Archive for October, 2013

An Iraqi surge

30/10/2013

The former director of the CIA, Dr David Petraeus writes about the problems facing Iraq.

He opens “The resurrection of al Qaeda in Iraq — which was on the ropes at the end of the surge in 2008 — has led to a substantial increase in ethno-sectarian terrorism in the Land of the Two Rivers. The civil war next door in Syria has complicated matters greatly, aiding the jihadists on both sides of the border and bringing greater Iranian involvement in Mesopotamia. And various actions by the Iraqi government have undermined the reconciliation initiatives of the surge that enabled the sense of Sunni Arab inclusion and contributed to the success of the venture.  Moreover, those Iraqi government actions have also prompted prominent Sunnis to withdraw from the government and led the Sunni population to take to the streets in protest.  As a result of all this, Iraqi politics are now mired in mistrust and dysfunction”.

He writes “by the end of the surge in 2008, a different future was possible.  That still seemed to be the case in December 2011, when the final U.S. forces (other than a sizable security assistance element) departed; however, the different future was possible only if Iraqi political leaders capitalized on the opportunities that were present.  Sadly, it appears that a number of those opportunities were squandered, as political infighting and ethno-sectarian actions reawakened the fears of Iraq’s Sunni Arab population and, until recently, also injected enormous difficulty into the relationship between the government in Baghdad and the leaders of the Kurdish Regional Government”.

He goes on to describe the 2007 surge in great detail, “The surge had many components. The most prominent, of course, was the deployment of the additional U.S. forces committed by President Bush — nearly 30,000 of them in the end. Without those forces, we never could have achieved progress as quickly as we did. And, given the necessity to make progress by the hearings anticipated in September 2007, improvements before then were critical. As important as the surge of forces was, however, the most important surge was what I termed “the surge of ideas” — the changes in our overall strategy and operational plans. The most significant of these was the shift from trying to hand off security tasks to Iraqi forces to focusing on the security of the Iraqi people. The biggest of the big ideas that guided the strategy during the surge was explicit recognition that the most important terrain in the campaign in Iraq was the human terrain — the people — and our most important mission was to improve their security”.

He adds crucailly that “The essence of the surge, in fact, was the pursuit of a comprehensive approach, a civil-military campaign that featured a number of important elements, the effects of each of which were expected to complement the effects of the others. The idea was that progress in one component of the strategy would make possible gains in other components. Each incremental step forward reinforced and gradually solidified overall progress in a particular geographic location or governmental sector”.

He goes on to mention that “Beyond securing the people by living with them, foremost among the elements of the new strategy was promoting reconciliation between disaffected Sunni Arabs and our forces — and then with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. I often noted at the time that we would not be able to kill or capture our way out of the industrial-strength insurgency that confronted us in Iraq”.

He goes on to describe how the Iraqi security forces was important and “The comprehensive strategy employed during the surge also had significant civilian components. Indeed, Ambassador Crocker and I worked hard to develop unity of effort in all that our respective organizations and coalition and Iraqi partners did. The campaign plan we developed in the spring of 2007, in fact, was a joint effort of my command, Multi-National Force-Iraq, and the U.S. embassy, with considerable input from coalition partners such as Britain”.

He ends the piece on how the “fix” the violence in Iraq now, “In many respects, Iraq today looks tragically similar to the Iraq of 2006, complete with increasing numbers of horrific, indiscriminate attacks by Iraq’s al Qaeda affiliate and its network of extremists. Add to that the ongoing sectarian civil war in Syria — which is, in many aspects, a regional conflict being fought there — and the situation in Iraq looks even more complicated than it was in 2006 and thus even more worrisome — especially given the absence American combat forces.

As Iraqi leaders consider the way forward, they would do well to remember what had to be done the last time the levels of violence escalated so terribly. If Iraqi leaders think back to that time, they will recall that the surge was not just more forces, though the additional forces were very important. What mattered most was the surge of ideas — concepts that embraced security of the people by “living with them,” initiatives to promote reconciliation with elements of the population that felt they had no incentive to support the new Iraq, ramping up of precise operations that targeted the key “irreconcilables,” the embrace of an enhanced comprehensive civil-military approach, increased attention to various aspects of the rule of law, improvements to infrastructure and basic services, and support for various political actions that helped bridge ethno-sectarian divides. The ideas that enabled progress during the surge are, in many respects, the very ideas that could help Iraq’s leaders reverse the tragic downward spiral that we have seen in recent months”.

 

 

“Will travel to Pakistan”

30/10/2013

Senior Afghan officials will travel to Pakistan soon to speak to former Taliban No.2 leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar following a breakthrough in negotiations during a London summit, the Afghan presidential palace said on Wednesday. Baradar is a long-time friend of reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and is seen by some in Afghanistan as the key to restarting peace talks. British Prime Minister David Cameron is hosting Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in London this week for talks on the stalled peace process”.

America’s drone restraint

30/10/2013

Micah Zenko, in an article praises America’s restraint in the use of drones. He writes “On Monday, Oct. 28, Al Jazeera reported a “suspected drone strike” that witnesses on the ground blamed the United States for conducting. The strike has been “confirmed” with no additional details by an anonymous U.S. military official, making it the first well-documented U.S. counterterrorism airstrike in Somalia in 20 months, after conducting at least 18 between January 2007 and January 2012. That makes it something of a rarity, these days”.

He goes on to add “A new administration defense of drone strikes was attempted last week by the State Department spokesperson, who denigratedthe accuracy of civilian casualty estimates provided by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with this unsatisfying rationale: “they don’t have a complete picture.” The State Department claims that it will reviewthe reports, but it is unlikely the U.S. government will address the charges with any specificity, as they have not with similar reportscritical of U.S. foreign policy”.

From here however his article becomes more upbeat about the use of American drones, “One apparently observable fact is the diminishing prominence of non-battlefield targeted killings in U.S. counterterrorism strategies. On current trend lines, 2013 will have the fewest targeted killings since President Obama entered office, with drone strikes down 39 percent in Pakistan and 37 percent in Yemen over the same period in 2012. While some people are up in arms about the sourcing and accuracy of certain findings from the HRW and Amnesty reports, there is an important and under-studied trend in U.S. targeted killing policies: The Obama administration’s decision not to extend targeted killings into additional non-battlefield settings. Beginning at least as early as March 2013, Iraqi officials have requested U.S. drone strikes against members of al Qaeda in Iraq and al-Sham or Jabhat al-Nusra that are fighting in Syria’s civil war and destabilizing Iraq with gruesome terrorist attacks. In August, foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari notedthat Iraqis would support drone strikes that “target al Qaeda and their bases,” but only provided that they do not create “collateral damage.” However, in early October, an anonymous administration official toldForeign Policy that drone strikes in Iraq are not seriously being discussed or even considered”.

He adds “In March 2013, Jordanian officials reportedlyoffered basing rights for CIA drones in order to conduct lethal strikes in Syria. According to the Pentagon, there were roughly 1,000 U.S. military personnel in Jordan as of this summer”. Indeed this subject has been discussed here before.

Zenko goes on to write the other requests for drones have been made ” the United States has acted with restraint in expanding targeted strikes to other non-battlefield regions. In September, Niger’s foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum declared: “I would really welcome armed drones to shoot down drug traffickers, and all those who live from activities linked to drug trafficking. I don’t see why that shouldn’t be possible.” Since February, the U.S. military has flown a small number of unarmed drones out of an airstripin Niamey — one crashedin Mali in April — to track suspected Islamic militants in Mali and providetargeting intelligence to France. Niger initially wantedthe U.S. drones to be armed, but as an unnamed senior official claimed: “The whole issue is lethality. We don’t want to abet a lethal action.” So far, the Obama administration has decided not to arm the drones — though they have not ruled this out — and have only authorized their use for surveillance missions in support of French operations“.

He mentions that “speaking with diplomatic and military officials from several such countries about U.S. targeted killing policies that their public condemnation of U.S. practices is followed by a private acknowledgment of an interest to acquire the capability to conduct such lethal actions themselves. This explains why leaders from Pakistan, Yemen, Turkey, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere, have repeatedly requested to procure armed-capable drone systems from the United States. To date, however, all of their requests have been denied — so far. Nevertheless, they all have programs at various stages of development to buy, jointly develop, or indigenously produce their own armed drones”.

He ends the piece “Given that there are several thousand al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, according to the State Department’s own estimates, in the Middle East and North Africa, an open-ended policy of drone strikes for friends would never end. And that, clearly, would only create additional enemies for the United States”.

5% growth

30/10/2013

“China’s growth will slow to 7pc later this decade and 5pc by the late 2020s even if China embraces deep reform. Stagnation lies in wait if it clings to the dirigiste model. ‘The forces supporting China’s continued rapid progress are gradually fading. The government’s dominance in key sectors, while earlier an advantage, is in the future likely to act as a constraint on creativity,’ it said. ‘The role of the private sector is critical because innovation at the technology frontier is quite different in nature from catching up technologically. It is not something that can be achieved through government planning.'”

Power vacuum?

28/10/2013

An article suggets there is a power vaccum in the Middle East.

He opens the piece arguing that “The key structural feature shaping today’s Middle East, it seems to me, is the dissolution of power.  During the early days of the Arab uprising, this could be seen in the fall of long-ruling leaders and the surge of popular protests against the old order. But those uprisings have failed to create any enduring new regimes, and the power of popular movements has dissipated into sectarianism, political polarisation, and — in the worst cases, such as Egypt — capture by the state. This power fade can be seen at every level, though: the international system, where American struggles have not been matched by the rise of any competing power; the regional system, which lacks even a single serious great power; domestic politics, where almost all states suffer from institutional incompetence;  political movements, where old organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood are on their heels but no new alternatives have emerge. The diffusion of power to do anything constructive lies behind the political paralysis which seems to beset every Arab country today and the strategic floundering of almost every regional player”.

While there has certainly been upheaveal and change there has been little semesic change that he says there has been. Having been ousted the president of Yemen, Saleh was succeed by his vice-president. The Islamist experiment in Egypt was a disaster and there the army has resumed its control of the country. As he writes the Muslim Brotherhood is on the run as it has been for decades in Egypt.

He goes on to write “For all the brave talk about continuing American potential, it’s pretty obvious that Washington has vastly reduced capability — and not only willingness — to engage deeply in the problems of the Middle East.  The refusal to intervene in Syria is not simply a matter of President Obama’s gum-chewing indifference.  It is rooted in a deeply and widely held, bipartisan public opposition to any new military adventures in the region, grim opposition from an exhausted and wary Pentagon, the growing internalisation of Iraq’s painful lessons, and disillusionment with the failures of the Arab uprisings and the Libya intervention. Invocations of the need for bolder leadership by the administration’s critics ring hollow in the absence of any serious alternative policies to back up the louder words. A United States that can’t even keep its own government open is going to retrench in the Middle East because it has little choice to do otherwise. This does not mean, however, that American unipolarity has given way to some other familiar balance of power.  There is no rising power poised to grab the throne. Russia’s more active diplomacy in the region is a mirage, backed by no economic, military, political, or cultural appeal. China has shown no interest or ability in playing a more active role beyond securing energy supplies from anyone and everyone.. Europe remains largely irrelevant, whether on its own or as its constituent countries, and is hardly rising.  America’s necessary retrenchment is not matched by any real loss in relativepower, then, which is why it has not been produced anything like the declinist panics which used to erupt during the Cold War.  The American-constructed and American-backed regional architecture is rusty and creaking, but nobody is stepping up to try to build a new one”.

His point that “Washington has vastly reduced capability — and not only willingness — to engage deeply in the problems of the Middle East” is a vast oversimplification. There are incidents that America has rightly not taken a lead in, notably Libya. His argument about US non intervention in Syria is partially correct. Yet it overlooks the realist argument that has been stated before. His point about America being the only player in the region is correct but whatever problems America faces can be overcome, if the will is present. Therefore to say there is a power vacuum at this level is incorrect. The vacuum, if it exists at all is merely temporary.

Interestingly he goes on to write that “Moving to the regional level, the power vacuum is even more obvious.  There is arguably not a single great power remaining in the region.  The states traditionally at the core of Arab power politics — Egypt, Syria, and Iraq — are all flat on their backs, torn by political failure and societal division and unable to play any kind of meaningful role. Qatar learned the limits of buying loyalty through unlimited cash, influencing mass publics through al-Jazeera and working with Islamist networks. It  suffered a fierce regional backlash from competitors in the Gulf and resentful forces in the targeted countries which probably contributed to the deposing of the emir and his foreign policy mastermind. Saudi Arabia wants to lead a reinvigorated alliance of Gulf Cooperation Council states and weak, dependent allies such as Jordan and Egypt. But its failures in Syria have already shown the limits of its money and sectarian incitement, and its bid for regional leadership is likely to follow the same trajectory as Qatar’s”.

He ends the piece “The power failure is even more graphically clear at the level of domestic politics.  Almost every state in the region is suffering from some degree of debilitating state incapacity, political gridlock, and governance failure”.

5,000 troops?

28/10/2013

After months of  tense negotiations over the size and role of a postwar presence in Afghanistan,  senior North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials say they are planning a  more minimalist mission, with a force consisting of fewer combat trainers and  more military managers to ensure that billions of dollars in security aid are  not squandered or pilfered. The shrinking ambitions for the postwar mission  reflect fears that the United States Congress and European parliaments might  cancel their financial commitments – amounting to more than $4 billion a year,  the largest single military assistance program in the world – unless American  and NATO troops are positioned at Afghan military and police headquarters to  oversee how the money is spent in a country known for rampant corruption… NATO  has endorsed an enduring presence of 8,000 to 12,000 troops, with two-thirds  expected to be American. That is well below earlier recommendations by  commanders, but senior alliance officials say larger numbers are unnecessary  given the more limited goals now being set by political leaders”.

