If you were watching CNN all summer (in which case your news knowledge probably ranges from this to this), you may need a refresher course on exactly what went on in the world of politics. Whether you spent the past few months working away at an internship or lounging by the pool, below are the top ten stories you may have missed while you were on break.
10. Obama changes course on missiles
Obama began the summer with a showdown in Moscow with Vladimir Putin; he ended the summer with a reconfiguration of U.S. policy on missile defense. The July summit was considered a success, eliciting cooperation between the two parties on non-proliferation without highlighting their respective disagreements on Iran and other key issues. Three months later, the Obama administration announced that it will not build the planned defensive missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland that the Russians vociferously opposed. Instead, the Obama administration is proposing a set of alternative missile defense measures that are based at sea and focus on guarding against Iran. As Obama highlights the need for non-proliferation at the U.N. General Assembly, the concession on missile defense could prove to elicit cooperation from the Russians on a reformed non-proliferation treaty.
9. U.S. takes a tougher line on development assistance to Sub-Saharan Africa
We cannot be sure how important Sub-Saharan Africa is to Obama’s foreign policy agenda. While he toured several countries in the region during his first summer in the White House, his administration has yet to appoint an administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, a key post for development assistance. His campaign pledge to double U.S. foreign assistance was one of the first to be dropped in light of the financial crisis. These notwithstanding, Obama’s speech to the Ghanaian parliament highlighted his unique ability to address Africa’s problems with passion and toughness, challenging African leaders to focus on governance as a prerequisite for U.S. interest and assistance. The Senate and the House will soon debate foreign assistance reform packages that could begin to transform Obama’s rhetoric into law.
8. Political transformation in Japan?
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had dominated Japanese politics without parallel since the end of World War II, developing strong ties with the United States and a vibrant commercial culture. Over the past decades, however, Japan has seen prime ministers come and go as its economy has declined and its politics have become more volatile. The September election booted the LDP from power and ushered in the Democratic Party (DPJ), a more liberal opposition that favors a looser military alliance with the United States and stronger diplomatic relationships within the region. The shift in Japanese politics — the world’s second-largest economy — will undoubtedly influence the world economy and Asian politics as the true implications of the electoral change become clear.
7. Energy reform package passes the House, stalls in the Senate
The House of Representatives passed an aggressive energy reform bill along party lines at the beginning of the summer. The Waxman-Markey Bill would set a cap on industrial greenhouse gas emissions with the goal of reducing emissions to 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The bill would also create a market for enterprises to trade the right to emit carbon, integrating smaller industries over time. It includes incentives for states to adopt or initiate clean energy programs and other green practices. As the health care debate has sapped most all Senatorial energy, the discussion surrounding Waxman-Markey has largely subsided. Look for the wrangling to begin again once a health care deal is made.
6. Violence increases as troops withdraw from Iraq
The summer saw a further drawdown of troops from Iraq, and a substantial shift of authority to Iraqi officials in major urban areas. As expected, the withdrawal of American troops was met with increased violence, though attacks are weaker and more infrequent than they were before the infamous surge and Sunni Awakening strategies materialized. When Joe Biden recently made a trip to Baghdad to boast about progress, he was met with the smell of fresh mortar as he entered the Green Zone, home to the American Embassy.
5. Afghanistan voted, democracy got whooped
The War in Afghanistan became progressively worse over the past year, only to reach its crescendo with the financial crisis. The Taliban still controls much of the country, supported by outposts in the west of Pakistan. The summer’s Afghan elections only added to the instability as widespread evidence of fraud obviated President Hamid Karzai’s proclaimed success. While the recount is underway and a run-off is unlikely, Afghanistan will remain a source of instability and consternation for the Obama administration. As the school year progresses, look for Obama’s key decision on the future of Afghanistan. It is likely that he will choose between adding over 10,000 troops to the current levels (as General Stanley McChrystal suggests), altering the mission of the current forces and creating an opening for withdrawal (as Biden seems to be advocating behind the scenes).
4. Empathetic moderate and wise Latina Sonia Sotomayor sworn in as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
Obama’s first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, endured several days of Senate hearings before being confirmed and inaugurated as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Sonia Sotomayor is the first Latina Supreme Court justice and the third female justice to sit on the Court. The hearings focused on Sotomayor’s past claim that her heralded status as a “wise Latina” influenced how she interpreted cases, and — according to one statement — made her better fit to make decisions than a white male. While conservatives pilloried Sotomayor’s emphasis on empathy, some liberals fear that her presence on the bench will further moderate a court that shifted to the right since key civil rights decisions were handed down in the 60s and 70s.
3. Governors gone wild
Who is the GOP’s next leader? Some thought it would be Sarah Palin, the aw-shucks point guard from real America. An interview with Katie Couric and an election later, she was featured more in punch lines than projected primary polls. During the summer, in order to better serve her country, she resigned from her post as governor of Alaska. Mark Sanford also dazzled the GOP with his fiscal conservatism and southern drawl. Little did they know that he had a fondness for hiking and romantic poetry. Governor Sanford, while claiming to hike the Appalachian Trail during Father’s Day, escaped to Argentina to see his mistress with whom, according to intimate e-mails, he is madly in love. The governor’s commitment to explain the full extent of his infidelities has led the GOP to ask him to stop talking. This confluence of events (coupled with John Ensign’s affair and Bobby Jindal’s hilarious-in-its-awkwardness response to President Obama’s February State of the State address) led Jon Stewart to air a segment entitled, “What are you doing to help Mitt Romney?” Expect continued jostling for the spot atop the next Republican presidential ticket.
2. Iranian elections and the Twitter revolution
The campaign for the next President of Iran was raging as the school year ended. Tie-less, Holocaust-denying, Occident-enraging Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced off with Mir Hossein Mousavi, a relatively moderate member of the establishment turned revolutionary hero. Once dramatic and ubiquitous voter fraud was reported in favor of Ahmadinejad (in some districts, more votes were counted for Ahmadinejad than there were registered voters) and Mousavi’s supporters learned that there would be no runoff elections, they took to the streets. Waving and wearing green, Mousavi supporters gathered by the thousands only to meet opposition from Iranian police forces. Many were arrested and allegations of torture soon began to spread. The saga goes on as Ahmadinejad proceeds to lead a government that few in or out of Iran consider legitimate. Look for continued and increased challenges to the establishment’s grip on power.
1. Health care
With multiple bills bouncing from committee to committee in both houses of Congress, the debate over President Obama’s number one agenda item — universal, affordable healthcare — caught fire. Congressman were heckled at town hall meetings as conservative firebrands sought to label Obama a communist, a grandma-killer or worse. The debate has not been about substance as much as marketing. Health care reform — fundamentally about how individuals can organize to provide essential care for one another — has evoked unparalleled anger and fear. Radical opponents of the President’s plan, stoking fear of government, have hijacked the debate, leaving the GOP and the President in a bind. As the conflict unfolds, the GOP will need to decide how hard to push in opposition. If they are stuck trying to sabotage a reform package that is ultimately popular, they might need to begin looking for a new roster of candidates. For the President, the dilemma runs much deeper. While he would rather talk about the substance of the issue, he has yet to find a way to clearly articulate his plan. He has tried slogans, but nothing packs the same punch as “death panels.” He has tried speeches, only to be mocked for overexposure. He has tried stepping back, only to see Congress completely bobble the ball. Stay tuned as Obama tries to find the answer.