Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Jan. 26 2015 3:10 PM

Greece Is Just the Beginning

Alexis Tsipras was sworn in as Greece’s new prime minister today after his left-wing Syriza party, campaigning on a pledge to renegotiate the strict terms of the country’s bailout, trounced the mainstream parties in a snap election held yesterday.

Syriza won 149 seats in Greece’s 300-seat parliament, putting it just two short of an outright majority. To get over the top, it partnered with the right-wing Independent Greeks party. The two parties are sharply at odds on a number of issues—from immigration to the role of the Orthodox Church in politics—but both want Greece to write off its debts and roll back the strict austerity measures imposed as part of the bailout package.

In exchange for billions of dollars in loans from the EU, the European Central Bank, and the IMF—the so-called troika—Greece’s government agreed to steep cuts to social programs and government spending. Tsipras now says he wants to renegotiate the terms of the deal and has pledged to raise the minimum wage and hire back public-sector workers, moves that are probably irreconcilable with the demands of the country’s lenders, particularly fiscal disciplinarian Germany. Tsipras maintains that he doesn’t want to take Greece off the euro, but if the two sides can’t reach an agreement, that scenario becomes more likely.* 

The Greek election kicked off what could be a breakthrough year for anti-establishment parties as well as anti-EU appeals from both the left and right in Europe. Syriza’s victory was hailed today by  ideological allies, like the leader of Spain’s Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias, who said at a rally that Greece would finally have a real leader rather than a “delegate of Angela Merkel.” Founded just last year, Podemos is another anti-austerity party, and, according to recent polls, if elections were held in Spain today, it would hold the most seats. If this sentiment holds until elections are held, probably in December, it would mark a stunning shift in Spanish politics: Just two parties, one center-left and one center-right, have dominated national elections since the early 1980s.

Then there’s Nigel Farage’s anti-immigrant, anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, which is likely to gain seats in May’s British elections. And even if the establishment holds out, Prime Minister David Cameron is under heavy pressure from euroskeptics in his Conservative party and will likely be forced to hold a public referendum on British membership in the EU. (It’s also possible that UKIP’s growing strength could actually hurt the euroskeptic cause by taking enough votes away from the Conservatives to put the pro-EU Labour in power.)

France isn’t holding national elections this year, but local elections in March will likely see major gains for Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Polls in December showed a plurality of voters planning to cast a ballot for the far-right party, and that was before this month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, which will likely help Le Pen’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration and Islam resonate with more voters.

This could also be a big year for the far-right Danish People’s Party. Denmark is due to hold general elections this year, and recent polling shows that the party, which wants less EU influence in Danish politics and tougher border controls, is now the country’s largest.

With close to 50 percent youth unemployment and deep cuts to social services, the frustration of the Greek public is clearly an extreme case—in an alarming development, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party came in third with 6.3 percent of the vote—but it’s also clearly not the only place where anti-EU messages from both the left and right are resonating with voters. So far, these anti-establishment parties have been able to perform well in local elections and EU votes, where voters often perceive the stakes to be lower. But this could very well be the year that the extreme parties from both sides finally break into the mainstream. 

*Correction, Jan. 27, 2015: This post originally misidentified the country that Tsipras had pledged not off the euro.

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Jan. 26 2015 1:24 PM

At Least 43 Police Officers Killed by Jihadist Rebels in Philippines

At least 43 Philippine police officers have been killed in an attempt to capture a high-profile terrorism suspect wanted by the United States and Malaysia. Confusingly, the suspect, Zulkifli Bin Hir, is affiliated with the Jemaah Islamiyah jihadist group, but the rebels who killed police officers are part of a different group called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is engaged in peace talks with the government, and authorities say they did not intend to target it in the raid. From the New York Times:

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front had not been informed of the police operation, which triggered a series of firefights between government forces and rebels, said Mohager Iqbal, a peace negotiator for the rebels.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas called the incident a “misencounter” between government and rebel forces and said the operation would be investigated to determine whether proper procedures were followed to avoid conflict with the rebels under the cease-fire pact.
“We are hopeful and confident that this will not derail the peace talks,” he said during a briefing Monday on the incident.

