World Cup Ratings a Sign of Patriotism, Not Soccer’s Rising Star

Team USA Fans Show Their Spirit

American fans before the US-Algeria match in the 2010 World Cup. June 23rd, 2010 (U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons)

Every four years during the World Cup, the US press fixates collectively on the “will it/won’t it” question of soccer’s future. Each World Cup seems to bring higher TV ratings and more water cooler conversations than the last. Soccer optimists, imbued with fresh hope by scenes of fervent US supporters with painted faces and patriotic apparel, proclaim that soccer is here to stay in America.

Now that the US out of the 2014 World Cup after a 2-1 loss to Belgium, will this year be any different? Have the past few weeks been a sign that soccer will someday find a home as a mainstay of US sports, or are they just part of the same ebb-and-flow pattern that we see every four years?

First, a by-the-numbers look at this year’s World Cup viewership in the US.  According to Variety, the US-Portugal game drew 18.20 million viewers on ESPN; the US-Belgium game drew 16.49 million. Those two games were the two most watched US World Cup telecasts in American history. Through the Round of 16, ESPN and ABC averaged 4.08 million viewers – a record audience for the World Cup, up 44% from 2010 and 122% from 2006. According to the New York Post, WatchESPN (ESPN’s online viewing service) attracted an average audience of 1.1 million viewers per minute during this World Cup.

These numbers are to be expected. Aside from reasons related to the sport itself, this year’s record numbers likely have several major contributing factors.  According to the World Bank, the number of internet users in the US grew by 10.1 million from 2012 to 2013. According to comScore, the number of smartphone users in the US grew 7% from October 2013 to January 2014. Twitter’s userbase alone grew from 183 million at the end of 2013 to an estimated 227 million at the end of 2014 (estimated by CNET). The World Bank pegs the annual growth rate of the US population at 0.74% per year.

These greater numbers of internet users, smartphone users, and social media users mean that more people will hear about the World Cup and share news with their friends by roughly an order of magnitude more than they did during the previous World Cup. I am not making any statistical conclusions here, but I do think it’s fair to say that articles and opinions proclaiming soccer’s inevitable destiny as a major US sport need to be taken with a grain of salt if they tout World Cup viewing statistics as conclusive evidence.

Furthermore, the World Cup takes place during a dry period for other US sports. The NFL is at its least interesting (long past the conclusion of the postseason and about a month past the draft), the NBA has also put its postseason and draft in the rearview mirror, the drama of the NHL Stanley Cup has ended, and the Olympics is long over. The only major competing sport is MLB baseball, which is in the midst of its regular season. Additionally, summer brings a dearth of active TV shows, meaning that Americans have even less to watch.

What about factors related to soccer itself? Are Americans growing more accepting of a sport fundamentally different from the ones it already treasures? This question is tough to answer. Other than a few minor rule changes, soccer is the same as it was four years ago. All of the reasons provided by soccer critics as to why the sport will not catch on in the US (infrequent scoring, too many fake injuries, overly subjective officiating, and lack of sudden death overtime) are just as valid or invalid as they were four years ago. Shifting American sentiment toward soccer would be a result of externalities, and that discussion is best left for another time.

Perhaps one reason is a lack of initiative by the MLS. Recent years have seen the league take an aggressive approach to bolstering soccer’s popularity. According to The Economist, although average MLS attendance per game is down from 2013, it surpassed both the NBA and NHL with 18,600 spectators per match (although both of those leagues play considerably more games per season, making each game less appealing as an excursion). According to Forbes, the average MLS franchise is now worth $103 million, up more than 175% over the past five years. The league had 13 clubs in 2007 and will have 21 by next year. This year’s US World Cup team had ten players from the MLS compared to just four in 2010. Finally, the MLS signed a new eight-year deal worth an estimated $90 million per season that will result in more of its games being broadcast on more TV channels.

My theory is that Americans simply enjoy coming together to celebrate our national pride. Other than the Olympics, no major sporting events have the ability to unite entire countries in support of the same team. Take the support of the Iranian national team this year as an example. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government banned women from entering most sporting events because they deemed the enjoyment of sports by mixed crowds un-Islamic. This year, according to CNN, Tehran’s billboards advertising the World Cup featured only men, and state TV stations used a delay of several seconds to censor images of racy female fans so that viewers at home wouldn’t learn to accept mixed crowds. Nonetheless, some restaurants in Iran defied a national ban on broadcasting the World Cup this year, and men and women enjoyed the games together in public. Does this increased support from the female population indicate that soccer is growing in popularity in Iran? No – it shows that the Iranian people, this year more than ever, are eager to show their nationalism and support gender equality as a reaction to recent actions by the government.

Along the same lines, an ineffective Congress, an inconsistent Supreme Court, and an unpopular president have given US fans an increased longing to show their nationalism in 2014. Most notably, a volatile balance of power on the world stage has left Americans in uncertain territory. Both Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and ISIS’s first steps toward forging an Islamic state in the Middle East this year have spurred a growing national desire to display a uniquely American style of patriotism. Especially in the context of the World Cup, with competition unfolding at an international scale, patriotism is linked more to foreign policy than it is to domestic issues.

Perhaps the recent changes rolled out by the MLS are making a greater immediate impact on soccer than I’m giving them credit for, but I believe that the outpouring of US support for the Men’s National Team this year was more a result of our desire to be patriotic than it was a precursor to soccer’s rise to American prominence. Now more than ever, Americans are eager to come together and celebrate their national pride.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.

