Archive for November, 2013

“For the sake of diplomacy”

29/11/2013

President Obama requested Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take a “breather” from his harsh criticism of the U.S. strategy regarding Iran during a call between the two leaders, The Washington Post reported on Thursday. The request came as the administration girds up for a push in the next six months to reach a final settlement on Iran’s nuclear program. The president reportedly urged Netanyahu to tone down his rhetoric for the sake of diplomacy and urged him to dispatch officials to Washington who could help negotiate a resolution agreeable to both countries. The president called Netanyahu Sunday, promising to keep the Israeli leader up-to-date regarding the progress of negotiations for a final settlement. He also reaffirmed that the two countries share the same goal of a nuclear-free Iran”.

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Getting credibility back

29/11/2013

As part of a special series on America in the current issue of the Economist, a piece discusses how President Obama can

The article opens, arguing that the power of the president “is not the veto pen or the ability to launch missiles. It is the bully pulpit. When a president speaks, the world listens. That is why Barack Obama’s credibility matters. If people do not believe what he says, his power to shape events withers. And recent events have seriously shaken people’s belief in Mr Obama. At home, the chaos of his health reform has made it harder for him to get anything else done. Abroad, he is seen as weak and disengaged, to the frustration of America’s allies. Not all the barbs aimed at Mr Obama are fair. Our special report this week on American foreign policy notes that he inherited two miserable wars. He began his first term during the worst recession in 80 years. And the Republicans who shut down parts of the federal government last month and flirted recklessly with default bear much of the blame for Washington’s disarray. But the excuse that it is all someone else’s fault is wearing thin. Under Mr Obama, America seems rudderless and its power is being squandered”.

The piece goes onto add “The debacle of Obamacare has gravely weakened the president (see article). In the days before October 1st, when the online health-insurance exchange opened, he seemed blithely unaware that anything was amiss. Using it would be “real simple”, he told voters in Maryland on September 26th; it would work the “same way you shop for a TV on Amazon”. Alas, it did not. Millions tried to log on; few succeeded. The website was never properly tested, it transpires. Although this was Mr Obama’s most important domestic reform, no one was really in charge. Crucial specifications were changed at the last moment. Contractors warned that the website was not ready, but the message never reached the Oval Office”.

The writer makes a fair point, “The longer it takes to fix the website, the greater the chance that Obamacare will fail. Insurers have set their premiums on the assumption that lots of young, healthy people would be compelled to buy their policies. But if it takes dozens of attempts to sign up, the people who do so will be disproportionately the sick and desperate. Insurers could be stuck with a far more expensive pool of customers than they were expecting, and could have no choice but to raise prices next year. That would make Obamacare even less attractive to the young “invincibles” it needs to stay afloat. To make matters worse, this sorry saga has caused American voters to doubt Mr Obama’s honesty. Time after time, when selling his reform, he told voters that if they liked their health insurance, they could “keep that insurance. Period. End of story.” Policy wonks knew this was untrue. Mr Obama’s number-crunchers quietly predicted that up to two-thirds of people with individual policies would be forced to change them, since the law would make many bare-bones plans illegal. But ordinary Americans took their president at his word; many were furious to learn last month that their old policies would be cancelled”.

The piece then, unfairly discusses President Obama’s lack of building relationships, “he gives great speeches but fails to build relationships. Abroad, he has cool relations with foreign heads of government. The leaders of allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia scorn him. Europeans grumble that they are ignored when they want to be heard and spied on when they want to be left alone. Latin Americans feel neglected. Mr Obama’s “pivot” to Asia has made China feel threatened, without reassuring other Asians that America will be there in a crisis. Many doubt Mr Obama’s word—remember his “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria?—and lament his inability to get things done”.

This is a little unfair, Syria aside, where he if he wanted to avoid Syria completely he should have defined it in such terms that no US entry would be possible. Instead his red lines as the article fairly points out have been a disaster. Other then that however it is a little hard on him. It notes that leaders scorn him but certainly with regard to the current Prime Minister of Israel and President Obama there is obvious friction. This however has more to do with “Bibi” that Barack who intervened in the 2012 election in favour of Mitt Romney only for the voters to re-elect the incumbent. The issue with Saudi Arabia is more complex but that is not to say it is beyond repair permanently which would be patently false.

The writer then turns to domestic politics, “At home, he seldom schmoozes with his political opponents—or even with his own side. Past presidents put in far more effort to charm and bully lawmakers, business moguls and anyone who could help them. Lyndon Johnson was famous for blackmailing congressmen to do the right thing, which is a hard art to practise if you barely know them. Mr Obama remains aloof—he has no regular breakfast or lunch even with the main Democrats in Congress. You cannot slap backs and twist arms if you are not in the same room”.

The point about the Democrats is well made and Obama should have understood long ago that any domestic agenda he has relies on contact and comunication. The article seems to dismiss the GOP who have from the very beginning obstructed and continue to obstruct Obama’s policies and nominees. So whatever hope Obama and the GOP had of working together is vanishing ahead of the 2014 mid terms.

The piece then suggests how President Obama can return some of his credibility, “the priority is simply to get his health exchange fixed. His announcement last week that people who have lost their old insurance will be allowed to get it back is a sham: he has given insurers neither the time nor the incentive to recreate the policies he previously ordered them to ditch. He should stop making empty promises, get rid of the aides who filter out bad news and roll up his sleeves. Can he get any more done? Immigration reform is still just possible. He now says he is open to tackling it piecemeal, rather than in a comprehensive bill, which raises the chance that it will happen. An even bigger prize would be a long-term fix for America’s finances, with Republicans accepting some tax rises and Democrats tolerating cuts to entitlements. He has little to lose: at present he will go down in history, alongside George W. Bush, as a skipper who ignored the looming fiscal iceberg”.

The piece goes on to note that “Fixing those problems would require Mr Obama to discover both Clintonian skills of triangulation and some Republicans who don’t hate him. As with other second-term presidents, foreign policy may offer more opportunity. The Obama brand is less tarnished abroad. And American power is sold short by a lot of people—including, sometimes, Mr Obama. With its matchless armed forces, a web of alliances and omnipresent soft power, the United States is still the world’s indispensable nation—as it has shown in the rescue efforts in the Philippines (see Banyan)”.

Yet this view is somewhat over optomistic. Obama is ultimatly a pragmatic president and not an ideologue as some would paint him as. The other point is that finding “some Republicans who don’t hate him” is virtually impossible. That is not to say that there are none, but the loudmouth Tea Party have done nothing to lead the GOP and Dems to work together. Speaker Boehner, instead of ignoring them, has pandered to them giving them air instead of suffocating them.

The piece ends, “Obama may not be able to walk on water. That is now painfully clear, perhaps even to him. But America’s first black president still has it in his power to leave the Oval Office famous for what he did, not just what he was”.

Punishing Iran with Syria

29/11/2013

It should also be noted that the Iran negotiations, coming as they do at the same time as the Syria negotiations, contain other risks that cut both ways for the United States, Iran, and the other parties to both sets of negotiations. If Iran appears to be acting in bad faith or if this deal goes sour, the international community will have the option of punishing Iran’s leaders by withdrawing support for their desired outcome in the Syria talks — either keeping their long-term ally, President Bashar al-Assad, in place or accepting a successor regime that preserves their interests and influence in that country. On the other hand, if Iran actually makes real progress on the nuclear deal, the country may be rewarded at the Syria negotiating table. Of course, none of this will be explicit or even discussed. But it is the nature of diplomacy to link such things if they are proceeding in parallel”.

“Whether Congress likes it or not”

29/11/2013

Rosa Brooks writing in Foreign Policy, discusses the recent agreement that was reached with Iran, that although not perfect was substantially better than no deal, in spite of what Israel might say.

She notes that the next problem facing President Obama is the US Congress. Worse still Obama cannot even count on the support of his own party on thie matter with Harry Reid mistakenly calling for even more sanctions along with those other highly respected Senators, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

She writes, “We don’t get to choose between an Iran with nuclear weapons capabilities and an Iran without nuclear weapons capabilities. The choice we truly face is less appealing:  Do we want a bellicose Iran that has the ability to produce nuclear weapons within a matter of months and is unremittingly hostile to U.S. interests? Or do we want an Iran that has the ability to produce nuclear weapons within a matter of months, but is no longer as unremittingly hostile to U.S. interests? I’ll take the latter, thanks very much”.

She goes on to make the point that “negotiators in Geneva recognized this, and they got the best deal they could, given our remarkably limited bargaining power. In fact, they got a deal that’s substantiallybetter than most Iran watchers expected: Under the terms of the Geneva agreement, Iran will freeze further work on key nuclear facilities, neutralize all uranium enriched to 20 percent, and permit daily international inspection of sensitive sites, all in exchange for limited and temporary sanctions relief. Every permanent member of the U.N. Security Council is on board, even Russia and China, and the deal doesn’t lock anyone in permanently: It endures for six months, long enough to give negotiators time to assess each other’s good faith and see if a final agreement can be reached. It’s not great, but it’s not chopped liver, either. After a decade of impasse and insults on both sides, it’s a small but genuine breakthrough. If all goes well in the next six months, we might even get to some bigger breakthroughs. But that depends on President Obama’s willingness to stand firm in the face of congressional bluster”.

Brooks notes that Congress is bipartisan in its shortsightedness, “Congress has shown a distinct bipartisan disinclination to engage in reality-based thinking. Sen. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, complains that the Geneva deal ‘did not proportionately reduce Iran’s nuclear program.’ Sen. John McCain has called the deal a ‘dangerous step that degrades our pressure on the Iranian regime.’ Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, objects that the deal does not  ‘require Iran to completely halt its enrichment efforts or dismantle its centrifuges.’ Sen. Marco Rubio agrees, insisting that there should be no sanctions relief until ‘Iran completely abandons its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.'”

She goes on to make the excellent point that has been stated here before that Congress has no role in these matters, “Congressional hawks should stop bloviating and help the president make this deal work. It’s funny: Just a few months ago, many of the very same hawkish legislators who are now threatening to destroy the Iran deal by imposing new sanctions were insisting on the importance of executive-legislative unity when bargaining with adversarial foreign states. Remember Syria? When President Obama declared his intention to ask Congress to authorize military action against President Bashar al-Assad, Sen. McCain declared, “A vote against that resolution by Congress I think would be catastrophic. It would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and the president of the United States. None of us want that.”

If “none of us want that,” it’s hard to see why it’s important for Congress to back the president when it comes to threats to use military force, but fine for Congress to undermine the president when he tries to use diplomacy so we can avoid resorting to military force. President Obama needs to make it clear that it’s his job, not Congress’s, to broker deals with foreign powers. That’s not just a policy preference: It’s the way the U.S. Constitution divvies up authority between the executive and legislative branches. As the Supreme Court declared in U.S. v Curtiss Wright.”

Not only that but being a lawyer she goes further saying that Congress has, thankfully, little options if it wants to halt the deal with Iran going through, “it’s an open constitutional question whether Congress can impose mandatory sanctions on a foreign state over the president’s strong objection. Congress has the power to regulate foreign commerce, but the president is vested with executive power and is the sole representative of the United Statesvis-a-vis foreign states. Just as the congressional power to declare war does not prevent the president from using military force in what he views as emergencies — whether Congress likes it or not — the congressional power to regulate foreign commerce can’t force the president to implement sanctions that would undermine a time-sensitive executive agreement if doing so, in the president’s view, would jeopardize vital national-security interests. Any congressional efforts to completely eliminate the president’s foreign-affairs discretion could lead to a constitutional showdown, which Congress would almost certainly lose. If Congress passed new sanctions legislation that the president believed would undermine the deal with Iran, he could veto it; if Congress mustered up the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a veto, the president could simply refuse to implement the sanctions. The courts would be unlikely to side with Congress because, traditionally, they have viewed such disputes as “political questions” best resolved through the ballot box”.

She ends the piece, “President Obama holds the cards — but if he wants to win, he has to be willing call Congress’s bluff. He shouldn’t be defensive, and he shouldn’t mince words: He should tell congressional hawks straight out that if they manage to pass any new sanctions legislation that would prevent him from keeping the promises made in Geneva, he would regard that as an unconstitutional infringement upon his powers to negotiate on behalf of the United States and protect vital national-security interests. He should make itcrystal clear that he would veto any such legislation — and that even if Congress pushed it through over his veto, he would not implement it. There’s political risk in standing firm, but at this point, the president has far more to lose if he wavers. What’s more, public opinion is firmly on his side”

“The next army chief”

29/11/2013

Pakistan’s prime minister chose the brother of a dead war hero to be the next army chief Wednesday, a crucial decision that fills arguably the most powerful position in the country. Gen. Raheel Sharif faces a vicious Taliban insurgency at home, which has killed thousands of security forces and civilians in recent years. Washington also will look to the 57-year-old infantry officer for support to battle al-Qaida militants and negotiate an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan. It was a sensitive decision for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif since he was toppled in a military coup in 1999 by the last army chief he selected, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. But retired army officers said the new chief, who is not related to the prime minister, largely will continue the policies of his predecessor, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani — including avoiding overt interference in politics. Kayani, who is stepping down after completing his second three-year term, launched scores of operations against the Pakistani Taliban in their sanctuaries in the northwestern tribal region. But he refused repeated U.S. demands to make a push into the North Waziristan tribal area, which is a launching pad for militants to stage cross-border attacks against American troops in Afghanistan”.

“China just upped the ante”

29/11/2013

China has again made the pressure in Asia worse but its belligerance and territorial greed. Instead of accepting peaceful negotianions, which it knows it would not only have to back down on but would also probably lose any claim to the vast swathes of sea it claims.

Now, reports note that “China just upped the ante over a territorial dispute with Japan. But in doing so, it seems to be sending a message to the United States as it pivots east: Stay out of our way. China’s announcement Saturday [23 November] that it had created an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) coupled with a demand that any non-commercial air traffic would have to submit flight plans prior to entering the area, represented by all accounts a significant provocation. China is attempting to assert its authority over a group of uninhabited islands south of Japan and just east of the Chinese mainland in the East China Sea. But the creation of the new zone is probably less about the islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus by China, as it is China’s desire to flex its muscles in its own backyard as the U.S. rebalances its own strategy east. China’s decision will complicate relations as the United States seeks to build a more trusting relationship with the Asian giant and develop diplomatic efforts on a number of fronts. And it will pose a challenge to Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to make a stop in China on a trip through Asia next month. White House National Security spokesperson Caitlin Hayden wouldn’t say if the development would affect Biden’s trip”.

He goes on to write that “The area China has created isn’t so much a no-fly zone as it is a yellow flag area. If the United States or another country’s military flies inside the area without seeking permission first, China could respond with military force. Many countries, including the United States, have the same kind of zone around their borders. But China’s move essentially puts any non-commercial flight through that area on equal footing with a flight over its own airspace. That makes it virtually impossible for the United States or anyone else operating in the region to ignore China’s claim over the area. But it’s not clear how far China will really go. The United States has already said it will continue its own military operations in the zone without asking permission.”

