Archive for March, 2014

China’s excess housing


Daniel Altman has written an excellent article in which he examines the seemingly endless expansion of China’s building.

He writes that “On March 16, the Chinese government released a seven-year plan for the continuing urbanisation of its population. So far, the process has been an important engine of China’s growth, making workers more productive by giving them better access to capital, services, and economies of scale. There have been plenty of bumps in the road, though, with huge urban districts built under government orders still waiting for their first inhabitants. This is where the adage about cooking comes in. How likely was Beijing to guess exactly the right size and number of cities to house its enormous population? Just like having food left over at the end of a meal, the risk-averse strategy was to build a little extra, in case the technocrats didn’t guess correctly the first time”.

He mentions that it is not just China that has this problem, “As the Great Recession took hold in the United States, thousands of new homes were left vacant or abandoned — notably in Florida, but in many other states as well. Spain today also has hundreds of thousands of empty properties, as jobs are much scarcer than newly built apartments. And booming Australia may have as many as 125,000 unneeded houses. Whatever the economic system, whatever the point in the economic cycle, the market for newly constructed buildings does not always clear. Developers make bets based on expectations that turn out to be incorrect. Sometimes, they might not even expect the market to clear right away; they might want to build property while construction is cheap, even if the right time to sell might be a few years away. But other developers may simply overestimate demand. Indeed, it would be astonishing if all of their forecasts for demand were correct, all the time”.

The concern, has as been noted here before is that when a downturn comes will China be able to adjust and deal with the consequences, whatever they might be.

Altman goes on to note that “The results of overbuilding are easily visible, and just as easy to poke fun at. But if China’s overbuilding is the worst planning mistake in its past quarter-century of economic development, I call that not too bad at all. Moreover, it’s not as though those empty buildings will have zero value for eternity. Just consider what happened with fiber optic cable. During the previous recession in the United States, after the bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2000, the fiber optic cable industry suffered almost as much ridicule as China’s ghost towns. Firms like Global Crossing built enormous fiber networks on the “if you build it, they will come” theory, but not enough people came. That has started to change. Last June, fiber accounted for almost 8 percent of broadband connections in the United States”.

Interestingly he theorises that “By the same token, Chinese people may yet move into some of those empty districts, especially if the relaxing of the one-child policy andincreased immigration lead to higher population growth. Changes to China’s strict internal migration rules, which are likely to occur as part of the agenda released this week, will help as well. In the grand sweep of China’s post-reform growth, any waste associated with overbuilding will probably end up as a footnote — just like those vacant condos in South Florida and the Great Recession”.

He ends the piece on a warning “These are normal growing pains in a world economy that is complex and full of frictions. In the short term, they can result in odd mismatches of supply and demand. In the long term, however, they tend to smooth themselves out. The critical question is whether it’s worse to have too much of something or too little. In the case of Chinese housing, the answer is clearly too little. Empty cities might spawn a thousand jokey articles in the Western media, but they don’t spawn many riots or rebellions at home. Millions of homeless Chinese, who can find jobs but not a place to sleep, might be another story”.



Sisi stands for election


To the rejoicing of millions of his supporters and the expectation of possibly angry or resentful opposition, the former head of the armed forces and minister of defence Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi announced his formal resignation from the Armed Forces on Wednesday evening and his intention to stand in the forthcoming presidential elections, once the Presidential Elections Committee has announced them, a development scheduled for Sunday. “I stand before you for the last time in the uniform that I have had the great honour of wearing for the last 45 years since I joined the military in high school,” Al-Sisi said at the beginning of a 15-minute statement that was televised on all the state-run Egyptian TV channels as well as by private and satellite channels. Using colloquial but carefully structured language, the outgoing minister of defence said that he was parting from his uniform in order to continue the mission that he had always taken upon himself since he had decided to join the military: to serve the nation”.

A Russian invasion?


A piece argues that a Russian invasion on eastern Ukraine is becoming more likely. Previous reports had noted that there were not enough troops currently on the border with Ukraine to stage a succesful invasion but this appears to have changed.

The article opens, “American intelligence agencies have told Obama administration officials and key congressional staffers that there is mounting evidence that Russia is putting the pieces in place for an invasion of eastern Ukraine, and that the possibility of an imminent assault cannot be ruled out, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter”.

The writers go on to note that “The numbers of troops near Russia’s border with Ukraine have been steadily increasing since Russian forces conquered Crimea in February. And near Ukraine’s eastern border, troops are reportedly being supplied with food and medical supplies, which they would need in the event of further operations — a development that U.S. intelligence agencies have noted with alarm. On Capitol Hill, U.S. spy agencies have given Congress increasingly dire assessments of the Russian activity and indicated that the likelihood of an invasion is rapidly growing, according to a participant in the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information. Still, the intelligence officials have been careful not to offer a definitive conclusion that Moscow will invade or to predict the precise timing of a Russian military operation in Ukraine. Assessing the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been hampered by the fact that the U.S. has alarmingly little in the way of signals intelligence, or intercepted communications, that would indicate that he had decided to invade or when a strike was scheduled to start”

They note the consequences of further Russian action, “Further Russian aggression against Ukraine has seemed a distinct possibility since forces stormed into Crimea and took control of the peninsula and then moved to seize Ukrainian military bases in the region, facing practically no resistance. U.S. officials have become increasingly concerned about a potential domino effect in the region should Russian actions against NATO member countries force the alliance to enter the conflict. ‘Our concern is that Russia won’t stop [in Crimea],’ NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Foreign Policy in an interview last week. ‘There is a clear risk that Russia will go beyond Crimea and the next goal will be the eastern provinces of Ukraine.’ President Barack Obama has used a trip to Europe this week to warn Putin in increasingly strong language not to invade eastern Ukraine”.

They add that “Voice of America reported that the Russian military had established a field hospital in the Bryansk region, about 20 kilometers from the Russia-Ukraine border, and that train cars have been arriving near the border with troop supplies. That could mean that Russian forces are just settling in for a long stay — troops in the field need to be fed, clothed, and tended to when they get sick — without preparing a strike. However, two officials said that the intelligence warnings have taken on a more alarming tone in part because the CIA failed to predict Putin’s Crimea invasion”.

Interestingly they continue, “If U.S. intelligence agencies underestimated the skill of their Russian adversaries, they seem determined not to repeat that mistake. At the Pentagon, there remains confidence in the assurances provided to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel from Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu that the Russian troops amassing on the border with Ukraine were there only for exercises. ‘[Shoygu] told me that they had no intention of crossing the border into Ukraine,’ Hagel said at the Pentagon this week. But standing beside Hagel in the Pentagon briefing room was U.K. Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond, who noted that he thinks Putin alone seems to be driving all the decision-making, and wondered aloud if Shoygu was as trusted a Putin aide and called into question the assurances he is providing the international community”.

“Direct talks with the Taliban”


“A Pakistani government team held direct talks with the Taliban after traveling Wednesday to a secret location in the country’s northwest, part of a push by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to strike a peace deal to end an insurgency that has killed thousands of people in recent years. Although previous Pakistani governments have spoken directly with Taliban representatives, these are the first such negotiations since Sharif took office last June. Over the past month or so, intermediaries representing the two sides have met and laid the groundwork for the talks. Maulana Samiul Haq, one of the Taliban negotiators, said the discussions lasted for seven hours and would resume later in the week. Haq, a cleric, said the talks were fruitful and helped the two sides understand each other better. The Taliban spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, also cast the meeting in a positive light”.

“Chinese corruption will remain pervasive and systematic”


There has been much talk about the recent Chinese “crackdown” on corruption. However, an excellent piece allows the reader to understand what is truly happening and that China under President Xi will not alter course and implement any real anti-corruption measures.

It begins, “Anyone who thinks that the evident fall of Zhou Yongkang, the powerful former security chief and erstwhile member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the small group that effectively runs China, signals that the ruling Chinese Communist Party has taken steps towards fighting corruption in a systematic way — or that President Xi Jinping wants and is able to build a transparent government — fundamentally misunderstands Chinese politics”.

The writer, a human rights lawyer, goes on to argue that “Xi has said that his anti-corruption campaign, announced January 2013, would go after ‘flies and tigers,’ meaning that it would target corruption at all levels. Prime Minister Li Keqiang also declared on March 13 that there would be ‘zero tolerance for corrupt officials.’ They seem to be saying that before they took office, the party did not have a zero-tolerance policy — only small time ‘flies’ were targeted. The ‘big tiger,’ of course, is Zhou. Beginning in late 2012 after he left office, many high-level officials connected to Zhou have been charged with corruption, such as the deputy party secretary of Sichuan province and the former head of China’s largest petroleum company. Now many know about the investigation and house arrest of Zhou, even if the Chinese government has not officially acknowledged it”.

Crucially he goes on to add that “In Chinese officialdom, there is a saying: ‘If you make it to bureau head [a mid-level ranking], you will be spared the death penalty. If you make it to the PSC, you will be spared any penalty.’ There is almost nothing a PSC member can’t do. PSC members have the police, prosecutors, and courts in their pockets. They write the criminal laws, and even history. From Mao Zedong, to Deng Xiaoping, and all the way to Xi, every generation of Chinese leaders has launched high-profile anti-corruption campaigns: Mao began his by having the officials Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan executed for corruption in 1952; Deng began a ‘party purification‘ campaign in 1986. Under President Jiang Zemin, then-Premier Zhu Rongji said he had prepared 100 coffins, ’99 for corrupt officials, and one for myself.’ To the party, anti-corruption campaigns are very useful because they are popular with the masses and can help take out political rivals”.

He writes “But because they allow winners in a political struggle to consolidate their gains, the end result of these anti-corruption campaigns is yet more corruption among those lucky enough to remain in the system. A provincial-level official would probably be ashamed if he didn’t have millions of dollars’ worth of illegal income and a couple of starlets as mistresses. A race to the bottom has long meant that officials with real power have about as much luck keeping clean as porn stars do keeping their chastity”.

He ends the piece “corruption has become institutionalized, but anti-corruption is far from systematic. The anti-corruption “successes” are therefore the result of political infighting, not the rule of law. Without competition between political parties, real elections, checks and balances on power, judiciary independence, a free press, or a strong civil society, Chinese corruption will remain pervasive and systematic. Few corrupt officials are caught, a signaling function which invites yet more corruption. Foreign organizations like Bloombergand the non-profit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists have exposed the assets of certain high-level officials and their families, but I believe those are but the tip of the iceberg”.


Too harsh


An Egyptian court sentenced 529 members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to death for murder and other offenses on Monday in a sharp escalation of a crackdown on the movement that is likely to fuel instability. Family members stood outside the courthouse screaming after the verdict, which defense lawyers called the biggest mass death sentence handed out in Egypt’s modern history. Turmoil has deepened since the army overthrew Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, in July. Security forces have killed hundreds of Brotherhood members in the streets and arrested thousands. Human rights groups said Monday’s verdict suggested the authorities intended to tighten their squeeze on the opposition. The U.S. State Department said it was shocked by the death sentences”.

How to avoid war against China


An article discusses the important topic of a possible war between America and China. It opens that war “between the United States and China is not preordained. But tensions are high, especially in the fiercely contested waters of the East and South China seas — and even further into the Pacific. Communication is the best medicine: the United States should be explicit with what it needs to know about China’s behavior in the waters near its coast. Unfortunately, the intentions and supporting doctrine for Beijing’s growing naval capabilities are unclear, specifically regarding disputes with China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)”.

He writes that China is pushing the boundaries of law to its own ends, “China and some other countries like North Korea interpret UNCLOS as giving coastal states the right to regulate all economic and foreign military activities within their EEZs. There are numerous international agreements that regulate interactions at sea. The United States and Soviet Union signedthe Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) in 1972 after Soviet warships collided with a U.S. destroyer. While INCSEA allowed for U.S. and Russian commanders to communicate directly, and ultimately avoid an escalation of force between warships, it really functioned as a stopgap between the 1972 signature and 1977 implementation of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS). And while the 2000 Code for Unalerted Encounters at Sea (CUES) is not an international agreement or legally binding, it does offer safety measures and procedures, and a means to limit mutual interference and uncertainty when warships, submarines, public vessels, or naval aircraft are in close proximity”.

He adds importantly that “The disagreement between China and the United States centers on three issues: First, China asserts that military activities in the EEZ are subject to coastal state approval. Second, excessive maritime claims of territorial sovereignty are a significant sticking point between China and many other nations operating in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. And third, China’s demarcation line in the South China Sea, commonly referred to as the “nine-dashed line,” is nebulous and defined as neither a territorial sea nor EEZ. Beijing appears to purposefully leave this description vague”.

He makes the valid point that “While there are a growing number of U.S.-China military exchanges among senior uniformed officers, these efforts must be bolstered by China’s willingness to operate appropriately within their EEZ, thus helping to prevent conflict at sea”. If China were to act properly, a war in the seas around China would almost vanish from possibility. However, China seems to persist in its expanisve view and is either unware of the effect it is having in Asia, which is unlikely, or they are aware and are then seemingly prepared for the consequences of their behaviour.

He goes on to mention that “The United States could be drawn into a conflict over a territorial dispute involving China, especially since the United States has bilateral defense treaties with Japan and the Philippines. Clear and unambiguous understanding of expected actions in the EEZs by China and the United States has both near and long-term implications. The immediate effect could be safer, more professional, and more respected interactions between Chinese and non-Chinese ships”.

He ends, “Clearly agreed upon interpretations of what are appropriate actions within this body of water would immediately improve transparency and predictability, and hopefully prevent military conflict. In the longer-term, this effort could serve as a springboard to resolving other U.S.-China diplomatic, military, and economic issues”.

War shuld obviously be avoided and America must co-operate with China but US strength should not be hidden in some bid to appease the Chinese. American power should be made very clear to them.

Karzai recognises Crimea


President Karzai announced in a meeting with the US congressional delegation that Afghanistan respects the decision made by the Crimean people to become a part of the Russian Federation. However, some analysts interpreted Karzai’s statement not in compliance with national interest. Political commentators believe that Karzai’s statement could further escalate tensions between Afghanistan and the west. “Looking at the current situation, we must pursue a proper policy and deal with the issue in a diplomatic manner,” political analyst Mia Gul Waseeq said. Waseeq said that president Karzai should focus closely to the needs and improvements of Afghanistan instead of involving the country in other political tensions with the US. During the meeting the US delegation urged Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which will allow US forces to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014. However, Karzai declined signing the agreement until the preconditions are honored by the US for him to sign the pact. Karzai clarified his stance on the Crimea adhesion to Russia days after tensions between Moscow and the western nations increased over disintegration of Crimea from Ukraine. “The Crimean people decided on their future in the referendum,” president Karzai said. “Crimea is part of Russia and Afghanistan respects it.” Last week the Russian embassy in Kabul announced that Moscow looks to play a great role in the future of Afghanistan”.

