Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou hasn't exactly saved Europe, but could anyone have done much better?
Papandreou delivers a speech to the Panhellenic Socialist Movement parliamentary group in Athens / Reuters
This has not been Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou's best week. First he surprised a bunch of people -- including fellow European leaders who were bailing his country out -- by announcing a referendum on whether or not the help would be accepted. Then, in the resulting furor, came the next announcement: Just kidding! The referendum, which some feared could add that extra bit of instability that Europe doesn't need, has been cancelled.
If the first move made him look undiplomatic -- unmindful of the stakes, or the incredible risks that other countries were making on Greece's behalf -- the second move, especially because it was first announced by his finance minister, made him look weak. But his irritated allies are only part of the problem: Papandreou is now inches away from being ousted at home, facing a very tight confidence vote Friday evening. Reuters is reporting Papandreou saying privately, in a cabinet meeting, that he might stand down after building a coalition with the opposition. If he doesn't do that, his opponents might simply call for an election.
And yet, surveying the wreckage, one still wonders: did Papandreou do any worse than anyone else might have done in his position? Was he doomed from the start?
It's a familiar debate in politics and an even more familiar one among historians. Which counts for more: men or circumstances? Choices, or the framework that determines them? Papandreou came into power promising reform, and that's exactly what his government set about trying to enact. It was hardly their fault that, in the course of setting the books straight, they found that predecessors had lied for years about the government's finances.
It's hard to see how anyone could have gracefully navigated through the competing interests in Greece and Europe right now. Greek citizens are having none of the austerity measures Papandreou has imposed under pressure from Germany: aside from protests in the streets, there have been, for example, the trash collector strikes, leaving garbage in stinking piles all over Athens. Plenty of citizens seem to think the strings-attached bailouts from Europe are pointless, as Greece will have to default anyway. Meanwhile the European community wants more discipline still. And it needs Greece to take the money on the table: fears are rampant about a domino effect, Greece's troubles are increasing investors' fears about Italy, and so forth.
It's not quite that all of Papandreou's European peers want one thing while all of his constituents want another. Plenty of Papandreou's own party members, for example, were outraged by his referendum idea, feeling he risked Greek stability for a political trick. Reuters, at least, tracked down an ordinary shopkeeper with the same opinion.
As the BBC points out, despite anger over austerity measures, "A recent opinion poll in a newspaper showed 70% [of Greeks] wanted to remain within the eurozone."
But that, actually, was precisely Papandreou's point, many say, in calling for the referendum. One popular reading of the referendum gimmick is, as The Wall Street Journal's Terence Roth put it, that Papandreou's "solution" to opposition intransigence and public outcry was to "call the bluff." In other words, what he was really saying was something like: 'Okay, guys. You really want to sink this ship? Sink it. I dare you. And if you don't, shut up.'
It's too soon to tell for sure, but it looks like that may have backfired big time. Here's the quote from Antonis Samaras, leader of the opposing New Democracy party:
I am wondering: Mr. Papandreou almost destroyed Greece and Europe, the euro, the international stock markets, his own party in order to ensure what? So that he could blackmail me and the Greek public? Or to ensure what I had already said several days ago; that I accept the bailout agreement as unavoidable?
Not exactly an ideal sound bite to have on the airwaves.
So we'll see what happens with this confidence vote tonight. At least one expert -- Michael Thumann, writing out of Istanbul for German paper Die Zeit -- thinks Papandreou's finished regardless of the outcome. He calls this week's 180-degree turns "suicidal."
Perhaps that's true. If so, the real verdict won't come tonight, but a few decades down the line, and even then there will be a degree of provisionality. With a little more context, will historians decide the decisive factor was the hand Papandreou was dealt, or the way he played it? After all, people do stupid, suicidal things with bad hands all the time, and it looks a lot like boldness and brilliance if it works. But in politics as in poker, people tend to care less about strategy than outcome.
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Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
As the world frets over Greece, a separate crisis looms in China.
This summer has not been calm for the global economy. In Europe, a Greek referendum this Sunday may determine whether the country will remain in the eurozone. In North America, meanwhile, the governor of Puerto Rico claimed last week that the island would be unable to pay off its debts, raising unsettling questions about the health of American municipal bonds.
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That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
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In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
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1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
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The referendum—which asks Greeks to either vote yes or no to a current proposal from Eurogroup leaders to extend financing to the deeply indebted country— was called for by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras amid meetings of Eurozone leaders as they tried to come up with a deal that would allow the country to avoid default. The call for a vote effectively ended discussions.
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