Archive for May, 2014

“Unlikely to lead”

31/05/2014

In a speech given by President Obama at West Point he promotes American leadership and power but does little to reassure allies. He does much to talk up past successes but ignores current problems like Ukraine and Syria.

Coverage opens with the Foreign Policy Complex blog giving an overview, “President Obama told a crowd of cadets at West Point that the United States remains an ‘indispensable nation’ that will face down terrorism threats around the world and work to bolster key allies while avoiding costly, open-ended wars. But amid Republican criticism that Obama has diminished America’s standing globally, the high-profile address likely handed his opponents new support for their claim that he’s more interested in a domestic agenda than one in which he’d be willing to intervene in a place like Syria, now in the third year of a bloody civil war”.

The post adds that Obama “said terrorism remains ‘the most direct threat to America at home and abroad’ and stressed that the United States won’t refrain from taking direct action against militants if it has actionable intelligence. He also announced a new $5 billion counterterrorism fund conceived to help the United States train allies in the Middle East and North Africa so they could battle their own homegrown extremists with little to no U.S. help. Administration officials pointed to Africa, where the military has ramped up its efforts to help the militaries of countries like Mali, Chad, and Niger. Obama, considered by many of his critics to be a reluctant wartime president, also took pains to lower any expectation that the U.S. military should or would be America’s primary tool for fixing whatever ails the world”.

He fairly notes “Although there has been speculation for weeks that the White House would expand its program to train and arm the Syrian opposition, and perhaps Obama would use Wednesday’s speech to outline it, Obama was decidedly noncommittal. The administration has long stressed that the U.S. military wouldn’t intervene in the conflict and that it was committed to a diplomatic solution to the brutal civil war. Those efforts have collapsed in recent weeks, but Obama didn’t acknowledge that diplomacy was no longer making any progress and offered only broad brushstrokes about what the United States would do to help”.

Interestingly he ends “Obama also committed, once again, to providing more transparency about the military operations he oversees, echoing comments he made more than a year ago at National Defense University in which he argued for more openness in terms of America’s targeted killings of militants abroad. But little of that effort has come to pass.”

Meanwhile David Rothkopf writes in an excellent piece that Obama’s foreign policy is effectively a mess, “Obama is in the midst of his Reassure Our Allies World Tour. First, there was his Asia junket, during which he tried to simultaneously lower expectations for America’s foreign-policy performance and promise allies we were still ready to lead. Then, a surprise visit to Afghanistan. Next week, he’ll be in Europe on the beaches of Normandy, standing beside Vladimir Putin. The big stadium show of the tour took place today, however, right here in the United States at West Point. Returning to the site of his famous ‘Hello, I Must Be Going’Afghanistan speech in 2009 — when he broke new ground in foreign-policy schizophrenia by announcing both our escalation and our withdrawal from that benighted country in the same set of remarks — today, the president sought to present his foreign-policy vision in what the White House billed as a major address”.

Rothkopf follows on the basball anology and makes the valid criticism, “It provided neither reassurance to allies nor anything remotely like a foreign-policy vision. It listed some problems, outlined some principles, but did not lay out any real goals or even a hint of what America’s objectives in the world should be going forward. The only real news in the speech was the announcement of a proposed $5 billion “partners” fund for combating terror. It’s a pretty good idea; we can’t fight terror alone. The problem is that, as we have found from AfPak to Africa, one of the reasons terrorists are drawn to countries is because the local governments are ineffective, tolerant of them, or worse, and actively support the bad guys. From Pakistan to Yemen to Libya, we have found that the people we need to trust weren’t always trustworthy or capable of helping. In fact, the president’s suggestion that somehow Libya — now in chaos and deteriorating fast — was an example worth touting suggests a serious misunderstanding of the situation on the ground, if not a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts”.

