Five & One: October 18, 2010

    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.

    1. Japan-China dispute threatens international trade

    For the Japanese, they’re called the Senaku islands; in China, the Diaoyu. Regardless of the title, these 8 small islands, located in the East China Sea between Okinawa and Taiwan, have become a geo-political flashpoint after Japanese naval vessels detained and later released the crew of a Chinese fishing vessel operating in the area. After nearly a week of trading diplomatic barbs, the Chinese have retaliated by slowing and threatening to stop the flow of rare earth minerals to Japan.

    Minerals, from the earth, of the rare variety — they don’t sound like much, but elements like neodymium, samarium and dysprosium are critical to a variety of industries; from magnets to smart bombs, car parts to iPods. While China has yet to explicitly block the sale of these minerals to Japan or the US, the situation may be more dire than it appears.

    In 2009, US and EU officials filed a complaint with the WTO claiming China had placed excessive export quotas and taxes on certain materials. Of the family of 16 minerals defined as “rare-earth”, China last year produced 97 percent of the world’s total supply and currently controls 36 percent of total reserves, versus 13 percent for the US. In the long run, such a supply disparity will be reconciled in some way, most likely though an increase in African and US sources. For the moment however, it is a concerning imbalance.

    2. Federal court jumps the gun on “don’t ask, don’t tell”

    After Senate Republicans defeated a Democratic attempt to end the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy last month, it looked like those in favor would need to wait at least until Dec. 1, when the Pentagon’s review of the policy is due. But a California federal district court’s order to the U.S. Department of Defense to stop enforcing “don’t ask, don’t tell” complicates the policy’s situation considerably. Just two days after District Judge Virginia Phillips’ decision, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder filed for an appeal.

    The ongoing legal tussle over “don’t ask, don’t tell” places the Obama administration in a difficult position. Although President Obama has repeatedly expressed his desire to repeal the ban, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that he feels the matter is one for Congress to decide and that it should wait for the completion of the Pentagon’s review. Additionally, the Justice Department nearly always defends federal laws against legal challenges, even to laws with which it disagrees.

    In addition to fueling debate on the 1993 law, these events raise other important questions as well. These questions include concerns over the role of courts in America’s “balance of powers” system; the court ruled on a policy question Congress clearly feels is within its domain. Furthermore, these events highlight the ambiguity of the President’s role in these disputes.

    3. Newspaper self-censorship sets important precedent

    Newspapers across the country refused to run a “Non Sequitur” cartoon last week, when the popular comic strip featured a play on the classic “Where’s Waldo?” theme: “Where’s Muhammad?” The scene depicted the various characters found in the cartoon, but no prophet. Like Comedy Central’s decision to censor a South Park Muhammad depiction last year, the moves were likely motivated by fear of violent retaliation by Islamic extremists.

    These fears of offending Islamic tradition and the self-censorship they lead to, raise important questions about the future of American religious and cultural discourse. The media rarely miss an opportunity to lampoon the Catholic Church for the priest abuse scandal or Bible-thumping fundamentalist Christians.

    Rarely do these insults result in mass hysteria or danger to Americans at home or abroad. Legally, of course, U.S. law unequivocally protects the right to poke fun at anything in the name of satire. This self-censorship is not a question of freedom of the press, but rather an obligation of the press.

    Few would dare to say that being culturally or religiously insensitive is a virtue to be prized, but at the same time refusing to satirize a major world religion creates dangerous precedent.

    4. Increased use of drone remains outside public debate

    To those of previous generations, “drone” might bring to mind honey bees or simple-minded robots. Today, however, the word conjures images of remotely controlled aircraft raining death from the skies above countries like Yemen and Pakistan.

    These weapons, known as “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” or UAVs in military parlance, are a key facet of the American strategy to combat terrorist groups and insurgents in and around the Middle East and South Asia. First used in Kosovo under the Clinton administration, attacks by armed UAVs became a centerpiece of the Bush administration’s efforts to defeat insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Under President Obama, the number of strikes has spiked, with more than 22 in September alone. While attacks into Somalia and Yemen weren’t unknown while Bush was in office, they have become more commonplace since Obama entered the White House.

    All this information — targets, casualties and areas where the UAVs operate — is reported openly in the news media. Yet the covert nature of the attacks themselves means that information is available at the discretion of official sources. Hence, concerns like how targets are selected and strikes approved and which individuals are responsible for ascertaining the quality of intelligence about potential strikes are left out of public debate. Although this secrecy may be merited, the constraint it poses on public debate is serious enough to merit consideration.

    5. European anti-immigration trend continues in Germany

    Anti-immigrant sentiments and cultural tensions are causing political unrest across Europe, including the new right-wing Netherlands government’s agreement to put stricter limits on immigration at the behest of anti-Islam politician and crucial coalition partner Geert Wilders and French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s deportations of large segments of France’s Roma population. The trend continued this week when German Chancellor Angela Merkel asserted that German multiculturalism has utterly failed.

    Speaking at a party conference on Saturday, Merkel said, “Of course the tendency had been to say, ‘let’s adopt the multicultural concept and live happily side by side, and be happy to be living with each other’. But this concept has failed, and failed utterly.” Much like the French president, Merkel is under political fire at home with declining poll numbers and a fractious coalition government. As other European politicians face similar pressures, it may become more commonplace for underrepresented minority groups in Europe to become popular targets for easy political points.

    This trend could pose serious problems to stability among and within nations in Europe. The European Union rests upon open borders and ethnic, cultural, and religious tolerance. These recent moves are do not bode well for the European project.

    * * *

    0. Marijuana measure draws attention, scrutiny from feds

    Proposition 19—a California ballot measure which would legalize marijuana and allow the state government to tax its sale—is receiving heightened national attention. With the Obama Administration’s stated opposition to the initiative and voter polls leaning toward approval, the topic has generated a media firestorm, often portraying a vicious battle between the Federal and state governments.

    California, a state haunted by overflowing prison populations and the nation’s highest deficit, already tends to place little emphasis on marijuana prosecutions. Current law often translates into only minimum penalties for minor drug infractions, enforcement is a low priority, and the drug is already legally available for medicinal use. Attorney General Eric Holder indicated that, in the event of the law’s passage, the DEA would step up enforcement to compensate.

    Although the law’s proponents argue that the law will lead to lower revenues for Mexican drug cartels, this assertion is looking increasingly questionable. The RAND corporation, a non-partisan independent think tank, published a report last week which concluded that there would be little to no impact on the existing drug trade; marijuana sales constitute a small portion of the cartels’ overall profits, much less in California specifically.


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