Archive for January, 2014

Still making a quick buck?

31/01/2014

An excellent article in the previous edition of the Economist argues that China is no longer the place to do business for foreign companies it once was. It begins, “Mao Zedong’s disastrous policies had left the economy in tatters. The height of popular aspiration was the ‘four things that go round’: bicycles, sewing machines, fans and watches. The welcome that Deng Xiaoping, China’s then leader, gave to foreign firms was part of a series of changes that turned China into one of the biggest and fastest-growing markets in the world. For the past three decades, multinationals have poured in. After the financial crisis, many companies looked to China for salvation. Now it looks as though the gold rush may be over”.

It makes the point that “China’s market is still the world’s most enticing. Although it accounts for only around 8% of private consumption in the world, it contributed more than any other country to the growth of consumption in 2011-13. Firms like GM and Apple have made fat profits there. But for many foreign companies, things are getting harder. That is partly because growth is flagging (see article), while costs are rising”.

The problems however are manifold, “Talented young workers are getting harder to find, and pay is soaring. China’s government has always made life difficult for firms in some sectors—it has restricted market access for foreign banks and brokerage houses and blocked internet firms, including Facebook and Twitter—but the tough treatment seems to be spreading. Hardware firms such as Cisco, IBM and Qualcomm are facing a post-Snowden backlash; GlaxoSmithKline, a drugmaker, is ensnared in a corruption probe; Apple was forced into a humiliating apology last year for offering inadequate warranties; and Starbucks has been accused by state media of price-gouging. A sweeping consumer-protection law will come into force in March, possibly providing a fresh line of attack on multinationals. And the government’s crackdown on extravagant spending by officials is hitting the foreign firms that peddle luxuries (see article)”.

Another aspect that is harming foreign companies is the fact that “Competition is heating up. China was already the world’s fiercest battleground for global brands but local firms, long laggards in quality, are joining the fray. Many now have overseas experience, and some are developing inventive products. Xiaomi and Huawei have come up with world-class smartphones, and Sany’s excellent diggers are taking on costlier ones made by Hitachi and Caterpillar. Consumers will no longer pay a hefty premium just because a brand is foreign. Their internet savvy and lack of brand loyalty makes them the world’s most demanding customers (see article). Some companies are leaving. Revlon said in December that it was pulling out altogether. L’Oréal, the world’s largest cosmetics firm, said soon afterwards that it would stop selling one of its main brands, Garnier. Best Buy, an American electronics retailer, and Media Markt, a German rival, have already left, as has Yahoo, an internet giant”.

Even those companies that are brave, or stupid, enough to stay are having difficulties, “Some of those who are staying are struggling. IBM this week said that revenues in China fell by 23% during the last quarter of 2013. Rémy Cointreau, a French drinks group, reported that sales of its Rémy Martin cognac fell by more than 30% during the first three quarters of last year because of a plunge in China. Yum Brands, an American fast-food firm, said in September last year that same-store sales in China had fallen by 16% in the year to date”.

These companies should have known, or been made aware of, the dangers of doing business in China that they obviously know needs a state owned company to “assist” them in breaking into the Chinese market.  If this trend continues and more companies stock price falls and there are more anti corruption stings targeting foreign companies then the prospect of entering China for foreign companies will look like something not worth bothering about. Instead they will go to Africa or Latin America and there will be fewer jobs for Chinese workers.

It concludes “First, rising costs mean that bosses must shift from going for growth to enhancing productivity. This sounds obvious, but in China the mentality has long been ‘just throw more men at the problem’. One way to get a grip on costs is to invest in labour-substituting technology, not only in manufacturing but also in services”. It goes on to make the argument that “Second, tighter control is another must. GSK’s bosses in London admitted that its problems in China were partly the result of executives acting ‘outside of our processes and control’. Managers in headquarters must ensure that executives’ behaviour and safety standards are as high as anywhere else in the world. Chinese consumers are even more active on social media than those in the West, so any scandal is instantly broadcast nationally. Lastly, a One China policy no longer makes sense. Most firms set up their local offices when China’s economy was smaller than $2 trillion. Although it will soon be five times that size, many still try to run their operations from Shanghai. That makes little sense when tastes in food, fashion and much else vary between provinces and mega-cities that have populations as big as European countries”.

The piece ends, “China is still a rich prize. Firms that can boost productivity, improve governance and respond to local tastes can still prosper. But the golden years are over”.

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Helping the Taliban

31/01/2014

A rift between Kabul and Washington has empowered hard-line Taliban commanders at the expense of more moderate leaders who had pushed for peace talks, further reducing the prospect of a negotiated settlement to the 12-year war. Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s decision in November not to sign a security deal with the U.S. has led to a power shift within the insurgency’s leadership, bolstering the senior commanders who have pursued a military victory, according to senior officials and people close to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Those who believe they can win militarily are now more powerful than those pro-peace elements because of certain policies that our government unfortunately has lately taken, such as the delay in signing the bilateral security agreement,” said Salahuddin Rabbani, chairman of the High Peace Council, a body created by Mr. Karzai to negotiate with the Taliban”.

Sisi and Nasser

31/01/2014

In the second article to be published about Field Marshal Sisi it notes the importance of Nasser in recent events. It starts noting the prelevance of Nasser, “Nasser was suddenly everywhere. A man sat on a curb selling Nasser headshots, while throngs marched through the streets, holding posters of Nasser and Sisi side by side, and chanting “Sisi is my president!” For decades, Egypt’s Nasserists had been a marginal opposition force. That day, it seemed their time had come. By nightfall, the army had placed Morsi under arrest and an assortment of national leaders from the military, the clergy, and various political parties unveiled a new interim government. Six months later, a successful presidential bid by Sisi now seems inevitable. A new constitution blessed by the military passed in a referendum this month with a whopping 98 percent of the vote — a level of support that Sisi’s supporters described as a popular mandate for his candidacy. Of course, it helped that the new government brooked no opposition”.

The writer goes on to mention that “Supporters of Nasser, meanwhile, have continued to cheer on the new strongman in Cairo — perhaps hoping he will follow in their hero’s footsteps not only by crushing the Islamists, but also by restoring Egypt’s international prestige. Nasser’s daughter, Hoda, a political scientist and historian, published a fawning op-ed in one of Egypt’s leading newspapers imploring Sisi to run for president, saying that the army chief had ‘achieved in less than two months what politicians cannot achieve in decades.’ Since the July 3 coup, Sisi has repeatedly been likened — by both allies and enemies — to Egypt’s most influential president. At first glance, the similarities are rich: Both Sisi and Nasser were military leaders who came to power on the back of a coup, and who began by crushing the Muslim Brotherhood before seeking to quash dissent from the left. At a more fundamental level, however, the comparison is spurious. Nasser was a transformative leader, while Sisi appears to be a conservative who holds more in common with Hosni Mubarak”.

For context he argues that “It’s not hard to see why many Egyptians would yearn for a return to the Nasser era. The years between 1956, when Israel, France, and Britain embarrassed themselves in the Suez Crisis, to 1967 when Egypt embarrassed itself in the Six Days War, were in many ways Egypt’s last golden age. Cairo’s cultural and political influence was at its zenith: From Casablanca to Baghdad, millions of Arabs tuned in to Sawt al-Arab (“Voice of the Arabs”), a Cairo-based radio station that featured hours-long concerts from the legendary Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum and anti-imperialist, pan-Arabist propaganda put out by the Egyptian government. The Nasser years also brought unprecedented class mobility to Egyptians, with a rollback of the feudalism that existed under the monarchy and universities and middle-class jobs suddenly open to the poor. At the same time, Egypt under Nasser’s leadership was the undisputed political center of the Arab world. The Egyptian president spearheaded anti-imperialist movements throughout the region”.

Interestingly it links Nasser’s quasi anti Americanism with Sisi who “dabbles in anti-Americanism, but he’s no Nasser. The current Egyptian military chief has accused the United States of “turning its back” on Egypt, but he maintains regular contact with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, talking with him more than 25 times since the July coup. When it comes to foreign policy, ‘the Nasser analogy is a bit of a stretch,’ said Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations”.

He writes that the picture of Sisi as the new Nasser is flawed again by the fact that “Nasser’s rhetorical and intellectual commitment to “social revolution” was backed by action: His government instituted a series of land reforms that distributed roughly half a million acres of land to peasants in the first four years of his rule. The colonel-turned-president directly challenged the status of old guard elites, expropriating wealth from the urban monarchists and nationalising industries. Sisi, on the other hand, calls for stability, not revolution. In “Democracy in the Middle East,” a paper he wrote while a student at the U.S. Naval War College, he explains why Arab societies are not quite ready for democracy — because of a lack of education and the attendant instability of creating new democracies”.

It concludes, “Sisi is the product of the Egypt that Nasser created: He rose through the ranks of the old system and has seen his friends and colleagues reap the rewards. If he were to undertake the sort of sweeping reforms of his predecessor, it would require seizing assets not just from wealthy landowners, but from the military itself. For this reason, his instincts have so far tended to be conservative — not revolutionary. Since the Egyptian revolution began on Jan. 25, 2011, the military’s priority has been the preservation of its status. Under a year of military rule and then through compromises with the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals have looked to protect their paychecks and privileges. Now, it seems, the most effective means is one that was tested in the 1950s and 1960s: A demagogue in fatigues”.

“Shelled suspected militant hideouts”

31/01/2014

At least two persons were killed in a blitz carried out by Pakistan’s military in Mirali area of North Waziristan tribal region whereas three men, reportedly associated with the Awami National Party (ANP), were gunned down in Badhbher area of Peshawar. Military gunship helicopters shelled suspected militant hideouts in several areas of Mirali in North Waziristan region, killing two persons and wounding several others. The identities of the victims and the number of casualties could not be independently verified as the access of media is restricted in the region. North Waziristan is one of the seven regions in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) governed by tribal laws. An extremist insurgency led by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) plagues the region and the area is known to be infested with militants, including those from Al Qaeda and other armed extremist organisations”.

The domestic SOTU

31/01/2014

The recent State of the Union speech delivered by President Obama is examined in a piece in Foreign Policy. It opens “Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is regaining lost territory and solidifying his control of a country that once seemed to be slipping from his grasp. Iraq is spiraling back into civil war, with an al Qaeda affiliate there flexing its muscles on turf American soldiers and Marines once held. Egypt’s military government is arresting thousands of political opponents, raising serious questions about its commitment to democracy. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden continues to release new details about America’s spying efforts, rattling trust in the U.S. government at home and abroad. President Barack Obama did not touch on any of that in his State of the Union address, however. Instead, he focused heavily on domestic policy, pledging to take a variety of actions to strengthen the middle class, grow jobs, and make life easier for American families. Obama’s annual addresses have always been heavily tilted toward his proposals for changing the situation here at home. Still, his State of the Union address this year was notable for how little time he devoted to foreign policy — and how little he said that amounted to anything new”.

He writes that “On Syria, the president said the United States would ‘support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks,’ but he declined to say whether his administration was willing to provide weapons and arms to the moderate elements of the loose-knit rebel alliance battling Assad. Obama’s mention of ‘terrorist networks’ within the Syrian opposition, meanwhile, will likely be seen throughout the Middle East as a sign that Washington was now effectively agreeing, in part, with Assad’s contention that he is battling vicious Islamists, not pro-democracy rebels”.

This is certainly accurate and history will judge Obama harshly for both flip-flopping and for not acting at all to help those rebels that are less hostile to the United States. If this course of action was taken, there would be no need for America to send out feelers to radical movements that it is trying to defeat in the rest of the world.

The writer rightly chastises Obama for the “few words about Iraq, where violence has soared to pre-surge levels and al Qaeda-linked affiliates have conquered significant swaths of the country, including the infamous city of Fallujah. Congress just cleared the sale of Apache attack helicopters the Iraqi government has pleaded for, but Obama didn’t reference Iraq’s descent into chaos or talk about steps the U.S. might be willing to take to help stabilise the country. Instead, he lumped Iraq in with other countries with known terrorist networks inside their borders — specifically, Somalia, Mali, and Yemen”.

The author writes tha “Snowden, the whistleblower who has disclosed reams of details about U.S. spying programs at home and abroad, wasn’t mentioned in Obama’s prime time address. The president pledged on Tuesday to work with Congress to ‘reform our surveillance programs,’ but said he would do so not out of concern that the NSA has violated privacy rights but because ‘the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.’ The problem, he implied, wasn’t that Americans may have had their phone calls and email traffic improperly monitored by the NSA; it was that Washington needed to do a better job of convincing people both in the United States and abroad that the NSA does not represent Big Brother”.

He continues noting that Obama says talks with Iran must continue and any new sanctions would be vetoed. This is a clever move by Obama and now if only Congress will listen to reaason then something huge could come out of the Iran deal.

The piece ends on the interesting point, “Obama said that if Iran strikes a deal in nuclear talks, then ‘we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.’ Beyond broadly threatening sanctions, however, he did not say whether he was prepared to use force to prevent Tehran from obtaining a bomb. Finally, on the United States’ controversial use of drones, Obama pressed that he has “imposed prudent limits” on their use. But he did not mention that an effort to take control of the robotic aircraft away from the CIA and give it to the Pentagon in the name of transparency has been stalled since November and the move’s prospects are, at best, uncertain”.

PM resigns

31/01/2014

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych has accepted the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet amid continuing anti-government protests. Mykola Azarov had offered to step down as prime minister to create “social and political compromise”. The move came after the Ukrainian parliament voted overwhelmingly to annul a controversial anti-protest law. The protests have spread in recent days across Ukraine, even to President Yanukovych’s stronghold in the east. Official buildings in several cities have been occupied”.

Back in fashion?

31/01/2014

An interesting article by Charles Kenny argues that Marxism is once again in vogue with the working class. He begins, “The inscription on Karl Marx’s tombstone in London’s Highgate Cemetery reads, ‘Workers of all lands, unite.’ Of course, it hasn’t quite ended up that way. As much buzz as the global Occupy movement managed to produce in a few short months, the silence is deafening now. And it’s not often that you hear of shop workers in Detroit making common cause with their Chinese brethren in Dalian to stick it to the boss man. Indeed, as global multinational companies have eaten away at labor’s bargaining power, the factory workers of the rich world have become some of the least keen on helping out their fellow wage laborers in poor countries. But there’s a school of thought — and no, it’s not just from the few remaining Trotskyite professors at the New School — that envisions a type of global class politics making a comeback. If so, it might be time for global elites to start trembling. Sure, it doesn’t sound quite as threatening as the original call to arms, but a new specter may soon be haunting the world’s 1 percent: middle-class activism”.

He adds, “Marx argued that the revolutionary proletarian impulse was also a fundamentally global one — that working classes would be united across countries and oceans by their shared experience of crushing poverty and the soullessness of factory life. At the time Marx was writing, the idea that poor people were pretty similar across countries — or at least would be soon — was eminently reasonable. According to World Bank economist Branko Milanovic, when The Communist Manifesto was written in 1848, most income inequality at the global level was driven by class differences within countries”.

Kenny writes that the reason there was no revolution was that the wages of workers rose, “The Maddison Project database of historical statistics suggests that per capita GDP in 1870 (in 1990 dollars, adjusting for purchasing power) was around $3,190 in Britain — compared with an African average of $648. Compare that with Britain in 2010, which had a per capita GDP of $23,777; the African average was $2,034. One hundred and forty years ago, the average African person was about one-fifth as rich as his British comrade. Today, he’s worth less than one-tenth”.

