Opinion

Bernd Debusmann

America and Syria’s ‘dead man walking’

Bernd Debusmann
May 22, 2012 13:06 UTC

When U.S. President Barack Obama and the leaders of  Germany, France, Britain, Canada and the European Union first issued public calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, the death toll in Syria stood at 2,000. That was in August 18 last year.

When Obama repeated the call on May 19, as host of a summit meeting of the Group of Eight, the body count had reached 10,000, according to United Nations estimates. The two figures highlight the lack of success of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure on a ruthless leader who learned lessons in unrestrained brutality from his father, Hafez al-Assad, whom he succeeded in office.

A peaceful solution to Syria’s protracted crisis now looks remote enough to wonder whether Bashar al-Assad might outlast Obama in power. The U.S. president is not assured of winning another term in office next November. But the odds of the Assad regime surviving into 2013 look better with every passing day, even though one of the U.S. government’s top experts on Syria has labeled the Syrian president a “dead man walking.”

There are several reasons for skepticism about a resolution to the Syrian crisis in the near future. One is the government’s military superiority over fractured and lightly-equipped opposition forces. More importantly, there is no international consensus on how to deal with what began 14 months ago as peaceful demonstrations against a 40-year family dictatorship and now includes huge suicide bombings of government targets that have raised suspicions of al-Qaeda involvement.

At the summit of the G8 – the United States, Germany, France,  Italy, Japan, Russia, Canada and Japan – an  aide to Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev made clear, again, that Moscow, unlike the West, does not see Assad’s departure as a necessary step towards ending the bloodshed.  “Some may like or dislike the Syrian government…but one cannot avoid a question – if Assad goes, who will replace him?” said Mikhail Margelov.

Florida, standing its ground, will allow guns at the Republican convention

Bernd Debusmann
May 7, 2012 17:11 UTC

File this under the rubric Only in America – sticks, poles and water guns will be banned from the centre of Tampa at the Republican Party’s national convention next August. Guns, however, will be allowed. The logic behind that is drawn from the U.S. constitution. How so?

The constitution’s second amendment protects the right of citizens to “keep and bear arms”  and that is taken to mean firearms. Sticks, poles and water guns do not enjoy constitutional protection. That, in a nutshell, is the argument the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, used to turn down a request by the mayor of Tampa for guns to be kept away, just for four days, from an event forecast by the organizers to draw at least 50,000 people to the city.

They will include thousands bent on demonstrating against the policies of Mitt Romney, who will be formally nominated as the Republican Party’s candidate for the presidential elections in November. Political conventions and protests make for a volatile mix, which is why Mayor Bob Buckhorn thought the downtown area near the convention center should be a gun-free zone.

America’s election has gone to the dogs

Bernd Debusmann
Apr 30, 2012 21:02 UTC

America’s electorate is sliced, diced and analyzed in minute detail, but there’s one comparative poll yet to be conducted: What is worse in the eyes of voters, having eaten dog meat or having put the family dog in a crate on the roof of a car for 12 hours?

This is not a trifling question in a country with close to 80 million pet dogs, whose owners treat them as family members and might be disinclined to give their votes to a candidate perceived as a dog eater, in the case of President Barack Obama, or a dog abuser, in the case of his presumptive Republican rival for the presidency, Mitt Romney.

The crated dog on the roof, an Irish setter named Seamus, has dogged Romney on and off ever since the story came to light in 2007. Obama’s dog-eating is a recent addition to the ever-growing catalog of anecdotes collected by Republican and Democratic activists and campaign operatives to paint the other side’s candidate in the darkest possible colors.

America’s decline – myth or reality?

Bernd Debusmann
Apr 20, 2012 15:59 UTC

Take note of a new phrase in the seemingly endless debate over whether the days of the United States as the world’s pre-eminent power are numbered: Those who doubt the country’s economic decline are holding an “intellectual ostrich position.”

The expression was coined by Edward Luce, author of a deeply-researched new book entitled Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent. It notes that the United States accounted for 31 percent of the global economy in 2000 and 23.5 percent in 2010. By 2020, he estimates that it will shrink to around 16 percent.

Luce’s diagnosis of descent, published in April, was the latest addition to a steadily growing library of books, academic papers and opinion pieces for or against the idea that the United States can maintain its status as the world’s only superpower. If we adopt Luce’s phrase, it’s a discussion between declinists and ostriches. The latter include President Barack Obama and his presumptive Republican rival in next November’s presidential elections.

Obama and the failed war on drugs

Bernd Debusmann
Apr 16, 2012 18:30 UTC

Long before he was in a position to change his country’s policies, Barack Obama had firm views on a complex problem: “The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. We need to rethink how we’re operating the drug war.”

