29/09/2016

Poland’s crisis, “After simmering for nine months, the tension between Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and the country’s highest court, the Constitutional Tribunal, is coming to a boil. The PiS government is attempting an unconstitutional takeover of the tribunal—ignoring its rulings, trying to pack it with new judges, and, most recently, threatening the head judge with prosecution. At stake are the survival of constitutional democracy and the rule of law in Poland.

On July 27, the European Commission, which has been pressing the PiS to change course for months, called on the government to remedy the situation within three months or risk facing disciplinary proceedings that could lead to sanctions. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chair of the PiS and puppet master behind Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s government, responded that he was “amused” by Brussels’ warning. In the weeks since then, the PiS has pressed on with its attacks.

The PiS is determined to defeat the Constitutional Tribunal because it is a major impediment to Kaczynski’s plan to introduce a populist electoral autocracy in Poland along the lines of Viktor Orban’s in Hungary. When Orban became prime minister, in 2010, he had a parliamentary majority large enough to legally rewrite Hungary’s constitution to help cement his grip on power. But in Poland, where the procedures for amending the constitution are more demanding, the PiS does not have that option, and many of its initiatives—including laws designed to control the media, limit civil liberties, politicize the civil service, and attack judicial independence—risk being declared unconstitutional. As a result, the government is engaged in a blatantly illegal effort to subjugate the Constitutional Tribunal. So far, the judges have held firm, ruling unconstitutional the very laws that the government has passed to attack them, such as its December 2015 law that sought to cripple the court by changing the rules governing its operations. But the PiS is growing more crude and aggressive, and its recent threat to prosecute the Tribunal’s top judge suggests that it may take more forceful action to crush judicial independence before too long.

European leaders, meanwhile, are beset by crises—from Brexit to the refugees to continued economic weakness in the eurozone—and many may be tempted to avoid conflict with Warsaw. Yet the EU has no excuse for inaction. In the case of Hungary, EU leaders may have been caught unawares by Orban’s assaults on democracy. But Kaczynski and his PiS colleagues are hardly subtle about their intentions. Allowing them to stamp out constitutional democracy in one of Europe’s largest and most strategically important member states would mean the end of the EU’s “union of values” and would further damage its battered reputation.

The roots of the current constitutional crisis lie, ironically, with the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, which governed Poland from 2007 to 2015. In its last month in office, the outgoing government appointed three judges to the Constitutional Tribunal to replace three who were retiring. That was perfectly legal. But the PO sought to further stack the deck by appointing replacements for two additional judges set to retire in December 2015, after the new PiS government would take office. The PiS-affiliated president, Andrzej Duda, refused to swear in any of the five judges, even after the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that only two had been nominated illegally. Instead, Duda swore in a slate of five different judges named by the new PiS-led parliament. The tribunal refused to hear cases together with the illegitimate replacement judges and a standoff with the government ensued.

Since then, the PiS has passed laws designed to curtail the tribunal’s authority and make it subservient to the current parliamentary majority. The tribunal has judged the new laws unconstitutional, but the government has in turn refused to recognize those judgments. Quite simply, the democratic constitutional order in Poland has broken down.

In January of this year, the EU intervened. For the first time ever, the European Commission announced that it would be assessing the threat to the rule of law in Poland by activating the so-called Rule of Law Framework, which had been established in March 2014 in response to the erosion of the rule of law in Hungary and the EU’s failure to confront it. Before then, the EU’s main disciplinary tool—Article Seven of the Treaty on European Union—was viewed by many as an impractical nuclear option: it allowed the EU to suspend voting rights and impose other sanctions on a member state, but only after other governments agreed unanimously that the state in question was in “serious and persistent breach” of the EU’s fundamental values. The Rule of Law Framework was conceived as a precursor to Article Seven—a means to gradually ramp up pressure on a member government.

On June 1, 2016, after months of failed negotiations, the commission finally issued a formal Rule of Law Opinion expressing concerns over the appointment of new judges, the laws passed by the government concerning the functioning of the Constitutional Tribunal, the government’s non-implementation of the tribunal’s rulings, and the effectiveness of constitutional review in the country more generally.

International pressure on the Polish government, including from the Obama administration, continued to mount in the run-up to the July NATO summit in Warsaw. On the eve of the summit, the Polish parliament rushed through a new law on the Constitutional Tribunal, which it claimed responded to EU and international criticism. But the European Commission made it clear that it saw these reforms as wholly inadequate, with First Vice-President Frans Timmermans declaring that “the main issues which threaten the rule of law in Poland that have not been resolved.” On July 27, the commission launched the next step in the Rule of Law Mechanism—issuing a Rule of Law Recommendation to Poland, which asked the PiS government to publish and implement recent Constitutional Tribunal rulings and assure that any further legal reforms would respect the tribunal’s judgments. The Commission warned that if Poland failed to act on these recommendations within three months, it might trigger Article Seven.

The EU’s failure to stand up to Orban in Hungary, however, does not inspire confidence about how it will act in Poland. But the situations in the two countries differ enough that Brussels may be able to do more this time. First, whereas Orban’s Fidesz party was able to entrench its hold on power through legal constitutional amendments, PiS is blatantly violating the Polish constitution and crushing the high court that is trying to defend it. This makes it much harder for European leaders to sit back in silence.

Second, Kaczynski’s PiS has fewer friends in Brussels—and throughout Europe—than does Orban’s Fidesz. Fidesz is a member of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament, and most EPP leaders have backed it throughout the deterioration of democracy in Hungary. The EPP has been willing to defend Orban out of partisan loyalty and because his party delivers the votes they need to dominate law-making in the parliament. The PiS, which belongs to the much smaller European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, is in a considerably weaker position.

This weakness was on display recently, when members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted overwhelmingly (513 to 142 with 30 abstentions) for a resolution calling on the Polish government to respect democratic principles and the rule of law. The PiS’ political position is further damaged by the prospect of Brexit, since the largest party in the ECR, and one of the PiS’ staunchest defenders, is the British Conservative Party.

But the Polish government still has an ace up its sleeve in Orban, who has explicitly pledged to block Article Seven sanctions against Poland. And therein lies a profound flaw in the EU’s approach to defending the rule of law and other democratic values. The threat looming behind the Rule of Law Framework is Article Seven, but the sanctions stage of Article Seven can only be triggered after there is unanimity among member governments. So long as the EU tolerates one autocrat—Orban—he can protect others of his ilk.

The Polish government can count on the protection of Orban—as well as perhaps the leaders of the other Visegrad countries (Czech Republic and Slovakia)—and knows that ultimately Article Seven sanctions are unlikely to be imposed. But that is no reason not to trigger an Article Seven vote anyway. It is time for Europe’s leaders to stand up and be counted.

Although the European Parliament has adopted resolutions criticizing developments in Hungary and Poland, most national leaders in the EU have remained silent about democratic backsliding. Often, Washington has been more critical than European capitals. Angela Merkel, who has played a powerful leadership role in so many other areas, has had little to say about attacks on constitutional democracy in Hungary and Poland. But if European governments want to condone blatant attacks on the rule of law in Poland, they should be forced to go on the record with a vote.

Even a vote that fails to secure the unanimity needed for sanctions could be a galvanizing event, helping Europe’s democratic leaders remember what they and their union stand for. In the wake of such a vote, the EPP might finally eject and denounce Fidesz, a party that has not only undermined pluralist democracy but has eagerly stoked xenophobia. Talk among members of the European Parliament of cutting off EU funding to countries that flout European values is increasing, and even the failure of a vote against the Polish government might finally push leaders to get serious about using the power of the purse to deny autocrats the EU funds they use to prop up their regimes.

29/09/2016

The U.N. humanitarian aid agency suspended all convoys in Syria on Tuesday following deadly airstrikes on aid trucks the previous night that activists said killed at least 12 people, mostly truck drivers and Red Crescent workers. The attack plunged Syria’s U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire further into doubt. The Syrian military, just hours earlier, had declared the week-long truce had failed. The United States said it was prepared to extend the truce deal and Russia — after blaming rebels for the violations — suggested it could still be salvaged. In Geneva, spokesman Jens Laerke of OCHA said further aid delivery would hold pending a review of the security situation in Syria in the aftermath of the airstrike. Laerke called it “a very, very dark day… for humanitarians across the world.” The U.N. aid coordinator said the Syria government had granted needed authorizations in recent days to allow for aid convoys to proceed inside Syria. Humanitarian U.N. aid deliveries had stalled in recent weeks amid continued fighting, and the truce had not paved the way for expanded convoys as initially expected. It was not clear who was behind the attack late on Monday, which sent a red fireball into the sky in the dead of night over a rural area in Aleppo province. Both Syrian and Russian aircraft operate over Syria, as well as the U.S.-led coalition that is targeting the Islamic State group.

29/09/2016

An article from the Wall Street Journal discusses Church finances, “Late last year, Cardinal George Pell, the pope’s finance chief, hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to undertake a comprehensive audit of the Vatican’s finances. On a mandate from Pope Francis to clarify the city-state’s muddled accounts, the newly powerful cardinal had been assessing and tweaking the system; already he had found a total of €1.4 billion “tucked away” off the books. Cardinal Pell wanted PwC to check that the 136 Vatican departments—each of which used its own, often loose accounting standards—were following guidelines aimed at imposing budgetary discipline. His task was like pushing against the ancient stone walls of a basilica.

Other officials, led by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, known as the pope’s prime minister, let him know the audit wouldn’t fly. In June, the Vatican announced it had been scrapped, and soon many of Cardinal Pell’s wide-ranging powers were handed to others.

It was a setback for the financial overhaul, a central part of a broader revamp of the Catholic Church’s central bureaucracy, the Roman Curia, which Francis made a centerpiece of his pontificate. It was also a sign that the Vatican’s established interests have gained the pope’s support, just three years after his election as a historic, New World outsider.

Cardinal Pell, a blunt speaker, had used a vaguely worded papal mandate to reach for broad powers. He has no plans to back down.

“My job is to keep pushing,” Cardinal Pell, 75 years old, said in an interview in June. “The goal is that the Vatican will be recognized inside and outside the church around the world as somebody who handles their finances properly and appropriately.”

Accounting at the Vatican has never followed unified policies. Annual reports aren’t released, different departments use different accounting principles, data are inconsistent and not comparable. Before Cardinal Pell’s appointment, a panel of cardinals charged with economic oversight met just twice a year. Budgets didn’t exist, and expenditures weren’t itemized.

When cardinals elected Pope Francis in March 2013, they gave him a mandate to revamp the Curia. The resignation of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI , had occurred under a cloud of allegations at the Vatican relating to cronyism, inefficiency and corruption.

Complaints surfaced about €550,000 spent for a manger scene in St. Peter’s Square. Later, concern rose about the lack of oversight of hundreds of thousands of euros collected by advocates for potential saints from donors.

Pope Francis moved quickly. In early 2014, he established a new Secretariat for the Economy and named Cardinal Pell to run it. In a two-page document he seemed to hand over sweeping powers, saying the cardinal had authority over “administrative and financial structures” and his reach extended “to all that in whatsoever manner” concerned economic activity, including procurement and hiring. The cardinal would report directly to the pope.

In the cardinal, the pontiff found a rare example of a high-ranking prelate with media savvy, financial experience and a bold personality.

With his 6’3” frame, the Oxford-educated cardinal cuts an imposing figure. In his youth, he played Australian rules football in the position of ruckman, a role akin to that of a center in basketball.

Cardinal Pell is “a no-nonsense, realistic, straight-talking Australian,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told CBS This Morning soon after the appointment. “He’ll get things done.”

In Australia, he oversaw the merger of eight far-flung colleges into a national Catholic university. As archbishop of Sydney, he streamlined procurement procedures in the archdiocese, which had assets of about US$770 million in 2013 and a staff of 11,000. He raised the return on investments in the church’s real-estate holdings by charging market rents, helping triple the archdiocese’s budget, according to Danny Casey, the archdiocese’s business manager under Cardinal Pell and now a close aide at the Vatican. The cardinal was also a member of a panel of cardinals advising Pope Benedict on economic affairs.

Critics point to what they call an autocratic streak. During his tenure in Australia, the entire staff charged with spiritual instruction at an archdiocesan seminary resigned to protest his plans to impose a regular schedule of prayers and Mass attendance on students.

Australian police are investigating Cardinal Pell over accusations that he sexually abused minors several decades ago, and Australian victims’ advocates have claimed that he failed to report suspected abuse by clerics during the 1970s and 1980s.

In July he said he “emphatically and unequivocally rejects any allegations of sexual abuse about him.” He has also said that the church has made “enormous mistakes” in handling sex abuse and that he regrets not having done more to pursue certain allegations about others as a young priest, but denies any wrongdoing.

With the new assignment Cardinal Pell got off the mark quickly. At a July 2014 press conference, he presented himself as the financial counterpart to the Secretary of State, who had previously been unchallenged as the pope’s No. 2 official. Press accounts hailed the Australian as the Vatican’s financial “czar.”

“Our ambition is to become something of a model of financial management rather than a cause for occasional scandal,” he said at the time.

The “Vatican” refers to both the Holy See—which includes the central administration of the world-wide Catholic Church and related institutions serving the pope—and Vatican City State, the sovereign territory owned by the church inside Italy, where the pope resides.

Revenues come largely from proceeds from the Vatican Museums, its real-estate holdings, an investment portfolio and shops selling valuable tax-free products such as gasoline to Vatican employees. Dioceses around the world also send millions of dollars annually to the Vatican’s coffers. And the Vatican Bank, an independent body that is designed to provide financial services to the Catholic Church world-wide, also adds a varying amount of funds; it provided €50 million in 2014.

Despite such assets, the Holy See has long run a deficit: €26 million in 2014, the Vatican said, and an estimated €35 million or more for last year, according to Cardinal Pell. Attempts in recent years to generate more revenue—the Vatican Museums raised visitor flow by 20% over the past three years—haven’t stanched red ink. Cutting costs, including layoffs, is difficult, because of the traditional Italian resistance to job cuts and the pope’s concern over the “social ill” of unemployment.

Cardinal Pell and his team set out to close the deficit “so that an increasing amount of money can be used to help the strugglers and the poor,” he said in The Wall Street Journal interview.

The cardinal hired consultants from firms such as McKinsey & Co. to do a review of assets. That exercise turned up €1.4 billion that was “not on the balance sheet,” recalled the cardinal. The cardinal attributed the discrepancies to haphazard accounting and ad hoc policies. “I’m not saying it was being mismanaged or anything. It just was there for a rainy day,” Cardinal Pell said.

His team once received a call from the head of one Vatican office who had tens of millions in charitable funds and wasn’t sure how to account for them, he said.

The cardinal’s office, with a core team of about eight, issued budgeting and accounting policies that required all Vatican entities to have their budgets approved by the office and account for deviations, with penalties for overruns. His office produced a consolidated budget for 2015—a first for the Vatican.

Property income

He also spotted a rich new source of revenue that could help close the deficit. The Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, known as APSA, managed most of the Vatican’s huge real-estate portfolio, valued at €1 billion or more, including thousands of commercial spaces and apartments in Rome.

Cardinal Pell said the management wasn’t satisfactory. Among the criticisms, APSA hadn’t kept up the properties or collected back rent on the real estate held by the administration of St. Peter’s Basilica, according to a person familiar with the situation. As a result, the Basilica suffered a deficit of several hundred thousand euros last year. That shortfall meant it couldn’t pay the stipends for new canons—the retired prelates who celebrate Mass there—for the next two years.

A Vatican official said many properties can’t be rented out at market rates because they would be prohibitively expensive to restore.

The pope gave Cardinal Pell control of the properties managed by APSA in July 2014, along with its administrative responsibilities for procurement, payment of bills and payroll.

APSA also controlled much of the Vatican’s financial portfolio, a power it retained. Cardinal Pell started exploring ways to reorganize the Vatican’s financial investments. One idea he pursued was to outsource them to professional money managers in a new Luxembourg-based entity.

The real-estate move and plans for the investments raised hackles at APSA and other offices.

APSA’s president, Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, has developed a strong relationship with Francis, who over time has become more connected to insiders at the Vatican. The two frequently eat together in the dining hall at the Vatican guesthouse, where the pope lives.

Cardinal Calcagno declined to comment on Cardinal Pell’s remarks about APSA, saying only that he was “disconcerted” by the statements.

The Secretary of State also controlled extensive investments, and the powers of Cardinal Parolin over hiring and spending were under threat.

Then the pope started paring Cardinal Pell’s powers.

In a series of moves over about 18 months, Francis stripped Cardinal Pell of control over APSA’s real-estate holdings. He declined to approve his recommendations to reorganize the management of the financial portfolio. He wrote and made public a pointed letter making clear that all hiring and transfer of personnel required the approval of the office of Cardinal Parolin. The audit was scrapped, and in July, he took away most of the management functions—for payroll, payment and procurement services—and restored them to APSA.

“When a new administrative body is created, it always takes a while until it fits into the broader organization,” said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke. “We shouldn’t be distracted by the noise.”

Free-market ethos

Some Vatican officials said they believe Cardinal Pell’s free-market ethos has been unwelcome in the Curia, particularly under a pope who has excoriated the free-market system and warned that some financial practices can lead to corruption.

In May, the Australian told a group of Catholic businessmen that “if everyone lived like St. Francis of Assisi, the economy would collapse.”

“The pope thinks the Vatican needs to be especially prudent using the levers of finance,” said Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, co-author of “This Economy Kills,” a study of Pope Francis’ thinking on capitalism. “You can endanger the faith of millions if people start to say, ‘the Vatican speaks of purity but then they go and make money from money.’ ”

Cardinal Pell’s style struck some in the Curia as overbearing and aggressive, according to people familiar with the situation. Some felt the cardinal’s announcement about the huge sums he found off the books was an implicit accusation of corruption. And, in an Italian-dominated bureaucracy, some were offended when Cardinal Pell wrote that modern accounting standards were a natural priority for “Anglos,” but “one that might be much lower on the list for people in another culture, such as the Italians.” Critics also accused him of overreaching by pushing the PwC audit even after the pope appointed a new auditor general in 2015 to do annual audits.

Cardinal Pell attributed some of his setbacks to “people wanting to retain their turf, their traditional role” particularly at APSA and the Secretariat of State.

“Some people don’t like change, some people don’t like a diminished authority,” he said. “And there’s always a hypothetical possibility that you’ve got some people who have something to hide.”

Officials at APSA and the Secretariat of State declined to comment on the cardinal’s comments.

So far, the Secretariat of the Economy has accomplished little of what it set out to do.

“A lot of people in the Vatican are wondering why we needed to spend two years and a lot of money on high-powered consultants just to come back to square one, with Cardinal Pell’s office basically a beefed-up comptroller’s office,” said Robert Mickens, editor in chief of Global Pulse, a magazine that covers the Vatican.

Cardinal Pell cited success in identifying the off-the-book assets, and said that the Vatican is now committed to international public sector accounting standards, even if they haven’t been implemented everywhere, saying “the gains are irreversible.”

“Once you let the light in, it’s impossible to return to a situation where you’ve had large elements of the truth buried,” he said.

 

“A convoy transporting aid to the hard-hit city had been attacked”

27/09/2016

A Syrian human rights group said today that at least 32 people had been killed and dozens injured in Aleppo, Syria, and its western suburbs in the hours after Syria’s military declared the U.S.-Russian brokered cease-fire over. After the Syrian military blamed rebels for not observing the truce, which was in its seventh day, the United Nations said a convoy transporting aid to the hard-hit city had been attacked, with 18 of the convoy’s 31 trucks initially believed to have been hit. The rights group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that 12 people had been killed when the convoy was struck. Farhan Haq, a deputy spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, told ABC News that he could not confirm any information on potential casualties or the cause of the attack. He said that the United Nations’ initial understanding was that a warehouse operated by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent had also been hit along with the convoy, before the trucks could distribute any aid to 78,000 people whom international groups had hoped to reach. The fighting came amid signs the cease-fire was falling apart, with Russia casting doubt on it and the Syrian military declaring its conclusion.