He mentions that “The simple fact that poor people in Europe and America are in the income elite according to the standards of South Asia and Africa is why the workers of all lands have not yet united. The second congress of the Communist International, in 1920, condemned the despicable betrayal by many European and American socialists during World War I, who “used ‘defense of the fatherland’ to conceal the ‘right’ of ‘their’ bourgeoisie to enslave the colonies.” The gathered representatives argued that the mistrust generated could ‘be eradicated only after imperialism is destroyed in the advanced countries and after the entire basis of economic life of the backward countries is radically transformed.’ Yet all that might soon be changing. Globalization may have been the watchword of the 1990s, but it’s still a work in progress. As interconnected global markets get ever more interconnected, average incomes are converging. The last 10 years have seen developing countries grow far more rapidly than high-income countries, closing the gap in average incomes. Economist Arvind Subramanian estimates that China in 2030 will be about as rich as the whole European Union today and that Brazil won’t be far behind”.

He makes the interesting point,” Put simply, this means that within the space of hardly a generation, a good chunk of the world will soon be rich, or at least solidly middle class. According to forecasts I’ve developed with my Center for Global Development colleague Sarah Dykstra, about 16 percent of the Earth’s population lives in countries rich enough to be labeled “high income” by the World Bank. If growth rates continue as they have in the past decade, 41 percent of the world’s people will find themselves in the “high income” bracket by 2030. In short, if developing countries continue growing at the rate we’ve seen recently, inequality among countries will shrink — and inequality withinnations will return as the dominant source of global inequality. Does that mean Marx was right — if just a couple of centuries off on his timing? Not exactly. The reality is that this new middle class will have lives that Victorian-era working-class Brits could only dream about. They’ll work in LED-lit shops and offices”.

Kenny ends the piece “that doesn’t mean Warren Buffett should breathe easily. In fact, it is exactly because the rich and poor will look increasingly similar in Lagos and London that it’s more likely that the workers of the world in 2030 will unite. As technology and trade level the playing field and bring humanity closer together, the world’s projected 3.5 billion laborers may finally realise how much more they have in common with each other than with the über-wealthy elites in their own countries. They’ll pressure governments to collaborate to ensure that their sweat and blood don’t excessively enrich a tiny, global capitalist elite, but are spread more widely. They’ll work to shut down tax havens where the world’s plutocrats hide their earnings, and they’ll advocate for treaties to prevent a “race to the bottom” in labor regulations and tax rates designed to attract companies. And they’ll push to ensure it isn’t just the world’s richest who benefit from a global lifestyle — by striving to open up free movement of labor for all, not just within countries but among them. Sure, it’s not quite a proletarian revolution. But then again, the middle class has never been the most ardent of revolutionaries — only the most effective. The next decade won’t so much see the politics of desperate poverty taking on plutocracy, as the middle class taking back its own. But it all might put a ghostly smile on Karl’s face nonetheless”.

Taliban talks then BSA?

31/01/2014

On Saturday, President Karzai said that peace in his country lay in the hands of the US and Pakistan, demanding that they bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. ‘If the US is not willing to accept our conditions, they can leave anytime and we will continue our lives,’ he told reporters in the Afghan capital, Kabul. ‘Our main condition is the practical start of a peace process, [which] would mean that no foreigners can benefit from the continuation of war.’ Mr Karzai added that if he were to sign the deal, he would become responsible if Afghans were killed by US bombs”.

Another new constitution

29/01/2014

An article in Foreign Policy discusses the new constitution of Egypt. It opens, “It’s unlikely that many people thought of Syria’s farcical vote as they followed the news of Egyptians heading to the polls this week to vote on a new military-backed constitution. The official results showed that a whopping 98.1 percent of voters backed Egypt’s new charter — considerably more than in Syria’s referendum. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt is not Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but the lessons from Damascus should not be lost on those seeking to parse the meaning of this referendum. Syria’s swiftly forgotten bit of political theatre helps to highlight what really matters about any constitutional referendum: Does the new document actually establish consensual and legitimate rules of the political game? That’s why Egypt’s political prisoners suffering for their political affiliation, peaceful protests, or journalism are a more crucial window into the real significance of the referendum than turnout or approval percentages”.

It goes on to mention that “It is easy to understand and respect the deep desire of many Egyptians to simply move on and put the traumas of the last few years behind them. But Egypt’s current political trajectory is unlikely to grant them their wish. The core institutional problems surrounding the adoption of a new constitution following a military coup, during a full-bore state-led mobilization campaign, and amid a harsh wave of political repression simply do not offer any real hope that the new order will deliver stability or progress toward anything remotely democratic. The problem with Egypt’s new constitution has less to do with the text itself than with the broader political context. There are some positive new articles in the text, although as constitutional scholar Zaid al-Ali detailed recently in Foreign Policy, far too many political rights and freedoms are open to definition and restriction by legislation. Balancing the benefits of any gains on rights both the military and the judiciary have been made less accountable and more powerful, giving great license to these politicised institutions to tailor the rules of the game to their political preferences”.

He writes that “For a constitution to be effective it must command general consent, however grudging, and be seen as likely to actually constrain and define the political game. Egypt’s 2012 constitution failed to deliver that stability in part because of ousted President Mohamed Morsi’s power grab, by which he forced through the document without the consent of significant portions of the state and society. That failure paved the way for the escalation of the crippling institutional conflicts between Morsi, the courts, and the military”.

He goes on to note that “The July military coup magnifies the intensity of this problem, however, and may have made it almost impossible to overcome. The precedent has now been firmly established that the military will step in if it does not approve of the direction in which politics is heading. No promises to avoid future such interventions can possibly be made credible, regardless of what the constitution says”. Yet, this is not a pattern that will be repeated endlessly for all time. Egyptians will eventually realise that being governed by the Brotherhood and the army are not viable long term solutions.

He adds that “Defining the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization has been an extremely useful mobilization tool and a core legitimating principle for the current regime. But it also generates a state of emergency that invalidates any freedoms or protections otherwise found in the new constitution. The toxic political environment and legal black hole generated by this “anti-terrorist” witch hunt shapes the real impact of the referendum vote. The crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is so popular with the group’s opponents, has legalised the suppression of any form of political challenge — regardless of what might be written into the new constitution”.

He ends, “Egypt’s constitutional referendum could still, despite all of these problems, become a real turning point — but only if the Egyptian regime was willing to take this moment of celebration to dramatically change course. With the referendum now concluded, and the political insecurity of the regime perhaps somewhat alleviated, maybe now there is space to contemplate releasing political prisoners and stopping the campaign of arrests and persecution of political opponents. Egyptian officials could demonstrate their willing subordination to the new constitution by turning away from the “war on terror,” and Gen. Sisi could commit to not seeking political office and instead insist upon the political neutrality of the military and the state. All signs currently point in the other direction, unfortunately. And that’s why so few observers of Egypt see this week’s referendum as anything other than the next step in the country’s slow drift back into authoritarianism”.

“Four separate criminal trials”

29/01/2014

Egypt’s former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi has struck a defiant tone at the beginning of his trial over his escape from prison in 2011. Mr Morsi started shouting: “I am the president of the republic, how can I be kept in a dump for weeks?” Egypt’s first freely elected president was deposed by the military in July 2013 after mass protests against his rule. He is now facing four separate criminal trials on various charges. Mr Morsi and other defendants in the case are appearing in a sound-proofed glass box during the trial. He will only be permitted to address the court after raising his hand”.

“Willingness to push back”

29/01/2014

In another excellent article by Ely Ratner and Elbridge Colby the two discuss the current state of affairs in China. It opens, “Though officials on both sides of the Pacific are publicly loath to add fuel to the fire, it is increasingly clear that China’s recent regional provocations are the result of more than just knee-jerk reactions or bureaucratic malfunctions over long-forgotten borders or arcane historical ownership. Beijing’s far-reaching claims in the East and South China seas — and coercive efforts to intimidate neighbours — have unsettled countries from Vietnam to the Philippines to Japan because they amount to an expansionist strategy, with profound implications for U.S. power and regional security”.

They write that “China’s latest act of revisionism, in late November, was todeclare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) across large swaths of the East China Sea, including over the disputed Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu by the Chinese). America’s response was twofold: The White House indicated that it would not officially honour the ADIZ designation (a message delivered by sending unarmed B-52 bombers through the zone on what the Pentagon called a routine and long-planned training mission), but it initially encouraged commercial airliners to comply with Beijing’s request to identify themselves to Chinese air traffic control. Meanwhile, it dispatched high-level officials to calm the waters: When Vice President Joe Biden met with Chinese leaders in early December”.

The authors go on to note, “This effort to play the role of regional peacemaker echoes the Obama administration’s approach in 2012 during the Scarborough Shoal standoff between China and the Philippines, as well as during the row between Tokyo and Beijing after Japan nationalised the Senkaku Islands. But if China’s ends haven’t changed, its means have — in the past years, Beijing has stepped up efforts to achieve its long-held territorial aims. As a former Chinese ambassador told us in December, her country’s position in the world is like that of ‘a new student that jumped many grades.’ Maybe so, but Beijing’s behaviour since 2009 is more akin to that of a brash adolescent both unaware and blithe to the potential consequences of adventurous behaviour”.

They go on to make the point that “an overemphasis on stability can be dangerous. While preventing inadvertent war in Asia is obviously a worthy goal, it is just as important to discourage China from believing that it can employ economic, military, and diplomatic coercion to settle international disagreements without triggering a serious response. Making the risk of escalation too low will at some point start running counter to U.S. interests. Why? Because China is taking advantage of Washington’s risk aversion by rocking the boat, seeing what it can extract in the process, and letting the United States worry about righting it. Beijing’s playbook of tailored coercion relies in part on China’s confidence that it can weather ephemeral international outrage while Washington takes responsibility for ensuring the situation doesn’t get out of control. This means that reducing the likelihood of escalation through high-level strategic dialogues and military-to-military hotlines, however important, is in and of itself insufficient to curb Chinese assertiveness. History has demonstrated the perils of focusing too much on stability at the expense of deterrence. The Cuban missile crisis, the modern world’s closest brush with the apocalypse, was precipitated by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s perception that the United States, especially President John F. Kennedy, was overly concerned about stability and cooling tensions between the superpowers. Khrushchev’s sense that America could be pushed was formed by Kennedy’s cautious reactionsto assertive Soviet moves toward Berlin, as well as Khrushchev’s measure of Kennedy at the 1961 Vienna superpower summit as “weak” and accommodating”.

They make the interesting comparision that “Only through a demonstrated willingness on the part of Kennedy to go to the nuclear brink — with U.S. nuclear forces on high alert and U.S. naval forces prepared to forcibly halt Soviet ships attempting to run the blockade (accompanied by a U.S. concession on missile deployments in Turkey) — was the United States able to get Moscow to back down. Needless to say, restraint and a willingness to negotiate were elemental to a peaceful resolution of the crisis, but only in the context of a major mobilisation ofU.S. forces against Cuba, the elevation of the U.S. alert level to Defcon 2 (one step short of nuclear war), and chilling threatsdesigned to convince the Soviets that conciliation was the only viable move”.

They go on to argue, “Taking a cue from history, the United States needs to inject a healthy degree of risk into Beijing’s calculus, even as it searches for ways to cooperate with China. This does not mean abandoning engagement or trying to contain China, let alone fomenting conflict. But it does mean communicating that Beijing has less ability to control escalation than it seems to think. China must understand that attempts to roil the waters could result in precisely the kinds of costs and conflicts it seeks to avoid. To make this work, the United States should pursue policies that actually elevate the risks — political, economic, or otherwise — to Beijing of acting assertively. On the high seas, the focal point for the region’s territorial disputes, China has bullied its neighbours by relying on non-military vessels. China is using its rapidly expanding coast guard to assert its expansive sovereignty claims by harassing non-Chinese fishermen, oil companies, and military vessels that pass through contested waters in the East and South China seas. This has the benefit of exploiting China’s dominant numerical advantage while keeping the U.S. Navy on the sidelines. Washington should blur the false distinction between non-military and military ships by stating that it will respond to physical coercion and the use of force as deemed appropriate — regardless of whether the perpetrator is a white- or gray-hulled ship”.

They go on to make the excellent point, “the United States must demonstrate a willingness to push back militarily when China attempts to coerce America’s allies and partners. To do this, the U.S. military needs capabilities and plans that not only prepare it for major war, but that also offer plausible, concrete options for responding to Chinese attempts to exploit America’s perceived aversion to instability. Leaders throughout Asia will be watching. Too much caution, especially if China is clearly the initiator, may be read as U.S. weakness, thereby perpetuating rather than diminishing China’s incentives toward adventurism. he United States can further raise the stakes by deepening its military ties with Japan. This year, the two countries will rewrite the guidelines that govern the roles and responsibilities of their partnership. The result could be major steps forward in joint military planning and interoperability”.

They conclude the article, noting that China’s “planners worry about America’s burgeoning military alliances and partnerships in Asia. Good. That means they’ll be more reluctant to start a fight if doing so means China could end up facing a multitude of the region’s powerhouses. The point, of course, is not to increase the likelihood of conflict between the United States and China. Rather, the goal is to cultivate real, long-term stability in Asia that doesn’t give China a license to push, prod, and bully. ritics might assert that taking these steps will invite precisely the kind of Cold War-like competition that will make conflict, if not outright war, most likely. This is a real possibility, and U.S. policymakers will have to carefully balance deterrence with engagement. But those who are reluctant to push back need to ask themselves whether China’s top leaders currently see a sufficient downside in acting assertively. Clearly, they do not”.

Using his authority

29/01/2014

President Obama announced plans to use his executive authority to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for federal contract workers during the  State of the Union address, the White House said Tuesday. Federal workers like janitors, construction workers and dishwashers hired under new federal contracts would benefit from the new order, which the White  House calls an example of how the president can ‘lead by example.’ ‘Boosting wages will lower turnover and increase morale, and will lead to  higher productivity overall,’ the White House said in a statement. ‘Raising wages for those at the bottom will improve the quality and efficiency of  services provided to the government.’ Earlier this year, 15 senators and 17 members of the House sent Obama a letter  urging him to exercise his executive authority on the issue. The White House will also look to pressure Congress into passing a bill that  would set the federal minimum wage at $10.10 per hour and index it to inflation”.

Iran’s constructive engagement

29/01/2014

An report from the Daily Telegraph notes the speech given by President Hassan Rouhani at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

It begins, “Iran has announced a new policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with outside world, seeking to restore diplomatic ties with Europe as a follow-on from its new nuclear accord. The country’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, made the declaration during a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he also sought to re-open Iran to Western investment. ‘I hereby announce that one of the theoretical and practical priorities of my government is constructive engagement with the world,’ said Mr Rouhani, who was elected on a reformist platform last June. Mr Rouhani’s speech was yet another attempt by Iran’s new president to portray himself as the man who will end Iran’s three-decade long hostility to the West. But it was attacked almost immediately by the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, who said made no reference to support for the Arab-Israeli peace process, or for Iran’s support for Israel’s Lebanese foe, Hezbollah”.

