor weather, due to the improved precision of tracking each plane’s location.

The FAA bill also lays out new regulations for private and commercial drones, allowing them to be used in the same airspace as airliners and business jets for the first time. While these new laws are not set to take effect until 2015, this will be a radical change from the current state of affairs with unmanned aircraft. Existing regulations require drones to fly no higher than 400ft in altitude and require operators to be in line of sight contact with the drone at all times. This new legislation allows drones to be flown anywhere in the United States, giving police departments and even private individuals the ability to persistently survey an area for up to a day at a time. Privacy advocates see this measure as implicating serious privacy concerns: questions have been raised from groups, such as the ACLU, about the relatively lax controls offered by this new bill. With the wide range of drones currently available to the public, some even selling for under $100, the possibility of a massive expansion in unmanned surveillance could be just around the corner.

4. More States Move to Legalize Gay Marriage
This week, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill that lifts a ban on same-sex marriages within the state. This comes within days of the Ninth Circuit Court decision to invalidate Proposition 8, the California proposal to establish a ban on gay marriage in the state’s constitution. With the New Jersey Legislature scheduled to consider a similar bill later this month and new marriage equality bills proposed in the Illinois and Maryland General Assemblies, the issue is growing in importance in many states. This reflects an increase in public support for same-sex marriage over a relatively short amount of time, remarkable considering that the public divide over most other social issues--such as abortion or school prayer--has remained relatively constant. The fact that support for one of the most divisive social issues of contemporary politics has steadily increased over time speaks volumes about the success of gay rights organizations in prioritizing and publicizing the issue.

Public polling data shows that support for same-sex marriage has increased significantly in very specific demographics, including people under the age of 30, mainline Protestants, Catholics, Democrats and independents. High levels of support among younger voters (64% in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center) is important for the future of marriage equality, especially in ballot measures. However, opponents to the legalization of same-sex marriages point out that ballot measures for marriage equality have never passed; voters have rejected same-sex marriage in all 31 proposed state-level ballot measures thus far. Considering the generally low voter participation among younger demographics, especially in off-year elections, these ballot measures often fail even if the general public shows support for same-sex marriage. So while the recent state-level victories and broad shift in public support are positive signs for those advocating for same-sex marriage, these victories may be relatively slow to translate into actual legislation.

5. Egyptian Government Jails U.S.-Funded NGO Workers
The U.S. and Egypt continue to play hardball with each other over the release of 19 workers from an American-funded non-governmental organization (NGO). The Americans, which include the heads of the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, are currently being held by Egyptian authorities. The military-led Egyptian government claims that the NGOs were illegally operating without a license. In response, the Obama administration has threatened to cut off military aid to Egypt-- which is approximately $2.2 billion a year. A delegation from Egypt will soon be in Washington to face a hostile Congress that will certainly remind the Egyptians about the large amount of aid Egypt stands to lose.

The NGOs and the other local groups that were raided label themselves as pro-democracy groups whose goal is to help political parties and other organizations strengthen democratic values in the country. It is likely that the activities of these pro-democracy organizations would at times be in direct conflict with the Egyptian military government. The military government’s decision to detain these NGO workers is certainly an overreaction, but if their activities were in direct subversion of the government its displeasure would be understandable. The Egyptian government’s current stance, however, is likely to ultimately be unsustainable in the face of the American threats to cease aid payments.

0. Obama Endorses Pro-Obama Super PAC
On Monday evening, Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign announced that the President has given his blessing to the super PAC (political action committee) Priorities USA, thus allowing key campaign officials to endorse and raise funds for the group. This decision was announced only days after presidential candidates’ campaigns and super PACs acting on their behalf released financial information for 2011. The President’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee raised almost $230 million, more than all Republican candidates combined and more than triple the amount raised by Mitt Romney, the current GOP front-runner. However, Republican super PACs raised a combined $100 million, dwarfing the almost $20 million raised by those associated with Democratic candidates.

President Obama’s decision to accede to super PAC funding runs counter to his previous reluctance to endorse the campaign practice but it should not come as a surprise. Though his campaign continues to raise more money than his rivals, the GOP super PAC advantage is seen as a threat. Super PACs are not officially linked to candidates and are allowed to raise far greater sums of money from each individual donor. Obama’s decision is based in the political pragmatism which he has long tried to emphasize. Regardless of the President’s view of super PACs, he was not going to allow his campaign to be vastly out-funded. In a political era defined by fundraising and expensive advertising, neither party would unilaterally cede a potentially huge fundraising advantage to the other.