Archive for September, 2013

“Increasingly likely”

29/09/2013

A government shutdown has become increasingly likely as conservatives ramp up  pressure on House Republicans to reject a Senate bill restoring funding for  ObamaCare. Conservative activists say Speaker John Boehner’s  (R-Ohio) credibility is on the line, and warn he will not serve another term as  House GOP leader if he agrees to fund the Affordable Care Act along with the  rest of government. Senate Democrats, however, say Boehner will be responsible for shutting down the  government if he makes any changes to the stopgap bill that the Senate passed on  Friday. “I want everyone to listen and to hear: The United States  Senate has acted,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “This is the only legislation  that can avert a government shutdown, and that time is ticking as we  speak.” Reid adjourned the Senate until 2 pm Monday, leaving the  House to work out the government funding stalemate on its own. Reid’s staff said  there are not any talks with Boehner on finding a compromise before the Oct. 1  deadline”.

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Merkel knows best?

29/09/2013

After the German general election when Dr Merkel won a the most seats but not enough to form a single party government an article has appeared discussing the consequences of her victory on Europe.

The piece opens, “the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel printed the following commentary on its front page: ‘What do we need parties for when we have Merkel? That’s the attraction. Mommy is the best. We know ourselves. She won’t change much and doesn’t have to. Just because Merkel is so unspectacular, so hesitant, so apparently indecisive, she is very near to the way Germans actually are. The Germans elect their own image.’ The paragraph catches the essential mystery of Merkel as a politician. In Gerd Langguth’s 2007 biography of her, he writes that “there is something sphinx-like about her … Nobody is supposed to see behind the self-constructed protective shell.” She turns personal questions away with a self-deprecating joke: When a journalist recently asked her how she managed to look so fresh despite the grueling campaign, she replied, “By spending a fortune with the German cosmetics industry.” She also shuns the slightest hint of charismatic oratory. Her victory speech was characteristically low key”.

The article goes on to mention that “The victory of her Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union bloc, with 41.5 percent of the votes, nearly gave her an absolute majority of seats, but the failure of the center-right Free Democrats to collect the minimum five percent of the votes to be represented in the Bundestag means that Merkel will have to form a new coalition. Her most likely option, then, is to once again form a coalition with the Social Democratic Party, which came in second, with 25.7 percent. Merkel would likely find this coalition of left and center perfectly comfortable, as she did between 2005 and 2009. A classic case of her ease in dealing with the Social Democrats was her agreement in 2009 to accept a 2,500-euro environmental premium, paid by the state to anybody who bought a new car and scrapped one that was nine or more years old”.

More importantly they write that “Merkel has a tough series of choices ahead, and having a very large coalition majority would allow her to face the angry right wing of her own party. The hardest will be measures to settle the eurozone crisis and to stimulate growth in the economies of Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Ireland. Almost as difficult will be the rebalancing of the German economy away from its export bias and toward more imports, especially from the ailing Mediterranean economies. So far, “Mommy” has always seemed to know best. But there is no guarantee that she will in the future, especially as the decisions before her get more complicated”.

“Gives not an inch”

27/09/2013

Rouhani is Khamenei’s agent but, with a smile and style, he’s now hailed as the face of Iranian moderation. Why? Because Rouhani wants better relations with the West. Well, what leader would not want relief from Western sanctions that have sunk Iran’s economy, devalued its currency and caused widespread hardship? The test of moderation is not what you want but what you’re willing to give. After all, sanctions were not slapped on Iran for amusement. It was to enforce multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding a halt to uranium enrichment. Yet in his lovey-dovey Post op-ed, his U.N. speech and various interviews, Rouhani gives not an inch on uranium enrichment. Indeed, he has repeatedly denied that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons at all. Or ever has. Such a transparent falsehood — what country swimming in oil would sacrifice its economy just to produce nuclear electricity that advanced countries such as Germany are already abandoning? — is hardly the basis for a successful negotiation”.

Brought it on themselves

27/09/2013

An article has been published discussing the Muslim Brotherhood after their fall from power.

He writes that about the crackdown on the Brotherhood by the military, “Though Fathy and young activists like him are determined to press on, there is no doubt that the crackdown has been successful at breaking the Brotherhood’s vaunted ability to organize street protests. Since the movement’s two Cairo sit-ins were violently dispersed on Aug. 14, at the cost of hundreds of lives, the crowds that have protested the military-backed government have become dramatically smaller. The Friday protests are now just hundreds or thousands strong, and demonstrations are frequently cancelled as security forces block off access to key roads and squares But even as the mass demonstrations shrink, there is increasing evidence that some individuals are turning to violence. Egypt’s interior minister was the target of an assassination attempt on Thursday, Sept. 5, as a bomb ripped through his convoy. A number of police stations across the country have come under fire, while some protesters have been caught on camera wielding guns and swords. A wave of arrests of top Brotherhood officials has left the famously hierarchical organisation without a functioning leadership. Hundreds of leaders are now behind bars, including Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and Mohammed al-Beltagy, the head of the movement’s Freedom and Justice Party. Four TV stations seen as sympathetic to the Brotherhood were also shut down this week, a state-run newspaper reported that the government would dissolve the Brotherhood’s registered non-governmental organisation”.

While not to diminish the obvious suffering and hurt caused by the army, none of this would have occured if the Brotherhood and Morsi had not been so incompentent and governed in the spirit of the revolutions and not for their narrow sectional interests.

He goes on to write that “Darrag, once a central player in the Morsy administration, says he now has no contact with most of his colleagues, who are either hiding or in jail. He has returned to being a university professor and only sees his political counterparts during periodic meetings with diplomats. ‘The environment is not good for dialogue or initiatives,’ he adds despondently. ‘It is beyond sad.’ The lower rungs of the Brotherhood have tried to fill this institutional vacuum by keeping the cause alive on the streets. Sara Omar, 32, another organiser for the “Anti-Coup Alliance,” an umbrella coalition of groups opposing the new military-backed government that includes the Muslim Brotherhood, is a software manager who has been part of the movement since the June 30 protests calling for Morsy’s ouster. She says Islamist activists feel like they ‘are being hunted.’ The pro-Morsy coalition announces the dates of protests — but only publicises the starting points of the marches ‘by word of mouth,’ Omar says, due to fear of the security forces. The Friday demonstrations in Cairo usually begin following afternoon prayers, at mosques earmarked as being sympathetic to the Brotherhood”.

He ends the piece “Pro-Morsy protesters, however, bitterly refute claims that support for the movement is dwindling. ‘Our numbers are increasing every day, there are millions on the street in support of what we are doing,’ maintains Mona Safa, a 40-year-old physician from the Cairo neighbourhood of Heliopolis. Safa is taking a break from cheering on an unusual new form of protest — a convoy of cars beeping their horns and driving around town together. ‘The country is behind us,’ she says, ‘We represent the will of the Egyptian people.'”

“Relocate a large fleet of drones”

27/09/2013

The U.S. military has been forced to relocate a large fleet of drones from a key counterterrorism base on the Horn of Africa after a string of crashes fanned local fears that the unmanned aircraft were at risk of colliding with passenger planes, according to documents and interviews. Air Force drones ceased flying this month from Camp Lemonnier, a U.S. installation in Djibouti, after local officials expressed alarm about several drone accidents and mishaps in recent years. The base serves as the combat hub for counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia, playing a critical role in U.S. operations against al-Shabab, the Somali Islamist militia that has asserted responsibility for the Nairobi shopping mall attack, which killed more than 60 people. The Pentagon has temporarily moved the unmanned aircraft from the U.S. base in Djibouti’s capital to a makeshift airstrip in a more remote part of the country. U.S. military officials said the disruption has not affected their overall ability to launch drone strikes in the region, but they declined to say whether it has forced them to curtail the frequency of drone missions or hindered their surveillance of al-Shabab camps and fighters”.

What America wants from Iran

25/09/2013

In the context of the improving relations between Iran and America, a piece has been written that discusses the hoped for consequences with a rapproachment with Iran for America.

He writes “We know what Iran would want out of any agreement: freedom from the Western sanctions that have decimated its economy and international recognition that it is entitled to have a civilian nuclear program. More specifically, Iran would want the United States and its allies to lift the measures that have led foreign countries to significantly cut their purchases of Iranian oil, reducing Iran’s monthly oil revenues by nearly 60 percent over the past two years, and that have forced overseas financial institutions to freeze their ties with Iran’s central bank, driving the value of its currency down to historic lows and effectively cutting Iran off from the global financial system. We also know the broad terms of what the United States would want: clear evidence that Iran had dropped its pursuit of nuclear weapons and would no longer have the equipment or radioactive material necessary to start it up again. That would require Tehran to agree to a long list of specific American demands”.

He goes on to list the demands of the United States in dealing with the nuclear issue. He argues that this would include “The most important single ingredient for a nuclear weapon is a large quantity of enriched uranium, and Iran has been steadily amassing more and more of it. The country is estimated to possess 185 kilograms of uranium that has been enriched to a purity level of 20 percent, enough to make about 18.5 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium. If Iran amasses 250 kilograms of the lower-level uranium, that would be a red line for the Israelis, because the amount could be used to produce 25 kilograms of the more potent uranium — just enough to build a single nuclear weapon”.

The article adds that “officials would also demand that Iran shutter one of its two known enrichment facilities, Natanz and Fordo. Natanz is an older facility that has long been used to produce uranium enriched to low levels of purity. Fordo, a more sophisticated facility, is of enormous concern to American and Israeli policymakers because it’s buried deep underground and would be difficult to destroy by air. The German newspaper Der Spiegel has reportedthat Rouhani is ready to decommission Fordo, a potentially major concession, but the Iranian government has denied any willingness to shutter the facility”.

If this is true and Fordo would indeed be closed, Iran would have turned the page and if the Supreme Leader agreed with the closure, then  real progress could be made on the removal of some of the sanctions.

The next issue would be centrifuges, “Last month, the outgoing chief of Iran’s nuclear program saidhis country had 18,000 of the centrifuges needed to enrich more uranium, with about 9,000 of them already fully operational. Any agreement between Washington and Tehran would put in place new limitations on the number and quality of those pieces of machinery”. The article suggests that as a face saving measure, Iran could dismantle the ones that are not in use.

The piece mentions that in 2002 how it was “revealed that Iran was building a so-called heavy-water reactor near the city of Arak. That kind of plant can be used to produce plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. The facility has not yet been completed, however, and Albright says that the West would insist that Arak be completely shut down as part of any deal. There’s a simple reason for that: Once operational, bombing the plant could lead to massive radiation leaks, potentially poisoning tens of thousands of Iranians. If no deal is struck, Albright says, Israel would strongly consider destroying Arak before it came online. Kahl notes the United States could try to forestall an Israeli strike by offering to provide Iran with a light-water reactor, which would provide the same amount of energy as a heavy-water plant without being able to produce the high-quality plutonium needed for a bomb”.

There is no certainty that a deal covering all of these points will be reached. Iranian objections to any one of these points, could, potentially, derail the deal and move the US and Iran back to where they were last year but in an unhealthy and perhaps dnagerous acrominous atmosphere.

The article concludes, “Kahl, the former Pentagon Middle East official, said that no agreement, no matter how detailed, could permanently persuade Iran to fully abandon its decades-long quest for nuclear weapons. Still, he said, a flawed agreement would be better than no agreement at all”.

“Prepared to engage”

25/09/2013

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says he is prepared to engage in “time-bound and results-oriented” talks on his country’s nuclear programme. He told the UN General Assembly’s annual meeting in New York that sanctions against Iran were “violent”. He also welcomed Syria’s acceptance of the Chemical Weapons Convention and condemned the use of such weapons. Earlier, US President Barack Obama said he was encouraged by Mr Rouhani’s “more moderate course”. He told the General Assembly that the diplomatic approach to settling the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme must be tested”.

“Hurdles to a bipartisan deal”

25/09/2013

An piece in The Hill, notes that the problems in relationships between the Democratic and Republican leaderships. It begins, “Strained relationships between key Democratic and Republican negotiators pose  significant hurdles to a bipartisan deal that would avert a government shutdown  and a default on the nation’s debt obligations”.

The article goes on to mention that “President Obama and Republicans have clashed repeatedly on many fiscal matters.  But this fall’s showdown is more personal than prior battles. Trust and respect  for the other side of the aisle have deteriorated to the point of being  non-existent. Ron Bonjean, a former aide to House and Senate Republican leaders, said, ‘In  the high stakes of fiscal showdowns, leaders in Washington either don’t trust  each other or don’t trust that they will be able to deliver the votes. This  breaks down the negotiations into hyper partisan warfare and changes the focus  from achieving a deal to ginning up base voters.'”

Noting the differences between the President Obama and Speaker Boehner,”The president and the Speaker played golf together a couple years ago — and  not since. The relationship has grown frosty, especially after a so-called “grand bargain” on taxes and entitlements collapsed in 2011. Boehner crowed that  he got 98 percent of what he wanted in the Budget Control Act negotiations, but  he stumbled badly during the “fiscal cliff” debate late last year. After that debacle, Boehner said he would no longer negotiate one-on-one with  Obama. The president, meanwhile, has said he will not repeat the ugliness of  2011, vowing not to haggle over raising the debt ceiling”.

It adds that Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) have similarities but “The two men struck a deal in 2011 at the eleventh hour to avert a government  shutdown. Sources close to Boehner and Reid said at the time there was a mutual  admiration for one another. The fiscal cliff showdown changed things, however. During those talks,  Boehner uncharacteristically cursed at Reid after the Nevada Democrat suggested  the Ohio Republican was more interested in ‘keeping his Speakership than keeping  the nation on sound financial footing.'”

Discussing Obama and Mitch McConnell the article mentions that “The president and McConnell have never had a warm relationship and it’s  unlikely to improve any time soon. Earlier this year, Obama cracked a joke at  the White House Correspondents’ dinner about the minority leader, saying many  people in the nation’s capital  — including him — are not rushing to grab a  drink with McConnell. McConnell has struck deals with the Obama administration, but those  agreements have been brokered with Vice President Biden. But now, McConnell is  focused on his reelection bid”.

It is these problems that, if they are not solved in the national interst then American will decline. This need not happen given the problems faced by the competition.

“The deadliest-ever attack”

25/09/2013

A pair of suicide bombers blew themselves up amid hundreds of worshippers at a historic church in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday, killing 78 people in the deadliest-ever attack against the country’s Christian minority. A wing of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing, raising new questions about the government’s push to strike a peace deal with the militants to end a decade-long insurgency that has killed thousands of people. The Jundullah arm of the Taliban said they would continue to target non-Muslims until the United States stopped drone attacks in Pakistan’s remote tribal region. The latest drone strike came Sunday, when missiles hit a pair of compounds in the North Waziristan tribal area, killing six suspected militants. The attack on the All Saints Church, which wounded 141 people, occurred as worshippers were leaving after services to get a free meal of rice offered on the front lawn, said a top government administrator, Sahibzada Anees”.

Sincere Iran?

23/09/2013

Some have speculated how serious Iran is in its recent engagment with America.

Some have said that Iran is sincere with its regard to reforms, writers have noted that “Rouhani pledges that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons., Khamenei endorses diplomacy with the West, saying it is time for his country to adopt a posture of “heroic leniency.” , Rouhani takes to the Washington Post to urge his “counterparts to seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election” ,  Hollande announces that he will meet with Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly  , Rouhani and President Obama exchanged a series of lettersRouhani gives his widely respected foreign minister, Javad Zarif, responsibility for handling the country’s nuclear negotiations. ,   Iran eases the terms of the house arrest imposed on two opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decides that their cases will be taken up by the country’s supreme national security council. , Rouhani signals he may be open to easing restrictions on the Internet , Rouhani says he would like to reduce tensions between the United States and Iran, , Rouhani calls for negotiations to end the impasse over his country’s nuclear program, but emphasizes that the United States must take the first step.Rouhani appoints a cabinet dominated by moderates, many of whom served under a moderate former president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani., In a speech to Revolutionary Guard commanders, Rouhani claims that Iran will support whomever the Syrian people choose as their leader, even if that person is not the country’s staunch ally, President Bashar al-Assad., Rouhani calls for a less intrusive state and more freedoms for IraniansThe sultan of Oman becomes the first foreign leader to visit Iran since Rouhani took power, sparking speculation in the Iranian media that he may mediate talks between Iran and the West on the country’s nuclear program. (Subsequent reports suggest the sultan has indeed ferried letters between Obama and Rouhani.)

