Archive for December, 2012

What legitimacy?

31/12/2012

A superb article discusses the victory of the new Constitution of Egypt under President Morsi. The article notes that “One could be forgiven for thinking that the results of the first phase of the referendum (conducted in 10 of Egypt’s most populous governorates, with the remaining 17 to vote on December 22) were a blow to ElBaradei’s narrative. The new constitution passed comfortably, with an estimated 57 percent voting yes. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has “hailed” the poll, describing the result as a rebuke to ‘politicians and collaborators who ignored the will of the people.'”

He goes on to write “On the face of it, the Brotherhood’s narrative seems sound. In fact, a greater share of voters in each governorate voted for President Mohamed Morsi’s constitution than had voted for the man himself last June (see figure). In fact, only in Cairo and Alexandria did Morsi’s constitution do more poorly than Morsi had, and even then only barely. This result has been interpreted by some as a strengthening of Morsi’s mandate”. He thankfully gives some relief when he says “Turnout was slightly over 30 percent, much lower than the 52 percent turnout in the June presidential runoff, or the 43 percent turnout in the presidential election’s first round, or even the 40 percent turnout in the March 2011 constitutional referendum (a waste of time in which Egyptians voted to amend a constitution that the military then went ahead and abolished)”.

Thus, any sense of the new constitution as being legitimate simply washes away. This is especially true of such an important document as a constitution, which is meant to be respected and trusted by the vast majority, though obviously not by all – that would be impossible – Egyptians.

He adds that “In fact, a better way of gauging whether the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi picked up steam or lost it during this referendum would be to compare how many raw votes Morsi got in June versus how many raw votes his constitution got”, he adds later in the piece that “in every governorate except South Sinai, North Sinai, and Aswan (where roughly the same number of people came out for both Morsi and his charter), fewer people cast ballots for Morsi’s constitution than they had for him. In other words, some who voted for the president six months ago decided not to do so on Saturday. Whether those former supporters stayed home or defected to the other side is hard to know, but this result cannot be spun as a victory for the president”.

He poses the question as to how the opposition can benefit from this, “the opposition should reach out to supporters of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq. If we assume that all of the “yes” votes were cast by people who had voted for the president in June, and all of the “no” votes cast by people who had voted against him, the results of the referendum suggest that more Shafiq voters than Morsi voters stayed home this time. Of course, this assumption is likely not 100 percent true in the real world –some Shafiq voters certainly voted “yes,” while some Morsi voters said “no,” but if you believe it’s a fair assumption in general, the results are striking”.

He ends noting “In every governorate save Alexandria, the anti-Morsi side lost more votes between June and today than the pro-Morsi side did. What this suggests is that there is a large bank of voters, alienated from the political process, and proven in its opposition to the president, just waiting to be tapped”.

However those who voted for Shafiq support the military, and the military supports Morsi, for now.

“Far from certain”

30/12/2012

Reports note that “Congressional leaders and senior aides huddled on Saturday in a last-minute attempt to iron out a resolution in the so-called “fiscal cliff” crisis. But a deal — at least for the time being — seemed far from certain”. Related to the talks the impact of sequestration on the DoD with “Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Sunday said he had been told by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that it was unlikely the ‘fiscal cliff’ deal being negotiated would prevent sequester cuts to the Pentagon”. This is no way for the greatest nation on earth to fund its activities and only gives those propagating the decline myth ammunition, unless a longer term solution is found.

Give me taxes, or give me death

28/12/2012

In an excellent article in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs Andrea Louise Campbell, discusses the tax policy in the United States. This topic has already been discussed here before yet Campbell gives greater depth to the issue.

She writes that “Democrats think Washington can and should play a more active part, using taxation, regulation, and spending to keep the economy growing while protecting vulnerable citizens from the ravages of volatile markets. Republicans, in contrast, think Washington already does too much; they want to scale government back to liberate markets and spur economic dynamism”.

She goes on to argue that “Compared with other developed countries, the United States has very low taxes, little redistribution of income, and an extraordinarily complex tax code. These three aspects of American exceptionalism deserve more attention than they typically receive”. In the article she gives a graph showing total tax revenues as a percentage of GDP. Denmark tops the list at 48.1% with Sweden second and Italy third at 43.8%. Various countries follow, Belgium, Norway, Austria, Finland, France. America comes third from the bottom at 24.1%, just above Chile at 18.4% and Mexico at 17.4%.

She writes that “The first striking feature of the fiscal state of the United States, when compared with those of other developed countries, is its small size. As of 2009, among the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a collection of the world’s most economically advanced democracies, the United States had the third-lowest ratio of taxes to GDP (see chart). But it is important to look at pre-recession data, which better reflect long-term trends. In 2006, before the financial crisis struck, OECD tax statistics showed that total taxes in the United States — at all levels of government: federal, state, and local — were 27.9 percent of GDP, three-quarters the percentages in Germany and the United Kingdom and about half of those in Denmark and Sweden”.

She goes on to write persuasively, “The reason for this discrepancy is not that the United States has lower personal income tax revenues than its OECD counterparts. In fact, in 2006, personal income taxes at the federal, state, and local levels in the United States came to 10.1 percent of GDP, just above the OECD average of 9.2 percent. Instead, the disparity results from the low effective rates — or nonexistence — of other forms of taxation. To take one example, in 2006, the U.S. corporate income tax at all levels of government collected 3.4 percent of GDP, compared with an average of 3.8 percent across the OECD”.

Indeed, much of the reason, though obviously, not all, is as a result of he voodoo economics of President Reagan and the infamous Laffer curve, which seemingly by magic, or voodoo, promised high tax collection rates as a direct result of lower tax rates. Naturally enough those that benefited most from whatever tax cuts did take place were the wealthiest which in turn concentrated wealth further in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of people. Both President Clinton and President Bush carried on this disastrous legacy of Reagan into the twenty first century.

Campbell goes on to write “U.S. tax revenue is not only low but also consistently low, having equaled roughly the same share of the economy for 60 years. Since the tremendous growth of the federal government during World War II, federal tax revenues have hovered around 18 percent of GDP. This stability has also proved to be true of state and local tax levels, which have fluctuated between eight and ten percent of GDP over the same period”.

Therefore for someone to argue about ever increasing taxes and the biggest tax increase in history as some commentators famously did is utterly false and should be treated with utter disdain. She adds “n 1965, total tax revenues stood at about 25 percent of GDP in the United States and across the rest of the OECD. But by 2000, tax revenue represented 30 percent of GDP in the United States and 37 percent in the rest of the OECD”.

These figures, added to Reagan’s mistake, which has been built on by both parties, has lead to the situation America is in currently. Campbell goes on to argue “according to a report issued by the U.S. Treasury Department, between 2000 and 2005, on average, U.S. businesses paid an effective tax rate of only 13 percent, nearly three percent below the OECD average and the lowest rate among the G-7 countries. Whereas corporate tax revenues have fallen, revenues from payroll taxes for programs such as Social Security and Medicare have grown”.

She goes on to write “The largest tax reductions from these changes went to high-income households. In fact, the United States currently taxes top earners at some of the lowest effective rates in the country’s history. Data from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) show that the top one percent of taxpayers paid an average federal income tax rate of 23 percent in 2008, about one-third less than they paid in 1980, despite the fact that their incomes are now much higher in both real and relative terms. Although the rich enjoyed by far the largest tax cuts, the middle class is also paying lower taxes. In 2011, the effective federal income tax rate for a family of four with a median income was just 5.6 percent, compared with 12 percent in 1980”. She writes later in the paragraph “the individual income tax now constitutes a smaller share of the economy than it did 30 years ago, falling from 10.4 percent of GDP in 1981 to 8.8 percent in 2005. By permitting extensive loopholes, failing to create effective consumption taxes, and cutting individual income taxes, the United States has created a tax system that collects far less revenue relative to GDP than many of its OECD counterparts”.

Campbell goes on to note depressingly, “Although the 2008 financial crisis reduced the incomes of the top one percent in the United States by a fifth, by 2010 their earnings had largely recovered. And wealth is even more concentrated than income. According to the economist Edward Wolff, in 2007, the top one percent in the country earned just over 20 percent of all income but held more than 30 percent of all wealth. As the top has risen, the bottom and the middle have faltered. Congressional Budget Office data show that between 1979 and 2007, before-tax incomes increased by 240 percent for the top one percent but by just 20 percent for the middle fifth of earners and by ten percent for the bottom fifth. Although the bottom 90 percent lost less income than the top one percent as a result of the financial crisis, their earnings have not recovered as much as those of the top earners”.

If America is to continue to shoulder the burdens of the world it must do what is right at home. If taxes do not rise then who will the world turn to lead it?

“Growing more optimistic”

28/12/2012

After the collapse of plan B in an attempt to avert the fiscal cliff/sequestration, “Senators are growing more optimistic of a deal to avoid part of the fiscal cliff as Senate Republican Mitch McConnell (Ky.) works with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Obama to craft a last-minute deal. The president will meet with McConnell, Reid, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) at the White House at 3 p.m. Friday”.

The princelings money

28/12/2012

Two recent articles have appeared in “the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg both published exposés on the intersections between business and politics in the Chinese government” at the heart of which are the sons and daughters of high Chinese “communist”officials.

A summary has distilled the long articles and notes the main points with the greed and corruption clear for almost all to see. The piece mentions, “Bloomberg ‘traced the fortunes of 103 people, the Immortals’ direct descendants and their spouses’ and found that ‘twenty-six of the heirs ran or held top positions in state-owned companies that dominate the economy.’ Three princelings alone ‘headed or still run state-owned companies with combined assets of about $1.6 trillion in 2011′”. This was seen most vividly again when the close relations of Premier Wen Jibao had a multi-billion dollar business empire. The summary also notes “This includes the family of current chairman of the Communist Party Xi Jinping, who’s extended family ‘amassed a fortune, including investments in companies with total assets of $376 million and Hong Kong real estate worth $55.6 million'”.

The article goes on to mention how business people are moving into politics, all within CCP control, of course as the piece summarises, “The Journal found that among the wealthiest people in China, those that ‘served in the legislature increased their wealth more quickly than the average member of the list. Seventy-five people who appeared on the rich list from 2007 to 2012 served in China’s legislature during that period. Their fortunes grew by 81 percent, on average, during that period, according to Hurun [a consultancy that tracks China’s wealthiest people]. The 324 list members with no national political positions over that period saw their wealth grow by 47 percent, on average, according to an analysis the firm ran for the Journal.'”

They note that this news is not news and has been known widely for some time, yet “there seems to be a consensus in the United States that China deserves to be understood. Ever since Bo’s downfall, Chinese with high level political access seem to be more open to speaking with foreign media. And Bloomberg, the multi-billion dollar behemoth with probably the world’s best financial databases, has been doing an excellent job of sending its reporters to follow the money”.

The piece ends controversially, “The increase in corruption/dissatisfaction with the princely class means that Chinese will continue to work/fight within the system to improve their lot/improve the system. This does not mean that they are planning to take the streets”. However it would be naive to think that just because the breaking point has not been reached that one does not exist. The spark could be anything but all it needs is a spark.

Throwing caution to the wind?

28/12/2012

Secretary Kerry as a risk taker? Apparently he “has nothing left to lose. He’s already run for presidency and lost. He seems at peace with himself. He’ll shrug off personal attacks. Yes, he can be pompous and long-winded at times. But I think he’s going to throw himself into this task, and the arc of his career shows a man willing to take risks when the moment demands it. And the moment certainly demands it now”.

