The Week of January 9th, 2012

Scottish independence, U.S. rescues Iranians, Supreme Court rules on religious discrimination, Pakistan Defense Minister gone, Nigerian unrest, Eric Cantor and friends hit the Middle-East

5. Scottish Independence a New Possibility
On Tuesday, the head of the Scottish Government and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) announced that his government would plan to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, a measure that was quickly condemned by all major political parties in Britain. The SNP holds a majority in the Scottish parliament, in part because of voter discontent after the more mainstream Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with the Conservative party of the British Parliament. The Conservative party has only one MP in the British parliament from Scotland, which demonstrates their unpopularity in relatively left-wing Scotland. There is now debate in both the British and Scottish parliaments over the timing, wording, legality, and oversight regarding the referendum. The most controversial argument over the referendum, assuming it occurs, will be whether it contains the option of voting for more powers for the Scottish parliament in fiscal matters, but not complete independence. Known as “devo max”, this option is more popular than independence in Scotland but still disliked by the British parliament.

Although independence is by no means guaranteed, this announcement demonstrates the increasingly isolated position of Britain. Last month, Prime Minister Cameron vetoed new European Union proposals because of their potential impact on the City of London’s large financial industry. Rather than offering to renegotiate, the Eurozone members simply finished negotiations without the U.K. The United States is also shifting its focus to Southeast Asia and Australia, which may result in the neglect of the “special relationship” with the U.K. Combined with internal discontent, seen through riots and nation-wide strikes, it seems the future of the England both internationally and domestically is increasingly uncertain.

4. U.S. Rescues Iranian Sailors
This week has been a lively one for the U.S. Navy. After being decried as warmongers by the Iranian government, American warships operating in the Strait of Hormuz were on hand to pick up two separate sets of Iranian sailors who had been captured by pirates. The first group of Iranian fishermen were held for 40 days, captive of Somali pirates and forced to help find a ship worthy of a decent ransom, most likely one carrying oil or natural gas. However, after attempting a strike on a cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman, the pirates were detained by crewmen aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John C. Stennis, who then allowed the Iranians to return home after being fed a halal meal. This came five days before another group of Persian fisherman, this time in jeopardy due to a burst engine, were rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter who responded to their mayday call in the Persian Gulf. In a moment of dramatic irony, these daring missions occurred about a week after senior Iranian military officials declared that any American forces entering the Strait of Hormuz would meet the “full force” of their military.

Over the course of the last week, Iran has threatened to close off the Strait, through which roughly 20% of the world’s oil supply flows. While this would cause the price of crude oil to rise precipitously worldwide, harming the American economy in the process, it is unlikely that Iran will follow through on their threats. While some analysts believe they simply lack the capability, others view the inaction as a response by another global great power: China. As one of the leading importers of Iranian oil, China’s response to the closure of the Strait could be even more extreme than American action, something Iran would prefer to avoid.

3. Supreme Court Reaffirms Doctrine of Ministerial Exception
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that anti-discrimination laws do not apply to ministers in employment-related lawsuits against religious organizations. The case involved a teacher, Cheryl Perich, whose responsibilities included both religious and secular instruction, who was fired after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. Perich argued that the American Disabilities Act protected her position as it prohibits “job discrimination against a person with “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” But the Court disagreed and, in a unanimous decision, upheld the doctrine of ministerial exception which allows religious employers to discriminate when hiring.

The history behind the doctrine goes back to the early 1970s with the implementation of the Civil Rights Act. Congress, in order to avoid potential conflicts between anti-discrimination laws and freedom of religion, wrote into the statute an exemption that allows religious employers to discriminate based upon religion. Circuit courts, arguing from the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, held that the government should not be involved in matters of religious choice and soon expanded this exception to include virtually all forms of discrimination, including race, gender, and disabilities.

This week’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling did a great deal to solidify this doctrine. Yet the Court’s decision also opened the door for more questions; it did not specify who should be considered a “minister”, a phrase used most often in Protestant Christianity. Exactly who qualifies as a “minister”--whether that includes secondary educators and professors in private universities for example--will likely be a subject of considerable litigation in the future.

