Archive for June, 2013

Egypt slides into chaos

30/06/2013

An article in Foreign Affairs, “The Egyptian State Unravels” describes how the country that was once a popular destination for tourists and a beacon of calm in the tumult of the Middle East is now descending into chaos and in danger of joining the list of the world’s failed states.

He begins the piece noting that there has been “a 300 percent increase in homicides and a 12-fold increase in armed robberies since the 2011 revolution, Mahmoud [an arms dealer] and other black-market entrepreneurs are capitalizing on a growing obsession with self-defense and civilian vigilantism among Egyptians who have lost patience with their government’s inability to restore security. Frustration with lawlessness is among the numerous grievances that will drive antigovernment protesters to the streets on June 30, the one-year anniversary of President Mohamed Morsi’s inauguration”.

The piece goes on to add “The proliferation of small arms in Cairo and across Egypt is just one symptom of the security vacuum that persists two years after the uprising that shattered Hosni Mubarak’s seemingly unbreakable police state. Distrustful of a police force known for being simultaneously abusive and incompetent, and wary of an increasingly politicized judicial system that rarely delivers justice, many Egyptians are administering law and order on their own terms”.

He goes on to describe how the security situation in the country has only worsened “Since the revolution, local authorities there have tolerated the expansion of informal Sharia committees that administer Islamic law, creating what is beginning to resemble a state within a state. Informal justice is not limited to Egypt’s most remote regions, and unofficial customary courts in the greater Cairo area have seen demand for their services, ranging from dispute resolution to marriage licenses, increase notably since 2011. Instead of working to reform the country’s dysfunctional institutions, some political leaders have embraced the devolution of core security functions to community-based policing initiatives or private contractors. Earlier this year, the Building and Development Party, the political wing of the formerly militant Islamist group al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, proposed draft legislation that would legalize unarmed “popular committees” to supplement the uniformed police force. In another instance of state-sponsored community policing, the Ministry of Supply recently announced the formation of unarmed, civilian-staffed popular committees to curb the smuggling of flour. The outsourcing of traditional law enforcement functions to civilian and nonstate actors is a common pathology of weak states and transitioning democracies, in which security and judicial institutions are viewed as either illegitimate or ineffective. And indeed, Egyptians complain that the police never fully redeployed after they withdrew from the streets during the revolution. Those few who are present in the streets are doing nothing to combat crime”.

The article goes on to mention that “The courts have not fared much better. The Islamist-controlled executive and legislative branches have been engaged in a protracted power struggle with the judicial system, seeing it as an obstacle to their agenda. In recent months, Morsi and Islamist lawmakers have repeatedly called into question the neutrality of Mubarak-appointed judges and accused them of protecting the interests of the former regime. They are still reeling from decisions that the courts made last June, when judges dissolved the lower house of parliament and issued controversially lenient sentences in the trials of the former president and other regime officials. The entanglement of the judiciary in politics through repeated confrontations with the executive and legislative branches has eroded the institution’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public. As Shenawi described the situation, ‘If the president doesn’t even respect the courts, how can we expect the people to respect them?'”

He then goes on to mention Morsi’s role in this, “During a widely ridiculed speech on June 26 that was intended to placate the opposition, Morsi tried to deflect blame for the unrest onto former regime loyalists known as feloul, whom he accused of hiring gangs to instigate trouble. These paranoid allegations of organized thuggery, whether true or not, were the words of a leader who knows he is not fully in control. The diffusion of lethal weapons among civilians who no longer fear or respect their government has created a highly combustible atmosphere in which violence is viewed as a legitimate and even necessary response to insecurity”.

Advertisements

Parolin to replace Bertone?

30/06/2013

Rumours have emerged that Archbishop Pietro Parolin, apostolic nuncio to Venezuela, will shortly be appointed as the Vatican’s Secretary of State”. The report goes on to note “Following the appointment of the new Secretary of State, sources say that Pope Francis would also change several of the top-ranking officials of the Curia. Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras could be appointed prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (the so-called “Propaganda Fide”). Cardinal Maradiaga is also the coordinator of the Pope-appointed Commission of Cardinals now studying a reform of the Roman Curia. At the same time, the current prefect, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, would be appointed Archbishop of Palermo, in Southern Italy. A new prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Sacraments should soon be appointed, as well”.

What competition? – Part VI

28/06/2013

As part of the latest in the series of the countries that are often touted as challengers to the United States. An article, published in 2012, argues that the “rise” Asian economies is a myth.

He goes on to mention that “For the past five years or so, the idea had become commonplace that the United States was losing the race for global competitiveness. In my own book, The Emerging Markets Century, I wrote about how the rise of China and India was shifting the competitive edge and how some emerging multinationals (from Samsung Electronics in South Korea to Embraer in Brazil) were becoming world-class companies. All of that remains true; emerging markets remain the place to be for the next decade at least. But, interestingly, the creative, competitive response I had expected seems to be coming even faster than I had thought. In fact, the United States may be doing better than we thought, and China and other rising powers may not be doing quite as well as believed” he adds importantly that “The United States is becoming a low-cost producer of energy again, as a result of vast new discoveries of natural gas. The glut has made natural gas prices of $2 to $2.50 per 1 million BTU equivalent to oil at about $12 to $15 per barrel, which is quite an incentive to use more gas for electricity, petrochemicals, industrial applications, trucking, and even cars. In contrast, China and Japan are now forced to import gas at much higher prices of $13 to $17 per 1 million BTU. Supercheap gas is also making the United States a great place to invest again for energy-intensive industries. For example, the Canadian company Methanex* recently moved its production of petrochemicals from Chile to Louisiana, and Orascom Construction in Egypt is building a fertilizer plant in the United States. This will be a true game-changer for the next decade and will help make manufacturing more competitive in the United States”.

He make the vital point that “China is no longer the place for manufacturing. Wages in China and India have been rising at 15-20 percent over the past five years. Meanwhile, stagnant wage growth in the United States and the rising Chinese yuan has devalued the dollar on a trade-weighted basis”.

The article goes on to note that “A large wage gap remains but even narrowing it will have a big impact. In a dinner speech at the Brookings Institution, Jeff Immelt of GE claimed that an American factory worker can be competitive at $15 per hour with a $3 worker in China. Unit labor costs in the United States, according to OECD data, have declined from 100 to 88 since 1995, better than anywhere in the developed world except Sweden (80). For comparison, Spain (135) and Italy (120) are much higher. That’s good news for U.S. global competitiveness. According to several manufacturers I met with who have plants in China, China now suffers from a lack of technologically trained manpower. Bangladesh and Vietnam are now lower-cost manufacturing centers than China — even Thailand, the Philippines, and Mexico are becoming wage competitive”.

He then goes on to mention the problem of demographics facing Asia, “This is no longer a theoretical problem, but a very real one, especially in China. Demographics will make their power felt this coming decade as they never have before and change the competitive picture. China and South Korea, along with Europe and Japan, are aging fast. India and Africa still have large untapped labor pools, though they need to be better trained. Consider these statistics about China’s demographics: There were 26 million births in 1987 but only 15 million today. With a fully employed migrant labor pool there are now increasing labor shortages, with 1.08 job opportunities for each job seeker. The increase in China’s working population has shrunk from 10 million to 3 million per year and will be negative by 2018, if not sooner. Within 20 years, its retired (60-plus) population will double from 180 million to 360 million (bigger than the entire U.S. population). A professional family now worries already about having to take care of four elderly parents. The support ratio was 5:1 and will be 2:1 in the not too distant future. The savings rate will drop, and entitlements (now unfunded liabilities) will increase. According to some Chinese economists, the Chinese economy won’t be able to grow more than 6 to 7 percent by the end of this decade without collapsing under the burden of these unfunded liabilities”.

He ends the piece “It seemed for a while that the United States would leave the manufacturing to emerging markets and focus instead on innovation, design, finance, and super-high-value-added manufacturing. It is now widely recognized that this was a losing strategy. As Andy Grove of Intel once observed, for every manufacturing job generated in the United States by the computer industry, 10 are outsourced to emerging markets. For job creation, it is important to realize that there are many more “makers” than “thinkers.” While R&D is spreading around the world, a lot of key innovation remains in the United States, Japan, and Europe. Indeed, leading companies there have adjusted to compete in a world with huge markets outside their borders and aggressively competing emerging world class companies. They are competing smarter and are fighting back”.

“Boehner facing tough choices”

28/06/2013

Washington Democrats are planning a full-court press on John Boehner (R-Ohio)  now that immigration reform is squarely in the Speaker’s court. The  Senate’s passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill Thursday has sent  the package to the House and left Boehner facing tough choices about his next  steps in the face of a sharply divided GOP conference – steps he has yet to  announce”.

The weapons arrive

28/06/2013

An article in the Wall Street Journal notes that the weapons shipments that were authorised by President Obama have begun to arrive in Syria.

It begins noting that “The Central Intelligence Agency has begun moving weapons to Jordan from a network of secret warehouses and plans to start arming small groups of vetted Syrian rebels within a month, expanding U.S. support of moderate forces battling President Bashar al-Assad, according to diplomats and U.S. officials briefed on the plans. The shipments, related training and a parallel push to mobilize arms deliveries from European and Arab allies are being timed to allow a concerted push by the rebels starting by early August”.

It adds that “The CIA is expected to spend up to three weeks bringing light arms and possibly antitank missiles to Jordan. The agency plans to spend roughly two weeks more vetting an initial group of fighters and making sure they know how to use the weapons that they are given, clearing the way for the first U.S.-armed rebels to enter the fight, diplomats briefed on the CIA’s plans said. Talks are under way with other countries, including France, about pre-positioning European-procured weapons in Jordan. Saudi Arabia is expected to provide shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, known as Manpads, to a small number of handpicked fighters, as few as 20 at first, officials and diplomats said. The U.S. would monitor this effort, too, to try to reduce the risk that the Manpads could fall into the hands of Islamists. Up to a few hundred of the fighters will enter Syria under the program each month, starting in August, according to diplomats briefed on CIA plans”.

The artilce goes on to say that it could take four or five months before there are evough moderate fighters armed and trained. Importantly the article notes “Obama’s decision reflects growing U.S. fears that Mr. Assad, bolstered by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters and armed by Russia, will prevail in the conflict, according to current and former U.S. officials. The president’s decision followed urgent appeals by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other allies for greater U.S. involvement.The U.S. shift was a response in part to a determination by intelligence agencies that Mr. Assad used chemical weapons in the conflict, crossing a “red line” set by Mr. Obama, administration officials said. The U.S. effort is designed to strengthen forces loyal to Gen. Salim Idris, the top Syrian rebel commander backed by the West. The aim is to give them more clout than Islamist extremist antiregime fighters who now dominate in some areas, and eventually to shift the war in the rebels’ favor, reversing gains by regime forces bolstered by an influx of Hezbollah fighters, officials said. U.S. intelligence agencies now think that there are 2,500 to 4,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria, U.S. officials said. The CIA has put in place what officials have described as an ‘elaborate’ vetting procedure for the rebels they train. But officials acknowledged the difficulty of getting reliable information about the backgrounds of individual foot soldiers in a country where the CIA has limited intelligence-collection resources”.

The article concludes “The agency is under pressure from the White House and Congress to minimize the risk that American arms could be diverted to hardline Islamists, particularly the al Qaeda-aligned al Nusra Front. Mr. Obama rejected a proposal last year for the CIA to arm moderate rebels because of concerns that weapons would end up in the hands of extremists. But administration officials said the agency has a much better understanding today of who’s who in the opposition, and has confidence in Gen. Idris’s leadership”.

This point makes sense and in general should be adhered to but in the real world there is little.

Israel’s first customer?

28/06/2013

Jordan has been holding talks to become the first country to buy natural gas from Israel, which on Sunday approved a plan to export 40% of energy reserves recently discovered beneath the Mediterranean Sea, analysts and people familiar with the talks said. A deal would offer Jordan a cheap energy source and relieve a painful energy crisis. Two years of supply shortages from Egypt’s pipeline to Jordan have spurred price increases, domestic unrest and has the government weighing brownouts”.

Another abdication

28/06/2013

Following on from the resignation of Pope Benedict, the abdication of Queen Beatrix, as had been noted previously, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh  Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has abdicated in favour of his designated heir. Some have suggested that the new emir “may signal the governing family’s intention to offer Qataris a taste of expanded personal freedoms, even if democracy is not explicitly on the agenda. There are some hints that already have at least a few Qataris excited. (For most, a beneficent feudal monarchy appears just fine, thanks, and they demonstrated their appreciation by lining up by the thousands, on foot and in their Mercedes and other luxury cars, to visit the two emirs, incoming and outgoing, in their palace on Tuesday and pledge their allegiance.)  Najeeb al-Nauimi, the lawyer for Qatar’s only political prisoner, Mohammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, said he was hopeful. His client was jailed for life last year for writing a poem that, in a fairly tame manner, criticized “sheiks playing on their PlayStations.” Mr. Ajami was arrested under a constitutional provision that forbids criticism of the emir, however indirect. Mr. Nauimi, who said he has known the incoming emir since the sheik was 9 years old, said Tuesday that Sheik Tamim had told him that Mr. Ajami would be released within a few days of the new emir’s accession to power. That does not speak to democracy as much as it does to the absolute power of the monarch, but all the same, Mr. Nauimi hoped it would be a signal of openness to come”.

The article adds, “The outgoing emir already promised parliamentary elections by the end of the year — a constitutional requirement that is long overdue. Mr. Nauimi is among those agitating for amendments to the Constitution that would let that Parliament appoint the prime minister, paving the way for a constitutional monarchy inching closer to the British model and away from the autocratic style of the Persian Gulf states.  It would be the first such example in any of the gulf’s monarchies, and one of the few in the Arab world”.

Separate reports note that “The new emir of Qatar, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, on Thursday signaled continuity in international affairs and change on the domestic front with the appointment of a new cabinet, one that will be headed by a longtime secret policeman. While there was no immediate official announcement of the cabinet from the government’s Qatar News Agency when it was appointed on Wednesday, Qatari newspapers on Thursday published a complete list of the members. It will be led by Sheik Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani, holding the roles of prime minister and interior minister. His age was not announced, but he is a 1984 graduate of Durham Military College in Britain, according to his official biography, which would make him about 50.  In addition to running internal state security for many years, the new prime minister has been in charge of his country’s antiterrorism efforts”.

It continues, “The new emir suggested that he would continue his father’s foreign policy, and the appointment of the longtime deputy foreign minister, Khalid al-Attiyah, as foreign minister suggested as much. He is close to the previous emir and deeply involved in many of Qatar’s international mediation efforts. But a new prime minister whose second portfolio is the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and internal security affairs, was widely read as a signal that the new emir would be refocusing on domestic affairs. There has been no suggestion of any internal security threat, and dissent in wealthy Qatar, which has only 250,000 citizens, is nearly unknown. Sheik Abdullah, the new prime minister, had been the minister of state for internal affairs since February 2005. In recent years, he was widely viewed as the de facto minister of interior.  The Qatari cabinet also includes one woman, Hessa Sultan al-Jaber. She is one of few to hold such a position anywhere in the region and is the minister of communication and information technology”.

An article ties the abdication in with the Arab revolutions, “Over the last week, Qatar completed a virtually unprecedented and brilliantly stage-managed leadership transition from the 61-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to his 33-year-old son, Tamim. In the process, Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani (perhaps better known in the West by his initials, HBJ) was also removed from his longtime perch as one of the region’s most outspoken foreign ministers. The whole thing has been so carefully prepared and easily presented that it’s easy to overlook the genuinely shocking nature of this transfer of power. Vanishingly few modern Arab leaders have ever voluntarily stepped down, even when terminally ill, incapacitated, or deeply unpopular (none of which apply to the outgoing emir). While great pains will be taken to emphasize the difference between the emir’s abdication and the regimes overthrown during by the Arab uprisings, the fact remains that the emir has become the fifth Arab head of state to leave office since January 2011. Certainly, an orderly transition to the emir’s son does not look much like the popular uprisings that claimed the regimes of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi”.

He writes “the story sounded too much like the periodic rumors of a military coup against the Al Thanis circulated by Syrian, Egyptian, and Saudi critics of Qatar. And while the outgoing emir has significant health problems, that didn’t stop King Fahd from ruling Saudi Arabia for a decade as a vegetable”. He goes on to argue that the trend set by the emir will not be continued across the Middle East, even though some, notably Bahrain, could benefit from such a move.

