Chávez’s Gag Orders

It’s a crime to criticize El Jefe.

‘It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once,” wrote 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. “Slavery has so frightful an aspect to men accustomed to freedom that it must steal in upon them by degrees and must disguise itself in a thousand shapes in order to be received.”

So it goes in Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez has slowly but steadily tightened his political grip since coming to power in 1999. Last week he squeezed again.

On Thursday military intelligence briefly detained the president of Globovision, the country’s final remaining independent media voice. According to Attorney General Luisa Ortega, Guillermo Zuloaga is under investigation for criticizing Mr. Chávez at the Inter-American Press Association meeting in Aruba earlier this month for closing down independent media outlets. Mr. Zuloaga said press freedom had been lost.

Ms. Ortega said that Mr. Zuloaga is being investigated for spreading false information and making comments “offensive” to the president. The media owner was released but can’t leave the country until the investigation is completed. He faces from three to five years in prison if convicted of making false statements.

This follows the recent arrest of Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, the former governor of the state of Zulia, on charges of conspiracy and making false statements. Mr. Alvarez Paz had appeared on Globovision supporting the claim by a Spanish judge that the Chávez government is allied with Basque separatists and Colombian rebels. He also said Venezuela is a major thoroughfare for drug trafficking in South America.

Mr. Chávez has already stripped Venezuelans of their property rights and their right to private schools, to hold dollars and to free association. Now, as his popularity slumps, he is closing the window on free speech.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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The ObamaCare Writedowns—II

Democrats blame a vast CEO conspiracy.

So the wave of corporate writedowns—led by AT&T’s $1 billion—isn’t caused by ObamaCare after all. The White House claims CEOs are reducing the value of their companies and returns for shareholders merely out of political pique.

A White House staffer told the American Spectator that “These are Republican CEOs who are trying to embarrass the President and Democrats in general. Where do you hear about this stuff? The Wall Street Journal editorial page and conservative Web sites. No one else picked up on this but you guys. It’s BS.” (We called the White House for elaboration but got no response.)

In other words, CEOs who must abide by U.S. accounting laws under pain of SEC sanction, and who warned about such writedowns for months, are merely trying to ruin President Obama’s moment of glory. Sure.

Presumably the White House is familiar with the Financial Standard Accounting Board’s 1990 statement No. 106, which requires businesses to immediately restate their earnings in light of their expected future retiree health liabilities. AT&T, Deere & Co., AK Steel, Prudential and Caterpillar, among others, are simply reporting the corporate costs of the Democratic decision to raise taxes on retiree drug benefits to finance ObamaCare.

When the Medicare prescription drug plan was debated in 2003, many feared that companies already offering such coverage would cash out and dump the costs on government. So Congress created a modest subsidy, equal to 28% of the cost of these plans for seniors who would otherwise enroll in Medicare. This subsidy is tax-free, and companies used to be allowed to deduct the full cost of the benefit from their corporate income taxes (beyond the 72% employer portion).

Democrats chose to eliminate the full exclusion and said they were closing a loophole. But whatever it’s called, eliminating it “will be highly destabilizing for retirees who rely upon employer sponsored drug coverage” and “will impose a dramatic and immediate impact on company financial statements.”

That’s how the AFL-CIO put it in a December 10 letter. The Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers—also known as the AT&T and Verizon workforce—were opposed too. So much for White House claims that reporting these facts is partisan.

As for whether this change is better tax policy, the new health-care bill creates a similar $5 billion fund that will subsidize health costs for early retirees between the ages of 55 and 64. These payments won’t be subject to taxation, and companies will likely be able to deduct the full cost of such coverage. (The language is vague and some experts disagree.) The Democrats now feigning tax outrage—but who are really outraged by political appearances—didn’t think twice about writing the same loophole back into the tax code. This new reinsurance program was a priority of the United Auto Workers.

The deeper concern—apart from imposing senseless business losses in a still-uncertain economy—is that companies will start terminating private retiree coverage, which in turn will boost government costs. The Employee Benefit Research Institute calculates that the 28% subsidy on average will run taxpayers $665 in 2011 and that the tax dispensation is worth $233. The same plan in Medicare costs $1,209.

