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US year in review: Disturbance abroad, unrest at home

US year in review: Disturbance abroad, unrest at home
In 2014, the U.S. found itself in the middle of major international tumult with unrest brewing at home By Michael Hernandez WASHINGTONIn a year that saw a virus...
In 2014, the U.S. found itself in the middle of major international tumult with unrest brewing at home By Michael Hernandez WASHINGTON In a year that saw a virus ravage West Africa, nationwide protests against police brutality and an extremist group capture land across two sovereign states, the U.S. found itself in the middle of major international tumult with unrest brewing at home. Here are the top 10 events that shaped the US in 2014. 1. Rise of ISIL, assembly of coalition Its rise was as brutal as it was swift. Having already established itself in war-torn Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, expanded east, capturing Iraq’s second largest city, and advancing on the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. As ISIL trapped thousands of members of a minority religious group atop Mt. Sinjar on Aug. 6, the U.S. began airstrikes three days later to avert a possible humanitarian catastrophe. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to step down from power in mid August and the U.S. increased the scope of airstrikes to the area around the seized Mosul Dam. Airstrikes continued throughout Iraq as ISIL sought to maintain its hold on the boundaries of its self-proclaimed caliphate, or Islamic state, amid allegations of mass slaughter, sex crimes, and minority persecution that follow in its wake. The U.S. has conducted more than 1,300 airstrikes against the militants with the help of an international coalition that joined it in striking the militants and in training local security forces to lead the ground assault. How this fight plays out is anyone’s guess, but it is likely to continue to be a major, if not the major, issue of 2015 for the U.S. 2. Russia annexes Crimea, foments unrest in eastern Ukraine Russian President Vladimir Putin’s response to unrest that unseated long-time ally Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in February was an unwavering assertion of Russian authority in the former Soviet Republic. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula on March 21 after a widely discredited referendum on secession from Ukraine. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. and EU suspended Russia’s participation in the G8 and began the first of what would be several rounds of biting economic sanctions. Undeterred, Russia continues to back separatists in the east of the country in a bid to challenge the central government’s authority. President Barack Obama recently signed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, giving him authority to place further sanctions on Russia and supply lethal military aid to the Ukrainian government. Coupled with a dramatic fall in crude oil prices, Russia’s economy has been reduced to tatters, prompting speculation about how it will respond. This Cold War-esque dispute is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. 3. U.S., Cuba end diplomatic stand-off Diplomatic relations between the two neighbors were severed in 1961 after communist rebels deposed Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, leading to a U.S. economic embargo on the island, and an unsuccessful coup attempt against Prime Minister Fidel Castro. Relations never quite recovered. But just weeks before year’s end, the Obama administration announced a diplomatic opening with Cuban President Raul Castro, saying that it would open an embassy in Havana in the coming months, and would ease travel and economic remittance restrictions. That followed a spy swap between the countries, and the release of an American held for five years in Cuba on espionage charges. The administration is likely to face significant congressional resistance to the detente, making any attempt to fully lift the embargo a Herculean task. 4. Ebola ravages West Africa, U.S. ramps up efforts to combat virus at source It began in an isolated village in Guinea, and quickly spread to major cities where it overwhelmed local health responses there, and in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. But it didn’t stop in the region. Thomas Eric Duncan, 42, flew to Dallas from the Liberian capital of Monrovia on Sept. 19 to visit family and friends. He sought medical treatment Sept. 25, but walked away with only antibiotics and painkillers. He was admitted to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Sept. 28 and died 10 days later from the virus. The U.S. rolled out a series of overhauls at airports to screen passengers for the virus following Duncan’s death. His was one of two recorded deaths from the virus in the U.S. Nina Pham, a nurse who treated Duncan, was successfully treated for the virus and met Obama at the White House after being discharged from the hospital. The U.S. ramped up efforts to assist local and international health response efforts, sending more than 3,000 officials from the Centers for Disease Control, USAID, and the military to carry out a number of tasks, including building treatment facilities, training local health care workers and bolster education efforts. To date, the virus has claimed more than 7,000 lives, according to the CDC. 5. Deaths of black men in confrontations with police officers spark protests The Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown in the suburbs of St. Louis ignited demonstrations that persist to this day. At their worst, the protests resulted in mass vandalism to surrounding neighborhoods and a strong-armed police crackdown. At their best, they have shown Americans united against injustice, regardless of race. Calls for justice for Brown, and others like him, have not ceased, but in fact have led to sporadic nationwide protests that have drawn thousands. The lack of an indictment for the police officer in Brown’s case, and in the case of Eric Garner who died from a chokehold when New York police attempted to place him under arrest, only furthered the calls for justice. In December, thousands flooded the nation’s capital with familiar chants of “Black lives matter,” and “I can’t breathe” – Garner’s final words. They demanded lawmakers change laws, and ensure that the government can impartially respond to cases of alleged police brutality. In a disturbing development Dec. 20, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28, shot dead two New York police officers who were sitting in their police car. Brinsley, who posted his intentions on social media shortly before the murders, fatally shot himself while being pursued by police. Rights leaders have denounced his actions, and asked activists to refrain from protests until after the officers' funerals. 