He goes on to argue that “the intense crackdowns across the Gulf over the last few years on human rights activists, political protests, Shiite citizens, the Muslim Brotherhood, and even online “insults” to the leadership show just how insecure and paranoid these regimes have become. Some have portrayed Sheikh Hamad’s move as a prophylactic against the coming wave of challenges to the rulers of the Gulf, getting ahead of the curve with a transition before the storm. But few saw tiny, inordinately wealthy Qatar as a remotely likely candidate for such uprisings, even compared with the other Gulf states. Ironically, Sheikh Hamad’s decision to transfer power to an untested young successor — and during such testing times — may be a sign of how relatively secure that regime is relative to its Arab counterparts”.

Perhaps most importantly of all he writes that “What most non-Qataris really want to know is what this change means for Qatari foreign policy. Allow me to summarize in two words the thousand articles already written on the subject: Nobody knows. Qatar’s regime has always enjoyed exceptional autonomy from both domestic and international pressures in its foreign policymaking. Decisions on this front have been highly centralized and personalised, with leaders facing very few domestic political constraints. That means that the young, little-known Emir Tamim has perhaps more freedom than any other leader in the world to take whatever path he prefers. And nobody really knows what he prefers”.

While it is not certain, in all likelhood the new emir will keep to broadly the same lines as his father. This will in all probablilty mean maintaining the policy of arming the rebels in Syria and doing all possible to isolate Iran as much as possible.

Adjourned indefinitely

28/06/2013

the Supreme Court [of Pakistan] adjourned the hearing of the treason case against the former military dictator for an indefinite period to hold consultations over setting up of a special court to hear the case against the ex-army strongman. The apex court also rejected a plea to order the formal arrest of Musharraf citing that no formal charges against the former president had been put before the court. Earlier during the hearing , Attorney General Munir A. Malik submitted the government’s line of action in the case which said that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had ordered the FIA to conduct an inquiry into the actions of Musharraf on November 3, 2007, the day when he held the constitution in abeyance and imposed emergency in the country, sacking dozens of judges of the superior courts”.

A letter from Francis

28/06/2013

Pope Francis has, in an effort to reform the Vatican Bank (formally the Institute for Works of Religion) appointed a small panel to examine the role of the IOR and see what can be done. Francis has set up the body through a letter (chirograph) the full name of which is the Pontifical Advisory Commission on the Institute for the Works of Religion.

The members of the body are Raffaele Cardinal Farina, SDB, archivist emeritus of the Holy Roman Church, who is serving as president, Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran who’s full time role is that of president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The co-ordinator of the group is Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta Ochoa de Chinchetru who since 2007 is the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Leglisative Texts. The other two members are Msgr Peter Brian Wells who is the Assessore for General Affairs who will serve as the secretary of the group and finally, Professor Mary Ann Glendon, president of the Pontifcal Academy for Social Sciences and former US ambassador to the Holy See.

Rocco writes that “While four senior Vatican prelates form the “guts” of the effort, the pontiff rounded out the group by naming Mary Ann Glendon – the Harvard Law professor and former US ambassador to the Holy See – to its membership.  A veteran Roman hand and conservative favorite on both sides of the Atlantic, Glendon – the first woman named to lead the Holy See’s delegation to a UN conference, who famously declined Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal instead of sharing the stage with President Obama at the university’s 2009 commencement – was one of two Americans tapped, alongside the Curia’s ‘deputy chief of staff,’ the Assessore of the Secretariat of State, Oklahoma’s own Msgr Peter Wells”.

He goes on to mention that “announcement said the move was born from “the Holy Father’s desire to better grasp the juridical position and the activities of the Institute, [thus] to enable a better harmonising of it with the mission of the universal church and the Apostolic See, in the more general context of the reforms that are opportune to be realized on the part of [all] the institutions that aid the Apostolic See.’ Shortly after Francis’ election, a flurry of speculation broke out that Papa Bergoglio was intent on closing the bank, whose decades of travails and links with scandal have arguably made it the Vatican’s easiest whipping-boy of all. Already, the IOR is formally overseen by two entities: a commission of five cardinals and a separate supervisory board, whose secretary, Carl Anderson, is best known as the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, the global church’s largest lay fraternal organisation”.

Rocco notes the inclusion of Cardinal Farina who was in less than a year became a bishop and then cardinal. Farina, 79, is close to Cardinal Bertone who Rocco describes as the “lame-duck” Secretary of State. It is of course, unclear as to why Farina was included when there are other, more suitable candidates.

“Mistakes in his first year”

28/06/2013

Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, used a televised address on Wednesday to admit to making mistakes in his first year in office. But the president also widened the divide between his Islamist supporters and Egypt’s secular opposition during his speech, blaming unspecified “enemies of Egypt” for sabotaging the democratic system and warning that the polarised state of the country’s politics threatened to plunge it into chaos. Morsi pledged to introduce ‘radical and quick’ reforms in state institutions, admitting some of his goals had not been achieved. ‘Today, I present an audit of my first year, with full transparency, along with a roadmap. Some things were achieved and others not,’ he said. ‘I have made mistakes on a number of issues.’ Yet in a meandering speech that lasted more than two and a half hours, Morsi refused to offer serious concessions to the opposition – and pointedly praised the army, whom many opposition members hope will facilitate a transition of power in the coming weeks. On a night when many hoped he would strike a conciliatory tone, Morsi instead criticised opposition politicians for failing to engage in what he perceives to be constructive dialogue”.

DOMA overturned

26/06/2013

In a historic ruling the Supreme Court of the United States has formally overturned a 1996 law signed by President Clinton. News reports note that “The Supreme Court on Wednesday cleared the way for same-sex couples to marry in California, but avoided directly answering constitutional questions about state marriage laws. In a 5-4 decision, the court said procedural issues prevented it from reaching a ruling on the merits of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state”.

Naturally, President Obama welcomed the news, “Obama placed congratulatory phone calls to the gay rights activists who prevailed in a pair of Supreme Court cases Wednesday, telling them he was proud of their efforts and pleased that the Defense of Marriage Act and a ruling restricting gay marriage in California had been overturned”.

News articles report “The Supreme  Court dramatically expanded the rights of same-sex couples Wednesday, striking  down federal restrictions and clearing the way for gay couples to marry in  California. With a throng of advocates waiting outside in sweltering heat, the court  delivered long-awaited decisions in a pair of historic cases on marriage  rights. Taken together, the decisions held that the federal government cannot deny  benefits to legally married couples, but the justices strenuously avoided even a  narrow ruling on state marriage laws. In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court struck down a  provision of the Defence of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to  same-sex couples even in states that recognise same-sex marriage. ‘DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned  same-sex marriages; for it tells these couples, and all the world, that their  otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition,’ Kennedy  wrote”.

What is clear is that justices voted on “party” lines with, the case, United States v. Windsor, being decided by the liberal justices, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan with the conservative justices, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito all voting against the case in various forms and opinions. This means either there was no attempt to bridge the gap betweeen the two camps as in the Affordable Health Care Act judgement, or more likely, there was an attempt but it could not be bridged.

The news report goes on to mention part of the reason behind the judgment as well as the second case, Hollingsworth
v. Perry
, “The court’s rulings accompany a dramatic shift in public and political  attitudes toward same-sex marriage. Polls show that increasingly large  majorities of voters support same-sex marriage rights. And, not including  California, 12 states have legalized it, including three of them since March,  when the court heard oral arguments in the marriage cases. Most legal observers believed the shift in public opinion would nudge the  justices toward narrowly expanding same-sex couples’ rights while preserving the  states’ ability to set their own laws. Tuesday’s decisions indicated that the  justices are indeed willing to let the issue continue to play out through  democratic processes in the states. In a second 5-4 decision, the court avoided even its narrowest options for  ruling on the merits of Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage.  The justices said they could not rule in the case because Proposition 8’s  defenders did not have legal standing to defend the law in court. Kennedy dissented from that decision and said the court could have ruled on  Proposition 8, even though he suggested during oral arguments that the court  made a mistake by agreeing to hear the case”.

The decision was met with mixed reponses for the GOP, with some members calling for a renewed push to ban gay marriage, with the piece mentions “John Boehner (R-Ohio), who organised DOMA’s legal defence, was more  subdued. ‘While I am obviously disappointed in the ruling, it is always critical that  we protect our system of checks and balances,’ Boehner said. ‘A robust national  debate over marriage will continue in the public square, and it is my hope that  states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman.’ The court made a point to say its decision did not affect state laws defining  marriage but rather was limited to DOMA, a federal law the court said was  designed primarily to discriminate”.

The problem however for Boehner is that the hard right of the House GOP, in safe seats, are concerned about midterm primaries and are in no mood to see themselves outflanked by someone to their right. Yet Boehner is equally worried, or at least should be, about the GOP image for both the midterms but also 2016 where he has been struggling to shift how the public, especially the young, view the party. Calls for banning gay marriage and the lack of movement in the House for any substantial immigration reform will not help the Party in the long term.

Shortly after the ruling by the Court, it was reported that the remainder of the legislation would be overturned ,”Democrats in both chambers will introduce legislation this week to scrap the  Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in its entirety.  The move is an indication  that the lawmakers, while delighted with the Supreme Court’s Wednesday decision  to invalidate much of the 17-year-old law barring same-sex marriage, don’t think  the ruling went far enough to protect gay and lesbian couples from  discrimination. ‘We should celebrate today — it’s a great day — but our  work is not yet over,’ Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) told reporters in the  Capitol. ‘We still need to wipe DOMA in its entirety off the  books.’ Nadler, senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee’s subpanel on  the Constitution and Civil Justice, said he’ll introduce legislation Wednesday  afternoon that would do just that”.

The peice goes on to add detail, “In its 5-4 decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of DOMA,  which bars same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits, even in states that  recognize gay marriage, is unconstitutional. But the court did not  consider Section 2, which stipulates that states don’t have to recognize the  same-sex marriages allowed by other states”.

A different piece has noted the amount of regulations that will need to be reformed/abolished following the Windsor ruling, “The scope of the high court’s ruling goes far beyond Social Security checks  and joint tax returns. Its implications extend to everything from policies at  the Pentagon to the immigration reform bill now being debated in Congress. Within hours of the ruling, President Obama directed Attorney General Eric  Holder and other members of his Cabinet to begin poring over relevant federal  statutes and regulations that might need to be adjusted in light of the 5-4  decision to strike down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act”.

Rocco views the verdict from a Catholic viewpoint, “the Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, granting full federal benefits to same-sex couples who’ve been married in states which have sanctioned the unions, while at the same time declining to rule on California’s Proposition 8, effectively upholding a lower court’s  overturn of the 2008 state referendum that banned gay marriage, yet stopping short of a national verdict on the hot-button issue. To date, some 32 states have precluded same-sex marriage either by statute or constitutional amendment, while eleven others and the District of Columbia have granted full recognition to the unions, no less than three – Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island (per capita, the US’ most densely-Catholic state) – having done so within the last six weeks. Having waged an intense fight in recent years for the defense of traditional marriage – even as a slim majority of the faithful now back full recognition for gay couples – statements from Catholic entities with official standing will be run here as they emerge”.

Ironically, Bill Clinton who signed the law welcomed the overturning of DOMA.

He goes on to mention the statement issued from the president of the USCCB, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, “Today is a tragic day for marriage and our nation. The Supreme Court has dealt a profound injustice to the American people by striking down in part the federal Defense of Marriage Act.  The Court got it wrong. The federal government ought to respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so. The preservation of liberty and justice requires that all laws, federal and state, respect the truth, including the truth about marriage. It is also unfortunate that the Court did not take the opportunity to uphold California’s Proposition 8 but instead decided not to rule on the matter”.

He ends his post, “All that said, a Vatican response to the rulings is unlikely. For one, the Holy See is generally reluctant to react – especially in a negative sense – to matters of domestic policy, all the more when they’re decided in the courts”.

It is an interesting juxtaposition that Rome had more sense on this issue than Cardinal Dolan. By saying without any hint of shame that the Court made the wrong ruling Cardinal Dolan has opened himself up to criticism that he is leading the bishops in an increasingly partisan tone. Dolan goes on to wildly insuniate that “liberty and justice” are under threat as a result of this decision which is plainly laughable. Using such over the top language has little place in the civil discourse to say nothing of Dolan’s position as archbishop of New York. The Church has a right, even duty, to speak out where it sees fit, however doing so in this manner does nothing for the reputation of the Church.

69-29

26/06/2013

“The Senate moved closer to passage of comprehensive immigration reform legislation on Wednesday by approving a “border security surge” in a 69-29 vote. Fifteen Republicans voted for the major amendment, putting the Gang of Eight close to their target of winning 70 votes for final passage. The Senate also defeated a GOP budget point of order that sought to stop the immigration measure.

China does nothing

26/06/2013

Reports that Edward Snowden has fled Hong Kong to an unknown destination has left the Obama administration angry. The anger felt by the administration has been publicly displayed.

It opens “Hong Kong’s decision to allow Edward Snowden to board a flight to Russia ‘unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship,’ the White  House said Monday. White House press secretary Jay Carney offered a blistering statement at his  press briefing, saying the U.S. didn’t believe Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous  government allowed the man accused of leaking national security secrets to the  media on a technicality”.

The article adds “The decision to allow Snowden to leave was ‘particularly troubling’ because  Chinese authorities raised no technical red flags about the initial extradition  request, Carney said. Snowden, who has admitted to releasing details about a pair of top-secret  National Security Agency surveillance programs, arrived in Moscow on Sunday from  Hong Kong, where he had sought refuge after disclosing classified information  about the NSA’s surveillance of phone and Internet traffic. He is reportedly  seeking asylum in Ecuador — the nation that gave WikiLeaks founder, Julian  Assange, refuge in its London embassy”.

The piece goes on to mention “The Hong Kong government maintained over the weekend that an American request  to extradite the admitted leaker did not include enough information to legally  detain Snowden or prevent him from leaving the country, despite federal charges  of espionage and theft. But Carney said the charges against Snowden ‘complied with all the  requirements of the U.S.-Hong Kong surrender agreement’ said Hong Kong  authorities had ‘plenty of time’ to act. Officials at the State Department, Department of Justice and Federal Bureau  of Investigation had all reached out to their counterparts in Hong Kong in hopes  of securing extradition of the 30-year-old Defense contractor back to the United  States. Carney also confirmed that Attorney General Eric Holder had reached out to  authorities in Hong Kong, but would not say if President Obama had attempted to  intervene — nor would he confirm whether the president had reached out to  Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is unclear what role China may have played in Hong Kong’s decision. The  nation is a part of China but has a semi-autonomous government.  The U.S. and  China had exchanged accusations of cyber spying even before the Snowden affair  exploded into the news”.

Interestingly the piece concludes “Carney also said that Snowden’s rumoured travel through authoritarian  countries was evidence that his ‘true motive has been to injure the national  security’ of the United States”. The strange thing with Snowden and Assange is that they protest about America’s activities and at the same time destroy whatever credibility they have by seeking refuge in less than democratic countries with an less than free press and viturally unckeched executive power.

All the while

26/06/2013

Taliban militants attacked an entrance to the Afghan presidential palace with gunfire and car bombs on Tuesday, just a week after insurgent leaders opened an office in Qatar for peace talks. Three Afghan security guards were killed when Taliban gunmen and bombers attacked the presidential palace and CIA base in Kabul on Tuesday, officials said. ‘Three guards assigned at the first entrance are dead and another of them is wounded,’ Rafi Ferdous, a government spokesman, told AFP. t was one of the most brazen attacks in the capital since President Hamid Karzai narrowly escaped assassination in April 2008 when the Taliban attacked an annual military parade in Kabul. Gunfire and explosions erupted for more than an hour after the attack began at 6:30 am, sending smoke into the air above a high-security area of Kabul that also contains many embassies and official buildings”. All of this happened while peace talks are supposedly ongoing.

Worse than Mubarak

24/06/2013

Nobel PrizePeace winning, former head of the IAEA, Dr  Mohamed El Baradei has written a justifiably scathing article on President Hosni Mubarak’s successor, Mohamed Morsi.

He writes that “Two years after the revolution that toppled a dictator, Egypt is already a failed state. According to the Failed States Index, in the year before the uprising we ranked No. 45. After Hosni Mubarak fell, we worsened to 31st. I haven’t checked recently — I don’t want to get more depressed. But the evidence is all around us. Today you see an erosion of state authority in Egypt. The state is supposed to provide security and justice; that’s the most basic form of statehood. But law and order is disintegrating. In 2012, murders were up 130 percent, robberies 350 percent, and kidnappings 145 percent, according to the Interior Ministry. You see people being lynched in public, while others take pictures of the scene. Mind you, this is the 21st century — not the French Revolution!”