Francis’ collegial style

26/10/2013

In what is a sign of the governance style of Pope Francis, the controversry of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg

Rocco reports that “Saying Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst ‘cannot, at the present moment, continue to exercise his episcopal ministry’ after months of embarrassing revelations on the prelate’s lavish spending for a new diocesan compound, while it was anything but surprising that Rome moved yesterday to depressurise the fraught situation in Limburg, the solution reached was a remarkable departure from the standard course of action. Instead of accepting the 53 year-old prelate’s resignation or announcing his forced removal from office, the Vatican instead relayed that Tebartz-van Elst was being ‘authorized’ to spend ‘a period outside the diocese,’ pending the outcome of an investigation by the German bishops’ conference”.

Rocco goes on to mention that “In addition, ‘by decision of the Holy See,’ a new vicar-general previously named by the embattled prelate and scheduled to take office in January was placed in post immediately to oversee the diocese in the absence of the so-called “luxury bishop.” With some 700,000 Catholics, the Limburg church encompasses the far larger city of Frankfurt and much of its sprawling metro area”.

Rocco cites the spending of the prelate such as $475,000 on walk-in closets and $20,000 on a bathtub. Yet, what is most important is, as he notes ” the Vatican’s handling of the fallout is extraordinary on several fronts. First, because it precisely isn’t the “suspension” that has been widely misreported – indeed, the move is not a formal canonical act of any kind – but likewise as it’s a substantive instance of the intended fresh push for collegiality by Pope Francis. In other words, far from derailing a locally-called probe to impose a definitive, permanent resolution from on high, the Holy See has indicated that, in essence, the final verdict on Tebartz-van Elst’s future lies with his confreres at home.”

He goes on to make the point that “with the former president of an episcopal conference having ascended to the papacy for the first time, the role and influence of the national bodies is expected to markedly increase under Francis. In that light, the two-tiered response on Limburg – with most of the action being driven from outside the Vatican – could be a sign of things to come as similar cases arise elsewhere”.
Yet, at the same time as Francis is being collegial, he is quite prepared to use the power of the papacy as he sees fit, “it’s not that Rome has exerted no authority in the matter – only the Pope can order a bishop to cool his heels, and for the Holy See to strongarm the appointment of a diocesan official is practically unheard of. Yet even on the latter front, the customary protocol that’d see the pontiff parachute in an apostolic administrator – a figure enjoying the full authority of the bishop for a temporary period (and something that can be done even when a diocese is not vacant) – has been disregarded in favor of a strictly local arrangement”.

He goes on to make the point that a vicar general “has only a limited, day-to-day purview normally contingent on the bishop, Tebartz-van Elst’s chosen deputy, Wolfgang Rösch, would be unable, for example, to U-turn the controversial building project with its €31 million (US$43 million) price-tag”.

What would normally happen is that Tebartz-van Elst would “retire” early and would to that end spend some time outside the diocese until a new bishop was chosen and ordained and had settled into the role. Then after a suitable time had elapsed the old bishop would return to a parish.
Alternatively, the offending bishop would be given a non job in Rome, such as delegate or vice-president. The other solution to such matters would be that the bishop would remain in office but would be forbidden from having any control over money. There is a precedent for this. In the 1980s then Bishop Donald Wuerl was appointed auxiliary bishop of Seattle but had power over annulments, liturgy, clergy appointments and education, moral issues in health
care institutions. In truth this was simply a way of saving face for the incumbent ordinary. Wurel effectively ran the diocese of Seattle until he resigned in 1987 and was transferred to Pittsburgh a year later.

Rocco, on a wider note mentions that Joachim Cardinal Meisner will turn 80 in a few months, well past the retirement age of 75 and his ” well-delayed succession believed to be soon in the offing”. There is some discussion that Archbishop Georg Ganswein, prefect of the Pontifical Household would be appointed to the role but talk has faded since he was confirmed in his post. Other candidates whom Pope Francis may wish to leave Rome is Bishop Josef Clemens, 66, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

Rocco concludes, “Given the new Pope’s concerted emphasis on a “poor church for the poor,” the selection of Meisner’s replacement in the super-flush Cologne church provides Bergoglio with a key opportunity to translate his priorities into the realm of policy as only his appointments can flesh out”.

“In next year’s midterm elections”

26/10/2013

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said  the troubled rollout of ObamaCare’s enrollment website, which has frustrated  thousands trying to enter the site and bruised the administration, won’t hurt  Democrats in next year’s midterm elections. “Democrats will run on the Affordable Care Act and win,” Wasserman Schultz said. Speaking to reporters after an address to the DNC’s Women Leadership Forum on  Friday, Wasserman Schultz said the law will help the party with female voters  because of the benefits women will receive under the healthcare law”.

“Pakistan’s tacit approval”

26/10/2013

What was reported some months ago has now been confirmed. Pakistan allowed US drone flights into its airspace.

An article in the Washington Post notes that “Despite repeatedly denouncing the CIA’s drone campaign, top officials in Pakistan’s government have for years secretly endorsed the program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts, according to top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos obtained by The Washington Post. The files describe dozens of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal region and include maps as well as before-and-after aerial photos of targeted compounds over a four-year stretch from late 2007 to late 2011 in which the campaign intensified dramatically”.

The piece goes on to note crucially, “Pakistan’s tacit approval of the drone program has been one of the more poorly kept national security secrets in Washington and Islamabad. During the early years of the campaign, the CIA even used Pakistani airstrips for its Predator fleet. But the files expose the explicit nature of a secret arrangement struck between the two countries at a time when neither was willing to publicly acknowledge the existence of the drone program. The documents detailed at least 65 strikes in Pakistan and were described as “talking points” for CIA briefings, which occurred with such regularity that they became a matter of diplomatic routine. The documents are marked “top ­secret” but cleared for release to Pakistan. A CIA spokesman declined to discuss the documents but did not dispute their authenticity”.

The report goes on to mention that “The files serve as a detailed timeline of the CIA drone program, tracing its evolution from a campaign aimed at a relatively short list of senior al-Qaeda operatives into a broader aerial assault against militant groups with no connection to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The records also expose the distrust and dysfunction that has afflicted U.S.-Pakistani relations even amid the undeclared collaboration on drone strikes”.

It goes on to add “the documents also reveal a major shift in the CIA’s strategy in Pakistan as it broadened the campaign beyond “high-value” al-Qaeda targets and began firing missiles at gatherings of low-level fighters. The files trace the CIA’s embrace of a controversial practice that came to be known as “signature strikes,” approving targets based on patterns of suspicious behavior detected from drone surveillance cameras and ordering strikes even when the identities of those to be killed weren’t known”. The piece shows the extent of the co-operation between America and Pakistan, “Several of the files are labeled as “talking points” prepared for the DDCIA, which stands for deputy director of the CIA. Michael J. Morell, who held that position before retiring this year, delivered regular briefings on the drone program to Husain Haqqani, who was the Pakistani ambassador to the United States at the time. The CIA also shared maps and photographs of drone operations in Pakistan that have not previously been shown publicly. The maps contain simplistic illustrations, including orange flame emblems to mark locations of strikes. The photos show before-and-after scenes of walled compounds and vehicles destroyed by Hellfire missiles, some marked with arrows to identify bodies amid the rubble”.

Reports by the BBC note that “Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif has told President Obama the US should halt drone strikes in Pakistan, a critical source of tension in the relationship. The two leaders held wide-ranging talks at the White House on Wednesday, pledging to strengthen the often-strained ties between the nations. The leaders also discussed tension between Pakistan and India over the disputed Kashmir region. Mr Obama said the US and Pakistan remained important strategic partners”.

Whether this is genuine or simply for show as usual is too soon to tell. What is clear is that America and Pakistan both need each other on a host of issues. So the relationship will continue to work as it is in the interests of both nations.

“The bilateral security agreement”

26/10/2013

President Hamid Karzai has met with a senior American politician, Senator Carl Levin, who chairs the US Senate Armed Services Committee. The Karzai Office in a statement said Thursday’s meeting that took place at the Presidential Palace in Kabul focused on the bilateral security agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and the US and relations between the two countries. After claiming progress on some contentious issues regarding the BSA, Afghanistan and the US have agreed that a final decision whether to approve the security deal should come from a consultative Loya Jirga to be held in late November”.

“The United States could export”

26/10/2013
In light of the increasing potential of the United States in the energy market, both domestically and internationlly.  An article in Foreign Affairs by Edward Morse and Amy Jaffe discuss the role of energy in the future of America.
They write, “As the production of unconventional oil and gas in the United States rises — and as the United States increasingly exports that energy — the world’s economic map will be forever changed. The power of today’s petro states, such as Iran and Russia, will continue to wane. More and more, the United States will be the stable, competitive source of choice for gasoline, diesel, natural gas liquids, and, soon, liquefied natural gas (LNG). In the past two years, the United States has licensed four terminals for exporting LNG, mostly to countries with which it has no free trade agreement, such as Japan and various Latin American and European countries. By 2020, the United States could export as much as 61.7 million tons per year of LNG. That would make the United States the second-largest LNG exporter in the world, next to Qatar. Other deals in the licensing queue are likely to push the total closer to 80 million tons per year, compared to Qatar’s current total of 77”.
They go on to make the interesting point that “Not everyone is pleased with the coming export boom: domestic petrochemical manufacturers believe that the United States is in danger of exposing itself to global energy price volatility. But nothing could be further from the truth. Although there is some potential for that, the United States and the world have much more to gain — in economic and geopolitical terms — from expanding U.S. energy exports. The United States should thus embrace the role of energy exporter and think carefully about how to maximize the potential rewards”.
The scale of what has happened is revealed when they write that “the shale revolution in North America, which has taken U.S. oil production from barely five million barrels per day prior to the 2007–8 financial crisis to almost 7.7 million barrels per day by the end of August this year. The increased production in the last few years alone amounts to three times the total oil production that has been lost to world supply as a direct result of Arab Spring violence in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. Add to that other hydrocarbons (U.S. natural gas production increased from 55 to 65 billion cubic feet per day), and Saudi Arabia’s own increase in output by two million barrels per day, and lost oil production in Iran no longer matters that much”.
They argue that “So far, long-standing antipathy between Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the close U.S.-Saudi security relationship have weighed against a major Arab-Russian coalition on energy. But changing circumstances could push them together. Reportedly, Saudi Arabia has already made overtures to Russia about building an energy coalition. Media reports vary on the content of Riyadh’s proposal to Moscow, which was meant to push Russia to end its support of Syria and Iran. But the important thing is that the gambit will not be the last”.
They add that “The best way to nip a Russian-Arab coalition in the bud is to promote open energy export. U.S. oil and gas should go where there is a profit incentive and where it can take advantage of U.S. antitrust restrictions. Even if Japan is willing to pay a security premium, for example, U.S. sellers should base their prices on the competition’s; they must charge what the market can bear, but not, unlike OPEC, set political target prices and then cut export sales to realise those prices. Luckily, there is no reason to believe that U.S. oil companies won’t operate in this way — since they already are driven by private shareholders and U.S. antitrust enforcement”.
They go on to write that “The consequences of this energy independence is “The result of a free energy trade policy could be an extraordinary uplift in U.S. power and influence well into the twenty-first century. Its long-standing vision of free trade, open global investment, and capital flows, which were somewhat battered by the 2007-8 financial crisis, will recover. After 40 years of politicized oil and gas markets following the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, the U.S. vision of a depoliticized free trade world is suddenly possible again — at least for the energy sector, which is by far the largest sector of the global economy in terms of volume and value”.
OIL WITHOUT POLITICS
They go on to write “Barriers to open trade and investment in energy have long dogged the United States and the global economy. For example, there is no doubt that at least some of the rapid increase in world energy prices between 2005 and 2008 was the result of insufficient investment in oil and gas production in the Middle East, Russia, and, to some extent, in China. In most cases, underinvestment was intentional, to slow production growth in order to influence global energy prices. But now, India, China, Norway, and Mexico have started encouraging their national oil companies to invest in shale plays in the United States, and others from the Middle East and Russia are taking a hard look. They are looking to bring U.S. supplies and technology home to make themselves better able to tap into their own unconventional resources”.
They conclude the piece “U.S. LNG exports are just the first step in removing the politics from global hydrocarbon trade, since what is unfolding in global gas markets could also unfold for global oil markets. And with light sweet crude becoming superabundant on the U.S. Gulf Coast, exports of oil are bound to become a hot topic a year from now. With that in mind, the United States should think carefully about the kind of exporter it wants to be, promoting free trade and investment wherever possible, with no political strings attached. Undoubtedly, as shale gas and shale oil bring down energy prices for the world as a whole, countries that depend on hydrocarbon revenue will need to adjust. Although difficult, that adjustment will ultimately leave them better off as they free themselves from the natural resource curse of corruption and violence. As protests across the Middle East have so dramatically shown, the current energy economy has not produced successful and politically sustainable societies in the oil-rich developing world. One hopes that the United States–led energy economy will do better”.

An empty gesture

26/10/2013

Brazil and Germany today joined forces to press for the adoption of a U.N. General Resolution that promotes the right of privacy on the internet, marking the first major international effort to restrain the National Security Agency’s intrusions into the online communications of foreigners, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the push. The effort follows a German claim that the American spy agency may have tapped the private telephone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and dozens of other world leaders. It also comes about one month after Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff denounced NSA espionage against her country as “a breach of international law” in a General Assembly speech and proposed that the U.N. establish legal guidelines to prevent “cyberspace from being used as a weapon of war.”