“The beginnings of an alliance”

28/12/2012

There has been much discussion about Egypt but little has been written about the role of the Egyptian army in Morsi’s Egypt. There has been much talk about this relationship but many are still understandably, puzzled.

However a piece in Foreign Affairs discusses this very issue. He writes that “the military and police have been generally absent from the scene, standing aloof from the chaos around them. To be sure, the generals have issued statements suggesting that they might step in to restore order, but they have never made clear whether they would intervene on behalf of the protesters or Morsi. Further, on December 11, they indicated their interest in brokering a deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the protesters, only to rescind the offer shortly thereafter”.

He goes on to argue that “Some have argued that the military’s apparent neutrality is a reflection of its diminished power. The June 2012 election that brought Morsi to office, the argument goes, clipped the military’s wings, forcing the soldiers back to their barracks. Specifically, Morsi’s sacking of the most senior general in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces last August was taken as proof. Yet Morsi’s move was not solely Machiavellian. In fact, according to Egypt’s deputy defense minister, General Mohamed el-Assar, Morsi coordinated his plan with the SCAF’s junior members. The gambit thus revealed the beginnings of an alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces”.

He adds evidence to this argument when he writes “during its stint in office, the SCAF minimally delivered on its promise to return Egypt to civilian rule, but it also grew increasingly repressive and worked to preserve the character of the Mubarak-era state apparatus while shuffling its leadership for the sake of appearances. To do so, the SCAF built a coalition for day-to-day governing that included representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood, a political force in Egypt since 1928; Salafis, who were known quantities to the security services; and some key holdovers from Mubarak’s day”.

However, if all that the writer says is true, why did it take so long for Mubarak to leave office? Surely, if the army and the Brotherhood were so close, why would the army not speed up the revolution thereby allowing it to rule jointly with Morsi et al, as he seems to be arguing?

He goes on to write “Behind the scenes, the generals have backed the elected president while working to preserve their own interests. In part, they have done so because they believe that Morsi and the group from which he hails are likely to continue winning elections. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood is better organized than Egypt’s other political parties, and its networks stretch throughout the entire country”.

This sounds plausible however a cavet should be added. The army and the Brotherhood seem to have built a working relationship, but it would be hard to argue that it is based on any real trust, or agreement on fundamental principals. So, if the situation in Egypt worsens, which is entirely possible, the army could negate its pact with Morsi and take over the country again and be the least worst option for Egyptians. If a civil war takes place it would be hard to see the army prop up the Morsi regime in which case it, in all probability, would go down with the regime itself.

In return for a deal with Morsi the army has gotten, he argues, everything it wanted, “In return for the military’s support, the Muslim Brotherhood incorporated many of its core demands — no parliamentary oversight over the military budget, the establishment of a National Defense Council stacked with generals, and the ability to try civilians in military tribunals — directly into the draft constitution. Egypt’s founding document, then, is the realization of what the military has sought ever since Mubarak’s departure. Even better for the military, it got exactly what it wanted while appearing to stay on the sidelines of Egyptian politics”.

He does admit that the alliance is merely a business relationship that could change if internal stability worsened, “The generals’ outward neutrality leaves them with the option of backing an alternative, such as a former official from the Mubarak era, should things shift out of Morsi’s favor. But that does not look like it will happen anytime soon. Although recent protests and violence have proven disruptive, emphasizing just how fragile Morsi’s mandate is, the revolutionaries have neither been able to unify nor merge with other dissatisfied groups such as the labor movement or the so-called remnant forces”.

The piece ends with him arguing “The longer the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by the military, does a poor job governing Egypt, the further the tables will incrementally tilt in favor of the revolutionaries. That will be a long process; it will certainly not happen before Morsi’s draft constitution passes (which is likely) and he pushes for new parliamentary elections. But it will happen eventually. And despite the fact that the military remains relatively popular throughout the country, it is uncertain whether it will be able to forestall a deeper political reformation in Egypt if opposition groups organise”.

If the army is to salvage any respect for itself in an eventual post Morsi Egypt, then it must act sooner rather than later.

2013 conflicts

28/12/2012

List of wars and conflicts that currently exist, or are about to escalate next year, from Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Kenya as well as much of central Asia.

Change in Damascus?

28/12/2012

There has been some talk recently on the end of the conflict in Syria. Some have noted the change in Damascus, “The view that the civil war in Syria is entering into a new phase, perhaps its final one, is rapidly gaining ground. Having successfully resisting the Assad regime’s onslaught, the rebels have improved their military efficacy. They have seized significant military targets, have made significant progress toward centralizing their command structure, and are consolidating their stronghold over substantial parts of the country. More and better weapons are coming their way, and the war appears poised to come to Damascus, for what could shape up into the conflict’s most decisive battle”.

The authors argue that the comparisons of Afghanistan are incorrect and instead say that Libya is a more accurate comparison. They write that NATO intervention changed the war in Libya allowing a swift defeat of Gaddafi’s forces. They go on to write “to understand how aerial bombing could make such a tremendous difference in Libya, especially when massive U.S. firepower has failed to turn the war in Afghanistan, we must probe deeper. The analysis of civil wars has been plagued by an imprecise use of terminology. Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria are all described as “insurgencies,” a term used as a synonym of civil war or guerrilla war. This is a problem, because not all civil wars are guerrilla wars”.

They go on to make the point that ” the civil wars in Libya and Syria are no guerrilla wars; despite the initial military superiority of the regime forces, these conflicts look more like conventional than guerrilla wars. Unlike guerrilla wars fought in mountains or jungles by elusive bands of fighters, conventional wars entail pitched battles and urban sieges across clearly defined frontlines. In fact, conventional civil wars go back a long way: just think of classic conflicts such as the American and Spanish civil wars. More recently, conventional civil wars were fought in Bosnia and Azerbaijan. In our research, we find that conventional civil wars are much more common than generally thought; they represent 34 percent of all major civil wars (i.e. those causing over a thousand fatalities per year) fought between 1944 and 2004″.

They conclude, “How about Syria then? With its pitched battles and urban fighting, this conflict is much closer to the Libyan war than to the Afghan conflict. Both the increasing level of external support and the availability of a safe haven in Turkey have improved the ability of rebels to directly fight the regime’s military and thus turn this conflict into an increasingly symmetric, conventional war. If past record can serve as a guide, the Syrian civil war may well turn out to be shorter than generally anticipated; it is also likely to result in the regime’s defeat”.

Of course no-one knows what will come after the evenetual end of the war.

Kerry on Syria

28/12/2012

Geopolitical thinkers going back to Henry Kissinger have had visions of Syria as the linchpin of a transformed Middle East. Kerry shared this hope, and he tried to persuade Assad to make sufficient concessions for Israel to agree to restart indirect talks that had faltered in late 2008. Kerry says that he did, indeed, succeed in moving Assad further than he had before. Perhaps he did, but Syria is a kind of shimmering mirage that beckons to, and then disappoints, ambitious strategists. What’s more, Kerry’s diplomatic craftsmanship may have blinded him to the upheaval that would topple some of the dictators he had long cultivated and discredit others”.

The end of Hagel?

28/12/2012

After the nomination of John Kerry as secretary of State talk has now turned to who will replace Leon Panetta. It has been noted that one of the names mentioned. Chuck Hagel, has come under pressure for his supposed anti-Israel views.

Some have noted that “This charge — casually leveled at Hagel because he asserted to me that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Congress — is shameful and scurrilous. Sadly, accusing someone of hating Jews in general because they criticize Israeli government policy in particular is all too common. In some cases, perhaps it’s even true. But not in Hagel’s. Hagel spoke to me about shared values and the importance of Israeli security too. And those who have known him over the years, including many of my former colleagues, all believe he feels the same”.

He goes on to elaborate that “Millions of evangelical Christians and non-evangelical Christians support Israel for reasons of eschatology and value affinity. Indeed, if it weren’t for the non-Jewish support Israel receives based on the fact that it’s in the broadest conception of the U.S. national interest to support like-minded societies — even those that pursue policies we don’t like (see: settlements) — the U.S.-Israeli relationship would be a shadow of itself”. Indeed, Hagel ‘s supposed views on Israel say more about AIPAC than about Hagel.

Miller adds, “The character of the attack on Hagel leads me to question whether or not the real target of the anti-Hagelites is the president. After all, one of the reasons some pro-Israeli detractors don’t want Hagel as SecDef is their fear that he would only reinforce Obama’s own alleged instincts to be soft on the mullahs and hard on Benjamin Netanyahu”. Yet even if this was true, and there is little evidence that President Obama mirrors exactly the views of his advisers that therefore is unable to think for himself. Especailly on such delicate issues are Iran and Israel.

Miller concludes, “what’s so intriguing about the Hagel business is that it seems to be part of a broader story. Rarely, if ever, has a president had his top two national security cabinet picks opposed so vehemently before they were even nominated. Susan Rice was forced to withdraw; the same fate may well await Chuck Hagel. If the White House does pull the plug on Hagel — the not-quite-yet and maybe-never nominee — all kinds of conclusions will be drawn. Some will blame it on the neocons and the pro-Israel lobby; others will wonder why the White House didn’t do a better job of looking at the former senator’s past statements or question why Obama caved and didn’t do a Tammy Wynette-style “Stand by Your Man” routine”.

Rosa Brooks meanwhile argues the case for Michèle Flournoy, she writes “She’d bring some needed gender diversity to the national security leaders boys’ club. And make no mistake: A woman who rises to the top in the unforgiving world of national security has to be twice as good as most of the men around her”. She goes on to argue that “If Flournoy’s appointed as SecDef, she won’t need to waste a year or more just learning the ropes. She already knows them”. Yet both of these reasons and many of the others Brooks gives are shrounded in outdated feminism and little else.

Dr Walt writes “I do encourage you to read the more recent comments by Andrew SullivanRobert WrightThomas Friedman, and Bernard Avishai, all of whom make clear that Hagel is perfectly qualified for the position and that the people who are now trying to smear him deserve the same contempt with which former Senator Joseph McCarthy and other narrow-minded bullies are now viewed”. He does make the valid point that “What in God’s name were they trying to accomplish by floating Hagel’s name as the leading candidate without either a formal nomination or a vigorous defense? This lame-brained strategy gave Hagel’s enemies in the Israel lobby time to rally their forces and turn what would have been a routine appointment into a cause célèbre. If Obama backs down to these smear artists now, he’ll confirm the widespread suspicion that he’s got no backbone and he’ll lose clout both at home and abroad. If he goes ahead with the appointment (as he should), he’ll have to spend a bit of political capital and it will be a distraction from other pressing issues”.

Obama now has no choice but to nominate Hagel.

Puer natus est nobis

24/12/2012

Hodie Christus natus est, alleluia alleluia!

Article 219

24/12/2012

An article examines the new Constitution of Egypt that has just been voted on but is all but certain to be passed. An article discusses the constitution but focuses in on a specific article.