He goes on to mention “Egypt could risk a default on its foreign debt over the next few months, and the government is desperately trying to get a credit line from here and there — but that’s not how to get the economy back to work. You need foreign investment, you need sound economic policies, you need functioning institutions, and you need skilled labour. So far, however, the Egyptian government has only offered a patchwork vision and ad hoc economic policies, with no steady hand at the helm of the state. The government adopted some austerity measures in December to satisfy certain IMF requirements, only to repeal them by morning. Meanwhile, prices are soaring and the situation is becoming untenable, particularly for the nearly half of Egyptians who live on less than $2 a day. The executive branch has no clue how to run Egypt. It’s not a question of whether they are Muslim Brothers or liberals — it’s a question of people who have no vision or experience. They do not know how to diagnose the problem and then provide the solution. They are simply not qualified to govern”.

The article goes on to add “We need a broad-based committee to amend the Egyptian Constitution, which pretty much everyone agrees falls short of ensuring a proper balance of power and guaranteeing basic rights and freedoms. And we need a political partnership between the other established parties — including those with an Islamic orientation — and the Muslim Brotherhood, which represents probably less than 20 percent of the country. Unfortunately, these recommendations have fallen on deaf ears. The Brothers are also losing badly because, despite all their great slogans, they haven’t been able to deliver. People want to have food on the table, health care, education, all of that — and the government has not been able to meet expectations. The Brotherhood doesn’t have the qualified people, who hail mostly from liberal and leftist parties. You need to form a grand coalition, and you need to put your ideological differences aside and work together to focus on people’s basic needs. You can’t eat sharia”.

He ends ominously, “There are worse things than state failure, and I’m afraid Egypt is teetering on the brink”.

“Still trails the US”

24/06/2013

Chinese aerospace firms have developed dozens of drones, known also as  unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Many have appeared at air shows and military  parades, including some that bear an uncanny resemblance to the Predator, Global  Hawk and Reaper models used with deadly effect by the U.S. Air Force and CIA.  Analysts say that although China still trails the U.S. and Israel, the industry  leaders, its technology is maturing rapidly and on the cusp of widespread use  for surveillance and combat strikes. ‘My sense is that China is moving into large-scale deployments of UAVs,’ said  Ian Easton, co-author of a recent report on Chinese drones for the Project 2049  Institute security think tank”.

German “leadership”

24/06/2013

In an article written in the Economist, the role of Germany is examined in relation to the Euro crisis but also more generally on the continent.

The piece opens noting Germany’s strength, “Germany now appears to have the continent’s strongest as well as its biggest economy. It accounts for a fifth of the European Union’s output and a quarter of its exports. From Volkswagen to SAP, Germany’s big companies are world-renowned. Many smaller German firms are global champions in niche markets such as tunnel-boring machines and industrial cleaners. Germany’s jobless rate, at 5.4% (using standardised OECD statistics), is less than half Europe’s average. Youth unemployment, a scourge throughout much of the rest of the continent, is at a 20-year low in Germany. The country’s budget is balanced, government debt is falling and long-term bond yields are the lowest in Europe. It is the largest creditor country in the euro zone, and as chief paymaster it has the biggest clout in determining the single currency’s future”.

The piece adds that this strength is enhanced by the weakness of other continental “powers”, it mentions “Britain, outside the euro and distracted by a domestic debate about its EU membership, has lost influence. The Franco-German tandem at the core of post-war European integration has become lopsided. Relations between Berlin and Paris are unusually poor, with some French politicians decrying the ‘selfish intransigence’ in the euro crisis of Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. The economic gap between Germany and France is wider than it has ever been. France’s economy is stagnant, statist and uncompetitive and urgently needs reform”.

Thankfully the article goes on to balance its praise for Germany with real critisism, “German predominance is not all-encompassing. In foreign affairs and military matters, for instance, France and Britain still play a much bigger role. But across a large swathe of European policy, Germany has become much more than a first among equals”.

This has been seen repeatedly, firstly with the lack of German invovlement in Libya, despite UN backing, because it was too “dangerous”, then again more recently when the country had an insignificant role in the crisis in Mali, giving some transport assistance to the Franco-British duo who did the real work.

The article succintly summarises the debate going on inside Europe about Germany, “Outside Germany this dominance has become the subject of lively debate. The ‘German question’—about the role of a country too big for Europe and too small for the world, as Henry Kissinger famously put it—is back on the agenda. Many fret that Germany is becoming too bossy. Newspaper cartoons in southern Europe show Mrs Merkel with a Hitler moustache. Southern European politicians say Germany is selfishly wielding its clout to impose austerity policies that will wreck their part of Europe in order to protect German taxpayers. Others are worried that Germany is being too passive. Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, fears German inaction more than German power. On this view, Germany does not want, and cannot exercise, the leadership required of a predominant power. In the language of political scientists, it lacks the capacity to act as Europe’s hegemon—a leading country that takes responsibility for the stability of an international system as a whole, as America does for the world”.

Ironically the piece points out that “Within Germany this debate is almost wholly absent. Germans are deeply ambivalent about their growing role in Europe, and generally uncomfortable talking about leadership. The mere vocabulary is fraught with historical echoes. The German world for leader is Führer, the title adopted by Adolf Hitler. Mention the word ‘hegemon’, and German politicians flinch. Mrs Merkel recently described the concept as ‘totally foreign to me’. Strategic thinking is strikingly absent anywhere in government”.

The dangers of this are apparent. If European peace is to survive, to say nothing of the EU, then Germany must decide what it is willing to do to, if anything, to save its “currency”. Not only that but it must also be willing to play a substantial part in Europe for decades to come. Either that or it must begin to somehow, wind down the entire euro, if not EU, project altogether.  It cannot be proud of its achievements and at the same time whine that too much is being asked of it.

The piece ends that Merkel is likely to win re-election, to the obvious anger of many, but her CDU/CSU “is not strong enough to govern alone, and support for its current coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), has slumped. Mrs Merkel might end up governing in a grand coalition with the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). And given Germany’s complicated system of proportional representation, it is not inconceivable that Mrs Merkel will be defeated by a coalition of the SPD and the Green party”.

The piece goes on to warn “whatever its outcome, the election is unlikely to prompt a sudden shift in Germany’s policy towards the euro or the EU: German attitudes to Europe and to leadership run deeper than party politics”.
It goes on to metion that this lack of strategic thinking is rooted in history, “Germany’s economic miracle after the second world war, the Wirtschaftswunder, happened when it was divided in two and its old capital, Berlin, was occupied by foreign armies. The former West Germany was a semi-sovereign political pygmy, protected by America’s military might and with barely any foreign policy of its own. As a result, the country has no machinery or tradition of strategic thinking, and most Germans are loth to see their government take the lead. Germany’s preferred self-image is as a bigger version of Switzerland: economically successful but politically modest”.

Yet while this excuse is plausible in so far as it goes, it ignores the fact that Germany has for decades dominated the EU, despite the various iterations of Merkozy. This German power has grown especially pronounced in recent years with the continuing decline of France.

The other historical legacies it lays out are a “belief in European integration. After the second world war Europe offered West Germany a route to reconciliation and redemption as well as prosperity” as well as a “craving for stability, not least because Germans have not had much of it. The 68 years since the end of the second world war have been the longest continuous period of peace in their patch of Europe since the 16th century”.

However history merely takes a holiday, if even that, as some have said and now the Euopean holiday from history is well and truly over.

It ends “The euro crisis is problematic for German politicians because it brings these powerful historical forces—reluctance to lead, desire for European integration and fear of instability—into conflict. Germans are instinctively pro-European. According to a recent Pew poll, 60% of them have a favourable view of the EU”.

The piece rightly excorcates the German political class, “German politicians in general, and Mrs Merkel in particular, have pandered to Germans’ small-country mentality and their belief that responsibility for fixing the euro lies elsewhere. The one country with the capacity to lay out a strategic vision for the single currency’s future is unwilling to do so”.

It ends on a note of realism, “Even more important, Germany is changing fast. Its population is the oldest in Europe, and the number of people of working age is about to shrink sharply. A widespread shortage of workers will drive Germany to welcome more immigrants and encourage women to spend more time on paid work, which will profoundly affect its economy and its society. In time, it will also have a big impact on the way it conducts itself in the European Union”.

The piece did not mention however the inherent weakness of the much touted German economy.

Clashes in Lebanon

24/06/2013

At least 16 Lebanese soldiers have been killed in clashes with Sunni militants in the port city of Sidon. Fighting broke out after supporters of a radical Sunni cleric opened fire on a checkpoint on Sunday. Clashes continued overnight as security forces tried to surround the cleric’s supporters, local media say. Sectarian tensions in Lebanon have risen since the country’s Shia movement Hezbollah backed Syria’s government in the civil war there. Witnesses said machine gun and rocket fire shook Sidon, 40km (28 miles) south of Beirut, causing panic among residents. The army blamed the violence on supporters of hardline Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. The incident is a further stark reminder of how the violence in Syria is destabilising life in neighbouring Lebanon”.

What competition? – Part V

24/06/2013

As part of the series on the competition to America, an interesting article from 2009 was published.

It begins discussing the claim that a power shift is underway, “Dine on a steady diet of books like The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East or When China Rules the World, and it’s easy to think that the future belongs to Asia. As one prominent herald of the region’s rise put it, ‘We are entering a new era of world history: the end of Western domination and the arrival of the Asian century.’Sustained, rapid economic growth since World War II has undeniably boosted the region’s economic output and military capabilities. But it’s a gross exaggeration to say that Asia will emerge as the world’s predominant power player”.

He makes the valid point that “Asia is nowhere near closing its economic and military gap with the West. The region produces roughly 30 percent of global economic output, but because of its huge population, its per capita gdp is only $5,800, compared with $48,000 in the United States. Asian countries are furiously upgrading their militaries, but their combined military spending in 2008 was still only a third that of the United States. Even at current torrid rates of growth, it will take the average Asian 77 years to reach the income of the average American. The Chinese need 47 years. For Indians, the figure is 123 years. And Asia’s combined military budget won’t equal that of the United States for 72 years”.

The article adds that there is nothing in Asia that suggests it has the ability to be a thought leader to challenge the United States in the future, “In any case, it is meaningless to talk about Asia as a single entity of power, now or in the future. Far more likely is that the fast ascent of one regional player will be greeted with alarm by its closest neighbors. Asian history is replete with examples of competition for power and even military conflict among its big players. China and Japan have fought repeatedly over Korea; the Soviet Union teamed up with India and Vietnam to check China, while China supported Pakistan to counterbalance India. Already, China’s recent rise has pushed Japan and India closer together. If Asia is becoming the world’s center of geopolitical gravity, it’s a murky middle indeed. Those who think Asia’s gains in hard power will inevitably lead to its geopolitical dominance might also want to look at another crucial ingredient of clout: ideas. Pax Americana was made possible not only by the overwhelming economic and military might of the United States but also by a set of visionary ideas: free trade, Wilsonian liberalism, and multilateral institutions. Although Asia today may have the world’s most dynamic economies, it does not seem to play an equally inspiring role as a thought leader”.

He destroys the argument that the rise of Asia is unquestionable, “Asia’s recent track record might seem to guarantee its economic superpower status. Goldman Sachs, for instance, expects that China will surpass the United States in economic output in 2027 and India will catch up by 2050. Given Asia’s relatively low per capita income, its growth rate will indeed outpace the West’s for the foreseeable future. But the region faces enormous demographic hurdles in the decades ahead. More than 20 percent of Asians will be elderly by 2050. Aging is a principal cause of Japan’s stagnation. China’s elderly population will soar in the middle of the next decade. Its savings rate will fall while healthcare and pension costs explode. India is a lone exception to these trends-any one of which could help stall the region’s growth. Environmental and natural resource constraints could also prove crippling”. He also makes the point that the region is not known for its stability, be it the constant riots in China, the problem of North Korea or the host of other problems that impede the regions long term prospects.

Discussing the claim that Asian capitalism is “more dynamic” he argues “But though Asian economies-with the notable exception of Japan-are among the fastest-growing in the world today, there’s little real evidence to suggest that their apparent dynamism comes from a mysteriously successful form of Asian capitalism. The truth is more mundane: The region’s dynamism owes a great deal to its strong fundamentals (high savings, urbanization, and demographics) and the benefits of free trade, market reforms, and economic integration. Asia’s relative backwardness is a blessing in one sense: Asian countries have to grow faster because they’re starting from a much lower base”.

On the topic of Asian innovation, he writes that “If you look only at the growing number of U.S. patents awarded to Asian inventors, the United States appears to have a dramatically receding edge in innovation. South Korean inventors, for example, received 8,731 U.S. patents in 2008-compared with 13 in 1978. In 2008, close to 37,000 U.S. patents went to Japanese inventors. The trend seems sufficiently alarming that one study ranked the United States eighth in terms of innovation, behind Singapore, South Korea, and Switzerland. Reports of the death of America’s technological leadership are, to paraphrase Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. Although Asia’s advanced economies, such as Japan and South Korea, are closing the gap, the United States’ lead remains huge. In 2008, American inventors were awarded 92,000 U.S. patents, twice the combined total given to South Korean and Japanese inventors. Asia’s two giants, China and India, still lag far behind. Asia is pouring money into higher education. But Asian universities will not become the world’s leading centers of learning and research anytime soon. None of the world’s top 10 universities is located in Asia, and only the University of Tokyo ranks among the world’s top 20. In the last 30 years, only eight Asians, seven of them Japanese, have won a Nobel Prize in the sciences”.

The writer goes on to obliterate the myth that Asia’s autocracies are behind the “rise” of the continent, “Autocracies, mainly in East Asia, may seem to have made their countries prosperous. The so-called dragon economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia under Suharto, and now China experienced their fastest growth under nondemocratic regimes. Frequent comparisons between China and India appear to support the view that a one-party state unencumbered by messy competitive politics can deliver economic goods better than a multiparty system tied down by too much democracy.But Asia also has had many autocracies that have impoverished their countries-consider the tragic list of Burma, Pakistan, North Korea, Laos, Cambodia under the murderous Khmer Rouge, and the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos. Even China is a mixed example. Before the Middle Kingdom emerged from self-imposed isolation and totalitarian rule in 1976, its economic growth was subpar”.

Next he deals with China, something that has been dealt with here before but he adds “Although it is true that China will become Asia’s strongest country by any measure, its rise has inherent limits. China is unlikely to dominate Asia in the sense that it replaces the United States as the region’s peacekeeper and decisively influences other countries’ foreign policies. Its economic growth is also by no means guaranteed. Restive secession-minded minorities (Tibetans and Uighurs) inhabit strategically important areas that constitute almost 30 percent of Chinese territory. Taiwan, which is unlikely to return to China’s fold anytime soon, ties down substantial Chinese military resources. The ruling Chinese Communist Party, which views perpetuating its one-party state as more important than overseas expansionism, is not likely to be seduced by delusions of imperial grandeur. China has formidable neighbors in Russia, India, and Japan that will fiercely resist any Chinese attempts to become the regional hegemon. Even Southeast Asia, where China appears to have reaped the most geopolitical gains in recent years, has been reluctant to fall into China’s orbit completely. Nor would the United States simply capitulate in the face of a Chinese juggernaut”.

As for the lack of clout that many claim America used to possess in Asia he counters this, “America’s leadership in Asia derives from many sources, not just its military or economic heft. Like beauty, a country’s geopolitical influence is often in the eye of the beholder. Although some view the United States’ declining influence in Asia as a fact, many Asians think otherwise. Sixty-nine percent of Chinese, 75 percent of Indonesians, 76 percent of South Koreans, and 79 percent of Japanese in the Chicago Council’s surveys said that U.S. influence in Asia had risen over the past decade. Another, perhaps more important, reason for the enduring American preeminence in Asia is that most countries in the region welcome Washington as the guarantor of Asia’s peace. Asian elites from New Delhi to Tokyo continue to count on Uncle Sam to keep a watchful eye on Beijing. Whether it’s over blown or not, Asia is poised to increase its geopolitical and economic influence rapidly in the decades to come. It has already become one of the pillars of the international order. But in thinking about Asia’s future, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Its economic ascent is not written in the stars. And given the cultural differences and history of intense rivalry among the region’s countries, Asia is unlikely to achieve any degree of regional political unity and evolve into an EU-like entity in our lifetime. Henry Kissinger once famously asked, “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” We can ask the same question about Asia”.