Little they can do

24/10/2013

A follow up article has been written about the US-Saudi relationship. Some have, shortsightedly argued that the relationship is crumbling.

However, some have taken a different arguement. That the Saudi’s may be unhappy with US current policies but this is not a threat to the relationship and there is little the Saudis can do to change it. He writes, “Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, is venting to journalists and foreign diplomats about his irritation at feckless Obama administration policies in the Middle East, ominously suggesting his country is at the point of making a “major shift” away from the United States. Prince Turki al-Faisal, former director of Saudi intelligence, joined in with an address to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations”.

He goes on to make the point “The Saudi complaints include not attacking Syria, not providing weapons and support to Syrian rebels, American support for the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, U.S. cuts of assistance to the military that overthrew that government, and a lack of consultation on negotiations with Iran. The Saudis are not alone, of course, in their criticism. Every country in the region is exasperated, as are many Americans. As former Centcom commander Jim Mattis so memorably put it, “I defy anyone to tell me what U.S. strategy is in the Middle East.” But the Saudis’ unhappiness is not proof that U.S. policies are wrong. Obama administration policies are wrong, but not in the ways or for the reasons the Saudis excoriate them. And bringing U.S. policies into alignment with Saudi Arabia is likely to create a Middle East even less in America’s interests than the Obama administration’s bungling has. Saudi Arabia wants a very different Middle East than we do”.

He describes what the Saudi’s could do “Would the Saudis unleash jihadists in Syria? There is precedent from Afghanistan in the 1980s. But the Saudis are themselves as much at risk as we are from that scourge, and since the attacks in 2005, they know it and have stepped up their domestic efforts against radical Islamists. More likely is a misperception by the Saudis that they can control rebels in Syria, an eventuality that would cause problems for the United States — but the country is likely to incur those problems whether or not Saudi succor is the instigation. The Saudis might discontinue or curtail intelligence and anti-terrorism cooperation. That is a serious threat to American security. But again, the Saudis are at risk and need U.S. intelligence as much as the United States needs theirs. Moreover, recent cooperation is the exception; more frequent has been limited cooperation while the Saudis fund activity we feel threatened by” he goes on to add that “The Saudi equivalent of a nuclear option is the price of oil, something the Saudis have been very helpful with in recent years. As Meghan O’Sullivan convincingly argues, their ability to do so is declining, and any sudden moves to impose costs will benefit Iran and stimulate non-OPEC suppliers, including the United States itself”.

He ends the piece “Too often, though, the U.S. assessment of enemy action overlooks that the United States, too, has choices to make that can impose costs: Without American intelligence, the GCC states would be subject to Iranian military harassment and less able to manage domestic extremists, and without American military support, they’d be substantially more vulnerable to a nuclear-armed Iran. And if there’s one red line that President Obama has made credible, it’s his willingness to abandon countries relying on American assistance”.

“Targeting Christians in Cario”

24/10/2013

Egyptian police are searching for an armed man who killed three people at a church wedding, in the first attack targeting Christians in Cairo since the overthrow of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. An eight-year-old girl was among those killed at the Church of the Virgin in Cairo’s working-class neighbourhood of Al-Warrak while 18 others were wounded in late Sunday’s attack, officials said”. The piece adds “Copts have long complained of discrimination and marginalisation, particularly under Morsi’s one-year rule. Rights groups say that Copts have come under attack mainly in the provinces of Minya and Assiut in central Egypt”.

“With modest international support”

24/10/2013

Former Undersecretary of Defence for Policy, Michele Flournoy, has written an article urging America to remain engaged with Afghanistan in the months and years ahead. The article comes at a time when Dr Ash Carter is leaving DoD and Ms Flournoy is among the candidates being considered.

She writes “Afghanistan has come a long way since the United States and its allies arrived in the country 12 years ago. Daunting challenges remain, but it is a far cry from the failed state and terrorist hideout it was in 2001. Doom-and-gloom press prognostications of an inevitable post-2014 return to Taliban tyranny do not reflect the realities on the ground. The fact is that Afghanistan has a solid chance of becoming significantly more stable, productive, and self-sustaining”.

She goes on to write “Abandoning Afghanistan now would squander the significant investments and sacrifices the United States and its partners have made there, including the sacrifices still borne by many U.S. service members and their families. The scale of the investments needed over the next few years pale in comparison with the magnitude of the earlier ones, which have enabled the Afghan government and its police and military forces to degrade the Taliban-led insurgency and build the country’s institutions and economy”.

She mentions that huge progress has been made “Underlying our confidence is an appreciation of how much Afghanistan has changed for the better. Living standards have improved dramatically across most of the country. Significant advances have taken place in agriculture and healthcare. An unprecedented 8.2 million children and young people, four million of them young women and girls, are now in school in Afghanistan, and 180,000 of them are in university classes”.

The piece adds that “The Taliban insurgency will not overrun Afghanistan’s central government so long as the United States and its partners continue to support the Afghan government and its military and security forces as planned. Some 80 percent of the population is now largely protected from Taliban violence, which has increasingly been confined to the country’s more remote regions. The major cities and transportation routes are now secured by the Afghan security forces rather than by foreign troops”.

It concludes, “True, these would be immense achievements for any poor, remote, war-torn country, but this vision is not beyond the reach of Afghanistan, with modest international support. Given all that we have achieved together and all that we have sacrificed together, it would be worse than foolhardy to short change this future now. It would be tragic”.

Yet this image belies the fact that the country faces huge problems including the endless drug problem as well as a almost non existent domestic economy. This economy will become much worse after America leaves with no need for the thousands of Afghanis now with good English and wholly dependent on America for their living wage. The country has a good strategtic location and mineral wealth that if used properly could make the country more stable and secure. However, as with much of the problems with Afghanistan the problem is how far Pakistan, both officially and unofficially is willing to engage to secure a stable Afghanistan.

“Including a brother”

24/10/2013

“More than half of Afghanistan’s presidential candidates were disqualified by the country’s electoral body Tuesday, although major power players and regional strongmen, including a brother of President Hamid Karzai, remain on the list for the April vote. Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, the head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), said dual citizenship and lack of enough voters’ signatures were among the reasons the IEC removed 16 candidates from the list. Each candidate had been required to collect 100,000 signatures from would-be voters representing all of the country’s 34 provinces. A successful election is viewed as a key test of Afghanistan’s progress since the Taliban’s ouster in late 2001 by U.S.-backed forces. The vote will be held as U.S. and NATO forces ramp up their withdrawal from the country, which is grappling with a resurgence by the militant organization”.

Obama meeting Maliki

22/10/2013

President Obama will meet the Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki next month.

An article says that this is the moment Iraq will either rise to the challenges it faces or return to the past. He writes “Iraq’s fate matters not only because of the thousands of Americans and reportedly half-million Iraqis who died in the course of a decade of war. Iraq stands at the heart of the Gulf’s tenuous balance of power, sharing long borders with Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Its viciously renewed insurgency already represents one of the most devastating spillover effects of Syria’s war. And as a Shiite-ruled semi-democratic Arab state, it crosses three of the starkest lines dividing today’s Middle East: Sunnis against Shiites, monarchies against would-be democracies, and the Gulf Cooperation Council against Iran. Without a new sense of urgency, the White House meeting will likely cover little more than platitudes about the reinvigoration of the long-neglected Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) promising cultural, economic, and political relations, which was negotiated between the two countries in 2008 alongside the deal that facilitated America’s military withdrawal. That was the topic of August’s meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. The SFA certainly is important as a vehicle for building some kind of normal and positive relations out of the wreckage of a decade of war and occupation. And it is clear that Maliki has some things in mind that he’d like from Washington, such as renewed intelligence sharing and the delivery of arms systems”.

He goes on to write “empty discussions of the SFA can’t be the only thing Washington gets out of Maliki’s November visit. It should be a vehicle for Maliki and President Barack Obama to have a frank talk about Iraq’s domestic political crisis and its potential role in a changing regional order. Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, recently told a Washington audience that his primary message to America is that Baghdad could be a reliable ally in a turbulent region. Such an ally is sorely needed”.

He adds later in the piece that Shia dominance might be coming to an end, “The harvest of his exclusionary politics has been long months of sustained Sunni protest, renewed insurgency, and an increasing perception that the country is coming apart at the seams. A dramatic increase in violent deaths has driven a widely held fear that Iraq is unraveling and that the fire is again burning. The perverse consequence of this year’s growing violence and political crisis could finally be that the carnage is finally enough to push him to such belated, reluctant concessions. His own political survival instincts, not American leverage, might finally bring him around”.

He end the piece noting that “Iraq’s internal polarisation has been inflamed by the regional environment, of course. The Gulf regimes and individuals funding and supporting the armed insurgency in Syria have taken a similarly dim view of Maliki and have reacted with fury to his perceived support for the Assad regime. For years, they had viewed Iraq’s government through a hard sectarian lens and disparaged Maliki as an Iranian puppet. Iraq’s tolerance of Iranian resupply overflights to Damascus and ambivalent attitude toward the Assad regime made things worse”.

He concludes “The tantalising prospect of a U.S.-Iranian political bargain, however remote such a deal may seem, should also be a key part of the new dialogue with Iraq. There are few countries that would benefit more from a cordial working relationship between Iran and the United States. While it hasn’t often felt like it, Iraq still represents a natural potential bridge between Iran and the United States, and the greatest potential challenge to the alarming regional sectarian division along Sunni-Shiite lines. The United States has a profound interest in seeing Iraq break its vicious cycle of sectarian polarisation, autocratic entrenchment, and insurgency”.

However a deal between Iraq and America can only be concluded if it is in Iraq’s interests. With Iran showing signs of becoming less hostile, Iraq, given some incentives could follow the same path.

Arrested again

22/10/2013

Pakistan rearrested former president Pervez Musharraf on Thursday after accusations that he was personally responsible for the deaths of more than 100 people when he ordered commandos to storm the Red Mosque in 2007. The operation at the radical mosque in the capital of Islamabad followed a week-long standoff between the mosque’s supporters and security forces. The rearrest came after Musharraf had been granted bail in three other cases and his lawyer said on Wednesday he was cleared to leave the country. A complaint against Musharraf in the Red Mosque case was registered last month on the orders of a judge. Police superintendent Mohammed Rizwan said Musharraf had been accused but not formally charged. Musharraf, then head of the army, took power in a 1999 coup but was ousted by popular protests led by the country’s judiciary. He went into exile in 2008 but returned earlier this year in an abortive attempt to launch a political career”.

Temporary strain

22/10/2013
An  interesting article discusses US-Saudi relations in light of their rejection of a UN Security Council seat.
The piece begins, “the United States has increasingly pursued a foreign policy at odds with its Persian Gulf ally, scaling back assistance to the Saudi-backed Egyptian military, abruptly dropping its plans to attack Syria despite Saudi support, and entering into a new round of nuclear talks with the kingdom’s  regional rival, Iran. According to U.N. diplomats and officials, the Security Council move merely reflected the Saudis’ deeper anxiety over the course of American diplomacy in the Middle East”,
He writes that “Riyadh and Washington have been bound by a basic tradeoff: America guarantees protection from potential predators in the region, while Saudi Arabia supplies the lifeblood –relatively inexpensive oil”, yet some have argued implictly that this deal is changing, others have said that America needs to be more engaged in the region, not less, as a result of its energy independence.
However, the fundamentals of the US-Saudi relationship remain the same. Some of the current events have not been accepted equally by both parties as one would expect but the same deal, security for oil remains the same. The crisis in Syria will eventually pass, although America should intervene as it said it would and similarly, the Saudi’s could come around to a US deal with Iran if one does happen and most of the terms are agreed to and the nuclear issue is finally resolved peacefully. It would put the Saudi-Iranian relationship on a more stable footing which would naturally help the region as a whole.
The article goes on to mention “When the U.S. threatened to withhold financial assistance from Egypt’s generals following their overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, the Saudi king held a fundraising campaign — undercutting U.S. diplomatic efforts to negotiate a political settlement between the generals and Morsy’s government. As Secretary of State John Kerry applies pressure on the Syrian National Council to talk with the Bashar al-Assad regime, the Saudis have sent precisely the opposite messages to the rebels they’re funding. The Saudis, have resisted attempts by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to visit and have applied little pressure on its allies within the Syrian opposition, according to U.N.-based diplomats”.
He writes that “In protest, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief announced that Riyadh will dial back  cooperation with Washington to train  and equip Syrian rebels. “Our interests increasingly don’t align,” a U.S. official told the paper”.
The article adds “that the Saudi reliance on jihadists to pursues its goal of unseating Assad risks further fracturing the Saudis’ relations with the United States, which he added, may eventually view the Saudi-backed jihadists as a greater threat than even Assad. Some regional specialists say that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia relationship is too important for both sides not to find a way to overcome their current differences. Indeed, even as U.S. and Saudi officials differ over the approach to regional security, American arms deal continue apace, including this recent U.S. dealto sell $460 million in cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia” but it goes on to say that “
He ends the piece “The Saudi action has left the U.N. in something of a quandary. On Saturday, the U.N. Arab Group, which includes all the U.N.’s Arab governments, issued an appeal to Saudi Arabia to reconsider its decision and take up the seat. “They could simply leave the seat vacant by not showing up. That would allow them to show up at any time in the future during the two year membership on the Security Council,” said one senior U.N.-based official. “Or they could inform the GA president that they are withdrawing, prompting a new election. Who knows what the king (and it must be the king) is thinking.” Today, however, Arab governments appeared to have had a change of heart, expressing support for the Saudi decision. Others say the Saudis may be overplaying their hand”.