Rokopf makes the point that Obama’s policy is only in reaction to the supposedly  “steroidal unilateralism” of the Bush administration. He does argue that “calling someone a partner doesn’t make them one — nor does it make them a useful ally. And one of the big lessons of the crises of the Obama years has been that Washington has either not had good partners or has not been able to motivate the good partners it does have to do enough to help achieve long-term goals. Further contributing to the sense that there may be less to the fund idea than meets the eye is the fact that, of course, getting anything passed as proposed by the U.S. Congress is a long shot. All this makes the one biggish initiative announced in the speech both less than it seemed and a metaphor for the defects of the speech as a whole”.

Rothkopf goes on to argue correctly that “If you wanted to sum up the West Point speech you might say that the president wants to find a new low-cost, low-risk path to American leadership — a Walmart foreign policy. He wants to lead. He asserted our exceptionalism. He asserted our indispensability. But the vast majority of the speech (which you can read here) was a reiteration of the reasons he has already offered up for not taking action or not taking much action or not taking effective action in the past. These included the ‘no good choices’ cliché, the false choice between boots on the ground and inaction cliché, the false choice between unilateralist overreach and multilateralist inertness cliché, and so on”.

Of course Rothkopf is right. Obama wants it both ways and as a result will probably get the worst of both worlds. The full consequences of the policy are not fully worked out but the reality of the message Obama is peddling is that America isn’t that interested in doing all the leg work that it takes to defend America’s, and therefore the world’s, interests.

Rothkopf adds “Most of the speech was an explanation of what has become his signature foreign-policy approach: minimalism — doing as little as possible while still creating the illusion of action. Take the hidden and disturbing center of the speech. The president both took credit for striking ‘huge’ blows against core al Qaeda(remember that the estimate of this core at the time of 9/11 was 100 people) and then said, in virtually the same breath, that the greatest threat to the United States remains terrorism — but a new form of terrorism embodied by al Qaeda franchises spreading from Africa across the Middle East and into South Asia. He didn’t directly address that there are now more terrorists controlling more territory than ever before“.

He ends “the speech had three primary flaws. First, it utterly failed to achieve its goal of reversing the narrative that this is a president — and a country — that is unlikely to lead as we have in the past or as the world demands America does today and in the future. Second, it did not offer a real vision of America’s role in the world — one with clear, real goals. President Obama could have spoken of remaking and revitalizing the multilateral system so it is up to the challenges of the new century”.

Cuttingly, but ultimately correctly, he goes on to argue Obama “was, again, a lawyer making a case with words rather than a leader showing the way with actions — tactical not strategic”.

He says that Obama has again failed to come up with real solutions, or even an attempt to solve, substantial problems, “time and again, especially during this president’s second term in office, this administration has proven that beyond empty or limited gestures — a few sanctions on Putin’s Russian cronies, legal action against Chinese PLA officers who will never see the inside of a court, halting efforts in Syria that have only empowered Assad — it lacks the creativity, will, or appetite for moderate risk to undertake effective responses”.

Rothkopf concludes, “we just ended up back in the foreign-policy aisle at Walmart, stocking up on old ideas packed in the thin syrup of tired formulations and offered in bulk. That’s because the real hard work of finding effective truly proportional responses to the challenges we face does not make for big speeches full of rousing applause lines — no matter how many times the president tries to make hay off of the genuine sacrifice of American soldiers. Further, as Obama has shown, the problems we face today cannot simply be addressed by undoing the mistakes of past American presidents. Genuine new thinking is needed. Precious little, unfortunately, was offered in the president’s West Point remarks”.

Lastly Kori Schake writes that Obama has presented a disparity that cannot be ignored, “White House has been advancing for days a major foreign-policy speech by the president, intended as a ‘turning point’ in American foreign policy. According to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, ‘Our foreign policy is going to look a lot different going forward than it did in the last decade.’ If only it were so. President Barack Obama’s speech Wednesday, May 28, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was not a break with the foreign-policy practices of his administration these past five years. It was instead a discouraging reminder of how glaringly wide the gap is between what the administration claims for its success and the reticent choices it actually makes”.