He writes “the observer would likely be totally flummoxed upon arriving at Article 219, defining the principles of the Islamic sharia in technical terms from the Islamic legal tradition not used outside of scholarly circles: there has been nothing quite like this language adopted anywhere else”. The clause he says, ” the wording of the clause itself. It does no good to translate each technical term when they make little sense outside of the original Arabic. The entirety of the clause reads: “The principles of the Islamic Sharia include its adilla kulliyaqawa`id usuli and qawa`id fiqhiyya and the sources considered by the Sunni madhhabs.” The italicized words are technical terms rarely used outside of scholarly circles”.

He goes on to mention “Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) embraced a distinctive modernist approach that acknowledged scholars and their traditions but treated them a bit roughly and even as unimportant. Instead, the court interpreted Islamic law de novo using its own distinctive, somewhat idiosyncratic, version of modernist reasoning. State law would be measured against two different types of Islamic principles: The first were those clearly and explicitly announced in the Quran and that small number of hadiths (accounts of the sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad) whose authenticity was not merely presumptively true but was entirely beyond doubt — which the SCC found very few in number. The second were overarching principles that could be induced from a study of the scriptures as a whole”.

The writer argues that “Article 219 provides firm evidence, if any was needed, that there were many Islamists in the room when this document was drafted. But the clause was not simply a result of their imposing their will. Instead a far more complex process was at work, with Islamists of different stripes and non-Islamists wrangling over the religious provisions”. Yet he overlooks the fact that the secularists and liberals that were part of the Assembly walked out en masse during the drafting process so most of the document has little or no legitimacy.

He continues, writing, “The provisions of Article 219 are likely to be interpreted by anyone familiar with Islamic thought as requiring that law be measured for consistency with legal principles found in the four traditional “sources” of Sunni Islamic law — the Quran, Sunna (the sayings and deeds of the prophet), qiyas (reasoning by analogy), and Ijma (the consensus of scholars) — and interpreted in a manner informed by a study of texts considered exemplary within the Sunni tradition”.

Iran, cutting its losses

22/12/2012

Iran’s Mehr News on Sunday published the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ “six-point plan” to supposedly solve the crisis in Syria. The plan goes much further than Iran has publicly in the past, though it resembles Kofi Annan’smuch-maligned plan from the spring. It also doesn’t mention one key point: What happens to Bashar al-Assad? Here’s where it gets more interesting. Apparently, Syrian vice president Farouk al-Sharaa has given an interview to Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper, which has generally taken a neutral line or one sympathetic to Assad. “We must be in the position of defending Syria’s existence. We are not in a battle for the survival of an individual or a regime,” Sharaa reportedly said. Now which individual could he be talking about? Sharaa, oft mooted as a transitional figure, has been the subject of an impressive number of rumors on Syrian opposition websites over the last year or so”.

Kerry gets State

22/12/2012

President Obama ended months of speculation and has formally nominated Senator John Kerry (D-MA) to be the next secretary of State, replacing Hillary Clinton who has served since January 2009.

Obama said in nominating Kerry, “Obama praised Kerry, a former Democratic presidential nominee, as the ‘perfect choice to guide American diplomacy in the years ahead,’ and heralded his service in Vietnam and the U.S. Senate. ‘As chairman of the foreign relations committee, John’s played a central role in every major foreign policy debate for three decades,’ Obama said, noting ‘he is not going to need a lot of on the job training.'” The report goes on to state “Obama also thanked Kerry for his assistance during the most recent presidential campaign, when Kerry served as Mitt Romney’s stand in during mock debates. ‘Nothing brings people closer together than weeks of debate prep,’ Obama said. ‘John, I’m looking forward to working with you instead of debating you.’ The president added that he was “confident that the Senate will confirm” Kerry quickly. Kerry did not speak at the announcement, and Clinton did not attend. She has been suffering from the flu and a recent conconssion from a fall”.

Another piece notes the people that Kerry will bring with him to the State Department. Others have noted his position on Iran, “one of the first issues to cross his desk will be Iran’s nuclear program. Kerry has discussed the issue before. We’ve pored over the WikiLeaks cables, which paint a broad portrait of Kerry’s diplomatic style. In those classified documents, he discussed how he might approach the issue. The first reference comes from a conversation in February 2005 with French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier. Kerry told Barnier that ‘his conversations in the region had convinced him that Iran remains committed to a nuclear weapons program, but agreed that there were no good alternatives to negotiating.’ Though he did not rule out a military option, he did point out it ‘would be difficult,’ and pointed to U.N. sanctions, which have since been put in place and periodically ratcheted up, as an alternative. Still smarting from his defeat in the presidential election in 2004, Kerry remarked that ‘his own intention, had he been elected president, was to pursue front channel and back channel contacts with the Iranian regime.’ Five years later, Kerry got the opportunity to open some of those back channel contacts. In a February 2010 meeting with Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Kerry commented that Washington’s behind-the-scenes signals to Tehran had gone unanswered. He ‘observed that the Iranians are scared to talk…Our instinct is that we need to find a way to talk to him.’ Al-Thani then reportedly offered to be an intermediary. ‘What if I talk to the Iranian President. What would you have me say?’ he asked”.

Others have reviewed a series of articles written about and by Kerry over his long time in the public eye. Whatever emphasis Kerry’s places on his time in Foggy Bottom little substantive will change.

Butler pardoned

22/12/2012

Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J., informed journalists: ‘This morning the Holy Father Benedict XVI visited Paolo Gabriele in prison in order to confirm his forgiveness and to inform him personally of his acceptance of Mr Gabriele’s request for pardon, thereby remitting the sentence passed against the latter. This constitutes a paternal gesture towards a person with whom the Pope shared a relationship of daily familiarity for many years. Mr Gabriele was subsequently released from prison and has returned home. Since he cannot resume his previous occupation or continue to live in Vatican City, the Holy See, trusting in his sincere repentance, wishes to offer him the possibility of returning to a serene family  life'”.

Abe emboldened

22/12/2012

The Japanese general election took place with the result being a supermajority for the long ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the return of Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister. Although this was not the only significant event during the election. Shintaro Ishihara who had been governor of Tokyo since 1999 founded a new party, which has become the Japan Restoration Party which won 54 out of 480 seats in the Diet. Ishihara along with the mayor of Osaka and deputy leader, Toru Hashimoto, have gained attention recently and could push the LDP further to the right on policies such as the disputed islands, Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

The BBC have written that Abe has vow to take a hard line against the Chinese, “Abe’s comments come as exit polls indicate a decisive victory for his party in Japan’s general election. He said he wanted to “stop the challenge” from China over a chain of islands claimed by both countries. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has conceded defeat and resigned as head of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The DPJ has been in power for three years. Japanese media said it had won between 55 and 77 seats in the 480-seat parliament, while the LDP had around 300. The LDP’s ally, the small New Komeito party, looks set to win about 30 seats, possibly giving the alliance a two-thirds majority in the lower house of parliament. That would give Mr Abe the power to over-rule the upper house and help to break a deadlock that some say has plagued the world’s third biggest economy since 2007″. The report goes on to mention “Abe said the islands were Japan’s ‘inherent territory’ and it was his party’s objective was ‘to stop the challenge’ from China”.

The report goes on to add that “Acknowledging Mr Abe’s apparent victory, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency warned that an ‘economically weak and politically angry Japan will not only hurt the country, but also hurt the region and the world at large”. Ironically this is exactly the threat posed to Asia, and the world, by China.

Others take a different line, “Abe, 58, the former LDP prime minister infamous for denigrating comments about the comfort women and nicknamed KY (clueless), seems to be a lock for a second term. It would be a mistake, however, to read this prospect as grassroots support for Abe’s hard-line foreign policy. The LDP’s victory will owe more to the disappointing performance of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and voter frustration with festering economic problems than to nationalism run amok”.

The article adds “None of this means that Abe will shy away from claiming a mandate for his hawkish agenda. He has promised to boost the status and budget of the military forces, reinterpret and revise the constitution to remove constraints on the military, station government personnel on a chain of disputed islands (known as the Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China), and bolster patriotic education in schools. He visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in October and has repeatedly lambasted Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda for not standing up to China”.

Yet much of what Abe has promised, and hopefully, will deliver, is not new in any real sense. The Japanese Self Defence Forces are well trained and armed, and a conflict with China would not deliver a quick victory for the Chinese automatically. The article mentions, “has touted plans to revive the economy through inflation targeting and massive quantitative easing, appealing to voters who are desperate for improvement and willing to gamble on Abe’s aggressive plans to force the Bank of Japan to further ease its already loose monetary policy”. Some have suggested that if Abe follows through on this it could kick start the global economy given the scale of the Japanese economy and size of the expected money to be printed.

The writer goes on to note that after Japan bought the disputed islands privately, “Beijing was furious, and violent anti-Japan protests erupted around China — the worst anti-Japanese outbursts in decades. Chinese patrol vessels also made numerous incursions into Japanese-claimed waters, while angry rhetoric from the Chinese Foreign Ministry stoked the row”. He goes on to add that tensions remain high, citing two opinion polls, “The Chinese reaction played badly in Japan. A Pew poll taken in June indicated that favorable perceptions of China among Japanese had declined from 34 percent in 2011 to 15 percent in 2012. A Japanese government poll taken in November indicates that 81 percent of Japanese have negative views of China, prompted by the territorial  dispute”.

He goes on to mention ” Over the past two decades, China’s military spending has increased by double digits annually, and was equivalent to about 2 percent of GDP over the past decade, funding a sweeping modernization that has boosted capabilities enormously”, yet he cites Ishihara’s warning that Japan could become another Tibet. This is not only dangerous language but virtually impossible. He writes, confirming what has been said here before, “Voters are anxious about a rising China, but don’t seem to be responding to the identity politics offered up by politicians. In this sense, there is a profound disconnect between elite alarmism and public quietude. Ishihara’s antics have succeeded in one respect, however: pushing the LDP and public discourse to the right on foreign policy. During the party’s presidential elections in September, which Abe won in the second round, each of the candidates vied to stake out the hardest line on the Senkakus dispute”.

He ends the piece noting “does the public support this nationalist agenda? Not really. Like in the United States, foreign policy doesn’t decide Japanese elections. Polls suggest that the economy, the doubling of the consumption tax, social security reforms, and nuclear energy are the primary concerns of voters” adding later that Ishihara is the real danger to Japanese domestic politics.

Yet, the ball is very much in China’s court, it should trend carefully and not inflame Japanese public opinion. Although, given recent events, there is little or no guarantee that it will do this.

8 to 10 weeks

22/12/2012

the CIA reportedly issued an assessment that Assad would fall within eight to 10 weeks”.

Time for plan C

22/12/2012

The talks on the fiscal cliff/sequestration have taken a turn for the worst. The plan B that was discussed has now been abondened. If it had been carried out it would have “guaranteed the extension of current tax rates on annual income up to $1 million. The bill allowed rates to rise for taxpayers earning more. All current tax rates are set to expire at the end of the year, and negotiations over extending them have stalled between the parties because Republicans wanted to extend all the rates. President Obama has urged Congress to allow rates to go up on families making more than $250,000 a year, though in his more recent proposal he offered to only raise rates on income above $400,000 per year”.

Reports mention “Short of votes, House Republicans pulled Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” tax bill from the floor late Thursday, testing the Ohio Republican’s hold on his conference and throwing year-end efforts to avoid the fiscal cliff into further chaos. Party leaders had voiced confidence throughout the day they had enough Republican votes to pass the measure over unified Democratic opposition, but amid mounting defections, they announced shortly before 8 p.m. that the vote would be canceled”. The piece goes on to say that “After a closed-door conference meeting, the Speaker said it was now up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Obama to find a way to avert the tax hikes and spending cuts set to be triggered in January that economist warn could start a recession. He told The Hill that the House would come back ‘when needed.'”