It hardly needs to be said that Peres is correct on this point. However, he is blinded by anger and fear and therefore cannot see beyond the significance of the speech in a broader context. The rapprochment with Iran needs to be taken seriously and with this could come a whole series of positive effects for the region, and Israel.

The report adds that “Rouhani said that relations with European capitals would normalised as soon as the accord was fully implemented. A final deal on Iran’s nuclear programme is still in the pipeline. ‘I strongly and clearly state that nuclear weapons have no place in our security strategy and Iran has no motivation to move in that direction,’ he added. Mr Rouhani also addressed the question of the Syrian conflict, which is the subject of a separate international talks this week in the Swiss cities of Montreux and Geneva. Iran was originally invited to attend the summit by the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, but the invite was rescinded after a threatened walk-out by Syria’s rebel factions, who object to Iran’s military support for President Bashar al-Assad”.

The writer goes on to note that “Rouhani did not directly address the issue of Iranian support for the regime in Damascus, but said that free and fair elections would be the best way of ending Syria’s civil war. ‘The best solution is to organise free and fair elections inside Syria,’ he said. ‘No outside party or power should decide for the Syrian people and Syria as a country.’ During his visit to Davos, Mr Rouhani also held a closed door presentation to international oil firms, where he made it clear that Iran was keen to win back Western business. A new, investor-friendly model for oil contracts would be in place by September, he said”.

It is interesting that Dr Rouhani said that Syria should have free elections. This could be the start of an Iranian shift on Syria which in turn could see the regime stay in place but without Assad. The result, if this is the correct reading, would be something of a draw as it would allow the Iranian friendly regime to stay in place but at the same time the conflict would end and some sort of normality would resume. However, Iran could be hinting at going even further than this. American approaches to jihadists in Syria as well as their overall strong position against the regime could mean  that Iran views a quasi-democracy in Syria as preferable to a Sunni Islamist regime that would be implacably hostile to Iran.

It is obviously too soon to tell if this is, or the policy of engagement is their real policy but a cautious optimism is appropriate.

“Refused to review”

29/01/2014

India’s Supreme Court has refused to review its controversial decision to reinstate a 153-year-old law that criminalises homosexuality. Judges dismissed petitions from the government and rights activists who say the order was wrong. The Supreme Court judgement last month overturned a landmark 2009 Delhi High Court ruling decriminalising gay sex. The ruling is seen as a huge blow to gay rights and has been criticised by activists and government ministers. 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 in its order of 11 December, 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”.

Problems for Sisi

29/01/2014

A piece has been published that follows on from a recent article about the plans of the head of the Egyptian military to become president. It notes that “The choreographed dance of Egypt’s military-orchestrated politics inched closer to its climax on Monday, Jan. 27, as the country’s popular army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, moved a step closer to announcing his candidacy for president. On the official level, Sisi’s grasp over Egyptian politics seems stronger than ever. Interim President Adly Mansour promoted the general to field marshal on Monday, a symbolic gesture that could foreshadow his resignation from the army. Meanwhile, Sisi and his fellow officers met in the afternoon, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) subsequently issued a televised statement that praised him for ‘responding to the call of duty.’ ‘The council looks with reverence and respect at the desire of the masses of the honorable Egyptian people for the candidacy of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the presidency, which it considers a mandate and an obligation,’ the council said. The statement stopped short of formally announcing Sisi’s resignation from the military, or his candidacy. But it was hard to interpret the language as anything else, coming as it did just two days after tens of thousands of Egyptians descended on Tahrir Square to mark the third anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution that overthrew long-time President Hosni Mubarak — and declare their support for another military man turned national leader”.

This would mark the completion of the counter-revolution that overthrew the dictator Morsi and the resumption of military rule that only ended in 2011. America and the rest of the world, despite what others say, can do little but accept the fait accompli that will become the Sisi regime and try to work with it.

The consequence of this of course is that “Egypt is more divided than ever. Outside of Tahrir, the celebrations to mark the Jan. 25 anniversary were a bloody affair: The Health Ministry said 49 people were killed, and local rights groups put the death toll higher. Most of the violence was directed at supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, but security forces also cracked down on liberal activists opposed to both the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. If Sisi takes the presidency, he will have his work cut out for him. The newly-minted field marshal will not only have to face deep opposition from Morsi supporters and a growing terrorist threat, he will also inherit a state plagued by much deeper social and economic problems than anything his predecessor faced decades ago”.

The terrorist situation is getting worse the author writes, “Egyptian terrorist organizations, which seem to grow more technologically proficient by the month, seem poised to keep fear as a powerful force in Egyptian political life. A series of four bombs went off across the Egyptian capital on Friday, the day before the anniversary, killing four people and injuring dozens more. The largest and most spectacular was a car bomb outside the Cairo security directorate that left a deep crater in the street and shattered windows in shops hundreds of feet away. Crowds gathered at the bomb site shortly afterward, calling for the execution of Brotherhood officials. All four attacks were claimed by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based group that has waged an escalating insurgency against the state over the past several months”.

The problem is that “if Sisi can’t bring the terrorist attacks under control, he could lose a core pillar of his appeal. The desire for stability “is why people are giving the government such a free hand,” said Hisham A. Hellyer, a Cairo-based non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But if there’s no payoff, people are going to wonder what’s going on, and begin to lose patience.” So far, there has been no payoff. Mansour on Sunday promised to assign more courts to prosecute terrorism cases — but five journalists from Al Jazeera languish in jail, and last week the state security agency detained an American translator and his roommate, an Egyptian filmmaker, accusing them of “threatening national stability.” Egyptian prosecutors, meanwhile, seem to be focusing on everybody but actual terrorists, opening investigations in recent weeks into Pepsiand Vodafone, both of them charged with inciting violence through their advertisements”.

The article goes on to add, “Adding to the instability is the Brotherhood, which is pursuing a seemingly suicidal strategy of near-daily protests despite mounting casualties and arrests. More than 40 of Saturday’s dead were from just two Cairo neighbourhoods, Matariya and Alf Maskan, where hundreds of Morsi’s supporters launched protests. The Brotherhood-led ‘Anti-Coup Alliance,’ an umbrella group of organisations opposed to the new military-backed government, has also hinted that it was losing control over its rank-and-file”.

He ends noting, “Even if a President Sisi does manage to get a grip on the security situation, he will have to contend with a stagnant economy that seems increasingly unable to meet citizens’ demand for a better life. The economy grew an anemic 2 percent last year, according to the World Bank — hardly enough to keep up with a country adding 2.6 million people per year. Inflation and unemployment have both climbed to their highest levels in years. Egypt’s economy has limped along since Morsi’s ouster thanks to an infusion of $12 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. Their aid probably comes with an expiration date, though, and Sisi has few other options to jump-start an ailing economy”.

Karzai’s paranoia

29/01/2014

President Hamid Karzai has frequently lashed out at the U.S. military for causing civilian casualties in its raids. But behind the scenes, he has been building a far broader case against the Americans, suggesting that they may have aided or conducted shadowy insurgent-style attacks to undermine his government, according to senior Afghan officials. Karzai has formalized his suspicions with a list of dozens of attacks that he believes the U.S. government may have been involved in, according to one palace official. The list even includes the recent bomb and gun assault on a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, one of the bloodiest acts targeting the international community in Afghanistan, the official said. The attack, which left 21 people dead, including three Americans, was almost universally attributed to the Taliban. But Karzai believes it was one of many incidents that may have been planned by Americans to weaken him and foment instability in Afghanistan, according to the senior palace official, who is sympathetic to the president’s view and spoke on the condition of anonymity. He acknowledged that his government had no concrete evidence of U.S. involvement and that the American role had not been formally confirmed. U.S. officials, who have been informed of some of the claims, have reacted with incredulity and anger to the idea that they are trying to debilitate Afghanistan’s government, which they have supported with hundreds of billions of dollars. “It’s a deeply conspiratorial view that’s divorced from reality,” U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham said Monday”.

Consumption, subsidies and instability

27/01/2014

A piece by Keith Johnson discusses the domestic fuel consumption and fuel subsidies in Middle East.

He begins, “one of the most important, if less visible, energy revolutions has been the ongoing explosion in demand for oil in the Middle East, still the epicenter of oil production and exports. The region’s surge in demand over the past decade, and the likelihood of further increases in its consumption over the next 20 years, raise serious concerns about Middle Eastern countries’ ability to keep exporting large volumes of oil. That could upend global oil-market balances, seriously erode the finances and domestic stability of important countries in the region, and spark even more regional instability. That’s one reason that U.S. and international policymakers have been increasingly reaching out to counterparts across the Middle East, urging leaders there to shift gears before it’s too late, by, for example, reducing the generous energy subsidies that encourage the rampant use of oil and oil-generated electricity”.

Indeed as was noted here some time ago, Saudi Arabia will have to begin importing oil in 2038 if its current consumption levels remain what they are. Although since then there has been some improvements in efficiencies since then.

He goes on to write “The choice is stark and risky: If Middle Eastern countries don’t rein in their popular energy subsidies, their future economic lifelines will be threatened. If they do, they risk roiling domestic populations already energized by the Arab Spring. Over the past decade, oil consumption in the Middle East has skyrocketed because of the region’s growing populations, relatively strong economic growth and increasing need to generate more power for its own use. While China’s seemingly insatiable appetite for oil grabbed all the headlines in recent years, Middle Eastern oil consumption was just behind the Middle Kingdom’s. China, with the world’s second-largest economy, consumed an extra 5 million barrels of oil a day between 2002 and 2012; the entire Middle East, whose non-petroleum economy is on par with Spain, increased oil consumption by 3 million barrels a day. Europe, in contrast, shrank its oil consumption by 1 million barrels a day over the same period”.

He cites figures noting, “According to statistics from BP, the Middle East exported more than 80 percent of the oil it produced in 2002. A decade later, it was exporting only 70 percent”.

The reason behind this is, he writes, “While there are plenty of examples of energy consumption run amok — from Dubai’s indoor ski slopes to Saudi Arabians’ tendency to leave air conditioners running while on vacation — the chief culprit is simple inefficiency. That shows up most clearly in power generation and use, and the profligate use of subsidised fuel for transportation. Electricity generation is the most egregious demonstration of Middle Eastern oil consumption — but also among the easiest to fix, on paper. Saudi Arabia, despite efforts to tap more natural gas for power generation and an increasing interest in renewable energy such as solar power, still gets about half its electricity by burning $100 barrels of oil”.

He notes that the problem of energy use which is driven by subsidises is starting to be addressed, “countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are starting to consider across-the-board economic reforms to address the problem. The payoff could be huge: One study estimates that improvements in Saudi power generation, efficiency, and transport could save almost 2 million barrels a day of oil by 2025 — allowing Riyadh to reap enormous amounts of new money. They’re also looking at alternative sources of energy, including nuclear power. When you’re paying $200 to produce a megawatt-hour of electricity with oil, nuclear starts to look like a bargain. The UAE’s landmark nuclear deal with the United States, the first nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and an Arab nation, came about solely because of the small Gulf nation’s rising domestic oil consumption. And it explains why even more ambitious nuclear plans, such as Saudi Arabia’s hopesto spend $80 billion on 16 nuclear reactors”.

He goes on to add that “the transformation of the power sector appears to be lagging behind the explosion in electricity demand, according to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook. That’s especially true with the huge seasonal swings in electricity demand caused by the need for summertime air conditioning; Saudi Arabia alone uses up close to a million extra barrels a day for coolingin the summer. Coming to grips with institutional weaknesses — such as ministries with dueling mandates — as well overcoming a dearth of reliable data on energy use could help governments across the Gulf region finally start to implement smarter energy policies, Chatham Houseconcluded recently. The bigger, and much tougher, problem to tackle is the artificially cheap fuel prices that encourage residents to drive gas-guzzling cars as often as they want, and as far as they want”.

The sheer scale of the energy subsidies it has been estimated “cost about $112 billion in 2012 — or 13 percent of everything those countries made by exporting oil in the first place. Counting subsidies on electricity and natural gas, governments across the Middle East and North Africa are shelling out more than $240 billion a year, the International Monetary Fund estimates“.

The real problem is political, “Many in the region consider fuel subsidies practically a birthright. Furthermore, countries that have rolled back subsidies have found it tough going; Iran’s halting efforts to partially liberalise energy prices have been anything but smooth. Morocco just ended its own fuel subsidies — but only under pressure from the IMF, while neighbouring Tunisia had to scrap plans to raise energy prices due to popular protests. Saudi’s economy minister publicly attacked energy subsidies’ role in ‘distorting’ the economy last spring — but little has been done since. The UAE’s efforts to rein in subsidies stalled after 2010, though the oil minister recently raised the need to cut energy subsidies, at least for expatriates. The task for Saudi Arabia is even harder, because it has acquired a host of financial obligations outside its borders. Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institution estimates that Riyadh’s external commitments, including support for tottering allies such as Egypt, Pakistan, Bahrain and Yemen, now totals about $30 billion a year”.

“The cost of supporting the counter-revolution in the Arab and Islamic worlds adds greatly to the challenges facing the House of Saud in the years ahead,” he wrote in a newBrookings study released Thursday.

He ends the piece, “U.S. policymakers have been trying to increase Washington’s cooperation with Middle Eastern countries on issues such as energy conservation, energy efficiency, nuclear power, and renewable energy. The UAE inked a civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the U.S. in 2009. The State Department’s roving energy ambassador, Carlos Pascual, spent last weekend in Abu Dhabi, talking up renewable energy. And Ernest Moniz, the U.S. energy secretary, just met with Saudi officials, including a tour of the King Abdullah atomic and renewable energy center, to chat up the prospects for greater U.S.-Saudi cooperation on clean energy and efficiency. All of that underlines one simple truth: No matter how much oil flows out of Texas and North Dakota, the U.S. won’t be disengaging from the Middle East anytime soon. The more things change, the more things stay the same”.

“Toward full democracy”

27/01/2014

President Moncef Marzouki and the head of the National Assembly signed Tunisia’s new constitution on Monday, enshrining one of its last steps toward full democracy after a 2011 uprising that inspired the Arab Spring. After years of autocratic rule under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s charter has been praised as one of the most progressive in the Arab world, designating Islam as the state religion but protecting freedom of belief and sexual equality. Parliament erupted in celebration after the official signing of the constitution following its approval by assembly deputies on Sunday evening, which ended months of deadlock that had threatened to undo Tunisia’s transition.

Quebec over Monterrey

27/01/2014

In an interesting article Rocco writes that Pope Francis has overlooked one of the most Catholic countrries in the world when it comes to giving out the red.

He opens, “Despite having over 30 million more faithful than the US church – and, lest anybody forgot, providing sufficient numerical cover for the enduring Anglo hemorrhage on this side of the border, to boot – Mexico won’t be represented at the impending Consistory, either. For the second-largest Catholic country of all, in this first-ever Latin American pontificate, that elision is an infinitely more glaring one than its Northern counterpart. For starters, no Mexican prelate has received the red hat since 2007, and with the occupant of one of the country’s traditional trio of cardinalatial posts (the 63 year-old archbishop of Monterrey, Rogelio Cabrera Lopez) yet to be elevated”.

He also predicts the red will go to the archbishop emeritus of San Francisco, “John Raphael, of course”,  84, who retired in 1995.