America must let China know in no uncertain terms that it cannot simply declare most of the East China Sea its airspace and it has effectively done with this aggressive move. He does write that “that doesn’t mean there will be another war in the Pacific. China could choose to ignore any U.S. aircraft in the region, or it might respond by scrambling fighter jets to escort them through the zone. All of this could pose an enormous risk, either through escalation or by accident. In April 2001, there was a mid-air collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet, forcing the American plane to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island about 100 miles from China. The 24-member crew was detained and questioned for about 10 days before being released”.

Yet, by taking this aggressive and hostile act China has not only increased the tension but has done little to appease the fears of its neighbours in Asia that it means them no harm. This has hurt whatever soft power China claims to have and at the same time made the United States all the more important for the rest of Asia. As a result, America should not halt or slow the pivot but in effect do the opposite, speed it up.

In an effort to test the Chinese resolve it was reported just days ago that America overflew the Chinese air defence identification zone (ADIZ).  The piece mentions that “sent a clear message to China yesterday not to over-step its territorial ambitions in the East China Sea by flying a pair of B-52 nuclear bombers through air-space disputed by Japan and China. The flights by the two unarmed aircraft came three days after Beijing unilaterally declared an aerial identification zone over a large area that includes the Senkaku islands – known as Diayou in China – that are the subject of a bitter territorial feud with Japan. The two US aircraft did not identify themselves as they entered China’s self-declared Air Defence Identification Zone, a Pentagon spokesman said on Tuesday, who pointedly referred to the disputed islands by their Japanese name. ‘We have continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies,’ said Col Steve Warren. The White House spelled out the significance of the B-52 flights, publicly rejecting the Chinese zone and urging Beijing to focus on diplomatic means to resolve the dispute”.

The article contiunes, “The bombers flew out of the US territory of Guam on Monday. US officials insisted the flights were long-planned and not in direct reaction to China’s latest declaration. The Chinese announcement of the zone was immediately disputed at the weekend by South Korea as well as Japan which summoned Chinese diplomats to protest. Tokyo ordered two of its biggest airlines, ANA and Japan Airlines, to stop filing flight plans with the Chinese as a demonstration of Japan’s disapproval. China did not respond publicly to the US flights, however the Chinese defence ministry said it had lodged protests with the US and Japanese embassies in Beijing over the criticism from Washington and Tokyo of the zone. In a move likely to raise concerns about Chinese aggression, Beijing sent its sole aircraft carrier for its first training mission into the South China Sea on Tuesday, amid maritime disputes with the Philippines and other neighbours”.

However it is clear that the flights by the US bombers were a clear signal that China should take note of its actions, not only with regard to Japan but also any aggresive posture with towards the United States will not be tolerated. The danger with the US action is that Japan, or some other nation, may think that China will not respond if it too seeks to send China a message that it will not be bullied by flying into its ADIZ. China could react and hostilities could easily follow.

America must therefore co-ordinate with the rest of Asia that it will not tolerate Chinese aggression in the region but at the same time the Chinese should not be intentionally provoked. This is simply the current dual deterrance policy between China and Taiwan writ large across Asia. It is however on a different scale and with seemingly endless provocations from China hard to enforce completely.

Huntsman 2016?

29/11/2013

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) left the door open to another presidential run during a Monday panel in New Hampshire. Asked whether he ever thinks about running again — Huntsman dropped out of the 2012 Republican primary after finishing third in New Hampshire — he suggested he hadn’t ruled out the option. He closed a long response to the question, posed at Saint Anselm College, by saying: “Which is a long way of saying that I love public service. I’ll always be committed to public service. And as an itinerant public servant, from time to time, it’s hard to know where you’re gonna wind up. But I’m not here as a candidate tonight, that’s for sure.” Huntsman’s statements were first reported in The Washington Post. He had previously seemed to rule out another bid, saying earlier this year he wanted to return to private life”.

“A positive first step”

29/11/2013

Noted nuclear expert Colin Kahl writes that the agreement reached with Iran was a good deal.

He argues that “Throughout the talks, Iran continued to assert its “inalienable right” under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to enrich uranium. As Secretary of State John Kerry made clear, however, the United States does not recognize such an inherent right for any country. (This includes non-nuclear weapons states like Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands that currently enrich uranium but are nevertheless seen by the United States as compliant with the NPT). On this issue, the P5+1 did not make an exception for Iran. Instead, the preamble to the Geneva agreement finesses the dispute. It states that in a final, comprehensive accord, Iran will “fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the NPT in conformity with its obligations therein.” It then states that, if a comprehensive agreement is later reached, that “[t]his comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the programme.” In other words, it recognizes the likely fact of limited Iranian enrichment in a final deal down the road, without conceding an explicit right to such activities in the NPT. This compromise seems to have been good enough for Tehran”.

He goes on to make the valid point that “Although the Geneva deal does not fully resolve the Iranian nuclear challenge, it represents a critical first step. It effectively freezes Iran’s program in place and rolls back some of its most dangerous dimensions. It buys at least six months — the period of the agreement — for the parties to negotiate a more comprehensive framework to ensure that Iran’s nuclear capabilities cannot be used to produce atomic weapons. And, crucially, by halting additional nuclear progress, it precludes Iran from using further talks to creep closer to a bomb. Not everyone is convinced, however. Israeli officials have been particularly critical. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the accord as a ‘historic mistake’ that produces only ‘cosmetic Iranian concessions that can be canceled in weeks.’ Israel”.

He adds that Israel’s concerns are not valid, “a close examination of the Geneva accord reveals that it will put Iran further away from a nuclear bomb than it is today — and, crucially, Tehran will be much further away than it would otherwise be six months from now in the absence of such an agreement”.

He argues that there are four reasons for this, “the agreement would lengthen Iran’s nuclear “breakout” timeline (the time required to produce weapons-grade uranium). The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates it would currently take as little as 1.3 to 2.3 months for Iran to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium (WGU) using a combination of its 3.5 percent and 20 percent uranium stockpile if Iran used its 10,000 currently operating centrifuges; if it used all 18,000 installed (but not currently operating) centrifuges, it could do so in 1 to 1.6 months. However, according to ISIS’s David Albright, if Iran stops 20 percent enrichment and neutralizes its 20 percent stockpile, this would lengthen the breakout time for WGU using 10,000 centrifuges to 3.1 to 3.5 months; if all 18,000 centrifuges were used, the breakout time would be 1.9 to 2.2 months. Under either set of calculations, the time for breakout effectively doubles as a result of the agreement. In contrast, in the absence of the deal, Iran may be able to shorten its breakout timeline over the next six months to as little as two weeks”.

The second point he makes is that “the Geneva deal would dramatically shrink detection timelines, making a nuclear breakout at declared facilities almost inconceivable. Currently, IAEA inspectors visit Natanz and Fordow every one-to-two weeks — under the deal, they will visit every day. Even with the compressed breakout timelines for WGU discussed above, there would be no way for Iran to divert its stockpile of LEU, reconfigure its centrifuges to produce weapons-grade material, and race to a bomb at declared facilities without getting caught in ample time for the United States, Israel, or other countries to react to interdict the process”.

He goes on to write thirdly that the deal is worthwhile “the deal puts the breaks on the plutonium track. Although the Arak HWR is unlikely to be completed for at least a year, once it is it could potentially produce one to two bombs’ worth of plutonium each year. Moreover, some worry that Tehran may rush to make Arak operational by loading fuel into the reactor, effectively making it immune from military attack, and thereby providing an unstoppable plutonium pathway to a nuke. The Geneva agreement, however, prevents Iran from constructing any more fuel assemblies for Arak, prohibits it from loading the fuel it already has, and stops it from transferring heavy water to the reactor. These measures will further delay construction of Arak and ensure that Iran cannot make it operational so long as the agreement remains in place”.

The piece ends with Kahl noting, “the Geneva deal makes it much more difficult for Iran to construct a parallel, covert nuclear infrastructure. Although most analysts focus on breakout scenarios relying on overt, declared facilities, another danger is the construction of clandestine sites to produce weapons-grade material. (Indeed, Iran’s two existing enrichment facilities, Natanz and Fordow, were initially built in secret). Under the Geneva agreement, however, it would be much more difficult for Iran to build a covert program without getting caught since it requires early notification of nuclear facilities and greatly expands inspector access to centrifuge production and assembly facilities, as well as uranium mines and mills. Keeping close tabs on these foundational capabilities would make it much more difficult — relative to today — for Iran to divert technology and materials to secret labs. Limiting centrifuge production to the sole purpose of repairing existing installed machines — another element of the current deal — puts further constraints on diversion. For all these reasons, the agreement is a positive first step toward the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons”.

He closes discussing the sanctions, “some critics believe that the sanctions relief agreed to in Geneva risks undermining the psychology of fear that currently drives investors and companies away from Iran. The net result, these critics argue, could be an economic “windfall” for Tehran and a substantial weakening of sanctions efficacy, reducing P5+1 leverage going into talks on a final accord. But the $6 to 7 billion in relief offered at Geneva is a fraction of the overall economic burden imposed by crippling international sanctions currently targeting (and motivating) Iran, estimated to total $120 billion. Most importantly, nothing about the agreement dismantles the financial and oil sanctions doing the most damage to the Iranian economy”.

Total withdrawal?

27/11/2013

After President Hamad Karzi of Afghanistan wanted to wait until after the presidential elections in April to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement. Yet after the BSA was endorsed by the Loya Jirga Karzi still refused to sign it, now, “Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a security deal with the United States, the White House said, opening up the prospect of a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the strife-torn nation next year. Karzai told U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice in Kabul on Monday that the United States must put an immediate end to military raids on Afghan homes and demonstrate its commitment to peace talks before he would sign a bilateral security pact, Karzai’s spokesman said. The White House said Karzai had outlined new conditions in the meeting with Rice and “indicated he is not prepared to sign the promptly”. “Without a prompt signature, the U.S. would have no choice but to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan,” a White House statement quoted Rice as saying. The complete withdrawal, called the “zero option”, would be similar to the pull-out of U.S. troops from Iraq two years ago”.

All thanks to Ashton?

27/11/2013

An unusal article has appeared that largely credits the infamous Baroness Ashton with the successful Iran deal. Such an argument, though interesting is not grounded in her past actions.

It begins, “The historic nuclear pact with Iran that was signed shortly before dawn Sunday was a personal and professional triumph for Secretary of State John Kerry, who invested enormous amounts of his political capital in the on-again, off-again talks with Tehran. But the bigger winner may be a low-profile British diplomat who shuns the press and had long been derided as a lightweight. Lady Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top diplomat, spent the past few days locked in round-the-clock negotiations with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. When the two sides finally agreed to a deal, it was Ashton and Zarif who met at Geneva’s Palais des Nations to formally sign the pact. Ashton, who has long been wary of the media, insisted that the event be closed to all but a handful of reporters and took no questions. That was very much in character for Ashton, an unassuming former member of the British House of Lords who got her job four years ago because of a byzantine political dispute involving former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Here in Geneva, though, she’s been on center stage. The foreign ministers of the so-called P5+1 countries — the U.S., Russia, Germany, China, France and Britain — held brief meetings with Zarif this weekend, but Ashton led the talks and was Zarif’s primary counterpart. Most of the time, she was the only one in the room with him as the deal slowly came together”.

The writer seems to be arguing that because Ashton and Dr Zarif signed the deal she bears much of the responsibility for its success. This seems odd given her previous actions. Famously Belgium admonished her while others have rightly lambasted her policy of extreme political correctness.

Not only that but the writer seems to bat away her appointment as “byzantine” when it is clear that she was chosen because of her gender and not because of any foreign policy training or experience. Therefore, to say that she has gone from someone wholly incompentent in the realm of foreign policy to someone who can pull off a deal with Iran, almost singlehandedly, must surely raise questions.  The writer also ignores the role played by Wendy Sherman who is equally low key and unassuming.

He does admit that “Ashton had some early stumbles, including failing to visit Haiti in the immediate aftermath of its devastating 2010 earthquake and giving a speech in 2012 that infuriated the Israeli government by appearing to equate a deadly shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse with the suffering of Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip. Ashton insisted that her comments had been taken out of context, but Ehud Barak, Israel’s then-defense minister, said her comments were ‘outrageous and had absolutely no grounding in reality.’ In recent years, though, Ashton has seemed to settle into her job. In April, she brokered a deal that led Serbia to relinquish its de facto control over northern Kosovo, easing tensions between the two longtime adversaries. More recently, she traveled to Cairo and became the first Western diplomat to visit deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Michael Mann, Ashton’s spokesman, said ‘its fair to say that her many successes have shown that the early skepticism was completely misplaced.’ When her appointment was announced in 2009, Ashton told her critics that she would eventually win them over”.

To credit Ashton with a deal that involved a host of other people, to say nothing of her own inexperience seems, at best bizarre, if not downright foolish and unfair.

BSA endorsed

27/11/2013

An assembly of Afghan elders endorsed a crucial security deal [Bilateral Security  Agreement, BSA] on Sunday to enable U.S. troops to operate in the country beyond next year, but President Hamid Karzai left the matter up in the air by refusing to say whether he would sign it into law. The gathering, known as the Loya Jirga, had been convened by the president to debate the pact which outlines the legal terms of continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. It voted in favour and advised Karzai sign it promptly. But Karzai, in his final remarks to the four-day meeting, said he would not sign it until after a presidential election due next April”.

Changing the Senate rules

27/11/2013

An article examines how Harry Reid (D-NV) managed to get enough votes in the Senate to change the way the filibuster is used. Much of this stems from GOP intransigence, the latest row being over judicial nominees.

The piece notes that “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did not know if he had the votes to trigger the nuclear option at the start of last week. A Democratic leadership aide said he had not yet conducted a whip count and an outside liberal group that worked closely with him to advocate for filibuster reform said he was short of the 50 votes needed. Reid never told his colleagues when he surpassed the mark. He simply called for a vote on the floor. That’s when Democrats knew they were about to enact one of the biggest Senate rules changes in decades. “I just assumed he would never take it to the floor unless he had the votes. He’s too shrewd a vote counter. He really knows the Senate,” said a Democratic senator. Several Republican senators tried to patch together a deal in the final hours to avoid the nuclear option.”

