Archive for May, 2012

Text messages and arrests

31/05/2012

In another scandal for David Cameron’s government, Baroness Warsi has been caught claiming too much for expenses, in addition to all the other scandals and u-turns such as the pasty tax climbdown and following quickly on the heels of that reversal, the charity tax u-turn that was in the Budget. The government has had so many of these that the term omnishambles has been used, with some justification, to describe it. The extent of these is now so great, that a list has been complied.

While this was happening, Tony Blair, Michael Gove, Dr Vince Cable and Hunt were giving evidence to the ongoing Leveson Inquiry in light of the phone hacking.

In his evidence, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, godfather to one of Murdoch’s children, when questioned said he made no pact with Rupert Murdoch. This is of course patently untrue as Blair has been tied with Murdoch for many years and even travelled to Austrialia in 1995 to get Murdoch to either support Labour or not attack it. A news article notes that Blair “said he took his Cabinet Secretary’s advice on ‘propriety’ before raising the issue of whether Mr Murdoch would be allowed to acquire part of the Mediaset Group. At the time in 1998, Downing Street furiously denied media reports that Mr Blair had brought the deal up during a telephone call with Romano Prodi, the Italian leader. In evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, Mr Blair now admits he asked Mr Prodi about his views on a possible deal but cannot remember how the incident ‘came about’ Mr Murdoch himself previously told the Inquiry that he had ‘never asked a Prime Minister for anything'”. The article goes on to say that “The deal never went through after it emerged the Italians would have been hostile to Mr Murdoch owning the company. Mr Blair today said there was nothing wrong with asking his Italian counterpart about the possibility of a deal and betrayed frustration at the furore about the call at the time”.

In another piece on Blair’s evidence, he amusingly it was written that “He claimed not to know whether either of his two closest advisers, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, engaged in ‘the stuff with dark arts’ of spin. He said any media attack on his Labour rivals was not encouraged or authorised by him. ”I hate that type of politics and did not engage in it,’ he said”.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/phone-hacking/9301682/Andy-Coulson-arrested-and-charged-with-perjury.html

In giving his evidenceDr Vince Cable  “explained that in his quasi-judicial role he had in fact ‘acted impartially’, and ‘wouldn’t have been biased’. Twice he said that while in charge of the BSkyB decision he ‘didn’t want to disrespect Mr Murdoch’. His declaration of ‘war’? Why, that was merely his way of saying he ‘had no intention of being intimidated'”. Other reports mention that Cable “said he had tried to remain impartial throughout the bid, but had become aware of pressure in the background. ‘There had been veiled threats that if I made the wrong decision from their point of view of the company my party would be – I think somebody used the phrase – ‘done over’ in the News International press and I took those things seriously, I was very concerned,’ he said. ‘I had myself tried to deal with the process entirely properly and impartially and I discovered that this was happening in the background.’ Dr Cable said he thought Fred Michel, head of public affairs at News Corporation, was the person who made the veiled threats but he could not be ‘absolutely certain'”.

In what was perhaps the most explosive of recent events “Hunt sent a ‘sympathetic’ text message to James Murdoch in favour of News Corporation’s bid for BSkyB, despite legal advice not to have ‘any external discussions’ about the deal”. Reports note that Hunt “sent the message on the day he was handed responsibility for deciding whether News Corporation’s £8 billion bid should go ahead. The evidence emerged at the Leveson Inquiry, as Mr Hunt defended himself against accusations he showed too much favour towards News Corporation”. A timelineof the day has been made available. Meanwhile “Cameron believes the culture secretary acted properly when he was responsible for Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB takeover bid, Downing Street said. No 10 added the prime minister would not refer the case to Sir Alex Allen, his adviser on the ministerial code”.

Lastly and maybe even more significantly, ex News International editor and more importantly, director of communications at Downing St, Andy Coulson was arrested and charged for perjury.

Where this leaves the omnishambles Cameron with his own party and and his Lib Dem partners is hard to see, for now.

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Stupid or cynical

31/05/2012

President Hollande of France wants military action in Syria “if such a resolution were backed by the UN Security Council”. Russia has no intention of allowing this. Does Hollande not know this or does he know and just want to look good?

Flowing like water

31/05/2012

A blog post from Steve LeVine posits that a resource war between the US and China is a likely possibility given the size of the Chinese economy and its insatiable demand for minerals and other resources to keep its growth above the magic 7.5%.

He writes that “Under this scenario, the West and China are on a collision course: Starting in the next decade, one or the other must either begin to adapt to much-shrunken expectations, invent an entirely new set of fundamental fuels and high-tech building materials, or simply put up their dukes and fight it out”.

Yet, this theory could be all wrong as he notes that “what if a new strain of thinking is correct, and we are entering a world not of fossil fuel scarcity, but of a surprising abundance of oil? The spreaders of this new narrative are tallying up production projections in a slew of new and long-known oil patches around the world — Canada’s oil sands; U.S. shale oil and deepwater Gulf of Mexico; deepwater Brazil; the Equatorial Margin of eastern South America; deepwater Angola; offshore Kenya; the Russian Arctic; and elsewhere”.

He mentions that “if all that pans out, the West and China will not be on the path of a smashup; rather, they will be having a much different conversation, which would center on a question of choice:

Until now, the push for clean-tech has been partly driven by a belief that oil is running out — we had to develop new sources of energy, and fast, or go back to the forest. Now that there was no impending age of darkness, the U.S., China and others would have to decide on its merits — do they want a cleaner world, one that is not heating up inexorably and sending seawater over the major cities and swallowing up island nations?” He adds importantly, “The reason they would have to hold such a conversation is that the corollary of this narrative is a wholesale swamping of clean-tech — oil prices would probably drop so low as to eliminate the competitive economics of virtually any alternative energy source. Of course, this narrative works only if the stars align — if the projections pan out, environmental and other regulatory hurdles are scaled, PR is carried out well, and so on”.

Yet, there is no doubt that oil/gas will eventually run out. It is up to government over the next two or so decades to research and invest for the future so that citizens, and companies, can when the oil does run out that there is a smooth transition. The private sector once again relies on government to begin the very costly and difficult process at the beginning so companies can make money in the years to come.

Lashing out

29/05/2012

Russia’s behaviour to NATO is becoming nastier. The chief of the general staff, Nikolai Makarov, recently spoke openly about a first strike against future American missile-defence installations in Poland and Romania. Russia has conducted ostentatious military drills on its border with the Baltic states, NATO’s most vulnerable members“.

Popular opposition

29/05/2012

Following on from a piece in the Economist, there seems to be increasing public opposition  to Iran holding nuclear weapons.

In a piece in The World Today mentions Iranian public opinion. It mentions how “Actions and rhetoric seem to be reaching a fever pitch reminiscent of the lead-up to the US-led war on Iraq: assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists; cyber attacks through ‘worms’ such as Stuxnet; reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency; the rehashing of old Western intelligence; talk of military action and time running out; and pleadings from around the world for restraint. If the intention was to make Iran feel beleaguered, then the strategy has been a great success. If the intention, however, was to ensure that Iran does not develop a military nuclear weapons capability, then we may be witnessing yet another catastrophic mismanagement”.

It goes on to say that “Iran’s reaction has not been just to remonstrate, delay and deceive. Despite – or perhaps because of – sanctions, Iran announced in September that the Bushehr nuclear power station is now operational and connected to the grid”, adding that “Bushehr is no big deal; this reactor is not a military installation and will provide much needed energy for Iran”.

Perhaps most importantly, it notes that “The Saban Centre, a Washington think tank, recently carried out a survey of Israeli jews that shocked most pundits with the unexpected finding that 65 per cent would prefer neither Israel nor Iran to possess nuclear weapons, and would choose a nuclear-free Middle East”. She goes on to write that “In Iran, support for the nuclear programme may not be as great as the government claims. Although polls carried out by the Iranian Students’ Polling Agency – which comes under the Ministry of Higher Education – need to be treated with caution, a 2010 survey of Tehran residents showed that public support for Iran’s nuclear programme may have declined since 2008. In that two-year period, the poll showed that favourable opinion towards the programme had decreased from 45.2 to 22.1 per cent. In addition, 41 per cent said the administration had done a ‘poor job handling the nuclear case’, an opinion held by only about 21 per cent 2 years earlier”, concluding, “These results differ from those of foreign polling organisations, but the trend still indicates declining support for the nuclear programme. A Gallup poll, conducted by telephone from a call centre outside Iran and published in February, showed that only 40 per cent of Iranians were in favour of developing nuclear weapons, while 57 per cent supported a civilian nuclear programme (whereas in 2010, a Rand survey had this figure at 87 per cent). Almost one quarter of respondents refused to respond”.

A different article in The World Today makes the point that sactions have a poor record. He mentions how “Despite record oil revenues, Iran’s economy has continued to be plagued by high unemployment and double-digit inflation. According to the latest official estimate, inflation is at 20 per cent and is likely to rise after the recent sharp depreciation of the rial. Unemployment was officially 14.6 per cent in 2010, with women and young people disproportionately affected. Twenty three per cent of those aged between 15 and 24 were unemployed during 2006-09”. The writer goes on to note that “Iran appears to be a textbook case for success: it can only be a matter of time before the economy is on its knees. Partial evidence for this comes from the foreign exchange markets where the Iranian currency fell by more than 50 per cent in a few months after new sanctions against the Central Bank were introduced”.

He makes s number of point about the Iranian sanctions, namely; “although the sanctions are harsh and increasing in severity, other economies have managed to defy even harsher economic pressures in the past”, coupled with “if sanctions were judged by the harm they could cause to the population at large, their success would be a foregone conclusion” and lastly that “here lies the ultimate flaw in sanctions: applied as a form of collective punishment, they penalise the victims of the target regimes as much as their perpetrators, who become adept at deflecting the worst impacts and use the spectre of external threat to suppress internal dissent”.

However, his final point that sanctions do more to hurt the people of Iran, and the implication that they should be removed is misguided and naive. The removal of the sanctions would not only hurt Presdient Obama politically but give the Iranian regime a carte blanche to do whatever it wishes. Not only this but it would shatter the weak consensus on Iran in the international community and embolden both Russia and China, with no appreciable gain for the United States, especially when the Iranian leadership is so divided already.

As Joseph Nye in The Future of Power citing a study on sanctions notes that “sactions were most likely to be successful when the objective was modest and clear, the target was in a weakened position to begin with, economic relations were great, sanctions were heavy, and the duration was limited”. This should be the benchmark for all sanctions, present and future.

Now, not later

28/05/2012

The phone hacking/media scandal rumbles on with Hunt having been exposed as just as biased as Dr Vince Cable, with the latest news that Hunt “tried to intervene in Vince Cable’s scrutiny of the News Corporation bid for BSkyB but was warned off approaching the Business Secretary by lawyers” with separate reports saying he’ll resign after the Olypmics.

“Absolutely no interventions”

27/05/2012

The latest revelations of the phone hacking scandal coming from the Leveson Inquiry relate to the already embattled Jeremy Hunt, who is still Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

After Hunt’s former special adviser, Adam Smith, gave evidence, reports note that “Hunt told the House of Commons that he ‘made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence’ the decision on whether to refer the bid to regulators when it was the responsibility of Vince Cable, the Business Secretary. But on Thursday the Leveson Inquiry published a memo dated Nov 19, 2010, sent just weeks before Mr Hunt took over the quasi-judicial role from Dr Cable, in which he warned that News Corp’s James Murdoch was ‘furious’ about the Business Secretary’s handling of the matter”. The reports go on to say that “The note expressed concerns that referring the bid to Ofcom could leave the Government ‘on the wrong side of media policy’ and said it would be ‘totally wrong’ for ministers to ‘cave in’ to News Corp’s opponents. Senior Labour sources said on Thursday night that it was ‘absolutely clear’ that Mr Hunt had misled Parliament”.

