Archive for December, 2013

2014 conflicts

30/12/2013

An article from Foreign Policy looks forward to 2014 and discusses the future conflicts in the year ahead. It starts “In a December poll conducted by Pew Research and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), 52 percent of Americans said the United States “should mind its own business internationally,” the highest percentage since that question was first asked in 1964. This hesitancy is prevalent throughout America — even as its friends want Uncle Sam’s bombs and missiles to lead from the front. In a September Ipsos Global @dvisor poll administered in 15 countries (all U.S. allies or partners), 28 percent of all respondents supported U.S.-led military action in Syria; among Americans alone, support was lower at 27 percent. Nevertheless, there is limited public appetite for deeper U.S. military engagement in the world’s problems”.

The first rank of possible problems that could be faced are an “Intensification of the Syrian civil war including possible limited military intervention”. The piece goes on to add that other possible problems could be a “Renewed threat of military strikes against Iran as a result of a breakdown in nuclear negotiations and/or clear evidence of intent to develop a nuclear weapons capability”,  “a mass casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland or a treaty ally” or perhaps most worryingly of all, “A severe North Korean crisis caused by a military provocation, internal political instability, or threatening nuclear weapons/ICBM-related activities”.

He goes on to add that other likely conflicts are problems from the violence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal, instability in Paksitan, or a strong AQAP in Yemen. He also mentions the possibility of a renewed civil war in Iraq amind growing Sunni-Shia tensions.

He goes on to add that there are a number of situations were there is less possibility of them occuring, “Further deterioration of the political situation in Egypt resulting in significantly increased violence, especially in the Sinai Peninsula” including “Increased sectarian violence and political instability in Lebanon due to spillover from the Syrian civil war”.

He mentions that “Continuing political instability and growing militancy in Libya” and “A severe Indo-Pakistani military confrontation triggered by a major terrorist attack or heightened violence in Kashmir” are also possible in addition to the already mentioned, “armed confrontation in the East China Sea between China and Japan stemming from tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands” that China seems to almost wants to occur.

 

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New charges against Morsi

30/12/2013

The military-backed government filed new criminal charges on Wednesday against Mohamed Morsi, the deposed president, accusing him of participating in an epic terrorist plot that involved killing protesters and leaking state secrets to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. A statement from the chief prosecutor described the case against Mr. Morsi as the biggest of its kind in Egyptian history. Human rights groups strongly disagreed, calling the allegations preposterous, in part because of their vast scale and complexity. Prosecutors accused Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, of having allied with the historic enemies of the security forces and the military. Prosecutors charged that, in addition to colluding with Iran, Mr. Morsi plotted with the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and with the Palestinian Sunni group Hamas, and that he planned to work with extremists to declare an Islamic emirate in Sinai”.

“Step in the right direction”

30/12/2013

A piece in Foreign Affairs notices the development in the political situation in Tunsia. It begins mentioning the strikes that have plauged the country, doctors, customs officials and taxi drivers have all gone on strike in protest over working condiditions and petrol prices.

He goes on to write that “Politics often seem hopelessly polarized, with Islamists led by the political party Ennahda pitted against their secular opponents in parliament in a manner not unlike Egypt’s bloody rivalries. And the assassinations of two prominent liberal politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, by Islamist militants earlier this year brought public anger against Ennahda into the streets, as many Tunisians blamed the Islamists for a soft embrace of extremist groups. It appeared that Tunisia — whose largely functional democratic transition has set it apart from the other Arab Spring countries — would no longer avoid the violence that has undermined the other revolutions and uprisings across the Middle East”.

Encouragingly he goes on to make the point that “the political class has reached an accord. On December 14, after weeks of broken promises and missed deadlines, Tunisia’s rival political parties finally agreed on a deal to dissolve the Ennahda-led government and create an interim administration led by a compromise prime minister. If all goes according to plan, Mehdi Jomaa, who had previously served as minister of industry, will lead a caretaker government of technocrats until elections can be held next year, most likely after the summer. It’s further confirmation that, despite their ideological differences, Tunisia’s Islamists and secularists are perfectly capable of cooperating. It’s also another sign of pragmatism from the Islamists, who in October 2011 swept the first elections after the fall of Ben Ali. Now Ennahda, an Islamist force that sees itself as both a grassroots movement and a political party, has agreed to bow to the demands of its critics and give up power. Of course, the compromise deal doesn’t erase what seem like real ideological differences”.

He adds that “this ideological polarization is not as extreme as it appears — at least, it has not prevented the two sides from engaging in normal political negotiations, as the deal makes clear. Ennahda is at the moderate end of the Islamist spectrum: it supports democracy, endorses a civil rather than a religious state, and, in the late Ben Ali years, signed key agreements with the secular left, including communists, on their shared vision for a future Tunisia”, yet like any political party “Ennahda eventually agreed to step down from power now, because it believes it can reemerge as the largest party in parliament in the next elections, despite the criticism it faces for the country’s sluggish economy and a rising tide of radical violence under its watch”.

The piece continues that the Ennahda led government has not yet resigned which would allow the new prime minister to take office. Ennahda should do so as quickly as possible for fear of stoking a backlash against those who already mistrust them. If however they do as they have agreeded then they should be praised for doing as they promised. A host of incentives could be sent to Tunisia, development aid, business delegations and other incentives, from both America and Europe could help encourage Tunisia down the path it has already taken.

He goes onto mention that the new government’s main aim is to fix a date for both presidential and parliamentary elections. He ends the piece promisingly, “Jomaa must also oversee the contentious finalizing of the new constitution, which has gone through numerous drafts, but is unlikely to prove as combative. Both sides have recognized that they have an interest in presenting themselves to the public as reasonable stewards of the constitutional process. Ennahda recently withdrew several lingering controversial elements, including an article that would have made Islam the religion of the state and the separate Law to Protect the Revolution, which would have barred senior figures from the former ruling party, including current members of Nidaa Tunis, from political life. On top of this agenda, Jomaa will have to build a consensus. The main opposition parties, including Nidaa Tunis, fear that he is Ennahda’s man, and they either walked out or abstained at the last minute from the vote on his nomination. On Friday, one opposition party, al-Jomhouri, even pulled out of the negotiations over the formation of the new cabinet. There are other precedents of cooperation between Tunisia’s Islamist and secular representatives. The two sides recently agreed on a new transitional justice law that will tackle crimes of torture and human rights abuses under the old regime through what they’re calling the Truth and Dignity Commission. But many other reforms remain unfulfilled, including changes to the penal code inherited from Ben Ali”.

The article concludes noting that Ennahda is split over which direction that party should take, “All are acutely aware of the fate of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and are keen to avoid the missteps that might lead to a similar violent confrontation with secular forces. The party’s convention next year promises to include heated debates about whether it can continue to embrace both a religious movement and a political party or whether the two should go their separate ways”.

He finishes, “The great achievement of the Tunisian uprising is that, so far, the democratic transition has stayed the course. However, there are worrying signs of increasing Salafist radicalism: the two political assassinations this year, insurgent attacks on the Tunisian army, and an October suicide bombing in the resort town of Sousse. And the socioeconomic crisis that ultimately sparked the Tunisian uprising three years ago persists. Unemployment has dipped but still stands officially at more than 15 per cent, and is even higher in the poor towns of the interior. The economy, including the vital tourism industry, remains stagnant and has yet to fully recover from years of upheaval. A political agreement about a new technocratic government is a small step in the right direction. But whoever governs Tunisia will need to take many more”.

Javad Zarif interviewed

28/12/2013

Since we believe our program is exclusively for peaceful purposes, we have no desire to leave any ambiguity about the exclusively peaceful nature of our program. So on our side, we believe it is very easy to reach an agreement. Of course it requires serious political will and good faith in order to reach that agreement”.

“Increase their chances of winning seats”

28/12/2013

A piece in The Hill discusses the implications of the exit of Senator Max Baucus from the Senate. It notes that “President Obama’s nomination of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) as U.S. ambassador to China is the latest shake-up in the tumultuous battle for the Senate majority. Democrats believe the nomination will increase their chances of winning seats in Montana and, potentially, in Louisiana, where vulnerable Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is in line to pick up the Energy Committee gavel thanks to Baucus’s exit. But Republicans say their chances of recapturing the majority are rising due to President Obama’s sagging poll numbers”.

The article goes on to mention that the GOP “hope to make races in New Hampshire and Michigan competitive and are looking to land a strong candidate in Virginia to put the state in play.  Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win the Senate majority in 2014 and are counting on victories against Democratic incumbents in states like Arkansas, North Carolina and Louisiana to get them there. The GOP had also hoped for a pickup in Montana, where Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is the favorite over Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D). But now that Baucus is headed to China, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) seems likely to nominate Walsh to the open Senate seat, potentially giving his campaign the boost of incumbency. A Senate appointment could help Walsh boost his fundraising and national profile in the same way that Sen. Dean Heller’s (R-Nev.) 2011 appointment to the Senate helped his campaign. It could also undercut the primary threat from former Montana Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger (D)”.

The problem with the GOP strategy is, as has been said here before, there is too much democracy. If the GOP could control the state parties more, or at least have a veto on the candidates elected by the state party, then there would be be a more unified message instead of crackpots and cranks like Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin.

The piece goes on to note that “Baucus’s appointment might also boost the reelection hopes of Landrieu, a senator who has kept an independent streak as a vocal advocate for the oil and gas industry.
Landrieu has already been talking on the campaign trail about her work on the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, and might soon be able to drive that panel’s agenda by wielding the gavel. That could help distance her from the national Democratic Party, which is unpopular in her home state. Georgia is another bright spot for Democrats. Former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) became the latest Republican in the crowded primary field to stir up controversy this week by suggesting low-income school children should have to “sweep the floor of the cafeteria” in exchange for free lunches. Reps. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) and Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) have made similar missteps, and Democrats are hopeful that the internecine primary fight will yield a weak GOP nominee.  Democrats have a strong candidate in former charity head Michelle Nunn (D) and argue she has a real shot at winning the open seat in the conservative-leaning state. Republicans are feeling bullish about other races, however. Former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) is looking more and more like a likely candidate in New Hampshire — he recently moved to the state and has been headlining a number of events there in recent weeks. Shaheen remains fairly popular in the swing state, and it’s far from certain that Brown runs. If he does, he’ll have to navigate a GOP primary and deal with carpet-bagging charges. But Democrats admit Brown would give Shaheen a much tougher race than any of the other Republicans who are running”.

It was Shaheen who defied the White House in its attempts to curb the right to weapons. This should not have been tolerated in President Obama’s attempt to achieve the common good. The question should always be would Brown in the Senate help achieve his ends.

A divided Pakistani Taliban

28/12/2013

Though the differences among the various militant groups hiding in the Waziristan tribal region were not a well-kept secret, Mehsud’s death in Danday Darpa Khel, an area believed to be the stronghold of the Haqqani network and affiliated militants, followed by Haqqani’s killing, has deepened suspicions among the leadership of the two militant organizations and seems to have ruptured any semblance of alliance or goodwill between them. The incidents have also widened the internal differences of the TTP, highlighting the power struggle between Mehsud and non-Mehsud supporters. A source from Waziristan said that the TTP leadership suspected the Haqqani network of providing information to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) on Mehsud’s presence in Danday Darpa Khel. Other sources confirmed this, noting that Mehsud was not happy with the Haqqani network’s ties to Pakistan’s intelligence services and suspected its leaders were passing information to the government”.

Normalising relations with India

28/12/2013

An article discusses Indian-Pakistani relations, which are notoriously fraught and have been for decades. It opens, “Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, met in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September. While many hoped it would signal a fresh start in Indo-Pak relations, it proved to be a missed opportunity for the two countries to get their bilateral relations back on track. The much awaited resumption of composite dialogue was never announced”.

However, it writes that there are signs of hope for the future, “few people realize the sea change towards India that has taken place in Pakistan in the post-2001 period. The Pakistan army, no doubt the most powerful institution in Pakistan and also the main arbiter of its foreign policy, has finally realised that Pakistan’s biggest threat is internal and no longer India. This shift in Pakistan’s one-dimensional, India-centric outlook is significant and emerged after much deep introspection. Evidence of this recalibration appeared in 2011 when the military voice its support for the previous government’s efforts to grant ‘Most Favoured Nation’ (MFN) trade status to India and relax the visa regime to promote people-to-people exchanges between the two countries. Unfortunately, the effort failed due to Pakistan’s powerful agricultural lobby”.

While the failure of MFN status is an obvious dissappointment, the fact that such a thing was even discussed shows just how far Pakistan has come in the last years. He goes on to write, “As the 2013 general elections in Pakistan approached last May, the rural members of the parliament forced the government to delay phasing out the negative list, thus denying India MFN status. Sharif’s government remains openly committed to phasing out the list, but it feels aggrieved by India’s lukewarm response to its proposals to resume the composite bilateral dialogue, of which trade normalisation is one component. A joint India-Pakistan Business Council has been formed to reach an understanding on the contentious issues raised by both sides, but progress has so far been slow and lacklustre. While Pakistan should have conferred MFN status upon India nearly two years ago, it should certainly do so now without further delay. With the army’s support, the government still has the ability to do so”.