Dr Walt writes that “By all indications, Iran’s new president wants a deal with the United States on its nuclear program and has the authority to negotiate one. As predictably as the sunrise, hard-liners in the United States and Israel are dismissing the possibility on various grounds. Indeed, about 10 minutes after President Hassan Rouhani was elected, they began describing him as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and suggesting that nothing had changed. Then, after Rouhani unleashed a wave of conciliatory actions, skeptics like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by proposing a new set of deal-breaking conditions, and other Israeli officials suggested that time had already run out and that further diplomacy was a waste of time”.

Walt adds that “the United States and Iran are facing a classic problem in international relations (and other forms of bargaining): Given that an adversary could be bluffing or dissembling, how do you know when a seemingly friendly gesture is sincere? Political scientist Robert Jervis explored this issue in depth in The Logic of Images in International Relations (1970) and drew a nice distinction between “signals” (i.e., actions that contain no inherent credibility) and “indices,” which he defined as “statements or actions that carry some inherent evidence that the image projected is correct.” More recently, this basic idea was resurrected in economics (and borrowed by IR scholars) in the notion of a “costly signal.” Unlike ‘cheap talk,’ a costly signal is an action that involves some cost or risk for the sender and therefore is one that the sender would be unlikely to make if they didn’t really mean it. A classic example was Anwar Sadat’s 1977 offer to fly to Jerusalem and speak directly to the Israeli Knesset in search of a peace deal. Because this move was obviously a risky step for Sadat (who was condemned throughout the Arab world), his Israeli counterparts had good reason to believe that his desire for peace was genuine. So should we take Rouhani’s overtures seriously? I think we should. As noted above, the possibility that Iran is genuinely interested in a deal is inherently credible, because we have in fact been squeezing the Iranians quite hard. To repeat: Isn’t what they are now doing exactly what we’ve been trying to achieve? Equally important is that Iran has taken a wide range of actions that were not cost-free. First, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been granted enhanced authority to negotiate a deal, and Rouhani has appointed officials who favor negotiations and are familiar to their American interlocutors. Any time you pick one set of officials over another, there are political costs involved. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has publicly stated that Iran should show ‘heroic flexibility,’ thereby lending his own authority to this effort. And this has all been done in public view, making it harder for Iran’s leaders to reverse course on a whim”.

Targeting terrorists

23/09/2013

“Egyptian security forces have fought gun battles in a town near Cairo after launching an operation targeting “terrorist elements”. The clashes in the town of Kerdasa in Giza have left one senior police officer dead and nine others injured, while at least 65 people have been arrested, according to the Interior Ministry”.

“Democracies need debates”

21/09/2013

As the impending victory of Chancellor Angela Merkel seems all but assured in the German general election, and article in Foreign Affairs discusses the the predicted result, is entirely negative for the euro crisis and its eventual conclusion.

The author writes, “Germany has been dubbed Europe’s most powerful country, the EU’s “indispensable nation,” but it would be hard to tell from its current election season. The country’s leading politicians have been focused on such weighty matters as whether foreigners should be charged for the privilege of driving on German autobahns and how to calibrate pension rates for civil servants. In the eyes of critics inside and outside the country, the election battle has not only been boring — it has also been deeply irresponsible, a willful repression of the important issues facing the country”.

This failure will lead that to ruin. By being politically astute and ignoring, or sidlining the euro crisis they have only set themselves up to chaos when the new chancellor, whoever that is, must use vast sums of Germany money to bailout the EU and its failed currency. This backlash will be all the worse as they have not publicy discussed it.

Many would argue that it has not been discussed because there is broad agreement but this diminishes the problems and the scale of the solution needed to fix the issue at stake.

The article goes on to describe how this failure, “The real failure is that, in Germany’s first federal election since the outbreak of the eurocrisis in 2010, the fate of the European project has barely figured at all. By now, Europeans should have woken up to the fact of profound financial and political interdependence in the eurozone — yet they still conduct elections as if they were entirely national affairs”.

The piece adds that “The curious sleepiness of the election campaign has to do with two peculiar circumstances. One is that Merkel has sought to recycle the strategy that worked for her four years ago, which goes by the awkward name “asymmetric demobilisation.” Merkel either says as little as possible about controversial topics or explicitly adopts many of her opponents’ positions, in the hope that the supporters of opposition parties will feel that nothing much is at stake, and hence stay away from the polls. It is the direct opposite of the approach she took in the first federal elections she contested in 2005. Then, Merkel staked out clear positions in the name of her prime political value, “freedom” — in particular, an ambitious program of cutting the welfare state. The result was that she almost lost an election that was supposed to be a landslide in her favour.  The lesson she drew was clear: you cannot be attacked for something you have not said, and you cannot be punished for following public opinion rather than trying to shape it”.

They rightly warn of the consequences of this Merkel “leadership“, “The lesson stuck when it came time for Merkel to govern. Critics have called her the first “post-political” chancellor — she is a leader without any trace of ideological commitment. Instead, she is devoted to process over substance, and willing to adopt any policy position as long as it gives the impression of competence and consensus”.

Of course the problem with Merkel’s view, is that ideology is in everything. No decision cannot be called ideological and therefore Merkel is effectively lying to the German electorate. This is much of same tactic used at the heart of the EU. Trying to ignore ideology which is for some reason viewed as inherently bad, and at the same time attempting to reduce everything to technocratic decisions. The result is unelected officials vary exceeding whatever “mandate” they once had thereby engendering dissolusionment and anger in the people of the continent. Sadly their solution seems to be more of the same, in both German and EU “politics”.

The writers mention “the eurocrisis in particular — Merkel has identified the center of German politics and occupied that space squarely. She has also ensured that no serious rival threatens from within her own party. And yet, even though she is obviously the country’s most powerful decision-maker, she has managed to insulate herself from responsibility for any particular political outcome by refusing to be identified too closely with the details of any given policy”.

They add that the oppostion ,”Social Democrats chose a candidate for the chancellorship whose public image is as Merkelian as it gets — minus the reticence. Steinbrück was Merkel’s finance minister in the “grand coalition” between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats that governed Germany from 2005 to 2009. Together, they are often credited with having met the challenges of the financial crisis — and in some sense, that partnership has endured even after the Social Democrats entered the opposition. From the opposition benches, the party has supported all of Merkel’s eurocrisis policies. As a result, the party has no credible way to attack Merkel during the campaign”.

Worryingly they add that “Merkel’s approach — managerial, cautious, incremental — seems to have suited most Germans just fine. They do not feel that the eurocrisis has been truly solved; they have a lingering sense that, after the elections, they will be presented with another bill for Greece. But the last thing they seem to want is some new grand vision for Europe, with more power handed over to Brussels; only the Greens dare to be openly Euro-enthusiastic, and their poll numbers have been steadily declining”.

The problems however they write are manifold, “the true preferences of the German public have become increasingly difficult to discern. It is still unclear whether a substantial number of voters are actually in favour of undoing parts of European integration. A new party, Alternative for Germany, has vowed to work for an ‘orderly dissolution’ of the euro. At present, polls do not indicate that the party will make it into parliament — but many observers feel that election night could hold a surprise. Given the taboo in Germany against policies that are even remotely ‘anti-European,’ prospective voters might have been reluctant to reveal their true preferences to pollsters”.

They add correctly that “given that even Merkel’s own Christian Democrat constituents are not that excited to vote — is corrosive to the political system. Democracies need debates and public discourse, as a way to decide on a direction for a polity. This year, voter turnout is expected to be lower than ever before, and prominent intellectuals have made a point of proclaiming that, for the first time, they will abstain. Suddenly, Germans are recalling their civics lessons about the Weimar Republic and how it unraveled because of a lack of democrats truly committed to the political system; there is a growing, although still rather quiet, fear that a truly charismatic right-wing populist could one day capitalise on the country’s creeping disenchantment with politics”.

This is at the very heart of agonism. Without open and strong debate based on ideas and ideology, people see little point in voting thus leading to the dimunation of democracy and the rise of the very thing Germans were trying to avoid, dictatorship.

They write that “There is another, less obvious worry. Merkel has subtly encouraged European elites that all countries have to watch each other much more closely. She decided at one point that the traditional European institutions for problem-solving and policy innovation — the European Commission in particular — could not be relied upon to prevent another Greece. Instead, she is betting on closer coordination of economic and fiscal policies among independent nation-states, with Brussels having some role in supervising individual national budgets, but by no means in a leadership role. There are good reasons to be skeptical about an approach that empowers national executives at the expense of European institutions and national parliaments. It will lead to a Europe of two parallel universes: on the one hand, the existing EU of 28 member states, which operates on the basis of the European treaties; on the other hand, the eurozone, in which governments make pacts among themselves, sometimes using the EU institutions and sometimes creating new ones ad hoc”.

They concldue “it is an open question whether things can stay this quiet for long. In the absence of explanation and discussion, Merkel’s policy of coordination will never gain legitimacy across the continent. For now, Germany is basking in its economic success and might not have to worry about major sacrifices for the sake of the euro. But if they were ever to become necessary, which remains a very real possibility, German elites might regret their acquiescence to democratic demobilisation”.

“Implicating rebels”

21/09/2013

The Syrian regime has handed Russia new materials implicating rebels in a chemical attack outside Damascus on August 21, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Wednesday. “The corresponding materials were handed to the Russian side. We were told that they were evidence that the rebels are implicated in the chemical attack,” Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies after talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, according to Agence France-Presse. Ryabkov accused a United Nations report on the Aug. 21 attack, presented earlier in the week by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, was selective”.

Heads start to roll under Francis

21/09/2013
Following on quickly from the appointment of a new secretary of State, Pope Francis has appointed a slew of curia officials today.
Firstly, he appointed Archbishop Joseph Di Noia, O.P. who had been serving as Vice-President of Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei” as Adjunct Secretary of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith where he had worked as Under-Secretary for many years previously. Archbishop Di Noia was only appointed to Ecclesia Dei in June 2012 having served for three years as secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship.
Francis retired Manuel Cardinal Monterio de Castro, 75, as major penitentiary of Apostolic Penitentiary and appointed Mauro Cardinal Piacenza who had been serving as prefect of Congregation for Clergy. The move is an effective demotion for Cardinal Piacenza who was close, theologically and liturgically, to Cardinal Bertone and Pope Benedict. It was thought previously that Cardinal Monterio de Castro would be replaced by Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri.
In his place Francis has named the diplomat and until now president of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, Archbishop Beniamino Stella, 72, who was given the post at Clergy partly as a result of the care of priestly formation he took at the PEA. Stella was replaced by Msgr. Giampiero Gloder, 55, who was at the same time appointed Titular Archbishop of Telde.
At the same time Francis appointed Bishop Jorge Carlos Patrón Wong of Papantla as secretary for Seminaries of the Congregation for Clergy and at the same time archbishop ad personam.
In what is a more important move Archbishop Jean-Claude Périsset was given early retirement, by a few months in his post as apostolic nuncio to Germany and ususually Archbishop Nikola Eterović, 62, was appointed in his place. He had previously been serving as Secretary General of Synod of Bishops. All previous occupants of the post recieved the red hat after their service but the fact that Archbishop Eterović was dispatched to Germany probalby says more about him than the post of Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops. In his place Francis appointed Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri.
He had been serving as secretary of Congregation for Bishops from January 2012 but no replacement was named at the Congregation. It would not be hard to believe that Baldisseri will become cardinal secretary-general at the next consistory, whenever that will be.
Rocco recounts how, the Synod of Bishops has become far more prominet under Pope Francis. He notes that after the 11th September attacks Cardinal Egan, who was relator general returned to New York, then Cardinal Bergoglio took over Egan’s job as relator general of the synod for the remaining three weeks.
Rocco adds that “Even so, all of a sudden, the surprise turn at the Synod became Bergoglio’s “launchpad” into the spotlight of the global church. In the gathering’s wake, the Argentine’s performance was deemed so effective that his name would start being floated for key offices in the Curia – a place where he reputedly said “I would die” were he called to work in it.  Of course, that wouldn’t be the end of the buzz – were it not for his stand-in role in the Aula, the Argentine’s name would’ve attracted far less recognition (and, hence, been a non-starter) at the 2005 Conclave… and without Bergoglio’s showing at the last election – burnished by the amplified status which resulted from it – his emergence eight years later as B16’s successor simply never would’ve happened”.
He goes on to mention that “the Synod has accordingly been at the forefront of the first Pope Francis’ mind on the impending Curial reform. On June’s feast of Saints Peter and Paul – by tradition, the nonpareil celebration of centralized papal authority – the pontiff’s veering off-script to call the church ‘forward on the path of synodality’ sent shockwaves through the old guard he inherited just days after the Pope declared that “we trust” (read: “I intend”) that his Synod ‘will experience further development to ever more aid the dialogue and collaboration among the bishops and, with them, the Bishop of Rome.'”
Also today Francis confirmed the officials in the CDF, and Peoples. There had been previous rumours that Cardinal Filoni would be appointed to replace Cardinal Romeo in Palermo but this now does not look likely. Other dicasteries to be confirmed are most of the curia, Catholic Education, Oriental Churches, Bishops as well as a host of others. More reforms are expected after the meeting with Francis and his 8 cardinals in October.

“The most tangible sign of change”

21/09/2013

Iran’s most prominent human rights activist was released from jail on Wednesday along with several other political prisoners in what appears to be the most tangible sign of change yet under the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. Ahead of Rouhani’s eagerly awaited visit to the UN general assembly in New York next week, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been likened to Aung San Suu Kyi, was driven from Evin prison in Tehran to her house in another part of the Iranian capital and told she did not need to return to jail. “They were quite certain this time that I’m freed and I don’t need to go back,” the 50-year-old women’s rights activist told the Guardian by phone from her home. Opposition website Kaleme reported  on Wednesday that seven other women political prisoners had also been released in the previous 24 hours, including the dissident journalist Mahsa Amrabadi, and at least four men, including reformist politicians Feizollah Arabsorkhi, Mirtaher Mousavi and former deputy foreign minister Mohsen Aminzadeh”.

“A smart move by Khamenei”

21/09/2013

In light of the flurry of diplomatic activity  from Iran in recent days, not least President Rouhani’s recent NBC interview, an article has emerged noting the shift of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

He writes that it is Khamenei that is allowing Rouhani the leverage to deal directly with Washington. He writes, “ever since he took office, Rouhani has been on a public relations offensive aimed at the West and reformists within his country. His most recent salvo was an interviewwith NBC News in which he said he had full authority to conclude a nuclear deal with the West. He has also recentlyexchanged letters with President Barack Obama, overseen the release of 11 political prisoners, and cautiously warned the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps about getting involved in the political arena. When he travels to New York City next week to attend the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, Rouhani will have a chance to transform this thaw in relations into a real diplomatic opportunity”.

He adds that “Rouhani is even better placed than his predecessors to have real influence. He enjoys support from a broad swath of the Iranian political spectrum — from hard-liners to reformists — in no small part because of the lessons each camp is drawing from developments across the region. Hard-liners realise that the ‘resistance policy’ advocated by the previous team has not worked well. Resistance has brought Iran only more sanctions, led Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the brink of disaster, and lost Hezbollah the broad public support it once commanded across the region. They see Rouhani’s strategy as a new approach toward the same goals, and they are willing to give it a try”.

Interestingly he argues that “Rouhani’s book, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy — which made the case that the deals negotiated with European powers in 2003 and 2004 preserved Iran’s options while forestalling international pressure — may serve as a blueprint for his current strategy. It would be a smart move by Khamenei — indeed, smarter than his usual practice — to send Rouhani out to see what kind of a nuclear deal he can get from the United States. From Khamenei’s perspective, it’s a win-win scenario: If his president can get a good deal which preserves Iran’s nuclear options, fine. If no deal is reached, Iran will still have gained many months in which its nuclear program can progress”.

