Meanwhile in Romania…

The flag of Romania

While most people in the United States are fixated on the war of words between the executive and judicial branches of our federal government, there is another such battle taking place far from away in the nation of Romania.

I cannot think about Romania without remembering my best friend from graduate school, who was a native of the former Communist state. In one of our first conversations, I told her that when someone said the word “Romania”, I immediately thought of gymnasts. She seemed a bit befuddled and replied, “From what I hear, it’s usually vampires…Transylvania!”

We would all gather for dinner in the cafeteria of the international students’ dorm. There was a group of Russian students that tended to sit together. Aura (for such was my friend’s name), who was normally a courteous person, looked upon them with disdain. When I suggested that perhaps these students should not be equated with the policies of the Russian government, Aura replied as if all Russians were exactly the same. “They invaded my country!” she complained. Continue reading

Who is to Blame for the Rise of ISIS?

Territory controlled by ISIS as of this week (dark red), as well as the area they claim (light red). Wikipedia image by Spesh531

Territory controlled by ISIS as of this week (dark red), as well as the area they claim (light red). Wikipedia image by Spesh531

There are a lot of lessons that we can take from the alarming expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Surely it is a parable, but what is the lesson to be learned? Never end a war without leaving a substantial American footprint behind? Never funnel weapons to a rag-tag coalition of revolutionaries whose motivations may well be dubious? Never trust an Arab government to be able to handle things on its own? Never elect a pussy to be president of the United States?

I can think of nothing more fundamentally human than the desire to cast blame when something goes wrong, to reach for the simple explanation to a complex problem, or to ignore the long view in favor of the emotions of the moment. Beyond that, we prefer to direct our focus inward rather than outward; in other words, we are far more adept at analyzing something according to our understanding of the world than we are at comprehending how another person’s understanding might cause them to act. Because we live our lives at an increasingly rapid pace, we fail to appreciate how deeply rooted humanity remains, both from a historical and cultural standpoint. Continue reading

The Ukraine Crisis Explained in a Series of Maps

791px-Kyjiv_sofienkathedrale, Wikipedia Elya

The St. Sophia Cathedral complex in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo by Wikipedia user Elya

Ukraine has been in the news quite a bit lately. What began as a series of protests against President Viktor Yanukovych following his decision not to sign a trade deal with the European Union quickly escalated. Eventually, Yanukovych fled the country (or left orderly, depending on who you ask) and was removed from office by an act of parliament. The parliamentary chairman, Oleksandr Turchynov, became the acting president in charge of an interim government.

Within a few days, we all started hearing the word “Crimea” a lot as this semi-autonomous section of Ukraine became the center of an ever intensifying standoff between the Russian government led by Vladimir Putin, the new Ukrainian government in Kiev, and other foreign countries such as the United States. The rhetoric seems to get more severe by the day, Putin has received permission from his parliament to take military action in Ukraine to protect “Russian interests” (in addition to the apparent Russian military action already taken in Crimea), the Crimean parliament has voted to become part of Russia and put the issue to a public vote, and the Obama administration is struggling to come up with a proper response. Continue reading

Why is Vladimir Putin so Popular?

Russian president Vladimir Putin poses with members of the gold medal winning Russian figure skating team. (He's the guy in the middle of all those hot ladies.) Official Russian presidency photo

Russian president Vladimir Putin poses with members of the gold medal-winning Russian figure skating team. (He’s the guy in the middle of all those hot ladies.) Official Russian presidency photo

If you have been paying much attention to American commentators lately, you would be tempted to think that the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi has less to do with the athletes than it does with the Russian president. Vladimir Putin, never one to cede the limelight to anyone, has been at the center of these games every step of the way, from the time he helped to convince members of the International Olympic Committee to let Russia’s beach resort town host the Olympics (a questionable decision given that there seem to be more naturally occurring palm trees there than piles of naturally occurring snow), to the visually stunning Opening Ceremony (a perfect propaganda opportunity, some would grumble), to posing for photos with newly minted Russian gold medalists in the team figure skating competition. You might be tempted to think these are Putin’s games rather than Russia’s.

There are few international leaders who are demonized in the United States as much as Putin, rightly or wrongly. From his body language in bilateral meetings with U.S. President Obama, to his championing of an anti-homosexual “propaganda” bill, to his insistence on masculine self-promotion, practically everything that Putin does is viewed by many in the United States as arrogant, power-hungry, or downright evil. Likewise, Americans often assume that the Russian president is a dictator and national elections are marred by fraud. Even if they do believe that Russians like Vladimir Putin, most Americans would be hard-pressed to explain why this is the case. Continue reading

For Japan and China, a Dispute Worthy of Voldemort

Yasukuni Shrine Wikipedia Fg2

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on a rainy day. Photo by Wikipedia user Fg2

I had a nice post prepared for today that was going to deal with a controversial issue in the religious world, but I have decided to put it aside and instead address a controversy that is currently brewing in the world of international relations.  One might even say it takes place in the fantasy world.

