Belgium has become the first Western European country to approve a national ban on the burka, with the lower house of the Belgian Parliament unanimously passing the measure April 29. This could open the way for similar bans in other countries. While the legislation still has to be ratified by the Senate, it is not expected to be blocked there. The burka is already banned in two dozen local districts in Belgium, including the capital, Brussels. The nationwide ban will make it illegal for the Islamic burka and the niqab to be worn in public places. Meanwhile, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, the head of Germany’s Free Democrats in the European Parliament, called for a Europe-wide ban in the wake of the Belgian vote because covering women, she said, “openly supports values that we do not share in Europe.” In Italy, a woman was fined €500 (us$650) for wearing a burka. The fine was imposed under a 1975 anti-terrorism law forbidding both men and women to cover their faces—apparently the first time the law was applied in this manner. Expect the backlash against Islam on the Continent to grow.
The German government is purchasing Britain’s biggest train and bus firm. The $2.44 billion deal will put 44,000 Arriva employees in multiple European countries under the control of Deutsche Bahn. It is the loss of yet another British crown jewel. Arriva is one of Europe’s leading transport services, with bus and train operations in the UK, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. Arriva also has bus networks in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia and Spain, and operates rail services in Poland. Over 1 billion passengers each year ride Arriva’s extensive transport networks. It is rude irony that Deutsche Bahn—the successor company to Deutsche Reichsbahn, which operated the trains that ran to the World War II extermination camps—will now own British Rail, a company whose predecessors did so much to transport the war stores to those who opposed the Nazis. What the Nazis were not able to accomplish through war, Germany is now gaining through other means.
Germany’s defense minister has announced plans for a structural reform of the German military that would improve the effectiveness of the country’s armed forces. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg explained on April 12 that under the new framework, the Bundeswehr would be streamlined, and more German soldiers would be freed up for overseas missions. This is further evidence that Germany’s foreign policy is rapidly and dangerously transforming.
On May 11, U.S. President Barack Obama phoned President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to congratulate him on the start of Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks. Abbas made his long-delayed decision to enter indirect talks with Israel on May 8. The history of such talks makes it abundantly apparent that any new round of talks will only succeed in wounding the Jewish state further, through additional concessions without any resultant peace.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority will invest in projects aimed at “Arabizing” Jerusalem, it was decided at a meeting May 3 between PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his ministerial-level government members. “The Fayyad government is authorized by the new decision to relocate government offices and important institutions to what mass media refer to as eastern Jerusalem but actually includes northern and southern areas of the capital as well,” IsraelNationalNews.com reported. “The stated goal is to implant the sense among Jerusalem Arabs that the address for their issues is the PA” (May 5). The decision violates the Oslo Accord, which prohibits the PA from operating in Jerusalem. The PA government said it intends to Arabize the city, “setting facts on the ground” that would have to be taken into consideration in any future negotiations with Israel. The decision met no condemnation from Washington saying it would derail the peace process—in contrast to the Obama administration’s denunciation of Jewish housing plans in Jerusalem announced in March.
In April, a poll in Israel showed Israelis firmly behind Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and solidly against an imposed peace agreement and the division of Jerusalem. The poll, conducted by Brain Base for Independent Media Review Analysis, revealed that Israeli Jews oppose an imposed peace by a margin of 83 to 8 percent. “The results … pull out the rug from any possible intentions by the Obama administration to try to topple the Netanyahu government in favor of a Kadima-Labor coalition,” reported IsraelNationalNews.com (April 14). This is a further indication that the Arab-Jew impasse over Jerusalem will continue—until it reaches the point of violence.
On May 4, Iraq’s two main rival Shiite coalitions agreed to merge into a single parliamentary bloc. The two Shia blocs came second and third in Iraq’s March 7 elections. While the political wrangling is not over and a prime minister has yet to be chosen, this deal gives the pro-Iranian State of Law bloc and the Iranian-backed Islamist Iraqi National Alliance a strong chance of setting up the next government, thus cementing Iranian domination of Iraq. The same day, radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced—no doubt at the direction of his sponsor, Iran—the revival of his Mahdi Army militia and threatened to attack American troops if they didn’t stick to their Dec. 31, 2011, deadline to leave the country.