He closes the piece “On the other hand, he has long insisted that the nuclear issue is only an excuse used by the United States to pursue its real objective of regime change in Iran, and he has similarly argued that the West’s professed humanitarian concerns about Syria are a cover for its true objective of displacing Assad. Perhaps Khamenei will recalculate in the face of the evident willingness of President Barack Obama’s administration to concentrate so exclusively on controlling weapons of mass destruction that it was prepared to sacrifice the Syrian opposition, and to largely ignore human rights concerns. In his Sept. 17 speech, Khamenei referred to a passage in a book he translated 40 years ago on the revered second Shiite Imam Hassan’s peace treaty with Muawiyah, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty a treaty the likes of which Khamenei had once vowed Iran could never be pressured into again. The treaty was entered into under great duress: Hassan agreed to it when faced with superior forces on the field of battle. Its outcome was at best mixed: The line of descent was preserved (Hassan was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed), but Hassan gave up rule over the Muslim community to Muawiyah and was years later almost certainly poisoned on Muawiyah’s orders. But speaking on Sept. 17, Khamenei took a rosier view of the seventh-century peace deal: “I agree with what I called ‘heroic flexibility’ years ago, because such an approach is very good and necessary in certain situations, as long as we stick to our main principles.” Perhaps in this newfound respect for Hassan’s treaty, Khamenei was signaling that another Hassan –Hasan Rouhani — may need to be equally supple in the face of superior forces, even if the results are mixed”.

“Has the authority to conduct”

21/09/2013

Dr Walt asked in a recent blog post if the Supreme Leader of Iran will allow President Rouhani flexibility in dealing with America. The answer is affirmative, reports mention that “Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has given the clearest signal yet that the country’s newly elected president and moderate cleric, Hassan Rouhani, has the authority to conduct direct talks with the US and offer compromises in nuclear talks. Khamanei told the Islamic republic’s revolutionary guards there was room for leniency in diplomacy. ‘Diplomacy is the field of smiling and requests for talks,’ he said on Tuesday in a speech delivered to senior commanders of the elite forces in Tehran, according to his official website. ‘I’m not opposed to proper moves in diplomacy, and I still believe in what I named years ago as champion’s leniency.’ As the supreme leader, the 74-year-old Ayatollah has the final say in all state matters, especially those concerning direct negotiations with the US, which Tehran considers its sworn enemy, and any major agreements about the country’s nuclear programme”.

Francis, interviewed

21/09/2013

In an 10,000 word interview on a range of subjects, Pope Francis has discussed his views on the Church and how it should interact with the modern world.

A report from the New York Times begins, “Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics. His surprising comments came in a lengthy interview in which he criticised the church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritising moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalised. He articulated his vision of an inclusive church, a ‘home for all’ — which is a striking contrast with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, the doctrinal defender who envisioned a smaller, purer church.  Francis told the interviewer, a fellow Jesuit: ‘It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.  ‘We have to find a new balance,’ the pope continued, ‘otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.'”

As with most secular reporting on this story the author seems to think that “his vision of an inclusive church” is in radical contradistinction with Pope Benedict. This is not true. Pope Benedict went out of his way to appoint bishops with a postive accent of the Gospel. To be sure they were doctrinally orthodox but Francis has said little different to Benedict. His first encylical, Deus Caritas Est, God is Love, spoke volumes about the agenda the German pope wanted to set during his reign. The comments made by Francis with regard to homosexuality are in the same mold, little different to what Benedict has said but with the accent on positive teaching. This is not to say that Francis endorses gay sex, he does not, but he stops short of saying this, or is mis, or badly quoted leading to a different image that is unfair to Pope Benedict.

The article goes on to write “The interview with Francis was conducted by the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit journal whose content is approved by the Vatican. Francis, the first Jesuit to become a pope, agreed to grant the interview after requests from Father Spadaro and the editors of America, a Jesuit magazine based in New York.  Father Spadaro conducted the interview during three meetings in August in the pope’s spartan quarters in Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse, where Francis said he had chosen to live because it is less isolated than the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace. “I cannot live without people,” Francis told Father Spadaro. The interview, kept under wraps for weeks by the Jesuits, was released simultaneously on Thursday [19 September] morning by 16 Jesuit journals around the world. Francis personally reviewed the Italian transcript, and it was translated by a team into English, said the Rev. James Martin, an editor at large of America“.

It adds later that “has chosen to use the global spotlight to focus on the church’s mandate to serve the poor and oppressed. He has washed the feet of juvenile prisoners, visited a center for refugees and hugged disabled pilgrims at his audiences. His pastoral presence and humble gestures have made him wildly popular among American Catholics, according to a recent Pew survey.   But there has been a low rumble of discontent from some Catholic advocacy groups, and even from some bishops, who have taken note of his silence on abortion and gay marriage. This month, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., told his diocesan newspaper that he was ‘a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis’ because he had not spoken about abortion. ‘Many people have noticed that,’ he said”.

Indeed this has the makings of a pattern set by John Paul II, where his doctrinal orthodoxy was espoused constantly but many in the West where simply charmed by his personality. The piece goes on to mention that “Francis said some had assumed he was an ‘ultraconservative’ because of his reputation when he served as the superior of his Jesuit province in Argentina. He said that he was made superior at the ‘crazy’ young age of 36, and that his leadership style was too authoritarian. ‘But I have never been a right-winger,’ he said. ‘It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.’ Now, Francis said, he prefers a more consultative leadership style. He has appointed an advisory group of eight cardinals, a step he said was recommended by the cardinals at the conclave that elected him. They were demanding reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, he said, adding that from the eight, ‘I want to see that this is a real, not ceremonial, consultation.'”

“Confidence building measure”

19/09/2013

The Pakistani Taliban and the army exchanged prisoners Wednesday as a confidence building measure ahead of possible peace talks, intelligence officials and militant commanders said. The exchange included six militants and two paramilitary Frontier Corps soldiers, the officials and commanders said. It occurred in the Shawal area of the South Waziristan tribal region. The militants were subsequently taken to neighbouring North Waziristan, the country’s main Taliban sanctuary”.

“Different relationship with Tehran”?

19/09/2013

Dr Stephen Walt writes in a blog post that the real prize for President Obama is Iran, not Syria.

He notes that “So where might a genuine foreign-policy accomplishment be found? The obvious place is the troubled U.S. relationship with Iran. Iran is a potentially powerful and influential state (though not the looming dangerthat threat-mongers often depict), and a positive relationship between Tehran and Washington would benefit both countries. Indeed, even having a more normal sort of rivalry — including diplomatic recognition — would make it easier to deal with the various areas of friction that might remain. That is why people like Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former diplomat Thomas Pickering see the present moment as a golden opportunity to explore a fundamentally different relationship with Tehran. Remember also that Obama took office hoping to both get a deal on Iran’s nuclear program and turn the broader relationship in a positive direction. He failed, partly because the 2009 presidential election in Iran went the wrong way and turned violent and partly because the administration made several key mistakes of its own (as detailed by Trita Parsi here)”.

Yet Walt goes on to mention that “right now a lot of the stars are lining up differently. Iran’s new president seems to be genuinely interested in resolving a lot of the existing differences and has been sending all sorts of positive signals. The Obama administration seems receptive and has subtly acknowledged the reality that Iran is a major stakeholder in regional security and cannot be excluded or ostracized forever. Despite the occasional bluster and the need to appease domestic pressure for a hard-line stance, nobody in the administration seems to be genuinely interested in so-called “kinetic options” (i.e., using force). The State Department, armed services, and intelligence agencies don’t seem to be pushing for military confrontation either”.

Crucially Dr Walt states “Will Obama and President Hassan Rouhani be able to pull this off? I don’t know. Previous Iranian and U.S. presidents have tried (somewhat halfheartedly), and their efforts have been derailed by domestic opposition. Today, we don’t know whether Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will let Rouhani go as far as he will need to, just as we don’t know whether the various yahoos in Congress and other hard-line groups will go to the mattresses to prevent Obama from pursuing a sensible deal”.

He closes the piece “In his first term, Obama’s foreign-policy achievements were limited by his reluctance to take bold action and face down domestic opposition. He gave a lot of good speeches and showed a lot of the right instincts, but he backed down whenever he faced domestic pushback. If he is hoping for a legacy beyond Obamacare, progress on gay rights, and a less-than-sensational economic recovery, he’s going to have to be bolder and he’s going to have to pay less attention to the people and groups who have derailed a more sensible U.S. policy for decades. And he should. Because the Syria business also suggests that a lot of the foreign-policy establishment (in both parties) is out of step with the broader public, and in this case the public is right”.

“Talks with militants”

19/09/2013

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharifi’s meeting political leaders and top generals as he pushes for talks with militants who have increased the intensity of attacks since his government took office in June. Sharif, who was elected for a record third term earlier this year, invited leaders of the main political groups to Islamabad, including Islamic opposition parties that sympathise with the Pakistani Taliban operating near the border withAfghanistan. Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and spy chief Lieutenant General Zaheer ul Islam are also attending. ‘I have suggested to political leaders that meaningful negotiations with militants should be our first priority,’ Sharif told participants of the conference in comments broadcast live on television. ‘I don’t know where we will go from here if we fail to tackle the menace of terrorism.’ The strategy risks causing a split with the military and the U.S. — Pakistan’s largest donor — as Sharif receives help from the International Monetary Fund to revive an economy hurt by power blackouts and militant attacks. The U.S. wants Pakistan’s army to halt attacks from Taliban insurgents operating on the border before handing over security to Afghan forces next year”.

“China’s maiden unmanned provocation”

19/09/2013

An interesting piece, by Ely Ratner, among others, notes that China has started, some would say intensified, an arms race in South East Asia.

They write that “It’s now been a year since Japan’s previously ruling liberal government purchased three of the Senkaku Islands to prevent a nationalist and provocative Tokyo mayor from doing so himself. The move was designed to dodge a potential crisis with China, which claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands it calls the Diaoyus. Disregarding the Japanese government’s intent, Beijing has reacted to the “nationalization” of the islands by flooding the surrounding waters and airspace with Chinese vessels in an effort to undermine Japan’s de facto administration, which has persisted since the reversion of Okinawa from American control in 1971. Chinese incursions have become so frequent that the Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces (JASDF) are now scrambling jet fighters on a near-daily basis in response”.

The authors add that “In the midst of this heightened tension, you could be forgiven for overlooking thenews early in September that Japanese F-15s had again taken flight after Beijing graciously commemorated the one-year anniversary of Tokyo’s purchase by sending an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) toward the islands. But this wasn’t just another day at the office in the contested East China Sea: this was the first known case of a Chinese drone approaching the Senkakus. Without a doubt, China’s drone adventure 100-miles north of the Senkakus was significant because it aggravated already abysmal relations between Tokyo and Beijing. Japanese officials responded to the incident by suggesting that Japan might have to place government personnel on the islands, a red line for Beijing that would have been unthinkable prior to the past few years of Chinese assertiveness”.

They go on to make the point that “there’s a much bigger and more pernicious cycle in motion. The introduction of indigenous drones into Asia’s strategic environment — now made official by China’s maiden unmanned provocation — will bring with it additional sources of instability and escalation to the fiercely contested South and East China Seas. Even though no government in the region wants to participate in major power war, there is widespread and growing concern that military conflict could result from a minor incident that spirals out of control.

Unmanned systems could be just this trigger. They are less costly to produce and operate than their manned counterparts, meaning that we’re likely to see more crowded skies and seas in the years ahead. UAVs also tend to encourage greater risk-taking, given that a pilot’s life is not at risk. But being unmanned has its dangers: any number of software or communications failures could lead a mission awry. Combine all that with inexperienced operators and you have a perfect recipe for a mistake or miscalculation in an already tense strategic environment. The underlying problem is not just the drones themselves. Asia is in the midst of transitioning to a new warfighting regime with serious escalatory potential”.

Unsuprisingly they note that China claims its massive military buildup is for defence but “the capabilities it is choosing to acquire to create a ‘defensive’ perimeter — long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, aircraft carriers, submarines — are acutely offensive in nature”.

Worryingly they write that Chinese drones “During a serious crisis when tensions are high, China would have powerful incentives to use these capabilities, particularly missiles, before they were targeted by the United States or another adversary. The problem is that U.S. military plans and posture have the potential to be equally escalatory, as they would reportedly aim to “blind” an adversary — disrupting or destroying command and control nodes at the beginning of a conflict”.

They make the valid point that “including the rapid diffusion of unmanned and increasingly autonomous aerial and submersible vehicles coupled with increasingly effective offensive cyberspace capabilities. Of particular concern is not only the novelty of these new technologies, but the lack of well-established norms for their use in conflict. Thankfully, the first interaction between a Chinese UAV and manned Japanese fighters passed without major incident. But it did raise serious questions that neither nation has likely considered in detail. What will constrain China’s UAV incursions from becoming increasingly assertive and provocative? How will either nation respond in a scenario where an adversary downs a UAV? And what happens politically when a drone invariably falls out of the sky or “drifts off course” with both sides pointing fingers at one another? Of most concern, how would these matters be addressed during a crisis, with no precedents, in the context of a regional military regime in which actors have powerful incentives to strike first? These are not just theoretical questions: Japan’s Defense Ministry is reportedly looking into options for shooting down any unmanned drones that enter its territorial airspace. Resolving these issues in a fraught strategic environment between two potential adversaries is difficult enough; the United States and China remain at loggerheads about U.S. Sensitive Reconnaissance Operations along China’s periphery. But the problem is multiplying rapidly. The Chinese are running one of the most significant UAV programs in the world, a program that includes Reaper- style UAVsand Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs); Japan is seeking to acquire Global Hawks; the Republic of Korea is acquiring Global Hawks while also building their own indigenous UAV capabilities; Taiwan is choosing to develop indigenous UAVs instead of importing from abroad; Indonesia is seeking to build a UAV squadron; and Vietnam is planning to build an entire UAV factory“.

They conclude the piece “It’s hard to be optimistic that the region will do better in an unmanned domain in which governments and militaries have little experience and where there remains a dearth of international norms, rules, and institutions from which to draw”.

“Strongly implicated the Syrian government”

19/09/2013

A United Nations report released on Monday confirmed that a deadly chemical arms attack caused a mass killing in Syria last month and for the first time provided extensive forensic details of the weapons used, which strongly implicated the Syrian government. While the report’s authors did not assign blame for the attack on the outskirts of Damascus, the details it documented included the large size and particular shape of the munitions and the precise direction from which two of them had been fired. Taken together, that information appeared to undercut arguments by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria that rebel forces, who are not known to possess such weapons or the training or ability to use them, had been responsible. The report, commissioned by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, was the first independent on-the-ground scientific inquest into the attack, which left hundreds of civilians gassed to death, including children, early on Aug. 21″.

Winners from the deal

19/09/2013

Miller, writing in Foreign Policy, discusses the winners and losers of the Russian deal over Syria’s chemical weapons.

He begins his piece noting “If — and it’s still a galactic if — the new framework offers a real political way out of this emergency, it will be because a unique set of circumstances combined to produce enough urgency and ownership to do so. The Syrians created a crisis by using chemical weapons in a massive attack on August 21, President Barack Obama threatened force but then vacillated, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, recognising both Obama’s strengths and his weaknesses, stepped up, grabbed center stage, and inserted himself directly into a process he’d long avoided. It shows that the right combination of pain and gain is what creates openings and drives big decisions”.

He goes on to write that “Common sense and rational thinking” wins.

He writes controversially “Even under the best of circumstances, a limited military strike against Syria was always a very uncertain option. It carried risks without the prospect of real rewards. That a strike would have bucked up U.S. credibility and somehow retarded Iran’s nuclear ambitions or regional influence is by no means clear. Even had a limited strike been of a more robust character, it might not have ended Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons or shifted the balance of the battlefield. Now, it’s more likely than before that Assad won’t use chemical weapons again, because the political and diplomatic spotlight is focused squarely on the issue. Simply put, then, a deal to take Assad’s chemical weapons offline has already proved far preferable to a military strike and the prospects of greater U.S. involvement in a civil war it cannot possibly end through military means”.