Congress blocks the closure

24/06/2013

President Obama’s renewed push close the Guantánamo Bay prison is hitting a wall of resistance in Congress.  Obama announced to great fanfare last month that he was restarting the effort to close the prison by transferring detainees cleared for release. He followed up this week by appointing a new envoy at the State Department to focus on the effort. But Congress moved quickly to thwart Obama’s plans. The House voted against lifting restrictions on moving detainees to the United States and approved an amendment that prevents the president from using funds to return some detainees to Yemen.

 

“Clearly falling apart”

22/06/2013

The normally incompentent credit ratings agencies that have a large part of the blame in causing the financial crisis have gone from one extreme to the other and now are extremely cautious. A report from Fitch notes that the Chinese economy is a massive credit bubble, and implies that a collapse is inevitable.

The news report begins that “The agency said the scale of credit was so extreme that the country would find it very hard to grow its way out of the excesses as in past episodes, implying tougher times ahead. ‘The credit-driven growth model is clearly falling apart. This could feed into a massive over-capacity problem, and potentially into a Japanese-style deflation,’ said Charlene Chu, the agency’s senior director in Beijing. ‘There is no transparency in the shadow banking system, and systemic risk is rising. We have no idea who the borrowers are, who the lenders are, and what the quality of assets is, and this undermines signalling,’ she told The Daily Telegraph. While the non-performing loan rate of the banks may look benign at just 1pc, this has become irrelevant as trusts, wealth-management funds, offshore vehicles and other forms of irregular lending make up over half of all new credit. ‘It means nothing if you can off-load any bad asset you want. A lot of the banking exposure to property is not booked as property,’ she said”.

The article goes on to mention that “Bank Everbright defaulted on an interbank loan 10 days ago amid wild spikes in short-term “Shibor” borrowing rates, a sign that liquidity has suddenly dried up. ‘Typically stress starts in the periphery and moves to the core, and that is what we are already seeing with defaults in trust products,’ she said. Fitch warned that wealth products worth $2 trillion of lending are in reality a ‘hidden second balance sheet’ for banks, allowing them to circumvent loan curbs and dodge efforts by regulators to halt the excesses. This niche is the epicentre of risk. Half the loans must be rolled over every three months, and another 25pc in less than six months. This has echoes of Northern Rock, Lehman Brothers and others that came to grief in the West on short-term liabilities when the wholesale capital markets froze. Mrs Chu said the banks had been forced to park over $3 trillion in reserves at the central bank, giving them a ‘massive savings account that can be drawn down’ in a crisis, but this may not be enough to avert trouble given the sheer scale of the lending boom”.

At the end of the article it says “The ratio of credit to GDP has jumped by 75 percentage points to 200pc of GDP, compared to roughly 40 points in the US over five years leading up to the subprime bubble, or in Japan before the Nikkei bubble burst in 1990. ‘This is beyond anything we have ever seen before in a large economy. We don’t know how this will play out. The next six months will be crucial,’ she said. The agency downgraded China’s long-term currency rating to AA- debt in April but still thinks the government can handle any banking crisis, however bad. ‘The Chinese state has a lot of firepower. It is very able and very willing to support the banking sector. The real question is what this means for growth, and therefore for social and political risk,’ said Mrs Chu”.

It concludes “The journal said total credit in China’s financial system may be as high as 221pc of GDP, jumping almost eightfold over the last decade, and warned that companies will have to fork out $1 trillion in interest payments alone this year. ‘Chinese corporate debt burdens are much higher than those of other economies. Much of the liquidity is being used to repay debt and not to finance output,’ it said”.

Snowden charged

22/06/2013

Federal prosecutors have charged National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden with espionage and theft of government property, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Friday night. In the one-page complaint, prosecutors charged Snowden with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person. Snowden, 29, a former employee of Booz Allen Hamilton and the CIA, revealed the existence of two previously unknown surveillance programs run by the NSA”.

What competition? – Part IV

22/06/2013

In the latest article on the series examining the competitors to the United States, an article discusses the role of the BRICS.

The piece begins “There is no question that the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and the group’s newest member, South Africa — are big. They matter. In terms of population, landmass, and economic size, their pure dimensions are impressive and clearly stand out from those of other countries. Together, they make up 40 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the world’s landmass, and about 20 percent of global GDP. They already control some 43 percent of global foreign exchange reserves, and their share keeps rising. Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs put the spotlight on the rise of the original four of these big new economic powers when he gave them the name BRICs in 2001, and their collective growth began to soar. But in reality their economic success had been a long time coming. Twenty years before that”.

He goes on to make the point that they are too diverse to “lead” the world together, “The BRICS are also nowhere near economically cohesive. Russia and Brazil are way ahead in per capita income, beating China and India by a huge amount — nearly $13,000 compared with China’s $5,414 and India’s $1,389, according to 2011 IMF data. And their growth trajectories have been very different. What’s more, the BRICS face stiff competition from other emerging powerhouses in the developing world. While China and India seemed to have a competitive edge for a while due to their low labor costs, countries like Mexico and Thailand are now back on the competitive map. And while growth in the BRICS seems to be slowing, many African countries are receiving more foreign investment, may be more politically stable, and are at long last moving away from slow or no growth toward much more robust economies”.

He goes on to agree that their economic growth is inevitable but at the same time warns that “Forecasts by Goldman Sachs and others project China will overtake the United States in GDP before 2030. China, meanwhile, dwarfs the other BRICS, whose combined economic size isn’t expected to catch up to China during that period. The BRICS will approach the total size of the seven largest developed economies by 2030, and by the middle of this century they are projected to be nearly double the size of the G-7. BRICS consumers are also beginning to rival their American counterparts in terms of total purchasing power. More cars, cell phones, televisions, refrigerators, and cognac are now sold in China alone than in the United States. Even with slower growth, the economic engine of the BRICS should be more important than that of the United States or the European Union for most of the 21st century. Then again, there’s no guarantee that the BRICS can maintain their torrid growth rates. Just as their expanding economies took the world by surprise over the past decade, the big shock for the next decade may be that they will grow less quickly than assumed. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have already shown that growth rates slow down once a basic level of industrialization has been reached. The unquenchable thirst for “goods” tends to moderate when basic infrastructure is in place and consumers want more health care, education, and free time”.

Thankfully he roundly rejects the assumption that the BRICS are unbeatable competitors, “The BRICS benefited for several decades from cheap labor, higher productivity, massive (but far from universal) investment in infrastructure and education, and a hunger to catch up with wealthier rivals. Their transformation was remarkable: With better-off populations, domestic markets finally became economically attractive, South-South trade exploded, and leading corporations transformed themselves from second-rate producers of cheap goods into world-class manufacturers of smartphones, semiconductors, software, and planes. China’s Lenovo took over IBM’s PC business. Brazilian and South African beer companies became leading global brewers. Just as had been the case with the Russians after Sputnik and the Japanese in the 1980s, the BRICS became feared and formidable competitors, even if some of the fears about their rise were exaggerated. But the story is not over. Cheap, abundant energy from shale gas is attracting new investment in the United States, giving energy-intensive industries a renewed competitive edge. Abundant shale gas could also make Russian Arctic drilling and Brazilian pre-salt production too expensive. Stagnant U.S. wages and soaring pay in China and India are eroding the BRICS’ labor-cost advantage, while their seemingly bottomless labor pool has suddenly started emptying out, leaving them with shortages of trained labour.

He adds that they might not even be the best places to invest anymore, “Until 2008, the BRICS performed far better than other emerging equity markets — or developed markets, for that matter. And by a lot: For the five years ending in 2007, investors in the four original BRICs earned an annualized 52 percent return, compared with just 16 percent in the G-7 markets. But in the past five years, through Aug. 31, that figure was -3 percent for the BRICs and -1 percent for the G-7. This was in part a correction to exaggerated expectations, which drove up valuations and currencies to unsustainable levels. It also seems, however, that the BRICS’ competitive edge is now being questioned in more fundamental terms. Of course, it makes perfect sense for investors to diversify and not ignore such a huge, successful part of the global economy, but that is different from blind euphoria. Each of the BRICS is very different, and so are the question marks that accompany their economies. For example, China’s wage costs had been so much lower than Mexico’s for several decades that Mexico had difficulty competing, despite its closeness to the U.S. market. But that wage gap has closed in recent years — Chinese labour rates have grown from 33 percent of Mexico’s in 1996 to 85 percent in 2010 — and now investment is flowing back to Mexico. Even when Indian growth rates went through the roof, bureaucracy, budget deficits, and infrastructure bottlenecks remained serious impediments. Brazil successfully turned around its floundering economy in the 1980s and then benefited from three windfalls: China’s thirst for commodities, energy discoveries, and a competitive edge as an agribusiness giant”.

On the charged topic that the BRICS will “overtake” the West he makes the valid point that “While 54 percent of Chinese companies cited innovation as one of their top objectives in the survey, only 27 percent of U.S. respondents did. Chinese telecom equipment-makers are giving more traditional players a run for their money, Indian-made generic drugs are making inroads, Brazilian protein producers dominate world markets, and Russian oligarchs are making smart investments abroad. The BRICS are going through a rough patch right now, yet they’re poised for a roaring comeback. But though the era of American or Western domination may be over, BRICS domination is still some time off. What is already a fact is that the clear delineation between developed and “backward” countries is a thing of the past. Western multinational companies are seeking to expand in the BRICS as growth in their home markets has dried up. Chinese and Indian corporations are building their brands in other emerging markets and the West. More than ever, developed countries’ economic fates are tied to those of emerging markets. Intellectual property remains a strong suit of advanced economies. The United States, Japan, and Germany — just three advanced economies — accounted for 58 percent of patent filings in 2011, according to the World Intellectual Property Organisation”.

He ends on a note of caution, “The BRICS may seem stable now, but nobody knows what the future holds. Admiration for oligarchs easily turns into envy and anger. Ubiquitous mobile-phone cameras and instant Internet distribution constrain the use of public force. Under the surface and among the younger generation, pride in economic achievements and a sense of material well-being are now coupled with demands for better health care and national recognition. Increasingly, more is not the answer — citizens of the BRICS want better. Local elites must act adroitly to keep this new mood from developing into a combustible mix. The current generation of leaders in China has not forgotten the lessons of the Cultural Revolution — but the next generations may. Some tailwinds that have benefited the BRICS these past decades may yet turn into headwinds. For instance, these countries have benefited from relatively low budget allocations to military spending — a fruit of Pax Americana”.

No Islamists wanted

22/06/2013

Residents of Luxor, a key tourist destination in Upper Egypt, are mobilising against their newly appointed governor who hails from the same ultra-conservative religious group responsible for a terror attack that took the lives of of 62 people in the same city some 16 years ago. On Sunday Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi appointed 17 new governors across Egypt, including eight Islamists, seven of whom belong to the president’s Muslim Brotherhood party. But the most controversial appointment was the naming of Adel al-Khayat as governor of Luxor. Mr. Al-Khayat is a member of the Building and Development party, the political arm of Gamaa Islamiya, the group responsible for a 1997 attack at Luxor’s Hatshepsut Temple, where 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians were gunned down by six members of the movement. On Wednesday, hundreds of Luxor residents took to the streets vowing to bar the new governor from entering his office. The Luxor area, which contains the historic temple of Karnak and the pharaonic tombs of the Valley of the Kings, depends heavily on tourism revenues”.

Never too much

22/06/2013

Matthew Kroenig, who wrote about the case for a pre-emeptive strike on Iran, he writes about the dangers of America’s reduction of nuclear weapons.

He begins the article “On Wednesday, President Obama gave a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, calling for the United States and Russia to reduce the size of their deployed nuclear arsenals by one-third to around 1,000 strategic warheads. The call for further cuts has been greeted with enthusiasm in many quarters, but these proposed nuclear reductions could potentially be highly damaging to U.S. interests. In his speech, the president argued that such cuts would be consistent with the goal of maintaining ‘a strong and credible strategic deterrent,’ but this argument rests on a contested theory about how nuclear deterrence works. The Obama administration, and many scholars and experts, believe that a secure, second-strike capability is sufficient for deterrence and that anything more is ‘overkill.’ Therefore, they believe that nuclear warheads in excess of a “minimum deterrent” threshold can be cut with very little loss to our national security. However, there are those who argue that maintaining a nuclear advantage over one’s opponents enhances deterrence”.

Kroenig goes on to argue that “For decades, this debate was largely theoretical — neither camp marshaled systematic evidence in support of its views– but, recently, I methodically reviewed the relationship between the size of a country’s nuclear arsenal and its ability to achieve its national security objectives. I found strong evidence that, when it comes to nuclear deterrence, more is better. In an analysis of 52 countries that participated in nuclear crises from 1945 to 2001 (think the Cuban Missile Crisis), I found that the state with the greater number of warheads is over 17 times more likely to achieve its goals. In addition, there is qualitative evidence from these crises that leaders in nuclear-armed states pay close attention to the nuclear balance of power, that they believe nuclear superiority enhances their position, and that a nuclear advantage often translates directly into a geopolitical advantage”.

He goes on to make the valid argument that “Even if Russia agrees to match the president’s proposed cuts, the nuclear reductions would attenuate our advantages vis-à-vis Russia and eat into our margin of superiority against other nuclear-armed states, such as China, possibly increasing the likelihood that the United States will be challenged militarily and reducing the probability that we achieve our goals in future crises”. Indeed, as has been seen recently, now would not be the time to show weakness to Russia, or China. As others have argued, the relationship with China should be co-operating from strength.

He argues that “Supporters of further cuts argue that reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy will help us stop the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries. They argue that our large nuclear arsenal makes it difficult (if not hypocritical) to tell, say, Iran that it cannot have nuclear weapons, or to demand that other non-nuclear countries (such as Brazil and Turkey) help us pressure Iran. Therefore, they argue, we can generate goodwill and strengthen our nonproliferation efforts by cutting our own nuclear arsenal. This argument makes sense at a superficial level, but on closer inspection it falls apart. As Iran’s leaders decide whether to push forward with, or put limits on, their nuclear program, or as Brazilian and Turkish leaders think about getting tougher with Iran, they likely consider many things, but it is implausible that the precise size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is among them. The evidence backs this logic up; the United States has been cutting the size of its nuclear arsenal since 1967, but there is no reason to believe that we have ever received any credit for doing so”.

The Franciscan bishop

22/06/2013

The Holy Father wanted to conclude his address by highlighting one of the principal and most delicate tasks of the representatives, to look for episcopal appointments: ‘be attentive,’ he told them, ‘that the candidates are Pastors who are close to the people, fathers and brothers; that they are gentle, patient, and merciful; that they love poverty, interior poverty as freedom for the Lord and exterior poverty as simplicity and austerity of life; that they don’t have a ‘principles’ psychology. Be attentive that they aren’t ambitious, that they don’t seek the episcopate—’volentes nolumus’—and that they are spouses of a Church without constantly seeking another. That they are capable of ‘keeping an eye on’ the flock that will be entrusted to them, that is, of caring for everything that keeps it united; of being ‘vigilant’ over it; of being attentive to dangers that threaten it; but above all that they are capable of ‘keeping an eye over’ the flock; of keeping watch; of tending hope, that there is sun and light in their hearts; of sustaining with love and patience the plans that God has for his people.'”

“Will determine who leads”

22/06/2013

After the immediate succession in Saudi Arabia had been settled with the appointment of Prince Muqrin as second deputy prime minister, an article has been published that notes that the conflict is far from finished.

It begins noting that “Despite his age and frailty, Abdullah has been busy preparing the House of Saud for his departure from the political scene. He has appointed younger princes to key ministries and as governors to the most important provinces, made one half-brother a contender for the throne, sacked another, and weeded out the weakest aspirants among the younger al-Saud princes. Such a sweeping shakeup of the staid ruling family has even included moves to make his own son a prime contender for the throne”.

In an obvious attempt to bolster the chances of his own son’s chances at the throne, “King Abdullah’s remaining energies have been focused on remaking the House of Saud’s own leadership. The upheaval continued right up to his departure for Morocco: On May 27, Abdullah decreed that the Saudi Royal National Guard, a powerful military force that he commanded for decades, was to become a full-fledged ministry — and that his son, Miteb, 61, would be the new minister. These moves give Miteb more political clout to compete with other rivals for the throne from the younger generation of al-Sauds”.