More importantly he goes on to mention,” All the major political parties — the Pakistan Peoples Party, the Pakistan Muslim League, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, the Awami National Party, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement — have publicly committed to normalising relations with India, strengthening trade and economic ties, and intensifying personnel exchanges. These sentiments even found their way into the parties’ respective campaign platforms. Sharif has been a consistent and ardent advocate of better ties with India, to the chagrin of some of his closest aides. Support for rapprochement outside the government has also grown. Pakistani media, otherwise known for its boisterousness, has begun to take a more sober view of India-Pakistan relations and anti-India rhetoric has dimmed. Public opinion polls show that the general population now considers terrorist elements operating in the country, not India, to be Pakistan’s number one enemy. And the Pakistani business community, with a few exceptions, remains the biggest advocate and supporter of removing tariff and non-tariff barriers and increasing trade facilitation measures with India. These business organisations argue persuasively that a smaller economy such as Pakistan will benefit from closer ties to its larger neighbour”.

The importance of the political consensus cannot be under estimated. If the consensus is broad and deep then relations will improve between the two nations and Pakistan will finally step back from the brink and begin to solve its vast array of problems, not least the continuing situation where the country is plauged by terrorist attacks which were once in its national interest but are now threatened to consume the country nuclear armed country. However, if the political consensus is not strong enough then a minor incident could risk greater instability and the risk of another military coup which, perhaps, may lead to an indirect resurgence in terrorist activity.

The writer warns that the “hard-earned consensus in Pakistan is still fragile, however. It remains vulnerable to disruption by the venomous reactions of Indians, particularly the media, to recent events such as the death of Indian citizen Sarabjit Singh in a Pakistani prison in May or ceasefire violations along the Line of Control in Kashmir this fall. This backlash unwittingly plays in the hands of those hardliners in Pakistan who aim to unravel the bonhomie between the two countries. Indian media outlets, in their ongoing ratings wars, attempt to outdo each other by exuding poison against Pakistan, causing Pakistan-bashing in India to often assume hysteric proportions. The media influences public opinion in subtle and gradual ways, and iterations of these negative views on Facebook and Twitter add fuel to the fire. In an election year, Indian opposition parties find it convenient to use a heavy stick against the ruling party and criticise its weak stance against their “enemy.” These attacks put the Indian government on the defensive, lest it antagonise a public already indoctrinated against Pakistan. The result is that the Indian government has played hardball and dragged its feet in resuming the dialogue. While Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a sincere believer in better ties with Pakistan, he faces a multitude of other domestic issues and strong opposition from others in his party and the establishment”.

The piece adds importantly that “At some point, the public pressure may become so intense that this political consensus, achieved after such a long time and buttressed by the military, may break down. Jihadist elements and the Pakistani Taliban have already declared that, in case of war against India, they will fight alongside the Pakistani army. This would pacify the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, allowing the army to move its troops along Pakistan’s border with India. If this happens, tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors could escalate and a region of the world with a long history of hostility could become violent”.

“Asking it to review”

26/12/2013

The Indian government has filed a petition in the Supreme Court asking it to review its decision to reinstate a 153-year-old law that criminalises homosexuality. The government asked the court to review its order saying it believed it “violated the principle of equality”. There has been outrage over the ruling seen as a huge blow to gay rights. There have been street protests and many activists and even government ministers have criticised it. The Supreme Court order on 11 December overturned a landmark 2009 Delhi High Court ruling which had decriminalised gay sex. In its ruling, the Delhi High Court had described Section 377 – the colonial-era law which says a same-sex relationship is an “unnatural offence” and punishable by a 10-year jail term – as discriminatory and said gay sex between consenting adults should not be treated as a crime. But the Supreme Court said it was up to parliament to change the law and the courts did not have the mandate to rule on it”.

“the most generous nation on Earth”

26/12/2013

An article in Foreign Policy discusses the

It starts, “Between the steady drip of Edward Snowden leaks about the National Security Agency and Syria’s slow burn, it seems pretty easy these days to cast the United States as the villain when it comes to international affairs. That makes this holiday season an ideal one to debunk one of the longest-standing myths about the United States: that it is miserly when it comes to helping other nations through foreign aid”.

He goes on to write that “Much of the myth of America’s stinginess traces its roots back to the 1970 commitment by the U.N. General Assembly that rich countries should dedicate 0.7 percent* of their gross national income (GNI) to what is dubbed “official development assistance” (ODA). Although a number of European countries have embraced the target, the United States has never done so, arguing that it is a poor measure of America’s relative commitment to helping the poor in the developed world. Critics of the United States are quick to point out that the United States, at around 0.02 percent, has one of the lowest rates of official aid to GNI of the major industrialized countries, which is true. But this statistic says a lot more about the ridiculousness of how we currently measure ODA than it does about what the United States brings to the table. The United States is not only the largest donor of ODA in the world, providing more than $30.5 billion toward that end in 2012, but it makes far and away the largest private contributions to development and poverty alleviation of any nation on Earth — more than 30 percent of all such giving on the planet. Because ODA only measures government spending on development, it totally ignores private giving — whether it be the year-end check you just wrote to the International Committee of the Red Cross or the billions of dollars poured into lifesaving programs by the Gates Foundation”.

He goes on to make the excellent point that “A wonderfully detailed report by a British NGO, Development Initiatives, offers a far richer and more accurate picture of the state of development investments by countries around the globe. In the United States, private spending on international development — at around $30 billion annually — is already as large as government spending (and by some accounts larger.) That’s not even counting the money sent back to developing countries from the United States. Remittances from the United States to the developing world total more than $100 billion each year, and U.S. remittances make up almost 30 percent of all remittances received by developing countries. Then there’s U.S. foreign direct investment in developing countries — more than $40 billion. All told, more than $200 billion from the United States flows into the developing world each year. When that’s compared to the 2012 global total for ODA of $128 billion — and that’s $128 billion from all the bilateral aid agencies on Earth — you begin to get a sense that we are not really measuring the right things when it comes to accounting for development spending”.

He closes noting,”what is perhaps most ironic — and tragic — is the profound gulf in how American aid and charity is seen at home and abroad. Most foreigners think the United States is a heartless cheapskate when it comes to development. In contrast, most Americans think their own country is wildly profligate when it comes to spending on international development. For example, a recent poll found that most Americans estimated about 28 percent of the federal budget goes to spending on foreign aid, when in reality that figure has traditionally hovered around 1 percent. Perhaps the idea that the United States has been a steady, consistent, and largely responsible development investor is something that isn’t easy for anyone to get their head around. But a Grinch it most assuredly is not”.

A threat to the talks

26/12/2013

A bipartisan group of senators, defying the White House, introduced a bill on Thursday to impose new sanctions on Iran if it failed to conclude a nuclear agreement, or stick to the terms of its interim deal, with the United States and other major powers. The Obama administration swiftly condemned the legislation, warning that it could derail negotiations with Iran and that President Obama would veto it if it ever came to his desk. With the Senate about to recess for the Christmas holiday, that is unlikely for the time being. But the bill, backed by 26 senators evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, confronts the White House with the prospect of a sustained showdown with Congress during its delicate talks with Iran — talks that Iranian officials said would be scuttled by any new sanctions.

Trust in America

26/12/2013

An article from the Economist examines the political polarisation in the United States. It notes “The network maps shown here look at the degree to which senators vote the same way. Each node is a senator. Links represent instances when senators have voted similarly on substantive legislation on at least 100 occasions during the same congressional session. Their placement is determined algorithmically, based on their co-operation with other legislators—which has the effect of pushing more bipartisan ones to the centre.

In a related article from the same issue examines the consequences that these deepening political divergence can have, and is having on American society.

 

“Grim findings have been coming thick and fast. Most Americans no longer see President Barack Obama as honest. Half think that he “knowingly lied” to pass his Obamacare health law. Fewer than one in five trust the government in Washington to do what is right all or most of the time. Confidence in Congress has fallen to record lows: in America, as in Italy and Greece, just one in ten voters expresses trust or confidence in the national parliament. Frankly straining credulity, a mammoth, 107-country poll by Transparency International, a corruption monitor, this summer found Americans more likely than Italians to say that they feel that the police, business and the media are all ‘corrupt or extremely corrupt'”.

Worryingly the piece reports that “Americans are also turning on one another. Since 1972 the Chicago-based General Social Survey (GSS) has been asking whether most people can be trusted, or whether ‘you can’t be too careful’ in daily life. Four decades ago Americans were evenly split. Now almost two-thirds say others cannot be trusted, a record high. Recently the Associated Press sought to add context to the GSS data, asking Americans if they placed much trust in folk they met away from home, or in the workers who swiped their payment cards when out shopping. Most said no. The press is full of headlines about an American crisis of trust. That is too hasty. Lexington spent years in Asia and Europe reporting from countries cursed by official corruption and low trust among strangers. America is not that sort of society”.

While this latter point is true the danger is that it will become a self fulfilling prophecy. America’s obsession with the free market on the one hand has made it competitive and wealthy, but the negative effects of this are now being felt. Unless a more communitarian approach is taken social decay will continue. The consequences of this over time would be a less competitive America but the benefits would outweigh any negatives in the long term.

He goes on to cite China, “In genuinely low-trust societies, suspicion blights lives and hobbles economies. In China, even successful urbanites distrust business and government, worrying constantly about the food they buy and the air they breathe. Yet those same successful Chinese have little confidence in the poor. Chinese friends used to urge Lexington never to play Good Samaritan at an accident scene, insisting that anyone rich who stopped to help would be blamed for the victim’s injuries and pursued for compensation”.

He goes on to argue correctly, “It is true that America faces grave problems. Congress has had an unproductive year: shutting down the federal government was a notable low point. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) confessed to subjecting Tea Party and other political groups to special scrutiny, enraging conservatives. But to put such antics in perspective, this year Italy’s richest media tycoon and its ex-prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was convicted of tax fraud, of paying an underage prostitute and abuse of power. In genuinely low-trust countries, tax evasion comes naturally: when those at the top cheat, only dupes follow the rules. But America shows few signs of surging tax evasion. The most recent IRS “tax gap” estimates found no significant decline in the proportion of taxes paid voluntarily and on time”.

Again this point is correct but the reason that tax evasion rates are so low is that those at the highest income pay almost no tax at all with Mitt Romney confessing he paid 7% in income tax.

He ends the piece, “None of this justifies complacency. Americans are dangerously angry. But when they voice Italian levels of distrust for authorities, or sweepingly accuse fellow-citizens of being crooks, they are not describing reality. Here is a theory: Americans are instead revealing how deeply they are divided. Dig into headlines about “half of all Americans” thinking this or that, and large partisan or demographic divides lurk. Take that poll finding that half of voters think Mr Obama lied to pass his health plan. Look more closely, and eight in ten Republicans think he fibbed, but fewer than one in four Democrats. As for headline GSS numbers about overall trust between Americans, they conceal a big race gap: for decades around 80% of black Americans have consistently said that most people cannot be trusted. The bulk of the recent decline involves whites becoming less trusting, says Tom Smith, the survey’s director. Explaining that decline is a complex business, but over the same period society has become more impersonal and more economically unequal. Robert Putnam of Harvard University, a pioneer in the study of “social capital”, argues that Americans’ trust in one another has been declining steadily since the “golden” aftermath of the second world war, when civic activity and a sense of community among neighbours were at a peak. Trust in institutions has risen and fallen over that same post-war period in line with external events, plunging after the Watergate scandal, for instance, and during recessions. Yet something new seems to be happening. Anti-government cynicism is feeding on gulfs in society”.

He concludes the article, “Consider the crisis around Obamacare. Forget fussing about its useless website: websites can be fixed. The president’s headache is that voters see his plan as welfare for the poor rather than a better way of delivering medical care. That is exposing ugly divisions. Most starkly, a majority of whites think the law will make life worse for them, a National Journalpoll found, while most non-whites believe it will help people like them. That in turn tallies with a big change over the previous 15 years: a collapse in support among conservatives for government safety nets. This is America’s real problem with trust. The country faces a crisis of mutual resentment, masquerading as a general collapse in national morale. Sharply-delineated voter blocs are alarmingly willing to believe that rival groups are up to no good or taking more than their fair share. Polls describing America as a hell-hole of corruption are not to be taken literally. They are a warning. America is not a low-trust society. But it risks becoming one”.

In danger of civil war

26/12/2013

US President Barack Obama has warned that South Sudan is on the “precipice” of a civil war, after clashes in the capital Juba spread around the country. He said 45 military personnel had been deployed to South Sudan on Wednesday to protect American citizens and property. At least 500 people are believed to have died since last weekend, when President Salva Kiir accused his ex-deputy Riek Machar of a failed coup. An estimated 34,000 people have taken refuge at United Nations compounds”.

Still in denial

26/12/2013

An article in the Daily Telegraph discusses the euro and notes that the EU elites are still in denial and that little has changed in the eurozone.

Warner opens, “Rarely has the economic gulf that separates the English-speaking world and continental Europe looked quite as wide as it does today. While much of the eurozone remains mired in an economic funk, Britain and America are recovering fast, with rising demand and near record levels of private-sector job creation. As if the last, crisis-ridden three years haven’t already given Europe’s policy elite enough to think about, this juxtaposition in fortunes must surely have awoken them to the truth: monetary union isn’t working. Unfortunately, the reality is that euroland continues to stumble blindly from one botched response to another, neither able to reconfigure the single currency in a more sustainable form nor enact the sort of measures that might give it a credible future. This week’s blueprint for a banking union is only the latest example. Even in Brussels, they struggled to call it a job well done; this was meant to be the most significant leap forward for European integration since the launch of the euro itself, but in the event it was just another messy compromise”.