6. Israel’s Gaza offensive strains relations Israel’s massive military offensive on the coastal Palestinian enclave in July and August resulted in the deaths of more than 2,000 Palestinians, the majority of which were civilians. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers died, in addition to seven civilians. The death toll led to heavily strained relations between the U.S. and Israel, with Washington issuing some of its tersest denunciations of Israel’s actions. After at least 10 Palestinians died during an Israeli shelling of a UN-run school in Rafah, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the attack “disgraceful,” and said that those who died were “tragically killed.” A separate artillery strike on a girls' school that served as a UN shelter for displaced Palestinians, killed 15 civilians and injured dozens. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan condemned the shelling saying that the U.S. was “extremely concerned” that “Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in UN designated shelters.” More than 3,000 Palestinians were reportedly seeking shelter in the facility when it was attacked. While the U.S. did not apportion blame for the strike at the time, the UN squarely singled out Israel as the aggressor. Relations between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could seldom be described as rosy, but this was a particularly dire chapter in relations between the countries. 7. Iran nuclear talks twice extended Following an agreement reached in principle in late 2013, Iran and negotiators from six world powers, including the U.S., completed a deal Jan. 12 that froze the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The deal aimed at a comprehensive agreement that would assuage international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program within six months. That deadline was far too optimistic. It passed in July, and negotiators agreed to a four-month extension, which again passed without the landmark deal. Negotiators agreed to a seven-month extension in November, with a political agreement set for March 1. Negotiators have expressed optimism that a deal can be reached, but as yet another deadline approaches in three months, uncertainty remains. 8. U.S. ends combat mission in Afghanistan After 13 years of conflict and stabilization efforts, the U.S. is set to end its combat mission in Afghanistan at year’s end. Along with NATO, the U.S. invaded after the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. On Jan. 1, 2015, U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be reduced to 13,000 – down from more than 10 times that number in 2011. The remaining troops will largely adopt an advise and assist mission for Afghan forces in the beleaguered country as the Taliban ramps up efforts to retake control of the country it once ruled. If the group is successful, U.S. efforts to support the central government in Kabul will be for naught. Without a significant combat force ready to adopt an offensive role in support of Afghanistan’s fledgling military forces, the country’s future is anyone’s guess. 9. Midterm elections cement Republican hold on Congress Republicans were predicted to make gains in the midterms but few saw the seismic shift that came when Republicans seized control of the Senate, and tightened their hold on the House of Representatives. In all, Republicans picked up nine seats in the 100-seat Senate, increasing their representation to 54 seats. In the House, Republicans netted an additional 13 seats, bringing their total there at 247 of 435 seats. Obama said that in conversations with Republican congressional leaders, he got the impression “that they are serious about wanting to get some things done." This issue could be the defining factor of Obama’s final two years in office. As he said, “the devil's in the details.” 10. Senate releases report on CIA torture A five-year Senate inquiry into the CIA’s interrogation techniques following the 9/11 terror attacks shed a grisly light on the agency’s program. The report noted that the CIA employed the use of nudity, waterboarding, sleep deprivation for as long as 180 hours, and unnecessary rectal hydration and feeding. There was an account of a prisoner who was chained to a wall in a standing position for 17 days. Some detainees “literally looked like a dog that had been kenneled,” and “cowered” when their cells were opened, said a senior CIA interrogator. Moreover, the Senate report found that the techniques led some detainees to produce fabricated information. And of the 119 prisoners in CIA custody during the time of the program, at least 26 were wrongfully held. The program was halted shortly after Obama assumed office in 2009. As The Anadolu Agency reported, domestic prosecution of those directly responsible for the program is unlikely, but international prosecution is still possible. Notable mentions: While these 10 stories constitute the issues that defined the year, two others are worth briefly reviewing. - NSA reform dies in Senate Following a deluge of information that brought to light expansive data collection programs by the National Security Agency in 2013, Obama announced in January that he would pursue reforms within the agency. He later urged Congress to reform policies regarding the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records but a bill along those lines died in the Senate in November, failing in a 58-42 vote. - Obama goes rogue on immigration Waves of undocumented immigrants, largely children, entering the U.S. illegally over the summer renewed calls for immigration reform. The Senate passed a reform bill in 2013 to overhaul immigration laws, but the Republican-controlled House has since refused to address the matter. Congressional deadlock prompted Obama to bypass lawmakers, and on Nov. 21 he announced an executive action to shield 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation prompting lawmakers to denounce his actions.
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