Officials said they “believe” Zulkifi was killed in the operation and are conducting DNA tests to confirm his death. According to the FBI, Zulkifi is/was a U.S.-trained engineer who “conducts bomb-making training for terrorist organizations” including the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group.

In June 2014 the Pentagon said a United States counterterrorism unit based in the Philippines would be “phased out” because of the declining threat posed by terror groups in the region.

Jan. 26 2015 10:00 AM

Eastern Ukraine Is Once Again in a State of “All-Out War”

After months of relative calm, fighting between government forces and Russia-backed rebels has returned eastern Ukraine to what Reuters describes as a state of “all-out war.” Europe and the United States are reportedly considering responding with further sanctions against Russia, whose economy is already in a disastrous state in part because of Ukraine-related Western actions. From Reuters:

Violence in eastern Ukraine is at by far its worst since a ceasefire was agreed last September. Casualties have mounted, including in the major port of Mariupol where Kiev says 30 civilians were killed in rebel shelling on Saturday...The Kiev government sees the rebel advance as a repudiation of the ceasefire, restarting a war in which 5,000 people have been killed. Kiev and NATO believe thousands of Russian troops are in eastern Ukraine fighting on the rebels' behalf with advanced weapons, despite Moscow's denials.

A Ukrainian official estimates that 9,000 Russian troops are currently in his country, while a NATO commander from the U.S. says that the alliance has detected the use of air defense and electronic warfare systems consistent with “past Russian troop movements into Ukraine.”

The European Union will hold an emergency meeting Thursday to discuss sanctions. President Obama told reporters he is “deeply concerned” about the latest developments and that the U.S. will respond jointly with its European allies.

Jan. 25 2015 7:07 PM

Anti-Austerity Party Syriza Wins Big, Puts Greece on Collision Course With Europe

It was a historic day in Greece on Sunday. After years of extreme EU- and IMF-imposed austerity, Greeks gave a clear vote against that economic prescription for their ailing country. And while a victory for the leftist Syriza party was expected, the huge margin has come as a surprise. The two parties that have ruled the country since the fall of the military junta in 1974 were reduced to mere spectators as the big question Sunday night was whether Syriza would obtain enough votes to secure 151 of the 300 seats in parliament, which would allow it to rule without a coalition. So far, it seems it will fall slightly short. With around 75 percent of the votes counted, Syriza was set to win 149 seats, according to the BBC.

For the European Union, the result will undoubtedly be a challenge, and seemingly everyone talks about how Greece will be on a collision course with the EU leadership, because voters have staunchly rejected the austerity mandated from Brussels and Berlin to deal with the Eurozone crisis. The Guardian explains:

The damning popular verdict on Europe’s response to financial meltdown is a haunting outcome for the EU’s political elite. For the first time, power has been handed to populist outsiders deeply opposed to Brussels and Berlin, albeit not anti-European, unlike their counterparts on the far right across the EU. For the first time a child of the European crisis, an explicitly anti-austerity party will take office in the EU.

"Greece leaves behind catastrophic austerity, it leaves behind fear and authoritarianism, it leaves behind five years of humiliation and anguish," Alexis Tsipras, the charismatic leader of Syriza, said on Sunday night. Tsipras has vowed to renegotiate with creditors who put up $284 billion to bail out Greece and said he would demand that some of the country’s debt be canceled. Considering the creditors are likely to push back, many think it’s likely that Greece could end up exiting the euro, “imperiling the rest of the currency union along the way,” points out the Washington Post.

Alexis Tsipras speaks to supporters after winning the election on Jan. 25, 2015 in Athens, Greece.

Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Jan. 25 2015 4:29 PM

Alaska Republicans Up in Arms After Obama Proposes New Protections for Arctic Refuge

President Obama will call on Congress to expand protection for Alaska’s Arctic refuge to 12 million acres, including 1.5 million acres along the coastline that are rich in oil. Alaska’s congressional delegation and Gov. Bill Walker immediately criticized the Department of Interior announcement, saying it was an attack on the state’s ability to manage its own resources, reports the Alaska Dispatch News.* “What’s coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive,” said Sen. Murkowski, who is also the chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

For his part, freshman Sen. Dan Sullivan went as far as to call the announcement an example of how the White House is waging a “war on Alaska families” because its “ultimate goal [is] making Alaska one big national park.”

There seems to be more where that came from though. The announcement is likely the first in a series of moves that the Department of the Interior will be taking “that will affect the state’s oil and gas production,” details the Washington Post. The paper explains:

The department will also put part of the Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling as part of a five-year leasing plan it will issue this week and is considering whether to impose additional limits on oil and gas production in parts of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”

In a video released by the White House, Obama says that “Alaska’s National Wildlife refuge is an incredible place—pristine, undisturbed. It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries it supported many Alaska native communities. But it’s very fragile.”

With the move, almost 20 million acres would have a wilderness designation, which is the highest level of federal protection. And while Congress is the only one that can officially declare that an area receive a wilderness designation, “once the federal government identifies a place for that designation it receives the highest level of protection until Congress acts,” explains the Post.

*Correction, Jan. 26, 2015: This post originally misstated the name of Alaska Dispatch News as Anchorage Daily News. 

Jan. 25 2015 4:11 PM

Obama Launches New Era of Cooperation With India

President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were all buddy-buddy on Sunday as the U.S. president launched a three-day visit to New Delhi. Modi bear-hugged Obama as soon as he landed in New Delhi and made a point of calling the president Barack, as if the two were long-lost friends who were suddenly reuniting after a serious spat. “It was a remarkable spectacle,” notes Reuters, “given that a year ago Modi was persona non grata in Washington and was denied a visa to the United States.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) hugs U.S. President Barack Obama upon his arrival on Air Force One at Air Force Station Palam in New Delhi on Jan. 25, 2015.

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

After talks with Modi, Obama said the two had reached “a breakthrough understanding” that could end up unlocking billions of dollars in nuclear trade, which was a key goal of Obama’s trip to India. Modi also said India wants to expand the use of renewable energy to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, representing “a shift in India’s tone on global warming,” notes Bloomberg. The two leaders also renewed a 10-year defense agreement. Still, it was hardly ideal. The New York Times explains:

The climate agreement included mostly minor initiatives compared with the deal Mr. Obama made with China last November, and it was unclear whether American companies would that agree the nuclear pact offered sufficient protection from potential liability in the case of mishaps to justify the investment.

Regardless, everyone makes sure to emphasize that the important thing here was the “atmosphere of amity,” as the Times puts it. “From the start, the day was more about putting their personal bond on display,” notes the Associated Press. "The chemistry that has brought Barack and me closer has also brought Washington and Delhi closer," Modi said at one point. Despite all this positive talk though, Obama is cutting the trip slightly short to go to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to pay his respects to the royal family for the death of King Abdullah.

Jan. 25 2015 12:12 PM

After Dove Attack Last Year, Pope Francis Releases Balloons to Represent Peace

Remember last year when two children standing alongside Pope Francis released two white doves as a peace gesture, and they were promptly attacked by a seagull and a large black crow? The shocking images of the doves that had been released as the pontiff called for peace in Ukraine being viciously attacked were seen around the world and led to protests by animal rights activists. Now it seems the Vatican does not want to risk the same thing happening again.

Young people release white doves next to Pope Francis from the window of his private apartments during his sunday's Angelus prayer at St Peter's square on Jan. 26, 2014 at the Vatican.

Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, children released balloons instead of doves. “Here's the balloons that mean, ‘peace,’ ” said Francis as children in St. Peter’s square let go of their balloons, reports the Associated Press. Pope John Paul II was the one who began the tradition of having children release doves. The Vatican has not said whether Sunday’s actions should be read as an end to that tradition.