He goes on to make the important point, “Overly complicated and chronically underfunded, it fails some of the most basic tests for any credible banking union. Decisions on whether to wind up failing banks remain subject to national veto; more crucially still, there is no agreement on collective responsibility for the costs. At some stage in the future, these things are meant to fall into place, but Europe really doesn’t have the luxury of time. Even major economies such as France, Italy and Spain are right on the edge of social and political fracture. The euro offers no plausible path back to growth, yet they cannot or will not give up on it. Not that these failings should be cause for triumph in Britain and America. Europe’s tragedy is Britain’s misfortune, forcing the UK artificially to support demand via the palliative of extreme forms of monetary stimulus to avoid the same fate. This can work for a while, but eventually Britain needs to rebalance its economy away from consumption to trade and investment”.

He goes onto write, “The end of US quantitative easing should therefore be seen as positive. But this is not a decision the ECB has the luxury of making: it has not been allowed even to start the printing press, thanks largely to German obstruction. The “QE-lite” liquidity support for the banking system that was eventually sanctioned has been effective in underpinning the banking system, and thereby prevented a disorderly break-up of the euro, but it has done nothing to stimulate demand. The US, and now Britain, have also been swift to recapitalise their banking systems, allowing credit expansion to resume. European stress tests to establish solvency have only just started and are not due for completion for nearly a year. Again, it is not clear Europe has the luxury of time”.

He ends the piece, “Europe needs monetary stimulus but thanks to a dysfunctional single currency cannot have it; it needs labour market reform, but outside Germany and its satellites, is unwilling to enact it; and it needs burden-sharing, but its nations are still too fiscally sovereign to contemplate it. European leaders naively seem to assume that recovery is just around the corner. The truth is that they have made themselves hostage to the storm even as America and Britain navigate their way out”.

Puer natus est nobis

24/12/2013

Hodie Christus natus est, alleluia!

The old vs new establishment

23/12/2013

Many close to the Republican Party have foretold its demise before. An article in the Washington Post argues that the civil war inside the GOP has just begun.

Dionne writes “The Republican civil war, like all civil wars, is even messier than it looks. It’s a battle between two different conservative establishments, complicated by philosophical struggles across many other fronts. Its resolution will determine whether we are a governable country. Because the GOP fight is so important, it’s a mistake to dismiss the passage of a real, honest-to-goodness budget through both houses of Congress as a minor event. The deal negotiated by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) may be small, but it represents a major recalibration of forces inside the Republican Party”.

He continues, “From the time the Republicans took over the House in 2010, it became a matter of doctrine that conservatives should never reach compromises with Democrats — and especially with President Obama. Compromise came to be seen as a violation of conservative ideals. Poll after poll has shown that attitudes toward the quest for common ground have become a new dividing line between the parties. Typical was a Pew Research Center survey in January, as the new Congress opened. Given a choice pitting elected officials who “make compromises with people they disagree with” against those who “stick to their positions,” 59 percent of Democrats but only 36 percent of Republicans preferred compromise-seekers”.

Dionne goes on to make the vital point that has been mentioned here before, “The tea party certainly still wields power in GOP primaries, one reason why only one of the seven Republican senators facing tea-party challengers, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, supported allowing a vote on the deal. But Ryan and House Speaker John Boehner calculated, correctly, that the wreckage from October’s shutdown strategy allowed them to breach the tea party’s barrier against deal-making. Ryan partially hedged his bets. He declined on “Meet the Press” last Sunday to join Boehner’s robust assault on outside conservative groups and insisted that the GOP would still make demands when an extension of the debt ceiling comes up for a vote early next year. Nonetheless, when Ryan declared that he had to make a deal because “elections have consequences,” he was making a fundamental concession to the view Obama has been advancing: that with the Democrats still holding the White House and the Senate, compromise is unavoidable if governing is to happen”.

Interestingly he argues “The Republican Party is unequivocally in conservative hands. What makes the tea party rebellion peculiar is that its champions have lifted strategy and tactics to the level of principle”. This goes against others how maintain that the GOP is still moderate but that a largely southern group of GOP congressmen have captured that party.

Dionne then goes on to argue a fairly traditional line, “Boehner denounced conservative fundraising behemoths (they include FreedomWorks, Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity) because he understands that they now constitute an alternative Republican establishment. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was even more explicit, arguing that “many of the outside groups do what they do solely to raise money.” The new establishment is bolstered by conservative talk show hosts who communicate regularly with Republican loyalists and have challenged the party’s elected leaders for control over its message”.

It is certainly true that he is attacking the tea party groups because he feels threatened but the notion that talk radio somehow controls the grass roots is uncertain, at best. In a blog post, the Economist wrote that only 5% of people actually listen to talk radio and the real issue is not so much those who listen to it but the fact that there is so much more “choice” which means that those who are not interested in politics can now simply go elsewhere to be “entertained”.

He ends the piece “The showdown involving the two conservative power centers is not the only dispute that matters. There are crisscrossing divisions between foreign policy hawks and non-interventionists; between those who care passionately about social issues such as abortion and gay marriage and those who would play them down; between purist libertarians and pro-business pragmatists; and between supporters and opponents of a more open policy on immigration. These arguments, however, are secondary to the issue of how a conservative opposition should comport itself. The governing wing won this round. But Ryan’s comments on the debt ceiling, coupled with similar remarks from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, suggest that Republicans will face another internal struggle over how much to demand in exchange for expanding the government’s borrowing authority”.

Mission accomplished?

22/12/2013

David Cameron has declared the mission in Afghanistan will have been accomplished by the time all British troops have been withdrawn at the end of next year despite fears of a surge of violence from the Taliban around next year’s elections”.

Energy in the UK

22/12/2013

Following on from the glut of research on the energy boom, leading to the misnomer of energy independence, an article has appeared discussing the future energy independence in Europe.

It begins, “The British government this week mapped out which parts of England, Scotland and Wales it could offer for the development of shale gas, the latest in a string of halting European efforts to start replicating the so-called “shale gale” that has dramatically transformed the U.S. energy picture in the last half-decade. Coaxing more natural gas out of the ground couldn’t hurt the British, who’ve been poleaxed by rising energy prices and greenhouse-gas emissions, exactly the opposite of what’s happened in the U.S. But neither the U.K. nor Europe as a whole is about to steal a page from the U.S. playbook and ride a shale gas boom to a cleaner energy sector and a revitalized manufacturing base. For Europe, that means there are still no easy answers to its decade-old quest to achieve cheaper and cleaner energy while boosting energy security at the same time. Europe is set to finalise its energy and climate plan for 2030 by early next year. For the moment, it’s far from clear that shale will — or should be — be part of it. The U.K. assessment, released Tuesday, opens up about half of Britain to the prospect of shale exploration. That has exercised the British press, who are worried about the “industrialisation of the countryside” and scores of heavy trucks rattling through densely-populated areas day and night. Government officials, like their counterparts in the U.S., acknowledge the need to tap shale deposits in a responsible fashion, but say that opening up more areas for hydraulic fracturing could prove an economic boon”.

He goes on to write, “British steps to start unlocking its shale potential matter, because Britain has almost all the ingredients needed to actually make the shale revolution happen: a clear regulatory framework, robust capital markets, nimble producers, existing gas infrastructure, and potentially favourable geology.  That’s more than can be said for plenty of other European countries that have abundant shale gas resources on paper — such as Poland or the Ukraine — but which need to make wholesale changes to their regulatory landscape and massive investments in their natural gas infrastructure. At the same time, shale-gas development, due to heavy initial depletion rates, requires lots and lots of drilling rigs, something else that Europe and the rest of the world conspicuously lack compared to the United States”.

He adds the valid point, “The U.K. shale assessment makes clear how hard that would be to pull off. Even if Britain figures out just how much shale it has, and how much it costs to get out of the ground, British shale gas isn’t likely to displace dirty coal, as it did in the U.S.  Rather, the government-commissioned study says, British shale gas would most likely displace pricey, imported liquefied gas. As a result, the report found, British shale development would have a negligible effect on national greenhouse-gas emissions. And that highlights a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the U.S. natural gas revolution and its appeal for the rest of the world: Gas is relatively cheap in the U.S. not because it comes from shale, but because shale unleashed so very much of it at the same time. Coaxing gas out of underground shale formations by shattering the rock with a high-pressure cocktail of water and chemicals is more expensive than tapping free-flowing gas fields”.

He ends the piece noting “Some European countries are pre-emptively shutting shale out of the equation before even grappling with the challenges of economic extraction and distribution. France and Bulgaria have banned it outright. Germany is still trying to make up its mind”.

While this attitude is understandable, it will do little to help European competitiveness in the long run. Of course there is a balance to be struck but if the extraction procees can be highly regulated, as it should be, there is little reason to ban such a potential resource outright.

He concludes, “At issue, as it has been over the past decade, is precisely how the continent can manage to promote low-carbon energy sources in order to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, while making energy less expensive for cash-strapped governments, families, and businesses. Simultaneously, Europe aims to increase its own energy security. The three objectives never clearly meshed, and often came into conflict. Tapping shale gas won’t solve all those problems, but it has forced its way into the discussion”.

Reid hopes

22/12/2013

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) thinks the healthcare law will ultimately help Senate Democrats in 2014 even though some incumbents fear a backlash at the polls. “I think for sure it will be a net positive,” said Reid, who expects the law to become more of a political benefit as problems are smoothed out by Election Day. “I think so by then for sure.” Reid said feedback to the Obama administration from Democratic senators has helped improve the federal enrollment site HealthCare.gov since its disastrous launch in October”.

Baucus in China

20/12/2013

Max Baucus (D-MT) has been nominated as the next US ambassador to China. Outgoing ambassador, Gary Locke who has been serving since August 2011 wishes to leave the post to return to his family. A blog post discusses the implications of Baucus as the next ambassador.

It starts, “With China increasingly demanding to be seen as an equal to the United States, the White House has selected the next steward of its most important, most complicated bilateral relationship. According to media reports, Max Baucus, the influential Democratic senator from Montana, is set to become the next U.S. ambassador to China”.

He goes on to write that Baucus in China would allow the White House more control of the US-Sino relationship, “A respected Democratic voice, Baucus is not necessarily a lower profile pick than his predecessors, and he has already met with Chinese President Xi Jinping several times. Where he does differ, especially from Huntsman, is his near total lack of experience in security issues. ‘It’s an interesting [pick] in the sense that security competition with China is heating up and he doesn’t have much of a record’ on security issues, said Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. While Baucus will certainly get up to speed, he’s probably less likely than his predecessors to interfere with the White House and the Pentagon on military or political issues”.

Yet, while this point is certainly valid, it would be a mistake to overstate it. Ambassadors in general can give advice from their view on the ground, but beyond that, it is naturally the responsibility of other officials to make decisions on often sensitive political issues.

He goes on to add that the relationship between Congress and China could improve, “Chinese leaders have always been more comfortable dealing with U.S. presidents  — who have a job that’s roughly analogous to their own — than with members of Congress. ‘They don’t really know what to make of Congress, because it’s this cacophony of people with many of them influential on different things,’ said Patrick Chovanec, chief strategist with Silvercrest Asset Management, who formerly taught economics at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Baucus, who’s been in the Senate for 35 years, could help smooth over concerns in Congress about Chinese investment in the United States and unfair trade practices against U.S. companies in China”.

Similarly it would be a mistake to overstate this. There are many members of Congrees who are rightly very sceptical of China and Chinese actions. Having a former US Senator may make things easier for China but if recent Chinese actions are anything to go by, China will have less friends in Congress, not more.

He ends the piece predicting that the choice of Baucus is reasonably uncontroversial, “Trade is always an easier bilateral issue for Beijing to deal with than military and security matters or questions of human rights. An October 2010 press release from his Senate office titled “Baucus Presses Top Chinese Officials to Address Trade Concerns, Open Market to Montana Beef” was likely not an issue of concern for Chinese officials. Baucus is a soft-spoken Senate dealmaker who was instrumental in ushering President Obama’s signature healthcare overhaul through Congress. An introvert rather than a show man, he is less likely to anger Beijing by building a personal relationship with the Chinese people — which his predecessors made a point of doing. Photos of Locke flying to Beijing coach class, carrying his own luggage, and waiting in line at a Starbucks went viral in China, because of the contrast they highlighted with corrupt Chinese officials. Huntsman famously rode his motorcycle through the streets of Shanghai and would occasionally ride a bicycle to meetings at the Chinese foreign ministry. Baucus will probably keep a lower profile”.

However, in such an important relationship, not having a formal FCO officer in China running the embassy makes little sense. Politicising the appointment by having former governors and senators take the role should in future be avoided and by the exception rather than the norm.