Ready to lift

22/10/2013

The Obama administration said Monday it’s ready to “quickly” lift sanctions  on Iran if the country answers the international community’s concerns about its  nuclear program. The comments on the eve of new negotiations in Geneva are at odds with the  position of many lawmakers of both parties in Congress, who want to increase — not decrease — the pressure on Iran.

End of the golden age

20/10/2013

The end of the BRICs economically could be approaching fast. Two authors write that “A decade-long economic growth spurt in emerging markets, averaging 6.9 percent annually between 2003 and 2012, pulled an estimated 300 million people out of poverty. During the same period, the developed world grew just 1.3 percent per year, as it was beset by financial crises and a loss of competitiveness. As a result, 2013 will be the first year in which emerging markets, led by Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the BRICs), account for over half of world GDP on the basis of purchasing power. Looked at another way, these markets’ share of the global economy has steadily increased by nearly 1 percent on average for each of the past 20 years — a remarkable achievement”.

They go on to argue that “many investors are starting to ask whether this golden age of emerging-markets growth is now over. Growth has slowed dramatically in recent years, especially in some larger emerging markets. In 2013, for instance, the BRICs are projected to have grown at roughly half the pace they did in 2007. Although emerging markets as a group are forecast to grow by a respectable 5 percent this year, twice the pace of developed economies, the overall slowdown has disappointed investors. This BRICs-led slowdown can also be seen in the performance of equities. From the beginning of 2002 to their post-financial crisis peak in April 2011, emerging markets’ equities, as measured by the Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI) Emerging Markets Index, gained 280 percent. Developed-market equities, as measured by the MSCI World Index, gained just 36 percent during the same period. Since then, however, emerging markets have lost 17 percent of their value while developed markets have gained 14 percent. This too has spooked investors, even though recent decades have shown that there is little direct correlation between growth and stock market returns”.

They add that importantly, “the recession in most emerging markets has had a V-shape, with a steep decline but quick recovery. Emerging markets are, on the whole, further advanced in their economic cycle at this point. Thus, their short-term growth is now tapering off for normal business-cycle reasons. Beyond this impact of the business cycle, however, there are four deeper causes behind emerging markets’ diminished growth. The first cause is known among economists as the middle-income trap. Now that economies like China and Brazil have grown to reach middle-income status, the competitiveness catch-up of the last decade is leveling off. Further dramatic gains relative to developed economies will be harder to achieve. Overall, the world has less catch-up potential than it used to, because its most populous countries are no longer so poor. The second cause is a reversal in the competitive edge. In fact, in terms of competitiveness, OECD countries have been gaining on emerging markets. There are several game-changers behind this development: Shale gas has made energy not only more ubiquitous but dramatically cheaper as a cost of manufacturing, especially in energy-intensive industries and starting in the United States. The wage gap has narrowed, with wages from China to Turkey escalating rapidly. At the same time, the Great Recession has kept labor costs in check in developed economies. Costs have also been diminished thanks to breakthroughs in manufacturing, such as the use of cheaper, more versatile robots, 3-D printing, and laser cutting. Moreover, research and development discoveries in nanotechnology and biomanufacturing, combined with the mapping of the human genome, are yielding new materials, foods, and medicines. This has further sharpened developed economies’ competitive edge”.

They argue that “A third reason for the slowdown in emerging markets’ growth is political uncertainty. At first glance, the protests witnessed in the past year in Turkey, Egypt, Brazil, and Indonesia all have specific domestic causes. But they also have deeper, shared roots: Growth in these economies can no longer keep pace with popular aspirations that were raised during the previous boom period. Better communications technology and broader movements of young people — for example, to study abroad — have made it easier to compare living standards and career prospects and to blame governments for a failure to offer comparable opportunities”.

Rejecting a seat

20/10/2013

Saudi Arabia stunned the United Nations and even some of its own diplomats on Friday by rejecting a highly coveted seat on the Security Council, a decision that underscored the depth of Saudi anger over what the monarchy sees as weak and conciliatory Western stances toward Syria and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. The Saudi decision, which could have been made only with King Abdullah’s approval, came a day after it had won a Security Council seat for the first time, and it appeared to be unprecedented.  The Saudi Foreign Ministry released a statement rejecting the seat just hours after the kingdom’s own diplomats — both at the United Nations and in Riyadh, the Saudi capital — were celebrating their new seat, the product of two years of work to assemble a crack diplomatic team in New York. Some analysts said the sudden turnabout gave the impression of a self-destructive temper tantrum”.

Domestic understretch

20/10/2013

James Traub has written a piece on the consequences of the shutdown for America and the world. Traub begins his article arguing that “Americans will find themselves witnessing the same melodrama in three months unless Congress agrees on a long-term fiscal plan, which seems, to put it gently, damn unlikely. For another, Americans have been stumbling in a fog of their own devising for the last generation or so. The end is not nigh; but the decline is”.

He goes on to say the far from overstretch as in Paul Kennedy’s book he writes that “That feels like the wrong diagnosis. First of all, unrestrained defense spending in the aftermath of 9/11 has not come close to bankrupting the United States, though it has certainly squandered precious resources. Second, Americans have contracted a severe case of indigestion from President George W. Bush’s vain attempt to swallow significant portions of the Middle East; they are now spitting out the remnants. Empire is an unnatural condition for the United States, and withdrawal to its continental fortress is an almost inevitable response to fears of overstretch. If anything, it is the new national suspicion of engagement, the mood of sullen disenchantment, that marks the country’s decline. Americans don’t want to shoulder the burdens of global leadership; they want the world, along with its demands, to go away”.

He is certainly correct in saying that America’s military buildup did not bankrupt America but he is incorrect in pointing the figure at President Bush in the “attempt to swallow significant portions of the Middle East”, whatever that means. President Clinton was happy to use American power in Somalia, Haiti, and Serbia but paid little heed to the embassy bombings, the attack on the USS Cole or a host of other terrorist attacks that should have warned him of something to come. Instead he did nothing. If President Bush went too far in an attempt to overcorrect for Clinton’s mistakes than so be it but to bemoan the fact when his predcessor did so little seems, at best, unfair.

Traub is right to say that empire in unnatural for America but he overestimates the power of isolationism in the body politic, and more importantly beyond it, with current with blowhards like Cruz and Paul sucking up the most media attention. However, like most things when the economy improves the desire to pull up the rope ladder will, thankfully become considerably less.

He adds that “We need a word more like “understretch” to describe the national condition. The problem does not lie with too-muchness abroad but with too-littleness at home. And the source of the problem is not an overambitious state but an implacable hostility to the operations of the state. Kennedy also writes that while America’s laissez-faire culture and economy make it better able to adjust to rapid change than are more dirigiste societies, doing so ‘depends upon the existence of a national leadership which can understand the larger processes at work in the world today.’ The deliberations of Congress — not just in recent days but in recent years — vividly show the danger of wrongheaded leadership”.

This is undoutbedly true. He goes on to make the valid point that “The near default, the shutdown of the government, the sequestration of budget funds — these are just the latest symptoms of a political, but also psychological, disease. The leadership of the Republican Party– and not just the Tea Party faction — believes that the federal government is bad. It has believed that at least since Newt Gingrich overthrew the party’s moderate leadership in 1994. In 2012, Mitt Romney, a Republican centrist, ran for president on a platform that would have reduced federal spending to 20 percent of GDP, 2 percentage points lower than it was during the time of small-government apostle Ronald Reagan — even though Medicare costs were a small fraction then of what they are today. (Matt Miller of the Washington Post has long been an eloquent voice on this madness, as for example here.) To accommodate deep tax cuts, Romney would have eliminated much of the federal government beyond the Pentagon. That is now the orthodoxy of one of America’s two political parties. Meanwhile, the United States is falling behind in crucial areas where it led not long ago. The national store of human capital is diminishing as average rates of literacy and numerical understanding plummet in comparison with rates in other countries, as a recent OECD report demonstrated. A smaller percentage of Americans now both attend and graduate from college than in many Western countries. Crumbling infrastructure increases transaction costs; just compare the trip to JFK airport to the commute to almost any other global airport. The United States still leads the world in spending on research and development, but China has closed much of a formerly immense gap, and many countries now spend more as a percentage of GDP”.

Traub does make the valid point that “The United States is losing its position of global leadership because it is refusing to make investments that its competitors are making. In this regard, congressional Republicans may have lost the battle, but they’ve won the war. President Barack Obama agreed to accept the massive tax cuts his predecessor instituted in order to conclude a budget deal in 2011; since then, he has played on the Republican side of the field. Obama has never found, and perhaps will never find, the language needed to convince Americans that they cannot offer decent prospects to their children without a drastic change in priorities”.

He concludes the piece “Historian Edward Gibbon argued that Rome ultimately fell for moral reasons — because an ethos of patriotism and civic virtue gave way to selfishness and apathy (and lost out to the otherworldly focus of Christianity). Americans from the time of George Washington have worried that citizens would sink into a Roman torpor. That hasn’t quite happened either; Americans remain wedded to their republican virtues. Yet they don’t believe in the United States as an ongoing national project as they once did. Perhaps extreme inequality has loosened the strong stays of shared purpose so that we are predisposed to believe that virtue resides only in the individual, not in the community or collective. Thus, we redistribute resources to the individual, which of course only reinforces inequality. We respond to leaders who address us as separate, indissoluble atoms. Gibbon, who distrusted democracy, would probably say that Americans have become too individualistic”.

If, and hopefully when, America leaves this phase in its history and becomes a political class that can work together then it can still accomplish much more than any of its supposed competitors or China.

Split with the leadership

20/10/2013

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) split with his party’s leadership and voted against  the Senate fiscal agreement Wednesday night. In a statement, Ryan called the legislation to reopen the government and lift  the debt ceiling “a missed opportunity” to reduce the federal debt. “To pay our bills today —- and to make sure we can pay our bills tomorrow -— we must make a down payment on the debt,” Ryan said. “Today’s legislation won’t  help us reduce our fast-growing debt. In fact, it could extend the debt ceiling  well into next year, further delaying any action. In my judgment, this isn’t a  breakthrough. We’re just kicking the can down the road.” Ryan worked closely with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to help craft the  House GOP’s strategy during the government shutdown. As chairman of the House  Budget Committee, Ryan will serve on a conference committee with Senate  Democrats that must report its budget plans by Dec. 13. But in voting against  the debt limit bill, he broke with Boehner and the entire senior GOP leadership  team, who supported the Senate bill.

Overtaking OPEC

18/10/2013

An article discusses the future of OPEC with reference to the increasing glut of energy in the United States by noted energy expert Edward Morse and Amy Jaffe.

It begins discussing the 1973 oil crisis, “on the 40th anniversary of the 1973 embargo, the United States has a historic opportunity to lead a counterrevolution against the energy world created by OPEC as innovation in the U.S. energy industry looks poised to end the decades-long, precarious “dependence on foreign oil.” Washington should seize the opportunity and push to democratise energy globally, just as its Silicon Valley giants have democratized information. In the run-up to 1973, two-thirds of global ownership of oil moved from the private sector of American and European companies to public-sector national oil companies. Rather than let the forces of supply and demand determine prices, post-1973, the lowest-cost oil producers, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran, artificially shut production and discouraged capital investment”.

They exxerate somewhat the negative consequences on the economies of oil producing countries, “Massive petrodollar inflows brought with them a new political paradigm of “rentier” patronage, characterized by financial excesses, corruption, repression, and billions of dollars in accumulated weapons purchases. Populations of oil-producing states, for the most part, are little better off today than in 1973. Many of the countries have been war-ravaged or riven by sectarian hatreds. And, even with decades of relatively high oil prices and associated worker remittances, most countries of the Middle East still see modest GDP per capita, below $30,000 person on a purchasing-power-parity basis. Deep income inequality means that much of the region’s population is in fact still living in poverty, even in places like Saudi Arabia. So it should be no surprise that 40 years after the 1973 embargo, citizens of the region are rising up against those who squandered their futures. Tired of waiting for the day when rising oil revenues would somehow magically bring back the promise of prosperity, youth are taking to thestreets; port and oil workers are mounting strikes; and jihadists are taking up arms to end the oil curse once and for all”.

However most interestingly they mention “as the United States becomes an energy exporter — at competitive prices — that should seal the deal. By providing ready alternatives to politicized energy supplies, the United States can use its influence to democratize global energy markets, much the way smartphone and social media technologies have ended the lock on information and communications by repressive governments and large multinational or state-run corporations. Abundant U.S. natural gas is just the first step. Booming domestic natural gas supplies have already displaced and defanged Russia’s and Iran’s grip on natural gas buyers. By significantly reducing American domestic requirements for imported liquefied natural gas (LNG), rising U.S. shale gas production has had the knock-on effect of increasing alternative LNG supplies to Europe, breaking down fixed pricing from entrenched monopolies. But this is just the beginning: Over the coming decade, the United States looks likely to overtake Russia and rival Qatar as a leading supplier of natural gas to international markets. The geopolitical role of U.S. natural gas surpluses in constraining Russia’s ability to use its energy as a wedge between the United States and its European and Asian allies should strengthen over time, to the extent that Barack Obama’s administration stays the course with approving the construction of LNG export terminals. American unconventional oil and gas plays from Texas to Pennsylvania are also generating new surpluses of natural gas liquids, which are increasingly exported as transportation fuel or petrochemical feedstock to Europe, Asia, and elsewhere”.

