A New START

Pressing the “restart” button — that is how the Obama Administration, literally, initiated its policy toward Russia after the cool Bush and Putin years. Now, in an interview with Fox News, National Security Advisor Jim Jones suggests that the president might win another foreign policy success on one of the very issues dear to him: nuclear proliferation.

“All of the dialogue is encouraging, they’re positive,” said Jones about the negotiations that are going on in Geneva, Switzerland these days. Russia and the United States are attempting to draft an arms control deal to replace the existing START agreement that expires new Saturday. “We’re down to the last few paragraphs and sentences.”

That is good news for Obama who hopes to have a new treaty signed by the time he heads for Oslo, Norway next week to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize. The reduction of nuclear weapons is said to be the subject of his acceptance speech.

The current START and SORT treaties limit both the number of nuclear and conventional weapons that Russia and the United States may possess. Still each maintains nuclear arsenals of thousands of warheads. The United States is estimated to have about 10,000 warheads of which 2,623 are operational. The Russian number more ambiguous: it said to have 4237 warheads operational in 2007 but this might be an exaggeration. There is no doubt however that the country has between 8- and 10,000 of such weapons in storage. (For comparison, the world’s third nuclear state, France, maintains about 300 warheads operational.)

The Geneva negotiations focus only on the operational warheads but its goal is more ambitious than any agreement signed between the former Cold War adversaries so far: both intend to cut their arsenals of operational warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675 within the next seven years. Should such an agreement come about, President Obama can boast an enormous step forward in the fight against proliferation.

Sarkozy Strikes at the City

With France, along with Germany, leading the way of European recovery, President Nicolas Sarkozy has both the power and the prestige to launch a reinvigorated campaign against what he calls the “freewheeling Anglo-Saxon” model of finance. With his countryman Jean-Claude Trichet heading the European Central Bank and UMP-ally Michel Barnier soon to be installed as the union’s internal market commissioner, Sarkozy appears to have everything in place to make the world see “the victory of the European model, which has nothing to do with the excesses of financial capitalism.” No wonder that people are worried in the City of London.

London was quick to respond. Mayor Boris Johnson traveled to Brussels to lecture the European Parliament but his entourage of rabble-rousers and cameramen did little to persuade them. Nor was Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling’s argument that “London is New York’s only rival as a truly global financial center,” and therefore Europe should strengthen, not weaken it, well received.

Earlier, in conference with his colleagues from across the continent, Darling compromised on the creation of a European financial regulator. French finance minister Christine Lagarde praised the deal which according to Darling leaves considerable responsibility with national authorities. That is not how his counterparts sold the agreement at home.

Nevertheless, there is some truth in Darling’s statement. A European Systemic Risk Board is to be put in place to spot irregularities in the financial system that threaten to harm it. But it will have no power to leap upon banks to put any questionable practices to a halt. Rather it is supposed to issue recommendations and warnings alone.

Sarkozy has more weapons in store to bombard Paris to the world’s next financial capital however. A European Alternative Investment Directive seeks to install a framework for all alternative fund managers which in London is rather perceived as an attempt to shackle another sector of “freewheeling Anglo-Saxon” capitalism. If that were true, Paris in fact stands to gain very little: hedge funds taking a pre-emptive decision to leave London headed straight for Switzerland, not Paris or Frankfurt.

There is more reason for Londoners to be hopeful. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard notes in the Telegraph, Barnier is actually “deeply averse to trampling on British sensitivities.” Moreover, his director-general, Jonathan Faull, is British. “Given the circumstances, the Barnier-Faull team is the best that Britain could hope for.” Whether that will stop Sarkozy remains to be seen.

Cheney Takes Another Hit at Obama

President Barack Obama is projecting “weakness” because of his “agonizing” over whether or not to send more troops into Afghanistan, former Vice President Dick Cheney complains. “I begin to get nervous when I see the commander-in-chief making decisions apparently for what I would describe as small ‘p’ political reasons, where he’s trying to balance off different competing groups in society,” said Cheney.

After spending eight years more or less undercover Cheney has come out as a fierce critic of the Obama Administration especially where the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are concerned — wars, of course, his administration launched and, arguably, mismanaged for years.