This comes in addition to the interior ministry and governorships of Riyadh and Eastern Province, changing hands at the start of the year. The article then goes on to add that “the smart money is betting that he’s preparing to hand the throne to one of his half-brothers, delaying the transfer of power to the ‘younger’ generation as long as possible.  If that holds true, it isn’t going to please President Barack Obama’s administration, which has been pressing for younger blood to rule the kingdom and accelerate reforms. It rolled out the red carpet for the newly minted Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 53, for his four-day visit to Washington in January, setting up separate meetings with Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, national security advisor Tom Donilon, and other high-ranking U.S. officials. This was taken among Saudis as a signal that Washington favored Mohammed as the next king. Washington has good reason to look fondly on Mohammed: The prince is not only from the younger generation, but he was the architect of the highly successful Saudi campaign in the mid-2000s to crush al Qaeda inside the kingdom. He also became a family hero after an audacious terrorist attack against him inside his own palace in August 2009, in which a suicide bomber gained a meeting with the prince (after promising to surrender) and then detonated himself. Mohammed escaped miraculously with only slight injuries. But Prince Mohammed isn’t seen as the likeliest candidate to become the next crown prince. Both Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman, 77, seem ambivalent about whether the time is ripe to pass power from their generation to the next. The brotherhood of senior princes has stuck together with impressive cohesion on the right of one brother to follow another to the throne. Over the past 81 years, the crown has passed five times in this fashion. Now, however, only two of the sons of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, still appear viable”.

Yet this omits the fact that Prince Muqrin is next after the increasingly aging Crown Prince Salman. He foes on to mention that should this line of thinking hold, “Prince Ahmed, the youngest of the powerful “Sudairi Seven” brothers at 71 years old, will emerge the winner. That would represent a remarkable turnaround for Ahmed: The king fired himas interior minister last November, after appointing him only five months earlier. However, Ahmed still retains much support within the fractious al-Saud family, according to Saudis in both royal and diplomatic circles”.

However, he goes on to mention that King Abdullah sacked Ahmed and the position of him could “come down to who lives longer — King Abdullah, who has outlived two crown princes already, or the current heir, Salman. Rumours that the crown prince suffers from Alzheimer’s are untrue, but there is no doubt that Salman has been slowed down considerably by age — he is ‘certainly no longer the Salman of yesterday,’ in the words of one Saudi who recently saw him, a judgment in which U.,S. officials concur. But if Salman does outlive Abdullah to become king, the thinking is that he will favor Ahmed because they are full brothers from the same tightly-knit Sudairi clan. Should Abdullah miraculously outlive the far younger Salman, he has put his half-brother Muqrin in line to move up the power chain to become the next crown prince. Saudis say Muqrin is clearly campaigning for the job through constant public appearances, designed to keep himself in the limelight. Miteb has also been keeping a high profile, but most Saudi watchers doubt the king is ready to upset the whole al-Saud family by naming him heir apparent — a move that would constitute an unprecedented kingly power play”.

He goes on to write how Prince Khalid bin Sultan at the Ministry of Defence was not given the job that his father, the former Crown Prince, had been grooming him for the top positon only to be dismissed from the ministry in April by King Abdullah. He then mentions that “replaced him with the little-known former head of the Royal Saudi Navy [Prince Fahd bin Abdullah]. This leaves the once powerful Sultan branch of the al-Saud family with just one top post, the General Directorate of Intelligence. Since last July, this has been in the hands of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the long-serving Saudi ambassador to Washington who had been the king’s national security advisor”.  

The piece ends “It is a time of change for the risk-averse royals in Riyadh. In addition to the eventual handover of power to the next generation of Saudi princes and the struggle for Syria, the princes doubt whether Washington is still committed to the longstanding U.S.-Saudi security relationship. King Abdullah’s moves in the next months and years will determine who leads Saudi Arabia — and what sort of Middle East the kingdom must contend with — for decades to come”.

“After two weeks”

22/06/2013

The new Palestinian prime minister submitted his resignation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday, after two weeks on the job, because of a conflict over authority. It was unclear if Rami Hamdallah, a former university dean, would step down or was using the threat of resignation to obtain more powers from Abbas. Hamdallah’s move signaled disarray in the Palestinian Authority, the self-rule government in parts of the West Bank, and is potentially embarrassing for Abbas”.

How Rouhani won

20/06/2013

An interesting article has appeared in Foreign Affairs discussing the reason behind the election victory of Hassan Rouhani. The piece opens noting that “Four years ago, after the dubious reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian streets were filled with protestors demanding to know what had happened to their votes. This weekend, the voters finally got their answer — and, once more, they filled the country’s streets. This time, though, they were celebrating as the government confirmed that Hassan Rouhani, the presidential candidate who had campaigned on promises of reform and reopening to the world, had won an overwhelming victory”.

The article goes on to describe Rouhani as a “centrist cleric” but at the same time mentions that he has been “close to Iran’s apex of power since the 1979 revolution”. It is hard to see these things are been complimentary. The most obvious explanition is that Rouhani is a pragmatist who understands that the people would not have supported his candidacy hand he been just another unquestioning backer of the regime. Instead he seems to have positioned himself as someone who can work with the Supreme Leader and at the same time push a more moderate agenda. Although quite how moderate Rouhani is remains to be seen.

Indeed as the article admits, “He is far too sensible to indulge in a power grab à la Ahmadinejad. And, as a cleric, he assuages the fears of the Islamic Republic’s religious class. He embraced reformist rhetoric during the campaign, but will not deviate too far from the system’s principles, the foremost of which is the primacy of the Supreme Leader. Meanwhile, Rouhani’s focus on the economic costs of Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement resonates with the regime’s traditionalists as well as with a population battered by a decade of intensifying hardship and repression. All in all, the new president might benefit from a broader base of support than any in Iran’s post-revolutionary history, which will be an important asset as he seeks to navigate the country out of isolation and economic crisis”.

Interestingly the piece notes that “Going into the election, a Rouhani victory seemed unlikely. The conservatives’ favored candidate was said to be Saeed Jalili, a pious and prim bureaucrat who was appointed as lead nuclear negotiator six years ago. Jalili’s chief qualifications for the post were his status as a ‘living martyr’ (he lost a leg in the war with Iraq), his discoloured forehead (from dutiful prayer), and his cultivation of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the past ten years. It is easy to understand why Jalili was seen as leading the pack; he is basically an improved version of Ahmadinejad, a younger generation hard-liner who boasts total commitment to the ideals of the revolution”.

The article notes that because of the unpopularity of the clergy coupled with Rouhani being painted as too easy to give into the West on the nuclear issue his campaign was not seen as likely to gain much support. However the piece notes that “his campaign was sharper than many gave it credit for. He pushed against the regime’s red lines, for example, by promising to release political prisoners. And, in a clear reference to Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, two reformist candidates who were detained after the 2009 vote, he said that he would free all those who remain under house arrest as well. Rouhani sparred heatedly with Jalili’s campaign chief”.

The article also adds that Rouhani “benefitted from an unprecedented alliance between Iran’s embattled reform movement and the center-right faction to which Rouhani, as well as Rafsanjani, are generally understood to belong. The division between the two factions dates back to the earliest years of the revolution. It became more entrenched after the reformists gained power in 1997, when Mohammad Khatami, the reformist standard-bearer, was elected president in a major upset”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Rouhani’s most powerful advantage was the bitter unhappiness of the Iranian people, who have witnessed the implosion of their currency, the return of austerity measures not seen since the Iran-Iraq War, and the erosion of their basic rights and freedoms over the past eight years. The fact that they were willing to hope again, even after the crushing disappointment of 2009 election, underscores a remarkable commitment to peaceful change and to democratic institutions. All this might explain the massive turnout on election day and Rouhani’s overwhelming popular victory. It does not explain, though, why Khamenei avoided the chicanery that plagued the 2009 vote and why he let the result stand”.

The writer then goes on to describe how the Supreme Leader let Rouhani win, “One explanation is that the Ayatollah simply miscalculated and found himself, once again, overtaken by events when Rouhani’s candidacy surged with little forewarning. Indeed, it is likely that Khamenei really did expect Iranians to vote for the conservatives. After all, the conservatives have held all the cards in Iran since 2005; they dominate its institutions and dictate the terms of the debate. With the leading reformists imprisoned or in exile, no one expected that the forces of change could be revived so powerfully. When his expectations proved off base last Friday, Khamenei could have simply opted not to risk a repeat of 2009”.

The other option he discusses is that one of the candidates, Velayati “attacked Jalili for failing to strike a nuclear deal and for permitting U.S.-backed sanctions on Iran to increase. The amazingly candid discussion that followed Velayati’s charge betrayed the Iranian establishment’s awareness of the regime’s increasing vulnerability. It could only be understood as an intervention — one initiated by the regime’s most stalwart supporters and intended to rescue the system by acknowledging its precarious straits and appealing for pragmatism”.

This he posits was a public “acknowledgement that the sanctions-induced miseries of the Iranian public can no longer be soothed with nuclear pageantry or even appeals to religious nationalism”.

Fundamentally he writes, “Khamenei is not bent on infinite sacrifice. Perhaps allowing Rouhani’s victory is his way of empowering a conciliator to repair Iran’s frayed relations with the world and find some resolution to the nuclear dispute that enables the country to revive oil exports and resume normal trade”.

He writes that during the nuclear talks Rouhani “made the sole serious concession that the Islamic Republic has ever offered on its nuclear ambitions: a multi-year suspension of its enrichment activities that was ended just before Ahmadinejad took office. The move won Rouhani the unending fury of the hard-liners, including Khamenei, who approved the deal but has publicly inveighed against Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy as recently as last summer”.

The piece concludes “For Washington, meanwhile, the election offered stark confirmation that its strategy is working, at least to a point. The outcome confirmed that political will for a nuclear deal exists within the Islamic Republic. Even with a more moderate president at the helm, however, the nuclear issue will not be readily resolved, and Iran’s divided political sphere is as difficult as ever. To overcome the deep-seated (and not entirely unjustified) paranoia of its ultimate decision-maker, the United States will need to be patient. It will need to understand, for example, that Rouhani will need to demonstrate to Iranians that he can produce tangible rewards for diplomatic overtures. That means that Washington should be prepared to offer significant sanctions relief in exchange for any concessions on the nuclear issue. Washington will also have to understand that Rouhani may face real constraints in seeking to solve the nuclear dispute without exacerbating the mistrust of the hard-liners”.

Obama confronts Xi

20/06/2013

After their fruitless and pointless meeting Xi Jinping was rightly warned by President Obama that further cyber attacks will not be tolerated. Reports state that “Obama confronted Chinese President Xi Jinping here Saturday with specific evidence of China’s widespread theft of intellectual property from U.S. companies and warned the newly minted Chinese leader that continued ­cybertheft would undermine economic ties between the rival nations, U.S. officials said. The discussion came near the end of a high-stakes and unusual summit, where Obama and Xi reached breakthroughs on other critical issues, including an agreement to work together to denuclearize North Korea and to confront global climate change”. The current media hysteria about the PRISM leaks through Edward Snowden has made the case of the United States slightly harder but the perception by China is regrettably much worse.

The five rules

20/06/2013

After the recent post about those who opposed sending weapons to Syria, an article has been published that notes the “rules” for arming the rebels.

The first of the five rules is to know the allies in the region, “When Obama finally, officially, makes the announcement that Washington is arming the rebels, it must include the key phrases: “We are acting with our allies in the region” or, better, “our close allies in the region and beyond it.” But once the obligatory words are spoken, it is essential that all U.S. personnel all the way down the chain of command be fully aware of the brutal truth that explains the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime: America’s “allies in the region” are remarkably ineffectual, in spite of every apparent advantage. Early on, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani proclaimed his total support for the “Syrian people,” sending money and buying weapons at ridiculous prices (and delivering very few). And though his armed forces are small and poorly placed to provide any combat support, he does have billions of dollars at his disposal that he can and does spend on every passing whim. The same goes for the Saudis, who are much less noisy than the Qataris in supporting the rebels”.

The problem with this however is that it is at best, uncertain, if the Saudis and Qataris want what America wants at the outcome. As well as arming “secular” groups the Saudi’s, like the Qataris are preparing for an Islamist regeime whenever Assad falls. While this regime is certainly better than a failed state it is hardly the American, or European preference.

He goes on to write “the actual flow of weapons to the rebels has been notably meager. In neither case it is just a matter of simple avarice, but rather reflects the operational incapacity of both governments. For more than a year, Washington has been content to allow others to funnel weapons and money, but with Assad’s recent victories against the rebels, Obama was forced into action. The Saudi and Qatari rulers just do not have honest, efficient officials whom they can rely on to distribute money or weapons wisely”.

He mentions the vital point about the role of Turkey’s role in the conflict, “With 75 million inhabitants, a fast-growing economy, a million men under arms, and a 510-mile border with Syria, Turkey should have been the dominant power in the confrontation. But instead of being intimidated into surrender, or just moderation, the Assad regime publicly ridiculed Erdogan and Turkish imperial pretensions, denounced Turkey’s Islamist government as nothing more than Sunni fanatics, and then proceeded to shoot down a stray Turkish jet fighter before repeatedly sending artillery rounds into Turkish towns. The Turkish response to this insult and attack? Nothing”, This he writes, is because of a host of religious and ethnic minorities within Turkey that support Assad or oppose the government, not least of which is the army. He ends noting humourously, “his leaves Turkey as a non-power — a richly ironic outcome given the solemn debates of recent years on whether Ankara is a regional power, a middle power, or a neo-Ottoman power as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu kept claiming. The world has discovered that Turkey is not even a small power”.

The second rule he discusses is that as a result of no allies being willing or able to support America, it must act alone, “Given these “allies,” the United States will have to do the lifting — and not just the heavy part. There should be no illusions now that anyone will be of much help, with the possible exception of whatever money can be extracted from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. That, in turn, raises the issue of which Americans should do the dirty work of funneling weapons. Always bureaucratically adept, even if operationally incompetent in far too many cases, the CIA already has the Washington end of the action. But if weapons are to be supplied, it is essential to call on the only Americans who can tell the difference between Sunni bad guys who only want to oppress other Syrians and the really bad guys who happen to be waging their global jihad in Syria. What’s needed are true experts, people who really speak the region’s Arabic: the regular U.S. Army and Marine Corps officers”.

The third rule he discusses is that nothing of too much value should be given to the rebels, “That includes expertise in identifying and handling any chemical weapons that might be encountered, as well as the supply of any portable anti-aircraft weapons. There are likely already a great number of them in Syria, some of them much more effective than the old 9K32 “Strela-2” or SAM-7 models that have already been used by terrorists against civilian aircraft. Whatever happens, the U.S. counterpart to these weapons — the current version of the FIM-92 Stinger — cannot be supplied, as it is even more lethal than the original that was used to such great success against Soviet forces in Afghanistan”.

While this makes tactical sense as well as an eye to the long term, post conflict Syria the danger is that if it is taken to extremes it could end up negating what little good the weapons would do in the first place. However, all of this depends on what Obama wants to accomplish from arming the rebels.

The next rule he writes of is about Russia, “Nothing should be done, not even the supply of the smallest of small arms, without a serious, full-dress effort to find some understanding with Russia, for which Assad is not one ally among many, but arguably its only extant military ally. After being cheated over Libya, where a no-fly zone was illegally converted into a free-bombing zone, the Russians will want compensation in Syria if they cooperate at all, including a continuing if diminished role for Assad”.

This is certainly a strange point. While it is an understandable aim it is impossible to meet. Either the rebels are armed and Putin loses Assad or the rebels are not armed and Syria descends into a failed state, or Assad wins. Both of these are not in any way palatable. The point about Libya, while understandable is more down to Russian naivety, or stupidity than anything else. How else would the those in Benghazi have been permanently protected?

Lastly he writes “it is imperative to maintain a sharp distinction between the government that must be purged and the state that must be preserved. This includes institutions like the regular army and police, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture and other such agencies. Under the Assads, decades of nominally Baathist (but actually secular) rule favored the rise of Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Ismailis in the bureaucracy. If U.S. arms prove to be the factor that gives Sunni rebels victory, and if Sunnis fire them all, the Syrian state will disintegrate — with all the disastrous consequences”.

“Direct peace talks”

20/06/2013

The US is to open direct peace talks with the Taliban, senior White House officials have announced. The first meeting is due to take place in the coming days in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban have just opened their first official overseas office. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said his government was also sending delegates to Qatar to talk to the Taliban. The announcement came on the day Nato handed over security for the whole of Afghanistan to government forces. Pakistan, which was involved in background talks for the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar, welcomed the announcement. US officials said prisoner exchanges would be one topic for discussion with the Taliban, but the first weeks will mainly be used to explore each other’s agendas. President Obama: “We don’t anticipate this process will be easy or quick, but we must pursue it in parallel with our military approach” However, the talks are on condition that the Taliban renounce violence, break ties with al-Qaeda and respect the Afghan constitution – including the rights of women and minorities”. However to make the talks even more pointless, “The Afghan government will not take part in peace talks with the Taliban unless the process is “Afghan-led”, President Hamid Karzai has said. His statement came a day after the US said it would talk to the Taliban in Qatar, where they have a new office. Mr Karzai said the opening of the office contradicted earlier US security guarantees to his government. In protest, he added that he would suspend talks with the US on its presence after Nato leaves in 2014″.