However for all the benefits of US energy independence some have argued that this will in effect mean greater US engagment in the region.

They go on to write “Middle East heavyweights like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran are losing their lock on remaining exploitable reserves, reducing their ability to band together and create artificial shortages. Already, Mexico and Argentina are reading the tea leaves and reversing protectionist resource nationalism policies, instead pushing through reforms to attract capital investment to their doorsteps. Abundant U.S. natural gas is also spawning new American-designed engine and modular fueling station technologies to readily use natural gas as a fuel in trucks, trains, and ships, ending oil’s monopoly in transport. Some 40 m b/d of the global 85 m b/d oil market is open for competition from natural gas– in the form of compressed natural gas for cars and buses, and LNG for heavy-duty vehicles and marine transportation. We conservatively expect at least 2 m b/d of currently projected oil demand to cede to natural gas by 2020, further weakening perspectives on future global oil-demand growth and once again chipping away at Middle Eastern influence”.

They end the piece “American innovation and exports of energy supply and technology will open global energy markets to competitive investments and consumer choice. But Washington needs to embrace this choice by resisting the call to continue to ban energy exports to protect vested business interests or for resource nationalistic reasons. Indeed, we need to reverse the mindset of the oil embargo years — a mindset of supply shortages and husbanding of resources — and move back to a more traditional promotion of free markets. The energy sector has done this in the trade of petroleum products, where the United States is simultaneously the world’s largest importer and exporter. The United States is heading in this same direction for trade in natural gas”.

“Hold a negative view”

18/10/2013

Support for the Tea Party has reached its lowest point ever, as a growing number of Republicans now hold a negative view of the movement, according to a  Pew survey released on Wednesday. Forty-nine percent of the public have a negative view of the Tea Party, up from 37 percent in June and nearly double from where it stood in the early days of the movement, the poll found. Only 30 percent said they have a favorable view of the Tea Party, down from 37  percent in June. While the Tea Party has long been viewed unfavorably by Democrats and  independents, the latest Pew survey found that Republicans have turned sharply  against the group. Only 27 percent of centrist and liberal Republicans view the  movement favorably, a 19-point drop from 46 percent in June”.

Islamist victory

18/10/2013

An article writes that the Islamists are winning in Syria but that this is not a wholly bad thing.

He writes “On Sept. 24, 11 of the rebels’ most powerful Islamist groups, including several FSA-affiliated brigades, pulled the rug from under the political opposition by signing a joint statement announcing that they do not recognize its National Coalition and affirming that they view Islamic law as the sole source of legislation. And on Sept. 29, at least 50 groups operating mainly around Damascus merged into Jaish al-Islam (“the Army of Islam”), thus undermining the FSA’s dominance in a part of the country where it had long been considered the strongest rebel force”.

He goes on to argue that “today, Salafi-leaning insurgents are the single most dominant force in liberated areas. Liwa al-Islam, which is the central player in the Army of Islam, now dwarfs both the FSA and radical militias such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, which long played a prominent role in the region. These groups had coordinated with each other through a Damascus military council, but Ahrar al-Sham pulled out of the council shortly after the merger, issuing an angry statement that criticized “the hegemony of certain factions and the exclusion of [other] effective ones.”  These developments, however, are not all bad news. The rise of Salafi-leaning rebel groups offers an opportunity to combat the real extremists — al Qaeda-linked groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which have recently started wreaking havoc in Syria’s north and east by fighting among themselves and against more moderate groups. Syria is no longer witnessing a struggle of moderates versus extremists, but of extremists versus both moderates and religious moderates. While recent developments are a setback for the FSA, they also have marginalized the truly radical factions.  Saudi Arabia appears to be central to the merger of rebel groups around Damascus. Liwa al-Islam chief Zahran Alloush is backed by Riyadh, while both Ahrar al-Sham, which is supported by Qatar, and Jabhat al-Nusra have been excluded from the new grouping. Although Liwa al-Islam had been part of the Saudi-backed FSA, the spokesman of the new grouping told an Arabic television channel that the Army of Islam is not part of the FSA. This is likely because the FSA has lost the trust of many rebel groups, and adopting a religious language will be more effective in countering the appeal of radical groups — which is what happened after the announcement of the merger, as various Islamists and moderate groups welcomed the move”.

However while this may be broadly accurate it is somewhat shortsighted as it ignores the link between the Salafi groups and the al-Qaeda related groups. While the link is not certain the danger is that the terrorist groups will eventually link up with, perhaps even collabarte with each other.

He goes on to write “The Saudi effort may just work: Significant grassroots hostility is building in liberated Syrian areas against foreign-funded extremists and al Qaeda affiliates. These tensions do not always develop into sustained clashes — for almost all rebel groups, toppling the regime is the priority, not fighting extremist forces, which have proved indispensable in the battlefield. According to an activist based in the northern city of Raqqa, when clashes eruptedbetween the al Qaeda-affiliated ISIS and Ahfad al-Rasoul in August, local residents threw their support behind one or the other side — but the strongest condemnation was for the infighting itself. “When they see the regime’s warplanes shelling the city without a single shot in their direction, they get angry at the fighters who could do something,” the activist explained. The size of extremist groups is not an accurate indicator of the support for their ideology within Syrian society. Fighting groups are also not ideologically homogenous, as many fighters join groups for their effectiveness on the battlefield and discipline — not their religious beliefs. Ahrar al-Sham members in Daraa, for example, can be remarkably different in terms of religiosity from members in more conservative northern areas such as Idlib or the Aleppo countryside”.

Yet this level of optomism is unwarrented as the terrorists could still gain the upper hand, irrespective of the “grassroots hostility” to them.

Still writing

18/10/2013

Pope Emeritus Benedict replies in a  letter to a journalist on a range of subjects, from evil, love, Jesus and child abuse.

Shutdown ends

18/10/2013

As usual, a last minute deal was struck in Congress between Republicans and Democrats that allowed the Federal Government to re-open and at the same time raised the borrowowing limit, until in early in the new year.

A piece from the Hill has reported that “President Obama signed into law a bipartisan deal approved by Congress to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, the White House said early Thursday morning.Hundreds of thousands of federal workers will return to their jobs on Thursday, and national parks and memorials shuttered for 16 days will reopen. Lawmakers voted just hours before the Oct. 17 deadline set by the Treasury Department for raising the borrowing limit.Congress moved Wednesday to end the government shutdown and prevent a possible default, as the House and Senate both approved a Senate-negotiated agreement in separate, bipartisan votes.The House voted 285-144 in favor of the bill, which would fund the government until Jan. 15 and raise the debt ceiling until Feb. 7. That followed an 81-18 Senate vote on the same measure”.

It goes on to mention that “Aside from easing the concerns on Wall Street, passage will give the two parties a framework for working together, at least for a few months. Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would hold a breakfast meeting on Thursday, the start of a budget conference that both chambers agreed to tonight. The deal also gives the Treasury Department the ability to borrow beyond the debt ceiling”.
The scale of the GOP loss became apparent when it mentions that “In the end, the only change to ObamaCare in the bill was a new process to verify the income claims of people applying for federal health insurance subsidies. Democrats viewed the concession as a fig leaf”.
However, the GOP poll numbers showed the the party buckled under the pressure, “Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Wednesday that the polling backlash against the Republican Party was one of the reasons Senate Republicans were eager to cut a deal with Democrats. “Well you can’t let 20 or 30 polls cloud you’re thinking apparently,” Graham said sarcastically on CNN’s AC360. “Of course they had an impact, of course they had an impact. And to the people on my side that think this turned out to be a good idea, I just think that turned out not to be reality.” A string of devastating polling released in the last two weeks showed the public’s view of the Republican Party has fallen to historically low levels. The surveys consistently showed the GOP bearing the brunt of the blame for the unpopular government shutdown”.
Despite this the man who started it all, Ted Cruz (R-TX) has learnt nothing from the misadventure, “Cruz  (R-Texas) on Wednesday said the Senate deal to raise the debt ceiling and end  the government shutdown is the embodiment of everything Americans dislike about  the Washington establishment. ‘This is a terrible deal,’ Cruz said. ‘This deal embodies everything about  the Washington establishment that frustrates the American people.'” Cruz also blasted his GOP Senate colleagues for not standing united behind House  Republicans, which he said could have led to a different outcome”.
Others have said that cost the government $24 billion.  which could have bought two aircraft carriers, 150 F-35s.
A separate article has speculated that the victory for President Obama will be short lived, “President Obama’s victory over congressional Republicans is likely to have a short shelf life. Even the president’s staunchest allies are skeptical that his triumph in the debt-ceiling battle has produced much capital for the White House to spend on priorities such as immigration reform. “I don’t know that this changes anything,” one former senior administration official said. “I don’t think the president has new mojo from this.”
However the deal only lasts until January/February and it has been noted that ” The proposal pushes the next must-pass budget deadlines beyond the  end-of-year holidays, but it also all but ensures that Congress must return to  those thorny issues ahead of the 2014 midterm elections, when campaign pressures  will be even more pronounced. Although Republicans took the brunt of the blame for the long-running  impasse, many Democrats fear those political concerns will do little to change  the GOP’s hard-line negotiating strategy as the new budget deadlines  approach”.

Iran gives ground

16/10/2013

Iran suggested it was ready to address calls to give the U.N. atomic watchdog wider inspection powers as part of Tehran’s proposals to resolve a decade-old nuclear dispute with the West” and different reports state that “Iran could allow unannounced visits to its nuclear sites as a “last step” in a proposal to resolve differences with the West, an Iranian official says. Lowering uranium enrichment levels could also be part of a final deal, the official told Iranian media”.

Weak monarchies?

16/10/2013

Christopher Davidson in an article in Foreign Affairs writes that the monarchies in the Gulf region are coming to an end.

He opens his piece “Since their modern formation in the mid-twentieth century, Saudi Arabia and the five smaller Gulf monarchies — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — have been governed by highly autocratic and seemingly anachronistic regimes. Nevertheless, their rulers have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of bloody conflicts on their doorsteps, fast-growing populations at home, and modernising forces from abroad. One of the monarchies’ most visible survival strategies has been to strengthen security ties with Western powers, in part by allowing the United States, France, and Britain to build massive bases on their soil and by spending lavishly on Western arms”.

Davidson argues that “It would thus be a mistake to think that the Gulf monarchies are somehow invincible. Notwithstanding existing internal threats, these regimes are also facing mounting external ones — from Western governments, from Iran, and each other. And these are only exacerbating their longstanding conflicts and inherent contradictions”.

He writes that Western military bases “is an affront to Islam and to national sovereignty”. Yet having the bases suits these monarchs well. Should their be a coup in any of the coutries Davidson mentions the bases would need to be protected and the country with the bases stationed in the country would have a vested interest in keeping the regime in place.

He writes that “Among the largest Western installations in the Gulf is al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which owes its existence to the country’s former ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. In 1999, al-Thani told the United States that he would like to see 10,000 American servicemen permanently based in the emirate, and over the next few years, the United States duly began shifting personnel there from Saudi Arabia”.

He adds that “Bahrain hosts the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the entire U.S. Fifth Fleet, which includes some 6,000 U.S. personnel. The United States recently downsized its force in Kuwait, but four U.S. infantry bases remain, including Camp Patriot, which is believed to house about 3,000 U.S. soldiers and two air bases”.

These countries did not welcome America because they were good friends but because it was in the interests of these countries to have US bases there for the protection of their dynasty to say nothing of the economic and other benefits that any large military installation would bring.

So far from being a sign of thier imminent collapse it is rather the reverse. America is too heavily invested to see these monarchies collapse and will do everything possible to prop them up.

He then writes that “By most measures, such spending has gotten out of hand. As a proportion of GDP, the Gulf monarchies’ purchases make them the biggest arms buyers in the world. Even the poorer Gulf states, which are grappling with declining resources and serious socioeconomic pressures, spend far beyond their means. Of all of the monarchies’ purchases, Saudi and UAE procurements have attracted the most attention. In 2009 alone, the UAE purchased nearly $8 billion in U.S. military equipment, making it the United States’ biggest arms customer that year. Saudi Arabia, for its part, purchased about $3.3 billion in hardware. In December 2011, the United States announced that it had finalized a $30 billion sale of Boeing-manufactured F-15 fighter jets to the Saudi Royal Air Force”.

Yet this is not a systemic threat to the stability and is overstated by Davidson. The reason much of the money is spent of weapons is as a result of Iran and if a US-Iranian deal is at least partially successful then there will at least be less of an excuse to spend so much of arms.

He argues fairly that “Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Gulf monarchs have gone to great lengths to highlight Shia membership in opposition movements, a tactic that has allowed them to delegitimize critics — falsely — as Iranian agents. Thus far, the strategy has enjoyed some limited success; members of the Gulf’s Sunni populations have been quick to accuse Shia activists of being traitors. Many Western authorities continue to lend support to the monarchies on the grounds that the alternative would be Iran-style theocratic, revolutionary, and anti-Western governments”.

He goes on to argue that previous Gulf monarchs were not so hostile to Iran, the “previous generation sidelined most confrontations with Iran — including even the 1971 seizure of three UAE islands by the Shah — in recognition of shared economic interests and the substantial Iranian expatriate populations that reside in many of the monarchies”.

Yet he overlooks the fact that the Iranian revolution was inherently Shia in nature and was therefore seen as a threat by the Sunni monarchs. Again a  deal with Iran would go a long way to solving their unease and their use of religion to bolster their position.