Terrorism Trap: Boko Haram’s Role in the Deteriorating Condition of Sub-Saharan Africa, and Why We Should Care

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As the victims of last month’s Boko Haram kidnapping remain at large, families continue to grieve for the missing girls. April 28, 2014 (VOA/Wikimedia Commons)

In April, the infamous Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram broke international headlines after kidnapping over 200 Muslim schoolgirls from their dormitories during the night. Now two moths later, only a handful of the girls have managed to escape to safety, and the Nigerian government efforts to recover the remaining hundreds of victims seem to be little more than rhetoric. Nigeria has been in a state of emergency for nearly a year now under President Goodluck Jonathan in response to the group’s campaign of terror. The enduring presence of Boko Haram and this latest outrage is beginning to undermine citizens’ confidence in their government.

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The logo of Boko Haram, whose name translates to “Western education is a sin.” May 14, 2014 (ArnoldPlaton/Wikimedia Commons)

Sub-Saharan Africa regularly makes headlines as home to the most extreme poverty, underdevelopment and political strife in the world. It is important to note, however, the substantial role played by extremist terrorist groups in stymieing the region’s stability and development. Consider Boko Haram’s role in the region’s development. The name ‘Boko Haram’, which translates to “Western education is a sin,” reveals precisely how the group hinders progress in Nigeria. An affiliate of al-Qaeda, the group holds an ultimate goal of establishing an Islamist state in Nigeria, and works to achieve it precisely as the group’s name suggests—by targeting Western education as it did a month ago.

This is not the first time Boko Haram has targeted schools. In February, a college killing spreeleft at least 29 students dead. And in June and July of last year, Boko Haram was responsible for storming two local schools and killing several students and teachers. The violent war on education in Nigeria has cloaked the country in fear, discouraging many students from continuing to attend schools and even prompting the closure of schoolsin desperate attempts to prevent more bloodshed. A country without education is a country without prospect of prosperity. And, as long as Boko Haram is active, Nigeria will not see stability and development.

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As the victims of last month’s Boko Haram kidnapping remain at large, families continue to grieve for the missing girls. April 2014 (Yaroh Dauda/Wikimedia Commons)

While it is of no doubt that a major contributing factor of Sub-Saharan Africa’s unproductivity is indeed corrupt governmental practices, the overwhelming influence of terrorist groups like Boko Haram cannot be neglected. It is an undisputed fact that the few countries in the region that are entirely free of such widespread terrorism, although not perfect, are absolutely developing countries rather than deteriorating or stagnant. Consider Tanzania, for example – while the country is by no means invulnerable to terrorist attacks, it is not at all handicapped by fear. In fact, Tanzania is one of the most politically stable countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Data collected by the European Commission reveals that annual GDP growth levels have been on the rise since 1995. And although poverty levels remain problematic, Tanzania has successfully worked to achieve certain Millennium Development Goal targets, including notable improvements in primary education, infant health and access to clean water. There is no perfect case of a developing country free of flaws; the point to take away from this is that, although slow and steady, Tanzania certainly is continuing to progress towards attaining the status of a developed country, and it is able to do so without the obstacles of political strife and regular terrorist activity.

Students raise their hands enthusiastically to answer a question in a primary school in Moshi, Tanzania. (Author’s own photo)

So how exactly is Nigeria to rid itself of Boko Haram’s terrorist dominance and progress similar to that of Tanzania? Like most terrorist groups, Boko Haram emerged from a weak economy and social marginalization of the Muslim-majority North. While the seemingly obvious solution to the issue may be simply to improve these problems, the remedy is not this simple. Without an educated populous, which will remain impossible as long as Boko Haram roams freely, it is extremely difficult to stabilize a crippling economy. Of course, solving these problems require political reforms—an initiative hopefully undertaken by the new leadership in 2015.

However, political reforms alone will prove to only minimally alleviate terror if Boko Haram remains free to attack. Although the Nigerian militaryhas been pursuing Boko Haram, efforts have proven to be ineffective. The country’s forces could benefit from foreign aid, and this is where the United States comes into the picture. Boko Haram’s terror campaign has much farther-reaching implications than merely hindering development in the country. If the organization continues to enjoy a strong foothold in Nigeria, there will be more opportunity for recruitment and training of Islamist militants. If Boko Haram’s base grows, its power will grow as well. If its power grows, its influence in the country grows, and it will inevitably cross over into the bordering countries of Niger and Cameroon. With ever-expanding power, Boko Haram will also make itself readily available to cooperating with other Islamist terrorist groups in the region to attain pan-Islamist pursuits. And with a stronger base, Boko Haram will begin targeting not only Westerners in the region, but may very well also extend its influence overseas to the United States, as al-Qaeda did on 9/11.

The infinitesimal amount of attention paid by the United States to Sub-Saharan Africa is not only pathetic, but also potentially dangerous. America must provide humanitarian and military aid to struggling countries like Nigeria for, among other reasons, national security. The development of Sub-Saharan Africa is no longer an interest restricted to Africa alone. Boko Haram and the like must be eradicated, progress must be promoted and stability must be maintained throughout the region. Although this will certainly prove to be quite a challenging feat, the West must recognize the international threats posed by Boko Haram in Nigeria and other similar Islamist terror groups in the region, and understand that aid is a promising long-term investment in its own safety.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

The Revolving Door: Public Service Increasingly a Conduit to Lucrative Lobbying Careers

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Capitol Hill is home to the offices of 535 legislators who increasingly find themselves catering to the interests of corporate clients as the pervasive influence of K Street in politics grows. December 10, 2005 (Kate Mereand/Wikimedia Commons)

Bribes masquerading as gifts and political contributions are nothing new to Washington. In Mark Twain’s 19th century work, The Gilded Age, he delineates a step-by-step methodology for bribing members of Congress. What is novel to America’s political system is the increasingly common revolving door that connects ex-political staffers and retired politicians with lucrative careers in the lobbying industry. While political contributions and gifts remain in the arsenal of any Washington lobbyist, their effectiveness in allowing lobbyists to influence legislation has been surpassed by retired insiders making their way to K Street.

Notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff remarked in his book Capitol Punishment that the most effective way to influence a politician was to offer his/her chief of staff a lobbying job following their stint on the hill. From that point forward, not only would Abramoff have unrestricted access to a politician, but also staffers would actually go out of their way to promote his clients’ interests.

Many politicians often bite at the prospect of lucrative lobbying salaries, despite a life-long commitment to public service. In Mark Leibovich’s book, This Town, he cites a frightening statistic: “In 1974, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Now 50 percent of senators and 42 percent of congressmen do.

Consider retired Senator Judd Gregg, whose tenacious fight for transparency and ethics in the financial industry ended as soon as he left office and took a high-paying ‘consulting’ job at Goldman Sachs. More astonishing is ex-congressman Billy Tauzin, who earned nearly twenty million dollars between 2006 and 2010 as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry.

Even high-profile politicians cannot always resist the temptation of lobbying salaries. Former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, who played a key role in drafting universal health care legislation, earned an annual salary of $2.1 million only a few years after his leaving the Senate. While Daschle vehemently denies working as a lobbyist, his recent employment has been with lobbying firms specializing in health care, albeit as a ‘consultant’.

It is unclear precisely what these ex-politicians are providing in exchange for their astonishingly high compensation packages. No doubt some utilize their influence on the Hill to sway current members of Congress to draft legislation that benefits their clients. There remains serious ambiguity, however, as to whether or not these politicians preemptively advanced their future employer’s interests while in office at the prospect of being duly compensated following retirement.

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K Street in Washington DC is home to some of our capitol’s most prominent lobbying firms. There are currently 23 lobbyists in Washington for every member of Congress. February 24, 2005 (Erifnam/Wikimedia Commons)

This tacit collusion between elected officials and the private sector goes against the very concept of public service and the notion of a democratic process unfettered by private sector interests. While laws exist that bar ex-congressmen and senators from working in lobbying for two years after being in office, most bypass this restriction by refraining from formal registration as a lobbyist. After all, there is no law against working as a ‘consultant’.

Public service implies some form of personal sacrifice, often in the form of time and compensation. With this in mind, is it too much to ask that our public servants refrain from profiting from the private sector following their retirement from politics?

Indubitably, successfully curtailing the migration of politicians from Capitol Hill to K Street will be futile as those we have entrusted to make our laws have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. As attempts at lobbying reform continue in Congress, however, an important question remains: how do we define lobbying?

After all, the day that Congress passes a law barring ex-political staffers and politicians from working as lobbyists and consultants is the day we see an influx of political veterans working as ‘policy advisers’ with seven-figure salaries. Who knew public service could be so rewarding?

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

A Necessary New Direction for Xinjiang

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Armed police soldiers in the street of Urumqi on September 4, 2009 (Andrew An/Flickr Creative Commons

In the spring of 763 CE, eight years of rebellion came to an unceremonious end. The An Lushan Rebellion, started by its namesake, a Chinese general of Turkic descent, sought to carve a new dynasty centered in the Chinese capital of Luoyang to replace the corrupt and decadent Tang Dynasty. Although An Lushan was motivated by personal ambition and not by what we would now classify as ethno-nationalism, the immediate consequences of the rebellion were clear: the Tang turned their backs on the Silk Road-based cosmopolitanism that once defined their glorious empire in favor of homogeneity. The days of rich Persian merchants parading the streets of Guangzhou, of Turkic generals patrolling the northern deserts and of Chinese citizens exploring new cultures in art and expression were long gone. In its place was a new era of mistrust, where Uyghurs (the exact relationship between Tang Dynasty’s Uyghurs and today’s Uyghurs is disputed) were forbidden from wearing their ethnic dress and anti-miscegenation laws were promulgated. The weakened dynasty never regained its glory, leading to a long decline as corruption and rebellions weakened its ranks before ultimately falling in 907.

Recent attacks in Xinjiang, China’s western-most province and home to a prominent Uyghur community, and elsewhere threaten to force a similar pivot to intolerance in contemporary China. The knife attack in Kunming that left 33 dead and the recent market bombing in Urumqi have been met with predictably harsh government reactions. In a spectacular display of political theatrics, the Chinese convicted 55 people of terrorism charges in a mass trial, sentencing three to death and the others to incarceration in front of an audience of 7000.

Though many in the West may label the trial as a typically oppressive action by an authoritarian government, these measures are understandable. The Han majority’s faith in the central government’s ability to protect its own turf from domestic terrorism is waning. The Kunming attack is especially disconcerting, as it took place in a multicultural province where Islam is not the majority religion. To the average Han, the subsequent bombing in volatile Han-majority Urumqi would leave little doubt in the eyes of many Han Chinese that a new era of separatist action was upon them: a new War on Terror must be waged to protect China.

But the mass trial is already a serious blunder on the part of the government. The Uyghurs see the trials as nothing more than the latest in a string of alienating and marginalizing policies. A Han Party Secretary, who takes precedence over a largely symbolic Uyghur governor, rules in the supposedly autonomous Uyghur Province. In everyday life, Uyghurs experience economic marginalization, denial of opportunity and the destruction of homes and old districts in the name of economic progress. And now, the Uyghur community is being blamed for attacks that many had nothing to do with, harassed by security and facing the ire of their neighbors.