Games from the GOP

20/12/2013

“Senate Republicans will let their rank-and-file members leave town for the Christmas break, leaving Democrats to vote around the clock to confirm the latest batch of President Obama’s nominees. Republicans, angered over last month’s gutting of the filibuster, decided at a meeting Thursday afternoon that they will not yield back any time on the Defense authorization bill or expedite consideration of any of Obama’s nominees. Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn (Texas) said it is up to individual senators if they want to stick around Congress on Friday and Saturday to vote on nominees Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has put on the schedule. Cornyn said his leadership would maker sure at least one Republican senator remains on or near the floor at all times to object to Democratic requests to waive various procedural hurdles”.

“Failing to plan for the worst”

20/12/2013

Sean Kay, writing in Foreign Policy has an article arguing that the “recovery” in Ireland is

He begins, “The Eurozone is back in the news this week with what at the surface level is a good story — Ireland is leaving the European Union/International Monetary Fund bailout mechanism and regaining its economic sovereignty. Five years after it became the first European country to enter a post-financial crisis recession, Ireland is being heralded as a model for how austerity can put a nation back on its feet. There is no question that the country’s temporary sacrifice of economic freedom halted what was one of the steepest declines in relative wealth in modern history. However, the reality is that Ireland has yet to hit rock bottom, and when it does, it will likely remain there for a very long time. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny may have been right when he said that leaving the bailout sends a “powerful signal internationally, that Ireland is fighting back, that the spirit of our people is as strong as ever.” But the government has not prepared the public — or potential outside investors — for dangers that continue to lurk in the Irish economy or the stark choices that lie ahead”.

He goes on to note, “The roots of Ireland’s economic crisis are relatively straight forward: The country’s roughly 4.5 million people needed a $117 billion bailout in 2010 because key banks had no money, the nation had gone on a spending and credit binge, and the government could not finance its borrowing to fund its public sector without an outside infusion of capital”.

He adds importantly that “Unemployment today is down to a still staggering 12.8 percent (although it would be much higher if Ireland didn’t export so much of its talented labor force to help build other nations’ economies.) The country’s borrowing rates on 10-year bonds have also dropped considerably — to 3.47 percent — down from a Eurozone high of 14.2 percent in 2011. There have also been improvements in the housing market, at least around Dublin. Yet through the third quarter of this year, an unsustainably high 18.5 percent of Irish homeowners had missed a payment on their mortgage, and three quarters of those in arrears more than 90 days had yet to be restructured. Against this precarious backdrop, insisting on a return to economic sovereignty could very well put Ireland’s modest gains at risk. Ireland’s government recently rejected the option of sustaining an EU credit line as a backstop, should internal or external surprises make self-financing of borrowing to sustain the economy impossible. In effect, it gambled that a strong statement of confidence will be popular at home and attract investment from abroad. But the opposite is just as likely to happen — that questions about the sustainability of Ireland’s economic stability will deter the same international investment”.

Crucially he argues, “Ireland’s central challenge is a sustained lack of indigenous economic growth, due in large part to the unwillingness of banks to support risk taking and lend money to small and medium-sized businesses. Meanwhile, rents and operating costs are high, making it difficult for many businesses to survive, let alone grow. Ireland’s public sector wages remain among the highest in Europe. A failure to address this problem means that even deeper budget cuts are likely, as are heftier taxes on an already heavily burdened public. Meanwhile, Ireland has the third highest deficit in Europe and its debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is 117.4 percent; both are unsustainably high. Ireland’s 2014 budget cuts about $3.4 billion more from domestic government spending. But if Ireland is to sustain self-financing on the open markets, these cuts may actually be woefully insufficient. Deeper cuts, however, might rattle the existing governing coalition, which includes a sizeable Labour Party minority that draws its political backing from constituencies most harshly impacted by budget cuts”.

Worryingly he writes that the wrong decisions made in Dublin will have toxic consequences for Ireland, and the rest of Europe, “Having thrown away its credit lifeline to Europe, however, Dublin will likely find it much harder to secure a new bailout should it need one in six months or a year. The tragic reality often lost in Ireland is that the bailout it just exited was not designed to help the country’s economy recover; it was designed to contain the Irish crisis so it would not spread further in Europe, while also protecting against foreign exposure from Ireland’s dodgy banks”.

He mentions the sad and ongoing social consequences as a result of the policies enacted, “As it exits the bailout, the government and media in Dublin understandably want to promote a new image of Ireland — one that is back on its feet and has learned hard lessons. However, the harsh realities and serious risks to the Irish economy that remain cannot be swept under the rug. Widespread inability to meet personal debt obligations, high unemployment, heightened food insecurity, and soaring murder and suicide rates are just a few examples of the depth of searing pain that has left a tragic imprint on the Irish landscape”.

He ends the piece, “In 2009, Irish economist Morgan Kelly, one of a handful of economists who was consistently right in warning of Ireland’s economic collapse, wrote: “By 2015 we will have seen what happens when jobs disappear forever…. Ireland is at the start of an enormous, unplanned social experiment on how rising unemployment affects crime, domestic violence, drug abuse, suicide and a litany of other social pathologies.” Little has changed since then to suggest this timeline of assumptions should be changed. The only difference is that now Ireland’s leaders are flying without a net — understandably hoping for the best but so far failing to plan for the worst”.

Fighting in South Sudan

20/12/2013

“Fighting in South Sudan has killed up to 500 people, U.N. diplomats said Tuesday, and the United Nations fears the violence in the oil-rich East African country is “largely along ethnic lines.” The United States ordered its citizens to leave South Sudan immediately. The president of South Sudan, which is also the world’s newest country, has blamed the violence on a coup attempt Sunday by soldiers loyal to his former deputy, who belongs to a different ethnic group. As many as 20,000 people have taken refuge with the U.N. mission in the capital, Juba, the president of the Security Council, French Ambassador Gerard Araud, told reporters. Araud said the council received only “patchy information” in a special briefing Tuesday evening by the U.N. peacekeeping chief, with the cause of the violence yet unknown”.

For a domestic audience

20/12/2013

China has again threatened America. Reports state that “On Dec. 5, the U.S. missile-carrying cruiser Cowpens almost collided with a Chinese ship in international waters. The Cowpens was observing the maiden voyage of China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (pictured above), when a vessel accompanying it cut across the Cowpens’ bow less than 200 yards away, forcing it to change course. Chinese and U.S. sources agreed that this was the most serious incident between the two countries’ navies since 2009, when Chinese ships harassed a U.S. vessel about 75 miles away from southern China’s Hainan island — but Chinese officials are speaking louder about it than their U.S. counterparts”.

She goes on to mention that “After the story was first reported on Dec. 13, an unnamed senior U.S. defense official told the New York Times that the Chinese ship had been “particularly aggressive” and “unhelpful in trying to increase cooperation between the two navies;” other major U.S. media reports cite unnamed officials as well. But Chinese were willing to go on-record with their side of the story: Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo told the state-run People’s Daily that the Cowpens had provoked the confrontation. On Dec. 16, an article in People’s Daily Online, a website affiliated with the prominent Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily, quoted Yin stating that the Cowpens had been “carelessly sailing” in an area where Chinese ships were conducting a drill”.

She ends the piece, “These words come amid efforts by China to assert its claim over a number of disputed territories in South China Sea and East China Sea. On Nov. 25, Chinese authorities establishedan Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), in which China requires all foreign aircraft to report their presence, that extended over an island chain which the Chinese claim and call the Diaoyu, and which the Japanese administer and call the Senkakus. Through repeated confrontations with Japanand the Philippines, China has taken stronger stances in its territorial claims than it did in years past. Yin’s words also seem to show a more assertive China. But while the somewhat hawkish Yin is a credible high-ranking official, he is also actively engagedin China’s domestic propaganda efforts, as is the People’s Daily. The article featuring his quote was likely intended for a Chinese rather than international audience — it is not availablein English. It is also telling that Chinese media only commented on the incident after U.S. authorities publicly acknowledged it on Dec. 13. Still, that’s more than a U.S. official was willing to say publically, even if Yin is preaching to the choir”.

In some ways these Chinese agressive gasbags do a great service to America and its mission in Asia. She mentions what is just the latest in a series of efforts to control most of the South and East China Seas but in doing so America is standing firm, along with the rest of the region against China.  So instead of accepting what America does they try and challenge it, obviously for the domestic Chinese audience but in doing so they risk worsening their own position over time. The Chinese public may demand action over some other trivial incident and the result will be the instability of the CCP will be clear for all to see.

“A new terrorist group”

20/12/2013

The State Department warned Wednesday that a new terrorist group  linked to an Algerian militant has emerged as “the greatest near-term threat to  U.S. and Western interests” in the Sahel region of Africa. The State  Department’s move underscored the resilience of the militant factions and their  ability to forge new terrorist alliances, even in the face of Western pressure.  ‘We are seeing a dangerous mutation of the threat,’ said Bruce Hoffman, an  expert on terrorism at Georgetown University. ‘Splinters can become even more  consequential than their parent organization.’ The source of much of the  concern is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian militant who has long been a  notorious figure in the Sahel region – a vast area on the southern flank of the  Sahara that stretches from Senegal to Chad – and who appears to have become  more dangerous even as his ties to Al Qaeda seem to have become more tenuous.  Known as Laaouar, or the one-eyed, after losing an eye to shrapnel, Mr.  Belmokhtar fought against a Soviet-installed government in Afghanistan. After  returning to Algeria in the 1990s, he joined a militant Algerian group and took  refuge in Mali, where he was involved in smuggling and kidnapping for ransom, including  the abduction of a Canadian diplomat in 2008. Mr. Belmokhtar became a leading  figure in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or A.Q.I.M., the Qaeda affiliate in  North Africa. But in 2012, he split with the group to lead the Al Mulathameen  Battalion, which was officially designated as a foreign terrorist organization  by the State Department on Wednesday.” 

Working with terrorists?

20/12/2013

After the disarray and uncertainty surrounding the fate of Salim Idriss and his Free Syrian Army, America seems to be turning to the Islamist elements in Syria in an attempt to gain leverage.

Reports mention that “As the moderate faction of the Syrian rebellion implodes under the strain of vicious infighting and diminished resources, the United States is increasingly looking to hardline Islamists in its efforts to gain leverage in Syria’s civil war. The development has alarmed U.S. observers concerned that the radical Salafists do not share U.S. values and has dismayed supporters of the Free Syrian Army who believe the moderates were set up to fail. On Monday, the State Department confirmed its openness to engaging with the Islamic Front following the group’s seizure of a Free Syrian Army headquarters last week containing U.S.-supplied small arms and food. ‘We wouldn’t rule out the possibility of meeting with the Islamic Front,’ State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday. ‘We can engage with the Islamic Front, of course, because they’re not designated terrorists …  We’re always open to meeting with a wide range of opposition groups. Obviously, it may make sense to do so at some point soon, and if we have something to announce, we will.’ How soon the U.S. might engage with the powerful rebel faction, if it chooses to,  is uncertain. On Saturday, Reuters reported that Syrian rebel commanders in the Islamic Front were due to meet U.S. officials in Turkey in the coming days to discuss U.S. support for the group”.

While there is nothing wrong in principle, in starting a discussion with the Islamic Front, extreme caution should be urged. Pakistan has used, and continues to use, the Taliban in Afghanistan in a short sighted attempt to stop India gaining “leverage” over the country. The result however has been that the creation of a Pakistani Taliban which only now does Pakistan seem to be getting under control. In short, Pakistan has created something that they cannot control, there is little evidence as of now that America could control the Islamic Front if a partnership were to eventually occur.

The piece goes on “A Syrian opposition source speaking with The Cable said that efforts were in place to unite the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front under the same coalition. “There are negotiations planned for very soon between the [Free Syrian Army’s] SMC and the Islamic Front to determine what the relationship will be,” said the source. America’s role in coordinating the talks remains unclear. Though the Islamic Front is not a U.S.-designated terrorist group, many of its members hold intensely anti-American beliefs and have no intention of establishing a secular democracy in Syria. U.S. interest in the group reflects the bedraggled state of the Supreme Military Council and the desire to keep military pressure on President Bashar al-Assad ahead of next month’s planned peace conference in Geneva. “The SMC is being reduced to an exile group and the jihadists are taking over,” said a senior congressional aide. The creation of the Islamic Front was announced on Nov. 22 with the purpose of uniting the strength of prominent Islamist militias across the country. Seven Islamist groups, with a totalestimated strength of 45,000 to 60,000 fighters, signed on to the merger”.

Unsuprisingly the piece adds, “Soon after its creation, the Islamic Front signed a charter that made it clear the group aimed to create a Sunni theocracy, not a Western-style democracy. The documentrejected the prospect of any sort of representative government, arguing that in Islam, only “God is the sovereign.” It explicitly rejects secularism as “contradictory to Islam,” and argues that Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities can be protected on the basis of Islamic law. Some of the comments from the Islamic Front’s top leaders support the contention that the group’s ideology comes dangerously close to that of al Qaeda though the front is not aligned with the terrorist network. Zahran Alloush, the Islamic Front’s military chief,has demonised Syria’s Alawite minority and called for them to be cleansed from Damascus”.

The article concludes noting that Rand Paul and his ilk will dislike any deal but the main concern what America would be doing with such a group. Surely a better long term strategy would be to fund and arm the rebels that are least bad. Short of asssisting Assad, it is the quickest way to end the war and the uncertainty that goes with it.

