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Putin, Erdogan and other leaders last year in Istanbul.

Democracy At Risk, A Loud And Clear Warning For 2017

The rise of Donald Trump, as well as the growing power of populist leaders in Europe, will require a vigilant eye when the signs start appearing that puts basic democratic values in harm's way. It is just beginning.

WASHINGTON — The most important political task of 2017 transcends the normal run of issues and controversies. Our greatest obligation will be to defend democracy itself, along with republican norms for governing and the openness that free societies require.

To say this is not alarmist. Nor is it to deny the importance of other issues. Preserving the gains in health insurance coverage achieved by the Affordable Care Act should be a high priority. So should preventing a shredding of the social safety net and stopping budget-busting tax cuts for the best-off Americans.

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Hommage to Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov, in Moscow

Ankara Is Not Sarajevo, Bad Analogies Of Russian Envoy Assassination

The killing of Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov has set off comparisons to 1914 and the singular spark for World War I.

No sooner had the news broken that Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, had been assassinated than the comparisons to 1914 began to flow. Google searches for "Franz Ferdinand" briefly spiked. Bill Kristol tweeted that the headlines had "an alarming 1914-ish feel," and Owen Jones of the Guardian caught "a whiff of 1914 that is too pungent to be ignored." That year, Bosnian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, setting in motion events that would result in World War I, a globe-consuming fight that left 17 million dead and Europe in ruins.

Given the uncertainty of the current moment and the players involved, the pull toward such analogies is strong. But there is a real danger here, a danger that exists in any historical analogy that draws surface comparisons while ignoring particulars. Such analogies give us a false sense of security, even when the antecedents are horrific: a sense that we know what's coming next and how to respond, that everything is knowable and under control. But the reality is that we have no idea what comes next, and if we act too assuredly, too trapped within the analogy, the odds of miscalculating grow exponentially.

Let's take that World War I analogy. In 1914, Europe was a tinderbox in search of a spark. A system of alliances that had kept peace, more or less, for a half-century had failed to adapt to the new realities of expanded empires, modern warfare and decaying monarchies. What had once granted stability now almost assured chaos. The empires involved were too insecure to allow the moment of Ferdinand's assassination to pass. And when the dominoes fell, they fell with unimaginable consequences.

There are echoes with today, to be sure. Both Turkey and Russia are led by authoritarians anxious to show their power. Turkey is a member of NATO, an alliance system erected to counter Russian aggression. Add to that the instability in Europe and the United States, as well as the palpable fear that instability has created, and surely 2016 is 1914 redux.

But here is the problem with such analogies: They latch onto similarities, flattening the particulars of each historical moment. Which is why historical analogy is so dangerous in times like this. Russia is not itching for war with NATO. When it comes to testing NATO, Russia prefers to nudge the edges of the alliance, not strike at the heart of it. Witness Vladimir Putin's actions toward Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea is alarming, but Putin was unwilling to risk war by grabbing the rest of Ukraine, which he believes to be properly part of Russia. And in Syria, where Russia has been supporting the Assad regime, Putin was slow to enter the fight, preferring to offer political and munitions support for the first several years of the war rather than direct involvement. Why would he pick a fight with Turkey, a valuable U.S. ally and NATO member? If he does declare war on Turkey, he will not be acting predictably but in a manner entirely out of line with his recent actions.

The other issue with historical analogy is that it ignores, well, history. Before World War I, an alliance system had never resulted in such catastrophic outcomes. The very fact of the war — the knowledge every actor in the drama now carries — changes the calculation every player makes. In 1914, no one knew something like the Great War, with its destructive, devastating results, could happen. Now, everyone does.

We are in a season rife with historical analogy, with many Americans glancing fretfully toward Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, drawing on the experience of those decades to illuminate this one. But historical analogies can often obscure rather than enlighten, assert rather than explain. Easy historical analogies lead us to think we understand more about the world and the future than we do.

The truth is, we don't know what will happen next, nor the best way to respond. History provides lessons for the present, not spoilers for the future. As such, it should inform our understanding, not dictate it. Those who fail to learn from the past may be doomed to repeat it, but those who over-learn are doomed, as well.

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Inside Cairo's Coptic Cathedral on Dec. 11

What Is Left? Anger In Aftermath Of Cairo’s Church Bombing

Worshipers at the Coptic Church pray for the dead and lash out at both perpetrators and Egyptian authorities. 'They always told us to pray for those who hate and kill us. But I can’t do that anymore,' says one.

CAIRO — Shards of stained glass and red brick line the floor of the nave of St. Peter and St. Paul Church, and the smell of blood has replaced the familiar perfumed odors of religious office that had hovered only a few minutes before a 12-kilogram improvised explosive device detonated among the congregation.

A woman in tears stands just inside the door of the Abbasseya Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the main site of religious ritual for Egypt's largest Christian minority. "Why, Virgin Mary?" she cries out. "We don't expect this from you."

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food / travel

French Superstar Chef Alain Ducasse Launches Haute Cuisine For Astronauts

When French astronaut Thomas Pesquet took off last week for a six-month mission on the International Space Station, he brought a tantalizing taste of home with him.

Breton lobster. Beef bourguignon. Chicken breast in a white wine mushroom sauce pressed with gingerbread. These are some of the meals that Pesquet, the first Frenchman in space since 2008, will enjoy thanks to the savoir-faire of two world-famous chefs.

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