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When Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced this week the date for the UK general election, the US press hardly batted an eyelid. While the US election was followed closely by many people in Britain and indeed the rest of the world, the UK election—scheduled for May 6—is unlikely to invoke the same reaction globally. Nevertheless, this election is one that may matter for Americans more than they care to imagine.

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Hilary Clinton’s trip to Latin America this week has ended in disappointment after Brazil’s president, Lula da Silva, rejected U.S. pleas to support tougher sanctions on Iran. This firm stance in the face of Western pressure is not simply meant to be a slap in the face to U.S. diplomacy. Rather, it symbolizes a geopolitical power shift where an increasingly important Brazil seeks a central space for itself on the world stage – as a superpower with an equal status to other global giants.

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Since the Christmas Day plot in Detroit, there has been a strong focus on Al Qaeda activities in Yemen. Reports of safe havens and training camps have led many to believe that Al Qaeda members, hounded out of Afghanistan and much of Pakistan, have sought refuge in an ungoverned area of the Middle Eastern nation, using the name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Essential though this focus may be, the global nature of the fight means that concentrating efforts in one place means neglecting enemy forces gathered in another. This is exactly the case with another branch of Al Qaeda in North Africa – one which has gone largely unnoticed and whose increased capacity to attack presents a real threat to security in Europe and the U.S.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emerged in the early nineties, and was originally called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The group was formed as an angry response to the Algerian government’s cancellation of the 1992 elections that would have handed victory to a coalition of Islamic moderates and militants. GSPC operated in a largely ungoverned area of the Sahara desert, along Algeria’s southern and Mali’s northern border, and launched attacks on Algerian government employees and institutions. The group then began to receive funding and training from Al Qaeda towards the end of the decade, and the alliance was made official in 2006 when Al Qaeda’s no. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, announced the “blessed union” in a video published on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Since then, the group has been known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and has claimed responsibility for its actions under its new name.

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The fragility is there for all to see. A decade and a half after the ratification of the Dayton Agreement that brought the war in Yugoslavia to an end, the threat of violence in Bosnia hovers ominously over the Balkan region. Two weeks ago, tensions reached dangerous new heights when Croatia’s president threatened to use force to prevent Serbian attempts to partition Bosnia. After the relative harmony of the 1995 peace agreement, Bosnia appears to be careering unstoppably towards another violent conflict – one that will have grave consequences for the fragile Balkans region and shatter the illusion of European unity promoted by the E.U.

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The continually unfolding tragedy brought about by the recent earthquake in Haiti has once again raised an age-old debate on the U.S.’s place in the world. The superpower has often been accused of acting as the world’s self-appointed police force, intervening where it sees fit under the auspices of moral obligation. Obama’s decision to send over 10,000 troops to Haiti led to cries of ‘occupation’ and ‘imperialism’ from many critics on the Left, and has provoked an internal debate over the U.S.’s role as “globocop”.

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The killings have become so routine that most Mexicans don’t bat an eyelid when they are reported. TV stations broadcast the stories at the tail-end of their news programs, and newspapers bury any reference deep inside their pages. It was 2006 when Mexico’s newly-elected President Felipe Calderón sent 6,500 troops to the southwestern state of Michoacán, declaring war on drugs and embarking on an interminable battle that so far has killed over 11,000 people.

There are three principal factors that have made Mexico a battleground in the global War on Drugs. Mexico has long been used as a transit point for drugs that are smuggled from South America to North America. The demise of many Colombian cartels in the 1990s led to an increased dependency on Mexican cartels. Whereas the Colombian cartels previously paid their Mexican mules in cash, crackdowns and desperate circumstances meant that many Mexicans began to be paid in drugs. Through time, the dynamic of the relationship changed and Mexican mules began to be less dependent on their Colombian counterparts, becoming traffickers in their own right. The second factor was a change of government in Mexico, with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) losing power after more than 70 years of leading the country. The PRI had implicit agreements with all the major cartels, which meant that the drugs could flow in exchange for peace and bribes. Third, the U.S. government began to crack down on methamphetamine at the end of the 80s, curbing the production of the drug in homemade laboratories. As a result, many of these labs packed up and relocated south of the border and began producing and trafficking methamphetamine with much less scrutiny, making Mexico a major methamphetamine supplier.