What competition? – Part III

20/06/2013

As part of the series examining the potential competitors to America, India has been examined. Its foreign policy has been discussed previously but an article from 2012 discusses a more rounded view.

It begins noting the “In 2010 while visiting India, U.S. President Barack Obama said, ‘India is not just a rising power; India has already risen.’ And just a few weeks ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called India a ‘linchpin’ in the U.S. ‘pivot’ to Asia, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the U.S.-India tie as a ‘critical bilateral relationship.’ ertainly, there has been reason for such optimism. Until the recent global economic downturn, the Indian economy was the second-fastest-growing in the world, reaching a rate of 9.8 percent in October 2009. Poverty dropped 5 percentage points between 2004 and 2009″.

Yet the author adds a note of caution, “Unfortunately, the fascination with India’s growing economic clout and foreign-policy overtures has glossed over its institutional limits, the many quirks of its political culture, and the significant economic and social challenges it faces. To cite but one example, at least 30 percent of Indian agricultural produce spoils because the country has failed to develop a viable supply chain. Foreign investors could alleviate, if not solve, that problem. But thanks to the intransigence of a small number of political parties and organized interest groups, India has refused to open its markets to outsiders. Until India can meet basic challenges like this, its greatness will remain a matter of rhetoric, not fact”.

He adds further to this point that “When India began to liberalise its economy after the 1991 financial crisis, many analysts concluded that the country was on a glide path to growth. The sheer size of India’s market, its wealth of entrepreneurial talent, and its functioning legal system all seemed to herald economic success. Sadly, these sunny assessments overlooked key hurdles. Many Indian politicians remained wedded to an anachronistic model of state-led growth. Powerful groups with vested interests in the existing economic order — from well-subsidized farmers to well-entrenched industrial labor unions — opposed reform”.

He goes on to argue later on in the piece that “Indian politicians of all ideologies have supported unsustainable spending in an effort to placate the country’s increasingly politically mobilized population. Farmers in significant parts of India pay little or nothing for electricity, but officials refuse to challenge their subsidies. Politicians fret about raising gasoline prices for fear that the middle class will revolt. And to avoid student unrest, they have allowed the university system to reach a breaking point, because the fee structure cannot meet even a fraction of operating costs. The result of all this pandering has been a fiscal deficit of about 6 percent of GDP. India’s leadership has also failed to reform the country’s behemoth public sector. For example, the state-owned Air India requires routine infusions of cash, but the government refuses to privatize the company lest it anger organized labor. On the flip side, entrepreneurs are hobbled by antiquated legal regimes and idiosyncratic rule-making. Outdated land-acquisition laws have stopped a range of industrial projects, and quirky policy shifts have undermined growing fields like telecommunications. What’s more, some analysts are now arguing that the absence of transparent regulatory and legal frameworks has opened new vistas of corruption. Indeed, the lack of a clearly defined legal regime led to an ad hoc auction of the 2G spectrum in 2008. The flawed auction may have cost the treasury as much as $40 billion, according to an independent government watchdog. A new scandal is brewing which suggests that in 2004 state-owned coal seams were sold at well-below-market prices. Unsurprisingly, the specter of legal uncertainty combined with rampant corruption has had a chilling effect on foreign investment. All this makes India’s future growth seem far from assured”.

Worryingly, he goes no to argue that India is unable to contain China, “Beijing categorically refuses to accept the legitimacy of India’s nuclear weapons program (which was begun in response to China’s), and it tried to scuttle the 2008 U.S.-India civilian nuclear agreement. Furthermore, beyond its longstanding alliance with Pakistan, China is now developing relationships with the smaller South Asian countries and subtly encouraging anti-Indian sentiment in them. For example, as India has failed to resolve a series of ongoing differences with Bangladesh, China has quickly stepped in to improve Bangladesh’s infrastructure. Globally, China and India have begun to compete for long-term oil and natural gas contracts — and India has been losing. Several years ago, the Angolan government rescinded an agreement with India to develop some offshore oil blocks after China offered it a $200 million line of credit. More recently, China sternly warned the overseas arm of India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp. against prospecting for hydrocarbons off the coast of Vietnam. None of these tensions is likely to abate anytime soon, especially because India remains acutely dependent on external energy sources. Despite these significant conflicts, Indian officials have resisted a closer partnership with the United States. In addition to concerns about losing their freedom of action, Indian policymakers fear that U.S. policy will change with every election”.

He goes on to mention that tensions with Pakistan remain high and that India certainly has the ability to be a good “global citizen” but “it will be reasonably forthcoming on nonproliferation issues now that it is, for all practical purposes, a nuclear weapons state. If China and Pakistan are willing to accept limits on production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, India might well support a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. By contrast, it would be foolish to count on India in global climate change discussions. India’s policymakers assert, with some justification, that the advanced industrial world is responsible for the bulk of anthropogenic climate change”.

He then turns to its power projection abilities. It has been covered here before but the Indian armed forces need greater funds if they are to have any chance to secure  its own interests, if nothing else, he writes “There is little question that India is dramatically expanding its naval reach and airlift capabilities. And contrary to popular belief, these expansive plans are not a significant financial burden because, according to recent World Bank estimates, India’s military expenditures are less than 3 percent of its GDP. Even with slower economic growth over the next few years, India should be able to arm itself more than adequately.

The problem, however, lies in its cumbrous, slothful, and, until recently, corruption-ridden weapons acquisitions process. Ironically, the effort to clean up this process has resulted in complex bureaucratic and legal procedures, further slowing what was already a glacial pace. For example, the decision to replace India’s aging fighters with a new multirole combat aircraft has been ongoing for the better part of a decade, even though the new plane has already been chosen. The extraordinary complexity and sluggishness of the process do not bode well for India’s ability to swiftly acquire and deploy the military capabilities it will need if it hopes to project power throughout the region”.

Lastly, he notes the Hindu-Muslim tensions are still apparent. He warns however that India might resist co-operating with the United States, “However, a significant segment of the Indian public insists that the country retain full independence in foreign affairs, and India’s policymakers rarely lose an opportunity to underscore this concern. As Prime Minister Singh said in a major address to India’s armed forces, ‘We must therefore consolidate our own strategic autonomy and independence of thought and action.’ That attitude is a significant barrier to cooperation. Consequently, despite a convergence of interests, it may prove exceedingly difficult to forge an institutional partnership with the United States”.

He concludes the piece “Other factors are also likely to constrain partnership with the United States. India’s political order has become increasingly federalized, and despite the existence of at least two national parties, it is unlikely that either will be able to form a national government of its own in the foreseeable future. That means India’s ruling party will be forced to pursue a compromise foreign policy. Thanks to the exigencies of coalition politics, for example, the United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi has been forced to shelve a decision to allow investment from foreign multibrand retail stores like Wal-Mart. Similarly, a carefully negotiated water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh also fell prey to the demands of a fractious coalition partner. Finally, the United States and India cannot paper over some fundamental differences of interest. The two countries remain at odds over how best to deal with Iran’s apparent quest for nuclear weapons. Even though most Indian policymakers view Iran’s nuclear pursuit with concern, they will not endorse unilateral military action against the country. India remains dependent on Iranian oil and natural gas, it has a substantial Shiite population, and, above all, it is extremely uncomfortable with the unilateral exercise of U.S. military power against recalcitrant regimes”.

What is striking however is that many of these differences can be overcome.

A European drone?

20/06/2013

Three of Europe’s top military contractors urged the region’s governments on Sunday to support a joint program to develop a reconnaissance drone to reduce dependence on American and Israeli manufacturers. In a joint statement, EADS, European Aeronautic Defense and Space, the parent company of Airbus, with Dassault Aviation of France and Finmeccanica of Italy, said a regional collaboration in unoccupied aerial vehicles would “support the capability needs of European armed forces while optimizing the difficult budgetary situation through pooling of research and development funding.'” The report goes on to say “After years of pitching competing programs to reluctant governments, the three companies said on Sunday that they were prepared to work together to design a European medium-altitude, long-endurance, or MALE, drone, which could fly missions of up to 48 hours at elevations of 10,000 to 30,000 feet, or about 3,000 to 9,000 meters. While normally used for surveillance, such unoccupied vehicles can be equipped with missiles for combat”.

Blind to the dangers

18/06/2013

Two articles has been published that are critical of the decision of President Obama to arms the rebels.

The first article draws a parallel between Syria and Afghanistan in the 1980s when the CIA armed the rebels fighting the USSR. It begins “Thirty-year CIA veteran Milton Bearden knows a thing or two about providing arms to rebels. As a field officer in Pakistan and Afghanistan from 1986 to 1989, he oversaw the $3 billion covert program to arm the Afghan mujahideen to fight the Soviet occupation — a program that has become the textbook example of how arming rebel groups can have unintended consequences once the war is over. With the announcement that the United States is planning to begin providing small arms to rebel groups in Syria, Bearden is blunt as to what the CIA’s experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s should teach us. ‘The lesson here is that once we start providing anything to the rebels, we better understand that if they win, we own it,’ he told Foreign Policy on Friday, June 14. “The big cheerleaders on the Hill for doing this aren’t focused on this. The biggest lesson from the Afghan thing was that over a 10-year period we supplied all this stuff and then walked away once the Soviets left. The same Congress that was cheerleading the brave freedom fighters against the Soviet occupation — and they were brave and they did suffer brutally — just walked away and wouldn’t give them a nickel. If we start arming anyone in this enterprise, implicit in that is that we own it once the Assad regime falls.’ Bearden also believes the administration should think carefully before providing the anti-aircraft systems that the Syrian rebels have requested”.

Indeed, this has been the major weakness of US foreign policy throughout the previous decades, the unwillingness, or inability to withstand the political pressure to remain in Afghanistan/Iraq/Libya for time enough to allow some form of stability to bed down with a nascent civil society.

The article goes on to write “In any event, such vetting only has limited usefulness, said Bearden, since ‘once you begin arming any rebellion that involves fractious parties in the same rebellion against a common enemy, you’ve got to understand that the materials you give to the group of your choice will be sold, traded, bartered to most of the other players.'”

The piece goes on to say, “The nature of the operation also determines the type of guns you’ll want to send. In Afghanistan, the U.S. aid program was a covert operation, ‘even though the whole world seemed to know,’ Bearden said. The CIA, therefore, chose to supply the rebels with Soviet-designed AK-47s purchased from China and Egypt in order to maintain plausible deniability. But Warsaw Pact weapons also had a tactical advantage, since they were interoperable with the weapons already in the field: If the mujahideen captured a Soviet ammunition cache, they could just load the bullets into their own U.S.-provided rifles. While this is also presumably also true for the rebels fighting Assad’s Russian- and Iranian-backed military, Bearden suggests that providing the rebels with “Made in the USA” guns might be one way to control how they’re used. ‘Since this is not a covert thing, and we’re not trying to conceal the U.S. hand in it, you can limit the mobility of the weapons you provide if you were to not use Warsaw Pact equipment,’ he said. ‘If you had a specific group you wanted to arm and not have that bleed into the other groups, you could give them U.S. equipment. The ammunition would not be interchangeable with the stuff that’s on the battlefield right now. You can then control what happens by monitoring or turning on or off the supply of ammunition to those systems.’ But beyond tactics, Bearden says the biggest lesson of Afghanistan is to begin planning for how to handle the aftermath — before you start sending guns. He believes this could have saved both countries years of grief”.

In a different piece James Traub writes that arming the rebels might fail on “all counts”. he writes “I happened to speak to a senior administration official who has been involved in the discussions of Syria policy a few hours before the White House announcement. He made a point of saying that “there’s nothing that we can do in the next week or two that will tip the balance.” But he also noted that the announcement that “help is on the way” could “change the emotional balance” by giving the rebels hope and making Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fear that his opposition will become a more formidable force. It’s clear that the White House was contemplating much tougher measures, including a “stand-off” assault on Syrian aerial assets carried out by American ships and planes located beyond Syria’s borders. But the course that Obama adopted — supplying the rebels with small arms and possibly anti-tank weaponry — might shift the emotional balance in the opposite direction, by convincing both sides that the United States would rather see the rebels lose than take the risks involved with more robust support. Secretary of State John Kerry has long spoken of the need to “change Assad’s calculus,” but this is not the announced goal of the new policy. Rather, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, explained that once intelligence analysts concluded that Syria had crossed the “red line” against the use of chemical weapons, the president felt bound to act. That’s almost certainly not the actual rationale for the decision: administration officials have been holding urgent discussions on Syria policy since last week, when Assad’s forces, along with perhaps 2,000 troops from Hezbollah, ousted the rebels from the strategic crossroads town of Al Qusayr”.

Indeed, if what Traub reports is accurate it would seem to confirm earlier arguments that all the administration wishes to do is tie up Iran and Hezbollah in a war they are unable to win, thus draining them of resources.

Traub does make the point that “There has been a growing consensus among American pundits that Syria is a loser, a hopeless cause to which the United States should give the widest possible berth. I was talking about Syria with two foreign policy experts just before the White House announcement; both agreed that Syria was bound to fracture into ethnic cantons, that the United States could do nothing to halt the dynamic, and that Obama had been wise to steer clear of any military engagement in that woebegone country. They may be right; and yet we have passed very suddenly from the argument that the United States need not intervene because the rebels are bound to win, to the argument that the United States should not intervene because the rebel cause is doomed. Had Obama agreed to arm the rebels last year, when senior officials including Hillary Clinton urged him to do so, he had a real chance of forcing Assad to “change his calculus.” The bar is much higher today”.

While he is right that Obama should have acted much much sooner, he is wrong to see Syria in the context of a humanitarian mission. Syria is like in Roman times, at the crossroads of almost every problem in the Middle East; Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC. If America were to continue to do nothing the results to would be a disaster and end up with a Shiite state and another Lebanese civil war, or worse a Salafi extremist state that habours terrorists to attack Europe and beyond. The other consequence of doing nothing is the worst option, a failed state.

He ends the piece “Obama has now crossed a line that he had hoped not to cross. Those who wish he had not done even that much will say that a slippery slope leads to U.S. boots on Syrian soil. That’s not a serious argument; this is a president who is focused on reducing American troop deployments, not finding new pretexts for combat. The real question is how much the United States and other outside actors can do to stop the killings, to force Assad to reconsider, to stabilize a region now facing the threat of sectarian war. You can’t help feeling that Obama is trying to simultaneously satisfy incompatible moral and strategic calculations. There’s a very real danger that he will fail on both counts”.

The only problem with these arguments is that they are blind to the dangers of doing nothing.

“Handed over security for the whole”

18/06/2013

NATO has handed over security for the whole of Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. At a ceremony in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai said that from Wednesday ‘our own security and military forces will lead all the security activities’. Observers say the best soldiers in the Afghan army are up to the task but there are lingering doubts about some. International troops will remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, providing military back-up when needed. The ceremony came shortly after a suicide bomb attack in western Kabul killed three employees of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and wounded more than 20″.

“Control its own energy future”

18/06/2013

In light of the increasingly potent coming age of US energy independence, The outgoing National Security Adviser, Thomas Donilon has written in Foreign Affairs about the need for energy security .

“Energy shapes national interests and international relations. It influences politics, development, governance, and the security and stability of the environment. For all these reasons and more, increasing global access to secure, affordable, and clean energy is a national interest of the United States and a top priority for those of us entrusted with U.S. national security. Two recent developments have changed Washington’s approach toward energy: first, the substantial increase of affordable energy resources within the United States affects the country’s economic growth, energy security, and geopolitical position. Second, climate change, driven by the world’s use of energy, presents not just a transcendent challenge for the world but a present-day national security threat to the United States. Both forces should push the United States and other countries toward cleaner, more sustainable energy solutions”.

He writes that only a few years ago this glut in energy was not expected, “The current optimism about the U.S. energy picture is a relatively new development. Even as recently as 2008, when President Barack Obama took office, energy experts predicted that the United States would need to double its imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) over the next five years. However, thanks to U.S. innovation and technology, nearly all of those estimates have been turned on their head. U.S. oil consumption peaked in 2005 and has been declining since and alternative energy sources are being developed. Domestic oil and natural gas production has increased every year Obama has been in office”.