“An eye must be kept on the long view”


A piece in Foreign Policy argues that the west should learn to live with the current situation in the Crimea. It opens, “Russia’s annexation of Crimea may be a shock to the international system. But it need not be the beginning of a new Cold War — or even a watershed moment. The officials I have spoken to in the U.S. government are incensed by Russia’s disregard for international law and adamant that further violations of Ukrainian sovereignty will bring ever-increasing penalties from the West. Nonetheless, there is a sense among diplomats that an eye must be kept on the long view and there is hope that they can help contain the crisis and stabilize the situation”.

He continues, “One reason they will make that effort is because of the importance the Obama administration accords to initiatives like bringing peace to Syria and to halting Iran’s nuclear weapons development program. At top levels within the State Department, there is an understanding that Moscow has a central role to play in those talks with both regimes as well as a vested interest in keeping them on track, working alongside the United States and the international community. As to whether Russia’s interests in the Middle East may give the United States and the West any leverage in trying to resolve the Ukraine crisis, the senior official with whom I was speaking said, ‘We’re going to find out. We don’t know the answer right now. It’s certainly one of the things driving them to consider what’s in the balance here.  If we didn’t have those things going on, it would be a lot easier for them to say ‘screw this, we don’t have anything at stake.’ But because they are engaged in those other things, it may temper them a little bit.’ The issue, of course, is balancing toughness on Crimea and the desire to keep vital channels open. That’s part of the reason why the sanctions program developed by the administration was designed so it could be escalated, as needed”.

He continues, “That, however, would lead to a breakdown in diplomacy elsewhere in the world that is clearly in neither side’s interests. ‘Obviously, that’s a risk you take,’ the official said, ‘But you can’t be cowed by it.’ There is a strong sense that this is a message being delivered at the highest levels in the Kremlin, and that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. President Barack Obama have ‘no compunctions’ in emphasising to the Russian leadership that further aggressive behaviour with regard to Ukraine will undercut their international legitimacy. At the same time, there is a feeling among top U.S. policymakers that if Russia wants to restore its relationships with the international community after this crisis, one way it might be able to do this is actually by playing a more constructive role on issues like Syria and Iran”.

He goes on to add that “one gets the unmistakable sense that the United States feels the Russians not only have a role to play both in Syria, in helping to find a way to ease Assad out of office, and in bringing the Iran talks to a successful conclusion, but that this role is very important to both of the processes. Diplomats are ready to proceed without them if need be, but they would prefer not to. According to U.S. calculations, perhaps as many as four or five countries are key to a successful outcome in Syria, including the Saudis, the Iranians, the United States and the Russians. Some may take the need for such coalitions as a sign of waning U.S. clout, but it’s just realism. Progress on complicated international issues has always required the involvement of multiple actors — just as it always requires clear-eyed leadership about what’s possible and how to achieve it”.

He closes arguing “For these reasons — based on conversations like this one and what I see as the calculated rationality behind what Putin has done (principles of international law and treaty obligations aside) — it’s my sense that it is more likely that this crisis soon stabilizes and that in a matter of months the United States and Russia, pursuing their self-interests as ever, will be back to collaborating on the major issues that were the focus of most of their diplomacy in the months before the upheaval in Ukraine began. It is not just my optimism at work here. It is a still hopeful spirit I heard expressed at the highest levels of the U.S. government even among those most scarred and angered by recent events. While it is, of course, possible that Putin ups the ante with more aggressive action in eastern Ukraine — which would clearly be a game changer — if this crisis is contained and frozen roughly at the point it is now, it would not, in my view, constitute the beginning of a new era. Indeed, since the Balkan wars through the effective annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, from Russian support for Bashar al-Assad to its embrace of Edward Snowden, the relationship with Washington has been tense and turbulent for years. But pragmatism has also led the two sides to identify ways to work together. It is not so much that we should be focusing on the beginning of a new Cold War but rather that we must become better at handling the realities of an enduring and difficult Cold Peace”.

Cameron’s demands


In light of David Cameron’s speech on the UK and its future in the EU, an interesting blog post has appeared on the Open Europe blog, “Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, David Cameron set out seven objectives – or eight if you read
between the lines – for a Conservative EU reform agenda ahead of that  potential 2017 EU referendum. Surprisingly, despite this being the most explicit  that David Cameron has been in setting out a ‘shopping list’ (an unfortunate
term), it has generated surprisingly little attention, in the UK and  abroad. To be fair, none of these objectives are completely new, one is  not strictly to do with the EU, while in the case of some of the others it would  be rather difficult to define success. Interestingly only the point about  removing the commitment to “ever closer union” would definitely require treaty change”.

End of the GCC?


Following on from the increasingly strained relationship Qatar has been having with the other members of the GCC, a piece in Foreign Affairs asks does this mean the effective end of the organisation.

It opens, “The dispute between GCC members had been simmering for a while, and it was only a matter of time before it boiled over. In December, during a GCC Summit in Kuwait, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had been close to singling out Qatar for its alleged financing of terrorism in Syria and elsewhere. But, at the last minute, the Saudis pulled the plug to avoid embarrassing their Kuwaiti hosts. They opted instead to give Doha a stern private warning. A couple of weeks before that, Saudi leaders scolded new Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim during a meeting in Riyadh that was arranged by Kuwaiti leader Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad. The 33-year-old Tamim was asked to make serious adjustments to his country’s foreign policy, including that the country stop allegedly funding al Qaeda­–affiliated groups in Syria. The young Tamim reportedly agreed, but requested some time to make the necessary changes. Tamim eventually managed to reduce Doha’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. But, realizing that it had lost in Syria, Doha doubled down on outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in the region, including Hamas. In addition, it continued efforts to cozy up to Iran and Turkey, support the Al Houthi rebels in Yemen, and test the waters with Hezbollah. In doing so, Doha was touching every nerve and ringing every alarm bell in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, where officials were doing all they could to finish off the Muslim Brotherhood (including labeling it as terrorist group and propping up Egypt’s military chief, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, by paving the way for his presidency). No wonder, then, that the Bahrainis, Emiratis, and Saudis soon accused Qatar of trying to undermine the GCC and recalled their ambassadors”.

He goes on to write that “Tamim has two options, neither of which is good. He can either fully comply with the wishes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE — which would cost him his relationship with Qatar’s old guard, including his father — or consolidate his role by working with his father’s allies and freeing his country once and for all from the shackles of Saudi influence and an increasingly irrelevant GCC. Tamim might not survive the first scenario, given how difficult it would be to confront not only his family but also the enormously influential ex-prime minister and foreign minister Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani. But the second option wouldn’t be easy, either. In that scenario, Qatar would more forcefully ally itself with Iran, with which it already has strong economic ties. It would also get politically and economically closer to Oman, which already has friendly relations with Tehran. But that wouldn’t come without costs either. The Sultanate is essentially in the GCC doghouse for refusing to adopt the group’s standard line against Iran. Should Qatar join that club, it will be hard for it to ever reverse course with the GCC. Should Qatar become friendlier with Iran and Oman, it would signal the death of the GCC and herald a new power alignment in the Gulf. It would also severely complicate U.S. plans in the Middle East. For some time, the United States has encouraged the Arab Gulf States to think and act more collectively to enhance Gulf security. But with increasing tensions among GCC members, including possible divorces, this goal seems increasingly unrealistic. Washington may come to see that its Gulf allies will not be able to provide regional security anytime soon and, as a result, think twice about plans to reduce the U.S. political and military footprint there”.

He concludes, “Qatar’s spat with its Saudi and Emirati neighbors also creates another policy dilemma for the United States. Washington has strategic relations with all three states, which will become difficult to manage if they aren’t on speaking terms. It is possible that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi could even lobby the United States to help shut down money flows out of Doha under the guise of counterterrorism. But Washington might not be receptive. Qatar hosts the Al Udeid Air Base and the Combined Air and Space Operations Center, which coordinated all of the U.S. attack and surveillance missions for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, although the U.S. Treasury Department and State Department may show readiness to entertain Saudi and Emirati punitive measures against Doha, the Pentagon will probably put the brakes on any such plans”.

More importantly he closes, “make no mistake about it, this is a new political era in the Arab Gulf, one in which individual states are charting their own courses and where the idea of unity, no matter how hard Saudi Arabia pushes for it, is rapidly fading”.

Blocked Twitter


Turkey’s courts have blocked access to Twitter days before elections as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan battles a corruption scandal that has seen social media platforms awash with alleged evidence of government wrongdoing. The ban came hours after a defiant Erdogan, on the campaign trail ahead of key March 30 local elections, vowed to “wipe out” Twitter and said he did not care what the international community had to say about it. Erdogan’s ruling AK Party has already tightened Internet controls, handed government more influence over the courts, and reassigned thousands of police and hundreds of prosecutors and judges as it fights a corruption scandal he has cast as a plot by political enemies to oust him”.

The next prime minister?


An article profiles the potential next prime minister of Libya,  Basit Igtet. It opens, “There are few more thankless jobs in global politics than serving as Libya’s prime minister. The previous incumbent, Ali Zeidan, was constantly reminded of his meager authority: he was abducted briefly by militiamen last year, and most recently found himself unable to stop armed federalists from defying his government by selling oil independently from one of several eastern ports they have blockaded since last July. The U.S. Navy SEALs eventually had to be called in to put an end to the illicit oil sale — they seized a North Korea-flagged tanker that had been loaded with crude oil at the terminal, and steered it back to a government-friendly port in Libya. The fiasco, however, cost Zeidan his job — elements within the country’s parliament who had been attempting to dislodge him since last year finally succeeded in voting him out of office due to his perceived ineffectiveness. Zeidan left for Europe within hours of his ousting and, in a subsequent TV interview, blamed Islamist political factions and their allied militias for stymying his government’s efforts to steer Libya’s rocky transition”.

He goes on to note that “Defence Minister Abdullah al-Thinni currently serves as caretaker prime minister, but the Tripoli rumour mill is buzzing over who will be the next figure to try to tame this chaotic country. While the pool of potential successors shrinks by the day as Libya’s challenges continue to pile up, there is one self-declared candidate who has been running a flashy campaign for months. His name is Basit Igtet, and while his publicity team describes him as a former special envoy to the Libyan opposition body set up in the early weeks of the 2011 uprising, most Libyans know him for his Western-style campaign for Libya’s top job. Igtet, a Benghazi native who founded a Libya-focused oil and gas exploration company called Athal in 2011”.

Interestingly the piece adds that he “has an unusual background for a potential national politician. As a Forbes magazine profile outlined in December, he launched a successful business career while in political exile in Switzerland — his family fled Libya because of their opposition to Muammar al-Qaddafi — that has spanned fashion design, urban planning, and asset management in Europe and the Gulf. He is comfortable in Manhattan high-society and Washington’s halls of power, recently hiring former Sen. Joe Lieberman to lobby for him in the United States in a $50,000 per month deal. But it was the details of Igtet’s personal life that came under most scrutiny in Libya: He is married to an American woman, Sara Bronfman, whose father is Edgar Bronfman Sr., the recently deceased billionaire chairman of the Seagram liquor company and long-standing president of the World Jewish Congress”.

The piece goes on to delve into what Igtet actually might do if in power, “Igtet, however, has pressed on with his glossy campaign for the prime minister’s job, which he told a recent Tripoli gathering has cost him millions of dollars. He has appeared on Libyan TV channels and held a series of town hall-style meetings with business people, legal figures, civil society representatives, and Libyan youth. He presented a “10-point action plan” that reads like a technocratic manifesto: It advocates an overhaul of Libya’s institutions and its creaking infrastructure, and aims to address insecurity through establishing “secure areas” throughout the country reminiscent of Iraq’s Green Zone. His communications team runs his Facebook and Twitter accounts — a novel step in a country where premiers tend to be low-key personalities selected in backroom deals. But why is Igtet going through so much trouble to win a job that seems to only bring headaches — and, if fresh elections take place as planned, will involve a term of less than six months? In an interview conducted between campaign stops in Tripoli, he positioned himself as a non-partisan figure who can transcend the country’s religious, ideological, and regional divides”.

The piece goes on to metion “Igtet’s curious background and lack of a domestic power base hasn’t prevented him from getting a hearing from the country’s powerbrokers. While selling himself as a sort of technocratic Everyman, he has engaged with a diverse range of Libyans — from militia leaders to liberal intellectuals, from religious hardliners to heavyweights representing the country’s diverse regional interests. Several prominent Libyans said that while they are skeptical of Igtet’s chances of becoming prime minister, they have agreed to meet him because they believe he has “the support of the Americans,” as one leading figure from the influential city of Misrata put it. It’s not hard to see where they’d get that idea: Igtet’s wife has served as president of the U.S.-Libya Chamber of Commerce, and Igtet doesn’t shy away from emphasizing his connections to U.S. corridors of power, claiming to know both Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. John McCain on a personal basis”.

The piece ends “Igtet not only has built ties with America’s friends, he’s also met with its enemies. He sat down last year with Ahmed Abu Khattala, the Benghazi militant charged by the Justice Department for his involvement in the 2012 attack on the American mission in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The State Department declared Abu Khattala a specially designated global terrorist in January. Igtet says he told Abu Khattala that he is opposed to Libyans “being kidnapped or transferred somewhere else” — a reference to the U.S. policy of rendition”.

It concludes, “While Igtet says he is not an Islamist, he has also built ties with some well-known Islamist figures across the region. Emad Elbannani, a senior figure in the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood who has known Igtet since they both lived as businessmen in Switzerland, introduced him to one of the most important Islamist politicians in North Africa — Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda party. Igtet and Elbannani accompanied Ghannouchi on a visit to Libya late last year, and Ghannouchi advised figures within the country’s Islamist milieu to support Igtet as someone who could both straddle Libya’s divides and engage with the West, according to people who met with the Tunisian leader. Contacted by Foreign Policy, Ghannouchi’s office said he would not comment on internal Libyan matters. Igtet says he has advised Ghannouchi on Tunisia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, a process which has gone more smoothly than that next door in Libya”.

It finishes. “When asked how to rein in the constellation of armed groups, some of them hardline Islamists, that emerged during and after the 2011 uprising, Igtet relates Libya’s security problem to the country’s dense knot of economic and social challenges. He points to the huge number of young Libyans who have not yet married due to economic and social obstacles. “This is the formula for Libya: fear, greed, love, and sex,” he said. “If you know how to solve these four, then you can solve security, economy, and social issues.” Whether Igtet will get a chance to put his ideas into action, however, remains to be seen. For many Libyans, his grand theories on how to mend their country seem hopelessly naïve — their previous leader, after all, couldn’t even stop militiamen from kidnapping him in a hotel, or a tanker from taking the country’s oil”.