Jan. 24 2015 11:51 AM

Japanese Hostage Shown Beheaded in Alleged ISIS Video

A video posted on Twitter accounts that have known links to ISIS shows one of the Japanese hostages holding a photograph of his beheaded compatriot as the terror group makes demands for a prisoner exchange, reports the Site Intelligence Group. In the video, war correspondent Kenji Goto pleads for his life as he holds a photograph that appears to show a beheaded Haruna Yukawa, and says he will be freed if Jordan releases a woman who has been accused of attempting to become a suicide bomber. The video comes four days after ISIS released a video demanding $200 million within 72 hours, notes CNN.

Japanese officials said Saturday they were investigating the video amid disagreements over its authenticity, notes the Associated Press. Many are skeptical because the content of the video appeared to be a broad departure from previously released messages. Rita Katz of Site says “top ISIS followers” insist the video is authentic even though “it didn’t follow the usual style of ISIS releases.”

"This is an outrageous and unacceptable act," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a brief televised statement, reports Reuters. Government ministers immediately convened an emergency meeting.

Jan. 24 2015 11:16 AM

Bill Maher: American Sniper’s Chris Kyle Is a “Psychopath Patriot”—and Country Loves Him

Bill Maher harshly criticized Clint Eastwood’s movie American Sniper, saying that it made the kind of money “superhero movies make” because it’s a simple story of good versus evil that makes Americans feel patriotic. “Hurt Locker made $17 million, because it was a little ambiguous. And thoughtful,” Maher said. “And this one is just ‘American hero, he’s a psychopath patriot and we love him.’ ”

Maher then proceeds to quote several passages from Chris Kyle’s book, which served as inspiration for the movie, in order to prove his point. One of the passages he criticized includes a reference to Iraqis as “savages” and another in which he says that while “war isn’t really fun … I certainly was enjoying it.”

“Eisenhower once said, ‘I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can.’ I just don’t see this guy in the same league as Eisenhower, I’m sorry,” said Maher. “And if you’re a Christian—I know this is a Christian country—‘I hate the damn savages’ doesn’t seem like a very Christian thing to say.”

Guests quickly pushed back, saying that Maher had the wrong impression of the movie. “What I saw was a movie that treats what veterans and soldiers go through in a way that was subtle. It was not just about war, it was about PTSD, it was about what the wives of soldiers go through,” the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens said. Comedian Bill Burr* also pushed back against Maher’s characterization: “You can’t sum up a man by one quote taken out of context.”

All this controversy, of course, is great news for a movie that has already broken records and could make $200 million domestically by the end of its second weekend in the theaters, reports the Wrap.

*Correction, Jan. 26, 2015: This post originally misspelled Bill Burr's name. 

Jan. 24 2015 10:27 AM

Sarah Palin Says She’s Interested in Running for President, Holds Sign Insulting Michael Moore

Former vice-presidential contender Sarah Palin told ABC News that “of course” she is interested in running for president in 2016. “Yeah, I mean, of course, when you have a servant’s heart, when you know that there is opportunity to do all you can to put yourself forward in the name of offering service, anybody would be interested,” Palin said. She was serving boar chili to the homeless at the time. When ABC’s Neal Karlinsky pressed her on the issue, Palin made it clear she really wants a woman in the Republican field. “We definitely had enough of seeing that—American has had enough of seeing that—sign on the Oval Office door saying, 'No Girls Allowed.' I know that.”

It also seems pretty clear Palin is not very happy with the current Republican frontrunners. When asked about the big names seen as the potential GOP frontrunners, including Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, Palin said, “I can’t wait for new energy.” The former Alaska governor insisted that the only way Republicans will beat Hillary Clinton is if there is “a competition and not a coronation” in the GOP camp.

Later, Palin was photographed holding up a poster that reads, “Fuc_ you Michael Moore” with crosshairs for the Os. Sgt. Dakota Meyer, a Medal of Honor recipient, is also in the picture and was the one who posted it on Facebook. “On the surface, this photograph seems rather innocuous,” notes Mediaite’s Andrew Kirell. “But with Palin constantly teasing the possibility that she will one day, maybe, possibly run for office, that’s when you realize a picture like this shows just how poorly she thinks of optics.”