Meanwhile, violence in Iraq has increased as al Qaeda-connected Sunnis react to the attempt by Iran-aligned Shiites to form a government. A series of attacks across the country on May 10 killed over 100 people and injured more than 300, in the deadliest day so far this year.
Iran’s elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, held large-scale military exercise in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz in April. Iran’s Press tv said the four-day naval, air and ground exercises were held to demonstrate the country’s defense capabilities and its determination to maintain security in the region. A high-level military delegation from Qatar, an American ally, was present during the exercises. A large part of America’s strategy to contain Iran relies on the military deterrent provided by Persian Gulf countries. Those same countries’ cooperation with Iran clearly demonstrates the unreliable nature of America’s “moderate” Arab allies.
Just a week later, Iran held eight more days of military drills in the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz to train Iranian troops and intimidate potential enemies.
The Obama administration is seeking to soften proposed sanctions against Iran. The White House is pushing Congress to provide exemptions for countries like China and Russia in the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act.
A report released April 20 by the U.S. Defense Department claims that Iran’s Quds Force, the overseas operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has stepped up its presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela. The report on Iran’s current and future military strategy said the Quds Force “maintains operational capabilities around the world.” It “is well established in the Middle East and North Africa, and recent years [have] witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela,” the report said. “If U.S. involvement in conflicts in these regions deepens, contact with the [Quds Force], directly or through extremist groups it supports, will be more frequent and consequential.” Iran’s ability to retaliate against U.S. interests globally is part of the leverage Tehran holds over Washington.
Japan’s defense minister announced on April 11 that 10 Chinese military vessels had sailed between Japan’s Okinawa and Miyako islands in the preceding few days. Although China’s increasing naval presence in international waters do not violate any international laws, analysts say they showcase China’s growing naval capability and suggest that Beijing intends to prevent intervention by other naval forces. For decades, China has been engaged in territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea, and its rapidly growing international status has intensified Beijing’s claims in these areas. As China’s increasing economic might and expanding military power feed each other, expect Beijing’s global assertiveness to intensify.
On April 20, China confirmed the granting of two loans to Venezuela worth over $20 billion, and the signing of a series of energy agreements with Caracas. In the deals, Beijing secured Venezuelan oil to feed China’s thriving economy, while Caracas scored significant liquidity at a crucial time in its quest to harness energy resources. Also noteworthy is that one of the loans, worth $10.2 billion, is denominated in Chinese yuan, and will be a test for internationalizing the Chinese currency. As global confidence in the dollar falters, China and other countries will explore alternative options for international currencies.
Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev signed an agreement with his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovych, on April 21 extending the lease of a Russian naval base in Sevastopol for 25 years following its expiration in 2017. The deal followed a promise by Moscow to give Kiev significantly discounted prices for natural gas and other purchases. The agreement is another indication that Yanukovych is following through on his pre-election pledge to move Ukraine away from the pro-West stance of his predecessor Viktor Yushchenko, who had vowed to shut the Russian base down once the current deal expired.
On April 30, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin proposed merging Russia’s energy giant Gazprom with Ukraine’s gas monopoly, Naftogaz. The surprise offer would bring the relationship between Moscow and Kiev closer than ever. Because 80 percent of Russian gas bound for Europe passes through Ukraine, Gazprom relies heavily on Kiev’s cooperation. Kiev in turn relies heavily on Russia’s natural gas.
Moscow enjoyed its biggest VE Day celebrations since the fall of the ussr on May 9. After the fall of the Soviet Union, these celebrations became quieter as Russians reflected on their nation’s loss of power and status. But not anymore. “This year the VE celebration fully takes back its former meaning, celebrating Russia as a real power once again,” wrote Stratfor. “Over the past few years—and especially in the past few months—Russia has pushed its influence back into most of its former Soviet states through military intervention, revolution, customs unions and pro-Russian governments” (May 7).
