14 Sep

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective


President’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and criticism of EU has won him plaudits at home and in neighbouring countries, but raises questions for rest of Europe

Czech President Milos Zeman attends a press conference at the Prague Castle.

Czech President Milos Zeman attends a press conference at the Prague Castle. Photograph: Matej Divizna/Getty Images

In Prague’s magnificent ninth-century castle, once the seat of power to Holy Roman emperors, Miloš Zeman has a mundane preoccupation sharply at odds with the grandeur of his surroundings.

“Do you smoke?” asks the Czech Republic’s president, lighting the first of several cigarettes during an interview with the Guardian at his sumptuous official residence overlooking the city.

“Unfortunately the smokers are a discriminated minority and we are persecuted in all hotels, all restaurants, everywhere,” he continues indignantly, defending a habit he once dismissed as harmless if not started before the age of 27. “It is like in the case of the [American] prohibition. Whiskey as a consequence was more expensive and very low quality. And now smoking is also nearly prohibited.”

The contradiction of modern scientific orthodoxy seems a far cry from the moral authority exuded by one of his predecessors, the late Václav Havel, a former anti-communist dissident who was the Czech Republic’s first president following the 1992 breakup of Czechoslovakia.

Yet it is typical of the unabashed advocacy of traditional mores and popular pastimes that Zeman has made his trademark since becoming his country’s first directly elected head of state in 2013.

Last year, the president – whose drinking exploits, including occasionally appearing to be inebriated in public, have become legendary – stirred controversy by wishing “death to abstainers and vegetarians” during a meeting with winemakers.

His spokesman insisted he was referring to Adolf Hitler, a renowned teetotaller who did not eat meat. Whatever the truth, it was undoubtedly popular with Zeman’s working-class supporters, predominantly based in the provinces far removed from cultured, cosmopolitan Prague.

Such earthy folksiness resonates even further, however – beyond the borders of the Czech Republic and with potentially important consequences for Europe’s future. It strikes a powerful chord in neighbouring Slovakia, Hungary and Poland which, together with the Czech Republic, make up the Visegrád group of countries. This potent eastern European populism is likely to be on full display when the European Union’s members gather in Bratislava, the Slovak capital, on Friday for the first summit since Britain’s Brexit vote.

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Foreign affairs committee says ex-PM was responsible for failures that helped create failed state on the verge of civil war

David Cameron addresses the crowds in Benghazi, Libya, following 2011’s military operations against Muammar Gaddafi.

David Cameron addresses a crowd in Benghazi, Libya. Photograph: Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters

David Cameron’s intervention in Libya was carried out with no proper intelligence analysis, drifted into an unannounced goal of regime change and shirked its moral responsibility to help reconstruct the country following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, according to a scathing report by the foreign affairs select committee.

The failures led to the country becoming a failed a state on the verge of all-out civil war, the report adds.

The report, the product of a parliamentary equivalent of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, closely echoes the criticisms widely made of Tony Blair’s intervention in Iraq, and may yet come to be as damaging to Cameron’s foreign policy legacy.

It concurs with Barack Obama’s assessment that the intervention was “a shitshow”, and repeats the US president’s claim that France and Britain lost interest in Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown. The findings are also likely to be seized on by Donald Trump, who has tried to undermine Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy credentials by repeatedly condemning her handling of the Libyan intervention in 2011, when she was US secretary of state.

Libya is currently mired in political and economic chaos with competing factions fighting for control of the key oil terminals and no nationwide support for the UN-recognised government based in Tripoli. Tens of thousands of refugees are entering the country with impunity from the rest of Africa and sailing to Europe on perilous journeys.

Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, who chairs the select committee, said the original aim of the military intervention to protect Benghazi was achieved within 24 hours.

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  • Deal represents largest batch of US military assistance to any country ever
  • Israel’s ability to spend part of funds on Israeli products to be phased out
A bomb dropped by a US-supplied Israeli air force F-16 jet explodes in the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip, on 3 January 2009.

A bomb dropped by a US-supplied Israeli air force F-16 jet explodes in the Palestinian city of Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip, on 3 January 2009. Photograph: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

The US will will give the Israeli military $38bn over the next decade in what Washington described as the biggest package of military assistance in its history.

The military deal which will be signed in Washington on Wednesday includes an estimated $5bn for missile defence. Under the previous deal, the US provided Israel with $30bn over a 10-year period, although the actual funds delivered over that time period were about $35bn as Israel sought additional funds from the US Congress. Congress had previously funded Israel’s missile defence spending.

Under the new deal, Israel would not be able to solicit extra money from Capitol Hill. In other conditions placed on the new memorandum of understanding, Israel would no longer be allowed to spend over a quarter of the military aid on home-produced weaponry, and would instead be required the full amount on US arms. Nor would it be able to spend any of the aid on fuel for its armed forces.

Disagreements over these limitations delayed completion of the new deal, which has been under negotiation for 10 months.

Talks were also prolonged when the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, suspended discussions in protest at a nuclear deal the US and other major powers agreed with Iran last July.

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Sealed Wisconsin court documents from Scott Walker investigation expose extent of corporate influence on democratic process rarely seen by the public

Scott Walker

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker holds up a dollar bill while speaking at the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2015. Photograph: Denis Poroy/AP

The pervasive influence of corporate cash in the democratic process, and the extraordinary lengths to which politicians, lobbyists and even judges go to solicit money, are laid bare in sealed court documents leaked to the Guardian.