Americans of Middle Eastern descent faced similar experiences in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Faced with paranoia and a blind hate towards all things Islamic, many Americans faced levels of discrimination from stares at airports to having their fundamental rights blatantly violated. The collapse of trust between citizens took years to recover. However, mistrust and intolerance continue to this day, exacerbated by America’s interventions throughout the Muslim world.

If intolerance spurred by acts of terrorism caused American progress to stumble, then it is sure to threaten geopolitical stability for China, a country with relatively little experience in maintaining a society that is just to citizens of all ethnicities. Ethnic tensions boiled over in 2009 with the Urumqi Riots and relations now between the Han and the Uyghurs can only sour after these attacks and show trials. In the interest of maintaining stability and of ultimately expanding the role Xinjiang can play in China’s domestic and international politics, the Chinese government must resist giving in to short-term interests and sentiments and adopt a longer-term vision for Xinjiang.

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People fill the streets during the 2009 Urumqi Riots. July 7, 2009 (David Vilder/Flickr Creative Commons)

Traditionally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has relied on top-down control to preserve stability. During the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, the CCP re-emphasized the fact that national reforms must proceed at the hands and whims of the government. The autonomous ethnic provinces of Xinjiang, Tibet, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia and Guangxi are, contradictory to their name, tightly controlled by the Central state.

However, this approach is no longer viable in Xinjiang. As the world decentralizes and new forces are unleashed on the stage of global politics, non-state movements and actors become better organized and more powerful. East Turkestan is once again in the spotlight because many Turkic minorities do not feel “Chinese,” thanks to cultural, political and economic isolation. “Ethnic harmony,” as promoted by the top-down government, hardly soothes a people without a home.

The government must be prepared to accept that unless some bottom-up policies are allowed to flourish, minorities’ animosity towards the CCP will grow. This mistrust is the basis of the violence and independence movements that fuel those seeking East Turkestan today. The government must take extra care that in curbing terrorism they do not foster the next generation of anti-Han minorities.

In order to achieve a truly stable Xinjiang, China must allow the local population to represent their own localities. Although people’s elections for their own mayors are largely symbolic, since real power resides with the Party Secretary of a region, the Party can still exercise more sensitivity by cultivating talented Uyghurs and allowing them political leeway. Too often, the frontier is seen as a stepping-stone for power-hungry Han officials eager for promotion to the capital. They quickly set to work bulldozing buildings, displacing people and building apartments that no local person can afford, calling it economic progress.

In a broader perspective, as China seeks to reconstruct the Silk Road and once again extend its influence over the steppes, it cannot fully strengthen continental relations without a strong Xinjiang. A strong Xinjiang requires a strong citizenry of Uyghurs, Han, Kazakhs and other ethnicities free to express themselves and honor their heritages while also feeling included in the Chinese state and its destiny. A strong Uyghur citizenry will be eager to serve and represent the country and, since four out of the five Central Asian countries share Turkic cultural and linguistic backgrounds, can find themselves uniquely positioned to build strong ties between their home country and Central Asia. It only makes sense that the Chinese government should actively cultivate and develop the region and its people, to truly make Urumqi into a gateway to Central Asia rather than a slogan claiming it as such.

To truly bring Xinjiang into China’s fold and give the Uyghurs a home in a Chinese nation, “ethnic harmony” is not enough. Acceptance of heterogeneity is the ultimate solution. As radical an idea as it might sound considering the tense environment of contemporary China, it is an idea present even in the annals of Chinese history. Taizong (ruled 626 – 649 CE), the second Tang emperor, is still considered one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history. Taizong himself was not fully Chinese, having been born a quarter Turkic and his wife, the Empress Zhangsun, fully Turkic. He understood the importance of a diverse China, and actively encouraged foreign trade and interaction, even going so far as to promote any man of talent, regardless of whether he was ethnically Chinese or not, thus ushering in an era in which Chinese ships and porcelain could be found as far west as the Horn of Africa and where the influence of the realm could be felt all across the vast steppes into Central Asia and the golden city of Samarkand.

Both the Uyghurs and Han yearn for a stable Xinjiang. For China to truly achieve a prosperous and flourishing society, Xinjiang and the Uyghur community must also be empowered. Reactions to terrorism mustn’t repeat the same mistake of the Tang after the An Lushan Rebellion. Diversity and openness, as in the Taizong years, must be favored over intolerance and marginalization.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

American Hypocrisy: Maltreatment of Veterans and the Crucifixion of Bowe Bergdahl

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Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, prior to his 2009 capture. (United States Army/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

On Friday, June 13, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl arrived in the United States after six years of Taliban imprisonment in Afghanistan. There were no flags or banners. The Idaho town that had held vigils every year since his disappearance and formed a support network for the family that only wanted their son back was forced to cancel the welcome-home celebration in his honor. His family received death threats. He was labeled a deserter by Congressional Republicans and the media. His release caused a political firestorm. This is not how our soldiers deserve to be treated, especially those who have been prisoners of war. Bowe Bergdahl deserved to be brought home at any price. He does not deserve the character assassination and political uproar that has ensued as a result of his release.

The war in Afghanistan is the longest armed conflict in United States history. As it comes to a close, veterans will return to this country with wounds visible and invisible, and our Coalition partners will look to us for leadership on the care of those veterans. If there is one group of people that do not deserve to be subject to the whims of domestic politics, it is our nation’s veterans. Our men and women in uniform fight to keep our political process strong, not to be victims to its peculiarities at best, and its hypocrisies, at worst. Especially recently, our government has failed at this mission.