“Damaged US national security”

18/12/2013

A majority of people in the United States says Edward Snowden’s leaks damaged U.S. national security. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Thursday, 60 percent say Snowden’s leaks harmed security. That’s a huge bump from a July poll that found less than half of the public said his leaks were damaging. Since then, Snowden has provided journalists around the world with documents showing the National Security Agency spied on foreign citizens’ phone calls and leaders of 35 nations. More than half of those polled, 55 percent, say Snowden did the wrong thing in revealing the NSA’s far-reaching surveillance programs, with 37 percent saying he did the right thing, the poll found. He began disclosing them in June”.

Saving the common good

18/12/2013
An article from the Economist published three weeks ago discusses the botched health care implementation of President Obama’s otherwise laudable health care reforms. The article opens, “For the past few weeks Barack Obama has been flayed with headlines like ‘Unmitigated disaster’ and ‘Barack Hussein Bush’. A worrying 55% of Americans disapprove of the job he is doing; only 42% approve. Voters are gobsmacked at how badly he has bungled his health reform. Joe Biden once called Obamacare a ‘big fucking deal’. The law still inspires expletives, but in a rather different tone of voice. The federal website through which Americans in 36 states are supposed to buy health insurance, and which opened with great fanfare on October 1st, is still riddled with problems. On November 19th Henry Chao, a senior health official, told Congress that about 30% of it had yet to be developed. Some 57% of Americans now say they oppose Obamacare, a new high”.

The article reports on the scale of the problem facing President Obama, “It is still hard to sign up for insurance, thanks to myriad technical glitches. In the first month, just 26,794 people chose policies through the federal exchange. In the exchanges run by states, which have fewer gremlins, 79,391 signed up. Nearly 50m Americans lack health insurance; the White House had hoped that 7m would sign up in the first year. Revelation after revelation suggests that Obamacare’s awful first month reflects awful planning. McKinsey & Company, a consultancy, warned health officials that the federal exchange lacked “a single empowered decision-making authority”. That is consultant-speak for having no one in charge”.

Needless to say these problems have been used by the GOP in an attempt to overturn the health care law.

The piece notes that “There are two immediate crises. One is the viability of the exchanges. The law bars insurers from rejecting sick patients or charging them higher prices. Officials have yet to reveal what kind of people are signing up on the federal exchange, but it is likely that those who are already ill are the most persistent shoppers. If a disproportionate share of sick folk enroll in 2014, insurers will raise prices for the following year. This could make the healthy even less likely to sign up. Just possibly, this could spark a dreaded “death spiral” of soaring premiums and tumbling enrolment. In Obamacare’s second crisis, many Americans have received letters telling them that their current insurance is being cancelled. Because the law requires insurers to cover certain services and forbids them to raise prices for the sick, wonks always knew that it would prompt insurers to end meagre, discriminatory plans—that was the point. To ordinary Americans, however, the cancellations were a nasty surprise. Mr Obama had assured them that if they liked their plans, they could keep them. This promise has proved particularly flimsy for the 12m-odd people on the individual insurance market”.

The article then rightly adds that in attempting to fix the problem Obama could make it worse, “On November 14th he said he would let insurers extend cancelled policies by one year. The idea is to undercut more extreme proposals in Congress”. The other problem the magazine identifies is “that the “fix” harms the rest of Obamacare. The insurance lobby points out that Mr Obama’s plan will dissuade healthy people from buying more generous, costly coverage on the exchanges. This will leave insurers with a more sickly pool than they expected. That could drive up prices for 2015”.

The piece concludes, “With new competition from older, skimpier plans, Mr Obama must make it as easy as possible to sign up for insurance on the exchanges. Jeffrey Zients, a former consultant and budget official, is overseeing the repairs. He says the site should work for the “vast majority” of consumers, but not all, by November 30th. With luck, more consumers should be able to buy coverage directly from insurers; on November 19th officials said they had made it easier to check shoppers’ eligibility for subsidies. However, each report of progress is accompanied by another problem. Republicans fret that healthcare.gov, the federal website, is not secure enough”.

The piece ends, “the OECD published a report that highlighted America’s staggering health-care costs and mediocre outcomes. Health spending accounts for nearly 18% of GDP, about twice the OECD average, even as 15% of Americans lack insurance. None of this will get easier as the nation ages. Obamacare tries to mend this, but it is a flawed patch placed on a flawed system by a flawed president. He does not have long to clean up the mess”.

If Obama is bold and acts now, he can not only save his signature domestic legislation, but can protect the common good as well. If not, his legislation will collapse largley due to its poor implementation and America will have missed a chance for a radically reformed and improved health system. Not only that but any suggestion of a plan like this will be politically toxic for decades. Obama must act now.

“To better protect its territory”

18/12/2013

The U.S. backs Japan’s efforts to expand its military as it becomes more engaged in Asia, a move that shouldn’t upset its neighbours, Secretary of State John Kerry said. Japan yesterday approved a plan to boost defence spending with purchases of military hardware and further investment in anti-missile systems to better protect its territory at a time when China is flexing its military muscle. The move was “unquestionably directed against Beijing,” an editorial in China’s official Xinhua news agency said yesterday. “Our belief is that with respect to the participation in the overall challenges in this region, Japan has an ability to play an increasingly more modern and engaged role,” Kerry said at a press conference in Manila. Calling the Japanese expansion of its defence a long-planned move, Kerry said, “This is not a sudden response to something or anything that anybody should get particularly upset about.” The Japanese defence plans adopted yesterday are the latest step in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to promote a more active security stance amid a deepening territorial dispute with China. The move comes weeks after China established an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea that encompasses a chain of islands claimed by both countries, ratcheting up tensions with both Japan and its ally, the U.S”.

More muscle for Vietnam

18/12/2013

A piece in Foreign Policy discusses why Secretary John Kerry is in Vietnam. The article opens, “This latest round of U.S. support for Vietnam is largely about energy: who can develop it, how they can develop it, and what the consequences will be. That is especially important for countries bordering the South China Sea, theoretically a potential motherlode of oil and gas in the future, but a source of constant low-level conflict today. Beijing estimates that there are more than 100 billion barrels of oil under the South China Sea, about ten times more than U.S. officials see there. And the Chinese are doing their best to keep that oil to themselves. Chinese vessels have interfered with Vietnamese and other foreign ships looking for oil in recent years. Just one year ago, a Chinese ship apparently deliberately interfered with Vietnamese oil-survey efforts by cutting the survey ship’s cable. In November, Vietnam and India reached a deal for additional oil exploration in the South China Sea, which drew an immediate rebuke from China”.

The piece goes on to add, “The United States announced Monday a new maritime partnership with Vietnam that on paper will help Hanoi police its waters. In reality, it’s a way to give Vietnam a bit more muscle to defend its territorial interests in the potentially oil- and gas-rich but contested waters of the South China Sea.  At the same time, Kerry breathed new life into the so-called “Lower Mekong Initiative” that’s meant to help Vietnam and its southeast Asian neighbours develop in a sustainable way, deal with the ravages of climate change — and keep China’s seemingly bottomless appetite for energy from wrecking Southeast Asia’s agrarian economy.  The maritime partnership with Vietnam is particularly intriguing, because it gives the United States a way to strengthen a country that isn’t an ally and to whom sales of military hardware are limited by law. As part of a regional maritime partnership, the United States will provide Vietnam with $18 million ‘to enhance the capacity of coastal patrol units,’ including the provision of five fast patrol boats for the Vietnamese coast guard. Nominally, the State Department said, that’s part of an aid package to help Vietnam and its neighbors deal with traditional constabulary duties such as anti-piracy, drug trafficking, and the like”.

He ends the article noting the significance of the move, “a handful of patrol boats won’t make Vietnam the maritime peer of China. But symbolically, at least, the deal shows how “the U.S. will help claimants strengthen their ability to resist coercion,” said M. Taylor Fravel, a professor and expert on Chinese maritime issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Significantly, U.S. aid comes in the form of a stronger Vietnamese coast guard. On the one hand, that’s because U.S. military aid to its former enemy is constrained. But in the maritime games of chicken in the South China Sea, civil defense and fisheries-enforcement ships — rather than fully-armed naval vessels — are the currency of power. China, in particular, has beefed up its civilian maritime presence to press its claims, rather than its newly invigorated navy”.

Not only are the vessels a sign of US-Vietnam ties they are also a potent symbol in themselves where America stands in the region, firmly against China.

Karzai praises India

18/12/2013

India has done enough to satisfy Afghanistan over its demand for military aid from New Delhi, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Saturday. Karzai had met PM Manmohan Singh on Friday to discuss a range of issues including Kabul’s demand for both lethal and non-lethal equipment and also the bilateral security agreement which the Afghan president is refusing to sign with the US. Karzai said India was helping Afghanistan build capabilities to defend the country “through its own resources and its own citizens”. “India is also not shying away from providing assistance to Afghanistan and I can tell you that in terms of India’s support to Afghanistan in military equipment and training and the facts are lot better then what you hear in the press,” he said. Karzai said a host of crucial issues including supply of military equipment by India, Afghanistan’s conditions in signing bilateral security pact (BSA) with the US ahead of withdrawal of NATO forces and the peace process were discussed extensively during his talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday”.

Wuerl 1 – Burke 0

18/12/2013

Pope Francis has confirmed the officials of the Congregation for Bishops. He has also made some changes to the membership of the body that selects nominees to the episcopate for the developed world for the pope.

Rocco writes, “While a Franciscan “flush” of the membership of the Congregation for Bishops has been expected for months, the move’s execution came with a flourish at Roman Noon as the Pope reshuffled roughly half the prior makeup of the all-powerful “Thursday table” that recommends nominees for episcopal appointments in the developed world”.

He adds “Topping the slate of his new picks, Francis tapped Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington to join the body’s membership. Already a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on B16’s nod, the ever-assiduous, 73 year-old DC prelate (a veteran of the Curia from his early days overseeing the Congregation for the Clergy as priest-secretary to Cardinal John Wright) becomes the table’s lone resident member” in America.

Rocco notes, “Bergoglio simultaneously bumped both Cardinals Justin Rigali (emeritus of Philadelphia; the Congregation’s secretary from 1989-94) and Raymond Burke (the Holy See’s Wisconsin-born “chief justice,” whose public outspokenness and effectiveness in moving appointments alike have long stoked either adulation or discontent in the church’s polarized blocs) from the Congregation’s roster. Likewise among those shuffled out was Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, the formidable president of the Italian bishops’ conference”.

He goes on to write, “For those who enjoy what Italians do best, that Wuerl – already known to be a sought-out figure in Francis’ orbit – has replaced Burke, his historic rival and cardinal-classmate, on the Congregation’s membership is nothing short of extraordinary. With today’s nod, the District cardinal becomes the first shepherd of the nation’s capital to have a seat at the Curia’s most significant table of all; until now, only prior archbishops of New York, Boston and Philadelphia have known the role”.

Rocco ends the piece, “A ‘raving moderate’ just like Wuerl, Levada is believed to have had a key role in convincing Benedict to name The Donald to Washington in 2006. A year after Papa Ratzinger’s election, the move marked the now-retired Pope’s first major US appointment”.

Of course, Burke and Wuerl’s most obvious row is giving the Eucharist to politicians who publicy support abortion. Cardinal Burke being prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, views the issue through a narrow legal lens, disregarding all else. However, Cardinal Wuerl takes a more pastoral approach and was not publicaly chided by Pope Benedict for his position on the stance, neither did Cardinal Burke recieve support or punishment.

As well as Burke, Cardinal Rigali lost his membership at Bishops, a light punishment for what he did, and did not do, in Philadelphia. Also to lose his seat was Cardinal Piacenza who was prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy but was demoted by Pope Francis. He was close to Pope Benedict theologically and liturgically and his removal should not have been a huge shock. The speed with which he was moved was.

A slew of new names where added to the Congregation’s membership, Francisco Cardinal Robles  Ortega of Guadalajara, Rubén Cardinal Salazar Gómez of Bogotá, Kurt Cardinal Koch and João Cardinal Braz de Aviz. Thoughts that Cardinal Braz de Aviz would leave Rome for a diocese in Brazil, probably Apacedia where Cardinal Assis is 76, may now not occur after all, though it is always a possibility.

Also appointed were Archbishop Pietro Parolin, Archbishop Beniamino Stella,  Archbishop Lorenzo  Baldisseri and interestingly, Archbishop Vincent Gerard Nichols of Westminister. Stella, Parolin and Baldisseri will all become cardinals in February and now there is a good chance Nichols will join them as he was denied the red by Benedict in 2010 and twice in 2012.

John Allen writes, “Francis also confirmed 18 existing members of the congregation. Beyond Levada, the other prominent English-speaking member to be confirmed was Cardinal George Pell of Sydney. The fact that Burke was not on the list may raise eyebrows, in part because some observers see him as representing a more aggressive line than the pope on the Western culture wars. Burke recently gave an interview to the American Catholic broadcaster EWTN, for instance, in which he said Pope Francis’ comments suggesting that church teaching on matters such as abortion and gay marriage doesn’t need to be repeated ‘are not altogether easy to interpret’ and said that in his view, ‘we can never talk enough’ about the defense of human life”.