Miller here wants the best of both worlds. He says that a strike would have had negative circumstances, which is possible but by no means certain. At the same time he says that a “limited strike” may not have changed the war. President Obama was only allowing a limited strike, indeed that’s all he ever discussed. There was no mention of troops or anything significant military operations. This does not mean that a limited strike would not have been warrented or merited.

Miller goes on to argue that Putin was a winner with the deal. This is certainly accurate, “Putin, like George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, ‘seen his opportunities and took ’em,’ emerging as the Syrian crisis’s deus ex machina. He has already achieved his minimal objectives: The chemical weapons wildcard that triggered the crisis and perhaps threatened Assad’s tenure is being dealt with. Obama won’t strike unilaterally, and there will be no U.S.-orchestrated regime change (see: Iraq and Libya). And, with the U.N. Security Council now a formal part of the disarmament process and the Russians with a veto, Moscow has a good deal of influence to block what it doesn’t like. Moreover, Putin is now seen as a dominant and potentially positive force on the international stage. If the framework succeeds, he will have shown that the road to a solution can lie through Moscow. That will allow him to play with the next step here: a Geneva 2.0, so to speak, that can either keep Assad afloat or help ease him out if Russians interests demand it”.

Miller’s assement is broadly accurate but he disregards the threat to the use of force that Obama has still said he will use of the timetable, that will supposedly be agreed, is not met. The problem with Miller’s argument is that he buys into Putin’s paranoia about regime change. Irrespective of what will happen, Assad will leave his post. Nor is Miller correct that Obama will not strike unilaterally. The threat is still there and there is no reason to believe that France is needed to confer “legitimacy”  on an American strike on Assad.

Miller goes on to say that Assad came off well as a result of the deal, “The man without a country could also become a man without his chemical weapons. Yet implementing the chemical weapons arrangement will require keeping Assad in power. For now, that’s a win for Syria’s president — as is avoiding a military strike — even if he loses a strategic asset. Nonetheless, Assad’s two main allies (Russia and Iran) can’t be entirely happy about how this whole affair transpired on the Syrian side”.

He also adds that “In the wake of this deal, will the president and his activist secretary of state be viewed as strategic geniuses, exquisite masters of the calibration of force and diplomacy? I don’t think so. It’s too late for that. Too many twists and turns, ups and downs, false starts and stops, and inconsistencies in language and tactics. But there’s no doubt that the two are looking much better now than they have since the crisis began. After all, it was the president’s willingness (however reluctantly) to put force on the table and his pivot to Congress (however weak it made him appear, particularly when he didn’t have the votes) that opened up the space for Putin’s seizing on an idea that had been raised before. Let’s also remember that the Syrian crisis has been a dog’s lunch for the president from the get-go. Until now, Obama had three options on Syria, all of them bad: do nothing in the face of the largest single use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds; develop a comprehensive military strategy, including arming the rebels with serious weapons; or take the middle road of a limited strike. Now, the president has a fourth option: avoid military action and maybe get Assad’s chemical weapons offline, weaken him, and perhaps, in cooperation with the Russians, initiate a broader process to end the civil war”.

Miller says that the deal brings positives for Iran also, “A political deal keeps their man in Damascus in power. Also, like the Russians, Iran probably fears the impact of repeated strikes. Once the glass ceiling on military action is broken, the pressure, and even expectations, for U.S. action might rise. For now, that’s no longer a concern”.

In the “losers” category Miller says, fairly, that the rebels and the GCC lost out. He ends the piece “The other clear losers here are the Saudis and Qataris, who have invested heavily in backing the opposition through a determined proxy war. For them, this is sectarian struggle that pits the Shiite forces of darkness against the forces of light: their version of Sunni Islam. The failure of the United States to strike Assad and, by implication, weaken his Iranian patrons clearly isn’t good news. Putting Putin in the driver’s seat at the U.N. Security Council, where he can help ensure Assad’s survival, is a problem, too”.

“Moving chemical weapon stockpiles”

19/09/2013

Syrian military forces are already moving chemical weapon stockpiles out of  the country to evade looming UN inspections, an opposition  leader said Saturday. “We have told our friends that the regime has begun moving a part of its  chemical weapons arsenal to Lebanon and Iraq,” Gen. Salim Idris, the top  commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told reporters in Istanbul. “We told them do not be fooled,” he said, according to Reuters. The FSA is  the largest and most organized of the rebel factions battling to overthrow  longtime Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in the country”.

Just for self defence

17/09/2013

An article has been published in Foreign Policy warning that the Japanese Self Defence Forces are not sufficient to the task they face from China and other threats.

The authors write that “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has done little to reassure his neighbors that Japan comes in peace. Within his first two weeks of office, he ordered a review of his country’s defense guidelines, which his defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, describedas “a priority we must work on with no letup.” On July 26, Japan’s Defense Ministry released interim results of the review, urging significant military upgrades. It included plans to create an amphibious island defense force, and hinted at the possibility of preemptive strikes against foreign military targets”.

This is entirely undstandable given the position that Japan finds itself in with Chinese aggression. However, Abe knows of the links between his country and China so at the same time is aware that he cannot push too far with China.

The writers mention that despite all of Abe’s words, “a decade of budget cuts and a struggling economy means that Japan’s military is surprisingly feeble. Despite Abe’s bluster, the real threat posed by Japan is not that its military is growing too strong, but that it is rapidly weakening. Even accounting for the 0.8 percent increase contained in Abe’s 2013 budget, Japan’s annual defence budget has declined by over 5 percent in the last decade. During the same period, China’s defense budget increased by 270 percent (South Korea’s and Taiwan’s grew by 45 percent and 14 percent, respectively.) In U.S. dollar terms, Japan’s defense budget was 63 percent larger than China’s in 2000, but barely one-third the size of China’s in 2012. In fact, since 2000, Japan’s shares of world and regional military expenditures have fallen by 37 percent and 52 percent, respectively. Japan’s defense review will likely frighten its neighbours more than it will improve the military”.

They go on to note that “These figures understate Japan’s predicament. Steady declines in defense expenditures over the past decade forced Japan into a series of measures that are beginning to take a toll. In a nation where lifetime employment is the norm, aversion to layoffs and pension cuts have made personnel expenditures virtually impossible to reduce. Consequently, much of the burden fell on the equipment procurement budget, which has declined by roughly 20 percentsince 2002. Japanese defense policymakers have coped by extending the life of military hardware, such as submarines, destroyers, and fighter jets. As a result, Japan’s focus has shifted from acquisition to preservation, and maintenance costs have skyrocketed: at the end of the Cold War, maintenance spending was roughly 45 percent the size of procurement expenditures; it is now 150 percent. Because of declining procurement budgets and higher unit costs, Japan now acquires hardware at a much slower rate: one destroyer and five fighter jets per year compared to about three destroyers and 18 fighter jets per year in the 1980s. In the coming decade, Japan’s fleet of destroyers stands to be reduced by 30 percent. Although Japan plans to order 42 F-35 fighter jets in the next decade to replace what remains of its aging F-4EJ aircraft, project delays and cost overruns will likely lead to the order’s reduction or postponement“.

The writers worry that “There is significant concernin U.S. policy circles that Abe’s aggressive remarks, coupled with Japan’s waning military power, could undermine U.S. interests. Power transitions are notoriously destabilising: Japanese defense officials now publicly fret about the threats posed by China’s improving maritime capabilities, while vessels from both countries patrol the waters around the disputed islands on a daily basis, raising the likelihood of unintended escalation”.

Yet the problem with their argument is that Abe’s remarks will mean conflict. Both Tokoyo and hopefully Beijing realise that such talk is mostly hot air to appease domestic groups and has little relation to the actual policies of both nations. The concern is that a PLA general will misunderstand orders or read too much into them and attack Japan. The other possible alternative is a rouge officer that could act without the knowledge of his superiors.

They add that “The United States expects Japan to support its efforts in East Asia and to help ensure that China’s rise is peaceful. Indeed, Tokyo played a similar role in the late 20th century, when, despite constitutional restrictions on the use of force, Japan was a respectable military power: as recently as 2002, Japan had the third largest defense budget in the world, with particularly robust, albeit defensive, naval capabilities. Japan’s forces in East Asia helped the United States focus its military assets elsewhere without risking instability in the Asia-Pacific region. Getting back to that place won’t be easy, and might even be impossible. A deep structural and economic malaise is at the heart of Japan’s military austerity. Japan suffers from the highest public debt levels of any major nation — 235 percent of GDP — and a severe budget deficit of 10 percent of GDP in 2012. It has the most rapidly aging population in the world, which means its tax base is shrinking, and its pension and healthcare costs are rapidly mounting. The Japanese government now spends more on debt service and social security than it raises in tax revenues: all other spending, including national defense, is effectively financed through unsustainable debt. Whether fiscal consolidation comes through draconian austerity or a debt crisis, defense spending will continue to be squeezed. To compensate for the growing gaps in the Japanese military, the United States needs to cooperate ever more closely with Japan. Outstanding issues that threaten to undermine relations, such as Futenma air base relocation and host-nation support, must be resolved quickly. Joint capabilities need to be adapted in anticipation of further fiscal troubles, which may make it impossible to replace aging hardware such as Japan’s Asagiri- and Hatsuyuki-class destroyers and F-4EJ fighter jets”.

“Consequences if he failed”

17/09/2013

The United States, Britain and France warned President Bashar al-Assad on Monday that there would be consequences if he failed to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons, and said a U.N. report on the August 21 sarin gas attack left little doubt that Assad’s forces were to blame. As expected, a report by U.N. chemical weapons experts did not say who launched the attack on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which prompted the threat of Western military action. But it did give details of the type of gas and the munitions used, which some experts said indicated government forces were responsible. After a meeting of their foreign ministers in Paris, the three Western permanent members of the United Nations Security Council said they would seek a strong U.N. resolution setting binding deadlines for removing Syria’s chemical weapons, French President Francois Hollande’s office said. This followed a weekend deal negotiated by Russia and the United States on eliminating the arms. Russia cautioned against imposing tough penalties on the Syrian leader, who is Moscow’s close ally. Russia and Syria say that opposition forces carried out the chemical weapons attack.

“Overseeing the delivery of weaponry”

17/09/2013

Following on from a previous post about the arrival of weapons an article in the Washinton Post writes that “U.S. officials decided to expand nonlethal assistance to Syria’s armed rebels after they delivered more than 350,000 high-calorie U.S. military food packets through the Supreme Military Council in May. The distribution gave U.S. officials confidence that it was possible to limit aid to select rebel units in a battlefield where thousands of fighters share al-Qaeda’s ideology, U.S. officials said. Khaled Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian Opposition Coalition, said Washington’s revamped efforts are welcome but insufficient to turn the tide of the civil war between rebels and forces loyal to Assad”.

It goes on to mention importantly that “While the State Department is coordinating nonlethal aid, the CIA is overseeing the delivery of weaponry and other lethal equipment to the rebels. An opposition official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss covert arms transfers, said U.S. intelligence personnel have begun delivering long-promised light weapons and ammunition to rebel groups in the past couple of weeks. The weaponry “doesn’t solve all the needs the guys have, but it’s better than nothing,” the opposition official said. He added that Washington remains reluctant to give the rebels what they most desire: antitank and antiaircraft weapons. The CIA shipments are to flow through a network of clandestine bases in Turkey and Jordan that were expanded over the past year as the agency sought to help Middle Eastern allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, direct weapons to moderate Syrian rebel forces. The CIA declined to comment”.

Indeed if Obama wanted to fundamentally shift the balance of power in Syria he should have armed the rebels like he said he was going to, only if he had done it months, if not years ago, the situation would not be the same as it is now.

The piece adds that “In addition to boosting support for rebels under the command of Idriss, who speaks fluent English and taught at a military academy before defecting from the Syrian army last year, U.S. officials in southern Turkey are using aid to promote emerging moderate leaders in towns and villages in rebel-held areas. Across much of the north, Syrians have begun electing local councils and attempting to rebuild communities devastated by war. Ward’s team — working primarily out of hotel lobbies — has spent the past few months studying the demographics and dynamics of communities where extremists are making inroads. Targeted U.S. aid, he said, can be used to empower emerging local leaders who are moderate and to jump-start basic services while dimming the appeal of extremists”.

The piece concludes, “The initiatives are part of a $250 million effort to support moderate factions of the Syrian opposition. Of that, the United States has earmarked $26.6 million in aid for the Supreme Military Council. The delivery that began this week does not include items that the rebels have long identified as priorities: night-vision goggles and body armour. Mohammed Ghanem, director of government relations at the Syrian American Council, which supports the opposition, said the U.S. initiatives are steps in the right direction after years of inaction and misguided policies. “We’ve definitely seen a structural and conceptual evolution in terms of their understanding of what’s going on on the ground,” he said in an interview. “On the other hand, we’re always lagging behind. We’re not leading. Developments are always like six months ahead of us.” Ghanem said the effect of U.S. assistance is limited by the number of proxies that Washington must use to deliver it. U.S. officials in Turkey rely on a network of contractors and subcontractors to deliver the aid. Ward said he hopes the assistance efforts will position the United States to have strong relationships in a postwar Syria”.

42% bad guys

15/09/2013

The most notable addition to the likely “bad guys” list is Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (HASI) and its Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) coalition. A conservative estimate of SIF’s total strength (which is dominated heavily by Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya) is 15,000 to 20,000 fighters, distributed across 11 governorates. While its forces coordinate in operations across the country on a daily basis with Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, its political charter, published in February, explicitly calls for an Islamic state and rejects the concept of democracy due to its man-made nature. So that’s potentially between 24,000 and 33,000 “bad guys,” or 33 to 34 percent of the insurgency — already more than the 15 to 25 percent cited on September 4. Another potential addition is Suqor al-Sham, which consists of an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 fighters, primarily active in the northern governorates of Idlib and Aleppo. Again, Suqor al-Sham regularly fights alongside HASI, Jabhat al-Nusra, and ISIS; explicitly rejects democracy; and calls for an Islamic state. Now to add to the complexity, Suqor al-Sham is a member of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), a loose alliance of at least 19 Islamist and Salafist groups, whose leader is Suqor al-Sham commander Sheikh Ahmed Abu Issa, but whose ultimate line of command — at least on paper — runs to the Western-backed SMC and its leader Salim Idriss. However, ideologically and strategically, Suqor al-Sham has aligned itself a great deal closer to HASI in 2013 and Issa has become visibly more hardline in his statements and rhetoric. He most recently labeled the suggested formation of a Syrian National Army by Syrian National Coalition (SNC) chief Ahmad al-Jarba as a project of the “munafiqeen” (a derogatory term literally meaning hypocrites, or those who disobey Islam). So that’s potentially 32,000 to 42,000 “bad guys,” or 42 to 46 percent of the insurgency.

Iran’s pragmatism

13/09/2013

Following on from the profile of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, an article in Foreign Policy mentions that there are signs of an easing of tension and even reform with Iran.

It notes that the previously warm relationship between Syria and Iran is cooling, “It was not that long ago that various Iranian figures claimed that fighting in Damascus would prevent fighting in Tehran. Now you hear these statements mostly from Syrian officials without any nod from their Iranian counterparts. Last February, a conservative cleric called Syria “Iran’s 35th province” and claimed that losing the secular, Alawite-ruled country would be strategically more devastating than losing the oil-rich province of Khuzestan. Grim internal and regional realities, however, have undermined these hardline views. Syria has been Iran’s main, or rather only, ally since the 1979 Revolution. Syria’s ruling Baath party stood by Iran during the eight-year war against fellow-Baath leader Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who dreamed of swallowing Khuzestan and its sea of black gold”.