The reports go on to say that “The lengthy memo was not declared to Sir Gus O’Donnell, the then cabinet secretary, either by Mr Cameron or Mr Hunt at the time of the appointment, it emerged. Sir Gus provided legal advice on whether Mr Hunt could handle the BSkyB decision in an impartial manner. Downing Street sources said that the memo would not have changed the cabinet secretary’s decision to back Mr Hunt’s appointment, but this assertion was expected to be challenged by opposition MPs”. Predictably, opposition Labour MPs have demanded Cameron recalled Parliament to answer questions.

The report adds that “Four days before Mr Hunt wrote the memo to Mr Cameron, he had spoken to James Murdoch on his mobile phone, having been told by lawyers to cancel a proposed meeting with the News Corp executive. At the time. Mr Cable was still in charge of deciding whether News Corp’s bid to buy the 61 per cent of BSkyB shares it did not already own should be referred to regulators. A month later, Mr Hunt took over the brief from Mr Cable, who was replaced after telling undercover reporters from The Daily Telegraph that he had declared ‘war’ on Rupert Murdoch”.

As a result of these latest developments Hunt is all but finished in politics and the fate of Cameron is precarious, despite what some might think. All because of a blind obidence to neoliberalism, where choice is all, irrespective of its highly negative consequences on society and the common good.

More of the same

27/05/2012

As has been stated here previously, and again recently, little will foreign policy change if there is a President Romney.

Inequality, Chinese style

27/05/2012

Following on from the recent post from Walter Russell Mead, the ever increasing signs of the Chinese economy faltering, there are, as expected, further signs of discontent.

The piece joyfully reports that “Michael Pettis, a professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management and one of the most persistent and well-regarded skeptics, predicted in March that China’s economic growth rate ‘will average not much more than 3% annually over the rest of the decade.’ Barry Eichengreen, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, warned last year that China is nearing a wall hit by many high-speed economies when growth slows or stops altogether — the so-called ‘middle-income trap.'”

He goes on to argue that “Years of one-sided investment-driven growth have created obvious excesses and overcapacity. A weaker global economy since the 2008 financial crisis and rapidly rising labor cost at home have slowed China’s vaunted export machine. Meanwhile, a massive housing bubble is slowly deflating, and the latest economic data is discouraging. Real growth in GDP slowed to an annualized rate of less than 7 percent in the first quarter of 2012, and April saw a sharp slowdown in industrial output, electricity production, bank lending, and property transactions. Is China’s legendary economy in serious trouble?”, his answer to this is “Not just yet”.

Yet, he goe on to write that “The odds are that China will navigate these shoals and continue to grow at a fairly rapid pace of around 7 percent a year for the remainder of the decade, overtaking the United States to become the world’s biggest economy around 2020. That’s a lot slower than the historical average of 10 percent, but still solid. Considerably less certain, however, is whether China’s secretive and corrupt Communist Party can make this growth equitable, inclusive, and fair. Rather than economic collapse, it’s far more likely that a decade from now China will have a strong economy but a deeply flawed and unstable society”. Indeed, this is especially the case in a year of transition and scandal over Bo Xilai and the divisions that this causes in an already nervous , to put it mildly, leadership.

He adds interestingly that “For catch-up countries, growth is mainly about resource mobilization, not resource efficiency, which is the name of the game for lower-growth rich countries. Historically, about two-thirds of China’s annual real GDP growth has come from additions of capital and labor. Mainly this means moving workers out of traditional agriculture and into the modern labor force, and increasing the amount of capital inputs (like machinery and software) per worker. Less than a third of growth in China comes from greater efficiency in resource use”. Yet as has been noted here, here and here, that this need for labour will increase just at a time when their immoral one child policy begins to end any hope a sustainable demograhics. This in turn means rising cost of labour and increasing uncompetitiveness.

Importantly he argues that “All developing economies eventually reach the point where they have moved most of their workers into the modern sector and have installed roughly as much capital as they need. At that point, growth tends to slow sharply. In countries that fail to make the tricky transition from a mobilization to an efficiency focus (think Latin America), real growth in per capita GDP can virtually grind to a halt. Such countries also find themselves stuck with high levels of income inequality, which tends to rise during the resource mobilization period and fall during the efficiency phase. Some worry that China — which for the last decade has had by far the highest capital spending boom in history — is already on the edge of this precipice”. He adds that “One illustration of China’s enduring capital deficit is housing. Scarred by the catastrophic U.S. housing bubble, many observers see an even scarier property bubble in China. Robert Z. Aliber, who literally wrote the book on financial manias, called China’s housing boom “totally unsustainable” this January. And it’s true: Since 2005, land and housing prices have rocketed, and the outskirts of many cities are dotted by blocks of vacant apartment buildings”.

Yet he adds that “Over the next two decades, if present trends continue, another 300 million people — equivalent to nearly the entire population of the United States — will move from the countryside to China’s cities. To accommodate these new migrants, alleviate the present shortage, and replace dilapidated housing, China will need to build 10 million housing units a year every year from now to 2030. Actual average completions from 2000 to 2010 were just 7 million a year, so China still has a lot of building to do”.

Even if this above point is true, he concludes that “A 2010 study by Chinese economist Wang Xiaolu found that the top 2 percent of households earned a staggering 35 percent of national urban income. A handful of giant state firms, secure in monopoly positions and flush with cheap loans from state banks, has almost unlimited access to moneymaking opportunities. The state-owned banks themselves earned a staggering $165 billion in 2011″.

The Chinese government’s inability, or unwillingness, to curb the greed and to assist the most vunerable will come back to haunt them, perhaps not today or tomorrow, but soon.

A success?

25/05/2012

An interesting take of the case of Chen Guangcheng as he arrives in the United States.

“Permanent slowdown”?

25/05/2012

Following on from recent commentary on the Chinese economy and the recent low(ish) growth rates, a piece in the American Interest by Walter Russell Mead bolsters this line of thought.

Mead opens his piece noting “recent economic data from China that should be capturing the attention of policymakers. Despite confident predictions from Wen Jiabao that the economy was heading for more growth, April figures across a range of sectors make for grim reading: industrial production is down, fixed-asset investment and retail spending slowed, home sales plummeted, and export sales growth was only half what it was in March. When China’s economy grew at an abnormally low 8.1 per cent clip in the first quarter of this year, some analysts suggested that it had reached the bottom of the business cycle. Better times were ahead, they reasoned. These latest figures, however, suggest that what we may be seeing in China is the start of a prolonged, and perhaps permanent, deceleration in Chinese growth”.

He goes on to mention that it is too soon to know if this is just a blip or the beginning of a pattern. However, having had enormous growth rates for three decades, and coupled with the semingly never ending eurozone crisis, perhaps China’s econmy is  returning to reality. Mead goes on to mention “if the Chinese economy is indeed entering a permanent slowdown the political and social consequences will be profound”.

Mead writes that the “incoming leadership team must be asking itself whether China’s political system is capable of undertaking the necessary economic reforms to maintain prosperity and stability”. Indeed, this has been mentioned before by others, though it does not diminish its pertinence, on the contrary, it only heightens it. He questions, “Will failure to reform unleash waves of social unrest? Cracks are already appearing. Over 30 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest against the central government. The revolt in Wukan caught the attention of the world”.

Speaking on the Chinese economic model, or state capitalism, Mead writes that “Chinese leaders also fell for the hype, and an over-estimation of China’s strength led directly to the foreign policy failures that paved the way for the reassertion of US power in the Pacific. The steady increase in spending on internal security suggests that not all of China’s leadership swallowed the Kool Aid; those numbers probably tell us more about Beijing’s true understanding of its prospects than the chest-thumping about a “‘Beijing consensus.'” Indeed, the weakness of the “consensus”, itself a huge misnomer, have been noted in an Economist piece some time ago.

He rightly concludes that “hope remains that China’s transition to a more sustainable trajectory will be measured, peaceful and as smooth as possible. No sane American can wish China ill. But China is too big, too complex, too diverse and it is changing too rapidly for its future path to be easy and smooth”.

He ends, “The ground under Beijing is seismically active; one doesn’t know when the next quake will strike, but come it will”.

A new record

25/05/2012

Reports note that “About four in 10 Americans said they support abortion rights in a new Gallup poll — the lowest figure recorded by the organization since it began asking the question in 1995“. Is the noxicous tide of individualism turning?

Pulling back?

24/05/2012

In a piece in the Economist on the continuing talks over Iran’s nuclear programme, shedding the possiblity of Iran stepping back form the brink of acquiring a nuclear weapon.

The article mentions “Iran’s return to the table in an apparently more constructive mood marks a sharp change. The latest round of talks failed in January 2011, after Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, set preconditions that other countries found unacceptable. But since the end of 2011 pressure on the regime in Tehran has increased”. It rightly notes Iran’s attitude to the talks when it notes, “The last time Iran seemed interested in co-operating was in 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq. George Bush had named Iran as part of the “axis of evil” (which also contained Iraq and North Korea). Fearing that it could suffer Iraq’s fate, Iran signed the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which gives IAEA inspectors souped-up rights of access. Two years later, when things were going badly wrong for America in Iraq and Iran believed the threat of an invasion had passed, it reneged on those commitments”.

The article goes on to say, realisticly that “responding to pressure is not the same as genuine willingness to do a deal. Optimists think the restarted talks could persuade Iran to take a new course and defuse a hugely dangerous crisis. But sceptics believe that the regime is playing for time, growing ever closer to the point where it can produce a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. Doomsters contend that it is all too late anyway: Iran is already so close to the nuclear threshold that the main effort should now be to dissuade potential nuclear rivals, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, from taking the same path”.

It adds that “Iran is now very close to the nuclear threshold. It already has about 6,000kg of 3.5% LEU, enough to produce about five bombs-worth of weapons-grade HEU. Using the four centrifuge cascades at the new Fordow enrichment site, near the holy city of Qom, and 15 additional cascades at the main Natanz site (each has between 164 and 174 centrifuges), it has recently tripled production of 19.75% LEU to about 13kg a month. It may now have a stockpile of 150kg—near to the 185kg needed to produce the 15-20kg of HEU required for a moderately sophisticated implosion device (although about twice that amount of 19.75% LEU would be needed for a first bomb because of initial wastage)”. This is in addition to the damning IAEA report. The article mentions that “Informed by the IAEA’s work and intelligence sources, estimates of Iran’s potential timeline to nuclear weapons—if the country were to quit the NPT and throw everything into its programme—vary between just a couple of months for a single crude device and more than two years for an arsenal of three or four nuclear-tipped, solid-fuelled ballistic missiles”.