The article goes on to add that “Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a well-respected centrist, said Republicans could agree to confirm one of President Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals if Democrats agreed to let the other two languish and dropped the threat of the nuclear option, according to a source familiar with the talks. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Senate GOP’s principal deal-maker this Congress, urged Reid to consider it and other proposals instead of a rules change. In the end, Reid said he would accept nothing less than confirmation of all three of Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit, the second most powerful court in the nation, which has primary jurisdiction over the Affordable Care Act.  Outside groups had worked for months to persuade Reid to curb the minority party’s power to filibuster nominees. But in the end, Reid worked largely alone. His decision to trigger the nuclear option — so dubbed because it’s viewed as a dramatic escalation of partisan tactics — caught them by surprise. Two members of the Fix the Senate Now coalition predicted earlier this week that Reid would not try to eliminate the power to filibuster executive and sub-Supreme Court judicial nominees before the end of the year”.

Interestingly it goes on to note “He opened the meeting with a passionate speech announcing his decision to move ahead with a unilateral change of the filibuster rule. His plan was to overturn a ruling of the presiding chair with a simple majority vote, an aggressive tactic that several senior members of his caucus had long opposed. After months of Republican obstruction, which culminated in the shutdown of the federal government in October, even longtime skeptics of a sudden rules change were finally ready to curb the minority party’s power to delay. “Harry made an impassioned plea,” said a Democratic lawmaker, who described Reid’s remarks as similar to what he delivered on the Senate floor Thursday. “He said this is where we’re headed.” Speaking on the floor shortly before the momentous vote, Reid declared Thursday: “The American people believe Congress is broken. The American people believe the Senate is broken. And I believe the American people are right.” Reid, without mentioning the colleague’s name, told his caucus that one of its senior members who had long opposed filibuster reform, recently had a change of mind and privately urged him to trigger the controversial tactic. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) then rose before the room full of Democrats and identified herself as the recent convert”.

As has been mentioned here before many times, what Reid is doing is not ideal. However, unless the GOP can change their tone and work with the Democrats where there is agreement between the two parties America will slide further into a morass and America will then start its long decline. Otherwise Reid has little choice.

“A harsh critique”

27/11/2013

Pope Francis launched a harsh critique against “trickle-down” economics and an unrestricted free market Tuesday, as he lamented the growing issue of income inequality. In a new writing, the leader of the Catholic Church identified current economic conditions as a major challenge facing the globe. In particular, he argued that the “idolatry of money” in society has created a class of people who are basically disposable”.

Talks on Syria?

27/11/2013

In an exclusive article in Foreign Policy, talks are being held on the future of Syria. It opens, “The United States, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia and others held secret and informal discussions on Thursday to devise a strategy for improving the U.N.’s stalled relief effort in Syria, according to diplomatic sources familiar with the effort. The meeting — which was held at the French mission to the United Nations in Geneva — was convened to lay the ground work for a more formal meeting scheduled for November 26 on the future of international relief efforts in Syria. The participation of American and Iranian officials provides further evidence that the decades-long diplomatic freeze between the two countries is beginning to thaw, offering new areas beyond the ongoing round of nuclear diplomacy where the long-time enemies can cooperate”.

What is notable, aside from the US and Iranian participation is the fact that both the US and Saudis are there also. This flies in the face of repeated comment by some that the relationship between the two is permenantly fractured despite obvious Saudi opposition to a US deal with Iran.

The piece goes on to add that “The U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, organized the session to bring together regional and outside powers with influence on the warring parties. The goal: get both sides to allow international relief workers into the country, so they can help hundreds of thousands of civilians cut off from humanitarian aid. The United Nations is straining to deliver life-saving essentials, including food and medicine, to more than 2.5 million people, including more than 300,000 civilians who live in towns under siege by the Syrian army, some of them forced to survive on a diet of leaves”.

It continues, “Their plight has been worsened by Syrian government policies that impede the delivery of assistance to civilians in opposition strongholds; the Assad regime has routinely denied deliveries of medicine and thrown up bureaucratic hurdles when relief workers have filed for visas. Extremist opposition groups have also targeted Syrian and international relief workers, and laid siege to towns near the city of Aleppo. On October 2, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement that condemns “all cases of denial of humanitarian access” and calls for the facilitation of the “safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance in the whole country.” But the situation has improved little in the six weeks since. Frustrated at the lack of progress, Australia and Luxembourg last month began drafting a more formal provisional Security Council resolution aimed at stepping up pressure on the parties to comply. But Russia fiercely opposed the measure, and Amos subsequently persuaded Australia and Luxembourg that that it would be better to hold off, and pursue a diplomatic route by organising a group of influential countries to press the case. The governments of the U.S., Britain, China, France Russia, Kuwait ,Qatar, Australia and Luxembourg have all formally accepted the U.N.’s invitation to meet in Geneva on Tuesday. Diplomats from Saudi Arabia told their counterparts in Geneva Thursday that the delegation was awaiting a formal decision from the capital. Diplomats have provided conflicting accounts as to whether Iran has accepted the invitation. On Friday, Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations, was non-committal, but suggested Tehran looked favourably on Amos’s effort”.

It concludes, “Diplomats familiar with the talks said that France has insisted that Syria’s neighbor, Turkey, be allowed to participate in Tuesday’s talks, while Russia proposed that most of Syria’s neighbors, including Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, be invited. Israel has not been invited. ‘The group is getting bigger and bigger. What was supposed to be a small is now becoming a monster,’ said one diplomat, raising concern that Tuesday’s session would degenerate into an oversized gathering of diplomats delivering political speeches. It’s not clear, the official, said that this is ‘something workable.’ The diplomat said that while the plan to put the Security Council resolution is “on ice” the council could quickly press for the adoption of the Australia and Luxembourg resolution if the Geneva talks fail to yield progress. Saudi Arabia has also been circulated language for a Security Council resolution on humanitarian access. Amos is scheduled to brief the 15-nation Security Council the first week of December, the official noted. If she says the government is not cooperating, the ‘resolution will come back to the table very quickly.'”

Bishop Crociata

27/11/2013

Francis named Mariano Crociata, formerly the secretary of the Italian bishops’ conference (CEI), as the new bishop of the diocese of Latina. It raised eyebrows in church circles because the last four secretaries of CEI were all named to major archdioceses that put them in line to become princes of the church and heavy-hitters of the first order — Cardinals Camillo Ruini, Dionigi Tettamanzi, Ennio Antonelli and Giuseppe Betori. (If you don’t know those names, you haven’t been paying attention.) Francis also has made it clear he’d like to change the statutes for CEI to allow the bishops to choose their own president and secretary rather than being the only conference in the world where those jobs are assigned directly by the pope. Taken together, these are moves away from careerism — with Crociata, Francis has signaled that serving as secretary of a bishops’ conference is no guarantee of a cardinal’s red hat — and toward greater collegiality”. He could have easily taken either Palermo or Bolonga, or had he been left in the job longer, Naples, the fact that none of these senarios worked out says much.

“Not out of the woods yet”

27/11/2013

Further to the interim agreement between Iran and the other powers Matthew Kroenig writes that a more long term settlement will be much harder to achieve.

He notes ” it is much too early to declare victory. Indeed, the Iranian nuclear crisis might still very well end in President Obama making a fateful choice between Iran with the bomb or bombing Iran. The interim pact is a step in the right direction. It puts strict ceilings on all aspects of Iran’s program, including: centrifuge production, number and types of operating centrifuges, stockpiles of low- and medium-enriched uranium, numbers of enrichment facilities, and the start-up of the Arak reactor. In addition, these measures are to be verified by more intrusive inspections. In exchange, the United States offered relatively modest sanctions relief to the tune of roughly $7 billion. The deal will leave the most important aspects of the sanctions regime in place and, if Tehran honors its end of the bargain, prevent Iran from inching ever closer to a nuclear weapons breakout capability while negotiations continue. But we are not out of the woods yet”.

He goes on to write that “There remains a chasm between the two sides on fundamental issues, including Iran’s erroneous claim to a “right to enrich,” Tehran’s unwillingness to come clean on its past nuclear weaponization activities, whether Iran will be allowed to continue to enrich at the deeply buried Fordow facility (or to enrich at all), the final status of the Arak reactor, and many other matters. For the next six months, therefore, we will replay the tape we have been watching since President Rouhani assumed power in August. The Iranians and the P5+1 will attempt to negotiate an accord while a worldwide chorus chimes in on the contours of an acceptable deal and otherwise seeks to influence the outcome”.

He argues that there are three possibilities, “First, the two sides might successfully negotiate a comprehensive deal that succeeds in dismantling the Iranian nuclear threat. This would be the best possible outcome, but, given the outstanding differences mentioned above, it is also the least likely”.

He continues that “The second possibility is that the six-month interim deal expires without an accord and the two sides agree to extend the terms of the interim deal. Over time, therefore, there is the danger that the interim deal becomes permanent. (Also in this category would be the possibility that we reach a weak “comprehensive” pact that does not go much beyond the interim arrangement). This outcome should be avoided. As long as such an arrangement is strictly enforced, it would at least prevent Iran from making the final dash to a nuclear weapon, but it would leave far too much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place for comfort, amount to a de facto recognition of Iran’s right to enrich, and set a dangerous precedent for nonproliferation policy. Moreover, the tough sanctions regime now in place cannot hold forever, and over time the pressure on Iran to uphold its end of the bargain will dissipate. Finally, and at least as likely as the others, is the possibility that the interim deal begins to unravel after six months, or perhaps even before, and Iran resumes its steady march toward nuclear weapons. In this event, Congress must pass the tough sanctions bill it is currently marking up and the international community must prepare to take military action”.

He ends the piece “at least as likely as the others, is the possibility that the interim deal begins to unravel after six months, or perhaps even before, and Iran resumes its steady march toward nuclear weapons. In this event, Congress must pass the tough sanctions bill it is currently marking up and the international community must prepare to take military action”.

It has been reported that Harry Reid (D-NV) is considering more sanctions on Iran, “the Senate might pursue stronger sanctions against Iran, after lawmakers criticized a nuclear accord that would ease sanctions. Reid called the pact negotiated between six world powers and Iran an “important first step,” but expressed uncertainty whether it would be good enough”.

The piece goes on to note “Reid said Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) would study, and could hold hearings on, the pact. “If we need to do stronger sanctions, I’m sure we will do that,” he said. “We’ll move forward appropriately.” Reid acknowledged President Obama could veto stronger sanctions passed by Congress if he believed they ran counter to his foreign policy agenda”.

Either Reid is pulling a stunt, thereby endangering the talks, or he is knowingly wasting everyone’s time, including President Obama’s with his threat of more sanctions that could and should be vetoed if they are voted on.

After the election?

25/11/2013

President Hamid Karzai triggered uncertainty about a vital security pact with the United States on Thursday by saying it should not be signed until after Afghanistan’s presidential election next April, prompting the White House to insist on a year-end deadline. Karzai’s surprise move, which came just a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the pact’s language had been agreed upon, suddenly threw its future into question and seemed certain to reignite tensions with Washington. The Afghan leader spoke to about 2,500 tribal elders and political leaders from across Afghanistan gathered in the capital for a Loya Jirga, or grand council, to debate whether to allow U.S. troops to stay after the planned 2014 drawdown of foreign forces. Without an accord on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), the United States says it could pull out all its troops at the end of 2014 and leave Afghan forces to fight the Taliban insurgency on their own. In a statement certain to irritate the United States, which is eager to clinch the deal as soon as possible, Karzai told the assembly any agreement on the status of U.S. forces would have to wait until after a presidential election in April”.

A short term deal

25/11/2013

A short term deal was agreed. The terms of the deal state that Iran will, halt enrichment of uranium above 5% purity. (Uranium enriched to 3.5-5% can be used for nuclear power reactors, 20% for nuclear medicines and 90% for a nuclear bomb.), “Neutralise” its stockpile of near-20%-enriched uranium, either by diluting it to less than 5% or converting it to a form which cannot be further enriched, Not install any more centrifuges (the machines used to enrich uranium), leave half to three-quarters of centrifuges installed in Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilities inoperable,  not build any more enrichment facilities, not increase its stockpile of 3.5% low-enriched uranium, halt work on the construction of its heavy-water reactor at Arak, not attempt to produce plutonium there and provide daily access to Natanz and Fordo sites to IAEA inspectors and access to other facilities, mines and mills. As part of the deal no further sanctions will be applied if Iran complies and there will also be relief from sanctions.

The deal with Iran was reached yesterday in Geneva. Reports mention that “historic nuclear deal Iran signed with the United States and five other world powers early Sunday morning represents the biggest gamble of President Barack Obama’s presidency, and the success or failure of that bet will have serious repercussions for the administration’s standing on Capitol Hill, Washington’s relationships with Israel and other Middle Eastern allies, and the national security of the United States itself. The deal painstakingly assembled during four days of marathon negotiations at a luxury hotel here calls for Iran to halt most of its uranium enrichment efforts, eliminate its stockpiles of uranium already purified to near weapons grade quality, open its facilities to daily monitoring by international inspectors and significantly slow the construction of the Arak plutonium reactor. Nuclear weapons can be assembled using either enriched uranium or plutonium, and the new pact is designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Iran to gain enough of either material for a bomb”.

The piece notes that “Iran would gain some relief from the punishing economic sanctions that had been leveled by Washington and its allies in recent years, freeing up roughly $6 billion. Tehran also won a commitment that the so-called P5+1 nations – the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain – wouldn’t impose any new sanctions for the next six months. That was an important win for the Iranians since the existing measures have cut its oil exports in half and driven the price of its currency down to a historic low”.

It goes on to add that “President Obama, speaking from the White House, said the deal “halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program” and “cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb.” He also stressed that the agreement was an interim measure designed to give negotiators from both sides six months to work towards a broader, permanent nuclear agreement. If a deal couldn’t be reached – or if the United States found evidence that Iran was trying to secretly continue work on its nuclear weapons program – Obama promised to restore the sanctions that had been lifted and impose harsh new ones. The White House moved quickly to try to preempt criticism that the deal gave Iran too much.  A senior administration official in Washington said the primary U.S. sanctions against Iran’s oil and banking sectors would remain fully intact, which means that Iran would lose roughly $30 billion in oil revenue over the next six months, far more than it stands to gain as part of the agreement.  “Iran will actually be worse off at the end of this six month deal than it is today,” the official said”.

However, he writes that there are three problems. The first is Congress involving itself needlessly, “the White House has to persuade skeptical lawmakers to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran during the next six months. That may be a hard sell given the number of lawmakers from both parties who want to increase the sanctions on Iran rather than softening or relieving any of the existing measures”.

The second issue is Israel, “the administration faces the tough task of convincing Israel that the deal does enough to constrain Iran’s nuclear program that Israel should give the administration more time to work out a permanent pact with Tehran rather than resorting to unilateral military strikes. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was harshly critical of earlier iterations of the nuclear deal and has promised to do whatever is necessary to protect his country”.