He add “The most important metric for gauging the success of U.S. foreign policy has always been the reaction of foreigners to it. On this front, Obama claimed, ‘America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world.’ But not since Jimmy Carter’s administration have so many foreign governments been anxious about American weakness. May 3’s Economist asked: “What Would America Fight For?” The sad answer: We don’t know. Allies from Japan to Saudi Arabia to Colombia fear the erosion of American commitment and have begun to realign their choices to hedge against the possibility of abandonment. Why? Because there is no commitment that Obama seems actually committed to”.

He goes on to make the excellent point that Obama knocks down straw men and pretends they are important arguments, “The speech did not disappoint those hopeful for the president’s specialty: the ludicrous straw man to be knocked down valiantly. Specifically, Obama informed us that ‘a strategy that involves invading every country that harbours terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable.’ He called for a strategy that instead ‘expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin or stir up local resentments,’ but made no mention of such a strategy beyond ’empowering partners.’ Building other states’ capacity to protect themselves and govern their territory is a very good thing, but devilishly difficult to do, as witnessed by the partners the United States empowered in Egypt overthrowing an elected government. Without a much more comprehensive and coordinated effort, the president’s $5 billion “counterterrorism partnerships fund” is likely to replicate the success of the School of the Americas — in training coup leaders”.

He makes the valid point that there were significant elements of the speech missing, “So what else was missing? Well, for starters, the speech had no mention of the Trans-Pacific Partnership nor made any pretense that Obama would ask a Senate controlled by his own political party to grant him fast-track authority to negotiate a trade deal that was supposed to be the crowning achievement of “smart power” and that the Peterson Institute for International Economics assesses would boost global GDP by $1.9 trillion. That’s evidently no longer part of U.S. “foreign policy” going forward. And then there are the grandiose claims unenforced by policy: a paean to the Law of the Sea Convention, which the administration has made no effort to ratify; an announcement that he will “make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet”; a restatement of the need to close the Guantánamo Bay prison; “new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence”; a “willingness to act on behalf of human dignity”; a vague promise to “step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbors”; and a promise to be “more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out.” Disgracefully, Obama announced he will be affixing responsibility for that transparency with the U.S. military rather than himself doing the explaining”.

 

More Catholics

31/05/2014

The number of Catholics in the world and the number of priests, permanent deacons and religious men all increased in 2012, while the number of women in religious orders continued to decline, according to Vatican statistics. The number of candidates for the priesthood also showed its first global downturn in recent years. The statistics come from a recently published Statistical Yearbook of the Church, which reported worldwide Church figures as of December 31, 2012. By the end of 2012, the worldwide Catholic population had reached 1.228 billion, an increase of 14 million or 1.14 per cent, slightly outpacing the global population growth rate, which, as of 2013, was estimated at 1.09 per cent. Catholics as a percentage of the global population remained essentially unchanged from the previous year at around 17.5 per cent. The latest Vatican statistical yearbook estimated that there were about 4.8 million Catholics that were not included in its survey because they were in countries that could not provide an accurate report to the Vatican, mainly China and North Korea. According to the yearbook, the percentage of Catholics as part of the general population is highest in the Americas where they make up 63.2 per cent of the continent’s population. Asia has the lowest proportion, with 3.2 per cent”.

9,800

31/05/2014

President Obama has decided to keep just under ten thousand troops in Afghanistan. A report mentions “President Obama announced Tuesday that he will keep 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan after 2014 for ‘two narrow missions’ – training Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism missions against al Qaeda – but will draw all of them down by the time he prepares to leave office at the end of 2016”.

The piece gives important context “The announcement ends months of speculation about what the commander-in-chief would do in Afghanistan, where about 32,000 American troops remain in the 13th year of what has become a deeply unpopular war. On Wednesday, Obama – who just returned from his first trip to Afghanistan in two years — will give what aides describe as a major speech at West Point outlining his broader foreign policy views as well as his specific policies on Syria, Afghanistan, and other nations. But Obama’s decision to announce a timeline for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan that squares with his own last two years in office led several critics to charge that a political agenda was driving a major policy decision”.