The writer goes on to say that “for the time being at least Western policy towards Iran has two elements. One is to continue raising the difficulty and cost to Tehran of crossing the nuclear threshold. The other is to offer Iran a way out of today’s impasse. But getting the right mix of sticks and carrots will be tricky. The first objective of the P5+1 negotiators, led by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, will be to find a convincing way to prevent Iran from suddenly sprinting to make nuclear weapons were it to decide on doing so”. Importantly it adds that “The best way to ease those immediate fears would be to halt Iran’s accumulation of 19.75% LEU. Mr Jalili and his team might agree to a temporary suspension in return for some immediate relief on sanctions, say an EU promise to suspend the oil embargo. That is unlikely. The embargo was agreed on by all EU member countries; it cannot just be turned on or off. Any premature relaxation of sanctions also risks alleviating the pressure on other importers of Iranian oil, such as India, Japan, South Korea and China, to find other suppliers. So the squeeze on Iran will not slacken in exchange for interim concessions—either through easing sanctions or by scaling back the Western efforts to delay its nuclear programme”.

There are however, tententive signs of a deal, with the piece noting, “there should be five stages towards a framework agreement with Iran. The first would be an updated and verified “freeze for a freeze”. At the second stage, Iran would answer all questions about the military dimension of its programme, agree to implement the Additional Protocol, own up to all its past and current nuclear weaponisation work and verifiably dismantle associated facilities. In return, it would receive “significant” sanctions relief. The third stage would require intensive IAEA inspection and verification of all Iran’s nuclear facilities and suspension of any part of its nuclear programme regarded as “sensitive”. Iraq would get provisional suspension of Security Council sanctions. The fourth stage would see IAEA certification of there no longer being any undisclosed nuclear activities and agreement over the parameters of Iran’s civil nuclear needs. This would be accompanied by the ending of all American nuclear-related sanctions (some American sanctions are related to human rights abuses, which Congress would be reluctant to lift)”.

Better still the piece concludes that “Khamenei repeated in February that possessing nuclear weapons was a “grave sin”, a theological ruling (see article) that provides cover for flexibility. If Iran really has no intention of getting nuclear weapons, it has a respectable way out”.

Will this translate into action by the Iranians?

An American pope?

24/05/2012

In a post from some time ago, John Allen writes that at the end of the reign of John Paul II, “Many cardinals who elected Benedict XVI thought they were buying an end to the crisis of governance in the twilight of John Paul’s reign, only to find they’d simply traded it in for a newer model. In the abstract, Joseph Ratzinger seemed the man to put things right. As the saying went, Ratzinger was in the curia but not of it — he knew where the bodies were buried, but he was never the stereotypical Vatican potentate”.

Indeed, it was difficult to argue against this narrative, the reality of course, after seven years, is quite different as has been noted here elsewhere. Allen implies that Benedict’s gradual push for better governance is not working and goes on to question, “is it time for the Jacobins to wrest control from the moderates? Benedict’s limited reform is based on setting a moral tone and the idea that ‘personnel is policy,’ rather than any violent purge or direct overhaul of systems and structures. It began with the ultra-powerful Secretariat of State, where the stereotype of the ‘prelate as Renaissance prince’ tends still to have the most legs”.

Allen continues saying that Benedict’s lack of good oversight have meant that others are free to pursue their own agenda. From this Allen goes on to note that “the Vatican is always going to have its careerists and its schemers, it’s always going to have a subtext of petty turf wars and personal squabbles, so the trick is to put someone in charge who knows that world and is capable of keeping it under control. In other words, don’t waste energy trying to change the place; settle for making it work”. He then says the ideal candidate would be Cardinal Sandri, prefect of the Congregation of the Oriental Churches who is known as a competent administrator.

Allen ends arguing that Timothy Cardinal Dolan could be the Jacobin pope. Allen mentions how “given the way Dolan took Rome by storm, the ‘American pope’ question is in the air. Normally, the hypothesis gets knocked down almost as soon as it’s raised on the basis of the longstanding taboo against a ‘superpower pope'”, with the Church unwilling to hand the papacy to the world’s most powerful and broadly benevolent, country.

Allen concludes “Can you think of a better way to get the attention of the White House — no matter who the occupant might be — than to elect an American pope? There is the risk, of course, that U.S.-Vatican relations could be hijacked by domestic politics under an American pope, but it wouldn’t have to play out that way. In any event, it certainly would ensure that Washington keeps Rome on the radar”, adding lastly “The real choice for a ‘superpower pope’ would therefore be putting the papacy back in Italian hands, while an American (or, for that matter, any non-European) would actually represent evolution toward a more ‘multi-polar’ church”.

While the reality of an American pope is still infanticimal, the fact that such seasoned watchers as Allen are even suggesting it says much.

The ultimate PR battle

23/05/2012

After the tensions have increased between Beijing and Manila, a fascinating post discusses the tactics of the Filipino government.

He opens arguing that “Quintus Fabius lives. And the third-century B.C. Roman dictator celebrated as Fabius ‘the Delayer'” is giving advice to the president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III.

He summarises the events quickly saying that “In early April, the Philippine Navy flagship Gregorio del Pilar discovered Chinese fishing boats at the shoal, a group of rocks enclosing a lagoon some 120 nautical miles west of the Philippine island of Luzon. Boarding parties found coral, giant clams, and live sharks on board the boats and prepared to arrest their crews for poaching in Philippine-claimed waters. Within 48 hours, ships from China Maritime Surveillance — a nonmilitary agency entrusted with enforcing jurisdiction in Chinese-claimed waters — arrived on the scene and interposed themselves between the Gregorio del Pilar and the alleged poachers”.

After the Chinese vessel arrived, the Philippine government cleverly “withdrew its frigate and replaced it with an unarmed Philippine Coast Guard search-and-rescue ship”. The writer mentions the less than up to date nature of the Gregorio del Pilar, which the writer coments “is a retired, 1960s-vintage U.S. Coast Guard cutter grandiosely rebranded as a frigate. The Philippines’ previous flagship, an old U.S. Navy destroyer escort, fought in World War II”.This is of course against the backdrop of a comparatively powerful Chinese navy that has the potential to cause much local disturbance, for now.

The goes on to write that China is “relying on coast guard-like vessels, Beijing reaffirms the legal boilerplate that it holds “indisputable sovereignty” over most of the South China Sea — including the waters lapping against Scarborough Shoal. Its ships, according to this narrative, are simply enforcing domestic law in waters that have belonged to China since antiquity. And indeed, last week the official China Daily reported that Beijing will add 36 more nonmilitary vessels to its fleet by next year”.

He gets to his point noting that “Manila seems to be employing what could be called a Fabian strategy — one premised on delay, diplomatic maneuver, and righting military imbalances. The Philippines stands no chance of winning in combat. It may win a peacetime confrontation”. Indeed, if China were to continue its current actions over a sustained period of time, and there is no reason to believe that it won’t, then the Philippines has already won the PR battle.

Not only that but he explains that “Historians of classical antiquity considered Fabius the paragon of guileful, patient military statecraft. Polybius, a Greek historian of Roman imperialism, tells the tale expertly. As the Carthaginian general Hannibal’s vastly superior army rampaged through Italy, Fabius assumed personal command of Roman forces and encamped near the foe. Upon learning that the legions were nearby, Hannibal resolved to ‘terrify the enemy by promptly attacking,’ Polybius writes. The Roman riposte: nothing. Fabius grasped his army’s ‘manifest inferiority.'” he adds that Fabius used home advantage ie supplies and men, to eventually win out over Hannibal.

He argues that the anaolgy is not perfect but that the Philippine government, “Sure enough, Manila has done what the weak do. Aquino’s government has appealed to law and justice while courting allies. The leadership has entreated Beijing to submit the quarrel to the Law of the Sea Tribunal. And it has requested American support under the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, which obliges the United States and the Philippines to ‘act to meet the common dangers’ of ‘an armed attack’ on either party’s territory or armed forces. For its part, Beijing appears visibly flummoxed by the Filipinos’ refusal to bow to overwhelming physical might. China seems to be waging ‘war by algebra’ in the South China Sea, and expecting outmatched neighbors to abide by that austere mathematical logic”.

He closes thus, “While the United States would doubtless defend Philippine soil, offshore waters or uninhabitable territory like Scarborough Shoal is another question. Nor is it clear what the lightly armed U.S. Navy vessels that anchor the American presence in Southeast Asia would contribute during a showdown with heavy Chinese naval forces. Effective U.S. support for the Philippines is scarcely a foregone conclusion — and Manila’s Fabian gambit cannot succeed without it”.

Yet China continues to look like the regional bully, only helping the US and its regional allies.

Chinese politics = paranoia

23/05/2012

The uncertainites of succession politics and perceived external threats to CCP rule combine with prodund elite fears of internal social instability to produce a regime that is insular, paranoid and reactive“.

In the balance

22/05/2012

A piece from The Hill makes the point that what was deemed to be a Republican Senate after the elections in November, is not so certain. On the face of it this view is understandable. With senators in states like Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania all up for re-election, the GOP could easily take these as well as keeping safe seats like Texas and Arizona.

The piece notes that the defeat of Dick Lugar (R-IN) in the primary and the GOP nomination of Richard Mourdock  and the nominee means that the “Democrats hope he will prove a weaker general election foe than Lugar. They think Lugar’s ouster may give them a chance”. It goes on to note that “Early in the 2012 election cycle, no one gave the Democrats a chance, given that they were defending 23 seats, the Republicans only 10”.

It goes on to note that “Democrats have recruited strong candidates, and been handed gifts such as Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R) retirement in Maine. It has left Democrats and Republicans alike wondering if the GOP is again going to snatch defeat from the yawning jaws of victory”. It mentions that “Republicans still have formidable advantages. Third-party groups, unfettered by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, are on track to spend millions of dollars more to help Republican candidates than liberal groups will spend to help Democrats. And while Republicans are worried about losing two or three seats they now hold, Democrats are scrambling to hold onto at least seven seats”. Crucially it says that “Republicans need to win four seats to gain a majority if President Obama wins reelection, and only three seats if Mitt Romney wins, since his vice president would cast the tie-breaking vote”.

It goes on to say that “Republicans consider Nebraska, North Dakota, Missouri and Montana as their four most likely pick-up opportunities” and that “Former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) has exceeded expectations in North Dakota. A recent Democratic poll showed her with a 5-point lead over Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.). The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee made its first independent expenditure of the 2012 cycle in North Dakota.  Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) match up well against their Republican challengers. In Montana, Rep. Denny Rehberg, the GOP candidate, has to contend with charges that he’s spent too much time in Washington and must defend a controversial bill he co-sponsored to expand the Department of Homeland Security’s authority over Montana lands”.

Speaking on the election in Ohio it mentions how “In Ohio, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and his allies are being outspent 10-1, but the incumbent retains a healthy lead in the polls over the relatively inexperienced Josh Mandel, who has had to fend off charges of cronyism. Mandel, the state treasurer, has also faced criticism for skipping meetings of the state Board of Deposit”. Indeed, the American fixation on putting in the least experienced candidate possible has been tried before, not successfully.

Perhaps this should be the main lesson for the GOP in the future.

Cold feet

22/05/2012

After interesting thoughts from those close to Pope Benedict, John Allen mentions “Leaked correspondence shows that three of the four bishops of the society are strongly opposed to a deal, while the top French traditionalist has denounced the “plague” of the Second Vatican Council. The society’s superior has openly admitted a split may be in the works. Meanwhile in Rome, even some of the pope’s best friends are voicing concern that a deal should not signal a retreat from Vatican II”.