What is most obvious however is that Francis knows who he wants around him and unlike Benedict will not wait for those who he doesn’t want to retire.

“Asked President Hamid Karzai”

18/12/2013

Some members of the Meshrano Jirga — or the upper house of parliament — on Sunday asked President Hamid Karzai to ink the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US instead of seeking defence cooperation from India. Currently on a four-day state visit to India, Karzai told reporters in New Delhi on Saturday he was satisfied with the defence cooperation India was offering his country”.

Fewer signature strikes?

16/12/2013

An article in Foreign Affairs discusses the use of drones.

It opens, “Recent efforts to ban armed drones have conflated technical questions with policy ones. One prominent coalition of activist groups has emphasised that targeted killings are a violation of international law. They conclude that the United States should ban drones, which, in their argument, are vehicles for the bad policy. But arguments that exonerate drones go too far in the opposite direction. Other scholars maintain that the real problem is the policy of targeted killings and that drones, in and of themselves, are nonissues. Both of these camps sidestep how the technology informs policy”.

She goes on to write “drones make for good domestic politics. As one Washington Post headline put it, the American public loves drones. Drones seem to offer a way to kill bad guys without producing American casualties. No body bags come home from a drone operation. It is not surprising, therefore, that members of Congress generally look fondly on drones; drones mean that they don’t hear from outraged constituents about losing loved ones in combat. In turn, they have few incentives to maintain strict oversight over the program. As a result, drones have essentially flown below the radar of legislative checks and balances. It is only now, ten years into the program, that there have finally been concerted legislative efforts to win back more control over drones. Second, drones have operational appeal. Manned aircraft are relatively low-endurance”.

She goes on to make the point “This is not to say that drones are hardy in contested territory (they are not), but the Pentagon is generally more willing to send them into threatening situations than soldiers. Third, although some countries, including Pakistan, have decried the American use of drones on their territory, they have not stopped it. According to a number of sources, for example, Pakistan has signed off on the strikes; indeed, the sheer frequency of strikes suggests at least tacit approval. Drones allow both countries to maintain the convenient fiction that the United States has not encroached on Pakistani sovereignty, which would be impossible with ground troops”.

She then argues that “the most significant problem is not that the United States hits the target it intends to strike but that the target itself is misguided. That 50 percent of targets between 2008 and 2010 were Taliban members, who are not nearly as interested in striking American targets as they are in creating domestic turmoil within Pakistan, and that only eight percent of targets were “top-tier militant targets” or “mid-to-high-level organizers,” points to this potential legal slippage. The answer is not to ban drones altogether. In circumstances in which the use of force is permitted and legal, drones are more discriminating than any alternative. Nor is the answer to ban the targeting of high-level individuals who are in a position to strike American targets. The answer is to fix the legal slippage that has resulted in the United States using drones mostly to take out low-level militants. This may mean ending the signature strikes that are based on patterns of behaviour rather than on known identities”.

Yet Philip Mudd and others have argued convincingly that signature strikes are crucial to the success of the drone programme. The element of fear it engenders should not be discounted, and as well as having few signature strikes would be detrimental to the long term view of the anti-terrorism programme.

She goes on to write, “In general, it would also mean operating based on a higher legal standard — focusing energies on the eight percent — while retaining the same attention to avoiding collateral damage. All this would entail banning neither drones nor targeted killings; it would just mean using the two more judiciously. A more discriminating drone program would not cost the United States much in terms of security. Few of those killed by drones have been high-level military targets planning terrorist attacks against the United States. Instead, a policy of greater restraint would improve U.S. security in the long term, as countries acquiring drones will be looking to the United States as a precedent for their own policies”.

Israel shoots back

16/12/2013

Israeli troops shot two Lebanese soldiers early on Monday, hours after a Lebanese army sniper killed an Israeli soldier as he drove along the volatile border late at night, the Israeli military said. The shootings raised the possibility of renewed fighting in the area, which has remained mostly quiet since a month-long war in the summer of 2006, though an Israeli defense official said Israel had no interest in further escalation. Relations between Lebanon and Israel are so fraught with tensions that any incident risks sparking a major conflagration. The two have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948. Each country bans its citizens from visiting the other, and there are no direct trade ties between the two”.

US energy boom

16/12/2013
As part of the series of articles in the Economist covering America, one deals with the current US energy boom. America is now the second highest oil importer in the world with records in domestic production being achieved. It opens  noting that America is once again regenerating itself for a new age, it says that the first oil wells began to be drilled a century ago
The writer continues, “In 2006 America’s production of oil and natural gas fell to the equivalent of about 15m barrels of oil a day (b/d). An analysis by the Wall Street Journal recently estimated output today at over 22m b/d—close to surpassing the world’s largest producer, Russia, if it has not already done so. The extra oil comes from shale and sandstone. Estimates of the amount of oil they contain vary hugely, but Navigant, a consultancy, reckons that North America could produce anything from 26.9-53.5 trillion cubic metres of shale gas alone, enough to satisfy the world’s total current demand for gas for up to 15 years, though at today’s prices not all of it would yet be worth extracting”.
He adds that “A combination of innovation (hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”), finance and enterprise have now opened them up, often to small oil and gas firms with low costs. America’s property laws, which grant mineral rights to the landowner, have people clamouring to get their land explored. Countries with less flexible capital markets, different laws and less enterprising oilmen will make a lot less of their shale oil and gas. The United States will not quite gain energy independence, the holy grail of policymakers ever since the oil shocks of the 1970s, but it is likely to depend on imports only from Canada and Mexico. However, the new output will benefit America, both by creating jobs and by bringing down energy bills as cheap gas replaces coal and oil. Lower prices will temper the ambitions of Russia, which lives on its oil and gas revenues. And if the world should fall to pieces, American supplies will be guaranteed”.
He warns that energy independence does not fully explain the complexity of the term, “If for any reason Saudi oil could not get to the market, world prices would spike and Americans would feel the pain just like everybody else. Even so, some American critics suggest that the Fifth Fleet should be saved the trouble and expense of securing the safe passage of oil from Saudi Arabia. American taxpayers are just subsidising Chinese consumers, they say. But ensuring free navigation has always been an essential feature of American primacy. Abandoning it might encourage China and India to build ocean-going navies to vie with America’s”.

Francis and the FFI

16/12/2013

Pope Francis may have been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, but he has come under scathing criticism from a growing number of traditionalist Catholics for cracking down on a religious order that celebrates the old Latin Mass. The case has become a flashpoint in the ideological tug-of-war going on in the Catholic Church over Francis’ revolutionary agenda, which has thrilled progressives and alarmed some conservatives. The matter concerns the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, a small but growing order of several hundred priests, seminarians and nuns that was founded in Italy in 1990 as an offshoot of the larger Franciscan order of the pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. Then-Pope Benedict XVI launched an investigation into the congregation after five of its priests complained that the order was taking on an overly traditionalist bent, with the old Latin Mass being celebrated more and more at the expense of the liturgy in the vernacular”. The pieces continues, “The Vatican in July named the Rev. Fidenzio Volpi, a Franciscan Capuchin friar, as a special commissioner to run the order with a mandate to quell the dissent that had erupted over the liturgy, improve unity within its ranks and get a handle on its finances. In the same decree appointing Volpi, Francis forbade the friars from celebrating the old Latin Mass unless they got special permission, a clear rollback from Benedict’s 2007 decision”.

“Monarchies and dictatorships gradually caught up”

14/12/2013
In the last of the articles from the Economist dealing with US foreign policy the article discusses an overview of US foreign policy.
It begins, “Long before anyone had heard of an “ethical foreign policy”, before the revolution even, America saw itself as a New Jerusalem that would be a model for a better world. Over the course of a century or two, the monarchies and dictatorships gradually caught up. Influence abroad increasingly stemmed not just from hard power but also from legitimacy”.
The writer controversially notes, “After the devastating attacks of September 11th 2001, American foreign policy lost its compass. It was right to try to foster liberty and security, by attacking al-Qaeda and seeking to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Yet that effort somehow ended up looking to much of the world as if America was bent on imposing violent change by means of raw power. The country is still paying the price today”.
Much of this is simply incorrect. American foreign policy did not loose “its compass” but lanced a boil that should have been lanced years before by President Clinton who did nothing but let it fester. Instead the reaction, perhaps was overwrought but such a reaction was certainly understandable given not only what had happened but also the scale of the threat that wass encountered by America. As was stated by President Bush on 20 September 2001 the War on Terror is narrowly defined in that its aim is to stop terrorists getting hold of weapons of mass destuction, or stopping states from using them, or spreading them to terrorists. The charge that “America was bent on imposing violent change by means of raw power” is a gross mischactarisation on what is a complex and complicated set of impulses set forth both by the United States and al-Qaeda.
The writer does add fairly “As the world’s most powerful nation, America is bound to attract some criticism. When he spoke to the UN General Assembly about the Middle East in September, Barack Obama observed wryly that America is “chastised for meddling in the region…at the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems.” Likewise, America is criticised by Russia and others who argue that today’s anarchic militia violence in Libya proves that it was wrong to remove Muammar Qaddafi from power. Yet America would have been condemned just as roundly from other quarters if it had stood by while Qaddafi carried out his threat to slaughter thousands in Benghazi”.
He goes on to discuss the NSA controversy but omits the fact that both France, Brazil and a host of other nations have had similar spying programmes on America, therefore to single out America is grossly unfair.
He goes on to notes, “George Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 was altogether different from the decisions to bomb Libya and to spy, because there was never a question of a trade-off. The removal of Saddam Hussein was meant to eradicate weapons of mass destruction, create a model democracy in the Middle East and demonstrate to rogue states that they could not defy the world’s only superpower. And yet this grand exercise in geopolitical engineering spectacularly failed to achieve its aims. Instead, Iraq was thrown into turmoil and America was weakened both militarily and morally. No other single foreign-policy decision in recent times has so harmed its standing in the world. One flaw, says Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was to mistake the connections between interests and values. The people around Mr Bush reasoned that, as the only superpower in a unipolar world, the United States was able to impose its values and that this would necessarily serve its interests. In the real world, however, the use of force can create regional instability. That often harms American interests”.
The problem with this statement however is that interests and values are connected. Not only that but the author also oversimplifies those around President Bush. The reasons for going to war with Iraq are multifacated and should not be boiled down to a simple eqaution.
Again the writer oversimplifies when he notes, “Mr Bush’s fundamental error, though, was to misunderstand the significance of the “unipolar moment”. After the traumatic attacks of September 11th, Mr Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney, thought that America had to use its strength to re-establish deterrence and preserve its unrivalled power. If not, it would be asking for further attacks from terrorists, rogue states and even, some time in the future, China. That is not how it seemed to much of the rest of world. Horrified by al-Qaeda’s assault, many countries stood behind America. But as time went on, Mr Bush’s behaviour began to look more like aggression than protection. When Mr Bush tried to impose American values through the invasion of Iraq, other countries wondered if they were safe. When he and his officials belittled international institutions like the UN and argued that the harsh treatment of prisoners was just, they feared that America would not be bound even by its own norms”.
There has been much written about the link between “aggression” and “protection” – indeed they are far closer than the author would care to admit, especially in this globalised world in which we live today.
He does mention correctly that “In his speeches Mr Obama has made a stab at setting a new balance. He starts by affirming democracy, human rights and open markets, insisting that they are not Western exports but fundamental values. He goes on to accept that these ideas cannot be imposed by force, which means that America will sometimes be accused of hypocrisy for working with undemocratic governments. But he also gives warning that some governments’ crimes will be so egregious that other nations must act. If they fail, they will be undermining the very norms and institutions that they claim to cherish. For this approach to succeed, Mr Obama must also oversee a second reversal of Bush-era policies. Contrast Mr Bush’s unilateralism with an earlier period when the United States had enjoyed extraordinary power, between 1945 and 1950. It realised then that its hegemony over the non-Soviet world would be enhanced if it bound itself into international bodies like the UN, the IMF and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the precursor to the WTO. This sent a signal that America was committed to living by its own norms”.
Yet this “reversal” has not occured. It has been noted here a number of times, to wait for a sudden change in US foreign policy would be a huge mistake for a policy that will not change. Again the author oversimplifies President Bush’s foreign policy as unilateral when there is little real evidence for this when any proper meaning of the term is taken into account.
He closes, “America has enjoyed plenty of co-operation and there is scope for even more. In 2012 China suggested a quiet dialogue with America over the chronic instability in Pakistan. Middling countries, such as Denmark and Norway, have helped broker agreements on the use of the Arctic. In Yemen, Somalia, Mali and Uganda, America or one of its closest allies have dispatched forces with the unanimous backing of the UN Security Council. Rising powers, Mr [Bruce] Jones argues, have growing interests in every region and subregion of the world. To maintain this network, they have to co-operate with others. Will it work? John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, has observed that in a world which imposes restraints on power, America will also be obliged to restrain its own power. Presidents Truman and Roosevelt saw that this makes sense. But, as Mr Podesta argues, ‘you have to believe it’s a strength and sell it as a strength.’ The worry is that an America convinced of its own decline is not yet capable of that”.