“must have shocked the leadership in Beijing”

27/09/2016

A report from the Economist notes the recent elections in Hong Kong and the defeat for China, “ELECTIONS held on September 4th for Hong Kong’s legislature must have shocked the leadership in Beijing. In their highest turnout for any such poll in the territory’s history (58%), voters sent a clear signal of discontent with China’s attempts to stifle democracy. Even more worryingly for Chinese officials, some of them supported radicals who believe Hong Kong should decide its own future regardless of China’s wishes. Several such “localists” gained seats for the first time”.

The piece notes “The results confirm that separatism has emerged as a powerful new force in Hong Kong. It has grown out of a failed campaign in 2014 to press the Chinese government to allow the territory’s leader to be directly elected by voters, with no attempt to filter out candidates deemed unacceptable to China’s ruling Communist Party. Leaders of that “Umbrella” movement are among six localists who were elected to the 70-member Legislative Council, known as Legco. Hong Kong’s government had tried to prevent this by requiring candidates to declare their support for Hong Kong’s status as part of China; several localists failed the test. That many have now gained seats will be viewed in Beijing as a big political challenge—the opening of a new front, as the party would see it, in a battle against separatism that already confounds it in Xinjiang, Tibet and independently governed Taiwan”.

It adds “Voting arrangements for Legco ensured that pro-democracy politicians, including localists, had very little chance of taking a majority of the seats. Only 40 of them are elected through universal suffrage. The rest are chosen by members of “functional constituencies” representing various professions, businesses and social groups. These tend to be pro-establishment. But pro-government candidates did not do as well as they did in the previous elections for Legco in 2012. They kept their majority, but took only 40 seats, three fewer than last time. Of the 35 “geographical constituency” seats chosen by popular vote, 16 went to establishment candidates and 19 to a mixture of moderate democrats, localists, radicals of other stripes and independent candidates with pro-democracy leanings. With three other seats gained by universal suffrage, and eight in functional constituences, pro-democracy politicians retain their power to block some bills in Legco”.

It goes onto mention “Hong Kong’s politicians had long been divided into two camps. One was usually described as “pro-government” or “pro-Beijing”. The other was called the “pan-democrats”, who wanted full democracy for Hong Kong but did not challenge China’s right to rule it. The elections have revealed a split in the pro-democracy camp between moderates prepared to work within the current system, and young, often highly educated, radicals. Some of the localists gained their seats at the expense of veteran democrats. Days before the polls, however, five pro-democracy candidates withdrew in an effort to ensure victory for like-minded rivals, even radical ones. This may have helped Nathan Law of a party called Demosisto, who was a student leader during the Umbrella movement, become the youngest ever person to win a Legco seat. He describes himself as a “23-year-old kid”. Another localist, Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, picked up some 84,000 votes, the most cast for any candidate in a geographic constituency. Among veteran democrats who lost their seats were Frederick Fung, Cyd Ho and Lee Cheuk-yan”.

It concludes “Many in Hong Kong, however, still prefer candidates who do not challenge the status quo. Regina Ip won a seat in the constituency of Hong Kong Island, despite having served as the government’s security chief during its aborted attempt in 2003 to introduce a much-hated law against sedition. Among pro-establishment candidates fighting in geographic constituencies, Ms Ip gained the largest number of votes: around 60,000. The high turnout, by Hong Kong’s standards, was probably helped by a growing political awareness among people in their late teens and early 20s, the generation that led the Umbrella protests. Many young people feel less bound by the political conventions of Hong’s transition to Chinese rule in 1997, when even firebrand democrats described themselves as Chinese patriots. They believe China’s refusal to fulfil its promise to give the territory more democracy has left them little choice but to challenge China’s right to rule. Leaders in Beijing will fight them tooth and nail”.

“Australia has said its warplanes took part in US-led airstrikes”

27/09/2016

Australia has said its warplanes took part in US-led airstrikes in eastern Syria that mistakenly killed Syrian army troops in an incident threatening to wreck an already tenuous ceasefire before it is a week old. Russia’s military said it was told by the Syrian army that at least 62 soldiers were killed in the attack on a government position near Deir ez-Zour, with more than 100 wounded. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 90 soldiers were killed. The first airstrikes on Aleppo since the ceasefire began on Monday evening were reported on Sunday. An Australian defence department statement said its jets had targeted what had been thought to be Islamic State (Isis) fighters. “Overnight, coalition aircraft were conducting airstrikes in eastern Syria against what was believed to be a Daesh [Isis] fighting position that the coalition had been tracking for some time,” the statement said”.

Uzbekistan’s balancing act

27/09/2016

An interesting article discusses the balancing act in Uzbekistan, “After Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s longtime autocratic president, was officially declared dead following a stroke, the country’s parliament appointed Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev acting president on Thursday, in the latest sign of growing consensus among the country’s elites over succession. Mirziyoyev, who has been Uzbekistan’s prime minister since 2003, was widely considered the favourite to succeed Karimov, who was the former Soviet country’s first and only president, and his appointment as the caretaker president is the clearest sign yet that Mirziyoyev is looking to make it permanent. During Karimov’s lavish funeral, state TV showed footage of Mirziyoyev assuming official duties, including organizing the massive event and interacting with foreign dignitaries in attendance; as well as meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, who visited Uzbekistan on Tuesday”.

The report notes how “Under the constitution, Senate leader Nigmatilla Yuldashev should have taken over the interim position ahead of elections within three months, but reportedly declined. According to a statement released on the Uzbek government’s official website, Yuldashev broke with procedure during the parliamentary session, and in an indication of Mirziyoyev’s growing behind-the-scenes power, asked lawmakers to appoint the prime minister instead of himself due to the prime minister’s “many years of [government] experience.” As interim president and Karimov’s probable successor, Mirziyoyev will have to tackle a host of issues facing Uzbekistan, including economic stagnation, mass migration, and the shadow of Islamist extremism. But Mirziyoyev’s most challenging task could be navigating Uzbekistan’s complex, and often turbulent, relations with major powers like Russia, the United States, and China, as well as its four Central Asian neighbours — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan — as Moscow, Beijing, and Washington jostle for influence across the region”.

The article mentions “Mirziyoyev has already received a warm welcome from Putin. During his visit, Putin pledged his support for Uzbekistan and portrayed Russia as Karimov’s closest ally, telling the interim leader that he could count on Moscow as one of his “most reliable friends.” The Kremlin and Karimov had a complicated, and at times fraught, relationship during the 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, Tashkent was wary of its former patron in Moscow and sought to cement its own independence, even later becoming an unsavory ally of the United States in the global war on terrorism. “Karimov was a very effective ruler that was able to carve out independence for his country,” Paul Stronski, a Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, told FP. “Whether the next person is able to have that same sort of vision for a space that isn’t in Russia or the West’s pocket is the big question.” Uzbekistan’s ties with Washington have also had their ups-and-downs. Closer relations were sealed with U.S. access to an air base used to move materiel and personnel to the ongoing war effort in Afghanistan. That relationship was derailed following Washington’s criticism of the Andijan massacre, in which Uzbek security forces shot and killed unarmed protesters in 2005. Following the incident, Tashkent evicted the United States from the air base in Uzbekistan and Putin quickly moved to rekindle ties with Karimov and has been courting Tashkent ever since”.

Interestingly he adds how “China remains the largest economic player Central Asia and has heavily invested in infrastructure across the region to promote its “One Belt, One Road” project, a 21st-century version of the Silk Road that’s intended to connect China to Europe through the Central Asian countries. But while Beijing is an important economic force, it has so far largely refrained from playing a larger political or security role in the region. The United States, meanwhile, has significantly scaled back its footprint in Central Asia following the drawdown of operations in Afghanistan and the closure of U.S. air bases in Uzbekistan and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Moscow, in contrast, has pushed to solidify its influence in Central Asia through regional organizations like the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-led military bloc, of which Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are members, and the Eurasian Economic Union, which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have joined. Uzbekistan has so far resisted membership in these organizations, despite Putin’s entreaties, and whether Mirziyoyev opts for closer ties with Russia will have a major effect on Uzbekistan’s future”.

It ends “Relations with Uzbekistan’s Central Asian neighbors will also loom large over Mirziyoyev in the coming months. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, and Almazbek Atambayev, the president of Kyrgyzstan, both skipped Karimov’s state funeral in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand. Nazarbayev and Karimov have been competing for regional leadership. Kazakhstan, in large part thanks to its oil wealth, emerged as the richest country in Central Asia, fueling the rivalry between the two autocratic heads of state. Uzbekistan’s relations with Kyrgyzstan have been even more delicate, with Karimov halting the supply of natural gas several times to his smaller neighbour to cow Kyrgyz leadership into changing policies that he did not like. In 1999, for example, the Uzbek leader demanded that former Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev stop democratic reforms he was carrying out or face having the country’s energy supplies cut off. According to Stronski, how Uzbekistan’s next president decides to deal with other countries in Central Asia could be an important way for the new leader to leave his mark on the country and cement his hold on power”.

 

“The race has tightened considerably over the past few weeks”

25/09/2016

An election analysis conducted in the Reuters/Ipsos States of the Nation project shows that the race has tightened considerably over the past few weeks, with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump projected to win Florida, an essential battleground state, if the election were held today.  The project, which is based on a weekly tracking poll of more than 15,000 Americans, shows that the 2016 presidential race could end in a photo finish on Nov. 8, with the major-party candidates running nearly even in the Electoral College, the body that ultimately selects the president. The States of the Nation project, which delivers a weekly tally of support for the candidates in every state, shows that the race has tightened in several traditional battlegrounds. Pennsylvania has been moved from a likely win for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to a tossup; Ohio has been moved from a tossup to a likely win for Clinton. And Florida is now considered a likely win for the Republican nominee, with 50 percent support for Trump to 46 percent support for Clinton. If the election were held today, the project estimates that Clinton has a 60 percent chance of winning by 18 electoral votes. Last week, the project estimated that Clinton had a 83 percent chance of winning the election”.

“Keep U.S. policy on LGBT rights out of the local media spotlight”

25/09/2016

An article discusses how the United States gay rights policy has negative consequences.

It opens “For decades, the United States has championed human rights abroad as part of its foreign policy. Yet Washington’s attempts to balance promoting human rights with realpolitik has often been messy and inconsistent, especially when dealing with rights-violating regimes that remain important geostrategic actors. During her famous 1995 “Human Rights are Women’s Rights” speech, First Lady Hillary Clinton riled a key economic partner, China, when she harshly criticized its treatment of women. By contrast, in 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rebuked the U.S. ambassador to Chile, David Popper, for raising the issue of torture with Chilean officials. Kissinger suggested that Popper “cut out the political science lectures.” Yet it remains an open question to this day as to how aggressively the State Department should promote democratic principles, an act that often infuriates foreign countries or leads to a backlash. Today, the inclusion of LGBT equality in Washington’s worldwide human rights-promotion package is highlighting precisely this dilemma”.

The author writes that “Despite its checkered past on gay rights—the State Department expelled gay employees in the 1950s—the United States under President Barack Obama has dramatically changed its policy. In February 2015, the State Department appointed Randy Berry as the first U.S. special envoy for LGBT rights. At the time, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the importance of “defending and promoting” the rights of LGBT individuals to American diplomacy. More recently, the U.S. ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji marched in the Stockholm Pride Parade, and in India, the U.S. Embassy lit up its facade in rainbow colors after the June shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Yet in much of the Arab Middle East, where populations overwhelmingly oppose homosexuality (including 95 percent of Egyptians and 97 percent of Jordanians), LGBT-rights promotion is more complicated. There, widespread hostility to gay rights puts the United States in a difficult position. One might argue that just as Washington has aggressively advocated for women’s rights and the welfare of religious minorities across the globe, so too should it consistently and publicly back gay rights, even if that means rebuffing foreign governments. Such a forceful approach, however, contradicts the wishes of many LGBT people actually living in the Arab Middle East. In 2015, for instance, the U.S. ambassador to Jordan, Alice Wells, attended a small event in Amman organized by members of the local LGBT community. Many Jordanians were outraged, and after her public appearance a number of LGBT individuals were violently harassed, according to a Jordanian blogger who went by the pseudonym Ahmad. One popular local news program devoted an astonishing 70 minutes to bashing Wells, comparing her actions to visiting an Islamic State gathering on the grounds that both would be a violation of Jordan’s sovereignty and local laws”.

The writer argues that the support of Wells was seen as evidence that “gay rights are part of a “foreign agenda.” Ahmad explained that the ambassador stigmatized the local LGBT cause by associating it with the West and spoiled its chance of being regarded as an authentic Jordanian phenomenon. Ahmad compared the dynamics between the conservative elements of his society and the LGBT community to a high school brawl—just as a student engaged in a fistfight wouldn’t want someone else to jump in on his or her behalf, neither does a local activist want the United States to interfere with a campaign”.

The piece goes on to mention that “For the LGBT community in Jordan, any association with foreigners is tricky. Yet the situation is especially difficult when it comes to the United States. Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, points to the high levels of anti-Americanism in many Arab countries and the widespread perception in the region that the United States is an imperialistic power, especially after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Hamid explains that for people “as misunderstood” as the Arab LGBT community, association with the U.S. government can be problematic”.

He goes on to make the point that “When it comes to geopolitics, the United States has critical strategic interests in Amman and it should be wary of antagonizing its ally. Jordan has played an important role throughout the war against the Islamic State, such as heavily bombarding ISIS targets inside Syria. Amman also hosts, unofficially, thousands of U.S. military personnel, according to a report from Vice. The Jordanian government is less likely to cooperate with Washington if it feels that the latter’s diplomats are insulting and undermining it by publicly raising the issue of LGBT rights. If the United States truly feels it must take part in LGBT activism in Jordan or other Arab countries that have high levels of homophobia, community members have suggested discrete steps that U.S. diplomats can take. One activist, Nadine, recommended offering emergency relocation and job training for LGBT individuals who may be physically at risk. Neela Ghosal, a senior gay-rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, emphasized that private discussions with foreign governments through, for instance, health and justice ministries, can be a productive way for Washington to reiterate its concerns on the issue”.

It ends “Ghosal urged the United States to consult with local LGBT organizations before taking any action, to ensure that whatever it intends to do actually helps civil society. Most importantly, Washington should keep U.S. policy on LGBT rights out of the local media spotlight. (In what may be a sign of progress, both U.S. LGBT Special Envoy Randy Berry and Ambassador to Jordan Alice Wells repeatedly declined to be interviewed about the United States’ support for LGBT rights in the Arab world.) Promoting LGBT rights is a cornerstone of the State Department’s human rights agenda. But, in Jordan at least, this promotion has had a damaging effect—delegitimizing the local LGBT community and putting it at even greater risk. Perhaps, when it comes to LGBT rights, Washington should ensure first of all that its policies do no harm”.

Closer China and the Philippines relations

25/09/2016

Relations between China and the Philippines are at a turning point, a top Chinese diplomat has told a visiting Philippine delegation, adding that China hopes the Philippines can handle disputes “appropriately” and get relations back on track. The remarks by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin come as two countries at odds over sovereignty in the South China Sea try to sound each other out, and set parameters for dialogue on an issue in which both have vowed not to give way. The mid-level visit was the latest part of some carefully calibrated engagement after a July ruling by an arbitration panel in The Hague that overwhelmingly favoured the Philippines in its dispute with China over the South China Sea, invalidating China’s claim to most of the waters. China has declined to recognize the ruling while Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly said he wants peace with China, but will not make concessions on any part of the tribunal’s conclusion.

Fixing Brazil

23/09/2016

A piece in Foreign Affairs looks at how to fix Brazil, “Brazil has rarely had it so bad. The country’s economy has col­lapsed: since 2013, its unemployment rate has nearly doubled, to more than 11 percent, and last year its GDP shrank by 3.8 per­cent, the largest contraction in a quarter century. Petrobras, Brazil’s semipublic oil giant, has lost around 85 percent of its value since 2008, thanks to declining commodity prices and its role in a massive corruption scandal. The Zika virus has infected thousands of Brazilians, exposing the frailty of the country’s health system. And despite the billions of dollars Brasília poured into the 2014 World Cup and this year’s Olympic Games, those events have done little to improve the national mood or upgrade the country’s urban infrastructure. Meanwhile, many of Brazil’s long-standing problems have proved stubbornly persistent: half of all Brazilians still lack access to basic sanitation, 35 million of them lack access to clean water, and in 2014, the country suffered nearly 60,000 homicides. But Brazil’s biggest problems today are political. Things first came to a boil in the summer of 2013, when the police clashed with students protesting bus and subway fare hikes in São Paulo. Within days, some 1.5 million people took to the streets of Brazil’s big cities to protest a wider set of problems, including the government’s wasteful spending (to the tune of some $3.6 billion) on the construction and refurbishment of a dozen stadiums for the World Cup. In the months that followed, when Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff appeared on television to soothe the unrest, Brazilians across the country drowned out her voice by rattling pots and pans from their balconies. In October 2014, after promising to increase public spending and bring down unemployment, Rousseff managed to win reelection by a thin margin. But she quickly backtracked on her major pledges, announcing a plan to cut state spend­ing and rein in inflation. The public’s anger mounted”.

He writes that the coalition led by Rousseff’s party collapsed with impeachment proceedings against her that were later successful. He adds that Brazil’s constitution allows the president powers to break gridlock between executive and legislature through decree as well as “dislodge pending legislation from congres­sional committees, force Congress to vote on urgent measures, and veto bills in part or in whole. Those powers have long helped Brazil’s presidents avoid deadlock and pass many needed reforms. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Brazilian presidents are all-powerful. To the contrary: their ability to avoid gridlock comes at a high price. Because Brazil’s Congress has more than two dozen political parties, it’s nearly impossible for a single one to win a majority. That forces Brazil’s presidents to form coalitions in order to govern effectively. And that’s where the problems start. Brazil’s political parties lack coherent ideological agendas; instead, they are loosely knit alliances whose members have no qualms about forming or dissolving coalitions at any time”.

The author goes on to mention how “Brazil’s electoral rules allow candidates to switch parties relatively easily, undermining any chance of ideological unity within coalitions. And candidates are elected to Congress based not on the number of votes they receive individually but on the total number their party pulls in. That creates an incentive for politicians to change allegiances on a regular basis: jumping ship for a party led by a popular candidate can often boost less popular aspirants to office (or keep them there). Brazilian politicians thus tend to ride on the coattails of powerful allies instead of focusing on party loyalty, ideological consistency, or the details of policy”.

He also cites numerous inefficiencies, which pale “in comparison to the other big problem engendered by Brazil’s flawed political rules: endemic corruption. In many cases, the pork and patronage doled out by presidents prove insufficient to win Congress’ support; presidents therefore often sweeten the pot by allowing legislators to appoint their allies to plum jobs in Brazil’s powerful state-owned companies and regulatory agencies. Once in these posts, the new officials gain a say over which companies will receive lucrative government contracts. And many of them have proved all too happy to make those decisions based on bribes, which they then share with their patrons in Congress”.

He goes on to mention that “Unlikely as it may seem, Brazil’s current troubles might just have a silver lining: business as usual has become so costly that many Brazilians have finally accepted that the system has to change. Operation Car Wash has laid bare the misdeeds of the country’s political class, and for the first time, dozens of politicians and business leaders have gone to jail. In the past, officials were able to shrug off corruption investigations by relying on a lenient justice system, a weak congressional ethics committee, and a public that seemed inured to graft. That is no longer possible. The judges, investigators, and prosecutors running Operation Car Wash represent a new generation of civil servants, with new values, and they are using a new set of rules and tactics, including the threat of serious sentences and the carrot of leniency deals, to break the silence that politicians and businesspeople have maintained for decades. Just as important, according to public opinion research by the polling group Datafolha, most Brazilians now believe that corruption is their country’s biggest problem. And whereas the protests in 2013 were mostly about irrational government spending, more recently, Brazilians have taken to the streets specifically to protest official corruption. For all his shortcomings, Temer seems to understand the need for change. He is pushing for Brazil’s first-ever cap on public spending, a measure that would limit government expenditures to current levels for the next 20 years, thereby forcing interest groups to compete for a fixed amount of resources instead of pushing for tax hikes or bigger deficits. He has introduced measures that will allow the government to reward efficient bureaucrats across the vast expanse of the Brazilian state. And crucially, he has raised the possibility of constitutional reforms that would reduce the number of political parties and restrict their ability to merge their electoral lists. Both measures would make it easier to get things done in Congress without graft”.

