28/08/2016

An article discusses truth and falsehood and Trump, “just after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a number of commentators blamed both the event and the perceived weakness of the response to it on something called postmodernism, characterized by its critics as an extreme form of relativism that leaves its adherents unable to tell truth from falsehood or fact from fiction.

Now, in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks and the baffling (to some) rise of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, this accusation has been revived. Here, for example, is Peter Pomerantsev, writing in a recent issue of Granta magazine:

This equaling out of truth and falsehood is both informed by and takes advantage of an all-permeating late post-modernism and relativism…. This school of thought has taken Nietzsche’s maxim, there are no facts, only interpretations, to mean that every version of events is just another narrative, where lies can be excused as “an alternative point of view” or “an opinion” because “it’s all relative” and “everyone has their own truth.”

Now if postmodernism really said that, it would deserve all the criticism directed at it. But it doesn’t. Postmodernism doesn’t teach the lessons its opponents attack it for; and because it is a philosophical view in conversation with other philosophical views rather than a recipe for political action, postmodernism has no causal relationship to either the spread of terrorist ideology or the primary triumphs of Trump.

What postmodernism says is that while the material world certainly exists and is prior to our descriptions of it, we only have access to it through those descriptions. That is, we do not know the world directly, as a matter of simple and unmediated perception; rather we know it as the vocabularies at our disposal deliver it to us. The philosopher Richard Rorty put it this way: “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.”

The world does not come equipped with its own language, its own directions for stating the truth about it; if it did, we could just speak that language and be confident that what we said was objectively true.

The world does not come equipped with its own language, its own directions for stating the truth about it; if it did, we could just speak that language and be confident that what we said was objectively true.

But in the absence of such a language (called by the historian of science Thomas Kuhn a “neutral observation language”), we must make do with the vocabularies that are developed in the course of our attempts to make sense of things: the vocabularies of science, philosophy, political theory, anthropology, sociology, law, aesthetics. Merely to list those vocabularies (and there are of course more than I have instanced) is to realize that in every discipline — every laboratory of description — there is more than one; there are many and those many are in competition with one another, vying for the right to wear the labels correct and true.

If different vocabularies deliver different worlds and different measures of true and false, does that amount (in Pomerantsev’s words) to the “equaling out of truth and falsehood”? Only in reference to a measure of true and false attached to no vocabulary at all, a measure proceeding directly from an unmediated, perfectly seen world. Were there such a measure, all assertions would equal out because they would be equally (though differently) far from the truth as seen from a God’s-eye point of view. But postmodernism tells us that no such measure is available to us. And since we all live and move within the points of view given to us by time and experience, the equality of our assertions in relation to an impossible standard of objective truth is theoretical rather than practical; it has no effect on our ability (or inability) to make judgments of truth and falsehood in real life situations.

In those situations — political, domestic, military, whatever — there are all kinds of standards to which our assertions are held responsible — canons of evidence, accepted authorities, calculations of usefulness — though practices differ in the firmness and stability of the standards they recognize. The norms adhered to by scientists, anthropologists, historians, and others last for years, even generations.

The norms politicians adhere to, on the other hand, last only until someone violates them and gets away with it. In the present election cycle, Trump has said things considered beyond the pale before he said them and he suffered few if any consequences. He was continually pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. But even as he did, those boundaries were redrawn, not erased; there were still things he could not say without being labeled “wrong”. (It appears that his criticism of a Gold Star family was one of them.) Ideas of right and wrong are always in place even when they are being challenged and reconfigured.

What this means is that despite the dire pronouncements of critics like Pomerantsev, the categories of right and wrong, true and false are never empty or up for relativist grabs; it is just that they always being renegotiated. At any given time we always know what is right and wrong, true and false, even though, in the course of time, what we know can take a different form. It may seem odd to say so, but the unavailability of an independent, objective standard — a standard hostage to no ideologically inflected vocabulary — is without consequence, except for the consequence that the project of determining what is true or false, correct or incorrect, accurate or off the mark will never be brought to a final resolution; like psychoanalysis, it is interminable.

Can this project be captured and manipulated by unscrupulous actors? Of course it can, but this is the result of garden-variety human depravity, and not of postmodernism, which, as a form of philosophical speculation rather than a set of moral imperatives, generates neither sincere nor insincere behavior.

If the categories of right and wrong, true and false are never empty, neither is the category of accepted and obvious fact, although what fills it will vary from age to age and vary too among interlocutors in a given age. These days, both Democrats and Republicans are secure in their knowledge of the facts about the economy, immigration, climate change, unions, the military, and a thousand other things. It is just that they know — and can support with statistics, massive documentation, and a host of reasons drawn from history, morality and philosophy — different and opposing facts, and there is no impartial benchmark that can independently sort out the true facts from what is mere opinion or error.

Again, this does not mean that there are no facts, only that there are no facts so independent of perspective — so above it all — that they can end the war of fact that is always going on in politics, science, marriage, and everywhere else; there are no facts that stand to the side of argument and can settle arguments; there are only facts that emerge in the course of argument, facts to which at least some people have been persuaded, although given what persuasion is, its effects are unlikely to last; persuasion can’t be done once and for all.

Because facts that emerge in the course of argument will not be considered facts by everyone, the world of fact is not a settled landscape, but a battlefield. In a dispute, either side can invoke what is, within its vocabulary and presuppositions, indisputable fact, but any such invocation will lead not to the white flag of surrender but to renewed dispute as those who inhabit a different vocabulary and are committed to different presuppositions reply, “Let me tell you why your so called facts rest on shaky ground,” or, “What you call fact is just the opinion of discredited pseudo-authorities,” or, “What you count as a fact for your position actually supports ours.” So we’re off to the races again, with no finish line in sight, although there may be temporary victories that last until the facts established in debate are challenged and dislodged. (The period can be 200 years or 20 minutes.)

When two parties speak from different assumptions and within different basic vocabularies that generate different facts, each will say of the other, “you lie.” They say that because from where they stand or sit, what the other guys are asserting couldn’t possibly be true; they can only be saying that because they want to deceive and mislead the public. No, they are saying that because they believe it. I am not suggesting that believing in something makes it true; only that if you are seriously committed to a position and not just asserting it frivolously or maliciously, you can back it up with evidence and argument; you have reasons for your belief, as do those who believe something else; and making an effort to back up one’s beliefs when challenged is essential to the joint effort of figuring out what the truth is, an effort that can succeed provisionally, but never finally. Lying, the act of professing what you know to be false, is not typically what either side is practicing. There is, after all, something called an honest difference of opinion, where “honest” means “I really believe this and let me tell you why I do and then you can tell me why you are not convinced.”

There are, however, those who are neither serious nor honest. They say things not in order to initiate a dialogue, but because they want to wound people; they trade on ignorance and prejudice; they rehearse gossip and baseless rumors they know to be false; they really are liars. In a recent edition of his TV program Last Week Tonight, John Oliver made high fun of people who just toss stuff out with no care for its accuracy or for the harm it might do. He has two examples. The first is Antonio Sabàto Jr., a less-than-minor celebrity, who in an interview said of President Barack Obama, “I don’t believe that the guy is a Christian.” The interviewer tried to ask, “based on what?” but Sabàto cut her off, declaring, “That’s what I believe and I have the right to believe it.” Sure he does, but his manner of belief is a refusal of serious engagement and has all the probative value of a grunt or a belch. Oliver’s second example is Newt Gingrich, who seems to have more political lives than a cat. In an interview, Gingrich waved away the statistics and reports showing that crime is down in the United States. “That’s not how people feel,” he said, and when confronted with a recitation of fact he retorted “That’s your view” and “I’ll go with how people feel and you can go with the theoreticians of fact.”

Now one of these is a fool (guess which) and the other is a knave, openly pandering to the uninformed opinions of his audience. But neither is a postmodernist; neither performs in a way dictated by postmodern tenets.

And when Donald Trump links Ted Cruz’s father with the John F. Kennedy assassination or suggests, on the basis of nothing at all, that Ghazala Kahn, the mother of a slain Muslim-American soldier, didn’t speak at the Democratic convention because her husband and her religion wouldn’t allow it, he isn’t being a postmodernist either; he is just practicing the art of innuendo and slander that has been around since the beginning of time, eons before postmodernism was the name of a form of thought that those who had never engaged with it could caricature.

Postmodernism neither licenses slander not gives us the resources for combatting it.

Postmodernism neither licenses slander not gives us the resources for combatting it. We cannot “cure” die-hard Trump supporters by requiring them to read some pages of Nietzsche or, for that matter, some pages of Kant or Aristotle or Abraham Lincoln. In fact, die-hard Trump supporters cannot be cured by anything, necessarily, although in a given circumstance almost anything they encounter — a homeless man, a newborn child, the lyrics in a song, a sunset — might bring about a conversion in their way of thinking.

This is one of the lessons postmodernism teaches us: What persuades someone to embrace or break away from an agenda or a leader is entirely contingent; it cannot be predicted or designed. But that contingency is not produced by postmodernism; it has been a feature of life since the beginning. Postmodernism just explains why contingency cannot be overcome by invoking a set of independent, freestanding facts to which all parties, including Trump supporters, would bend the knee. There are no such facts; there are only facts embedded in some challengeable form of life, and because they are so embedded, they are forever challengeable too. Nothing can shore them up permanently.

Again, this is not postmodernism’s fault; it’s just the truth its arguments urge on us. Postmodernism doesn’t do anything more positive than urging that truth. It is not a politics; it neither gives marching orders to those who are persuaded to it, nor tells you whom to vote for or how to live. To be a postmodernist is not to have an agenda, but to give a particular set of answer to some questions (about fact and truth) traditionally posed in philosophy. Giving those answers commits you to no course of action. You could be converted to postmodernism and find that nothing else in your life had changed.

The bottom line is that abstract forms of thought like postmodernism do not cause bad actions. (They do not cause good actions either; they don’t cause any actions.) Bad actions are caused by bad character. Sabàto, Gingrich, Trump don’t say reprehensible things because they have read Nietzsche. They say reprehensible things because they are reprehensible and their way of talking and thinking couldn’t be further from the careful and patient elaboration of difficult problems that marks postmodern discourse. Blaming a set of largely academic arguments for the source of our troubles is a combination of irresponsibility and ignorance, a shallow response to problems that are left unaddressed. I expect that the next proposal coming from those who declare that the dangers we face emanate from philosophy departments will be to ban postmodernists from entering the country and to burn the postmodernist texts (if not their authors) that have already been let in.

28/08/2016

Three Chinese military planes “briefly” flew into an overlapping air defense intensification zone of South Korea and China amid tensions between the two countries over Seoul’s decision to place a missile defense system on its soil, a military source in Seoul said Monday. The Chinese planes, including a bomber engaging in its own military operations, flew into the airspace near South Korea’s southern island of Jeju on Thursday, without prior notification, but left shortly after the South Korean military issued a warning message and sent fighter jets to escort the intruders out of the area. The area that the Chinese planes flew over was the western side of Ieodo, a submerged rock located around 150 kilometers southwest of Jeju. It is an area where the air defense identification zones of South Korea and China overlap. In 2013, China unilaterally expanded its own air defense identification zone to cover a reef and other islands off the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula. South Korea announced an expansion of its own Korean Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ) to counter the Chinese move”.

28/08/2016

A relevant piece notes the lack of a successful black nation, “Questions of injustice in the United States have been duly raised and protested. And, once again, the black cultural elites in America have seized various platforms to air their grievances and are mostly — and rightly — talking about racism, discrimination, racial profiling, and hate, among other issues. But one issue that has hardly been talked about is the core reason why black people have remained synonymous with the denigrating experience of racism. It is, I dare say, because of the worldwide indignity of the black race.

Racism is not limited to the Unites States. There is no nonblack nation, even among the most liberal ones, where the black man is dignified. History dealt us an unforgiving blow in the incursion of foreigners into black lands. The Arabs enslaved tribes and nations and then colonized and evangelized them. Then came the Europeans, who, persuaded the Africans were of an inferior race, divided up the continent over lunch in Berlin in 1884. They carted off a large population of its people — sometimes leaving entire villages almost empty — and brought those who remained on the continent under their rule. So complete was the transformation that no black nation retained its ancestral nationhood, national language, or national identity. And today we often hear of how China or India or some other nation is “taking over” Africa economically. There is almost no nation whose majority is of a different race that has not spat on the face of the black person, at one time or the other.

Be assured, the indignity will continue. Black elites and activists across the world have adopted a culture of verbal tyranny in which they shut down any effort to reason or criticize us or black-majority nations by labeling such attempts as “racism” or “hate speech.” Thus, one can be certain that any suggestions that our race may indeed need to do something to remedy our situation will not be aired — not by the terrified people of other races. And anyone within our race who makes such a suggestion will be deemed weak and pandering or a sellout, as U.S. President Barack Obama has been repeatedly called.

Thus, no one will talk about the painful fact that most African and Caribbean nations have either failed or are about to collapse.

Thus, no one will talk about the painful fact that most African and Caribbean nations have either failed or are about to collapse.

Early African-American intellectuals and cultural elites saw that the future of their race could not be advanced by endless protests or marches of “equality” or “justice.” It could only be done through the restoration of the trampled dignity of the black man. Great men like Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Malcolm X all knew that a people is only respected when it has a nation worthy of respect. A man who lives in a shack cannot expect to be treated with respect at a palace. They knew that for us to reclaim power we must first reclaim dignity and that this comes through the construction of a solid black state with a demonstrable level of development and prosperity — and which can stand as a powerful advocate for the global black.

Today, no such state exists.

Nigeria, the most populous black nation on Earth, is on the brink of collapse. The machineries that make a nation exist, let alone succeed, have all eroded. One might argue that the nation’s creation by self-seeking white imperialists engendered its failure from the beginning, as I did in my recent novel. But this is only a part of the cause. A culture of incompetence, endemic corruption, dignified ineptitude, and, chief among all, destructive selfishness and greed has played a major role in its unravelling. The same, sadly, can be said for most other African nations. States like Zimbabwe, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea are farcical democracies ruled by men who exclusively cater to their interests and those of their clipped circles.

Thus, it is no surprise that in the absence of any healthy black nation — in the midst of chaos, senseless wars, corrupted religiosity, violence, and economic collapse — African and Caribbean people leave home en masse. They beg on the streets of Greece, prostitute in the red-light zones of the Netherlands, and make up 40 percent of the migrants flocking to Europe. As they turn up in these countries, helpless, unwanted, starved, or maimed, they are treated like dogs. Last month in Italy, a newly married Nigerian man was murdered simply for being unwanted. Everywhere from Ukraine to India, nearly every day, black indignity, black helplessness, stares us in the face. And all we do, we who hold the platform can do, is scream “racism!” and court the sympathy of others.

The Yoruba say, “Eniyan bi aparo ni omo araye n’fe,” meaning the world loves a person who is like a partridge. The partridge is a poor bird that, enfeebled by its creation, has little ability to hunt, gather, protect, or feed itself. The Yoruba believe that the world loves these birds because they provide the space for people to show both sincere and insincere sympathy while holding firm to their position as the superior and maintaining the place of the partridge as the weak. Which is to say that if the partridge relies on the sympathy of others, it will not elevate its position.

If we, black people everywhere, cannot gather the resources within our powers to exert real changes and restore our dignity, we will continue to be seen as weak

If we, black people everywhere, cannot gather the resources within our powers to exert real changes and restore our dignity, we will continue to be seen as weak. Our protestations and grievances will be met with sympathy, which does nothing to inspire respect.

Black elites should allow for self-criticism and soul-searching and for the restoration of the Pan-Africanist movement with an eye toward building sustainable black nations. We must come to realize that to a great extent the fate of the black man in America is inextricably linked to that of his brother in Africa. Although largely unacknowledged in American political discourse, Jim Crow ended in part because of the African Independent movements. Jaja Nwachukwu, a 1960s-era Nigerian foreign minister and avowed Pan-Africanist who was close friends with American Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, once recalled how American officials were embarrassed when African ministers attended official events in New York’s U.N. headquarters and were treated with honor as representatives of sovereign countries. They were ashamed, for instance, when American blacks could not use the same bathroom as the Africans, just as black. The American blacks were further empowered when African nations started becoming independent, black-governed nation-states, beginning with Ghana in 1957 and followed shortly afterward by other African nations.

As long as we continue to ignore Africa’s continuous wallowing in senseless poverty and destructive failures, as long as the Congolese or the Haitian remains the poster child for poverty and lack, we will remain undignified. As long as we continue to ignore our own self-assessment and soul-searching, we will remain the undignified race. Sadig Rasheed, one of the leading African politicians of the 1980s, once told Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski: “I worry about whether African societies will be able to assume a self-critical stance, and much depends on this.” I add: Our dignity — and even survival — will depend on this.

28/08/2016

“Evan McAllister was 23 years old when he fought in the Iraqi city of Ramadi in 2006. He killed men and buried friends. Eight years later, he watched the same city fall to the Islamic State. To McAllister, a former Marine staff sergeant and scout sniper instructor, the war he fought was a harebrained mission planned by Republicans, rubber-stamped by Democrats and, in the end, lost to al-Qaeda’s brutal successor. The foreign policy establishment of both parties got his friends killed for no reason, he said, so come Election Day, he is voting for the man he believes answers to neither Democrats nor Republicans: Donald Trump.

26/08/2016

A report notes the emerging tensions between the UK ministers who oversee British exit from the EU, “Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, made an attempted power grab on key areas of Boris Johnson’s Foreign Office, writing to his colleague and the prime minister, Theresa May, in an effort to wrest control of Britain’s overseas economic policy, a leaked letter has revealed.

Tensions have been escalating between the Foreign Office and Fox’s Department for International Trade, but the former defence secretary’s suggestion has apparently been given short shrift by No 10, the Sunday Telegraph reported.

Within a fortnight of arriving at the newly created department, Fox wrote to Johnson, copying in May, to ask for economic diplomacy – a key function of the Foreign Office – to become part of the remit of his department.

In the letter leaked to the Telegraph, Fox called for a “rational restructuring” of the departments and suggested that he take “clear leadership of the trade and investment agenda,” with Johnson leading on diplomacy and security, including oversight of the intelligence services.

He wrote: “In my first few weeks as secretary of state for international trade, it has become clear to me that existing cross-Whitehall structures have meant that HM government has not taken the holistic approach it might have on trade and investment agendas.”

Economic diplomacy was, he said, “crucial to delivery of the objectives I have been set by the prime minister as international trade secretary”.

he letter went on: “I strongly believe this will be the only chance we get to materially change the approach we take to trade and investment and, as such, would urge you to consider this proposition favourably. If we fail to take this opportunity to restructure now, I feel we will have a suboptimal structure for the future.”

Johnson is said to have firmly rejected the request, but agreed to second several members of staff to the new department to lend expertise.

A government spokesman said it would not comment on leaked documents. “Alongside other departments, the FCO [Foreign Office] are seconding a small number of staff with relevant expertise to the new Department for International Trade,” the spokesman said. “This is all part of the cross-government effort to ensure we make a success of Brexit.”

Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, said May was to blame for the jostling between the departments. “She created these three separate departments, not because it made sense in terms of coordinating Whitehall’s management of Brexit, but just to buy the loyalty of Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and David Davis,” she said.

“Now we see the inevitable dysfunction and turf wars, as they fight between them to grab work that should have been coordinated out of the Foreign Office alone. It is high time that the Tories stopped fighting among themselves, started thinking about the good of the country and focused on clearing up the mess that they have created.”