As has been mentioned here before Israel is the country that has cried wolf too many times and should be ignored. Lastly he writes that “The third and final unknown is what the deal will ultimately mean for American national security.  The agreement imposes an unprecedented number of new restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and, if fully implemented, would make it extraordinarily difficult for Tehran to obtain a bomb. Still, the deal doesn’t require Iran to disassemble any of its roughly 19,000 centrifuges or to destroy all of its uranium enrichment equipment. Netanyahu and other critics argue that leaving the core infrastructure of Iran’s nuclear program intact means that Tehran could restart its weapons push anytime it wants, particularly if it senses that the West has lost its appetite for further sanctions or the potential use of military force”.

However evidence that a more long term deal will be difficult, though not impossible to accomplish is made clear when Dr Mohammad Javad Zarif flew to Iran “from Geneva to a welcoming crowd, a reflection of the relief felt by many Iranians exhausted by isolation and sanctions that have been particularly punishing in the last two years. Zarif said in an interview broadcast on state television that Iran would move quickly to start implementing the agreement and it was ready to begin talks on a final accord. “In the coming weeks – by the end of the Christian year – we will begin the program for the first phase. At the same time, we are prepared to begin negotiations for a final resolution as of tomorrow,” Zarif said. Illustrating the delicate dance that looms, he and Kerry differed in their public descriptions of the part of the agreement regarding Iran’s right to enrich uranium. Sunday’s agreement said Iran and the major powers aimed to reach a final deal that would “involve a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities.” Before heading to Geneva, Zarif had a crucial meeting with Khamenei in the presence of Rouhani, a senior member of the Iranian delegation said.

Lower oil price?

23/11/2013

Prices of crude have fluctuated this week with the prospects of success in Geneva, where the United States is negotiating with Iran and five other countries about suspending some of the sanctions on the Iranian economy in exchange for Tehran curbing parts of its nuclear program. The price of crude oil fell in the middle of the week, but recovered to over $95 per barrel by Friday. Though oil sanctions aren’t necessarily on the table in Geneva, an interim deal could raise hopes in the market that they’ll be lifted in the future, which could in turn send prices lower. Yet that view could be optimistic, Sternoff said. ‘Even under an interim deal, it’s not like we’re going to see a huge rush of Iranian oil back on the market.’ At it’s peak, Iran produced close to 4 million barrels of oil per day, but sanctions have reduced that close to 2.5 million barrels per day. Amy Myers Jaffe, who studies fuel markets at the University of California Davis, said any drop in prices if there’s a deal this weekend wouldn’t necessarily be about ‘how much extra oil is going to come out from Iran.’ Instead, ‘the real impact is in changing the market psychology and that’s just much harder to predict,’ said Jaffe, who is the Executive Director of Energy and Sustainability at the University of California at Davis’s business school. Changing that psychology would require not just a deal with the United States, Jaffe added, but improved relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel as well”.

Backing Egypt, for now

23/11/2013

An article has appeared on the relationship between the US administration and the authorities in Egypt. The piece notes that “John Kerry can’t seem to find enough ways these days to express his acceptance of Egypt’s military coup regime. In a visit to Cairo, he waved away the hard-fought suspension of some U.S. aid as “not a punishment” and declined to raise the issue of the trial of former President Mohamed Morsi. He seems keen to pretend that Egypt is on the road to democracy, and even appears to believe that the fiercely anti-democratic United Arab Emirates is going to support a democratic transition. Most recently, he endorsed the regime’s narrative by claimingthat the Muslim Brotherhood “stole” the revolution — by winning free and fair elections, which Washington strongly supported”.

Yet this reading is both simplistic and naive. It is simplistic in that it tends to downplay all that the regime in Egypt has done thus far by way of instituting order, to say nothing of the upcoming elections. Secondly it should be remembered just how bad Morsi was and that while not perfect the current regime is far better for US interests and Egypt as well. Therefore not raising the trail of Morsi is simple realism, America has more important things to be worrying about in Egypt that the trail of an incompentent dictator. He is fair in reminding the reader that the elections were broadly free and fair but he is grossly naive in dismissing the way the Brotherhood behaved while in power and dismissing the revolt against Morsi’s rule. While it could not said to be exactly democratic, no one would claim that, it equally would be naive to say that such an action was only supported by a small clique of military officials. This would be patently false.

He goes on to write that “Why is Kerry making such a production of supporting Egypt’s military regime? Most likely, President Barack Obama’s administration simply has much bigger regional issues with which to grapple, and has decided that it can accomplish little in a hopelessly fractured Egypt. It (correctly) calculates that there is little it can do to influence the course of events in Cairo due to the pervasive hostility to Washington across the Egyptian political spectrum and the willingness of Gulf states to offset any American attempts to exercise leverage. It may be galling to many Egypt watchers and Egyptians who consider Cairo the center of the Middle East universe, but right now events there are barely a sideshow for Washington. Cairo has made it quite clear that it has little interest in American advice, and Washington has far more important issues on its plate. Both Iran’s nuclear program and the horrific war in Syria continue to take priority over Egypt on America’s regional agenda. Closing a deal with Iran would arguably be the single most impressive and important geostrategic accomplishment in the Middle East since the Camp David Accords”.

He then writes that the “coup” really was a coup and nothing else. He argues that “everything that has happened since July 3, without exception, has confirmed the coupness of Egypt’s coup. Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military regime has done everything by the book — rounding up and brutalising supporters of the old regime, cultivating a cult of personality around the coup leader, tightly controlling the media, stage-managing a constitutional process designed to protect the military’s power and privileges, and even promising an eventual return to democracy. The more obvious the nature of Egypt’s coup has become, the faster Washington has tried to run away from the legal and political implications of acknowledging it. Kerry may choose to suck it up and pretend to believe that Egypt’s future is looking up, but I think this administration understands the reality is that the coup broke the country’s politics for the foreseeable future. The State Department certainly has no illusions that Egypt’s military regime has any answers for the country’s staggering economy, shattered political consensus, or crumbling institutions”.

While all of what he says is true this does not mean that the way al-Sisi got into power was a coup. It would be like arguing that the way Morsi acted was democratic just because he was elected. This is the mantra that the Brotherhood carry on repeating, blind to the fact that they had their chance to govern for all of Egypt and lost it, spectactularly.

He does correctly argue that “The United States will likely deem this hyper-caffeinated neo-Mubarakism good enough to justify restoring more openly cordial ties with Cairo. But Egypt’s problems aren’t going away: The next president will have to face the same political, economic, and cultural challenges that eventually brought down both Mubarak and Morsy. Fanning the flames of hatred for the Muslim Brothers, building a personality cult around Sisi, and shoveling Gulf cash into a furnace all buy time — but have little lasting effect. Ultimately, instability and popular protest will return”.

“Detailed negotiations”

23/11/2013

The foreign policy chief of the European Union spent much of Thursday in detailed negotiations with Iranian officials over an agreement to temporarily freeze Tehran’s nuclear program. But the day ended without reports of a breakthrough and with a warning by a leading American lawmaker that he was prepared to introduce legislation next month that would impose new economic sanctions on Iran. The talks on Thursday between Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, and Dr Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, were described by a spokesman for Ms. Ashton as “intense” and “substantial.” Their negotiations were to continue Friday morning.  Reports in the Iranian news media suggested that the talks might continue into the weekend and could end with the arrival of Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of other world powers if a deal appeared close. But whether the remaining issues can be resolved was unclear”.

Hezbollah benefits

23/11/2013

David Kenner writes that the one group that might benefit from the deal between the P5 + 1 and Iran.

Kenner writes, “one surprising party has come out in favour of a diplomatic solution: America’s foe, the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah. ‘If an understanding is reached between Iran and the West over the nuclear program, our side will be stronger locally, regionally, and internationally,’ said Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in a speech in Beirut’s southern suburbs last week on the occasion of Ashura, one of the most important holidays of the year for Shiites.  ‘If things go for war, the other camp should be worried.’ There is limited but mounting evidence that a U.S.-Iranian agreement over Tehran’s nuclear program could help improve the two countries’ collaboration on other issues. Washington and Tehran, for example, will likely both participate in a U.N.-sponsored effort to improve the humanitarian situation in Syria. But if Hezbollah’s vocal support for a deal is any indication, one issue that will remain unresolved is the role of the militant group, which U.S. officials have condemned in years past as “the A Team of terrorists” – and more recently castigated for lending military support to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In other words, the “Party of God” isn’t afraid that a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement would harm its close political and military ties to Tehran”.

Kenner goes on to add “It helps, of course, that the war in nearby Syria is increasingly tilting in the direction of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a staunch ally of both Hezbollah and Iran. The Syrian military — aided by fighters from Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias — has recently seized territory back in the Aleppo and Damascus suburbs.”

He continues, “Hezbollah sees a chance to rebuild the ties between Hamas and the Assad regime, which were severed after senior Hamas officials left Damascus as the revolt gained pace in early 2012. Iran, which has maintained ties with Hamas even as it disapproved of its stance on Syria, is crucial to that effort – a fact that is unlikely to change with or without a nuclear deal. ‘[Hezbollah] is confident that they can re-strengthen the Axis of Resistance to the way it was before the Syrian revolt,’ Qassir said. Other observers see Hezbollah’s public support for a deal in Geneva as an extension of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s orders to Iran’s internal factions that they say nothing that could undermine the talks. Iranian diplomats ‘have a difficult mission and no one must weaken an official who is busy with work,’ Khamenei saidearlier this month. The negotiators, he added, ‘are children of the revolution.'”

He concludes, “Whatever Nasrallah’s reasons for supporting the talks, however, the Hezbollah chief did not neglect to use the moment to contrast what he described as America’s wavering support for its allies to the firm support of Hezbollah’s patrons. ‘We have two allies – Iran and Syria,’ he said. ‘We are sure of that alliance.'”

While any potential deal with Iran will affect Hezbollah, the deal should in no way be seen to legitimise Hezbollah or its activities. However, America, acting realistically knows that a deal with Iran is not going to be perfect but that it will gain far more by dealing with Iran and accepting that it will have to deal with Hezbollah later.

“Troop presence through 2024”

23/11/2013

Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Wednesday that the United States and Afghanistan had finalised the wording of a bilateral security agreement that would allow for a lasting American troop presence through 2024 and set the stage for billions of dollars of international assistance to keep flowing to the government in Kabul. The deal, which will now be presented for approval by an Afghan grand council of elders starting on Thursday, came after days of brinkmanship by Afghan officials and two direct calls from Mr. Kerry to President Hamid Karzai, including one on Wednesday before the announcement.Just the day before, a senior aide to Mr. Karzai had said the Afghan leader would not approve an agreement unless President Obama sent a letter acknowledging American military mistakes during the 12-year war. But on Wednesday, Mr. Kerry emphatically insisted that a deal was reached with no American apology forthcoming”.

Terrorist infighting

21/11/2013

An interesting article has appeared in Foreign Affairs discussing the internal weaknesses of al-Qaeda due to infighting and other tensions.

The piece opens “Like any sprawling organization, al Qaeda has seen its fair share of bureaucratic infighting. But the squabbling has reached fever pitch since Ayman al-Zawahiri began his tenure as head of the organization two years ago. Two of al Qaeda’s four main affiliates, al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are bitterly, and sometimes violently, feuding for supremacy in North and West Africa. Another affiliate, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), has openly defied Zawahiri’s will in Syria. If Zawahiri wants to assign blame for the lack of order, he should look no further than himself: the squabbling is largely a result of his decision to expand al Qaeda too broadly. Paradoxically, one major reason that al Qaeda affiliates are not getting along is the great many opportunities before them. The turmoil in the Arab world has created security vacuums that Zawahiri has sought to exploit by calling on his local affiliates to set up shop. As they move in, they often disagree about who should be in charge”.

He gives the example of Syria, “On April 9, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq, a front group for AQI, declared that his group was changing its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), indicating his desire to play a greater role in the Syrian civil war. (“Al Sham” refers to Syria and its surrounding area.) The emir also claimed that AQI had already been fighting in Syria in the form of the Nusra Front, which he said was subordinate to him. Yet Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the Nusra Front’s leader, refused to acknowledge Baghdadi as his leader; instead he pledged a direct oath of allegiance to Zawahiri. In response to the spat, Zawahiri sent a private message ruling that both men had erred”.

He adds that the dispute did not end, instead, “Baghdadi, however, had other plans. In a public message to Zawahiri after receiving the memo, he rejected Zawahiri’s message on religious and methodological grounds, saying that he had “chosen the command of my Lord over the command in the letter that contradicts it.” In the 25-year history of al Qaeda, no affiliate had ever publicly disagreed with the boss so brazenly.  The dispute between the Nusra Front and ISIS is not just about bureaucratic power; it is also about strategy and the future of al Qaeda’s global jihad. The Nusra Front, which wants to maintain its popular support among the Syrian people, has tried to make nice with the other opposition groups in the country. By contrast, ISIS has attacked fellow rebels — including the Nusra Front — and implemented draconian Islamic law in the towns that it has captured, both of which have alienated Syrians”.

Things were complicated when he goes on to write that “Zawahiri could be excused for failing to anticipate the organisational disputes that would arise from his call for jihad in the Arab countries undergoing violent transitions. But he should have known better than to publicly acknowledge al Qaeda’s merger with the badly run al Shabaab organisation in Somalia. When the merger was announced in early 2012, it looked good on paper, because al Shabaab controlled most of Somalia. It also stood out among al Qaeda affiliates for attracting Western fighters who could be sent on missions into Europe. But Zawahiri should have heeded the warnings of his predecessor, bin Laden. In 2010, bin Laden made clear that he thought it would be a mistake to publicly announce a merger with al Shabaab because its leaders were bad at governing and because they harshly implemented Islamic law in the territory they controlled, which did them no favours with the local Somali population. Bin Laden did not want to own the mistakes of his subordinates. Zawahiri urged his boss to reconsider — to no avail — and tried to blunt the advice that bin Laden received from other lieutenants who wanted to limit the size of al Qaeda, lest it get out of control. Zawahiri ultimately got his way: nine months after bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda publicly accepted a pledge of loyalty from Ahmed Abdi Godane, al Shabaab’s leader”.

He adds that the result of this merger between the two organisations was further infighting when al-Shabaab lost large sections of Somalia. He goes on to make the interesting point that ”

“As the political scientist Jacob Shapiro observes in his new book, The Terrorist’s Dilemma, all terrorist groups suffer from infighting for one basic reason. If they want to achieve their goals and to avoid being captured or killed, leaders of secretive violent organisations have to give their commanders in the field some measure of autonomy. When the field commanders become too independent, the leadership attempts to rein them in through various bureaucratic measures.

Without a doubt, Zawahiri is trying to rein in his unruly affiliates. What is striking is that Zawahiri created much of the problem himself by trying to expand al Qaeda too broadly”. He mentions that where AQAP did not expand too quickly there is a lack of infighting.