He goes on to suggest that “In short, lawmakers must rewrite the rules of the game so that elected officials stop working only for their backers and start focusing on good governance for the majority of the population. Academics, policymakers, and pundits have offered a number of ideas for how they might do so. One radical proposal would have Brazil drop its presidential system in favor of a parliamentary one akin to the United Kingdom’s. By fusing Congress and the executive, that change would make legislators directly responsible for the success or failure of the government, and since lawmakers would be threatened with fresh elections if they challenged the government’s major decisions, such a reform might reduce corrupt dealmaking and encourage the development of stronger political parties. Other experts have argued for a semi-presidential system, in which a prime minister accountable to the legislature conducts day-to-day politics and a president retains the power to dissolve parliament and call new elections. Shifting to such a system could make lawmakers more accountable for the results of policy decisions while preserving the president’s status as a national figurehead. Yet another proposal would keep Brazil’s current presidential system intact but reduce the number of existing parties to between six and eight and push them to commit to coherent policy platforms, in part by abandoning the open-list proportional representation that defines today’s electoral system”.

He concludes “It is too early to say which of these proposals would be most effective. What is certain, however, is that Brazil’s political system will remain dysfunctional until the country’s president and legislators can work together effectively—in the name of party platforms, not clientelistic bargains. To get there, Brazil must reduce the number of parties in Congress and empower them to discipline their own members. Operation Car Wash, Rousseff’s impeachment, and the overall economic decline have created an opportunity for Brazil to pursue just this kind of reform. Now the country’s politicians must seize the rare opening these cascading crises have afforded them”.

4,400 US troops in Iraq and Syria

23/09/2016

Hundreds of additional U.S. troops have flowed into Iraq during the past week as American and Iraqi forces there begin final preparations to launch an invasion of Mosul this fall.  The size of the U.S. force in Iraq and Syria now tops 4,400, up from about 3,900 last week, defense officials said. President Obama authorized several troop increases for Iraq earlier this year but those troops did not deploy immediately. The latest uptick brings the current footprint closer to the legal cap of 4,647″

Low interest rates forever?

23/09/2016

Gillian Tett discusses low interest rates, “In 1998, when I was a reporter in Tokyo, an event happened that economists once thought impossible. Japan was at the height of its banking crisis, and as panic swelled, short-term market interest rates — what traders pay to borrow one another’s money overnight — dipped below zero for the first time ever. It was such a shock that computers at local banks went haywire; programmers hadn’t prepared for negative interest rates. I told my colleagues that a world where people got paid for borrowing money, rather than paying for the privilege, was crazy. It would never last. I was wrong”.

She writes that “This June, Fitch Ratings released a report calculating that there are $11.7 trillion worth of bonds carrying negative interest rates. That represents almost half of all sovereign bonds in developed countries. Consider 10-year bonds, which, as of press time, carried yields of minus 0.01 percent in Japan, negative 0.5 percent in Switzerland, and minus 0.06 percent in Germany. Meanwhile, rates were slightly positive in the United Kingdom but at record lows — and sinking. In July, the yield on U.S. 10-year bonds dropped below 1.4 percent, to the lowest point ever. In truth, it seems unlikely that medium- to long-term rates will turn negative in America, because the national economy is growing. I would not dare to rule it out, however — not after what’s happened in the two decades since negative yields first appeared. The world has slipped into an economist’s version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: a place where normal rules are turned upside down and nothing can be discounted”.

She posits that “There are at least three explanations for tumbling interest rates. One is the deliberate decision by central banks to push yields down. This trend started in the 1990s, when the Bank of Japan slashed official policy rates — what central banks charge private ones to borrow — to zero in a desperate and ultimately failed bid to boost growth. This January, Japan announced that when private-sector financial institutions left money on reserve overnight, a rate of negative 0.1 percent would be imposed. Similarly, the U.S. Federal Reserve and European Central Bank (ECB) cut policy rates to zero to offset economic stagnation after the financial crisis; this spring, the ECB levied a negative 0.4 percent yield on funds stored overnight. A second explanation is that structural factors are prompting investors to gobble up an abnormally large quantity of bonds, lifting prices and depressing market rates. (Bond prices move in an inverse direction to yields.) Since 2008, a host of new regulations, including in the United States, have been introduced that encourage, if not force, big financial institutions to buy more bonds. Supposedly, this gives banks a spare cushion of “safe” assets to better withstand financial shock. Meanwhile, pension funds are stockpiling bonds in an effort to meet future payout obligations”.

The report adds that “The third reason, and perhaps the most difficult to address, is pessimism about the global economic outlook. Investors are buying bonds because, perhaps, they cannot imagine anything else that would offer value in a low-growth world or because they think consumer prices will drop. This shift in viewpoint is hard to quantify. Recent surveys from the Federal Reserve of New York, however, have pointed to a small decline in consumers’ expectations of inflation and growth. Some blend of all three factors bears responsibility for the fall down the rabbit hole. So pointing a finger at just one culprit — as some analysts have done in recent months, targeting especially central banks’ policies — isn’t terribly productive. Instead, attention should be focused on the dangerous, debilitating consequences of subzero interest rates. After all, a world of negative yields is one in which savers are penalized for being thrifty; they lose money just by leaving funds in the bank. Moreover, entities that hold large quantities of bonds tend to find it very hard to make decent investment returns and meet their claims. Many pension funds, for example, have devised financial plans that assume they will earn around 8 percent annual returns on the bonds they’ve amassed, so yields oscillating around zero threaten to open a gaping economic hole in the coming decades”.

She ends mentioning “Is there any solution, even a partial one, to interest rates bottoming out? Some governments, such as Canada’s, have embarked on fiscal spending programs. But these are exceptions. For America, Germany, and other major economic players, the idea of a stimulus remains too politically controversial to implement. Similarly, central banks’ governors, such as Janet Yellen and Mario Draghi, are so anxious about being blamed for starting a recession or for instigating market shock that they are proceeding “cautiously,” which means keeping interest rates low. Yields, then, seem likely to stay at historic nadirs for much longer than anyone ever imagined. Never mind the sorry history of the place where negative yields were born. I’m referring, of course, to Japan’s “lost decades.” In Wonderland economics, it turns out, rules aren’t the only things that don’t matter. The lessons of experience don’t either. This bizarre landscape is no solution to modern financial woes, and the longer we remain in it, the harder it will be to muster the political courage and clarity of vision to leap out”.

Philippines, tilting to China?

23/09/2016

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he’s considering buying weapons from Russia and China while also ending joint patrols with U.S. forces in the South China Sea. In a televised speech Tuesday before military officers in Manila, Duterte said that two countries — which he didn’t identify — had agreed to give the Philippines a 25-year soft loan to buy military equipment. Later, he said that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and “technical people” in the armed forces would visit China and Russia “and see what’s best.” While Duterte said he didn’t want to cut the “umbilical cord” with his allies, the remarks were the latest to signal a shift away from the Philippine-U.S. defence treaty in place since 1951. Since engaging in a public spat with U.S. President Barack Obama last week, Duterte has denounced American military killings during the early days of colonial rule and called for U.S. forces to leave the southern island of Mindanao.

“Legacy of the pivot is only partially complete”

21/09/2016

An article questions the pivot of Obama, “Barack Obama’s trip to Asia marks the final lap in his acclaimed “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. The narrative of this policy, as trumpeted by current and former administration officials, is predictably positive — expounding the bold but careful execution of a strategy from Day One in the Oval Office. However, the real story may cast a less shimmering glow across the Pacific. A combination of inattention, surprise, and mistakes characterised the early years of Asia policy under Obama. Despite this inauspicious beginning, the administration reacted well to each of these obstacles, and these midcourse adjustments culminated in the pivot. The legacy of the policy, however, may ultimately be out of the president’s control as it rests in the hands of Congress and the next president”.

The writer argues that “The Asia that Obama expected when he took office was not the Asia that he got. Confronted with a global financial crisis, two wars, and policy priorities of climate change and health care reform, America’s first president with roots in the Pacific did not exactly have the luxury of looking East. The priorities for Asia were not laid out in any formal “pivot” document largely because the goals, based on my many conversations with Obama’s Asia team, were modest: 1) deeply engage China; 2) balance this with a strong alliance with Japan; 3) address the North Korean problem; and 4) re-evaluate free-trade agreements. In each case, the White House got slapped down. Obama wanted to implement a new cooperative strategy that offered strategic security reassurances to Beijing as it encouraged the country to partner with the United States in solving common global problems. The conciliatory language embedded in Obama’s November 2009 speech (i.e., that he did not seek to contain China and that Beijing was central to Washington’s global agenda) led journalists to write of a new “G2” strategy. As evidence, they pointed to the fact that the administration did not approve arms sales to Taiwan in its first year in office, and the presidentrefused to meet with the Dalai Lama”.

The arrogance, naiveity or both of Obama are clearly seen when the author writes that “Obama wanted to deal with one of the most vexing problems in the region by extending the unclenched fist to North Korea, penning a personal message through Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth (the contents of which are still unknown) to move forward with high-level, bilateral denuclearization negotiations. Finally, the politics of his party compelled the president to call a timeout on all trade deals, most significantly for Asia, putting the Korea-U.S. FTA (KORUS) on hold, along with ratification of two other Latin American agreements (Panama and Colombia). Events in the first 18 months of Obama’s presidency undermined each of these objectives. In the case of China, Beijing disappointed America’s G2 policy by not delivering on climate change at the 2009 Copenhagen summit (it would do better in Paris in 2015); moreover, it launched what would become an unprecedented set of territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. The president’s disillusionment with the policy was evident as early as November 2009, as his principal Asia advisor, Jeffrey Bader, laterrecounted, when Obama was reportedly angered by Beijing’s haughty attitude and its efforts to disrupt his online conversations with the Chinese people”.

The article goes on to mention how “Presidencies are remembered not for their plans coming into the Oval Office, but for how they react to the surprises thrown their way. In this regard, Obama responded with worthy midcourse adjustments. The White House’s critical but unseen coordination with the Japanese government during the Fukushima meltdown, followed by the more public Operation Tomodachi recovery project and the return of the LDP to power under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, helped to restore the reservoir of trust in the alliance. In North Korea, Obama transitioned from engagement to containment, helping to erect a comprehensive multilateral sanctions regime. And while unsuccessful with Pyongyang, he demonstrated positive and historic diplomatic advances with Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos. The White House elevated relations with other partners like South Korea and Australia, both of whom were willing to contribute on signature Obama projects like climate change, nuclear security, and global health. On trade, starting with the National Export Initiative in the 2010 State of the Union speech, Obama engineered an astounding turnaround on trade that linked the nation’s economic recovery and job creation to export promotion, eventually leading to the passage of KORUS and the championing of the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Perhaps most important from the Asian perch, Obama just gave more “face time” to Asia. He broke the tradition of one annual trip to Asia after the United States joined the East Asia Summit in 2011, and went beyond the typical Northeast Asia circuit to Indonesia, India, and Australia as part of a larger G20 strategy that incorporated Asia. The current (and last trip) to Asia for Obama was the 11th of his presidency, the same as Bill Clinton’s 11 and more than George W. Bush’s eight. These adjustments would eventually aggregate to the “pivot” as announced in a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011. As much as the administration would like to take a victory lap in Asia, the legacy of the pivot is only partially complete”.

He rightly points out that “it is on the China account where there remains much work. On the one hand, the administration responded well to its initial disappointment with G2 by returning “normalcy” to its relations with China in Obama’s second year. The president stopped refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama, and it resumed authorizing arms sales to Taiwan. More generally, it implemented a nuanced strategy balancing pockets of competition and cooperation with Beijing that resulted in significant agreements on climate change in Paris,maritime risk reduction protocols, counterproliferation (Iran and North Korea), and cybersecurity. Any Obama official will recite the number of hours the president and National Security Advisor Susan Rice have spent with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Washington; Sunnylands, California; Beijing, and elsewhere to build the type of Kissingerian relationship with the Chinese that could lead to such deals. Yet these accomplishments are bookended by continued Chinese land reclamations and military infrastructure building in the South China Sea, and aggressive patrolling in the East China Sea despite international opprobrium and U.S. freedom of navigation operations”.

The author moves to the second part of the article, North Korea, where it “remains a stain on the pivot legacy. Under Obama, North Korea has conducted an unprecedented three nuclear tests and 72 major kinetic and missile provocations. By comparison, there was one nuclear test and 19 provocations during Bush’s two terms. North Korea’s nuclear capabilities will have evolved during the span of the Obama presidency from a fledgling program to a stockpile of as many as 35 nuclear bombs and potentially a survivable deterrent. While the pivot’s defenders might argue that little more could have been done to stop China or North Korea, historians are often unkind, associating arguably unavoidable outcomes with negligent policy”.

He ends “Yet, the pivot’s legacy ultimately will be determined by ratification of the TPP. The 12-member free-trade pact, the first to include the world’s second- and third-largest economies, is not just important for business. As a high-standards agreement it has the potential to affect more than just tariffs, reaching deep into member countries to create conformity on labour, the environment, food safety, intellectual property, cybersecurity, the digital economy, development, and other standards. If China were to join the TPP, conformity with these clauses would have a transformative strategic effect on the nature of the Chinese state. Though a distant outcome at the moment, it is not implausible”.

He later concludes “During Obama’s swing through Asia this week, he will get more questions about the TPP than he will care to answer. Unfortunately, the fate of Asia’s most significant new institution is beyond his control and now in the hands of an uncooperative Congress and two presidential candidates who oppose the deal. Historians undeniably will give Obama credit for the strategic priorities his presidency gave to Asia, but the president may indeed find himself in another campaign as a private citizen to ratify the TPP, and thus complete his unfinished legacy in Asia.

“Israel said its aircraft attacked a Syrian army position”

21/09/2016

Israel said its aircraft attacked a Syrian army position on Tuesday after a stray mortar bomb struck the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, and it denied a Syrian statement that a warplane and drone were shot down. The air strike was a now-routine Israeli response to the occasional spillover from fighting in a five-year-old civil war, and across Syria a ceasefire was holding at the start of its second day. Syria’s army command said in a statement that Israeli warplanes had attacked an army position at 1 a.m. on Tuesday (2200 GMT, Monday) in the countryside of Quneitra province”.

Misreading the Nordic model

21/09/2016

An article by an extreme right wing economist criticizes the Nordic model, “Sanders, the left-wing populist who for months competed with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, has popularised a simple vision for reform: introduce a Nordic-style welfare state in the United States. In a debate with Clinton, Sanders explained that his aim is to popularise the concept of Scandinavian democratic socialism: “I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn what they have accomplished for their working people.” Sanders and his supporters are not alone in praising the Nordic model. In 2013, President Barack Obama followed suit by making the first bilateral visit by a U.S. president to Sweden, complimenting his hosts about their country’s economic model. He escalated the praise at a U.S.-Nordic summit in May 2016, where he explained: “In a world of growing economic disparities, Nordic countries have some of the least income inequality in the world—which may explain one of the reasons that they’re some of the happiest people in the world, despite not getting much sun. . . . There have been times where I’ve said, why don’t we just put all these small countries in charge for a while? And they could clean things up.” Admiration for the Nordic welfare state runs deep among U.S. academics, journalists, and politicians on the left. It’s easy to understand why—at first glance, the Nordic countries appear prosperous yet enjoy equal distribution of wealth and good social outcomes”.

He argues that “A closer look, however, shows that what American liberals like about Nordic societies is not a product of socialism. The success of Nordic countries has more to do with their unique culture—and free markets—than with their welfare state policies. A 2015 story by PBS titled “What Can the U.S. Learn from Denmark?” is a good example of how many Americans view Scandinavia. The article heaps praise on the Danish social model, explaining that “Danes get free or heavily subsidised health care” and “compensation when they’re unemployed, out sick from work, or on parental leave.” It notes Denmark’s high taxes, strong labour unions, and heavy state involvement in the economy. It suggests that these policies explain why Danes live, on average, 1.5 years longer than Americans. All these statements are of course true, but they lack historical perspective. Danes today outlive their American counterparts, but not because Denmark has the highest tax-to-GDP ratio in the developed world. As late as 1960, taxes in Denmark were actually lower than in the United States (25 percent of GDP compared with 27 percent), yet at the time, Danes lived 2.4 years longer than Americans—well before the creation of the Danish welfare state. In Sweden and Norway, too, the gap in life span compared with the United States is smaller today than it was in the mid–twentieth century, when their public sectors were relatively less developed”.

He mentions that “The positive influence of the welfare state on overall prosperity is similarly exaggerated. In fact, prosperity in the Nordic countries has increased faster in periods of economic freedom than in those of democratic socialism. The example of Sweden is instructive. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, liberal politicians such as Johan August Gripenstedt, minister of finance from 1856 to 1866, introduced reforms designed to secure business freedom, free trade, and strong protections for property rights. From around 1870 to 1936, Sweden pursued pro-market economic policies and was rewarded with an average yearly growth rate of two percent—the highest of any western European nation during the period and twice as high as rates of leading economies such as that of the United Kingdom. In 1936, the Swedish Social Democratic Party was able to form its first majority government. The Social Democrats went on to dominate Swedish political life until 1970, slowly raising taxes and expanding the welfare state while, for the most part, leaving the market-oriented policies of their predecessors in place. During these years, Sweden’s growth rate rose to 2.9 percent. Although higher in absolute terms than before—a product of technological growth and the postwar boom—this was around the western European average”.

Giving context he writes how “between 1970 and 1991, Sweden—unlike other Nordic countries—experimented with third way socialism. The pinnacle of these policies was the introduction of “employer funds,” a system through which ownership of private firms would slowly be transferred to funds run by the labour unions. Sweden’s average growth rate fell to 1.4 percent, the second lowest in western Europe, and many successful businesses and individuals left the country. The socialist experiment was followed by an era of renewed focus on market reforms, reduced generosity of welfare programs, and significant tax reductions. The reforms paid off: between 1991 and 2014, Sweden’s growth rate rose to 1.8 percent—placing the country only slightly behind the United Kingdom, which had the highest rate in western Europe during this period. In addition to economic growth, American admirers of the Nordic societies often focus on their social attributes, such as high levels of income and wealth equality. Yet as I show in my book, many of these attributes largely predate the welfare state. For instance, in a 2008 study of top incomes in Sweden, the economists Jesper Roine and Daniel Waldenstrom explain that “most of the decrease [in income equality in Sweden] takes place before the expansion of the welfare state and by 1950 Swedish top income shares were already lower than in other countries.” A 2013 study by Anthony Barnes Atkinson and Jakob Egholt Sogaard reached a similar conclusion for Denmark and Norway”.

He attempts to further undermine the Nordic model, “Good social outcomes in the Nordic countries predate the welfare state because what makes Nordic societies unique is related not to policy—large welfare states can also be found in countries such as Belgium, France, and Spain—but to culture. Over 100 years ago, German sociologist Max Weber observed that Protestant countries in northern Europe tended to have higher living standards, better academic institutions, and more well-functioning societies than countries in other parts of Europe. He attributed their success to the “Protestant work ethic.” Swedish scholar Assar Lindbeck later built upon this theory by looking at factors other than religion. For instance, he explained that in the hostile environment of preindustrial Scandinavia, it was difficult to survive as a farmer without working exceptionally hard. The population therefore adopted out of necessity a culture with a great emphasis on individual responsibility, honesty, trust, punctuality, and hard work. These cultural attributes help explain why Nordic nations developed high levels of prosperity and low levels of poverty during the small-government era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The welfare states were introduced only once Nordic societies had already become prosperous and equal”.