The John Doe files amount to 1,500 pages of largely unseen material gathered in evidence by prosecutors investigating alleged irregularities in political fundraising. Last year the Wisconsin supreme court ordered that all the documents should be destroyed, though a set survived that has now been obtained by the news organisation.

The files open a window on a world that is very rarely glimpsed by the public, in which millions of dollars are secretly donated by major corporations and super-wealthy individuals to third-party groups in an attempt to sway elections. They speak to a visceral theme of the 2016 presidential cycle: the distortion of American democracy by big business that has been slammed by both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

In a case that is the subject of a petition currently in front of the US supreme court, five Wisconsin prosecutors carried out a deep investigation into what they suspected were criminal campaign-finance violations by the campaign committee of Scott Walker, Wisconsin governor and former Republican presidential candidate. Known as the “John Doe investigation”, the inquiry has been a lightning rod for bitter disputes between conservatives and progressives for years.

In July 2015 the state’s supreme court halted the investigation, saying the prosecutors had misunderstood campaign finance law and as a result had picked on people and groups “wholly innocent of any wrongdoing”. Highly unusually, the court also ordered that all the evidence assembled by the prosecutors be destroyed and later held under seal.

Among the documents are several court filings from the case, as well as hundreds of pages of email exchanges obtained by the prosecutors under subpoena. The emails involve conversations concerning Walker, his top aides, conservative lobbyists, and leading Republican figures such as Karl Rove and the chair of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus.

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First legal challenge of its kind in the US says Michigan has disinvested in education in Detroit to the point that children lack fundamental tools to learn

Andrea Jackson, counselor and parent at Osborn Evergreen Academy, with student Jamarria Hall, Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel, and Michael Kelly, partner at Sidley Austin LLP,

Andrea Jackson, counselor and parent at Osborn Evergreen Academy, with student Jamarria Hall, Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel, and Michael Kelly, partner at Sidley Austin LLP, Photograph: Public Counsel

Jamarria Hall can’t stomach walking into his high school on Detroit’s east side some days. The classrooms are hot, water fountains don’t work and only 2.2% of students last year achieved college-ready scores in reading and English.

“It doesn’t even feel like school,” said Hall, a senior at Osborn Evergreen Academy of Design and Alternative Energy. “It makes my stomach hurt just walking into the facility, knowing we’re basically getting cheated – really, getting robbed – of education.”

A federal civil rights lawsuit filed on Tuesday aims to challenge Hall’s educational system by asserting a constitutional right to literacy, in what attorneys say is the first legal challenge of its kind in the US. The 133-page complaint says the state of Michigan has disinvested in education in Detroit so much that children lack fundamental access to literacy.

Hall, 16, said he has friends who can’t read “but it’s not because they aren’t smart, it’s because the state has failed them”.

Proficiency rates in core subject areas are near-zero at the schools where the seven students named in the complaint attend, the complaint says.

“Absent literacy, a child has no way to obtain knowledge, communicate with the world, or participate in the institutions and activities of citizenship,” said Mark Rosenbaum, director of the opportunity under law project of Public Counsel, which is filing the lawsuit.

Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe, who is not involved in the litigation, said he expects the lawsuit will make history, “much as Brown v Board of Education did”.

“The legal theory underlying the suit is both creative and rock-solid,” he said, “and Mark Rosenbaum’s legal team is nothing short of extraordinary.”

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Kaepernick (right) alonside teammate Eric Reid kneel for the US national anthem.

Kaepernick (right) alonside teammate Eric Reid kneel for the US national anthem. Photograph: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

On 26 August, in a pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers, American football player Colin Kaepernick chose to sit during the national anthem rather than stand with his hand over his heart, as is traditional. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick said after the game. He would continue to sit during the anthem, he added, until the flag “represents what it’s supposed to represent”. (He has since amended his protest and will be kneeling rather than sitting in future games, to show deference to military servicemen and veterans.)

The rest of the nation, predictably, dissolved into a sustained, histrionic, toddler-who-missed-his-nap meltdown (our national pastime), which is still going strong three weeks later.

Kaepernick, rightwingers insisted, had insulted the country, the flag, the special magic song about the flag, every person who has ever served in the US military, every person who has ever watched a movie about the US military, all of their grandmas, and your grandma too. Deep in his tomb in Mount Vernon, George Washington shed a single, fat, wooden tear. Clack.

(Did you know that Frances Scott Key didn’t even write the music to The Star Spangled Banner, by the way? He just took an existing song and changed the words to make them about flags and then got all the credit. He’s basically a 19th-century Weird Al Yankovic, if Weird Al wasn’t funny and owned slaves.)

The planet is melting and we are a hair’s breadth from electing a bona-fide white supremacist to the White House but my country decided to pause this cornucopia of national emergencies to discuss whether or not a professional football player should make his body into a bendy line instead of a straight one during a ritual celebrating a government that summarily executes men like him in the streets. Sure! America!

Some athletes joined Kaepernick’s protest in solidarity; others critiqued him harshly. Celebrities and politicians weighed in on both sides. The hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick trended on Twitter. Preening white blowhards – who apparently just have $79 lying around! – took to Facebook to film themselves burning their ($79!) Kaepernick jerseys with buffoonish gravitas.

Kaepernick’s social media feeds were choked with death threats and racial slurs. The woman who gave him up for adoption when he was an infant popped out of the woodwork to tweet, “There’s ways to make change w/o disrespecting & bringing shame to the very country & family who afforded you so many blessings” – a sentiment lauded by many, the perpetual whine of the white moderate.

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