Given that Congress has already committed the original sin of creating a drug entitlement that crowds out private coverage, $233 in corporate tax breaks to avoid spending $1,209 seems like a deal. If one out of four retirees is now moved into Medicare, the public fisc will take on huge new liabilities.

Meanwhile, Democrats have responded to these writedowns not by rethinking their policy blunder but by hauling the CEOs before Congress on April 21 for an intimidation session. The letter demanding their attendance from House barons Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak declared that “The new law is designed to expand coverage and bring down costs, so your assertions are a matter of concern.”

Perhaps Mr. Waxman should move his hearing to the Syracuse Carrier Dome. The Towers Watson consulting firm estimates that the total writeoffs will be as much as $14 billion, and the 3,500 businesses that offer retiree drug benefits are by law required to report and expense their losses this quarter or next. But ’twas a famous victory, ObamaCare.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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The Demons of Pope Benedict XVI

Stories of abuse in the Catholic Church have dominated headlines in Germany in recent weeks, following similar scandals in the US and Ireland. Victims from other countries throughout Europe have likewise begun to come forward recently.

The case of an American priest who abused deaf children for years has shaken the Vatican. Detailed information about the sexual misconduct of the Rev. Lawrence Murphy went across the desk of Cardinal Ratzinger prior to his papacy. Abuse allegations in Italy are also putting the Catholic Church in an increasingly tough spot.

It is late on a Thursday evening at the Vatican and it is already beginning to look like Easter. St. Peter’s Square is brightly lit, and groups attending a world youth forum are in high spirits as they sing and clap to celebrate their pope, clad in immaculate white, who has just spoken about the “Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin,” behaving “as if nothing at all had happened.”

These are the words of Peter Isely. Standing on a street corner one block away from the spectacle, he is determined to spoil the pope’s festival of redemption. Isely has come to Rome all the way from Milwaukee, in the US state of Wisconsin. He is a 49-year-old psychotherapist with a buzz cut and a question that has been on his mind since he was 13: “Why is my church the only institution where pedophiles continue to be employed?”

This is Isely’s first visit to Rome. Isely and a handful of abuse victims were already standing on St. Peter’s Square in the morning, holding up photos and adding their contribution to the process of drawing His Holiness into the maelstrom of cover-ups and revelations that has confronted the Catholic Church with its most serious crisis in decades. While pots containing olive trees — for Easter — were being unloaded on St. Peter’s Square, Isely talked about “Father” Lawrence Murphy from Milwaukee: “This priest molested more than 200 boys at my school. Joseph Ratzinger is responsible for the fact that Murphy was never defrocked.” Isely says that he doesn’t want him to resign. “I just want him to acknowledge his culpability.”

He is referring to the current pope. The scandal over child abuse by priests has rocked the Vatican more than the pope’s Regensburg speech, which got him into trouble with Muslims, or the affair involving the Society of St. Pius X and the Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson.

Culprits in the Cassock

“Everyone here is highly alarmed,” says one official at the Curia, adding: “For Benedict, this is the most difficult challenge of his pontificate. This time it’s not about theological or historical interpretation, but about his own outfit.”

And about Benedict himself.

Last Wednesday, the New York Times published documents on the Lawrence Murphy case that Isely’s victims’ rights group had been trying to make public for years. It was only one case among far too many cases. Nevertheless, it is one that casts a light on how the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), under the leadership of Joseph Ratzinger, showed more concern for the welfare of culprits in the cassock than for the welfare of abused children.

Between 1950 and 1974, Murphy stalked his pupils and molested them in cars, in dormitories and, in some cases, even in the confessional — a doubly serious offence under Catholic Church law.

Murphy would tell the boys to confess to sexual activities with their peers. Then he would begin touching them, using his hand to masturbate them and himself. Murphy pressured the boys to give him the names of other young sinners, whose beds he would then visit at night. There was no need to be quiet about it, because the boys were all deaf.

In 1974, Murphy was removed from the school “for health reasons” and transferred to a parish in northern Wisconsin, where he apparently continued to have contact with children and adolescents. But the civil authorities also did nothing, and all investigations against Murphy were dropped.