Best decision of a terrible choice

21/05/2012

With the Irish referendum on the fiscal compact a little over a week away, enormous pressue is undobutedly being put on Irish politicans to pass the treaty with all embarrassing and outrageous remarks on hold until the treaty is passed. The EU knows Ireland’s economic insignificance but it also knows that a no vote would bring more uncertainty for Frau Merkel and her ever diminishing band of allies, terrified of any sort of inflation.

The piece in the Economist mentions how “Fears that the Irish might use the chance to vote against [Prime Minister] Mr Kenny’s increasingly unpopular coalition have so far proved unfounded”. Yet these fears are real, are should in no way be understated. The Irish are notorious for beating their leaders whenever they feel like it on issues that are otherwise totally unrelated.

The article goes on to say that “The Irish are as angry about the European Union/IMF austerity plans as everyone else. The view that Irish taxpayers have paid too high a price to rescue failed banks and bondholders is widespread. And the arrival of François Hollande in France, with his stated hopes of modifying the fiscal compact, plus the rising likelihood of a Greek exit from the euro, are creating new uncertainties”. The only reason that the Irish have not been so vocal is that the country is so homogeneous.

The article adds that “Irish voters have been asked to approve no fewer than nine EU treaties in the past 40 years. They have twice said no, before changing their minds at a second attempt. This time there is no Irish veto, and Mr Kenny insists there will be no second vote: the treaty will take effect when 12 of the 17 euro-zone members ratify it. And only countries that do so will have access to the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the euro zone’s permanent bail-out fund”. Yet, the main reason that these two failed was because of public anger at the government and not at any real disagreement at the treaty, though understanding is generally poor among most people.

So far the Irish have been the good boys of the trokia meeting all targets set by the IMF/EU/Commission, yet there is still talk of another “bailout” needed next year. The piece notes that of those who oppose the treaty, their “biggest weakness of the campaign is its failure to give a convincing answer to a simple question: who will lend Ireland money if voters reject the fiscal compact and the country needs a second bail-out in 2014, when it can neither borrow from the markets nor from the ESM? Moreover, the claim that a No vote will magically mean less austerity is widely seen as far-fetched”.

So will the Irish electorate be realists and make the best decision, of a terrible choice, and pass it, writing economic policy into their constitution, or will their emotions and shortsightedness get the better of them?

A fitting response

21/05/2012

After the actions, or lack thereof, by Sean Cardinal Brady became apparent, reports notes that “Just 20 of 150 priests in the Armagh Archdiocese invited to attend a prayer gathering in support of Dr Brady actually showed up”.

Two down, three to go

19/05/2012

The Ecomomist, true to form just like this time last year, has published a review of the Coalition government in the UK.

The article mentions the scale of the governments reform agenda on coming into office in 2010, “it sought to push it out to cities, towns, schools and doctors. It moved to shake up public services by encouraging firms and non-profit groups to compete for tasks generally done by the state. Schools, local government, policing, health, planning, welfare, justice—almost every arm of the state was to be transformed”.

It notes that on 9 May it “announced the government’s legislative agenda for the coming year. It could embark on a new round of radical reforms, revitalising itself in the process but also stretching its political capital dangerously thin. Or it could announce more modest changes. This would create the time and space to focus on implementing existing reforms but risk losing the sense of mission without which governments tend to be buffeted by events. In the end it veered closer to the second option”. Others however have called this lack of major legislation refreshing, arguing “its cautious drift was not just commendable – it was also inevitable”.

Howver, the Economist article goes on to say that the government “plans lots of incremental changes: loosening labour regulation, tightening public-sector pensions, and establishing a new agency to fight organised crime and strengthen border security. As for making the House of Lords more democratic—a key Liberal Democrat demand that many Conservatives oppose—a bill has made it into the government’s agenda, but it is unclear how much priority it will have (see Bagehot)”.

Naturally, the article notes the obvious differences between the two coalition parties on a host of issues. Of the successes it mentions the economy arguing “The coalition’s greatest achievement has been to set the country on the course of deficit reduction. It has raised taxes and curbed public spending. Some 381,000 public-sector jobs have been lost since the spring of 2010 (and 634,000 private-sector jobs gained) with many more to go. Despite an economy that is weaker than almost anyone outside the left predicted two years ago, public-sector borrowing has fallen about as quickly as was forecast. This is a huge, painful accomplishment”. Of course, the government cut taxes for the wealthy despite evidence, here and here that high taxes not only protect the poorest protecting the common good and therefore social stability but also are effective.

The piece goes on to say that “Education is being made over, too. The government’s signal reform involves freeing schools from local-authority control, letting them set their own budgets, alter their hours and change how they teach” this however is a dubious long term policy, that may have to be reversed in time. The article mentions the “reform” of the NHS noting “The government’s attempt to decentralise and diversify the National Health Service by making local doctors more accountable for the money they spend and opening the door to private practitioners has been botched. The health bill survives, but as a messy patchwork of compromises with various interest groups”. The effects of this in the long term are also expected to be highly negative.

Another failure is the localism of the government. The article notes that “The attempt to devolve power to cities is another failure. Steve Hilton, the government’s in-house radical, originally wanted directly-elected mayors in every town, as is the case in France, for example. Over time this reform would have remade the political landscape. As London’s have demonstrated since 2000, elected mayors tend to accumulate influence even without being formally given powers. In time they could have become dynamic, experimental leaders, pushing through dramatic reforms to schools and competing to attract business. On May 3rd the government held referendums in ten of England’s biggest cities, asking people if they wanted elected mayors. Voters in all but one—Bristol—said no. This is a categorical defeat, irreversible in the short term”. It adds that other reforms such as the dangerous idea of directly elected police commissioners are too soon to tell if it will be a success or not.

It adds that “The Big Society has given way to big business—no bad thing, but a departure from the blueprint. Meanwhile contradictions are emerging, between both policies and politicians. One senior figure in the cabinet office says that he has been told to avoid the word “outsourcing” because it offends the Liberal Democrats, yet the article mentions far bigger problems, “there are growing doubts about the government’s basic competence. Mr Cameron rightly deplored the micromanaging style of his predecessor, Gordon Brown. But he may have veered to the opposite extreme with a magisterially hands-off approach. Whereas Labour made Downing Street an unofficial “Department of the Prime Minister”, with battalions of political advisers helping the government impose itself on wayward departments and recalcitrant civil servants, Mr Cameron undid much of that. Insiders increasingly concede that Downing Street now lacks “grip” on the rest of government”.

Indeed an article in Foreign Policy picks up this very theme. It argues that “A government may survive unpopularity, apathy, even scandal, but ridicule is another matter”. It makes the interesting point that “Worse still, from Cameron’s perspective, is that so-called “austerity” is becoming unfashionable across Europe. Even if Cameron is correct to insist that Britain must reduce a deficit that — even in these leaner times — runs at 8 percent a year, the mood and fashion appears to be turning against him”. This is somewhat of an oversimplification, with now President Hollande  committed to cuts as well as growth. The writer does note, fairly that “even the right-wing press has turned on the prime minister. The Daily Telegraph — a paper sometimes nicknamed the ‘Torygraph’ — now complains of about a ‘lack of basic competence’ and warned that ‘Cameron cannot simply write off his party’s unpopularity as the natural mid-term response to an administration bent on constraining public spending at a time of economic stagnation. In recent months, his Government has been shown to be flawed in gravely worrying ways.'” He concludes that the government will miss its target to end of the deficit by two years to 2017. He adds that George Osborne is “in fact, bears a heavy responsibility for Cameron’s troubles. His recent budget was swiftly declared an ‘omnishambles.'” He does mention the phone hacking scandal but does not give it the significance it deserves yet he does say that “every setback, every presentational blunder, every set of dreary economic figures reinforces the suspicion that something has gone wrong and that Cameron’s government is adrift and urgently requires a new rudder”. Perhaps he means tiller?

Lastly, the Economist article makes no mention of the phone hacking scandal that is engulfing Cameron personally and some of his close minsters.

The judgement of history

19/05/2012

According to official documents released this week, in 1997-98 the then German chancellor Helmut Kohl – chief architect of the single currency – lied to the German people about Italy’s suitability to join the eurozone. Kohl, who dominated German politics for two decades, was warned that the Italians were cooking the books, using one government agency selling gold reserves to another, in order to hide the scale of their debts. But Kohl chose to ignore repeated warnings from his closest aides. For him, the political imperative to include Italy in the eurozone trumped mere economics. Kohl claimed that the French, then led by Jacques Chirac, would withdraw unless the Italians joined too“.

Piling on the pressure

19/05/2012

As the Greek president failed to get the disparate parties to agree on a coalition governemnt more elections are due this time next month.

An Economist blog mentions how “Until then the country will be run by a caretaker government under Panagiotis Pikrammenos, Greece’s most senior judge. Lucas Papademos, the ex-European central banker who has run a coalition government for the last six months, overseeing a €206 billion sovereign-debt restructuring and Greece’s second bail-out, was not asked to stay on”.

It bodes ill for the future when the article mentions how “transcripts of Mr Papoulias’s last three meetings, made public at the request of Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, a hard-left coalition, and Greece’s rising political star, reveal a disturbing lack of vision among the men who are supposed to be Greece’s leading politicians. Rather than tackle serious issues, such as how to keep Greece in the euro, they swapped insults and shrugged off a warning that a bank run was imminent”.

In a path that will be hard to reverse it goes on to note that “Support among Greeks for staying in the euro is up from 70% to 80% over the past three months, according to opinion polls. Yet fears that prolonged political instability could trigger a ‘Grexit’ are also increasing. Greek savers withdrew €3 billion from local banks—about 2% of total deposits—as hopes of forming a coalition collapsed. Greece has seen a steady erosion of bank deposits over the past two years, yet few bankers were prepared for such a rapid acceleration of withdrawals”. There are similar reports of money leaving Spain as it too comes under increasing pressure. Interestingly the piece makes note of how “cash was being taken away from the banks in orderly fashion”, yet this order will be impossible to sustain as the days and weeks go by.

In a clear warning about the dangers of populism the piece mentions how “Despite their enthusiasm for holding on to the euro, Greeks are fed up with the austerity that German politicians say is the price of continued membership. Syriza suggests that such views are compatible, arguing that Greece can stay in the euro but also reverse the reforms imposed by the ‘troika'”, with widespread support for this impossible position among the Greek people with “A recent poll found that Syriza would win the next election with 20.5% of the vote, just ahead of the pro-euro New Democracy party on 19.4%, but well short of an overall majority”.

Yet, in truth, the Greek people know that staying in the euro means more austerity, so as the rate of bank deposits shrink, the people implictly know that they are headed towards leaving the euro. There has been much talk about the new rise of Golden Dawn, the Greek far right party, yet the press has been silent of the rise of Syriza, which has its roots in Trotskyite, or far left, ideology. So, it can be said that it is only in times of extremes that people want clarity, i.e. a clear ideology, from their parties, when they should want it irrespective of want is happening economcially, or otherwise.

The post concludes that “Potential partners [of Syriza] have sounded more cross than co-operative since Mr Tsipras bounced into second place behind New Democracy on May 6th.Antonis Samaras, the New Democracy leader, will pull out all the stops. If his centre-right party cannot form a government this time, his career will be over”.

Although not certain, the next Greek election will not prove any more decisive than the last one, which means, more uncertainty and more money taken from the banks which means Greek default and exit. Inevitably, “the markets” will move onto another country, Ireland or Spain, or even Italy. This will only pressure Merkel to act, with eurobonds and money for the European wide banks. Perhaps President Obama can succeed where others have failed?