He notes that “The simple truth is that there is nothing magical about the Nordics. Like other countries, they have thrived economically in periods of free market reforms and have stagnated when taxes and government involvement in the economy have increased. Their social success predates the welfare state and is no more or less impressive than the social success of Nordic Americans. And as I show in Debunking Utopia, norms related to hard work and individual responsibility, which developed before the welfare state, have begun to change since it was introduced”.

He ends “It is easy to understand why so many Americans admire Nordic societies, even if they don’t always understand them. The point is not that Americans should stop admiring Nordic society, but rather that it is time to learn the true lesson from the Nordics—the importance of free markets, strong norms, and policies that encourage citizens to maintain those norms”.

“Was killed in an aerial raid”

21/09/2016

The top military commander of the militant group Jabhat Fateh al Sham, the former al Qaeda offshoot in Syria, was killed in an aerial raid that targeted a meeting of the group’s leaders, both the group and rebel sources said on Thursday. The commander Abu Hajer al Homsi, whose alias is Abu Omar Saraqeb, was killed in a rural area of Aleppo province, they said, where the group has played an instrumental role in ongoing battles against the Syrian army troops and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in the gateway city of Aleppo. An announcement by the group said he was “martyred” in an air strike in the countryside of Aleppo. The nationality of the jets that hit the location was not immediately known, but a rebel source said initial information suggested it was most likely a U.S. jet that struck the hideout”.

The Russian victim?

19/09/2016

An article examines Clinton presidency and Russia, “If Hillary Clinton is elected president, the world will remember Aug. 25 as the day she began the Second Cold War. In a speech last month nominally about Donald Trump, Clinton calledRussian President Vladimir Putin the godfather of right-wing, extreme nationalism. To Kremlin-watchers, those were not random epithets. Two years earlier, in the most famous address of his career, Putin accused the West of backing an armed seizure of power in Ukraine by “extremists, nationalists, and right-wingers.” Clinton had not merely insulted Russia’s president: She had done so in his own words. Worse, they were words originally directed at neo-Nazis. In Moscow, this was seen as a reprise of Clinton’s comments comparing Putin to Hitler. It injected an element of personal animus into an already strained relationship — but, more importantly, it set up Putin as the representative of an ideology that is fundamentally opposed to the United States”.

The report goes on to point out how “Even as relations between Russia and the West have sunk to new lows in the wake of 2014’s revolution in Ukraine, the Kremlin has long contended that a Cold War II is impossible. That’s because, while there may be differences over, say, the fate of Donetsk, there is no longer a fundamental ideological struggle dividing East and West. To Russian ears, Clinton seemed determined in her speech to provide this missing ingredient for bipolar enmity, painting Moscow as the vanguard for racism, intolerance, and misogyny around the globe. The nation Clinton described was unrecognizable to its citizens. Anti-woman? Putin’s government provides working mothers with three years of subsidised family leave. Intolerant? The president personally attended the opening of Moscow’s great mosque. Racist? Putin often touts Russia’s ethnic diversity. To Russians, it appeared that Clinton was straining to fabricate a rationale for hostilities”.

However the author does not describe to who Putin has not been sol tolerant, gays, democracy advocates, the free press and a host of others. To pretend that he is “tolerant” is either naïve or a gross mischaracterisation.

The writer goes on to note “I have been hard-pressed to offer a more comforting explanation for Clinton’s behaviour — a task that has fallen to me as the sole Western researcher at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Better known by its native acronym, MGIMO, the institute is the crown jewel of Russia’s national-security brain trust, which Henry Kissinger dubbed the “Harvard of Russia.” In practice, the institute is more like a hybrid of West Point and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service: MGIMO prepares the elite of Russia’s diplomatic corps and houses the country’s most influential think tanks. There is no better vantage point to gauge Moscow’s perceptions of a potential Hillary Clinton administration. Let’s not mince words: Moscow perceives the former secretary of state as an existential threat. The Russian foreign-policy experts I consulted did not harbour even grudging respect for Clinton. The most damaging chapter of her tenure was the NATO intervention in Libya, which Russia could have prevented with its veto in the U.N. Security Council. Moscow allowed the mission to go forward only because Clinton had promised that a no-fly zone would not be used as cover for regime change”.

The writer refuses to see the argument that there was no other way to keep Libyans safe from their own government than removing Gaddafi. Moreover, for Russia to protest that it did not see what was coming by delinking Gaddafi’s actions and the treatment of his people is to say that least, disingenuous.

The writer adds “Clinton has justified her threatened attack on Russia’s air force, saying that it “gives us some leverage in our conversations with Russia.” This sounds suspiciously like the “madman theory” of deterrence subscribed to by former President Richard Nixon, who tried to maximize his leverage by convincing the Soviets he was crazy enough to start a world war. Nixon’s bluff was a failure; even when he invaded Cambodia, Moscow never questioned his sanity. Today, Russian analysts do not retain the same confidence in Hillary Clinton’s soundness of mind. Her temper became legendary in Moscow when she breached diplomatic protocol by storming out of a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov just moments after exchanging pleasantries. And the perception that she is unstable was exacerbated by reports that Clinton drank heavily while acting as America’s top diplomat — accusations that carry special weight in a country that faults alcoholism for many of Boris Yeltsin’s failures”.

The writer worryingly adds that “Moscow prefers Trump not because it sees him as easily manipulated, but because his “America First” agenda coincides with its view of international relations. Russia seeks a return to classical international law, in which states negotiate with one another based on mutually understood self-interests untainted by ideology. To Moscow, only the predictability of realpolitik can provide the coherence and stability necessary for a durable peace. For example, the situation on the ground demonstrates that Crimea has, in fact, become part of Russia. Offering to officially recognize that fact is the most powerful bargaining chip the next president can play in future negotiations with Russia. Yet Clinton has castigated Trump for so much asputting the option on the table. For ideological reasons, she prefers to pretend that Crimea will someday be returned to Ukraine — even as Moscow builds a $4 billion bridge connecting the peninsula to the Russian mainland”.

It ends “In Clinton, it sees the polar opposite — a progressive ideologue who will stubbornly adhere to moral postures regardless of their consequences. Clinton also has financial ties to George Soros, whose Open Society Foundations are considered the foremost threat to Russia’s internal stability, based on their allegedinvolvement in Eastern Europe’s prior “Color Revolutions.” Russia’s security apparatus is certain that Soros aspires to overthrow Putin’s government using the samemethods that felled President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine: covertly orchestrated mass protests concealing armed provocateurs. The Kremlin’s only question is whether Clinton is reckless enough to back those plans. Putin condemned the United States for flirting with such an operation in 2011, when then-Secretary Clinton spoke out in favor of mass protests against his party’s victory in parliamentary elections. Her recent explosive rhetoric has given him no reason to believe that she has abandoned the dream of a Maidan on Red Square. That fear was heightened when Clinton surrogate Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, recently accused Putin of attempting to rig the U.S. election through cyberattacks. That is a grave allegation — the very kind of thing a President Clinton might repeat to justify war with Russia”.

 

Trump’s support for Iraq

19/09/2016

Hillary Clinton challenged Donald Trump on his consistent denials that he supported the Iraq War before the invasion. “I have taken my responsibility for my decision. He refuses to take responsibility for his support,” Clinton said. But Trump disputed Clinton’s account, saying he was consistently against the invasion. So, did Trump always oppose the invasion? Let’s re-up our previous fact-checks. FACTS: The only report that found Trump speaking about the Iraq war before it happened was by Buzzfeed News, which reported that in a 2002 interview with Howard Stern, Trump was directly asked if he would support the invasion of Iraq, which didn’t begin until March 2003. “Yeah, I guess so,” Trump responded. “I wish the first time it was done correctly.”

“al Qaeda has filled the breach left by the absence of the United States”

19/09/2016

An important piece notes how al Qaeda is returning to Syria, “The struggle for Aleppo poses an awful threat for the United States. The ongoing battle for what was once Syria’s second-largest city has united two of the most prominent opposition coalitions. Their goal is to defeat Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But there’s one more thing they have in common — neither has ever received significant help from Washington in their joint effort to break a nearly month-long siege of opposition-controlled areas of the city and conquer the rest of it. The groups that have been trying to protect civilians in Aleppo from the siege tactics and indiscriminate attacks of the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies may succeed nonetheless. But Washington’s inaction may inadvertently be paving the way for Syria’s next Islamic State. That’s because al Qaeda has filled the breach left by the absence of the United States. Al Qaeda is resurgent globally, exploiting American blind spots, and building a popular local vanguard to oversee the transformation of local populations in countries where the state has collapsed. Syria is its current focus. The United States now has little choice but to reorient its strategy in Syria to focus on the threat posed by al Qaeda”.

The writers add “Al Qaeda’s presence and influence in Syria was never confined to its formal affiliate, the Nusra Front. It dispatched numerous senior leaders and strategists to oversee the creation of a vanguard for al Qaeda within the Syrian revolutionary movement after the start of the civil war in 2011. These operatives, which the U.S. government calls the “Khorasan group,” not only advised the Nusra Front’s top leadership, but also leaders of other Syrian opposition groups. Al Qaeda’s intent was to cultivate a series of rebel groups sympathetic to its aims while building a formal affiliate to normalize and diffuse its ideology. Al Qaeda probably also intended to establish a buffer against the possibility that an American intervention could destroy al Qaeda’s entire network by eliminating one organization. The Syrian war now involves U.S.-vetted and armed moderate groups, but also includes a significant component belonging to either Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the successor of the Nusra Front, or its close ally, Ahrar al-Sham. Both are now vital components of the largest opposition coalitions operating in Aleppo, Jaysh al-Fatah, and Fatah Halab. Ahrar al-Sham epitomizes how al Qaeda is developing a network of sympathetic local revolutionary forces: The Syrian opposition group is a key node in the al Qaeda network that has nonetheless achieved the image of a “mainstream” Syrian opposition movement. It is the largest and most powerful recipient of al Qaeda’s tutelage after Jabhat Fateh al-Sham”.

They write worryingly that “Ahrar al-Sham’s activity demonstrates that its strategy is joined at the hip with al Qaeda, and represents a local vanguard for the transnational jihadi group in Syria. Al Qaeda’s signature is apparent in Ahrar al-Sham’s campaign to transform the religious identity of Syrians. The group governs through a series of sharia courts throughout the northern Idlib and Aleppo provinces, operating in parallel to the Nusra Front, which enforces hard-line rulings such as veil requirements for women and restricts freedom of the press. Ahrar al-Sham’s goal is to replace the Assad regime with a theocracy. This vision is a fundamental change from the initial demands of the Syrian opposition in 2011 for a democratic and pluralistic system. Syrian opposition groups nonetheless view Ahrar al-Sham as a “mainstream” actor, because of its major contributions to the war against the Assad regime. It serves as the mortar that binds opposition groups together in northern Syria and is well-positioned to merge these forces with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and solidify sharia-based governance — all without the world realizing that the result would be a major win for al Qaeda’s aims in Syria”.

They argue that “Turkey is using its intervention in northern Syria against the Islamic State and the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces to position itself as a power broker and is empowering its strongest opposition ally, Ahrar al-Sham, to play a key role. Ahrar al-Sham participated in the Turkey-backed offensive near the Euphrates but did not publicize its role, as American air support for the initial operation incentivised Turkey to emphasise the role of Free Syrian Army-affiliated groups. Ahrar al Sham has long called for Turkey’s direct involvement in the Syrian Civil War, including publicly advocating for a Turkey-implemented safe zone in northern Aleppo in August 2015. The United States risks losing the war against extremism in Syria if it continues to allow Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to be seen by the Syrian people as the victors in Aleppo. Ahrar al-Sham is as much a part of al Qaeda’s long game in Syria as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It shares the same goal to shape Syria’s population in a way that facilitates global jihad, and its pragmatic approach advances al Qaeda’s aim to build a durable safe haven in the Levant”.

The piece ends “Ahrar al Sham’s window to disavow al Qaeda and work against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham should be closing rapidly. The United States must take action to provide Syrian civilians and opposition groups with an acceptable alternative to the al Qaeda network. Washington must also focus on preventing the further development of sharia-based governance structures in opposition-held areas in order to combat al Qaeda’s subversive strategy. If Ahrar al-Sham does not act decisively to counteract al Qaeda in Syria, it must be treated as, and targeted as, an equal threat. For the time being, U.S. policymakers must resist the temptation to drift into an alliance with Russia and Assad to accomplish this goal. Any such partnership would ensure remaining “mainstream” opposition groups will turn away from the United States and toward hard-line elements of the Syrian opposition, effectively removing any potential Sunni partners against the Islamic State and al Qaeda from the battlefield. An alliance with Russia or Assad would only accelerate al Qaeda’s victory”.

Syria ceasefire, little about US-Russia partnership

17/09/2016

The new Syria cease-fire is rich in detail on the mechanics of ending violence in Aleppo. It says little about how the United States and Russia will establish a new military partnership that is seen as key to the long-term sustainability of the deal. Officials familiar with the document outline a highly technical series of requirements for both Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and opposition forces. These include precise calculations, in meters, on how the sides would pull back from a key artery into Aleppo and where they would have to redeploy weaponry. The agreement was reached last Friday after a marathon day of negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Underscoring the complexity of the new arrangement, even Kerry stumbled over some of the particulars while speaking shortly after the cease-fire came into effect Monday. Here are some details of the agreement, according to the U.S. officials. They weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the still-confidential agreement and demanded anonymity”.

May’s Brexit

17/09/2016

An interesting article in Foreign Affairs discusses Theresa May’s Brexit plan, “In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, in which 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the European Union, many among the British electorate felt that the lights of economic integration had been extinguished and that dark times lay ahead for the United Kingdom. The febrile, early post-referendum atmosphere in Westminster was infused with recriminations over the toxic referendum campaign and the divisions within the government. A basic negotiation principle is to have unity on your side, and this was sorely missing—an inauspicious basis for embarking on what will be the most important and complex negotiation in the country’s history. But amid the tumult, there were some positive signs. A new Conservative leader, Theresa May, emerged from the political chaos and quickly showed the sort of steel that many party members admired in the United Kingdom’s only previous female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. After assuming the prime ministership in July, May dismissed potentially discordant ministers and appointed a finely balanced new cabinet. Although she herself had favoured remaining in the EU, she coined the mantra “Brexit means Brexit” and wisely named a former minister of state for Europe and “leave” advocate, David Davis, as secretary of state for exiting the European Union. The new secretary of state for international trade, Liam Fox, is another Brexiteer, as is May’s most controversial appointment: Boris Johnson as foreign secretary”.

The writer notes that “his appointment may prove to be a smart move. Johnson, who successfully led the Brexit campaign, draws a distinction between opposing the hegemony of the Brussels bureaucracy and pursuing broader relations with European countries. “There’s a massive difference between leaving the EU and our relations with Europe,” he has said, “which, if anything, are going to be intensified and built up at an intergovernmental level.” He is a pragmatic politician who is not from the extreme “Eurosceptic” wing of his party and is immensely popular across a wide range of the population. (A May 2016 poll revealed that 52 percent of Londoners approved of his performance as mayor, although a post-referendum poll has shown a decline in his popularity.) May recognizes this and doubtless will be looking to him to engage thoughtfully with foreign leaders and, eventually, to help sell the final Brexit agreement domestically”.

The writer points of for the need for those with negotiating skills in the Civil Service across not just trade but a wide range of the areas. He adds that “Although it was reported at the time as an unpalatably harsh stance, the prime minister displayed her acuity as a negotiator by declining to assure European citizens already residing in the United Kingdom that they would be able to stay after the United Kingdom formally leaves the EU. She, unlike her rivals for the Conservative leadership, realised that this is a key negotiating point that should be yielded only in return for an equal or similar concession, possibly on an aspect of the free movement of people within the EU”.

He makes the point that “May has pledged not to invoke Article 50 until she has secured a “UK-wide approach” that addresses concerns in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The two regions voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, and Scotland has threatened to hold its own “leave the United Kingdom” vote. May visited Edinburgh in mid-July and then ten days later traveled to Belfast, sending a clear signal of her commitment to include the concerns of the devolved administrations in the negotiations. Another issue is that no less than 11 national elections are scheduled in EU member countries over the next two years. The landscape will inevitably shift over the course of the negotiations. Reports now suggest that the British government will wait until after the elections in France and Germany next year to invoke Article 50, pushing the start of the two-year formal negotiation process to late 2017, which would provide additional time for the United Kingdom to prepare”.

Crucially he mentions that “A final consideration for the United Kingdom is to avoid having negotiations over the single market, with its “four freedoms” (the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people), be set apart from the negotiations over other concerns. Although trade and migration issues are high on the agenda, it would be a mistake for them to be negotiated within a single-market silo. It may be that an issue to be negotiated in an unrelated area, such as health, consumer protection, or rules for the digital economy, could provide an opportunity to create a deal on a difficult single-market issue. The next step, then, which British negotiators will constantly need to revisit and refine when they are at the negotiating table, is to to apply a relative value to each issue on multiple agendas from the perspective of each negotiating party. They will be looking for as many issues as possible where both (or multiple) parties attach a different value to the same issue. Looking back to the 1978 Camp David accords, it was assumed that it would be impossible for Egypt and Israel to agree on how to divide the Sinai, which they initially both wanted. But they wanted it for different reasons”.

The article ends “The Brexit negotiators need to look for issues that are of high value for one negotiator to gain on and of comparatively low cost for the other negotiator to concede. The more issues that can be identified where the cost and value to each side is different, the easier it will be to make multiple trades. Above all, the EU needs to establish clear rules on communication with the press and the public about the negotiations. These rules will call for the careful balancing of transparency with the need for discretion, so that deals can be made and discussed without being compromised by premature public revelations. The eventual agreement on the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU may be much more positive than the shrill debate in the aftermath of the vote on June 23, 2016, implied it would be. But once a comprehensive agreement has been reached, the British government will face a big remaining challenge: selling the package to a population that was so polarized by the referendum”.

Boykin supports Trump

17/09/2016

A new list of retired senior military officers who endorse Donald Trump for president includes a three-star general who was reprimanded by the Army for disclosing classified information in a 2008 memoir about his career in special operations. Retired Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin, a founding member of the Army’s elite Delta Force, is probably the most recognizable name on the list, which includes 88 names and was released Tuesday with a letter in which the signatories said the American people have an “urgently needed opportunity to make a long overdue course correction in our national security posture and policy” by electing Trump president. The letter is seen as an effort to convince voters that the Republican nominee would be a good commander in chief after a number of retired military officers came out against him, but includes several retired officers who have complicated pasts.

Saudi Arabia in the new Middle East

17/09/2016

A piece discusses how Saudi Arabia is dealing with the new Middle East, “Those concerned about the fallout from President Barack Obama and his administration’s nuclear deal with Iran — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — the hits just keep on coming. The recent revelation that the United States handed over $400 million in cash to Iran on the same day that it was releasing four American captives is but the latest disturbing detail in the saga that has become Obama’s extended experiment in appeasing the mullahs. Add it to the long list of other threatening post-deal developments, including the intensification of Iran’s ballistic missile program, the continuation of its efforts to illicitly procure nuclear materials, and the expansion of its aggressive and destabilising activities across the Middle East. Oh, and don’t forget thedetention of three new American hostages, of course. Somewhat less noticed in the JCPOA’s aftermath, but potentially no less consequential for regional security, has been the steadily escalating confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This was not a wholly unexpected development. Many analysts warned that the Saudis would not look kindly on a U.S.-Iranian agreement, negotiated largely behind their backs, that ended up leaving the country’s arch-enemy, the Shiite theocracy across the Gulf, with a large nuclear infrastructure, hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, and a more or less open field to indulge its quest for regional hegemony. The Saudis, inevitably, would read it as America abandoning its historical role as the guarantor of Gulf security in favor of some new dispensation with an unreconstructed Iran — one that threatened to irreversibly alter the region’s correlation of forces in Iran’s favour”.