The same report adds “One Republican in the conference meeting, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said after Boehner addressed the conference, freshman Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) took the microphone and emotionally laid into his colleagues. ‘What are you guys doing?’ Kelly said. ‘How the hell can you do this to the Speaker?’ Shouting ensued among members, and then Boehner returned to the microphone to calm lawmakers down, telling them there were people ‘of good will’ on both sides of the issue, the House Republican said. The bill pulled from the House floor Thursday extended current tax rates on annual income up to $1 million but allowed rates to rise for taxpayers earning more. Senate Democrats had vowed to shelve the bill, and President Obama threatened a veto, arguing that Boehner’s push for the legislation was a waste of time that could have been spent better in negotiations. The Speaker had argued that his fallback plan was the best the House could do in the absence of a broader deficit agreement with the president”.

A different article discusses the winners and losers, it argues that Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD) both came out well, “The minority leader and minority whip kept their side in line, forcing Republicans to push the bill over the top by themselves. They didn’t get close”, it goes on to mention President Obama in the same category, “The White House now has even more leverage in the wake of Plan B’s death. Still, Obama needs to get Boehner to put a bipartisan bill on the floor before Dec. 31. Earlier this month, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) suggested that such a measure could pass with 180 Democrats and 50 Republicans backing it. At the time, that breakdown seemed highly unlikely. Today, it seems plausible”. It also adds to this list of winners  a collection of unhinged “think tanks” like the Club for Growth and others. The piece says that Speaker Boehner as well as Paul Ryan are among the losers who failed to get the House GOP members to back the plan. Both now look weak with Ryan’s position in 2016 weaker, if not diminished completely.

Leon Panetta has issued a statement saying that “Our civilian employees should keep in mind that  the administration remains focused on working with Congress to reach agreement  on a balanced deficit reduction plan that avoids such cuts. Sequestration was  never intended to be implemented, and there is no reason why both sides should  not be able to come together and prevent this scenario”.

The the House now formally in recess as America, and the world, wait.

“Filed the petition”

22/12/2012

After the Archdiocese of New York took a case against the Department of Health and Human Services on the federal mandate for contraception, “A Christian-run arts and crafts chain has filed for an emergency injunction with the Supreme Court to block President Obama’s birth control coverage rules. Hobby Lobby and its founders, the Green family, filed the petition Friday after an appeals court rejected their motion for relief this week.”

Iraq’s Hindenburg

22/12/2012

President Jalal Talabani of Iraq has appeared to have suffered a stroke. How this will play into the hands of the Kurds, Sunni and Shia in Iraq could have far reaching consequences. It could be used to strengthen the already strong hand of Prime Minister Nuri al Malaki.

Some have noted that “the long-term prognosis for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who suffered an apparent stroke earlier this week, is unclear”. He goes on to add that “e defied even longer odds to become the first ever democratically elected head of state in the multi-millennia history of a place that is considered the cradle of civilization. It’s as yet too soon to guess at a prognosis, but he clearly will be out of action for some time — and he will be missed”.

The piece goes on to rely the importance of the role Talabani holds, “Talabani, who devoted his life to the Kurdistan national cause, has been described as a unifier — and, indeed, he may be the only unifying figure among Iraq’s top political leaders. There is a certain irony to this because Talabani remains a Kurdish nationalist. When he speaks of “his country”, he means Kurdistan, not Iraq. As president, he has tirelessly advocated for Kurdistan’s rights under the Iraqi constitution. But, by dint of personality, Talabani has used the largely ceremonial office of president of the republic to calm conflicts among Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. He is, in effect, the mediator-in-chief”.

The article goes on to give an example of this, “recently, he won agreement from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the federal government to withdraw their armed forces from a disputed area around Kirkuk. In other cases, he mediated conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, and even within the Shiite community. The Talabani treatment is unique. He is warm toward almost everyone, and considering his job exists mostly for protocol reasons, he has been the most informal of presidents”.

Interestingly, it does not mention what, if any position, he took when the Kurdish regional government used Baghdad’s own poor terms to its advantage in giving better terms to oil companies than the government in Baghdad ever did.

He adds that “his frivolity was rarely frivolous: Talabani’s government and political associates respected him not so much for his office but for his confident decision making and life-long struggle against dictatorship.  This makes him irreplaceable. The conventional wisdom is that the Kurds will want to replace him as president — if it comes to that — with another Kurd. But, in fact, the Kurds wanted Talabani in the presidency because he was a dominant figure among Iraq’s new political leaders and to rectify the practical problem of having two top positions for Kurdistan’s two senior leaders”.

The article goes on to say that the Kurds, “see Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as the main obstacle to these goals and also fear what they perceive to be his increasingly dictatorial tendencies. And so the Kurds might be flexible on the presidency if there is a broader deal to replace Maliki with a leader willing meet Kurdish demands. Talabani — ever the peacemaker — had helped block a motion of no confidence against Maliki earlier this year”. The piece goes on to credit Talabani still further, “The KRG, with its own elected government and powerful military, the peshmerga, is in a strong position vis a vis Maliki and the federal government. Kurdistan’s economy is booming and the KRG increasingly has close ties to the outside world, and especially to neighbouring Turkey”, he adds later on that ,”Under the Iraqi constitution, Kurdistan’s parliament can amend or cancel any federal law as applied to Kurdistan. In practice, however, the federal government produces few laws and Kurdistan mostly ignores them. The conflict between the KRG and Maliki is a stand off of equals. Neither can enforce its will on the other”.

He ends the piece noting that Talabani ended the sectarianism and violence that plagued Iraq, yet Talabani’s record might be likened to Weimar President Paul von Hindenburg who on his death was the last block to an authoritarian dictatorship.

An otherwise sensible policy

22/12/2012

The National Rifle Association (NRA) on Friday broke its week-long silence in the wake of the Newtown, Conn. elementary school massacre, calling for a national program to put armed police in every school. In a jam-packed news conference at the Willard Hotel in Washington, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre said ‘properly trained armed good guys’ – not tougher gun laws – are the only effective way to protect the country’s schoolchildren”. This otherwise sensible policy has some flaws.  Either it would require more police officers, and therefore more taxes to cover every school in America, which seems impossible, or alternatively a slew of untrained volunteers who could easily act overzealously. If they are trained, who trains them, who pays for the training? The only answer is control.

Hagel runs into trouble

22/12/2012

First there was the talk that Chuck Hagel was anti-Israeli but it has been reported that “The attacks against Chuck Hagel for his views on Israel may be giving the White House pause — or perhaps it is just the shooting in Connecticut and the fiscal cliff negotiations that have delayed an announcement on new Cabinet appointments, including for Pentagon chief. But the delay has given time for the criticisms against Hagel to take form. And now a number of Hagel’s friends are pushing back. Several former high-level diplomats have written an open letter defending the former senator against what some have called a smear campaign on his views on Israel. Hagel would be an ‘impeccable choice’ for SecDef, they say”.

Secondly the Hagel rumour has meant that “Human Rights Campaign and other advocacy groups have begun to raise questions about comments that Hagel, who remains on the extremely short list for Pentagon chief, made in 1998 about an ‘openly, aggressively gay’ man who was nominated to be ambassador to Luxembourg and his fitness to represent the U.S. Chad Griffin, president of the HRC, said that ‘Senator Hagel’s unacceptable comments about gay people, coupled with his consistent anti-LGBT record in Congress, raise serious questions about where he stands on [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] equality today,’ according to a report in the WaPo”.

The same article mentions “If the delay in announcing Obama’s nominee for Pentagon chief is because Hagel really was just a trial balloon, then the president could move ahead with nominating the Pentagon’s No. 2 — Ash Carter — or former Pentagon policy chief Michele Flournoy. In that case, the better money is on Carter, says Thompson. ‘If Hagel is not available, just elevate Ash Carter to the top job,’ he told Situation Report. ‘You could do a lot worse than Ash Carter for the secretary of defense. He is a smart guy, he’s easy to get along with, and he’s a Bill Perry protégé.’ Then, Thompson and others say, Flournoy could slide into Carter’s old job as No. 2 — or as a service secretary. With Susan Rice out of the running for State, there will be a push to make sure Obama’s national security team is gender inclusive”. Of course, such arguments are totally moronic and imply that more gender balance would mean fewer wars and greater global harmony.

Others have written that “With a little prodding, Sen. John Kerry once reluctantly showed me his childhood passport. It was tattooed with border crossing stamps from almost all the Western European countries. From 1951 to 1954, his father Richard Kerry, a career Foreign Service officer, worked as an attorney for what was then calledthe Bureau of United Nations in the State Department. But when John was 10 years old, Richard Kerry was assigned to Berlin to serve as legal advisor at the U.S. mission in the divided German city. From that Cold War outpost base, young John was taken sailing by his father across the vast fjords of Norway. He wandered the beaches of Normandy collecting shell casings from D-Day. He studied history and learned languages in a Swiss boarding school among the sons and daughters of other American diplomats”. The piece goes on “By the time Kerry enlisted to serve in the Vietnam war in 1966, he was 6 foot four and conversant in five languages. Like his father, he was attracted to the world of diplomacy. Because he was a student at Yale University, he perhaps could have finagled out of the draft. But Kerry was raised to be a public servant”.

Brinkley goes on to chart Kerry’s career, “Kerry has been on the Foreign Relations Committee since 1985. His orientation tilts toward the art of diplomacy even as he understands war in personal ways. He has championed free trade, supported U.S. intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia, partnered with Sen. Bill Frist to write and pass the first global AIDS bill (which President George W. Bush turned into PEPFAR), fought against the trafficking of persons, led relentless investigations into Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega’s involvement in illegal narcotics that laid the predicate for the invasion of Panama and Noriega’s arrest, exposed the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) for illegal money laundering that funded global criminal activities including Osama bin Laden’s former base in Sudan, and earned his spurs on global climate change as Al Gore labeled him ‘the Senate’s best environmentalist.’ If there is such a thing as a Kerry Doctrine, it is a clear-eyed willingness to pursue engagement and test the intentions of other countries, even present and former enemies or difficult partners on the world stage.”

Yet, rightly Brinkley mentions bluntly, “On Iran, he is a hawk”. Despite the problem with the term “dove” in general, the concept is well understood.  He ends the piece “Kerry would be a great pick to lead the State Department at this specific moment in time. Just as he learned everything he could about Southeast Asia from the 1960s to the 1990s, Kerry has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Middle East — often putting him ahead of his potential future boss on the region’s urgent crises. He was the first senator to call for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to step down, pressed the administration to create a no-fly zone in Libya to topple Muammar al-Qaddafi, and has been a sharp critic of Syria’s murdering of its own citizens, having meticulously tested Bashar al-Assad’s willingness to change his ways in 2009 and come away unimpressed”.