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For his first presidential act upon taking office on Jan. 20 last year, President Obama signed an executive order requiring the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year. Many liberals and human rights activists breathed a sigh of relief as Obama promised to return the U.S. to the “moral high ground” and put an end to a shameful chapter in modern American history. One year later and that high ground appears beyond the reach of the Obama administration, as Guantanamo Bay prison remains open with the White House lacking a comprehensive plan to deal with its estimated 245 detainees.  

Obama’s laudable plan to close the prison has stalled for various reasons, some of which are beyond his control. The first reason relates to his attempts to re-house some of the prisoners on American soil. Local senators and governors have fiercely objected to the notion that their state should house suspected terrorists on the grounds that the new prisoners could endanger the safety of Americans. This nonsensical affirmation has been echoed by other partisan commentators and TV networks, despite the fact that the U.S. already houses many convicted al-Qaeda terrorists, as well as various other dangerous criminals. 

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The foiled terrorist attack on Christmas Day served as a timely reminder that the U.S. remains vulnerable to plots from Al-Qaeda. As more details emerge about the security lapses that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board his flight to Amsterdam and later to Detroit, President Barack Obama has come under intense criticism from opportunist Republicans over his handling of the so-called War on Terror. Yet instead of dodging the role as a partisan punching bag, Obama appears willing to engage in domestic squabbling, at great cost to his foreign agenda.

Obama’s announcement on January 4 that the U.S. was to introduce tougher airport screening for “security risk” countries underlined the air of desperation and ineptitude that has gripped the White House since December 25. The countries included on the list were Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen. While some of the countries are merely the usual suspects, the inclusion of Cuba seems anomalous. Its appearance is explained by its unfortunate presence on another U.S.-produced list: state sponsors of terrorism. Nevertheless, many experts believe its inclusion is anachronistic, given that there is no current evidence to support the theory that Cuba sponsors terrorists, especially not those linked to Al-Qaeda. Many Cubans hoped that Obama’s election would help restore diplomatic relations between the two nations, and indeed the Obama administration has made tentative steps to this effect. The guileless inclusion of Cuba on a “security risk” list needlessly hinders potential rapprochement.

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With the December 6 news that it plans to build twenty new uranium enrichment facilities, Iran has dealt a serious blow to hopes of peacefully resolving its nuclear standoff with the West. After months of courtship by the international community, Iran’s announcement appears to be both a rejection of the West’s advances and a signal of its intent to step up its pursuit of a nuclear program. With the US running out of cards to play, many fear that the two countries are on a collision course to military confrontation.

Much like North Korea, the consequences of an Iranian possession of nuclear bomb are dire. The Obama administration has sought to right the wrong of American Cold War policy, when the US provided its then-ally Iran with nuclear reactors in an attempt to curry favor. Preventing proliferation is a priority for the Obama administration and confirmation that Iran has a nuclear bomb would trigger an arms race in the Middle East, with heavyweights such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia seeking to counter Iranian domination in the region. An Iranian nuclear bomb would also bring Israel and Iran closer to war. Iran’s anti-Semitic leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicised his hatred of Israel so often that Israeli leaders deem a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat. Just last year an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites was narrowly averted after George W. Bush refused to give Ehud Olmert the green light. The Obama administration has since tried to convince the Israelis of the virtues of diplomacy with Iran, but the latest setback means that hawks in Israel and the US will be circling Iran with greater intensity.

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The election of Porfirio Lobo on November 29 represents a giant leap backwards for Honduras and Latin America as a whole. After months of protracted negotiations, the U.S. government suddenly threw its weight behind the illegitimate coup government of Roberto Micheletti and supported elections under its authority. The shameful episode damages Obama’s credibility in Latin America and sets a dangerous precedent in a region with a chequered past.

Last June, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power at gunpoint by armed soldiers, and the speaker of Congress Roberto Micheletti was installed as interim leader. Zelaya’s “crime” was to plan a public consultation on moves to change the constitution. The coup was roundly condemned by world leaders, with President Obama calling the coup “illegal”. Yet five months later, the U.S. government has changed tack, backing coup-sponsored elections and grossly damaging the democratic process in Latin America.

The role of the U.S. in the Honduras crisis has been pivotal since day one. Obama’s initial condemnation of the coup was welcomed by many pundits, especially since the U.S. has a history of backing right-wing coups in Latin America. The Obama administration’s early strategy focused on returning President Zelaya to power and restoring democracy, while the coup government’s strategy was to hold onto power until it held elections for a new president. The U.S. responded by cutting aid to Honduras and threatened the military-backed regime with continued international isolation until it negotiated a plan that would enable Zelaya to return to the presidency.

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