Let me first state a well known fact: China and Japan do not get along.  Subjects of disagreement between them include the fact that one is Communist and the other is a Western-style democracy, one is a major U.S. ally and the other more of a U.S. competitor, both are economic powers going after some of the same markets, a controversial chain of islands is claimed by both of them, they each have capable and expanding military forces, and one of them has a bunch of cute pandas while the other does not. (Ok, that last one isn’t really a source of tension.) Yet, all of these factors tend to take a backseat to a list of historical grievances that have proved to be infinitely hard to forget. Continue reading

Iran’s Deal With The Devil

Iran and the United States finally reached an agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program, but it seems this time the devil is in the details.

Over the weekend, the U.S., its allies, and Iran managed to work out a deal in which some of the international sanctions Iran has been experiencing will be lifted in exchange for certain reductions in Iran’s nuclear development.  This is a six-month agreement that the Obama administration hopes will lead to a more permanent solution after further talks take place.  I know what you’re thinking: “What an amazing diplomatic breakthrough!”  Well…

“Last night is not a historic agreement – it’s a historic mistake.  It’s not made the world a safer place…This agreement has made the world a much more dangerous place,” argued Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.  Ok, so we’ll put him down as “still on the fence”: not surprising, since Netanyahu has never gotten along that well with President Obama.  He probably is just upset that Barack (the U.S. president, not Netanyahu’s Israeli political rival, Ehud Barak) is going to get all the glory for this one, right? Continue reading

Trouble in the Kingdom: Saudi Criticisms of U.S. Policy

800px-Arrival_ceremony_welcoming_King_Faisal_of_Saudi_Arabia_05-27-1971, National Archives Robert L Nudsen

Former Saudi King Faisal is greeted by President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1971. The U.S.-Saudi relationship is one of long standing. National Archives photo by Robert L. Nudsen

With Syria in flames and Iran continuing its nuclear development, two Saudi princes have grabbed headlines criticizing Obama administration policies in the Middle East. What does this mean for the future of the bilateral relationship?

In the Middle East, events seem to shift as often as the Arabian sands. Rulers rise and fall, wars come and go, and firm alliances are often hard to achieve. Thus, the longstanding relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been one of the key driving forces in the region, an alliance based more on common interests than common ideals or ways of life.

The course of this relationship has not always run smooth. The presence of American troops and contractors on Saudi soil has been a source of consternation for those who frown on such things happening on holy Islamic land. The OPEC embargo in the 1970s revealed some distance between the two allies, while the Persian Gulf War opened the door for enhanced military cooperation in defense of the Kingdom and neighboring Kuwait. Another low was reached after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. Continue reading

Obama Should Shake Rouhani’s Hand

Official Iranian government photo of President Hassan Rouhani

Official Iranian government photo of President Hassan Rouhani

Word on the street is that the White House is trying to decide whether or not to arrange a brief meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of this week’s annual parade of world leaders at the UN General Assembly.  Such a tête-à-tête is common at large international gatherings, but not when the two countries in question are Iran and the United States.  When it comes to this bilateral relationship, a simple handshake would be enough to grab headlines around the world.

American politicians have avoided shaking hands with their Iranian counterparts since 1979, not out of some odd “germophobic” impulse, but due to the official severing of diplomatic relations. This break technically occurred in 1980, although the situation had taken an immediate turn for the worse with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and hostage taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.  In the more than thirty years since that point, politicians in both countries have come and gone, but none have been able to satisfy the demands of the other side, and the icy relations have continued. Continue reading

Vladimir Putin’s Exceptional Op-Ed

Pete Souza (2)

There’s plenty of space to spare between the United States and Russia. White House photo by Pete Souza

A funny thing happened when I opened my copy of the New York Times today.  Well, actually, that’s not quite true: I, like so many Americans, rarely buy a printed version of the Times or any other newspaper.  Instead, I squeeze what I can out of the handful of free articles I can read online each month.  Apparently, I’m just too cheap to reward journalists monetarily for the fruits of their labors. (However, I am happy to reciprocate by making my own articles available free of any fees or advertisements!)

As I was saying, I opened up the New York Times app on my phone and viewed a most interesting op-ed by none other than Russian President “Vladimir V. Putin”.  (The “V” stands for Vladimirovich, a middle name that more than makes up for its redundancy with its ease of memorization.) The headline reads “A Plea for Caution from Russia” and there is an image of a blackened hand with two black stripes running across it. Continue reading

The Many Wars of John Kerry

Pete Souza

White House photo by Pete Souza

John Kerry finds himself in a familiar position or two on the issue of Syria.

As the Obama administration continues to make its push for a military strike in Syria, a familiar face has emerged at the center of this global diplomatic effort: Secretary of State John Kerry, one-time Democratic presidential candidate, long-time U.S. Senator for Massachusetts, and part-time windsurfer.  No one has been logging more frequent flier miles or hours on camera than Kerry in this push to convince global allies and the American public that Assad’s misdeeds must be punished through military strength.

This is hardly the first time that Kerry has found himself at the center of the debate over a controversial war.  In fact, there are few people who could have been more ironic spokespersons for a Syrian assault than our current Secretary of State. Continue reading