The leaked letter is the second blunder for Fox’s department in recent days. On Friday, it removed from its website a confusing press release that appeared to announce that the UK would still trade with the EU under World Trade Organisation rules after leaving the bloc, “until any new trade deals are negotiated”.

Trading under WTO rules would mean that businesses were subject to steep tariffs on goods exported to the EU, including a 10% duty on cars and 12% on clothing, and having no access to the EU’s service markets or financial service markets. The department said the press release had been issued in error.

Japan’s record defence budget

26/08/2016

Japan aims to develop a prototype drone fighter jet in two decades with private sector help in a technology strategy that focuses on weapons communications and lasers, according to a document seen by Reuters. The plan will be announced this month when the Defence Ministry also unveils its request for a record budget of 5.16 trillion yen ($51 billion) for fiscal 2017, as tension rises in the East China Sea and North Korea steps up its missile threat, government officials with direct knowledge of the matter said. The military technology plan calls for first developing an unmanned surveillance aircraft in the next decade and then an unmanned fighter jet 10 years later, the document showed. The rise of 2.3 percent over this year’s budget of 5.05 trillion yen marks the fifth successive annual increase sought by the ministry, which is keen to stiffen Japan’s defenses as North Korea upgrades its ballistic missile technology”.

Farrell’s new job

26/08/2016

Rocco Palmo notes the new appointment of Bishop Kevin Farrell a the new prefect of the Dicastary for Laity, Family and Life. He opens, “Now the ranking US prelate in the Roman Curia – where his brother, Brian, has long served as bishop-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity – even as the move short-circuits the long-held wish for the nation’s sixth-largest city to be elevated as seat of a third metropolitan province in Texas, the Vatican statement announcing the move conspicuously did not include Farrell’s elevation to the rank of archbishop, which has always been customary practice for appointments of this kind. While the pick of the Dublin-born ex-Legionary of Christ might come as a surprise in some quarters, the threads explaining it can be gleaned on several fronts”.

Rocco points out that “First, and most crucially, while no one would see the low-key yet driven (and, quietly, quite funny) Irishman as some kind of wild-haired progressive, he has been notably unstinting in his affection for and loyalty to the reigning Pope; among other examples, Farrell used his homily at February’s ordination of his latest auxiliary, Greg Kelly, to lay out Francis’ vision of being a bishop in depth. Secondly, by every account Farrell has succeeded at the high-wire challenge that marked the first stage of his tenure in the Metroplex – unifying a roiled Dallas church after the divisive tenure of his predecessor, Bishop Charles Grahmann, when the diocese’s staggering growth (a more than sixfold increase of Catholics since 1990) was coupled with an eruption of abuse scandals. In addition, with Hispanic fluency steeped in Mexico from his days in the Legion, the bishop has has successfully navigated the Latin and Anglo realities of the mammoth diocese, whose 67 parishes are effectively teeming at the seams, and the replacement of parish churches with significantly larger new buildings has been a common occurrence. (He would open new parishes, he’s often said, if only he had the priests – or, as one pastor memorably put the crunch, “We’re forbidden to die.”)”

Perhaps most importantly Rocco makes the point that Farrell “enjoys close ties and clear goodwill among four prominent figures in Francis’ orbit: having served as vicar-general and auxiliary of Washington under Cardinals Theodore McCarrick and Donald Wuerl until his southern transfer, the sister of the ever-influential head of Francis’ “Gang of 9,” Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, lives in Dallas, while the work that brought him to DC to begin with saw him succeed then-Bishop Sean O’Malley as director of the capital’s Centro Catolico Hispano, which the Capuchin founded a decade earlier as Latinos began to arrive in the city en masse, only leaving the role on his appointment to the Virgin Islands. Lastly, having been a key figure in the USCCB boiler room over his 14 years on the bench – leading various elements of the conference’s temporalities and serving as its executive-level treasurer – while Farrell is an administrative whiz and knows the church’s tendency to be obsessed with process, he doesn’t exactly revel in it and understands its place as an element of the greater good. Beyond the sheer challenge of setting up a new ministry that will combine two pontifical councils – and likely bring its share of tough decisions – the organizational element is critical as the combined dicastery will oversee the preparations for the global church’s two largest regular events: World Youth Day and the World Meeting of Families, the latter’s next edition to be held in 2018 in the new prefect’s native Dublin”.

Rocco goes on to mention “On top of all this, having become adept at social media with his own blog and Twitter feed, even if the Pope’s pick isn’t the type who’d be knocking over people to get to a camera, Farrell’s always played well in the spotlight. That public role will likewise be of high import given his new post’s natural role of serving as the church’s lead spokesman on family issues, and in particular at the helm of the dicastery most pointedly tasked with the ongoing implementation of Amoris Laetitia, as a palpable amount of head-banging over the Pope’s Post-Synodal Exhortation continues four months since its release. In tandem with today’s appointment, Francis published a motu proprio formally establishing the new Dicastery and suppressing the respective Pontifical Councils for Laity and the Family, merging the duo alongside the Pontifical Academy for Life into Farrell’s office. In the text, the Pope writes of his desire that the church “offer sustenance and help” to laity and families, “that they might be active witnesses of the Gospel in our time” and might “make manifest the love of the merciful Lord toward all humanity.” On a related note, given the vivid debate among canonists over which rank the consolidated office should hold as it exercises some jurisdiction – which, in the strict sense, is the mark of a Curial congregation – only today has the generic, unusual designation of “Dicastery” emerged for the new organ, which presages a further breakdown of the traditional ranking of the offices as Francis’ overhaul of the Holy See’s governing structures continues apace”.

Rocco ends, “for now, as some fireworks are bound to ensue in the top rank with the appointment for a now-vacant Dallas church – where Farrell was already laying the groundwork to receive another auxiliary – it bears recalling that, with the new Prefect to be aided by three Secretaries for each of the new office’s areas of competence, the legislation establishing the Dicastery provides that (in a first for a top Curial organ) the lead deputies need not be clergy, but may likewise be named from among religious or the laity”.

John Allen discusses the appointment also, “By naming Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas on Wednesday as the first head of the Vatican’s newly created mega-department for Laity, Family, and Life, Pope Francis has accomplished two things at once: He’s handed another major victory to pastoral moderates, and he’s also further disabused notions that he’s cool to Americans. (Farrell, 68, isn’t American by birth since he was born in Dublin and came of age in Ireland, but by now he’s spent almost half his life in the States, including the last 14 years as an American bishop.) Farrell joined the Legion of Christ but left fairly early on, before sexual abuse controversies broke out around the order’s controversial founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado. He moved into the Archdiocese of Washington in 1984, where he served as a pastor and also took over a center for Hispanic ministry from then-Capuchin Father Sean P. O’Malley, who’s now the Cardinal of Boston”.

Allen goes on to mention, “Bishops who come to the Vatican from the outside often face a steep learning curve, but that’s not likely to be the case with Farrell, since his brother, Brian, is also a bishop and has been serving for the past 14 years in Rome as the number two official in the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. I’ve known both Farrells for a good stretch, Kevin a bit better than Brian since I generally see him every year when I speak at Dallas’s annual ministry conference, and this past year Farrell presided over awarding me an honorary doctorate when I delivered the commencement address at the University of Dallas in May. By most measures Farrell profiles as a moderate, with a pastoral touch and a social justice orientation very much in keeping with the Pope Francis style”.

For example, when Farrell was named to Dallas in 2007, he took over an uneasy relationship with more conservative elements at the University of Dallas, which was on its way to earning a reputation as one of the bastions of a fairly agressive “new orthodoxy,” and did his best to steer it back to the center.

In 2009, Farrell delivered a memorable commencement address in which he warned against “dogmatism, closed mindedness, judgmentalism, [and] suspicion of another’s motives.”

He returned to the subject in 2011, when critics objected to a new ministry degree program they saw as insufficiently orthodox. On that occasion, Farrell took the unusual step of releasing a video in response.

“Let me remind the Catholic people of the diocese that this is my responsibility,” he said. “And I’m the one who has to stand before God and say whether or not this is truly Catholic. That is my responsibility, and I do not take it lightly.”

In not-so-subtle fashion, part of what he was saying boiled down to, “I’m the bishop and you’re not, so relax.”

At various other points, Farrell has come under similar fire. When he recently supported Father Thomas Rosica, who operates the Salt and Light media platform and also assists the Vatican with English-language press relations, when Rosica denounced a “cesspool of hatred” in the Catholic blogosphere, some of the same blogs angry at Rosica went after Farrell.

Others howled when Farrell publicly objected to a new Texas carry law on guns, and praised President Barack Obama for pursuing stronger gun control.

Yet liberals too have also lodged complaints.

In 2008, for instance, Farrell and Bishop Kevin Vann, then of Fort Worth, issued a joint pastoral letter on Catholics and politics, calling abortion “the defining moral issue not just of today but of the last 35 years.” It was widely seen as a warning to Catholics about supporting Barack Obama (or, at least, doing so uncritically), and led to protests outside the Dallas chancery.

Farrell’s reputation for balance, therefore, isn’t about any hesitance to speak his mind, or timidity about drawing lines in the sand. It’s more about an instinctive aversion to ideological extremes, a sense that busting people’s chops generally isn’t the right immediate response to any new problem.

On the issues that will loom largest in his new gig – abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and so on – the bottom line is that Farrell is robustly pro-life, but nobody’s idea of a cultural warrior.

In his new position, Farrell will also be responsible for overseeing implementation of Francis’ recent treatise on the family, Amoris Laetitiae, which among other things seemed to open a cautious door for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to Communion after a process of discernment.

Although Farrell hasn’t directly addressed the Communion issue, when the document appeared he was broadly supportive.

“Some feel Pope Francis does not go far enough in addressing the hopes of those in irregular marriages, others who feel it compromises traditional teaching,” he said. “In my opinion, it reflects the call of Jesus to his church to continue his healing and saving mission.”

Farrell also warmly praised comments on Amoris made by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, who was among the proponents of opening Communion to the divorced and remarried at the pope’s two Synods of Bishops on the family.

On the pastoral level, Farrell won high marks in July for his response to the sniper attacks on police that left five law enforcement officers dead, in retaliation for police shootings of African-Americans.

Farrell gets good reviews as an administrator and manager (he has an MBA from Notre Dame), and is seen as a strong leader. That’s a quality that will come in handy in the Vatican, where outsiders, especially those who aren’t part of the Italian clerical world, can easily get steamrolled if they aren’t careful.

Personally, Farrell is relaxed and accessible, with a sharp wit and a keen sense of humor, without any of the pretense one sometimes associates with senior Vatican mandarins.

As for the American angle, Francis had already gone a long way to assuaging doubts about a perceived coolness to Americans by naming Greg Burke, a veteran Time and Fox News correspondent, as his new chief spokesman effective Aug. 1.

Yet there was still no American prelate heading a major Vatican department, something of an anomaly in recent decades when the informal rule was there should be at least one.

By tapping Farrell, therefore, Francis has again shown his respect for the Church in the United States in arguably the most consequential way any pope can, since, in the small world of the Vatican, personnel is always policy.

Here’s the bottom line on the Farrell appointment: Moderates can claim another big win, and Americans (as well as the Irish, of course) can feel like they’ve got a powerful new friend in Rome.

Russian military exercises

26/08/2016

Russian naval and land forces have practiced swiftly moving military hardware and troops to annexed Crimea as part of a logistics exercise which foreshadows much larger war games there next month, the Russian Defence Ministry said. The training exercise comes at a time of heightened tension between Russia and Ukraine after Moscow accused Kiev of sending saboteurs into the contested peninsula to carry out a series of bombings. Kiev has flatly denied that. President Vladimir Putin flew into Crimea on Friday where he planned to hold a meeting of his Security Council. The Defence Ministry said in a statement issued late on Thursday that Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, had observed part of the training exercise which took place in the Russian port of Novorossiisk”.

“Politicians need to respond to the howl of protest”

24/08/2016

A piece from Foreign Affairs notes how to unite the UK after Brexit, “The referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union has underlined the profoundly divided state of England. My middle-class friends and family based in the country’s south continue to bemoan the outcome of the referendum in tones more suited to a family bereavement than a political event. Meanwhile, in the north of the country where I grew up, there were celebratory street parties with revelers full of delight that voters had risen up and given the establishment a good kicking. Although the referendum revealed a riven country, it did not create it. It simply provided many voters who had effectively opted out of British politics an opportunity to get back in. Their opinions may be unpopular in some quarters, but their mobilization cannot be ignored”.

It goes on to mention “The Leave campaign’s dismissal of experts tallied with a pervasive mistrust of the establishment among those left behind by globalization. One incident at a town hall event sticks in my mind. A couple of colleagues and I were in Newcastle, in the northeast, discussing the fact that the vast majority of economists agreed that Brexit would lead to an economic slowdown. A two percent drop in the United Kingdom’s GDP, I said, would dwarf any savings the country would generate from curtailing its contribution to the EU budget. “That’s your bloody GDP,” came the shouted response, “not ours.” In deprived areas of the country, where jobs are insecure, wages are depressed, housing is scarce, and education levels are far below those in London, there is a profound unease with the kind of aggregate statistics bandied about by experts. Membership in the single market may have increased the GDP of the whole country, but it didn’t make a difference everywhere. Boston in Lincolnshire provided the Leave campaign’s biggest victory—76 percent voted for Brexit. The median income here is less than £17,000 ($22,600), as compared with £27,000 ($35,900) across the 20 local authorities where support for EU membership was strongest. For all the good that membership might have done for the economy as a whole, inequality has worsened. As one woman in Yorkshire put it to me, “I don’t mind if we take an economic hit. Our lives have never been easy, after all. But it will be nice to see the rich folk down south suffer.” Dramatic falls in the value of the pound or national income mean little to people who are already struggling”.

It goes on to mention, “The backlash from disappointed Remainers has been immediate. To date, a petition to annul the result on the grounds that turnout was below 75 percent and the winning side received fewer than 60 percent of the votes cast has received over four million signatures. Some members of Parliament have suggested that there should be a second referendum, or that the result of this one could be overruled by a parliamentary vote (the vast majority of British parliamentarians support Britain remaining within the European Union). Such talk is misguided and dangerous. To be sure, one-off referendums are not an optimal way of deciding complex political issues, and are even less so when there is no defined threshold for turnout or margin of victory. As leading economist Kenneth Rogoff has argued, it seems bizarre that such a crucial decision could be made by 36 percent of eligible voters. Further, the Remainers are also right to claim that the Leave camp proved adept at twisting the truth; its claim, painted on the side of its battle bus, that the United Kingdom pays £350 ($465) million per week to the EU was simply and provably false. And it is doubtless true that some people had not thought through what their vote would mean”.

He points out that “all that is in the past. Political campaigns are not usually beacons of honesty and straightforwardness. And the notion that large numbers of pro-Brexit voters are experiencing buyer’s remorse is both unproven and irrelevant. Voters knew the score before the referendum. It was a one-shot deal. The four million signatories of the petition are dwarfed by the 17.4 million who voted for Brexit. And it is hard to avoid the feeling that much of the Remain camp disappointment comes from people who are simply not used to losing votes that might negatively affect their own lives. As Manchester Professor Rob Ford put it, the English middle class is simply experiencing what UKIP voters have had to put up with for years. The fundamental problem with the idea of ignoring the outcome of the referendum, however, is political. The referendum was, in part, a political protest against a system that no longer adequately represents its people. Overturning the result, therefore, would simply make matters worse. And the backlash would hit the Labour Party worst of all. Many of the places where the Brexit campaign triumphed are areas in which Labour had been holding off a challenge from UKIP. Part of UKIP’s appeal—apart, of course, from being the only party in favour of a proposition that 17 million people supported—is its insurgent nature”.

He rightly points out that “the referendum result will affect their ability to do so. If the economists’ predictions are correct, Brexit will reduce the resources of the British state and hence its ability to act. Yet the levers that need to be pulled to address the kinds of issues that the vote revealed rest, nevertheless, in the hands of the British government. Training, education, the provision of adequate housing, and ensuring a more equal distribution of the spoils of globalization are all matters for which the British government has primary responsibility. Each would, in its own way, help to bridge the chasm that has grown between the globalized middle class and the white, blue collar working class. The rest of the world should watch the British response to this challenge with interest. The forces of reaction and revolt are on the march, whether via the Front National in France or the Trump presidential candidacy in the United States. In all these places, established parties, rather than dealing immediately with the legitimate grievances that have generated such anger, have waited until hurt feelings have grown into political movements capable of challenging longtime incumbents”.

He ends “As ever, no one would choose to start from here. The referendum will have severe consequences for the British economy and British society. Yet it can still serve as a wake-up call. Politicians need to respond to the howl of protest that woke them in the early hours of June 24. No longer can they simply plug their ears. Let that be the legacy of the European Union referendum”.

 

Hard life in Crimea

24/08/2016

“More than two years after Russia annexed Crimea and promised its 2 million people a better life, residents say prices have soared, wages and pensions have stagnated and tourists have fled. The sunny and mountainous Black Sea peninsula is back in the news, with Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing Kiev of sending infiltrators across the border to wreck its industry. But locals say the damage has already been done by Moscow’s neglect. “We joined Russia and they stopped giving a damn about us,” Yevgeny, a worker at a titanium plant in the town of Armyansk told Reuters. “People are naive. They thought that if we were part of Russia, everything would be Russian. Prices have now jumped to the Russian level, but wages have stayed the same. That’s the main problem.” Fearing reprisals from his boss, Yevgeny declined to give his surname, as did other workers who spoke to Reuters. Armyansk, a sleepy Crimean town near the newly-established border with Ukraine, is not far from where Russia says it fought armed clashes with Ukrainian infiltrators last week. Kiev says the clashes never took place and Moscow fabricated the incident as a possible pretext for new military action against Ukraine. The alleged plot has dominated headlines in Crimea, distracting attention away from the region’s own problems. But according to some residents of Armyansk, a long way from Crimea’s Tsarist-era palaces and its picturesque mountainous sea coast, those problems urgently need addressing”.

Chamberlain, Timothy and May

24/08/2016

A piece from the Economist examines Threasa mays new chief of staff, “ON JULY 7th 1906 Joseph Chamberlain led an 80-car rally to celebrate his 70th birthday. Thousands of Brummies lined its 17-mile route. “Our Joe” had fought for Birmingham’s workers as mayor and, on the national stage, had advocated tariffs protecting its industries. The city was a palimpsest of his achievements: its schools for the poor, its magnificent parks, its grand civic buildings, its whirring workshops and clanking factories full of confident, well-fed workers. Still, eyebrows twitched when, in a speech almost precisely 110 years later, Theresa May cited him as an example. She was campaigning for the Tory leadership and, though he had ditched the Liberal Party over its tolerance for Irish autonomy, Chamberlain had never been a Tory. That the woman who today runs Britain praised him had everything to do with her closest adviser: Nick Timothy. He is one of the most interesting figures in her government. The son of a steelworker and a school secretary, he venerates Chamberlain’s interventionism and wrote a biography of the man. He even wears a long Victorian beard”.

The article goes on, “Those close to Mrs May differ on how much Mr Timothy influences her, but only between “quite a lot” and “enormously”. Like her he is a cricket fanatic (he lives a big six away from the Oval ground). He shares the post of Downing Street chief-of-staff with Fiona Hill. For most of their boss’s spell as home secretary this duo was her praetorian guard: bossing around civil servants, telling David Cameron’s aides to mind their own business and generally exhibiting an unflinchingly protective loyalty to her”.