Prayed and Went to Confession

It wasn’t until 20 years later that the church hierarchy became active. In 1993, an expert hired by the church concluded that Murphy had no sense of guilt. The priest told her that he had essentially taken on the sins of the adolescents. He said that if he “played” with the boys once a week, their needs would be satisfied and they wouldn’t have sex with each other. “I sensed whether or not they liked it. And if they didn’t push me away, they must have liked it.” After molesting the boys, Murphy said, he always prayed and went to confession.

In June 1996, the Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, turned to the then chairman of the CDF, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Even though it wasn’t until 2001 that the church began requiring that all abuse cases in the global church be reported to the CDF, Ratzinger’s office was responsible, because the “sollicitatio,” or solicitation to commit carnal sin, occurred in the confessional, one of the holiest places in the church. The severity of the case, Weakland wrote, suggested that an internal church trial would be the right approach, a trial that could end in exclusion from the priesthood.

Ratzinger didn’t respond.

In December 1996, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee informed Murphy of its intention to investigate the abuse cases. Only after a second attempt did Weakland receive a response from the Vatican, in March 1997, in the form of a letter from Tarcisio Bertone, Ratzinger’s then deputy at the CDF. Bertone wrote that he recommended an internal church trial based on the laws of 1962, which protects the participants by applying the “Secretum Sancti Officii,” or secrecy on penalty of excommunication.

‘Kind Assistance’

On Jan. 12, 1998, Murphy appealed directly to Cardinal Ratzinger, asking him to stop the proceedings his archdiocese had initiated. The acts of which he was being accused, he wrote, had occurred 25 years earlier: “I am 72 years of age, your Eminence, and am in poor health. I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood. I ask your kind assistance in this matter.”

His wish was fulfilled. In April 1998, Bertone dropped the case against Murphy, in the spirit of forgiveness. In his letter to the Bishop of Superior, Wisconsin, he wrote: “The Congregation invites Your Excellency to give careful consideration to what canon 1341 proposes as pastoral measures destined to obtain the reparation of scandal and the restoration of justice.” The letter ends with Bertone’s best wishes for “a blessed Easter.”

Murphy died five months later, in August 1998. Bertone, for whom this meant that the matter was closed, wrote to the Archbishop of Milwaukee: “This Dicastery commends Father Murphy to the mercy of God and shares with you the hope that the Church will be spared any undue publicity from this matter.”

Today, Tarciso Bertone is the Cardinal Secretary of State, which makes him the second-in-command at the Vatican.

Abuse in the Vatican’s Backyard

“Bertone should not have put an end to such a sensitive case without consulting his superior first,” says abuse victim Peter Isely. “Ratzinger must have concealed the cover-up, just as he must have known about the transfer of pedophile priest Peter H. to Bavaria when he was Archbishop of Munich.”

Commenting last week on the “tragic case of Father Murphy,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi merely said that the CDF “was only informed 20 years after the matter.” He also pointed out that there were never any reports to criminal authorities that would have stood in the way of the Vatican’s recommendation to drop the case because of Murphy’s age.

For this reason, the official Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano denounced the media for what it called “the evident and ignoble intent to wound Benedict XVI and his closest advisers at any cost.”

The Murphy case has clearly struck a nerve. Since it became public, there has been speculation, even within the walls of the Vatican, over Bertone’s possible resignation.

Just Outside the Gates of the Vatican

Benedict’s pontificate set out to strengthen the church through dialogue with the Eastern churches, the traditionalists and Catholics in China. But now Benedict XVI must look on as the temple begins to totter, and as a veritable furor develops against the Roman church, and not just north of the Alps.

A widespread apathy toward all things religious has turned into aggression. Since the most recent revelations, a mood of “reckoning” has prevailed in Italy, writes historian Ernesto Galli della Loggia: “No one is forgiving the priests and the church for anything anymore.”

The Vatican is now deeply concerned that the scandal could continue to spread around the world. Why shouldn’t the abuses that occurred in Irish parishes have happened elsewhere, as well?

The next wave of revelations could begin just outside the gates of the Vatican. Even in Italy, where the majority of youth work is in the hands of the church, the code of silence is beginning to crumble. Victims’ groups have been formed in Sicily, Emilia-Romagna and the country’s northern regions. The groups plan to hold their first conference in Verona in September, under the motto: “I too suffered abuse at the hands of priests.” For years, the Curia in Verona covered up the abuse of deaf-mute children at a school in Chievo on the city’s outskirts.