“All parties expressing satisfaction”


The second round of talks between Iran and six world powers over Iran’s nuclear program ended Wednesday with all parties expressing satisfaction with the discussions, which were the most detailed so far on each of the main issues dividing them. Both Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief and the chief negotiator for the six powers, and Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, described the talks as “useful and substantive.” Although neither offered details, a senior American official described the sessions as “intense” and said there were discussions of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, the construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak that could be used to make plutonium into a fissile material, civilian cooperation on nuclear power and sanctions.  The talks, which started on Jan. 20 and are expected to last until July 20, are aimed at reaching a permanent agreement intended to ensure that Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon and that if it continued to have a nuclear program, it would be for exclusively peaceful purposes”.

Putin’s next target?


Tensions in Ukraine continue to rise, Foreign Policy reports that “With Russia seizing the last remaining Ukrainian military base in Crimea and massing troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, a top Ukrainian official warned that the chances of war with Russia were growing higher. Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, said his government was “very much concerned” about the Russian troop deployments and told that the chances of war were “becoming higher.” Appearing on This Week, the foreign minister said Kiev’s fragile pro-Western government preferred to use diplomatic means to settle its dispute with Moscow, but was also prepared to use other means “to defend their homeland.” The comments come amid growing concern that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin may try to follow his conquest and annexation of Crimea with a move into eastern Ukraine as well. The United States and its allies have warned Putin not to proceed into the region, but similar language — and sanctions against members of the Russian president’s inner circle — failed to prevent him from absorbing Crimea. Moscow finished its takeover of the peninsula this weekend when it seized the final Ukrainian military base and evicted the last remaining troops”. In an interview last week, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Foreign Policy that the military alliance was increasingly worried about a Russian move into eastern Ukraine.

A related piece by James Traub argues that Putin doesn’t “need” eastern Ukraine but that he might invade it anyway. Traub opens, “In a speech to the Duma earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned directly to the people of Ukraine, who perhaps he had heard were feeling jittery. ‘Do not,’ he said, ‘believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that.’ One imagines that Putin would not offer such an explicit pledge if he planned to violate it. On the other hand, he also noted that, after the Revolution, the Bolsheviks — ‘may God judge them’ — transferred historically Russian territory which now constitutes ‘the southeast of Ukraine.’ Logic would dictate that Putin digest the chunk of Ukraine he’s bitten off before opening his jaws again. But the smell of fresh blood may simply whet his appetite. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen just told Foreign Policy that he worries that Putin’s ‘next goal will be the eastern provinces of Ukraine’ — the ones that the Bolsheviks inexcusably surrendered. Ukraine can live perfectly well without Crimea, but not without its own industrial heartland. The great question facing the West over the next few weeks is thus not punishment for past misdeeds, but deterrence of future ones”.

Traub goes on to write “Before going to the question of whether and by what means Putin is deterrable, we should ask ourselves by what right, exactly, the West is being called upon to punish and prevent. Realists implore us to come down off our high horse. The Ukraine crisis is not about territorial aggression, FP’s Gordon Adams admonishes us, but rather “the realities of the interstate system.” George Friedman, the Metternich of Stratfor, notes that since ‘Russia has historically protected itself with its depth…. The loss of Ukraine as a buffer to the West leaves Russia without that depth and hostage to the intentions and capabilities of Europe and the United States.’ The reminder that Putin is defending Russia’s national interests as he has defined them, and as all great powers defined them in centuries past, is a useful caution against the hysterical moralism which turns Crimea into Munich. But it matters that the West no longer casually annexes neighbors, as the United States did with Texas 150 years ago. States whose definition of national interest posits a zero-sum contest among hostile powers pose a threat to an international order which no longer accepts the logic of balance of power — and not just a strategic threat, but a moral one as well”.



Traub writes that how this could be done, “The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on a range of individuals surrounding Putin. President Barack Obama has announced a second set of sanctions targeting Putin’s closest allies and financiers. But this may be the kind of pain — against others — which Putin welcomes rather than fears. Obama has, however, signed another executive order which authorizes the Treasury Secretary to exact punishments against Russian companies in energy, banking, metals and mining, and other key industrial sectors. Prohibiting Russian oil and gas companies from doing business with American banks and energy firms could do real damage to the Russian economy. For all the abuse coming his way from the Putin-is-Hitler crowd, Obama has reacted firmly, tightening the screws in response to each new provocation. Unfortunately, Washington cannot, by itself, threaten sufficient harm to deter Putin if he really wants to reverse Lenin’s mistake. Since Putin knows full well that NATO would not respond with force to any violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the only weapon he needs to fear is an economic one. And here Obama can only go just so far. He has been able to cripple the Iranian economy through sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, forcing Tehran to negotiate over its nuclear program; but of course Russia would veto any such effort. And the United States is not, itself, an important market for Russian products. The key is Europe, which spends $100 billion a year importing Russian gas. (The oil bill is even higher, but Russia could sell its oil elsewhere more easily than its gas.) Nothing would deter Putin so effectively as the prospect of losing that market, which would wreak havoc on Russia’s economy. The idea of a “gas boycott” has been the talk of European capitals. But so far, it’s been just talk. I asked Stefan Meister, a Russia expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, what form such a boycott would take, and he said, “There’s been no concrete discussion. In Brussels, nobody knows what it would be like.” The reason the discussion has remained so vague is because the prospect is so frightening. While Germany depends on Russia for only 36 percent of its gas — and has stored up a surplus — Italy, Poland, and Bulgaria, among others, are more dependent and have little or no storage capacity. Meister points out that Poland could switch to coal — save that it now imports coal from Russia. While oil producers like Saudi Arabia have surplus capacity which can be tapped in a crunch, the gas market is tight; Qatar, the world’s largest source of gas, has no additional capacity. Japan and China buy up whatever is available”.

He argues that in five years supply will be much greater but adds ,”The bad news, however, is that Putin isn’t thinking about five years from now; if he were, he wouldn’t have invaded Crimea in the first place. If anything, the prospect of long-term economic decline may prompt him to seize eastern Ukraine’s economic assets right now — while he has an opening. He might hesitate if the cost were crippling Gazprom, the most formidable weapon he has”.

He ends, “In short, the only force that can keep Russian troops from drinking vodka in Donetsk is Vladimir Putin himself. Putin has so many lower-cost options available to him that a large-scale invasion — even one limited to border areas — still seems unlikely. Putin may calculate that he can destabilize Ukraine, and thus turn its dalliance with the West into a failure, by using Russia’s immense economic power to squeeze Ukraine, by blanketing the east with propaganda from Russian media and by sending agents provocateurs to whip up popular discontent. Putin doesn’t “need,” as he put it, to divide Ukraine by force; he just needs to keep it out of the Western orbit. It is a very, very unsettling thought that Ukraine’s fate now depends on Putin’s calculations of self-interest, or even his whims. The ringmaster of Sochi seems still to be glorying in the vast powers at his disposal. We can only hope that the vapors start to disperse in the harsh light of day”.

US spending in Afghanistan


The United States has spent around $53 billion funding the Afghan security forces, in addition to providing the Afghan National Army (ANA) with 160 aircrafts, a coalition spokesman said on Wednesday. Col. Jane E Crichton, ISAF director of public affairs, told Pajhwok Afghan News during an exclusive interview that the US had given the Afghan forces the latest military gear over the past few years. He said the equipment included power generators, logistics supply vehicles and tools used at military bases. He said the $53 billion sum was used developing and training Afghan forces and purchasing military equipment for them. Crichton also said the United States had provided the ANA with 160 different aircrafts, 100,000 military vehicles, 500,000 weapons and 200,000 other military tools, including communication systems and cameras”.

“More problems than you and your advisors can handle”


An article that is highly critical of the foreign policy of President Obama argues that he does nothing.

He opens,  “U.S. foreign policy is in considerable disarray, and the vultures are circling the White House. Hawkish critics such as John McCainCondoleezza Rice, and Niall Ferguson are lambasting Obama for his alleged ‘weakness’ on Ukraine, Syria, Benghazi, or whatever — even though their main complaint seems to be that he isn’t willing to repeat the same costly blunders they either made or supported in the past. Still, the New York Times‘s David Sanger wonders if Obama’s more restrained approach to running the world has reached its limits”.

He writes that “Contrary to the critical overreaction to Obama in the wake of events in Ukraine, what we are really seeing here is the classic problem of over-commitment — in this case one that is more diplomatic than military in nature. U.S. officials like to claim they know how to walk and chew gum at the same time — by which they mean they can handle more than one problem at once — but trying to do too many things simultaneously leaves no bandwidth for dealing with the unexpected. It also forces top officials to rely heavily on subordinates who may not be good at their assigned tasks”.

He goes on to argue, “Pursuing multiple objectives without a clear set of priorities also allows opponents to thwart your aims merely by dragging their feet and waiting until Washington is distracted by the next problem. This tactic also forces U.S. leaders to spend more political capital, which in turn leaves them weaker when other issues arise. And when you try to do too many things at once, steps taken to advance your aims in one area may undermine your efforts somewhere else”.

For context he mentions that “To see how Obama got here, let’s start with a quick look back to the start of his second term. As regular readers know, I didn’t think the administration would accomplish much on the foreign-policy front, given the dearth of low-hanging fruit and an unfinished domestic agenda. I thought foreign policy would be a holding action: they’d concentrate on getting Obamacare to work, nurture the economic recovery, try to ease out of Afghanistan, and then hand all those other pesky problems off to Hillary in 2016. But then John Kerry became secretary of state in January 2013 and decided to get ambitious. He picked up a favourable tailwind when Iran elected a reformist president, and for a time it looked like my original forecast was dead wrong. Suddenly we had a genuine diplomatic process with Iran, active work on a “framework” agreement for Israeli-Palestinian peace, a renewed push for big transatlantic and transpacific trade deals, and Kerry even stumbled his way to a face-saving agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. If a couple of those initiatives came to fruition, Obama and Kerry would end the second term in a blaze of foreign policy glory”.

He notes that instead of this positive senario “The Iran negotiations produced an interim agreement and the administration stared down the predictable opposition from AIPAC and other hardliners, but the process has been slow, the fight has already used up a lot of political capital, and the opponents of a deal haven’t gone away. In fact, they’ve made it clear that any final agreement has to go a very long way to eliminating Iran’s enrichment program. (Can you say, ‘that’s a deal-breaker?’) And the latest developments in Ukraine won’t help. There are a number of serious issues still left to resolve with Iran, our regional allies are deeply wary, and Moscow (which is part of the P5+1) isn’t going to do us any favors at this point. By reducing confidence in Obama’s judgment, the Ukraine fiasco will also make it harder for him to sell whatever deal the negotiators eventually reach. Capping Iran’s nuclear program still makes good strategic sense, but getting to the finish line ain’t going to be easy”.

He makes the valid point referring to Afghanistan, “which used to be Bush’s failure but which Obama has owned ever since he chose to escalate the war in 2009. Although Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s petulantrefusal to sign a security agreement has given Obama an easy out, so far the president has refused to take it. Why? Because if the Afghan government collapses too quickly, Obama’s entire approach to the war will be discredited. Finally, Obama was blindsided by events in Ukraine, but why the administration didn’t see this coming remains a mystery. No matter what Putin says, Yanukovych’s ouster was not the result of some deep Western plot, and in many ways Yanukovych deserved to go. But the United States as far from a neutral party in this process, as top U.S. officials”.

He adds controversially “So now the United States and Europe are in a giant kerfuffle with Moscow, which will burn up even more time and make it even harder to get Russian cooperation on Iran, in Syria, or against a rising China.  It might all have been avoided had the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations not decided that it was America’s mission to try to guide as many countries as possible toward some sort of democracy (no matter how flawed) and some sort of pro-Western political alignment, even when other powers had reason to view this as a threat”.

While the decision to “guide as many countries as possible toward some sort of democracy” is not to be taken lightly it is crucial to what America is and at the same time the promotion of democracy is fundamental to its long term security interests. It could oftentimes be done better but to reject the notion of democracy promtion entirely is dangerous and can be short sighted. The problem is not neccessarily that the Obama administration tries to do too much at the same time but that events happen and both foreign and domestic audiences demand that the president, whoever that is, do something. Whether this is for good or ill is a different matter.

He concludes, “Given all this, what odds would you give that the Obama administration can accomplish any of the foreign policy tasks that it has already taken on? With so many irons in the fire and with some of those fires heating up, it’s becoming much easier for opponents (foreign or domestic) to just dig in their heels and run out the clock — which is precisely what most of them will do. The lesson here is that there’s no substitute for having a clear strategy and a well-developed set of priorities, especially when you’re leading a country that defines its interests in global terms and is inclined to meddle in every world development. Although Obama understood that the consequences of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the financial crisis required the United States to do somewhat less (a reality that his hawkish critics always forget because it was mostly their fault), his administration was still filled with idealist do-gooders who never saw a global problem they didn’t want to try to solve”.

He ends, “But being busy is not the same as being successful, and frantic activity is easily confused with achievement. If you load up the agenda with more problems than you and your advisors can handle and you haven’t established which issues are critical and which belong on the back burner, then you’re not likely to solve any of them”.

Half of Syria’s NBC’s


Nearly half of Syria’s declared chemical weapons have been shipped out of the country after two more cargoes were loaded onto vessels in the Mediterranean over the last week, the international team overseeing the disarmament process said. The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in a statement late on Wednesday that 45.6 percent of the chemicals had been removed from Syria’s Latakia port for destruction outside the country. Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons program last year in a deal with Russia and the United States, but it is several months behind schedule and risks missing a June 30 deadline for the chemicals to be destroyed. It has asked to be given until April 27 to complete the removal of the chemicals, which would put the mission two-and-a-half months behind schedule”.

1914 = 2014?


Robert Kaplan writes that there are parellels between Europe in 1914 and Asia now. In an article in Foreign Policy he argues

He notes “Is the Asia of 2014 the new Europe of 1914? China is a rising and assertive new power much like Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany. An explosion of nationalism has taken hold among dynamic ethnic nations, from Beijing to Tokyo, Hanoi to Manila. And as Asia’s middle-classes enjoy a new and ascendant place in the world, sustained capitalist prosperity has led to military acquisitions. An arms race in Asia is on the loose — as the Australian analyst Desmond Ball reports, progressing to a dangerous phase of actions and reactions, as opposed to a normal, non-threatening build-up. If World War I was ‘the first middle-class war in history,’ as the Canadian historian Modris Eksteins writes, with literate masses bursting with patriotic pride, no wonder so many see the dark echoes in the Pacific becoming an armed camp”.

He mentions rightly that “Historical analogy is useful for rough orientation. But it is dangerous when taken too far; each situation is its own thing, thoroughly unique. Indeed, great statesmen are those who exploit unique opportunities, even as they are aware of vague parallels to the past. The Pacific Basin now offers a signal illustration of vague parallels and yet telling differences to Europe on the eve of World War I. Miscalculations in the balance of power were a factor in the outbreak of World War I, and with the rise of Chinese military power — Beijing recently announced a 12.2 percent increase in its military spending, bringing its total annual budget to roughly 25 percent that of the United States — the Pacific is no longer an uncomplicated U.S. naval lake. A more complex balance of power between the United States, China, Japan, and others is replacing unipolarity. Such an arrangement, because it promises more interactions, makes miscalculations easier”.