“Fewer than a third”

22/12/2012

The New York Times reports that “Fewer than a third of Parliament members in Pakistan file annual tax returns, according to a report published on Wednesday, lending new focus to longstanding complaints from foreign donors and ordinary Pakistanis about tax evasion at the highest levels of society”, it adds “The report, which was published jointly by two civil society organizations — the Center for Peace and Development Initiatives and the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan — found that just 126 of the country’s 446 federal lawmakers filed income tax returns in 2011. Among the leaders who did not was President Asif Ali Zardari, the report said. The report does not take into account the tax paid by politicians on their parliamentary salaries, which is automatically deducted by the government. Instead, it focuses on the lawmakers’ declarations of supplemental income from property, professional practices and other sources of revenue. Nevertheless, in a country where many politicians enjoy lifestyles that far exceed their official salaries, the report raises new questions about the dedication of top lawmakers in Pakistan to enforcing the tax laws they are supposed to oversee”.

The end of Somali jihad?

20/12/2012

A piece describes the flag in the airport of Kismayo, which was until recently controlled by “Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, or al-Shabab — a black rectangle over white classical Somali script that reads ‘There Is No God But God.'”

The writer goes on to describe a different airport but importantly adds that “Both airports now belong to the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF), which swept into Kismayo in early October with three mechanized battalions, backed up by soldiers from the Somali National Army and a local militia called Ras Kamboni; they are the poles in the southern axis of Sector 2, as the KDF calls its new domain in Somalia, which spans the country’s Lower Juba and Gedo provinces”.

He adds later “Operation Linda Nchi is the first combat deployment ever undertaken by the KDF; until now it has been confined to supporting U.N. peacekeeping missions. The original aim of Linda Nchi, which means “Protect the Nation” in Kiswahili, was to keep the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab out of Kenya. But the KDF has now been in Somalia for over a year. It has 2,500 troops here and plans to deploy 2,000 more by next year. According to commanders, the new mission is to ‘mop up’ what is left of al-Shabab — that is, to end the Islamist insurgency for good. The KDF soldiers have made a convincing show of going to war. At headquarters, at the new airport, they’ve dug hundreds of bunkers into the red earth and undergrowth and have set up tarp-roofed tents and makeshift showers. Artillery guns and tanks sit among them in a manner that suggests imminent battle; but the troops here haven’t seen action in months”.

The author goes on to mention that “In early December, Col. Adan Hassan, commander of the 3rd Battalion, who oversees the airport, greeted me and three other reporters there. A tall, stoop-shouldered man, Hassan wore well-pressed fatigues and wire-rim glasses. By way of introduction, he told us that the area around us was still alive with al-Shabab holdouts”.

He goes on to write that “All the officers in the hut, I noticed, including Hassan, wore new white-and-green AU armbands with gold trim. They were clearly fresh out of the box, meant to emphasize to us that the Kenyan troops are part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). I asked Hassan how Kenya’s and AMISOM’s objectives coincide, or don’t. They are one and the same, he assured me. ‘We’re not an occupational force,’ he said. ‘If the Somali people are secure, we’re secure.’ Kenya’s particular security interests kept creeping back into his answers, however. When another reporter asked how a spate of recent bombings in Kenya, believed to be al-Shabab-related, influenced the operation, Hassan made clear that ‘what is happening in Kenya has nothing to do with what we’re doing here.’ But then, he added, ‘We’ll finish them here in Somalia; then we’ll look for them in Kenya.’

Indeed, Kenya is, for now fulfilling basic realism, protecting itself from al-Shabab and by happy coincidence protecting Somalia in the process as well as bolstering the role of America in its fight against these groups.

He adds detail about the Kenyan operation when he notes “This both is and isn’t true. Since AMISOM decided to assemble a multinational force to go after al-Shabab in 2010, taking Kismayo has been viewed as the endgame, at least of the military phase of the mission. The city was al-Shabab’s base and the port its economic engine, providing an estimated $35 million to $50 million a year to the group. And as the interests of the United States and European Union, Somalia’s largest bilateral and multilateral donors, respectively, have shifted in the last few years from targeting high-value al Qaeda in East Africa figures to degrading al-Shabab and shoring up Somalia”.

Yet he sounds an implict note of caution, “The United Nations covers AMISOM’s budget, and most of that outlay is covered by Europe. Washington has put at least $500 million into AMISOM and the Somali army since 2007. The Pentagon and CIA, which have hugely increased operations in Somalia since the 9/11 attacks, provide intelligence support to AMISOM, along with the British, French, and Israelis. Despite all this help, Kenya’s victory in Kismayo was greeted with surprised joy. No one expected the KDF to prevail so quickly”. He discusses the motives, writing, “More of a mystery is why Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki chose to launch Linda Nchi to begin with. The question is still a matter of gossip among Kenya’s political class over a year after the operation began. Theories abound. There are the strange politics of the African Union, which has few of the dictates for cooperation that bind EU countries and at least as much fractiousness. Some think AU members, particularly Ethiopia, browbeat Kibaki into providing troops. Some think he has been watching with growing anxiety the rise of Rwanda and Uganda (the latter has contributed and lost the most troops in Somalia), whose soldiers-turned-presidents have turned their small countries into economic performers and darlings of the West, while the poverty and corruption in Kenya, once East Africa’s leader, have worsened”.

He says with certainty however, “One certainty is that Kenya is trying to attract investment to a new port on the island of Lamu; the more trade it can siphon off from Kismayo, the better for Kenya”.

Chinese racism

20/12/2012

China’s racism evident in Africa. Not so benevolent now are they.

Europe in 2013

20/12/2012

Predctions have already been made about Asia in 2013, Open Europe have come up with a series of senarios for Europe next year.

They write that the euro will survive but stagnate, adding “2013 looks likely to be a calmer, but still painful year for the eurozone, with several political flashpoints (notably German, Italian and Austrian elections)  that could quickly trigger a fresh flare-up in the crisis – particularly as many  of the campaigns could become de factor judgements on the eurozone crisis and the bailouts”. They add that “The eurozone is unlikely to fully turn the corner, with low growth and high  unemployment continuing to plague many countries. Activism from the ECB is  likely to help ease concerns”.

Turning to the possibility of a banking union they write “A decision on the second step of the banking union – a joint fiscal backstop – is unlikely to be taken amid continued disagreements and domestic pressures.  Even plans to have the ESM recapitalise banks already look to have been pushed back to 2014. During the year it may become increasingly apparent that, as is, the banking union does not represent a solution to the crisis”.

They conclude that “We don’t see any fundamental changes to the relationship, but positioning and political manoeuvring will set the stage for the 2014 (European Parliament) and 2015 (General) elections – that in turn could decide the exact nature of the EU-UK relationship in the future”, they go on to add that “Two important issues to watch will be the opt out (and back into) EU crime and policing laws as well as the negotiations on the EU budget. The general tone of the debate within the government and Conservative party will be an important test ahead of the elections”.

Naturally the hope is that the UK will find some accomadtation with the EU and remain in on altered terms, although in reality this is highly unlikely, and perhaps even fanciful. It will, in all probability come down to an in or out referendum.

Time to stop

16/12/2012

After the latest shooting in the United States pressure mounts for strict regulation of gun ownership with President Obama hints at long overdue action by his administration.

“Erring on the side of caution”

16/12/2012

After Susan Rice has thankfully, withdrawn her candidacy to become the next secretary of State, attention has turned to Chuck Hagel who in all likelihood will take over from Leon Panetta at the Department of Defence. In a sign of bi-partisanship members of the House on the left and right have called for defence cuts.

Some have mentioned that “If reports that President Obama will pick Chuck Hagel to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are true, it will be one more sign that he may use his second term to rein in America’s global military presence after an expansion that dates back to September 11, 2001. Hagel’s views on the limits of American power support a defense retrenchment that seems increasingly likely”. Baron goes on to write that “And, perhaps most surprisingly, two weeks ago the Pentagon’s general counsel, Jeh Johnson, delivered a speech in Britain making the administration’s case that the war on terrorism could soon become a matter of law enforcement, not military action. Johnson predicted that a ‘tipping point’ was coming where enough al Qaeda leaders had been killed or captured that pursuing terrorists ‘should no longer be considered an armed conflict.’ ”

Baron goes on to note that “Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, believes the United States should use force only when absolutely necessary. And his insistence on never repeating a military intervention like the Iraq war is one of the things for which he has become best known. In an op-ed for the Washington Post in 2006, Hagel opposed President George W. Bush’s coming troop surge and called for an immediate shift toward withdrawal”, yet the troop surge was widely regarded as a success. Indeed, it was so successful that the strategy has been tried in Afghanistan with mixed results. The piece ends noting Hagel’s supposedly isolationist views. Though as ever, little substantive will change, thankfully. Dr Walt also praises the suspected move by President Obama but does so in a highly partisan article that lacks nuance.

Jacob Heilbrunn, the “neo-con” obsessed realist, also praises the move that has, officially, yet to happen. He writes “With Hagel at the helm, Obama could proceed even more quickly with cutting the defense budget and retrenching abroad, while largely neutering his Republican adversaries”.

Finally a piece by James Traub argues that the danger is that President Obama will play it too safe and not be ambitious in his choices, he writes, “Kerry is more like Hillary Clinton in both temperament and worldview than any other even plausible candidate to replace her. And because Obama respects Kerry without being close to him, as has been true of his relationship with Clinton, foreign policy will probably continue to be formulated in the White House, and executed by the State Department”. Traub goes on to write “For Obama, 2013 will be different from 2009 because the Arab world is in tumult rather than paralysis, Europe is struggling to survive as a coherent entity, Iraq is yesterday’s news, Afghanistan is waning rather than waxing, China’s booming growth can no longer be taken for granted, and so forth. The administration has uniquely advertised its own change in posture by talking up the ‘pivot to Asia.'”

Traub continues “a national security team led by Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would offer the prospect of stability, caution, and realism. I wonder, though, if there is a danger of some learning some lessons too well. Obama has found that the world is more intransigent than he had thought, and American influence more limited”. Yet, this supposed lack of American influence is hard to see with the world calling for US action in Syria and most of Asia rushing to the side of America as China alienates the region.

This however does not equally mean that America always get what it wants. He ends the piece noting “As George W. Bush erred on the side of recklessness, Obama is now erring on the side of caution. He should have helped to organize and equip the Syrian insurgents while the rebellion was still largely local; now the war is turning into an international jihadist cause, and thus giving the United States and other outsiders yet more reason to hesitate”.

Again Traub sees only “recklessness” by President Bush, which of course is a laughable argument it the scale of its generalisation. He goes on to draw the false conclusion that if President Obama had intervened in Syria there would not be jihadists in Syria. He ignores the fact that the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not going on at all, with Syria being just one battle front, Bahrain being another.

The fact that Rice has withdrawn her name is positive, whoever replaces Panetta and Clinton, should have the steady nature that Kerry embodies.

Maybe for the best

15/12/2012

Susan Rice on Thursday withdrew her name from consideration as President Obama’s next secretary of State, allowing the White House to avoid a bitter confirmation battle with Senate Republicans. In a letter to Obama notifying the president of her decision, the ambassador to the United Nations said she wanted to spare the White House a heated battle with those who have criticized her over the administration’s handling of the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya”. Though maybe that’s a good thing given that Dr Rice “offered a decidedly uncharitable assessment of a French- and African-backed plan to retake control of northern Mali from a coalition of Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda. ‘It’s crap,’ the U.S. envoy told a gathering of U.N.-based officials, according to one of the officials. Rice’s office declined to comment”.

War in Asia?