As he writes “In early 2011, Bahrain’s rulers took full advantage of anti-Iranian sentiments to act against domestic opponents, announcing that they would deport all Shia residents who had ‘links to Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.’ In practice, that meant expelling hundreds of Bahrain’s Lebanese residents, suspending all flights between the capital Manama and Beirut, and warning Bahraini nationals not to travel to Lebanon due to ‘threats and interference by terrorists.'”

Again he adds that “as Abu Dhabi’s forceful Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan and his five full brothers gained control over most of the country’s foreign policy, the emirate’s views have fallen in line with those of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Since 2007, the crown prince’s circle has pushed Western officials to put more troops in the region to counter Iranian hegemony. In 2009, the crown prince forcefully warned the United States of appeasing Iran, reportedly saying that ‘Ahmadinejad is Hitler.'”

He then writes that “Perhaps even riskier than their hawkishness toward Iran is the Gulf monarchies’ dovishness toward Israel. Since independence, the Gulf monarchies have upheld laws requiring government personnel, businesses, and even individual residents to boycott Israel. In the UAE, the federal government has always housed an Israel boycott office. One federal law, passed in 1971, stipulates that ‘any natural or legal person shall be prohibited from directly or indirectly concluding an agreement with organizations or persons either resident in Israel, connected therewith by virtue of their nationality of working on its behalf.'”

He goes on to say that “The monarchies’ new policies toward Israel are particularly dangerous given domestic political realities. The Gulf’s national populations are, for the most part, anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. Gulf nationals grew up watching the Palestinian intifada on television, and the liberation of Palestine remains a shared ideal among the region’s youth. There are also substantial communities of Palestinians in every monarchy”.

Yet to say that as a result of this they will collapse is a stretch. If and when it suits the monarchies they will do business with and accept Israel and their populace will more or less accept this if it is presented to them correctly.

 

SUCCESSION STRUGGLES

Davidson goes on to argue that “Following the death of a ruler or a petty internal dispute in one monarchy, it is now commonplace for neighboring monarchs to interfere, either by discreetly backing a preferred candidate, or, in the more extreme cases, by sponsoring a coup d’état. The resulting power vacuums have often allowed foreign powers to interfere as well. The best example of a modern-day coup and subsequent foreign interference took place in the UAE’s northernmost emirate of Ras al-Khaimah. In 2003, after allegedly burning an American flag at an anti-Iraq war demonstration, Prince Sheikh Khalid bin Saqr al-Qasimi, the emirate’s long-serving crown prince, was replaced in the order of succession by a younger half-brother, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi. Their very elderly father, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, later signed a decree in support of this change, but many analysts questioned the ruler’s decision-making abilities, given his advanced age and poor health. The new crown prince had the apparent backing of Abu Dhabi, which sent military tanks to take positions on the streets of Ras al-Khaimah. The ousted crown prince’s supporters still took the streets to show their support; security forces with water cannons disbursed them. The crown prince was then duly exiled, crossing the border to Oman before leaving for the United States”.

This is all certainly true but it does not mean that the collapse of the Gulf monarchies as a whole, especailly in a group that is as diverse as those in the Gulf. What happens in one does not mean that it will happen in all of them.

He goes on to write somehwat implausibly that “The Gulf’s immediate future is likely to be marked by many more such coup and countercoup attempts. Several current monarchs are very old, and powerful factions in growing royal families have coalesced around rival successors. In each of these cases, internecine contests will develop and, given the high stakes involved, the involvement of foreign powers is all but inevitable”.

He concludes “In the end, however, the monarchies may all suffer from such meddling, for these regimes are only as strong as the weakest links in their chain. An especially brittle monarchy succumbing to pressure over Western involvement, Iran, or Israel could easily be the first domino to fall, undoing the illusion of invincibility that the Gulf monarchies have so painstakingly built to distinguish themselves from the floundering Arab republics next door”.

Yet despite their weaknesses nothing unites them like a single threat as the Arab revolutions.

Where the Tea Party live

16/10/2013

it’s worth considering the demographics and geography of the eighty districts whose members have steered national policy over the past few weeks. As the above map, detailing the geography of the suicide caucus, shows, half of these districts are concentrated in the South, and a quarter of them are in the Midwest, while there’s a smattering of thirteen in the rural West and four in rural Pennsylvania  (outside the population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Naturally, there are no members from New England, the megalopolis corridor from Washington to Boston, or along the Pacific coastline. These eighty members represent just eighteen per cent of the House and just a third of the two hundred and thirty-three House Republicans. They were elected with fourteen and a half million of the hundred and eighteen million votes cast in House elections last November, or twelve per cent of the total. In all, they represent fifty-eight million constituents. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just eighteen per cent of the population“.

Iranian leverage?

16/10/2013

An article has been published that argues that instead of America has leverage over Iran it is quite the reverse.

The piece notes “while a permanent end to Iranian enrichment would be ideal, it is also highly unrealistic. The Iranian regime has invested enormous amounts of political capital and billions of dollars over decades to master the knowledge and centrifuge technology associated with uranium enrichment — and nothing will put that genie back in the bottle. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find a single bona fide Iran expert on the planet that believes Tehran would accept a diplomatic deal with the P5+1 that zeroed out enrichment for all time”.

The writers go on to mention that an end to enrichment would be politcal death for Rouhani. However there is some uncertainty that this is what is actually being proposed. Western demands on Iran are complex and hard to achieve but a reduced enrichment that is verifiable would go a long way to easing Western fears.

Their second point is that pride and principle are at stake, “The regime has invested far too much of its domestic legitimacy in defending Iran’s “rights” (defined as domestic enrichment) to completely capitulate now, regardless of the pressure. The nuclear program and “resistance to arrogant powers” are firmly imbedded in the Islamic Republic’s ideological raison d’etre. Khamenei, the ultimate decider on the nuclear file, and the Revolutionary Guards will not give up on the program altogether, for it could be a viewed by their supporters and opponents alike as a total defeat. However, Khamenei may accept a deal that constrains Iran’s nuclear program but still allows limited enrichment”.

They go on to argue that sanctions alone will not stop Iranian attempts to get a bomb, “Although hawks believe Tehran is on the ropes and that additional sanctions can force Iran to completely dismantle its nuclear program, economic and nuclear timelines don’t align. To be sure, Iran’s economy is in dire straits, and a desire to alleviate the pressure is driving the regime’s apparent willingness to negotiate more seriously. But despite the current pain, Iran is not facing imminent economic collapse. This may be a dark period in Tehran, but Khamenei likely believes that Iran weathered worse times during the Iran-Iraq war. Some analysts have warned that Iran could achieve a critical “breakout capability” — the ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons so fast that it could not be detected or stopped — sometime in mid-2014. Yet, even if the U.S. Congress goes forward with additional harsh sanctions, the regime is not likely to implode before it reaches this technical threshold and, if it did, it might make little difference”.

Their next points about the need to keep America as the threat to the regime and the need for some flexibility in the American position are both valid. They write “If talks collapse because of Washington’s unwillingness to make a deal on enrichment — a deal Russia and China and numerous other European and Asian nations support — it will also become harder to enforce sanctions. Whether or not Rouhani’s diplomatic overtures are genuine, he has already succeeded in shifting international perceptions of Iran. If the United States, rather than Iran, comes across as the unreasonable party, it will become much more difficult to maintain the international coalition currently isolating the government in Tehran. Some fence sitters in Europe and Asia will start to flirt with Iran again, leaving the United States in the untenable position”.

Yet while most of what they have written is true Iran still desperatly wants removal of sanctions, especially the banking and energy sanctions, in an attempt to reduce inflation. So it is not quite as one sided as they make it out to be in Iran’s favour.

“Second day of talks”

16/10/2013

World powers will press Iran on Wednesday for details of its proposal on resolving their decade-old nuclear dispute during a second day of talks in Geneva. Western diplomats stress they want Tehran to back up its newly conciliatory language with concrete actions by scaling back its nuclear program and allaying their suspicions it is seeking the capability to make atomic bombs. Both sides are trying to dampen expectations of any rapid breakthrough at the two-day meeting, the first to be held since President Hassan Rouhani took office, promising conciliation over confrontation in Iran’s relations with the world. “There is still an awful lot of work to be done,” said a spokesman for the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who oversees diplomacy with Iran on behalf of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany”.

“An emerging deal”

16/10/2013

As credit ratings agencies warn of an American downgrade a deal is looking more likely. However, a deal seems to be appearing.

Reports note that “An emerging deal to reopen the government and raise the nation’s debt ceiling  until February gathered political momentum Monday evening after Senate  Republicans signaled they would likely support it. Lawmakers and aides said the legislation would fund the government until  Jan. 15 and extend the nation’s borrowing authority until Feb. 7 but leave  ObamaCare largely untouched. It would also establish a Senate-House budget committee to craft a replacement  for the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, which would have to  report its work product to Congress by Dec. 13. Senate Republicans, who have seen their party’s approval rating plummet  during the two weeks of a government shutdown, are eager to accept a deal as  long as it keeps spending levels consistent with the 2011 Budget Control Act in  place. “Most everybody that’s on our side of the aisle in the United States Senate  feels the $987 [billion spending level] is the thing that can’t be moved,” Sen.  Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in reference to prolonging current spending levels. The big question is whether a package to fund the government and raise the  debt ceiling can pass muster in the House. 
 Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was briefed on the deal Monday, and members of  his conference were taking a wait and see attitude”.

Naturally Boehner’s attitude will be key to both opening the government and at the same time raising the debt ceiling. If enough of the House GOP can join with Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats both aims could be accomplished in order to avert a technical US default.

The best that can be hoped for at the end of this sorry affair is a grand deal that would raise taxes and at the same time raise the age of retirement and have means testing for Social Security and Medicare. This would  be unpalatable for both parties but it would also put America on track for another 50 years of leadership if it were agreed by both parties. This would mean ignoring Ted Cruz and his moronic friends and at the same time the Democrats ignoring their friends in the AFL-CIO and other organisations.

The piece adds that “House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wouldn’t comment on the emerging  Senate deal, but he told reporters House Republicans would meet Tuesday morning “to discuss a way forward.”   “Possible consideration of legislation related to  the debt limit” was added to Cantor’s daily House schedule for Tuesday.  That meeting of House Republicans could be a lively one, given the friction  that has developed between House and Senate Republicans over the last several  weeks. Many Senate Republicans are angry with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for pushing  the strategy adopted by House Republicans to demand changes to ObamaCare in  exchange for funding the government. They’ve also been frustrated with Boehner and other GOP leaders for not  standing up to their conference”.

On a side note Boehner will either be ousted from his job as speaker shortly after this or will announce his retirement from the role.

The piece ends on a note of caution, “Funding the government to Jan. 15 is a concession from Democrats, who had  wanted an earlier deadline to make it more likely they could negotiate higher  spending levels in a budget for most of 2014. Under the current budget law, spending for 2014 will automatically be  reduced by $19 billion to $967 billion 15 days after Congress adjourns, which is  expected to be about Jan. 15.  Senate Democrats have pushed for sequestration to end, bringing the yearly  discretionary budget to $1.058 trillion while Republicans have pushed to keep  the $967 billion total while shifting cuts from defense programs to social  programs. A few parts of the deal remain in flux. The deal does not make any significant changes to ObamaCare and would not  delay or end a tax on medical devices that is opposed by members of both  parties. Democratic aides said Reid would only accept reforms to ObamaCare, such as  repealing or delaying the tax, if Republicans gave them something in return. The deal does include the more modest change of verifying the income claims  of people applying for insurance subsidies. Democrats said they could agree to  that change because it would merely enforce existing law. The deal also includes a delay until 2015 of an ObamaCare reinsurance tax  that is opposed by unions. Under the healthcare reform law, states are required to set up a transitional  reinsurance program aimed at stabilizing premiums. As part of that transition,  companies providing healthcare would be required to pay $63 per covered person  in 2014, as well as lower fees the following two years. This concession in particular could be tough for House Republicans to  accept”.

American drones in Asia

14/10/2013

U.S. officials swear that America’s military and diplomatic build-up in Asia is not an attempt to contain a rising China. But they sure are parking lots of advanced firepower on Beijing’s doorstep. The U.S. is even welcoming the increased militarisation of Japan, the country America barred from having an offensive force in the aftermath of World War II. On October 3, U.S. and Japanese officials announced that the U.S. Air Force will be stationing RQ-4 Global Hawk drones in Japan. The Global Hawk is a large, long-range spy jet meant to complement its 50-year-old counterpart, the legendary U-2 Dragon Lady. This not only marks the first time U.S. drones will be based in Japan. The basing of the [Global Hawks] puts an American long-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability in the heart of Asia. U.S. officials say two or three of the high-flying drones will be stationed somewhere in Japan next spring. While no one said this explicitly, the high-tech aircraft will be able to easily monitor the East China Sea, including the uninhabited Senkaku Islands”.

A low risk

14/10/2013

In an article, Avery Goldstein writes a piece, “China’s Real and Present Danger: Now is the Time for Washington to Worry” in Foreign Affairs that America and China are in danger of slipping into a war in the short term due to miscommunication.

He opens “For at least the next decade, while China remains relatively weak compared to the United States, there is a real danger that Beijing and Washington will find themselves in a crisis that could quickly escalate to military conflict. Unlike a long-term great-power strategic rivalry that might or might not develop down the road, the danger of a crisis involving the two nuclear-armed countries is a tangible, near-term concern — and the events of the past few years suggest the risk might be increasing”.

He argues that America and China have avoided conflict on a number of occasions citing, “in 1995–96, when the United States responded to Chinese missile tests intended to warn Taiwanese voters about the danger of pushing for independence; in 1999, when U.S. warplanes accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the NATO air assault on Serbia; and in 2001, when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, leading to the death of the Chinese pilot and Beijing’s detention of the U.S. plane and crew”.