“The durability of Kagan’s hypotheses”

14/12/2013

Even in an era of austerity, Kagan remains relevant in pointing out Washington’s greater comfort with hard power. Indeed, since President Obama took office, the withdrawal from Iraq has been the exception and not the rule that guides his willingness to use military statecraft. Beyond Libya, his administration will have more troops in Afghanistan at the beginning of 2013 than at the beginning of 2009. He has increased the use of drones and special forces in Pakistan and the Persian Gulf region, used naval power to combat Somali pirates, sent special forces to Uganda to help weaken the Lord’s Resistance Army, and announced plans for a new base in Australia as part of the strategic “pivot” to the Pacific Rim. The continuity in American uses of military power despite the changes of administration demonstrates the durability of Kagan’s hypotheses”.

Putin overplays his hand

14/12/2013

First it was the fear of lower oil prices, now the problems in Ukraine have make things for Valadimir Putin worse. An article argues that Putin has overplayed his hand in his dealings with Ukraine in the hope of getting it to join a nebulous free trade area.

It opens, “Russia’s massive reserves of natural gas have increasingly become a weapon — one the Kremlin has not hesitated to use to cow neighbors and boost Russian influence. Moscow has used threats of gas cut-offs or outright cuts more than 50 times since the end of the Soviet Union, analysts say. But judging by the roiling turmoil in the Ukraine, Russia’s use of the energy weapon may have backfired, undermining some of its foreign-policy goals and sparking a resurgence of Ukrainian nationalism”.

He goes on to write that “more important for Russia’s aspirations, its ability to wield energy as a geopolitical tool is waning and will likely continue to do so, thanks to a spate of changes that are rocking the energy world: new supplies of gas, especially from the United States, greater seaborne gas trade, and a gradually unifying European gas market. The ongoing popular protests in the Ukraine, the largest since the Orange Revolution a decade ago, came about after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pulled an abrupt about-face in late November on forging closer ties with Europe. That sudden reversal came about because of a deluge of Russian economic pressure — and Russia’s control of Ukraine’s and Europe’s natural-gas supply was a huge part of that pressure”.

He adds that Russia used threats that would make Ukraine pay up front for its gas while at the same time there seems to have been mention of lower prices and debt relief, both not explicit, the piece then says that “In a limited way, Russia’s ploy worked. Ukraine abruptly dropped plans to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. And Yanukovych, who hasn’t been Moscow’s favorite since he began flirting with Europe, faces a popular rebellion ahead of elections in 2015. But more broadly, Russia’s heavy-handed tactics backfired. Ukraine hasn’t joined the Moscow-led Customs Union — one of Moscow’s main goals — and there doesn’t seem to be any way it can in the near future, given the depth of outrage in the streets of Kiev. Putin saidThursday that Russia hadn’t pressured Ukraine, and insisted that country could still join its Customs Union”.

Interestingly the piece notes, ” Yanukovych has even suggested he might sign the Association Agreement with Europe after all, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Thursday. That agreement would spur reforms in Ukraine, such as boosting the rule of law and human rights as well as economic reforms, while offering Ukraine greater trade access and cooperation with European Union countries”.

Now it is up to the lacklustre EU foreign policy to realise that they can make long term inroad against Russia if they act now as opposed to endlessly delaying as is their permanent modus operandi. One of the principle obstacles will be Germany. The links between the two countries are strong, especially in the energy sector.

He ends the piece, “The European Union has offered plenty of strong words for the government’s crackdown on protesters, but little yet in the way of economic support that could offset Russia’s threats. Ashton acknowledged Thursday that short-term economic challenges are the biggest problem for Kiev. Failing a sharp financial boost, Moscow could ultimately yank Ukraine more fully into its orbit, essentially by default. But it won’t necessarily be due to Russia’s ability to use energy for leverage, as it has in the past. And that, in part, is due to Russia’s own behaviour. Big producers of natural gas — and Russia is about the biggest, behind just the United States — have a geopolitical advantage over oil producers: Oil moves freely while gas largely travels in pipelines. Those fixed links, with long-term contracts, mean that buyers of natural gas don’t have nearly the leverage to shop for other suppliers that oil buyers do. And gas exporters have greater ability to turn the screws”.

The piece concludes, “Europe is on the cusp of getting new sources of gas supply, and is finally becoming a more unified and less fragmented gas market, reforms that came about in reaction to Russia’s heavy-handed dealings with energy. Both make Europe the buyer potentially stronger and Russia the seller potentially weaker. With Europe (including Ukraine) accounting for about three-quarters of Russia’s gas exports, that matters. It also explains Russia’s urge to find new markets in Asia, where there is a seemingly natural partnership to be had feeding China’s appetite for oil and gas. One surprising threat to Russia’s energy arsenal is the big U.S. boom in natural-gas production, unleashed by the hydraulic fracturing revolution. While U.S. exports of natural gas to Europe and Asia are still four or five years away, and questions still remain over how much gas the United States will ultimately export, plenty of lawmakers want the United States to fast-track exports of natural gas to allies in Europe and Asia. European officials have swarmed on Washington in recent months to urge lawmakers to tweak rules so that NATO allies can get access to cheap U.S. gas”.

He finishes on the crucial point “the seismic shifts rocking the energy world, and especially gas markets, make it increasingly difficult for Russia to use its well-worn playbook to keep scoring geopolitical victories”.

Idriss flees?

14/12/2013

Islamist fighters ran the top Western-backed rebel commander in Syria out of his headquarters, and he fled the country, U.S. officials said Wednesday. The Islamists also took over key warehouses holding U.S. military gear for moderate fighters in northern Syria over the weekend. The takeover and flight of Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army shocked the U.S., which along with Britain immediately froze delivery of nonlethal military aid to rebels in northern Syria. The turn of events was the strongest sign yet that the U.S.-allied FSA is collapsing under the pressure of Islamist domination of the rebel side of the war. It also weakened the Obama administration’s hand as it struggles to organize a peace conference next month bringing together rebels and the regime”. The report notes however that “The U.S. has changed its account that a rebel commander fled his headquarters in northern Syria during an Islamist takeover, saying it has since learned that the commander was in Turkey throughout the incursion. What follows is the original story, based on information provided by U.S. officials Tuesday”.

“Just about enough of tea party conservatives”

14/12/2013

Amid the uproar over President Obama’s botched health care implementation the speaker of the House, John Boehner seems to be finally coming to terms with his own responsibilities, for now.  A report mentions that “In a remarkable moment of political clarity, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) escalated his feud with outside conservative advocacy groups that have repeatedly undermined his leadership team’s agenda for three years. ‘Frankly, I just think they’ve lost all credibility,’ Boehner told reporters Thursday at his weekly press briefing. After years of enduring broadsides from groups such as Heritage Action, Boehner’s last straw came this week when the collection of Washington-based groups attacked the bipartisan budget deal that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) negotiated, with several announcing they opposed it before Ryan and his Senate counterpart, Patty Murray (D-Wash.), unveiled it Monday night”.

The piece goes on to note “On Thursday, he relished having a longer, more expansive critique of the groups. “I don’t care what they do,” Boehner said at one point, suggesting that after years of helping sabotage pacts that he and his lieutenants were trying to craft, the conservative activists had finally begun to “step over the line” by opposing Ryan’s deal. None of the speaker’s comments is new, but the public airing of his grievances demonstrated a belief that he is in a stronger internal position within his own GOP caucus – and more importantly, that his rank-and-file has grown exhausted from the steady drumbeat of threats from the groups that they would back a primary challenger against the lawmakers unless they vote a certain way.Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, sharply rejected Boehner’s charge that outside groups such as his have lost credibility by opposing the latest budget deal, saying that conservative organizations are merely reflecting the sentiments of their grassroots activists”.

A related article notes that “Boehner’s outburst was his second in as many days — on Wednesday he accused these groups of  ”using our members and…..the American people for their own goals” — and is simply the latest sign that the GOP establishment has had just about enough of tea party conservatives.  In late November, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who faces a primary challenge from his ideological right in 2014, said that “the Senate Conservatives Fund is giving conservatism a bad name,” adding: “They’re participating in ruining the brand.”  And, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the author of the latest budget compromise and the party’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, lashed out at Florida Sen. Marco Rubio Thursday morning for opposing the deal”.

The piece ends giving reasons for why the GOP leadership have realised that now is the time to attack the Tea Party, “The tea party is at historic lows in terms of public opinion. In new Gallup polling, just 30 percent of people view the movement favourably; even one in three self-identified conservatives say the dislike the tea party”.

The article also notes that a number of prominent GOP congressmen have attacked those linked to the Tea Party, “McConnell threw the first stone. But now that other prominent figures within the party are coming forward to say, essentially, enough is enough, it’s now become less politically risky to add your voice to that chorus. While many within the Republican establishment will applaud Boehner, McConnell and Ryan for their willingness to take on the tea party, the fight is not without potential negative consequences for them. While the tea party is not as popular — even among Republicans — as it once was, in low turnout GOP primaries it remains a force to be reckoned with. And, with seven of the 12 Republican incumbents in the Senate set to face a primary challenge from their right, there will ample opportunity for groups like the Club For Growth, Heritage, Americans for Prosperity and the Senate Conservatives Fund to prove that crossing them is a very bad idea”.

So it is back to the same problem that keeps recurring, the centre has too little control over the regions which is often to the detriment to the core message of the party, and therefore the country at large.

Hoping in Parliament

14/12/2013

Amid an uproar over the Supreme Court verdict on gay rights issue, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi on Thursday said she was disappointed that the apex court had reversed previous Delhi High Court judgement decriminalising homosexuality and hoped Parliament would address the matter. ‘I hope that Parliament will address the issue and uphold the constitutional guarantee of life and liberty to all citizens of India, including those directly affected by the judgement,’ the UPA Chairperson said”.

“The deficit is a political problem”

12/12/2013
 As part of the series in a recent Economist on US foreign policy an article disucsses the economic and political problems faced by Amerca.
 It opens, “In the worst recession in 80 years, the banking system wrote off dud loans worth $885 billion; American gross government debt climbed from 66% of GDP to over 100%; the Federal Reserve printed getting on for $3 trillion of new money; 5.4m Americans lost their jobs; and the average GDP per person fell by 5%, or over $2,200. It is a miserable accounting of the distress and ruin that many suffered. From the viewpoint of American primacy, however, the crisis could have been so much worse. The collapse of Lehman Brothers and AIG, two financial titans, might have triggered a second Great Depression. Yet memories of Hoovervilles have not found their echo in Bushtowns, and Barack Obama has been spared having to strike a New New Deal”.
 The writer goes on to mention that “Measured at market exchange rates, America is forecast to contribute more than China to global growth next year. Unemployment has fallen from a peak of 10% in 2009 and is expected to come down to 6% by 2015. The federal deficit has fallen to 4.1%, from 9.8% in 2009. With many companies in the S&P500 reporting higher-than-expected profits, the stockmarket has recovered its losses. In 2009 only three of the world’s ten largest companies by value were American. Today eight are. This matters for American primacy in two ways. The first is that, as Bernard Brodie, an influential military theorist, wrote in the 1960s, “strategy wears a dollar.” Even if American military dominance can withstand budget cuts for the moment, Brodie was right that it ultimately depends on the health of the underlying economy”.
 He makes the valid point that “America has lost ground as an economic hegemon. This is partly because it cannot put its own house in order in respect of the federal government’s debt, and partly because it seems less able than it was to uphold and enhance the international open-market system. Failure, both at home and abroad, springs from a mood in Washington that seems to make compromise almost unthinkable“.
He continues, “the deficit is a political problem. Having seen America fail to come up with a plan for balancing taxes and spending in the medium term, the world now has less faith in the country’s ability to cope with the difficulties routinely faced by superpowers. Allies count on America’s knack for solving six impossible things before breakfast. Rivals base their moves on the assumption that America will head off their wilder stratagems. Yet the weary theatrics of Congress’s furloughs, sequesters and fiscal cliffs—all self-inflicted devices to help manage the debt—invite the world to think again. The international picture is only slightly more reassuring. The economic order has not broken down, as it did in the 1930s, but free-spirited globalisation has been replaced by a more selective sort. Global capital flows have fallen from $11 trillion in 2007 to around one-third of that figure (though some of the decline is cyclical). At the same time trade-protection measures such as bogus health-and-safety rules, which pass under the radar of the World Trade Organisation, are spreading. Global Trade Alert, a monitoring group, sees at least 400 new such measures a year”.
 The piece goes on to mention that “President Obama’s answer to this is to work on two regional trade agreements, one a huge expansion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the other the new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The first is with 11 other countries on the shores of the Pacific Ocean and the other with the European Union. Together they cover about 70% of global trade”.
However, a free trade deal, though welcome would not be enough to deal the the real problem, the politicla climate in the United States. Until this is resolved then America’s poor education system and vast debt will remain problems and eventually chip away at the things that America does well.
He adds, “TPP presents all 12 countries with big problems. In America the administration is coming under pressure from Congress to ensure that the pact contains clauses on “currency manipulation”, mainly because of a suspicion that Japan is deliberately driving down the yen in order to favour exports. Past trade deals have avoided such an idea, because it is so hard to define. The third risk is that the agreements never become law, at least in America. To prevent Congress from chewing them up and revising them line by line, Mr Obama needs a waiver called Trade Promotion Authority (TPA)”.
 He goes on to write “Robert Zoellick, a former head of the World Bank and United States Trade Representative, argues that a start would be to restore economic policymaking to its proper place in foreign policy. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson, then president, sent a squadron to fight the Barbary corsairs who threatened to raid American merchant shipping unless the government in Washington paid a levy. Ever since, foreign policy has been largely about economic interests abroad. But in the cold war, says Mr Zoellick, the bankers and lawyers were shunted aside by Kremlinologists and balance-of-power merchants. Foreign-policy strategists built in economics only to the extent that it could pay the bills”.
Interestingly he writes “Zoellick successfully argued that the president’s foreign-policy machinery, which falls under the National Security Council, should incorporate the National Economic Council. In the same way, Congress should start to take into account how deeply trade ties into national security. If you can harness the libertarian impulse by aligning concerns for economic well-being with the promotion of American values and national security, he thinks, you can curb the impulse of some Republicans to turn their backs on the world. That sounds novel. In fact it is an appeal to bring back the old-fashioned values of American foreign policy. For a long time now, they seem to have gone missing”.