Interestingly it adds, “Admirers credit this with Mrs May’s unusually long (six-year) stint in the job. Critics fret that the control freakery will now constipate Whitehall: “You couldn’t blow your nose without Nick or Fi knowing,” recalls one former colleague. It is not an exaggeration to discern a direct line between Mr Timothy’s upbringing and Mrs May’s vision. He provides a pragmatic prime minister with an idealistic edge. His credo is captured in an article he wrote in March (one of a series for ConservativeHome, a Tory-aligned website) about “modernisation”. Here a bit of history helps. Back in the early 2000s, when the Conservatives were in the doldrums and the reactionary old farts were doing battle against modernisers, Mr Timothy was with the modernisers. But with David Cameron’s rise to the leadership in 2005, the debate shifted to what modernisation should mean. There was “Easterhouse modernisation”, a focus on the poorest, named after a Glasgow housing estate. There was “Soho modernisation”, an urban social liberalism named after a trendy part of London. But Mr Timothy reckoned a third leg of the stool was missing: “Erdington modernisation”, a concentration on the struggling, patriotic working-class named after the industrial suburb of Birmingham where he grew up”.

The writer goes on to note how “His writings expatiate on the idea. At home: more intervention in the economy, a clamp on immigration, less greenery, tough measures against crime, more religious schools and selective education rewarding poor, bright kids. Abroad: closer links with the Commonwealth—akin to Chamberlain’s proposed imperial economic union—and looser ties to Europe, which features in Mr Timothy’s output only as a source of bad public policies, corrupt leadership and justifications for Brexit. It also means a cooling of Britain’s links to both America, to which he reckons Tony Blair was too close, and China, to which he believes Mr Cameron was too craven. Overall it means a government keener to confront foreigners, vested interests and especially the sort of polenta-munching elites who share each other’s globalising enthusiasms, holiday villas and platforms at Davos”.

It adds “May’s premiership is not a month old. But already it bears Mr Timothy’s stamp. Britain has lost a department dedicated to climate change and gained one devoted to “industrial policy”. She has sidelined the “Northern Powerhouse” programme to integrate the big northern cities and committed to reining in foreign takeovers. A Chinese bid to finance Hinkley Point, a nuclear power station, has been put on hold. The new prime minister’s speech to the Tory conference in October (in Birmingham, as it happens) should be a Chamberlainite symphony. Renewal, a think-tank founded in 2013 to promote working-class Toryism, is emerging as the new regime’s brains trust. Mr Timothy’s analysis of his party—that it can appear not to “give a toss about ordinary people”—is accurate. The Cameroons’ brand of modernisation owed too much to noblesse oblige, to a vision of society that treated the welfare state as the institutional equivalent of giving one’s gardener a Christmas bonus. Mrs May’s authoritative mien and middle-class roots, combined with Mr Timothy’s instinct for working-class priorities, makes her party newly formidable, propelling it into landslide territory (an early election is surely not off the cards). Moreover, she and he have a point. Britain is too unequal. The past years have been brutal to the sorts of left-behind places that have been denied the boom enjoyed by the big cities”.

It ends “Still, the new Chamberlainites have questions to answer. Britain has found confidence and relative prosperity as a linchpin of globalisation. It is good at the sort of service industries that demand flexible labour markets, urban clusters, worldly universities and fast-moving capital: think not just the City of London but successful provincial centres like Swindon, Milton Keynes and Manchester. Where manufacturing survives, it is often thanks to the country’s openness to foreign investors. All this has bypassed some towns. But for decades Britain has sought to make the most of its strengths while helping those who have lost out to adapt or move. Mrs May and Mr Timothy seem to reckon those strengths—and globalisation itself—are much more malleable than their predecessors have realised. The burden of evidence is on them”.

Closure of Russian bases in Iran

24/08/2016

Iran on Monday annulled permission for Russian planes to fly bombing runs into Syria from an Iranian base, only a week after having granted such extraordinary access, saying that the Kremlin had been unacceptably public and arrogant about the privilege. The about-face and the explanation for it from Iran’s foreign and defense ministries appeared to reflect deep-seated and longstanding suspicions of Russia despite their tactical alliance in the Syria war. The abruptness of the termination, even if temporary, also suggested that the Russians, eager to show widening influence in the Middle East, had seriously misread how a public announcement of their use of the Hamadan base in western Iran would reverberate among Iranians. Russia state news media had been trumpeting the deal as a sign that its partnership with Iran was deepening. No foreign power has based forces in Iran since World War II. In response to the annulment, the Russian military issued a statement saying its planes had already completed their missions”.

The end of UKIP?

24/08/2016

A piece questions the future of UKIP, “THE past couple of months have hardly been an advertisement for the competence of British politicians. Yet few blunders have been as avoidable as that made by Steven Woolfe, an MEP for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who on July 31st submitted his application for the party leadership 17 minutes late. He blamed a malfunctioning website for failing to accept his papers (others pointed out that he might have had more luck had he not waited until 25 minutes before the midday deadline to apply). Mr Woolfe had spoken of the need to “professionalise” the party. On August 3rd UKIP’s governing body ruled that he would not be allowed to stand in the contest. Mr Woolfe had been the front-runner; his exclusion leaves a field of six, and many possible paths for the insurgent party”.

It continues, “After the Brexit vote, which it was instrumental in helping to win, UKIP should be on a roll. Instead, it has reverted to its favourite pastime of infighting. One faction, which includes the outgoing leader, Nigel Farage, argues that the party should focus on winning seats in northern England and Wales by appealing to disaffected, working-class Labour voters. Mr Woolfe, a mixed-race former barrister who grew up in a tough part of Manchester, had seemed perfect for the job, combining a hard line on immigration with talk of improving social mobility. His supporters may now shift to Diane James, the party’s deputy chair, who has stronger support in the south.  Another camp wants to make the party more emollient in the hope of appealing to moderate voters. It includes Douglas Carswell, the party’s sole MP, who criticised the “angry nativism” of some Brexiteers during the referendum. This group seems to have united behind Lisa Duffy, a local councillor from Cambridgeshire. Yet for all the talk of contrasting visions for the party, the split is really about personal differences, says Matthew Goodwin, a UKIP expert at Kent University. Indeed, Ms Duffy, the supposed moderate candidate, recently said that she supported a “total ban” on Muslim state schools”.

The article mentions that “First, Mr Farage and his supporters will seek to change how UKIP works. In a recent article for Breitbart, a right-wing news website, Mr Farage described the party’s high command as “total amateurs who come to London once a month with sandwiches in their rucksacks, to attend [party] meetings that normally last seven hours”. He and others have been considering adopting a decentralised model in which party members have more say—similar to that of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement—for the past year or so, says Mr Goodwin. It is likely they will try to push ahead with such plans now. If that fails, a split could be on the cards. One former aide to Mr Farage, writing on Facebook the night before Mr Woolfe’s exclusion, vowed to “declare full-scale war on UKIP” if Mr Woolfe was blocked from running. Arron Banks, a prominent donor, tweeted that Mr Woolfe’s exclusion would be “the final straw”. Some have suggested that a new party could be created from the remains of the Leave.EU campaign, which Mr Banks founded and to which he gave £6m ($8m) during the referendum”.

It ends “Despite its achievements, which include winning 12.6% of the vote in last year’s general election, UKIP has never had much institutional ballast. During the 2010 election campaign its then-leader, Lord Pearson, admitted when quizzed on the party’s manifesto: “I haven’t remembered it all in detail.” If the popular Mr Farage were to leave UKIP, many of its members might follow suit. Yet he and his supporters will surely be loth to abandon a brand they have spent years building. The squabbling has only just begun”.

“Help defuse the situation in the besieged Syrian city Aleppo”

22/08/2016

Russia’s defense minister said Monday that Moscow and Washington are edging closer to an agreement that would help defuse the situation in the besieged Syrian city Aleppo. Sergei Shoigu said in remarks carried Monday by Rossiya 24 television that “step by step, we are nearing an arrangement. I’m talking exclusively about Aleppo, that would allow us to find common ground and start fighting together for bringing peace to that territory, that long-suffering land so that people could return to their homes.” He added that Russian representatives are “in a very active stage of talks with our American colleagues.” Fighting for Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial capital and its largest city, has become the focal point of the nation’s civil war, now in its sixth year”.

The Iran deal, working

22/08/2016

An important piece in FA argues that Iran deal has worked, “A year has passed since diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany) defied conventional wisdom and struck a deal aimed at both preventing Iran from getting the bomb and preventing it from getting bombed. At the time, the deal’s detractors were apoplectic; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “historic mistake” that would pave the way for Iran to obtain a bomb. But the world has not come to an end. Iran is not the hegemon of the Middle East, Israel can still be found on the map, and Washington and Tehran still define each other as enemies. These days, voices such as Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, criticize the deal for having changed too little. But a closer examination shows that it has had a profound impact on the region’s geopolitical dynamics. Only four years ago, the Iranian nuclear program was consistently referred to as the United States’ number one national security threat. Senior U.S. officials put the risk of an Israeli attack on Iran at 50–50, a confrontation that the United States would quickly get dragged into. A war that was even more destabilizing than the Iraq invasion was not just a possibility; it seemed likely. Today, however, the talk of war is gone. Even the hawkish government of Netanyahu has gone silent on the matter. Former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a hawk in his own right, announced a few weeks ago that “at this point, and in the foreseeable future, there is no existential threat facing Israel. Thus it is fitting that the leadership of the country stop scaring the citizenry and stop giving them the feeling that we are standing before a second Holocaust.” Moreover, members of the U.S. Congress who have recently visited Israel have also noted that Israelis are no longer shifting every conversation to a discussion about the Iranian nuclear threat”.

The piece adds “The nuclear deal has thus halted the march toward war and Iran’s progress toward a bomb. And that certainly qualifies as significant change. To continue to argue that Israel and the region are not safer as a result of the deal would be to contend that Iran’s nuclear program was never a threat to begin with. That is a not a position that the Likud government in Israel can argue with a straight face. Other criticisms of the deal centered on predictions that Iran would not honour the agreement. Yet the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that Iran is abiding by its obligations under the deal. Also not borne out have been prophecies that Iran’s regional policies would radicalise, that the deal would, as The Heritage Foundation’s James Phillips wrote, “project [American] weakness that could further encourage Iranian hardliners.” To be sure, Washington continues to view many of Iran’s regional activities as unhelpful and destabilising, but those activities have not increased as a result of the nuclear deal”.

The piece goes on to mention “If anything, as the European Union’s foreign policy head, Federica Mogherini, told me last December, the deal paved the way for renewed dialogue on Syria, which offers a glimmer of hope to end the carnage there. “What we have now in Syria—talks bringing together all the different actors (and we have it now and not last year)—is because we had the [nuclear] deal,” she told me. And last month, U.S. Secretary Of State John Kerry stated that Iran has been “helpful” in Iraq, where both the United States and Iran are fighting the Islamic State (ISIS). It is undisputable that outside of the nuclear deal, the relationship between the United States and Iran has shifted significantly since the breakthrough. That became abundantly clear in January, when ten American sailors drifted into Iranian waters and were apprehended by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—and were then promptly released. An incident that in the pre-deal era likely would have taken months, if not years, to resolve was now settled in 16 hours. Direct diplomacy between Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif combined with a mutual desire to resolve the matter quickly made all the difference”.

He points out that “for relations to improve beyond the nuclear deal, moderate elements on both sides need to be strengthened by the deal. That is one area where the skepticism of the critics may have been justified. Rather than seeing the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gain momentum after the deal, the pushback from Iranian hardliners has been fierce. Those officials couldn’t prevent Iran from signing the agreement, but they could create enough problems to halt any effort to translate the nuclear deal into a broader opening to the United States. A swift crackdown against individuals and entities seeking to build bridges between Iran and the West had its intended effect: Confidence that the nuclear deal would usher in a new era for U.S.-Iranian relations quickly plummeted. Moreover, challenges to sanctions relief has given hardline opponents of the deal in Iran a boost. Their critique of the agreement—that the United States is not trustworthy—seems to ring true since no major banks have been willing to enter the Iranian market. The banks’ hesitation, in turn, is mainly rooted in the fear that after the U.S. presidential elections, Washington’s political commitment to the deal will wane”.

Correctly the writer argues “Neither Republican candidate Donald Trump nor Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton have signaled any desire to continue down the Obama administration’s path with Iran in general. Clinton has vowed to uphold the deal, but neither she nor Trump have made it crystal clear that they will protect the agreement from new congressional sanctions or other measures that would cause the deal’s collapse. Clinton’s team has signaled that its priority will be to rebuild relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia and restore those allies’ confidence that the United States will counter Iran in the region. Meanwhile, the uncertainty around a Trump presidency needs no explaining. As a result, many banks deem the risk of entering the Iranian market too high due to the political challenges on the U.S. side. That has left Iranians without much in the way of sanctions relief, which is in turn costing Rouhani politically”.

He ends, “In other words, although the deal has been remarkably successful in achieving its explicit goals—halting, and even reversing, Iran’s nuclear advances while avoiding a costly and risky war with Tehran—its true value in rebalancing U.S. relationships in the Persian Gulf and creating a broader opening with Iran may be squandered once Obama leaves office. If Obama’s successor returns to the United States’ old ways in the Middle East while hardliners in Tehran stymie outreach to the West, these unique and historic opportunities will be wasted”.

Russian bases in Iran

22/08/2016

Russia used Iran on Tuesday for the first time as a base from which to launch air strikes against Syrian militants, widening its air campaign in Syria and deepening its involvement in the Middle East. In a move underscoring Moscow’s increasingly close ties with Tehran, long-range Russian Tupolev-22M3 bombers and Sukhoi-34 fighter bombers used Iran’s Hamadan air base to strike a range of targets in Syria. It was the first time Russia has used the territory of another nation, apart from Syria itself, to launch such strikes since the Kremlin launched a bombing campaign to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September last year. The Iranian deployment will boost Russia’s image as a central player in the Middle East and allow the Russian air force to cut flight times and increase bombing payloads. The head of Iran’s National Security Council was quoted by state news agency IRNA as saying Tehran and Moscow were now sharing facilities. Both countries back Assad. Russia, after a delay, has supplied Iran with its S-300 missile air defense system, evidence of a growing partnership that has helped turn the tide in Syria’s civil war and is testing U.S. influence in the Middle East.

Brexit: cosmopolitan vs parochial

22/08/2016

An important piece discusses what the Brexit vote revealed, “Referenda are terrible mechanisms of democracy. As a case in point, the recent British referendum over the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU was a reckless gamble that took a very real issue—the need for more open and legitimate contestation in the EU—and turned it into a political grotesquerie of shamelessly opportunistic political elites”.

Of course referendums are not terrible. They can be very revealing and legitimate ways to engage the public on very specific and important issues but must take place within special settings. The public must be knowledgeable, not just about the topic in question but politics generally. The UK has very poor, almost non-existent civic education. If there was a profound well defined and serious course of political education in schools and democracy, the role of the citizen and the state from an early age this would dramatically increase the level of debate. Moreover, it would marginalise the dangerous, lying and biased press, for which the UK has become known and played such a role in the referendum. There was no such education and so people were easily confused and unable to tell fact from lies. Had they been better educated the result might have been very different.

The piece goes on to argue, “The raucous debate over the United Kingdom’s continued membership in the EU was riven with lies and misrepresentations, some of which are now being explicitly rolled back by Brexit advocates; even the British press rues its bombastic support for the Leave side. Unfortunately, many British voters appear not to have known exactly what the EU is, validating other recent research demonstrating a lack of factual knowledge about the union. Observers of the referendum should therefore be wary about drawing conclusions about broader globalization efforts, the Western order, the inevitability of the rise of populist anti-immigration parties, or the viability of the EU project overall. The answer to the breathless question posed in the New York Times on Sunday—“Is the post-1945 order imposed on the world by the United States and its allies unraveling, too?”—is simple. No, it is not. And yet the emotions and cultural chasms brought to bear in the Brexit vote cannot and should not be ignored. Brexit’s real lesson is that there is a consequential divide between cosmopolitans who view the future with hope and those who have been left behind and have seen their economic situations and ways of life deteriorate. The same story may well play out in the United States and elsewhere, with important electoral effects. But the Brexit story also speaks to the uniqueness of the EU as a new kind of polity with a profound impact on the lives of all within it”.

The article goes on to point out, “Although the Brexit referendum was a highly imperfect form of democratic representation, the emotions voiced by Leave voters were very real. They echo important and valid feelings of other populations across the Western democracies. There are two worlds of people, as analysis of Brexit voting patterns clearly indicated, that are divided in their experiences and their visions of the future. Educational attainment, age, and national identity decisively determined the vote. Younger voters of all economic backgrounds and those with a university education voted overwhelmingly in favour of Remain. Older voters, the unemployed, and those with a strong sense of English national identity sought to leave. The fight over Brexit is a reflection of the social exclusion that arises in a world of stark economic inequality. One way of thinking about the division is to see it as cosmopolitan versus parochial thinking, rooted in deeper social and economic trends that create their own cultural dynamics. Cosmopolitanism, a sense of belonging to a global community beyond one’s immediate borders, requires confidence in one’s place in the world and implies a hope about the future beyond the nation-state. The parochial view is tinged with fear about that future and a sense that societal transformation will leave the common voter behind”.

Correctly he points out that “In part, that fear reflects the opening of markets, but it is equally due to changes in technology and broader shifts in capitalism away from protection of both the middle and the working classes. These shifts can’t be blamed solely on globalization; they also have much to do with domestic politics and policy decisions. In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, political choices have accelerated deindustrialization while decimating social safety nets and doing little to put the brakes on rising inequality. Given this harsh reality for the unemployed, the older, and the uneducated, the Remain campaign’s warnings about the economic disaster of Brexit carried little weight; many voters believed that their opportunities were closed off long ago. The clever marketing of the Brexit campaign, including the mantras “Take Back Control” and “Breaking Point,” spoke to very real senses of exclusion but offered few solutions; the reality is that British political dynamics, more than the EU’s rules, have created the United Kingdom’s social and economic problems”.

He argues that “The fight over Brexit is a reflection of the social exclusion that arises in a world of stark economic inequality. But the referendum should also be viewed in terms of a much longer history of political development and state building. The EU is far beyond a simple international organization or trade treaty, since it has accrued significant political authority across a wide range of areas. The rulings of the European Court of Justice, for example, supersede national law, and the laws of the EU have transformed everyday life in Europe, even as the Brussels bureaucracy and its fiscal presence remain tiny. Historically, new political authorities have emerged and evolved in messy, ugly, and often violent ways. National projects of unification have involved coercion, civil wars, and the brutal exercise of power. Questions of federalism in the United States are still being fought today. Although the nation-state seems universal and natural, there have been many other forms of government in Europe alone: the Habsburg monarchy, Italian city-states, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Hanseatic League, for example, have all come and gone. The EU, for all its faults, is an innovative new form, a polity in formation. Those under 45, and particularly those under 30, embrace it and see it as a natural and positive thing, a backdrop to their changed everyday lives that creates more opportunities than it closes down”.

It ends “Given history’s guide, we should not be surprised that the deepening of the EU has created a backlash. But we can be appalled by the craven opportunism and lack of political leadership in the United Kingdom and on the European continent in guiding this development. The EU will only work if all its citizens can imagine themselves part of a cosmopolitan, thriving democratic polity, one that balances local, national, and EU powers and creates economic opportunity. Listening to those on both sides of the cultural divide, and working to ease the economic inequality that underlies the division between the hopeful and the excluded, is the only way forward for the EU—and the rest of us”.