The article goes on in a similarly sweeping terms to argue “Obama’s penchant for stoking Saudi paranoia and fears has no doubt made matters much worse: Declaring, for example, that his aim was to establish an “equilibrium” between the Saudis, a longstanding U.S. ally, and Iran, a revolutionary power that has systematically attacked U.S. interests for four decades. Or publicly complaining about the fact that he’s“compelled” to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally at all. Instead, Obama has opted to diss the Saudis repeatedly as free-riders who seek to exploit American muscle for their own narrow, sectarian purposes. In Obama’s telling, the Iranians — handmaidens to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s multi-year campaign of war crimes and mass murder — have legitimate “equities” in places like Syria that deserve to be protected (Could he mean the land bridge via Damascus by which Iran supplies its Lebanese client, the terrorist group Hezbollah, with tens of thousands of missiles and rockets that will be used in its next war with Israel?). Rather than seeking to counter Iran’s revisionist agenda, Obama’s view is that the Saudis need to accommodate themselves to “sharing” the Gulf with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism”.

The writer goes on to add “Confronted with a newly empowered Iran and a retrenching America, the kingdom is striking back, not rolling over. It believes Obama’s policies have purposefully created a dangerous vacuum in the region, one that is primarily being filled by an Iran bent on sowing chaos and destruction, ultimately targeting the downfall of the House of Saud itself. No longer able to rely on Pax Americana, and unwilling to watch passively as the mullahs slip the noose over their collective neck, the Saudis have increasingly taken matters into their own hands, especially since the ascension of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in 2015, adopting a much more assertive and high-risk, even provocative, national security posture with a single-minded mission to challenge and confront Iran. The opening shot (literally) in Salman’s new anti-Iran campaign was fired even before the JCPOA was finalized in July 2015. In March of last year, the Saudis intervened in Yemen to stop Iran-backed Houthi rebels from taking control of the country. The Obama administration subsequently supported the effort, reluctantly, by supplying intelligence and military equipment. Though the Saudis — and a handful of Sunni allies, led by the United Arab Emirates — succeeded in rolling back rebel gains in southern Yemen, the war has been bogged down for months”.

Thankfully he does notice the obvious point that “The Saudis have also been active participants in Syria’s civil war, supplying weapons to Sunni rebels seeking to topple the Iranian-backed Assad regime. While the Saudis have worked closely with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in this effort, the kingdom has persistently pushed for a more aggressive strategy to remove Assad from power and sever Iranian influence in Syria — including by supporting a number of radical jihadist groups, some with close links to al Qaeda. Following the large-scale intervention by Russia’s air force to bolster the Syrian regime in the fall of 2015, the Saudis, with CIA cooperation, increased the flow of weaponry to the rebels, helping to inflict significant casualties on pro-regime units — including leading elements of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that, together with Iranian-backed Shiite militias, have served as the vanguard of Assad’s army. And even as the Russian/Iranian-led offensive has turned the tide of battle decisively in the regime’s favor, the Saudis have not eased their pressure. In February 2016, the kingdom even announced that it was willing to commit its own ground troops to an international force should the U.S.-led coalition decide it was useful. The offer allegedly remains on the table. More recently, a surge of Saudi weapons to a jihadist-led rebel coalition helped foil, at least for now, the Syrian government’s efforts to reconquer the strategic city of Aleppo”.

More worrying for global order and the future nations acceptance of the Pax Americana, he correctly writes that “the Saudis increasingly seeking to flex their muscle across the security, diplomatic, economic, and even religious spheres. To recount the highlights in some detail helps to underscore the sustained and comprehensive nature of the current Saudi campaign:

— In August 2015, in an unprecedented operation for Saudi intelligence, Saudi agents captured the planner of the 1996 bombing of the U.S. military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Ahmed Ibrahim al-Mughassil, a Saudi Shiite with deep links to Iran and Hezbollah, was detained in Beirut as he was exiting a flight from Tehran and immediately rendered to the kingdom for interrogation. At the time, the United States had a longstanding bounty of $5 million for any information leading to Mughassil’s arrest.

— Last December, King Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s deputy crown prince and defense minister, announced the formation of an anti-terrorism coalition of 34 Sunni states that would be headquartered in Saudi Arabia and focused in particular on thwarting Iranian-backed aggression throughout the region. Only a few months later, more than 20 of the coalition’s members conducted large-scale military exercises in northern Saudi Arabia, near the Iraqi border — coincident with the kingdom’s public offer to commit ground forces to Syria.

— In early March, the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) formally designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. In its statement, the GCC accused Hezbollah of “hostile acts” to undermine the sovereignty, security, and stability of GCC members. It also charged the group with responsibility for “terror and incitement” in Yemen and Iraq. Shortly thereafter, the Arab League followed suit, also declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

—The next month, the Saudis ramped up their diplomatic offensive at the April summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. With more than 30 leaders in attendance, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the kingdom not only succeeded in passing a final statement that denounced Hezbollah for conducting terrorist attacks across the region; it also got an explicit condemnation of Iran for its “continued support for terrorism” and its interference in the internal affairs of member states, including Bahrain, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen”.

He goes on to make the point that “The burgeoning Israeli-Saudi ties are clearly unnerving the Iranians. After the Eshki trip to Israel, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a harsh rebuke, tweeting: “Revelation of Saudi government’s relations with Zionist regime was stab in the back of [the] Islamic [community].” Days earlier, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, launched an extended attack on the kingdom, focusing in particular on Prince Turki’s activities and the Eshki visit. Nasrallah insisted that “None of this could have happened without the Saudi government’s approval.” He lamented that Israel is no longer viewed as an enemy by the Arab states, and claimed that “the worst and most important development in this matter is Saudi Arabia taking its relationship with Israel from a clandestine connection to a public one.” Nasrallah warned, “Saudi Arabia is set to recognize Israel,” and was ready to normalize relations “for free, without receiving anything in return” on the Palestinian issue. A particular Iranian worry when it comes to deepening Saudi-Israeli coordination could well concern Iran’s internal stability. The Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, has long viewed Iran’s large, disparate, and disgruntled minority communities as potentially a major vulnerability for the regime. This view was articulated most forcefully by Meir Dagan, the late Mossad chief, who regularly made the case to U.S. officials that promoting the downfall of Iran should be an essential element of any strategy, short of war, to end the Iranian nuclear threat. Dagan was convinced that more could be done to appeal to the Iranian people, in particular by working with dissatisfied minority populations who comprise an estimated 40 to 50 percent of Iran’s population. He also believed that the Arab Gulf states might participate in such a strategy, especially if the United States played a coordinating role”.

He ends “To be fair, the Obama administration can rightly claim a degree of credit for encouraging the Saudis to step up to this larger role. Obama has made clear that part of his “mission” as president has been to spur traditional U.S. allies, like the Saudis, to take action for themselves, rather than always waiting for the United States to lead and then “holding our coat.” The president has called this his “anti-free rider campaign.” The problem, of course, is that the administration’s effort to promote greater burden sharing has not been pursued by way of revitalising alliances with a new sense of common purpose and cooperation, but by leaving traditional partners feeling abandoned and betrayed. Obama seems to have been under the illusion that the abrupt retrenchment of U.S. power and leadership from the Middle East would result in the organic rise of a new regional equilibrium as local actors were forced to play larger roles in ensuring peace and stability. Instead, the policy has created a dangerous vacuum that’s been filled not only by predatory enemies like Russia and Iran, but by frightened partners such as the Saudis, who increasingly may seek to remedy their security dilemma through acts of self-preservation that not only fail to take U.S. interests into account, but could actually run counter to them”.

“Philippines has asked China to explain the presence”

17/09/2016

The Philippines has asked China to explain the presence of a larger-than-usual number of ships near the Scarborough Shoal, raising the prospect of fresh tension in the South China Sea. With the Group of 20 leaders gathered in the southern Chinese city of Hangzhou, a Philippine Air Force overflight reportedly spotted at least eight ships near the disputed shoal, including four Chinese coast guard vessels, two barges and two boats that could be troop carriers, according to the Department of National Defense. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Sunday expressed “grave concern” about the number and nature of the vessels, saying the presence of barge-like ships could signal Chinese plans to dredge — and potentially build — in the area. In a regular press briefing on Monday, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, downplayed the idea of a change in policy or posture. “The situation has not changed,” she said. Yet the timing and nature of the Filipino reports make the news tough to ignore.”

Cameron resigns again, more broken promises

13/09/2016

An article discusses the recent resignation of David Cameron from the House of Common and his legacy, “On June 27, David Cameron issued this statement: “I will continue with my duties as the MP for Witney. It is an enormous privilege to serve the people of West Oxfordshire.” So enormous that he could only bear it for a few more weeks, apparently. He’s off, leaving the Commons and triggering a by-election in Witney: some lucky Tory will soon inherit one of the safest and prettiest seats in the country”.

The article adds “What does this tell us about Mr Cameron? Nothing terribly positive, to be honest. Let’s remember, he fought the EU referendum campaign promising not to quit if he lost, then quit when he lost — but only having clung to office as long as possible and having banned the Civil Service from doing any preparatory work for Brexit, thus making it harder for his successor to actually get on with the job. In between breaking his promise not to resign as PM and breaking his promise not to resign as an MP, the only significant official work he undertook was drawing up an honours list handing an OBE to his wife’s stylist and a knighthood to his press officer.  Not exactly the most dignified departure from office, is it? And certainly not one that’s easy to reconcile with many, many statements from Mr Cameron about the sense of duty he owed to his nation, the selfless service he felt obliged to render.  In fact, it’s rather more reminiscent of the way Tony Blair took his leave: as soon as he lost power, he left Parliament. For Blair, there was no honour or nobility to be found in Parliament as a mere backbencher. Politics was about one thing: power. If you don’t have it, can’t exercise it, there’s no point doing it.  It’s a sentiment that will be familiar to anyone with small children: If you can’t win the game, why play it? In neither Mr Blair nor Mr Cameron is this petulance an attractive or admirable quality: storming off because things are no longer going your way simply isn’t a good look. The similarities continue, too, because in both cases, a hasty and graceless departure was out of keeping with the premiership that went before it”.

The writer, showing his own partisanship and support of Cameron’s only historical legacy, he adds “Cameron made mistakes, including the European errors that ultimately undid him. But he was not, overall, a bad prime minister. In fact, he was often quite a good one. Certainly his reflexes and instincts in times of trouble were sound: when in doubt, he generally did what was sensible, and the nation recognised that. He saw Britain through a financial crisis that could have ended truly badly. There was, despite his occasional intellectual pretensions, no Cameronism, no big idea or school of thought. His best ideas were never driven home with real force, never made permanent parts of our political and national life. That’s why Theresa May saw no reason to pause before trying to sweep away what was actually a fairly successful Cameron education policy and replacing it with the grammar schools he so opposed. He’s has now confirmed he doesn’t care enough about those policies to stay on and fight for them”.

The piece ends “And this is why flouncing out of Parliament in this way is so telling: it speaks to something fundamental about Mr Cameron’s character and his approach to politics: a lack of seriousness, the absence of real commitment.  Yes, he wanted the job and yes he put the hours in, to the cost of his family. But he would never die in a ditch for his political beliefs, never shed blood and move mountains to hammer home his arguments. It was always enough to get by, to do just enough to get the top grade and do better than the rest. Blessed with charm, a cool head and a good mind, Mr Cameron’s just-good-enough performance was, in fact, pretty good, and probably better than any of the others who might have done his job at the time”.

He concludes “Yet that lack of commitment, the sense that he never anything more than a gentleman amateur trying his hand at governing out of a combination of duty, boredom and vanity will stay with him when the histories are written. He won’t care, of course. He goes from here to start a very nice, very comfortable life, enjoying his family and wealth beyond most of our dreams. That will be enough for David Cameron. And if you or I happen to think less of him for the manner his departure, why should he mind?  Who are we to judge him?  The end of his political career shows just how little he really cares about what the little people think of him”.

 

“Philippines is proposing a 14 percent increase in defence spending”

13/09/2016

The Philippines is proposing a 14 percent increase in defence spending next year to buy new ships and aircraft to boost its fight against Islamist militants and enhance maritime security in the disputed South China Sea. According to internal documents seen by Reuters on Monday, about 130 billion pesos ($2.8 billion) or 96 percent of the proposed defense budget, would go to the armed forces. The push to beef up military spending reflects regional concern about China’s maritime assertiveness and the new government’s determination to crush the entrenched and lucrative network of the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf rebels behind a spree of kidnappings. Some 25 billion pesos would go to a modernization programme, the Department of National Defence said in the documents, including the acquisition of two surveillance planes and six close-air support planes to fight Abu Sayyaf”.

“Government spending has continued to balloon in recent years”

13/09/2016

A piece discusses the Chinese economy, “Since the end of 2013, Chongqing — a city of 33 million people in China’s southwest known for its spicy food and political scandals— has been quietly selling off equity in city-owned companies at a time when state-sector reform, announced to much fanfare by President Xi Jinping three years ago, had otherwise seemed to have stalled amid bureaucratic infighting. In a country that often trials economic reforms at a local or regional level before rolling them out nationwide, that suggests there might be hope for Xi’s reform agenda. Equally as important, Chongqing’s experience also suggests a solution to one of China’s other intractable economic problems: local government debt”.

It goes on to point out that “China’s state-owned companies are the laggards of the economy. They areabout a third as efficient as private-sector companies — as measured by return on assets — despite being supported with a host of subsidies and other perks. State companies account for only about a quarter of economic output, but they dominate some of the most important industries, like telecommunications and banking. In November 2013, Xi called for what he termed “mixed-ownership” reform that would lift the efficiency and effectiveness of state-owned companies by diluting government holdings. Governments would sell down their shares to other state companies, pension funds, private equity investors, as well as private and foreign companies in the hope that a greater range of shareholders would unleash companies’ entrepreneurial spirits. If anything, however, reform has gone backward. In June, Beijing ruled that the Chinese Communist Party must have a say in all major business decisions taken by state companies. Meanwhile, Beijing seems to be moving in the opposite direction: In December 2015, it mergedtwo of its shipping giants, followed shortly by its two leading train makers, creating even bigger national champions.”

The article mentions that “What Chongqing is doing is found at the other end of the strategic spectrum. Chongqing would gain little, if anything, from retaining ownership over the type of companies it’s been selling. Equity in fun parks and baijiu distribution companies have been put on the block. Some companies have been big — being sold for billions of yuan — and some small, but regardless of size they haven’t occupied the economy’s commanding heights. As to whether Chongqing’s equity sales have resulted in more efficient companies, there’s no way of telling as of yet. But it may do wonders for the city’s finances. Despite repeated efforts by Beijing to rein in debt, local government spending has continued to balloon in recent years. According to data compiled by China Business News based on disclosures by local governments, China’s provinces — including Chongqing, a municipality with the administrative rank of a province — on average saw a 47 percent increase in debt between mid-2013 (the last time there was a nationwide audit) and the end of 2015. The increase varied widely, with the far western region of Ningxia posting a 127 percent increase, while its neighbour Gansu increased by only 40 percent. Chongqing saw its debt burden decline by 4.6 percent, or about $2.4 billion on debts of about $52.6 billion, making it one of only two provinces that reduced its deficit. That’s all the more significant given that Chongqing has the fastest-growing provincial economy in China, expanding 11 percent in 2015 compared with 6.9 percent for the country as a whole. None of the usual economic indicators explain how it has managed this twin feat of record growth and reduced debt. It hasn’t changed its growth model: The city is heavily dependent on investment, with fixed-asset investment (money spent on capital goods like machinery and buildings) growing by more than 17 percent in 2015. The most important tool available to local governments to fund investment and pay down debt is selling land, but Chongqing’s land sales fell 7 percent in 2015. Local governments also are trying to encourage private investment in infrastructure, thereby lessening the state’s funding burden, but Chongqing has arranged only a handful of so-called public-private partnerships, far less than most provinces. That leaves state-owned equity sales. In his 2016 annual work report — a kind of State of the City address — Mayor Huang Qifan, the city’s second in command, said that in the course of pursuing mixed-ownership reform, Chongqing sold about $10.6 billion worth of equity in state companies the previous year. In his 2015 report, he said the city sold $17.4 billion worth of equity in 2014. That’s equivalent to 44 percent of land sales in 2015 and 68 percent a year earlier”.

Interestingly it notes how “Nationwide, local governments own about 100,000 companies, with assets that could be worth about $7.5 trillion. Chongqing alone has $375.4 billion worth of state-owned assets, seven times its debt. The difficulty has always been that meaningfully large assets sales were off-limits. Chongqing’s efforts seem to have really kicked into gear in the second half of 2014, when the Chongqing State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) — the agency responsible for regulating state companies — posted on its website a spreadsheet of 110 state companies, assets, and projects in which it was willing to sell equity and included contact names and phone numbers for the SASAC officials responsible for selling them. If you were interested in Locajoy, which was valued at about $300 million, you could contact Luo Rui, who would also entertain joint venture and leasing offers. It was an eclectic list that included eight live-aboard riverboats that cruise the Three Gorges, a popular tourist destination; a 10,000-ton electrolytic copper converter; and an iron-ore mine in western Australia — just the sort of companies a provincial government has little business being involved in”.

It concludes “Beijing still has to decide whether Chongqing’s experience is worth rolling out nationwide. Relative to China’s provinces, Chongqing is very small and Beijing regards Huang as a safe pair of hands when it comes to economic reform. Applying this to other provinces is more risky. When the central government published its long awaited state-sector reform blueprint in September, it was notable for just how jittery Beijing is about state assets being sold off too cheaply. That’s what brought state sector reform to a shuddering halt a little more than a decade ago, amid a public backlash against asset stripping and the perception that insiders were getting sweetheart deals. With cash-strapped local governments desperate to pay down their debts, there’s no guarantee that it won’t happen again. Of course, part of the problem is that it’s difficult to set a price for money-losing companies. For Locajoy, that might prove particularly difficult because there isn’t really a market price for performing dolphins, or for the dancing bears at the in-house circus. But the city of Chongqing’s willingness to try to find a price has put the amusement park at the cutting edge of one of China’s most anticipated economic reforms, one that could have a meaningful impact on the nation’s economic health”.

Iranian calls for increased offensive capacity

13/09/2016

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Wednesday that Iran needs to boost its offensive military capabilities. “In order to secure our population, our country and our future we have to increase our offensive capabilities as well as our defensive capabilities,” he said at a military expo in Tehran where a number of top military officials gathered, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). The Shi’ite leader spoke a week after a U.S. Navy ship fired warning shots toward an Iranian fast-attack craft that had approached two U.S. ships, according to a Pentagon spokesman. The Pentagon also said that Iranian vessels had harassed a U.S. warship near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital oil and gas shipping channel, early last week.  For its part, the Iranian military accused the United States of sending a drone into its air space on Monday, according to the Tasnim news agency. It said the drone left Iranian air space after a warning”.

“Plans to end its use of private prisons”

11/09/2016

A report in the Washington Post notes the end of private prisons, “The Justice Department plans to end its use of private prisons after officials concluded the facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services than those run by the government. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced the decision on Thursday in a memo that instructs officials to either decline to renew the contracts for private prison operators when they expire or “substantially reduce” the contracts’ scope”.

The article mentions how “The goal, Yates wrote, is “reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons.” “They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security,” Yates wrote. While experts said the directive is significant, privately run federal prisons house only a fraction of the overall population of inmates. The vast majority of the incarcerated in America are housed in state prisons — rather than federal ones — and Yates’ memo does not apply to any of those, even the ones that are privately run. Nor does it apply to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Marshals Service detainees, who are technically in the federal system but not under the purview of the federal Bureau of Prisons. The directive is instead limited to the 13 privately run facilities, housing a little more than 22,000 inmates, in the federal Bureau of Prisons system. The facilities were meant mainly to house inmates who are mostly low security, “criminal alien” men with 90 months or less time remaining on their sentences, according to a recent Department of Justice Inspector General report. Yates said the Justice Department would review the contracts for those facilities as they come up for renewal, as all will do in the next five years. She said they would then be reduced or allowed to expire, though none would be terminated prematurely”.

