At the end of every year, I attempt a first draft of history by listing what seem to me to be the five most significant events of the past twelve months. Some of my picks for 2013 also featured in 2012. I hope this is not because of intellectual laziness, but simply because the war in Syria, and the turmoil in Egypt remain defining events of our era. I probably should also once again include the tensions between China and Japan – but they are still simmering and have not yet boiled over. So I’ll give the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands a rest this year.
So let me start the list for 2013 with a genuinely new event that has global significance: Read more
(Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Thousands gathered in Soweto’s enormous stadium for a lively memorial service celebrating Nelson Mandela’s life yesterday but much of the news focused on the behaviour of the attendees rather than on Madiba’s legacy.
The memorial event was overshadowed by the crowd’s hostile reaction to South African president Jacob Zuma, a historic handshake between US and Cuban leaders and shameless selfies as western leaders hogged the limelight. In a surreal turn of events, it emerged that the man interpreting the proceedings live on television for deaf viewers was a hoax.
Here are some reports and analysis on the significance of the day and the high jinks in the audience. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
For Barack Obama, striking a nuclear deal with Iran may turn out to be the easy part. The president’s biggest struggle now is facing down Israel and its supporters in the US as they attempt to rally opposition to the deal. The administration knows this and it is quietly confident that it can take on the Israel lobby in Congress – and win.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a press conference after two days of nuclear talks in Geneva.
Iran and world powers are still a long way from agreeing a deal to allay global fears about the Iranian nuclear programme. But something has started to happen at this week’s negotiations in Geneva that may significantly improve the chances of a pact.
For the first time, the US and the west have started to explore what the “end state” of the Iranian programme should be – in other words what kind of nuclear facilities the US and its allies will allow Iran to retain over the very long term. Read more
The Republican role in the budget battles gripping Washington DC
As the government shutdown drags on into its second week and the US teeters on the brink of defaulting on its debt, Ben Hall, world news editor, is joined by Richard McGregor, Washington bureau chief, and Edward Luce, chief US commentator, to discuss how badly the Republicans have been damaged by the budget battles and whether they should be worried about the political consequences of their uncompromising stance.
As western leaders prepare to strike Syria, many ordinary people and observers, inside and outside the Middle East, are inevitably drawing parallels between this attack and the US-led war on Iraq a decade ago. Whether in its complicated ethnic composition and its prospects for further violence, in the weapons of mass destruction as a trigger for military action, or in the questions of legality and the likely diplomatic bypassing of the UN security council, a growing perception is that we are about to witness a repeat of recent history.
The Middle East is such a complicated place that these perceptions are not unreasonable. It’s not easy to make sense of Sunni versus Shia, Alawite versus Sunni, regime versus jihadis. Also complex is the debate over legality versus legitimacy of intervention. Western shifts of policy can be confusing, from watching tens of thousands of Syrians slaughtered to declaring the death of hundreds in an alleged gas attack a moral obscenity that cannot go unpunished. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
The pace of events in the Middle East has quickened once again. More than two years since the start of the Arab spring, the facts on the ground can still change so rapidly in the region that western governments struggle to keep pace. Last week Barack Obama had convened an emergency meeting to discuss the violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, only for the US president to find himself confronted with an even more dramatic challenge – a chemical weapon attack in Syria.
Video footage showing rows of children in burial shrouds and doctors desperately trying to save other victims shocked the world on August 20. What appeared to be a chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital was the latest in a series of allegations that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons in its war against the armed opposition. Just over a year ago, Barack Obama, the US president, vowed that any use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would be a ‘red line’ that would provoke US intervention in Syria’s conflict. But despite acknowledging that Mr Assad has used chemical weapons, the US has so far failed to take action. Here is a timeline of US statements on chemical weapons and allegations of their use in Syria.
July 23, 2012 The Bashar al-Assad regime confirmed for the first time it possessed chemical weapons, saying it would use them in the case of Western military intervention but never against the Syrian population.