Yet again, church, recall the time-honored advice of our revered Sisters: these days, you’ve just gotta “leave some room for the Holy Spirit.”

Rocco writes that “On the Pope’s choice of the archbishop of Quebec City, Gerald Lacroix,several theories have been buzzed, ranging from the designate’s close ties to his predecessor – the Hatmaker-in-Chief Cardinal Marc Ouellet, whose auxiliary Lacroixfleetingly was – to the US ties born of his New Hampshire boyhood, to this year’s 350th anniversary of his cathedral, or the desire of sending a lift to a woefully secularised modern Quebec, where a proposed provincial charter of values has aroused heated protest from a wide array of church leaders over its perceived infringements on religious freedom”.

Crucially he adds “all of these miss the mark – at least, the seemingly key one which has suddenly made the 56 year-old lumberjack’s son the youngest North American to receive the red hat since one Roger Mahony was elevated in 1991. (Shortly before addressing the US’ religious superiors of men on the New Evangelization last August in Nashville, the cardinal-designate is shown above left with Francis following a springtime audience.) Ordained a priest at 31 after several years as a graphic designer, Lacroix spent a decade of his first 12 years in ministry as a missionary in Colombia, beginning there as pastor of a church on a mountaintop”,

Rocco goes on to mention that “Underpinning the sense behind the selection is Lacroix’s native grasp of two concepts which have repeatedly resonated in Francis’ word and witness both before and since his election: the“continental mission” that Cardinal Bergoglio articulated at Aparecida, an impetus now spreading to the global church… and, with it, the understanding – an admittedly rare one among senior North American clerics – of what the Pope’s expressed ‘want’ of ‘a church which is poor and for the poor’ means in its fullest light”.

He ends the piece. “But who needs any of that when you’ve got sex and politics? At least, that seemed to be the thrust of the local media’s interest when Lacroix met with them on Monday afternoon. Usually held on Selection Day itself, the delay on the presser came as – in a wild shift from at least a century of precedent – the cardinals-designate themselves received no advance notice of their elevations. While the Quebecker learned the news on checking to see why his iPhone was suddenly buzzing non-stop just after 6 last Sunday morning, among other examples of how the biglietti found out, Loris Capovilla (arguably the “star” of the coming Consistory) happened to be tuned into the Angelus while tooling away at his desk… Orlando Quevedo heard when a frenzied Chito Tagle tracked him down with congratulations”.

The archbishop of Perugia was told by a parishioner.

BSA alternatives

27/01/2014

The risk that President Obama may be forced to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year has set off concerns inside the American intelligence agencies that they could lose their air bases used for drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Pakistan and for responding to a nuclear crisis in the region. Until now, the debate here and in Kabul about the size and duration of an American-led allied force in Afghanistan after 2014 had focused on that country’s long-term security. But these new concerns also reflect how troop levels in Afghanistan directly affect long-term American security interests in neighbouring Pakistan, according to administration, military and intelligence officials. The concern has become serious enough that the Obama administration has organised a team of intelligence, military and policy specialists to devise alternatives to mitigate the damage if a final security deal cannot be struck with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who has declined to enact an agreement that American officials thought was completed last year”.

Inefficient inequality

27/01/2014

Following on from the anger felt by many Americans and the attempts of Democrats to change society for the better, a excellent piece by Daniel Altman argues that not only is extreme inequality immoral, but it is also inefficient.

He begins the article, “The debate about inequality inflames many passions because of its moral and philosophical trappings. But inequality is also an economic phenomenon with enormous consequences that we are just beginning to understand. In fact, inequality’s impairment of economic growth may dwarf its more apparent social costs. To understand why, consider what happens when economic opportunities are in short supply. When any market has a shortage, not everyone gets the things they want. But who does get them also matters, because it’s not always the people who value those things the most. Economists Edward Glaeser and Erzo Luttmer made this point in a 2003 paperabout rent control. ‘The standard analysis of price controls assumes that goods are efficiently allocated, even when there are shortages,’ they wrote. ‘But if shortages mean that goods are randomly allocated across the consumers that want them, the welfare costs from misallocation may be greater than the undersupply costs.’ In other words, letting the wrong people buy the scarce goods can be even worse for society than the scarcity itself”.

He continues, “This problem, which economists call inefficient allocation, is present in the market for opportunities as well. It’s best for the economy when the person best able to exploit an opportunity is the one who gets it. By giving opportunities to these people, we make the economic pie as big as possible. But sometimes, the allocation of opportunity is not determined solely by effort or ability. To a great degree, access to opportunity in the United States depends on wealth. Discrimination based on race, religion, gender, and sexual discrimination may be on the wane in many countries, but discrimination based on wealth is still a powerful force. It opens doors, especially for people who may not boast the strongest talents or work ethic”.

He goes on to argue in a similar vein that wealth breeds wealth, “For instance, consider elected office. It’s a tremendous opportunity, both for the implementation of a person’s ideas and, sad to say, for financial enrichment as well. Yet running for office takes money — lots of it — and there are no restrictions on how much a candidate may spend. As a result, the people who win have tended to be very wealthy. Of course, political life isn’t the only economic opportunity with a limited number of spots. In the United States, places at top universities are so scant that many accept fewer than 10 percent of applicants. Even with need-blind admissions, kids from wealthy backgrounds have huge advantages; they apply having received better schooling, tutoring if they needed it, enrichment through travel, and good nutrition and healthcare throughout their youth”.

He adds correctly, “The fact that money affects access to these opportunities, even in part, implies some seats in Congress and Ivy League lecture halls would have been used more productively by poorer people of greater gifts. These two cases are particularly important, because they imply that fighting poverty alone is not enough to correct inefficient allocations. With a limited number of places at stake, what matters is relative wealth, or who can outspend whom. And when inequality rises, this gap grows. And rise it has. According to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, the share of American wealth held by the top 10 percent of families (ranked by net worth) climbed from 67 percent in 1992 to 75 percent in 2010″.

He ends the piece, “if you think that a smart and hardworking child could be born into a poor household, then inefficient allocation is a serious problem. Solving it would enhance economic growth and boost the value of American assets. There are two options. The first is to remove wealth from every process that doles out economic opportunities: take money out of politics, give all children equal schooling and college prep, base country club admissions on anonymous interviews, etc. This will be difficult, especially since our society is moving rapidly in the other direction. Election campaigns are flooded with more money than ever, and the net price of a college education — after loans and grants — has jumped even as increases in list prices have finally slowed. Poor kids who do make it to college will have to spend more time scrubbing toilets and dinner trays and less time studying. The other option is to reduce inequality of wealth. Giving poor children a leg up through early childhood education or other interventions might help, but it would also take decades. So would deepening the progressivity of the income tax, which only affects flows of new wealth and not existing stocks. In the meantime, a huge amount of economic activity might be lost to inefficient allocation. The easiest way to redistribute wealth continues to be the estate tax, yet it is politically unpopular and applies to only about 10,000 households a year. All of this might change, however, as more research estimates the harm caused by inequality through the inefficient allocation of opportunities”.

He ends the article, “These costs are not unique to the United States. Even as globalisation has reduced inequality between countries, it has often increased inequality within them; the rich are better able to capitalize on its opportunities. Where nepotismand privilegeare prevalent, the costs are amplified. The Occupy protestors were on to something, but the economic damage caused by unmitigated inequality of wealth is at least as salient as their moral objections. This is an urgent challenge to the prosperity of the United States and the global economy. Ignoring inequality makes us all poorer”.

A regime ploy

27/01/2014

Ukrainian opposition leaders held fresh talks with President Viktor Yanukovich on Saturday after overnight clashes between radical protesters and police, and an attempt by other activists to occupy the main energy ministry building. Major rallies were expected to take place in the center of Kiev later this weekend despite promises by Yanukovich to reshuffle the government and promote changes to sweeping anti-protest legislation. A statement on the presidential website said the three opposition leaders – boxer Vitaly Klitschko, former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and nationalist Oleh Tyahnibok – were in talks with Yanukovich on settling the two months of anti-government unrest. But tension stayed high with Ukraine’s interior minister saying that all those who stayed on Kiev’s Independence Square – the crucible of the protest where hundreds camp overnight – and occupied public buildings would be considered by police to be ‘extremist groups'”.

Hobbling the executive

25/01/2014

A blog post from the Economist‘s Democarcy in America blog disucsses the power of the president to appoint officials.

It opens noting the “advice and consent” clause, it adds that “The constitution offers a small loophole, however: the president may ‘fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.’ Through this loophole successive commanders-in-chief—and especially Barack Obama—have driven an 18-wheel truck. On January 13th the Supreme Court heard arguments about the scope of the president’s power to make recess appointments. National Labour Relations Board v Noel Canning asks whether Mr Obama’s three appointments on January 4th 2012 to the NLRB, the five-member federal agency that resolves disputes between companies and workers, were constitutional. Mr Obama says that the Senate was in recess that day, so the appointments were legitimate. But under the Senate’s own rules, it was in session”.

It adds background, “Noel Canning, a soft-drink bottler in Washington state, claims it was harmed by Mr Obama’s appointments. It lost a pay dispute with the Teamsters union when a three-member panel including two of Mr Obama’s recess appointees ruled against it. The bottler appealed, claiming that the NLRB was improperly constituted. The court of appeals for the District of Columbia agreed. It issued a sweeping ruling that invalidated Mr Obama’s appointments and even called into question thousands of recess appointments that dozens of presidents have issued over the centuries. Only official recesses between legislative sessions trigger the president’s power, the appeals court ruled. Holiday adjournments occurring in the middle of a session do not. And if a vacancy arises before the Senate leaves for a recess, it may not be filled unilaterally by the president. The White House appealed to the Supreme Court. The solicitor-general, Donald Verrilli, argued that the Senate was effectively in recess on the day in question because it was conducting only “pro-forma” sessions”.

This was the same trick used by the GOP previously. The most obvious example is Richard Cordray who is the head of the Cosumer Protection office but would not be confirmed by the GOP who opposed the very existance of the organisation in the first place.

The piece goes on to note, “Since Republican senators had pledged to block his preferred candidates, Mr Obama laughed off these pseudo-sessions and installed his nominees—something George W Bush did not dare to do when Democrats used similar tactics on him in 2007. Judging by the debate on Monday, even the liberal justices think Mr Obama over-reached. The constitution does not give a president the power to impose his will on stubborn senators, no matter how badly they are behaving, argued Elena Kagan, an Obama appointee”.

The piece concludes, “The president’s power to appoint people when the Senate is in recess was created in the days when travel was difficult and the Senate would often be absent for months. Ms Kagan noted that “this is not the horse and buggy era any more” and challenged Mr Verrilli to explain why the clause is not “an historic relic” in an age where members of Congress can jet to the Capitol and reconvene within a day”.

It ends, “A decision is expected in June. Noel Canning will probably win, though it seems less likely that the justices will endorse the appeals court’s broad indictment of presidential recess appointments that take place during breaks from formal sessions of Congress (as opposed to recesses between them) and of appointments to vacancies that “happen” before a recess. How much does all this matter? The power of an intransigent minority of senators to block the president’s picks was severely curtailed in November last year, when Senate Democrats scrapped the filibuster for most appointments. However, even a narrow ruling for Noel Canning could hobble presidents when a rival party controls the Senate. If the Republicans retake the chamber in November, they could prevent Mr Obama from making recess appointments by holding pro-forma sessions whenever they leave town”.

Of course, none of these technical legalities would be necessary if the president had the power to hire and fire whoever he wanted, whenever he wanted. This would mean that there would not be such a long delay in bodies that are important but not State, Defence or Treasury. The importance of a consumer protection office is vital to a healthy economy and a healthy citizenry so why should the president have to wait for the Senate to hold hearings and hear testimony when the result will be the same anyway, at least in most cases. The hyper-partisanship, on both sides but worse in the GOP means that the governance of the US is becoming slower and slower in a world that is getting faster and faster.

Temporary reprieve?

25/01/2014

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that an order of nuns in Colorado is not required  to fully comply with ObamaCare’s contraception mandate, in a partial and  temporary victory for critics of the contentious provision. In an order  handed down late Friday, the justices concluded that the nuns — and roughly 200  religious nonprofits — do not need to file government forms to exempt themselves  from the law’s mandate that workers receive free contraception as part of  employee health insurance plans. Still, the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged and other nonprofits “that hold themselves out as religious” and object to the provision must inform  the Department of Health and Human Services of that status to avoid paying  penalties under the law. The order is meant to stand until a lower court  rules on a pending appeal in the legal fight between the Little Sisters and the  Health Department, the court said, making clear that it was not weighing in on  the overall merits of the dispute. The Little Sisters case is among dozens of  challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate on birth control, which proponents say is vital to protect  women’s reproductive health”.

Drones = aircraft?

25/01/2014

A piece in Foreign Policy discusses the rules around the use of drones. It opens, “The United States has never had a monopoly on drones. It was the Israeli Air Force’s use of drones during its war in Lebanon in the 1980s that first prompted a skeptical U.S. military to support fully the development of remote-controlled systems. The decision to arm them came later, during the hunt for Osama bin Laden after 2001 and the war on terrorism. By now, U.S. drone strikes are a regular occurrence in areas where terrorist organisations have taken root. Drone technology and drone use have also proliferated in other countries. And even more are seeking to develop their own systems. These systems are likely to be more local affairs than those of the United States. Most of the emerging drone states — including China — lack the United States’ worldwide network of military bases and satellites, which allow it to operate drones far from its own borders. And, like the United States, emerging drones states are eager to develop armed drones for counterterrorism operations and surveillance. With more drones in more places come more security and policy challenges for the United States. To deal with them, it will have to come up with a new drone policy”.

The piece goes on to say that “tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands are a good example of how drones introduce new diplomatic questions. Chinese manned and unmanned surveillance flights routinely violate Japan’s 12-nautical-mile zone around the islands. Japan has dispatched fighter jets to intercept a Chinese manned surveillance plane and is reported to have even contemplated shooting down Chinese drones. In response, Wang Hongguang, the former deputy commander of China’s Nanjing Military Region, wrote in early November that China should attack Japanese manned planes should Japan shoot down Chinese surveillance drones. Things have become even tenser since China declared a so-called Air Defense Identification Zone over part of the East China Sea”. Yet this argument overlooks the fact that it was Chinese actions, more than the tools they used, that increased tensions.

The piece goes on to mention that “The rules of engagement are relatively clear for the intentional downing of a manned aircraft, but the potential response to the shooting down of an unmanned system — as Japan seems ready to do — is far murkier. On the one hand, such an act could escalate and lead to a conflict. On the other, since downing a drone would pose no danger to human life, China or Japan could conclude that the provocative use of drones — or the intentional targeting of U.S. drones — carries less risk of retaliation and is therefore a low-stakes means of coercion” while later in adds that “the United States should signal that it would hold the operator responsible for the actions of unmanned systems. Any retaliation need not target the actual operator, given the complexity of locating the pilot, but could include the air base from which the drone was launched. The goal would be to reintroduce the prospect of casualties and escalation into the drone equation by clearly laying out the potential American response if an adversary considers using unmanned systems in a coercive way against the United States or its allies and partners. In short, U.S. policy should be to treat drones like their manned cousins. Similarly, in the cases where a potential adversary targets a U.S. drone, Washington should make clear that it regards such an act as akin to the downing of a manned aircraft. The response, therefore, could include the use of force or strong diplomatic action”.