Back in German hands?

18/05/2012

Rorate mentions that the Press Office of the Holy See makes note of the meeting between Pope Benedict and Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of Regensburg. It now looks certain that Muller will replace Cardinal Levada as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and be among next year’s new cardinals.

“Separately and singularly”

17/05/2012

Update via Rorate, “the text of the response of Bishop Bernard Fellay, received on 17 April, 2012, was examined and some observations, which will be considered in further discussions between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X, were formulated. Regarding the positions taken by the other three bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, their situations will have to be dealt with separately and singularly”.

Others note that the SSPX will be re-admitted to the Church “even if it does not recognise the controversial Vatican II texts or the New Mass”.

Splits in the SSPX are trying to undermine the unification, which is maybe no bad thing.

Fork in the road

17/05/2012

As has been mentioned here recently the US national conference of women religious, the Leadership Conference of Woman Religious (LCWR), has just had the apostolic visitation for it completed.

National Catholic Reporter mentions in a piece how “At least part of the original momentum for the overhaul actually came from America, not Rome, and meanwhile, not everyone in Rome is quite on the same page. Understanding that complexity not only helps explain where the action against LCWR came from, but it may also hint at some of the variables involved in handicapping where the process could go from here”. The piece goes on to say that “observers note a clear contrast within the Vatican between the two departments most directly involved in the current fracas: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which issued the April 18 doctrinal assessment, and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life”.

The piece does rightly state that “most Vatican officials who have tracked the discussion seem convinced there are real issues within LCWR regarding some matters of Catholic faith and practice. The tension, therefore, tends to be more about timing and tactics”. It is true, as the then prefect, Franc Cardinal Rode said that feminism drove much of the visistation. It is therefore right that this issue in particular be halted. However, the way it is to be halted is crucial to the success of the visistation and in order to give lasting results.

The NCR piece discusses “timing and tactics”, noting that under Cardinal Bráz de Aviz and Archbishop Joseph Tobin, CSSR that the congregation “has attempted in the last couple of years to calm anxieties generated by a wide-ranging apostolic visitation of women’s religious communities in the United States” adding that “during a meeting of Vatican personnel in early 2012 to discuss the LCWR assessment, a senior Vatican diplomat warned that launching a crackdown now might be a bad idea in light of domestic American politics, especially an increasingly nasty campaign season featuring rhetoric about a ‘war on women'”.

The report goes on to mention how CDF officials rightly called this threat exxagrated, and that the CDF is not nicknamed la Supremafor nothing. The piece mentions how “and it’s also the Vatican department that would have to formally approve a revised set of statutes for LCWR. According to the assessment, Sartain has five years in which to bring the process to conclusion. As it goes forward, one important variable could be how the relative influence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Religious shakes out over time”. It concludes noting that much of the early drive for the visistation came from William Lori in early 2009 who is now archbishop of Baltimore and de facto primate of the United States. It ends noting that “If Levada’s successor is indeed a non-American, some observers believe that could have implications for the LCWR overhaul — not so much by changing the congregation’s philosophical approach, perhaps, but its intensity level”.

A seperate article notes the influence of the disgraced Bernard Cardinal Law for pushing for the visisation. Lastly, an interesting NPR piece mentions succiently that “LCWR official told NPR this week that members have essentially two options: They can agree to work with Rome on making the mandated changes, or they can choose to form a new organization independent of the church’s hierarchy”.

In all probablilty the LCWR will heed Sartain and Rome but if they do not, just as one schism closes, another could open.

Her true self

17/05/2012

Rebekah Brooks having given evidence at Leveson, has been formally charged. Yet, as befits her rabid, selfish individualistic relavtivism “Brooks angrily attacked police and prosecutors for dragging her friends and family into the phone hacking scandal as she said she was ‘baffled’ to face charges”.

“Detailed discussions”

16/05/2012

As the UK phone hacking scandal rolls on, former chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.

Brooks also served as editor of The Sun and other “newspapers”. Reports mention how she “‘had detailed discussion with David Cameron’ on phone hacking”, while others note how Brooks met Cameron 22 times. Related articles examine that “Cameron had a conversation with the News International executive to discuss the ‘story behind the news’ after Sienna Miller filed a legal claim against the media company. The actress’s legal action was pivotal because it proved that hacking at the News of the World was not restricted to a single ‘rogue’ reporter, as the company had insisted”. The article goes on to mention how “Brooks denied that Mr Cameron asked her for information because he was having ‘second thoughts’ about Mr Coulson, but said she had more than one conversation with him about phone hacking after the ‘rogue reporter’ defence fell apart. The Prime Minister is expected to insist that he was unaware of the significance of the Miller claim at the time of the conversation”.

Amazingly, the report goes on to mention that “a lobbyist for News Corporation emailed Mrs Brooks to say that Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, had asked him for advice on ‘Number 10’s positioning’ on the scandal. Mr Hunt’s office said yesterday that the email — the only document disclosed by Mrs Brooks — was ‘completely inaccurate’. However, previous close contact between the lobbyist and the minister’s special adviser, Adam Smith, led to Mr Smith’s resignation last month. The disclosures prompted questions about the Prime Minister’s judgment and his decision to become personally embroiled in the scandal. Mrs Brooks also alleged that Mr Cameron had ‘indirectly’ contacted her after she was forced to resign last summer to offer his support and tell her to ‘keep your head up’. This shows the obvious scale of the power of Murdoch with Hunt’s position looking increasingly tenous. Other articles also highlights the closeness of Cameron to Brooks.

Related articles mention how “email shows that News Corp was given an ‘extremely helpful’ tip-off by Mr Hunt’s office that he would refer to phone-hacking in a statement to Parliament. It was released to the Leveson Inquiry by Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, as part of her witness statement to the Inquiry. As well as dragging Mr Hunt further into the row which has already claimed the scalp of his special adviser Adam Smith, the email makes uncomfortable reading for David Cameron, as it suggests his response to the phone-hacking scandal was being guided by the owner of the News of the World. The email was sent by Frederic Michel, the News Corp head of public affairs whose emails to and from Mr Smith, previously released to the Inquiry by Rupert Murdoch, showed that News Corp was being given advance notice of key decisions in the Government’s scrutiny of its bid to take over BSkyB”.Worse still the news article mentions how “At the time the email was sent, the Metropolitan Police was six months into its ongoing investigation into phone-hacking at the News of the World, which later led to the arrest of Mrs Brooks”. Brooks response to the email has been noted as “In response to questioning about the message and what it may have meant, Ms Brooks simply offered: “I think it speaks for itself.'” Reports that former director of communications for Cameron Andy Coulson mention that “when asked if Mr Cameron sought further assurances he was in the clear over the issue after an article was published in the Guardian in 2009, which suggested hacking went far beyond ‘one rogue reporter’, Mr Coulson said: ‘Not that I recall'”.

This continues to show the depths to which people will sink to gain a “profit” at whatever cost to society but not to oneself. All this only makes Hunt’s hold on his job more tenous and the Cameron’s hold  on the top job weaker.

Hotting up

15/05/2012

The trouble being caused by the Chinese in the South China Sea is getting worse. It has been mentioned that “now the gloves are off. China has begun to block imports of Philippine bananas, and to suspend tourism in the Philippines. On Monday, an anchor on China’s state-run CCTV went so far as to say — twice — that the Philippines is in fact a Chinese territorial possession, reports Time’s Hannah Beech. Two days later, we heard from Wang Yilin, chairman of the state-owned oil company Cnooc, speaking on the usually staid occasion of the launch of new oil drilling, in this case in the South China Sea off the coast of Hong Kong. ‘Large deep-water drilling rigs are our mobile national territory and strategic weapon for promoting the development of the country’s offshore oil industry,’ Wang said, according to the state news agency Xinhua. Erica Downs, the China oil watcher at the Brookings Institution, told the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time blog that she suspects that Wang is addressing either domestic political or financial audiences — seeking favor or more financial support. Look for more such tantrums”.

A whiff of red, already

15/05/2012

It has only been a quarter of a year since the last consistory, but already there is sustained speculation of another one.

Some have reported that “Benedict XVI is more likely to call a consistory towards theend of the Year of the Faith, which he established with the ‘motu proprio data’, ‘Porta Fidei’ (Door of Faith). The Year of the Faith will begin on the 11th of October 2012 and end on the 24th of November 2013″. By the end of 2013 there will be 16 new slots vacant that need to be filled with the likes of Cardinal Husar, Cardinal Kasper, Cardinal Poletto, Cardinal Farina and Cardinal Meisner all turning 80, in addition to those turning 80 throughout this year.

Meanwhile, Rocco notes that, “With at least 16 more electoral slots to open over the next year on age grounds alone, the next Consistory is almost certain to be held by Spring 2013, and — according to some — possibly even before the end of this year”.

He goes on to say that “Were the pontiff to continue reflecting American Catholicism’s dramatic demographic shift of the last half-century by similarly shuffling around its scarlet, the most likely contenders for the honor are widely thought to be the heads of the Southeast’s two largest dioceses: Archbishops Thomas Wenski, 61, the Harley-riding, famously intense polyglot and policy wonk who now heads the 1.3 million-member Miami church, or Wilton Gregory, 64, the finessed, eminently-regarded president of the US bishops during the 2002 eruption of the clergy sex-abuse crisis, now the leader of an Atlanta fold that’s grown sixfold since 1990, today comprising a million Catholics”.

Yet, whenever Benedict chooses to hold another consistory he will be under pressure to internationalise it after the heavily curialist and Italian dominated one. So as well as Turin, Venice, Westminster, Toledo expect an array of others, Antioch, Cebu, Bangkok,  São Salvador da Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago de Chile, Bogotá and a slew of others. There will of course, be a small number of curialists, headlined by the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whoever that will be.

Where to next?

13/05/2012

The self made plight of Sean Cardinal Brady, archbishop of Armagh and primate of All-Ireland continues to grow.

Brady, 72, when he was a priest in 1974 was informed by a young boy who was being abused that as well as himself a number of others were being abused.

A New York Times piece notes how Brady failed “37 years ago to report damning evidence against the Rev. Brendan Smyth. That failure allowed Father Smyth to continue abusing children for at least 13 more years”. The claims come after a BBC documenetary “which produced handwritten documents concerning one such interrogation involving Brendan Boland, a 14-year-old who came forward to accuse Father Smyth. In the documents, Father Brady, not yet a prelate, described himself as having been ‘dispatched to investigate the complaint,’ prompting accusations that he bore greater responsibility than he has admitted”. Worse  still, Boland had given the-Fr Brady a list of names and addresses of other children that there, or where in danger of, being abused. Brady did nothing. Brady has continually said that he was only following orders of his bishop, and that he passed the list onto his ordinary, Bishop Francis MacKiernan of Kilmore, and initially said that he did all he could.  Only recently has Brady acknowledged that he could have done more and then publicly apologised.

This comes after a similar incident in 2010 when Cardinal Brady, again when he was a young priest swore two boys to secrecy knowing that they had been abused. It was after this first incident that Brady described himself as a “lame duck cardinal”. Rocco mentions “Brady’s tie to the Smyth case encited controversy when his role as a canonical notary first emerged in early 2010, without the fresh aspect of the additional victims he learned about. The mere disclosure that, in recording their experiences, the future cardinal swore the teenage victims to secrecy — a standard procedure to maintain the integrity of canonical proceedings — made for enough grist in the court of public opinion to foster perceptions that he abetted a cover-up”.

