Five & One: April 22, 2011

    Logo by Nina Lincoff / North by Northwestern

    This quarter, North by Northwestern is hosting weekly columns from Politics & Policy, a new undergraduate publication with a focus on — you guessed it — politics and policy at local, state, national and international levels. Five & One breaks down what news to read — and what news to ignore.

    5. U.S., NATO allies offer divergent aid packages to Libyan rebels

    Several countries involved in the Libyan intervention announced this week that they would individually offer aid to the Libyan rebels, offers structured outside the broader NATO coalition. President Obama announced that the United States would offer $25 million in non-lethal aid; that is, supplies that will not be used directly for combat purposes. A group of western European countries, specifically Italy, France, and the United Kingdom, revealed that they were sending military advisers to Libya to aid the rebel forces.

    The differing responses between the United States and these Western European countries are quite revealing. The United States is taking a less aggressive and assertive path than the European coalition members, which may stem from the American public’s reluctance to engage in yet another foreign conflict. European countries on the other hand have not hesitated to send in military advisers. Italy in particular has shown an assertive interest in Libya, as it is a former Italian colony. The tentativeness of the United States as compared to the assertiveness of the Europeans is an interesting and new development in international affairs, and could signal a shift in the United States stepping away from its role as the sole protector of western values on the world stage.

    4. Nigerian election violence down from historical norms

    This week Nigeria held a presidential election that was won by incumbent candidate Goodluck Jonathan. Local and international officials have hailed the election as a marked improvement on the country’s previous elections. Previous Nigerian elections have been characterized by rampant ballot stuffing, underage voting, general corruption, and at times widespread violence. Scattered violence has broken out since the results were announced in the majority-Muslim north of the country, home of defeated opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari.

    While it would be easy to focus on the tumultuous reception to election results in the North of the country, the significance of this election lies in cleaner and fairer voting than any prior election. The fact that it is the election’s results, not process, that have drawn violence is an improvement on the historical norm for Nigerian elections. The lack of serious violence protesting the legitimacy of the election provides cautious hope that Africa’s most populous country will begin to enjoy more stable transfers of power. If a pattern of civil transfers of power can be established, Nigeria may finally live up to its potential as a leading African state.

    3. FBI shuts down online poker sites

    Last Friday, the FBI seized the domain names of the three largest online poker sites in the United States: PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker. Prosecutors argue that the sites violated the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act which prohibits internet gambling operations from accepting payments.

    The strength of the government’s case, however, is uncertain due to the controversies over online gambling legislation and the complications that come with internet regulation. All three sites are headquartered in places where web-based gambling is legal, and it is unclear if the 2006 law banning internet gambling extends to them. In the online realm of virtual transactions, where lines of jurisdiction are blurred by the absence of geographic boundaries, enforcement of national regulations is extremely unclear. “This appears to be a precedent-setting case,” commented Lawrence Walters, a lawyer who has represented gambling operations, “It will be the first time the Department of Justice takes on the looming question of whether federal law prohibits online poker.”

    The case was further complicated Thursday when Antigua, where Absolute Poker is based, complained that the United States violated global trade law by shutting down the sites. This case will likely have repercussions not only for American laws prohibiting online gambling, but also for how governments cooperate to regulate the internet.

    2. Russian military modernization stumbles

    Russia’s recent attempts to modernize its military have fallen short of Russian officials’ expectations. The Russian Red Army has used a conscript model since it first drafted recruits in 1923. Three years ago, however, Russia attempted to modernize its military by switching to a smaller, volunteer and professional force, such as in the United States. This was meant to coincide with a $650 billion purchase in high tech weaponry, but the Russian defense department has abandoned the initiative after it failed to catch on.

    The shift to a volunteer force largely failed due to rampant corruption and abuse in the officer ranks. Officers would skim money from soldiers’ monthly paychecks to supplement their own income, and, in some cases, soldiers would have to pay their officers additional money to receive their discharge papers at the end of their three year enlistment. The failure of the Russian military to modernize is bad news for a country that is trying to keep up with massive military buildups in neighboring nations like China. Russia still has a formidable nuclear arsenal to protect itself, but its ability to project its influence around the world continues to wane.

    1. Top soldier in Afghanistan will not fill Petraeus vacancy

    One of the foremost U.S. military experts on the war in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, will not be taking over operations when General David Petraeus leaves his post as Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan this summer. Lieutenant General David Rodriguez has instead been asked to take over U.S. Army Forces Command back in the United States. The move comes as somewhat of a surprise, given Rodriguez’s highly respected career and experience in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has not made a final decision on who exactly will fill Petraeus’ crucial position, but Lieutenant General John Allen appears to be a top candidate.

    The search to replace Petraeus appears to have less to do with qualifications, and more with charisma. Rodriguez served under Petraeus as deputy commander for the past year and is the primary author of the 600-page U.S-Afghan war plan, but the Washington Post described him as a “so-so salesman.” In choosing a replacement for General Petraeus, the Pentagon seems to be placing a priority on the ability to allay the continued loss of public support of the nearly decade-long conflict. Ultimately, the expertise of American generals in Afghanistan will mean little if the American public begins to demand a drastic reduction in the scope of American operations.


    0. S&P U.S. debt warning offers no new insight

    Standard & Poor’s warning concerning the possible downgrade of America’s premium AAA bond rating on Monday generated extensive reaction among news outlets and political figures, but the significance of the announcement has been widely exaggerated. Specifically, S&P lowered its outlook on U.S. bonds from “stable” to “negative,” estimating a one-in-three chance that the U.S. will lose its AAA bond rating within the next two years. The ratings agency cited America’s large and growing sovereign debt and expressed skepticism about whether American politicians would be able to reach a compromise solution.

    Many opinion leaders heralded the S&P report as a serious impetus for deficit reduction; House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for example, responded with an announcement describing the warning as a “wake-up call.” The market’s response to the announcement, however, was far more restrained and echoed the non-importance of this issue. Yields on U.S. Treasury bonds, which determine America’s cost of borrowing, contradicted expectations by falling this week, and U.S. stocks reached their highest level since 2008 on Wednesday. Investors have long known about America’s mounting deficits and apparent political stalemate, which means that these risks were already factored into current prices. The U.S. does indeed face serious questions about its fiscal health, and perhaps this report will spur answers from lawmakers, but it is unlikely that the S&P’s warning will have any direct effect on American borrowing.


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