What We're Watching: Iraq's PM at the White House, France's vaccine passport, US bombs the Taliban

U.S. President Joe Biden SPEAKS with Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi during a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., July 26, 2021.

Iraqi PM's face-to-face with Biden: Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq's prime minister, met with President Biden at the White House Monday to discuss the future of US troops in Iraq. The US still has about 2,500 troops stationed in Iraq to engage in "counterterrorism" operations and train Iraqi forces. In an interview published this week, al-Kadhimi called for the withdrawal of all US combat troops, because, he said, Iraqi forces have proven capable of fighting ISIS militants on their own. (Just last week, some 30 Iraqis were killed when ISIS militants attacked a busy Baghdad market.) Al-Kadhimi still wants non-combat US troops to stay on in a training capacity. He became PM in 2020 as a consensus candidate after nationwide protests over corruption and joblessness forced the resignation of the unpopular previous government. At least 500 protesters were killed during a crackdown by Iraqi security forces, fueling demands for fresh elections, which are set to take place this October. The green PM has a tough job: he has to juggle relations with the Biden administration, which just pledged $155 million in aid to Iraq, and ties with Tehran, an influential player in Iraqi politics. (Iraq relies on Iran for energy imports, and Iran-backed militias inside Iraq are a force to be reckoned with.) Local sentiment has soured on the US presence as Iraqis resent being caught in the middle of US-Iran fights inside Iraqi territory.


France's vaccine passport: Despite noisy protests from tens of thousands of people in Paris and across France over the weekend, France's parliament on Monday approved a law on vaccination against COVID. As of August 1, people will need proof of vaccination, or a negative COVID test, to enter restaurants, bars, and other gathering places. As of September 15, any healthcare worker who has not been vaccinated is subject to suspension (but not firing) from work. These new rules will expire on November 15. France's constitutional court has not yet ruled on this law. Despite the show of anger in the streets, President Emmanuel Macron stands on firm political ground on this issue. A poll published in France two weeks ago found that more than three-quarters of those surveyed favored required vaccination for health workers, and a majority supported the passport for public venues. Since Macron announced this plan on July 12, the percentage of fully vaccinated people in France has jumped eight points to 48 percent.

US steps up Taliban strikes: As the Taliban continue to make significant territorial gains across Afghanistan, the US military changed tack in recent days, stepping up air raids against Taliban strongholds in coordination with Afghan security forces. This comes as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is almost complete. Tellingly, the Pentagon also acknowledged over the weekend that it was impossible to stave off Taliban advancements in many places and that the Afghan army should "choose its battles" and prioritize the security of certain population areas, like Kabul, the capital. Last month, the US military warned that Afghanistan could fall under complete Taliban control within six months of the US withdrawal, and trends already look dire: More than 270,000 Afghans have fled their homes this year as the security situation deteriorates. Still, the White House says the US could wrap up its withdrawal as soon as next month.

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Visa is well known all over the world, but how well? Many have long misunderstood it as a credit card company, but Visa is actually a network—working behind the scenes, connecting just about everyone to just about everyone else, so more of us can play a part in this commerce thing. Visa helps people and small and big businesses alike move money around the world. And it works to open doors—and change minds about what makes a business, a business. It's a network working for everyone. That's way more than a piece of plastic.

Meet Visa

Germany's historic moment of choice is finally here, and voters will stream to the polls on Sunday for the country's first post-World War II vote without a national leader seeking re-election. They will elect new members of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. The leader of the party that wins the most seats will then try to secure a majority of seats by drawing other parties into a governing partnership. He or she will then replace Angela Merkel as Germany's chancellor.

If the latest opinion polls are right, the center-left Social Democrats will finish first. In coming weeks, they look likely to form a (potentially unwieldy) governing coalition with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democrats, which would be Germany's first-ever governing alliance of more than two parties.

Change?

Though he's a man of the center-left, Olaf Scholz, current finance minister and most likely next chancellor, wouldn't represent a radical break from Merkel. He's among the more fiscally frugal of Germany's Social Democrats, and after decades in German politics, he's an experienced technocrat and a skilled manager of political alliances.

Nor would a change in government radically shift Germany's foreign and trade policies. Its new government, whoever it includes, will keep strong security ties with the United States and NATO and protect opportunities to expand economic relations with China. Germany's dependence on Russian energy will demand a continuation of Merkel's pragmatic approach to Vladimir Putin's government.