“Came with only the most basic knowledge of Islam”

22/08/2016

An AP analysis of thousands of leaked Islamic State documents reveals most of its recruits from its earliest days came with only the most basic knowledge of Islam. A little more than 3,000 of these documents included the recruits’ knowledge of Shariah, the system that interprets into law verses from the Quran and “hadith” — the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. According to the documents, which were acquired by the Syrian opposition site Zaman al-Wasl and shared with the AP, 70 percent of recruits were listed as having just “basic” knowledge of Shariah — the lowest possible choice. Around 24 percent were categorized as having an “intermediate” knowledge, with just 5 percent considered advanced students of Islam. Five recruits were listed as having memorized the Quran. The findings address one of the most troubling questions about IS recruitment in the United States and Europe: Are disaffected people who understand Shariah more prone to radicalization? Or are those with little knowledge of Islam more susceptible to the group’s radical ideas that promote violence? The documents suggest the latter. The group preys on this religious ignorance, allowing extremists to impose a brand of Islam constructed to suit its goal of maximum territorial expansion and carnage as soon as recruits come under its sway”.

“May can play off her three sort-of foreign secretaries against each other”

20/08/2016

In a piece from the Economist, the author argues that Boris Johnson has diminished the stature and relevance of the UK globally, “IF EVER you find yourself at a dinner party with British establishment types, ask them about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Jokes about gin-swilling, oikophobe globetrotters in linen suits will spill forth. The more chauvinistic may tut about that diplomat’s disease: “going native”, or sympathising more with foreigners than with folk back home. To sound clever, someone will decree that every prime minister since Thatcher has been his or her “own foreign secretary” (as if Churchill and Eden were remembered today for their education policies) and that the FCO these days is just a venue for formalities”.

The piece adds, “This image riles diplomats, and rightly. The essence of the grandest department on Whitehall is not that it deals with the world outside Britain. Practically every government body does that: the business department frets about foreign takeovers, the Ministry of Defence is hardwired into NATO, 10 Downing Street co-ordinates big summits. The point of the FCO is to go beyond the transactional focus of these branches, of fleeting political moods and fads, of narrow, immediate readings of the national interest. Its embassies are a nervous system conveying information, cultivating influence and generally providing a strategy for the country’s global role that transcends the next photo opportunity or crisis. Its goal is an influential Britain in an orderly world. Or, as Ernest Bevin, the post-war foreign secretary, put it: the preservation of every Briton’s ability to “take a ticket at Victoria Station and go anywhere I damn well please!”  It is in this context that the sudden and brutal humiliation of the FCO following Britain’s vote for Brexit should be understood. The swingeing budget cuts and departmental turf wars of recent years have been tough enough. But none of this compares with the indignities visited upon it in recent weeks”.

The author rightly points out, “Most colourful among them is Theresa May’s appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. The former mayor of London, who campaigned for Brexit, is affable and intelligent. But he is also unscrupulous and unserious. In Brussels he is loathed for his myth-making about the EU and for comparing the union to the Third Reich. German news readers struggled to stifle laughter when they read out the news of his promotion on July 14th. In Washington the reaction was no better: five days later the new foreign secretary grinned his way sheepishly through a press conference as American journalists read from his litany of undiplomatic remarks. In 2007 he compared Hillary Clinton to a sadistic mental health nurse, for example; the following year he described Africans as “piccaninnies” .  What possessed Mrs May? It seems the prime minister wants to pack Mr Johnson off to parts foreign, welcoming him back in London only to help her, a Remainer before the referendum, to sell an eventual Brexit deal with the EU to Eurosceptics. That is dismal. It treats the FCO, a giant national asset, as a tool of domestic political management and thus suggests a drastic downgrade of Britain’s ambitions on the world stage”.

The writer mentions that “So too does the prime minister’s creation of two new departments: one for Brexit and one for international trade. The former, in particular, will be composed from chunks of the FCO, including some of its brightest staff. Both are led by uncompromising Eurosceptics, David Davis and Liam Fox, who seem determined to nab further turf from the (in their eyes) all-too internationalist diplomats. Thus the FCO will now have to share facilities—like Chevening, the foreign secretary’s country retreat—and battle for influence with two rival outfits programmed to see other countries less as partners than as negotiating opponents”.

The piece mentions “A hint of what is to come came on July 20th, when Mrs May travelled to Berlin to meet Angela Merkel. The prime minister received military honours and exchanged warm words with her German counterpart. Yet insiders detected a shift. For all the talk of co-operation on Turkey and the refugee crisis, in the German capital Britain is now seen less as a solution than a problem. As one local diplomat put it to Bagehot: “Here Britain now means Brexit.” For the foreseeable future, then, the country’s scope to play the expansive, agenda-setting role for which the FCO is designed is limited. Brexit talks will drain energy from other fields. The fragmentation of Britain’s diplomatic arsenal will Balkanise policymaking. Doors will close which once were open. Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, reckons the country could end up as “a bit player in support of policies developed in Berlin, DC and other places.”

It ends “Too gloomy, say some, pointing to Britain’s ongoing NATO membership, UN Security Council seat, Commonwealth links and economic and military heft. These things matter, of course. But quitting the EU denies Britain opportunities to make the most of them (consider its leadership, alongside France and Germany, in the Iran nuclear talks). The country’s temperamental and institutional tilt in a more zero-sum, nation-state-centric, sovereignty-first direction makes its existing strengths less valuable: a less open and collaborative ally to its friends. Mr Leonard calls this “strategic shrinkage on steroids”. He sees Britain taking a more craven stance towards economic powers like China and Russia, whose cash might help it plug the economic gap left by Brexit. Not everything about this is preordained. Perhaps Mrs May can play off her three sort-of foreign secretaries against each other. Abroad she has opportunities to shore up some of Britain’s influence, says Brendan Simms, a historian of the country’s place in Europe: by striving to remain a useful ally to Germany, by amplifying Britain’s voice on defence and security matters (it is still a major player in NATO’s defences in the Baltics, for example) and by throwing herself into debates about the future integration of continental Europe. Britain’s stature in the world is shrinking. By how much is up to its leaders.

“Recaptured four villages from Islamic State”

20/08/2016

Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces have recaptured four villages from Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) group near its stronghold of Mosul, reports say. The offensive started at 5:30am local time from various fronts and so far. Iraqi forces managed to retake the villages of Tal Hamid, Qarqasha, Abzakh and Qura Takh. Clashes are still ongoing in a fifth village, Sateeh. The advance is part of a wider security operation to retake Iraq’s second largest city, which has been under the control of ISIL, also known as ISIS, since 2014.  ISIL fighters tried to slow down the offensive with two suicide car bombs near the village of Sateeh, but the Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers leading the offensive blew up the car before they reached them. ISIL fighters are now burning tyres near their positions in an attempt to cover themselves from US-led coalition aircraft, Kurdish local television reported. Peshmerga engineering teams are defusing bombs planted by ISIL in the four liberated villages. The battle for Mosul, ISIL’s de facto capital in Iraq and the largest city anywhere in its self-proclaimed caliphate, is expected later this year, but plans have not been finalised, officials and diplomats in Baghdad have said. Army, police and special forces are expected to participate, with air support from a US-led coalition.

“Pensioners have preserved their privileges”

20/08/2016

A piece in Foreign Affairs discusses the need to cut pensions in Europe, “Since the outbreak of the European debt crisis, Greek retirees have become a scapegoat for the continent’s financial and political woes. International creditors were infuriated by the lavish Greek pension system, which allowed public employees to retire as early as the age of 50, and demanded radical overhauls in exchange for bailout funds. They got what they asked for; today, pensions in Greece are 50 percent lower than in 2010. As a result, about 45 percent of Greek pensioners receive monthly checks below the official poverty threshold. Yet the harshness displayed toward Greek retirees is unusual by European standards. The continent’s decision-making process is so heavily tilted in favour of the elderly that pensioners have preserved their privileges even in the face of stagnating growth, crumbling public finances, and skyrocketing youth unemployment. But as the young are pushed to the margins of society, Europe’s gerontocracy is becoming not only financially unsustainable but morally unbearable. Striking a balance between the conflicting interests of the old and the young is therefore necessary to ward off explosive intergenerational tensions”.

The piece goes on to note “Pensioners are a nearly unstoppable force in European politics. With a demographic weight of 130 million people—roughly a quarter of the EU population—they can alter the outcome of any election. But their influence is not just a function of their numbers. Retirees are also one of the most politically active groups in Europe. The Brexit referendum is a case in point. Although the vote was about the future of the United Kingdom, only 36 percent of Britons aged 18 to 24 showed up to the ballot box, as opposed to 83 percent of those over 65. Young people are overwhelmingly pro-European, and if more of them had voted, Britain would not be a departing member of the European Union. (Some millennials are now accusing their parents, not their peers, of having deprived them of a bright future.) All over Europe, political outcomes show a similar bias toward the preferences of the old. In 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rewarded her seniors with several pension giveaways for having supported her third reelection. British Prime Minister David Cameron promised during his reelection campaign to protect the entitlements of retirees, who, in his own words, “made this [the United Kingdom] the great country it is today.” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is currently toying with a similar retreat on pension reform, and French President François Hollande has barely attempted to tackle a pension deficit that is set to reach $23 billion in 2020″.

He correctly adds that “Seniors have also been spared from the effects of the financial crisis. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the austerity measures adopted by Cameron’s first cabinet reduced the income of the average household by about $750, while cutting the earnings of the average two-pensioner family by just $36. Even the reforms adopted between 2010 and 2014 mostly affected the entitlements of future pensioners. Italy raised the retirement age, Spain linked future entitlements to life expectancy, and France increased contributions paid by firms and workers. All shielded the pensions of those already retired. This is a familiar pattern for Europe: when unrealistic retirement promises conflict with the reality of an aging continent, politicians shift the burden onto the next generation”.

He posits that “In addition to political power, pensioners control a disproportionate amount of wealth. European governments spend, on average, 15 percent of their GDP on pensions, but only seven percent on education and family policies. The income of the median European retiree is as high as that of the median active worker, and in some countries is even higher. Finally, pensioners are less likely than the rest of the population to be at risk of poverty or social exclusion. This wasn’t always the case: in the 1960s, Britons aged 65 to 70 were in the bottom 25 percent of the country’s income distribution; now they are in the top 40 percent”.

The article contends that ” The intergenerational fault lines exposed by Brexit testify to growing disaffection with this system. Organizations such as the Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations and the Intergenerational Foundation proliferate across the continent. Europe’s pay-as-you-go pension schemes are based on a promise between generations: today’s workers fund their parents’ pensions, while expecting their offspring to fund their own in turn. The system is vulnerable: it prospers only as long as each generation of workers expects to be at least as well off as the generation of pensioners it pays for. But this is no longer the case, and the temptation to stop contributing to a broken financial scheme is mounting. If enough people start questioning the system, it could implode. To avoid this outcome, European governments should strike a balance between three often incompatible principles: financial sustainability, intergenerational solidarity, and intergenerational fairness. Call it a retirement trilemma.  The principle of financial stability calls for a radical revision of the privileges enjoyed by current pensioners. Benefits should be reduced, and the retirement age should be raised to levels consistent with ongoing increases in life expectancy. This would align Europe’s pension systems with the recommendations of the European Commission and International Monetary Fund, and would be an important step toward sustainability. As the Greek crisis demonstrated, slashing pensions and postponing retirement may replace financial problems with a social catastrophe. That’s why, according to the principle of intergenerational solidarity, governments should allow for some degree of flexibility. Pensions should not just be proportional to lifetime contributions but should also be adequate to guarantee a decent lifestyle. In order to make the system financially sustainable, governments could levy a solidarity tax on the highest incomes and redistribute the proceeds among the poorest pensioners. Likewise, since even the most skilled workers usually lack the skills to keep up with disruptive technological change, workers hurt by automation should be allowed to retire early if necessary. But in exchange for being removed from a tough job market, they should give something back”.

He goes on to argue that “This is linked to the third principle, intergenerational fairness. At a time of stagnating growth and shrinking work forces, idle retirement is something advanced economies can no longer afford. Old people, especially those who retire early, should therefore actively contribute to the well-being of their societies. As long as pensioners are in good health, their benefits should become conditional on work in public institutions. This work should involve the skills acquired throughout retirees’ careers: retired teachers could volunteer in schools; retired doctors could volunteer in hospitals. Lord Richard, the former head of the British Benefits Agency, was criticized for suggesting something similar in 2012, but these active retirement policies would relieve distressed public finances, increase the self-esteem of the old, and make the pension system more acceptable to the young”.

He ends “Finally, in order for any of these reforms to be possible, it will be necessary to dilute the political power of the older generation. Proposed measures include lowering the voting age to 16, setting the minimum candidacy age at 18, and capping candidacy age at 65. To increase the low turnout rates of young voters, governments should invest in voter education programs through schools and media campaigns. And referenda on nation-defining issues like leaving the European Union should require a supermajority—especially in countries where the elderly represent the majority of the electorate. Europe needs some fresh thinking to address the economic and political costs associated with its aging population. Governments should opt for solutions that promote cooperation between generations and avoid short-sighted electoral temptations. Only then can they solve the retirement trilemma”.

Joint Russia-Turkish operations

20/08/2016

Turkey on Thursday called on Russia to carry out joint operations against Islamic State (IS) in Syria, after crucial talks between President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan aimed at ending a diplomatic crisis. The comments by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu came as a Turkish delegation was in Russia for talks aimed at coordinating actions on Syria and other bilateral issues. “We will discuss all the details. We have always called on Russia to carry out anti-Daesh (IS) operations together,” Cavusoglu said in a live interview with the private NTV television, adding that the proposal was still “on the table”. Cavusoglu urged Russia to fight against the “common enemy” of IS jihadists in Syria. “Let us come together to concentrate our efforts on Daesh,” he said using an Arabic name for the IS group. “Let’s fight against the terrorist group together, so that we can clear it out as soon as possible,” the minister said, warning that if unchecked the group continue to expand and spread into other countries. Erdogan visited Russia’s second city of Saint Petersburg on Tuesday — his first trip abroad since the July 15 coup attempt.

Cameron, the worst PM?

18/08/2016

A piece calls David Cameron the worst prime minister for a hundred years, “David Cameron is not given to melodrama but he has starred in enough. For the time being, there are three moments of history to remember, outside that famous door. The time when he walked through it with Nick Clegg. The time – even more surprising – that he walked through it on his own, just thirteen months ago”.

It adds “And now this, which in time will be the only time that mattered. The UK out of Europe. The union with Scotland on the brink. Northern Ireland too. All for what’s being called a gamble but is in fact simply a strategic failure. “I love this country,” he said, his voice cracking. The 74th Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and, more latterly, Northern Ireland. And there will in all likelihood be just one more, before Little England is loosed upon the world. ‘Broken Britain’ is a term that has forced its way into public parlance and the Cameron years – six of them, now over. Well it will be broken, now. And this will be all that he is remembered for”.

It goes on to mention “It was a highlights reel. Significant achievements, some of them, but all were leading with insidious intent to an overwhelming admission. “I think the country required fresh leadership to take it in this [new] direction. I will steady the ship for the coming weeks and months. “There needs to no precise timetable in place,” he said, but “a new Prime Minister should be in place before the Conservative Party Conference in October.” It is more than ten years since he took over a factionalised and failing party. He transformed it, and now he leaves it as he left it. It is hard not to see how without him, it will always be thus. As he turned around and strode back through the door, the hair on the back of his head gone grey overnight. The youngest ex-Prime Minister since 1895, drawing his political pension. Yesterday’s man now, when the full peril of tomorrow is when his party will need him most”.

“Vietnam has fortified several islands it controls”

18/08/2016

Vietnam has fortified several islands it controls in the South China Sea with mobile rocket launchers able to strike Chinese military bases in the region, one of the most assertive moves in decades. Diplomats and military officers told Reuters Hanoi had shipped the launchers from the Vietnamese mainland into positions on five bases in the Spratly islands in recent months. They said the launchers could be made operational, if needed, with rocket artillery rounds within two or three days. The Guardian was unable to verify the report, which cited unnamed western officials, and Vietnam’s foreign ministry said the information was inaccurate. Yet the report entrenches fears of militarisation and potential conflicts in the South China Sea, the most contentious issue in east Asia. Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan have overlapping claims with China to islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea. The region is thought to have significant oil and gas reserves and is a route for roughly £3.17tn in trade”.

Clinton at the convention

18/08/2016

Hillary Clinton took the stage in Philadelphia Thursday night as the first woman presidential nominee and immediately began working to persuade sceptical voters that a female commander in chief would keep the country safer than her blustery and tough talking rival, Donald Trump. “Imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis,” Clinton said of her Republican opponent. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” The former secretary of state has increasingly emphasised her foreign-policy credentials in a general election matchup against a GOP nominee who has no experience in political office or national security. The Clinton campaign and its surrogates argue that Trump doesn’t have the temperament or intellect to lead the U.S. as it navigates through a complex and dangerous world. “Donald Trump says, and this is a quote, ‘I know more about ISIS than the generals do,’” she said, sarcastically. “No, Donald, you don’t.” Trump has continued to give his opponents new material for their criticism. The petulant reality TV host has alarmed global leaders with a neo-isolationist, anti-trade, and anti-immigrant “America First” foreign policy and alienated broad swaths of the American electorate by using bigoted and xenophobic rhetoric”.

The report mentions “Throughout the convention, the Democratic Party’s biggest national security heavyweights have blasted Trump for encouraging Moscow to hack Clinton’s private email server and for saying Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “better leader than Obama.” Still, the deep and growing concerns about Trump — one of the least popular presidential candidates in American history — haven’t changed the fact that the race is currently a toss-up, with an average of recent polls showing the candidates virtually tied, with Trump enjoying a lead of less than 1 percent. That means Clinton needs to do more than simply tear down Trump, who she derided Thursday for “bigotry and bombast” that amounted to nothing other than “empty promises.” Instead, she needs to persuade American voters that she can ensure their safety and security. While Clinton has extensive experience handling foreign policy and national security issues, those credentials won’t necessarily be enough to overcome her flaws as a candidate — or change the fact that foreign policy issues won’t necessarily decide November”.

The piece goes on to note “The former senator and first lady has struggled to translate her wonkish tendencies into a central narrative that captures voters’ imagination or to settle on a catchphrase as memorable as “Hope and Change” or “Make America Great Again.” After controversies over her use of a private email server during her tenure at the State Department, she must also work to regain the American public’s trust. And she faces a unique challenge defending her judgement, with her fingerprints all over an Obama administration foreign policy that from Libya to Iraq to Afghanistan has failed to bring stability. On Thursday, she didn’t downplay the anxiety that has marked 2016 election in the wake of a spate of terrorist attacks from Baghdad to Nice to Orlando and globalization trends that have left sizable portions of the American electorate behind economically. Yet she rejected the pessimism Trump portrayed last week in Cleveland, quipping that he’s taken the GOP from the Reagan-era optimism of “‘Morning in America’ to ‘Midnight in America.’” “He wants to divide us — from the rest of the world, and from each other,” she said. Her answer was “stronger together,” from a U.S. that leads but works in partnership with the international community as an investment in its national security, to one that celebrates its diversity as an investment in its homeland security”.

It ends “Clinton is getting a boost from prominent retired officers like former Marine Gen. John Allen, who commanded U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan before serving as President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. Earlier Thursday, Allen — flanked by nearly two dozen generals, admirals, and veterans of those wars that Obama’s successor will inherit — marched to the podium as part of a highly-choreographed move designed to convey that members of one of America’s most trusted institutions backed Clinton. Allen dinged Trump for saying he’d weigh whether or not to defend NATO allies against Russian invasion depending on how much they’d spent on their own militaries. “With her as our commander in chief,” he said, “our international relations will not be reduced to a business transaction.”