He ends the piece, “Holding drone bases responsible could help minimise the ways in which emerging drone states use drones coercively against U.S. interests, as well as push them to reach similar overflight arrangements to those that the United States keeps with its partners. The new policy would not address the legality of targeted killings, but such legal questions can be dealt with separately. The United States should begin to prepare for a world in which it no longer has a monopoly on drone technology. Still, it should do so knowing that, for now, it will retain the unique capability to use military force on a global scale. For the foreseeable future, potential adversaries will mostly use unmanned systems locally and in ways that affect the security of U.S. allies. As the United States increases its own use of drones, it should be taking steps to map out a strategy to respond to provocations. Doing so would help establish new norms for everyone”.

Speaker Cantor

25/01/2014

Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has cleared the way for Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to succeed John Boehner as the next Speaker. Ryan this week said he’s not interested in becoming Speaker, preferring to head the influential Ways and Means Committee in 2015. Boehner has repeatedly said he’s not retiring at the end of this Congress, but that hasn’t tamped down speculation that the Ohio Republican is considering retirement. The Hill recently surveyed dozens of Republicans in the House and the consensus was that the only lawmaker who could defeat Cantor is Ryan. The wonky Budget Committee chairman, however, said Thursday that he does not want to be Speaker. Ryan is expected to lead the Ways and Means next year, with few expecting the 2012 vice presidential nominee to launch a White House bid. Cantor has a better shot at the top House spot for a number of reasons, according to political science professor Jack Pitney.

Rouhani’s reforms?

25/01/2014

A piece in Foreign Affairs discusses the potential deal with Iran. It argues like a recent article that the regime must try to reform itself.

He opens, “Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered a speech last month at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University, the audience was a microcosm of his country’s bitter politics. Gathered at the back of the hall and amassed outside on the campus grounds were groups of young women and men who supported Rouhani’s election campaign promises: engagement with Western powers, economic rejuvenation, and greater social and political rights. At the front of the hall, scowling, sat university administrators and conservative student groups. Those seated farther from Rouhani chanted, ‘Release the political prisoners,’ while those closer to him shouted, ‘Death to America.’ It was a tough crowd, to say the least. But Rouhani managed to win it over. ‘A centrifuge should revolve,’ he declared at one point, ‘but people’s lives and the economy should revolve as well.’ Everyone cheered that line. If Rouhani has any hopes of following through on his campaign promises to reform the Islamic Republic, he must continue to pursue this strategy. Some observers have been quick to compare Rouhani to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who initiated a series of political reforms in his country during the 1980s. That reputation understandably excites Iranian liberals. But it also worries Iranian conservatives, who are keenly aware that Gorbachev presided over the downfall of the Soviet system. In that sense, any sudden moves by Rouhani to liberalise Iran, whether in terms of its domestic politics, economy, or foreign policy, are likely to cause a backlash from conservatives that could cost Rouhani and his centrist allies their foothold in the country’s establishment”.

Interestingly he writes that Dr Rouhani might reform “Iran’s political institutions, which may even win him the active support of conservatives. At present, Iran’s elites are loosely organized into overlapping and usually short-lived political associations that lack ideological consistency and have no real following among the public. Conservatives have tended to support this political framework, as it makes it difficult both for the public to hold the ruling establishment accountable and for political insurgents to break into it. But given the difficulties conservatives had in organising and rallying their base ahead of last year’s presidential election, they might now be willing to allow more formalised political parties, if only so they can benefit from a more disciplined campaign apparatus”.

This could have a number of effects. It would certainly bring greater clarity to Iranian politics and as a result of this, if the system works well, it could give the people (if their voice is listened to) a chance to shape the tone of Iran and set its general direction. It would also have the effect of making people more accountable for the policies they implement. He writes that “In the short term, such a move could benefit conservatives, as they have been more organized than their rivals in the past. But in the long term, it would be a major victory for Iranian liberals and moderates. As Iranian political parties gain legitimacy over time, the power of the Guardian Council, the unelected body that presently monitors national elections and has a history of rejecting reformist candidates, would begin to erode”.

He then makes the valid point that “Rouhani could make incremental progress on economic reform. At present, the most common form of ownership in the country is through state-linked holding companies and institutional investors. Some are affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office, while most are attached to government pension funds, banks, and an opaque layer of subcontracting firms. But any attempts to expropriate companies and contracts directly from conservatives would solicit a harsh backlash. Rouhani should instead take a page from the policies pursued by reformists during the late 1990s. After conservatives blocked an effort by then Iranian President Muhammad Khatami to privatise an unwieldy set of public conglomerates, Khatami granted licenses to new businesses in sectors ranging from consumer goods and transportation to telecommunications and banking. State-linked companies still had protected market power, but they suddenly found themselves in competition with new entrepreneurs”.

He ends the piece “Rouhani could attempt to reform his country’s foreign policy by co-opting the conservative establishment and capitalizing on its internal divisions over Iran’s role in the Middle East. Rouhani cannot achieve the foreign policy realignment he desires by just repeating the calls by his reformist predecessor Khatami for a global dialogue among civilizations. This sort of intellectual rhetoric earned the ire of conservatives, who in turn marginalized Khatami in foreign policy decision-making. But, as Farideh Farhi and Saideh Lotfian have pointed out, Iran’s political elite is divided against itself when it comes to the country’s grand strategy. One segment believes that offense is the best defense. In their view, Iran’s mission should be an ideological adversary of the West and project power wherever the United States creates a geopolitical vacuum”.

“A series of changes”

25/01/2014

A series of changes aimed at tightening the GOP presidential  primary calendar sailed through a vote at the Republican National Committee’s  winter meeting, giving the party new tools to control its nomination  process. The new 2016 rules will make it much harder for states to cut in  line in the nomination process and will help Republicans avoid a repeat of a  drawn out, bloody primary many believe damaged Mitt Romney’s chances in 2012 of  defeating President Obama”.

Just another politician?

25/01/2014

Following the speech given by President Obama on the proposed reforms to the National Security Agency ,David Rothkopf argues that

He opens, “Few of the speeches President Barack Obama has delivered during his tenure in office illustrate his transformation from messiah to mediocrity, a middle of the pack president likely to fit in somewhere between Rutherford B. Hayes and Martin Van Buren, quite as well as his tepid, inadequate, and something-for-everyone but much-less-than-meets-the-eye speech on NSA reforms on Friday. At just the moment when the country needed the constitutional scholar who was bold enough to speak truth to power — the man who many of us thought we were electing in 2008 and then again in 2012 — we instead got the wobbly, vague, ‘trust me’ of a run-of-the-mill pol. The great flaw within the president’s remarks was not its inadequate details nor the issues it left unaddressed or punted off into an indefinite future. Nor was it the fact that he left the specifics of the implementation of many of the ‘reforms’ to the judgment of many of the same folks who created the problem he was addressing. Rather the president, once again, sent the message that at least until he leaves office, he would like us to embrace the idea that personality is more important than principle in U.S. policymaking”.

He writes that “he sought to reassure his supporters and critics (who are understandably worried about government overreach and the violation of civil liberties and wary of policies driven more by fear-mongering than prudent perspective), by more or less saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’m a good guy, I’ll make sure that all the big decisions that get made will be OK.’ Quite apart from the fact that wave upon wave of Snowden-fed revelation belies that argument, it ignores a central truth that the constitutional scholar should recognise”.

Our country was founded on clear limits being placed on the power of government because for all the generations of good and earnest leaders we may have or have had, our planet’s history and human nature tell us we must protect against those who might someday abuse their power. Among the president’s “reforms” announced in his speech was a plan to shift the storage of collected data to a third-party host and to require that government agencies receive court approval before accessing this database”.

The problem with this argument however is that it ignores all that has happened over the last decade. The threat to security should not be underestimated and to paint such a picture as Rothkopf does minimises the risks involved to the state but also to the innocent civilians.

He goes on to write, “In his speech the president raised the hopes of those seeking more protection for individual rights by proposing the creation of a privacy panel to consult with the court. But that provision was compromised by the qualification that in his proposal the panel will only address “novel” issues, meaning that once the court has agreed that certain types of searches are legal, then all future cases that can be analogised to be the same (and thus not novel) will be fair game”.

He makes the point, in very contentious language, that “On international snooping, there appear to be only a couple of dozen clear winners — a handful of heads of state of allied and friendly governments who from now will no longer be subjected to surveillance. The cabinet colleagues of these leaders? Still fair game. Staff? OK to eavesdrop on them. Families? Why not? Legislators? Military leaders? Police forces? Of course. As far as the rights of international citizens go, the president said we will set new guidelines. Does that mean less poking around in text messages or email accounts of tens of millions of foreigners? Not necessarily. The only assurance is that the United States will only store this information for a shorter period of time. Though how much time that will be remains unclear”.

Rothkpof shows his naiviety here. The notion that other countries are not doing almost exactly the same thing as the United States is laughable. The president of Brazil admitted as much.  Perhaps the perimaters could be reduced but the extent and value, either intelligence or moral, of these reduced perimaters is unclear to say the least.

He goes on to write, “The weakness of the president’s arguments shone through most strongly when he sought to pour oil upon the waters with the assertion that we, the United States, are not Russia or China. Talk about setting a low bar for a country that views itself as being a light unto the nations of the world. We aren’t, the president said soothingly, as bad as two authoritarian societies founded on the ideas that individual rights and liberties take a back seat to the needs (and whims) of the state and its bosses. I do not doubt that the president is troubled by many of the fundamental questions raised by the current surveillance debate”.

Aside from the obvious tone he uses, which is neither valid nor helpful, President Obama has a point. America, by and large does not act like China and Russia, except for valid security reasons. America therefore does have the moral high ground but at the same time it must live in the real world, a world that is dangerous and filled with enemies that intend to do it harm.

He concludes, “He, as president, is also acutely and uniquely aware of the risks facing the United States and surely, does not wish to implement changes that might somehow enhance those risks or might open him to criticism should some attack come to pass. Those are all reasons that balanced, thoughtful deliberation is wise in such circumstances. But the difference between a strong leader and just an average one is that after such deliberations, the strong leaders hew to principle and the long-term interests of their people and make bold and decisive choices when necessary, even if those choices open them up to political attack. In this instance, a president who was elected to undo the errors of his predecessor in overreacting to the attacks of 9/11 by launching three massive wars — one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, and one against terrorists worldwide — has not only bungled the execution of each such desired reversal, he has produced a world in which our enemies and the chaos that serves them are now regaining strength. And where he should have sought to undo the mentality that led to the creation of those misguided and mishandled wars — the fear-driven overstatement of the risks we face — he not only failed, he has succumbed. He oversaw and accepted the expansion of the NSA’s programs based on the logic that because a single bad actor could duplicate the devastation of 9/11, everyone everywhere effectively became a potential threat”.

He ends the piece, “He should have said that Americans and others worldwide had a right to privacy, one that must to be protected, even if it means slightly increasing the risk of the possibility of an occasional attack. (And there is debate about how effective many of the NSA’s programs are.) He should have said that our focus ought to be not on what we fear but on what we value, on preserving the freedoms our forefathers fought to protect rather than compromising them in the hopes of protecting us against that which we cannot expect to ever eradicate. The way to fight terrorists is to focus on resilience and systematic, targeted efforts to go after known bad actors. Not with misguided invasions of sovereign powers nor with misguided violations of sovereign or individual rights worldwide. That is not to say we won’t spy or shouldn’t. We must and will. Rather it is to recognize that the limits we place on programs like the surveillance efforts of the NSA are as important to protecting us from future threats as are the programs themselves”.

Attacks in Cairo

25/01/2014

A wave of bomb attacks hit Cairo on Friday, killing six people and raising fears that an Islamist insurgency is gaining pace on the eve of the third anniversary of the uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The violence underscored the struggle of authorities to tame an Islamist insurgency which has been gaining pace since the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July. In the most high-profile attack, a suicide car bomber struck a top security compound in central Cairo early in the morning and killed at least four people, security sources said. Another blast in the Dokki district killed one person. An explosion near a cinema on the road to the Pyramids of Giza on the outskirts of Cairo also killed led to one fatality.

Singh’s legacy

23/01/2014

A piece from 13 January notes the state of the Indian economy as elections approach and perhaps unfairly almost singlehandedly blames Manmohan Singh.

It starts, “As news flashes go, Manmohan Singh’s Jan. 3announcement that he intends to “hand over the baton to a new prime minister” was hardly earth shattering. Given his unpopularity after nearly a decade in office — Singh’s favorability rating hovers at about 5 percent — the 81-year-old already looked as likely to snag a third term as to win India a medal for skiing at the Sochi Olympics. Nonetheless, his formal announcement — at only his third press conference since he took office in 2004 — sets the stage for an epic election showdown, most likely in April and May. Later this month, the ruling Congress Party is likely to name 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, the fifth generation Nehru-Gandhi dynasty scion, as its candidate to replace Singh as prime minister. Gandhi’s main rival, 63-year-old Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, has been crisscrossing the nation since the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) anointedhim their candidate in September”.

The writer warns that though Singh will leave “his lackluster record will frame the upcoming election”. He continues, “Unfortunately for Singh, many people view his legacy in less charitable terms. The Oxford-educated economist inherited a nation filled with hope and leaves it filled with doubt and despair. He entered the prime minister’s office as a widely-respected former finance minister, known for probity and quiet dignity, and will exit it as a byword for weakness and ineffectual governance. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates India’s economy grew at 3.8 percent in 2013, about a third of its all-time high of 10.6 percent in 2010. Despite his best efforts, Singh failed to produce a breakthrough in relations with neighboring Pakistan or consolidate ties with the United States. And the staggering scale of corruption under Singh will likely linger in memory longer than his reputation for personal honesty. The scandals that stained Singh’s once spotless reputation underscore the futility of expecting a prime minister’s personal integrity to curb graft. In the 2G scam, the government lost the country as much as $40 billion by selling mobile licenses at throwaway prices to favored companies. Reports of padded contracts — $80 toilet rolls and $19,500 treadmills, and a budget bloated many times over the original estimate — taintedthe 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi”.

Interestingly he writes that “For the United States, the end of the Singh era also offers an opportunity for reflection. Before India’s economy turned south sharply in 2012, conventional wisdom in Washington was to take for granted India’s rise as a peaceful, democratic, counterbalance to China. During his November 2010 visit, President Barack Obama declared, ‘India is not just a rising power, it has already risen.’ Now it appears that those words may have been spoken prematurely, especially in relation to the economy. Indeed, an assessment of India’s first economist prime minister must focus on the economy. As the finance minister who implemented important reforms in 1991, Singh abolished industrial licensing, slashed import duties and ended government monopolies in much of the economy. As prime minister, however, instead of deepening reform Singh presided over a government that lurched to the left by plumping for redistribution over growth”.

The writer mentions that Singh encourged nationalisation by dissolving the Ministry of Disinvestment. He adds, “Singh also showed that he could pander to voters just as nakedly as any old-fashioned populist. In 2008, a $15 billion loan waiver forgiving the debts of small farmers placed the Congress Party’s reelection above fiscal responsibility and fostering a responsible culture of credit. Along with lending by state-owned banks to politically well-connected firms, the waiver weakened the banking system. In 2013, Morgan Stanley estimated problem loans accounted for 9 percent of India’s total compared to less than 5 percent five years ago”.