What has been interesting to see is the attacks, albeit warranted, from the Labour Party. The ministers for Education, Social Protection as well as the deputy prime minister have all called for Cardinal Brady to resign. This is the same party that forced the closure of the Irish embassy to the Holy See. Othershave mentioned how the deputy PM has commented that “‘It’s not the case,’ he [Gilmore] told reporters in Dublin yesterday. ‘There is a separation in this country between church and State. It is not the Government’s responsibility to decide who are bishops or who should remain as bishops, or archbishops or cardinals – that’s entirely a matter for the church'”. Yet Gilmore and his associates around the Cabinet are happy to say who should resign or not, especially when the party recieved low poll ratings recently.

It is interesting to see Cardinal Brady relativise his role in the crisis. It is as a direct result of the actions of Cardinal Brady that Fr Brendan Smyth went on to abuse more children. This is from a Church that rightly rails against relativism, yet cannot see it when it concerns itself.

It is now certain that what Brady asked for in 2010 will happen. Reportsnote that the press office of the Catholic bishops said that “said Cardinal Seán Brady had asked the pope ‘for additional support for my work’ in 2010. The office was correcting a newspaper report yesterday, which said that the Vatican had turned down an offer by Cardinal Brady to resign in 2010. At a press conference in Maynooth on March 20th, this request was referred to by Cardinal Brady, who explained that his previous request for episcopal support in 2010 had been put on hold pending the outcome of the apostolic visitation to Ireland last year. That request had been reactivated, he said”.

Related news reports mention how sources “expected a coadjutor bishop to be appointed to the archdiocese of Armagh before the end of the year to aid embattled Cardinal Seán Brady”. The only choice that would restore some credibility to the Church in Ireland is Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin and primate of Ireland. If the Vatican wanted to let Ireland know it was backed Martin, it could created him a cardinal before Brady turns 80 in 2019. However, there is no guarantee that any of this will occur, as Martin is disliked in the Curia for “stirring things up”, or telling the truth.

Only then would the Church have some hope for a future.

Give growth a chance

11/05/2012

Following on from the election victory of Francois Hollande as president of France on a wave of anti austerity and therefore pro-growth it will be interesting to see how Hollande plans to but his theory into action.

Some are drawing comparisons with 2005, “the people of France and the Netherlands gave a stinging rebuke to the European Union by rejecting a new constitutional treaty. Seven years on, they are again causing alarm. To judge from the presidential race in France and the fall of the Dutch government this week, many are kicking against austerity”, yet it importantly adds that “France is big and protectionist by instinct; the Netherlands is a small, open trader. The French have long played fast and loose with public finances; the Dutch see themselves as models of fiscal discipline. France has a powerful presidency; the Netherlands muddles through with a kaleidoscopic parliamentary system”.

Adding weight to the theory that the EU is its own worst enemy the article adds that “If the flighty French and the dour Dutch are both disenchanted with the EU, the malaise is profound indeed. The euro zone’s debt crisis is polarising the politics of austerity and economic pain. The sense of resentment has been building for years: the no votes in 2005 were not a passing aberration. French voters may have objected to the arrival of Polish plumbers under liberalisation pushed by a Dutch commissioner, Frits Bolkestein. But these days it is a former devotee of Mr Bolkestein’s, Geert Wilders of the far-right Freedom Party, who runs a website for citizens to complain about Polish migrants”.

He paints a picture of kickback, writing “All this raises the question of whether Germany and the EU can hold the line on budget discipline. Germany’s predilection for all-round austerity is a mistake, with financial markets now worried as much about deep recession as about deficits. But political instability and indecision may be more alarming. If Germany has been able to impose its views on fiscal discipline, it is not just because others need its money, but because it has allies”. Now Germany is increasingly isolated and as the previous post noted Merkel could break Hollande, but equally, Hollande could break Merkel. The piece notes Dutch prime minister  “Rutte is a lame duck after resigning when the budget negotiations broke down. With his country officially in recession, he is struggling to meet an April 30th deadline for plans to bring the deficit down from 4.6% of GDP to the EU-mandated target of 3% next year. There is an irony in Mr Rutte’s predicament: his government was the most strident in demanding budget cuts and reforms elsewhere, and yet has fallen apart over a more modest adjustment than those imposed on Greece and Spain”.

Yet if Hollande does eventually get his way, and there is no guarantee of this, what policy will he implement? An article in Foreign Policy notes that “Yet for all his bluster, Hollande likely won’t be able to impose radical change on Europe’s core economics. The powerful German economy has kept the euro afloat as Greece, Italy, Spain, and other countries have drawn perilously close to the brink of collapse. Its manufacturing and exports businesses remain the engine of European prosperity. Under the fiscal treaty Merkel advanced this year, EU member states are required to ensure that their “deficits do not exceed 3 percent of their gross domestic product at market prices” and must maintain strict limits on government debt. The treaty goes to great lengths — with corrective measures and potential legal action against member states — to prevent a repeat of a Greek-style economic meltdown”.

Similarly, a piece notes the Mario Draghi, president of the ECB said that “We have had a fiscal compact. Right now what is in my mind is to have a growth compact”, yet how? People say that “In Brussels there is talk of a new Marshall Plan. Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, is expected to summon European Union leaders to a dinner to discuss growth. With parts of the euro zone crushed by recession and mass unemployment, many now look to Mr Hollande for relief. Even Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has changed tone. She now insists that Europe’s policy rests not only on budgetary discipline, but also on measures to promote jobs and growth”, yet it will be interesting to see if Merkel actually does something about this or is as implacable as ever, demanding austerity and therefore destroying the “project” that she supposedly wants to protect. The article brings readers down to earth saying, “nobody should get carried away by a hope that the euro zone is embarking on a radical new course. Calling for growth is like advocating world peace: everybody agrees that it is a good thing, but nobody agrees how to do it”.

The piece adds that some measures are relatively simple to enact, “Draghi’s ideas, as far as they can be divined, are to promote structural reforms to make labour markets more flexible and encourage entrepreneurship. Mrs Merkel echoes this, saying promoting growth need not cost billions. Liberals add that a key to higher growth is to remove barriers to the EU’s single market, particularly in services”, while “Hollande is against such ideas. His programme for France, which has one of the biggest public sectors in the world, is mainly about more spending and more taxes. In the EU he wants common European project bonds to finance infrastructure, a capital injection for the European Investment Bank (EIB) and a redirection of EU regional funds towards jobs. Much of this can be done so long as Mr Hollande does not try to reopen the actual text of the fiscal compact. Indeed, many of these ideas have already been proposed by the European Commission”.

The article goes on to note that instead of cutting the deficit and allowing business to take up the economic slack, as the UK government idealistically and naively planned, the cuts have only worsened the economic situation.

The article ends reasonably sensibly, that “The biggest boost to growth would be to remove uncertainty about the survival of the euro. This requires risk- and burden-sharing across the whole zone. The adjustment will be faster if countries like Germany boost domestic demand through higher spending or lower taxes. The Germans will also have to accept higher inflation to allow others to regain competitiveness without being pushed into deflation. The euro could also be strengthened by a European system to recapitalise banks and guarantee deposits to break the vicious cycle of weak banks and weak sovereigns”.

Does Germany like the EU enough for it to take these measures?

After Chavez

11/05/2012

Succession in Venezuala when Hugo Chavez meets his Maker.

Hollande v Merkel

09/05/2012

After the expected victory of Francois Hollande in the French presidential election there is much discussion as to what will happen next.

Within less than 24 hours after Hollande was declared the winner. Some have noted that ” the first time in 24 years, the French have elected a Socialist, François Hollande, as their next president. According to exit polls published at 8pm Paris time on Sunday evening, Mr Hollande secured a convincing 52% of the vote”. Yet what was perhaps most interesting and relevant was that in this age of voter apathy to politics turnout was extraordinarily high with early figures suggesting “at 5 p.m. local time in the second round of the presidential election stood at 71.96%, down from 75.11% at the same time in the previous election in 2007”. This is because of two distinct visions being offered, agonism, one cuts and austerity offered by Sarkozy and a radically differing vision offered by Hollande. This gives the voters a clear reason for voting and enforces Hollande’s legitimacy.

It was reported that Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany said “Europe was in the middle of a debate and that France under its new president would bring its own emphasis. However, she said they were talking about two sides of the same coin, as progress is only achievable through solid finances and growth”. Others have reported that “German government will allow a victorious Francois Hollande to ‘save face’ while expecting him to uphold French commitments to Europe’s budget treaty, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said. Schaeuble’s comments are the clearest indication yet that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is preparing for a Hollande victory at France’s presidential election on May 6 after publicly backing Nicolas Sarkozy to win a second term. Earlier today, the German government said that diplomatic contact had been made with the Hollande camp. France’s Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election Francois Hollande waits to take part in the TV show ‘Le grand journal’ on a set of French TV Canal+ on May 4, 2012 in Paris, two days before the second round of the French election. ‘We’ve told Mister Hollande that the fiscal pact has been signed and that Europe works along the principle of pacta sunt servanda,’ meaning agreements must be kept, Schaeuble said in a speech”. The report goes on to mention, ‘I’ve said that everybody who gets freshly elected into office must be able to save face,’ Schaeuble said. ‘So we will discuss this with Hollande in a very friendly way. But we won’t change our principles'”.

The Telegraph notes that “European allies are flocking to his cause from left and right, he claims. Not even Austria supports Germany’s austerity drive any longer. This then is the birth of a Euroland growth bloc with well over 200m people and a commanding majority vote in the European Council, a defining moment in this saga. Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank is quickly bending to the new political dispensation with calls for a ‘Growth Compact’. The Commission – liberated at last – is finding ways to “extend deadlines” on fiscal targets”. Importantly the piece notes that “The unratified treaty can of course be renegotiated, or disappear into the dustbin where such reactionary rubbish belongs. Mrs Merkel cannot push it through the Bundestag in any case without the Social Democrats, who are warming to Mr Hollande. Mrs Merkel will have to relearn the forgotten art of compromise. Unable to dictate terms, she may struggle to deflect the ruinous implications of monetary union onto other EMU countries for much longer. It is worth remembering that German taxpayers have not yet bailed out anybody, whatever they may believe. Berlin has rejected all forms of debt pooling, Eurobonds, or fiscal transfers, understandably since full budgetary union would violate Germany’s constitution and eviscerate their democracy”.

Another piece mentions how “The message that came through strongly from France and Greece at the weekend was that austerity does not rule OK. Mrs Merkel was effectively told to ‘get lost’ by one of the new political leaders in Greece – Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras – who’s plea was to end the ‘bail-out barbarism’. Mrs Merkel or the markets are more likely to tell Greece to ‘get lost'”. Yet despite this, he writes that “providing a mixture of austerity and growth that would keep the eurozone intact and the markets happy is comparable to seeing pigs take to the sky. Markets have been making sympathetic noises about the growth case but they have exercised Merkel-style discipline in keeping tabs on any attempts to stray from fiscal salvation”. He concludes arguing rightly that Merkel “cannot afford to be too generous because of the fragilityof her coalition, German public opinion and market makers worried about any policy drift”.

So as ever, whether the eurozone survives or dies is depending largely on the electoral forces of one large well run state. Whether Hollande will buckle or not under the power of this state is unclear but not for long.