Kaplan goes on to write “Though the islands in dispute in the East and South China seas are in many cases barren and below water during high tide, as Aristotle wrote, conflicts arise ‘not over small things but from small things.’ The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand that sparked World War I was one such small thing. Claims in the Pacific, however petty, if they are tied to vital interests, can lead to war. Indeed, the primordial quest for status still tragically determines the international system — just as it did prior to World War I”.

He goes on to argue “before one buys the 1914 analogy, there are other matters to consider. While 1914 Europe was a landscape, with large armies facing one another inside a claustrophobic terrain with few natural barriers, East Asia is a seascape, with vast maritime distances separating national capitals. The sea impedes aggression to a degree that land does not. Naval forces can cross water and storm beachheads, though with great difficulty, but moving inland and occupying hostile populations is nearly impossible. The Taiwan Strait is roughly four times the width of the English Channel, a geography that continues to help preserve Taiwan’s de facto independence from China. Even the fastest warships travel slowly, giving diplomats time to do their work. Incidents in the air are more likely, although Asian countries have erected strict protocols and prefer to posture verbally so as to avoid actual combat. (That said, the new Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone is a particularly provocative protocol.) Since any such incidents would likely occur over open water there will be few casualties, reducing the prospect that a single incident will lead to war”.

He makes the valid point that “World War I also featured different and unwieldy alliance systems. Asia is simpler: almost everyone fears China and depends — militarily at least — on the United States. This is not the Cold War where few Americans could be found in the East Bloc, a region with which we did almost no trade. Millions of Americans and Chinese have visited each other’s countries, tens of thousands of American businessmen have passed through Chinese cities, and Chinese party elites send their children to U.S. universities”.

Kaplan goes on to finish “the most profound difference between August 1914 and now is historical self-awareness. As Modris Eksteins meticulously documents in his 1989 book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, European capitals greeted the war with outbursts of euphoria and a feeling of liberation. Because 19th century Europe had been relatively peaceful since the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, people had lost the sense of the tragic that enables them to avoid tragedy in the first place. Aging, one-child societies like those of China, Japan, and South Korea, with memories of war, revolution, and famine, are less likely to greet violent struggle with joy and equanimity. And the United States, the paramount military player in Asia, by its very conscious fear of a World War I scenario, will take every measure to avoid it. A profusion of warships in the Pacific certainly suggests a more anxious, complicated world. But U.S. generals and diplomats need not give in to fate, especially given the differences with a century ago”.

More US sanctions


President Obama announced new sanctions against Russia on Thursday and warned  that more were on the way if Moscow escalated the crisis in Ukraine. The new sanctions target senior Russian officials, influential businessmen in  the country and a bank that provides “material support” to allies of Russian  president Vladimir Putin. [Read the updated list of sanction targets.] Obama also said he had  signed a new executive order that would allow him to impose sanctions on “key  sectors of the Russian economy.” He warned that this step, if taken, would have repercussions to the global  economy. The president did not detail those possible penalties, but his comments  suggested the new executive order could also hurt U.S. businesses, which have  been wary of tougher action against Russia”.

Libyan civil war?


A blog post from the Transitions in Foreign Policy warns of civil war in Libya. It opens, “Over the last couple of weeks, Libya has been rocked by events that have pushed the country to the edge of full-scale civil war. It all began when the eastern Libyan province of Barqa, led by its federalist, self-proclaimed government, succeeded in selling oil independent from the central government. Then, Libya’s prime minister, Ali Zeidan, fled the country after the General National Congress (GNC) passed a “no confidence” vote to kick him out of office. Last week also saw the eruption of clashes between Misrata militias, which are loyal to the GNC, and the forces supporting Barqa’s federalist government. On Monday, a car bomb detonated at a military base in Benghazi during a graduation ceremony for new recruits. The explosion left more than five dead and at least 14 injured”.

He goes on to note, “On Friday, March 7, the GNC ordered the armed forces to seize a North Korean-flagged oil tanker that ignored government threats and docked at the rebel-held port of Essidra. On March 10, GNC President Nuri Abusahmain went a step further and ordered the army to send in a task force to take back the oil terminals from the armed groups that have been blockading them since summer 2013. The forces they sent were not a national army, but were made up mainly of militias from the city of Misrata. The decision was hasty and made without careful consideration of the possible consequences of such a direct offensive”.

He adds that “The Barqa government had repeatedly threatened to sell oil on its own if the central government continued to ignore its demands, which include the establishment of oversight and investigative bodies for the oil industry and the revival of an old profit-sharing mechanism for the oil industry. The federalists insist that they are selling oil independently in order to secure resources and funds to support the national army and police in eastern Libya to address the deteriorating security situation, after the central government’s flagrant failure to do so. The federalists also insist that Islamists and extremists are currently running the show in Libya, and that these factions see the national army and police as a political threat. These extremists have used their influence and partnerships with militias to push their political agenda through the GNC and dominate the central government. Prime Minister Zeidan corroborated these claims in his first interview after being voted out”.

He goes on to mention “the central government’s overly aggressive move has only galvanized support for the Barqa government. Previously, the Barqa government had mainly recruited fighters from one tribe in the east, the Magharba tribe. Since the GNC’s mobilization, members of all of eastern Libya’s tribes are joining the federalists’ forces. Threatened by this vast mobilization of fighters, the GNC has already extended itsultimatum another two weeks, in the hopes that the two sides can still find a peaceful solution. Many in Libya, however, were already questioning the GNC’s legitimacy after it voted in December to extend its mandate by another year, contradicting the transition plan set out by the country’s constitutional declaration. Protesters across the nation called on GNC to end its mandate on Feb. 7, its original end date“.

Worryingly he writes that “The crisis in Libya also advances the interests of another group dominating the GNC’s and now the government: the Islamists. Though Islamists lack wide popular support in Libya — as the 2012 GNC elections showed — Islamist groups, such as the Justice and Construction Party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s arm in Libya), have grown more and more influential. The sacking of Prime Minister Zeidan only highlights that influence. They have used this new power to outmanoeuvre their less organised opponents and push through controversial legislation, such as the political isolation law, which neutralised opponents like Mahmoud Jibril. On another occasion, they even manipulated of votes in GNC”.

He concludes the piece, “It would not be surprising, then, if Libya’s never-ending political conflict shifts to these two opponents: local tribes and Islamist forces. The problem is two-fold: the trust gap between competing factions is only growing larger, and all of the parties look at Libya as a zero-sum game. While the Islamists fear that Libya will follow in Egypt’s footsteps, their opponents accuse them of hindering the building of a strong national army and police force, saying that they use their militias to dominate the security sector and manipulate the political process. As they are busy hashing it out, ordinary Libyans are losing faith in the democratic process, and begin to doubt its ability to make the changes they hoped to see”.

Collins in the Vatican


Pope Francis has appointed Msgr Brian Ferme as the secretary of the newly established Council for the Economy. At the same time he has established a group of experts, including abuse survivor, Marie Collins to “prepare the Statutes of the Commission, which will define its tasks and competencies. Other members will be added to the Commission in the future, chosen from various geographical areas of the world”.

Too cautious?


In an interesting piece in the New York Times, David Sanger has written that President Obama’s foreign policy of caution is being tested to its limits.

He begins, “For five years, President Obama has consciously recast how America engages with the world’s toughest customers. But with Russia poised to annex Crimea after Sunday’s referendum, with a mounting threat to the rest of Ukraine and with the carnage in Syria accelerating, Mr. Obama’s strategy is now under greater stress than at any time in his presidency. In his first term, the White House described its approach as the ‘light footprint’: ‘Dumb wars’ of occupation — how Mr. Obama once termed Iraq — were out. Drone strikes, cyberattacks and Special Operations raids that made use of America’s technological superiority were the new, quick-and-dirty expression of military and covert power. When he did agree to have American forces join the bombing of Libya in 2011, Mr. Obama insisted that NATO and Arab states ‘put skin in the game,’ a phrase he vastly prefers to ‘leading from behind.’  As he learned to play the long game, the Treasury Department became Mr. Obama’s favourite noncombatant command. It refined the art of the economic squeeze on Iran, eventually forcing the mullahs to the negotiating table”.

Sanger goes on to write however that “so far those tools — or even the threat of them — have proved frustratingly ineffective in the most recent crises. Sanctions and modest help to the Syrian rebels have failed to halt the slaughter; if anything, the killing worsened as negotiations dragged on. The White House was taken by surprise by Vladimir V. Putin’s decisions to invade Crimea, but also by China’s increasingly assertive declaration of exclusive rights to airspace and barren islands. Neither the economic pressure nor the cyberattacks that forced Iran to reconsider its approach have prevented North Korea’s stealthy revitalization of its nuclear and missile programs. In short, America’s adversaries are testing the limits of America’s post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan moment. “We’re seeing the ‘light footprint’ run out of gas,” said one of Mr. Obama’s former senior national security aides, who would not speak on the record about his ex-boss”.

Aside from the Obama’s total lack of engagement in Syria, which despite some potential benefits, will come back to haunt him Sanger’s point is too broad. With regard to the ADIZ, short of going to war with China, America has acted and warned China in a not so subtle way that this behaviour is not going to be tolerated.

Sanger goes on to write that “Obama acknowledges, at least in private, that he is managing an era of American retrenchment. History suggests that such eras — akin to what the United States went through after the two world wars and Vietnam — often look like weakness to the rest of the world. His former national security adviser Thomas Donilon seemed to acknowledge the critical nature of the moment on Sunday when he said on “Face the Nation” that what Mr. Obama was facing was “a challenge to the post-Cold War order in Europe, an order that we have a lot to do with.” But while Mr. Donilon expressed confidence that over time the United States holds powerful tools against Russia and other nations, in the short term challengers like Mr. Putin have the advantage on the ground”.

He continues, “the testing of administration policy at a time the president is politically weakened at home has sparked a critical question. Is it Mr. Obama’s deliberative, pick-your-battles approach that is encouraging adversaries to press the limits? Or is this simply a time when exercising leverage over countries that defy American will or the international order is trickier than ever, and when the domestic pressure to stay out of international conflicts is obvious to overseas friends and foes alike? It is almost certainly some combination of the two. But the most stinging critique of Mr. Obama is that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of nonintervention. Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, argues that five years of signaling that others need to step in, of stressing that America can no longer police the world, have taken a toll”.

Sangers acknowledgement that “the international order is trickier than ever” is a fair point and must be taken into account in assessing Obama’s foreign policy choices. For example, people rightly deride Obama for doing little in Syria but the chance of a once in a generation deal with Iran, however slight, is worth the time and effort even if it means inaction in Syria. The ever complicated relationship with China is made even more complicated as a result of the endlessly aggressive actions China is taking in Asia but at the same time China is needed, not just for talks with Iran but for a host of other issues.

He goes on to elobrate on Condoleezza Rice’s point, “Rice was enthusiastic about Mr. Obama’s election in 2008, and talked to him frequently during the transition. But she argues now that many of his decisions — such as abandoning a plan to strike Syria for its use of chemical weapons and proposing a defense budget that shrinks the Army to its lowest levels since World War II just as the Chinese announced a 12 percent increase in their military spending — send clear signals”. Yet, this overlooks the simple fact that money is not everything when it comes to miliary spending. China’s armed forces have a plethora of embedded problems and spending more money will not neccessarily make China a more powerful enemy.

Sanger adds that “Obama and his senior staff members tell a very different story — one in which the president has capitalised on the benefits of getting out of Iraq, and almost out of Afghanistan, to employ more subtle, smarter tools of national power. The ‘pivot to Asia,’ which has been slow to materialise, was supposed to be emblematic of a new combination of soft and hard power; it was as much about building trade relationships as making it clear to the Chinese leadership that America has no intention of ceding the East and South China Seas as areas where Beijing could expect to become the sole power. The latest budget invests more in drones and cyber and Special Operations forces, and pares back on conventional troops and the equipment for long land wars. ‘If we are constantly overextending ourselves, chasing every crisis, we’re not going to be able to play the long game required for American primacy,’ said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. Mr. Obama insists he is sending the right signals: He argued to Jeffrey Goldberg in Bloomberg View recently that there are “35,000 U.S. military personnel” in the Middle East who are constantly training ‘under the direction of a president who already has shown himself willing to take military action in the past.’ But the president also made the case that Washington is awash with muscle-flexing by those who have not learned the lessons of the past decade. If he had sent troops to Syria, Mr. Obama argued, ‘there was the possibility that we would have made the situation worse rather than better on the ground, precisely because of U.S. involvement, which would have meant that we would have had the third or, if you count Libya, the fourth war in a Muslim country in the span of a decade.'”

Sanger then writes that “Egypt is a good example. Despite threats by the United States to cut off several billion dollars in support for the Egyptian military if its generals continued their brutal crackdowns, protesters are still in jail, and the coming presidential election seems all but certain to be manipulated. Asked why the generals are so cavalier about losing American aid, a senior American diplomat who deals often with the Egyptians has an easy answer: ‘We don’t give them enough that they really care.’ Russia is the next test. Ukraine’s best defense today against a Russian incursion beyond Crimea is not its army or its allies, but the markets. The ruble has already fallen 10 percent this year, Russia’s exports are down, and a full-scale invasion would most likely force even the most reluctant Europeans to enact real sanctions. Among them is Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who changed her tone the other day and warned that if Russia ‘continues on its course,’ the result will be ‘massive damage to Russia, both economically and politically.’ Mr. Obama’s critics, seeing political advantage, argue that the world smells weakness”.

The problem with these examples is that, firstly with the case of Egypt, Sisi did America a favour in removing Morsi but this is naturally not a long term solution either for Egypt or America. If it is a choice between Morsi and the generals realism dictates that the generals should recieve backing. Sanger then cites the case of Ukraine and Russia. He is right that the economic route is the most painful for Putin but American sanctions will have little effect. His quoting of Merkel is unhelpful, she, and the rest of Europe are mired not only in a Kantian bubble but are unable to formulate a real policy of deterrence. America can only do so much economically to Russia, if Europe wants to stand firm on Putin, Germany must act and not just speak.

He ends the piece, “In fact, said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Republican who worked for both the first President George Bush and his son, to put the blame on Mr. Obama is to ‘ignore history, geography and politics, and lets both the Europeans and the Ukrainians themselves off the hook.'”