Crucially the piece notes “the memo could spark broader change in the prison system. “This is a huge deal. It is historic and groundbreaking,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “For the last 35 years, the use of private prisons in this country has crept ever upward, and this is a startling and major reversal of that trend, and one that we hope will be followed by others.” The Justice Department’s inspector general last week released a critical report concluding that privately operated facilities incurred more safety and security incidents than those run by the federal Bureau of Prisons. The private facilities, for example, had higher rates of assaults — both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff — and had eight times as many contraband cellphones confiscated each year on average, according to the report”.

It adds later that “The problems at private facilities were hardly a secret, and Yates said Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons officials had been talking for months about discontinuing their use. Mother Jones recently published a 35,000-word exposé detailing a reporter’s undercover work as a private prison guard in Louisiana — a piece that found serious deficiencies. The Nation magazine wrote earlier this year about deaths under questionable circumstances in privately operated facilities. It is possible the directive could face resistance from those companies that will be affected. In a statement Thursday, Jonathan Burns, a spokesman for Corrections Corporation of America, criticized the Inspector General’s report, saying it had “significant flaws.”

It goes on to mention “Yates wrote that the bureau also would amend a solicitation for a 10,800-bed contract to one for a maximum 3,600-bed contract. That, Yates wrote, would allow the Bureau of Prisons over the next year to discontinue housing inmates in at least three private prisons, and by May 1, 2017, the total private prison population would stand at less than 14,200 inmates. She said it was “hard to know precisely” when all the privately run facilities would no longer have federal inmates, though she noted that 14,200 was less than half the inmates they held at their apex three years ago, a figure she said indicated the department was “well on our way to ultimately eliminating the use of private prisons entirely.” “We have to be realistic about the time it will take, but that really depends on the continuing decline of the federal prison population, and that’s really hard to accurately predict,” Yates said. According to the inspector general’s report, private prisons housed roughly 22,660 federal inmates as of December 2015, though Bureau of Prisons website indicates the total is now closer to 22,100. That represents about 12 percent of the Bureau of Prisons total inmate population, according to the report”.

 

ISIS expelled from Turkish border

11/09/2016

Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels expelled the Islamic State group from the last strip of territory it controlled along the Syrian-Turkish border on Sunday, effectively sealing the extremists’ self-styled caliphate off from the outside world, Turkey’s prime minister and a Syrian opposition group reported. Also on Sunday, Syrian pro-government forces backed by airstrikes launched a wide offensive in the northern city of Aleppo, capturing areas they lost last month and besieging rebel-held neighbourhoods, state media and opposition activists said. Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army rebels have cleared the area between the northern Syrian border towns of Azaz and Jarablus, Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said. “From Azaz to Jarablus, 91 kilometers (57 miles) of our border has been completely secured. All the terrorist organizations are pushed back, they are gone,” Yildirim said, speaking at a dinner with non-government organizations in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir”.

Manila, playing the long game

09/09/2016

James Holmes writes how the Philippines can fight China “The Philippine Islands has a problem. It has international law on its side in its quarrel with China over maritime territory, but no policeman walking his beat to enforce the law. That means that, despite aninternational court’s findings, the dispute over rocks and islands off Philippine shores is far from over. On Aug. 2, China’s defence minister, Chang Wanquan, even said China must prepare for a “people’s war” at sea. That leaves strategy as Manila’s lone recourse; yet China overshadows the Philippines in every imaginable metric of national power. But as I wrote in 2012, when South China Sea tensions were heating up, while the Philippines has “no chance of winning in combat” with China, “it may win a peacetime confrontation.” The hope for Philippine leaders, then as now, was to conjure the career of Fabius Maximus, the Roman dictator nicknamed “Cunctator,” or “the Delayer.” Fabius advised confounding antagonists through inventive strategy and tactics, constructing alliances to augment strength, and remaining united and resolute at home”.

Holmes writes that “The Delayer spoke from experience. Greek historian Plutarch relates how Fabius envisioned combating Hannibal, who “burst into Italy” across the Alps in 218 B.C. and went on a rampage. Romans, accordingly, granted Fabius emergency powers to repel the threat. Fabius appeared unperturbed despite the menace in Italy’s midst. He reasoned that given time, Rome could amass power sufficient to vanquish the invaders. So he abjured efforts to crush the Carthaginians in an afternoon and postponed a battlefield decision. The Fabian playbook is essentially this: (1) Exercise self-discipline, subduing your passion for quick victory. Refuse to fight a stronger foe on its own terms. (2) Keep your alliances robust, supplementing your strength. (3) Tend to the home front, sustaining political unity for a prolonged struggle while husbanding the sinews of national power. And (4) be patient. Let the foe exhaust its fervor over time, yielding an acceptable peace. It’s likely Fabius would have smiled at Manila’s courtroom triumph. It’s precisely the sort of stratagem he would have deployed when confronting a power mismatch. Unable to dissuade a muscle-bound China through diplomatic persuasion or overpower it through economic or military might, Philippine officials took their case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which last month struck downBeijing’s claim to de facto ownership of most of the South China Sea — including much of the Philippine “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ), the offshore belt of sea where coastal states enjoy exclusive rights to harvest natural resources from the water and seafloor. Most strikingly, the jurists pronounced Beijing’s map of Southeast Asia, which bears a “nine-dash line” enclosing most of the South China Sea and delineating waters where China claims “indisputable sovereignty,” as bunk”.

He adds “Under the doctrine of indisputable sovereignty, China would make the rules governing seaborne endeavours in the South China Sea. The logic behind China’s stance was simple: the warrior who does battle on unfamiliar ground fights at a marked disadvantage relative to the warrior fighting on home ground. China wants to keep prospective foes like the U.S. Navy from knowing the theatre’s physical terrain and underwater geography, and to keep them from working with Southeast Asian allies before the outbreak of war. If successful, it can cripple its rivals operationally. But while the UNCLOS tribunal ruled China’s overreach unlawful, the court has no enforcement arm. China refused to take part in the legal proceedings, rejected the ruling, and, for good measure, flew a nuclear-capable bomber over Scarborough Shoal afterward, which the Chinese coast-guard vessels wrested from the Philippine Navy four years ago, precipitating the dispute. Confronted with Chinese intransigence, Philippine leaders need to go back to Fabius’ playbook. Having seized control of the narrative, for one thing, Manila must hang onto it. China wages “three warfares” 24/7/365, employing media, psychological, and legal outlets to mold opinion in its favour. The Philippines must reply in kind, telling its story well and telling it often. The UNCLOS tribunal ruling should become a standard talking point”.

He mentions how “In this regard, multinational bodies offer little promise. The UN Security Council could act. But China is a permanent member of the Security Council, wielding veto power over any resolution. ASEAN could act, but it isn’t a military alliance, and its members make decisions by consensus in any event. (Just last month, Cambodia nixed an effort to release a joint statement heralding the UNCLOS tribunal’s decision.) That leaves formal or informal alliances. A mutual defense treaty has bound the United States to the Philippine Islands since 1951. The pact obliges America to defend not just the main islands but “island territories under [Manila’s] jurisdiction.” Washington has inched closer and closer to declaring that the treaty applies to offshore islands and atolls, as well as underwater features such as Scarborough Shoal. But it hasn’t quite gotten there. Until then, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte should beware of hinting that he might barter away the contested territory, which is one very plausible outcome of one-on-one negotiations. Why would the U.S. bother defending something its ally might give away? Stand firm, Mr. President — and let friendly powers see you do so”.

He notes that how this “will help with Fabius’ third strategic imperative: steadying the home front for a long struggle. The Philippine electorate, like those anywhere, will come down hard on national leaders who appear to be dickering away sovereign rights and dignity. The good news is that Duterte appears to have internalized this lesson since taking office. In the wake of the UNCLOS tribunal’s ruling, Duterte told a visiting U.S. congressional delegation that the court’s decision is “non-negotiable.” That’s a message that will resonate with Philippine constituents as well as abroad. Lastly, Fabius would counsel Philippine leaders to protract the competition until China’s fervor subsides. How long will that take, and will China abandon its aims at all? It’s hard to see how Beijing could ever formally give them up. Chinese Communist Party leaders staked national dignity and prestige on an empty claim to ownership of the maritime common. They portrayed the common as sacred territory that has belonged to China since antiquity, and made themselves accountable to nationalist sentiment — which they themselves set ablaze. The best the Philippines and its friends can hope for is that Beijing will mellow out over time. It can never cancel its maritime claims altogether, for fear of fueling popular fury. But it could, perhaps, shelve them quietly for the sake of regional amity — as party potentates like Deng Xiaoping once did. Beijing could stop pressing its claims day in and day out”.

He ends “Manila must resign itself indefinitely to stalling tactics. It must be more Fabian than Rome was, placing heavy emphasis on its alliances. Then again, lesser antagonists have used just this strategy many times over the centuries, sometimes with rousing success. Look no farther than American shores. In 1777, Alexander Hamilton — who served on George Washington’s staff and reformed the Continental Army before becoming astar of stage and screenboasted to Robert Livingston about the army’s “Fabian conduct.” Rather than offer battle, and perhaps lose the Revolutionary War in an afternoon, Hamilton urged American forces to “perplex and fret” the redcoats. In so doing, Washington & Co. would “precipitate” British commanders “into measures” that Americans could “turn to good account.”

He ends “Entrusting vital interests to foreigners is less than satisfying for a proud society like the Philippines. The Philippines would surely have preferred to declare victory after years of Fabian strategy yielded a legal ruling starkly in Manila’s favour. But such is life when small powers square off against big ones. It’s time to dust off the Fabian playbook once again”.

“A double-digit lead over Donald Trump”

09/09/2016

Hillary Clinton hit her stride after the Democratic National Convention, riding to a double-digit lead over Donald Trump in some national and swing-state polls — her highest of the year. As of today, though, Americans’ views of her just hit a record low. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 41 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Clinton, while 56 percent have an unfavourable one. That’s the worst image Clinton has had in her quarter-century in national public life. Her previous low favourable rating this year was in July, when it was 42 percent, lower than any mark in historical Post-ABC polls except a few points in the 1990s when a large share of the public had no opinion of her. Her previous high for unfavorable views was in June, when 55 percent disliked Clinton.

Clinton, pragmatism and gay rights

09/09/2016

A piece reports Clinton’s questionable gay rights record, “During her first run for president in 2008, Hillary Clinton had an opportunity to become an undisputed leader in the gay rights movement. As she prepared for a forum on the gay-oriented Logo network, she reached out to her friend Hilary Rosen, a political consultant who is a lesbian. Rosen expressed frustration that so many mainstream political figures opposed legalised same-sex marriage, and she challenged Clinton to speak out for a community that had strongly supported her. Clinton refused. “I’m struggling with how we can support this with a religious and family context,’’ Rosen recalled Clinton telling her. Clinton just wanted to know the best way to explain the position”.

The piece adds “The exchange was painful for Rosen, who had known Clinton since they worked on children’s issues together in the 1980s. “We took it personally,” Rosen said. “You try not to because it’s politics, but in this case, the politics is personal.” Rosen remains a Clinton friend and supporter, saying, “I know her heart is in the right place.” And Clinton eventually got where her friends wanted her to go, though her change of heart came when the political risk had disappeared — close to a year after similar shifts by President Obama and Vice President Biden. This year, as the Democratic presidential nominee, she is running as a forceful advocate for the LGBT community and a full-fledged supporter of same-sex marriage. The country’s leading gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, endorsed her early in the campaign, lauding her as a “champion” for its cause. Clinton’s path to get to this point frustrated many of her supporters. While most national politicians have been slow to evolve on gay marriage, Clinton’s handling of it was particularly saddening to some activists because they had expected more. Clinton and her husband, Bill, had stood out as being among the first to actively court the gay community as an interest group and donor base — and yet they were unwilling to stand with the community on one of its biggest civil rights issues”.

Pointedly the article notes that “Clinton’s approach to same-sex marriage illustrates the caution that has come to define her political career. It also reflects a central challenge for the 68-year-old candidate, who along with her husband helped to shape an era of centrist politics designed to appeal to culturally conservative voters but has struggled to adapt to a generation of Democrats who have moved further to the left. Among the Bill Clinton-era policies that Hillary Clinton has disavowed on the presidential campaign trail is the Defense of Marriage Act, the law signed by then-President Bill Clinton in the lead-up to his 1996 reelection effort that prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. As Bill Clinton sought the 1992 Democratic nomination, LGBT activists were eager to align with the Clintons. The community had a strained relationship with the previous Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, whom activists heckled at a campaign event when he said he didn’t see the need to issue an order banning discrimination against gays in the federal government”.

It mentions later that “The night before Roberta Achtenberg, then a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was scheduled to make history at the 1992 Democratic National Convention as the first openly lesbian person to ever address the gathering, Hillary Clinton called to give her a pep talk. “I’m rooting for you,” Achtenberg recalled Clinton saying. In 1993, Bill Clinton’s first year in office, relations began to fray. Members of Congress and military officials were arguing against lifting the ban on gays serving in the military. Many strategists thought the president didn’t have the political capital to push through his idea, so he had to compromise. The result was the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which allowed gay men and women to serve in the military as long as they were not open about their sexual orientation. Those who spoke to Hillary Clinton at the time said she encouraged her husband to find more support in Congress to avoid the compromise. But there was little she could do”.

Turning to DOMA, the piece makes the point that “Three years after “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the president faced another question about gay rights. Lawmakers were crafting legislation mandating that the federal government recognize only heterosexual marriage. Some White House strategists worried that if Clinton didn’t back the legislation, he might lose the support of the centrists who had helped propel him to the White House in the first place. LGBT staffers tried to change the president’s mind. Hillary Clinton, whose influence had dwindled after her failed attempt to overhaul the health-care system, mostly stayed out of those discussions, Socarides said. Still, some gay activists hoped that she might be a voice for them in the West Wing. Rosen, who at the time headed the recording industry trade association, asked Clinton whether she could help change her husband’s mind. Hillary Clinton was not receptive, Rosen recalled, because she thought she needed to stand with her husband while making tough choices”.

With DOMA signed the article posits Hillary’s run for the Senate would “undo” the mixed gay rights record of his husband, “Clinton’s potential opponent, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, had made inroads with the city’s affluent gay community, opposing the military’s ban on openly gay members. Clinton followed suit, announcing at a fundraiser in the SoHo art studio of a gay donor that she, too, was against “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “Fitness to serve should be based on an individual’s conduct, not their sexual orientation,” Clinton said in a statement the next evening. A month later, she demonstrated the limits to her support for LGBT rights — declaring that she was unwilling to support legalised marriage”.

Pointedly it notes that “Clinton’s perpetual balancing act unnerved some supporters. When Clinton began holding fundraisers for her Senate reelection campaign in 2006, van Capelle urged gay donors to withhold their checks because “she didn’t earn it.” “If an environmental group [had] asked me to write a check for Hillary I would, and if reproductive rights group asked I would,” van Capelle said. “There was a strange relationship between politicians and fundraisers, and they thought they could use [LGBT activists] as an ATM machine and we didn’t want to be a part of it. I thought it set a bad example. What it said was you could do as little as you could at that time to get our support.” Clinton’s position was softening. She supported states that legalised same-sex marriage. As for her position on the federal ban, her staff noted that her position was in a “state of evolution.” Rosen, her longtime friend, said she pleaded with Clinton to stop discussing marriage in religious terms. The position seemed dogmatic and uncompromising, Rosen said”.

It mentions how “As secretary of state, Clinton allowed same-sex partners of Foreign Service officers the same travel benefits at married couples. She gave a speech in Geneva in 2011 in which she said, “Gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights,” an echo of the women’s rights speech she had delivered in China as first lady. By May 2012, as polls showed more than half of the country supporting same-sex marriage, top Democrats began indicating their support. Biden declared in a television interview that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage. Obama followed soon after, saying that “same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Clinton stayed silent”.

It concludes “In 2013, before the Supreme Court struck down a key part of DOMA, Clinton released a video with the Human Rights Campaign stating that she had reconciled her feelings. She was fully behind marriage. Black, now a fundraiser for Clinton, could only smile when she saw Clinton’s video. But she had known it was coming. After she married her partner, Judy, in April 2012 — nearly a year before Clinton’s public announcement — Black came home to a note attached to her door. It was from Clinton. “At long last!” it read.

Russian navy in the South China Sea

07/09/2016

Russia’s Pacific Fleet will dispatch a number of surface warships to the South China Sea to participate in the annual Sino-Russian naval exercise, dubbed Joint Sea 2016, held from September 11 to 19,TASS news agency reports. “At the beginning of September, a detachment consisting of the big anti-submarine ships Admiral Tributs and Admiral Vinogradov, the big amphibious ship Peresvet, the sea towboat Alatau, and the tanker Pechenga will head for Zhanjiang in China,” the chief press officer of the Eastern Military District for the Pacific Fleet, Captain Second Rank Vladimir Matveyev said. The Admiral Tributs and Admiral Vinogradov are both 6,930-ton Project 1155 Udaloy I-class anti-submarine warfare destroyers originally built for the Soviet Navy. The destroyers also have anti-ship capabilities and carry the P-270 Moskit supersonic ramjet powered anti-ship missile (NATO reporting name: SS-N-22 Sunburn).

“These objectives do not add up to a coherent policy”

07/09/2016

An article discusses a defence of Obama’s foreign policy given recently, “The Middle East remains the most dangerous, most complicated, and perhaps most controversial element in the Obama administration’s conduct of world affairs. In an interview with Foreign Policy contributor Aaron David Miller, Robert Malley, special assistant to the president and coordinator for the Middle East on the National Security Council staff, discussed President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies in depth. It is not only a polished, sober assessment of the actions and interests of the Obama administration, it’s a surprising one, too — it’s rare that a White House insider and counsel to the president gives us such insight into how off-base much of Obama’s approach to the region is. As ambassador to Turkey and Iraq during the Obama administration’s first term, I had a front row seat as much of that approach developed”.

The writer notes that “Malley’s rendition of Obama’s actions. His account of the Syrian chemical weapons denouement gives more credit to the administration’s decisiveness and less to pure chance — Putin compromising to thwart U.S. military action that Obama had essentially ruled out — than the public record justifies. Malley is basically right, however, in his assessment of the Iran nuclear deal, and the role of “tough multilateral diplomacy” and threat of force in achieving a breakthrough. But a list of American actions does not alone make a coherent mosaic. What gives context are the objectives that underlie activity. Malley, in the two he stresses, and the one he basically ignores, reveals why — as Miller noted — many believe “the Middle East is going to look a lot worse when Barack Obama leaves office than when he arrived.” For Malley, the core administration objectives are 1) avoiding attacks, particularly terrorist, on Americans (“the president’s priority … must be to defend America’s security”) and, 2) avoiding disastrous military adventures (“costly, open-ended conflicts”; “getting bogged down in military adventures”; and avoiding the myth “that military victory invariably translates into lasting political success”). The problem is that these objectives do not add up to a coherent policy — at best, they are things to be careful about when doing foreign policy. But Malley insists these are the standards by which to measure the administration”.

The writer argues that “He has half a point with the first. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the American people have been fixated on avoiding any terrorist attack on U.S. soil. In fact, a recent poll found that 42 percent of Americans say they are less safe from terrorism than before 9/11. But that persistent fear can lead us to ignore what was long thought vital: that if America does not deal with the broader threats to peace that so devastated Europe and Asia in the past century, it places its own security at existential risk. To emphasise the importance of avoiding unsuccessful military operations — his second “core” objective — Malley inflates the dangers. His target, as often with this administration, is the last administration”.