He continues noting that apart from “a burst of trade liberalisation, India achieved precious little from Singh’s first term (2004-2009). Nonetheless, growth received a boost from a strong global economy awash with surplus cash, and the effect of a flurry of reforms in taxation, telecom, infrastructure, and aviation that Singh’s predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee had initiated. Meanwhile, governmentspending helped India emerge from the global financial crisis relatively unscathed on the surface. But the stage for the country’s dramatic slowdown had already been set. Only after Singh’s comfortable reelection in 2009 did investors begin to lose confidence in India. They expected the prime minister, no longer dependent on support from Communist parties as in his first term, to unleash long-delayed reform in banking, insurance, and retail. Instead, India began to backslide. The Environment Ministry quickly turned into an immovable roadblock for large steel, aluminum, and real estate projects”.

He ends the piece, “Unsurprisingly, GDP growth plummeted. In the first six years of Singh’s tenure, it averaged a robust 8.6 percent; in the final four, 4.6 percent, according to IMF estimates. That’s below par for a country at India’s stage of development, and not nearly fast enough to create the 15 million new jobs the country needs annually to employ a youthful population. And yet India remains one of the world’s toughest large markets in which to do business. It slipped three places to number 134 on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings in 2014, behind such icons of market friendliness as Ukraine, Paraguay, and Ethiopia. As for corruption, which Singh claims his government has worked hard to combat, Transparency International ranks India 94 out of 177 countries worldwide, marginally worse than the 88th place it held in 2005. Nor has India’s economic slowdown forced a serious rethink. In 2013, Singh’s government passed a law promising subsidised food grains to 800 million people, and a land acquisition law that businessmen say will halt industrialization by making it exceedingly difficult to buy land for factories. Businesses have got the message: In the first seven months of the fiscal year ending March 31, 2014, foreign direct investment declined 13 percent to $18.9 billion compared to the same period the previous year. Morgan Stanley economist Ruchir Sharma blames Singh for India’s swift metamorphosis “from breakout to breakdown nation.” Singh epitomized the complacency and hubris of India, Sharma said, which mistook a buoyant global economy for evidence that it could continue to grow rapidly while focusing on redistribution rather than reform”.

The article ends, “Either way, it’s not much of a legacy. Whoever is sworn in as prime minister later this year will struggle to return India to the path of high growth and rising global stature that so many Indians had begun to take for granted. And they will remain aware that the man who once kindled hope that India would be the next Asian tiger left behind the plodding elephant of old”.

A different message

23/01/2014

Egypt’s interim President, Adly Mansour, visited the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, at his cathedral in Alexandria during Coptic Christmas Eve on 6 January. Egyptian presidents normally send greetings, so the personal visit was both unusual and symbolic. “This was something entirely new and we very much hope that the move by the President sets a precedent,” commented Fr Rafik Greiche, spokesman for Egypt’s Coptic Catholic bishops. He said the non-violent Christmas boded well ahead of this week’s referendum on a revised constitution which replaces the one ratified barely a year ago under Islamist President Mohammed Morsi months before he was ousted by the army”. This is in stark contrast to Morsi.

Time for Robin Hood

23/01/2014

An article in the Economist argues that Americans are increasing upset about rising inequality but the piece predicts that this may not assist Democrats politically as much as would be thought.

It beigns, “excited Democrats think a once-in-a-generation political shift is under way, driven by anger at growing inequality and social immobility. There is talk of the electoral rewards that await, if their party has the nerve to use the state’s powers to right economic wrongs. January 8th marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘war on poverty’, involving public health, education and welfare programmes. Conservatives say that war was lost, citing the huge rise in welfare dependency and the sharp fall (from 95% to barely 83%) in the proportion of peak-working-age men who work. Democrats retort that without the safety net, poverty would be even worse. Many want to take the fight beyond the poor of Johnson’s oratory, in their ‘sharecropper shacks’, and start helping the middle class as well. Months ahead of tough mid-term elections, Democrats yearn to use inequality as a wedge issue, capturing the ‘energy’ they sense on the left while painting Republicans as heartless”.

The piece relates the recent rows in Congress over the unemployed benefits, “The year began with rows over extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, after Congress let them lapse for 1.3m Americans. The Democrat-controlled Senate agreed on January 7th to consider restarting payments. Appearing in the White House with Americans whose benefits are in peril, Mr Obama scolded conservatives for suggesting that welfare hurts the jobless by reducing incentives to work. He said he could not recall ever meeting an American “who would rather have an unemployment cheque than the pride of having a job”. But the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is reluctant to extend benefits without offsetting spending cuts or policy concessions. Many in Mr Obama’s party want him to build his state-of-the-union message, on January 28th, around such policies as a rise in the federal minimum wage. They point to polls showing two-thirds of Americans backing higher wage floors, as well as to local victories on the issue, including a November referendum in SeaTac, a small Seattle suburb with a large airport in it. The same voices cheered when New York’s new Democratic mayor, Bill de Blasio, took office vowing to raise taxes on those earning more than $500,000 a year, to expand education for the youngest New Yorkers. They claimed Pope Francis as an ally after he questioned whether free markets really allow wealth to ‘trickle down'”.

The article warns however, “Democrats should be cautious. Policies can be popular but not win elections. As a centre-left party in a conservative country, Democrats win nationwide only by turning out as many of their own as possible, while also persuading millions of swing voters into their camp. A new study of election data from 1972 to 2008 by two political scientists, Jan Leighley of American University and Jonathan Nagler of New York University, unearthed two striking findings about Americans and redistribution. First, those who turn out to vote are consistently more hostile to redistribution than those who do not—largely because voters earn more and are better educated, on average, than non-voters. Second, the same low-income Americans who favour government safety-nets and interventions often fail to vote because they see no real differences between the parties. The study is mixed news for Democrats. It suggests that populist appeals for more redistribution may boost turnout among the poor, by highlighting party differences. But it also found that views of government intervention are strongly held”.

This is where the common good takes over. Democrats must legislate for not only better education in the long term but more support for those who are out of work. The country will be better off in the long run and more humane policies will be enacted, not just for those who benefit from the rise and fall of stock markets. It is the duty of the government to protect those who need help, to do anything else would be a gross neglicance of their role.

The piece ends, “All in all, the evidence is not iron-clad that unhappy Americans are turning left. New York and Seattle are deeply Democratic, for one thing, and hardly representative. Nor are all forms of redistribution equal. For most voters, plans to raise the minimum wage or to tax millionaires involve taking money from far-off rich people or companies. Put another way, they are Robin Hood policies. Other forms of intervention are much less popular, starting with Obamacare. That health law—broadly—transfers money and benefits from the young and healthy to the old and sick, and from the better-off to the poor. Democrats predict that Americans will soon embrace the law, concluding that it creates more winners than losers“.

“Not informed before”

23/01/2014

Archbishop Gualtiero Bassetti said a parishioner told him he’d been named a cardinal by Pope Francis, and “my jaw dropped” when he found out it was true. The 71-year-old archbishop of Perugia-Citta della Pieve and president of the bishops’ conference of Umbria in central Italy said he was not informed before Pope Francis told the world on Sunday that he would induct Cardinal-designate Bassetti and 18 others into the College of Cardinals on February 22. The cardinal-designate told the same story to several Italian newspapers: “I was in a church in Perugia to administer the sacrament of confirmation to 80 young people; after Mass, one of the women in the parish, rushing and out of breath, told me the Pope had just named me a cardinal. “Like the apostles who didn’t believe it when the women brought them news of the Resurrection, I didn’t believe it until I verified it with my own eyes by looking on the Vatican website,” he said. “I almost fainted.” Cardinal-designate Bassetti will be the first cardinal from Perugia named in 160 years, Italian newspapers reported. The last Perugia bishop to wear the red hat, Cardinal Gioacchino Pecci, became Pope Leo XIII in 1878″.

Benefits of a deal

23/01/2014

Dr Stephen Walt has written an interesting article about the benefits of a deal between Iran and America. Walt writes “The debate on Iran continues apace, with the White House complaining about pro-war members of Congress and hawks accusing the administration of talking while Iran quietly builds. A striking feature of recent exchanges on this issue is the tendency for both sides to focus almost entirely on various negative outcomes and to devote little attention to the potential upside of a deal. The result is a skewed discussion: If we lose sight of all the benefits from a comprehensive deal — including the possibility of a fundamentally different relationship with Iran — we’ll undervalue the payoff diplomacy might yield and be less likely to stay the course when the bargaining gets tough. Those who favour diplomacy warn that failure to reach a comprehensive agreement will leave Iran’s nuclear program unconstrained, undermine the existing sanctions regime, strengthen the hands of Iranian hardliners, and perhaps leave the United States with no choice but to use military force”.

Walt makes the valid point, “When trying to make their case, in short, both sides tend to focus solely on the downside. But what about the potential benefits of a successful negotiation? To judge the pros and cons of diplomacy properly, we have to consider not just the downside of failure, but also the potential upside of success. And I don’t mean just the possibility of limiting Iran’s nuclear program (a desirable goal in itself), but also the more important possibility of putting U.S.-Iranian relations on a fundamentally different path”.

He then goes on to list the benefits, “First and most obviously, the United States will make money. We tend to focus on the costs that economic sanctions have imposed on Iran, conveniently forgetting that sanctions also impose costs on us. Americans pay more for oil and gas because Iranian oil isn’t flowing to world markets, and U.S. firms are barred from making lucrative investments in Iran’s economy. Remember that the U.S. oil firm Conoco won a big oil development deal back in 1995 — in part because Iran was trying to signal its interest in better relations — but President Bill Clinton succumbed to pressure from AIPAC and canceled the deal”.

This point is somewhat overstated. While some American companies might do business with Iran, America is not the only country in the world with things the Iranians need. Walt adds that “ending the U.S.-Iranian deep freeze would make it easier for Washington and Tehran to cooperate on issues where our interests are, in fact, aligned. Such issues include stabilising Afghanistan and preventing a new Taliban takeover, dealing with narcotics trafficking in Central Asia, and yes, even trying to find some sort of solution to the continuing carnage in Syria”.
He adds somewhat naively that “a better relationship with Iran might also be the best way to deal with issues where U.S. and Iranian interests are not in synch, such as Tehran’s support for groups such as Hezbollah and its position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For starters, as Trita Parsi has shown, Iran’s support for Islamic Jihad and other extremist groups was at least partly motivated by its desire to remind the United States that it could not be excluded or marginalised in Middle East affairs”. While this specific example might be true, Iran knows that things for Assad do not look good in the long term and any leverage they can use in Syria and the region will be used. To expect them to “give up” their support for groups like Hezbollah just because of a possible nuclear deal is simplistic and ultimately dangerously naive.

The next point is perhaps his most controversial, “a better relationship with Iran could help advance the cause of democracy in the Middle East. Iran’s political system still has powerful authoritarian elements, but Rouhani’s election — and yes, it was a real election — showed it is responsive to public opinion and capable of change. For all of its flaws, it’s a lot closer to U.S. ideals than the Arab regimes that we have backed with enthusiasm for decades”.

Again he ignores the almost complete lack of human rights, free speech, freedom to worship as well as a host of others. The 2009 election was clearly rigged and the power of the supreme leader is almost completly unchecked. While Iran is not a complete dictatorship it is not a democracy either.

He ends the piece, “Is this analysis overly optimistic? Very possibly. There’s no guarantee that any of these benefits would be realised and it would be naïve to count on them. Building a more constructive relationship after a successful nuclear negotiation will not be easy, and there will be plenty of tough bargaining and shrewd judgment needed as the relationship develops. But the optimistic upside sketched above is more plausible than the far-fetched scenarios that opponents of diplomacy have been conjuring up for years (such as the goofy idea that Iran will get the bomb and immediately commit an act of national suicide by striking Tel Aviv). If skeptics can try to scuttle diplomatic progress by outlining preposterous worst-case scenarios like that, then advocates should remind them that the benefits from a thaw with Tehran could be significant and are far more likely”.

Curable?

23/01/2014

In an interview Cardinal-designate Fernando Sebastián Aguilar, C.M.F. said, “I say that homosexuality is a deficient way of manifesting sexuality, because  the latter has a structure and an end, which is that of procreation.  Homosexuality, which cannot reach this and, is faulty. This is not an outrage  for anyone. We have in our body many deficiencies. I have high blood pressure,  should I get upset because others tell me so? It is a deficiency that I have to  correct as well as I can. To identify in a homosexual [person] a deficiency is  not offensive, it is a help, because many cases of homosexuality can be treated  and normalised with adequate treatment. It is not an offense, it is care. When a person has a defect, the good friend is the one who tells him so”.

Iranian victory in Geneva

23/01/2014

A long piece discusses the Iranian-US relationship over the Syrian talks. It mentions how Iran has won against America in several key areas despite having their invitation to the talks in Geneva revoked.

The piece opens, “Ban Ki-moon recently undertook one of the most sensitive diplomatic initiatives of his U.N. career: spearheading a plan to secure Iranian support for a political transition in Syria aimed at pushing Tehran’s long time ally, President Bashar al-Assad, from power. But that plan backfired, despite America’s backing. And now, even Ban’s own aides are admitting that their boss was played. On the eve of Syria peace talks, Ban on Sunday triumphantly announced a major breakthrough, declaring that Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, had promised him for the first time that his government would back a power sharing agreement in Syria”.

The authors note, “the deal began imploding almost immediately after Ban issued an invitation to Iran to attend the Syrian negotiations. Within 24 hours, the Syrian opposition had threatened to boycott the session, and Ban was pressed by the State Department to rescind the invitation after Iran failed to publicly commit to what it had told Ban. Ban’s own aides acknowledged that he had mishandled the situation, raising uncomfortable questions about his handling of the affair. At a press briefing today, Ban’s spokesman, Farhan Haq, said that an “oral understanding” Iran provided to the U.N. chief was to “be followed by a written understanding. That didn’t happen.” A review of the events leading up to the diplomatic cockup reveals a series of missteps and misunderstandings, involving Ban and top American and Iranian officials, that threatened to upend one of the U.S.’s most important initiatives in the Middle East. While the talks are scheduled to proceed on track, the mix-up has left a trail of recriminations and suspicions among some of the key players, including Iran and Russia, who have protested Ban’s decision to disinvite Tehran”.

They continue writing, “Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said the U.N. never appreciated the extent to which the Syrian opposition would oppose Iranian involvement in the talks. “The secretary-general miscalculated,” he said. “The Syrian opposition freaked out much more ferociously than he expected.” Parsi, a well-connected Tehran-watcher who supports U.S.-Iranian engagement, said the mishap damaged bilateral relations between countries regardless of who’s to blame. “This ended up being a confidence depleting exercise between Iran and the secretary general, the U.S. and Iran, and the U.S. and the secretary general,” he said. In the aftermath of the incident, efforts were made to smooth over the differences between the U.S. and U.N. On Tuesday, Kerry and Ban posed for a widely-circulated photo showing the two diplomats locked arm-to-arm and smiling alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi”.