He goes on to mention that  “natural gas imports are down almost 60 percent since 2005, and the U.S. now exports more natural gas than ever to Mexico and Canada. In addition, for the first time in over 60 years, the United States is exporting more refined petroleum products than it is importing. And U.S. energy-related greenhouse gas emissions have also fallen to 1994 levels due in large part to Obama’s success over the past four years in doubling electricity from renewables, switching from coal to natural gas in power generation, and improving energy efficiency”. However, the global finanacial crisis also has a part to play in these figures.

Domestically he writes that “In North Dakota, for example, unemployment has dropped to near three percent, the lowest in the country, and the state has a $3.8 billion budget surplus, largely due to increased unconventional gas and oil production. IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates estimates that the shale gas industry directly or indirectly employed 600,000 Americans in 2010, a number that could double by 2020”.

Donilon argues that the increased energy domestically will allow America to pressure its enemies, “The substantial increase in oil production in the United States and elsewhere means that international sanctions and U.S. and allied efforts could remove one million barrels per day of Iranian oil from the market while minimizing the burden on the rest of the world. The same approach is being used in Syria today and was used in Libya in 2011”.

Thankfully he correctly argues that “reduced energy imports do not mean the United States can or should disengage from the Middle East or the world. The United States continues to have an interest in stable supplies of energy and the free flow of commerce everywhere. The United States has enduring national security interests in the Middle East, including unshakeable commitments to Israel’s security; global nonproliferation objectives, such as preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon; the ongoing fight against terrorism; a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict; and successful democratic transitions in North African countries, Yemen, and Syria”. Some have argued that energy independence will in fact mean greater involvement in the Middle East.

He writes that the administration is working to reduce the “causes of energy-related conflict. For example, the promise of offshore energy resources is contributing to tensions in the South and East China Seas that could challenge East Asia’s political and security architecture. Although the United States has no territorial claims in the region, and does not take a position on the claims of others, it firmly opposes coercion or the use of force by others to advance territorial claims. Washington has consistently made its position clear: only peaceful, collaborative, and diplomatic efforts, consistent with international law, can bring about lasting solutions that will serve the interests of all claimants and all countries in this vital region. The Arctic is another place where the potential for new supplies of energy and new shipping routes could lead to rising tensions between countries. So far, that has not been the case and the United States looks forward to continue working with its partners in the eight-country Arctic Council, which it values as a forum for open and collaborative dialogue among littoral states on a range of Arctic issues”.

Interestingly he calls for more transperent energy markets, “As emerging economies consume an ever-greater share of global energy, the International Energy Agency and other institutions will have to modernize and adapt to evolving energy market realities. When the IEA was established in the 1970s, oil was not a globally traded commodity and gasoline prices were heavily regulated. The global energy market has changed dramatically since then. Oil is now traded globally. There is a financial market that dwarfs the size of the physical market. Gasoline prices are deregulated. And disruptions in supply are more likely to show as price spikes than physical shortages, as they did in the 1970s. The policies and practices of an IEA for the 21st century should reflect these changes as well. Major consumers, such as China, India, and Brazil, have a common interest in healthy and more transparent markets that function efficiently and effectively. It is critical that these countries are brought closer to the IEA and participate in coordinated responses to energy supply disruptions”.

He ends “In his most recent book, Strategic Vision, one of my predecessors, Zbigniew Brzezinski, presents what he calls “America’s Balance Sheet,” where he tallies the United States’ strategic assets and liabilities. Many U.S. assets are well known: economic and military strength, an unrivaled network of alliances spanning two oceans, favorable demographics and geography, and unparalleled innovators and educators – all this ensures that the United States will remain a global leader in the twenty-first century. When Obama took office, the country’s energy future would have been listed among the liabilities — and let’s be clear: much work lies ahead. But the United States is finally poised to control its own energy future and put it firmly among its enduring strengths”.

Working for China?

18/06/2013

House committee intelligence leaders today revealed the government is looking into whether or not National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is working for a foreign intelligence agency. ‘He’s already done serious harm and he’s stating things that are, candidly, not correct. Clearly, we’re going to make sure that there’s a thorough scrub of what his China connections are, and there’s a lot of questions there that seem unusual,’ said Rep. Mike Rogers (shown above), chair of the House intelligence committee after a closed-door briefing from NSA chief, Gen. Keith Alexander on the Agency’s classified programs that are said to be gathering telephone and Internet metadata on Americans. ‘It seems unusual that he would be in China and asking for protection of the Chinese government and giving press conferences to Chinese media,’ said Rep. Dutch Ruppersburger, the committee’s ranking Democrat. ‘We’re going to investigate.’ However, Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, told reporters hours later that, ‘we have no indication that [Snowden] is connected with the Chinese.’ Still, ‘he’s in Hong Kong so obviously we’re concerned about it,’ said Chambliss”

Following the election

18/06/2013

Following the election of moderate Iranian cleric, Hassan Rouhani, as president of Iran, there has been some discussion as to what his election will mean for relations with the United States.

Vali Nasr, who wrote a highly critical book after leaving the administration, has written that the ball is now in President Obama’s court following his election. He writes “Just when the world had given up hope for meaningful change in Iran, the country’s presidential election produced a surprise. Rather than a repeat of the 2009 conservative victory, the token reformist candidate, Hassan Rouhani, whose campaign called for moderation at home and constructive relations with the world, defied the odds to win a clear majority in the first round of voting. This is a welcome repudiation of the Ahmadinejad years and a clear popular challenge to the conservative chokehold on Iranian politics. The world can take heart in the fact that majority of Iranians voted for a break with the Ahmadinejad legacy and that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guards chose not to reverse the election’s outcome in a repeat of the debacle of 2009”.

Yet Nasr’s optimism is misguided, the Supreme Leader, as ever, runs Iran as he admits, “For starters, Rowhani may have won the popular mandate, but it is Khamenei who will make the final decision on the nuclear program. Iran’s counterparts in the P5+1 — the diplomatic bloc composed of the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany — would welcome seeing the back of the hardline negotiator Saeed Jalili. But even if Rowhani managed to persuade the supreme leader to sack his protégé and favorite in the recent elections, Iran’s position on its right to have a nuclear program is unlikely to change”.

He writes that “Rowhani was widely excoriated in Iran for ostensibly betraying the national interest in 2003, when, as the country’s nuclear negotiator, he signed on to a voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment. That concession was meant as a confidence-building measure to build momentum for a broader nuclear deal, but the reformist hope turned into defeat when talks failed amid allegations that Iran had violated protocols laid out by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The supreme leader and his conservative coterie concluded that the suspension had been construed as Iranian weakness and only invited greater international pressure. They blamed Rowhani for having put Iran on its heels. The defeatist image became a stain on the reformists’ reputation and contributed to the conservative juggernaut that swept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in 2005. Ahmadinejad lost no time reversing the suspension. In a matter of days, the West offered Iran a new diplomatic package that reportedly included trade incentives, the promise of long-term access to nuclear supplies, and assurances of non-aggression”.

Nasr predicts that “He will venture concessions only if he is assured of tangible returns”, yet he writes that “The dilemma for Washington is that, as a reformist, Rowhani is an outsider, weaker than Ahmadinejad when it comes to selling any compromise with the West to Iran’s suspicious conservative establishment. Rowhani’s electoral mandate gives him room to maneuver, but that is not enough to shield him from the backlash that would follow any rebuff at the negotiating table. So he will likely wait for a signal of American willingness to make serious concessions before he risks compromise”.

Again however he paints the administration into a corner and blames it, instead of Iran for the problems in US-Iranian relations which is petty and simplistic. Nasr goes on to argue that “Washington must realize that its success in rallying the international community to isolate Iran was due in no small part to Ahmadinejad’s bombastic style. In denying the Holocaust, calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, and deliberately ratcheting up tensions with the West, he made it easy to paint Iran as an existential threat to Israel and a menace to the international community. Washington will find it difficult to make the same case when Iran has elected a reformist president who has publicly repudiated his predecessor”.

Yet this too misses the point, he ignores the role they have played in causing havoc in Lebanon and at the same time backing Hezbollah for decades, to say nothing of the regimes support for Syria. None of this will change under Rowhani, even if he wants to change policy, ultimately, it will not be his decision.

Again he blames America for its policies, leaving Iran off the hook, “Rowhani’s victory is not regime change in Iran — but it is a game-changer. The supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards continue to control all the levers of power. However, the election result has altered the face of Iran, enough to put to question the continued viability of American policy”. It could just as easily be said that the Supreme Leader must change course rather than the Obama administration.

As others have noted “Taken together with Saeed Jalili’s third place finish — he was the Ayatollah’s preferred candidate — Rowhani’s victory sends a strong message of discontent to Iran’s ruling clerics and serves as a reminder that the reformist sentiment that brought thousands into the streets following the hotly contested election in 2009 has not faded. Though Rowhani was not the most progressive candidate to throw his hat into the ring, he at least pledged to break somewhat with the prevailing orthodoxy”.

On the subject of the country’s nuclear weapons programme the article adds “There is nothing to indicate in the speech that Rowhani thinks Iran should abandon its nuclear program; rather, his focus on how to best manage the international community and the domestic Iranian population. As soon as Iran has mastered the enrichment process, Rowhani observes, “a country that can enright uranium to about 3.5 percent will also have the capability to enrich it to about 90 percent.” (90 percent is weapons grade.) This suggests that Rowhani believes the issue may be settled — Iran has already achieved 3.5 percent enrichment — and that the challenge lies in its efforts abroad. Equally important, Rowhani observes, is maintaining domestic support for the program, which as Chen Kane, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, observes in the accompanying analysis, represents a surprising concern at the highest levels of Iranian politics. Rowhani is nothing if not an expert on Iran’s nuclear program — he says he led a mid-2003 interagency review of the program and served as the chief nuclear negotiator from October 2003 to August 2005  — and he also has a clear sense of how to navigate the international waters. By exploiting the differences in the negotiating positions of the major diplomatic powers — the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany — Rowhani says Iran can secure protection at the Security Council in the form of a guaranteed veto. Which is exactly what it has often received from China and Russia. It has to be noted that Rowhani did not advocate in the speech that Iran should pursue a nuclear bomb — though the possibility of doing so was certainly hinted at in his references to 90 percent enrichment”.

Lastly Dr Stephen Walt argues that little will change as a result of the election, “Although Rouhani’s election does present an opportunity, my bet is that the United States and Iran will find a way to squander it yet again. Since 2000 (if not before), the bipartisan U.S. approach to Iran has been to demand its complete capitulation on the question of nuclear enrichment and to steadily ratchet up sanctions in the hopes that Tehran will eventually give Washington everything it demands. Obama briefly let Brazil and Turkey pursue a more flexible approach, but his administration quickly scuttled the resulting deal”.

Another try

18/06/2013

The Obama administration will announce the appointment of D.C. lawyer Clifford Sloan as the State Department’s new envoy tasked with closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility. One small problem: with some 150 unprosecutable detainees there, shutting down Gitmo is going to be borderline impossible. Sloan, a former assistant to the Solicitor General in the George H.W. Bush administration and associate White House counsel in the Clinton administration has his work cut out for him. Efforts to close the facility have been stalled since January when the administration reassigned the previous special envy, Daniel Fried, without an immediate replacement”. Whether it should be closed or not is a question that has been dealt with here before.

What competition? – Part II

16/06/2013

In the second of the series looking at the challengers to the current American lead order, an article in Foreign Affairs calls India’s foreign policy “feeble”. Yet the author warns that.

He opens noting the increasing prominence some have given India, however, he notes that “All of this frenzied discussion, however, overlooks a simple fact: within India itself, the foreign policy elite shies away from any talk of the country’s rising status. As a senior official who has worked on India’s relations with Western countries recently told me, ‘There is a hysterical sense, encouraged by the West, about India’s rise.’ A top-level official in India’s foreign ministry echoed the sentiment: ‘When do we Indians talk about it? We don’t.’ What explains this discrepancy? As I found through a series of interviews with senior officials in the Indian government, many of whom requested anonymity, it is a result of three important facts that have gone largely unnoticed in the West. First, New Delhi’s foreign policy decisions are often highly individualistic — the province of senior officials responsible for particular policy areas, not strategic planners at the top. As a result, India rarely engages in long-term thinking about its foreign policy goals, which prevents it from spelling out the role it aims to play in global affairs. Second, Indian foreign-policy makers are insulated from outside influences, such as think tanks, which in other countries reinforce a government’s sense of its place in the world. Third, the Indian elite fears that the notion of the country’s rise is a Western construct, which has unrealistically raised expectations for both Indian economic growth and the country’s international commitments”.

While these reasons may indeed be true it does not mean that they are not prone to change. Indeed, it would be odd if they did not plan further ahead and at the same time, clamp down, if not eradicate, petty squabbles within sections of the foreign ministry.

The piece goes on to mention that “India’s discomfort with being labeled a rising power should lower Washington’s ambitions for its partnership with New Delhi. India can be convinced to play an international role in areas where its narrow interests are at stake, but it will not respond positively to abstract calls for it to assume more global responsibility”. This is seen in relation to the “rise” of China and the impact India, especially its navy, can have on how China pressures the other countries of Asia.

He writes that the PM, foreign ministry and NSC all have a role in shaping foreign policy yet he adds that “All three offices and their top positions are filled by Indian Foreign Service officers. Understanding the structure of the foreign service and the role of its officers is essential to explaining why the rise of India garners more attention in New York than it does in New Delhi”.

Expanding on this point he “unlike in the United States, in India, the most significant ambassadorial and foreign policy jobs are usually filled by career civil servants rather than political appointees. Once they survive the cut-throat admissions process, the foreign service officers go on to serve as key advisers in the prime minister’s office, on the National Security Council, and at the foreign ministry. They also tend to hold the most powerful positions within these bodies: the foreign secretary, the administrative head of the foreign ministry, is always a foreign service officer. And three of the four people who have held the position of national security adviser since the post was created in 1998, including the current one, Shivshankar Menon, have been foreign service officers”.

The result of this he writes is that “the service’s exclusive admissions policies mean that a tiny cadre of officers must take on large portfolios of responsibility. In addition to their advisory role, they have significant leeway in crafting policy. This autonomy, in turn, means that New Delhi does very little collective thinking about its long-term foreign policy goals, since most of the strategic planning that takes place within the government happens on an individual level”.

He confirms the absence of long term planning, with few guiding documents and no instructions from the ministry or NSC or even PM’s office to shape the broad strategy. Naturally, this is in sharp contrast to America, and to a lesser extent, the UK. While the problems of not having a long term codified goals written down, which can lead to confusion, the alternative, as the author writes can mean that foreign service officers have great flexibility in dealing with the array of situations that confront them on a daily basis. The result of this bottom up policy making process is that senior officials take responsibility for decisions made a local levels which can sometimes be less than ideal.

He then argues that the restrictive recruitment policies of the Foreign Ministry which leads to a staff shortage and therefore an overworked staff with little time for grand strategy is coupled to the fact that “the two departments within the foreign ministry that are supposedly meant to handle long-term strategising, the Policy, Planning, Research Division and the Public Diplomacy Division, are widely seen as lacking clout. The absence of grand strategic thinking in the Indian foreign policy establishment is amplified by the lack of influential think tanks in the country. Not only is the foreign service short-staffed, but its officers do not turn to external institutions for in-depth research or analysis of the country’s position. U.S. foreign-policy makers, by contrast, can expect strategic guidance from a broad spectrum of organizations that supplement the long-term planning that happens within the government itself. But in India, there are very few policy-oriented research institutions that focus on international relations. Those that do are often private organisations funded by large corporations, so they inevitably focus chiefly on trade issues”.

The key problem he states is that “Countries that aspire to great-power status usually look beyond tactical challenges, imagine a world that best suits their interests, and work to make that vision a reality. The problem for New Delhi is that its foreign policy apparatus is not yet designed to do that”.

He ends the piece noting that “Although perhaps flattering to Indian officials, the international discourse on India’s rise also makes them deeply uneasy. This is because it risks raising expectations — for the Indian economy to grow at a pace that is simply not achievable and for New Delhi to take on an international leadership role that it does not want to assume. Several of the officials I interviewed referred to the fiasco of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2004 “India Shining” campaign as an example of this liability. During the 2004 national elections, the ruling BJP campaigned on the successes of the Indian economy, all but ignoring the daily struggles of the vast majority of the population without access to basic services. The BJP’s subsequent trouncing served as a cautionary tale to Indian leaders about prematurely promoting their country’s emergence”.