Many have rightly criticisied the low number of troops left in Afghanistan but at the same time with the post-Karzai signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) the legal footing will change. The presence of any American troops, no matter how small, will postivively effect the transistation to a post Karzai Afghanistan and enable the country to conslidate the gains that have been made. This is not to say that there are not challenges however.

The writer adds importantly “Frustrated with the refusal of the sitting Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to sign a required security agreement to allow troops to remain in Afghanistan, the White House had publicly toyed with the idea of removing all troops by the end of this year. That so-called “zero option” was fiercely opposed by top military commanders, who said it risked reversing recent security gains. But with the two finalists in Afghanistan’s recent presidential elections indicating that they were amenable to signing what’s called a bilateral security agreement, or BSA, the White House decided to side with senior military officials who argued that a small troop presence would help buoy the progress made by the Afghan security forces over the last few years. White House aides said Obama’s troop decision hinged on the winning candidate signing the BSA”.

Interestingly he notes “Obama’s decision hands a victory to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other top Pentagon officials. Gen. Joe Dunford, the top Afghanistan war commander, is thought to have argued for a force of at least 10,000 troops or as many as 15,000 that could conduct the necessary train-and-advise mission along with counter-terrorism operations. Most military officers argue against publicly stating timelines for withdrawal because of a belief that encourages their enemies and gives them less wriggle room to respond to changing conditions on the ground. In the run-up to the announcement, some media reports had suggested Obama was planning to leave as few as 4,000 troops in Afghanistan. In agreeing to the much larger force, Obama effectively agreed to the military’s wish list for the next years of the war”.

The writer goes on to mention that “The troop decision also marked a win for the leaders of the nation’s intelligence community, who have long warned that a full withdrawal of America’s conventional military forces would make it far more difficult for paramilitary operatives from the CIA to mount counter terrorism operations with Navy SEALs and other elite American commandos. With the U.S. combat role rapidly shrinking, the paramilitary operatives and Special Operations personnel are meant to assume the lead role in the hunt for any residual al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan”.

He ends the piece “Obama didn’t give the Pentagon or the intelligence community all they wanted. Obama, who has long been ambivalent about the Afghanistan war despite having campaigned to reverse its decline in 2008, will only leave those forces there for a specific period of time. Under the terms of his current plan, half of the 9,800 troops will leave in 2015, with the remaining forces consolidated to the large U.S. bases in Kabul and at the Bagram Air Base. By the end of 2016, according to the White House, virtually all of those troops will return home. The Afghanistan they leave behind, Obama said, will optimal”.

The writer concludes noting the critics of the plan, “the news was not met with much enthusiasm from those who believe Obama should be more forceful in his Afghanistan policy. While some believe Obama did the right thing in committing to keep a sizeable force in Afghanistan, the announcement of a specific drawdown over the next two years enraged administration critics. ‘Doing the same thing he did in Iraq and expecting different results is the definition of insanity,’ Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina and a frequent critic of the administration, tweeted Tuesday afternoon before the announcement. Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire released a statement saying that Obama’s announcing the withdrawal date was a ‘monumental mistake and a triumph of politics over strategy.'”

Interestingly many former Obama officials are already moving their positons in light of the 2016 elections, “Michele Flournoy, the former Pentagon policy chief, said the fact that Obama announced his troop commitment now was a positive development because it ‘stops the narrative that we’re going to zero [in Afghanistan].’ Still, she said Obama’s specific drawdown timeline could lock the White House – and the next administration – into a course of action it could be harder to undo, even if conditions on the ground begin to dictate a slower drawdown”.

An alternative view argues that “The 9,800 troop figure has been repeated so often, and in so many places, that it actually obscures a key point: An invisible army of American diplomats, intelligence personnel, civilian government officials, and contractors will remain in Afghanistan well in the future, likely outnumbering the 9,800 troops that will be there next year and the smaller numbers of troops that will be there in the years to come”.