He argues correctly that “it didn’t actually happen as Malley describes: Obama became president not in 2003, but 2009. By then, almost all fighting had ceased in Iraq, President George W. Bush had begun withdrawing forces and had committed to pull out all troops before 2012. Likewise, Bush had opted not to confront Iran militarily over nuclear programs, begun the P5+1 negotiations with Tehran, mobilised the international community with four Security Council resolutions, and negotiated with the Iranians in Baghdad to avoid tensions over Iraq. Even more troubling is Malley’s lack of emphasis on the classic U.S. foreign policy objective since the 1940s: the maintenance of a global security order based on liberal values, international law, and trade and finance — all enabled by collective security centered on America’s readiness to defend these goals; not only against ideological rivals but also regional hegemons seeking to subjugate neighbours and carve out no-go zones against us”.

The article adds “Malley touches on this objective in describing the Obama administration’s balancing act, but does not dwell on what seemingly should be a central objective. That’s understandable, perhaps, as the administration put little emphasis on its role in maintaining global order in the Middle East. Initially Obama’s White House team did not have to prioritize these issues, as the focus was — apart from Iran’s nukes — nonstate actors and the Arab Spring. But recently we’ve witnessed serious challenges to that order: the rise of the Islamic State; the Bashar al-Assad regime’s slaughter of its population and subsequent fallout; the refugee tidal wave across the Middle East and into Europe; Iran’s infiltration of four Arab states; and Russia’s military return. None of these threats — apart from the Islamic State, and then only recently — has generated a robust American response”.

Correctly he writes that “no-risk, no-casualty American aerial campaigns against terrorists convince no one that Uncle Sam will be there when things get rough. Ducking military challenges that carry risks is what our partners see. The administration may want to dismiss those unhappy with Washington’s Iran policy as hopeless opponents of a reasonable (and here I agree with Malley) nuclear deal. But aside from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, nobody in the region opposes that agreement explicitly”.

He ends “One explanation for Obama’s failure to respond effectively to threats to the regional order by Iran, the Islamic State, and now the Russians is the administration’s obsession with Malley’s two objectives, especially avoiding military missteps. Running a deterrence policy always risks military setbacks. But if minimizing risk is job one, deterrence necessarily gets short shrift. Even worse might come. Malley’s emphasis on “testing” the Russians, his assumptions that Putin could bog down in Syria where Assad can’t win, his hope for a better relationship with Iran, and his disparaging tone toward partners together suggest that perhaps the administration does have a Middle East grand strategy, albeit one not vetted publicly: to “share” (the president’s word, not Malley’s) the region with those anti-status quo forces now helping turn it into a nightmare. In this regard, Malley’s most worrisome words refer to the end of Obama’s time in the White House: “six months is a long time … there is still so much to be done.”

Hollande criticises Turkey

07/09/2016

French President Francois Hollande has criticized Turkey’s “contradictory” military intervention in Syria and warned Russia not to become a “protagonist” in the war. Hollande, in a diplomatic speech Tuesday, said “multiple, contradictory interventions carry the risk of a general inflammation” of the fighting that has devastated the country. He said he could understand Turkey’s concern about protecting its borders and fighting the Islamic State group, but criticised actions against Kurdish rebels allied with the U.S.-led coalition against the extremists. France is part of that coalition. Hollande called for cooperation with Russia and said he would invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to France in October, saying Russia should be “a player in negotiations, not a protagonist in the action.” Hollande said “the absolute urgency is a halt to fighting and a return to negotiations.”

“Largest youth population in human history”

05/09/2016

An interesting article discusses the demography of those under 30 in fragile nations, “As tweets and headlines skip from crisis to crisis, the largest youth population in human history is coming of age in a steady, unstoppable wave. While countries across Europe and East Asia are grappling with declining birthrates and aging populations, societies across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia are experiencing youth booms of staggering proportions: More than half of Egypt’s labour force is younger than age 30. Half of Nigeria’s population of 167 million is between the ages of 15 and 34. In Afghanistan, Angola, Chad, East Timor, Niger, Somalia, and Uganda, more than two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25. How well these young people transition to adulthood — and how well their governments integrate them economically, politically, and socially — will influence whether their countries thrive or implode. Surging populations of young people will have the power to drive political and social norms, influence what modes of governance will be adopted and the role women will play in society, and embrace or discredit extremist ideologies. They are the fulcrum on which future social attitudes rest”.

It goes on to aruge “These young people could transform entire regions, making them more prosperous, more just, and more secure. Or they could also unleash a flood of instability and violence. Or both. And if their countries are not able to accommodate their needs and aspirations, they could generate waves of migration for decades. In the face of this deluge of young people, world leaders should be strategizing and taking steps daily that steer us all toward the former and away from the latter. But as serial acts of global terrorism, large-scale humanitarian disasters, perplexing political trends in Europe like Brexit and persistent economic fragility demand urgent attention, the question emerges: Is anyone even paying attention? Consider India. More than 300 million Indians are under the age of 15, making India home to more children than any country, at any time, in all of human history. To put the size of this generation’s numbers into perspective consider this: If these children formed a country, that country would be the fourth-largest in the world, still smaller than the United States but larger than Indonesia, Brazil, and Pakistan”.

Interestingly it notes “Every month until 2030, one million Indians will turn 18 years old, observes Somini Sengupta, the reporter and author of a compelling new book, The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young. These young people will need both education and jobs — lots of them — in a global economy that is most certainly going to feature more automation and fewer of the semi-skilled manufacturing jobs that absorbed earlier youth surges elsewhere in Asia. If India succeeds in this respect, its coming demographic bonanza holds the potential to create an unprecedented surge in the country’s economic health. If not, its youth boom could rock the world’s largest democracy and second-largest population with sustained instability. “In the coming years, India can thrive because of its young. Or it can implode. Or both. There’s little time left,” writes Sengupta”.

He notes similar trends in Africa and the Middle East, “Booming youth populations are the demographic equivalent of wild cards for those trying to predict the trajectory of large, strategically important, and politically volatile countries like Pakistan and Iran. In Pakistan, two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30. Many of these young people will only know Pakistan after its latest transition to democracy from 2008 to 2010 and after Pakistan ended its most recent war with India in 1999. They will also know political corruption, extremist violence, and dire shortages of energy and water. In Iran, two-thirds of the population is currently under the age of 35. These young people are educated, tech savvy, and full of potential. Whereas the revolution will be something they learned about in school, many will remember seeing Iranians pour into the streets during the Green Movement or to celebrate the nuclear deal with the United States”.

Crucially he writes that “Unfortunately, the countries that have most of the world’s young people are also the ones that are the most ill-equipped to grapple with their needs, ambitions, expectations, and inevitable frustrations — let alone capitalise on their potential. According to the United Nations, developing countries are home to 89 percent of the world’s 10- to 24-year-olds; by 2020, they will be home to nine out of every 10 people globally. Like too many developing countries, countries like Chad and Niger rank high on lists of the world’s most fragile states. They also have populations in which half of their citizens are under the age of 16. With this information, it is all too easy to conjure a dystopic future, the Hollywood caricature of a lawless developing country dominated by gangs of rough-talking young men brandishing firearms (Think, “I’m the captain now.”) But what if we made a different choice? What if the world invested in the potential of these young people? It is feasible to believe these countries could pull themselves out of poverty and instability within a generation — the way China did, the way India might. But if the international community fails to act now, we will all suffer the consequences”.

The author notes that “the developing world’s youth boom coincides with four interrelated global trends: an information revolution, the largest movement of refugees and displaced people in recorded history, growing urbanisation that will concentrate youth in cities, and a rise in terrorism and extremist ideologies. Together these trends will spread not just people but, more importantly, their ideas at an unprecedented rate. They will raise and dash expectations pushing and pulling young people toward and away from their hometowns and homelands, toward and away from their desired futures. They will make young people around the globe aware of how others are living, the divisions within their societies, and how those they identify with are treated by governments, security forces, and other groups. This knowledge can inspire or anger. It can commit people to elevating their families and communities — or make them lash out against them”.

Importantly he notes “Youth booms historically paid dividends in the form of economic growth. South Korea, for instance, translated its youth boom into twelvefold GDP per capita growth between 1970 and today, keeping unemployment for its large youth population around 10 percent. If this history repeats in large population centers like India and Pakistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia, Egypt and Iran — all of which currently have unusually large youth populations — economic booms will transform whole regions. But the ability of developing countries to create enough jobs in today’s technologically advanced and ruthlessly efficient global economy is far from assured. Even wealthy and well-educated countries like Germany and the United States are struggling to employ elements of their workforces and sustain a prosperous middle class. A lack of economic opportunity concerns young people worldwide as the pace of technological advancements decreases the demand for manufacturing labor even when economies are growing. In Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, for example, youth unemployment rates already exceed 30 percent, and youth populations there are expected to grow by another 20 percent or more over the coming 15 years, according to the U.N”.

He ends “To change the trajectory of youth living in challenging circumstances around the world, young people need economic opportunities, civic engagement, and justice as well as opportunities to positively change their communities. They need to develop their identities as individuals who have something to contribute, and as citizens. They need to come together to shape more positive futures for themselves and for others. And they are not just going to wait. Tapping the potential of massive youth populations worldwide could be the opportunity of the century. Or, it will unleash even more disorder, division, and violence. Or both. To echo Sengupta again, the world is now home to a tipping-point generation that will bend the arc of history. There’s little time left”.

Peace with FARC

05/09/2016

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos sent the text of a peace accord with Marxist FARC rebels to Congress on Thursday in the first step before a plebiscite to end the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere. The government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reached final agreement on the accord on Wednesday after an entrenched conflict that ravaged the country for more than 50 years, taking around 220,000 lives and leaving millions displaced. Legislators have 30 days to go over the 297-page text, which will be made public for all Colombians to read before voting on it in an up-or-down referendum on Oct. 2. Among many other details, the accord lays out the terms under which rebels will disarm and eventually enter civilian life again. “We are giving the final word to the people,” said Santos as he handed the accords, wrapped in a ribbon emblazoned with the colours of Colombia’s flag, to the president of Congress”.

Ireland’s choice, sovereignty vs money

05/09/2016

An article notes the tax affairs of Apple in Ireland, “American tech giant Apple had $234 billion in annual revenues in 2015. Now, it’s going to have to pony up $14.5 billion to Irish authorities for skirting taxes. That’s according to the European Commission, which announced Tuesday that Apple had paid a tax rate of just 1 percent or even less — .0005 percent, in some years — on its European profits while some of the company’s operations were based in Ireland. The commission determined such a low tax rate was illegal because it creates an illegal trade incentive. “Member States cannot give tax benefits to selected companies — this is illegal under EU state aid rules. The Commission’s investigation concluded that Ireland granted illegal tax benefits to Apple, which enabled it to pay substantially less tax than other businesses over many years, commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said in a statementTuesday”.

The report adds “The massive penalty is likely to send shockwaves through boardrooms of companies like Amazon and McDonald’s that have extensive operations in Europe. European authorities are investigating both companies to see if they paid their fair share of taxes. The ruling also puts the Obama administration in a tight spot. President Barack Obama wants to keep American companies in the country to contribute to U.S. revenue. At the same time, he doesn’t want European authorities to target American companies simply because they’re American and doing business in Europe. In a statement Tuesday, the Treasury Department said it was disappointed in the ruling”.

The piece goes on to mention “Republicans share the president’s frustration. In a statement, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said, “This decision is awful. Slamming a company with a giant tax bill — years after the fact — sends exactly the wrong message to job creators on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s also in direct violation of many European countries’ treaty obligations.” Both Apple, which has been operating in Ireland since 1980, and the Irish government have said they would appeal the ruling”.

It notes “Andrea Montanino, director of global business and economics at the Atlantic Council who previously worked at the European Commission, put the blame for the mess on Dublin. “There are rules in Europe as there are rules in the United States,” Montanino told Foreign Policy Tuesday. “You have to comply with the rules. I would not say it’s the fault of Apple. Apple followed the rules. It is Ireland that broke the rules.”

“veered close to American warships”

05/09/2016

Iranian naval vessels veered close to American warships this week in a series of incidents that American officials described as harassing maneuvers risking dangerous escalation, defense officials said Thursday. The first incident occurred Tuesday, when Iranian ships made provocative maneuvers around a U.S. destroyer in the Strait of Hormuz, officials said. The following day, Iranian vessels came within several hundred meters of other American ships in the Persian Gulf, with one Iranian ship prompting the coastal patrol ship USS Squall to fire warning shots. “These were incidents that the crews deemed unsafe,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters. “These are incidents that carry a risk of escalation, and we don’t desire any kind of escalation. Our ships have been operating in that part of the world for years.” William Urban, a spokesman for the 5th Fleet, said four vessels from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) conducted a “high-speed intercept” in the first incident Tuesday, passing close to the USS Nitze, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, as it transited international waters”.

Putin’s reshuffle

03/09/2016

An important article discusses the dismissal of Putin’s chief of staff, “In ornate Kremlin meeting room, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday dismissed longtime aide Sergei Ivanov as his chief of staff and anointed Anton Vaino, Ivanov’s former deputy, to take over the influential post, in what amounts to a major reshaping of the country’s elite leadership. In a televised meeting on Russian state television, Putin addressed Ivanov, who he has known since the 1970s, while the three men sat at a table, listening attentively. The Russian leader said he was making the move at Ivanov’s request, and that the former high-ranking KGB officer would now be a special representative focusing on the environment. “I’m happy with how you handle tasks,” Putin said. “I remember well our agreement that you had asked me not to keep you as chief of the presidential administration for more than four years and that is why I understand your desire to choose another line of work.”

The report mentions “Ivanov thanked the president for his praise and confirmed that he would be stepping aside. “It’s true that in early 2012 I asked you, in a conversation, to entrust me with this very complicated post, even — you could say — troublesome post, for four years,” said Ivanov with his hands clasped on the table in front of him. But beyond the tightly choreographed meeting, news that the 63-year-old Ivanov — a man who Putin once said was among his most trusted advisors — would request to leave one month before parliamentary elections and in the middle of fresh standoff with Ukraine — has been met with great skepticism. The details behind the high-level shake-up within the Kremlin are not clear, but many analysts view the move as part of a wider trendwithin Putin’s inner circle: He has been replacing older members with a younger generation of officials to reorder the political elite to his benefit”.

Interestingly the author notes “In the past year, several senior officials with ties to Putin’s early days in municipal government in St. Petersburg have been dismissed from their posts, including Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, anti-drug chief Viktor Ivanov, and security service chief Yevgeny Murov. There has even been speculation among Russia watchers that Igor Sechin, another longtime Putin ally and the CEO of the state-run oil behemoth Rosneft, could be phased out. The reshuffling of the top posts in the Russian government continued in July, with Putin replacing four regional governors, the head of the country’s Customs Service, and Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine. In contrast to the cashiered officials, who are over 60 years old, many of their replacements are younger bureaucrats in their 30s and 40s who clawed their way up during Putin’s presidency”.

It adds “Despite being sidelined in a symbolic new post, Ivanov is not completely cut out of the power structures and will retain his seat on the Security Council, Russia’s top security body. But his dismissal may be a harbinger of a new dynamic within the Russian elite. As a leader, Putin has traditionally been “first among equals,” and governed by consensus within his inner circle. However, many analysts say this model changed to one centered on Putin himself after he returned to the presidency in 2012. The centralization was accelerated after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014 and the subsequent imposition of Western economic sanctions and collapse of oil prices — both of which have damaged the Russian economy”.

It argues that “Ivanov, who has known Putin since the 1970s and worked with the president in both the KGB and its successor agency, the FSB, has a storied career at the highest echelons of Russian power. In 1998, when Putin was appointed head of the FSB, Ivanov became his deputy at the security agency. In 2001, after Putin was elected to his first term as president, Ivanov became defense minister and was later appointed deputy prime minister in 2007, shortly before the end of Putin’s second term as president”.

It finally concludes “Dmitry Medvedev and Ivanov became fierce rivals in the jostling to succeed Putin as president in 2008, when his terms limit expired and he had to don the title of prime minister. Both Medvedev and Ivanov unofficially campaigned to be Putin’s successor, making regular public appearances and discussing political issues on television. Medvedev was eventually tapped to become president — reportedly because he was seen by Putin as more malleable than the strong-willed Ivanov — who had known the president since his days as a lowly KGB officer and maintained influence among Russia’s security services. To replace Ivanov, Putin has selected Vaino, a 44-year-old career diplomat, who has worked his way up through Russia’s bureaucratic greasy pole. Vaino began his work in the Kremlin in 2003, handling ceremonial duties for Putin and has worked his way up the ranks, eventually being appointed Ivanov’s deputy in 2012. He remains a little-known figure whose family descends from the old Soviet Communist Party elite and is not believed to be beholden to any interest or group within Russia — except to Putin himself”.

More Taliban gains in Afghanistan

03/09/2016

Security sources report that about 10 districts in the country are under serious threat and that they are afraid these districts could fall to the Taliban. This is in addition to 10 other districts already controlled by the insurgent group. A security source told TOLO News that Sancharak district in Sar-e-Pul, Gezab in Uruzgan, Hesarak in Nangarhar, and a number of other districts are seriously threatened by insurgents. Security departments have said the National Unity Government leaders (NUG) share the same vision in terms of cracking down on terrorists, but that powerful groups interfere in appointing security officials. Meanwhile, military analysts have said that weaknesses within the security forces and the interference in appointing military officials are the main reasons for the Afghan National Army losing districts to insurgents”.

Violent America?

03/09/2016

An article argues that even if guns were banned the United States would still be a violent place, “In 1923, the British novelist D. H. Lawrence offered a grim assessment of America and Americans: “All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” Lawrence’s observations of the American character did not draw upon deep wells of direct personal experience. When he wrote those lines, he had only been living in the United States for a bit more than a year and had spent much of that time among artists and the literati. But he was neither the first nor the last to make such an observation. Nearly 50 years ago, surveying both the wreckage of the 1960s and centuries of archives, the brilliant historian Richard Hofstadter acknowledged that “Americans certainly have reason to inquire whether, when compared with other advanced industrial nations, they are not a people of exceptional violence.” The allegation that the American character is essentially murderous — or at least more murderous than that of other nations — still strikes a chord today. It’s not just the periodic invitations to violence that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has issued over the course of his campaign, most recently against his Democratic competitor Hillary Clinton. This summer’s headlines have also enumerated trauma after trauma. Eight members of a single family murdered in Ohio. Forty-nine dead in a mass shooting in Florida. Shootings by police claiming the lives of black Americans in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Maryland. Fatal shootings of police in Texas, Louisiana, and California. Breaking reports of horror follow one another fast enough to induce a kind of whiplash”.

He argues that “consider the strenuousness with which each political party now routinely denies that Americans are inherently violent, a refrain that can begin to feel like protesting too much. In his final speech at the Republican National Convention last month, Trump bemoaned the “violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities” but, true to form, laid the blame on hordes of “illegal immigrants … roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens”; “brutal Islamic terrorism”; and the enabling of a Democratic president whom Trump has previously and unsubtly intimated isn’t really American himself. Democrats likewise tend to suggest that, for Americans, acts of violence are an aberration. Announcing a gun safety program in the wake of last December’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, President Barack Obama declared: “We are not inherently more prone to violence. But we are the only advanced country on Earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency.” From this perspective, violence in America does not indicate anything “inherent” in the American character: It is about the presence of guns, the availability of which is a contingent and remediable matter of policy”.

The piece adds “But what if there’s good reason to believe that being American has always involved a relationship of some kind to violence — whether as its victim, as its perpetrator, as a complicit party, or even as all of these at once. Rather than assuming, in Obama’s words, that Americans are “not inherently more prone to violence,” the country owes it to itself to finally try to consider the question directly. How is violence quantified, and what are the benchmarks used to assess whether a given society’s level of violence is high or low, normal or exceptional? The general practice among researchers across numerous disciplines is to present yearly “intentional homicide” rates per 100,000 of a given nation’s population; crucially, these figures do not include deaths directly related to full-blown wars”.