He concludes the piece, “Zawahiri’s knack for creating factions and his unwillingness to part with them when they misbehave could help al Qaeda’s opponents blame the entire organization for the atrocities committed in its name. Over time, perhaps the bloody collage will dampen enthusiasm for joining al Qaeda and even horrify its members. But in the near term, Zawahiri’s poor management is not necessarily a boon to the United States and its allies. The various factions of a once-unified al Qaeda could compete with one another over which group can mount the biggest attack on the West. Whatever the case may be, Zawahiri’s inability to manage al Qaeda’s sprawling organisation offers a preview of the infighting to come after his inevitable death”.

“Could be at risk”

21/11/2013

Pope Francis could be at risk from the ‘Ndrangheta organized crime organization, according to a leading anti-mob prosecutor who has himself been the target of threats from the mafia. Nicola Gratteri, 55, a state prosecutor in the southern Italian region of Calabria, where the ‘Ndrangheta is most active, said the pope’s effort to reform the church is making the ‘Ndrangheta “very nervous.” The organization is considered by experts in Italy to be the most dangerous, most unified and most difficult to penetrate mafia-type organization in the country”.

A missed opportunity

21/11/2013

After the storm hit the Philippines many rushed to give money and aid to the stricken country. America sent an entire carrier battle group to produce fresh water and give medical aid. China however has missed not only an opportunity to enhance whatever little soft power it has in the region but at the same time calm the nerves of many of its Asian neighbours.

The piece opens, “international aid is flowing to the Philippines. The United Nations released$25 million from an emergency fund and the United States pledged$20 million in immediate relief. But, for the moment at least, precious little assistance is coming from the region’s behemoth. The Chinese authorities announceda paltry $100,000 in humanitarian aid (along with another $100,000 via the Red Cross Society of China). Beijing’s cold shoulder fits with a broader diplomatic isolation of Manila, which China has shepherded. In recent months, China’s foreign minister hasmet with all 10 counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) member-states — except the Philippines. A key point of friction has been the Philippines’ willingness to challenge Beijing’s maritime claims”.

He adds that “The most dangerous flashpoint came in the spring of 2012, when vessels from the Philippines and China engaged in a weeks-long standoffover waters near the Scarborough Shoal, a rocky formation little more than 100 miles from the Philippines’ Subic Bay, the once (and perhaps future) home of a U.S. Navy base. The incident began when Filipino sailors boarded a Chinese vessel fishing in what the Philippines considers its own maritime economic zone. After an unnerving naval escalation, the confrontation ended a few months later with China in effective control of the disputed waters.  The incident revealed just how badly the Philippines is outmatched at sea. Partly in response, the Philippines wants to upgrade its military cooperation with the United States. “We stand ready to tap every resource, to call on every alliance to do what is necessary to defend what is ours,” Filipino Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario said in August. The government is also snapping up second-hand vessels to bolster its own fleet. But these moves won’t change the archipelago’s lack of wherewithal to challenge China’s claims. Beijingboasts an expanding and modernising naval fleet”.

Yet as he writes, raw power may not be enough to save China’s claims, “if on the high seas Manila is at a profound disadvantage, the courtroom may level the playing field. In the realm of international law, the power balance is often less tilted, and that is where the Philippines has turned. In January, the Philippines foreign minister informedChina’s ambassador that the country was filing suit against China. Beijing angrily rejected the claim and has vowed not to participate in the case, insisting on its “indisputable sovereignty” in the area. But the case is moving forward nonetheless, and every state with an interest in Asia’s troubled waters is watching closely. For all Beijing’s bluster, the Philippines stands a good chance of denting China’s maritime claims. The Chinese claims in the South China Sea are embodied in the now notorious “nine-dash line” that China first formally presented internationally in 2009. The gigantic U-shape marks what China views as its maritime entitlements in the area. It encompasses nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea”.

The bad news keeps on coming for China however when he notes that “Through its legal case, the Philippines aims to expose the gap between these venerable claims and the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which provides rules for what states can claim as territorial seas (which extend 12 miles from shore) and as “exclusive economic zones” (which normally extend 200 miles). China might simply insist that UNCLOS doesn’t apply, but for the inconvenient fact that China (unlike the United States) has ratifiedthe treaty. Even less convenient from Beijing’s perspective, joining UNCLOS committed China to an international arbitration process for disputes related to the agreement. With its January filing, the Philippines set that process in motion, and a group of experienced arbitrators has assembled to review the case.  It’s no surprise the Philippines was the only aggrieved state willing to sue the Asian behemoth: it is by far the most assertive of the smaller countries with an interest in the South China Sea. In 2012 it pushed hard for a statement by ASEAN on the maritime disputes, leading to the group’s embarrassing failure to release a joint statement at the conclusion of that year’s summit — and plenty of hard feelings on all sides”.

The writer continues, “China’s political and economic weight accounts for the diplomatic reticence, but the complexity of the legal issues may also be discouraging states from rallying to Manila’s side. Chinese officials — and some independent maritime law scholars — argue that the international arbitrators have no jurisdiction. They point in particular to a set of restrictions on arbitration that China announced in 2006. These restrictions, which China is within its legal rights to assert, preclude arbitrations related to maritime “delimitation,” military activities, certain types of historical claims, and questions of sovereignty over territory.  At first glance, those restrictions poke several holes in the Filipino case”.

Thankfully he goes on to say that “The government signed up a veteran litigator of maritime disputes to fashion the complaint and argue their case. Washington D.C.-based lawyer Paul Reichlerhas previously represented Nicaragua, Bangladesh, Mauritius, Guyana, and Croatia in disputes involving maritime issues. When I spoke to him recently, he walked me through Manila’s case and explained why none of China’s restrictions on jurisdiction should prevent the arbitrators from ruling on the case. He dealt first with the question of whether China’s alleged historical rights in the South China Sea will prevent the arbitrators from considering the case, insisting that the UNCLOS notion of “historic title” has a very narrow meaning. “States can’t claim historical title in the open ocean,” he says. “The concept applies only to waters very close to the coast that have historically been regarded as a State’s internal waters.” Reichler also maintains that the case is not about delimitation of maritime boundaries, which is excluded from arbitration, but about the distinct process of determining what China’s and the Philippines’ entitlements in the South China Sea are under UNCLOS”.

The article ends, “There are practical reasons the arbitrators might seek to avoid ruling on the dispute. China’s refusal to participate sends an important signal about its intentions, and the arbitrators might balk at putting Beijing on a collision course with UNCLOS. But if the panel does rule in favour of the Philippines, the dispute will change. The nine-dash line won’t merely be exorbitant — it will be legally dubious. Beijing might shift tack and adopt a more conciliatory approach. Indeed, the arbitration process is slow, and there’s plenty of time left for diplomacy. But China’s cold response to the tragedy of Typhoon Haiyan doesn’t provide much ground for optimism”.

“Pulled out of recession”

21/11/2013

The euro zone is looking healthier than it has in some time, but that is not saying much. The long-suffering economy pulled out of recession earlier this year, unemployment is levelling off, and crisis worries continue to ebb along with government borrowing costs. Yet growth may struggle to top 1% next year, which in turn is generating fear of deflation. European firms and households remain stuck under piles of debt. Earlier this month, amid signs of new economic weakness, the European Central Bank (ECB) cut its benchmark interest rate to 0.25%. From late 2009 to mid-2012 the euro weakened as Europe’s debt crisis deepened. But since July of last year the euro has been on a tear, and it is now back to 2007 levels. After half a decade of financial gyrations, investors seem as eager to hold euros as ever. If the European economy is still shaky, why is the euro so strong?

Altering the system

21/11/2013

In a sign of growing anger over GOP tactics at holding up not only administration appointments but judical nominees, reports mention that “Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced Tuesday that he is considering changing Senate rules to prevent Republicans from filibustering President Obama’s judicial nominees. “I’m at the point where we need to do something to allow government to function,” Reid said when asked if he would consider using the nuclear option, a controversial procedural tactic for changing Senate rules. The proposed rules change would not affect Supreme Court nominees, said Democratic sources.  The tactic would allow Democrats to change the Senate’s rules with a simple-majority vote”.

The article goes on to add that “Reid said he will insist that Republicans allow up-or-down votes on all three of Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals: Patricia Millet, an appellate litigator; Cornelia Pillard, a professor at Georgetown Law School; and Robert Wilkins, a district court judge for the District of Columbia. On Monday, Reid fell six votes short of ending debate on Wilkins’s nomination. He was the third nominee to the court blocked by a filibuster in recent weeks. He vigorously defended all three nominees’ qualifications; “Look at their educational background, look at their experience in the law, look at their moral integrity,” he said. “Why should we agree to something less than the law of the country?” There are three vacancies currently on the 11-seat D.C. Circuit Court, which is considered the nation’s second most powerful court because of its broad jurisdiction over regulatory matters, including the Affordable Care Act. Its eight judges are divided evenly between Republican and Democratic appointees. Democrats argue, however, the court has a conservative tilt because five of its six semi-retired senior judges, who handle overflow work, are GOP appointees”.

The danger is that, if it has not already occured, is that the law will be seen to be openly partisan, favouring one party/ideology over another. This can not only lead to a mistaken sense of justice or injustice, depending on the judgement but it can have grave implications for the rest of society as a whole. The whole legal framework itself would come into question by the people.

It goes on to mention that “Advocacy groups supporting filibuster reform said earlier that they did not expect Reid to attempt a vote before the end of the year. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) acknowledged Tuesday that Reid could change the rules with a simple majority vote. But he characterised the controversial tactic as flying in the face of Senate comity. “We know full well the majority could decide to break the rules to change the rules if they so chose,” he said. McConnell argued that Republicans are well within their right to reject Obama’s picks to the D.C. Circuit Court because the court’s workload is too light to warrant additional judges. Senate Democrats and Republicans find themselves in reversed roles, compared to eight years ago, when then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) threatened to go nuclear over President George W. Bush’s stalled judicial nominees. Democrats warned that changing the Senate’s practices through a ruling of the chair sustained by a simple majority vote would destroy the institution”.

In some ways this is the worst possible solution to the current problems in Congress as it will only further entrench the problems of hyper-partisanship where both should work together. However, at the same time there is little else Reid can do but accept the situation that is before him and alter the system accordingly.

“Worst unrest in Tripoli”

21/11/2013

Militia fighters blamed for the worst unrest in Tripoli  since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi  pulled out of the capital on  Monday with Libyan army units taking up positions around the city. More than 40 people were killed in street battles between rival militias in   Tripoli last week, highlighting Libya’s struggle to curb fighters and hardline  Islamists who refuse to disarm two years after ousting Gaddafi. The latest bloodshed has increased popular anger against militias in Tripoli,  where rival groups have often clashed violently over territory or in personal  feuds. The withdrawal of one powerful set of fighters, though, may leave Libya’s  fragile government to face more competition among the militia groups that remain  in the city. Western powers, worried about anarchy in a major oil producer and further  insecurity in the region, are promising more expertise to build up Libya’s  army”.

What competition? – Part XIII

19/11/2013

He writes that “The West is not in decline, at least not in its entirety. Rather, the financial crisis has created a two-speed West. Four large countries — Germany, South Korea, Turkey, and the United States — are actually increasing their international influence, while the others are stuck in a rut. Ironically, America’s obituary as a great power has repeatedly been written over the past three years even as it has grown stronger on multiple fronts. U.S. influence in Asia has risen at a rapid clip since 2008, driven largely by regional anxiety about Chinese assertiveness. The United States deepened its traditional alliances with Australia, Japan, and South Korea. It developed strategic partnerships, including with the Philippines, Vietnam, and others in ways that were previously unthinkable. Paradoxically, Chinese economic growth has weakened its own geopolitical position and benefited the United States. Such are the ways of world politics”.

He goes on to argue that “The United States is rising in other areas too. On national security, the U.S. position is also stronger than it has been in many years. The U.S. military and intelligence services have shown impressive dynamism in bringing al Qaeda to the brink of total defeat, something many analysts believed unlikely only a few years ago. The Pentagon has been at the forefront of the drone and robotics revolution, which may give it an edge in 21st-century conflicts. Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats have developed innovative new means of international cooperation, notably with the Nuclear Security Summit and the Open Government Partnership. America’s greatest vulnerability remains its weak economy. Significant challenges lie ahead, but it is worth noting that the United States has significantly outperformed the eurozone and has better prospects for growth than most other Western states. It remains a hub of innovation: Just consider the rise of social media and the technology-driven exploration for shale gas. Over the long term, the fiscal challenges confronting the United States must be weighed against the very real — and very underestimated — internal strains on the Chinese and Indian economies”.

He turns to Germany, “Germany stands apart as a rising power amidst a weakened Europe. Its unemployment rate is at a post-Cold War low and its timely market reforms have allowed it to export its way out of the recession. The euro crisis is Germany’s greatest challenge but, ironically, it has also made Germany the continent’s preeminent diplomatic and geoeconomic power: For better or worse, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has won argument after argument about the future direction of the EU, often despite deep reservations from other member states. Francois Hollande’s election in France will complicate but not erode Merkel’s position”. Yet while all this may be true, Germany faces severe problems as well as a vast banking debt that will not only hobble growth but cause huge problems in the context of the euro zone and resolving the long term problems for what remains a half currency.

The piece then turns to South Korea, “South Korea’s strong economic performance since the financial crisis led some analysts to argue it should be added to the BRICs, but as one of America’s oldest and most reliable allies, it belongs in the West’s column. It has become a powerhouse of high-end manufacturing and is on course to become richer than Japan in per capita terms within the next five years. Internationally, South Korea responded robustly and responsibly to North Korea’s aggression by strengthening the alliance with the United States and embarking upon controversial defense cooperation with its old enemy, Japan. It has also taken an active role in upholding the international order, hosting the G-20 summit in 2010 and the nuclear security summit in March [2012]”.

The writers conclude the piece “The rising West is a force to be reckoned with. It is no coincidence that U.S. President Barack Obama has been closer to the leaders of his fellow rising Western states than to the leaders of the rest; he named South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and Erdogan as two of his closest international allies. (He appears not to be as close personally to Merkel but Germany’s centrality in the euro crisis means he is in constant contact with her.) So don’t write off the West yet. The rising powers in the developed world will not always agree, but when they do they will be hard to resist. And they will be important interlocutors for the BRICS as they engage the Western order. Unfortunately, Friday’s G-8 summit is unlikely to harness their power — Turkey and South Korea’s leaders are at home”.

“Declared an end”

19/11/2013

Egypt declared an end to its state of emergency Tuesday, nearly three months after it was imposed in the midst of nationwide protests that followed the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The government announcement came after an Egyptian court ruled that the emergency decree issued Aug. 14 had expired. The government had previously announced that it would end two days later, on Thursday. The state of emergency was declared in the midst of a violent crackdown on two protest camps that were demanding Morsi’s reinstatement as president. Hundreds died and thousands more were injured as the military-backed government routed the protests”.