He goes on to mention that “an important change is taking place beneath the surface within the regime. The conservative faction, badly shaken by the 2009 Green Movement embarrassingly bruisedby its own ally, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and then surprisingly defeated in the latest presidential election last June, is now forced to compromise and open the political space to the old pragmatic guard. Led by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his protégé, current President Hassan Rouhani, and allied with former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, this is the faction that helped bring Iran out of a devastating war with Iraq and put it back on its feet. It also improved relations with the international community”,

To say that the reformists have won would be a dramatic oversimplification. Rouhani is a deep insider and would not have been allowed to run, let alone elected had Khamenei not been assured tha he would “tow the line”. However, what is true is that Khamenei saw the 2009 protests and said that the regime might not be able to survive a second wave like it and he therefore ditched his support for Ahmadinejad and switched, out of pragmatism, to Rouhani.

He goes on to write “the Supreme Leader is increasingly challenged by a wide range of political groups that have publicly or quietly united behind Rafsanjani and Rowhani. They fear that Khamenei’s ideological worldview implemented during Ahmadinejad’s presidency has dangerously weakened the Islamic state. During Ahmadinejad’s first term, Iran lost the wedge that it had created between the United States and European Union over how to deal with Iran. During his second term, the West and the East (Russia and China) reached agreements on more effective sanctions against Iran. Eventually even the “Rising Powers” such as Brazil and Turkeylost interest in Iran. International sanctions that were called “worthless papers” might have empowered the IRGC, but have impaired the national economy and the middle class”.

He adds that “Rafsanjani went even further and reportedly criticized the Assad government for gassing its own people. Although he later denied such a statement, the audio version of his speech went viral on the internet. A country that had been a victim of chemical weapons during the war with Iraq under the watchful eyes of the United States may now be signaling that it in fact shares the same redline with the United States. If Assad has gassed his people, Iran could use that as an excuse not to sacrifice too much in the coming conflict. In the same speech Rafsanjani warned that the country is in a difficult situation: “We cannot utilize our natural resources. We cannot sell our oil. Even when we sell the oil, we cannot repatriate the money. When we buy goods, we have to pay extra and then also pay more for transportation. And many more problems.” These statements are tarnishing the image of the Islamic Republic”

He notes that “Rafsanjani fears that Khamenei’s “steadfast” approach means that although the road has evidently turned, the driver may not have. Beneath this elite-level conflict, there is a restless society that could not care less about Syria unless it is a prelude for a war against Iran. It is the same constituency that has shown its unqualified dedication to bring about peaceful change in Iran through the 1997 Reform Movement, the 1999 Student Movement, and the 2009 Green Movement. It is the same constituency that voted for the pragmatic candidate it had (Rouhani) not the candidate it wished it had. This “pragmatic” candidate is the same man who boasts in his memoir that he is the one who enforced mandatory veiling in Iran’s Army after the 1979 Revolution, yet endears himself 30 years later by criticizing the humiliating treatment of women and youth”.

He ends the piece “In a recent interview with Iran’s state-controlled TV, Rowhani said he has been in touch with leaders of several countries and his foreign minister has spoken with his counterparts from 35 states to prevent a war. He emphasized that Iran would support “any initiative” to avoid a strike against Syria and pointed out that Tehran in principle agrees with the proposal for international control of Assad’s chemical arsenal. Moving to the nuclear issue, he said Iran’s approach for a “win-win solution” will begin during his upcoming trip to New York”.

He closes “In the early days of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s young envoys, lost in the complex world of international politics, would often look to Syrian representatives before taking a position at international organizations. These now middle-aged diplomats sit and negotiate directly with representatives of big powers at one table. Syria is no longer their compass. The big question for Iran is whether Assad can be saved without becoming a liability”.

Discussing Russia’s plan

13/09/2013

The United States and Russia began high-stakes talks on Thursday on Moscow’s plan for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons as Damascus formally applied to join a global poison gas ban, but Secretary of State John Kerry underscored that U.S. military force may still be necessary if diplomacy fails. “This is not a game,” Kerry said in an appearance with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after opening talks in Geneva aimed at fleshing out Russia’s plan to secure and dispose of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical arms. The talks were part of a diplomatic push that prompted President Barack Obama to put on hold plans for U.S. air strikes in response to a chemical weapons attack on civilians near Damascus on August 21. The United States and its allies say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces carried out the attack with sarin nerve gas, killing more than 1,400 people, including 400 children. Russia and Assad blame rebel forces”.

Who is Ali Khamenei?

13/09/2013

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, is profiled. The role is coming under the spotlight of late as a result of the victory of Hassan Rouhani in the recent presidential election.

The long article opens “the dominant figure in Iranian politics is not the president but rather the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Iranian constitution endows the supreme leader with tremendous authority over all major state institutions, and Khamenei, who has held the post since 1989, has found many other ways to further increase his influence. Formally or not, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government all operate under his absolute sovereignty; Khamenei is Iran’s head of state, commander in chief, and top ideologue. His views are what will ultimately shape Iranian policy, and so it is worth exploring them in detail”.

Khamenei “followed his father’s path to seminary. (Two of his brothers are also clerics.) He studied in Qom from 1958 to 1964” and become president from 1981 to 1989, and then Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader.

He writes that  “Unlike many other Islamists, Khamenei had contact with the most important secular opposition intellectuals and absorbed their prerevolutionary discourse. But he was also a seminary student, whose chief focus was learning sharia, Islamic law. He became acquainted with the theoreticians of the Muslim Brotherhood and was influenced by the works of Sayyid Qutb, some of which Khamenei himself translated into Persian. As a young man, Khamenei saw a tension between the West and the Third World, and these views hardened during his dealings with the United States after the Iranian Revolution. He concluded that Washington was determined to overthrow the Islamic Republic and that all other issues raised by U.S. officials were nothing more than smoke screens. Even today, he believes that the U.S. government is bent on regime change in Iran, whether through internal collapse, democratic revolution, economic pressure, or military invasion”.

This quasi-paranoia, America did overthrow the Iranian PM in the 1950s, explains much of his thinking.

One paragraph in particular is fascinting, “Khamenei has always been critical of liberal democracy and thinks that capitalism and the West are in inevitable long-term decline. Moreover, he sees Washington as inherently Islamophobic. Nevertheless, he is not reflexively anti-Western or anti-American. He does not believe that the United States and the West are responsible for all of the Islamic world’s problems, that they must be destroyed, or that the Koran and sharia are by themselves sufficient to address the needs of the modern world. He considers science and progress to be “Western civilization’s truth,” and he wants the Iranian people to learn this truth. He is not a crazy, irrational, or reckless zealot searching for opportunities for aggression. But his deep-rooted views and intransigence are bound to make any negotiations with the West difficult and protracted, and any serious improvement in the relationship between Iran and the United States will have to be part of a major comprehensive deal involving significant concessions on both sides”.

“To understand Khamenei’s worldview, it helps to start by looking at the history of U.S. intervention in Iran. In 1953, the Eisenhower administration helped engineer a coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq, and Washington was the chief supporter of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s authoritarian regime”

This the writer argues has had a profound effect on Khamenei and his view of the West but especially America. He mentions later in the piece that “Iran was ostensibly independent, but colonialism was seen as taking a new form there, with native ruling political elites serving as agents of imperialism and working to secure its interests. The Western world, led by the United States, moreover, was thought to be laying the groundwork for its political and economic expansion by destroying indigenous cultures. Under such circumstances, it was easy to see Islam as not simply a religion but also a cultural and ideological weapon in the struggle against imperialism”.

“He is also a fan of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which he recommended in March 2002 to high-level state managers for the light it sheds on U.S. history: ‘Isn’t this the government that massacred the original native inhabitants of the land of America? That wiped out the American Indians? Wasn’t it this system and its agents who seized millions of Africans from their houses and carried them off into slavery and kidnapped their young sons and daughters to become slaves and inflicted on them for long years the most severe tragedies? Today, one of the most tragic works of art is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. . . . This book still lives after almost 200 years.’ Yet if Khamenei frequented prerevolutionary secular intellectual circles and was a student of Western culture more generally, he was first and foremost a seminarian, devoted to pursuing social change in accordance with the teachings of religion. And in this regard, it was Qutb, the Egyptian intellectual, activist, and chief theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood, who stole Khamenei’s heart as a young man”.

He says that Qutb’s ideas about a pure Islamic state which also had elements of the Western social democratic system he viewed with  great praise.

The author notes that “Qutb revived the classic Muslim concepts of the House of Islam and the House of War but gave them a new meaning: ‘There is only one House of Islam, and that is precisely the one in which an Islamic state has been founded, and God’s sharia rules, and the divine punishments are applied, and in which Muslims support each other. Aside from this, everything is the House of War, and the relationship of the Muslim with it is either war or peace based on a treaty with it.’ Qutb also offered Khamenei a perspective on the United States as something of a licentious society, ideas Qutb had picked up during his sojourn there in the late 1940s. Qutb came to feel that Americans were prepared to accept Islam, but not in its true, nonsubservient incarnation”. This was especilly true Qutb writes in the context of the Cold War.

In the early days of the Iranian Revolution, after Washington announced that it was letting the ailing shah into the United States for medical treatment, a group of radical Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held its occupants hostage, creating a new crisis in U.S.-Iranian relations. Not all the members of the new ruling elite had known about the plan or agreed with it. According to former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, neither he nor Khamenei supported the move”.

The writer explains that “Khomeini appointed Khamenei as a member of the Council of the Islamic Revolution, and before becoming president of the republic in 1981, he served as deputy defense minister, acting chair of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Khomeini’s representative in the Supreme Defense Council. His work on security issues brought him face-to-face with Washington’s cold realpolitik. In August 1980, Saddam Hussein launched a military attack on Iran, trying to take advantage of the new regime’s disarray. Still stinging from the fall of the shah and the ongoing hostage crisis, the United States refused to criticize Iraq’s actions, first protecting Iraq from censure at the United Nations and then actually supporting the Iraqi war effort against Iran. By the late 1980s, the U.S. military was increasingly engaging Iran directly, including attacking Iranian oil rigs in the Persian Gulf in 1987 and shooting down an Iranian passenger plane in 1988”.

He adds that “Since becoming supreme leader in 1989, Khamenei has sharpened his views of U.S. policy. His position now is clear and simple: Western governments, led by Washington, wish to overthrow the Islamic Republic and destroy the Islamic revolution, just as they did to the Soviet Union”.

Naturally this reading is highly simplistic and ignores the obvious flaws in the USSR itself. It also overlooks the aid Americans have given to Muslim nations both militarily, in Bosnia and Serbia as well as Libya and the humanitarian aid over decades, to say nothing of the work of USAID.

He continues the piece, “Khamenei noted that there had been domestic factors responsible for the Soviet Union’s collapse, including poverty, repression, corruption, and ethnic and nationalist tensions. But the Americans capitalised on these, he argued, to push the Soviet state to collapse — partly by manipulating the media and staging a ‘cultural invasion,’ and partly by using political and economic pressure. However, such efforts would not work in Iran, he argued, because the Islamic Republic was not like the Soviet Union — not least because, unlike communism, Islam was not a newly adopted ideology imposed by a ruling party after winning a civil war. Iran, moreover, had a long history of unified statehood”.

Interestingly he notes that “Khamenei thinks several measures can ensure that the Islamic Republic does not meet the Soviet Union’s fate. First, potential political insurgents — the local Iranian versions of Boris Yeltsin — must be identified and checked. Second, sensible reforms must be announced clearly, so they cannot be misunderstood or perverted. Reform measures must, as he has described, ‘be led by a powerful and restraining center so that they don’t get out of control.’ Third, the media must not be allowed to undermine the government. And fourth, interference by outside powers, such as the United States and Israel, must be kept at bay”.

He mentions that “Khamenei also thinks that the United States, the West more generally, and Israel want to use elections to various Iranian offices (city councils, the legislature, the judiciary, the Assembly of Experts) to create, through their ‘internal allies,’ a situation of ‘dual sovereignty.’ The aim is, according to Khamenei, to create a split between the supreme leader and elected officials of the government. Just as the British, who once had absolute rulers, eventually turned the position of their monarch into a merely ceremonial office, so Iran’s enemies, Khamenei believes, want to turn the absolute rule of the faqih, or ‘guardianship of the jurist,’ into a meaningless shell”.

Again the quasi paranoia is seen, especially with regard to Israeli actions.

The article contiunes, “Iran’s chief reformist strategist, Saeed Hajjarian, used the concept of dual sovereignty as an analytic tool to describe the changing balance of power in Iran following the victory of Mohammad Khatami in the May 1997 presidential election. In response, Khamenei loyalists tried to assassinate Hajjarian in March 1999. He survived, but he has been paralyzed ever since. Khamenei mentioned the concept of dual sovereignty as a subversive idea in a public speech in 2004, as the Khatami administration limped through its final year in office”.

He writes that after the obvious vote rigging that took place in 2009 Khamenei claimed the colour revolutions were launched by the the Americans and the British. He adds that “In a public speech in June 2011, Khamenei called the protests, which came to be known as the Green Movement, a continuation of the regime-change policy of United States and its allies and contrasted it with a true revolution, such as the one that led to the founding of the Islamic Republic”.

This is very dangerous as the policies have now been reversed, or at the very least toned down with the 2013 election and to so blatantly say that the UK and US were behind the Green Movement puts Khamenei at odds with the educated youth of the population. The danger is that he will make himself an irrelevance if such statements continue. While it would be naive to think that Iran is a democracy Khamenei knows that he can only go so far before more moderate voices push back against extreme measures that he proposed, or supported.

The article goes on to say that “Khamenei bases such arguments [about regime overthrow] partly on what he sees as two failed attempts by Iran to compromise with the United States. The first was during Khatami’s term as president, when the government suspended its uranium enrichment for two years as a trust-building measure. Khamenei believes the Western governments were not interested in trust building, only in making the pause in enrichment permanent. The two-year suspension resulted in no achievements for Iran — not the lifting of sanctions, nor the release of frozen Iranian assets in the United States, nor any other reward”.

The author adds that “the second experience he draws on is Libya’s 2003 decision to give up its nuclear ambitions, which nevertheless did not prevent Muammar al-Qaddafi’s violent removal through NATO military involvement. “In Libya,” Khamenei said in his annual Iranian New Year speech in March 2011, “although Qaddafi had shown an anti-Western tendency during his first years in power, in later years, he performed a great service to the West. . . . This gentleman gathered up his nuclear program, . . . gave it to the Westerners, and said, ‘Take it away!’ . . . [Yet he was overthrown.]” Khamenei suspects that even if all of Iran’s nuclear facilities were closed down, or opened up to inspections and monitoring, Western governments would simply pocket the concessions and raise other issues — such as terrorism, human rights, or Israel — as excuses for maintaining their pressure and pursuing regime change. To Khamenei, when it comes to nuclear weapons, the Iraqi and Libyan cases teach the same lesson. Saddam and Qaddafi opened their facilities up to inspections by the West, ended up having no nuclear weapons, and were eventually attacked, deposed, and killed. Major compromises by Iran on the nuclear front without significant concessions by the West, he believes, could end up leading to similar consequences for the Iranian regime”.

Therefore, he thinks that any negotionan with “the West” is the road to extinction and not the path to a more sustainable future.

The writer says that “Another important issue for Khamenei is what he sees as actions that amount to insults to Islam” such as the crude Islam bashing in the United States and parts of Europe but he adds that Khamenei “tries hard to avoid casting this issue as a conflict between Islam and Christianity. ‘The goal of these infuriating measures [Koran burnings],’ he argued in a public speech in September 2010, ‘is to bring the confrontation with Islam and Muslims into the mainstream of Christian societies and to give it a religious coloration and zeal.’ But ‘we must all realise,’ he said, that this ‘has nothing to do with churches or Christianity, and the puppet deeds of a few idiotic and mercenary clerics must not be laid at the feet of Christians and their clergy. We Muslims will never commit similar acts in regard to the sanctities of other religions. The struggle between Muslims and Christians on a general level is what the enemies and plotters of these insane displays want, and the Koran instructs us to take the opposite position.'”