A step backwards

12/12/2013

India’s top court has upheld a law which criminalises gay sex, in a ruling seen as a major blow to gay rights. The Supreme Court ruling reverses a landmark 2009 Delhi High Court order which had decriminalised homosexual acts. The court said it was up to parliament to legislate on the issue. According to Section 377, a 153-year-old colonial law, a same-sex relationship is an “unnatural offence” and punishable by a 10-year jail term. Several political, social and religious groups had petitioned the Supreme Court to have the law reinstated in the wake of the 2009 court ruling”.

Force or talks

12/12/2013

As things in Libya continue to worsen, an article has been published examining the state of the rebels power and their control over oil resources.

It begins, “The security situation continues to deteriorate. Civilians are taking on the armed militias that are largely blamed for the security vacuum in the country, leading to bloodbaths in the streets. The country also continues to face a looming threat to its financial security as armed militias blockade oil terminals to underline their demands for greater regional autonomy. The second problem is focused on the eastern region of Cyrenaica (“Barqa” in Arabic), where so-called “federalists” have been pushing for considerable powers to be devolved from Tripoli to local governments. The central government is understandably reluctant to resolve the issue by using force against the federalist militias that are blocking the oil terminals, fearing that this could spark civil unrest. The Tripoli authorities have also failed to rally local support for a confrontation with the militias there”.

The piece goes on to add that “Prime Minister Ali Zeidan issued an ultimatum to the militias that have been blockading oil terminals and fields for more than three months. The Barqa Political Office, the self-proclaimed governing body of Barqa, was quick to mock Zeidan’s ultimatum, observing that the prime minister does not even have the force to protect himself from abduction by the armed militias that control the capital and hold the government ransom. As a gesture of defiance, the Barqa government also announced the formation of its own oil and gas corporation, the Libyan Oil and Gas Corporation. The Barqa government appointed Saleh al-Mesmari (a veteran of the oil industry in Libya and former president of the Arabian Gulf Oil Company) as the company’s head. The deadline for the ultimatum passed on Nov. 21, yet the prime minister appeared to have no real plan of action to address the issue. Zeidan then held a meeting with local elders and tribal leaders and asked for their help in finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis. As long as the government continues to rule out the use of force, the only realistic option remaining is to craft a solution that relies on the help of local notables. Moreover, a long-term solution will require negotiations leading to a comprehensive political deal, which in turn would require compromises from all parties involved. But so far the central government has little to show for its efforts in this direction. The federalist’s self-proclaimed government, led by Ibrahim Jathran, seems to have succeeded where the central government has failed. Jathran has actively engaged with key local players and tribes to clarify the federalist position and present their argument for blockading the oil terminals. Such efforts could explain why local people have remained so apathetic toward the militias that are blockading the oil terminals. If the central government wants to win local support for reopening the terminals, it has to seriously reengage with local communities and counter the arguments presented by the federalists”.

Worse still he continues, “the federalists are taking some practical steps to market and sell the oil on its own. As legal justification for this effort, the Barqans are citing the pre-Qaddafi constitution and the subsequent oil-sharing arrangement between the central and regional governments during that era. The head of the recently appointed Barqa regional government, Abdraba al-Barrasi, announced the installation of new metering systems at different oil terminals under their control. The oil export metering systems were damaged during the war, but the successive post-revolutionary governments failed to install new ones, prompting widespread speculation about corruption in the marketing and sale of Libya’s oil. Jathran and his government have effectively capitalized on the government’s lack of transparency in this respect.  Al-Barrasi promised to reopen the oil terminals and start exporting oil by the end of this month. It is hard to see how the federalists can actually fulfil such a promise”.

He ends the piece “The oil crisis in Libya is reportedly costing Libya $140 million in oil and gas revenues each day. Government officials estimate the total loss since the militias started targeting oil wells and terminals at more than $7 billion. This is likely to result in a deep deficit in the next budget, and the government is already feeling pressure to dip into its reserves to cover its spending plans for this year. Looking ahead, Libya has two options to deal with the continuing problems in the oil sector. The first option is the use of force. This could result in serious damage to the gas and oil infrastructure as well as disturbing the precarious social piece in the East, including the possibility of serious civil unrest. The second option is a peaceful resolution achieved with the backing of local communities and local notables that would require compromises from the parties involved”.

Yet as has been mentioned here before, if an agreement is reached giving the East more power it may inevitably lead to the disintegration of Libya as a whole with the oil rich East leaving the poor West and forming its own state.

“The central paradox of his papacy”

12/12/2013

In global terms, however, here may be the central paradox of his papacy: As the leader of a church that has so long been viewed as dogmatic, hierarchical, and traditional, Francis bids to turn himself into a model of a kind of mystical humility that combines a spirit of moderation with intellectual openness and a radical understanding of what the primacy of the spiritual over the material means. Benedict issued a stern warning against a ‘dictatorship of relativism.’ Francis seems worried about something else entirely. ‘If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing,’ he has said. ‘Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­ — they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.'”

“Barely visible to the untrained eye”

12/12/2013

An article from the Economist reports that some minor reforms have taken place. However, the scale of the problems confronting China and the vested interests that must be overcome does not ensure that real reforms will occur.

It begins, “the final 22,000-character overview of China’s “third plenum” was published on November 15th. In the economic sphere the document turned out to be bolder than the initial summary suggested. The new party boss, Xi Jinping, wants to push through changes that have stalled over the past decade. As the document itself says: “We should let labour, knowledge, technology, management and capital unleash their dynamism, let all sources of wealth spread and let all people enjoy more fruits of development fairly.” Quite. It is by no means certain that Mr Xi will be able to do all he wants to (see article), but it is clear he has won the battle so far. Economically, he is proving himself an heir to Deng Xiaoping, China’s great reformer, and not the closet Maoist that some had feared”.

The problem for Xi, as has been mentioned here before is that the vested interests that Xi must overcome are enormous. The senior CCP leadership has a hand in much of the Chinese economy. The scale of the problem was revealed when the New York Times reported on the wealth of the family of Wen.

The piece goes on to note, “The document’s interest lies not just in the economic reforms, which were anticipated. More striking were some of the social changes the document announced, such as the relaxation of the one-child policy. A couple in which one parent is an only child will be allowed to have two children, and the policy is likely to be loosened even further. In another widely welcomed move, labour camps—in which around 190,000 people, including political and religious activists, are detained—are to be abolished. But possibly the most important announcements were buried deep in the document and grabbed fewer headlines. Two moves in particular showed that the party is sensitive to the ferment in Chinese society and the demands for greater liberty and accountability that accompany it”.

The writer goes on to add, “Ordinary people are being empowered by new wealth and participation, through microblogs, and by becoming consumers and property owners. Change is bubbling up from the bottom and the system cannot contain it. Society is becoming too complex for the old structures to handle. Hence the government’s decision to allow the development of what it calls “social organisations”. In essence these are NGOs. The party dislikes the idea of anything non-governmental and has long regarded NGOs as a Trojan horse for Western political ideas and subversion, but it is coming to realise that they could solve some of its problems—caring for the sick, elderly and poor, for instance. The growth of civil society is not just important in itself. It is also the bridge to the future, linking today’s economic reforms to whatever putative future political reform might come”.

He concludes, “Equally important is the issue of judicial reform. China’s hopelessly corrupt judges are unpopular. The party resolution floats the idea of “judicial jurisdiction systems that are suitably separated from administrative areas”; that is, local judiciaries that are not controlled and paid for by local officials. Though some observers doubt this will happen”.

He ends the piece “That these two gestures towards reform were mentioned at all is encouraging; that they were barely visible to the untrained eye shows the party’s ambivalence towards liberalisation. But it must push ahead. Its planned economic reforms will surely generate not just wealth, but more pressure for political change. Unless the party responds, there could be an explosion”.

“His trial in Jordan”

10/12/2013

Radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada, deported by Britain in July after a near decade-long legal battle, pleaded not guilty as his trial in Jordan on terrorism charges opened on Tuesday. “You know full well I am not guilty and that this accusation is false,” Abu Qatada, in prison overalls, told the judge of the state security court in Amman. The judge adjourned the case until Dec. 24 after a brief hearing which was open to the media but with cameras banned. After his deportation, Jordanian military prosecutors charged Abu Qatada with conspiracy to carry out terrorist acts. If convicted he could face a minimum of 15 years’ hard labour. Britain’s expulsion of Abu Qatada came after Amman and London ratified a treaty guaranteeing that evidence obtained by torture would not be used in his retrial and that the proceedings would be transparent”.

Still feeling the consequences

10/12/2013
 An article from the current issue of the Economist writes that Ireland, even after its “bailout” costing €60 billion has a feeble banking sector with little sign of recovery.
The piece opens, “Ireland’s banks appear to be on the mend. On December 4th Bank of Ireland announced plans to repay part of its bail-out, €1.8 billion of preference shares, to the Irish government. But Ireland is still suffering from the baleful consequences of its bank rescue in other ways. As well as propelling public debt from 25% of GDP to 123%, it has made Ireland’s banking industry one of the most concentrated in the world. Of Ireland’s six big native banks before the crisis, only three are now still in business—all of which have big public shareholdings. The Irish state owns virtually all of Allied Irish Bank (AIB) and Permanent TSB, as well as a 14% stake in Bank of Ireland. Foreign-owned banks, meanwhile, are leaving. British-based Bank of Scotland returned its local licence in 2010; Denmark’s Danske Bank and ACCBank, a subsidiary of Rabobank of the Netherlands, plan to do the same”.
The result of this the article adds is that “AIB and Bank of Ireland in a near-duopoly. Between them they now provide over 86% of new mortgage lending. Indeed, the duopoly is more of a monopoly, given the government’s big stakes in both. Together they are already displaying pricing power over the market”. However, the article is correct but it underplays the extent to which AIB and Bank of Ireland held the market even during the “boom”. The other banks to the extent that they existed were never more than bit players.
The consequences of this state ownership is “That leaves Ireland’s politicians in an awkward position. Under normal circumstances, governments try to foster competition among banks, in the hope of spurring the economy by making it cheaper to borrow. But as a shareholder, the Irish government would benefit if the two big banks improved their margins. That might help stem their losses—of €1.34 billion in the first half of this year—and thus curb Irish taxpayers’ already enormous bill for the bail-out. Such an improvement, however, would involve raising interest rates for Ireland’s borrowers or lowering them for its savers—to the economy’s detriment”. Naturally, because of the unique way the euro is constructed, Ireland does not have the power to do this.
 The piece ends, “The impact of this trend—scarcer and more expensive credit—has already hit Ireland’s economy. Mortgage arrears have risen rapidly, reaching 17% of the value of loans to owner-occupiers and 29% of those on buy-to-let properties. Legal reforms earlier this year have made it easier to repossess properties from defaulters. That will boost banks’ profits, but squeeze already weak consumer spending even more. Irish firms are also finding it harder to borrow. According to a survey published on December 2nd by ISME, a business association, the refusal rate for new credit applications for smaller firms has risen since June by six percentage points. The European Union’s and the IMF’s three-year stint as backstop creditors for the Irish government formally comes to an end on December 15th. That makes Ireland the first of the five euro-zone countries in receipt of international bail-outs to stand again on its own two feet. But it would be wrong to say Ireland’s problems are over. The IMF predicts that its economy will grow by only about 2% a year until 2018—a feeble pace compared to rates of over 10% during the boom. According to Deutsche Bank, Ireland’s banks will need more public money if they are to comply with new international rules on capital. Returning them to health will weigh heavily on the rest of Ireland’s economy—and on its politics—for years to come”.
Perhaps instead of trying to rescue banks, the Irish government, and their EU masters should be looking for more long term solutions, a state run bank leaving private banks to make bigger profits and higher losses.

“no plans to meet with Karzai”

10/12/2013

Chuck Hagel paid an unannounced visit to American forces in Afghanistan during which he met with the Afghan defense minister, who he said has reassured him that a security agreement with the U.S. will be signed in a timely manner. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has so far refused to sign the pact despite increasing pressure from diplomatic and defense officials. Hagel met with Bismillah Khan Mohammadi in Kabul, the Afghan capital. He has no plans to meet with Karzai. Hagel also told reporters that he doesn’t think that more U.S. pressure would be helpful in trying to persuade Karzai to sign the agreement”.