And what happens if there were also abuse cases in the Diocese of Rome? The pope is the nominal Bishop of Rome. Internet sites are already calling upon Catholics to refuse to pay their voluntary church contribution.

A List of Horrors

A recently published book by an anonymous author, “Il peccato nascosto” (“The Hidden Sin”), enumerates the cases of recent years. It is a list of horrors. For instance, from 1989 to 1994, a priest in Bolzano, Don Giorgio Carli, repeatedly raped a girl who was nine when the abuse began. The relevant bishop refused all cooperation with the courts. Only last year, the priest was declared guilty by a higher court, but by that time the statute of limitations had passed. Today, Don Carli works as a pastor in a village in South Tyrol.

In Palermo alone, a group headed by a priest attended to 824 victims of abuse last year. According to an investigation by the newspaper La Repubblica, more than 40 priests have already been sentenced in sex abuse cases — “and this could be only the tip of the iceberg.”

Nevertheless, Italy’s bishops have yet to form an investigative commission. The “problem was never underestimated” in Italy, a spokesman for the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) explained in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, insisting that the situation is “under control.”

Whatever that means.

Benedict’s pastoral letter speaks a completely different language. With unprecedented openness, the pope writes: “In her (the Church’s) name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.” Critics in Ireland and Germany would have preferred a mea culpa.

‘Listen to the Voice of God’

In November 2002, Joseph Ratzinger refused to admit that there was a crisis. He described the abuse debate in the United States as “intentional, manipulated, (and characterized by) … a desire to discredit the church.”

Now the pope writes, in his pastoral letter, that he intends “to hold an Apostolic Visitation of certain dioceses in Ireland.” The term refers to a field audit of sorts, which can take months.

Even critical Vaticanologists concede that the pope, in his last few years at the CDW, made an about-face from a silent Saul to a zero-tolerance Paul. It would appear that Ratzinger, as head of the CDW, read too many dossiers to harbor any further illusions about the state of his church.

The turning point in Ratzinger’s thinking can be precisely dated to April 2003, when he banished Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ and a man held in high esteem by Pope John Paul II, to a monastery. Ratzinger had been told that Maciel had allegedly sexually abused minor seminarians.

The pope began Lent this year by saying that it was a time to “return to ourselves and listen to the voice of God, in order to overcome the temptations of the Evil One and find the truth of our being.”

But for the pope, perhaps the most dangerous demons are the ghosts of his own past, in Munich, Regensburg and Rome.

Benedict wants the crisis to be seen as a test, and as a purification and new beginning. He wants to lead his flock through the desert, presumably until the end of his pontificate.

But after everything that has now come to light — the letters, the accusations, his deputy’s entanglement in the Murphy case — it is unlikely to be a feast of redemption for Pope Benedict this year.


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Evolving Sexual Tensions

male and female sage-grouse


The female sage-grouse, left, and her decorative male counterpart.

Males and females are different.

This is so obvious that, at first, it hardly seems worth pointing out. But in fact, it is remarkable. It is also the cause of a profound sexual tension.

The problem is, often, the pressures on males and females are not the same. In the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, for example, males must perform an elaborate song-and-dance routine to seduce each female; females, in contrast, must give off a certain smell to be attractive to a male. Females need to eat a high protein diet so as to be able to produce eggs; males can skimp on the proteins.

male sage-grouse

A strutting male sage-grouse.

Among greater sage-grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, females are smaller than males and have straw-colored feathers. Males have flamboyant feathers and strut and cavort and puff themselves up to seduce females. Needless to say, in this species females do all the childcare: they choose a nest site, sit on the eggs, then feed and protect the chicks.

In sum, the traits that make a “good” male are often different from those that make a “good” female. (Note: I’m only talking about “good” in evolutionary terms. That means a trait that improves your chance of having surviving offspring.) Since many of these traits have a genetic underpinning, male and female genes are thus being sculpted by different forces.
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China Convicts Itself

Beijing needs to commit to the global economy

China tactfully reminds the world every once in a while that its specialty is masquerading weakness as strength.