The author mentions how “The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) compiles national figures for its reports, the most recent of which reflects data from 2012 and 2013. Per the UNODC, some 437,000 people were murdered worldwide in 2012, putting the average murder rate at 6.2 victims per 100,000 persons. But beyond that average figure, as you might expect, there is wide variation in terms of both individual nations and continents. Regionally, Central America and southern Africa both clock in at over four times the global average (more than 25 per 100,000), while Western Europe and East Asia are some five times lower than it. Within continents and regions, the variations can be stark. Thus, to take Africa as an example, the rate in Senegal is 2.8; Egypt, 3.4; Sudan, 11.2; and Lesotho, the highest, at 38. In Europe, Switzerland’s rate is 0.6; the U.K., 1; Finland, 1.6; Lithuania, 6.7; and Russia, the highest, at 9.2. The Americas show the widest variation: Canada’s rate is 1.6; Argentina, 5.5; Costa Rica, 8.5; Panama, 17.2; Mexico, 21.5; and Honduras, the highest in the world — at 90.4 per 100,000. Against this backdrop, for the period of 2007-2012, the United States has averaged 4.9 homicides per 100,000 persons. America thus stands more or less shoulder to shoulder with Iran (4.1), Cuba (4.2), Latvia (4.7), and Albania (5). So much for the data on homicides tout court. The question then is whether or not to consider America’s standing among countries like these to be an aberration. Such states certainly aren’t in the same class as the United States in terms of development metrics like per capita GDP, and this fact tends to get cited by American politicians and political observers as prima facie evidence that something else (whether “terrorists” or guns) is skewing their country’s violence data, pushing it out of its allegedly more “natural” peer group — places like the Scandinavian states, the U.K., or Japan. But while such comparisons may sound rigorous at first blush, they are often naively aspirational (at best) or deliberately deceptive and chauvinistic (at worst). Nowhere is this more blatant than in the context of the debate over guns. For example, many gun control advocates and supposedly objective analysts will condemn violence in the United States as abnormal by invoking comparisons to “developed” nations as defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Yet these comparisons will regularly exclude Mexico, which is not only an OECD member but also America’s third-largest trading partner and its unfortunate next-door neighbor. The reason given for this exclusion, as though self-explanatory, is “the drug war.” The annual U.S. market for illegal drugs may be well over $109 billion, and an estimated quarter-million guns may be trafficked to Mexican cartels from the United States in any given year, but inviting the contemplation of such queasy moral entanglements is apparently less politically expedient, and more offensive to patriotic amour-propre, than demanding why America can’t just clean up its act and be more like the places we feel it “should” resemble”.

Interestingly he notes “It’s not just our use of empirical metrics for evaluating violence in America that can be dubious. Opining on the supposedly inherent tendencies of vast groups of people toward violence — Americans, Muslims, the left-handed, anyone — should rightly raise flags. It’s the kind of thing you might expect from a 19th-century phrenologist, someone who would measure skulls for indicators of “destructiveness.” But although the vintage pseudo-scientific quackery underwriting such speculation may have fallen out of fashion, the sentiments themselves haven’t disappeared. Consider Iowa Rep. Steve King, for example, pontificating on the civilizational contributions of whites versus other “subgroups,” or research indicating widespread biases whereby black Americans are perceived to be both “prone to violence” and less susceptible to pain. Passing judgment on “a people” as an abstraction rarely leads anywhere good and frequently reveals more about the observer than the observed”.

He argues that “Because like most goods and ills in America — from job opportunities to education to healthy drinking water — violence is not equally distributed among Americans. Indeed, drilling down into the demographics of violence in America reads like an indictment of society’s broader treatment of the poor and marginalized. As analysts have pointedly observed, black Americans are someeight times more likely to be murdered than their white compatriots and, in any given year, will be killed at rates anywhere from 10 to 20 times the benchmark OECD rates. When the homicide rates for individual states rather than the national average are compared, the results are damning: The murder rates in Louisiana (11.93 per 100,000) and Washington, D.C., (13.92) are on par with figures from countries like Nicaragua (11), the Central African Republic (11.8), and Côte d’Ivoire (13.6)”.

He makes the point that “Although in the past year many cities have experienced a sharp and disturbing increase in homicides, with no clear explanation as to why, overall violent crime rates have been dropping for decades, even as Americans have consistently expresseda conviction that crime has been steadily getting “worse” and even as they have accordingly purchased more guns than ever before. From a certain perspective, when considering America’s unprecedented saturation with firearms, observers may be forced to admit that the surprising thing is how much moreviolent America could be than it currently is. If there is any singular feature that characterizes how many Americans understand our national relation to violence, it is our ingenuity at looking the other way, at siloing problems away from one another, and at disavowing, sublimating, or repackaging our complicity in the most easily observable patterns”.

He ends “Signs of supposed progress in expressions of American violence often disguise profound continuities. For example: The era of highly visible public lynchings, which is estimated to have claimed some 5,000 lives, has passed. Yet since then we have moved on to an institutionalized death penalty regime, wherein states that previously had the highest numbers of lynchings now have the greatest numbers of black people on death row. Both per capita and in raw numbers, America’s prisons warehouse more human beings than any other country on the planet, and its police demonstrate a clear pattern of racial bias in killing their fellow citizens at a rate stratospherically higher than that of any of its supposed peer nations. U.S. soldiers are deployed in some 135 countries, and the number of troops actually engaged in combat is almost certainly much higher than authorities are willing to admit. Meanwhile, America is far and away the world’s largest exporter of weapons, with the global arms industry’s largest and most profitable players based in the United States and reaping booming markets in conflict zones while being heavily subsidized by federal and state tax dollars. Everyday Americans may not be “inherently more prone to violence,” but our way of life is certainly structured around violence and around selectively empowering, quarantining, directing, and monetizing it at home and abroad. The majority of Americans apparently find no cognitive dissonance in this arrangement, if we even perceive it at all. Instead, we express bafflement and outrage that we are not something other than what we are and what we have always been. Plumbing what lurks within the “essential American soul,” a cynic might suggest, is a self-indulgent exercise, a red herring. The better question might be whether we even have one in the first place”.

China, aiding Assad

03/09/2016

China’s military will provide training for Syrian armed forces, a spokesman for Beijing’s defence ministry said Thursday, adding it would take place on Chinese soil. Beijing is a longstanding backer of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, which has engaged in a bloody war that has left more than 290,000 people dead and displaced millions since it began in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government demonstrations. Last week senior Chinese military official Guan Youfei met with Syria’s defence minister in Damascus and said he wanted closer military ties with the Syrian government, state media reported. “The Chinese military will provide the Syrian side with medical and nursing professional training,” defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian told reporters at a monthly briefing.

Turkson’s new job

01/09/2016

Rocco writes about the appointments of Pope Francis yesterday, “Even before the usual “starting gun” to the Vatican’s working year, the Pope has again moved to end August with a bang: at Roman Noon today, the Holy See announced the consolidation of the four Pontifical Councils focused on social teaching and outreach into a new “Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development,” with the longtime Justice and Peace Czar, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson (above), tapped as the combined entity’s founding head”.

The article notes “Essentially placing all the Holy See’s silos dealing with the Social Magisterium – among them, the business, political and military worlds – under one umbrella, the merged office will absorb the functions of the respective Councils for Justice and Peace, Cor Unum (“One Heart,” which oversees the global church’s charitable and humanitarian works, plus relief efforts), Migrants and Itinerant Peoples and the Pastoral Care of Health Workers. Yet in a remarkable act meant to underscore Francis’ well-burnished concern and advocacy for migrants and refugees, the Pope wrote into the new body’s statutes that – at least temporarily – that lone section of the office “is placed [directly] under the leadership of the Supreme Pontiff,” to be personally overseen by him. Though the handful of pontifical commissions Papa Bergoglio has established on various topics – e.g. protection of minors, reform of annulments, most recently the diaconate – all report directly to Francis, no Curial entity to date has explicitly been headed by the Pope himself: not merely in this pontificate, but any in recent times”.

Rocco adds “With the move – set to take effect on January 1st (which, for the last half-century, the church has observed as the World Day of Peace) – only five councils will remain from what had been 12 second-tier Curial offices before Francis’ slow-burn, piecemeal reform began in early 2014; a complete overhaul of Pastor Bonus – St John Paul II’s 1988 constitution organizing the church’s central government – remains in the works. Yet as the merger of the Pontifical Councils for the Laity and the Family takes effect tomorrow with the formal launch of the new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life – its founding announced almost a year ago – it bears noting that today’s consolidation has come on a far more rapid timeframe, ostensibly as the pontiff had his choice to lead the social organ already on-site. Given the red hat by John Paul at his last Consistory, Turkson was brought to Rome by B16 in 2009 to serve as the church’s lead spokesman on social justice issues. The lone Scripture scholar among the cardinal-electors until the tail-end of Benedict’s pontificate – and long touted as the most sensible and astute African papabile – the 67 year-old prelate possesses a rare mix of charisma and intellect: as a student at the Franciscan-run (now closed) St Anthony’s Seminary in upstate New York, the future cardinal famously painted a wall of his dorm-room black, using it as a chalkboard to study Hebrew. Named an archbishop at home at age 44 – while still working on his doctoral dissertation – Turkson made it his practice to live with his transitional deacons over their year of preparation to examine their fitness for priesthood up close”.

Rocco mentions that “Said to be fluent in eight languages, Turkson’s profile has only risen further amid Francis’ enhanced emphasis on peace, the poor and development issues, crossing the globe to deliver loaded reflections on Catholic social teaching and its implications on a host of fronts. Above all, however, the cardinal was the lead player behind the preparation and rollout of Laudato Si’ – last year’s landmark encyclical on the environment – whose publication saw such mammoth interest that the release day media briefing had to be moved from the Vatican Press Office to a larger venue. (For purposes of context, that didn’t even happen for Amoris.) All that said, with today’s merger the evolving structure of Francis’ rebooted Curia is becoming clearer: “Secretariats” at the top, which govern internal matters – Economy, Communication, State and the Synod – then “Dicasteries” (formerly the generic title of Curial offices) to handle more broad-based topics. At the same time, while any reforms to the top-level congregations – the nine offices which exercise the pontiff’s delegated authority over distinct elements of the church’s life – is still in the offing (amid an ongoing review by the “Gang of 9” cardinal-advisers), it’s nonetheless significant that, as with the new Laity/Family arm, the Pope’s regulations for the Development office explicitly provide that the prefect’s team of lead deputies need not be clerics but “may also be laypeople.” As Turkson recruited the lone laywoman to hold “superior” rank in the Curia – the Italian academic Dr Flaminia Giovanelli, his longtime #3 at Justice and Peace – an even heavier non-ordained presence in the new arrangement’s top ranks stands to be expected… and to be sure, as he looks to assemble his own leadership squad at Laity, Family, Life, the new prefect there, Bishop Kevin Farrell, is likewise understood to be heading in the same direction”.

Rocco makes the point that “Initially fashioned by Blessed Paul VI in the post-Conciliar years as an element of Vatican governance that primarily would engage various fields instead of exercising jurisdiction, the range of pontifical councils was further expanded under both St John Paul II and Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, the latter adding the final of the dozen in 2010 with the establishment of an office for Promoting the New Evangelization. On the flip-side, however, today’s move actually brings to completion a plan initially mooted by Papa Ratzinger, who attempted to consolidate Justice and Peace with Cor Unum early in his pontificate, but was warded off it by the Curia’s traditional penchant for protecting bureaucratic turfs. Beyond the respective deputies of the two catch-all  dicasteries, another major question remains in the air: the slates of prelates and lay experts who will form the memberships of each office. As each of the merging councils have had sizable groups of members and consultants on their own until now, whether all those seats will be folded into the new offices or reconstituted from scratch is still decidedly unclear, and will have a sizable impact on the scope and focus the new bodies will carve out for themselves!.

He ends “Notably, the announcement of the Development Dicastery comes on the eve of tomorrow’s second observance in the Catholic church of theWorld Day of Prayer for the Protection of Creation, which the Pope joined last year following the initiative of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. As coordinating the church’s activities for the day falls to the new office, Francis will mark the occasion with an evening prayer rite in St Peter’s – his first major message of the new “Vatican year.”

US and Russia, sharing an airbase?

01/09/2016

Could U.S. warplanes soon be sharing the runway at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base with Russian bombers? That’s up to Moscow, according to a top Turkish official, whose comments on possibly opening the strategic Turkish facility to Russian personnel comes ahead of a damage control visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday. When asked on Saturday whether Russia could use Incirlik for airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim answered in the affirmative. “If necessary, the Incirlik base can be used (by the Russians),” Yildirim told reporters. The prospect of opening Incirlik to Russia, a move that would likely infuriate NATO allies, would put the U.S. military in the awkward position of working and possibly living side by side with an adversary. In addition to being home to about 2,500 U.S. troops, Incirlik houses about 50 U.S. nuclear weapons, according to various watchdog groups”.

Brazil after the Olympics

01/09/2016

A piece notes the problems of Brazil after the end of the Olympics, “The Olympic torch was extinguished Sunday night in a carnival of song and dance, the good times rolled. But it is too early to determine whether or not the games were a success or just a muddling through difficult days. Swimming pools turned green. Some 85,000 soldiers and police were mobilised to provide security, but instances of muggings,stray bullets, and petty theft made headlines. The pollution in Guanabara Bay sickened at least one athlete. And, of course, six-time Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte and three of his fellow swimmers embarrassedthemselves. But the enthusiasm of many Cariocas — as Rio de Janeiro’s residents are called — partially compensated for the long lines to enter venues, food shortages, and challenging transportation delays. However the games will be remembered, it has at least been a temporary respite for Brazilians from the ongoing political and economic crises that have gripped the nation”.

More importantly it mentions “As the games end, the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff will move to closure with Aug. 25 cited as the day the last phase of the process will open. Rousseff faces charges of violating budget laws by authorizing credit lines without congressional approval. That is the formal indictment. But there are many other elements involved in the accounting of her very public national downfall. Rousseff, by most accounts, was a terrible politician. Brazil is a multiparty political system, and the only way to get legislation approved is to constantly build short-term coalitions in Congress; instead, she refused and played to her base. Even worse, she was often petty: In particular, she sought to prevent the re-election of Eduardo Cunha as the speaker of the lower house. In retaliation, it is said, he initiated the impeachment process. Many blame her government for the economic and financial crises that now plague the country. By most accounts, she appointed mediocre functionaries to important cabinet posts. And her Workers’ Party (PT) never encountered a welfare program it didn’t like. As a result of massive public sector spending, the economy overheated. Inflation increased, as did unemployment. Foreign direct investment fell”.

It adds importantly, “the hallmark of the current crisis was the discovery that the state oil company, Petrobras, had become a major source of bribes and kickbacks that were used to finance party politics. Most of the country’s major construction companies were involved, and a host of political leaders across the party spectrum have been implicated in the scandal. It did not help Rousseff’s credibility that she served as the minister of mines and energy and chair of Petrobras while many of the crimes were committed. Of course, she denies any knowledge of what occurred. But the scandal is so large as to deem that defense laughable. A new generation of federal prosecutors have arrested or indicted many of the alleged participants of the conspiracy. Dozens of senior politicians and private sector officials sit in jail. Some are involved in plea bargains; most will serve some time in prison. For economic and political elites who believed they could act with impunity, the new reality that crimes will be punished is a shock — but one that will serve Brazil well in the future. The cozy, often crooked ties between the private sector and the huge, inefficient public sector have been dealt a serious blow”.

It goes on to point out that “though the sins of an economic giant are being laid bare, the country’s finances are still in great distress. A decade ago, Brazil was seen as a rapidly emerging economy — one of the skyrocketing BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) that would own the future. Those were heady days, especially for Brazil. A sharp increase in demand for Brazilian raw materials and commodities, particularly from China, provided an ever-increasing amount of foreign exchange. Investment flowed in. Brazil was upgraded by all the rating agencies. But the PT didn’t understand that the economy was actually neither productive nor competitive globally. Priorities such as physical infrastructure were overlooked. Rigid labour laws, many on the books since the 1930s, made it difficult to fire unproductive workers and hire new ones. Skills were subpar; both technical training and general education languished. Public health, while universal, was substandard. Social security coverage extended benefits to both public sector employees and the private sector, but deficits ballooned and reform was postponed. Brazil’s tax collection was in disarray — leveed at the union, federal district, state, and municipal level, the burden surpassed 33 percent of the country’s GDP. Meanwhile, government grew bigger and bigger as the PT sought to employ as many of its party members as possible, often with little thought to their competence”.

The author mentions that “The acting president, Michel Temer, if confirmed at the end of August as the new chief executive, apparently wants to undertake a reform program. The first priority is to rein in government spending, cutting pensions and workers’ benefits. As might be imagined, the unions are outraged; there will be massive protests if the government decides to move forward”.

He points out its rising debt, partly due to an aging population, “Compounding the problem of a stable social safety net is Brazil’s profound inequality. There is a tremendous gap between the very rich, a struggling middle class, and the poor. The Olympics captured that disparity: As sweeping aerial shots panned from the beachfront condos of Ipanema to the mountainside favelas, or slums, the media didn’t shy from reports on the inability of the favelados to afford tickets for the events. Many of the favelas lack sanitation — a major cause of the pollution in Guanabara Bay, since raw sewage runs directly into the water. Promises to install processing plants have been on hold for decades. Security was frequently highlighted in the media coverage. While tourists and middle- and upper-class Brazilians cheered in the Maracanã Stadium, the favelas were home to the ongoing drug war between the gangs and the security forces”.

It concludes “As the games end and the impeachment process terminates, probably with the dismissal of Rousseff, the grim questions that mark Brazil’s present predicament will resurface. Can public education and health facilities be reformed to give security and opportunity to those in need? Can a corrupt, inefficient, and immense federal government be downsized? After decades of out-of-control growth, are there too many political interests at play to allow for meaningful reform? Can Brazil reinvigorate industry to provide new export products in a world where commodity prices will probably be flat for some time? The short answer is that changes are possible — but not without government reforms first. Most observers agree that much of the gridlock in Brasília is due to the dysfunctional political party system. Remarkably, ideology isn’t the problem: Politicians move from party to party with little regard for loyalty. But changing the system — creating electoral districts and reducing the number of political parties — will require congressional approval. Few analysts believe that there is a broad enough coalition in Brasília that will forgo perks and patronage to make selfless decisions for the good of the state”.

It ends “Local elections are scheduled for October of this year; the results may provide some insight into the impact of the current situation on the average voter. The expectation is that Rousseff’s PT will do poorly at the expense ofpersonalist parties. National elections will take place at the end of 2018. Temer has already said he will not be a candidate. The PT’s former two-term president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, looks increasingly like a liability — and he may well be indicted as part of the ongoing scandal. Will new reform-minded candidates emerge? That is the hope — but there is no guarantee that fresh faces will be able to successfully address the reform agenda. Some argue that economic growth will begin to return in late 2017 or in 2018. If Temer becomes president after the impeachment, he has promised to work with Congress to approve much needed fiscal reforms. Brazil would also be helped if global commodity and raw material prices recover. Surely, Brazil’s working and lower classes will cheer, but the welcome relief may only delay the inevitable reckoning with the painful realities that need to be addressed”.

 

Turkey attacks Syria

30/08/2016

Turkey sent tanks, warplanes and special operations forces into northern Syria on Wednesday in its biggest plunge yet into the Syrian conflict, enabling Syrian rebels to take control of an important Islamic State stronghold within hours. The operation, assisted by American airstrikes, is a significant escalation of Turkey’s role in the fight against the Islamic State, the militant extremist group ensconced in parts of Syria and Iraq that has increasingly been targeting Turkey. By evening, Syrian rebels backed by the United States and Turkey declared that they had seized the town of Jarabulus and its surroundings, which had been the Islamic State’s last major redoubt near the Turkish border. Numerous fighters posted photographs and videos of themselves online with the green, black and white flag adopted by the Syrian opposition as they walked through empty streets where the black flag of Islamic State still flew; it appeared that most of the militants had fled without a fight”.