It has been a troubled few weeks for United States veterans. First, there were revelations that administrators at Veteran’s Affairs (VA) hospitals across the nation lied about wait times for treatment and cooked the record keeping books in order to make bonuses and meet performance quotas at the expense of providing healthcare to veterans. The scandal led to the resignation of General Erik Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Then, in a prisoner exchange on May 31, 2014, the Taliban released Bergdahl in exchange for five of their own incarcerated at Guantanamo under the condition that they remain in Qatar for one year. Nearly five years earlier, on June 30, 2009, Bergdahl walked off his military base in the dead of night – whether he intended to return remains a mystery – and was captured by the Taliban in the hours that followed. The Haqqani Network, a Taliban outlet created by the United States’ early mishandling of the war, help Bergdahl captive.

While veterans in Phoenix waited in pain for essential treatment, Bergdahl too languished in Taliban prison. Bergdahl was tortured and, in a proof of life video provided to the United States government in December, appeared to be drugged, non responsive and frail. The plight of Bowe Bergdahl is, in many ways, similar to the plight of veterans back home in the United States who waited weeks, even months, for healthcare from their country. Both Bergdahl and veterans denied coverage at the VA made incalculable sacrifices for their country. Both Bergdahl and the veterans back home found themselves at a moment when they needed their country most.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of American civil society has inexplicably failed to make this connection. The media and the public have expressed indignation at the failings of the VA to provide adequate healthcare to our veterans, while politicians in Congress have – in uncharacteristically fast fashion, for Congressional standards – passed legislation to overhaul the VA. Their bill would give veterans access to more providers, give the department secretary more power to fire employees and force more transparency to fix problems like fudged wait times before they become an epidemic.

This outrage is justified, and we should be proud of our leaders for taking steps to remedy the problem. But the question still remains: where is the equal outrage to the treatment of Bowe Bergdahl? Where too is the appreciation for his safe return?

Politicians and the media were quick to condemn Bergdahl’s release in a public relations blitz tantamount to character assassination. The objections – mostly from Congressional Republicans – were numerous. They included allegations that the Obama administration had released dangerous enemy prisoners, used vital resources to free an alleged deserter and broken a law requiring the administration to give Congress a 30-day notice before transferring any detainees from Guantanamo.

An article in the Washington Post, shamefully titled “Why the Bowe Bergdahl deal is a political loser,” cited a CBS news poll that revealed 49% of Americans think that the deal will increase the threat of terrorism against the United States, and 56% think that the price paid was “too high,” statistics likely borne out of the statements of politicians and pundits, and statistics that miserably fail a fact check. First, though the five Taliban officers released have been connected to al-Qaeda, there is no evidence that they supported its international jihad against the United States. Captured just weeks after the United States invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban five were actually fighting other Afghans in the country’s civil war, according to CIA director John Brennan. Second, the deal mandates that they stay in Qatar for a year—by the time they “return to the battlefield,” the US will be well on its way to a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. Taliban expert Anand Gopal has said that of the five – who haven’t been with the Taliban since 2001 – only two have the potential to impact the battle between Afghanistan and insurgents.

Articles like the one above are self-fulfilling prophesies, because their misinformation is to blame for the very statistics they cite. If anything, the Taliban five and their allies are more likely to pose a threat to the United States because of how they were treated and detained in Guantanamo, not because of the ties they had to an organization 13 years ago.

I don’t know if Bergdahl was a deserter. It is appalling that some would suggest an American soldier who fights to defend the right to be innocent until proven guilty is convicted of desertion in a trial by media, and not in a trial by a jury of his peers. Anyone who doesn’t wait for the facts to come in is making a terrible mistake.

The Taliban threatened to execute Bergdahl if news of the prisoner exchange leaked. This obviously does not absolve the Obama administration of breaking the law, but it does offer a compelling reason why they chose secrecy over transparency. This should be the sole source of outrage over the Bergdahl release, because it is completely isolated from Bergdahl’s character. Tragically, elected officials have mixed criticism of the Obama administration with criticism of Bergdahl and the deal that saved his life.

Both the swap for Bergdahl and the scandal over healthcare provisions at the VA have highlighted a dangerous misconception among politicians and the media that demands fixing. Our veterans have risked their lives to defend the principles of life and liberty that we hold dear. Some have made the ultimate sacrifice and all return scarred. For those who live on, it is the duty of the United States to honor their sacrifices, and every time we fall short of this goal is one time too many.

For politicians and pundits, it is unfortunately too easy to speak out in favor of domestic solutions to domestic veteran problems while treating the Bergdahl case with such a different eye. That needs to change. Our veterans have fought to defend the right of “all men to be created equal.” That means that all veterans, whether they are home or imprisoned abroad, deserve equal assistance when they are in their darkest hour of need. Whether we have to pass legislation or exchange the prisoners of the enemy, no price is too high to pay.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Asia Rising: The Increasing Relevance of East Asia in Foreign Policy

In late May, Putin and Xi Jinping signed a massive 400 billion dollar natural gas deal in Shanghai. For the next thirty years, new pipelines will pump trillions of cubic feet of natural gas from Russia’s Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas extractor, to the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC). While the agreement certainly comes at a critical time for Putin strategically as he counters US and EU sanctions, it is representative of a larger global trend: an economic, political and defensive shift toward the East.

Putin has been pushing for an energy deal with China for nearly ten years, and rightfully so. China, and Asia more broadly, has a vast market for oil and natural gas with its megacities and booming economy. The deal between Gazprom and CNPC gives Russia a foot in the door of this profitable energy market. Providing up to 20% of China’s natural gas needs, the deal finally solidifies the Sino-Russian alliance that Putin has been advertising. What’s more, the two countries will be paying with their own currencies, the ruble and yuan, completely bypassing the American dollar, which is traditionally used in energy transactions. Although the dollar has long been the international reserve currency of choice, Russia’s VTB and the Bank of China’s decision to trade in domestic currencies stresses the exclusivity of the Eurasian trade deal; the US is not welcome. Although this alone does not significantly destabilize the petrodollar, it certainly undermines American relevance in the deal and indicates Putin’s increasing focus on relations with Asia.