In convicting iron-ore salesman and naturalized Australian citizen Stern Hu of bribery and stealing commercial secrets this week, China passed a verdict sure to frighten but not a verdict that anyone in the world would actually trust. A solitary Australian consular official was permitted to witness only part of the largely secret trial; the only publicly disclosed piece of evidence appears to be a written statement by Du Shuanghua, owner of a private steel mill, saying he paid off one of Mr. Hu’s colleagues.

Rio Tinto, one of the few Western companies to earn billions out of China, was quick to write off its employee. The Australian government is having a harder time endorsing the verdict, prompting the predictable caterwaul from China.

China unloading what it would like to get cheaper.

Let’s recall, the reason for an open courtroom is not just to make sure justice is done, but to make sure a verdict will be believed and lend credibility to the government that issues it.

The reason to have a free media, and even to put up with Google, is so people can know when their government is lying to them, which in turn is conducive to people being prepared to believe their government when it’s telling them the truth.

Weakness masquerading as strength is also key to understanding the most dangerous issue in U.S.-China relations today—China’s controversial currency peg and the false prize of its $2 trillion in accumulated dollar reserves.

The problem isn’t that China ties its yuan to the dollar. The problem is that it never let the full consequences of this choice flow through to domestic prices, wages and patterns of investment and employment.

Perhaps the pithiest summary came from whoever said that the real trouble with China is that one Chinese won’t lend to another to buy a house unless he’s buying it in the U.S.

Exactly. Tens of billions of Chinese-owned dollars rolled into Fannie and Freddie to support a U.S. housing boom. Meanwhile, at home, the world’s second biggest economy has yet to develop a real banking system or debt market, or any way for consumers to leverage China’s huge savings to improve their standard of living.

Writ small, China’s ore wars are emblematic of the same lopsided development agenda. Beijing has been trying somehow to turn its rickety and overmanned steel industry into leverage over international ore prices. China has been trying for two years to defy market realities and force Rio and its major competitors to deliver supplies at a steep discount to the international price created by China’s own explosive and volatile demand.

Not the least of Rio’s offenses was that it refused to go along. Rio sold a growing share of ore at spot market prices to the all-too-willing buyers among mainland steelmakers. Whatever the truth of the bribery charges, this actually reduced the opportunity for corruption—but then maybe that was Rio’s real sin, since well-connected mainlanders apparently had been getting rich reselling their ore allocations to unapproved buyers at huge markups.

Had China opened up its economy at a pace commensurate with its exports and accumulation of dollars, a solution would have revealed itself: import more steel. Many of the world’s steelmakers use domestic ore or scrap. Unlike China’s, they aren’t captive to an internationally traded raw material controlled by three big sellers.

This week, two of the three, Brazil’s Vale and Australia’s BHP, persuaded major Japanese, South Korean and Chinese steelmakers to accept quarterly ore repricings, with price hikes of nearly 100% above last year. Even with the Stern Hu verdict in hand, Beijing can’t hope to hold back this tide.

Nor can it hold back forever those in the U.S. who want to use China’s currency policy as an excuse to start a trade war, joined by some who apparently want to blame China for the failure of their tax-and-spend nostrums to lift the U.S. economy to a sustainable recovery.

See, we can masquerade weakness as strength too. But Washington can’t make China see a light its leaders don’t want to see. How much better to adopt a policy of real strength at home, beginning with domestic U.S. reforms that do what the word actually implies: justify confidence in our own economic future.

When Moody’s threatened to downgrade the U.S. credit rating recently, it said a prime concern was a loss of faith in Washington’s ability to get spending under control and protect growth. Moody’s didn’t mention China.

Holman Jenkins, Wall Street Journal


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Sarkozy Searches for Friendship with Obama that Has Eluded Him

L’Americain in Washington


Nicolas Sarkozy: The French president during his speech on Monday to American students at New York’s Columbia University

With his power wobbling at home, the timing of Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Washington couldn’t be better. The French president’s meeting with Barack Obama will provide exactly the images he needs in France. But in truth, his relationship with the US president is a tense one.

There are two types of European state visitors in the United States capital. One seeks to underscore his or her closeness to Washington. The other likes to emphasize how independent Europe really is. But French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is visiting American Senators and US President Barack Obama, would like to be both at the same time.

And that’s his problem.