Worryingly he writes that “Officials who have worked with the foreign ministry and the prime minister’s office told me that the disadvantage of the international discourse on India’s rise was that the West, particularly the United States, might pressure India to step up its global commitments. India might have to abandon its status as a developing country and could be forced to make concessions on environmental issues, such as limiting its carbon emissions, and on trade, such as opening up the Indian market further to U.S. exports. India has not adequately thought through what its growing clout will mean in terms of assuming global leadership”.

He goes on to elobrate on this theme noting “India’s discomfort with the idea that great power brings great responsibility means that the United States and other Western countries must be cautious about asking India to assume a larger international role. New Delhi is not likely to take the lead on climate change or support ambitious humanitarian interventions. Nor will it eagerly sign on to efforts to bring down barriers to global trade”.

However, he then writes that India will be wary of being seen as a balance to China in the region, however, this attitude may be forced to change if China keeps bullying the rest of Asia as well as threatening India itself, as it did recently with a brief incursion by PLA forces into Indian territory. Therefore, while the Indian establishment may wish to remain aloof in Asia, events may force its hand if it wants to be have any kind of regional reputation at all. It may have to accept that in order to further develop domestically it may have to play at least a regional role in playing sheriff.

He concludes the piece “New Delhi’s strategic thinking may be strengthened by the recently proposed expansion of the Indian Foreign Service, the growing number of Indian think tanks, and the increasing interest of the Indian diaspora — which has come to play a large role in New Delhi’s economic diplomacy — in Indian foreign policy. In the meantime, if the West wants India to play a larger international role, it needs to offer the country concrete incentives and assurances that discussions of its rise are not simply excuses to force it to make concessions. By supporting India’s long-standing desire to join the UN Security Council as a permanent member, for example, the international community can signal that it wants to both empower India and give it a greater say in world affairs. India might eventually find that although global leadership can be a burden, it also has its benefits”.

“A moderate Shiite cleric”

16/06/2013

Hassan Rouhani, a moderate Shiite cleric known as one of Iran’s leading foreign policy experts, has won the election to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the Islamic Republic’s next president, Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar announced Saturday evening. With results from all the precincts in, Rouhani had won 50.7 percent of the votes, avoiding a runoff, Mohammad-Najjar said. The mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, came a distant second, with 16.6 percent of the vote. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s hard-line nuclear negotiator, came third with 11.4 percent. A handful of other conservative candidates fared poorly”.

“Resembles the second-term posture”

16/06/2013

An interesting article has been published in the Washington Post. It makes the point that the wire tapping system under President Bush that caused such furor, has reappeared, although without even the acknowlegement of obtaining a judicial decision. On a separate note it was been noted that President Obama promoted the man blamed for the controversy under President Bush as head of the FBI.

The piece opens, “For four years, President Obama’s approach to counterterrorism has been defined by his embrace of paramilitary power — the drones and the commando teams whose ruthless pursuit of al-Qaeda helped cripple the terrorist network through a global targeted killing campaign. Months into his second term, however, Obama faces a rash of disclosures that have revealed the extent to which his administration also has relied on a less conspicuous capability — a massive electronic surveillance net cast within the United States that appears to have gathered data on almost anyone with a computer or phone”.

The article adds that the recent, “disclosures punctured that veil, adding new pressure on Obama to defend his administration’s counterterrorism policies and the secrecy surrounding them. It is a position that in some ways resembles the second-term posture of his predecessor, George W. Bush. In his first public comments on the controversy, Obama emphasized the congressional and judicial oversight of the surveillance programs. He also stressed their effectiveness. ‘I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs,’ Obama said Friday. But he said the value in disrupting terrorism outweighed any ‘modest encroachments on privacy. . . . You know, net, it was worth us doing.’ Beyond the familiar ring of that rationale, U.S. officials, civil liberties groups and security experts said the revelations show that, as much as Obama has sought to distance himself from the counterterrorism policies of his predecessor, he has embraced and in some cases expanded controversial programs that originated under Bush”.

The article mentions “The comments were triggered by a pair of disclosures about the operations of the NSA, the highly secretive agency responsible for eavesdropping on electronic communications around the globe. The NSA is barred from spying on Americans. But a classified court order published by the Guardian newspaper showed that the NSA had been given authority by a special court to collect calling data on millions of Americans from a subsidiary of the Verizon telecommunications company”, later on in the article the author notes that “The Washington Post then disclosed classified documents describing a separate program code-named PRISM that indicated the NSA has established access to the servers of companies including Microsoft, Google and Apple. The access would enable the U.S. government to extract audio, video, e-mails and other content, though Obama said no e-mails of U.S. citizens or residents are examined”.

The fact that President Obama has carried on the policies of President Bush shows that they are not only effective but do great harm to terrorist cells operating in the United States and beyond. Indeed, what is more surprising is the number of people who thought that President Obama would roll back of the policies of President Bush

“A political breakthrough”

16/06/2013

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Sunday predicted overwhelming congressional passage of an immigration reform bill. ‘I think we are going to have a political breakthrough, that Congress is going to pass immigration reform,’ Graham said on NBC’s Meet the Press. He said the Senate will give the reform bill — which currently has a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants — overwhelming support”.

A new emir?

16/06/2013

Noted Middle East expert Simon Henderson has written of the Emirate of Qatar is about to undergo a leadership change.

Henderson writes that “Qatari foreign policy has been based on the whims — or more politely, the vision — of Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, who is currently serving as prime minister and foreign minister. The two leaders’ personalized control has produced a decisiveness lacking in their larger allies”.

He adds a note of caution however that “the team that has overseen Qatar’s growth into a regional powerhouse is changing. Arab and Western diplomats reported this week that Emir Hamad, 61, is soon going to replace the prime minister with his son, the 33-year-old Crown Prince Tamim, and would then abdicate power himself in favor of Tamim. The news prompted an almost audible “OMG” across major world capitals, and among Qatar’s neighbors — a novice leader at a time of tension and great flux, after all, seems enormously risky. Why now? One thought is that Emir Hamad’s health has taken a turn for the worse. He is said to have only one functioning kidney — though it is not known whether it is his own or a transplant he received in 1997. If one compares a 2009 photograph of him with Obama in New York City with one taken in the Oval Office this April, it is clear he has lost a prodigious amount of weight. A Qatari friend denies there is a health issue, claiming instead that this is a well-planned transition for which Tamim has been groomed for several years. Transitions in Qatar rarely go smoothly. Emir Hamad himself seized power from his father in 1995 while the latter was at a sanatorium in Switzerland. Indeed, it is hard to identify a trouble-free change in power in the last 100 years”.

He writes goes on to profile the feature emir, “Family members are said to bear grudges and have long memories. Tamim will be forced to navigate this snake pit while many veteran political hands closely watch how the young emir performs. Tamim is Emir Hamad’s fourth son and is the second to have the title of crown prince. Of the emir’s two eldest sons, a former ambassador in Doha told me, ‘One partied too much; the other prayed too much.’ When I asked the same ambassador what happened to Tamim’s elder brother Jassim, the third eldest son who lost the title of heir apparent in 2003, he responded, ‘Oh, he listened to his Palestinian advisors too much.’ Tamim, it seems, has managed to avoid all those pitfalls for a Qatari heir apparent. He was trained at Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and has a reputation for diligence. But his crucial advantage may well be that he appears to be a favorite of Sheikha Moza, Emir Hamad’s second and highest-profile wife”.

Henderson ends the article “And what about the prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, known to diplomats as “HBJ”? At a ceremony held by the Brookings Institution this April, he was presented with a huge plaque and eulogized by the great and good representatives of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment as essentially irreplaceable. Perhaps he is — there are no names yet in the frame for who will take over from him as foreign minister. HBJ will remain in charge of the Qatar Investment Authority’s estimated $200 billion portfolio, but may well decide to reside in London, where the Shard, the British capital’s tallest and newest building, is Qatari-owned.Once the handover is complete, Tamim will be in charge of guiding Qatar’s intervention in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as well as maintaining Qatar’s influence across the Arab world”.

The piece closes “will he continue to be the biggest financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Will he still back what are probably the most extreme, albeit effective, jihadi fighters in Syria? And will Iran, which lies 100 miles north and with which Qatar shares the world’s largest natural gas field, seek revenge for losses in Syria by challenging the neophyte? What about Qatar’s Sunni Arab rival, Saudi Arabia, where the now-deceased Crown Prince Sultan used to refer to Emir Hamad contemptuously as a “Persian” for what was perceived to be the less-than-pure Al Thani bloodline?”

Indeed the answers to these questions will influence not only the place of Qatar but also the conflict in Syria and the stability of the emirate itself in an increasingly unstable region.

Potential US targets

16/06/2013

A map has been complied of potential US targets if it were to impose a no fly zone in Syria.

The “gay lobby”

16/06/2013

Pope Francis has formally acknowledged that there is a “gay lobby” within the Vatican. The “lobby” was reported as being a factor in the conclave but was dismissed by the Church at the time.

John Allen writes that “As a rule of thumb, one should usually take unsourced speculation with a grain of salt, especially in the Italian papers. As I’m fond of saying, God love ’em, Italians have never seen a conspiracy theory they’re not prepared to believe. In terms of specifics, I don’t know whether it’s accurate that a commission of three cardinals created by Benedict XVI to investigate the Vatican leaks affair, composed of Cardinals Julian Herranz Casado, Jozef Tomko and Salvatore De Giorgi, actually considered possible networks inside the Vatican based on sexual preference, but frankly, it would be a little surprising if they hadn’t. Here’s why. In 2007, Msgr. Thomas Stenico in the Congregation for Clergy was suspended after being caught on hidden camera making contact with a young man posing as a potential “date” in gay-oriented chat rooms, then taking him back to his Vatican apartment. In 2010, a “Gentlemen of the Pope” named Angelo Balducci was caught in a wiretap trying to arrange sexual hookups through a Nigerian member of a Vatican choir. Both episodes were highly public and caused massive embarrassment. In that context, it would seem odd if the cardinals didn’t at least consider the possibility that somebody with a big secret to hide might be vulnerable to pressure to leak documents or spill the beans in other ways”.

Allen goes on to write, sensibly, that “It also doesn’t stretch credulity to believe there are still people in the system leading a double life, not just in terms of their sexual preference and activities, but possibly in other ways as well — in terms of their financial interests, for example. Whether they form self-conscious cabals is open to question, but they may well naturally identify with each other, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that trying to chart such networks was part of what the three cardinals tried to do”.

What Allen doesn’t mention of course is what Pope Francis will do, or can do, if anything, about it. These men have, presumably not broken any law, civil or canonical, and therefore until such time as this changes and they are caught Francis can do little, if anything. Of course those on the unhinged right are having a field day, seeing them as a malign fifth column out to destroy the Church, which is of course laughable.

Security over politics

14/06/2013

“In a new move to stifle President Obama’s efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the House voted Friday to restrict the transfer of detainees to Yemen. The House voted 236-188 to pass a defense authorization bill amendment from Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) that prohibits using funds to transfer detainees to Yemen. Transferring detainees to Yemen is a key part of ramping down the prison camp in Cuba, as 56 of the 86 detainees who have been cleared for release are from Yemen”.

 

What competition? – Part I

14/06/2013

Two articles have recently been written on the BRICS but in the context of South Africa. The first article argues that Souith Africa has real problems when it comes to being a leader in the world.

The piece begins, “After all, listing Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa sounds like that game on Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the others.” Unlike China, South Africa is not an economic powerhouse. It has neither the profit potential nor the productivity of India or Brazil. Russia’s economy (the smallest of the BRIC nations) is four times larger than South Africa’s, which accounts for just 2.5 percent of the bloc’s gross domestic product (GDP). And with a population of 50 million, South Africa lacks the sizeable citizenry of those other countries”.

What is most worthy of note is that the man who coined the term BRICs did so with a small ‘s’ mearly to highlight a plurality and did not include South Africa. The article expands on this ” . Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill, who coined the BRIC acronym in 2001, was himself surprised by South Africa’s inclusion. What began as a economist’s snappy acronym was actualized as an organization after the foreign ministers of the BRIC countries began a series of meetings in New York City in September 2006. This was followed by a diplomatic summit in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, in May 2008, where the foundation for the organization was established. Shortly after it was announced that his club had gained a member, O’Neill wrote to his clients that “While this is clearly good news for South Africa, it is not entirely obvious to me why the BRIC countries should have agreed” to invite it. Surely a more robust and exciting economy — Turkey, Mexico, or South Korea — would be a better fit? No doubt. But Turkey, Mexico, and South Korea are not in Africa. South Africa is Africa’s largest economy, and Africa is key for BRIC resources, trade, and economic expansion. According to economists at South Africa’s Standard Bank, the BRIC nations trade more with South Africa than with each other. Thus it was not particularly surprising, then, that shortly after his 2009 inauguration, South African President Jacob Zuma made partnership with BRIC countries a priority, visiting each state and lobbying for closer ties”.

The writer goes on to find out that China included South Africa in the group, “One of the planks of this year’s summit is “BRICS and Africa — a partnership for development, integration, and industrialization.” The Standard Bank economists estimate that BRIC-Africa trade will exceed $500 billion by 2015, with 60 percent of that figure resulting from China-Africa trade. In 2009, South Africa-China trade totaled $59.9 billion, which was almost one-third of Africa-China trade. Perhaps it should have been apparent, then, that it was China that invited South Africa to join the BRIC consortium. The world’s second-largest economy, China is wealthier than all the other BRIC countries combined. It is often said that China sees South Africa as the gateway to Africa. But this formulation is too narrow and too neat. China would do just fine on the continent if South Africa did not exist. The truth is that China sees Africa as the gateway to a richer and stronger China. Playing the long game there — investing $15 billion in the continent’s infrastructure over the last decade; constructing factories and purchasing real-estate in strategically valuable regions — has paid off for Beijing, even as Africans become increasingly suspicious that they are getting the short end of this deal. China has flooded the African market with cheap goods, benefiting from a manipulated currency and low labor costs. Yes, African consumers benefit from these low-cost goods, too, but African workers and small-business owners (especially in the retail sector) are sidelined by the stealth and quiet aggression of Chinese commerce. In the memorable phrase of Stewart Jennings, chief executive of PG Group, a South African glass manufacturer, China is “exporting unemployment” to Africa”.

Now even Jacob Zuma is becoming wary, if not totally hostile to China’s presence in Africa, “Zuma, who, addressing the China-Africa Forum in Beijing last July, spoke with surprising frankness about the inequality and ‘unsustainability’ of Sino-South Africa trade. Zuma noted that ‘Africa’s past experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies.’ And yet the day before, China’s then-president had pledged $20 billion in loans to Africa”.

Robbins goes on to argue how China and Russia have altered South African policy to suit their own ends, “In 2007, when South Africa served its first stint as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, it shocked much of the world (and, it must be noted, many South Africans) when it voted against a resolution calling on the Burmese military to stop human-rights violations. The only other countries to vote against the resolution were China and Russia”.

Robbins ends the article, “Almost 20 years into liberation, South Africa’s education system remains badly broken, with high levels of functional illiteracy and millions of students with no prospects and few skills. With 40 percent youth unemployment, and a total unemployment rate of almost 25 percent, South Africa today has little to be proud of. Last August’s Marikana massacre, in which police killed 34 illegally striking miners, intensified an atmosphere of widespread uncertainty, led to downgrades by three international rating agencies”.

Broadening the debate others have noted that other flaws in the BRICS, “there were doubts about Russia’s inclusion. While the other BRICS have risen to increased geopolitical prominence since the 1990s, Russia is still struggling to regain the global relevance it enjoyed as the Soviet Union. In 2009, Anders Aslund wrote an article for this site titled, “Take the R Out of BRIC“:” while the same blog post goes on to mention similarly that “Not so fast, wrote Forbes‘ Mark Adomanis last year. The weakest BRIC in the wall isn’t Russia, it’s Brazil” while

Taliban talks = bombing

14/06/2013

Within hours of the top United Nations official in Afghanistan issuing a statement saying the Taliban had “signaled their willingness” to talk about reducing civilian casualties, militants set off a bomb that killed at least 17 civilians and wounded 39 others, many of them critically, outside the capital’s Supreme Court complex on Tuesday. The powerful explosion, felt throughout central Kabul, destroyed three buses taking court workers home from their jobs, said Gen. Dawood Amin, the deputy police chief in Kabul. He said the death toll might rise as the authorities searched for bodies. The victims included at least nine women and several children, he said, but no police or military personnel”.