August 20, 2012 President Barack Obama announces his “red line” for Syrian intervention, threatening “enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”
December 6 2012 The White House expresses concern that the Assad regime “might be considering the use of chemical weapons” and that the Syrian authorities would be “held accountable by the United States and the international community if they use chemical weapons or fail to meet their obligations to secure them”. Read more
Protesters in Berlin compare US President Barack Obama with the former Eastern German secret police, the "Stasi" (Getty)
Washington would like to brush aside European indignation with a spot of Latin.
The Obama administration is coming under intense criticism from many parts of Europe after Der Spiegel reported the US has been bugging various European Union offices. European politicians have accused the US of treating the EU as an “enemy” and of a return to “Cold War practices”.
The reaction in Washington has been to invoke the international law doctrine known as “tu quoque”, which translates as “you, too” or as the Pentagon described it during a similar late-90s bout of European anger about US spying: “A nation has no standing to complain about a practice in which it itself engages.” Read more
The liberal hawks are back. That, at least, is the superficial reading of the shake-up in the Obama administration foreign policy team that was announced on Wednesday, with Susan Rice replacing Tom Donilon as national security adviser and Samantha Power taking her place as ambassador to the United Nations.
Two years ago, Ms Rice and Ms Power played an important role in persuading President Barack Obama to intervene in the conflict in Libya. Given that the administration is now agonising over whether to do the same in Syria, the obvious question is whether their promotions will shift the debate about US involvement in that conflict. Read more
As Barack Obama visits Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week, he will doubtless find that one issue tops all others for the Israeli government: the need to persuade him to make a firm commitment to take military action over Iran’s nuclear programme if negotiations to scale back Iranian ambitions eventually break down.
President Obama said recently that he does not think Iran will be in position to get a nuclear weapon for at least another year. But Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, is still looking for a firmer commitment from the White House that if the Iranians take their nuclear capability beyond a certain point, the US will take military action.
Whether differences between the US and Israel will be closed on this trip – or at some other point – is far from clear. Although it says Iran must not get a nuclear weapon, the US administration certainly views the timeframe for the Iranian programme in a more relaxed way than the Israelis do. Read more
Photo by Getty
“If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.” Proud, unrepentant, unreflecting, these are the words of Dick Cheney in a new documentary to be aired on American television on Friday evening.
The film is being released a few days before the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, but it is not the place to go for a candid reassessment of the war. Mr Cheney admits that “we did not find stockpiles” of weapons of mass destruction, but he adds: “We did find that he had the capability and we believed he had the intent.”
He is equally unflinching in his support for torture and other controversial aspects of the war on terror. “It isn’t so much what you achieved as is what you prevented,” he says. Read more
Facing a grilling: Chuck Hagel (Getty)
Chuck Hagel’s keenly awaited confirmation hearing on Thursday to be the next US defence secretary is likely to be dominated by the hot-button issues that have already got him into trouble with some of his fellow Republicans (and a few Democrats) – his position on Israel, his opposition to Iran sanctions, his criticism of the Iraq war and his views on gays.
If so, that will be a shame, because it would be both interesting and important to hear him explain what his brand of “principled realism” actually means for US foreign policy. The hearing could provide a seminal debate on America’s global role. Here are ten questions he should be asked.
1) Defence budget. You said in September 2011 that the defence budget was “bloated”. That was before the Pentagon announced $485bn in cuts over the next decade. Is the budget still bloated? Are more cuts possible or necessary?
2) Pentagon cuts. To meet the cuts that have already been announced, will the Pentagon need to axe some important capabilities? Can the US still afford all of its aircraft carrier groups? Is the F-35 jet fighter too expensive to support? Does the US need such a large presence in Europe? Read more
Israeli politician Yair Lapid (Getty)
The cruellest but most revealing tweet about the Israeli election exit polls came from the American writer Jeffrey Goldberg: “I wonder if someone in the White House is right now researching the question, ‘who is Yair Lapid, and what exactly does he think?’”
