Campaign Diplomacy: Why America May Take A Harder Line Against Russia

For seven years George W. Bush heaped praise on Vladimir Putin, saying that he had looked into the Russian president's soul and liked what he saw. That was before clashes over U.S. plans to expand NATO's reach into former Soviet territory put some distance between Bush and his "good friend" and provoked talk of a new cold war. Now, as Bush prepares to step down, all of his potential successors are preparing an even harder line on Putin's Russia.

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican John McCain all support the Bush plan to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, an idea angrily rejected by Russia and opposed by U.S. allies like France and Germany. All three contenders, or their advisers, have taken a much harder rhetorical line than Bush, at times almost stretching to pique Putin. Clinton has declared that Putin "doesn't have a soul," and said he "thwarted" a United Nations plan for Kosovo's independence, "attempted to use energy as a political weapon," suppressed freedom and "created a new class of oligarchs." Obama has made few public comments on Putin, but his point man on Russia, political scientist Michael McFaul, says Obama will reach out to Putin while also pressing him much more aggressively on Russia's failures—in the same way Ronald Reagan invited Russia to open to the world and urged Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." Another adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, recently compared Putin to Mussolini. McCain is fiercer still: he has said he wants to kick Russia out of the G8, and called Putin a "revanchist" who has committed "nuclear blackmail" and "cyberattacks" to revive Russian power. He has repeatedly said that he sees in Putin's eyes three letters: "KGB."

Why the special vitriol for Russia? Anatol Lieven, a political scientist at King's College London, says that Clinton and Obama may feel the need to talk tough on the campaign trail to mask a lack of real foreign-policy experience, while McCain's long background could explain an old-fashioned perspective on Russia. The presidential advisers all reflect U.S. conventional wisdom—that Putin has undone the democratic reforms of his pro-American predecessor, Boris Yeltsin—even though Russians remember Yeltsin as a failure (and Reagan as a nemesis). Finally, Russia may be less of an economic and military threat in the long term than China—with an equally bad human-rights record—but that makes it easier to criticize. After all, why provoke a future superpower when tough talk against a rising middle power will do?
Michael Freedman

Big Deals: The Fallout Of Colombia
Free marketers recoiled as rising U.S. protectionism stalled a new trade pact with Colombia in Congress and toppled Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's chief strategist. But the next victim could be a much bigger deal: the faltering Doha round of global trade talks, which had finally been showing some progress. With wealthier nations making a critical concession on agricultural tariffs, European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson had said on April 5 that Doha should be on track to wrap up this spring. Now, experts like Sallie James, a former Doha specialist for the Australian government, says that Colombia dims prospects for Doha. One key: the American president's authority to negotiate deals without congressional meddling expired in June 2007. Congress is no longer compelled to vote within 90 days; it can stall indefinitely. And Colombia shows where Congress's mind is. Stuck at home, in campaign politics.
—Adam B. Kushner

Protofeminism: Blame Oil, Not Islam
The curse of oil, not the ways of Islam, may explain the poor status of women in parts of the Middle East and North Africa. In a new study reviewing four decades of data from 169 countries, UCLA political scientist Michael Ross finds that oil money clogs the paths that have allowed women to advance in other developing societies, from India to Morocco. Typically, women enter the work force in manufacturing jobs, then independent income allows them influence in the home. They also rise in politics, as factory settings give them a place to organize and governments recognize their growing economic clout.

Not so in oil states, where petrodollars raise the value of local currency, making imports cheap and stifling local production. As oil wealth drives up wages, there's also less pressure for women to earn a second income.

Islamic countries tend to have high occupational segregation and lower rates of female education, but oil sharpens the divide. Compared with petrol states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, oil-poor nations like Syria and Djibouti have a greater share of women in the work force (30 percent vs. 5 percent) and Parliament (9 percent vs. 3 percent). The contrast becomes clearer in culturally similar neighbors with discrepant levels of oil income per capita, like Algeria ($937 per capita, with 6 percent of parliamentary seats held by women) and Tunisia ($61 and 22 percent). As Ross writes, "Petroleum perpetuates patriarchy."
—Katie Baker

The International Monetary Fund predicts that unemployment will rise sharply in the United States but decline slightly in Europe and Asia, where domestic demand and petrodollars will insulate economies from the crisis.