At the same time he mentions that “Khamenei does not deny the astonishing progress of the West over the past century. As he said in a public speech in June 2004, “In America, you see the pinnacle of the rise of materialist civilization from the perspective of science, wealth, military power, and political and diplomatic efforts. America is a country that has legendary wealth and military power and extraordinary political mobility.” He accepts Western science and technology and laments the fact that despotic regimes in Iran and elsewhere in the developing world are responsible for these countries’ underdevelopment”.

On the topic of democarcy he mentions that “Khamenei is not a fan of liberal democracy. He argues that its supposed majoritarian legitimacy is undermined by the fact that actual governments in the West have received the votes of only a small fraction of the total possible electorate. He claims, moreover, that liberal democracies, such as the United States, have repeatedly violated their own principles by supporting despotic governments elsewhere, and have even worked to overthrow democratic regimes (such as with the 1953 coup in Iran). He sees liberal democratic governments as being interested in ruling the world at large, pushing glob­alization as a route toward Americanization, and attacking other countries at will (such as Afghanistan and Iraq). The Islamic Republic has its own form of democracy, Khamenei believes, one that is rooted in religion. ‘The foundations of religious democracy are different from those of Western democracy,’ he argued in June 2005 in a speech on the anniversary of Khomeini’s death. ‘Religious democracy, which is the basis we have voted for and which arises from the divine rights and duties of man, is not just a contract. All humans have the right to vote and the right to self-determination.'”

The author adds that “Khamenei believes that Western governments and capitalism in general are suffering from incurable structural problems and face inevitable decline”, adding later on in the article that Khamenei “has argued that the financial crisis that began in 2008 is evidence in support of his pessimistic view of the West’s prospects. He saw the Occupy Wall Street protests as the beginning of a major crisis in capitalism”.

He adds that “For Khamenei, world history is “turning a corner,” and “a new age in the entire world” is beginning. The Marxist, liberal, and nationalist creeds have lost their attraction, and only Islam has kept its. The Arab Spring — or, as he calls it, “the Islamic Awakening” — is a prelude to a worldwide uprising against the United States and international Zionism. In his view, the fact that routine materialistic calculations make such an outcome unlikely is unimportant, because divine providence will bring it about. He sees the survival of the Islamic Republic in the face of more than three decades of international opposition as evidence of this heavenly support and counts on it continuing in the future. Khamenei believes that the historic turn he anticipates will lead to the victory of spiritual and divine values in the world. Contrary to Max Weber’s diagnosis that modern science has disenchanted the world and the realm of power, Khamenei still relies on esoteric notions and divine beings in his approach to politics. He is re-enchanting the world”.

On the prospect of talks, Khamenei “In a speech to the commanders of the Iranian air force, he said that since U.S. President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, he had announced that the Iranian leadership would take an unprejudiced look at the new government’s behaviour and then make a decision. But what had been the results of Obama’s first term? Washington had supported the “internal rebellion” (the Green Movement); it had imposed crippling sanctions that, he claimed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said were intended to foment a popular uprising against the Islamic Republic; it had turned a blind eye to Israel’s assassinations of Iran’s nuclear scientists and perhaps even backed them; and it had supported the same terrorists in Syria that they had overthrown in Afghanistan in 2001. He then addressed Biden’s call for talks:

Whom did you want to cripple [with sanctions]? Did you want to paralyze the Iranian people? Is there any goodwill in this? . . . I am not a diplomat. I am a revolutionary and talk in a clear and forthright manner. . . .

Diplomats say something, and they mean something else. We talk in honest and clear terms. . . . Negotiations are meaningful when the other side shows its goodwill. When the other side does not show any goodwill, when you yourselves say pressure and negotiations, these two don’t go together. You want to point a gun at the Iranian people and say, “Negotiate, or I’ll fire.” . . . You should know that the Iranian people will not be frightened as a result of such acts.

Khamenei claimed that the Islamic Republic was ready for direct negotiations with Washington but that there were several necessary preconditions. He wants the United States to give up what he sees as its attempts to overthrow the Islamic Republic, enter into negotiations in a spirit of mutual respect and equality, and abandon its simultaneous efforts to pressure Iran, such as with military threats and economic sanctions”.

Pointedly, and perhaps promisingly he writes that “Khamenei gives his most important speech in Mashhad on the first day of spring, the beginning of the Iranian New Year. This year’s address was striking, however, for what seemed to be a slight softening of his position on talks. For the first time, even while expressing his lack of optimism about direct negotiations with the United States, he explicitly said, “But I don’t oppose them.” And while noting that Washington seems to have no inclination to complete the nuclear negotiations and resolve the issue, he nevertheless said that the solution to the conflict ‘is very near and very simple.’ Iran’s only demand, he said, was recognition of its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and it would be ‘very simple’ to eliminate foreigners’ concerns”.

Thankfully he mentions that “What is noteworthy about the road traveled by the supreme leader during these tumultuous past three decades is the change in the manner of his discourse. He has shifted away from absolute ideological notions of “the West,” “world arrogance,” and the United States as a totally homogenous other and moved toward accepting a more nuanced conception of the West as a complex social reality — one with not only an inherent drive to ruthless market competition, capitalist exploitation and foreign policy expansion but also dynamic artistic products, literature, science and technology, risk taking and institutional innovations, and religious and spiritual diversity”.

He stressing the point again writing that “It appears that for Khamenei, the United States has gone from being the monstrous absolute other to a powerful regional presence with a domestic political system plagued by the painful consequences of two recent failed military adventures in the Middle East”.

He goes on to give a ray of hope to US-Iranian relations arguing that improving relations “will be difficult, especially if long-standing U.S. policies, such as constantly escalating sanctions, remain in place. Yet improved relations are not impossible, because the most important interests of both Tehran and Washington can indeed be accommodated simultaneously”.

He goes on to suggest policy positions, “Khamenei needs to know is that Washington is not determined to cripple or overthrow the Islamic Republic, and what the United States needs to know is that the Iranian nuclear project is peaceful, that Iran will not block free access to energy resources and regional sea-lanes, and that Israel can enjoy peace and security within its internationally recognised borders (which, some still hope, will be determined in a final settlement with the Palestinians). Iran can reassure Western governments that its nuclear project is peaceful by making it transparent and by ratifying and implementing the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocols on proliferation safeguards in exchange for its guaranteed right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. The West, in turn, can reassure Iran that it is not bent on regime change by taking tangible practical measures in exchange for Iranian adherence to security and peace in the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East — and it will have to do so in order to make significant progress on the nuclear front”.

More controversially he calls for the lifting of sanctions, “since whatever their aims, sanctions inflict damage on populations at large, not only or even primarily on the government officials who are their ostensible targets”.

Yet while he is broadly correct it would be a mistake to lift all sanctions. The best way to improve relations would be to lift the least important, effective, sanctions first which would at the very least improve the atmosphere between the two countries which may in turn mean more important sanctions, such as the oil or banking sanctions could be lifted as time, and relations, go on.

He does write fairly that Khamenei must realise that “domestic problems will never be solved without democracy, freedom, and human rights”.

He suggests that “If the Obama administration is serious about pursuing a solution to the problems between Tehran and Washington, it would be well advised to develop a road map that specifies the unresolved issues in the Iranian nuclear file in a clear manner and sets out a timeline for investigating, resolving, and closing the cases one by one. Step-by-step progress on the nuclear front should be linked to step-by-step progress on lifting the sanctions”.

He adds that Obama should “take a comprehensive approach to the region and embed discussions of the Iranian nuclear program in a broader framework of regional security, bringing Washington’s allies on board and minimising those allies’ desire to play the spoiler. This would mean building a consensus around a set of rules for regional politics”.

This may sound like the right thing to do but the pratice is far harder, especially with the Syrian crisis raging. What is more complicated is that EU and its endless series of different voices almost totally unable to reach agreement on anything but the broadest and blandest of statements.

He concludes “The election of Rouhani as president showed the desire of the Iranian people to put a decisive end to the Ahmadinejad era, and it has created an opportunity for both Iran and the international community to move forward toward more constructive relations. That opportunity should be seized rather than ignored”.

No more monsignors?

13/09/2013

Pope Francis has temporarily stopped the practice of naming priests “honorary prelates”, which allows them to take the title “monsignor”. The only exception is for those clerics who work in the Holy See’s diplomatic service. The Rome daily, Il Messaggero, reported the decision today. The Tablet has learned that the Pope communicated the decision on 12 April, shortly after his election,  to top officials the Secretariat of State, the office that grants approval to bishops around the world who propose priests for the honorary title. During that meeting, Francis said he wanted the granting of such onorificienza to be put on hold at least until October, after he had met his group of eight cardinal-advisors to discuss reforming the Roman Curia and governance of the universal Church. It is not clear if the discontinuation of permitting priests to take the title “monsignor” will remain just temporary provision, or if the title will be made obsolete permanently.

Russia’s unworkable suggestion

11/09/2013

President Obama in a nationally televised address told America that he would be willing to work with the Russian plan but still regards force as an option.

The New York Times reports “President Obama, facing implacable opposition to a strike against Syria in Congress and throughout the country, said Tuesday that he would hold off on military action for now and pursue a Russian proposal for international monitors to take over and destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. Speaking to the nation from the White House, Mr. Obama laid out his most extensive and detailed case for an attack to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons. But he also acknowledged the deep doubts of Americans who after the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan view any form of military engagement in Syria with alarm.  In a speech that only 48 hours ago was going to be solely a call to arms, Mr. Obama instead offered a qualified endorsement of a proposal that his own advisers conceded was rife with risk, given Russia’s steadfast refusal to agree to any previous measures to pressure Syria, its longtime ally”.

The report goes on to mention “The president said he had asked Congressional leaders to postpone a vote authorizing military action — a vote he was almost certain to lose — even while making the moral case for punishing Syria for its deadly use of chemical weapons. What Mr. Obama did not say was how long he was willing to wait, what would convince him that the Russian proposal was credible, and what he would do if it was not”.

In a blog post, the problems associated with clearing the Syrian weapons is made apparent. It could simply be a Russia trap to delay or halt America’s military action but if this is that case it should not last long with the obstruction, or not by Assad key to deciding whether to use force or not.

It opens “Experts in chemical weapons disposal point to a host of challenges. Taking control of Assad’s enormous stores of the munitions would be difficult to do in the midst of a brutal civil war. Dozens of new facilities for destroying the weapons would have to be built from scratch or brought into the country from the U.S., and completing the job would potentially take a decade or more. The work itself would need to be done by specially-trained military personnel or contractors. Guess which country has most of those troops and civilian experts? If you said the U.S., you’d be right”.

The piece statees crucially that “Gwyn Winfield, the editorial director of CBRNe World, a magazine that focuses on biological and chemical weapons, said the success of the Russian proposal “depends on Assad making an honest declaration of where his munitions are” because the personnel charged with destroying those weapons can only work at sites they know about. Assad, he noted, would have a clear incentive to hold on to as much of his stockpile as possible”.

It is still uncertain just how co-operative Assad, and his Russian masters will be in the whole project. However, their foot dragging will soon become apparent at which case Obama should not hesitate to strike.

It closes “Finding and securing all of Assad’s sites would be the first major challenge of implementing the Russian plan, but it would be far from the only one. The U.S. and allied personnel would then have to separate the chemical substances themselves from the warheads of his rockets, artillery shells or missiles that had been designed to carry them to their targets. The work itself would be carried out by either robots, contractors or specially-trained troops, but it would still be time-consuming and dangerous.  The next step would be to physically destroy all of chemical weapons, which can be done through one of two basic options.  The first involves spraying the chemicals themselves into specialized furnaces and then burning them at around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for one or two seconds. Nerve agents like sarin can also be rendered largely harmless by the addition of liquid sodium hydroxide, while mustard gas can be made safe with alkaline water”.

“Backing changes”

11/09/2013

Catholic bishops and priests from major dioceses across the country will preach a coordinated message next month backing changes in immigration policy, with some using Sunday Masses on Sept. 8 to urge Congressional passage of a legislative overhaul that includes a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. The decision to embrace political action from the pulpit is part of a broader effort by the Roman Catholic Church and other faith groups that support President Obama’s call for new immigration laws. It includes advertising and phone calls directed at 60 Catholic Republican lawmakers and “prayerful marches” in Congressional districts where the issue has become a divisive topic.

Assad’s media blitz

11/09/2013

A blog post discusses the consequences from what has occured in the last 48hrs.

The says that Assad has basically won the propaganda war, “Even before President Barack Obama put his plans to strike the Syrian regime on hold, he was losing the battle of public opinion about military intervention. Part of the credit, no doubt, goes to a successful media blitz by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its supporters. In an interview aired on Monday night, Assad himself advanced his government’s case to Charlie Rose, saying that the United States had not presented “a single shred of evidence” proving the Syrian military had used chemical weapons. Assad has always been able to skillfully parry Western journalists’ criticisms of his regime — and, at times, it has won him positive international coverage”.

Kenner goes on to write that an odd alliance of the right wing and anti-Obamaists have teamed with Assad, “Assad supporters’ claims have repeatedly been republished unquestioningly by right-wing commentators in the United States, who share their hostility toward both Sunni Islamists and the Obama administration. It’s a strange alliance between American conservatives and a regime that was one of America’s first designated state sponsors of terror, and continues to work closely with Iran and Hezbollah. ‘There is evidence — mounting evidence — that the rebels in Syria did indeed frame Assad for the chemical attack,’ conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh told his audience on Sept. 3. ‘But not only that, but Obama, the regime, may have been complicit in it. Mounting evidence that the White House knew and possibly helped plan the Syrian chemical weapon attack by the opposition!'”

Kenner adds later in the piece that “Limbaugh’s citedan article by Yossef Bodansky on Global Research, a conspiracy website that has advanced a pro-Assad message during the current crisis. “How can the Obama administration continue to support and seek to empower the opposition which had just intentionally killed some 1,300 innocent civilians?” Bodansky asked. Bodansky is an ally of Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad — he pushed himas a potential leader of Syria in 2005″.

Surely the fact that Limbaugh and Assad who both want the same thing should be a clue that doing the opposite would be a good idea. Kenner mentions that the same is true in the UK, “Pro-Assad voices have also helped shape the debate in Europe. The British organisation Stop the War, which was instrumental in convincing Parliament to reject a strike on Syria, is not just made up of opponents of intervention — it includes staunch supporters of the Syrian regime. The organisation’s vice president is a Stalinist who praised Assad”

Christians attacked

11/09/2013

High in the mountains above Damascus lies a town so remote that Syria’s war had passed it by, so untouched by time that its inhabitants still speak the language of Jesus. The violence ravaging the rest of Syria has finally caught up with Maaloula, renowned as the oldest Christian community in the world — and the last in which the same version of Aramaic that prevailed 2,000 years ago is the native tongue. On Sunday, Syrian rebels, including some affiliated with al-Qaeda, swept through Maaloula for the second time in four days, after an assault a few days earlier in which the last of its few thousand residents fled and the specter of unchecked violence threatened to convulse the iconic town”.

Kerry’s window, Obama dithers understandably

11/09/2013

Following a dramatic few days on the crisis in Syria it is worthwhile looking back in order to see what might happen in the future.

John Hudson reports that “Secretary of State John Kerry said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American military strike by giving up his chemical weapons, an unscripted and off-handed remark that triggered a mad day of diplomatic scrambling and raised the first real prospect of a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis. Speaking in London this morning, Kerry said Assad had one way, and one way only, of preventing the Obama administration from launching a military intervention into his country. “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting,” Kerry said. “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki tried to walk back Kerry’s comments almost immediately after he uttered them, describing the remarks as a “rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used.” By then, though, Kerry’s ad lib had taken on a life of its own. A few hours after Kerry spoke, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that Russia would support putting Syria’s chemical weapon storage sites under international control before “their subsequent destruction.” “We don’t know whether Syria will agree with this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus,” Lavrov said”.

Hudson goes on to recall the reply of the Syrian foreign minister, “Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, appearing with Lavrov in Moscow, said his country welcomed the Russian proposal and was prepared to act on it “to avert American aggression against out people.” The Obama administration reacted much more cautiously, noting that Lavrov had provided no timetables or details about how his idea would work in practice, but White House officials didn’t dismiss the Russian plan out of hand”.