Interestingly he writes “The size, scope, composition, and duration of that civilian mission to Afghanistan will hinge on the way the Obama administration answers four questions: (1) what does Washington plan to do in Afghanistan; (2) how will the White House divide those missions among military, civilian, and contractor personnel; (3) what level of risk should the United States be willing to accept for our missions and our personnel; and (4) how much will Washington rely on allies, both Afghan and international, to shoulder the burden going forward. Depending on how the administration answers those questions, and what mixture of civilians and contractors it chooses to field, the U.S. civilian presence in Afghanistan could grow to be two or three times as large as the military mission there — or more”.

He goes on to mention “In his remarks yesterday in the Rose Garden, and today at West Point, President Obama outlined “two narrow missions” for U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014: “training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda.” What remains less clear is the extent to which the United States will continue its multibillion-dollar reconstruction and development program under the auspices of USAID and other civilian agencies, as well as how the United States will continue support private sector and international efforts to develop Afghanistan, if at all. The U.S. diplomatic presence in Kabul has mushroomed toinclude nearly 300 foreign service officers — still smaller than the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but large by State Department standards. These diplomats work alongside scores more from USAID, the Justice Department, the Department of Agriculture, and other civilian agencies, as well as civilian contractors, short-term government employees, and workers from nongovernmental organizations”.

He goes on to argue “The first is to contract for a sizable security and movement support network, similar to what was contemplated for the U.S. mission in Iraq after our troops left there in 2010. To safely move U.S. personnel around Afghanistan without military support would require hundreds or thousands of civilian contractors with their own air support, ground vehicles, supply lines, and communications networks. By thePentagon’s latest count, there are 61,452 contractor personnel supporting the Defense Department in Afghanistan, including 20,865 civilians. (This is down from 113,491 near the height of the Afghan war in January 2012.) These figures represent the current contractor support network for U.S. military forces, at a ratio of roughly two contractors for every U.S. service member. After the military withdrawal, our diplomatic footprint will likely rely even more on contractors than the military, because the State Department and other civilian agencies don’t have the same logistics, communications, and security force structure as the military. A diplomatic mission of 1,000 to 2,000 could require as many as three to five times its number in support contractors, depending on the extent of its movements around the country and the amount of security risk it wants to take in Afghanistan.”

He ends, “For 13 years, our troops have largely led the effort in Afghanistan, shouldering the bulk of the burden and the majority of the casualties as well. The president’s announcements this week signal an end to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, but leave many unanswered questions about the extent of our total involvement there, and the size of the civilian mission that will remain after the last combat troops come home. The White House has to make a decision about the diplomats and other civilians it has stationed in Afghanistan: whether to go big, go small, or go home. How the White House answers those questions will dictate the shape of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan long after the now-famous 9,800 troops come home”.

Pakistani Taliban breakup

31/05/2014

A leading faction within the Pakistani Taliban split from the umbrella militant organization on Wednesday, a top commander said, underscoring the difficulty the U.S.-allied government will have in negotiating an end to a decade of violence with militant groups as they fragment increasingly. The split came as a result of disagreements with the group’s leadership, said Azam Tariq, a key commander of the faction that was earlier reported to have been toeing an independent line over the issue of peace talks with the government. The faction is based in South Waziristan tribal region near the Afghan border, the birthplace of the Taliban.

A Chinese war on terror?

31/05/2014

A piece discusses the dangerous potential for a Chinese War on Terror. It starts,  “In 2001, then President George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress about the 9/11 attacks in New York City. ‘Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them,’ he said. ‘Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.'”

He goes on to note “The term ‘war on terror’ entered into wide circulation from there, and in many ways defined Bush’s foreign policy — prioritizing crackdowns on violent extremists through legal and extra-legal methods. But Bush’s war on terror also helped improve ties with China. China’s then President Jiang Zemin condemned the attacks, and pledged to cooperate with the United States in its fight against terrorism. ‘China’s ostensible support for U.S. retaliatory strikes on Afghanistan constituted a significant break from its standard foreign policy line,’ Nicholas Dynon, a PhD candidate studying China’s public diplomacy, wrote in the magazine The Diplomat. It was ‘the first time since the Cold War that Beijing had condoned U.S. military strikes in another country.’ Now that Beijing seems to be fighting its own war on terror, Washington, at least publicly, has been far less supportive”.