15/12/2012

Building on a previous post citing Chinese aggression and its possible consequences,  Problems in Asia continue to mount as “North Korea successfully launched a rocket that achieved what few countries outside of the United States, China, and Russia have — a demonstrated long-range ballistic missile launch capability. The country is now one step closer to being able to launch a nuclear bomb across the Pacific”. The piece goes on to reiterate what an Indian admiral said recently “that his navy would protect India-Vietnam oil exploration in the South China Sea from Chinese belligerence, while China and Japan aggressively re-affirmed their “sacred” right to the disputed Senkaku island chain in the East China Sea (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu). China and the Philippines are still facing off over a shoal in the South China Sea”.

The author then goes on to question if conflict will break out in Asia next year. He makes the point that “In 1993, a series of journal articles written by mainstream international relations scholars in the United States claimed that Asia would be “ripe for rivalry:” A combination of nationalism, power rivalries, historical animosity, arms buildups, and energy needs, they argued, would lead Asia to become the next conflict hotspot”. Yet two decades on and all of this is still no less true but there has been no major conflict, though tensions are still high between a number of countries.

He goes on to discuss the context in which this argument was made, “By 1998, China had tested missiles to scare Taiwan, but no major conflicts erupted. In 2003, regional tensions rose as North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but the actual wars were in the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan. By 2008, still nothing. In fact, since China and Vietnam’s brief scuffle in 1979, there has not been war between states in Asia. None of the scholars predicted the relative stability that prevailed for the last two decades. Instead, they made a bet based on their reading of history: Japan would soon flex military muscle commensurate with its growing economic strength; China, though still poor, was about to enter a growth phase that would make it muscular rather than fat and happy; and the United States’ uncertainty about its post-Cold War commitments to Asia would lead to a mad power scramble”.

Cha goes on to say that “Asia may finally be “ripe for rivalry,” as those scholars predicted. Tensions between Japan and China over the last decade, inflamed by historical and territorial disputes, are the highest they’ve been since World War II”, this is especially true now as the ongoing row over the islands coupled with the return of Shinzo Abe of the Japanese LDP as well as the still ongoing Chinese transition all mean that the possibility of misinterpretation and suspicion is still high.

Cha notes the a dispute between South Korea and Japan still festers but this is of minimal concern as both are democracies and the problems between the two countries are dwarfed by the elephant in the room, China. He goes on to mention Abe’s position, “Abe could instead join forces with the party of ultra-right wing political maverick Ishihara Shintaro, the outspoken former governor of Tokyo who this year provoked Japan to nationalize the Senkakus, inciting protests across China. Even without Ishihara, Abe is almost certain to tack harder to the right on military issues, as he did when he was last prime minister, from 2006-2007″.

He closes arguing “Lurking amid all of these new dynamics is North Korea. The Unha-3 launch is the clearest and most recent manifestation of a deeply rooted and decades-long national mission to develop long-range ballistic missile technology and nuclear weapons. The reactions from the region’s major powers will be as unsettling as they are predictable: The United States and South Korea will step up military exercises in the Yellow Sea”.

Geopolitics is very much alive.

“Optimism with a bit of pragmatism”

14/12/2012

“American officials have  been saying they have begun to see a change in the tone from Pakistan and that  they are encouraged after recent meetings with the Pakistanis that the  country’s leaders want to take the terrorist threat more seriously.  ‘Complimentary operations,’ which had essentially ceased earlier this year, are  back on track and there are a growing number of them, a new Pentagon report  says. It’s far short of a new era of cooperation. For his part, Panetta said  ‘we are more encouraged’ that the Pakistanis want to limit the terrorist threat  within Pakistan and across the border. ‘My sense is that they are in a better  place, that they understand their responsibility,’ Panetta said during the  briefing with reporters on his plane. ‘[Pakistan Army Chief of Staff] General  Kayani in particular has indicated a willingness to put more pressure on the  safe havens.’ But he couched this new optimism with a bit of pragmatism. ‘In  all cases, actions need to speak louder than words,’ Panetta said.

Preventing victory

14/12/2012

As the rebels in Syria have taken parts of Damascus and hold some military bases around the country the spread of terrorism grows. However, some have argued that the rebels must not win.

He writes “The Syrian leader himself, all the main power brokers in his government, and virtually all of the country’s military officer corps come from a long-persecuted minority that legitimately fears that this war is a matter of “kill or be killed” for the Alawites, who make up around 12 percent of Syria’s population”. This tension between the rest of Syrians and the Alawites has been fuelled by Assad in his killings of all other minorities in order to bind the Alawites to him more closely. He adds “Nor does it help that they are widely seen as pawns of Iranian interests in the region. The regime’s fall — which is still far from certain — will not be widely mourned in the Arab world, outside of Tehran and in Hezbollah circles”. Yet the regimes fall is certain, what is not certain is when.

He goes on to write that “banking on the well-heeled Syrian expatriate community to come to power for any length of time is a losing bet. The exiles may have won the support of the Obama administration and others, but have little chance of holding power in Syria for any length of time, barring international occupation of the country. And nobody thinks the United States has any appetite to occupy another Arab country militarily, even for a relatively short period of time”. Matters are complicated further as some have noted that “President Barack Obama granted U.S. recognition on Tuesday to a Syrian opposition coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, a move aimed at ratcheting up pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave power. Obama announced his decision in an interview with ABC News on the eve of a meeting of Syrian opposition leaders and their international allies in Morocco, but he stopped short of authorizing U.S. arming of rebels fighting to overthrow Assad”. As some have noted to occupy Syria effectively would take 300,000 troops and cost hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

Worryingly, though not unexpectedly, he goes on to write “What about the budding terrorist groups we hear so often about? The specter of foreign jihadis — al Qaeda and its fellow travellers — infiltrating the Syrian opposition and coming to power in Damascus is a silly, unrealistic notion promoted by those overeager to send in the U.S. Marines to Latakia. There is little evidence that foreign jihadis represent anything more than a sliver of those fighting the Assad regime. But Syria does not need foreign jihadis and radical Islamists — it has more than enough of the home-grown variety”. He says that many of the Syrian rebels have experience in fighting, “Many of the fighters currently battling the Syrian regime honed their guerrilla skills in Iraq, learning urban combat techniques fighting Americans in Iraq from 2003 to 2007. Those who were not killed in Iraq made their way back to Syria (the largest entry point for foreign jihadis entering Iraq during that war), and have taken up arms against their own regime”.

He ends depressingly “The dissidents who brought down autocratic governments in Egypt and Tunisia, even the political Islamists among them, were far more politically liberal than what we see in Syria. And look at those countries now. What, then? It is not fashionable to say so, but a negotiated outcome remains the best solution to end the killing and prevent the worst elements from either side ruling Syria. An outright opposition victory would likely produce a momentary air of euphoria before the steep decline toward autocracy and darkness begin”.

The only hope is that some attachment to the Syrian state remains and that America and others try to influence Syria for the better. Though, this hope will probably be just that.

More terrorists in Syria

14/12/2012

the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said Wednesday that the al-Nusra Front that is rallying rebels in Syria is simply a rebranding of al Qaeda in Iraq and should be treated as such. “The Assad regime’s brutality has created an environment inside Syria that al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) is working hard to exploit. In an effort to establish a long-term presence in Syria, AQI is trying to rebrand itself under the guise of a group called al-Nusrah Front,” Ford wrote in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat Wednesday. “By fighting alongside armed Syrian opposition groups, al-Nusrah Front members are seeking to hijack the Syrian struggle for their own extremist ends.” Ford’s article comes one day after the State and Treasury departments officially designated the al-Nusra Front as an alias for AQI and thereby applied a range of U.S. sanctions on al-Nusra and its members”.

In case of emergencies

14/12/2012

An article mentions the problems facing Afghanistan after the majority of US troops leave. Some have noted “ The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization is pointing to a record numbers of IED “events” in Afghanistan last year, but also the declining number of IEDs that are effective against troops – the number of those attacks has dropped 62 percent over last year and has steadily decreased for 15 straight months. And, the percentage of those killed in action from IEDs has dropped from 55 percent last year to 46 this year; the lowest in four years”.

The piece “With all combat troops scheduled to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the negotiations taking place in Kabul on the presence and role of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond that point must include a plan for a Contingency Force as part of the troop drawdown”.

The article goes on to mention “The only alternative under discussion within the Obama administration at the moment is the possibility that some Special Forces stay behind in Afghanistan to work in an advisory or training capacity. Similarly, any U.S. residual force that will stay behind following negotiations will likely have a limited role, with additional U.S. military used primarily as force protection”.

The authors go on to write that “One might argue that the current NATO troop drawdown calendar (2011-2014) was based more on domestic political agendas than on-the-ground security. The result has been an extremely tight and relatively inflexible transition calendar, which leaves few options to respond to potentially changing security dynamics or attacks by the various ‘Taliban’ insurgent groups”. In fact the timetable was almost certainly a response to politics, but money was also an issue as it costs a million dollars a day to keep a solider in the country. The head of force in Afghanistan has said that he will hope to have as many troops as possible after the drawdown still left in the county.

Others have noted that “Afghans still need support to do ground and air fire, engineering (including explosive ordnance disposal and route clearance), and medical evacuation. “Those are what we are providing the Afghans today,” Nicholson said. But ISAF is “pushing them to failure” to get them to better solve their own problems. The one thing the Afghans won’t be able to do after 2015, Nicholson said, is close air support”.

The writers go on to mention “These political dynamics have created real pressures for a fast-paced troop withdrawal –confirmed by the U.S. Senate recently voting in favour of an accelerated withdrawal – and a neglect of a larger consideration of the security risks related to the upcoming fighting seasons. The deliberations that existed around contingency planning during the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq are almost completely missing in the case of Afghanistan – and those that do surface are mainly related to safeguarding security during the upcoming presidential elections in 2014 or counter-terrorism in the region. This ignores both the possible threats of the 2013 fighting season, or other security issues that might arise in the years following”. This just shows the depth of the problems in the country faces and the scale of the exasperation at all levels of the US government as much as bad strategy and planning.

They argue that “Given the current levels of ANSF and the continuation of ANP and ANA training and capacity building efforts after 2014, a standby Contingency Force of around 5,000 foreign troops would be sufficient. The Contingency Force would be a standard brigade-size combat team of around 3,500-4,000 soldiers, plus mobility (transport helicopters, but also some attack helicopters) and other support capabilities”, yet ANSF forces are basically funded by the ISAF and NATO so to assume that Afghan troop levels will remain at current levels, even with supposedly pledged Western aid, is quite a stretch.

They end the piece hoping for greater realism and less politics in decision making.

Diplomatic activity of the Holy See

14/12/2012

Activity of the Vatican in the international arena.

The rising stars

14/12/2012

The ongoing debate about the need for a reformed GOP goes on. An article discusses the two rising stars of the GOP, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep Paul Ryan (R-WI). The writer mentions “The two young stars spoke, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio. Politico gave it a big write up, noting how many times Ryan mentioned the word “poverty” and how many times Rubio said “middle class.” One can see already that the media is going to hype these two and their supposed new thinking relentlessly. Is there anything to the hype? Of course not, and the reason is simple. Neither they nor the people they’re talking to are ready to accept that they’ve been wrong about anything except messaging”.

He adds sarcastically “No 53 percenters, these two! They love everybody. The GOP, Ryan said in his speech, knows how to talk to the ‘risk-takers.’ But unlike Mitt Romney, he sees that ‘there is another part of the American creed: when our neighbors are struggling'”. Does this mean that Ryan has abandoned his unhinged brand of economics? Hopefully, but it will be interesting to see how close Ryan’s words are to this sentiment in 2015/16.