“British special forces operating on the ground in Syria”

18/08/2016

The BBC has obtained exclusive pictures showing for the first time British special forces operating on the ground in Syria. It is the vehicles that first stand out. The open air, Thalab long range patrol vehicles are built for harsh terrain and are favoured by special forces. In this case it is British special forces, seen for the first time on the ground, inside Syria, in photographs obtained by the BBC. The pictures, which date from June, follow an attack by the so-called Islamic State (IS) on the moderate rebel New Syrian Army base of Al Tanaf on the Syria-Iraq border. The British soldiers appear to be securing the base’s perimeter.

“2016 is barely half-done”

18/08/2016

David Bell writes about the theory of 2016, “Back in the fall of 1989, as the Iron Curtain was crumbling country by country, some friends and I had an idea for a new college history course. It would be called “Europe Since Last Wednesday.” There are moments in history when time itself seems compressed, when so many shocking and important events crowd together that it becomes almost impossible to keep track of them. Lenin supposedly said “there are decades where nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen.” (The remark, alas, is probably apocryphal.) Long before him, the French writer Chateaubriand quipped that during the quarter-century of the French Revolution and Napoleonic regime, many centuries elapsed. In late 1989, a single three-month period saw the end of communist power in Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania and the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as the U.S. invasion of Panama, and the Malta summit meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President George H.W. Bush where the two leaders essentially announced that the Cold War had come to an end: many years’ worth of change crammed into a single season”.

He posits that “The past few weeks have certainly been vertigo-inducing. On June 23, the British shocked world opinion (and themselves) by voting to leave the European Union. On July 7, five police officers were shot dead in Dallas, prompting fears of widespread unrest in the United States. A week later the Islamic State took credit for the latest massacre to strike the West, a terrorist attack on France’s Bastille Day that killed scores in Nice, and before that event had even started to fade from the media, there was an attempted coup d’état in Turkey. Then came the police shootings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. All this took place, moreover, against the background of a horrific sectarian war with no end in Syria, heightened tensions between NATO and Russia, and the greatest political upheaval in recent American history, as a populist candidate with no experience in government completed his successful insurrection against the Republican establishment and became the party’s 2016 presidential nominee”.

It goes on to point out, “2016 is barely half-done, and it is entirely possible that the cascade of events we have been witnessing could accelerate, with unforeseeable consequences. It is worth remembering that disruptive events can trigger others in a variety of ways, even at a great distance. Sometimes the connections are clear; sometimes much less so. Most obviously, a disruptive event can spark direct imitation. In 1848, after liberal revolutions took place in Sicily and France, a wave of uprisings at least partially inspired by them spread to Denmark, the Austrian Empire, Belgium, and several German and Italian states. In 1968, student rebellions moved across the Western world in open imitation of and cooperation with each other, with the climax reached in Paris in May, when an apparent collapse of order led French President Charles de Gaulle briefly to flee to a military base in Germany”.

He notes “widespread disruption, with the wild anxieties and hopes that it generates, can lead to a sense that ordinary rules of behaviour are suspended, and that extreme measures must be taken. In the history of the Western world such patterns are linked to the most powerful of all Jewish and Christian prophecies: the coming of the Messiah; the Second Coming of Christ; Judgment Day. Since the beginning of the Christian era, hardly a year has gone by without some significant group of Christians insisting that the End Times have arrived. If such a conviction leads to aggressive action against supposed heretics or infidels, the resulting violence can lead others in turn to believe in Judgment Day’s nearness, in what amounts to a positive feedback loop of enormous destructive power. Some historians think that something of this sort happened during the Reformation, when Martin Luther’s break with Rome triggered widespread belief in the imminence of the Apocalypse, triggering violent conflict, triggering further apocalyptic belief, and so on. The result was years of bloody religious warfare that decimated much of Europe. Today, the fanatics of the Islamic State believe they are engaged in an apocalyptic battle between Muslims and non-Muslims for the future of the world, and with every atrocity they convince more people in the West that, on this point, they are right. The pattern is not necessarily religious, however. There are also secular versions of the Apocalypse story. As the Marxist hymn “The Internationale” succinctly declared: “’Tis the final conflict.” A belief that a world-defining struggle has arrived can lead to a suspension of the ordinary rules just as surely as a belief that Christ has returned, and produce just as great a cascade of violent disruption from a single event. The 9/11 attacks arguably had such an effect in the United States, with the Bush administration coming to believe that it needed to provoke a major war against a state that did not attack us in order to remove what it saw as an existential threat to the world order. It is not at all clear whether the volatile and anxious summer of 2016 will produce anything like the cascading upheavals seen in years like 2001 or 1989, and whether the current sense of accelerating time will persist. With luck, the current flood tide of bad news will in fact subside, and rest of this year will be remembered for placid dullness rather than bloody “interest.” We can hope that the year 2016 will not appear in the titles of the college history courses of the future. But as these historical examples suggest, there are all too many ways that the flames of violence and disruption can suddenly spread, and even whip up into a firestorm”.

 

“The Syrian Democratic Forces expelled IS from the town”

16/08/2016

US-backed fighters savouring a momentous victory confidently roam the shattered streets of Manbij in Syria as they hunt down the last remaining Islamic State group jihadists holed up there. The Arab-Kurdish alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces expelled IS from the town at the weekend after more than two months of ferocious fighting. AFP correspondents were the first foreign media to enter the former jihadist bastion on Sunday, alongside SDF fighters eager to announce its “liberation”. “Daesh is finished. The town will be liberated in the coming hours,” SDF fighter Ibrahim al-Hussein says, using the Arabic acronym for the group. He is flanked by ruined residential and commercial apartment blocks that saw some of the most intense street battles. Apart from the green camouflage of SDF fighters, the streets of Manbij are colorless — grey dust, charcoal cement blocks and burnt metal strewn everywhere.

“LGBT rights in tandem with other civil rights”

16/08/2016
An interesting piece equates gay rights with the rise of democracy, “But in the Middle East, this debate began long before Orlando. LGBT people in this part of the world have been battling for their rights for years, and not without casualties. Across the region, sexuality has become one of the main battlegrounds in the broader confrontation between advocates for democracy and human rights on the one hand and authorities and conservative religious forces on the other. This is reflected in LGBT activists’ successful alliances with other progressive forces, and in the success they have found championing their own cause by casting it as part of a more general struggle for freedom and dignity. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s drive to concentrate power in his own hands is being accelerated in the failed coup attempt. Inherent to Erdogan’s growing authoritarian streak is his push to impose on the Turkish people a set of conservative, Islamist values that impinge on a raft of civil and personal rights. Since his ascent to power in 2003, discrimination has become widespread. Its manifestations range from public homophobic statements by ruling party officials — one former minister in 2010 labelled homosexuality “a biological disease” — to the blocking of gay social media apps and, in 2013, the punishment of a publishing house for releasing a novel with “homosexual content” under the pretext of “indecency.” The crackdown against the LGBT community is part of Erdogan’s grander ambition to Islamise Turkish society while quashing dissent, which many fear will now intensify in the wake of the coup attempt. One Ankara-based activist told me this week she was “highly concerned” about “police-backed” attacks by ruling party members on LGBT activists. Her group has closed its office due to “security concerns.” The harassment of communities that do not fit Erdogan’s Islamist vision has long characterised his rule. In response, LGBT activists have found solidarity with other marginalised groups and civil activists who reject Erdogan’s authoritarian drive and seek a Turkey that is tolerant, diverse, and respectful of individual liberties. This new alliance was on full display during the Gezi Park protests in 2013, when millions of Turks marched nationwide against the government’s autocratic policies”.

The article goes on to note “The LGBT movement was particularly active in organising rallies and workshops during the protests, presenting itself as a key civil society actor and opposition force. To increase visibility within the protests, various LGBT groups and activists formed an umbrella organisation. Among its varied activities, the group, known as LGBT Blok, distributed food and T-shirts, released regular statements and updates via social media, and liaised with other participating organisations, including (rather remarkably) soccer club enthusiasts, to prevent homophobic slurs in protest chants. These efforts were recognised soon after, when up to 100,000 people took part in Istanbul’s Pride Parade in June 2013, and again in 2014. While it has been an annual fixture since 2003, Istanbul’s pride march had barely been able to gather a few thousand people prior to the Gezi protests. The overt presence of the LGBT movement during the protests laid the foundations for solidarity with likeminded groups and activists”.

The author goes on to mention how “In the wake of these successes, Turkey’s LGBT movement became an important avenue through which Turks — and not just members of the LGBT community — could openly voice their dissent from Erdogan’s policies at a time when such avenues are being closed off. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Turkish authorities banned Istanbul’s Pride Parade in 2015, and maintained the ban this year. When organisers tried to revive the parade last month, officials confronted marchers with tear gas and detained 19, including two European legislators. As one Turkish activist wrote in response, “The crackdown was indicative of the fact that Erdogan and his [party] are now extremely scared of people coming together in solidarity, marching for their rights.” In Turkey, the LGBT question has become a focal point of tension between pro-democratic and its authoritarian political forces. The same pattern has been repeated in other Middle Eastern countries. LGBT activists in Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia have diligently sought alliances with other civil society actors by articulating their messages to broaden their struggle and gain a wider appeal”.

Interestingly the piece goes on to discuss other states in the Middle East, “In Lebanon, this strategy has been effective in amplifying LGBT rights in tandem with other civil rights. In 2012, Beirut’s police forces sparked a public outcry after raiding a gay adult cinema, detaining 36 men, and inserting eggs into their rectums as a brutal “test” of homosexuality. To attract public attention and support, activists steering the outcry prudently shifted the discourse away from LGBT rights and toward issues that would have greater public resonance, such as privacy and police abuse. “We didn’t go and protest about LGBT rights, but against police raping individuals and police violating our sexual lives,” said Georges Azzi, a renowned Lebanese LGBT and human rights activist. In the wake of the uproar, the Lebanese Medical Association banned anal probe tests. This strategy was also deployed in Egypt after 26 men were arrested during a raid on a Cairo bath house in December 2014. In a conservative country where homosexual acts are widely considered “indecent,” LGBT activists were again able to turn public opinion in their favour by shifting the focus away from homosexuality to privacy and government overreach”.

It reports that “The men were eventually acquitted, an outcome Long attributes to the movement’s success in swaying public opinion. “The state backed down because they realised that the ideological ground that they wanted to stand on — of protecting morals — was being cut out from under them by a pretty articulate defence on the right to privacy.” Enmeshing the struggle for LGBT rights with the broader push for democratic reform and human rights was a natural progression, given the conservative environment in the Middle East. “There was a general consensus among the people that were working on this issue that talking about LGBT rights per se wouldn’t get you anywhere,” Long said. “But talking about right to privacy, the right to autonomy on freedom from state surveillance and control, resonated with other political actors.” The relationship between LGBT activists and pro-democracy movements is mutually beneficial. For the LGBT movement, participating in a larger democratic project provides greater visibility and advocacy for LGBT issues. For the pro-democracy movement, including the LGBT cause within the broader struggle provides an extra avenue in which to challenge the authorities. If the battle for democratic reform in the Middle East is to be reduced to one over the rights to privacy and sexual rights, this is a battle pro-democracy activists are prepared to fight”.

Crucially it ends, “alliances between LGBT activists in both Turkey and Lebanon have also led to more durable progressive political projects. Turkey’s LGBT movement was a key enabler and supporter in the formation of the progressive, liberal Peoples’ Democracy Party, which successfully entered parliament in the June 2014 general elections. The party even ran openly gay candidates in the elections. While none of them were elected, the episode marked a significant advance for the prominence of LGBT issues and for the recognition of the movement as a key opposition and pro-democracy force. In Lebanon, LGBT activists have been heavily involved with other political initiatives, ranging from solidarity with domestic workers and women to high-profile activism during the mass anti-corruption protests in 2015 and the formation of an independent anti-corruption electoral list — Beirut Madinati — in this year’s municipal elections. Needless to say, the visibility won by the LGBT movement as a result of its pro-democracy activism has also attracted hatred and abuse from its opponents. A 2014 report on LGBT rights in Turkey noted that hate crimes against the community had spiked, with 41 murders between 2010 and 2014, 12 of which occurred in 2013 alone, the year of the Gezi protests. But some progress, albeit incremental, has also been made. Following the cinema fiasco in Lebanon, one of the country’s main television networks, LBC, decided to start using a dignified Arabic term for homosexuality — mithliyeh, which implies “sameness” — breaking from the previous practice in the Lebanese media of using derogatory terms such as “deviant.” These are not just victories for the LGBT community, but for all in the Middle East who seek reform based on shared democratic values”.

“Clinton leads Donald Trump in three key battleground states”

16/08/2016

Democrat Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump in three key battleground states after the conclusion of the political conventions, including in all-important Ohio, according to a trio of new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls. In Iowa, Clinton is ahead of Trump by four points among registered voters, 41 percent to 37 percent, with the rest saying neither, other or they’re undecided. (Before the conventions, Clinton was up by three points in the state, 42 percent to 39 percent in last month’s NBC/WSJ/Marist poll.)  In Ohio, Clinton holds a five-point advantage over her Republican opponent, 43 percent to 38 percent. (The two were tied before the conventions at 39 percent each.) And in Pennsylvania, Clinton has expanded her lead over Trump to 11 points among registered voters, 48 percent to 37 percent. (Her lead was nine points before the conventions, 45 percent to 36 percent.)

Russian mischief and its unforeseen consequences

16/08/2016

An optimistic article argues that the recent hack of the DNC, leading to the resignation of the DNC chairman, will backfire. It opens, “The hack of the Democratic National Committee’s email servers and the subsequent leak of embarrassing internal documents appear almost certainly to have been carried out by Russian intelligence agencies, making it the most serious case yet of Kremlin interference in U.S. politics. That it is a serious interference is clear. The confirmation — long suspected by many in the Bernie Sanders camp — that at least some DNC officials were on Team Hillary over the course of the Democratic primary has divided the party on the verge of its nominating convention and alienated Sanders’s base. If it hasn’t convinced them to back Donald Trump, it’s at least given them second thoughts about voting for Clinton. The move has also helped cement Russian President Vladimir Putin in the minds of many U.S. observers as not only a strategic mastermind, but also the Trump campaign’s secret weapon. Clinton, the thinking goes, is regarded in Moscow as a classic, hawkish “Russophobe.” (Putin even blamed her for instigating the protests against his alleged rigging of elections in 2011.) Whereas Trump — with his focus on business, his apparent willingness to put realpolitik over moral considerations, his admiration for Putin, and his disdain for institutions like NATO — has thoroughly won over the Kremlin, even spurring some to refer to him as Putin’s “de facto agent.” With the DNC hack, according to this version of the story, Putin was just throwing a bone to his (soon-to-be) man in Washington”.

The report notes that “It’s a good story — and many elements of it are true. There is much for the Kremlin to enjoy in sitting back and watching Trump’s continued, seemingly unstoppable rise to power. But it’s also a little too tidy. Plenty of Russian foreign-policy insiders also appreciate that Trump’s volatility — currently wreaking havoc in U.S. presidential politics — could mean he’d make for an unpredictable and potentially problematic interlocutor for Moscow, too. As one told me, “Trump is good for Russia so long as he’s in America. God knows what would happen if he were in the U.N. or the Situation Room.” In addition, when subjected to scrutiny, the Kremlin’s track record when it comes to staging interventions in foreign democracies doesn’t exactly scream “mastermind” so much as “bumbling meddler.” Russia is notoriously inept when it comes to predicting how the aftereffects of its interventions will play out; the chance that the DNC hack will backfire, as other attempts to interfere have in the past, is very real”.

The writer goes on to make the point that “It’s worth keeping in mind that what the Kremlin really wants is not so much a Trump victory as a United States that is less united and less able to play a powerful global role. Thus, although the DNC hack may wind up helping out the Republican nominee, that may not have been its primary aim. Rather, the simple goal was likely generalised chaos. A leitmotif of Russian political and information operations in Europe, including so-called “active measures” — that is, those, like the hack, carried out by the intelligence services — has been to spread division and disarray. Having realised it is unlikely to make any real or lasting friends, Moscow has instead turned its efforts into paralyzing and demoralizing its enemies. From secessionist movements to anti-globalization radicals, from ecological activists to social conservatives, every potentially divisive force is worth an approving interview on the government-funded television network RT or an invitation to a glitzy conference in Moscow. In more extreme cases, the Kremlin’s support may extend to open or covert funding. There have been some such efforts in the United States, from support for the “Occupy” movement (ironic, for a government run by kleptocrats and embezzling .01 percenters) to more surreal efforts to back Texas secessionists. However, with the DNC breach, Russia has distinctly upped its disarray game. The hack looks likely to make the U.S. presidential election even more of a mudslinging contest. Clinton has already begun charging that Trump is “Putin’s man”; this seems likely to push Republicans toward questioning Clinton’s honesty and patriotism all the more shrilly. The Trump camp, meanwhile, now revels in the confirmation that the Democratic primary actually appears to have been “rigged” in favor of Clinton — as they’ve been claiming all along. Even if Clinton becomes president, she’ll start with a reputation that is that much more problematic as a result of the leaks and a base that is that much more divided”.

It concludes “there is also the wider propaganda dimension to leaks that show a DNC leadership actively maneuvering to support “their” chosen candidate. One of the key aims of the Kremlin’s propaganda in general is not so much to convince people that the Russian government is in the right, but to persuade them that everyone else’s government is just as bad. Moscow must hope it can use this scandal and the ensuing fallout to convey the message that the Washington political elite are hypocrites and that U.S. democracy is every bit as “managed” as Russia’s. So far, so good. But the Kremlin’s professional meddlers shouldn’t pat themselves on the back just yet. Historically, Russia has proved much better at making mischief than at channeling it toward its own ends. Time and again, Putin has failed to appreciate the innate strengths and checks and balances of democratic societies and even the basic notions of how these countries work. Putin tends to assume, for example, that the people in democratic societies are easy to scare and easier to fool. In January, for example, pro-Moscow media outlets and social media tried their best to whip up ethnic tensions in Germany over the alleged rape by “Arab-looking” men of 13-year-old “Lisa F.,” a Russian-German girl from Berlin — at a time when anxieties over the influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq into Germany were running high. Russia’s main TV channel showed Lisa saying that she had been raped by “southern-looking” men; another report claimed that in Germany “residents are regularly raped by refugees.” It soon became clear that this was a false story: Lisa F. was simply seeking to hide activities from her parents. But Russian media and officials did not back down, accusing German authorities of trying to conceal what happened to her out of political correctness. Not only did this personally anger Chancellor Angela Merkel, but it also embarrassed the so-called “Putinversteher,” or “Putin Understanders,” in Berlin, who seek to advocate for better relations with Moscow”.

It ends “But perhaps most striking of all were Moscow’s efforts to create a pro-Russian insurrection in the Donbass in 2014 with money, men, and military support, based on the assumption that the Ukrainian government would quickly buckle and accept Russian suzerainty. Not only did Putin not anticipate the popular enthusiasm that saw volunteers rushing to do what the Ukrainian army could not; he also didn’t realize the dynamics were such that even if Kiev wanted to make a deal, it wouldn’t be able to. It could never survive the public backlash. Moscow’s efforts to keep Ukraine in its own backyard have since led to it being stuck in a war and slapped with economic sanctions. The Kremlin’s efforts to influence the U.S. election and sow divisions may, in the short term, make a bad-tempered election year even more divisive. But moves like the DNC hack could well wind up hurting Trump if the label of “Putin’s man” can be made to stick. And, if so, that may cause the next White House to regard Putin’s government as even more of a danger than the present one already does and ensure that the sanctions regime will not only stay in place, but even be expanded. Or Moscow might succeed in what many seem to believe is its aim: helping Trump all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In that case, Putin, the geopolitical gambler who has relied on being able to break the rules with impunity and on the restraint of the West, might suddenly find himself dealing with an American president every bit as willing to bluff and operate beyond the traditional limits — and with the economic, political, and military muscle of the world’s leading power behind him. Maybe the Kremlin ought to be careful what it wishes for.