They go on to mention “Having worked well with Zarif on the nuclear deal, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry agreed that Iran could prove helpful. According to U.N. officials, Kerry and other American officials strongly encouraged Ban in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s diplomatic fiasco to try to secure a commitment from Zarif to endorse the transitional plan and to travel to Switzerland to participate in the peace process. But Washington conditioned Tehran’s participation in the Geneva talks on its willingness to endorse an internationally-agreed road map, known as the Geneva Communiqué, for a political transition from the current Assad regime to a new government. As early as Thursday, Ban indicated to the Americans that he was moving close to a deal”.

The piece ends, “Ban thought he had cinched a deal. In a series of conversations, Zarif assured Ban that Iran supported the peace talks and indicated that Iran would endorse the Geneva communiqué, according to U.N. officials. Buoyed by those talks, Ban informed the U.S. on Sunday of his decision to invite Iran. ‘I believe strongly that Iran needs to be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis,’ Ban said in a public statement. ‘I have spoken at length in recent days with Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Javad Zarif.'”

The piece concludes “neither Zarif nor any other Iranian official was willing to make such a commitment in public. In a terse statement issued Monday, Iran’s U.N. ambassador Mohammed Khazee said that “the Islamic Republic of Iran does not accept any preconditions for its participation in Geneva II conference. If the participation of Iran is conditioned to accept Geneva I communiqué, Iran will not participate in Geneva II conference.” Ban, meanwhile, citing “disappointment” with Iran’s refusal to publicly endorse the communique rescinded the invitation, triggering protests from Iran and Russia”.

“Mutal hostility”

23/01/2014

Syria’s government and opposition, meeting for the first time, vented their mutual hostility on Wednesday at a U.N. peace conference where world powers also offered sharply differing views on forcing out President Bashar al-Assad. Opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused Assad of Nazi-style war crimes and demanded the Syrian government delegation at the one-day meeting in Switzerland sign up to an international plan for handing over power. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem insisted Assad would not bow to outside demands, graphically describing what he called atrocities of the “terrorists” – rebels supported by the Arab and Western states which were present in the room. “Assad isn’t going,” Syria’s information minister said. The United States and Russia, co-sponsors of the conference which U.N. officials hope will lead to negotiations in Geneva from Friday, also revealed their differences over Assad during a day of formal presentations in Montreux on Lake Geneva. The talks reflect global concern that a civil war which has killed over 130,000 and made millions homeless is spilling beyond Syria and encouraging sectarian militancy abroad. There was little sign that any party was ready to make concessions at the meeting

The breakup of Catholicism?

21/01/2014

An article profiles Cardinal-designate Orlando B. Quevedo of Cotabato.

The piece opens, “has advocated and designed the structures of pastoral Asian churches. As an active participant and former Secretary General of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, Quevedo has played an influential role in developing volumes of Asian pastoral statements in recent decades. He is widely respected among his Asian peers. In 1994, Quevedo was elected with the highest vote to membership in the General Council of the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops in Rome. The Quevedo appointment clearly reinforces Francis’ vision of church in the Philippines and adds to the already powerful pastoral influence of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, who undoubtedly was influential in the appointment.  The Quevedo appointment has special meaning because it is unprecedented for a cardinal to be named to the see of Cotabato on the island of Mindanao in the southernmost part of the Philippines. The writings of the FABC over the past 40 years have consistently aligned themselves with the teachings of Vatican II in efforts to build vital local churches throughout Asia. With Tagle and the 74-year-old cardinal-elect Quevedo as Philippine cardinals, the Asian nation with the largest population of Catholics is solidly in the hands of bishops who advocate the need to build a church of the poor”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Until the early 1970s, the local churches of Asia had little communication. That changed after the November 1970 pastoral visit by Pope Paul VI to Asia. Bishops throughout Asia came to Manila for that visit. Out of it came the idea to form a pan-Asia Catholic episcopal conference, which eventually took the name Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. Though the organization ran into early opposition from some Vatican prelates, it had the backing of the Paul VI. Within years it was asserting new pastoral leadership, so new that locals began to call it ‘a new way of being church.'”

Interestingly the piece adds, “Bishops in the Philippines and throughout Asia have often deferred to Quevedo to draft papers on diverse issues dealing with terrorism, migration, poverty, and the Eucharist as fundamental community builder”.

This could be yet another signal of the way Pope Francis wants to take the Church, towards a more collegial model, like the Orthodox Churches, each united, but distinct. Of course, the danger with this model is that it would not work for the Catholic Church that is just too big and too diverse compared with the Orthodox to work. What would ensue is a quasi-Anglicanism with each country, or continent, going its own way on doctrine and morals. This would mean either the complete breakup of the Catholic Church, or the Anglicisation of it with absurd compromises to keep the group nominally together.

221 years ago

21/01/2014

On this day, Louis XVI was murdered. Let us not forget the violence that swept France and Europe and the effects that still haunt the world to this day.

“Cover to bide its time”

21/01/2014

Foreign Policy has published an article that discusses India-China border relations. It comes with China having recently claimed Indian territory last year and sent military forces into India.

It starts, “Beijing successfully engineered signing a border defence cooperation agreement (BDCA) with India on October 23, 2013, in what seems to be a Chinese plot to subvert the debate surrounding its recent strategic offensive behaviour. While the agreement seems to have set a positive tone to future talks between New Delhi and Beijing, it does not translate into any substantial shift in the Chinese policy. The latest mechanism is a mere token agreement that has not resulted in tangible progress on the ground. India and China display a peculiar case of ‘constrained cooperation,’ in which the convergence of their economic interests tends to mask their prevailing strategic differences. Yet these divergences, of which the territorial and boundary dispute is foremost, still hold the potential of upstaging ties at any point”.

He makes the point that the April incursion by Chinese troops “happened despite numerous meetings of the India-China Joint Working Group and four confidence-building agreements, signed in 1993, 1996, 2005, and 2012. In addition to the Depsang occurrence, border guards of the PLA have repeatedly intruded into the eastern sector of Arunachal Pradesh, a state in northeast India, and the northern Ladakh sector. The writing on the wall following the Depsang incident was clear. China holds the political and military will and capability to covertly notch up tensions in the Himalayas with India, at any time and place of its choosing”.

Given that China and India have not mutually agreed upon a Line of Actual Control (LAC), sporadic incidents of border transgressions increasingly appear to be becoming a covert Chinese strategy of asserting its claims in India’s western sector, especially in northeastern Ladakh and in Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern sector. The LAC is not physically demarcated on the ground or in military maps, and there is continuing reluctance and official refusals by China to show its version of the LAC to India-thus pointing towards a larger ploy of progressively building up a case for its claims in eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. China and India reiterated in the latest BDCA that neither side would use its military capability against the other. But in the event of China launching another underhanded operation in Arunachal Pradesh or the Ladakh sector, what picture would emerge? Following the Depsang incident, India announced that both sides would pull back troops to their earlier positions along the LAC. But China haggled with India, agreeing to withdraw its troops from Indian territory provided that New Delhi tear down a line of defensive fortification in an area called Chumar. China also managed to get India to restrict its forward patrols in the area and unflinchingly negotiated for a BDCA”.

The author then goes on to deride the agreement that was signed in October, “It appears that China has successfully managed to call the shots in the drafting of the BDCA by skirting the primary issue of resolving the boundary dispute. There are no lucid answers as to how exactly the BDCA stands apart from the other confidence-building measures that India already shares with China vis-à-vis the border question. And in many respects, the BDCA is loaded in China’s favour. For example, the BDCA’s Article II stipulates that the two countries should share strategic information, but it does not elaborate on what specifically constitutes ‘information about military exercises, aircraft, demolition operations and unmarked mines.’ It is doubtful that China will be transparent enough to provide information about its military and cargo flights to forward landing strips near the borders. Article II also appears to be drafted so as to provide a cover for the Chinese Air Force in ‘locating aerial vehicles that may have crossed or are possibly in the process of crossing the line of actual control’ in the border areas – suggesting China may be upping the ante and securing the possibility of launching an air offensive in these areas”.

He righly unmasks China’s true motives, “China has chosen to use the BDCA as a platform which provides it official cover to bide its time and strike when the Chinese political and military leadership see a window of vulnerability. Chinese politico-military history contains many references to dealing with obdurate problems ‘left over from history’ by patiently waiting to resolve them ‘once conditions are ripe,’ in the words of the China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, famously stated, ‘Engage people with what they expect … It settles them into predictable patterns of response, while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.’ Demonstrating politico-military belligerence and stealth on various fronts appears to have become a defining feature of Chinese strategy, be it the protracted standoffs with India over the border, with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, or with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal. China’s creation of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone by on November 23 is testament to Chinese attempts at force projection that provides a stage for the long-term Chinese strategy of chipping away at contested claims with India. Beijing appears intent at keeping the border dispute alive as a tactical pressure point against India. China seems to be awaiting an opportune moment in which the existing military asymmetry with India will widen and Beijing will be positioned to bring the dispute to a close on its own terms”.

49% increase in complaints

21/01/2014

China’s Communist Party disciplinary organs received an eye-popping 1.95 million citizen complaints about officials [in 2013]. This is a 49.2 percent jump from 2012,according to a Jan. 13 report from state-run website China News Online — but surprisingly, the article did not evince displeasure with the total, calling 2013’s anti-corruption efforts “the strongest in 30 years.” Why did China News Online trumpet such a high number of complaints? In September 2013, finding itself on the defensive end of what it called a “public opinion struggle,” the Chinese government began to crack down on social media chatter aimed at Chinese leaders. Around the same time, it rolled out anew website allowing users to report crooked bureaucrats directly to the party. Aggrieved netizens may now feel safer using official avenues of complaint rather than kvetching on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. If the spike in corruption allegations is real — Chinese state media has padded the stats before — it may actually be a good sign for authorities. In the 2013 book Why Communism Did Not CollapseMartin K. Dimitrov, a professor of political science at Tulane University, argued that China’s petitioning system is a form of proxy accountability that allows Beijing to ensure citizen loyalty in the absence of democracy.”

 

“A diversionary tactic”

21/01/2014

A strange report from Foreign Policy has been published that discusses the Catholic Church in Poland.

It begins, “While Pope Francis has staked out a conciliatory stance toward divisive social issues that have plagued the church in recent years, Polish bishops are taking a hard stand in favour of a doctrinaire, conservative brand of Catholicism. Though they are alienating themselves from their leader and much of their flock, they are not alone in their fight. On Wednesday, 16 Polish MPs from the ultraconservative “United Poland” party — 15 men and one woman — formed a “Stop gender ideology” parliamentary committee. The body aims to fight the “negative impact of gender ideology on the Polish family and the education of the youth,” according to the committee’s head, initiator, and only female member, MP Beata Kempa”.

To claim that the Polish bishops are “alienating themselves” from Pope Francis is laughable. While Pope Francis has toned down the rhetoric to do with sexual morality, to the open annoyance of some cardinals, he has not disowned or rejected what the Church says or teaches on these matters. As has been said before, the emphasis has shifted, nothing more.

The piece goes onto note, “The crusaders use the word ‘gender’ in its English form and argue that it refers to a concoction of all the social changes the church finds unacceptable, including gay marriage and contraception. For several months, priests and Catholic commentators have been pushing the concept of ‘gender ideology’ in the Polish media, and the highest church authority issued a letter titled ‘The Dangers Stemming From Gender Ideology’ to be read in churches the Sunday after Christmas. The debate has gotten so much traction that a group of prominent linguists declared the word “gender” the word of the year in Poland. The country is one of the few remaining stalwarts of Catholicism in Europe. But disillusionment with the church is spreading even to die-hard Catholic Poland. The number of churchgoing Catholics has been waning — from 48 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2010 (with 87 percent of the population self-identifying as Catholic, according to measurements carried out in the 2011 census)”.

The writer goes on to mention, “When describing this gender ideology, church officials have referenced the central premise of gender theory — that gender is a product of culture and not inherent to human nature. It’s a concept that has long been in the church’s cross-hairs. In its attack on this ideology, the Polish church now argues that just about every hot-button social issue is a result of this troubling ideology, including gay marriage, sex change, abortion, non-traditional family models, artificial insemination, and contraception. “‘Gender’ promotes principles that stand in complete contradiction with reality and the traditional understanding of human nature. It claims that gender is merely a cultural product; that with age, one’s gender can become a choice; that the traditional family model is archaic, and that it is a social burden”.

Even the Church does not teach that homosexuality is a choice, although its teaching is far from realistic in this area. Therefore, if the report is true, which may not be the case, the bishops need to learn what the Church says about homosexuality.

The author goes on to note, “the obsession with gender ideology serves as something of a diversionary tactic in dealing with an explosive problem that the church has yet to confront: the sexual abuse of children. In October, reacting to the latest abuse scandal, the head of the Polish church — Archbishop Jozef Michalik —said that divorced parents or even the children themselves were to be blamed for being molested”.

Thankfully the point is made when she writes, “Scholars of gender theory and other observers, including Catholic commentators, have repeatedly emphasised that there is no such thing as ‘gender ideology.’ The definition that the Polish church offers is so broad that it encompasses most liberal social politics — a true gender conspiracy. So far, the enemy ranks include feminists, gays, journalists, educators, politicians, scholars, and even the prime minister, whose center-right party wholeheartedly embraces Catholic values but who has said he has never heard such ‘stupidity’ as the one surrounding the gender debate. And if the Polish church stayed true to its ‘anti-gender’ convictions, another potential enemy would be the Holy Father himself. The Argentine pope’s pontificate has so far been called a ‘gentle revolution.’ There is no sign of change in the church’s teachings on abortion or homosexuality, but the pope has softened his stance on issues such as homosexuality”.

She ends the piece, “To find the front lines of Francis’s fight to reform the Catholic Church, look no further than Poland”.

No longer a majority

21/01/2014

Pope Francis, the first pope born in the Americas, has named his first new cardinals and in doing so has potentially made a bit of global history. As of Feb. 22, when the new cardinals are scheduled to be elevated, Europeans will not make up a majority of cardinal electors (i.e., those eligible to select the next pope and the pool from which popes are typically selected). Since 1978, Europe has been at or near 50.0% of cardinal electors at the time of a conclave, however assuming Cardinal O’Brien from Scotland would not participate as an elector in the future as he has retired and undergoing a course of ‘spiritual renewal, prayer, and penance,’ the European share will functionally fall to 49.6%.

Moving towards a deal

21/01/2014

Foreign Policy has reported that a deal with Iran has been reached,”Iran and six world powers finally announced an agreement on how to implement their nuclear deal struck back in November. The question now becomes: will the U.S. Congress wind up torpedoing the deal by piling on new economic sanctions against Tehran? First announced by Iranian officials on Sunday morning, the agreement starts the clock on a six-month period to reach a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program beginning Jan. 20. In this interim period, the U.S. will begin easing financial sanctions against Iran while the Islamic Republic grants the United Nations’ atomic agency access to its nuclear infrastructure so that it can verify compliance”.

Worryingly the piece adds, “hawks in Congress continued to add cosponsors to sanctions legislation –legislation that  President Obama has threaten to veto. A senior U.S. official warned reporters Sunday that new Congressional measures against Tehran would undercut international efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program — and risk upending the painstakingly constructed sanctions regime that helped force Iran into nuclear talks in the first place. “Our intelligence community has assessed that new sanctions enacted during negotiations are likely to derail” the talks, the official noted”.