However, these incidents were on the face of it relatively minor and should not be confused with the imminent threat of a major outbreak of hostilities.

He goes on to argue that “potential flash points have emerged. As China and its neighbours squabble over islands and maritime rights in the East China and South China seas, the United States has reiterated its treaty commitments to defend two of the countries that are contesting China’s claims (Japan and the Philippines) and has nurtured increasingly close ties with a third (Vietnam). Moreover, the Obama administration’s “pivot,” or “rebalancing,” to Asia, a diplomatic turn matched by planned military redeployments, has signaled that Washington is prepared to get involved in the event of a regional conflict. Also, the United States insists that international law affords it freedom of navigation in international waters and airspace, defined as lying beyond a country’s 12-mile territorial limit. China, by contrast, asserts that other countries’ military vessels and aircraft are not free to enter its roughly 200-mile-wide “exclusive economic zone” without express permission — a prohibition that, given Beijing’s territorial claims, could place much of the South China Sea and the airspace above it off-limits to U.S. military ships and planes”.

Yet again these are relatively minor issues. China knows that America backs both Japan and Taiwan and that any attempt by China to openly and consistently intimate these countries would be met with severe and sustained military force. What is more any possible conflict between Japan and China would be short as Japan has superior military, despite what some have argued.

He writes that “Neither China nor the United States has clearly defined its vital interests across broad areas of the western Pacific. In recent years, China has issued various unofficial statements about its “core interests” that have sometimes gone beyond simply ensuring the territorial and political integrity of the mainland and its claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. Beijing has suggested, for example, that it might consider the disputed areas of the East China and South China seas to be core interests. Washington has also been vague about what it sees as its vital interests in the region. The United States hedges on the question of whether Taiwan falls under a U.S. security umbrella. And the United States’ stance on the maritime disputes involving China and its neighbours is somewhat confusing”.

Yet this ambigiuty is the whole point. America does not want to be dragged into a war when it could avoid it, yet at the same time it knows that it has interests and values to support and defend Japan and Taiwan. Therefore this lack of clarity suits both China and the United States.

As has been mentioned above he goes on to admit, “Should Beijing and Washington find themselves in a conflict, the huge U.S. advantage in conventional forces would increase the temptation for Washington to threaten to or actually use force. Recognizing the temptation facing Washington, Beijing might in turn feel pressure to use its conventional forces before they are destroyed. Although China could not reverse the military imbalance, it might believe that quickly imposing high costs on the United States would be the best way to get it to back off. The fact that both sides have nuclear arsenals would help keep the situation in check”.

He adds however that “if only nuclear considerations mattered, U.S.-Chinese crises would be very stable and not worth worrying about too much. But the two sides’ conventional forces complicate matters and undermine the stability provided by nuclear deterrence. During a crisis, either side might believe that using its conventional forces would confer bargaining leverage”.

However even in this senario China is almost certain to find itself outclassed, with its aircraft carrier mostly for political purposes and the rest of its military with myriad and perhaps sustained, if not systemic problems.

He goes on to write that the greatest fear is “because of the unreliability of the existing channels of communication between Beijing and Washington. After the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet Union and the United States recognised the importance of direct communication between their top leaders and set up the Moscow–Washington hot line. In 1998, China and the United States also set up a hot line for direct communication between their presidents. But despite the hot line’s availability, the White House was not able to contact China’s top leaders in a timely fashion following the 1999 Belgrade embassy bombing or the 2001 spy-plane incident. China’s failure to use the hot line as intended might have reflected the reluctance of its leaders to respond until they had reached an internal consensus or until they had consulted widely with their military”.

He then goes on to argue implausibly that “Instead, communication between the two countries might initially be limited to either public statements or tacit signals sent through actions”.

This clearly does not follow. His point that the “hotline” will not be answered initally therefore will not be answered at all makes little sense, especially during a crisis or some other notable event when tensions could be high and the need for communication at its greatest.

The fear however is more on the Chinese side with “nationalist passions”, especially in the miltary, or at the worst case senario on the streets as was seen in 2005 demanding government action against America.

He then makes the point “A final important factor that could make a U.S.-Chinese crisis more dangerous than those during the Cold War is geography. The focus of Cold War confrontations was primarily on land, especially in central Europe, whereas a future confrontation between China and the United States would almost certainly begin at sea. This difference would shape a U.S.-Chinese crisis in a number of ways, especially by requiring both sides to make some fateful choices early on. China’s small fleet of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and its much larger fleet of conventionally armed attack submarines are most secure when they remain in the shallow waters near the Chinese mainland, where poor acoustics compromise the effectiveness of U.S. undersea antisubmarine operations. Their proximity to Chinese land-based aircraft and air defenses also limits Washington’s ability to rely on its airpower and surface ships to counter them. For China’s submarine forces to play a role in a showdown with the United States, however, they would have to move out of those safer waters.

The prospect of China’s submarines breaking out would dramatically increase the instability of a crisis. Although U.S. antisubmarine warfare technology would be more effective against China’s submarines operating in less noisy open waters (where the United States also enjoys air superiority), it would not be perfect: some U.S. naval assets that came within range of surviving Chinese submarines would be at risk”.

He concludes the piece “The chances of a U.S.-Chinese crisis in the coming years are low, but they are not negligible, and they are made more troubling by the risk of such a confrontation escalating. The most important steps Beijing and Washington can take are those that might help prevent crises from developing in the first place. Since uncertainty about the scope of each side’s vital interests would be a trigger for such crises, the two countries should deepen political and military exchanges that focus closely on this problem. Even if they cannot achieve full clarity, discussions can help draw attention to what each side believes poses the greatest risks. Although it will be difficult to eliminate the possibility of U.S.-Chinese confrontations, both countries can do more to address the sources of potential instability and improve their ability to manage the risks they would face during a crisis. Leaders in Washington could share their rich experience in crisis management with their Chinese counterparts, emphasizing the importance of policy coordination. In addition, the United States should stress the need for China to use the existing hot line for prompt, direct communication between the countries’ top leaders during a crisis”.

Fooling America?

14/10/2013

Negotiations with the Iranian regime continued on a sporadic basis in spite of the words and deeds. Tehran and the EU3 (Britain, France, and Germany) engaged in a proposal-counterproposalsequence from 2003 to 2005 (before and just after the advent of Ahmadinejad). In July 2005, Hasan Rouhani, then secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and now president of Iran, proposed to the EU3, among other things:

  • an agreement on initial limitations on uranium enrichment at the Natanz enrichment site, a facility revealed by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the only pro-democracy organization that rejects clerical rule
  • negotiations for full-scale operation of Natanz
  • arrangements to import material for uranium conversion

But Rouhani, known as the “diplomatic sheikh,” bragged about having duped the West in these negotiations. According to a March 2006 Telegraph article, Rouhaniboasted that while nuclear talks took place in Tehran with the EU3, Iran was able to complete installation of equipment for conversion, a key stage in the nuclear fuel process, at its Isfahan plant. The good news as the Rouhani era begins is that his words are soothing to our ears. It is good to hear from an Iranian president that he pledges to be moderate and flexible. The bad news is that Rouhani has only taken cosmetic steps to demonstrate moderation, and the West is bound to reach out even more to Rouhani because of a misperception of moderation”.

Pushing everyone out

14/10/2013

Writing about something that has long been known, Syria is becoming more and more intolerant to others.

The piece begins ” A small group of young opposition activists makes its way through the pitch-black streets of the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, slowly approaching the Church of the Lady of the Annunciation. A few of them clamber onto the church’s wall and hoist up a wooden cross, struggling under its weight, as they sing a tune from the early days of the revolution. ‘One, one, one. The Syrian people are one,’ they chant. ‘Syria belongs to Muslims and Christians’ The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, had pulled down the church’s cross earlier that day and had raised the jihadi black flag in its place. The activists’ act of defiance lives on in a clip uploaded to YouTube in September — but the church does not. The following day, ISIS fighters swiftly made their displeasure known by torching Raqqa’s only two churches. In the uprising’s early days, members of Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities played a prominent role in the camp opposing President Bashar al-Assad, organising peaceful demonstrations alongside Sunnis and campaigning for civil liberties. Today, the war-wracked country is a particularly grim place for these Alawite, Christian, and Kurdish activists who tried to bridge Syria’s sectarian divides. Not only do they face the regime’s brutality, but they are forced to contend with Islamist militias that are harassing Syrian minorities with impunity”.

The piece adds that “even as the uprising became militarised and Islamists gained strength, a few individual dissidents from minority groups carved out a space for themselves within the anti-Assad cause. It can be a delicate topic. By their very nature, such activists are striving to get beyond Syria’s sectarian divisions, and they bristle at being trotted out as the revolt’s token minorities. ‘This is a thorny subject among Christian activists,’ says a young Syrian priest from Aleppo who currently resides in Lebanon. ‘Some activists are annoyed that they have been reduced to appetizing fodder for the media and somehow portrayed as more exceptional than others.’ These activists often speak of being socially ostracised from their communities, as their anti-regime stance is tantamount to treason. Given these social pressures and the violence of Assad’s intelligence apparatus, they have little choice but to press on”.

It closes “the rise of al Qaeda-linked groups has undeniably limited the ability of members of Syria’s minorities to participate in the anti-Assad cause. Mayada al-Khalil, another Alawite activist, had been working with a group of underground opposition activists since 2003, when she was a student at the University of Aleppo. In February 2012, while Khalil was working at the Violations Documentation Center, a Damascus-based opposition group that tracks the conflict’s violence, she was detained by security forces. Khalil was kept in prison for 83 grueling days. It was the fear of dying at the hands of prison guards that drove her to temporarily leave Syria. She found herself entertaining two options: She could either go into hiding in Ghouta, the besieged Damascus suburb where the notorious Aug. 21 chemical attack took place, or make a more drastic move to the liberated areas in northern Syria. ‘I thought of going to Raqqa to see what I can do there to help, but the latest developments and the growing presence of the ISIS made me rethink this option,’ she says. It’s not only Syria’s religious minorities who are suffering –members of its ethnic minorities also bemoan how Assad has played on old divisions to pursue a strategy of divide and rule. Hozan Ibrahim, a Kurdish-Syrian activist currently living in Germany, was jailed by the regime a decade ago for pursuing demands for Kurdish rights, including that Kurds be allowed to teach their own language in schools. Now, he says, Assad is using Kurdish organizations to his advantage: The Syrian regime realised it couldn’t keep a strong grip on every corner of the country, he says, so it relinquished control of Kurdish areas to a local militia that it knew it could co-opt. He says the group — a local affiliate of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — skillfully exploited the troubled relationship between Kurds and Arabs to drive a deeper wedge between the two communities and put an end to any stirrings of dissidence among Kurds”.

“Competition for power”

14/10/2013

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan was seized early Thursday by a militia affiliated with a rival politician, only to be released hours later, in a flare-up of the postrevolution power struggles that have blocked Tripoli from establishing authority and security in the oil-rich country. The gunmen, after first claiming Mr. Zidan was wanted for financial crimes, made an appeal to Libyan national pride with the claim that they were taking the U.S.-allied prime minister in retaliation for the seizure by American forces of a suspected al Qaeda operative in Tripoli on Saturday. He was eventually released under pressure from political leaders, while the militia’s political backer, a senior leader in the Libyan congress, denied a role in the abduction. The kidnapping appeared to be yet another episode in the government’s competition for power with Libya’s militant groups, many of which it relies on in the absence of a national security force”.

The Democrats push

14/10/2013

Normally the Republicans are to blame for the shutdown in the Federal Government but in this instance the Democrats are palying hard ball to such an extent that any concessions they get from the GOP means that any deal would be left to the last minute, all as the world looks on in dismay.

An article in the Hill mentions that “Senate Democrats are seeking to put more pressure on Republicans after a weekend  of sporadic negotiations left leaders stalemated in talks to reopen the  government and raise the debt limit. Democrats have decided to ratchet up pressure on  Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) instead of accepting a deal that  locks in automatic spending cuts known as sequestration and makes reforms to  ObamaCare”.

The piece goes on to mention “Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and McConnell did little direct negotiating on Sunday.  The two leaders spoke by phone for about five or six minutes, according to a  source familiar with the call. Reid characterised the conversation as substantive and said he was optimistic  about the chances for a deal. ‘I have had a productive conversation with [the] Republican leader this afternoon. Our discussions were substantive and we’ll continue those discussions,’ he said on the Senate floor. ‘I’m optimistic about the prospects for a positive conclusion to the issues  before this country today,’ he added. But Senate aides said they did not expect any deal to be announced Sunday  evening”.

The piece does mention that “McConnell pressed Reid to accept a six-point plan sponsored by Sen. Susan  Collins (R-Maine) to fund the government for six months at an annualized rate of  $986 billion, raise the debt limit, make modest reforms to ObamaCare, grant  federal agencies more flexibility to manage their budgets and establish a  bicameral budget conference. Republicans say a group of six mostly centrist Democrats helped craft the  proposal. These lawmakers disputed McConnell’s claim that Democrats had dropped out  of negotiations. “We have been involved in productive, bipartisan discussions with Sen.  Collins and other Republican senators, but we do not support the proposal in its  current form,” they wrote in a joint statement. ‘There are negotiations but  there is no agreement.’ Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.),  Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Angus King (Maine), an  independent who caucuses with Democrats, signed it. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters in the Capitol Sunday afternoon that  Democratic leaders bogged down talks by calling on Republicans to unwind the  automatic spending cuts known as sequestration”.