 

Aleppo siege over

16/08/2016

A Syrian military academy in the heart of Aleppo made for a bold, even reckless target for opposition forces trying to break a devastating siege, but the rebels gambled on a double advantage: surprise and suicide bombers. Soon the rebels were sharing pictures of abandoned artillery and a smashed portrait of President Bashar al-Assad on Twitter, flaunted as triumphant proof that the army was routed and opposition forces were within a few hundred metres of their besieged comrades. Hours later, the people of east Aleppo were dancing in the street, as rebels and activists confirmed that the month-long siege of the area had been broken. The fate of the opposition-held city was back in play. “Morale is very high now,” said activist and poet Mahmoud Rashwani, who had been living largely underground to avoid airstrikes, eking out his supplies of canned food.  The victory is a fragile one. The area is still a conflict zone and it may be some time before a secure corridor for food and medical supplies can be set up, and the regime has called in reinforcements.

Extinction of the GOP

14/08/2016

Rosa Brooks writes that the Republican Party is on the verge of extinction, “Seldom does the global public have an opportunity to observe an endangered species in its natural habitat, but this week, wildlife enthusiasts received a rare glimpse into the poignant final days of the American Republican elephant. Classified as “critically endangered” by international authorities, Elephantidae republicanus, though native to the United States, has struggled for decades to adapt to its rapidly evolving biome. The enormous pachyderm — once a noble animal that roamed the length and breadth of the nation, as common in America’s cities as in its rural areas — has, in recent years, seen its numbers dwindle and its habitat contract.  Recently, however, some unknown constellation of events brought more than 2,000 surviving specimens of E. republicanus to a Cleveland watering hole known locally as the Quicken Loans Arena. In this sheltered environment, E. republicanus can now be briefly observed, and we urge all naturalists, both professional and amateur, to take advantage of what may be a final opportunity to see this great beast before its almost inevitable demise”.

Comically she writes that “The factors leading to the precipitous decline of this once-ubiquitous pachyderm are still poorly understood. It is believed, however, that a high degree of dietary specialization may have contributed to its decline. Known to consume large quantities of “American” cuisine and eschew foods it considers “ethnic,” E. republicanus gradually cut itself off from numerous potentially sustaining food sources. Heavy and slow-moving, E. republicanus has long had difficulty competing with the somewhat more agile and adaptable Heavy and slow-moving, E. republicanus has long had difficulty competing with the somewhat more agile and adaptable Equus asinus democraticus (common name: “The Democratic Party.”) While E. republicanus has gradually come to restrict its habitat to a dwindling number of regions in the American South and Southwest, and has found it difficult to survive in fast-paced urban atmospheres, E. a. democraticus has grown progressively more dominant in the urban areas and has migrated to regions recently abandoned by its larger but clumsier competitor. Although it is well-known among biologists that genetic diversity is critical to the survival and well-being of any species, E. republicanus has displayed a lamentable tendency to drive away potential sources of greater genetic diversity, opting instead to interbreed. The gradual whitening of E. republicanus appears to be one unfortunate consequence of this habit. Less than a century ago, substantial numbers of brown and black elephants existed within the typical E. republicanus herd, but beginning in the mid-1940s, their numbers began to decline steeply. While some of these darker-hued members of the herd are presumed to have died off, others appear to have fled or been driven out, finding a niche instead within the growing herds of the Republican elephant’s longtime rival, E. a. democraticus”.
She goes on to humourlesly write “The shift has been stark. At the Quicken Loans Arena watering hole in Cleveland, for instance, only 18 black elephants have been observed in a herd believed to number 2,472 — the smallest observed percentage of black E. republicanus in a century. In contrast, E. a. democraticus has succeeded in greatly increasing genetic diversity within its herds: In 2012, when biologists spotted a sizable group of E. a. democraticus grazing on canapés in Charlotte, North Carolina, they were able to count 1,452 black members in a herd of about 5,500. E. a. democraticus has also successfully absorbed numerous other newcomers into its ranks, greatly increasing its odds of healthy adaptation and evolution. Perhaps relatedly, E. republicanus has been dogged in recent years by a troubling inability to reproduce. In the 1940s, E. republicanus constituted nearly 40 percent of the denizens of the U.S. political biome. Today, they constitute only about a quarter of the population. E. republicanus is aging, as well: Younger and more vital members of the herd are increasingly opting either to join E. a. democraticus or strike out on their own.
 As is typical of a species nearing extinction, E. republicanus is experiencing a surge in internal conflict. Upon arrival at the Quicken Loans Arena watering hole, the herd embarked upon an immediate feeding frenzy, and male specimens of E. republicanus have been observed several times locked in mortal combat, with the struggle for dominance growing ever more brutal in this atmosphere of scarcity and threat. Incidents of cannibalism have been documented, and several observers have commented on the apparent disappearance of the pachyderm, native to Ohio, that naturalists had nicknamed “John Kasich.” Meanwhile, the pachyderm nicknamed “Ted Cruz,” a younger male who had made a bid for herd leadership, appears to have been subjugated by the largest and whitest male in the herd, a particularly aggressive beast referred to as “The Donald.” Although there are a number of females in the herd, they too appear mainly to have been subjugated by “The Donald.” Their numbers and current condition are unknown”.
It ends “The Quicken Loans Arena watering hole is likely to soon dry up. Before it does, biologists and wildlife enthusiasts are encouraged to take advantage of this rare gathering, as it is not anticipated that the species will survive the coming election cycle. Those interested in firsthand observation are advised to exercise caution, however: Like all panicked and threatened animals, E. republicanus is likely, in its final hours, to grow increasingly vicious”.

Chinese secret radar equipment

10/08/2016

Japan has filed a protest to Beijing after the discovery that China installed radar equipment in a gas exploration platform close to disputed waters in the East China Sea, a Japanese foreign ministry spokesman said on Sunday. Japan fears that the radar, a type commonly found on patrol ships and not necessary for gas field development, could be a sign that China intends to use gas exploration platforms in the disputed waters as military stations, Japanese media said. Also on Sunday, a record number of Chinese coastguard and other government ships entered areas of waters just outside what Japan considers its territorial waters around a group of contested East China Sea islets, further stoking tensions. The entry of 13 Chinese government vessels into “contiguous waters”, which countries can police for customs and immigration violations, took place despite Japan’s repeated protests over recent, smaller-scale entries. According to the spokesman, Japan discovered the radar in late June and issued a protest on Friday through its embassy in China, urging Beijing to explain the purpose. Japan has been calling on China to halt construction of oil-and-gas exploration platforms in the East China Sea, accusing it of unilateral development despite a 2008 agreement to maintain cooperation on resources development in the area, where no official border between them has been drawn.

Tunisia, terrorism and repressive secularism

10/08/2016

An interesting article discusses the relationship between terrorists and Tunisia, “We still don’t have all the details, but it would appear that the man behind the horrific terrorist attack in Nice, France, was Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old deliveryman and petty criminal. Bouhlel, who was killed by police at the scene, was a French citizen. But the detail that many terrorism experts immediately zeroed in on was his country of origin: Tunisia. That’s right: The country that is often hailed as “the success story of the Arab Spring” because it has actually managed to stick with democracy since the downfall of its dictator in 2011. That Bouhel is Tunisian once again raises the question: Why is liberal Tunisia, of all places, producing so many terrorists? The experts have long since determined that Tunisia is a disproportionate source of recruits for radical Islamist causes. Despite the country’s relatively small population of 11 million, Tunisians are conspicuously over-represented among the fighters of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. According to recent estimates, 7,000 Tunisians have joined the cause — more than any other country, including much larger ones such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. There are also, according to numerous reports, thousands of Tunisians training and fighting for jihad in Libya, Tunisia’s next-door neighbour, which has a strong Islamic State presence”.

The piece adds, “Tunisian jihadists haven’t only been active overseas. Over the past few years they’ve staged several high-profile attacks on their own country. Since 2013, terrorists have assassinated secular politicians, targeted popular tourist sites (virtually shutting down an industry on which much of the economy depends), and engaged in myriad clashes with the police. In March, Libyan-based jihadists, presumably of Tunisian origin, staged a full-scale assault on the Tunisian border town of Ben Guerdane. Though local security forces coped pretty effectively with the attack, ultimately winning the battle, it was a worrying sign of the jihadists’ ambitions and aggressiveness. All of this, needless to say, stands in rather stark contrast to Tunisia’s remarkable progress at establishing democratic institutions. The country has held several rounds of free and fair elections, and it now boasts a vibrant range of free media and civil society groups. When I visited a few weeks ago, I heard plenty of theories that attempted to explain why these new freedoms have coincided with so much extremist violence. Some Tunisians told me that the collapse of the dictatorship in the 2011 revolution and the establishment of democratic institutions that followed had given jihadists new freedom to organize, travel, and share information. Religious radicals, it was pointed out, can now openly watch satellite broadcasts of hard-line clerics streamed in from the Gulf. Others I spoke with, including some government officials, worry that the security apparatus was fatally weakened by post-revolutionary reforms — though that argument seems somewhat diluted by the government’s competent response to the Ben Guerdane attacks in the spring. Still others mentioned the failure of democratically elected leaders to address the country’s persistent economic malaise. Though the official unemployment rate is around 15 percent, it’s estimated to be double that for young people, who see correspondingly few opportunities for bettering their lives”.

It mentions that “One thing that struck me the most about Tunisia, however, is just how secular and Western the country looks and feels — in ways that long predate the 2011 revolution. The country’s first post-independence leader, President Habib Bourguiba, who took power in 1956, was a staunch admirer of Turkey’s legendary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Like Ataturk, he was a radical secularist who imposed a modernizing agenda, including women’s rights and Western-style education, while ruthlessly suppressing the forces of traditional religion. He was notorious for expressing his contempt for the veil, which he called that “odious rag.” Even today one rarely sees men or women in traditional Islamic clothing in Tunis and many other parts of the country — a striking contrast to neighboring Libya, where hijab-wearing women are a common sight. The problem, of course, is that pushing traditional religion to the side doesn’t mean that everyone is going to agree. Aggressive modernization almost always incites a backlash — and so it has gone in Tunisia, where those with an inclination to traditional Islam have often ended up feeling marginalized in their own country. A very similar dynamic took hold in Turkey, under Ataturk and his heirs. There, though, a gradual opening of the political landscape in the late 20th century allowed Islamists to channel their ambitions into electoral politics, embodied by the rise of current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Bourguiba and his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, allowed for no such expression of alternative opinions; the organizers of Tunisia’s leading Islamist party, Ennahdha, returned from exile only after the 2011 revolution. Other Tunisians who gravitated to Islamist politics sought more radical outlets. Some joined al Qaeda, while others assumed prominent roles in the war in Iraq”.

It ends “In the case of such people, it’s easy to see how recourse to radical Islam is as much a matter of identity politics as it is of religion. Indeed, judging by the reports coming in from Bouhlel’s acquaintances and neighbours, he appears to have been motivated as much by a generalized sense of frustration and rage as by ideology. In short, Tunisia’s paradox — the jarring dichotomy between burgeoning liberalization and brewing jihad — should remind us once again that the plague of Islamist terror isn’t reducible to simple causes. The fact that Tunisians have been dominated by strongly secularizing regimes for the past 60 years might well help to explain why democracy has taken root with such surprising success since 2011. But it also seems clear that that same modernizing trend has fueled an intense backlash among traditionalist Muslims, often to radical effect. The fate of Tunisia, and its much-lauded democracy, will now depend on how well the country can figure out how to bridge the gap”.

 

The Lords delays Brexit?

10/08/2016

The House of Lords could derail or delay the process of leaving the European Union, a Conservative peer has said. Baroness Wheatcroft said she hoped that a pause in introducing Article 50 could lead to a second EU referendum and potentially the public changing its mind. “If it comes to a Bill, I think the Lords might actually delay things. I think there’s a majority in the Lords for remaining,” she told The Times newspaper. The courts are set to decide in the autumn whether the Government can trigger Article 50 without the consent of Parliament. The baroness said she would support the Lords delaying the move if Parliament were indeed given a say.  “I would hope, while we delayed things, that there would be sufficient movement in the EU to justify putting it to the electorate, either through a general election or a second referendum,” she said.

“Politics is never just about policy. It’s also about emotion”

08/08/2016

A piece urges politicians to inspire people, “David Cameron. François Hollande. Hillary Clinton. What do they have in common? They’re all deeply traditional politicians. They all have long track records of public service, and they’re all thorough, meticulous managers. They make a point of exuding calm and competence.  All of which probably helps to explain why so many people dislike them. Despite helping France climb out of a long economic slump last year, Hollande’s popularity has been hitting historic lows. His compatriots despise him for his milquetoast manner and failure to move decisively against terrorism. Cameron achieved a remarkable record of growth during his six-year stint as British prime minister — but that didn’t matter to voters when he gave them a referendum on whether their country should stay in the European Union. His ignominious defeat in last month’s Brexit ballot, which prompted him to step down, will remain as the most memorable, and inglorious, achievement of an otherwise successful term in office”.

Aside from the author’s obvious lack of knowledge of the tenure of Cameron, his disastrous decisions and seemingly endless shifts which are anything but “meticulous” the overall point is still valid.

The piece notes “Clinton is burning through millions of dollars in her textbook campaign to win the presidency. But Donald Trump — dysfunctional, dishonest, underfunded Donald Trump — continues to hold his own. Clinton, Cameron, and Hollande are all very different politicians, operating in very different contexts. Yet they all seem to be suffering from a similar problem. The nature of their opponents may hold an important clue. Despite their impressive credentials, these establishment titans have proved vulnerable to exactly the same sorts of opponents — namely, fiery populists. Trump and Bernie Sanders are worlds apart ideologically, but together they’ve given Clinton a humiliating master class in the power of simple solutions and raw emotion. Hollande’s nemesis is National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who has ridden her blistering brand of far-right identity politics to unprecedented heights. Cameron was undone by his Conservative Party comrade Boris Johnson, the extravagant and ruthless former mayor of London (now turned foreign minister), and by Brexiteer-in-charge Nigel Farage, who has successfully channeled corrosive anxiety about migrants and globalization into a potent challenge to the status quo”.
He rightly points out that “To be sure, the U.S. presidential hopeful, the ex-British PM, and the struggling French president all have plenty of real flaws. Their problem is that we’re in a historical moment that plays up their shortcomings and undercuts what would normally be their strengths.  The Great Recession and the disruptions of technological change have transformed economies, fueling white-hot anger among those who have been left behind. Terrorism and immigration stir deep-seated fears, tapping into sections of the reptilian brain that don’t really respond to sedate calls for reasonableness and unity. Politics is never just about policy. It’s also about emotion. And that’s never been truer than today. It’s a sad fact of life that the most powerful political emotions aren’t always positive. The politicians of the far right have shown that appeals to nativism can be more effective in stirring people up than high-minded calls to idealism and common purpose. That’s a big reason why Euroskeptic nationalists are gaining the upper hand over the efficient, well-educated, and deathly dull officials who run the European Union. The British politicians who campaigned for the U.K. to stay in the EU — most notably Cameron and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn — conspicuously failed to make emotionally compelling arguments for their case”.
The piece ends, “For Hillary Clinton, the answer is simple: Be more Margaret Thatcher, less Oprah. Something like this is what political satirist Jon Stewart had in mind, I think, when he astutely described Clinton as a “bright woman without the courage of her convictions.”  The problem goes beyond worries about some alleged lack of “authenticity.” Personally, I don’t give a damn about whether my president is someone I’d want to have a beer with. But we really do need to have a serious think about why some voters feel drawn to over-the-top buffoons. I suspect that it’s precisely because — in open defiance of the reigning ethos of focus groups, data mining, and sentiment analysis — the Trumps and the Johnsons and the Farages make a point of exciting a strong visceral response. So the Republican convention is a mess? Perhaps. But it’s generating a huge amount of nonstop coverage, social media attention, and passionate discussion. The Democratic version, coming soon, is shaping up to be a sleek, smooth, flawlessly managed machine. One wonders if anyone will tune in”.

US airstrikes in Libya

08/08/2016

The United States escalated its war against the Islamic State in Libya on Monday, conducting airstrikes in the coastal city of Surt as part of a new military campaign against the extremist Sunni terrorist group’s stronghold in North Africa. President Obama approved the strikes last week after Libya’s fragile United Nations-backed unity government asked for help in its fight against the Islamic State, administration officials said. The strikes, which American officials have forecast for months, are intended to help break an impasse between Libyan militias and the Islamic State fighters they have cornered in a grinding urban battle in Surt’s downtown”.

The Democrats and Israel

08/08/2016

An interesting piece notes the discussions inside the Democratic Party of the stance on Israel as the bipartisan consensus on Israel breaks down following on from other recent reports, “A meeting at a St. Louis hotel had run for more than nine hours and stretched into the night by the time the main reason Jim Zogby was there came up. As Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s primary point person on the intractable Israeli-Palestine conflict, long a political landmine in U.S. presidential politics, Zogby was ready for a fight. “We do not often see the Arab-Israeli conflict through Palestinian eyes,” Zogby began, according to an informal transcript of the meeting obtained by Foreign Policy”.

The report goes on to mention, “He was pushing an amendment calling for “an end to occupation and illegal settlements.” American policymakers, he noted, have for decades referred to the Israeli presence in land Palestinians claim for a future state as an “occupation.” “We have to have the ability in our politics to say what we say in our policy,” he said. Wendy Sherman, a Jewish-American and the top State Department negotiator on the historic Iran nuclear deal, was representing presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton at the platform talks and pushed back, firmly but gently. She told Zogby that she sympathized with both innocent Israelis and innocent Palestinians, but that his amendment went too far”.

The piece notes “She left former California Rep. Howard Berman, an “unaligned” Democratic National Committee pick who helped push through strict Iran sanctions in 2010, to play bad cop. Berman said the amendment would be “a terrible mistake” because it was “one-sided” toward the Palestinians. “It’s not our time, I think, to select out things which understandably aggravate many people, but only on one side of the conflict,” he said. At issue in the talks was the party’s platform, a formal distillation — to be presented for ratification at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia — of the goals Clinton would pursue as president. In practice, the platforms are exercises in pleasing each party’s core constituencies but rarely carry substantive weight. Yet the late-night debate between Sanders’s allies on one side and the DNC and Clinton’s allies on the other was a half-hour snapshot of perhaps the most politically fraught fight within the Democratic Party today. Democrats have seen a seismic shift on the Israel-Palestine issue in the nearly eight years of the Obama administration — with a strong push to the left by Sanders, the first Jewish presidential candidate to win a primary”.