Of course Sarkozy — who loves Elvis Presley, takes vacation in Maine and has long carried the nickname “L’Américain” in France — wants to maintain his image as a friend of America. Members of his entourage have pointed out that after his working meeting with the president on Tuesday he has also been invited to a dinner in the Obama’s private residence in the White House. It will be the world’s most exclusive guest list, French diplomats are proudly stating: just Sarkozy with his wife Carla Bruni and the Obamas.

But Sarkozy also wants to remind the Americans that, as a European, he can defy them. In a speech given in New York on Monday, the Frenchman repeated his demand for better regulation of the global economy. “We can no longer accept a capitalist system without rules or order,” Sarkozy said. “The world economic regulations cannot go on as they are,” Sarkozy said. “A system in which the most money is earned through speculating instead of producing, I don’t want to live in such a system.”

Obama’s Biggest Fan

The Americans don’t like those kinds of populist tones. Sarkozy’s promise that he will have strong words for Obama about the failed EADS bid to build planes for the Pentagon has also led to skepticism in Washington about the nature of his visit. The French are blaming American protectionism for the decision by the European aerospace giant and its partner Northrop Grumman to withdraw from a bid to manufacture 179 tanker jets for the US Air Force in a massive contract with a total value of €35 billion. Sarkozy claims the bidding process favored Boeing.

Of course, Sarkozy needs to score points back at home, too. Only last weekend, he was punished in regional elections in France. In an interview, Sarkozy’s own father advised his son not to run for re-election. Given his electoral setback, it makes sense for Sarkozy to bang the drum for French and European interests in Washington.

Obama, on the other hand, is feeling reinvigorated following the passage of his healthcare reform through Congress and the new arms treaty with Moscow. And his whirlwind trip over the weekend to Afghanistan underscores the fact that he now feels prepared for new tasks — on the international level, too. He could probably simply laugh off any possible French provocations.

But that’s exactly what gets under Sarkozy’s skin. For a long time he has tried to position himself as Obama’s biggest fan. During group photos he always squeezes his way in next to the American, and he has tried to secure for France the special relationship that Britain has traditionally had with Washington. At the end of the day, even the otherwise US-critical French love Obama — even if they have reservations about his country’s policies.

‘The Hoped-for Partnership Never Materialized’

But Obama hasn’t seemed to take Sarkozy seriously. When he has, he has often reacted with irritation towards the French president’s brisk leadership style. When the US president traveled to Paris last year, he preferred to dine with his wife Michelle rather than Sarkozy. “The hoped-for partnership never materialized,” the French daily Le Figaro wrote.

Sarkozy hasn’t forgiven his American colleague for it, either. He has complained to those close to him that Obama is ill-prepared to govern, noting that he didn’t even hold a cabinet-level position before taking office. And he has responded in public to Obama’s vision of a nuclear weapons-free world with little more than a polite smile. During his recent speech before the United Nations, Sarkozy reminded the Americans that we live in a real world, not a virtual one.

Sarkozy has little to contribute when it comes to Afghanistan, either. Close to 4,000 French troops are stationed there. But when the Americans asked for more, Sarkozy refused to pledge further troops. The deployment is very unpopular in France.

Of course, that will all be forgotten during his Washington visit, French officials claim. They insist that the alleged conflicts are media fabrications. In an interview with the International Herald Tribune and French journalists last week, Obama’s National Security Advisor, James Jones, described Sarkozy as a “very helpful and steadfast ally.”

‘I Am a Friend of America’

But this visit will hardly be as triumphant as Sarkozy’s last big trip to Washington in 2007. Back then, the French wanted to single-handedly repair a trans-Atlantic relationship that had suffered under the strains of the Iraq war. “I am a friend of America,” Sarkozy beseeched his fellow countrymen in France before he departed for the States. “Don’t torture me for it.” During a gala dinner at the White House, Sarkozy promised to win back the hearts of Americans. He spoke before Congress and he commemorated the historical roots of the French-American partnership together with then-President George W. Bush — the 250th birthday of General Lafayette, whose military genius saved the Americans from the Brits during the War of Independence.