 The author mentions that “On May 22, according to Reuters, ‘Explosives hurled from two vehicles which ploughed into an open market in China’s troubled Xinjiang region killed 31 people on Thursday, state media reported, the deadliest act of violence in the region in years’  The attack came just three weeks after a coordinated bomb and knife, also in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumuqi, killed three and left dozens injured — an attack that was all the more galling because it came just after Xi Jinping ended his first trip to Xinjiang as president. And it’s just a few months after coordinating knifings at a train station in the southern Chinese city of Kunming left dozens dead. The other attacks were allegedly perpetrated by members of the Uighur minority — the roughly 10 million Turkic-speaking Muslims who mostly live in Xinjiang. The perpetrators of this latest attack in the Urumqi market remain unknown, but even before the police announce their findings, Uighur separatists are being held responsible in the court of Chinese public opinion”.

The dangers of a Chinese War on Terror is that it will be used to destroy people with legitimate concerns. The problems in Xinjiang have been noted before and the harsh treatment meted out to people who want an end to discrimimation. Whatever the excesses of the US War on Terror it was against those who posed a real threat to US interests.

He goes on to mention the Chinese reaction, “About six hours after the attack, the official account of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on China’s Twitter Sina Weibo tweeted a message expressing sympathy to victims of ‘violent attack against innocent civilians,’ but did not describe the act as terrorism, nor did it condemn the act. The omission, intentional or not, inflamed Chinese Internet users. (The White House later released a statement condemning the ‘horrific terrorist attack’ in Xinjiang.) The tweet has already attracted more than 17,000 mostly negative comments accusing the United States of a double-standard and behind-the-scenes support for a separatist movement in Xinjiang, which many assume are responsible for the recent attacks”.

The piece ends “The situation in Xinjiang is bleak, of course, and Beijing’s war on terror may be better served through liberalizing in Xinjiang, rather than the repression and violence that characterizes its current strategy. Responding to this latest attack, Xi called for serious punishments for the perpetrators and an all out-effort to maintain stability in the region — language similiar to Beijing’s response to previous attacks. If Xi decides to call for a ‘war on terror,’ in Xinjiang, would Washington urge restraint or pledge support?”

93% for Sisi

31/05/2014

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general who toppled Egypt’s first freely elected leader, took more than 90 percent of the vote in a presidential election, provisional results showed on Thursday, joining a long line of leaders drawn from the military. But a lower-than-expected turnout figure raised questions about the credibility of a man idolized by his supporters as a hero who can deliver political and economic stability. Sisi won 93.3 percent of votes cast, judicial sources said, with most ballots counted after three days of voting. His only rival, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, gained 3 percent while 3.7 percent of votes were declared void. Turnout was about 46 percent of Egpyt’s 54 million voters”.

 

Elections, EU style

29/05/2014

After the earthquake that was the elections to the European Parliament the choice of who will become president of the European Commission needs to be chosen but as ever inthe EU it will be behind closed doors with no accountability or legitimacy.

An article sets the scene “Imagine a presidential campaign in which the leading contenders are unknown to the vast majority of the public, voters cannot directly cast their ballots for the candidate of their choice, and the eventual winner can be struck down in favor of a more palatable politician by ruling elites. This may sound like a sham election in a post-Soviet dictatorship. But in fact, it is the slightly surreal circumstances of the world’s first transnational presidential campaign. From May 22 to 25, 380 million voters in the EU’s 28 member states are invited to the polls — as they are every five years — to elect 751 members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The difference this time is they can also play a part in picking the next president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body”.