Exit polls need to be treated with caution and Israel’s political system is particularly complex, but the early indications are that Lapid, a former television personality and leader of the self-described “centre-centre” Yesh Atid, has been the big winner of the elections.
The Obama administration had expected to be dealing with a Benjamin Netanyahu emboldened by a commanding electoral win and leading a coalition that was even more right-wing in its distaste for doing a deal with the Palestinians. According to the script, Nafatli Bennett of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, and not Lapid, was supposed to be the new star. Instead, the most likely outcome seems to be a more chastened Netanyahu looking to Lapid and the centre to help him form a new government. Read more
Welcome to our rolling coverage of Barack Obama’s inauguration for another four years as US president, complete with agenda-setting speech. By Johanna Kassel in New York and Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington with contributions from FT correspondents. All times are EST.
5.40 As we wrap things up for the night, a round up of the best the FT has to offer about President Obama’s second inauguration. Thanks for joining us
5.30 As the parade continues, running about 45 minutes behind schedule, the arrival of the president and first lady at the balls will be delayed. We’ll leave them to review the rest of the floats and bands as the sun sets on Washington.
By Gideon Rachman
If you needed confirmation that American liberals and conservatives inhabit parallel universes, just consider the reaction to last week’s deal on the fiscal cliff. Conservatives saw a ruthless Barack Obama, ramming through his agenda. Liberals lamented a limp surrender by the president. Read more
Barack Obama’s decision to press ahead with Chuck Hagel as the next Pentagon chief is a sign of a confident president – he feels strong enough to face down the influential pro-Likud groups in Washington. At a time when Mr Obama’s liberal critics are worried he will cave into Republican blackmail on the sovereign debt ceiling, he is showing spine by sticking with Mr Hagel. It also risks provoking some of Mr Obama’s allies: many of the former Republican senators’s biggest detractors are in the Democratic Party.
The nomination also tells us a lot about Mr Obama’s second term foreign policy goals. Following John Kerry’s nomination for the state department, the Obama national security team will now be headed by two decorated Vietnam war veterans both of whom are deeply sceptical of war. Unlike so many of their critics, both men were twice awarded Purple Hearts and both were nearly mortally wounded in combat. In Mr Hagel’s case this will give him credit with the starred generals, most of whom share his scepticism about war with Iran. Whatever exigencies hit the Persian Gulf in the coming months, Mr Obama’s two most senior department heads will be instinctively mistrustful of the military option. Read more
Controversy has swirled around the candidacy of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defence, centred on past comments the Republican former senator made about the “Jewish lobby” intimidating congress, sanctions and military action against Iran, and the Pentagon budget.
Amid the his nomination, there have also been an increasing number of opinion pieces in the US press dissecting what James Fallows in The Atlantic describes as a “de-legitimizing campaign” against the decorated Vietnam veteran.
- Fallows uses a headline from the US satirical news website The Onion to suggest that the imminent nomination could be a “this is bullshit” (‘this’ being the campaign against Hagel) moment for President Barack Obama.
- Commentary fiercely critical of the nomination has been published, among others, in the neo-con Weekly Standard, citing a top Republican Senate aide emailing: “Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.” In the Wall Street Journal, Brett Stephens also aired his disapproval at Hagel’s perceived prejudices against the Jewish community.
The relief felt by Obama supporters on Wednesday is tonally different from the unbridled elation of 2008. The four intervening years have instilled a little more wariness and a little less hope. So while Obama’s campaign slogan was ‘Forward!’, it’s also important to look back – at his successes and failures, at the battles fought with a recalcitrant Congress, and at the lessons he may have learned – all of which will inform the choices of his second term. In that spirit, here is our selection of some of the best reporting and analysis pieces that shed light on Obama’s first term as president. Read more