Cheney continues to question the president’s ability to steer the war in the right direction when he nags that, “[e]very time he delays, defers, debates, changes his position, it begins to raise questions: Is the commander-in-chief really behind what they’ve been asked to do?” Apparently, after neglecting the Afghan war throughout almost his entire two terms in office, now, Cheney is concerned with the soldiers on the ground.

Asked whether he believes that the Bush Administration bears part of the responsibility for the difficulties faced in Afghanistan today, the former vice president answered, “I basically don’t,” without volunteering to elaborate.

What he was willing to elaborate upon was Obama’s supposed weakness however. He called the president “far more radical than I expected” and correctly observed that Obama “campaigned against much of what we put in place.” We referring, of course, to the previous administration. “I think that our adversaries […] see that as a sign of weakness,” said Cheney. Traditional allies of the United States see it in a wholly different light however; they are extremely relieved to find a government across the Atlantic that is once again taking them seriously and treating them on equal footing. Denouncing that only demonstrates all the more what colossal foreign policy misjudgments the last Bush Administration made.

Cheney’s fear that Obama’s pondering encourages America’s enemies in the Middle East seems rather misplaced. A war of such importance as the one in Afghanistan demands a president that isn’t afraid to consider all of his options before making a decision. In fact, one-sided advice is probably what led George W. Bush to severely underestimate the magnitude of the war in the first place. So when Cheney accuses the president of using the war in order to score political points, he really ought to take a look in the mirror — and not just when it comes to Afghanistan.

Swiss Vote to Ban Minarets

In a referendum proposed by the Swiss People’s Party, the Schweizerische Volkspartei, an alliance of farmers and urban conservatives, a majority of Swiss voters (57.5 percent) agreed to ban the construction of minarets in their country. The government, perfectly democratic, will uphold the outcome while assuring Muslims, mostly immigrants from the Balkans and Turkey, that the vote does not represent “a rejection of the Muslim community, religion or culture.”

It seems odd that one of the wealthiest and safest countries in the world should be so frightened of this architectural display of Islamic culture, especially when one considers that of the 150 mosques and prayer rooms in Switzerland, just four boats minarets with only two more planned. None conduct the traditional call to prayer. Moreover, of the circa 400,000 Muslims in the country, out of a total population of some 7.5 million, virtually none adhere to the codes of dress and conduct associated with orthodox Islam. In other words, the Muslim presence in Switzerland is hardly noticeable.

The Associated Press notes that the vote “taps into anxieties about Muslims that have been rippling through Europe in recent years, ranging from French fears of women in body veils to Dutch alarm over the murder by a Muslim fanatic of a filmmaker who made a documentary that criticized Islam.” In fact, Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders immediately called for a similar referendum to be held in the Netherlands today. Considering the opposition he faces in parliament, such a referendum, let alone a ban, is unlikely to come about, but with his support currently polling at around 17 percent (making him the second largest party), Wilders’ fierce crusade against what he believes is a growing Muslim corruption of Western culture is telling.

Unlike the United States, which actually fell victim to a destructive attack by Muslim extremists, most European countries never experienced such extremism first hand. Yet the countries that have (specifically Britain and Spain) seem the least determined to wipe out any traces of Islamic culture whereas in France, the Netherlands and Switzerland, countries that have significant Muslim populations, fear is more widespread.

When Geert Wilders declares the Quran a “fascist” book and proposes to outlaw it, he finds many people agreeing with him. Now, a majority of the Swissdemand that no more minarets be erected in their streets. These are all outward displays of Islam however. Burning the Quran or banning minarets will do little to diminish the threat of Muslim extremism. Quite to the contrary, such measures might well strengthen the fundamentalists in their conviction that the West intends to wage a religious war against them.

Meanwhile, the voice of moderate Islam is overlooked. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have adapted perfectly to Western culture while retained part of their heritage feel threatened. While perhaps not an explicit infringement of their freedom to worship, the Swiss ban of minarets is a sad display of intolerance all the same that is terribly unbecoming of a country renowned for its democratic tradition.