The writer, turning to Rubio, “Rubio went so far in his remarks as to mimic liberal economic belief, sounding not too unlike Barack Obama at certain moments: ‘The emergence of a strong, vibrant, and growing 21st-century American middle class is the answer to the most pressing challenges we face. Millions of Americans with jobs that pay more means more buyers for our products, more customers for our businesses'”. Similarly, this conversion to common sense and the common good should not be assumed to be permanent until election season, if even then.

He goes on to mention “On both went, about education, opportunity, the working poor, student loans. Rubio even offered one or two … well, they could be called policies, or inklings of policies”. He adds “Republicans aren’t anywhere near to exposing themselves to the kind of self-examination and intra-party debate the Democrats undertook after Reagan’s second win. Despite upholstering their speeches with ample liberal rhetoric, and in Rubio’s case those aforementioned quasi-proposals, Rubio and Ryan both stuck hard to current-day GOP gospel. Raising tax rates isn’t an option. Relying on government isn’t the answer”.

Yet, the writer is being a bit too hard on the GOP, there have been some changes, in tone, at the very least. While it would be stupid to say that party has finished entrenched vested interests take a long time to root out, as he says of the Democrats, “Change didn’t come easy, and it took one more wipeout of an election, but along came Bill Clinton, and the party drank its tonic and embraced (sort of; enough so that voters noticed the change) welfare reform and free trade”.

He does make the fair point that “Obama’s margin of victory in Ohio went from roughly 103,000 to 166,000). Your ideas are unpopular. Americans don’t want them. And they do not work. The rising tide of the free market does not lift all boats. Ryan—you don’t do a good job of laying out that “vision” because there is no vision. A man who makes his staff read Ayn Rand and got into politics because of her doesn’t have a vision for poor people, or at least a positive one”.

Syria fires missiles

14/12/2012

Government forces have fired at least a half-dozen short-range ballistic missiles at rebel groups in northern Syria over the past several days, according to U.S. officials, a potentially significant escalation of a civil war that has killed more than 40,000 people. U.S. officials and the group Human Rights Watch also alleged Wednesday that Syrian government forces are dropping incendiary devices similar to napalm weapons on rebel fighters in populated areas”.

Israel, the new Saudi Arabia?

12/12/2012

Following on from an article some time ago, the scale of the natural resources available to Israel is becoming more apparent.

The piece begins “Israel now boasts Saudi-sized reserves of oil and gas less than 100 miles off its coast. Only a few days ago, Woodside Petroleum, Australia’s largest oil and gas company, announced an investment of $1.3 billion in Israel’s largest offshore gas field — appropriately named Leviathan”.

Yet as has been mentioned here earlier, “Woodside’s exploitation of Leviathan has the potential to transform Israel from an energy dwarf into a hydrocarbon giant, and maybe even a major exporter. Will Israel’s energy bonanza turn out to be a latter-day Hanukkah — “dedication” or “blessing” — for the beleaguered Jewish state, or will Palestine and Lebanon, which both have overlapping claims, only bring more conflict to a region in which everything from water to air is contested”. The way to build relationships between the three would be to share the resources according to the geological maps. However, this easy solution seems too sensible for the Middle East.

He goes on to write “Egypt provided the difference in the country’s natural gas requirements, under a Hosni Mubarak-era deal that the current government in Cairo, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, seems less inclined to continue. Since the start of the Egyptian revolution, militants in the Sinai Peninsula have blown up the pipeline carrying Egyptian gas into Israel (and Jordan) just over 15 times. But Israel’s dependency on outside hydrocarbons might soon be over, thanks to an amazing string of discoveries in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ)”.

He adds, showing the scale of the discovery, “In January 2009, an Israeli-American consortium made the world’s largest natural gas discovery for that year in the Tamar field, 50 miles west of the city of Haifa: a total extractible reserve of 8 trillion to 9 trillion cubic feet, roughly equivalent to two years’ worth of the total U.S. residential demand for natural gas. A few months later, Dalit field, off the coast of Hadera, halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv, was found to contain another 500 billion cubic feet of natural gas”. He elobrates “Israel really struck it rich in October 2010, when that same consortium discovered more than 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in Leviathan: the world’s biggest natural gas find in a decade. By itself, Leviathan could provide Israel with all the natural gas it would need for the next 100 years. On top of all that, shale oil reserves under Israel itself could total 250 billion barrels, according to a 2011 report from the London-based World Energy Council, ranking it third in the world behind China and the United States. Combined, Israel’s oil and gas reserves would be about equal to Saudi Arabia’s total energy reserves”.

Yet the problems with this are not minimal. Firstly, there are the disputes as to which nation owns exactly what. Secondly, the estimates of shale oil are vast, as he mentions, Saudi Arabia has roughly 265 billion barrels, but there the comparison ends. Saudi oil has a vey low sulfur level making it easy to refine and easy to extract. The potential oil in Israel is high in sulfur making its extraction expensive. Not only that but the process for extracting it is still new and reasonably untested. America can extract this type of oil because it is, generally, in remote areas, for example the Bakkan range in South Dakota where any water problems or earth tremors effect reasonably few people. Israel however is much smaller and has a far higher population density so a contaminated water supply and minor earth tremors could cause enormous damage during the extraction process.

He admits further problems when he mentions “All that mineral wealth prompted the U.S. Geological Survey to take a closer look, for the first time ever, at the oil and gas reserves hidden beneath the Eastern Mediterranean, in an area that includes not just Israel’s EEZ, but also those of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece. The staggering conclusion: In a region previously considered devoid of exploitable energy resources, the total estimate equals a staggering 345 trillion cubic feet of gas and 3.4 billion barrels of oil. (That’s enough oil to last Israel, at 2011 consumption levels, 35 years. Or roughly 1,597 Hanukkahs.) But as the region’s hydrocarbon wealth has become apparent, Israel and its neighbor, Lebanon, have begun sparring over the maritime border between them, with billions of dollars of resource wealth at stake. Israel is not a signatory to the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides an international framework for the demarcation of economic exclusion zones, opening up its interpretation of its EEZ to disputes. It doesn’t help that Lebanon and Israel, which would need to agree on the line, are still technically at war with each other”.

“Delayed for a month”

12/12/2012

“Finance Minster Mumtaz al-Said announced on Tuesday that a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan to Egypt would be delayed for a month due to the political crisis which has dampened Morsi’s ability to push through necessary economic reforms. On Sunday, the government issued a variety of new taxes, only to reverse the decision hours later due to backlash from the opposition as well as from within the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s economy is verging on collapse, and the British-based banking giant HSBC warned that further delay could seriously jeopardize Egypt’s recovery”.

“The three headed hydra”

12/12/2012

The crisis in Eypt begun by President Morsi grows with Egypt becoming more divided with every passing day as the “new” consitution is put to voters on Saturday.

An article explores this further. It argues that “The intractability of the problem in Egypt is caused by the presence of three, not two, parties to the current dispute”. The first of these groups are “those demanding a civil state and a proper constitution guaranteeing human rights for all, which the current draft does not. They are women and men, old and young, Christian and Muslim, poor and rich”.

The second he argues is “The second is the state, represented by the three-headed hydra of Morsi, Badie, and Shater. President Mohammed Morsy is the public face of the beast. Mohammed Badie is the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, whose words address the members of the Brotherhood. Kairat al-Shater is the organization’s most powerful man and its most prominent strategist. The panic of these three men introduced the third party into the current dispute”.

Lastlty he writes “This third party is the hordes of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. They are columns of men — almost always men — who are bussed into Cairo from outlying neighborhoods and cities for use as the Brotherhood’s foot soldiers. They serve as protesters at one moment, as hired guns at another”.

Worryingly he goes on to describe this third group as almost fanatical in their devotion to this hydra, becuase “the Muslim Brotherhood indoctrination method requires absolute faith in the group’s hierarchical leadership. Second, those in charge are force-feeding them with hatred of the protesters, and they are correspondingly convinced that those who oppose Morsy’s decisions are in fact godless heathens who are also paid foreign agents who want to ruin Egypt and allow men to marry men”.

This turning in on the world is not just occuring in Egypt, but within the Muslim world generally, there are some exceptions. Centuries ago the Islamic world was the centre of learning in maths, science, philosophy, art but then something happened and more or less since then the current state has sadly prevailed Ironically, these very advances were used by scholars in Europe to their advantage.

He goes on to argue “The political disagreement, between the protesters and the government, has been compounded by another: between the opposition protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood foot soldiers. For the latter, though, the conflict isn’t political — it’s religious and moral. Having parallel disagreements on two different planes ensures the impossibility of reaching a middle ground”. He implies that the crisis will only get worse when he writes “The Muslim Brotherhood conflict management philosophy is two-pronged and seemingly incoherent. First, Morsy and his entourage have pursued a strategy of ‘running out the clock,’ under the assumption that time is on their side. The government remained silent for the first bloody 48 hours of the conflict, after which Morsi offered to hold a ‘national dialogue’. His proposal was shunned by nearly all opposition leaders”.

The second part of this “strategy” he writes is “The second approach, which appears inconsistent with the previous one, finds expression in nervous reactions that demand an immediate ending to the situation and believe in violence as a viable means. The short-temperedness of Morsy (or whoever is calling the shots behind him) goes against all the flowery promises of dialogue and national unity”. Indeed the writer is not the first to note that Morsi and his allies are paranoid.

He then, chillingly, warns of civil war when he writes “the government did not calculate the risk of letting an angry mob get a taste of blood? Like an evil genie, angry crowds might serve a short-term purpose but will very rapidly acquire a mind and will of their own. And the schism this is causing in the Egyptian society will very rapidly become irreversible”.

It seems the choice Egyptians face is increasingly stark, Morsi and his friends, or the army and their corruption.

Good for Catholics, bad for monarchy

10/12/2012

“The new legislation will end the principle of male primogeniture, meaning male heirs will no longer take precedence over women in line to the throne. It will also end the ban on anyone in the line of succession marrying a Roman Catholic. The legislation was agreed in principle at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Perth, Australia in October 2011. Since then, the government of New Zealand has been gathering formal letters of consent from the 15 realms of the Commonwealth, that have the Queen as their head of state. They have confirmed they will be able to take the necessary measures in their own countries before the UK legislation comes into effect.

Morsi’s error of judgement

10/12/2012

President Morsi has rescinded the decree that granted him vast powers over the weekend but has kept up the pressure on himself by not delaying the vote on the sham that is the new constitution. There is however an even more worrying development, the army has been given powers of arrest.

An news piece notes “Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has authorized the military to make arrests after the revocation of a constitutional decree on Saturday failed to quell protests. Morsi participated in a national dialogue on Saturday and rescinded the decree issued on November 22, which extended executive powers, and has since sparked unrest. Morsi issued a new decree Saturday night and said that a referendum on the Islamist backed draft constitution will proceed on December 15. Opposition leaders have rejected the move and are calling for fresh protests on Tuesday. They have opposed the constitution, saying it does not represent the Egyptian people”.

A different article discusses the internal mentality of Morsi and his inner circle, it notes “Morsi had good reason to believe that the United States and the Egyptian Armed Forces would not object to his domestic decisions.  That Morsi’s move has proven, in a deeply divided country, to have been a serious error of judgement”.