Putin Doctrine


Annexing Crimea is not an end in itself for the Kremlin, nor is partitioning Ukraine. These are just means to a more ambitious end. The Kremlin’s intervention in Crimea and involvement in the destabilization of southeastern Ukraine exemplifies the Putin Doctrine, formulated by the Kremlin in 2012­–­13. One of the goals of this doctrine is to find ways to reproduce the traditional Russian state and Putin’s regime, and to respond to new domestic and international challenges. This doctrine is based on three premises: Russia is a “unique” civilization and must contain the demoralized West; Russia can only exist as a galactic center, around which orbit satellite-statelets; Russia is the civilizational pillar whose mission is to defend “traditional values” globally. Many have viewed the Putin Doctrine as an exercise in empty rhetoric, but Putin has proved that it is the real thing. He has also proved that foreign policy is now the key instrument serving his domestic agenda”.

America, standing with Libya


An excellent, thoughtful article praises President Obama for the raid that some have argued, saved Libya. He starts, “Obama pulled off a master stroke this week. Hedeployed U.S. military force in support of an infant democracy that desperately needs our help. The result was a resounding success, a vivid illustration of how the United States can put its unchallenged power to positive ends. He did it, once again, by sending in the SEALs, the U.S. Navy’s famous special forces. But this time they weren’t double-tapping a terrorist. Instead they seized a mysterious tanker that had skipped out of Libya with a shipment of oil that one of the country’s rogue militias was trying to sell on the open market. By doing it the SEALs foiled a potentially game-changing challenge to the authority of Libya’s hard-pressed government — one of the very few in the Arab world to have actually been elected by its own country’s people”.

He notes the reation, or lack thereof, “The reaction in Washington: a giant yawn.Deafening silence from Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who are always quick to demand U.S. military action in situations where it will usually make things worse. Fox News barely noticed. Nor was there a word of praise from the president’s liberal allies on Capitol Hill. Even the New York Times ran a perfunctory report“.

He makes the valid point that “The collective disinterest is even more appalling when you consider that the country we just helped is Libya. You remember, right — the place where our ambassador was killed by terrorists”.

He goes on to warn about the situation in Libya that is “in urgent need of help. The post-Qaddafi government, chosen by the people in free and fair elections, is struggling to survive challenges to its power from myriad armed militias, Islamist death squads, and regional separatists. All of these forces share an interest in keeping the central government destabilised and weak”.

He mentions the nub of the issue, “Oil is Libya’s lifeblood. The economy entirely depends on it; turn off the taps and everything grinds to a halt. Libyans quite rightly regard the oil as their common property, a national resource to be shared for the good of all. The vast majority of Libyans hold jobs that are financed, directly or indirectly, by the sale of oil. Given this history, it makes perfect sense that the control of oil should rest with the central government. Take that away, and the government doesn’t just lose control over its most important source of finance — the very notion of central authority will also be compromised, perhaps fatally. And in present-day Libya, the fate of democracy is closely linked with the viability of government itself”.

He argues that had the vessel left Libyan waters, ignoring whatever threats the government made “the result would have been an unmitigated disaster for the government. Tripoli’s impotence and dysfunction would have graphically exposed for all the world to see. The floodgates for the wholesale looting of Libya’s oil resources would have opened. The forces of anarchy would have cheered. (It’s worth noting that a prime minister has already lost his job for even allowing the tanker to load in the first place.) But that’s when Washington stepped in. Not long after the tanker arrived in international waters, a U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser, the USS Roosevelt, brought the SEALs into range. (By the way, Obama authorized the move at 10 PM on Sunday night Washington time, as the world was preparing for the Crimean referendum.) They boarded the tanker without a shot fired and took it over. The oil is now on its way back to territory controlled by Tripoli”.

He rightly adds nuance to the debate about US foreign policy under President Obama, “This was not ‘leading from behind.’ This was an act of daring from a president who’s often typecast as too passive for his own good. But it was also a smart, calculated move — a truly surgical operation of a kind that probably only the United States could have pulled off with such confidence. It sends exactly the message that needs to be sent: If you try freelancing with oil resources that rightfully belong to the Libyan people, you won’t get far”.

He ends “Amid all this chaos, the tanker raid sends a crucial signal that the world still stands behind the Libyans’ oft-expressed democratic aspirations (and that America, in particular, continues to support them). Karim Mezran, a Libya-watcher at Washington’s Atlantic Council, put it this way in a recent note: the U.S. action, he wrote, ‘bolstered the authority of state institutions against rogue, centrifugal forces that wish to use violent and illegal means to advance their agendas and to undermine the nation-building process.’ Libyans need all the help they can get, and they can be forgiven for thinking that we’d forgotten about their struggle. Thank goodness we’ve finally found a way to show them that we still care”.

“Planning to bolster Ukrainian forces”


NATO officials don’t expect to see near-term military “stand offs” with Russia as President Vladimir Putin appears poised to annex the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, but are planning to bolster Ukrainian forces in the long-term, a NATO official told the Hill.  NATO plans to help Ukrainian forces build capacity via joint exercises, advice and other unspecified things, the official said on background. Although the official did not specify exact exercises, the U.S. Army is planning to conduct an exercise in Ukraine this July, according to the Army Times. Exercise Rapid Trident 2014 is expected to take place near L’viv, Ukraine, and will involve units from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, Georgia, Germany, Moldova, Poland, Romania, the United Kingdom and Ukraine, Lt. Col. David Westover Jr. told the Army Times“.

Defeating Assad and the jihadists?


A piece in Foreign Policy disucsses the man who the writer says, is the only real hope to fight against al Qaeda.

He begins, noting that Jamal Maarouf, “The leader of the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), a moderate rebel alliance, is surrounded by his commanders and advisors, who are perched on overstuffed couches and thin foam mattresses”.

He continues, “Maarouf has been the big winner of the recent push by rebel groups to oust the extremist al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), from northern Syria. His alliance was one of the first to launch the fight against ISIS, winning a series of quick, decisive victories in early January that shot it to prominence both inside Syria and out. Islamist rebels have also gradually joined his cause: The Islamic Front, the country’s largest rebel alliance, has repeatedly clashed with ISIS, while Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, issued an ultimatum last week calling on ISIS to submit to mediation or be exterminated”.

He goes on to mention that “The SRF is a collection of moderate rebel groups, about 25,000 fighters in all, bound more by their common cause to roll back Islamist influence in Syria than a specific ideology. The group was formed in early December by uniting 14 factions with particularly strong representation in the northern Idlib province, including Maarouf’s Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade, Ahrar al-Shamal, and the Idlib Military Council”.

He writes that their cause is to “roll back Islamism influence” as opposed to any specific ideology. Yet, in the mess that Syria has become, in no small part because of President Obama’s abject failure to do anything, let alone what he says.

Interestingly the author says that “While an estimated 3,000 anti-Assad fighters have been killed in the infighting against ISIS, Maarouf believes that the effort to expel the jihadist group is only making the rebel cause stronger. He claims the fight has healed the divisions that previously plagued the rebel forces, and transformed the opposition into stronger, more effective fighters”.

Even more importantly the writer adds boslters Maarouf’s moderate credentials, “Maarouf’s actions have led some to hope that he could be a rebel commander that the West could wholeheartedly support — someone with influence on the ground, and no extremist tendencies. He maintains close ties with Syria’s Western-backed political leadership in exile, most recently becoming one of the few commanders to endorse the peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, last month. On the eve of the negotiations, Syrian National Coalition head Ahmad Jarba paid Maarouf a battlefield visit — an effort to use the moderate rebel commander as proof that the opposition coalition had influence on the ground in Syria. Maarouf says he would be open to Western support, and it’s not hard to see why his political and religious views make him a potentially attractive partner for those concerned with the rise of Islamist extremists”.

There is a crucuial counter-narative, “Maarouf’s lack of any defined ideology had led to condemnations from rival groups that he had joined Syria’s war for little more than his own enrichment. Hassan Aboud, a leader of the Salafist brigade Ahrar al-Sham, has called Maarouf’s men ‘gangs,’ accusing them of attacking and stealing from other members of the opposition. After the Islamic Front, an umbrella alliance for Islamist militias of which Aboud is a top official, was accused of pillaging warehouses being used by the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, Aboud shot back, saying that Maarouf ‘should not forget he was one of the first to steal from the Free Syrian Army.’ As a result of such condemnations, support for his Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade dwindled throughout much of 2013. ‘In terms of the Syrian conflict all together, I think he’s predominantly been seen as an opportunist,’ says Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha center. ‘For a period of time prior to the formation of the SRF under his leadership, his popular support on the ground had reduced significantly and he was almost decried within certain circles.’ All this turned on a dime when Maarouf first took on ISIS. In the SRF’s first battle against ISIS, his forces routed the jihadists from the strategically important town of Atareb, near the Turkish border. Maarouf justifies his struggle against ISIS in explicitly religious terms: ‘The Quran says you have your religion and I have mine,’ he says, but continues with a caveat. ‘God also says you can attack anyone if he attacks you, even if he is a Muslim.’ For Maarouf and his men, this confidence has translated into an influx of weapons and cash — mostly from Saudi Arabia, Maarouf says”.

He ends the piece “So far, Maarouf appears to be successfully balancing his role as a simple military commander with his need to woo powerful allies abroad for guns and money. Anti-Assad Syrians, meanwhile, are watching closely to see whether he can emerge as a leader strong enough to rid their country of both Assad and the jihadists”.

Not willing to suspend or cancel


French officials have spent years defending a $1.7 billion arms sale to Russia, a deal Paris won after beating out rival nations like Germany and Spain. The United States and its Baltic allies have spent just as long warning that selling powerful amphibious warships to the Kremlin risked giving Russian strongman Vladimir Putin powerful new weapons to use against his neighbours. With Russia showing no signs of ending its military occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, the deal is suddenly facing new scrutiny. French President Francois Hollande said Saturday that France will review its military cooperation with Russia if Moscow doesn’t begin to pull its forces from Crimea and drop its threats against Ukraine’s fragile central government. The tough language was a first for the French leader: Hollande had previously given no indication that he was willing to suspend or cancel the deal. Earlier this month, in fact, he said it was still on track. Barring something unforeseen,the first French-built ship, the Vladivostok, will be delivered to Russia this fall. The second is under construction in France”.

“Battle of the billionaires”


An article from the Hill discusses the upcoming midterms and their relationship with wealth. It opens, “The midterm elections are shaping up as the battle of the billionaires. In one corner are Charles and David Koch, the prominent conservative donors who made their fortunes in the fossil-fuel industry. They are pouring tens of millions of dollars into ad campaigns aimed at helping the GOP take back the Senate. In the other corner is a newcomer, Tom Steyer, who has vowed to push the issue of climate change relentlessly to the forefront of American politics — even though his allegiance to the Democrats is more equivocal than that of the Kochs to the GOP”.

The piece adds, “Steyer and the Kochs are both digging deep into their personal fortunes to try and influence the outcome of the elections, in what historians say is a political throwback to the Gilded Age. Steyer, a former hedge fund manager turned environmental activist, made waves when he announced in February that he would funnel at least $100 million to make climate change the top issue in the 2014 midterms – a sum that includes $50 million of his own money and $50 million from donors. The Koch-backed advocacy group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has spent at least $30 million since August targeting vulnerable House and Senate Democrats up for reelection this year. AFP has not indicated how much it is willing to spend in total this cycle”.

The piece notes “Steyer is seeking to turn 2014 into an election cycle unlike all others. The battle will likely come down to a handful of crucial seats that Democrats must hold onto if they want to maintain control of the Senate. Yet Steyer is the embodiment of a new kind of outside player that Democrats cannot quite figure out. His support is simultaneously firm and adorned with caveats”.

This gives the Democrats both hope and at the same time reason to worry. Making policy according to one, or two, billionaires is first and foremost bad for the political parties. The party becomes a mirror image of the interests and priorities of their respective backers. This means that on issues that need support and attention, like the minimum wage, the Democrats will be less able to focus their time and resources over, in this case, climate change.  The same is true for the GOP.

The piece adds, “The Koch brothers have involved themselves in elections for years, writing off checks to push core conservative values and policies that drive the oil and gas industry. Their supporters argue that their influence is one reason the United States is experiencing an energy renaissance, with crude oil production surpassing imports for the first time in nearly 20 years. AFP has already run ads targeting three vulnerable Senate Democrats on carbon taxes this cycle: Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.)”.

Naturally the fairness of this also comes into question. The article notes, “the fairness of at least some of the ads is open to question. In recent weeks, AFP ran ads in Alaska hitting Begich again for being ‘on record supporting a carbon tax’ for the nation’s biggest polluters. The claim has been disputed both by the Begich campaign and by purportedly independent fact-checking organisations. In an interview with The Hill last summer, Begich expressed skepticism about taxing carbon emissions”.

The AFP wants very clear policies about energy but in areas where an incumbent is not supportive enough for certain measures then it obviously feels its interests are more important and tries to unseat the incumbent, as the piece mentions “Begich is a top energy Democrat, who sides with his Republican colleague from Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, more often than his party on energy issues. (His support for the Keystone XL pipeline is one example.) Still, AFP wants Begich ousted along with other vulnerable Democrats”.

The article goes on to say that Steyer is sticking his money where it shouldn’t be, to possible enormous consequences for other important Democratic legislative priorities, “the picture in Landrieu’s case is complicated. Steyer’s super-PAC, NextGen Climate Action, launched in 2013, is currently taking a poll among its online community over which lawmaker it should run a negative ad about, hitting the candidate’s ties to the “carbon-intensive” Keystone XL pipeline. Landrieu is one of five candidates who may be chosen as the target. That, in itself, is the kind of gambit that illuminates why there is some underlying confusion among Democrats over Steyer’s intentions”.

There are a slew of other issues where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the White House need Landrieu’s support but if Steyer deems climate change the most important issue then he will target Landrieu and possibly end up with the GOP senator even more hostile to his cause. There have been similar consequences, in 2000 Ralph Nader campaigned for president and it is almost certain that his candidacy cost Al Gore the presidency. Similarly, in 1992 Ross Perot ran and assisted in the election of Bill Clinton.

It concludes, “Climate change might look unlikely to be the single dominant issue in an election where debates over healthcare will loom large. But the money being pumped in by AFP and Steyer should ensure that the environmental battle gets at least its fair share of attention within the larger war”.

The bigger and much more important point however is democracy is being corroded on the left and the right. The faster Citizens United is overturned and the state funds political parties, the better.

“Rescued the fragile transitional government”


United States Navy commandos seized a renegade tanker carrying illicit Libyan oil in the Mediterranean southeast of Cyprus on Monday, thwarting a breakaway militia’s attempt to sell the oil on the black market. No shots were fired, no one was injured and the commandos captured three armed Libyans described by the ship’s captain as hijackers. The predawn raid, carried out by about two dozen members of the Navy SEALs using high-speed boats from a nearby destroyer, rescued the fragile transitional government in Tripoli from a potentially catastrophic loss of control over its main source of revenue and last source of power: Libya’s vast oil reserves. The tanker had threatened to uncork those reserves by enabling a militia that has blockaded Libya’s major oil ports for the last eight months to begin selling the oil on its own, independent of the state. The government in Tripoli sputtered with furious warnings of retribution but appeared powerless to stop the shipment. Flying a North Korean flag as cover but reportedly owned by an Arab shipping company, the tanker, called the Morning Glory, left the Libyan port of Sidra unmolested last week with a hull full of illicit oil”.