Not only did the crash of the Polish military plane on April 10 kill almost all of Poland’s government leaders, but it also gave Russia a bonanza of NATO secrets, according to a May 13 Washington Times article. Several of those flying carried computers and memory sticks containing secret NATO data. Russia may also have obtained the “ultra-secret” codes used by NATO to encrypt satellite communication. If the Russians are able to recover these codes from the wreckage, they will be able to decrypt months, if not years, of past NATO communications.
An estimated 90,000 Japanese citizens joined local politicians in the streets of Okinawa on April 25 to protest allowing the U.S. Futenma Marine Corps Airbase to remain in the Okinawa prefecture. Regardless of Tokyo’s decision on this matter, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Japan is not the reliable U.S. ally that it has appeared to be since the Second World War.
A Russian warship hunted down and recaptured an oil tanker taken by Somali pirates on May 6. Special forces rappelled onto the ship, killing one pirate in a 22-minute gun battle that forced the pirates to surrender. The pirates were taken by surprise. “They did not expect such resolute measures from us,” said Capt. Ildar Akhmerov. Expect the hijacking of Russian ships to become less common—unlike that of countries that take less robust action.
Leaders from the bric countries—or the world’s top four emerging markets: Brazil, Russia, India and China—met in Brasilia in April. These four countries contain 40 percent of the world’s population, and consistently seek to have a larger say in world affairs.
Venezuela’s electricity supply is on the brink of collapse. Water levels at the Guri dam—which supplies power to 70 percent of the nation—are so low that officials may be forced to shut down a large part of the dam. A fire at a key thermoelectric plant for northwestern Venezuela on April 4 only made the situation worse.
For the first time since World War II, the United Kingdom had a coalition government sit in Parliament May 18. New Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron sat on the front bench next to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the new deputy vice president. They, along with many other members of the 650-seat chamber, are new faces in new positions after the May 6 general election. Resignations over previous months due to expense account scandals meant that 226 of the members of Parliament present were fresh faces. As the unwieldy government works to hold itself together, it may prove vulnerable to being manhandled by other countries and the EU.
The Bank of England said on May 12 that Britain and the United States have some of the same fiscal problems as Greece when it comes to public finances. The assessment came from bank governor Mervyn King, who is regarded as among the most guarded central bankers. A week earlier, reports surfaced that the European Commission had forecast that the UK’s budget deficit would hit 12 percent of gross domestic product—the highest in the EU.
On May 3, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted that America’s crucial naval dominance is being threatened. The Navy, which relies heavily on expensive aircraft carriers and submarines, is becoming more vulnerable as potential enemies like Iran and China improve “asymmetrical” weapons such as anti-ship missiles. “Anti-access” weapons could potentially render America’s mighty, expensive carrier groups obsolete, Gates warned.
U.S. food prices are rising, with overall prices jumping 2.4 percent in March alone. As compared to one year previous, fresh and dry vegetables were up 56 percent and fresh fruits and melons up 29 percent. Eggs rose 34 percent, and beef, veal and dairy all rose by roughly 10 percent.
Two Illinois politicians requested military intervention in Chicago in April, where the murder rate matches the number of U.S. troops who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. The politicians said National Guard soldiers were needed to “stabilize” Chicago communities just as they are doing in those two conflicts.
In Britain, the Office of National Statistics reveals that the proportion of births to unmarried mothers across the nation will rise above half over the next five years. The figure rose from 37 percent in 1997 to 45 percent in 2008.
Two lesbians have obtained the first official birth certificate in Britain that leaves the father off the official record, thanks to a 2008 act of Parliament. Rather than listing the mother and father, the certificate states a “mother” and a “parent.”
England is one of Europe’s “least patriotic” countries, an April survey found. One in five English respondents said they lacked patriotism due to a broken society, although half said they had been patriotic in the past. On a questionnaire, respondents judged their overall level of patriotism to be 5.8 out of 10, the lowest of the nine nations surveyed. More than a quarter said they feared they would be called racist if they flew the English flag.