 

 

 

70% disapproval

14/10/2013

Republicans in Congress have seen disapproval of their handling of the  shutdown negotiations spike from 63 percent at the end of last month to 70  percent in the latest Washington  Post/ABC News poll released on Monday. Republican handling of the fiscal showdown is the worst in Washington by far.  Only 24 percent said they approve of how GOP lawmakers are handling the budget  negotiations, down from 26 in the same poll from Sept. 29″.

The first meeting

12/10/2013

In a piece, John Allen discusses the first movments from the first meeting of the Council of Cardinals, which he writes that Pope Francis has summoned an extraordinary meeting of the Synod of Bishops with the theme to be the family.

Allen adds that “Given the topic, the thorny pastoral question of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics is destined to arise. On other occasions, Francis has hinted at openness to a greater degree of flexibility on the issue, perhaps along the lines of the Orthodox tradition”.

He writes that “The Council of Cardinals dedicated a good chunk of their first meeting with the pope last week to the synod, in part because Francis had indicated he wanted it to happen soon, but in a new way. Founded by Pope Paul VI in 1965 at the close of the Second Vatican Council, the Synod of Bishops was designed as a way for the pope to hear the voice of local churches in making decisions. Generally it brings together roughly 300 bishops and other participants for a three-week gathering in Rome. Over the years, critics have complained that preparations for the synod often don’t foster real consultation, that conclusions sometimes appear determined in advance, and that too much time is wasted on speech-making”.

On the curial reform directly he mentions that “sources say the Council of Cardinals discussed the future of the secretary of state, by tradition considered the Vatican’s prime minister, with a basic sense that it may be a mistake to concentrate responsibility both for foreign relations and internal church governance in one figure. The Secretariat of State is already divided into two sections, corresponding to those two tasks. It remains to be seen whether they be formally separated into two separate departments or whether Francis will gradually and informally shift responsibility for internal governance elsewhere”.

Importantly Allen writes that “There was apparently interest among the cardinals in the hypothesis of a new position for coordinating the work of the Vatican’s various departments, though probably not under the title of “Moderator of the Curia.” In part, that’s because it’s a term in canon law used for a diocesan official who’s often also the vicar for clergy, and the cardinals don’t want to create a ‘vice pope.'”

What this means in practice is very hard to decipher, but perhaps the role of substitute for General Affairs, currently held by Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu could be reformed. This could mean Becciu would be moved/promoted in the not too distance future in order to bring in someone else altogether. The role is held by a PEA grad and diplomat in his mid 60s who normally has had at least one diplomatic posting.

The role, as Allen suggests, could be split up into a totally new department. This potential new role would be the central co-ordinator for the Roman Curia. The role of substitute is more or less a chief of staff role but the role, and its most recent occupants, Sandri, Filoni and Becciu have sometimes been critised for the problems and lack of efficiency in the running of the curia.

If Francis wants to make the Curia more efficient this is surely the best place to start.

“The government has summoned”

12/10/2013

Libya’s General National Congress, demanded on Tuesday that the United States hand back an alleged al-Qaeda operative its special forces captured from Tripoli earlier this week. A statement from the county’s top-political authority stressed the “need for the immediate surrender” of Abu Anas al-Libi and described the U.S. operation as a “flagrant violation of (Libya’s) national sovereignty,” according to Agence France-Presse. The text, which was passed by the GNC, also calls for the “need to allow the Libyan authorities and their families to get in touch with him (Libi) and guarantee them access to a lawyer,” AFP reported. The statement is the first official commendation by Libya on the operation after the government has summoned U.S. ambassador Deborah Jones to seek clarification over the capture”.

Still problematic

12/10/2013

Amid all that is going on with Iran-US relations and Syria a piece has argued that Egypt continues to face problems.

They begin the piece “President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy team — the United States appears to be kicking another difficult regional policy decision down the road. This is a mistake. By countenancing the July 3 coup and the military’s subsequent crackdown on the supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, the United States may be helping to sow seeds that could ripen into a costly and deeply destabilising insurgency for years to come. The Obama administration responded to the military crackdown, which resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, with the diplomatic equivalent of a few light raps on the knuckles of Egypt’s generals. It canceled joint military exercises with Egypt and announced that the White House’s national security staff would begin a comprehensive review of bilateral aid. Since late August, a recommendation to suspend the majority of U.S. military assistance to Cairo has been sitting with the president. Meanwhile, Egyptian security forces have re-escalated their campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, raiding the movement’s strongholds and arresting the few remaining senior Brotherhood figures not already in custody”.

While they are broadly correct it would be a mistake to assume that what they propose should have happened would have make the situation any easier. Calling it a coup would not only trigger the end to US military aid and at the same time reduce whatever leverage America has in Egypt it would also ignore the vast numbers of people who understandably rejoiced in Morsi’s overthrow.

They go on to argue that “The Obama administration’s anemic response is indicative of the larger strategic drift of America’s response to the 2011 Arab uprisings. In the immediate aftermath of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama admitted that the United States had not pushed hard enough for democracy in the Arab world, and he promised a new way of doing business in the region. At arguably every major juncture since then, however, whenever Washington has had the opportunity to demonstrate its support for genuine democracy in Egypt, it has instead opted for some version of the “authoritarian bargain” that characterised U.S. regional policy for decades. Obama’s addressat the United Nations last week on Sept. 24 seemed to confirm the reality of American policy. In the world-weary tones that have come to define his speeches, Obama acknowledged in unusually explicit terms that democracy was secondary to Middle East policy and that security concerns and “core interests” would take precedence”.

Yet this is nothing new or different in American policy. Obama is simply stating explicitly what has been going on for decades and will continue. What is different is the scale and scope within which this policy is operating. No leader has had to face the challenges that Obama has faced at the same time.

They go on to criticise him saying, “To make matters worse, the new Egyptian government does not appear to aspire to a return to the stagnant ancien régime, but something worse and more dangerous. Unlike Hosni Mubarak’s regime — which tolerated a certain level of dissent in parliament and the media — this new political order is aiming for a far more all-encompassing grip on power, where even the mildest criticisms of the Egyptian Army can lead one to be branded a traitor. The sort of repression we are seeing today — including four mass killings over the summer, one of which was the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history — will have lasting consequences for Egyptian society. As the New York Times reportedrecently, “Neighbors have turned against one another and families have been torn apart” by political divisions”.

While this is again broadly true it would be a mistake to say that Obama is ignoring Egypt but at the same time they have a point. If Egypt is to avoid the status of a failed state, like other potential candidates in the region, his officials must push for a sustainable solution to the manifold problems the country faces which includes economic reforms to untie the Egyptian economy from the military and a long term political solution that respects minorities and the rule of law generally. In light of this the Brotherhood, must realistically be part of the process although it is tempting to see if the generals can make a real attempt of balancing security and quasi tolerance.

The writers do make the point that “With every passing week, Egypt’s authoritarian order entrenches itself even further. On Sept. 23, Egypt’s judiciary took yet another dangerous step, banningnot just the Muslim Brotherhood but “all the activities that it participates in and any organisation derived from it,” as the presiding judge put it. Before this decision, there was the possibility that, while the Brotherhood would be dissolved, its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, might be permitted to operate. This now seems increasingly unlikely”.

This will do little to calm tensions in the long term or isolate the even more extreme elements of Islamism inside Egypt.

They suggest “Washington should coordinate this shift with its partners in Europe, Japan, and others in the region, such as Turkey and Qatar. Each individual piece of assistance may not sound like much, but taken together, they can have a real impact. Any International Monetary Fund deal for Egypt –which along with associated grants and commitments could be worth up to $15 billion — should be premised on tangible political progress involving all key parties. Some Egypt watchers, like former U.S. National Security Council regional director Steven Simon, have arguedthat Washington has little leverage because Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries have pledged to replace any shortfall in funding. This is simply not true. Riyadh and its neighbors can replace lost economic aid, but they cannot provide the military equipment and training that are essential for maintaining Egypt’s most advanced tanks and fighter jets”.

They end the piece “In the long run, U.S. strategic interests can only be preserved by supporting the emergence of a genuine democracy in Egypt. Countries that are accountable to their citizens are more stable because they offer citizens peaceful, legitimate means of expressing their grievances. The “stability” of authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, is brittle and illusory — as the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia showed us in the early, euphoric days of the Arab Spring”.

Not a diplomat

12/10/2013

Pope Francis has appointed Archbishop Ilson de Jesus Montanari , 56, as secretary of the Congregation for Bishops replacing the vacancy left by Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri who was appointed secretary-general of the Syond of Bishops. All the most recent secretaries of the Congregation for Bishops have been diplomats trained at the PEA and have gone on to become cardinals.

Obama and Boehner

12/10/2013

As the shutdown continues, it is simply a question of who will give in first, President Obama or Speaker Boeher.

An article in The Hill mentions “President Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are showing no signs of  caving in the fiscal fight gripping Washington, raising worries the standoff  will bring the economy to its knees. The White House has made clear it thinks it has the upper hand in the fight  over opening the government and raising the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling,  especially after Boehner’s comments — in public and to his conference —that he  wants to avoid a default on the U.S. debt”.

The piece goes on to notes that “Allies of the Speaker, however, insist that Obama has the highest personal  stakes in the standstill, giving the president more motivation to cave. The risk that neither side will blink first is apparent to partisans on both  sides, with Treasury saying the debt limit needs to be raised by Oct. 17. ‘I hope they have something else up their sleeve,’ said Jamal Simmons, a  Democratic strategist, of the White House strategy”.

The article adds that “both Democrats and Republicans have reason to believe the other side might  stand down first. Republicans say that they believe that Democrats’ tough rhetoric will soften  as the debt-limit deadline — and the potential dent to Obama’s legacy — comes  closer. One GOP lawmaker noted to The Hill that people are far more likely to  remember who the president is in times of crisis — as in the Great Depression or  World War II — than the Speaker of the House. ‘Obama cannot allow the nation to default because of the impact on our  economy and his presidential legacy,’ said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist who  served as an aide to former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).  ‘He will likely negotiate as long as Republicans would allow for short-term  clean extensions of lifting the debt ceiling in order to get a brokered  deal.’ Republicans also think they’re making some headway with their recent strategy  of passing bills that open specific areas of the government, with dozens of  House Democrats supporting at least one of those proposals. Obama and Senate  Democrats have brushed aside those measures and called on the House GOP to  reopen the entire government. Democrats, for their part, believe Boehner is presiding over a divided  conference that is losing the public opinion fight over the shutdown. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday found that 7 in 10  disapproved of the congressional GOP’s handling of the shutdown”.

The danger however is that this will continue and the malfunction will only worsen. If this does continue American decline will certainly take place. However, others, notably Ornstein and Mann have written a slew of policy proposals to adapt Congress to the seemingly permanent situation of highly polarised and therefore disciplined parties that America now finds itself with.

Morsi on trial

10/10/2013

An Egyptian court on Wednesday set November 4 as the opening date for the trial of ousted president Mohamed Morsi on charges of inciting the murder of protesters, state media reported. Morsi will stand trial with 14 other defendants over the killings of protesters outside his palace in December 2012, almost seven months before his ouster in a military coup, the official MENA news agency reported. Trying Morsi, in detention since he was deposed on July 3, will likely inflame a protest movement by his Islamist backers, who clashed on Sunday with security forces leaving 57 people dead. Prosecutors have charged Morsi with “inciting his supporters to commit premeditated murder” during the December 5 clashes outside his presidential palace. He will stand trial before a Cairo district court, MENA reported”.

Missing Bo

10/10/2013

In an article from the BBC, Dr Kerry Brown writes that China’s leaders may regret imprisoning Bo Xilai.

He argues that “had he been a politician in a democracy, it is even possible that he could have survived the misdeeds of his wife and his closest ally Wang Lijun, because the brute fact is that in the courtroom in Jinan where he was tried in August not a shred of evidence connected him to their crimes. The worse that could be said of him was that he was the victim of misguided loyalty. Bo’s fall was good news to his many enemies in the Communist Party elite and made their lives, despite its destabilising drama and surprise, in the end much easier in managing the horse-trading around the leadership transition in late 2012. Bo would have been a hard person to leave out of the new line-up, but also a very tough person to place well. Some speculated that he could be made the head of the National People’s Congress, or of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Both would have offered natural power bases for him to mobilise public opinion. It would have been very hard to sideline him. The campaigns that Bo was most publicly associated with while in Chongqing – the clampdown on the mafia and the red song campaigns – were regarded with distaste by many commentators”.

Interestingly the piece goes on to note “Bo has been sentenced, and, despite the great exception of Deng Xiaoping who
came back from the political graveyard three times, he is highly unlikely to  ever emerge again as a leader”.

However Brown continues “his legacy will not be so easy to dispel, nor the questions that he raised both while in power and also when he fell. Those politicians that remain have to contemplate mobilising public opinion in a more imaginative way than has been done so far. They have to try, as Bo, to reach out to people more directly, and appeal to their emotions and aspirations in ways that he evidently did, at least while in Liaoning and then Chongqing. And there has to be a different way to deal with figures like Bo, who pose a political threat through their difference to everyone else. To have those people brought down as Bo was is not sustainable for the party, and in the end only reinforces its image as a brutal, intrigue-led cabal rather than a modernising political force”.

If China does not put the country on a firmer, more stable footing in the long term then the country could face collapse and disintregation.

“So far complying”

10/10/2013

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government deserves credit for so far complying with a chemical weapons deal, the US secretary of state has said. John Kerry was speaking after international monitors began the destruction of Syria’s stockpile. The mission was established under a UN resolution, which was passed after a deal between Russia and the US”.