Editorials of The Times

Posted June 13, 2018 11:33 p.m. EDT

Macedonia by Another Name

Anyone who thinks it is trivial to rename the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” as the “Republic of North Macedonia" best avoid traveling through the Balkans. In that maze of fierce and ancient grudges, using the wrong name can be very, very dangerous.

That is one reason Matthew Nimetz, a 78-year-old American diplomat, has dedicated more than 20 years to mediating a resolution of what must be one of the world’s most arcane, yet most intractable, disputes. And that is why Nimetz so warmly welcomed the agreement on a new name finally reached on Tuesday between the prime ministers of Macedonia and Greece.

The dispute goes back to the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and the declaration of independence by one of its constituent republics as the “Republic of Macedonia.” Greece erupted in fury. To Greeks, “Macedonia” is not only the name of an important northern province but a centerpiece of their glorious antiquity when it was a great kingdom ruled by Philip II and Alexander the Great. The “Macedonians” of Yugoslavia were Slavs, not Greeks, they argued; their claim to the name was in effect a claim to Greek lands and Greek identity. A million Greeks went into the streets of Thessaloniki to protest in 1992 and there have been large periodic protests since.

So to get into the United Nations, the new country had to settle for a seat as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” contracted to a humiliating “FYROM.” That was not the end of it — Macedonians refused to be seated among the “Fs,” and Greece refused to let them seat with the “Ms,” so they ended up with the “T’s"— “The FYROM.” Still, Greece continued to block them from NATO and the European Union.

Macedonia (the former Yugoslav one) retaliated by demonstratively claiming to be the real heir of Alexander the Great. They named their airport and a major highway after him, and raised a gigantic statue in the center of the capital, Skopje, further fanning Greek fury.

From a safe distance, it might have seemed a local clash of competing myths (Bulgaria has its own version, but that doesn’t figure into the name dispute). But when tempers rise in the Balkans, history teaches that there is no safe distance (see: World War I and the war in Kosovo). So it was that in 1994, Nimetz began trying to resolve the name game, first as then-President Bill Clinton’s special envoy and then as the personal envoy of the U.N. secretary general.

His opening came when the left-leaning Zoran Zaev became prime minister of Macedonia a year ago. He is, like Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece, an anti-nationalist. Nimetz intensified his mediation, trying one adjective after another until both prime ministers agreed on “Northern.” Congratulations poured in from all sides.

They may be premature. Nationalists in both Greece and Macedonia remain opposed to any compromise. Zaev has promised to put the name to a referendum, while Tsipras’ right-wing coalition partner said it would oppose the agreement in Parliament. They would do far better to join Nimetz in celebrating “a period of enhanced relations,” and what could be the best real deal of the week.

Trump Gambles and Loses on AT&T

President Donald Trump’s chilling campaign to politicize the Justice Department ran into a rebuke Tuesday as a federal judge broadly rejected the government’s attempt to block AT&T’s $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner. Appearing to pander to the president’s hostility to much of the news media, the department’s antitrust division embraced a radical legal strategy that backfired, depriving every American of the oversight that such a far-reaching merger required.

Tuesday’s ruling will probably unleash a new wave of deal-making on Wall Street, in Hollywood and in Silicon Valley. As the media, telecommunications and technology industries continue to reshape themselves and the lives of billions of people around the world, the consistent and fair application of American competition policy remains essential to foster innovation and the interests of consumers. One can only hope that in the wake of Tuesday’s defeat, federal authorities return to the principles that helped the United States become the world’s engine of creative invention.

Trump’s antagonism toward the news media — particularly CNN, one of Time Warner’s crown jewels — is one of the defining aspects of his political identity. Hours before AT&T and Time Warner announced their deal in October 2016, then-candidate Trump vowed that his administration would block it.

And yet once the Justice Department actually sued AT&T last November to stop the merger, the administration insisted the president had nothing to do with it. The official line was that the White House had no contact with the department’s antitrust division about the deal and did not influence its decision to sue.

Leave it to Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, to baldly contradict the White House’s story and reveal the truth. “The president denied the merger,” Giuliani told HuffPost. “They didn’t get the result they wanted.”

Giuliani eventually attempted to walk back his statement (without actually retracting it), but the damage had been done. The prospect that the administration has been using antitrust law to punish the president’s opponents while rewarding those he views as friends is alarming.

The AT&T-Time Warner merger has certainly required close scrutiny. Through its cable and satellite DirecTV operations, AT&T is the nation’s No. 1 pay-television provider, with more than 25 million subscribers. (Comcast is second, with about 23 million cable customers.) AT&T is also the No. 2 wireless carrier, behind Verizon. Time Warner, meanwhile, controls some of the most popular television networks, including HBO, TBS and TNT, in addition to CNN. The prime concern is that a combined AT&T-Time Warner could jack up the rates it charges other TV distributors for content, increasing prices for consumers.

In antitrust lingo, this deal represents a classic example of vertical integration: The companies have a “vertical” relationship where one company — Time Warner’s networks and studios — supplies the other — AT&T’s distribution operations. However, the two companies’ main businesses do not compete with each other and so a merger would not reduce the number of competitors in any particular market.

By contrast, deals like T-Mobile’s $26.5 billion agreement to acquire Sprint announced in April are known as horizontal mergers. The two companies are direct competitors in the wireless phone market and their combination would reduce the number of primary national wireless carriers from four to three.