In a different piece Aaron Miller writes that if Obama doesn’t strike Syria he will look weak. He argues “The dithering, indecision, and angst over Syria reflect the reality that attacking Assad really isn’t a vital U.S. interest. If it were, and if it were perceived that way, it’s likely the president would have acted without going to Congress, and the current debate wouldn’t be as muddled. By contrast, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons has been the policy of three American administrations. The factors that would impel a U.S. president to attack Iran would be fundamentally different, as would the domestic and international environments in which a debate about the use of force would be conducted — particularly if the administration tried serious diplomacy first and laid out the case effectively. The idea that if you respond forcefully to less egregious criminal acts, you can prevent more serious crimes — the “broken-windows” approach — may apply to cities, but it isn’t necessarily germane to deterrence in the Middle East, particularly when you have two different perpetrators”.

Again his logic is flawed. He bemoans the fact that President Obama is dithering, which he is, but others will be attaking Obama for “acting too fast” and “rushing to war”. In any event he can’t win. What he should do however is make a decision and follow through. Miller also tosses aside the obvious complications and problems that riddle the Syrian question and berates Obama for not acting.

Miller is however correct in blaming Obama for going to Congress. It has no business in foreign affairs, despite what some think, and he has the authority to act as he sees fit. Congressional authorisation was an attempt to share the blame.

Miller again is incorrect in drawing too fine a line between what is, and what is not in American national intersts. Use of chemical weapons is as Obama said a red line, the problem was that he was too precise in his language. Now Obama must act not just for moral but also realist ends.

Miller does make the fair point that “Proponents of military action maintain that failure to use force will strengthen the regime and persuade Assad that he can act with impunity. This is a stronger argument. There’s no doubt that Assad will be emboldened and much of the opposition demoralised if the Obama administration fails to act. But — putting aside for a moment the question of how destructive a U.S. strike might be — would failure to act raise the odds significantly that Assad would deploychemical weapons again? Alternatively, could striking really guarantee Syria would never use them again? Cleary, we cannot be sure. Those in favour of military action, however, seem all but convinced that, although striking cannot ensure a stop to chemical weapons attacks, not acting will virtually guarantee that Assad will use such weapons more routinely”.

Miller concludes the piece fairly, “Obama’s in a real box. He’s got bad options on Syria, he doesn’t have a lot of support, and he faces the very real prospect that this situation won’t end happily for him. Even the least bad option — the one that falls in the middle between not acting and acting too expansively — is a dog’s lunch. A limited military strike — even one that falls on the tougher end of the limited continuum — isn’t likely to have much of an impact. And that raises the very real possibility that notacting won’t make all that much difference. Having supported the president’s willful and wise decision to avoid militarizing the U.S. role in Syria for the past two years, I find myself struggling with bad options now. Doing nothing is unacceptable in the face of the largest single deployment of chemical weapons since Saddam gassed the Kurds; doing everything to change the battlefield balance is reckless and will ensure too much ownership of a Syrian problem we can’t fix. And that leaves the muddle in the middle. If I were in government — a land where “doing something” is a built-in part of the job description — I’d be tempted to go with the limited strike option”.

China shows its hand

09/09/2013

“Chinese President Xi Jinping told his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama on Friday that the crisis in Syria should not be resolved through a military strike and urged him to consider a political solution, state news agency Xinhua said. Xi’s are the highest-level comments from China since an August 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria. They follow remarks by a foreign ministry spokesman, who urged a role for the U.N. Security Council in resolving the crisis after the United States said it had given up trying to work with the council on Syria. “A political solution is the only right way out for the Syrian crisis, and a military strike cannot solve the problem from the root,” Xinhua quoted Xi as telling Obama on the sidelines of a G20 summit in St. Petersburg in Russia. “We expect certain countries to have a second thought before action.” China has called for a full and impartial investigation by U.N. chemical weapons inspectors in Syria into the attack, and has warned against pre-judging the results. It has also said that whoever used chemical weapons had to be held accountable.

Facing the sack

09/09/2013

David Cameron has warned of the consequences to those members of Parliament that voted against the government.

Reports note that “Alan Duncan, David Gauke and Steve Webb failed to return from holiday to support the Government, angering the Prime Minister, according to sources. Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary, and Mark Simmonds, a junior Foreign Office minister, claim to have not realised that voting had begun as they were in a meeting. Commons officials said the explanation was baffling as it “would have been clear” that a vote was happening. Kenneth Clarke also abstained after being given permission for “logistical family reasons”, but the 73-year-old minister without portfolio is widely expected to lose his job anyway in a forthcoming reshuffle. In total, including Liberal Democrats and a Downing Street adviser, 10 members of the Government are recorded as not having voted. Mr Cameron is expected to announce a series of changes as soon as next week, with the position of Sir George Young, the Chief Whip, also under scrutiny”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Some senior Conservatives described the circumstances around Thursday night’s vote, which may have implications for Britain’s international reputation and the credibility of Mr Cameron’s leadership, as a “total shambles”. Today, Mr Cameron said he had sought to do the right thing in seeking the backing of MPs for a motion supporting the principle of military action against the Syrian regime, which was blamed for a chemical weapons attack in Damascus last week. He said he had sought to make the argument in a “strong and principled way”. Mr Cameron lost the parliamentary vote by 13, after 30 Tory rebels voted with Labour. Another 31 Conservatives failed to vote. Senior Tory sources indicated tonight that the positions of ministers and the Downing Street adviser who did not vote were in jeopardy as recriminations grew over a parliamentary defeat which is unprecedented in modern times”.

The article adds damning of Cameron who seems to be unable to conttrol his own party that “However, adding to the growing sense of dysfunction within the party, some of the ministers insisted tonight that they were given permission not to vote by  whips, who apparently believed that it would not be close”.

Interestingly the report goes on to mention that “The position of Jesse Norman, a Conservative MP who recently became a Downing Street policy adviser, is also thought to be under threat. Mr Norman, who was present during Thursday’s debate, decided to abstain from the vote. He has not commented on his reasons but is said to have had concerns about the proposal. Mr Norman orchestrated the successful rebellion against government plans to reform the Lords. Several Lib Dem ministerial aides, including Tessa Munt and Lorely Burt, also did not vote, but Nick Clegg is not thought to be angered by their actions. The failure to win the vote, which meant Britain has had to withdraw an offer of military support to the US, has caused one of the most serious crises of Mr Cameron’s time in office. Some of his main rivals for the Tory leadership, including Boris Johnson, Theresa May and Philip Hammond, are thought to have long harboured doubts over the wisdom of intervening in Syria. Today, senior Conservative MPs openly attacked Mr Cameron’s strategy. Sir Richard Shepherd said he had not encountered a comparable situation during 34 years in Parliament and that Mr Cameron had been ‘weakened'”.

If Cameron does not have a reshuffle he will look weak. If he does he will look weak – he cannot win either way.

“Both governments present evidence”

07/09/2013

As Congress debates whether to authorise a military strike on Syria, the French government has released its declassified intelligence report on the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the eastern Damascus suburbs. France, the United States’ only remaining potential partnerfor military intervention in Syria, agrees in broad strokes with the White House’s view of the attack. Both governments present evidence that the Syrian regime launched chemical weapons on rebel-held neighborhoods, likely killing over 1,000 people. But in terms of its level of detail, the French report puts the U.S. intelligence assessment to shame”.

Convergence = Conflict

07/09/2013

Mark Leonard, a noted spporter of the European Union, has written about the relationship between China and America, “Why Convergence Breeds Conflict“.

He has argued that “Many fear that in the not-too-distant future, the world will be torn apart as the gulf that separates China and the United States grows ever wider. How, they ask, can a communist dictatorship and a capitalist democracy bridge the gap between them? But it is time to stop thinking that the two countries come from different planets and that the tensions between them are the product of their differences. In fact, until relatively recently, China and the United States got along quite well — precisely because their interests and attributes differed. Today, it is their increasing similarities, not their differences, that are driving the two countries apart”.

Leonard goes on to note the problems President Obama has had dealing with China, “When U.S. President Barack Obama came to power in 2009, he hoped to integrate China into global institutions and encourage it to identify its interests with the preservation of the postwar, Western-led international system. But almost five years later, according to a U.S. official with whom I spoke earlier this year who is familiar with the president’s thinking, Obama’s attitude toward the Chinese is best described as “disappointment.” According to the official, Obama feels that the Chinese rebuffed his attempt to forge an informal “G-2” arrangement during his first trip to China, in November 2009, and disagreements between Beijing and Washington on climate change, maritime issues, and cybersecurity have convinced Obama that China is more of a problem than a partner”.

He correctly adds that China “do not feel inclined to uphold a Western-led international order that they had no role in shaping. That is why, in the run-up to his meeting with Obama in June at the Sunnylands estate in California, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged the establishment of ‘a new type of great-power relationship’ — a coded way for the Chinese to tell the Americans to respect China as an equal, to accommodate China’s territorial claims, and to expect that China will define its own interests rather than support Western-led international agendas”.

That is why it is so important to view the relationship with China for what it is and not through some idealistic lens.

He goes on to make the excellent point, “The historian Niall Ferguson and the economist Moritz Schularick deemed the two countries so intertwined that they started referring to them as a distinct entity: “Chimerica.” Insofar as it ever existed, Chimerica was made possible by the fact that even though the governing philosophies of the two states were profoundly different, they were different in the same way that a lock and a key differ. China was run according to the “Deng consensus,” named after the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who stepped aside in the 1990s but whose vision continued to guide the country for many years. Deng’s primary goal was to maintain domestic and international stability by eschewing an ambitious foreign policy agenda and focusing instead on economic growth through exports and foreign investment. Meanwhile, the American governing credo during the 1990s rested on an interventionist foreign policy of defending stability within an American-led world order built on free trade abroad and credit-fueled growth at home. The two visions bore little resemblance to each other, but they were also rarely in direct conflict; in fact, they were usually complementary. Of course, during this period, Beijing and Washington did compete”.

He continues, arguing “the two powers typically pursued quite different ends and relied on very different means. In Asia, the United States concentrated on maintaining its military primacy and resisted any regional economic initiatives that it had not devised — even when they were put forward by an ally such as Japan, which proposed setting up an Asian monetary fund during the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis, an idea that Washington rebuffed. China, by contrast, sought to reassure its neighbors about its “peaceful rise” by supporting multilateral regional integration and offering them an economic stake in China’s rise through trade deals. Outside Asia, Beijing and Washington managed to not step on each other’s toes: the United States prioritized its relations with other advanced democracies and with energy-rich countries in the Middle East, and China focused its diplomatic energies on seeking opportunities in Africa and Latin America, regions where the United States has pulled back“.

He adds that “The pressure for a less passive Chinese foreign policy comes from Chinese companies eager for protection in dangerous overseas markets; from a small cadre of globalists who maintain that in a world where China is exposed to many hot spots, Beijing must shed its hesitance to take international action; and from hawkish Chinese policymakers and military officials who believe that China needs to be more assertive in protecting its interests abroad. Even if these arguments prevail, China will not be launching U.S.-style humanitarian interventions anytime soon, but its foreign-policy makers are likely to become less squeamish about intervening in the internal affairs of other countries”

Leonard writes that in 2012 “hawks publicly proposed that China develop quasi alliances with a dozen countries, including the Central Asian republics, Myanmar (also called Burma), North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and Sri Lanka, offering them security guarantees and, for the smaller countries on that list, perhaps even the protection of a Chinese nuclear umbrella. Such moves are hardly what then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick had in mind in 2005 when he called for China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the global order”.
He goes on to argue, that “Obama has sought to develop a model of low-cost leadership: something like an American version of Deng’s approach, with the difference being that Deng tried to hide China’s growing wealth, whereas Obama is trying to hide the growing shortfall in American resources. In practice, this approach means punishing adversaries such as Iran and North Korea with economic sanctions, targeting terrorists with drones, eschewing unilateral interventions abroad in favour of “leading from behind,” and establishing pragmatic relationships with powerful states such as Russia”.
Yet this is only half the strategy, he increased troops in Afghanistan and has little time for Putin after his trick on Obama with Syria.
Crucially he funtamentall disagrees with John Ikenberry’s argument, “Indeed, rather than being transformed by global institutions, China has taken part in sophisticated multilateral diplomacy that has changed the global order. At the G-20, China has made common cause with other creditor nations, such as Germany, whose side China took in 2010 when the Germans opposed a U.S.-backed global stimulus package. Washington has also been disappointed that Beijing has helped doom the Doha Round of negotiations on world trade by sitting on its hands when the talks have seemed to be in jeopardy. At the UN, China has pushed back against the spread of liberal norms: in 1997–98, other states voted with Washington on human rights issues before the General Assembly around 80 percent of the time; Beijing’s “voting coincidence” that year, in contrast, was barely 40 percent. By 2009–10, those numbers had been nearly reversed: roughly 40 percent for the United States and nearly 70 percent for China. This turnaround was in part the result of China’s winning the support of developing countries by providing them with cheap loans, direct investment, and promises to protect them from hypothetical UN Security Council resolutions directed against them”.
 Adding to his argument he writes that “a group of high-income countries led by the United States and including Australia, Canada, Malaysia, and Singapore launched negotiations to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact that would pointedly exclude China and emphasize strong standards on state-owned enterprises, labor rights, environmental practices, and the protection of intellectual property rights. If Japan eventually joins, the TPP’s membership will account for around 40 percent of global GDP. Even more ambitious are the recently launched negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a long-discussed plan to create a free-trade agreement between the EU and the United States, which would give the Western countries significant leverage in any subsequent trade negotiations with China. The goal of these new arrangements is not to push China out of international trade but rather to set the rules of the road without China and then force it to accept them. The West is making parallel efforts in the security realm. The United States is trying to use the pivot to Asia to strengthen its long-standing relationships with various countries on China’s periphery in order to slow Beijing’s quest for military primacy in the western Pacific. And when it comes to international interventions, the West is increasingly “forum shopping”: cooperating with regional organizations, such as the Arab League and the African Union, and relying on informal coalitions, such as the Friends of Syria, whenever diplomacy at the UN gets bogged down”.
 Leonard concludes the piece “In between these emerging U.S.- and Chinese-led orders stand global institutions such as the UN Security Council, the G-20, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. But they are often gridlocked because of disagreements among their members. So instead of socializing emerging powers into Western norms, the most that can be hoped from them is that they serve as venues for the great powers to discuss especially pressing crises: for example, the global financial meltdown of 2008 or North Korea’s nuclear intransigence. Such institutional weakness and irrelevance could grow worse over time, as rather than working together to reform existing common forums, Western powers try to build ‘a world without China’ and China and its partners try to create what some analysts call ‘a world without the West.'”
He concludes “Beijing and Washington will fight over status rather than ideology. China has so far been too weak and too defensive to articulate an alternative to the U.S.-led liberal world order, but that is set to change. China and the United States will use the same words in explaining their motivations: “order,” “legitimacy,” “growth,” and “responsibility.” But they will be, as the saying goes, divided by a common language”.

Finding a consensus candidate

07/09/2013

“The creation of a 14-party grand electoral alliance, which pledged fielding a consensus candidate for next year’s presidential ballot, was announced here on Thursday.  The coalition involves some former Northern Alliance heavyweights such as Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Ahmad Zia Massoud, then spymaster Amarullah Saleh and Uzbek warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. Jamiat-i-Islami member Abdul Sattar Marwat told reporters Yunus Qanuni, Mohammad Mohaqiq, Salahuddin Rabbani, Syed Ali Kazimi, Mullah Izzatullah, Qurban Ali, ex-interior minister Hanif Atmar, Noorul Haq Ulumi and others.  Leaders of the parties signed an agreement on creation of the alliance, with Marwat saying the move was aimed to translate popular aspirations into a reality and forging national unity”.

