Syrian Refugees, Through a Rose-Colored Lens

One of the entries in the recent American Film Institute documentary film festival was Salam Neighbor, made by two young American filmmakers who were embedded for a month at the enormous Zaatari refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan. Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci were allowed to live in a UN tent in January and February of this year. Their aim, they said at a special presentation of the movie in Washington, was to shed light on an aspect of the current Middle East turmoil generally given short shrift by the Western media. In other words, news reports concentrate on the fighting and the shifting balance of territorial control, but the fate of refugees is generally relegated to a footnote in the story.

War and Hope

One of the notable figures on the margins of the Vietnam conflict was Bob Hope, famous for his Christmas shows for the armed forces in the war zone, and the television specials subsequently made from them. No doubt, today’s Hollywood stars flew to Afghanistan and Iraq and entertained the troops in Kabul and Tikrit, but nothing approached the scale of Hope’s role as entertainer-in-chief to American troops in South Vietnam for nine straight Christmases starting in December 1964 (and during the Korean and World War II before that).

There are several reasons why not. No war has engaged the American public, emotionally and politically, like the Vietnam War, for one thing. Television networks no longer have the appetite for long variety-type specials that were the money-making end-product of Hope’s shows.

And there was no Bob Hope, with his star stature, and his strong, if ego-feeding, life-risking patriotism.

Cameron's Referendum Quandary

Whatever Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron hopes to achieve over the next five years, his second term is going to be tormented by the threat of one referendum and the virtual certainty of another.

Following the Scottish National Party’s strong electoral showing its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has refused to rule out a second independence referendum if the government in London skimps on its proposed devolution package for Scotland. Devolution is British speak for autonomy.

At the same time, Cameron is locked in to the other referendum, in which the British will, before the end of 2017, choose whether they wish to remain in the European Union or to leave it. Since the election two weeks ago, some officials have been telling the media that the EU in-or-out vote could be held as early as 2016, but Cameron is also committed to trying to re-negotiate a new membership agreement with Brussels, and the British will then vote on the outcome.

British Elections Postscript

Widely expected to give a muffled and incoherent answer, the British electorate opted instead for a decisive one. When the votes were counted in the 2015 general election, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had the necessary numbers to govern on his own with a small, but workable majority. As one re-elected Tory member told the BBC Friday morning, “We’re going to have none of the muddle that was predicted.” In an astonishing result that gave fresh meaning to the word unpredictable, there was no hung Parliament, no battle for power.

It’s a result calculated to cause trepidation in Brussels and relief in Washington. Cameron is committed to an in-out referendum by the end of 2017 on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, and the outcome could depend on prior negotiations to change the ground rules of Britain’s relationship with Europe. In the European Commission this is widely seen as the British wanting to remain EU members, but on their own terms: In Cameron’s Conservative Party, the widespread feeling is that Britain needs to regain some of what is perceived as lost British sovereignty to EU community rules.

Kissinger’s ‘Favorite Communist,’ President Napolitano of Italy, Resigns

There’s hardly an Italian who doesn’t sympathize with President Giorgio Napolitano’s decision to resign despite the fact that he has another five years left in his unprecedented second presidential term. Italy’s highly respected head of state is 89; if he served out his full time he would be 94 when he left office. And Napolitano has already left a legacy that includes distancing the presidency from the bedlam of Italian politics and earning the esteem of foreign leaders.  

It was a political deadlock that led to Napolitano agreeing to serve for a second six-year term in 2013 when the Italian Senate and lower house that elect the Italian president failed to agree on a successor, but Napolitano won’t be there to bail out the politicians again on January 29th, when voting starts for a new president. In the first three ballots a two-thirds majority is required to elect a candidate, after that a simple majority will suffice, and presidential elections tend to spill over to a fourth or fifth ballot, or even more.

Scotland, After the Referendum

New Year has always been a bigger celebration than Christmas in Scotland, and the New Year Hogmanay festivities were a good time for the Scots to start the process of reconciliation following their unsuccessful and divisive independence referendum. No less a personage than Queen Elizabeth II has warned them they face a challenging year. “After the referendum many felt great disappointment while others felt great relief, and bridging those difficulties will take time,” the 88-year-old monarch said in her annual Christmas broadcast.

But the Scots were already fully aware that what the Scotsman newspaper this week called “the most momentous year in Scottish political history” could hardly be shrugged off and forgotten. While a majority of the population voted not to end three centuries of union and stayed in the United Kingdom, 45 percent voted “yes” in favor of secession. As a result families were divided, as were communities and regions. For example: Edinburgh, the capital, voted overwhelmingly “no,” but in Glasgow, “yes” voter triumphed.

Pope Francis as Castro-Obama Intermediary

The day after the US-Cuban announcement of renewed relations, Pope Francis, by coincidence, received 13 new ambassadors to the Holy See and used the occasion to welcome the new agreement as a triumph of diplomacy. “Today we are all happy because we have seen how two peoples, distanced for so many years, make a step nearer to one another,” he said. “That was brought about by ambassadors, by diplomacy. Your job is noble work, very noble.”

“The work of ambassador lies in small steps, small things,” the pope told the ambassadors from Mongolia, the Bahamas, Dominica, Tanzania, Denmark, Malaysia, Rwanda, Finland, New Zealand, Mali, Togo, Bangladesh, and Qatar, “but they always end up making peace, bringing closer the hearts of people, sowing brotherhood among peoples. This is your job, but with little things, tiny things.”

A Landmark Meeting for Monarch in Waiting

In December, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, second in line to the British throne, made a one-day side trip to Washington from a longer visit to New York with his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, and met separately with both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

Britain’s future monarch had a speaking engagement at the World Bank in Washington, so a courtesy visit to the president was good manners. But the Obama White House has done very little hobnobbing with foreign royalty and has been known to refuse occasional requests by other European royals for just such a visit, citing pressure of work or presidential travels (in which case, the royals in question don’t include the US capital city in their itinerary).