The Chen case

09/05/2012

The dilemma is that although the party needs the law to govern, it cannot submit to the law without losing power and giving up privileges. At the moment the party still wants to have it both ways“.

Pushback?

08/05/2012

Amid the talk that the Society of Saint Pius X is about to formally reconcile with the Holy See some have noted opposition, even within key members of Pope Benedict’s “group”.

John Allen mentions how “some of the pope’s defenders appear to believe a clear signal of adherence to Vatican II ought to be the price of admission”. Indeed, this is the very least they should do before formal admittance into the “real world”.

Allen goes on to write that a conference held in Rome on 3-4 May at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross entitled  ‘Vatican II: The Permanent Value of a Reform for the New Evangelization,’ Allen mentions how “suggestions of anxiety over the Lefebvrites also bubbled to the surface. They were indirect, and certainly never took the form of overt opposition to reunion, but they seemed unmistakable. Opus Dei Fr. Johannes Grohe, a church historian at Santa Croce, surveyed various efforts both during and after Vatican II to bring the council’s authority into doubt, from some progressive theologians who argued it was not truly ‘ecumenical’ because the Orthodox and Protestants weren’t represented, from traditionalist critics who styled it as merely ‘pastoral’ and thus not binding on matters of faith”.

Allen pointedly notes that “Grohe defended Vatican II’s authority, insisting that its teaching is ‘binding’ and ‘must be accepted by those who want to enter into communion with the Catholic church.’ Grohe ended his talk with a call for a ‘profession of faith’, pointedly including the teachings of Vatican II, for anyone who wants to join the church.” Interestingly, and to the sure dismay of the SSPX, Allen says that “Grohe argued that a ‘profession of faith,’ a time-honored way to encapsulate core beliefs one must uphold to be considered Catholic, could be updated with a reference to Vatican II”. While this might lead to more splits, especially with the Orthodox Churches, the importance of Vatican II is plain for all to see, expect of course, the SSPX.

Allen finishes saying that Fr David Maria Jaeger, a judge of the Roman Rota and “veteran of Vatican negotiations with Israel over the tax and juridical status of church properties” made an “even blunter call to defend part of Vatican II’s legacy” adding specifically that Nostra Aetate has a “sharp rejection of anti-Semitism. That, too, has been a point of contention with the Lefebrvites; when Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops in January 2009, it was accompanied by a global cause célèbre related to comments made by one of those bishops questioning the reality of the Holocaust”, Allen ends writing that “Though Jaeger did not single out the Lefebrvites, he expressed concern about the conditions under which anyone with doubts about Vatican II might find their way back into the church”.

It is clear that Benedict still has some friends to win over on what is still a highly controversial issue.

“Strategic distrust”

07/05/2012

As the scandal over Bo Xilai rolls on an interesting article highlights the deeper significance.

Christopher Johnson argues how Bo’s dismissal is “the most serious political earthquake to hit China’s top leadership in decades”. He adds that “Beijing’s simultaneous announcement that it has detained Bo’s wife on ‘suspicion of intentional homicide’ in the death of the Briton Neil Heywood also violates the unwritten code — put in place following the tumult and incessant purges of the Cultural Revolution — that when it comes to politics, the families of the country’s top leadership are off-limits”.

He continues, “The torrent of salacious details spewing out in the official media concerning Bo and his associates’ misdeeds far exceeds the amount of detail released about similar cases in the past, demonstrating the leadership’s resolve to end Bo’s career”. This is indicative of the level of threat that is perceived by the CCP from Bo and the repercussions. He goes on to write that “To some in the senior leadership, Bo meant instability; his populism, arrogance, and flagrant public campaigning for advancement were uncomfortable reminders that the party is more diverse than the monochrome public façade that it works tirelessly to present”. Of course, this façade is just that, a façade with huge differences of opinion at all levels of the leadership.

He goes on to say, tellingly, that “In fact, his implosion creates a vacuum in the race for the party’s future, one that leaders within the regime will jockey to fill. President Hu Jintao and his Communist Youth League allies — especially chief Bo rival and Guangdong provincial party boss Wang Yang — arguably have the momentum. But Hu rarely demonstrates the necessary grit to decisively capitalize on such opportunities (remember the 2006 purge of Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu). Short of an uncharacteristic display of boldness from Hu, that leaves the field to others, and makes the outcome more uncertain”.

Indeed, it is his uncertainty that is what is most terrifying to the leadership that depends on no sudden shocks and as the writer says tries to present a united front to an increasingly suspicious people. He adds crucially “this entire episode undercuts the notion that the hyper-consensus-driven leadership style of President Hu has been a net positive for China’s development”. He continues interestingly writing that this consensus approach has “spawned lowest common denominator policy outcomes and numerous instances in which, even on matters of substantial domestic or geostrategic importance, the leadership has either decided not to decide or has issued largely empty public missives reminding errant constituencies of the consensus orthodoxy”.

Worryingly for relations with the not declining United States Johnson mentions that President Hu has contrasted with his predecessors who were willing to take risks but now Hu “on persistent sticking points such as North Korea and normalizing military-to-military ties with the Pentagon, he seemingly has been boxed in by more conservative forces who argue that Washington is pursuing a containment strategy bent on stifling China’s rise. Hu’s failure, despite nearly a decade at the top, to control the key levers of power has only served to amplify these voices. The result is mutual frustration between Beijing and Washington, which deepens strategic distrust”.

Johnson, speaking on the next generation argues that “the Bo affair could force Xi to move more cautiously and to continually demonstrate his unwavering support for the leadership’s collective decision to expel Bo”, adding that “across the top leadership there is a pervasive fear that the Bo affair could rekindle complaints among the Chinese public that the princelings unfairly exploit their positions, status, and influence within the system for personal gain, similar to those who helped spark the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Such distractions risk extending Xi’s timeline for consolidating power and could frustrate him as he tries to cobble together a solid ruling coalition of supporters in the new Politburo”.

Johnson goes on to mention how a February report by the World Bank said that the country needs a whole set of new reforms dealing with the banks and state sector, which, if they are not dealt with could heighten the hard landing that seems to be taking place already but Johnson writes that “it will take an empowered and proactive new leadership to implement such an agenda over the strong resistance of powerful vested interests such as sprawling state firms and entrenched local officials”. As well as that he concludes that “the leadership has fostered a top-down decision-making culture that discourages competing ideas and punishes any public hint of disagreement within the party’s senior ranks”.

Indeed, this is a pattern of fear and mistrust both within the leadership, and of the people for the leadership will have to crack substantially at some stage in the next few years. When it does it will be politically and economically violent.

Distinct possibility

05/05/2012

The challenges for Sudan and South Sudan have become real tensions with the possibility of war a distinct possibility.

The Economist notes that on 20 April “South Sudan announced the withdrawal of its troops from the Heglig oilfields north of the de facto border after seizing them ten days earlier. The leaders of the new country, which formally gained independence from the north only nine months ago, had come under intense pressure from the African Union and the UN, which described the advance as an “illegal act”. The north claimed a military victory, saying it had killed hundreds of Southern Sudanese. The truth probably lies in-between: finding it harder than it anticipated to hold on to Heglig, South Sudan retreated under fire”. The piece goes on to add that Sudanese “aircraft tried to destroy a bridge between the two towns, which allows South Sudan to send reinforcements to what is now thought of as ‘the front'”.

Chillingly it goes on to say that “Hardliners in Khartoum, the northern capital, want the army to sweep deep into the south, or at least to take over oilfields beyond the border. More thoughtful types in the top brass realise the northern army is overstretched; it is already engaged in the rebellious regions of Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile”. It makes note of an African Union proposal that “said they had three months to sort out their disagreements, which include the exact location of the border, the status of each country’s citizens in the other state and, above all, oil. But the AU has few powers for imposing a resolution”.

However, it says that South Sudan is not on its own with “Ugandan officials have warned that they will respond to a Sudanese attack on Juba, the southern capital, from the air. That is no empty threat: a recent purchase of Russian Sukhoi fighter jets puts Sudan in range. Kenya, like Uganda a big investor in the south, has been more measured in its response, stressing that South Sudan should become a member of the East African Community”.

The piece concludes “War is closer than at any time since the 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war. This time, there is unlikely to be a winner”. Yet it is in neither country’s interest to go to war, the south is in desperate need of infrastructure and investment, while the north has a slew of problems that a war will only exacerbate. Get the oil flowing and all sides will benefit.

Only half true

05/05/2012

Dr Walt still cannot see the nuance of US foreign policy, moaning it is not run by realists. He seems not to notice that it has two strands, an idealistic and realist.

A force for good?

04/05/2012

The Emirate of Qatar has become increasing active in the polictics of the Middle East.

An article in the Wall Street Journal notes the role the tiny state played in the Libyan conflict. It mentions how ” Qatar provided anti-Gadhafi rebels with what Libyan officials now estimate are tens of millions of dollars in aid, military training and more than 20,000 tons of weapons. Qatar’s involvement in the battle to oust Col. Gadhafi was supported by U.S. and Western allies, as well as many Libyans themselves”. Worryingly, the article goes on to say that some “worry that Qatar’s new influence is putting stability in peril”.

The article goes on to mention how “At issue, say Libyan officials and Western observers, are Qatar’s deep ties to a clique of Libyan Islamists, whose backgrounds variously include fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s and spending years in jail under Col. Gadhafi. They later published a theological treatise condemning violent jihad. With Qatar’s support, they have become central players in Libyan politics. As they face off with a transitional authority largely led by secular former regime officials and expatriate technocrats, their political rivals accuse Qatar of stacking the deck in the Islamists’ favor”.

Worse still, “With the blessing of Western intelligence agencies, Qatar flew at least 18 weapons shipments in all to anti-Gadhafi rebel forces” and that “The majority of these National Transition shipments went not through the rebels’ governing body, the National Transitional Council, but directly to militias run by Islamist leaders”. Similarly, it says that “Some Tripoli officials allege Qatari arms have continued to flow straight to these Islamist groups in September, after Tripoli’s fall, to the open frustration of interim leaders”.

Nothing comes for free and the piece says that “Qatar’s ruler, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, has dismissed some Libyans’ fears that Qatar is angling for influence over Libya’s gas reserves, Africa’s fourth-largest. Instead, one of Qatar’s main goals in supporting popular uprisings in the region, say people familiar with its leaders’ thinking, is to promote its political vision—that in a Muslim-majority region, Islamic political figures can help build modern, vibrant Arab nations by being included in new democracies”. The piece adds that Qatar is home to the US Fifth Fleet, while at the same time, “Doha has also openly fostered ties with some of the region’s most controversial Islamic militant groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah”.

Others have noticed the role the emirate has played, and is about to play in the world. He writes that “The Economist called Qatar a ‘Pygmy with the punch of a giant,’, while adding that “in an off-mic moment with political donors, U.S. President Barack Obama called him a ‘pretty influential guy.'” He adds that “Qatar has inserted itself into conflicts in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, positioning the emirate as a disinterested mediator, trusted — or at least tolerated — by all parties”.

Crucially he argues that ” it wasn’t until 1995, when Sheikh Hamad ousted his father in a bloodless coup, that Qatar began building its little patch of desert into a force in the region and beyond. Under him, Qatar has become an expansionary power, a sort of latter-day Venice — only its strength lies not in trade or maritime prowess but in the flow of natural gas”. Speaking on its economy he adds that “Qatar has been more than merely lucky, making big, bold bets on the rise of liquefied natural gas and reinvesting profits in massive infrastructure projects at home and high-profile assets abroad like Harrods in London and the French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain. Eventually, the government hopes the interest on Qatar’s $85 billion sovereign wealth fund alone will be able to fund its operations in perpetuity”.