Putin’s meeting with Xi Jinping also comes on the heels of Obama’s four-country Asia tour in April. After a canceled trip to Asia during the October government shutdown, Obama’s tour demonstrates the president’s desire to make good on his foreign policy goal to “pivot to Asia.” In his visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, Obama focused on strengthening economic and military relationships. The trip resulted in increased numbers of American military personnel and equipment stationed in the region; yet, thus far, Obama’s plans for future economic partnerships have not been realized.

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President Obama is the first American president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. 2014. (Flickr Creative Commons/The White House)

Neither the Malaysian nor Japanese leadership approved Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to increase connectivity between the Asian and American economies. Despite domestic backlash from Democratic Senators and Congressmen, Obama has continually pushed for more economic cooperation across the Pacific. Obama, like Putin, hopes to benefit from the expanding Asian markets; the TPP would eliminate tariffs between the US and several Latin American and Asian states. According to Don Emmerson, a political scientist at Stanford, “Americans cannot afford to deny themselves…the opportunities for trade and investment” present in Asia, but Asian leaders, however, seem less enthusiastic. In Japan, Abe refused to join the partnership due to the protected five sacred areas of Japanese agriculture. In Malaysia, political “sensitivities” and economic concerns also halted progress. The TPP has major implications for American and Asian economies (Japan is America’s biggest trading partner in Asia aside from China). Thus, although no agreement was reached during the tour, the American, Japanese and Malaysian leaders promised to continue negotiations. These promises give President Obama a glimmer of hope that soon the Asian governments will be more receptive to the partnership. It should be Obama’s mission, then, to adjust the TPP to be more beneficial for all states involved, especially those with heavily protected domestic industries.

TPP negotiations were also designed to reestablish American’s military presence in East Asia. The US military will continue to maintain operational control of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. This agreement gives the US command of South Korean troops in the event of war with North Korea. In Japan, Obama reassured Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the Senkaku Islands (or the Diaoyu Islands, as they are known in China) would fall under American protection in the case of a threat. These uninhabited islands have long been disputed by Japan and China, who both claim ownership of them. Obama’s declaration of support for Japan’s sovereignty in the maritime dispute is a signal of disapproval to China, whose military actions in the East and South China Seas concern many Asian states. As expected, China was not pleased by Obama’s remarks.

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The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, located in between Japan and China. 2012. (Wikimedia Commons/Voice of America)

Obama’s actions in the Philippines were also bad news for China. The United States and the Philippines, which has experienced their own territorial disputes with China, responded with a 10-year defense treaty, the first since the 1990s. The treaty again serves as a counterweight to China. Yet, none of Obama’s military agreements should come as a surprise considering the staggering growth of China’s military budget. In 2014, China plans to spend $132 billion on defense, a 12.2% increase from 2013 – although most critics agree that the real number is significantly higher.

These figures make China impossible to ignore. Combine the country’s military expansion with its rapidly growing GNP and it becomes one of the greatest forces in the world today. China’s enormity and consequent impact on its neighbors, from Japan to the Philippines to Russia, have forced other world powers to readjust. Putin and Obama have played their hands, each trying to get ahead in the Asia-Pacific. Putin’s natural gas deal has created a buffer for conflicts in Europe and Obama’s efforts to increase economic cooperation and American military presence in Asia also indicate increased interest in Asia. It remains to be seen how other world leaders will react to the growing relevance of East Asia in global issues.

In early May, European Union (EU) leaders met with Shinzo Abe to reaffirm their positive relationship. At the meeting, the leaders discussed further economic and political ties, although no specific agreements were signed. The leaders of the EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will also hold a summit in October. Will Europe, like Russia, turn to China, Asia’s largest power, or invest in ties with other East Asian nations alongside President Obama? Regardless, it is clear that the “turn to Asia” is a legitimate and global phenomenon.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

An Absence of Measurement: The End of Freedom of Speech in Egypt?

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A graffiti rendition of Dr. Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian equivalent of Jon Stewart, and his symbolic role as “the barometer of free speech” in Egypt. 2012. (Flickr Creative Commons/Gigi Ibrahim)

Freedom of speech in Egypt may have just taken a devastating hit. On June 2, 2014, Egyptian political comedian Dr. Bassem Youssef announced the cancellation of his wildly popular political satire show, Al-Barnameg (“The Program” in Arabic), suggesting that he no longer felt safe criticizing Egyptian politics and government.

Dr. Youssef was a cardio surgeon who gave up his lucrative career to film YouTube videos from his laundry room, satirizing the turbulent Egyptian political climate during the fall of Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring of 2011. Dr. Youssef’s homemade satire show became so popular that, in only its first three months, it accumulated millions of views on his YouTube channel. Eventually, when the political climate “stabilized,” Dr. Youssef was offered his own TV show with a live audience – the first and only of its kind in Egypt – on the Egyptian network CBC. Al-Barnameg has most recently broadcast from MBC Misr, another major Egyptian television network.

Dr. Youssef’s charisma and original approach to explaining and analyzing Egyptian politics, which has earned him the nickname “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” was so well received by the Egyptian public after decades of political oppression that he has since become a national hero (click here to see Dr. Youssef’s interview with Jon Stewart in 2013). He has millions of fans all over the world and was also named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential Men of 2013.