The article adds that “The technical agreement for the first time set out a specific road map for implementing an early pact that requires Iran to curtail some of its nuclear activities. The deal requires Tehran to halt advances at a facility built for the production of plutonium; and the pact calls for Iran to convert its stores of highly enriched uranium into a more diluted form of uranium or oxide. It will also require Iran to disconnect some of its massive arrays or “cascades” of centrifuges used to enrich higher grade uranium. Under the terms of the pact, Iran’s stores of highly enriched uranium will be rendered ‘unusable for further enrichment,’ Secretary of State John Kerry said after the deal was reached. The pact places the International Atomic Energy Agency at the center of the international effort to verify Iran’s compliance. IAEA inspectors, who already monitor key aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, will undertake more frequent and more intrusive inspections”.

The deal is not one sided for the United States and its allies however, “the agreement includes some key concessions for Tehran, including a pledge to free up more than $4.2 billion in seized Iranian assets held in Western banks. Other commitments may not be so easy for Washington to keep. American negotiators promised no new sanctions legislation against Tehran. The bill gaining supporters in the Senate would violate that agreement”.

The piece adds that “Supporters of the legislation maintain that it is not a “march to war” and would only impose new sanctions if negotiations for a final comprehensive deal collapse”. Yet this is a short sighted aim and will poison the good will that has been built up on both sides to reaching a fully comprehensive agreement that would secure US security and objectives in the region. Naturally Kerry and his counterparts must have warned Iran that something like this would happen domestically, let alone from President Obama’s own party. The piece goes on to mention that the funds will be released in phases on a monthly basis if Iran meets its obligations. Of course, the deal allows Iran  “to preserve its right to enrich uranium, continue to enrich low-grade uranium, five percent or lower” a part of the deal that has been opposed by those most against to any deal with Iran who advocate for stronger action.

The authors end the piece, “With clear majorities in the House and Senate pining for more sanctions, the White House is clearly losing the Iran debate in Congress. However, with the implementation agreement finalised, the White House is better off than it was before. Officials will now be able to point to concrete steps the Iranians are taking as a result of its painstaking diplomatic efforts”.

A related article in the Wall Street Journal goes into depth about the deal. The White House, “provided what has been described as a 30-page road map for implementing the agreement to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, provided it remains secret, congressional officials said. The summary of the nuclear agreement provides a more detailed accounting of how the deal will be implemented. The six-month pact seeks to curb the most advanced parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of Western economic sanctions on Iran. A coalition of Republicans and Democrats is seeking to enact new economic sanctions in an attempt to ensure Tehran doesn’t acquire nuclear weapons. The administration says new sanctions could derail the diplomatic efforts to reach a long- term agreement with Iran. President Barack Obama has said he would veto any new sanctions legislation”.

The report adds that “the publication of the summary, is unlikely to do anything to quiet the debate, congressional aides said. Some congressional staffers who read the longer classified document said they were concerned it doesn’t appear to clearly outline how the international community would conclude that Iran had violated its agreement”.

Yet, in rebuttal to the claims by Congress, “The White House summary said a ‘Joint Commission’ had been established by Iran and the world powers to monitor the implementation of the agreement. The Joint Commission will also work with the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, ‘to facilitate resolution of past and present concerns with respect to Iran’s nuclear program,’ the summary says. Some lawmakers worry Iran’s participation in the commission could provide it with too much say over determining whether it has implemented the agreement faithfully. ‘Basically the whole process is overseen by the P5+1 and Iran and so it’s not clear there can ever be a final determination that Iran violated the agreement,’ the Senate aide said. He was referring to the international diplomatic bloc involved in the negotiations, comprising the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany”.

The report ends, “The document also lays out a six-month payment period during which Iran will receive $4.2 billion of its oil revenue that have been frozen in overseas accounts. The payments are tied to Iran making good on its commitment to removing its stockpile of near weapons-grade nuclear fuel, which is uranium enriched to 20% purity”.

Doubled in three years

19/01/2014

The world’s second-largest economy has been struggling to arrest local government debt — the result of easy credit and round after round of stimulus. While it’s hard to gauge the scale of the problem, a recent government think tank report may shed some light. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates local government debt reached 19.94 trillion yuan ($3.3 trillion) by the end of 2012. Local government debt accounts for most of total government debt, which is expected to have hit 27.7 trillion yuan ($4.56 trillion), or roughly 53% GDP. The report puts local debt at double what it was three years ago, when China last conducted a nationwide debt audit. Results of the most recent government debt audit, launched in July, haven’t been released”.

Just good feelings?

19/01/2014

An interesting blog post from the New York Times discusses the state of liberal Catholicism under Pope Francis. He opens”I’m written a bit about the question of what kind of reforms liberal Catholics should be actually be hoping for from Pope Francis, besides the good feelings that the pope’s rhetorical focus on social justice has inspired. In a deliberate provocation, Damon Linker raises the possibility that the good feelings are really all that the church’s liberal dissenters really want, because many of them just don’t think church teaching (or, for that matter, any kind of religious doctrine) matters anymore:

After reading an endless stream of gushing commentary by liberal Catholics on Pope Francis, I’m beginning to wonder if they ever really cared about reforming doctrine in the first place.

The seeds of doubt were planted a couple of weeks after myTNR essay was published, when I appeared on an NPR radio show to discuss the pope. I repeated my argument, but then a caller challenged me. Describing herself as a progressive Catholic, she dismissed my skepticism about the likelihood of Francis reforming church doctrine. “Doctrine for a Catholic, now, is not even an issue,” said Trish from Kentucky (you canlisten to her beginning at 24:43). “Catholics do not care about doctrine,” she said, adding, “It’s irrelevant. It’s a non-issue for Catholics.”

That, to be honest, is something that I hadn’t considered when I wrote my essay. As I indicated in my remarks responding to Trish, I had assumed all along that liberal Catholics wanted to liberalize Catholic doctrine — that they wanted to bring the church, as I wrote in TNR, “into conformity with the egalitarian ethos of modern liberalism, including its embrace of gay rights, sexual freedom, and gender equality.”

But here was a liberal Catholic telling me I’d gotten it all wrong. The pope’s warm, welcoming words are “everything,” Trish said, because doctrine, including that covering contraception and divorce, is “useless.”

There are dangers in reading too much into an NPR caller, obviously, but Linker is putting his finger on a real tension within liberal Christianity today— or, if you prefer, a real fork in the road, with one path leading in the direction that he assumed dissenting Catholics wanted to take (which seeks to alter church teaching precisely because it still believes that teaching really matters), and the other leading toward a kind of Emersonian, therapeutic, basically post-ecclesiastical form of faith, in which “Roman Catholicism” just happens to be the name of the stage on which your purely individual spiritual drama is taking place. The Commonweal-reading wing of liberal Catholicism would certainly reject the latter idea, but the kind of “post-Catholic Catholicism” Linker describes is clearly more of a force in our culture today than it was during the early days of the American Church’s post-Vatican II civil war (it’s hard to understand the controversy over American nuns, for instance, without recognizing its impact), and the Trishes of the culture havea strong wind at their back in a way that would-be reformers of the old, 1960s-era school of liberal Catholicism arguably do not”.

He goes on to argue that “some of those would-be reformers would argue that Trish-ism (which as Linker describes it is basically a Catholic version of Sheila-ism, Robert Bellah’s Reagan-era gloss on individualistic spirituality) is what happens, more or less inevitably, when the church’s leaders hollow out their credibility by trying to enforce the unenforceable, and that a church that had evolved with the culture forty years ago would have actually preserved a sense that doctrine actually matters. This argument is problematic, though, because the (mostly Protestant) churches that did evolve along those lines often seem to be churches where Trish-ism is fully enthroned and all talk of traditional doctrine is a dead letter. Hence the appeal of the conservative counter-argument that actually Trish-ism is the fruit of the Catholic hierarchy’sinattention to doctrinal matters, its eagerness to soft-pedal the tough stuff, its attempt to keep everyone on board in an age of division and dissent: “It’s not that dissenting Catholics don’t care what the Church teaches,” Matthew Schmitz writes in a response to Linker’s piece, “it’s that the Church has taught them not to care. To that lesson, they’ve paid close attention.” But I wonder if this argument doesn’t oversimplify things as well. To explain what I mean, let me quote an extract from Daniel Gordis’s recent argument about how Orthodox Judaism gained ground at Conservative Judaism’s expense”.

He ends the post noting that “Now for a variety of reasons this may be an easier wire for Judaism to walk than Catholicism. But Gordis is raising an issue that any tradition-minded religious body needs to think through: Namely, how to make its hardest rules seem like aspirations rather than just judgments, and how to deal with the many fine personal gradations that can exist between orthodoxy and apostasy, fidelity and dissent. And I suspect there are many Catholics who would be classified as “liberal” who want something like what he’s describing in Modern Orthodoxy from their church. That is, they want room to dissent from a teaching or fail to live up to it in practice, but they don’t necessarily want the church to change that teaching so that the dissonance or tension they feel simply goes away. Hence their positive reaction to Francis’s rhetorical shift and their lack of urgency about actual doctrinal change. They aren’t necessarily all Trishes who have decided that they don’t care about what the Catechism says. Some of them, at least, might be more like the Orthodox Jews who parked their cars around the corner without demanding that the rabbi be okay with it, and whose children turned out to be more observant, rather than less. To conclude, and clarify: I’m not trying to minimize the problem of Trish-ism (trust me!), I will be as depressed as Linker if liberal Catholicism just turns out to have faded into moralistic therapeutic deism, and I’m strongly sympathetic to Schmitz’s point about the dangers of officially upholding orthodoxy while making it seem optional and/or unimportant with winks and nods. But I think there are some complexities here. It could be that liberal Catholics who heart Francis despite his lack of doctrinal movement are testifying to a hopelessly emptied-out understanding of their faith. But some kind of cognitive dissonance in these areas, some gap between what individual Catholics believe and what they want the papacy to teach, might not be the worst sign for the future of church”.

Zero troops left?

19/01/2014

“The White House  convened a meeting of top national-security officials on Thursday to discuss  the war and the future of the U.S. troop presence. Mr. Biden has lost previous  debates on Afghanistan, but his arguments for a smaller force, likely of 2,000  to 3,000 troops, have gained traction within an administration increasingly  frustrated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Mr. Karzai has refused to sign a  security agreement allowing American forces to remain in small numbers after  the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation mission there formally ends this year.  Some U.S. defence officials, preferring a remaining post-2014 U.S. force of  9,000-12,000, are sceptical of the smaller troop presence Mr. Biden and others  advocate. Such a force would be so limited that a full pullout would make more  military sense, the officials said.'”

Reforming the NSA

19/01/2014

In a major speech President Obama has proposed reforms to the National Security Agency.The Hill reports that “The president said he would now require intelligence agencies to obtain judicial approval before reviewing databases of information about telephone calls. He also said the government would end its collection and holding of phone records  — but not until after the Justice Department and intelligence community, working with Congress, figure out a means for moving forward. It’s unclear who would hold on to data collected by telecom companies. Obama did not offer a specific proposal for how that information would be stored, including whether it would all be held by one third party or by individual telephone companies, who have said they don’t want the responsibility”.

The piece adds, “Obama also announced new restrictions on the surveillance of foreign leaders, as revelations about the NSA monitoring the phones of global leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel have enraged populations around the world. But the president’s speech and suggested reforms appeared designed primarily to assure Americans — and the world — about the scope of U.S. intelligence programs, rather than representing a substantial policy change. Obama ultimately rejected many of the more aggressive reforms suggested by a review panel commissioned to examine the nation’s surveillance practices. The president did not dramatically overhaul the mission of the National Security Agency or require judicial review of national security letters — requests for information unilaterally issued by agencies like the FBI. Civil liberties advocates have complained that the letters are issued without a court order, and can include an indefinite gag order preventing recipients from ever disclosing it received the letter. Obama said that he would direct the Justice Department to amend the program to improve transparency, but stopped short of further constraints”.

An article by David Cole writes “His admission of the problem was critically important. But his proposed changes will not go nearly far enough to address the very real issues he himself identified. Obama insisted that technological advances require Americans to rethink the limits on spying, saying that “the power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.” He rejected the argument, often made by NSA supporters, that because Americans share digital information via phone, web, or email with commercial businesses — or purchase anything with a credit card — they have no right to object to the government getting that information”.
Cole goes on to write “The danger, however, is that some people, especially those in the intelligence community, will treat it as the end of the discussion. And that would be fundamentally wrong, because the actual reforms Obama proposed do not go nearly far enough. Obama has required the NSA to get specific approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) before searching through Americans’ phone records, and he has said that he will explore having the phone data held by some entity other than the NSA. He has called for a panel of independent advocates to appear before the FISC in at least some cases, introducing a necessary element of adversarial argument to what until now has been an entirely one-sided process. And he has called for somewhat expanded privacy protections for foreign nationals subject to NSA spying. But here’s what he hasn’t done. On the domestic front, he has not ended the practice of collecting records on every American’s every phone call — without any suspicion of wrongdoing. He has rejected the recommendation of his own expert panel that the FBI be required to get court approval before it demands customer information from banks and communications-service providers under another expansive Patriot Act provision. He has not called for any narrowing of the statute that authorises the NSA to intercept all communications of any person the agency suspects”
He ends, “The challenge of preserving privacy in the digital age is immensely complicated, and no one could expect it to be solved in a single speech. The good news is that Obama has admitted there is a problem to be addressed. The bad news is that his reforms don’t go nearly far enough toward resolving the problem”.

Related to the topic, Peter Feaver writes that “the optimal answer is not the one advocated by the most fringe position. A National Security Agency (NSA) hobbled to the point that some on the far left (and, it must be conceded, the libertarian right) are demanding would be a mistake that the country would regret every bit as much as we would regret an NSA without any checks or balances or constraints. Getting this right will require inspired and active political leadership. To date, Obama has preferred to stay far removed from the debate swirling around the Snowden leaks. This president relishes opportunities to spend political capital on behalf of policies that disturb Republicans, but, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s memoir details, Obama has been very reluctant to expend political capital on behalf of national security policies that disturb his base. Today Obama is finally engaging. It will be interesting to see how he threads the political needle and, just as importantly, how much political capital he is willing to spend in the months ahead to defend his policies”.

However, Obama has not addressed the whole problem with Snowden at all. Booz Allen Hamilton still have their fingers in this, as well as dozens of government contracts doing what the state, and the state alone should do. Until private companies are removed from this most sensitive of government work then the leaks and other events will continue.

“The commonplace use”

19/01/2014

Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are increasingly borrowing border-patrol drones for domestic surveillance operations, newly released records show, a harbinger of what is expected to become the commonplace use of unmanned aircraft by police. Customs and Border Protection, which has the largest U.S. drone fleet of its kind outside the Defense Department, flew nearly 700 such surveillance missions on behalf of other agencies from 2010 to 2012, according to flight logs released recently in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties group. The records show that the border-­patrol drones are being commissioned by other agencies more often than previously known. Most of the missions are performed for the Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration and immigration authorities. But they also aid in disaster relief and in the search for marijuana crops, methamphetamine labs and missing persons, among other missions not directly related to border protection”.