Intense focus on Pakistan

07/09/2013

A report in the Washington Post notes that “The $52.6 billion U.S. intelligence arsenal is aimed mainly at unambiguous adversaries, including al-Qaeda, North Korea and Iran. But top-secret budget documents reveal an equally intense focus on one purported ally: Pakistan. No other nation draws as much scrutiny across so many categories of national security concern.  A 178-page summary of the U.S. intelligence community’s “black budget” shows that the United States has ramped up its surveillance of Pakistan’s nuclear arms, cites previously undisclosed concerns about biological and chemical sites there, and details efforts to assess the loyalties of counter­terrorism sources recruited by the CIA. Pakistan appears at the top of charts listing critical U.S. intelligence gaps. It is named as a target of newly formed analytic cells. And fears about the security of its nuclear program are so pervasive that a budget section on containing the spread of illicit weapons divides the world into two categories: Pakistan and everybody else”.

The piece goes on to mention that “The United States has delivered nearly $26 billion in aid to Pakistan over the past 12 years, aimed at stabilizing the country and ensuring its cooperation in counterterrorism efforts. But with Osama bin Laden dead and al-Qaeda degraded, U.S. spy agencies appear to be shifting their attention to dangers that have emerged beyond the patch of Pakistani territory patrolled by CIA drones”.

Interestingly the piece adds that “their proposal for fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30, U.S. spy agencies sought $16.6 billion to fight al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and asked for $6.86 billion to counter the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Together, the two categories accounted for nearly half of the U.S. intelligence community’s budget request for this year. Detailed spreadsheets contain dozens of line items that correspond to operations in Pakistan. The CIA, for example, was scheduled to spend $2.6 billion on “covert action” programs around the world. Among the most expensive, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials, is the armed drone campaign against al-Qaeda fighters and other militants in Pakistan’s tribal belt”.

It should come as no suprise that “U.S. intelligence agencies are focused on two particularly worrisome scenarios: the possibility that Pakistan’s nuclear facilities might come under attack by Islamist militants, as its army headquarters in Rawalpindi did in 2009, and even greater concern that Islamist militants might have penetrated the ranks of Pakistan’s military or intelligence services, putting them in a position to launch an insider attack or smuggle out nuclear material. Pakistan has dozens of laboratories and production and storage sites scattered across the country. After developing warheads with highly enriched uranium, it has more recently tried to do the same with more-powerful and compact plutonium. The country is estimated to have as many as 120 nuclear weapons, and the budget documents indicate that U.S. intelligence agencies suspect that Pakistan is adding to that stockpile”.

The piece concludes “Even American interdiction operations targeting other countries have stumbled into connections with Pakistan. In one case, a U.S. effort to block an Iranian shipment through a Turkish port “proved to be even more successful when aluminum powder destined for Pakistan was also discovered and detained,” according to the documents. Aluminum powder can be used to increase the power of explosives. The budget documents don’t disclose CIA payments to its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, which former officials said has totaled tens of millions of dollars. The documents do show that the CIA has developed sophisticated means of assessing the loyalties of informants who have helped the agency find al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan’s tribal region”.

“Limited authority to use force”

05/09/2013

A sharply divided Senate committee voted Wednesday to give President Obama limited authority to use force against Syria, the first step in what remains a treacherous path for Mr. Obama to win Congressional approval for a military attack. The resolution would limit strikes against Syrian forces to a period of 60 days, with the possibility of 30 more days after consultation with Congress, and it would block the use of American ground troops. The vote of 10 to 7 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee laid bare the complicated political crosscurrents raised by military intervention in Syria. Two liberal Democrats voted against the resolution, one voted present and three Republicans voted for it. The Senate panel’s action capped a day of fierce debate in both houses of Congress that indicated there is a widespread impulse to respond to the deadly chemical weapons attack but deep divisions over how much latitude the president should have to do so”.

Droning Syria?

05/09/2013

An article in Foreign Affairs, Drones Over Damascus, Audrey Kurth Cronin, who has written previously on drones, argues that because they are not used in Syria this tells much about their lack of utility.

She writes, “For the past four years, Americans have been preoccupied with drone technology as a cheap, low-risk, and discriminate way to eliminate emerging global threats without getting entangled in protracted conflicts. The U.S. government has even dramatically changed its military force structure to make armed drones a lynchpin of U.S. power projection. Yet these weapons have been virtually useless in the last two conflicts that the United States has faced, first in Libya and now in Syria. Why is that? Broadly speaking, the United States has used armed drone strikes overseas in two ways: during war and to prevent war. Battlefield use of weaponized drones is not new (it dates back to World War I), and is fairly ubiquitous. A spring 2013 report by the U.S. Air Force estimated that unmanned aircraft fired about a quarter of all missiles used in coalition air strikes in Afghanistan in the early part of this year. Drones have proved remarkably effective at providing reconnaissance to U.S. troops on the ground, protecting them from enemy attacks, and reducing civilian casualties. When used within a war, in other words, drones are a great way to give U.S. soldiers an edge”.

She goes on to argue correctly that “Could the United States have deployed its drone fleet to destroy Syrian arsenals or to kill those planning to make use of them before this happened? The answer is no. Armed drones have serious limitations, and the situation in Syria lays them bare. They are only useful where the United States has unfettered access to airspace, a well-defined target, and a clear objective. In Syria, the United States lacks all three”.

She elobrates that “the airspace. So far, armed drones have been used either over countries that do not control their own airspace (Somalia, Mali, Afghanistan) or where the government has given the United States some degree of permission (Yemen, Pakistan). Those circumstances are rare. When the foe can actually defend itself, the use of armed drones is extraordinarily difficult and could constitute an act of war — one that could easily draw the United States into the heart of a conflict.Drones are slow and noisy; they fly at a low altitude; and they require time to hover over a potential target before being used. They are basically sitting ducks. Syria has an air force and air defenses that could easily pick American drones out of the sky”.

The second point she writes “the target. Using armed drones against the Syrian government’s enormous chemical weapons stockpiles would have risked causing the very release of deadly agents that the United States was trying to avoid. Drones are precise but not perfect. Like cruise missiles, their effectiveness mainly depends upon the quality of their targeting information”.

Lastly she mentions America “wants to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against the Syrian people and to prevent them from being used again. Drone attacks are ill suited for this purpose. They are unlikely either to inflict sufficient pain or to deter other tyrants from following Assad’s lead. A broader objective is to reinforce the global norm against the use of chemical weapons, and such a lofty goal can only be accomplished with a robust international response”.

Admitting drones work

05/09/2013

Al Qaeda’s leaders have set up cells of engineers to try to shoot down, disable or hijack US drones, The Washington Post reported late Tuesday citing top-secret US intelligence documents. The Al Qaeda leadership is “hoping to exploit the technological vulnerabilities of a weapons system that has inflicted huge losses against the terrorist network,” the Post said online. ‘Although there is no evidence that Al Qaeda has forced a drone crash or successfully interfered with flight operations, US intelligence officials have closely tracked the group’s persistent efforts to develop a counterdrone strategy since 2010,’ the report said, citing the secret documents. The Al Qaeda commanders are keen to achieve ‘a technological breakthrough that could curb the US drone campaign, which has killed an estimated 3,000 people over the past decade,’ the Post reported”.

Obama consults Congress

03/09/2013

President Obama has taken the step of consulting Congress. This is either because he wants political cover, or because he wants to delay action on Syria for as long as possible.

Some have noted that Obama had no need to consult Congress, “Beyond the presidential case law, the history and text of the Constitution support the president’s authority to take unilateral military action, though that may come as a surprise to many people. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 removed the power to make war from both Article I and Article II, that is, from the executive and legislative branches, giving the president the power to command forces, and Congress the power to provide funds for those forces. The power to declare war was never considered a precondition for entering hostilities but rather, as the Supreme Court observed in 1800 in Bas v. Tingy, a matter of “perfecting” an otherwise limited war and thus conferring certain rights under international law vis-à-vis neutrals, and other parties. This explains why our first war — the so-called quasi-war against France in the John Adams administration, when many constitutional framers were alive — was not preceded by a declaration of war. Nor, by the way, was President Thomas Jefferson’s expedition against the Barbary pirates, which also relied on statutory authority”.

David Rothkopf writes that there are a number of consequences as a result of Obama consulting Congress. The first of these he writes is “Military action against Syria that seemed a “certainty” on Friday is no longer assured. And if air strikes do take place, their delay — despite Obama’s protestations to the contrary — make them likely to be less effective. While the president, and particularly Secretary of State John Kerry in his effective remarks on Friday, have made a compelling case for American action in Syria, one can never underestimate this Congress’s ability to find reasons for inaction, partisanship, or unproductive caviling. The far right and left of the respective parties are disinclined toward intervention. The more hawkish are disinclined toward actions that are too limited”.

He goes on to argue correctly that “The president has hemmed and hawed regarding his supposed “red line” on chemical weapons use yet again, further undercutting his credibility. When Obama first suggested a red line, he cited movement or use of chemical weapons as being intolerable. But movement and use have, according to credible reports, occurred on multiple occasions since then — and the United States took no action. This latest incident on August 21 was so egregious it was impossible to continue looking the other way. (And it was followed, apparently, by another on August 26.) Taking action seemed the only way to restore a sense that the president was a man who meant what he said. But then, late this week, as Britain balked at supporting Washington and domestic public opinion was seen to oppose any U.S. involvement in Syria, a spirit of hesitation seemed to grab the administration”.

He makes the point that this will effect how the administration closes out its foreign policy days, “Whatever happens with regard to Syria, the larger consequence of the president’s action will resonate for years. The president has made it highly unlikely that at any time during the remainder of his term he will be able to initiate military action without seeking congressional approval. It is understandable that many who have opposed actions (see: Libya) taken by the president without congressional approval under the War Powers Act would welcome Obama’s newly consultative approach”.

The danger is that if Syria gets much worse, which is entirely possible, Obama will be rightly blamed for doing too little and not intervening at all, or too little. However, his supposed initial strategy is soundly based.

Rothkopf’s last to points are the most contentious. He writes, “Obama has reversed decades of precedent regarding the nature of presidential war powers — and whether you prefer this change in the balance of power or not, as a matter of quantifiable fact he is transferring greater responsibility for U.S. foreign policy to a Congress that is more divided, more incapable of reasoned debate or action, and more dysfunctional than any in modern American history. Just wait for the Rand Paul filibuster or similar congressional gamesmanship”.

This is patently false. Rothkopf is drawning long conclusions from very specific circumstances and making sweeping historical generalisations about it. Obama’s move to “consult” Congress is little more than a political ploy. It does not mean the rising Congressional dominance as was the case 100 years ago and nor does it mean the presidency will be gutted and toothless in the realm of foreign policy. All it means is that in this instance, Obama has chosen to do effectively nothing.

His final point is similarly weak, “As a consequence of all of the above, even if the president “wins” and persuades Congress to support his extremely limited action in Syria, the perception of America as a nimble, forceful actor on the world stage and that its president is a man whose word carries great weight is likely to be diminished. Again, like the shift or hate it, foreign leaders can do the math. Not only is post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan America less inclined to get involved anywhere, but when it comes to the use of U.S. military force (our one indisputable source of superpower strength) we just became a whole lot less likely to act or, in any event, act quickly. Again, good or bad, that is a stance that is likely to figure into the calculus of those who once feared provoking the United States”.

America did nothing in Rwanda but came to the rescue of Bosnia Muslims in 1995 and 1999 and in a stroke, almost, Rwanda was forgotten and Europe totally humilated, by all but the most churlish of commentators. This too will pass as people have short memories and once the economy is back from the brink the American and European publics will forget this ever happened. This does not mean that America should not act, merely that whatever it does will be forgotten.

Lastly, Norm Orstein of the AEI writes an excellent piece, “Given the scope of the president’s proposed actions, the delay until perhaps mid-September is not apt to be particularly consequential. Contrary to what critics like Charles Krauthammer assert, international intelligence on Syria is strong enough that we can likely track any significant movement of chemical weapons or other materiel; and the ability we have to strike Syrian air bases and command-and-control facilities means that we can — at any time — inflict deep damage on Assad’s regime and make it clear that there is a real and meaningful penalty for despicable conduct”.

The real reason for Congressional inaction he writes however is more to do with the budget, “there are two other reasons that spell even more serious trouble for the president. First is the deep and growing tribalism that has taken over American politics — leaving foreign and national security policy practically the only areas where there is a bipartisan coalition, but in this case the wrong one. That may combine in a toxic fashion with the almost-uncontrollable desire by a large number of Republicans to oppose the president no matter what, undermine his policies, sabotage the laws enacted during his tenure, and inflict failure on him wherever possible. If that sentiment prevails for only a sliver of Republican lawmakers who otherwise might accept the resolution, it is trouble. Then there is the overload of business on the congressional agenda when the two houses return on Sept. 9 — with only nine legislative days scheduled for action in the month. We have serious confrontations ahead on spending bills and the debt limit, as the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 and the debt ceiling approaches just a week or two thereafter. Before the news that we would drop everything for an intense debate on whether to strike militarily in Syria, Congress-watchers were wondering how we could possibly deal with the intense bargaining required to avoid one or more government shutdowns and/or a real breach of the debt ceiling, with devastating consequences for American credibility and the international economy”.

 

“Muted disappointment”

03/09/2013

A two-day visit to Pakistan by Afghan President Hamid Karzai ended in muted disappointment Tuesday, with no agreements or specific statements on the key issues of Taliban peace talks, prisoner releases or insurgent sanctuaries. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, welcoming Karzai for the first time since taking office in June, spoke warmly Monday of relations between the two Muslim neighbors and reiterated in several statements that Pakistan is committed to Afghanistan’s peace and security. Later in the day, Karzai said the two men discussed how to work together to fight terrorism and advance the peace process, “with the expectation that the government of Pakistan will facilitate and help” the process, primarily through its influence on the Taliban”.

“China’s stodgy banks”

01/09/2013

An article in the Economist has written about China’s banking system. It was once described as “unbalanced” by a senior official and says much about the current state of the Chinese economy.

The piece opens, “China seems to have a superb banking system. Its state-controlled banks, among the biggest and most profitable in the world, have negligible levels of non-performing loans and are well capitalised. That appears to suggest that the country’s approach should be applauded. Not so. For one thing, though China’s banking system is stable, its banks are not as healthy as they seem. The credit binge of recent years has left them with far higher levels of risky loans than they acknowledge. And a profit squeeze is coming. The banks are having to work harder to keep both their biggest depositors, who are tempted by alternative investment products, and their biggest borrowers, who are turning to the bond market instead. As a consequence, the country’s Big Four banks—Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China and China Construction Bank—will no longer make easy money by merely issuing soft loans to state-owned enterprises, or SOEs (see article)”.

It goes on to mention, “The size of China’s banks may seem impressive, but in fact it is a sign that the economy is excessively reliant on bank lending. And the incentives encouraging the risk-averse Big Four, whose bosses are leading figures in the Communist Party, to funnel lending to cronies at inefficient SOEs have starved dynamic “bamboo capitalists” of credit”.

The writer makes the valid point that “China should end financial repression. If deposit rates were gradually freed, banks would be forced to compete with each other for depositors and free to win back customers now lost to the shadow banking system. Most Chinese banks have no clue today about customer service, risk management or credit assessment. That would have to change”.

He continues in the same vein that “China must separate banking from crony state capitalism. The best way to do this is privatisation. Smaller banks like China Merchants and China Minsheng, in which private investors have significant stakes, lend much more energetically to small businesses and households than do the state-controlled goliaths. Privatising the Big Four would help, though it would make it harder for the state to manage any future banking crisis. And as long as sheltered, oligopolistic SOEs exist, banks will lend disproportionately to them because they enjoy implicit state backing. So the big SOEs must themselves face greater market discipline”.

The problem with this however is that it would destroy the “jobs” that the CCP relies on to dole out to loyal and subservent party hacks. With a proper banking system these jobs would disappear overnight and as a result the jobs for those loyal party members would vanish leaving the party with one less way to ensure loyalty thus forcing them into other state areas, such as the military.

The piece concludes, “None of these changes should happen overnight. They can be implemented gradually. But a bit of disruptive innovation would be good for China’s stodgy banks, and its people”.