But on the next day, June 3, Youssef’s announcement was seemingly forgotten. Al Barnameg’s cancellation was overshadowed by the published results of the Egyptian presidential election, in which former Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won with a controversial 96% of the vote.

The election was called in the last month, a little less than a year after the coup that ousted democratically elected Mohammed Morsi and discredited and banned the Muslim Brotherhood political party and religious group. The last few years of political turmoil in Egypt have made every one of the numerous elections a hotbed of both hope and controversy. The month leading up to this election was no different. Vast numbers of Egyptian political groups refused to vote, despite government incentives. Al-Sisi’s only opponent, Hamdeen Sabehy, received a dubious 3.9% of the vote,  which begs the question if the election was conducted properly. Sabehy himself claimed that his campaign representatives were attacked during the three-day elections, and he questioned the credibility of the results. Even the White House announced in a statement that, while it supported al-Sisi in his win, it had “concerns about the restrictive political environment in which the election took place.” And yet, al-Sisi has still become the official new President of Egypt.

Egyptian Minister of Defense Abdel Fatah Al Sisi

General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi when he was Egypt’s Minister of Defense and the commander of the military; now, al-Sisi can add the title of President to his resume. But what will be the costs of al-Sisi’s new military regime? April 24, 2013. (Wikimedia Commons/WikiUser RogDel)

But the concern of this article is not whether al-Sisi has just been named President to a dubious democracy, nor whether his military ties and strong-arm tactics will catapult Egypt back into a military-ruled regime reminiscent of those many repressive years under Mubarak. The question is why Dr. Youssef is canceling his show now, the day before al-Sisi is declared the new President of Egypt. The question is whether the Egyptian government, led by al-Sisi, is taking away the right to freedom of speech.

Dr. Youssef and Al-Barnameg represented an expression of this “right,” whose existence has been debatable in Egypt throughout the last few years of political turbulence. He has criticized the Egyptian government through the rise and fall of two coups and constant political instability. He has retained the loyalty of his millions of fans from all over the world and the (perhaps sometimes shaky) support of Egyptian news networks. People began to refer to Al-Barnameg as “the barometer of free speech in Egypt” because Dr. Youssef’s ability to broadcast his opinions on national television was proof that Egypt was advancing on the path to democracy. It was proof that the government, regardless of its recent instability, was allowing the networks to broadcast political criticism.

It makes sense that the recent election results and the controversy surrounding them might overshadow the cancellation of a popular satire show. But the timing of and reasons for Al-Barnameg’s cancellation should have raised some red flags. Back in May, when the upcoming presidential election was declared, the show announced a month-long “vacation.” This hiatus was allegedly put in place to keep the Egyptian public from being influenced by the program’s critical views until the election was over. But no one knew who exactly had called for this hiatus, and no one seemed concerned that an unknown entity had temporarily silenced Dr. Youssef’s political commentary during this election. These were the first signs that something was wrong. And then, instead of coming back from the hiatus after the election as everyone expected, Al-Barnameg was simply cancelled.

Given Dr. Youssef’s history, it should also have come as quite a shock to both the Egyptian public and the world that he decided to cancel his program due to safety reasons. He has never seemed to worry about his safety in the past, as he has bravely continued to broadcast his satire shows no matter the political climate. He has embraced his role as the voice of the people in the name of their rights. Even when the government arrested him in 2013, he mocked the legitimacy of the arrest and was eventually set free. Why is he suddenly concerned for his safety when he has mocked it in the past? There is no actual proof that Dr. Youssef has been threatened by anyone, but I am of the opinion that the same shadowy figure that forced Al-Barnameg into hiatus is also pressuring Dr. Youssef to finally quiet what has been an exceptionally strong voice for the people.

The cancellation of Al-Barnameg cannot be left to fall by the wayside. The timing of the cancellation and Dr. Youssef’s declaration of fear for his safety cannot be forgotten and overshadowed by al-Sisi’s controversial election. Dr. Youssef’s precedent for measuring the freedom of speech and his conviction that the people have a right to criticize a government are too important to be marginalized by whatever secretive forces are at work in the sunrise of al-Sisi’s administration. It would be a shame if Egypt’s recent progress towards granting basic rights to its people – basic rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press – regressed because of new governmental leadership.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

 

Elevated Expectations: India Under Modi

Narendra Modi sworn in as Prime Minister of India. May 27, 2014. (Narendramodi/Flickr Commons)

On May 26, 2014, Narendra Damodardas Modi was sworn in as India’s 15th Prime Minister. In his inaugural address, he outlined India’s “shining” future under his command. But, not all are convinced. His role as a Hindu Nationalist and leader during the 2012 Gujurat riots, which claimed the lives of over 1000 Muslims, leaves many skeptical of his agenda. I posit, however, that despite his past and potential shortcomings, Modi’s leadership will be a boon for the country and the region.

Modi won the national elections in a landslide partly due to his successes as Chief Minister of Gujurat (a position he retained for 13 years). Under Modi’s leadership, Gujurat became an economic powerhouse. Although the province accounts for only 5% of India’s population, it produced 16% of the entire nation’s industrial output and 22% of its exports. While the rest of the nation’s economy stagnated, Gujurat’s economy boomed, winning praises from business leaders and politicians alike. Modi’s pro-business stance brought, among other benefits, electricity to nearly every village in his province. To the common man’s eye, Modi was a politician who ‘got things done’.

Modi’s prime ministerial campaign – which embodied his energetic style – brought these local successes to the national spotlight. Over six weeks, he travelled over 200,000 miles and spoke at 500 rallies. He appeared at 800 more as a live hologram, solidifying his reputation as a tech-savvy, modern leader. Ultimately, Indians believed in Modi: a record 66% of citizens—urban and even rural, once the Congress Party’s electoral stronghold—voted in his favor.