Crimea and Iran


Bloomberg has reported that the P5+1 talks have resumed, “The specter of Crimea hangs over Iran’s nuclear talks resuming today, as world powers locked in a confrontation over Russia’s move to annex the region find themselves on the same side during negotiations with the Islamic Republic. Even as they clash over Ukraine, diplomats from Russia and the U.S. and European Union are seeking to build on November’s interim accord in Geneva, which froze some of Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work in return for limited sanctions relief. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton had a“constructive” meeting today with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif before the world powers convened, her spokesman, Michael Mann, said in a statement. Yesterday, the EU imposed penalties on 21 Russians after a referendum paved the way for President Vladimir Putin to take control of Crimea. The White House slapped sanctions on seven top Russian officials”.

Meanwhile the New York Times reports that “Tensions between the West and Russia over events in Ukraine have cast a shadow over the second round of talks set to begin on Tuesday in Vienna on a permanent nuclear agreement with Iran. Although the talks have no direct connection to Ukraine, their success hinges on solidarity among the so-called P5-plus-one countries — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which include Russia, plus Germany — in favour of a tough agreement with Iran to drastically scale back its nuclear program”.

The piece adds that “If Russia signals that its cooperation with the West has weakened, that will reduce pressure on Iran to make concessions, said experts knowledgeable about the talks, which began last month with three days of meetings involving senior diplomats from each of the governments involved”.

It is hard enough to get all parties to agree a deal and then have an added layer of complication with Russia. The Europeans tend to be much more eager to agree a deal and are, on the whole less concerned about a nuclear Iran than America. Yet, even within Europe there are divisions on this. Germany and France are the most dovish, while the UK is closer to the American line. Then there is the complication of having agreed a deal getting it ratified. On this front both America and Iran are the hardest. The hardliners in both the Senate and in Iran are continuing to push for a deal that doesn’t exist and in all probability won’t ever exist. If either side push too hard the ratification process could be the sticking point. All of this is in addition to the current crisis in Ukraine and the understandable calls for hard, punitive sanctions on Russia. All of this assumes a deal is done in the first place, which despite signs is by no means certain.

The report goes on to note “A senior American official, speaking before the Iran talks and just before the secession vote in Crimea on Sunday that overwhelmingly approved reunification with Russia, indicated concern about possible consequences from the friction over Ukraine. Since western nations consider that vote illegal and have warned President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia not to annex Crimea, the situation for the Iran talks would now seem more worrisome”.

The article mentions “Experts outside the government were more explicit. ‘If President Putin goes ahead with his apparent intention to annex Crimea, we’re going to have to sanction Russia, and they are going to have to retaliate, and it’s really going to screw up the P5-plus-one negotiations with Iran,’ said Gary Samore, a former senior aide on nonproliferation on the National Security Council in President Obama’s first term”.

The piece ends, “But negotiators always hope to make headway on smaller points so that they can begin to attack the bigger points of difference, and it appears that the potential spillover from Ukraine tensions could make it difficult to make progress even on more minor issues, Western officials said. At the last meeting, they agreed on a framework for the talks and a schedule. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, who leads the country’s negotiations with the P5-plus-one group, appeared to lower expectations for progress”.

It concludes “The two sides are far apart, with Iran adamant about retaining its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and the West adamant that it wants measures to prevent Iran from ever turning the country’s supply of low-enriched uranium into higher-enriched bomb-grade fuel. Although Iran denies having any intention of making a nuclear weapon, evidence that it appeared to have begun developing long-range missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and that it tried to hide some of its uranium enrichment facilities has made the West as well as Israel and Iran’s Sunni Arab neighbours suspicious“.

India as MFN?


In a move that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago reports note that “Pakistan will grant on Friday Most-Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India with a condition of receiving a substantial concessions in trade from New Delhi. The decision is expected to be announced after a special cabinet briefing to be headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a well-placed source in the ministry of commerce told Dawn on Monday. Commerce Minister Khurram Dastagir Khan had made a conditional offer for granting MFN status to India in January, and had sought access for 250 to 300 items at lowered duties. At the time of the MFN offer, the commerce ministry has not linked the trade liberalisation with the resumption of suspended talks, which raised questions from other stakeholders for ignoring their issues while given the concession to India. As a result, the decision was delayed which was scheduled to be announced in the middle of February during the proposed visit of Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma. However, delay in decision led to postponement of the Indian minister visit to Pakistan”.

Now part of Russia


As events continue to move swiftly the Washington Post reports that “Invoking the suffering of the Russian people and a narrative of constant betrayals by the West, President Vladimir Putin declared Tuesday that Russia was within its rights to reclaim Crimea, then signed a treaty that did just that. Putin, defiant in the face of U.S. and European pressure, dispensed with legal deliberation and announced a swift annexation of Crimea, as if to put Europe’s most serious crisis in decades beyond the point where the results could be turned back. In a speech to a joint session of the Russian parliament, he compared the move to the independence declaration of Kosovo in 2008 and the reunification of Germany in 1990 — but, in reality, this is the first time that one European nation has seized territory from another since the end of World War II”.

A blog post in Foreign Policy notes that “Tensions in Ukraine’s Crimean region boiled over on Tuesday following the decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to annex the Black Sea peninsula in defiance of Kiev and much of the Western world. The most intense flashpoint occurred at a Ukrainian military base in the Crimean capital of Simferopol shortly after Putin and the Crimean leaders formalised the annexation of the peninsula during a signing ceremony. At the base, masked gunmen stormed the facility, killing one soldier, injuring another, and placing the rest of the staff under arrest, according to a Ukrainian military spokesperson. The Ukrainian Defence Ministry then authorised its personnel to use force ‘to protect and preserve the life of Ukrainian soldiers'”.

He goes on to write that “The annexation of Crimea came just a day after the United States and the European Union imposed asset freezes and visa bans on more than 20 Russian and Ukrainian officials, warning Moscow not to recognize the Black Sea peninsula as an independent state. Within 24 hours, Putin not only endorsed the results of Crimea’s referendum on joining Russia, but also signed an annexation agreement into law. ‘Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer to be guided by the principle that might is right in international politics,’ Putin said. ‘They have come to believe they are exceptional. They think that only they can be right … They’re trying to drive us into a corner because we’re not hypocritical and tell it like it is.’ Responding to Putin’s address, Ukraine’s Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called the Russian land grab ‘a robbery on an international scale.'”

He ends noting what has been mentioned here before, “The severity of new U.S. sanctions against Moscow remains unclear as well. One of the most powerful weapons the West could use against Russia would be to target the country’s energy powerhouses, especially Gazprom and Rosneft. The two companies dominate Russia’s energy production and exports, and are the key levers by which Putin wields energy as a geopolitical weapon. Bringing the hurt to the energy firms would deal a blow to an economy that is increasingly in trouble — both now and in the future. Oil and gas exports make up about half of Russia’s federal budget now”.

“Enrollment spiked in March”


ObamaCare enrollment spiked in March, and a total of 5 million people have signed up since the insurance marketplaces launched in October, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner wrote in a blog post Monday. Less than a week ago, the administration said 4.2 million had signed up for coverage through the end of February, meaning that about 800,000 people have enrolled so far in March. That’s good news for the Obama administration; the number of enrollments had fallen from 1.1 million in January to 942,000 in February. The numbers come with less than two weeks left in open enrollment. It seems increasingly unlikely that the administration will hit the original Congressional Budget Office projections of enrolling 7 million people between October and March”.

Iran, exporting too much?


A piece has been published argues that Iran is producing more oil. Similar articles of late have mentioned this situation.  He opens “Iran is exporting more oil than it did last year, and in greater amounts than the limit the United States placed on exports under the on-going negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, according to the latest oil market data. But conflicting and complicated data about oil sales make it hard to present black-and-white arguments about whether the limited relief given to Iran as part of the nuclear negotiations agreed last November is providing a lifeline to Tehran or not. Iran hawks point to rising oil exports to argue that the United States is giving away negotiating leverage; the Obama administration says it is comfortable with Iran’s current exports and is focused on the six-month talks”.

He goes on to write “The latest data come just ahead of the next round of high-level talks between Iran and six major powers, slated for next week in Vienna. Friday’s monthly oil market report by the International Energy Agency shows Iranian oil exports reaching a one-year peak of about 1.4 million barrels a day in February, up from 1.1 million barrels a day in 2013. The Obama administration said it aims to limit Iranian oil exports to about 1 million barrels a day under the limited sanctions relief agreed to as part of the nuclear negotiations”.

He mentions however that the situation is more complex for the United States that these simple figures which obviously show Iran breaking the agreed deal. He notes, “The problem is that monthly oil-market data fluctuate sharply and are constantly revised, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the strength of Iran’s oil sector or U.S. efforts to rein it in. Critics who fear that sanctions relief is easing the economic stranglehold on Tehran point to oil sales as a worrisome indicator”.

The choice for Obama and the other parties is that they can either persue this small point, albeit, one with huge consequences or they can accept it and continue to work of the deal that, according to the Iranian delegation could be only months away.

The writer then mentions that “While oil export data varies month-to-month, there are signs that the administration’s diplomatic offensive is paying dividends. India, for example, bought a lot more Iranian oil in January than it was buying the year before: about 415,000 barrels a day, according to the latest IEA estimate. U.S. officials went to New Delhi to impress upon the government that it needed to cut back to last year’s import levels. Reuters reported last week that the Indian government said it would reduce its  purchases through the first half of the year. And according to the latest IEA report, India cut back sharply on Iranian oil imports in February, to about 175,000 barrels a day, below the amount it imported in late 2013, or around 200,000 barrels a day”. He then reiterates the point he previously made about the unrelability of data given the example that the IEA said that India imported 240,000 bpd in January but this was soon revised up to 415,000 bpd.

He goes on to nuance his article further noting that things are further complicated by the fact that  “the question of just how much “oil” Iran is exporting depends on what is meant by “oil.” Crude oil, the heavier liquid pumped out of reservoirs, is specifically targeted by U.S. sanctions. Condensates, which are lighter liquid hydrocarbons usually derived from natural gas, aren’t. But the IEA oil figures lump together crude oil and condensates, which make Iran’s export totals seem higher than the cap the U.S. wants to impose. ‘Higher Iranian imports in recent months reflect, in large part, increased sales of condensates to Asian buyers,’ the IEA said”.

He ends “U.S. officials, for their part, focus on the crude oil totals, the subject of sanctions, and believe their patient diplomacy is paying off”.

Missiles for Iraq


The United States delivered 100 Hellfire missiles, along with assault rifles and ammunition to Iraq as part of its anti-terrorism assistance to the country, the U.S. embassy to Iraq said on Sunday. In a statement, it said the delivery was made earlier this month in order to help bolster Iraq forces fighting a breakaway al-Qaida group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  “It is essential that Iraqi Security Forces are equipped with modern and effective weaponry given the serious threat… the ISIL now poses to Iraq and the region,” said the statement, which also promised to send more weapons to Iraq in the coming weeks. It added that since mid-January, Iraqi security forces had received more than eleven million rounds of ammunition, as well as thousands of machine guns, sniper rifles, assault rifles, and grenades. The Iraqi warplanes frequently fire Hellfire missiles at militant positions in the embattled western Anbar province”.

The danger of sanctions


An interesting article both explains why and argues against American tough sanctions on Russia.

It begins noting that “Obama’s administration has spent weeks threatening tough sanctions against Russia, only to impose modest measures like visa bans. The White House has good reason to proceed carefully: Targeting Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine could undermine the ongoing U.S.-led efforts to crack down on the financing of everything from drugs to nuclear weapons. President Obama has authorised the Treasury Department to prepare for potential sanctions that would freeze the assets of Russian officials linked to the invasion, but it’s unclear how far the White House will actually be willing to go. Obama used a meeting with acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Patsenyuk this week to again warn Russia that there would be “a cost” for the incursion into Ukraine, but so far the United States has posed only visa bans on a limited number of Russian and Ukrainian officials”.

The writer does note that “The West has powerful tools at its disposal for use against Russia, including potentially levying sanctions against certain Russian banks and companies. That would be a huge, and dangerous, gamble. Russia has promised to retaliate for any Western sanctions, perhaps by seizing the assets of American firms operating in Russia. The bigger risk, though, is that Russia could do everything in its power to prevent the United States and its allies from using the global financial system to combat other foes”.

The author goes on to argue forcefully that harsh sanctions on Russia would damage a host of other projects that are needed with Russian support, or at leasta lack of hinderance, “Russia has been instrumental in isolating North Korea and Iran by refusing to veto hard-hitting United Nations Security Council sanctions resolutions. Those measures have been credited with hobbling the Iranian economy and bringing Iranian negotiators back to the table to talk about dismantling the country’s nuclear program. American sanctions against Moscow could persuade Russian strongman Vladimir Putin to retaliate by ignoring current sanctions, expanding his commercial dealings with Tehran, and vetoing any new effort to impose new sanctions if the current nuclear talks end without a deal”.

The writer adds that “reports that Russia was negotiating an oil deal with Iran fed fears that Russia is more foe than friend. U.S. lawmakers questioned whether Russia was taking the interim nuclear pact with Iran as a free pass to ignore the sanctions that remain in place and buy more Iranian oil. U.S. officials responded by warning Russia that it could be sanctioned for buying or trading goods for Iranian oil, and so far the deal hasn’t gone through. Russia would have a multitude of ways of responding. It could stop helping the U.S.-led effort to ferret out financial transactions of drug kingpins, weapons traffickers, and terrorist organisations like al Qaeda. Russia has signed on with international efforts to combat money laundering, bribery, and nuclear weapons proliferators by stepping up oversight of the financial system, isolating bad actors, and freezing their assets”.

She goes on to mention “If the United States tries to isolate Russia financially, Juan Zarate, formerly a senior Treasury Department official charged with overseeing the Bush administration’s sanctions program, said the effort could backfire. If Russian banks are cut off from the financial system by sanctions, they could react by slacking off on enforcement of those rules or creating financial havens for sanctions-breakers and criminals”.

The article adds, “Zarate describes the ways that other countries might use financial weapons pioneered by the United States against it. In an example that illustrates how this could happen, Zarate writes that Russia approached China with a proposal to sell its stakes in U.S. government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis. Suddenly putting hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of the Fannie and Freddie debt up for sale could have prompted a market panic that would have required Washington to put more money into the bailout of the U.S.-backed finance giants. Although Chinese officials declined, the plan could have cast a pall over the U.S. financial system and deepened the global financial crisis. The idea was never realised, but some saw it as evidence of Russian interest in upending the U.S.-dominant global financial system”.