The piece notes “In one of the most heated exchanges of the unexpectedly contested nomination fight, the Vermont socialist used an April debate in New York to push the former secretary of state to call Israel’s 2014 strikes on Gaza disproportionate. She refused. An unofficial transcript of the Israel-Palestine debate at the drafting committee’s last meeting — as well as a copy of that portion of the final draft of the platform, which has yet to be released — shows just how far the party has moved on the issue. The current platform says “a just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian accord, producing two states for two peoples, would contribute to regional stability and help sustain Israel’s identity,” reflecting longtime U.S. policy. The new version has some notable differences, even if neither Sanders nor Clinton got all they wanted. Sanders’s allies did not ultimately achieve their goal of inserting the word “occupation.” But for the first time, the platform explicitly asserts Palestinians’ “independence, sovereignty, and dignity” alongside Israeli security”.

Interestingly he mentions “Still, compared with past platforms, the subtle shifts are significant. “We will continue to work toward a two-state solution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict negotiated directly by the parties that guarantees Israel’s future as a secure and democratic Jewish state with recognized borders,” it reads, “and provides the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty and dignity.” Underscoring the continued combustibility of the issue, both the DNC and supporters of Clinton and Sanders have kept the seemingly small but significant changes quiet. None of the statements on the platform from the DNC and the campaigns in the days since the drafter’s final meeting mention the Israel-Palestine debate, and neither the Clinton campaign nor the DNC provided comment. In an interview, Zogby said the presumptive nominee’s allies peppered him anxiously before the meeting last weekend to finalize the platform”.

It ends “Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a Sanders pick and one of only two Muslim-American lawmakers, urged adoption of Zogby’s amendment on Friday, according to the transcript. “I know that this is an incredibly difficult issue for many of us,” he acknowledged during the meeting. “I respect that, I appreciate that.” Business executive Bonnie Shaefer, another DNC selection and a gay Zionist Jew, said Israel is “the only place in the Middle East where I can walk down the street with my wife hand-in-hand and not be afraid.” Zogby responded that while Shaefer may be able to hold her wife’s hand in Tel Aviv, unafraid, he can’t travel without risk of harassment. He was once held at the airport for seven hours — though he’d flown to attend a dinner at Israel’s legislature at the invitation of former Vice President Al Gore. Cornel West, an outspoken Sanders surrogate, civil rights activist, and fiery scholar, drew parallels between slavery and the Palestinian experience”.

 

“Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid has been ousted”

08/08/2016

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid has been ousted after overwhelmingly losing a vote of confidence in parliament. In power for a year and a half, Essid failed to tackle the country’s economic and security problems, his opponents say. A total of 118 members of parliament voted late on Saturday to unseat Essid; three voted for him to stay at the helm; and 27 abstained. The results were largely expected, with several ruling coalition party members declaring ahead of the session that they were not going to renew their confidence in the prime minister”.

“Beijing has no historic title to the huge swathe of the South China Sea”

06/08/2016

A report notes how China lost an international ruling, “The international tribunal delivered a stinging rebuke to China on Tuesday, ruling unanimously that Beijing has no historic title to the huge swathe of the South China Sea that it claims. The decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague represents the first explicit, legal repudiation of China’s claims to the waters of the South China Sea, a territorial land grab that has in recent years soured relations between Beijing and many of its neighbors, especially the Philippines. China refused to recognize the tribunal and has repeatedly said that it will ignore the decision, which is binding and not subject to appeal. The much-awaited decision will almost certainly further inflame tensions in the South China Sea, which has seen frequent clashes between Chinese coast guard ships and fishermen and vessels from other countries. The United States has over the past year sought to uphold international law and freedom of navigation in one of the world’s busiest waterways by dispatching navy ships to sail through waters that Beijing has tried to fence off”.

The report notes that “As expected, Beijing dismissed the ruling, reiterating previous arguments questioning the tribunal’s ability to even hear the case. “China opposes and will never accept any claim or action based on those awards,” the Chinese government said in a written statement. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the ruling as a “political farce” and insisted that, despite the decision, Beijing has sovereignty over the islets and waters of the South China Sea. “Any attempt by any force to undermine or deny in any way China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests will be futile and will fail,” he said. Wary of China’s reaction to the verdict, the Philippines called for “restraint.” “Our experts are studying this award with the care and thoroughness that this significant arbitral outcome deserves,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay told reporters. “We call on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety. The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision,” he said. The new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, has signaled that he is open to talks with China over the maritime disputes. But domestically, it is an explosive issue, which means that Duterte may have limited room to tender an olive branch to Beijing. State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that Washington supports the rule of law, and that the arbitration panel’s ruling is “final and legally binding on both China and the Philippines. The United States expresses its hope and expectation that both parties will comply with their obligations.” The ruling also got a chilly reception in Taipei, which, though at odds with Beijing on most issues, sees eye to eye with mainland China on the nine-dashed line, a map which was drafted by the Nationalist government shortly after the Second World War. The government in Taiwan called the ruling “completely unacceptable” and said it was not binding”.

The piece goes on to mention how “In the wake of the ruling by the panel, which China has spent months trying to discredit, experts said Beijing could respond in a variety of ways. It could send more fighter jets to bases it is building on the disputed islets, or it could declare an air defence identification zone in part of the South China Sea, much as it did in 2013 in the East China Sea. China could also ratchet up the fight with the Philippines by carrying out dredging and reclamation work at Scarborough Shoal, one of the features close to the Philippine coast and a reef at the center of the spat between the two countries. Or China could even try to blockade Philippine marines currently stationed at one of the tiny atolls, potentially threatening a showdown with the United States, which has a mutual defense treaty with Manila”.

It continues “Experts said that China could choose to stop short of provocative action and instead take more incremental steps to signal Beijing was not backing off of its claims. Under that scenario, China would continue to build hangars on artificial islands in the Spratlys and draw boundaries or “baselines” connecting reefs and rocks it claims. That would pave the way for an eventual air defense identification zone in which China would demand all aircraft seek permission before flying into the area. China’s track record over the past few years suggests it will press on with its aggressive tactics despite the court ruling, and possibly start dredging work at Scarborough Shoal, said James Kraska, professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College”.

It notes that “Ultimately, whether China seeks to raise the stakes in the South China Sea or defuse tensions is up to Beijing’s top leaders. “The only person who knows what China’s response will be is Xi Jinping. It’s going to be his decision and nobody else’s,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. What is clear, experts said, is that the ruling presents Beijing with a pivotal decision: If it completely ignores the unanimous ruling, based on the Law of the Sea that China helped write and has ratified, that could put paid to the notion that China seeks to be a responsible global stakeholder. Analysts said a brusque dismissal of the award could call into question Beijing’s commitment to other aspects of international law, from the rules regulating global trade to the fight against climate change. China could become “increasingly isolated” if it continues to ignore the ruling, Kraska said. Thirty years ago, a similar international panel ruled against the United States in a case concerning the mining of harbours in Nicaragua. Washington ignored the ruling, and saw its international credibility take a big hit”.

Pointedly he mentions that “At the same time, the panel’s conclusion promises to give plenty of legal ammunition to countries like Vietnam, which has for years had its own territorial dispute with China over a different set of islands — the Paracels — in the South China Sea. Tuesday’s ruling could open the door for Hanoi to seek arbitration itself, potentially further straining relations with China that were already badly damaged two years ago after Beijing dispatched an oil rig to Vietnamese waters. The ruling, capstone to a 2013 complaint brought by the Philippines, considered three broad issues. Does China, as it maintains through its proclamation of a so-called “nine dash line,” have “historic rights” to the waters around the Spratly Islands, hundreds of miles from the Chinese coast? Do those tiny reefs and rocks actually amount to islands, which would give their owner exclusive claim to the economic resources nearby? And has China, in its rush to dredge coral atolls to build artificial islands and fence off the area from the Philippines, violated the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea? The panel found that while Chinese fishermen have in the past plied the waters around the Spratlys, that does not amount to any sort of legal claim to the resources there today”.

It reports that “The tribunal also determined that none of the features in the Spratly Islands — with names like Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef — amount to actual islands. That means that, regardless of which country has sovereignty over those rocks and atolls (a question the Hague panel did not consider), they do not grant any legal entitlement to a 200-mile wide exclusive economic zone in the surrounding waters. Finally, the panel found that China had violated the Philippines’ rights in the waters off its coast, by, for example, interfering with Manila’s ability to drill for oil or fish in seas that by law belong to the Philippines. “The Tribunal therefore concluded that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights with respect to its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf,” the panel noted in its nearly-500 page ruling. The tribunal also determined that China had violated environmental provisions of the international law of the sea by tearing up coral reefs to build artificial islands. And the panel also found in the past three years China has aggravated the dispute with the Philippines due to its land reclamation campaign and aggressive and illegal behavior by Chinese ships. The panel concluded that both countries, since they ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty, are bound to comply with Tuesday’s decision”.

Another hack against the Democrats

06/08/2016

The FBI is investigating a cyber attack against another U.S. Democratic Party group, which may be related to an earlier hack against the Democratic National Committee, four people familiar with the matter told Reuters. The previously unreported incident at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, and its potential ties to Russian hackers are likely to heighten accusations, so far unproven, that Moscow is trying to meddle in the U.S. presidential election campaign to help Republican nominee Donald Trump. The Kremlin denied involvement in the DCCC cyber-attack. Hacking of the party’s emails caused discord among Democrats at the party’s convention in Philadelphia to nominate Hillary Clinton as its presidential candidate. The newly disclosed breach at the DCCC may have been intended to gather information about donors, rather than to steal money, the sources said on Thursday.

The end of the BRICS, the US remains

06/08/2016

An important article discusses the end of the BRICS as a threat to the United States, “When analysts and scholars compose their first drafts of the history of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, a chapter will surely address what were once dubbed “rising powers,” a group that included Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and others. But the optimism of 2008 — when the so-called “BRICS” were ascendant, ready to reshape global economics and politics — has turned to doubt. The impeachment trial of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and a Russian doping scandal that only a Soviet could be proud of are just the latest unmistakable signs that a surge of newly powerful nations collectively remaking the world stage is hardly a sure thing. A few years ago, a mortal rupture in Europe would have invited crowing over “the demise of the West and the rise of the Rest.” Now, the picture is more complicated: Europe is in disarray, as are several of the might-have-been beneficiaries of the continent’s turmoil. And as the United States looks ahead to a new administration come January, its approach to shifting global power relations will be ripe for a rethink. Amounting to neither a freshly minted set of trusty democratic allies nor a cohesive counterweight to the Western order, newly powerful nations are proving to be less predictable, more fragmented, and ultimately more reinforcing of U.S. power than even Washington’s own intelligence establishment predicted a decade ago”.

The piece add, “In the latter years of the George W. Bush administration and the early part of the Obama years, rising or so-called “emerging” powers seemed to captivate the foreign-policy establishment. Foundations and think tanks proffered rising powers projects, conferences, and white papers. Some were bullish. Analysts, including Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter and John Ikenberry, predicted the rise of a group of new democracies — with Brazil, India, and South Africa topping the list — that would grow into natural allies for the United States. Everyone from John McCain to Madeleine Albright (who promoted the idea nearly a decade before others cottoned on to it) advocated uniting democracies in a global alliance premised on shared values and joint action. On the flip side, other academics and analysts anticipated that the rise of new powers could only herald an American decline. In 2010, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Alfred L. McCoy predicted “imperial collapse” and “painful daily reminders of what such a loss of power means for Americans in every walk of life.” A detailed study prepared by officials from rising powers and published by Oxford University Press in 2012 explicated the “synergies and complementarities” that had “already catapulted the BRICS into a leadership position” globally. As Autonomous University of Madrid professor Susanne Gratius wrote in 2008: “In recent years a number of emerging nations have been challenging the position of dominance of the old powers, which are dropping down the international pecking order.” The downcast lot predicted that the decline in relative importance of the United States would be matched only by that of Europe, inaugurating what historian Timothy Garton Ash termed “Europessimism,” a creeping sense that the continent was being edged out by the fast-rising states of China, India, Brazil, and Russia”.

Importantly the piece goes on to mention that “The one thing the two sides agreed on was that the shifts wrought by rising powers would be tectonic. In “Mapping the Global Future,” an influential analysis published by the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) in 2004, intelligence experts predicted that the “‘arriviste’ powers—China, India, and perhaps others such as Brazil and Indonesia—have the potential to render obsolete the old categories of East and West, North and South, aligned and nonaligned, developed and developing.” The report made headlines like “2020 Vision: A CIA report predicts that American global dominance could end in 15 years.” Not so fast, as it turned out. Many of the premises undergirding these predictions evaporated in the ensuing decade. The genesis of global focus on rising powers was a 2001 analysis by Goldman Sachs’s Jim O’Neill that forecast faster, more consistent growth rates among emerging economies that would position them to gradually dominate the world stage, eventually leaving only the United States and Japan among the traditional industrial powers still ranking among the top six global economies. The bank focused on Brazil, Russia, India, and China — a group that O’Neill dubbed the “BRICs” and, later, the “BRICS,” after South Africa’s induction. While Goldman’s analysis was full of caveats, policy wonks focused on the breathless expectation of sustained, rapid growth by emerging economies. Goldman’s anointment of the BRICs as the emerging markets “most likely to succeed” prompted a flurry of prognosticators to formulate their own acronym accolades: MIST (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, and Turkey — which O’Neill designated as next in line after the BRICs) and SANE (South Africa, Algeria, Nigeria, and Egypt — supposedly the African continent’s leading up-and-comers). Britain’s Telegraph went so far as to publish a full lexicon of the emerging-market alphabet city”.

Pointedly he argues “Fifteen years later, several of those BRICS (not to mention MIST or SANE) are crumbling, done in by self-dealing, asset bubbles, stock market swoons, commodities fluctuations, and finite supplies of low-wage workers. In a warning published in January, the World Bank predicted negative growth in Brazil and Russia, just over 1 percent growth in South Africa, steady growth of 7.8 percent in India, and a shortfall from expectations in China topping out at 6.7 percent. As the Financial Times put it: “What had once been the brightest spark in the global economy has now become its big headache.” Late last year, Goldman finally shuttered its BRICS investment fund, which had lost 88 percent of its value since its 2010 peak. The problems aren’t merely economic. Politically, several of the BRICS have proved similarly unstable. The rise of emerging powers was premised on the notion that they were domestically stable, ready and able to consistently project global influence. While some analysts spotlighted corruption, institutional weakness, and political dysfunction as risks, such concerns were often relegated to the footnotes. As the 2020 NIC project put it in its report: “Only an abrupt reversal of the process of globalization or a major upheaval in these countries would prevent their rise.” Yet in South Africa, Brazil, and Russia, corruption and governance failures have proved catastrophic. Whether you think Rousseff is being rightfully targeted or unfairly scapegoated — and no matter what you make of charges that her interim successor is trading favors for the votes to impeach her — none of it augurs well for Brazilian governance. In South Africa, President Jacob Zuma narrowly withstood an impeachment campaign and now clings to office as a lame duck in what is effectively a one-party democracy. While Russia and China continue to project firm centralized authority, their intensifying crackdowns on dissidents, lawyers, and influential cultural figures bespeak regimes nervous that corruption and economic slowdowns could turn their populations restive”.

The author posits that “Back when rising powers were in style, theorists diverged on what to expect from their foreign policies. Some expected the leading democracies to align with Washington, whereas others foresaw a solid political bloc of BRICS holding Western influence in check. Neither vision came true. In their approach to international human rights and humanitarian intervention, rising democracies have been influenced by their post-colonial identities far more than their modern political bedfellows, emphasizing respect for sovereignty over the moral imperative of civilian protection or conflict prevention. Brazil and India abstained on the 2011 U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, anxious about the prospect that intervention could lead to regime change. Those two countries and South Africa have taken a reticent approach to handling the civil war in Syria, straddling the middle, but with a tilt more toward Russia and China than the United States and Europe. But while dreams of a powerful “alliance of democracies” have been dashed, the nightmare scenario of a solid BRICS wall has also failed to manifest. While the BRICS do meet periodically as a group, diverse growth rates, population sizes, carbon emissions levels, wealth, and other indicators dictate diverging interests on issues including the global economy and trade, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and conflicts in the Middle East. BRICS countries have come together to form their own development bank, a rebuke to the Western-dominated International Monetary Fund and World Bank system. But the two most powerful and stable nations in the bloc, India and China, are increasingly at odds over terrorism, Beijing’s regional ambitions in the South China Sea and beyond, and New Delhi’s strategy of hedging through strengthened relations with the United States and Japan”.

The writer mentions that “First, the United States’ status as what Madeleine Albright once called the “indispensable nation” remains intact. The United States is far from omnipotent and has bumped up hard against the limits of its diplomatic influence and military capabilities in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But when it comes to catalyzing global action and providing the decisive voice in whether, and to what degree, a global conflict — Libya, Syria, the Islamic State, Ukraine, climate change, Ebola, take your pick — will be addressed at a global level, no other country’s say comes close to Washington’s. With the exception of Russia (where President Vladimir Putin seems motivated by dual desires to check the United States and perpetuate his own personal power), no other rising power has sought to call the shots nor assumed an obligation to lead outside its region. Second, Europe still matters. The implicit logic of the rising powers was that they would leave the continent a relic of a bygone era of power relations. Despite its economic stagnation, political malaise, refugee crisis, and rising right wing, Europe remains, by far, the United States’ most stable and reliable major ally. While Brexit has dealt a major blow to the European Union, it is likely to further strengthen U.S. relations with Berlin, Paris, and any other European capital that may stand in for London as Washington’s go-to conduit within the union. Just as many Brits belatedly seem to be awakening to just how important the EU is, so Washington may emerge from the crisis with a heightened sense of appreciation for the bloc. Whether on Iran, Ukraine, the Islamic State, or virtually any other issue, European support is the necessary — if no longer sufficient — precondition for U.S. action to enjoy legitimacy”.

He contends that “A third conclusion derived from the uneven rise of new powers is that China’s rise has rendered the United States more, not less, globally important. Rather than becoming the has-been many predicted, the United States, due to China’s surging influence, has become a far more important ally to countries throughout Asia and beyond. As China’s regional neighbors seek to fortify themselves against the behemoth next door, their relationships with the United States have both broadened and deepened. The U.S. pivot to Asia is now being driven as much by local demand for an American presence in the region as it is by Washington’s fear of being edged out. Recent discussions about arms sales and even the possibility of a renewed U.S. military presence in Vietnam are only the latest manifestations of thickening ties between the United States and numerous allies in the region, including South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia”.

He ends “After 9/11, and once the long-term damage to the United States’ global standing began to recover from the 2003 Iraq War, foreign-policy thinkers started opining about what would come after what Charles Krauthammer once dubbed the country’s “unipolar moment” following the end of the Cold War. Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations projected a nonpolar era, with power widely dispersed. New America’s Sherle Schwenninger and others forecast a multipolar world. The prognostication-defying fate of the BRICS over the last decade, not to mention last week’s Brexit shocker, may point to a more unsettling prospect: an ambipolar world — ambivalent, ambiguous, ambient — where power is diffuse and national fortunes rise and fall to a rhythm too complex for any theory to adequately reflect. So rather than betting heavily on specific winners and losers, the United States should diversify its diplomatic capital, recognizing that predicting the path of the world’s rising powers is an uncertain business at best.

 

“Sectarian tensions in Egypt”

04/08/2016

On a recent Sunday in southern Egypt, dozens of Coptic Christians gathered for mass next to the charred remains of a wooden structure they once used as a chapel. A priest and five white-clad deacons began chanting around a simple wooden altar as the sun beat down on the remains of the makeshift chapel, which was torched two months ago. A blackened wood cross lay amid the rubble, a testament to a string of clashes in southern villages this month that has highlighted sectarian tensions in Egypt. Further down the road in the village of Ismailiya, a building the congregation wanted to use for their church is closed for lack of a permit.