Modi’s success can also be read as the Congress Party’s failure. The Gandhi family focused their campaign on ‘stopping Modi’, rather than promoting their own agenda. Yet, even if they had, victory was unlikely. Voters were tired of the high inflation rates, stagnant growth, ineffective leadership and corruption that defined the pro-Gandhi administration. Modi’s predecessor, Dr. Manmohan Singh, left office with his tail between his legs.

Though Modi won, a contingent of detractors believes that he, like other Indian politicians, has no substance. The Times of India published an article in late 2012 highlighting his “ten broken promises” that were made ahead of the 2007 state election. Despite public criticism, Modi kept his seat then and won the Prime Minister seat this month. The validity of these claims is now irrelevant, for the electorate has made its decision. The real question is what future Modi will bring for India.

Businessmen are heavily expecting a prosperous one. On May 22, after election results were known, the Indian stock market shot up into the top 10 of the world, surpassing Australia. The MNI (Market News International) India Business Indicator shows that ‘business confidence’ reached an all-time high this May, as the country began eagerly preparing for what it anticipates will be an economic boom.

The expectations of India’s general populace are, unsurprisingly, exceptionally high for Modi. His leadership style, I suspect, will be direct and decisive—a welcome improvement over Manmohan Singh’s decidedly quiet and ineffective one, which left the nation to the whims of corrupt officials. Yet, a potentially authoritarian, right-leaning and religious nationalist does lead one to wonder about India’s relationship with Islamic neighbor and long-time rival, Pakistan. Surprisingly, however, tensions seem to be easing gradually. Modi offered Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif an invitation to the inauguration, and Sharif accepted. The two later met and even agreed to begin trade normalization talks. As a gesture of goodwill, Pakistan released 151 Indian fishermen imprisoned for unknowingly crossing the border; the Sri Lankan government quickly followed suit.

Narendra Modi met with Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif (right) at his inauguration. May 27, 2014 (Narendramodi/Flickr Commons).

Caption: Narendra Modi met with Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif (right) at his inauguration. 2014. (Flickr Commons/Narendra Modi)

Modi’s rhetoric to and concerning Pakistan also seems to send a clear message to the US and the West. In a recent interview, Modi suggested that India and Pakistan could face the enemy of poverty together if the two nations can establish mutual trust. Additionally, a new relationship is possible if Pakistan can effectively stop harboring terrorists. In both statements, Modi appears to suggest that India can manage Pakistan on its own. Furthermore, Modi hinted at a shared strategic objective between India, Pakistan and the US to reduce terrorist activity in Pakistan. Thus, US-India relations should only improve in the coming years. Modi’s pro-business, pro-foreign investment stance should not only bolster the Indian economy, but also invite more US companies to take advantage of untapped markets and decreasing economic protectionism.

Narendra Modi’s reputation is one of an uncorrupted and effective domestic leader who seems already able to navigate the international arena. His past is, admittedly, somewhat spotty and his relationship with the Hindu Nationalist group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), somewhat concerning. Yet, the Indian public has elected to move past this in hopes of gaining a leader who will prioritize development over cronyism. Modi has raised expectations, promising anti-corruption efforts, modernization and good governance. He must deliver on his promises and fulfill these expectations, for if he fails, the dreams of millions of people will be shattered and the nation will be left lost.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Explaining Net Neutrality

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to open the debate over net neutrality to the public. The fundamental question at hand is whether or not companies can pay to have Internet Service Providers (ISPs) deliver their information faster than other Internet users, including bloggers, new businesses and independent online media. The implications for ending net neutrality are far reaching, which address key issues regarding the democratic nature of the Internet as a socio-political, cultural and commercial space.

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A partial map of the Internet from 2005 based on lines drawn between nodes. Each node represents an IP address; the length of the lines represents the delay between them. December 1, 2006 (The Opte Project/Wikimedia Commons).

If one accepts that the public has a right to send mail using a common carrier that does not discriminate, then a natural extension of those rights is the right to send information over the Internet without any kind of discrimination. Basically, if I send mail from my local post office in South Central Los Angeles, then I will get the same quality of service as the rich and famous at their local Beverly Hills post office. On the Internet, this translates to content from Bloomberg News being delivered just as fast as the content from the independent blog I follow to stay up to date on French Politics.

Proponents of net neutrality maintain that the Internet was intended to be an open, free democratic space. In the US, supporters appeal to civil liberties such as the freedom of speech. Those arguing against net neutrality in the US, such as Viacom, Verizon and Time Warner, make the case that net neutrality laws place an undue regulatory burden on their industry. They also argue that being able to allocate bandwidth would help spur innovation and help recoup investments in developing networks. However, companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google stoutly reject these notions. Google has even begun providing network neutral Internet Service with Google Fibre which currently exists in select American cities.

Where does the US compare to other countries when it comes to net neutrality? The debate internationally has taken place over a similar timeline. Chile was the first country to pass laws explicitly upholding net neutrality in 2010. Shortly thereafter, most of Europe followed suit as well as Brazil, Israel and Japan. Brazil went as far as to enshrine net neutrality in an “Internet Constitution” – a Bill of Rights for citizens on the Internet, the first of its kind.

The two countries that do not uphold net neutrality are the Russian Federation – on the grounds of “security” – and the People’s Republic of China. China has always tightly controlled the flow of information within its borders to preserve political stability and authority. So, even if the US ends up striking down net neutrality in the interest of private telecommunications companies, the “City on the Hill” would join a list of countries that, quite frankly, it should not be on.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.