Interestingly she notes that even “European support for sanctions is also growing in the face of Russian intransigence. After moving troops into Crimea nearly two weeks ago, Russia has refused to budge and the diplomatic efforts initially favored by key German leaders have floundered. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been reluctant to use financial and economic tools against Russia, said Wednesday that sanctions would be ‘unavoidable’ if Russia didn’t move to de-escalate the Ukraine conflict. A Russian-backed secession vote in Crimea set for Sunday could provoke the West to finally make good on sanctions threats”.

The piece ends “Tim Ash, a financial analyst who has been watching the Ukraine situation closely, calls this approach “stealth sanctions.” He said that tightening the regulatory environment on Russian banks and companies could make it harder for Russia to find buyers for its government bonds, which could create a whole raft of problems for Moscow. It could also further turn investors away from Russia and prompt more of them to pull their money out of the country”.

Open Russian incursion?


The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs alleged 80 Russian forces invaded a village just north of Crimea, a day ahead of a referendum there to secede from Ukraine.  The ministry claimed Russian forces entered the village of Strilkove, just east of the tip of the Crimean Peninsula and six miles north of the border, with four helicopter gunships and three armored vehicles. It called for the troops to immediately withdraw”.

“The pivot will suffer”


During all the talk of Russia and Crimea an article notes the Russia-Sino alliance and argues that China has won most over the last weeks.

It starts, “Akward does not begin to describe it. Every time Beijing has been asked for its view on the Russian intervention in Ukraine, it has fallen back on tortuous formulations. On March 2, the day after Russian troops started fanning out across Crimea, the Chinese Foreign Ministry noted: ‘There is a good reason for why events in Ukraine have progressed to where they are today.’ On March 3, Liu Jieyi, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations, said ‘there are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today.'”

He argues that “It is not hard to understand why China feels itself in a tight spot over the situation in Ukraine, where Russia has responded to the collapse of the presidency of its ally Viktor Yanukovych in late February and the formation of a new, pro-Western government by exerting Russian military control over the Crimean peninsula. One of the basic tenets of Chinese foreign policy is non-interference in the domestic business of other countries, which provides a barrier against their meddling in its own affairs and a way of floating above some of the world’s more difficult trouble spots without getting sucked into messy political disputes or taking on new responsibilities. China is also allergic to separatist movements within countries. If Crimea can be allowed to vote for independence, why not Tibet? China and Russia may have been estranged during the latter part of the Cold War, and only resolved their own tense border issues in 2008, but the two nations have long found common cause over the issue of state sovereignty. For the last decade, Russia and China have often tag-teamed at the U.N. to block Western busybodies from getting involved in smaller countries’ internal crises. In the 2000s, when China wasdefending Sudan against Western criticism over Darfur, Russia provided political cover. Over the last three years, China hasbacked up Russia in its efforts to keep the U.N. from pressuring the Assad regime in Syria”.

He goes on to mention “And a prolonged crisis in the Ukraine could be bad for the global economy, especially if there are sanctions and counter-sanctions between Russia and the West, just at a time when China’s own economy is slowing. No wonder China’s responses have been so convoluted. Yet behind the equivocations and diplomatic parsing, there are several ways in which the Ukraine crisis could work out very well for China”.

He argues that the senario in Crimea may work to China’s advantage. He continues, “For the United States, one of the big long-term risks is that Ukraine ends up pushing Russia and China much closer together — a shift in the geopolitical tectonic plates that would have a long-lasting impact. Sensing itself under pressure in Asia over the last two years, Beijing has been casting around for political support. The first foreign trip that Xi Jinping made on taking over as China’s president in March 2013 was to Moscow. And since he returned to office nearly two years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been happy to play nice with China as he indulges his anti-Western posturing. In October, the two countries signed a large number of energy deals, including an agreement for Russia to supply $85 billion of oil; after years of talks, they are also getting close to an agreement on a major gas pipeline. Beyond the booming business ties, both countries believe that chipping away at the foundations of U.S. power serves their interests. One of Washington’s long-term geopolitical priorities should be driving a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, to prevent the development of a stronger relationship. Yet an Obama administration campaign to isolate Russia economically and diplomatically would almost certainly invite Putin to look to Beijing for political support”.

He goes on to argue that “In the weeks before the Russian intervention in Crimea, the administration has been consciously trying to up its game in Asia, ahead of Obama’s April visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In February, Danny Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said China had “created uncertainty, insecurity and instability in the region” by its behaviour in the South China Sea. Yet if Russia annexes Crimea, and is seen to not pay too high a price, some in China will take that as a green light to push their own territorial claims even harder”.

He ends the piece “there is nothing inevitable about a closer Sino-Russian alliance. As China’s influence grows, Russia could end up seeing Beijing as much as a rival as a partner. Putin’s Crimea incursion is motivated by his desire to protect Russia’s sphere of influence to its west, where it feels under threat from Europe. But he is also intent on maintaining Russian influence in Central Asia, where China is the long-term challenger. Over the last five years, Chinese presence in Central Asia has increased dramatically, the product of huge energy deals, extensive oil and gas pipelines, and financial support. During Xi’s September visit to Kazakhstan — the Central Asian nation that is also part of Putin’s Eurasian Union — he opened a new natural gas pipeline to China, formalized a $5 billion Chinese investment in the project, and signed business deals worth $30 billion. Russia’s southeast flank is just as vulnerable as its western one”.

He finishes, “the situation looks promising for Beijing. Even if the situation in Ukraine is resolved relatively quickly and U.S. relations with Russia do not completely fall apart, Obama will now spend a lot more of his time in office focusing on Europe; trying to boost the relationship with Germany and reassuring allies in Eastern Europe who have felt neglected. The administration will claim it can manage all these issues, but top-level attention to Asia will drop. The pivot will suffer as a result of Ukraine — and that, among other things, is a win for Beijing, even if you would not realize it from the tortured way China talks about the crisis”.

“Recognising Crimea”


Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Monday recognizing Crimea as a sovereign and independent state. According to the Kremlin’s website, the decree recognises the will of the Crimean people in the referendum held on Sunday.  Nearly 97 percent of Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, reports said.  Crimea is an autonomous peninsula in Ukraine with a population that has an ethnic Russian majority.

Russian-Sino rift


A piece has been published that notes Sino-Russian relations after the Russian actions in Ukraine. This topic has already been mentioned recently in relation to Crimea.

It opens, “Days after Ukraine’s deposed President Viktor Yanukovych fled his Kiev palace, an unassuming, mid-level Chinese diplomat appeared before the United Nations Security Council to highlight Beijing’s support for the new pro-Western government, marking a rare diplomatic split from Moscow. ‘We respect the choice made by the Ukrainian people on the basis of national conditions,’ Shen Bo, a counselor at China’s U.N. mission said in a Feb. 24 statement that went largely unnoticed by the international press”.

He goes onto write “China and U.N. watchers say Beijing’s refusal to blindly follow Moscow’s lead during the Ukrainian crisis reflects a deep-seated anxiety about the path that Russian President Vladimir Putin has chosen to pursue. ‘China has a pathological fear of other countries meddling in its internal affairs, and to witness Russia so blatantly intervening in Ukraine has to be a source of consternation,’ Elizabeth Economy, a China specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Foreign Policy in an email exchange”.

Interestingly he notes the importance of China’s words, “Shen’s comments about Ukraine reflect a significant shift for Beijing. China and Russia have been among the Security Council’s steadiest of allies, standing shoulder to shoulder as a counterbalance to the West’s big three — the United States, Britain, and France — who have dominated Security Council business for much of the past two decades. Moscow and Beijing share a suspicion that the West’s big powers seek to use the Security Council to promote their own interests in foreign countries under the guise of promoting democracy and human rights”.

Crucially he continues, “the Russian intervention in Crimea has not sat well with a country that has significant commercial interests in Ukraine, and which has long been uneasy about Russia’s propensity for using military force to pressure its neighbors. Beijing fears that the use of military force against a sovereign nation sets a precedent that could one day be used against China. In earlier eras, China objected to the Brezhnev Doctrine, which was used to justify Russian invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979, on the grounds that it constituted unwarranted interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation. China also broke with Russia after it intervened in neighbouring Georgia in 2008 and stripped the pro-Western government of its provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In June 2009, Moscow vetoed a U.N. resolution authorising the continued presence of nearly 150 U.N. peacekeepers in Georgia, effectively killing off a U.N. effort to monitor Georgia’s border with the separatist territory. China abstained from the vote”.

The view that China has, on this occasion sided with the Western powers should not mean that there will now be an effective and united alliance against Russia. China will still harrass and bully its regional neighbours. However, on this occasion China seems to have decided the principal of sovereignty is so fundamental that it is willing to break its unspoken and informal alliance with Russia to side openly with the west.

He add later on “Putin briefed his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, on events unfolding in Ukraine. Xi spared Putin the kinds of public scolding and threats of repercussions issued in recent weeks by American and European officials. But he didn’t take Putin’s side. On the contrary, Xi urged Putin not to go it alone, hinting that Moscow should look more favourably on international mediation efforts, according to a statement. ‘At present, the situation in Ukraine is highly complicated and sensitive and has regional and global impact,’ Xi told him, according to a read out of the conversation published by Xinhua, the state-run news agency”.

He ends the article, “Indeed, China has invested heavily in Ukraine, reportedly signing a deal in the fall of 2012 guaranteeing Kiev would export 300 million tons of corn each year to China in exchange for access to more than $3 billion in loans. Another more recent report indicates that two Chinese state-owned companies will operate a massive swath of farmland the size of Belgium in the eastern region of Dnipropetrovsk, planting crops and raising pigs for consumption back home”.

It ends, “I think it is easy to exaggerate the importance of the Chinese-Russian alliance; I don’t think they have a relationship that you could describe as strategic,” Luck said. “It veers from one case to another. We should remember the Soviet-Chinese competition has some legacy and some hangover.”

Sweden joining NATO?


Sweden’s government is examining a proposal to boost military spending to defend its own territories and the strategic Baltic Sea area in the face of renewed Russian aggression in Ukraine. There is also a movement among high government officials to re-examine the long-running issue of joining NATO. The Swedish Cabinet will discuss, in coming weeks, a cross-party coalition proposal to signifi­cantly increase capital spending on the Navy’s submarine fleet. In a direct response to Russia’s military actions in the Crimean Peninsula, Jan Björklund, the Liberal Peoples’ Party leader and Sweden’s deputy prime minister, is pushing for a “comprehensive strategic military re-think on capability.” Björklund also wants Sweden to “set the wheels in motion” to join NATO”.

Putin’s rationality


There has been much talk, rightly, about the state of mind of Vladimir Putin. The piece notes “discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula on CBS’s Face The Nationrecently, Secretary of State John Kerry remarked: ‘You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped-up pretext.’ He also warned that President Obama ‘has all options on the table’ — including the use of military force”,

The writer goes on to add, “Obama himself has accused Putin of viewing the Ukraine crisis as part of a ‘some Cold War chessboard,’ and of ‘keeping one foot in the old [Cold War] ways of doing business.’ Criticisms of Russia’s military action have been coming from all quarters. Nonetheless, these comments by western leaders merit special examination. They seem to be based on a shared conclusion:  In taking over the Crimea, President Putin has behaved irrationally, operating on a set of erroneous, perhaps even crazed, assumptions”.

He makes the vital point that “It should surprise no one that Putin has concluded that the United States was behind the Euromaidan protests. He famously blamed the 2011 eruption of opposition demonstrations in Russia on meddling American NGOs. Moreover, in February, Victoria Nuland, a State Department official, declared that since Ukraine achieved independence in 1991, the U.S. government has spent more than $5 billion to ‘assist’ it in building ‘democratic skills,’ ‘civic participation,’ and ‘good governance.’ Aid has been provided, as far as is known, under the Freedom Support Act passed in 1992 to help stimulate former Soviet economies using American funds”.

The writer implies that Putin may not be totally rational, indeed there is a strong case to be made for levels of paranoia in Putin and how he conducts himself in the world and the subsequent statements he makes.

He goes on to mention “In suspecting the United States’ involvement in the Euromaidan, has Putin taken leave of his senses? Kerry and Merkel seem to have forgotten, or chosen to ignore, the numerous aggressive steps the United States has taken since the end of the Cold War to reduce Russia’s influence, to say nothing of American-backed military interventions and invasions across the globe. As the nuclear standoff between the two superpowers waned, the West’s most powerful military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), has expanded three times, despite President George H. W. Bush’s apparent promise to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev not to enlarge the group“.

All this is true, NATO expansion was a favour of President Clinton and was less to do with security and more to do with domestic electoral politics. However, to say that because Gaddafi was overthrown or the Taliban were overthrown and to therefore justify, or rationalise that Putin thinks he could be next is both a strange argument and at the same time brings into question how in touch with reality Putin really is.

He continues, “The Soviet Union is no more, but the entity created specifically to counter its military might thrives, as has the Pentagon’s budget, which increased relentlessly until 2011, topping $700 billion. Furthermore, in 2002, the United States withdrew unilaterally from its treaty with Moscow banning anti-ballistic missiles and plans to station such missiles in Eastern Europe. The conclusion Putin has drawn? The United States is bent on maintaining and increasing its hegemony — at Russia’s expense”.

He goes on to argue that “Far from being ’19th-century’ behaviour, bombing, invading, and toppling regimes remain options the United States has been willing to deploy against its adversaries. Qaddafi’s execution in particular is known to have disturbed Putin. In 2011, Putin repeatedly and angrily denouncedNATO for using the no-fly zone it imposed on Libya as a pretext for allowing Qaddafi’s killing”.

Again the writer unfairly blames the West/America for Putin’s lack of compentence or worse. Putin allowed Russia to vote for the UN Libya resolution but was then suprised to see that it meant the overthrow of Gaddafi. It must be asked, what exactly did Putin think would happen, the rebels in the east would be saved from defeat and then the western alliance would just “go home”?

He ends the article “The West, and especially the United States, needs to acknowledge that the invasions and changes of regime they have carried out have done nothing to dispel notions that they seek world hegemony, and have convinced Putin that he is locked in a struggle not only for Russian dominance in its near-abroad, but for the future of his government — and even, possibly, for his life. They have targeted authoritarian rulers in the past, and suspecting them of doing so now makes eminent sense; Putin is taking history’s lesson to heart. This is no mere call for a reexamination of the U.S. history of robust interventions across the globe, interventions of which the Russian leader is no doubt a student. President Obama and his hectoring Secretary of State should take as a given the rank cynicism these interventions have long generated outside America’s borders and formulate their addresses — and policies — to take it into account”.

“Allowing multiple candidates”


Syria’s parliament unanimously approved a new election law Thursday allowing multiple candidates to run for president, opening the door — at least in theory — to other potential contenders besides President Bashar Assad. The vote comes nearly four months before Assad’s seven-year term as president officially expires. Syrian officials say the presidential elections will be held on time and Assad has suggested he would run again, though he hasn’t confirmed whether he’ll seek re-election. The poll must be held between 60 and 90 days before Assad’s term ends on July 17″.