2. Pakistani Defense Minister Ousted
Pakistan’s civilian government appears headed for a confrontation with the country’s military establishment after Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani removed Defense Secretary Naeem Khalid Lodhi on Wednesday. His replacement, Nargis Sethi, is a civilian aide to Gilani, and his appointment has been vigorously rejected by the Pakistani military leadership, which refuses to work with him. Traditionally, the post of defense secretary is chosen with the consent of the army chief. The fact that the army wasn’t involved in Sethi’s installment has increased tensions and mistrust between the armed forces and the civilian leadership under President Asif Ali Zardari.

The civilian government has long competed with the military for control of the Pakistani state. While this most recent rift is a continuation of that trend, it is also a reaction to controversy over allegations that Zardari contacted the United States and offered to remove the heads of Pakistan’s intelligence service and armed forces immediately after the killing of Osama bin Laden. The defense secretary is in charge of all appointments for top leadership posts in the Pakistani armed forces and the move is seen as an attempt to suppress military dissent without removing officers directly.

This latest move threatens to increase instability in the upper echelons of power, which doesn’t bode well for a nuclear armed country with deep ties to militant groups on the border with Afghanistan. Further complicating matters is the potential return of ousted former president Pervez Musharraf, who aims to lead the parliamentary campaign of his political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, for elections in 2013. Enough discord in the country could lead to a return to power for the former military officer. This dismissal and the ensuing conflict will test the strength of civilian leadership in the coming weeks, as well as the military’s waning resistance to a direct role in politics.

1. Unrest In Nigeria Over Fuel Price Increases
Last week the government of Nigeria ended all subsidies on gasoline, causing gas prices to double and leading to protests as well as a general strike. While Nigeria is one of the leading exporters of crude oil in the world, it imports almost all of its gasoline because it lacks sufficient refining capacity to meet its own needs. Protesters are using this as an opportunity to demonstrate against the historically corrupt government that often fails to provide basic services to the population. Adding to these agitations, the protests come in the midst of a series of violent attacks by the Islamist group Boko Haram, which has exploited the Christian-Muslim divide that has plagued Nigeria since the colonial era. The ethnic, religious, economic, and political divisions within Nigeria, in conjunction with widespread corruption, have led the country to lag behind other oil-rich states in measures of economic development.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathon justified eliminating the subsidy as part of a long-term plan to foster economic growth and end corruption. The government claims that the subsidies disproportionately benefited a select few, usually oil producers and smugglers, and that subsidy money will now be redirected toward improving public infrastructure. Some have suggested that with the momentum of the Arab Spring and the power of social media, protests against government corruption could grow in scale. If the government manages to follow through on its plans and allow for more transparency, it would help Jonathan to maintain control of the country for the rest of his term. However, history indicates that more transparency is a rarity.

0. Eric Cantor and Republicans Visit Middle-East, and France
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is currently heading a group of several Republican congressmen on a trip to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and France. The Congressional delegation took the trip as an opportunity to visit countries favorable to the U.S. in the midst of heightened Iranian aggression in the region. Democrats, meanwhile, have lampooned Cantor for the trip, as well as Speaker of the House John Boehner for a simultaneous trip to Latin America. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee paid for a website entitled www.WhereInTheWorldIsJohnBoehner.com, which depicts photo shopped pictures of Cantor wearing a beret in front of the Eiffel Tower and Boehner playing golf.

Contrary to the Democrats portrayal of the trip, the Congressmen are not actually on any sort of vacation, and instead are doing political work. However, the value and intent of this work is somewhat dubious. Cantor, as a Congressman, does not have the responsibility to control foreign policy, a job solely possessed by the executive branch. The Logan Act prohibits unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments, preventing Rep. Cantor from engaging in any substantive work abroad besides simply building goodwill. Hopefully the delegation enjoys the warm weather on their trip before they come back for what should be an even hotter election year in the U.S.