Old before it gets rich

19/11/2013
It has been suspected for some time but finally China is beginning to see sense after its disasterous and immoral one child policy and has eased the restrictions on its infamous one child policy during what some have called an incomprensible Third Plenum.
An article in the Daily Telegraph reports that “China has taken a new step to loosen its one-child policy, in a move that will allow millions more parents to have a second child if they wish to. In the first comprehensive set of reforms under President Xi Jinping, the Communist party leadership, said: “We will begin to allow couples to have two children if one of them is an only child.” Spelling out its blueprint for the next five years, the document added: ‘We will gradually change and perfect our family planning policy and boost the population to grow steadily in the long term.'”
The piece goes on to add that “Experts welcomed the loosening of the one-child policy, but said China would have to take further steps rapidly in order to avert a demographic time bomb. ‘This is only a small step forward,’ said Liang Zhongtang, a professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and a member of the National Family Planning Commission. ‘The central government should not be tinkering around like this, they need to decide whether or not to stop the policy completely,’ he added. China has claimed that the one child policy has reduced its population by some 400 million, a calculation that most experts reject, pointing out that the birth rate has fallen in several Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea, to the same level as China’s without any drastic state intervention”.
It goes on to note that “after three decades of birth restrictions, China has a dramatically ageing population, leading many to worry if the country will get old before it gets rich. The one-child policy has also been heavily criticised for encouraging local governments to carry out forced abortions and sterilisations in order to remain within their birth quotas. Wang Feng, a fellow at the Brookings-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing and an expert in demographics, estimated the change would allow roughly ten million more couples to have a second child, of whom around half would do so over the coming years”.
A piece in Foreign Policy makes the point that “the age profile of China’s population will look roughly the same as Japan’s within three decades. Japan has one of the world’s oldest populations, with thehighest median age anywhere. As a result, there are fewer workers to support every Japanese retiree through the pension system. These demographics can be a significant drag on growth, since a greater share of the economy’s production is devoted to supporting people whose contributions to output are decreasing. In other words, either average living standards have to decline or more output must go to consumption rather than the creation of new capital and technology.With life expectancy rising, immigration far outweighed by emigration, and fertility controlled by the one-child policy, China has been heading rapidly towards the same demographics as Japan. To be sure, longer lives and loopholesin the one-child policy have allowed its population to keep growing, unlike Japan’s. But China’s aging population is poised to put a dent in the economy before it can exhaust one of its most powerful engines of growth: urbanisation”.Yet this urbanisation to the rescue theory is problematic. It is clear how many people China will need to enter into the cities with the workforce already starting to shrink. As this process goes on the cycle will have to suck more and more people away from the interior farming villages to sustain any kind of reasonable growth. In the long term this is not a sustainable strategy.
In a related article, Ambrose Evans Pritchard writes “China has launched the most radical reform blitz in more than 30 years,   unveiling a raft of measures to ease social controls and pave the way   towards a free-market consumer economy. The Communist Party vowed to break the suffocating grip of the giant   state-owned companies, sweep away a tangle of price controls, move towards   convertibility of the yuan and phase out caps on interest rates, all in the   name of a “mixed ownership economy”. The reforms aim to create a property market in the countryside for the first   time, and ease the Medieval hukuo laws that keep peasant families trapped in   their villages. There will be a property tax to curb soaring home prices”.

He adds that “The aim is to break reliance on state-driven investment in heavy industry and   shift towards a modern consumer society, with a bigger role for private   companies that are much more agile and creative. President Xi vowed that China would make the leap to a new model in time to  avert the sort of ‘middle income trap’ that has ensnared countless states   over the past half century that clung too long to an exhausted structure”.

He mentions that research has said that future growth relies on “free-thinking society, and an end to top-down rule. It remains far from   clear whether Xi Jinping will take that risk. The clampdown on the internet   has become more intense since he took charge. Xu Yaotong, from Beijing’s academy of political science, said President Xi’s   crackdown has been a tactical move to ensure stability and secure the   support of Politburo hard-liners for his free-market drive”.

“China’s latest”

19/11/2013

This week, the Internet lit up with an annotated video, above, of what appears to be China’s latest (or at least most recently unveiled) drone design. The body resembles the United States’ Global Hawk, although perhaps a bit smaller. Its standout external features, though, are its joined wings — a sort of diamond shape formed by forward-swept wings mounted in the rear and backward-swept wings mounted in the front. This concept offers some advantages over a traditional wing, including less drag, increased strength and the potential for greater maneuverability. These advantages, however, are often minimal and may be offset by the cost and difficulty of manufacturing this type of wing. A notation in the video suggests that the large bulge on top of the drone’s back houses satellite uplink equipment, while a synthetic aperture radar is mounted below. The aircraft’s size implies that it is designed for long-range, “high endurance” missions that involve staying in a target area for many hours”.

Russian stagnation

19/11/2013

An article in the Economist writes that Russia is facing hard times with its economy.

It begins noting Russia’s recent history of stagnation, and adds, “with year-on-year GDP growth at just 1.2% last quarter and growth in investment and industrial production nearing zero, stagnation seems to be the most apt description of the Russian economy. Speaking at an investment forum last month, Alexei Ulyukayev, the economic-development minister, paraphrased an old joke: “Practically, there is no economic development,” he said, “but the economic-development minister is here in front of you!” Throughout the 2000s, the Kremlin funnelled profits from oil and gas into the rest of the economy, largely through state-led investment projects and increases in wages and pensions. Consumption soared. Spare industrial capacity left over from the Soviet era meant that firms did not have to invest to produce more. They could simply unlock capacity that had been sitting unused”.

The piece warns however that this “model is now outdated. According to the World Bank, the Russian economy “could be running very close to its maximum capacity”. Manufacturing is slowing and private consumption is also starting to cool, despite higher levels of household credit, unemployment of only around 5% and wage growth. High prices for hydrocarbons will not solve this, because the economy has now “adapted” to expensive oil, says Natalia Akindinova of the Higher School of Economics. Future growth will require investment in new technology as well as gains in efficiency and labour productivity”.

The artice goes on to add that “The trouble is that Russian businesses cannot compete on quality either, since they are not investing in technology and equipment. This is related to the uncertainty of the business climate and the attractiveness of imports thanks to the strong rouble. According to a survey by the Gaidar Institute, 43% of businesses say they have kept investment levels static and another 33% have invested even less than they did last year. The lack of opportunities has led to capital flight. This amounted to $48.2 billion in the first three quarters of the year, as firms took their savings abroad. An underdeveloped financial system offers no efficient way to channel surplus savings to the small and medium-sized businesses that need them. The Kremlin seems to have decided to put those who rely on state munificence at the head of the queue. Regional governments were forced to raise salaries at the expense of their investment budgets. A country of 140m people, Russia has 20m state-sector workers and 40m pensioners. The Duma recently passed a law that calls for what is technically a temporary confiscation of $7.6 billion in individual pension savings, but which many fear may be used to plug the growing hole in the pay-as-you-go portion of the pension system”.
The piece goes on to mention that “Putin has also made a show of his goal to move Russia up the World Bank’s annual “Doing Business” rankings. Early results are impressive: Russia advanced 19 slots, to 92nd place this year, largely by cutting red tape. Russia improved more in this year’s report than any of its BRICS peers, but it was also the only one to see GDP growth slow significantly. Further progress to reach Mr Putin’s stated goal of 20th place by 2018 will require profound reforms to the courts and law enforcement, which would meet resistance with powerful constituencies inside the ruling system. Even without meaningful structural reform, Russia’s low government debt and high reserves mean that the state could buy itself a minimum level of social—and thus political—stability for some years to come. But it will be more vulnerable than ever to outside shocks. The oil price at which Russia can finance budgeted spending without borrowing has increased from just $34 a barrel in 2007 to above $100 for the years ahead”.
The piece ends, “For the time being the price of oil remains high, but it could fall with increased shale-oil production in America and new oil provinces in Africa. A large downward lurch would leave the Kremlin with less freedom to act than it has now. The good news for Russia, says Ms Orlova, is that Mr Putin does not need to spend a lot of money to make the financial system more efficient or the state’s role in the economy less heavy-handed”.
When compared with the significant, though not systemic problems in the American economy, Russia is stagnating and will continue to do so well into the future, leaving aside any notion of a Russia revival on the scale that would challenge, and worry America.

“No problem with the old rite”

17/11/2013

The former prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy has told a traditionalist group that Pope Francis has no intention of restricting access to the Extraordinary Form of the Latin liturgy. “I met Pope Francis very recently and he told me that he has no problem with the old rite, and neither does he have any problem with lay groups and associations like yours that promote it,” Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos told members of Una Voce International (FIUV), who were in Rome for a general assembly”.

Saudi opposition

17/11/2013

An article disucsses just why Saudi Arabia opposes the potential deal between Iran and the West. The piece begins, “For the first time since the United States emerged as a major power in the Middle East, all of its key allies — Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia –are in open revolt against its policies. With U.S. and Iranian negotiators preparing for another round of negotiations, Washington’s relationship with Riyadh may prove the hardest to patch up. While Israeli officials had signaled that a previous version of a nuclear deal was something they “didn’t love but could live with,” Saudi concerns about Iran relate to a whole range of actions that the kingdom views as a threat to their influence in the Arab world — and even their grip on power at home. As a result, analysts and former U.S. officials say, Saudi Arabia sees any realistic deal as American acquiescence to Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East”.

The piece goes on to mention that “This is far from the first issue on which the Saudi royals have been at odds with the Obama administration. Top Saudi officials were angered by a previous U.S. decision to cancel a planned strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as well as what they perceived as Washington’s hostile attitude toward the governments in Egypt and Bahrain. In response to these disagreements, Saudi Arabia has embarked on an independent effort to train Syrian rebels – even enlistingPakistani trainers in its effort – while intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan announcedthat the kingdom would undertake a “major shift” away from Washington. It may just be that Saudi Arabia and the United States have increasingly irreconcilable priorities when it comes to the Middle East. While the Obama administration’s focus is clearly on Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi royals see potential threats in a range of other Iranian activities, such as its support for the Assad regime, its patronage of the Lebanese paramilitary organization Hezbollah, and what they perceive as its intent to use Shia communities to stoke unrest in the Arab Gulf”.

It concludes, “The idea that U.S.-Iranian relations could return to what they were under the Shah’s time may seem outlandish to officials in Washington. But the royals in Riyadh perhaps have a deeper institutional memory than their American counterparts. Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal took office four years before the Iranian Revolution, while the current King Abdullah was already head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard and second in line for the throne. While the United States and Iran have so far worked to keep negotiations focused on the nuclear issue, it may be difficult to keep broader concerns about Tehran’s role in the Middle East from leaking into the conversation. Alterman believes that a final agreement may have to address issues like Iran’s support for the Assad regime and Hezbollah, without which it would be impossible to fully lift sanctions. “You could get to May, and have some very, very difficult political discussions in the U.S. and Iran,” he said”.

Gitmo in Yemen?

17/11/2013

The Obama administration is in talks with Yemeni officials to set up a detention facility outside their capital to hold dozens of terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan, U.S. and Yemeni officials say. The plan affects only Yemeni prisoners but is considered key to a renewed push by President Obama to close the prison camp built at the U.S. naval base in Cuba after the 2001 terrorist attacks, a vow he repeated this week. More than half of the 164 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are from Yemen. “There’s a definite recognition that this needs to happen but if it’s not done right, the risks are very high,” said a U.S. official familiar with the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans are classified. Yemeni officials have drawn up preliminary plans for the facility outside the capital, Sana, but final agreement may be months away. Deep disagreements remain on funding, and about whether it would function as another prison or as a halfway house for detainees to reenter society after years of confinement and isolation”.

Misreading Francis

17/11/2013

Another ill informed article on Pope Francis has been published, this time with the assumption that Francis will democratise the Church.

The piece opens, “Pope Francis has been a busy man. Ever since his election as Bishop of Rome eight months ago, he has single-handedly managed to breathe new life into the Catholic Church. He has eschewed the sartorial splendor and lavish residence of his predecessors. He has demonstratively washedthe feet of prisoners (including women, Roma, and Muslims) — a moving spectacle that attests to his devotion to the downtrodden of the world (and also offendedsome traditionalists). In one of his most moving gestures, he embraced and kissed a man suffering from neurofibromatosis”.

As ever there ar ethe usual errors. Firstly the supposed “satorial splendor” is a not so kind dig at Pope Benedict who tried to emphasise the Council in continunity with what had good before and not a rupture as those on the extreme left and extreme right would hope to believe. This was seen in Benedict’s liturgical style in particular. Second, the supposedly “lavis residence” that the writer refers to is the Apostolic Palace. However, despite its name it is quite spartan with only a few rooms and a small chapel, and is by no means lavish.

Pope Francis washing the feet was certainly good PR but perhaps not good theology. The Bible states that the feet of 12 men were washed, not women. The aim of Francis was certainly laudable, to be inclusive, but it sent the wrong signals.

The piece goes on to say that “it’s Pope Francis’s latest initiative that has the greatest potential to shake up one of the world’s oldest institutions. Within the past few weeks the Vatican has begun dispatchinga questionnaire to parishes around the world to ask Catholics about their views on family life and sexuality in preparation for a landmark synod (a church-wide conference) on those issues next year. It’s the first time that any Pope has done such a thing. It’s certainly not a move that’s calculated to soothe traditionalists. (The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for one, doesn’t seem especially keenon distributing the survey to parishioners, and hasn’t moved to post the document to its website — in notable contrastto their British counterparts.) For the church’s many critics, of course, such a move is long overdue. Shortly before Pope Francis ascended to the throne, the liberal German theologian Hans Küng wrote an article in the New York Times callingfor a ‘Vatican Spring.'”

While he is right about the generalities he misreads and indeed overhypes the changes Francis has made. Not only that but he reads too far into the future from what is admittedly a change in presentation. The citing of Kung with Francis is a huge error and dramatically misreads Francis. Kung is on the margins of the Church and without actually asking Francis the best that can be said is that he has sympathy with Kung. However, symapthy does not mean a radical reshaping of the Church.

The writer adds “There’s no question that the arrival of Pope Francis has coincided with one of the greatest crises in the modern history of the church. The long-running sexual abuse scandal, the revelations of financial shenanigans at the highest level, and the stunning resignationof Benedict XVI, Francis’s hapless predecessor, had stained the reputation of the church and left Catholics around the world deeply demoralised”.

The problem with this statement is that it overlooks the role played by Pope Benedict in cleaning up the “financial shenanigans” such as setting up the Financial Information Authority and issuing a raft of decrees. Not only that but his statement ignores all that Pope Benedict did to fix the Church with regards to the sex abuse crisis. It was Benedict’s precedessor, John Paul II that led the Church, knowingly or not. To call Benedict hapless is only accurate on one level, he was not an administrator, but Benedict had so many other qualities that outweighed the obvious negatives.