Invading Ukraine?


An important piece asks if Russia will invade Ukraine. It has been noted that Russia has already placed troops and support on the border with Ukraine. It opens, “In September 2013, Russia unnerved the Baltic States and several NATO countries by holding military exercises on the borders of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and in the Kaliningrad enclave that involved an estimated 70,000 troops. Earlier, in April, the Russian Air Force had practiced mock bombing runs near Swedish air space. The unease caused by these events — along with many others, including the resumption of a Russian Naval task force in the Mediterranean and international flights of strategic bombers — was considerable, prompting many analyststo remark on the Russian military’s resurgent confidence and capability. It was confidence and capability born of a massive modernizatsiiaprogram designed to remedy the inadequacies exposed by the 2008 war with Georgia, and to create a modern, professional military capable of protecting Russia’s status as a great power. Today, Russia is flexing that newfound military might in Crimea and on its eastern border with Ukraine, where it is massing troops and carrying out a series of military exercises. As the clock ticks down toward a referendum on secession for the Black Sea peninsula, fear is mounting about a full-scale invasion of the Ukrainian heartland — this time, involving Russian troops with insignias on their uniforms”.

He speculates that the reason for this belligerance is “intended to signal to the new government in Kiev that Russia’s interests are not to be ignored. In that case, they would represent a continuation of Russia’s efforts to negate any incipient relationship between Ukraine and the EU that would threaten Moscow’s influence in the region. As my colleague and FP columnist Michael Weiss notes, “That’s why the Kremlin has created a shadow EU known as the Customs Union, which includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and whose sole mission seems to be keeping ex-satellites from being lured into Brussels’ orbit.” If the efforts to “persuade” Ukraine to join the customs union — such as the $15 billion loan offered to President Viktor Yanukovych prior to his ouster — can be seen as part of this strategy, then the latest military exercises are probably just a more forceful iteration”.

Crucially he predicts “These exercises are largely consistent with the more muscular military posture Russia has adopted since 2008 — and don’t involve the level of manpower needed to mount a full-scale invasion. In other words, Russia is making a powerful political statement — and it may well hang onto Crimea — but it’s not about to march on Kiev”.

Logically this argument makes sense the economic costs, to say nothing of the political and military consequences, would overwhelm Putin and may force him out of power.

He goes on to write “Regardless of which forces are actually in Crimea, the numbers and capabilities pale in comparison to the very real and very public displays of Russian military might on the Ukrainian border, which Andriy Parubiy, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, claims involve 80,000 solders, 270 tanks, 370 artillery systems, and 140 combat aircraft. Still, these numbers must be taken with a grain of salt; because Parubiy’s statement is meant to sound alarm bells in the West, his estimates most likely include troops and hardware that are normally stationed in the region. That’s not to say Ukraine has nothing to worry about. Given that Russia has conducted military district wide maneuvers, air defense exercises, and airborne troop parachute drops, Parubiy’s claims are not the musings of a hyperbolic politician”.

He adds that “Any serious invasion would require far larger numbers of Russian troops to effectively occupy eastern Ukraine. It would also require units to be brought up to full readiness (despite efforts to professionalize the military with kontraktniki — contract or professional soldiers — the military still relies on conscripts and the mass mobilization of understaffed units). And as Johan Norberg notes over at the Carnegie Endowment, an invasion would require the construction of field hospitals close to the border (although one could argue that field hospitals would be part of any mobilization). Additionally, Russia would likely call upon its Interior Ministry troops (VV) to support an invasion of eastern Ukraine. The VV troops are well trained but lightly armed troops that have played a paramount role in conflicts in Chechnya, and as such would be ideal for the kind of counter insurgency situation that could result in Ukraine”.

He closes the article, “Since few predicted the Russian occupation of Crimea, it would be premature to rule out the possibility of a full-scale invasion. While it would seem unlikely that Russian troops would march on Kiev, some sort of limited incursion into the Russian leaning east of the country is a very real possibility. The airborne forces and Spetsnaz units that would spearhead such an assault are available and close to the border. But those units would need to be backed up by larger regular Russian military formations after the initial incursion. Whatever the future holds for the rest of Ukraine, it’s clear that Russia is staying put in Crimea”.

Fewer drone strikes


The number of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan plunged last year amid growing care to avoid civilian deaths, but the death toll in neighboring Afghanistan continues to rise, the United Nations’ special investigator on counterterrorism said Wednesday. Ben Emmerson says that for the first time in nine years no civilians were reported killed in 2013 in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Regions, or FATA, a semi-autonomous area along the 2,600-kilometer (1,600-mile) Afghanistan-Pakistan border where militant groups operate. The U.N. special rapporteur, a British lawyer who reports to the 47-nation Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly, told reporters in Geneva there has been “a very significant de-escalation” of U.S. armed drone use in Pakistan’s FATA region, down to 27 strikes last year from a peak of 128 in 2010. But he said the picture is uglier in Afghanistan, where drone strikes and civilian deaths resulting from their use are intensifying. In Afghanistan, he said, the number of civilian casualties from drone strikes last year rose to 45 dead and 14 injured, triple the rate experienced in 2012.

A new NATO member?


An interesting article notes the one area where the West can act in the next few weeks and months to stifle Putin, have Georgia join NATO.

It opens, “Developments in Ukraine have been nothing less than astonishing — and that’s just as true of seasoned observers of Eastern Europe as it is of everyone else. Russia’s bold and illegal military intervention issues a startling challenge not just to Ukrainian independence but also to the very foundations of the post-war liberal order. In such times, the West has an obligation to offer a credible and serious response to an attack on the global rules-based system. An excellent — and overdue — option would be to provide Georgia with a concrete and attainable pathway into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). As of March 11, Russian forces appear to be in full control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. In spite of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent pledge to de-escalate the situation (even as he bizarrely persisted in denying the active involvement of Russian troops in Crimea), there is little evidence that Moscow intends to relinquish its grip on sovereign foreign territory. Though Russia reportedly pulled back some of its forces that were amassing near eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin clearly remains in full saber-rattling mode even outside of Ukraine, keeping many of its neighbors on edge. As Russian fleet elements conducted live fire exercises in the Baltic Sea, Moscow deployed Russian MiG-29 fighters to its airbase near Yerevan, Armenia. Turkish F-16 fighters were scrambled when a Russian spy plane probed Turkish airspace and the Kremlin proceeded with a scheduledICBM launch test in spite of high tensions. By most estimates, this would seem to be anything but a de-escalation, despite the Kremlin’s PR-friendly rhetoric”.

He goes on to write, “An aggressive Russia, willing and free to violate its neighbours’ sovereignty, would jeopardise the dream of European unity, demilitarisation, and free movement. It could thrust the continent back to its historical default: fragmented, warring, and unstable. That said, realistic policy options to address Russian aggression are scarce. Barring an unforeseen event, there is little rationale or appetite for a direct, kinetic military response. Yet even far more modest steps, such as economic sanctions or political pressure, have faced resistance within Europe. Britain, whose stiff upper lip seems to have weakened of late, refuses to countenance punitive measures that imperil the bottom line for its hedge fund managers in London. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even came out against the highly symbolic move of ejecting Russia from the G8 club of industrialised nations — despite the absurdity of its continued membership”.

He rightly predicts that “A common Western economic sanctions package appears unlikely, and key European states are particularly skittish about confronting Russia directly over Ukraine. This would seem to bolster the case for a proportional but more indirect Western response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. In many respects, granting Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a roadmap for accession into NATO, fits the bill perfectly. It is at once measured as well as proactive. Such a step would demonstrate genuine Western resolve on preserving and reinforcing the Euro-Atlantic security architecture — which have served as the pillars of the liberal international order since 1945 — without having the appearance of deliberate escalation. The pieces for Georgian accession are already in place. In fact, Georgia’s recent progress makes it well positioned for NATO accession, independent of the Ukraine crisis. It has demonstrated its democratic credentials with a series of peaceful transfers of power. Its highly-regarded troops serve in force alongside NATO partners in Afghanistan (without national caveats). And it has made serious moves to transform its military from the conscript-dependent structure that was battered in the 2008 war with Russia into a professional, Western-style force”.

This is a very valid argument, but on the democratic front, it would be dangerous to equate “peaceful transfers of power” with democracy. There are concerns about the state of democracy in Georgia and now, while NATO has the upper hand, it should press Georgia to make even greater steps towards democracy.

He goes on to write “Georgian membership makes sense. Contrary to its conventional portrayal, Georgia is in many ways already a stabilizing force in the region. In the past, Georgia’s contributions to regional stability were mostly obscured by its venomous relationship with Russia, but the gradual improvement of relations are once again revealing Georgia’s potential value as a regional linchpin. It is already rapidly integrating into a de facto trilateral alignment with Western-leaning Turkey and Azerbaijan, yet it also maintains good relations with neighboring Armenia. Georgia has dramaticallyimproved ties with Israel as of late at the expense of its erstwhile friendship with Iran, but the country remains both an honest broker and an accessible meeting place for just about all of its neighbours. In an honest assessment, Georgia is already a more than worthy candidate for the MAP. Any outstanding issues — additional reforms, the applicability of collective defense to the breakaway regions, and the like — are best negotiated within the framework of the MAP”.

Somewhat more controversially he writes “The move already makes sense for NATO and it would also be an effective tool in pushing back against Russian revanchism. Russia is often described as geostrategically “playing chess” while the West dithers over a tactical checkerboard. The analogy is as tired as it is cumbersome, but the sentiment that Moscow seems better able to exhibit strategic patience is not unwarranted”.

Yet, it is far from certain, if Georgia were to join NATO, what effect it would have on Putin’s Russia. It would probably stop him fron attacking Georgia again but beyond that it may have the opposite effect and have Putin lash out even more at “the West” with truly unknowable consequences.

He ends the piece “There are certainly more direct, shorter-term measures that can and should also be adopted in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. The most worthwhile of these would likely be to target financial and real assets of corrupt officials, known money launderers, and human rights abusers in senior positions of the Russian government and regime-connected elite. The effectiveness of such sanctions might be minimised somewhat by European reluctance to participate, but they might still provide enough leverage to minimize further catastrophe.  Strategically, the West can be proactive and forceful by keeping its promise to bring Georgia into NATO. It’s an idea that is both long overdue and well-calibrated to Russia’s obvious geopolitical aggression”.

Invited Pope Francis


Congressional leaders have invited Pope Francis to address a joint session of Congress during his expected visit to the United States next year. Francis, who marked his first anniversary as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics today, is reportedly planning to visit the U.S. next year in order to attend a global conference on families scheduled for late September in Philadelphia. The Holy See has not confirmed the trip. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), as the constitutional officer of Congress, made the formal invitation on behalf of House and Senate leaders, according to House and Senate aides. The House speaker is the officer who formally invites the president each year to give a State of the Union address. All joint sessions of Congress occur in the House Chamber because it is the larger of the two chambers. Aides to Boehner said he sent the invitation Thursday to officials in Vatican City. If Francis accepts the invitation, he would be the first pontiff to ever address American lawmakers from the U.S. Capitol, according to Boehner aides”.

Energy security, thanks to Putin?


Following on from the article that discusses the EU’s search for energy and secure pipelines, a related piece notes that much shorter pipelines may be needed. The writer points to the growing demand for shale production to reduce the power of Russia in Europe.

He notes that “Russian leaders, especially Vladimir Putin, have spent years trying to persuade European countries to hold off on expanding shale gas production for the simplest of reasons: Such a shift would pose a long-term threat to Russia’s energy dominance over Europe. But the Russian invasion of the Crimean peninsula is giving Europe new enthusiasm for fracking — and potentially bringing about the exact outcome Russia has spent years trying to avoid”.

Indeed this could be one of the benefits to Putin’s adventures in Ukraine, that the EU finally realises that they are not living in a world where law settles all disputes but a dangerous, anarchic place.

He goes on to add that “The Old Continent has been largely reluctant to use the drilling technology that has enabled the U.S. energy boom despite indications that Europe sits atop plentiful shale gas reserves. Only a handful of countries, led by Poland and the U.K., have seriously considered it, while several have banned fracking altogether. There are growing signs, however, that Russia’s heavy-handed antics could be changing Europe’s energy calculus in fundamental ways. On Wednesday, the European Parliament passed energy legislation that included tougher environmental rules for oil and gas exploration — but specifically excluded shale gas projects from the new regulations. This week, Poland passed tax breaks meant to juice shale gas exploration there. Big European business lobbies, including steel-makersand the EU employers’ association, just called for the continent to embrace shale gas as a way out of its energy straitjacket”.

Crucially he makes the point that “fracking proponents zeroed in on economic arguments, namely the fear that European industrial firms are losing ground to their U.S. counterparts, which are blessed with relatively cheap and abundant natural gas that serves as both fuel and a key ingredient of petrochemicals like plastics and gas-derived diesel. Now, though, energy security fears unleashed by Russia’s aggressive behaviour have joined economic arguments in fracking proponents’ arsenal”. He continues in a similar vein, “Putting the focus on the security of energy supplies, as Putin’s approach to Ukraine seems to have done, could make it easier to muster support across Europe for the controversial practice. That’s because the economic arguments business groups brandish to advocate for fracking — bringing energy prices closer to U.S. levels — don’t pass muster. Even if Europe developed its abundant shale gas resources, most studies suggest that Europe’s different geology, including deeper shale deposits, would make European shale gas a much more expensive proposition than U.S. shale gas. Other differences with the United States, such as the regulatory framework, access to capital, and supply of drilling rigs, also make a European repeat of the U.S. shale gale an uphill struggle. Still, worries about energy security, fueled by Russia’s behaviour, are reshaping the debate”.

He closes “Ukraine’s hopes of using its own shale reserves to minimize reliance on Russian energy imports have been hit hard precisely by the crisis. Kiev signed a pair of multibillion-dollar deals with Chevron and Shell last year to explore for shale gas, but the unrest, change of government, and Russian incursion have put those plans on hold for now. Given the political, financial, geological, and regulatory challenges Europe faces in its quest to replicate the U.S. shale boom, even Russian aggression may not be enough to kick-start fracking in Europe. But as the continent prepares to revamp its energy policy for the next generation, security of supply is looming ever more important”.

Russia masses troops


With a referendum on secession looming in Crimea, Russia massed troops and armoured vehicles in at least three regions along Ukraine’s eastern border on Thursday, alarming the interim Ukraine government about a possible invasion and significantly escalating tensions in the crisis between the Kremlin and the West. The announcement of the troop buildup by Russia’s Defense Ministry was met with an unusually sharp rebuke from Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who warned that the Russian government must abandon what she called the politics of the 19th and 20th centuries or face diplomatic and economic retaliation from a united Europe.