Americans, Poles Celebrate Fall of Communism

WARSAW, Poland — On Monday, October 25th, at the Polish Radio recording studios here, Kenneth Slowik, the artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society, conducted an orchestra of young Polish musicians in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring suite for orchestra, Charles Ives’ chamber piece The Unanswered Question, and Lowell Liebermann’s flute concerto, with Poland’s leading flutist Jadwiga Kotnowska as the soloist.

On a previous evening in a concert of Polish music, the American solo cellist Steven Honigberg had performed Andrzej Panufnik’s pyrotechnic concerto for cello and orchestra, with the orchestra under the direction of Polish conductor Marek Mos.

Fear and Lothian in Westminster

The end of Scotland’s unsuccessful bid for independence has segued (as they say in show business) into Britain’s general election campaign. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had clearly miscalculated the strength of the Scottish “yes” vote, must still be wiping his brow at having narrowly escaped disaster. Carwyn Jones, the Welsh first minister, accused him of “sleepwalking” through the Scottish bid to leave the union. But Cameron’s last-minute promise of wider powers for Scotland was crucial in reversing a drift toward a “yes” vote in the closing days of the long campaign. Now Westminster has to make good on its commitments.

Somehow, the Scottish vote against change has in effect become a vote for change on an even broader scale, with the prime minister supporting numerous demands for more power in such matters as taxes, health issues, and education from Cornwall, Wales, Northern Ireland, and even England. Gone is his earlier insistence on preserving the sanctity of the United Kingdom’s union as the foundation of the country’s strength; he is now offering a change in the constitution that would emphasize the separateness of its component parts.

Gertrude of Arabia and Other British Arabists

The New York Times recently published an article on Gertrude Bell, the English archeologist and intelligence officer credited more than any other single individual with creating modern Iraq, drawing the borders and choosing its king after World War I. Bell was a member of the Arab Bureau in the British intelligence office in Cairo along with the more famous agent, T. E. Lawrence. The Times’s point was that Bell’s legacy of a unified Iraq “is at risk of being undone” today, even as historic sectarian conflict between Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds threatens to fragment the country.

But the other point was that Bell, and other British Arabists like her, spent years cultivating tribal leaders, sheikhs, and kings and gaining their trust, and their lives are woven in the tapestry of early 20th century Middle Eastern history. The Iraqis called Bell Umm’al Mu’mineen, or Mother of the Faithful.

Back to Iraq?

In many ways the US airstrikes targeting the Islamic Sunni extremists in Iraq are the Libyan playbook brought up to date, but they also recall a longer, broader aerial offensive in Iraq more than 20 years ago that began as Operation Provide Comfort before morphing into a long, ambivalent, low-grade war involving US, British, and—at first—French combat jets.

In 1991, at the end of the Gulf War, the US, France, and the United Kingdom launched a containment strategy against Saddam Hussein, enforcing a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. The initial objective was to support coalition ground forces in the Kurdish enclave of northern Iraq. When the troops left the no-fly zone was kept in place with the declared intention of protecting the Kurds from Iraqi attacks.

Chinese Investors Ham it Up

On the Fourth of July, chances are that the sizzling hot dogs on a large number of barbecues came from a Chinese-owned company. That was because in late 2013, Smithfield Foods Inc., of Virginia, the world’s largest pork producer, was acquired by Shuanghui, its biggest counterpart in China, turning a quintessential American company into a Chinese subsidiary.

At $7.1 billion ($4.72 billion, plus the assumption of Smithfield’s debt) it was, and so far remains, the largest Chinese takeover to date of a US company. Yet experts say the Chinese shopping spree for American firms is just gaining momentum.

The Chinese have not set their sights on an American apple pie company yet, but it may be a matter of time before they do. Chinese investment in the US totaled $14 billion in 2013, double the previous year, and according to the Rhodium Group of financial analysts, which keeps track of China’s activity in the US market, Chinese acquisitions reached $8 billion in the first quarter of 2014.

A Different Germany? Maybe

The Germans are still on a high after winning the World Cup, even if the German press felt it had to express mild disapproval at the team’s performance of the “Gaucho Dance” at their homecoming demonstration in Berlin.

In the “Gaucho Dance,” team members got into a crouch and sang, “This is how the gauchos walk,” and then straightened to their full height and sang, “This is how Germans walk.” The chairman of the Bundesliga, the German soccer league, said he would write to his Argentinian counterpart to assure him that “the boys” were not gloating over their 1-0 defeat of Argentina’s national team.

But at the World Cup “fan mile,” at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, hundreds of thousands of adoring Germans cheered the players and chanted “Schland,” the hip, slang term for Deutschland that established itself among fans during this World Cup.

Meanwhile, German media (and not just the Germans) have been going through the mandatory exercise of trying to figure out the broader implications of bringing home the coveted trophy.

Google Case Highlights Inscrutable EU Court

As thousands of requests poured in to Google in Europe to remove links to published personal information in compliance with the European Court of Justice ruling in May, there was no way of knowing which of the 13 judges on the bench had voted in favor of the landmark decision, and which against—if any.

What a difference from the US Supreme Court, to which the EU court is often compared. In the so-called “right to be forgotten” case against Google and other search engines in Europe, the Luxembourg-based court announced its ruling, and that was that. There was no indication whether any judge disagreed with the majority decision, because any dissenting view remains the secret of the court.

This, say European law experts, is one reason why it’s virtually impossible to profile judges in the increasingly influential European Court based on their past opinions, as frequently happens with the justices of the US Supreme Court.


Subscribe to RSS - Roland Flamini's blog