That was in January 2004, during a debate at Northwestern University, when he was running for a seat in the U.S. Senate. To make sure his student audience understood his position on the controversial issue, Obama added: “Currently, we are not doing a good job.”

To look at a classic flip-flop, forward to April 2012 and a summit of Latin American leaders, several of whom have become vocal critics of the U.S.-driven war on drugs, in the Colombian city of Cartagena. More than three years into his presidency, Obama made clear that he is not in favor of legalizing drugs or of ending policies that treat drug users as criminals.

Will Latinos decide America’s elections?

Bernd Debusmann
Apr 7, 2012 13:45 UTC

Every day, around 1,600 U.S. citizens of Latin American extraction are turning 18, voting age, and add to the fastest-growing segment of the American electorate. Almost 22 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in November and how many of them turn out may well decide who will be the next U.S. president.

A series of recent polls show that Latinos favor President Barack Obama over any of the Republican presidential hopefuls, with a comfortable 70 percent to 14 percent over Mitt Romney, the man most likely to win the Republican nomination at the end of a primary campaign marked by often shrill anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Obama is so confident that he primary debates have driven Latinos away from the Republican party that  he told the Spanish-language television network Univision last November there was no need for his campaign to run negative ads on the Republican presidential hopefuls. Instead, “we may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim. We won’t even comment on them…and people can make up their own minds.”

America’s Wild West gun laws

Bernd Debusmann
Mar 23, 2012 16:59 UTC

The killing of a black teenager by a self-appointed vigilante in Florida has trained a spotlight on gun laws reminiscent of the Wild West in 24 U.S. states. Despite widespread outrage over the Florida case, gun-friendly senators in Washington want to make it easier to extend those laws to most of the country.

That would set the United States, where there are more firearms in private hands than in any other country, even farther apart from the rest of the industrialized world as far as guns are concerned. And it would mark yet another success for the National Rifle Association (NRA) in its long campaign against gun controls.

Before getting into the details of the planned legislation, a brief recapitulation of what happened in the Orlandosuburb of Sanford on February 26: Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old high school student, walked to a family member’s home at night when George Zimmerman, a self-appointed “neighborhood watch captain” spotted him, deemed the teenager suspicious, pursued him and shot him dead with a 9 mm pistol after what he told police was an altercation that made him fear for his life.

Obama and the American fringe

Bernd Debusmann
Mar 16, 2012 19:06 UTC

The prospect of President Barack Obama winning another four-year term in November is swelling the ranks of anti-Muslim activists and groups on the extremist fringe of American society. Their growth has accelerated every year since Obama took office in 2009.

So says a new report by a civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center, that has tracked extremist groups for the past three decades and found that last year alone, the number of anti-Muslim groups tripled, from 10 to 30.

Between 2008 and the end of 2011, according to the center, there was an eight-fold increase in the number of militias and “patriot” groups whose members inhabit a parallel universe where the federal government wants to rob them of their guns and their freedom.

Relax, America! Not everything is as dire as you think

Bernd Debusmann
Mar 9, 2012 17:16 UTC

The world is becoming ever more dangerous. Threats to the United States are multiple and complex. Just think of terrorists, rogue states, dangers arising from Middle East revolutions, cyber attacks, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the rising power of China. The list goes on.

It makes for a world “more unpredictable, more volatile and more dangerous,” as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has put it. According to polls, most of America’s foreign policy elite thinks the world is as dangerous, or more dangerous than it was during the Cold War.

This belief, write the foreign policy analysts Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen, shapes debates on U.S. foreign policy and frames the public’s understanding of international affairs.

The UN Security Council shows its weakness (again)

Bernd Debusmann
Mar 2, 2012 16:02 UTC

For decade after decade, diplomats at the United Nations have had on-again, off-again talks on how to reform the Security Council, the supreme decision-making panel on international security. The crisis in Syria shows that progress has been minimal and that power politics often trump human rights.

At issue is the composition of a body “frozen in amber since the end of World War II,” in the words of Stewart Patrick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based foreign policy think tank. The biggest difficulty in unfreezing it is the veto power wielded by the five permanent members of the 15-nation council – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.

A veto by one permanent member is enough to sink a resolution. On February 4, two veto-wielders, Russia and China, banded together to vote against a resolution that provided for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to step aside, halt a ruthless crackdown on dissidents, and begin a transition to democracy. Assad saw the veto as a green light to crack down even harder. A week before the vetoes, the U.N. estimated the death toll at 5,400.

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