Saudi’s increasing production?

04/08/2016

A piece from Foreign Affairs examines Saudi Arabia’s oil strategy, “The world is already awash in oil, and yet there may soon be more Saudi crude flowing to market. This month, just after scuttling a “production freeze” among major oil exporters, the Saudis fired long-serving oil minister Ali Naimi, who was a rare, reassuring fixture in the unpredictable oil market. Naimi had wanted to retire, but his support for the freeze contradicted the position of his superiors and probably hastened his departure. Along with naming a replacement minister—Khalid al-Falih, the former CEO of the state oil giant Saudi Aramco—the Saudis also announced a significant shift in oil market strategy. The kingdom would not only maintain its brisk pace of oil production of 10.2 million barrels per day but increase it further. Amin Nasser, the current CEO of Aramco didn’t stop there. He said that the theoretical ceiling on Saudi oil production capacity—12.5 million barrels per day—could be expanded in the future. In some respects, signs of the Saudis’ strategy shift were there all along: The country is locked in a battle for market share in the face of a U.S. shale boom, a re-emerging Iran, and a glut of non-OPEC crude. Longer term challenges, such as the threat of hitting a ceiling on global oil demand—perhaps in response to climate change—probably also shape thinking at Aramco headquarters in the eastern city of Dhahran. With 260 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves still underground, the risk of stranded assets is a scary proposition in Saudi Arabia”.

The article goes on to point out that “Saudi production decisions are subject to painstaking deliberation over the optimal pace for depleting the kingdom’s reserves. Aramco calibrates output from individual fields so that recoverable oil is exhausted gradually, over a minimum of 30 years. This has a constraining effect on the market. Since 2000, the kingdom’s output has hovered at about 13 percent of global supply, a self-imposed limit that has forced oil prices up. This has allowed higher-cost “fringe” producers to meet remaining demand with costlier oil. That calculus could change, however, if Saudi energy policymakers believe there will be threats to the long-term value of crude oil, especially in oil’s viability as a transportation fuel. In such a case, the kingdom could recalibrate its depletion strategy. One threatening scenario stems from efforts to respond to climate change. Some climate-focused scholarship has sought to quantify the amount of “burnable” fossil fuels as a portion of global reserves, given the goal of limiting the rise in temperatures to two degrees Celsius. One recent paper calculates that adhering to the two-degree limit means that the Middle East will see more of its reserves stranded underground—at 38 percent—than the global average of 33 percent. This is due to the large size of Middle Eastern resources relative to its hitherto modest rate of production. By contrast, the United States may find itself with the smallest level of stranded reserves. Only six percent of U.S. conventional crude reserves were estimated as “unburnable,” probably because of the relatively small amount of remaining oil and comparatively high rates of production. From this perspective, Saudi prudence looks risky”.

It points out that “Based on such calculations, it is in producer countries’ interests to beat the trends by stepping up production and shortening the timeframe for converting underground reserves into above-ground assets. This would, if all else held constant, reduce global oil prices and increase demand. For Riyadh, this approach could potentially transfer the risk of stranded assets to higher-cost producers, including those in North America, whose investment plans might be derailed by expectations of low oil prices. Higher production might also allow Saudi Arabia to reduce its risk from a related “peak demand” scenario.  Naimi and other Saudi officials have voiced fears for at least a decade about “security of demand” whether from climate factors or Washington’s rhetoric around “energy independence.” U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks revealed some of these concerns, as do Naimi’s public statements and those of an adviser, Mohammed al-Sabban, who predicted that global demand would peak by 2025″.

Interestingly he goes on “By forcing prices down, Aramco might delay the onset of peak demand, prolonging oil’s dominance in transportation while nudging higher-cost producers out of the market. Low prices might also push emerging economies to increase their dependence on oil by making investments that lock in higher levels of long-term demand. That’s because cheap oil also encourages urban sprawl. When cities become less dense, they require more energy: commutes lengthen, homes are more spacious, and private car ownership grows. Politically, Saudi Arabia may also view a more dominant role in global crude oil markets as beneficial to its geopolitical status. It could better hedge against Iran as its cross-Gulf rival emerges from decades of economic isolation. And more oil could even revive Riyadh’s flagging “oil for security” relationship with the United States. Conversely, a declining role in crude markets may diminish the kingdom’s strategic importance“.

Incorporating a domestic view the article notes, “Another reason why Saudi Arabia may be increasing production is due to the dangerous rise in domestic oil demand. If this trend continues, it may force Saudi Arabia to forfeit its spare production capacity and divert oil from export into the domestic market within a decade or two. Saudi Arabia could avoid that outcome by either halting growth in domestic demand or by increasing supply. The kingdom’s recent energy subsidy reforms are aimed at reducing demand. But in the event they don’t succeed, Aramco has prepared for major upstream investment. In 2015, Aramco forecasted on its website that it would make capital investments of about $334 billion between 2015 and 2025, with most of it earmarked for oil and gas drilling. In addition, the government’s recent subsidy reform policies are expected to increase domestic oil revenues, which could be reinvested in raising production capacity. In January, the Saudi government took the extraordinary step of raising prices on natural gas, water, electricity, gasoline, and diesel fuel, which probably represents its biggest reduction in citizen welfare benefits since the current system was established in the 1970s. Although energy prices in the kingdom remain substantially below world market levels, the increase is expected to raise $7 billion while reducing growth in domestic energy demand. Another source of capital could come from the splashiest initiative of all—the unprecedented sale of a portion of Saudi Aramco in an initial public offering next year”.

He ends “most worrying, a rise in Saudi output could trigger a period of global oversupply that would exacerbate climate damage. This could play out in a number of ways. On the one hand, it might unfold in a rational manner, deterring competitors from investing in higher-cost resources and pushing high-cost oil out of the market. On the other, it could cause other producers to panic about stranded assets, triggering a glut of cheap oil that would tempt consumers away from conservation and green technologies. Another scenario could see things swing the other way. By raising production, Saudi Aramco could publicize the kingdom’s fears that the world is preparing to move beyond oil and inadvertently encourage investment in alternate technology such as electric vehicles. Other scenarios are possible as well. In the long term, the oil business is entering an age of increasing risk, since progress on climate change endangers the dominance of fossil fuels in the global energy market. Although no one has yet devised a viable replacement for oil-fueled transportation, governments are increasingly seeking alternate fuels and technologies, regardless of oil prices. This understanding will most likely prompt at least some holders of large reserves, like Saudi Arabia, to move their crude to market before the world moves on.

“Authorities shut down dozens of media outlets in a widening crackdown”

04/08/2016

Turkey’s top military commanders will decide Thursday on one of the most radical shake-ups in the history of the country’s armed forces, as authorities shut down dozens of media outlets in a widening crackdown after a failed coup. The government ordered the closure of a total of 131 newspapers, TV channels and other media outlets as well as the discharge of 149 generals — nearly half the armed forces’ entire contingent of 358 — for complicity in the putsch bid. The July 15 rebellion, which saw plotters bomb Ankara from war planes and wreak havoc with tanks on the streets of Istanbul in a bid to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has sparked a backlash affecting all aspects of Turkish life. So far almost 16,000 people have been detained in a crackdown — the magnitude of which had caused international alarm”.

Russia, using hacking as a weapon

02/08/2016

A report discuss Putin trying to influence the US presidential election, “By breaching the servers of the Democratic National Committee and posting nearly 20,000 internal emails online, suspected Russian government hackers appear to have significantly expanded a tactic that Kremlin intelligence agencies have been using in Europe for years: using cyberweapons to try and manipulate elections and sway public opinion. In Ukraine, Russian-linked hackers broke into vote-counting machines in a failed attempt to throw a presidential election. In France, far-right parties opposed to European Union enlargement — a goal they share with Russian President Vladimir Putin — have received financial support from Russian banks. In Germany, the country’s growing right-wing party has sidled up to Putin’s political movement, and in the Netherlands, anti-EU activists forced a public referendum on a mundane trade pact with Ukraine after Russian-backed news outlets there stoked public concern”.

The piece goes on to mention that “While Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager has openly described the hack as a Russian attempt to help Donald Trump defeat the Democratic nominee, politicians in Europe have for years been struggling to detect and beat back the subtle ways Russian operatives try to exercise influence in their countries. The DNC hack — which is now being investigated by the FBI — simply marks the first time Moscow has taken that propaganda machine across the Atlantic. “They’re not just conducting cyber espionage to collect and analyze information,” said Justin Harvey, the chief security officer at Fidelis Cybersecurity. “This is collecting information to weaponize it or to affect a process within a country.” Fiona Hill, a former officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council, said the hack was evidence that Washington was “back into a kind of Cold War intelligence standoff” with Moscow. While Washington has been busy with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a global counterterrorism campaign, and an attempted to pivot to the Asia Pacific region in recent years, she said that “the Russians never changed their intelligence focus” away from the United States”.

Naturally it writes that “The election of a President Trump would potentially deliver significant dividends for Moscow since the mogul has spoken warmly of Putin and questioned whether he would come to the defense of NATO allies if they don’t meet their commitments on defense spending. In the run-up to last week’s Republican convention, Trump operatives stripped language from the party platform calling for the United States to arm Ukrainian forces against pro-Russian rebels in the country’s east. Eugene Rumer, a former U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia, said the Russian penetration of the DNC servers fits into a longstanding pattern of how Moscow has pursued its objectives covertly and without leaving fingerprints. “It’s a pretty diversified toolkit of espionage, information operations, disinformation, bribery, hacking, and financial manipulation,” Rumer said. Intelligence operatives likely working on behalf of Russia have already shown themselves capable of obtaining internal U.S. government communications and leaking it to embarrass Washington. In 2014, audio surfaced online from an intercepted phone call between Victoria Nuland, a senior State Department official, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, in which she proclaimed, “Fuck the EU.” The leak of the phone call was widely seen as an attempt to sour relations between EU negotiators working to defuse tensions in Ukraine and their American counterparts. In that respect, the eavesdropping and information operation was a success”.

It continues “Elsewhere in Europe, Moscow has spread its largesse in an attempt to boost the popularity of fringe parties who share Putin’s interest in preventing the enlargement of the EU and halting the process of European integration. The Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based research institute, has identified 15 right-wing European parties in the U.K. Denmark, Italy, Austria, and throughout Eastern Europe that have proven ties to Russia. France’s Marine Le Pen has repeatedly sought backing from Russian financiers, as she has built out a political movement that would see her country follow Britain out of the EU. In February, her National Front party sought a $30 million loan from a Russian bank to compete in 2017 presidential and parliamentary elections. The request came after she took out $11 million loan from a Russian bank in 2014. That year, her father and the founder of the National Front, Jean Marie Le-Pen, also borrowed more than $2 million from a company owned by a former KGB agent”.

It notes how “In Germany, meanwhile, the right-wing AfD party is forging close ties with Putin’s political movement, especially between the two groups’ youth wings. The party’s skepticism toward NATO and the EU makes it a natural Putin ally, and AfD leaders make frequent pilgrimages to appear at conferences together with Putin confidantes. While the DNC hack has captured the country’s attention during a fraught political moment in American public life, analysts point out that many of the information operations that Russia has run in recent years actually haven’t been very effective. The Kremlin’s efforts to keep Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in power fell apart in early 2014 when he was ousted from office and forced to flee the country, and its attempt to disrupt Ukraine’s elections also fell flat”.

Interestingly the report adds “Some of the hackers responsible for breaking into the DNC are well known to U.S. intelligence. Cozy Bear previously broke into the unclassified email systems at the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Friday, WikiLeaks posted a huge collection of emails that appeared to have been stolen from the servers. Their provenance and authenticity remain unclear, but that hasn’t prevented the messages from sparking a political scandal within the party. DNC boss Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned after emails surfaced showing her organization openly discussing ways of limiting Sen. Bernie Sanders’s chances of the nomination. On Monday, the DNC apologized for what it called “inexcusable” remarks in the emails. “The leaking suggests to me that the either the mission has changed or that this was the mission all along — to actually influence people’s opinions about the election,” said a person close to the investigation of the DNC breach and who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss its findings. The FBI said in a statement that it is investigating the breach: “A compromise of this nature is something we take very seriously, and the FBI will continue to investigate and hold accountable those who pose a threat in cyberspace.” On Monday, the Russian Embassy in Washington denied any involvement in the leaking of DNC emails. “We see the flood of inadequate and inappropriate allegations that yet again has inundated the U.S. media,” Yury Melnik, a spokesman for the embassy said in a statement. “One can only be surprised by such childish, groundless accusations that are far beyond reality.” American cybersecurity experts have come to a very different conclusion. Fidelis analyzed some of the technical data associated with the DNC breach and backed the conclusion reached by CrowdStrike that Russian intelligence was responsible”.

 

Turkey demands Gulen’s extradition

02/08/2016

Turkish leaders on Tuesday stepped up their calls for the United States to punish Fethullah Gulen, the reclusive cleric living in Pennsylvania whose organization is said to be behind the failed July 15 coup attempt that sought to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government. Officials in Ankara insist that Gulen had a direct hand in the coup plot, a mutiny led by a faction in the military that led to about 290 deaths before it was quashed. U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said he would consider an extradition request should Turkey submit “legitimate evidence [of Gulen’s involvement] that withstands scrutiny.” His Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, said the United States needs to take Turkey’s concerns seriously.

Trump the stooge

02/08/2016

An important article discusses how Trump is a Putin stooge, “First, there was the Saturday piece by Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo, alleging the following: “At a minimum, Trump appears to have a deep financial dependence on Russian money from persons close to Putin. And this is matched to a conspicuous solicitousness to Russian foreign policy interests where they come into conflict with US policies which go back decades through administrations of both parties. There is also something between a non-trivial and a substantial amount of evidence suggesting Putin-backed financial support for Trump or a non-tacit alliance between the two men.” Then, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook did the Sunday morning talk show circuit, telling everyone that the DNC hack n’ dump was done by the Russians to hurt Hillary and help Trump. “I think when you put all this together, it’s a disturbing picture, and voters need to reflect on that,” he told Jake Tapper”.

The piece goes on to note “Soon, even seasoned political reporters were hyperventilating. “What do you think of Trump as a Putin plant?” one of them wrote to me.Here’s what I think: we don’t know yet, really. Let’s look at what we know, or what we think we know: Trump has been desperately trying to do business in Moscow since 1987. He tried to open luxury real estate properties there then, then again nine years later in 1996, then again in 2005, then again in 2013. Sketchy? Not really. In 1987, Russia — then the Soviet Union — started opening up in much the same way that Cuba is opening up now: cautiously, slowly, trying to balance the Communist Party’s primacy with a much-needed injection of capitalism because, for one reason or another, the command economy wasn’t giving the country’s people enough to eat. Trump was just one of many, many Western businessmen who smelled opportunity and tried to cash in on it, much the same way people are now eyeing development opportunities in Cuba. When a country is in such a state of disrepair and so underdeveloped, and has such a mythical status in the American imagination, there is so much to be done and, by extension, tons of money to be made. In 1996, when Trump tried to build high-end condominiums in Moscow with financing help from U.S. tobacco companies, Russia was the wild, wild, capitalist West. The Soviet economy was still being dismantled; factories, mines, and the like were being sold for a song to anyone who could give cash to the perennially broke Yeltsin government. It is hard to overstate exactly how much easy money there was to be made. American and British businessmen rushed to Russia — Bill Browder, Boris Jordan — and became billionaires almost overnight”.

The report adds, “DNC WikiLeaks hack n’ dump, however, is the real smoking gun. As much as the Clinton campaign is trying to blame this on Russian intervention in order to deflect criticism of the unseemly anti-Sanders slant the emails revealed, the campaign has a point. Let’s look at the facts. A month ago, it was discovered that “Fancy Bear” and “Cozy Bear” had hacked the DNC’s servers, and that the Bears were associated with the GRU, Russian military intelligence and one of the most secretive branches of the Russian security apparatus. A month later, the DNC emails appear in the hands of WikiLeaks, bearing metadata that show they had passed through Russian computers. This is not surprising. WikiLeaks has a long history with the Russian government. Founder Julian Assange — painted as an example of Western hypocrisy – became a hero of Russian propaganda when he became trapped at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He was even given a show on RT, the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda channel. Edward Snowden didn’t end up in Russia by accident. While on the lam and in purgatory in a Moscow airport, Snowden was accompanied by Sarah Harrison, editor of WikiLeaks. According to the WikiLeaks website, “Miss Harrison has courageously assisted Mr. Snowden with his lawful departure from Hong Kong and is accompanying Mr. Snowden in his passage to safety.” It seems almost indisputable that this is what happened: The Russian government hacked the DNC’s computers, then passed the embarrassing info to WikiLeaks so they could cheer a leftist hero and take down Hillary Clinton, whom the Kremlin doesn’t want to see in the White House”.

It mentions, “The Kremlin is clearly happy to see a Republican candidate who preaches disbanding NATO (or throwing it into debtors prison) and advocates an American retreat from the world stage. If America retreats, Russia advances, nipping at its heels. See, for example, Syria. If America’s role in the world shrinks, Russia’s role in the world grows. This is how Putin sees it. Russia will get stronger because America will get weaker. This is why he is overtly throwing in for Trump, who has also lavishly complimented him. This is exactly the kind of thing the Kremlin does. In the age of what Russia calls “asymmetric warfare,” this is exactly the kind of soft meddling its government has engaged in all over its near abroad and Europe, from the founding of RT, its international propaganda channel, in 2005 to the cyberattack on Estonia 2007, to the financing of Marine Le Pen’s party. There is also speculation that Putin has helped bankroll UKIP in England and Golden Dawn in Greece, among others. Putin has long raged against the West meddling in the government of Russia and the former Soviet republics, which he sees as his sphere of influence. He blames both Orange Revolutions in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan on the U.S. government. He also blames the anti-Putin, pro-democracy protests that broke out in 2011 and 2012 in Moscow on the State Department. So in Putin’s mind, he is just answering in kind”.

It ends “We don’t know for sure if Trump is really a Putin plant. Regardless, Putin wins. We do not have nearly enough evidence that Trump has really reached some sort of arrangement with Putin, regardless of his real estate deals and the role of gray cardinal Paul Manafort, who has worked for Viktor Yanukovych, pro-Russian leader of the Ukraine deposed in 2014. Pending that evidence — say, campaign donations through shell companies or super PACs or the various naturalized American children of Putin’s cronies, or through a salary for Manafort, who is volunteering on Trump’s campaign — we can only speculate. Which is what we’re doing. That said, the speculation is, in and of itself, a major win for Putin. He has been obsessed with balancing out American power, with making sure that Russia isn’t perceived as weak. In his view, since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Washington has been alone in calling the shots in the world, instead of wrangling over the shots with Moscow as it had before. Most importantly, he has been trying to keep America from having a say in the way Russia is governed as it did in the early 1990s, when American policy wonks helped write the Russian constitution, or when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections fraudulent. For the first time in 25 years, Putin has flipped the script. Not only is America not intervening in Russian politics, Russia is intervening in American politics — or, at the very least, giving a distinct impression of doing this”.

Trump and Clinton receive security briefings

02/08/2016

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will begin receiving classified intelligence briefings after the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, when both candidates have become their respective parties’ presidential nominees, senior intelligence officials tells ABC News. “The briefings are traditionally given after nominating conventions have identified all the candidates,” the official said. Republican and Democratic presidential and vice presidential nominees have been offered introductory intelligence briefings on national security since 1952, after their parties’ national conventions. So Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Clinton’s running mate will receive them as well.


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