Scholz's conviction that a strong and cohesive EU is good for Germany will limit any temptation to get tougher with the governments of Poland and Hungary over their violations of EU rules and principles. And aware that COVID can widen gaps between richer and poorer EU countries, and that anti-EU economic populism remains a potent force in Italy and elsewhere, he's likely to support a generous approach to pandemic recovery in southern Europe.

But climate policy, an area where Merkel concedes she should have done more, will be an important and interesting story to watch. Given its leadership within the EU and its standing as the world's fourth largest economy, the influence of Germany's next government on climate policy will be crucial to global climate strategies. A new German government with Scholz as chancellor will likely push the pace of transition from carbon to renewable energy, at least in part because the Green Party coalition partner will push for this as hard as it can. The Greens must show progress on the climate front to maintain political credibility and popularity. If the Free Democrats are indeed part of the coalition, they'll push hard to limit tax increases to pay for tougher climate action, but they won't blow up the coalition that gives them a seat at Germany's governing table.

Merkel's legacy

Even in a country that values stability and continuity, Angela Merkel's 16-year run is remarkable. More than once she's proved the maxim that it's not the smartest or strongest who survives, but the one most adaptable to change. Merkel is smart and strong, to be sure, but she'll be remembered longest – by both devoted admirers and bitter critics – as the leader who insisted Germany could and should do more to help indebted countries survive Europe's sovereign debt crisis (2010-12) and to manage the surge of migrants that followed unrest in the Middle East (2015-16). Her improvisational talents also led her to change tack on nuclear power (after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan) and on common European debt.

But the main reason Merkel leaves power with an 80 percent approval rating is that, whether she receives more credit than she deserves, she has presided over a period of economic expansion and prosperity in Germany that few other world leaders can match. It's all the more remarkable then that her party looks set to find itself in opposition once a new government is formed. It's Merkel that German voters like, not her political family.

Bottom-line: Whatever he accomplishes as Germany's next chancellor, Olaf Scholz will find Angela Merkel a tough act to follow.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen a lot during her 16 years in power. She's navigated a global economic recession, multiple wars in the Middle East which sparked an EU refugee crisis, and now a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Often the only woman in the room, Merkel has had to learn to tactfully deal with dozens of idiosyncratic world leaders. Many have come and gone since 2005, but Merkel has won elections again and again. We take a look at who she's dealt with from the top five democracies (by economic size) throughout her tenure.

In May 2020, economic historian Adam Tooze told GZERO World he feared 1 in 5 American workers could still be out of job now due to COVID. It didn't happen. Why? Tooze says he failed to anticipate how quickly we'd get highly effective vaccines, and the scale of the economic stimulus the government was willing to put up. During the 2008 financial crisis, he explains, "we were still beginning to flex our muscles with regards to economic policy, and the scale of fiscal and monetary stimulus that we've seen is as unprecedented as the shock of the spring of last year."

Watch Tooze's interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television starting Friday 9/23/21. Check local listings.

Will Evergrande be China's Lehman Bros? Chinese authorities are bracing for the increasingly likely default of Evergrande, the country's most indebted property developer. If Evergrande — a gargantuan corporation with properties in 200 cities across China — stiffs its creditors, that'll send shockwaves throughout the country's financial system, and the wider Chinese economy and society. The possible ripple effects on home buyers and countless companies and individuals that do business with or are owed money by Evergrande have invited comparisons with Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank whose 2008 collapse triggered an American financial crisis that quickly spread to the entire world. Although in principle authoritarian China has ways of containing the fallout, the potential for social unrest is real — and opacity could make it worse. More broadly, the demise of such a big player in the country's once-booming real estate market, which accounts for over 7 percent of GDP, would expose the shaky foundations of China's debt-driven economic growth model, eroding confidence in China both at home and abroad.

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Betrayal. Treason. Duplicity. These are some of the words used by the French government to describe the US' recent decision to freeze Paris out of a new security pact with the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, which nixed a contract for Australia to buy French submarines.

Macron's subsequent tough stance against one of its oldest and closest allies is unusual, including his decision to briefly recall the French ambassador from Washington, the first time a French president has done so. But this headstrong strategy is also a deliberate diplomatic choice.

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43: Eight months into the job, US President Biden's approval rating has hit a new low of 43 percent, a six-point drop since August. Of all the US presidents elected since World War II, only Donald Trump had a lower approval rating at this stage of his presidency. It sure looks like Biden's honeymoon period is over.

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