By comparison to that, his dinner in the Obama’s residential quarters looks to be a pretty modest affair. It’s also symbolic of the disillusionment right now in trans-Atlantic relations. The Americans are disappointed that, even after the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty — which was meant to give the European Union’s common foreign policy more clout — the individual European countries are continuing to pursue their own interests abroad. The question, former senior US diplomat and current Harvard professor Nicholas Burns argued in an interview with the New York Times, is whether Europe can “develop a collective European idea of global power? They talk about it a lot, but they don’t do it.” 

At the same time, the Europeans have been irritated by the cold shoulder Obama has shown them. The US president hardly seems to even pay attention to France’s reintegration last year into NATO’s structures. The Washington Post has even criticized Obama for this, noting that in contrast to his predecessors, he hasn’t established close ties to a single European leader.

But those close to the president say this is simply a misunderstanding that will be cleared up during personal meetings like Sarkozy’s visit to Washington. John Podesta, the leader of Obama’s transition team that helped prepare the newly elected president for the White House in 2009, told SPIEGEL: “His style is certainly different from George W. Bush who wanted to be liked and really developed deep personal relationships.”

“But if you have the wrong foreign policy and good personal relations, you end up with bad results,” he added. “And if you have the right foreign policy, a strong team to implement it, and thinner personal relations, you’re more likely to have very good results.”


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‘Berlusconi’s Only Political Project Is Himself’

Silvio Berlusconi on the campaign trial.

Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition emerged victorious after regional elections in Italy this week. However, most German papers argue that this success has less to do with the prime minister himself than it does with the increasing strength of his ally, the anti-immigrant Northern League.

Many on the Italian left may have hoped that the economic crisis — coupled with the many distractions in Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ‘s life, including sex scandals and an ugly public spat with his wife — would see them making significant gains in regional elections this week. If so, they were sorely disappointed.

Instead, Berlusconi’s center-right People of Freedom Party (PDL) and his coalition partner, the anti-immigrant Northern League, actually wrested control of four regions away from the opposition and held onto two other contested regions. Italy’s fragmented left now only controls seven regional governments and was largely driven out of the wealthy north.

Berlusconi’s decision to hit the campaign trail and mobilize his supporters seemed to pay off to some extent as 13 of Italy’s 20 regions went to the polls on Sunday and Monday. In particular, the prime minister will relish taking the Lazio region, which includes the capital, Rome. Nevertheless, the 73-year-old Berlusconi’s triumphalism may be premature. His party’s share of the vote was down almost 11 points, to 26.7 percent, compared to the 2008 national election. The coalition’s success was largely a result of low voter turnout, which saw 35 percent of Italians not voting for any party. Indeed, there was no major switch to the opposition Democratic Party, which has lacked a clear platform and been beset by infighting.

More significantly, perhaps, the coalition’s success was also the result of the Northern League’s emergence as an increasingly important political force. The party saw its share of the vote rise from 8.3 percent in the 2008 election to 12.7 percent. As expected, it won the northern region of Veneto, becoming the biggest party there, but it also edged ahead of the left in Piedmont and closed the gap with the PDL in the industrial region of Lombardy.

This success will undoubtedly give the Northern League and its leader, Umberto Bossi, a greater say in the national government. It is expected to push for a tougher line on immigration, which it links to crime, and more autonomy for the north.

On Wednesday, German papers look at the rising fortunes of the Northern League and the inability of the left to present a convincing alternative to the center-right.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

“Silvio Berlusconi sees himself as the winner of Italy’s regional elections. He can claim to be strengthened as he enters into the last three years of this legislative period. … But, if you take a closer look, this is no great personal success. It will now be more difficult for him to claim he is backed by the majority of the population. That is due, first of all, to the historically low turnout of 63.6 percent and, secondly, to the fact that his party only saw an average vote of 27 percent in the 13 regions.”

“The true winner in these regional elections was the Northern League. The PDL’s junior coalition partner is getting increasingly stronger: It reached an average vote across the regions of almost 13 percent.”

“The league’s success marks another phenomenon in these elections. The big parties are stagnating or losing support. The PDL only attracted 27 percent of the vote, and the biggest opposition group, the Democratic Party, won just 26 percent. … The record abstention rate is not just the result of resignation, but also a protest against the big parties, which many regard as only being preoccupied with themselves. Italians feel they have been left alone to deal with their economic problems and are disgusted by the scandals of the elites.”