Speaking on the actions of its Libyan adventure, he adds that “a nationalist backlash over perceived Qatari meddling in Libyan affairs soon ensued. Abdel Rahman Shalgham, Qaddafi’s former U.N. ambassador whose dramatic defection helped seal the dictator’s fate, appeared on television to denounce Qatar as an alien, malign force. ‘Qatar might have delusions of leading the region,’ he said. ‘I absolutely do not accept their presence at all.’ Qatar’s secular allies were soon forced out of the interim government, while its main Islamist proxy in Libya, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, was detained and humiliated at Tripoli’s airport by rival militiamen. One year on, it’s hard to see what Qatar gained from its North African adventure”. While it is certainly too soon to say this is true, Qatar is not a charity and will almost certainly want a return on its “investment”.

He concludes, “all outside attempts to end the conflict peacefully have failed, including repeated Qatari-led efforts to come up with a diplomatic solution. If Assad survives, Doha will have aggravated the Syrian regime’s biggest supporter — Iran — with which Qatar shares the world’s largest gas field and maintains officially friendly ties, to little end”, adding, “There’s a reason most city-states throughout history have avoided provoking their larger neighbors — sooner or later, they strike back. And isn’t being incredibly rich good enough?”

From bad to worse

03/05/2012

Between Bo Xilai, the economy, demonstrations and problems with the neighbours, nothing is going right for the supposedly benevolent Chinese.

An average day in China

03/05/2012

The Bo Xilai mystery rolls on. Now however attention has turned to his wife.

News reports mention how Bo’s “wife Gu Kailai, accused of murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood, confessed to police that she was in the room when he was poisoned, according to an account given to American diplomats”. It goes on to say how “Wang Lijun, the former chief of police in Chongqing, told US officials that Gu Kailai had confessed that she was responsible for the killing with the words: ‘I did it.’ Mr Wang gave his account of her alleged confession to diplomats at the US consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu in February. He had fled Chongqing, apparently in fear for his life, after telling Gu’s husband Bo Xilai, the city’s Communist Party secretary, that his wife may have been involved in Mr Heywood’s death”.

Yet, from what we know, Wang fled Chongqing and Bo and his wife for the US consulate in Chengdu. Therefore his “testimony” should be taken with extreme caution. At least two possible reasons for his saying this, firstly a personal revenge for how he was treated by Bo in the past, or alternatively, and no less likely, Communist party officials could be using Wnag as a proxy to discredit Bo who is still popular in his adopted city.

The article goes on to say that “According to Mr Wang, Mr Heywood, a fixer with decades of experience in China and a family friend of Mr Bo and his wife, was held down in a hotel room in Chongqing and forced to drink cyanide. Subsequently, Mrs Gu allegedly confessed to the crime. “Gu said ‘I did it’ three times to Wang,” a diplomatic source with knowledge of Wang’s account said. ‘It was a gruesome scene, Heywood spat the cyanide out and they had to give him more.’ In recent weeks, a series of allegations about the alleged crime have begun circulating freely, an odd phenomenon in a country as closed and censored as China, prompting speculation that the Communist Party was trying to smear Mr Bo and his wife ahead of the announcement of the findings of an investigation”.

A fascinating New York Times article mentions how “When Hu Jintao, China’s top leader, picked up the telephone last August to talk to a senior anticorruption official visiting Chongqing, special devices detected that he was being wiretapped — by local officials in that southwestern metropolis”. Intrugryingly, the article goes on to say “The discovery of that and other wiretapping led to an official investigation that helped topple Chongqing’s charismatic leaderBo Xilai, in a political cataclysm that has yet to reach a conclusion. Until now, the downfall of Mr. Bo has been cast largely as a tale of a populist who pursued his own agenda too aggressively for some top leaders in Beijing and was brought down by accusations that his wife had arranged the murder of Neil Heywood, a British consultant, after a business dispute. But the hidden wiretapping, previously alluded to only in internal Communist Party accounts of the scandal, appears to have provided another compelling reason for party leaders to turn on Mr. Bo”.

Showing a snapshot of the increasingly paranoid country the piece goes on to say “The story of how China’s president was monitored also shows the level of mistrust among leaders in the one-party state. To maintain control over society, leaders have embraced enhanced surveillance technology. But some have turned it on one another”, it goes on to say how “Nearly a dozen people with party ties, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, confirmed the wiretapping, as well as a widespread program of bugging across Chongqing. But the party’s public version of Mr. Bo’s fall omits it”.

The writer adds that “The murder account is pivotal to the scandal, providing Mr. Bo’s opponents with an unassailable reason to have him removed. But party insiders say the wiretapping was seen as a direct challenge to central authorities. It revealed to them just how far Mr. Bo, who is now being investigated for serious disciplinary violations, was prepared to go in his efforts to grasp greater power in China. It goes on to say how the phone tapping “operations began several years ago as part of a state-financed surveillance buildup, ostensibly for the purposes of fighting crime and maintaining local political stability”.

The article concludes “Party officials, however, say it would be far too damaging to make the wiretapping public. When Mr. Bo is finally charged, wiretapping is not expected to be mentioned”. It seems that the great firewall is slowly giving way and what happens thereafter is impossible to say other than it will bring great instability.

Growing pains, Tunisia edition

01/05/2012

After the news of the government’s first steps in Tunisia, there is talk of growing tensions.

People have highlighted the splits between the new government and the ultra religious Salafis, “On a day when organizers had called for a peaceful protest to honor the Qur’an, most Tunisians will remember the images of young protesters who climbed a clock tower at Tunis’s main intersection to raise a black and white flag inscribed with the shahada, the Muslim testament of faith: ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger.’ On that day, March 25, a small group of protesters also attacked and harassed a troupe performing in front of the city’s municipal theater”.

The piece goes on to note that the government has “faced criticism both from within its own party and from more conservative Salafi groups. Ennahda’s approach to instilling Islamic values in society contrasts sharply with that of Salafi trends: while the party believes that society should gradually, and through democratic institutions, adopt the principles it once lost under colonialism and secular dictatorships, many Salafis assert that democracy infringes on God’s sovereignty by establishing humans as legislators”. The writer mentions that “Salafi organizations have certainly become more vocal”, though cautions that their true levels of support may be unknown.

The writer says that “while Salafi groups did not contest the Constituent Assembly elections this past October, they did attempt a show of strength outside of the ballot box a few weeks prior in demonstrations against the Nessma TV broadcast of the 2007 French-American film Persepolis which included depictions of God in human form”.

He goes on to mention how Ennahda’s leaders have sharply criticised parts of Salafi groups they also “publicly expressing its willingness to dialogue with Salafi groups that use legal, non-violent methods”. He mentions how some national figures have tried to lessen the influence of the Salafis by proclaiming themselves as part of the group, under a broader, more nebulous definition. He carries on in a similar view mentioning how “in response to reports that as many as 400 mosques across the country have been ‘taken over’ by radical preachers, Minister of Religious Affairs Nourredine Khadmi has spoken out on the need for imams to be approved by the ministry before their installation at the local level. The decision to reopen Tunisia’s oldest and most revered religious school, Zeituna University (closed by Bourguiba), can also be interpreted in this context.”

Yet, at the same time he mentions how Ennahda’s policy “opens the door for secular groups to criticize the government—groups that receive considerable support from a society still very much fearful of extremists and that fears increasing conservatism, especially regarding women’s rights. From their perspective, the ruling party’s actions are evidence of a double discourse—conservative in private and moderate in public—rather than a practical one”. He notes that the liberal opposition are fractured and divided with the added point that “if the recent public protests by Salafis are any indication, Ennahda isn’t quite comfortable taking sides just yet. Rather, its approach has been to demonstrate its moderation by criticizing both sides. Following the attack on the theater troupe in Tunis, the government closed Bourguiba Avenue to all protests—later causing even more bad publicity after itviolently cracked down on secular protests the following week”.

No doubt the balancing act will continue in Tuninsia, and across the Middle East for years to come.

Defending the indefensible

01/05/2012

After the leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband tabled an urgent question to ask Prime Minister David Cameron if he will refer Jeremy Hunt’s behaviour to the independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan. Miliband argued that Hunt broke the code on three ways. Not to mention a poll which finds almost 50% think Hunt should resign.

Cameron consistently defended Hunt in his answer to the question. Media reports mention how Cameron “was using Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry as a ‘smokescreen’ to avoid a full investigation into the conduct of Jeremy Hunt, an irate Mr Cameron admitted that Lord Leveson did not have the power to adjudicate on breaches of the Ministerial Code. The Prime Minister declined to act now and said that he would wait until Mr Hunt had given evidence to the inquiry, rather than order his own investigation” This is in addition to the fact that Leveson has refused to let his inquiry be used to decide the fate of Hunt. The piece goes on to say “Cameron’s unscheduled appearance before Parliament – which was sanctioned by the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, who granted an urgent question on the affair to the Labour leader, Ed Miliband – also incensed Tory backbenchers who are already at loggerheads with Mr Bercow”.

As this happened yesterday, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee released its report today on phone hacking. The coverage of the report highlights the fact that Rupert Murdoch, 81, “News Corporation chairman ‘turned a blind eye’ to what was going on at News International as it sought to ‘cover up wrongdoing’, the culture, media and sport committee said. The culture of cover-up ‘permeated from the top throughout the organisation’, the report says, ‘and speaks volumes about the lack of effective corporate governance at News Corporation and News International’. ‘Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company,’ it adds, and together with his son James should take ‘ultimate responsibility’ for the scandal”. The coverage goes on to say that “James Murdoch, it says, showed ‘wilful ignorance’ of what was going on under his nose; Mr Hinton was ‘complicit in the cover-up’; the News of the World’s last editor, Colin Myler, and its former head lawyer, Tom Crone, ‘answered questions falsely’ when they gave evidence and Rebekah Brooks, the former NI chief executive, ‘should accept responsibility’ for what happened, even if she was unaware of how far it went”.  It goes on to mention how the “Metropolitan Police as a whole ‘had no interest or willingness to uncover the full extent of the phone-hacking which had taken place’, the report says”.

The media piece adds that “Nor is the report likely to be the end of Parliament’s bad news for the Murdoch empire; because of the ongoing police investigation and possibility of criminal charges against some of those who have been arrested, the committee will publish a supplementary report ‘when all criminal proceedings are finished’. Hence there is virtually no mention of Andy Coulson, the former NoW editor and ex-Downing Street communications chief, who is currently on bail, or of his evidence to the committee”. Though this is likely to be some time away it is certain to raise further questions as to Cameron’s persistent lack of judgement having been warned of Coulson’s less than legal activities on numerous occasions.

Cameron’s defence of Hunt is looking increasingly desperate and will only harm what little credibility he has left. Others have brought attention to the fact that “the committee was split six to four with Tory members refusing to endorse the report and branding it ‘partisan’. Conservative Louise Mensch called it ‘a real great shame’ that the report’s credibility had potentially been ‘damaged’ as a result, with the report carried by Labour and Lib Dem members backing it”

What is outrageous is that Tory members of the committee fail to see the gravity of the report and are implicitly defending the sinful acts that the Murdoch press has committed that would never have been committed 50 or 60 years ago.