35.9 Estimated percentage increase in unemployment rate by 2009, United States

0Estimated percentage increase in unemployment rate by 2009, Japan and Britain

4.8 Estimated percentage decrease in unemployment rate by 2009, France

9 Estimated percentage decrease in unemployment rate by 2009, South Korea

Gambling: Go Ahead, Make Their Day
There's obvious allure in a film like the current box-office hit "21," a sexed-up account of the MIT students who took Las Vegas for millions at the blackjack tables in the 1990s. Like the nonfiction book it's based on—Ben Mezrich's "Bringing Down the House"—the film glamorizes card counting, the practice of tracking dealt cards to gain an edge over the house. The idea seems to be, if you can count to 10, you can be a millionaire.

No one's embraced the film more warmly than Vegas. "Casinos were lining up to host the premiere," says Jeff Ma, who led the MIT team and appears in "21." Why would casinos like a movie that shows them getting scammed? Because card counting isn't nearly as easy as "21" makes it look—and Vegas is happy to let you learn that the hard way. "This movie is great for Vegas. It perpetuates the myth that blackjack is beatable," says Ma.

Card counting's not a total sham: when the count is favorable, meaning the deck is full of 10s and face cards, the advantage shifts to the player. But mastering the count takes intense concentration and practice. Most aspiring counters will need several years of table time before they're good enough to make money. And that's assuming they're not caught—counting isn't illegal, but casinos will boot you out if they discover you trying it.

Casinos are taking increasing countermeasures, like dealing from an eight-deck shoe and reshuffling earlier and more often. Insiders say that major houses employ retired card counters to identify active ones, and use facial-recognition software to stop known counters before they place their bets. "If the game doesn't make money for a casino, they won't offer it," says David G. Schwartz, of the University of Nevada's Center for Gaming Research. The fact that they haven't stopped with blackjack says a lot about your chances.
—Tony Dokoupil

Listening Room: Covering Britney
If you're like me, you've had that song from the MacBook Air commercial—the one with the plinky piano, the trombones and the singer who sounds like Feist but isn't Feist—stuck in your head since the ad first aired in January. The single, "New Soul," is so infectious that it's already sold 620,000 copies on iTunes; the singer, Yael Naim, released her self-titled album on March 18, two months ahead of schedule, to capitalize on the momentum. Naim grew up in Tel Aviv, lives in Paris, sings in Hebrew, French and English, and collaborates with West Indian multi-instrumentalist David Donatien. Only someone with that kind of cultural hodgepodge could pull off, without a hint of irony, her album's best song, which is not "New Soul." It's a transfixing version of Britney Spears's hit "Toxic"—an airy jewelry-box jangle, simple and sweet, without any tedious art-house overtones. Naim's distinctive accent (as opposed to Spears's girlish, nasal delivery) dignifies the lyrics: "With a taste of your lips, I'm on a ride, you're toxic, I'm slipping under." This interpretation gives new life to the ghosts of Britney's past—and dimension to Apple's latest flavor of the month.
—Jac Chebatoris

Fast Chat: The First Poet Of Punk
The film director Michael Almereyda (Ethan Hawke's "Hamlet") has assembled a new collection of poetry, "Night Wraps the Sky," by Vladimir Mayakovsky, a Russian futurist who shot himself in 1935 after becoming disillusioned with communism. Adam B. Kushner chatted with Almereyda:

Is Mayakovsky important today?
Mayakovsky was a precursor to performance art, punk and even rap. And there are fundamental qualities in his poetry— conscience and compassion—that still feel urgent.

A Russian futurist is a proto-punker?
He had an anything-goes attitude, but also a hopefulness, rooted in the punkish idea that you can sweep everything away and start clean.

How do Russians regard him today?
Stalin embraced Mayakovsky after his suicide, issuing a proclamation that a failure to appreciate Mayakovsky is a crime. So Russians were force-fed Mayakovsky, and they developed a distaste for him. Decades later, there's a reawakening.

Campaign Diplomacy: Why America May Take A Harder Line Against Russia | World