He goes on to state “They point to the vast gap between church teachings and the views of many believers. Recent polls show, for example, that 76 percent of Catholics in the United States believe that the church should permit birth control, while around half of them approve of same-sex marriage. Unless the church leadership becomes more responsive to such views, argue reformists, the current exodus of believers is likely to continue. To bolster their case, they arguethat the early church — precisely the church of Peter and Paul, in the first decades after the crucifixion of Jesus — was a decidedly un-hierarchical affair, an institution where believers essentially governed themselves and ironed out their own doctrinal and political differences. Others respond that such views are simplistic. The modern church encompasses 2,000 years of tradition and embraces 1.2 billion believers around the world”

Again he misreads and misunderstands both Francis and the Church. The fact that he cites poll numbers says much about how he misreads the Church as a political and not religious organisation. The other point to make is that this view, citing America and Europe also ignores or dismisses the rest of the Church in Asia and Africa where there is, for better or worse, no such agreement on these issues. His citing Peter and Paul is also misleading. Peter and Paul were the leaders of the Early Church that was small, but they were the leaders nonetheless. To argue, as he seems to be doing, that to go back to a supposedly flat model of Church that never existed lacks a sound theological grounding and is ahistorical.

Ony at the end of the article does the writer tacitly admit that Francis will change little, if anything. He ends the piece “What the new pope is trying to do instead is to move away from the political and ideological squabbles that those teachings have sometimes inspired in the past and to re-focus on the church’s core mission of proclaimingthe “good news” of Christ — as the pope has tried to do with his public demonstration of love for the poor and the deprived”.

“Make a clear break”

15/11/2013

Ireland is to make a clean break from its three-year 85bn euro (£71bn) bailout programme next month, without seeking precautionary funding. The Irish prime minister (taoiseach) Enda Kenny confirmed the move during a speech to the Irish parliament. The Irish economy is emerging from one of the deepest recessions in the eurozone, having sought an international bailout in November 2010. Ireland is due to leave the EU-IMF bailout on 15 December”.

“A big gamble”

15/11/2013

An article notes that during the meeting of the CCP, “a high-level meeting to discuss China’s future, ended on Nov. 12, Beijing released a major document likely to affect many of its 1.3 billion citizens’ lives for years. Western media responded to the 5,000-plus character document, called the Plenum Communiqué, with a collective head scratch — CNBC and the Wall Street Journal both promptly declared it “vague.” But the confusion isn’t the result of language, or even cultural differences: Many Chinese citizens also cannot make heads or tails of this document. If they’re failing, it’s not for lack of trying: On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, a search for ‘third plenum’ yielded over 2.7 million recent mentions, and among those comments, over 154,000 used the word jiedu, which roughly means ‘to decode.’ Frustration is palpable online. One Weibo user complained, ‘I glanced at the Third Plenum communiqué; it surpasses my ability to understand it.’ Another wrote, ‘I made myself dizzy reading it three times.’ And another: ‘It’s a pile of words on top of words, without saying anything.’ And this: ‘I can’t understand why after a meeting lasting three days, the only thing they can produce is … a document that has to be decoded. It’s like a high school exam.'”

The piece ends, “The communiqué may contain the right words, but Chinese are struggling to pick up the logical thread connecting them. Any readers who breezed through the earlier quote (and hold a Chinese passport) may wish to sign up for the nation’s civil service exam, scheduled for Nov. 24. We hear the Chinese government is hiring”.

Kerry Brown, writes in the BBC that, “A year into power, if there is one thing that becomes clearer about the Xi Jinping leadership of the Communist Party of China, it is that it understands the value of political symbolism. One of the first places Mr Xi visited after becoming party secretary last November was Shenzhen, hallowed turf of the Reform and Opening up Process since 1978, and amongst the first and most dynamic Special Economic Zones. The meeting at which the ideological innovations were reached which made the acceptance of foreign capital and a market in China possible were at Jingxi Hotel in Beijing in December 1978. Over three and a half decades later, the approximately 400 super-elite of the party met in the same place again. This in itself created expectations that historic events were about to occur”.

He goes on to write that “Now, China is a global economy, and one with everything to play for in the coming decades. Its challenge this time is simply to, in the words of Premier Li Keqiang, unlock new sources of growth within itself. There is no question of it, at the moment at least, needing to fundamentally change track. The mechanism to achieve growth will be improving and perfecting the market, and liberalising new areas where growth might come. That is the most powerful message from this plenum. Challenging the fundamental principles of the Reform and Opening Up era was never going to happen. The primacy of the party is stated with crystal clarity in the plenum report. Its key role in society remains paramount. The need for internal unity and collective leadership remains as prized as it was in the Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao era. The objective is still, through the ideological instruments of Deng Xiaoping theory and Socialism with Chinese characteristics, to achieve “the primary state of socialism”. That will take, in the words of the communique, ‘many years'”.

Yet, there it should not come as a surprise that little will change in China. It will still be run by a close clique with little incentive to govern with the people. Brown adds that “There are more explicit references to the creation of a national security coordination body. This seems to be the Hu and Wen fixation with “pro-stability” measures in another guise, with some attempt to now finally co-ordinate and streamline decision making in this area, particularly as there is no one on the Standing Committee of the current Politburo with specific responsibility for security issues as there was in the previous one”.

This is particularly pertinent with the riots in the north of the country over the last number of days, coupled with the economy that is contracting. This is a large part of the reason that the CCP are now so focused on urbanisation in an effort to maintain growth. As Brown mentions, “This plenum gives a framework, which confirms some of the themes that have already emerged from this leadership. No quick ideological or political change,  a continuation on emphasising people’s material well-being and trying to achieve  strong growth, with the key drive being to achieve a high level of urbanisation before 2020. If there is one bold feature of this plan it is that almost everything is staked on an urban China being one where the current problems of achieving growth, answering some of the sustainability issues, and addressing inequality will become more soluble. This is a big gamble, because the rate at which China evidently plans to become urban is faster than any other society has tried”.

“Among the first to respond”

15/11/2013

the U.S. military scrambled to assist the Philippines after much of it was leveled by Super Typhoon Haiyan, the monstrous storm that roared over the island nation Friday. Officials have said it may have killed more than 10,000 people, as a wall of water and winds in excess of 200 miles per hour devastated the country. U.S. Marines were among the first to respond, sending about 90 personnel and two KC-130J planes from Futenma, Japan on Sunday to assess the damage. On Monday, the military announced additional support, including the deployment of more Marine Corps aircraft to perform search and rescue missions and deliver supplies and food to stranded civilians. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also ordered the aircraft carrier George Washington and other U.S. ships to the Philippines, including the cruisers Antietam and Cowpens, the destroyers Mustin and Lassen, and the supply ship Charles Drew.

Having to appease Congress

13/11/2013

David Rothkopf discusses the role of President Obama, or lack thereof in the ongoing talks with Iran. He writes that “there are several reasons this apparent screwup will not result in a major investigation as to what “went wrong.” The most important of these reasons is that Secretary Kerry and his colleagues in the Obama White House were on some level relieved to have the clock stopped on the negotiations. One senior administration official acknowledged that latelast week as it became clear that growing political opposition to the pending deal both domestically and from allies overseas demanded attention unless it produced a backlash that could have scuttled the agreement. In this official’s words, “we were saved by the bell” as the parties agreed to delay further talks until Nov. 20″.

He writes that there is some disagreement, at least in public about who was to blame for the breakdown in talks, France, Iran or America. He adds that “Both Paris and Washington were starting to feel the heat from allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, and though France feared an economic squeeze on the big deals it has pending with the Saudis, the Americans could see organised opposition forming on Capitol Hill. The concern was that this opposition would not only result in the rejection of any deal reached with Iran but may even compromise a new push for tougher sanctions even as the administration was negotiating dialing them back. Such a rejection to the initiative would be absolutely devastating to the president, creating echoes of his failed effort to get Congressional support for his proposed very limited intervention in Syria to degrade their chemical weapons stores”.

He makes the valid point that “it doesn’t really matter who threw the monkey wrench. There was work to be done on this deal both in terms of strengthening its terms but also in garnering the necessary support before signatures were actually set to paper. Even given the Geneva agreement’s goal of producing a temporary freeze in Iran’s nuclear program while a more permanent deal could be struck, legitimate questions linger over whether the near-term deal could achieve that goal if it did not effectively freeze enrichment efforts and shut down work at an Iranian reactor capable of producing plutonium. Further, the Obama team still has a great deal of work to do — some of which is being done this week by Secretary Kerry and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman as they meet with allies in the Middle East –building support for the deal”.

He goes on to make the valid point that “even the Iranians should be happy with the delay… and not just for the cynical reason that any delay buys them the time they want and need to advance their nuclear weapons program. They also very much want sanctions relief, and to get it, they need the deal to win support from the U.S. Congress”.

As has been said here before, Congress, almost always but especailly under these circumstances has no business in foreign affairs. Indeed, several House members have foolishly tried, either as a political stunt, or out of misguided belief to put more sanctions on Iran.

He does argue more or less accurately that “the most critical component of this deal is not the words drafted by diplomats but what lies in the heart of the Iranians and the president of the United States. If Iran reverses past patterns and actually complies, the deal could be part of a game-changing reduction of tension that all in the region should welcome. But because that is a change without precedent and one that goes against the grain of decades’ worth of Iranian behavior, as well as the character and commitment of the president of the United States, it is even more important to its success. If the Iranians believe President Obama is resolved to enforce it swiftly and decisively, it may work. If they think he will be reluctant to take tough enforcement measures, if they think he can be played — either because he wants the legacy of an apparently successful deal or because he simply is loath to run the risk of costly, dangerous military action against Iran — then history suggests they will play him”.

He ends the piece “For the world’s major powers and Iran’s neighbors it will require not only a stunning about-face from Tehran but it will also require real vigilance, strength, and the willingness to undertake risky and dangerous enforcement measures for years to come to ensure its success. But much more is required. The United States must work with its allies in the region and around the world to counterbalance Iran’s less than constructive ambitions and initiatives throughout the Middle East and demonstrate to them that the benefits they derive from the meddling are too low and the costs too great”.

“Advance its nominee”

13/11/2013

The White House urged the Senate to advance its nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia when the upper chamber takes up the vote later Tuesday. White House press secretary Jay Carney urged Republicans to stop playing politics with President Obama’s court nominees.  “More of President Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit have been successfully filibustered than those of any other president in history,” he said. “We urge the Senate to consider all of these nominations on their merits starting with tonight’s cloture vote for Nina Pillard.” The Senate is expected to vote on a cloture motion to advance Pillard on Tuesday afternoon. Pillard is one of Obama’s three nominees to the D.C. court, which is consider the second most influential only behind the Supreme Court. Carney noted that Republican presidents nominated 15 of the last 19 members of the court”.

China’s future?

13/11/2013

The vastness of China has been exposed in an article that discusses how the government in Beijing has failed to quell protests in the northern proviences.

The piece opens, “On Oct. 28, a car crashed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing two innocent bystanders and injuring about 40 others. The incident appears to have been an act of terrorism, albeit quite an unsophisticated one, perpetrated by ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim population mostly living in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). This is the first time in recent history that Uighurs have engaged in political violence outside the XUAR. The incident seems to be a product of the substantially escalating tension between Uighurs and the Chinese state. The Uighurs view the XUAR as their homeland, an assertion that has long fueled tensions between them and the Chinese state. This tension has been on the rise over the last twenty years as the People’s Republic of China rolled out controversial policies that emphasize integrating Uighurs into the Chinese state”.

Naturally the heavy handed Chinese attempted to end the protests by force, “China’s most controversial integration measures suppress the Uighur culture and violate the group’s human rights. Since the mid-1990s, the Chinese state has pursued policies that limitthe Uighurs’ ability to freely practice Islam and preventall forms of political organization and expression in the XUAR. This has led to hundreds of arrests on political charges of “illegal religious activity,” “separatism,” and “terrorism,” scores of which have ended in executions“.

China has attempted this policy in the South and East China Seas to dreadful consequences for itself, but it has also  “undertaken a gigantic economic development plan for the XUAR, and has targeted rural Uighurs to partake in education and industrial work projects at institutions and factories in China’s interior. These “softer” efforts to integrate Uighurs have not only failed to ease tensions between Uighurs and the state, but indeed appear to have exacerbated them. This has caused frustration among Chinese policymakers and citizens, who view these efforts as a benevolent program to provide Uighurs with new opportunities and better livelihoods. But the Uighurs’ resistance should not be surprising. In fact, in the modern era, many states have attempted to pacify restive minority populations through economic development, only to bear similar results”.

They write that this strategy of attempting to buy people off did not work for three reasons, “economic development, rather than causing political passivity, tends to result in greater political engagement. Scholars of modernization theory recognised decades ago that urbanisation, literacy, and rising incomes gave people greater means to develop their own interests and to advocate for them. Rather than expressing gratitude to the state that made their political consciousness possible, newly empowered classes would demandmore accountablegovernments and sometimes overthrow them”.

They add that another reason why is hasn’t worked is that “is that it occurs unevenly, especially when it is rapid and state-led. The benefits of centralised investment, even if nominally intended for the minority masses, often fail to reach their targets. Instead, state largesse tends to fall disproportionately into the hands of well-connected elites (who may be settlers in minority regions rather than minority representatives themselves) or to benefit certain (usually urban) areas over others, which can increase overall inequality between majority and minority ethnic groups and exacerbate resentments. Prosperity and development lead more citizens of the majority group to settle in minority regions, often marginalisingminority groups in areas where they were once the primary inhabitants”.

Lastly they argue that “human beings tend to value certain ideals in addition to, and often above, material well-being. Money is nice, but the desire for justice, fairness, self-determination, or dignity can be a stronger driver of human behaviour”.

While the paralls are not exact, the fear of the same thing happening to China itself, let alone a reasonably improvished isolated northern sector must make the CCP more hardline in dealing with the Uighurs. Of course the problem with this strategy is that is re-enforces the will power of them, to say nothing of those in the rest of China.

They end the peice “This brings us back to the Uighurs. The Chinese government’s intensive development plan has only inspired conflict in the XUAR as Uighurs become increasingly marginalized in their own homeland. Development has in many cases displaced traditional Uighur communities, the most well known example being thedestructionof the culturally significant, medieval city of Kashgar. In other cases the government has forcibly relocatedUighurs to accommodate large development projects. Additionally, China’s policies have encouraged an influx of Han Chinese migrants into the region in pursuit of economic opportunity, reducing the Uighur share of the population. Finally, Uighurs are increasingly discriminated against for employment in urban areas, as the economic benefits of the region’s development flow mostly to Han Chinese. China’s development efforts in the XUAR utilize an outdated top-down model of development that betters the region’s GDP, but not the lives of its average citizens. As a result, many Uighurs perceive China’s development plan as an attack on their very existence”.