“The Northern League’s leader, Umberto Bossi, was able to profit from this…. Likewise, although the league has officially softened its tone … it is still anti-immigrant, still fixated on law and order, and still gives priority to the north above all else. However, they have given up on the idea of secession in favor of federalism. The party has become the mouthpiece for the small farmers and businesspeople in the north who make up Italy’s economic backbone. They are suffering in the current crisis. Most have no financial protection. They complain that they can’t get credit and that they pay too many taxes. They feel the pressure from lower-wage economies and see how foreign companies are taking away their profits. To many, Bossi seems to offer a more decisive set of policies.”

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

“Italy’s opposition may have hoped that results in the regional elections would have given Berlusconi a similar mauling to that which President Sarkozy recently experienced across the Alps. However, once again, it was the Italian left that was mauled.”

“The hope that Berlusconi’s slide in popularity, and all the scandals big and small, would automatically have sent voters into the arms of the opposition has once again been dashed.”

“The prime minister has lost a lot of his appeal in the eyes of his many followers. But they would never consider voting for the left. … Instead, they just stayed at home.”

“In the past 15 years, he has succeeded in polarizing voters to such an extent that it has become a huge exception to see voters switch from the opposing camps. Nevertheless, Berlusconi could easily have lost if the Democratic Party and other opposition groups had managed to mobilize their own forces.”

“That didn’t happen. Left-wing voters are as little impressed by their parties as those on the right are impressed by Berlusconi. There has been a lack of convincing ideas to oppose his right-wing populist policies … What left-wing voters want are politicians who are working for the interests of the ordinary people and policies that mark a clear alternative to those of the right-wing parties.”

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

“Berlusconi may act like the winner … but his triumph is just wishful thinking. Granted, his coalition did win, but he emerges from these elections … weakened.”

“The cry of triumph is supposed to distract from the fact that his PDL party saw a massive slump in votes. The voters are turning away from the established parties. There is growing disappointment with the political class. Abstention reached a record level. And the main culprit for this development is Berlusconi himself, who has consistently worked at freeing politics of all real content.”

“This draining of politics of any meaning continues to be Berlusconi’s recipe for success. Making light of things and denying problems are what helped him attract voters in the past.”

“But not this time. The country’s problems are too great, and its social and health systems need reform. There has been huge disappointment with the government’s work over the past two years, as Berlusconi has yet to launch any fundamentally new policies.”

“The right-wing camps with serious policies — and, above all, the Northern League — are the ones profiting from this. The party has clear political aims: an independent north, tough measures against illegal immigrants and more law and order. Moreover, unlike the PDL, it has a strong grassroots movement to back up these aims. In fact, it is the opposite of the presidential PDL, which changes its profile to match the moods of its leader.”

“The election result shows that the party will have to create a stronger profile if it is to be successful. And that means getting rid of Berlusconi, whose only political project is himself.”

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

“How could this happen? After all the scandals, the Italians have once again voted for the center-right coalition. And Berlusconi’s coalition was able to take power away from the left in Lazio and Piedmont, in particular, the regions where he campaigned in person.”

“The success of Berlusconi’s coalition is not due to his media empire; nor is it a result of the Italian’s low expectations when it comes to the morals of their politicians.”

“The problem is, in part, the weak impression the left made. In recent months, it has also been in the headlines for sex scandals and corruption. And the infighting amongst those on the left has cost it a lot of sympathizers.”

“Many Italians are not happy with Berlusconi but they don’t see any convincing alternatives.”

“What does the result mean for Italy? Although Berlusconi feels strengthened, he knows that he now will have to deal with a much stronger coalition partner. The Northern League … wants financial federalism, which, for them, means that taxes should be spent where they are collected.”

“Meanwhile, Berlusconi wants to reform the justice system, mainly to help himself … nd to introduce a directly-elected prime minister.”

“It is difficult to see what else Berlusconi wants to achieve. The latest campaign was almost devoid of content. The government program is mostly directed toward the needs of the prime minister … Italy has long lost its international importance. Luckily for it, the government has been prudent during the crisis, which has given it a good handle on the deficit. But less thanks for this is owed to Berlusconi than to his finance minister, Giulio Tremonti.”


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