Friday, October 30, 2009

Groundhog Day

Ten stories that appear in the papers again and again, but never seem to actually happen.

“Hamas in talks over releasing Gilad Shalit”

Ever since Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit was taken prisoner in 2006, the militant group Hamas has seemed to delight in dangling the prospect of his release before an anxious Israeli public. Negotiations over Shalit began almost immediately after he was taken. In October 2006, one of the factions holding Shalit reported that they had agreed to Israel's term and were preparing to release Shalit "within days." Similar reports of "progress" in freeing Shalit have popped up in the Israeli media ever since. Things seemed particularly promising in March 2009 when Israeli negotiators seemed close to a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas at Egyptian-moderated talks, but those too broke down. In September 2009, Israel settled for a video of Shalit in exchange for 20 Palestinian prisoners. Hamas seems in no hurry to give up its most valuable prisoner any time soon.

“North Korea to return to negotiating table”
GREG BAKER/Pool/Getty Images

Since withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993, and particularly since the first round of "six-party talks" 10 years later, North Korea has excelled at the art of nuclear brinksmanship -- withdrawing from international negotiations and provoking its enemies through missile tests and hostile rhetoric -- then eventually returning to the table, usually in exchange for concessions and aid.

The sixth round of talks appeared to lead to an agreement in 2007, but North Korea failed to follow through on delivering a full accounting of its nuclear stockpile. Since then, Kim Jong Il has at various points promised to return to the negotiating table. Most recently, Kim told visiting Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao that he would consider returning to multilateral talks in October.

"Pakistan finally getting tough with Taliban"

It has long been global conventional wisdom that Pakistan's military is far more preoccupied with its security concerns in Kashmir than in routing the country's Islamist insurgency. But dating back to at least the raid on the Lal Masjid mosque in 2007, U.S. observers have sought out reasons to declare that Pakistan was finally "getting tough," or "getting serious" on terror.

President Obama has welcomed Pakistan's apparent growing recognition that "their biggest threat right now comes internally," and journalists like the Washington Post's David Ignatius have praised Pakistan's "savvy" offensives in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan. Trouble is, the insurgency shows no signs of letting up and the Pakistani military is not exactly falling in line with U.S. security goals.

"Israel preparing military strike against Iran"

In December 2005, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered his military to prepare for the possibility of a strike on Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities, saying, "We have the ability to deal with this and we're making all the necessary preparations to be ready for such a situation."

Since then it's been regularly reported that Israel was preparing an "imminent" military strike against Iranian facilities, along the lines of its 1981 attack against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. Many thought such a strike would occur while Israel still had the "green light" from the Bush administration but the Israeli government's warnings have disappeared away with Obama in office. "Under no circumstances should any option be removed from the table," Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned last week.

"Honduras rivals appear close to deal"
Win McNamee/Getty Images

This is a newcomer on the list, but seems to have the potential for endless repetition. Since the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, in June, his supporters have been "close to a deal" a number of times, according to mediators from the United Nations and Organization of American States.

On Oct. 14, it was reported that the two sides agreed on "nearly everything". Everything that is, except the main thing that they're negotiating in the first place: whether or not Zelaya will return to the presidency. Neither Zelaya nor interim President Roberto Micheletti appears willing to compromise, so it seems a safe bet the standoff will continue into the foreseeable future.

"Dollar to be replaced as global reserve currency"
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The greenback has had a tough couple of years, no doubt about it. But some seem inordinately fixated on the possibility that the dollar will be replaced as the global reserve currency. China's Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan set off the speculation in March by remarking that it was dangerous for the world to rely on one reserve currency.

Now it seems that every G-8, G-20, or OPEC meeting is another occasion for speculation about the dollar's imminent demise. Proto-blogger Matt Drudge seems particularly fixated on the story. Unfortunately for the dollar fatalists, there's little evidence to suggest that the dollar will be dumped any time soon and it's not even clear that it would be such a bad thing if it did happen.

"New Russian president proposing liberal reforms"

Like his predecessor and benefactor Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev came into office as a mystery. Reformers in Russia and the West hoped that the easygoing lawyer would prove to be a more moderate leader than Putin, now the prime minister, proved to be.

While few doubt Putin's ultimate influence, observers continue to speculate that Medvedev will become "his own man", and thanks to a few speeches declaring the need for liberal reforms and speculating about his own future presidential intentions, Kremlinologists have been quick to declare that the two are not so chummy anymore. But apart from a few token gestures -- meeting with friends of murdered human rights activists instead of dismissing them -- there's little evidence to date that Medvedev's liberal program is anything but cheap talk.

"Fidel Castro is dying"


Sooner or later, retired Cuban dictator Fidel Castro will die. But the leader who has outlived the terms of 11 U.S. presidents also seems to constantly overcome predictions of his imminent death.

The aging leader was first rushed to a hospital in July 2006 with internal bleeding and missed some time at the office but eventually returned (rumors that the leader was on death's door had Cuban Americans dancing in the streets in Miami's Little Havana). Since he stepped down in 2008, rumors about Fidel's health have continued to circulate, but the regime still regularly releases photos of the perpetually tracksuit-clad leader meeting visiting dignitaries and looking -- if a bit worn out -- very much alive.

"Momentum on Doha Round"

In 2001, WTO countries committed to a series of measures to open up their agricultural markets to international trade. Since then, however, progress on implementing the Doha reforms has been hard to find.

Dating back to 2003, talks have fallen apart or stalled every year due to the unwillingness of developing countries to cut their tariffs and the reluctance of rich countries to cut their subsidies. Nonetheless, efforts to salvage the Doha dream continue. At nearly every major international summit, world leaders pledge to make the necessary concessions soon. Most recently, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk predicted "significant breakthroughs in the next few weeks and months." Believe it when you see it.

"Israel and Palestinians reach peace deal"

Perhaps the greatest and saddest of all Groundhog Day headlines. In 1994 Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were jointly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Oslo peace accords and courageously shaking hands on the White House lawn.

Since then, thousands have died on both sides in Israeli military strikes and Palestinian bombings and rocket attacks. Countless summits have taken place during this period, notably the Camp David Summit and the Annapolis Conference. Each time, both sides made bold claims and negotiators -- typically from the United States -- made optimistic predictions. But with the Israelis and Palestinians as far apart as ever, the conflict seems destined to grind on.
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Joshua Keating is deputy Web editor at Foreign Policy.

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