It goes on to mention “Divisions among U.S. commentators mirror divisions in Egypt. Many Morsi supporters argue that the new constitution is the most democratic one ever produced on Egyptian soil. It guarantees the right to start parties and open newspapers without prior approval; it bans torture and espouses the dignity of the prisoner. Opponents argue, in contrast, that it is an extremely bad constitution. It gives unelected religious figures the right of prior review of legislation and it allows the Armed Forces to function independently”.

He goes on to say “There have been demonstrations not only in Cairo and Alexandria but in most of the large provincial cities, with protesters numbering in the tens of thousands. Morsi rescinded his original constitutional decree on Saturday, issuing a new one, which addressed some issues of contention. Regardless, protests have raged, with calls for fresh demonstrations”. The fact that these demonstrations do not just occur in Cairo should send signals to the depth of feeling at what Morsi is doing. It should hopefully also send a signal as to how Morsi should act next but this is only a vague hope that is becoming more and more vague as time passes.

Amazingly he writes “the simple and sad reality for the Brotherhood is that a great many Egyptians distrust, dislike, or fear them and worry that, having come to control the legislature and central executive, they plan to take over the courts as well as staff many of the lower levels of the government. President Morsi has been unable to allay this distrust, fear, and dislike and over the last week he and his allies have, through words and actions, intensified it. This may be unfair and its results may be tragic, but it remains a profoundly political issue with which he and any Egyptian politicians who aspire to lead the country will ultimately have to deal”.

Yet to express surprise at the reality of how many, though not all, Egyptians hold Morsi and what he has done is truly unhinged.

Benedict on the sensus fidelium

10/12/2012

The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium thus teaches us on the subject: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One,(111) cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. “(n. 12). This gift, the sensus fidei, constitutes in the believer a kind of supernatural instinct that has a connatural life with the same object of faith. It is a criterion for discerning whether or not a truth belongs to the deposit of the living apostolic tradition. It also has a propositional value because the Holy Spirit does not cease to speak to the Churches and lead them to the whole truth. Today, however, it is particularly important to clarify the criteria used to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeits. In fact, it is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, this because the sensus fidei can not grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her Magisterium”.

LCWR update

10/12/2012

With the secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Archbishop Joseph Tobin CSSR now back in the United States attention has turned as to who his successor will be and how sympathetic, or not, the new secretary will be. Some reports have stated that Thomas Olmsted, bishop of Phoenix, will be appointed to replace Archbishop Tobin.

If this were the case Olmsted would, it is thought, take a more doctrinally pure line and allow less flexibility than Archbishop Tobin might have, had he been allowed to remain on in Rome. Some have noted that ” Olmsted’s approach in the Congregation is expected to be far closer to the sensibilities of American bishops with regard to issue of the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious)’s rebellious stance towards Catholic bishops and the Holy See”.

The article goes on to note “The number of nuns in the United States dropped by over two thousand members in just one year, from 57.113 to 55.045”. A different piece notes that Archbishop Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted “the right question is not who’s wrong, but ‘who respects revelation and its essential elements?’ Archbishop Gerhard Müller, 64, said he ‘looks with sympathy’ on groups such as LCWR, but at the same time that ‘no group can set itself up as the source of authentic interpretation’ of church teaching. That role, Müller insisted, belongs to ‘the pope and the bishops in communion with him,’ who expect ‘substantial fidelity’ from the rest of the church”.

Muller’s comments are interesting on a number of levels. Firstly, by altering the question Muller has shifted the debate onto orthodox doctrinal questions, which he controls. The question of revelation is odd as the LCWR could answer quite easily that revelation is open to all believers who witness the world around them. This could be used by them to open up questions should as the treatment of homosexuals in the Church.

Secondly, this quote, “substantial fidelity” is interesting. Unless the article twists Archbishop Muller’s words, or there is a mistranslation, what he seems to be implying is that there is some room for manoeuvre. Although on what subjects specifically and how much manoeuvre, and how it might occur practically  are all open to debate.

The article adds, “Müller’s comments came in an interview with journalist Paolo Rodari in the Italian daily Il Foglio. The exchange covered a wide range of topics, from the current Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization to Müller’s longtime friendship with Gustavo Gutierrez, widely considered the father of the liberation theology movement. It’s Müller’s comments on the LCWR, that will likely be of greatest interest to American readers”.

“To hear challenges”

10/12/2012

The US Supreme Court has agreed for the first time to hear challenges to laws banning gay marriage in the US. The court will hear challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act (Doma), which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. It will also consider Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment in California that overturned a state law allowing gay weddings. The court is likely to hear the cases in March next year. A ruling could be issued in June”.

End of the German miracle

10/12/2012

Prime Minister of Italy, Dr Mario Monti, said he will resign after “Silvio Berlusconi’s PDL party withdrew its support for the government. Mr Monti, who heads a non-elected cabinet of technocrats, said he will try to pass a budget and financial stability law before standing down. Hours earlier, former Prime Minister Mr Berlusconi said he will run for office again next year. He said Mr Monti’s austerity policies had harmed Italy”.

For years Germans have looked out smugly on the rest of Europe and profligate spenders who wasted their money and happened to buy German goods, thus fuelling the German economy. Now however the German “miracle” seems to be over and hopefully their smugness will end also. An article discusses this.

It gives context “When East and West Germany reunified in 1990, the whole was much greater than the sum of its parts. The East got the West’s airtight economic institutions, its culture of precision in manufacturing, and its central position in the global economy. The West got a huge inflow of new workers — the equivalent of about a quarter of its existing labour force — and access to an enormous market that had been shut off since World War II. This market wasn’t the wealthiest, but it had plenty of room to grow. And though these new workers weren’t quite as productive as their counterparts in the West, on average they were more than 50 percent cheaper“.

The piece goes on to add that “The sudden addition of millions of lower-wage, lower-productivity workers to the German labor force dramatically raised the return to capital. Once the initial growing pains of reunification subsided, investment started flowing in”. He also writes that the workforce was also competitive  he later adds “Then came the euro. Germany’s exports to the eurozone became easier and more transparent, and buyers outside of the monetary union could pay for German goods and services with a versatile new currency instead of the trusty but limited deutschmark”.

The scale of Germany’s success he writes “So, was it any wonder that Germany became a world-beating exporter? The first couple of years after reunification were rocky, and exports actually dropped. Then came the miracle: Germany’s exports grew faster than its gross domestic product in every year from 1994 to 2008, when the global financial crisis started. In those 15 years, exports tripled while GDP (adjusted for changes in prices) expanded by just 27 percent”.

Interestingly, he writes “Until the onset of the euro crisis, these stunning results had plenty of people saying that Germany had discovered some magic formula for export-led growth in an advanced economy”. This is common to human nature, when things, and not just economically, are going well optimism takes hold and in some ways overpowers common sense. So Germany has not stumbled on some magic formula for export led growth, no more than the Celtic Tiger in Ireland was simply a massive property bubble.

He goes on to write “Wages in the East have almost caught up to those in the West, and eventually the advantage in exports will disappear. The trading relationships in Central and Eastern Europe have been almost entirely exploited, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is trying hard to pull those regions back into its economic thrall. The deutschmark is now an object of fond nostalgia. Two decades on, the boost from reunification is finally petering out“.

He ends the piece “The size of every country’s economy depends on just two things: the size of its workforce and the productivity of its workers. Productivity, in turn, rests on the amount of capital available to each worker and how exactly he or she uses it”. Both of these are changing for Germany and soon, for the eurozone as well.

Edging closer

08/12/2012

A deal on the fiscal cliff/sequestration appears to be somewhat closer with “Democrats in Congress are changing their tune on means testing in Medicare, an idea the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) resisted for decades. Leading Democratic lawmakers have suggested that raising premiums for wealthy Medicare beneficiaries could be a matter of common ground with Republicans in the ongoing deficit-reduction talks”.

The recovery of Latin America

08/12/2012

Today Eusébio Oscar Cardinal Scheid, S.C.I., archbishop emeritus of Rio de Janeiro turns 80 and therefore loses his voting rights with the voting College dropping to 119 after the consistory last month. An article discusses the College of Cardinals as it is currently constituted.

It notes “In this college are represented all five continents, with 66 countries, 48 of which have at least one cardinal elector”. It goes on to add that “Looking at the geopolitical representation of the voters, it can be noted that the continent most represented remains Europe with 62 cardinals (51.6%). It is followed by the Americas with 35 (29.2%), Africa and Asia with 11 each (9.2%), Oceania with 1 (0.8%). This is – in absolute numbers more than in percentages – a distribution largely in line with recent decades”.

Interestingly it goes on to add “For example, it is enough to recall that at the beginning of 1978 – the end of the pontificate of Paul VI – out of 118 cardinal voters, there were 59 Europeans (50%), 32 Americans (27.2%), 12 Asians (10.2%), 11 Africans (9.3%), 4 from Oceania (3.4%). There are now 28 Italians (23.3%), while in 1978 there were 27 (22.9%). Breaking down the representation of the New World, it can be noted that today there are 14 North Americans (11.7%) and 21 Latin Americans (17.5%), while in 1978 there were, respectively, 13 (11%) and 20 (16.9%). Scanning the list of countries most represented in the college of electors of the pope, it can be noted that after the Italians the most numerous group is that of the United States, which numbers 11. This is followed by Brazil and Germany (6 each); India and Spain (5 each); France, Mexico, and Poland (4 each)”.

It mentions “With the consistory of November 24, Benedict XVI has in all created 90 cardinals so far, 74 of whom were under the age of 80 at the time of their appointment. Only four popes in history were more “creative” than him: John Paul II (with 231 new cardinals), Leo XIII (with 147), Paul VI (with 144) and Pius IX (with 123). John XXIII made 52 cardinals, Pius XII 56. Analyzing the geopolitics of the Ratzingerian appointments of cardinals, it can be noted that, overall, the current pope has so far granted 39 “voting” cardinalates to Europe (52.7%; among them 21 Italians, 28.4%); 10 each to North America and Asia (13.5%); 8 to Latin America (10.8%); 7 to Africa (9.5%); none so far to Oceania”.

It ends noting “As can be noted, with respect to his predecessor Benedict XVI has granted, in terms of percentages, more cardinals to Italy, North America, Asia, and  Africa; but fewer to Latin America”.

Yet this will change in 2013 when Cardinal Sandoval Iniguez, Cardinal Errazuriz Ossa and Cardinal Agnelo among others all lose their voting rights. It is highly likely that the successors of these cardinals will be made cardinals either next year or if not, then in 2014. Among the others in line for red hats are Seoul, Cebu, Bangkok, Kampala as well as Toledo, Venice, Turin coupled with a small number of curialists, notably CDF and Family.

Worldwide terrorist attacks

08/12/2012

Some have noted that “The Global Terrorism Index, a report released today by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace, tracks terrorist attacks in 158 countries between 2002 and 2011 and paints and interesting and at times surprising picture of post-9/11 terrorism. For instance, there’s the dispiriting fact that the two countries where the United States launched wars in the name of fighting terrorism early in the last decade went on to account for more than one third of terrorist incidents during this period. More than a third of all victims between 2002 and 2011 were Iraqi and the biggest global rise in terrorism occurred between 2005 and 2007, which the authors attribute primarily to events in Iraq”.