A deal with the IAEA

13/11/2013

Iran will grant U.N. inspectors “managed access” to a uranium mine and a heavy-water plant within three months after reaching an agreement for a “roadmap for cooperation” to resolve remaining issues linked to Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. “This is an important step forward to start with, but much more needs to be done,” Reuters quoted the International Atomic Energy Agency’s head Yukiya Amano as saying in Tehran. IAEA and Iran will “strengthen their cooperation and dialogue aimed at ensuring the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” a joint statement said”.

Blame France

13/11/2013

Amid the ongoing discussion between America UK, France, Russia and China plus Germany, the talks have broken down. The New York Times reports that “As Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign ministers from other world powers sought to work out an interim agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, the Iranian government’s insistence on formal recognition of its “right” to enrich uranium emerged as a major obstacle, diplomats said Sunday. In long hours of closed-door discussions, Western and Iranian negotiators haggled over the language of a possible agreement. Toward the end of a marathon session, some diplomats believed that only a handful of words appeared to separate the two sides”.

It goes on to mention “the dispute over enrichment rights, among other differences, meant that the talks ended not with the breakthrough that many had hoped for, but with only a promise that lower-level negotiators would meet here in 10 days for more discussions”.

The piece adds “he failure to conclude an accord gave an opening for critics in Congress, who have vowed to push for tougher sanctions, and in Israel and the conservative Arab Persian Gulf monarchies to mobilize opposition to an agreement. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, a senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, accused the Obama administration of “dealing away our leverage” in an appearance on the NBC program “Meet the Press.” Speaking to a large gathering of American Jewish leaders on Sunday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel warned that his country would not be the only target of an Iranian nuclear weapon. “Coming to a theater near you — you want that?” Mr. Netanyahu asked. “Well, do something about that!” Defending his negotiating strategy, Mr. Kerry insisted Sunday that the agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear program that he was seeking would be in Israel’s interest”. Israel’s bluster has been discussed here and the recommendation that they should be ignored remains in the best interests of the United States.

Iran however refused to take the blame for the breakdown of the talks, pointing to Western countries.

Foreign Policy notes that France is to blame for the breakdown of the talks, it mentions “Western and Iranian negotiators were putting the finishing touches on a far-reaching nuclear deal. Then, at virtually the last minute, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius joined in the talks. It didn’t take long for the negotiations to unravel — and for Fabius to publicly declare this round of the talks to be over. It wasn’t the answer U.S., European or Iranian teams had been expecting. One Western official said Paris hadn’t been particularly involved in the painstaking negotiations that had taken place in the run-up to this weekend’s talks in Geneva. ‘The French were barely involved in this,’ one Western diplomat said. ‘They didn’t  get looped in until a few days ago.’ Yet the French response shouldn’t have been a total surprise. The socialist government of French President François Hollande has adopted a muscular foreign policy that has put it to the right of the Obama administration on Libya, Mali, Syria and now Iran. Along the way, it has also become Israel’s primary European ally and — after the U.S. — arguably its closest friend in the world”.

The piece adds, “Fabius, echoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is said to have had two serious concerns with the deal. First, the agreement failed to prevent Tehran from continuing construction on its nuclear reactor at Arak. Once the facility is operational, a key part of Iran’s nuclear program would be immune to airstrikes because bombing the plant would lead to massive, deadly, radiation leaks. Fabius was also upset that the deal didn’t require Iran to reduce its stockpiles of 20% enriched uranium, which is approaching weapons-grade. The Hollande government, Fabius told French radio, would not be part of a ‘fool’s game.’ Publicly, Secretary of State John Kerry refused to say anything critical about the French, emphasizing instead that Iran and the so-called “P5+1” had made substantial headway towards a deal and would continue the talks later this month. ‘I’d say a number of nations – not just the French, but ourselves and  others – wanted to make sure that we had the tough language necessary,’ Kerry said on the Meet the Press. In the French media, there were reports that the big powers were united — and that it was Iranian negotiators who ultimately balked at making a deal in Geneva. Privately, though, many diplomats were fuming at the French. However, Fabius has been a voice of caution on an Iran deal before – most recently at talks at the United Nations in September. ‘In the past years, we have been vigilant on this issue,’ said one French diplomat told The Cable. ‘We have never been easy going on this.’ Fabius’s strong opposition to the emerging nuclear deal has won Paris some unexpected fans on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both parties want the Obama administration to maintain the current economic sanctions on Iran and even begin adding new ones”.

The piece goes on to discuss French strategy, “Thousands of miles away in Tehran, Iranian leaders reacted with fury, reupping some previous remarks blasting France. “#French officials have been openly hostile towards the #Iranian nation over the past few years; this is an imprudent and inept move,” tweeted the office of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ‘A wise man, particularly a wise politician, should never have the motivation to turn a neutral entity into an enemy.’ Beyond the rhetoric, France’s opposition to the deal carries clear risks. The U.S. negotiators and their Iranian counterparts have both warned that the window for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue won’t stay open forever. Not too long from now, Iran will have enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. If the talks fall apart, France may have effectively scuttled any option of ending Iran’s nuclear program without using military force, something no country — including Israel — wants to do. Paris also risks seriously degrading its relationships with Washington and London, its two closest allies”.

However all is not lost, Reuters mentions that “Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday he hoped an agreement on Iran’s disputed nuclear program would be signed within months and London and Tehran revived diplomatic ties, signs of a warmer atmosphere between the Islamic Republic and the West”.

“Was the group’s financier”

13/11/2013

One of the most senior leaders of the Haqqani militant network has been shot dead near the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, security sources say. Nasiruddin Haqqani, who was in his early 30s, was the group’s financier and a son of its founder Jalaluddin. Reports say his body has been taken for burial to the North Waziristan tribal area near the Afghan border. It is not clear who shot him or why. Nasiruddin Haqqani was on a US list of global terrorists”.

Still special?

11/11/2013

In light of the ongoing talks between Iran and America, as well as the Saudi initative to buy nuclear weapons and fund what is effectively a second army in Syria the relationship between the two countries is fraught but not broken.

An article asks if the relationship between the two countries is still “special”. Miller writes “the Israeli-Saudi conversation started me thinking about these two U.S. allies — how they agreed and disagreed with one another and we with them. But most of all I was reminded how primary they both have been and still are to America’s successes and failures in the Middle East. During the 1940s when the United States was first getting its feet wet in the Middle East (and its oil), Washington developed very special, though very different, relationships with Riyadh and Jerusalem, roughly about the same time. The first with Saudi Arabia was driven largely by the growing importance of oil in the wake of World War II and the European recovery. Nothing was more emblematic of that emerging relationship than the famous meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi King Abd Al-Aziz on Great Bitter Lake in February 1945. And while Roosevelt was likely as enamored by kings and the romance of distant and exotic lands as he was by Middle East strategy, the basis would be laid for a strategic relationship lubricated by Saudi oil in exchange for U.S. security guarantees and military, technological, and economic support for the kingdom. A more complex mix of moral, humanitarian, and domestic political concerns would drive U.S. support for the creation of a Jewish state in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust. And a bit of realpolitik too. By the spring of 1948 — with the newly created State of Israel coming into being — President Harry Truman saw merits in adviser Clark Clifford’s arguments that the Russians were poised to recognize Israel and that Washington shouldn’t worry much about Abd al-Aziz’s reaction”.

He adds that “Over the years, these two special relationships would continue to develop, mature, and to define much about U.S. policy in the region. Indeed, of the three original reasons for America’s involvement in the Middle East — the Cold War, oil, and Israel — only the last two really continue to shape U.S. policy. Regardless of differences between the United States and these two strange Middle East bedfellows”.

He notes that “It is the cruelest of ironies that with all of the promise of the Arab Spring and its tropes of democratization, gender equality, freedom of conscience, and the like, it is the authoritarian kings, Saudi Arabia in particular — the anti-force to all of these values — that have survived largely untouched. And this administration and its predecessor — for all the talk of the Freedom Agenda and being on the right side of history — still values stability as the paramount virtue. The Saudis don’t want an Arab Spring in Riyadh. And neither does Washington”.

Miller adds later on in the piece that “rarely, if ever it seems have Israeli and Saudi interests seemed to converge as closely as they do now, leaving the United States on certain issues the odd man out. Of course, there are major differences over the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace. But on issues relating to Egypt (where Riyadh and Jerusalem welcome the military’s return), and Iran (where both fear a nuclear Tehran) it may well be that this informal Jerusalem-Riyadh axis carries more influence than one may think, particularly on the Iranian nuclear issue. The United States will be hard-pressed to do a deal with Iran that leaves two of its last remaining Middle East allies angry, aggrieved, and fundamentally left doubting America’s will and power. And so most likely, despite Saudi and Israeli fears, Washington probably won’t be forced to accept its own stated slogan that no deal is better than a bad one. Two allies in hand is worth one very problematic potential frenemy in the proverbial bush”.

This is broadly accurate but it overlooks the fact that Israel, for all its bluster, and that is mostly want it is, cannot attack Iran successfully without American military support. Therefore, like most children, it will run away and complain and then realise that it must return home to get at least some of what it wants. This puts America in a much stronger position when dealing with the Israelis when it comes to Iran.

He ends the piece “that leaves us with a big question: are these special relationships even good for Washington anymore? The argument has been made for years that the United States is too subservient to Israel and too addicted to Saudi oil. Why not reduce its dependence on these two and make new friends? How about Turkey? Maybe even Iran? Surely, building these relationships would help the United States be seen as more credible around the region. One could argue it would also allow it greater freedom of action to protect its interests. There’s no doubt that maintaining close ties with the specials come with liabilities. Washington is directly linked to supporting or acquiescing in Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and other Arabs that engender rage, and support for the Saudi monarchy makes a mockery of U.S. principles of democracy and respect for human rights”.

“Support has turned to resentment”

11/11/2013

For more than a generation, the remote mountains of Khost and Paktia in eastern Afghanistan have been Haqqani country. It was here that Jalaluddin Haqqani forged his militant network and his fame in a holy war against Soviet invaders, a fight still spoken of in reverential tones. And it was here that he could always count on manpower and support in a later campaign to bloody Western military forces after they drove his allies, the Taliban, from power in 2001.  But murmurs of discontent have broken out on the Haqqanis’ home turf. As the Haqqanis themselves — Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin, his son, who now leads the group — shelter across the border in Pakistan, support has turned to resentment in some corners. Most startlingly, leaders of Mr. Haqqani’s native Zadran tribe in Khost Province say they have formally broken with the feared militant network”.

Another Saudi army

11/11/2013

An article discusses the role of Saudi Arabia in the Syrian war. The piece notes that Suadi Arabia is turning to Pakistan to assist it in training the rebels.

The piece notes “Saudi Arabia, having largely abandoned hope that the United States will spearhead international efforts to topple the Assad regime, is embarking on a major new effort to train Syrian rebel forces. And according to three sources with knowledge of the program, Riyadh has enlisted the help of Pakistani instructors to do it. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, along with the CIA, also supported the Afghan rebels against the Soviet-backed government during the 1980s. That collaboration contains a cautionary note for the current day: The fractured Afghan rebels were unable to govern after the old regime fell, paving the way for chaos and the rise of the Taliban”.

Indeed this is not the only co-operation between the two countries. He goes on to write that “While the risk of blowback has been discussed in Riyadh, Saudis with knowledge of the training program describe it as an antidote to extremism, not a potential cause of it. They have described the kingdom’s effort as having two goals — toppling the Assad regime, and weakening al Qaeda-linked groups in the country. Prince Turki, the former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy to Washington, said in a recent interview that the mainstream opposition must be strengthened so that it could protect itself “these extremists who are coming from all over the place” to impose their own ideologies on Syria. The ramped up Saudi effort has been spurred by the kingdom’s disillusionment with the United States”.

However the assumption that the Saudis seem to have, as reported here, looks flimsy at best. It seems that all they are concerned with is ousting Assad and have little interest in the long term consequences of their alliance with what is effectively a failed state, albeit one with nuclear weapons. Pakistan itself is riddled with a terrorist insurgency it seems to be unable to deal with on its own, and worse it seems unwilling to openly ask for outside help.

He continues, “Pakistan’s role is so far relatively small, though another source with knowledge of Saudi thinking said that a plan was currently being debated to give Pakistan responsibility for training two rebel brigades, or around 5,000 to 10,000 fighters. Carnegie Middle East Center fellow Yezid Sayigh first noted the use of Pakistani instructors, writing that the Saudis were planning to build a Syrian rebel army of roughly 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers”.

He goes on to add that “Saudi Arabia’s decision to move forward with training the Syrian rebels independent of the United States is the latest sign of a split between the two longtime allies. In Syria, Saudi officials were aggrieved by Washington’s decision to cancel a strike on the Assad regime in reprisal for its chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburbs this summer. A top Saudi official told the Washington Postthat Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan was unaware of the cancelation of the strike. ‘We found about it from CNN,’ he said. As a result, Saudi Arabia has given up on hopes that the United States would spearhead efforts to topple Assad and decided to press forward with its own plans to bolster rebel forces. That effort relies on a network of Saudi allies in addition to Pakistan, such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and France. As Sayigh laid out in his Carnegie paper, Saudi Arabia is attempting to build ‘a new national army’ for the rebels — a force with an ‘avowedly Sunni ideology’ that could seize influence from mainstream Syrian opposition groups. In addition to its training program in Jordan, Saudi Arabia also helped organize the unification of roughly 50 rebel brigades into ‘the Army of Islam’ under the leadership of Zahran Alloush, a Salafist commander whose father is a cleric based in the kingdom”.

He goes on in the piece to add that “Given the increased Islamization of rebel forces on the ground, analysts say, it only makes sense that Saudi Arabia would throw its support behind Salafist groups. These militias ‘happen to be the most strategically powerful organizations on the ground,’ said Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. ‘If Saudi Arabia does indeed follow such a strategy… it could well stand to become a major power player in the conflict.’ In calling on Pakistan to assist in toppling Assad, Saudi Arabia can draw on its deep alliance with Islamabad. The two countries have long shared defense ties: Saudi Arabia has given more aid to Pakistani than to any non-Arab country, according to former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, and also allegedly helped fundIslamabad’s nuclear program. In return, Pakistan based troops in Saudi Arabia multiple times over three decades to protect the royals’ grip on power. The current Pakistani government, in particular, is closely tied to Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power in 1999 by a military coup – the Saudis allegedly brokered a deal that kept him from prison. Sharif would spend the next seven years in exile, mainly in Saudi Arabia. “For the Saudis, Sharif is a key partner in a key allied state,” said Arif Rafiq, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute”.