The suit to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner was a suspiciously sharp departure from modern antitrust policy because, since the early 1980s, federal courts and authorities have extended broad deference to vertical mergers while reserving aggressive challenges for horizontal deals that more clearly imperil consumers. Tuesday’s decision by Judge Richard Leon of U.S. District Court was clearly in line with established antitrust precedent. Before Tuesday, the government had not even brought a vertical antitrust suit to conclusion in decades.

That is probably why Makan Delrahim, a Pepperdine University law professor at the time, said when the deal was first announced, “I don’t see this as a major antitrust problem.” But then Delrahim became chief of the antitrust division under a president who despises CNN, and his tune changed. Suddenly, the deal represented a major threat to American consumers and had to be stopped.

Rather than attempt to block vertical mergers outright, antitrust authorities in recent decades have instead focused on forcing the companies to curtail potentially anti-competitive behavior. For example, when Comcast acquired NBCUniversal in 2011 (a deal quite similar to AT&T-Time Warner’s), the Justice Department reached a sensible settlement requiring the combined company to abide by a broad array of conditions to protect competition. That agreement was overseen and approved by none other than Leon, who ruled against the government on Tuesday.

Those Comcast-style provisions have appeared reasonably effective. Neither Comcast nor AT&T nor any other old-school media or telecommunications company has been able to hold back the relentless march of internet video behemoths like Amazon, Netflix and YouTube. In fact, the tech giants’ media operations are already vertically integrated; Amazon and Netflix spend billions of dollars a year developing video content and then distributing it themselves through different systems and services.

Delrahim could have pursued such conditions with AT&T and Time Warner. Unwisely, he didn’t. The big risk in the government’s litigation strategy was that if it lost, AT&T could acquire Time Warner without any such pro-consumer provisions at all. That is exactly what is happening.

The rule of law is at least as important in business as it is in politics. As Tuesday’s ruling potentially unleashes a new round of corporate consolidation — on Wednesday, Comcast made a bid for 21st Century Fox assets that Disney already has a deal to buy — the most important concern remains insulating the application of antitrust law and competition policy from the whims of partisans.

Consumers and the vitality of the economy’s most dynamic sectors depend on it.

On the Brink of Disaster in Yemen

Standing by. That’s about all the Trump administration has done as America’s allies on the Arabian Peninsula intensify Yemen’s misery.

On Wednesday, a coalition led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia invaded the Red Sea port of Hodeida, the home to 600,000 Yemenis and the lifeline for humanitarian aid that sustains most of the country’s people, launching its biggest offensive of the yearslong war in the Arab world’s poorest country. The attack began with coalition airstrikes and shelling by naval ships. News reports said the bombardment was heavy.

The United Nations and nongovernmental organizations like the International Committee for the Red Cross withdrew many of their staffs as the attack on Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who seized Hodeida two years ago, looked increasingly certain.

Meanwhile, U.N. diplomats have worked urgently to prevent a full-scale offensive; now those efforts will be even more important to try to limit the fighting. One proposal would have the United Nations or another independent agency manage the port and ensure that civilians receive desperately needed food and medicine. Experts have predicted that 250,000 people could be killed or displaced in the offensive.

Over the course of this conflict, President Donald Trump has emboldened Saudi and emirati leaders. He shares their antipathy for Iran and will sell them virtually any weapon they want. The military contractor Raytheon is lobbying Congress and the State Department for permission to sell the Saudis and emiratis billions more dollars’ worth of precision-guided munitions.

The Trump administration, which also supplies the coalition with intelligence, refueling capabilities and other assistance, has sent mixed signals about the Hodeida offensive. While the Pentagon urged the coalition not to attack, a statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday made no such explicit request. Instead, he made clear to the emirate leaders “our desire to address their security concerns while preserving the free flow of humanitarian aid and lifesaving commercial imports.” He mildly called for all sides to work with the United Nations on a political solution.

The war began in 2014, when Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the ousted former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the capital, Sanaa, and much of the rest of the country. In 2015, the Saudi-led coalition, with President Barack Obama’s backing, launched airstrikes against the Houthi forces.

The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both Sunni Arab nations, see the Hodeida offensive as a way to break a stalemate in the war and deal a blow to the indigenous Houthis and their backers in Shiite-led Iran, which the Sunnis consider their chief rival for regional influence.

They have accused the Houthi rebels of using the port to smuggle in arms, including missiles, allegedly supplied by Iran to attack Saudi Arabia. A U.N. panel has expressed doubt that Hodeida is a weapons transit point. Experts question whether Iran provided the missiles.

Although coalition leaders have argued that the offensive can be carried out quickly, they have repeatedly miscalculated over the years, trapping their countries in a quagmire. The result has been countless civilian deaths, many attributed to indiscriminate coalition bombing attacks. Under international law, these attacks may qualify as war crimes in which the United States and Britain, another arms supplier, are complicit.

In all, more than 10,000 people have been killed in the war in Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries and the battleground for a separate struggle by the United States and its regional allies against an affiliate of al-Qaida. About 22 million Yemenis need humanitarian aid, and 8.4 million are at risk of starvation.

The Trump administration should speak with one voice to its Arab allies, making clear that an attack on Hodeida is a disaster. Arms sales and perhaps other military assistance should be suspended. Working with the Houthis and the United Nations on a cease-fire and a deal for neutral control of the port could be the first step to a political settlement that is the only hope for peace.

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