Judging from Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Moscow on September 12, the British government has decided to cave in to the Russians in the long-running dispute over the November 2006 murder in London of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. The victim, who was highly critical of Vladimir Putin and had been given asylum in Britain in 2000, died an agonizing death at a North London hospital on November 23, three weeks after being poisoned with polonium 210—a rare and highly lethal radioactive substance. As a result of Russia’s unwillingness to cooperate with its investigation of the crime, Britain ended intelligence sharing with Moscow and introduced new visa restrictions on Russian businessmen trying to go to the UK. But Cameron’s meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin this week indicates that Britain is reassessing its Moscow strategy—and by extension, its view of the Russian leadership.
Already in a condition of satire, the opening of the Tea Party-hosted GOP debate on Monday night in Tampa presented the eight Republican presidential candidates as good-looking characters—“The Diplomat” “The Newcomer” “The Firebrand”—who would have to battle one another off the electoral island. Music, brassy and tense, and a baritone voice-over let you know that this reality show was part of the ongoing Apocalypse Lite that has infused our television programming and made the networks almost unwatchable. There was little even Jon Stewart on his show the next evening could do to make fun of what was often comedically predigested—except to say that the red, white and blue stage looked like the inside of Betsy Rossʼs, well, sewing room. Iʼm paraphrasing.
Until September 2001, North Americans had not witnessed the spectacle of mass death on their own territory for at least a century. Then, our enemies suddenly staged a devastating attack on some of our most significant places. That was a trauma—on top of the sheer loss of life—that seemed impossible to swallow. As we sent our armies out into the world, we felt that our actions were automatically legitimized by our new awareness of our vulnerability. Surely, we felt, this was self-evident; it required no further explanation. The rest of the world, however, has a hard time seeing our wounds. Today the rest of the world sees us, straightforwardly, as the country that spends more on its military than the next eighteen or so nations combined.
In the international press, China’s tensions with Tibet are often traced to the Chinese invasion of 1950 and Tibet’s failed uprising of 1959. But for the Chinese themselves, the story goes back much further—at least to the reign of Kangxi, the Qing Dynasty emperor, who ruled for sixty-one years (1661-1722) and, in the official Chinese view, incorporated many lands, including Tibet, into a glorious Chinese empire. One of the most important symbols of those events, moreover, lies not in Tibet but thousands of miles east in the city of Chengde, near Beijing. There, Kangxi’s grandson, the emperor Qianlong, built one of the more astonishing architectural monuments in China: a Tibetan Buddhist temple housed in a scrupulously detailed scale model of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the seat of Tibetan cultural and spiritual power. This Little Potala, as it’s called, was intended as an architectural expression of the great unity of China under his rule. In recent years, the tourist authorities have used Chengde to create a sort of national monument to Kangxi, and, through him, to advance China’s contemporary position on Tibet.
How can you turn $3.2 billion into $500 billion in a day? If you are Vladimir Putin, the prime minister of Russia, and Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon, you announce a deal that allows Exxon to explore for oil in Russia’s Arctic waters. According to Putin, who last week said, “It’s scary to utter such huge figures,” the deal could reach $500 billion. According to Exxon’s news release, all that’s been agreed so far is an investment of $3.2 billion. The only certainty is that the energy industry’s numbers game sometimes resembles the magical calculations the financial industry relied on before the 2008 crash.
Take natural gas. There has been a flood of recent investment in the effort to extract gas from the Marcellus shale, a geological formation that runs underground from Virginia to New York. Drilling rights have been snapped up as everyone tries to get a piece of the hazardous action. Few seem concerned that it involves an extraction technique, known as hydraulic fracturing—it uses chemicals and explosives to release deposits of oil or gas that are trapped in rock formations—that can poison water tables.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station said this week that human activity on the station may soon be suspended, because the Russian rockets that are now the only way to transport astronauts and cargo there are no longer reliable. While many people view the prospect of the astronauts ending their work at the space station as an extraordinary loss, I am not among them. I think that the station was a hundred billion dollar folly and the sooner it is abandoned the better.
When it was established in the late nineteenth century, Labor Day was intended to honor the American working man. Yet a great deal of our menial labor today is performed not by American citizens but by undocumented migrant workers—many of whom risk their lives in thousand-mile journeys simply to get to the United States. A year ago this August, 72 of those migrants—58 men and 14 women—were on their way to the US border when they were murdered by a drug gang at a ranch in northern Mexico, in circumstances that remain unexplained.
The Israeli embassy in Cairo is tucked away on the top two levels of a 21-floor residential tower ten minutes from Tahrir. It is flanked by graying buildings and a usually traffic-clogged bridge. Nearby are Cairo University and the National Zoo. In the past, its busy location served it well; it was inconspicuous, and under Mubarak, the security around the building was so tight that even reaching the barricades surrounding it felt like a feat. In one of the more revealing signs of change in the New Egypt, however, it has now become the focus of the public’s attention and the site of unobstructed demonstrations.
Do people still suffer from periods of boredom even with computers, smart phones and tablets to occupy them endlessly? This and other thoughts came to me as I sat in a dark house for three days in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.
The tenth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington will be accompanied by the usual solemn political pronouncements and predictable media retrospectives. But they shouldn’t distract us from a very precise and practical problem that hasn’t been addressed: the refusal of the CIA to disclose the details of its involvement with Islamist groups.