The piece notes “The scheme is not short of critics among Europe’s pundits. Open Europe, a mildly Euro-skeptic think tank based in London, argues that the European Parliament has ‘failed to gain popular democratic legitimacy’ and that its candidates for the plum post ‘are unable to connect with what remain national electorates'”.

Optomistically he writes “the new election is really a step toward more democracy in Europe, giving voters a bigger say in choosing who runs the EU than they have ever had before. And that’s a good thing. Until now, the commission chief has been chosen in much the same way as the pope — by a conclave of leaders meeting behind closed doors. However, under a purposefully vague clause in the Lisbon Treaty, the latest version of the EU’s rulebook, European heads of state are obliged to ‘take into account’ the results of the European Parliament elections when deciding the next commission CEO”.

He mentions “This year, Europe’s main political parties — such as the Socialists, Liberals, Greens. and center-right European People’s Party — have interpreted this clause to mean that they have the right to field candidates for the commission post, something that has never happened before. The political grouping that tops the poll would expect to have its candidate confirmed by EU leaders in late June, before being ratified by the European Parliament in July. Some, such as Dutch premier Mark Rutte, have pushed back, arguing that EU leaders are not obliged to pick any of the parliament’s preferred candidates. But as MEPs can reject any figure put forward by Angela Merkel, David Cameron, et al, it will be extremely difficult for EU leaders to ignore the victorious party’s applicant”.

However, what he is overlooking is the fact that this has never happened before. The point he makes about the parties fielding candidates and touring around Europe, or at least the European capitals, looking for the backing of national governments says much about how undemocratic the process really is. Another point is that the group that “tops the poll” will probably be either EPP or Socialist and therefore want more intergation, not less. This is despite the obvious anger of the people of the European continent at the EU as demonstrated this month.

The article notes “Critics accuse the parliament of politicizing the role of the European Commission, which is independent of national governments and has a quasi-judicial role in ensuring EU laws are applied. However, the EU executive is already an intensely political body. Former ministers and prime ministers-turned-presidents are responsible for drafting the bloc’s 150 billion euro annual budget and have the sole power to propose new EU legislation. Giving the union’s only directly elected institution greater power over who heads the commission therefore seems both more democratic and more in line with how chief executives in national political systems are appointed. In Britain, for example, the prime minister is usually the leader of the party that musters the most votes. He or she is not directly elected to the post”.

The writer adds “One of the criticisms leveled at the European Union is that it is run by faceless, unelected Eurocrats who are impossible to turf out. This charge will be more difficult to make after this first presidential campaign — if EU leaders pluck one of the political groups’ contenders. Even Merkel, who had previously voiced her opposition to any automatic link between the candidates and the election result”.

Yet to say that there is an election to the people of Europe, for a job most of them have never heard of with people they either don’t know or don’t trust is the the exact opposite of the argument he tries to make.

He goes on to argue “Two of parliament’s four main parties — the Liberals and the Greens — held primaries for the post. All candidates have been campaigning across the continent, holding town hall meetings, rallies, selfie contests, and engaging with voters online. By the end of the campaign, Juncker’s aides estimate that the former Luxembourg premier will have visited 32 cities in 18 countries and given over 300 interviews. He even has a campaign bus and “war room” — hardly cutting edge by U.S. standards but a first in transnational politics. The televised debate between the five candidates was broadcast live by 47 TV stations, and while it lacked the drama, excitement, and scripted zingers of U.S. presidential debates, it compensated by focusing on the meaty political issues that concern most Europeans: high unemployment, sluggish growth, and the crisis in Ukraine”.

He mentions “With the possible exception of Verhofstadt, the sparkiest performer in the May 15 debate, the three leading candidates are uninspiring Brussels apparatchiks whose unblinking belief in further European integration is wildly out of step with mostvoters’ belief that the EU is intrusive and deaf to their concerns. Like the MEPs who will decide their fate, the five contenders are also unknown to most of their electors. Arecent poll of 9,000 people in 12 EU countries showed more than 60 percent of voters had no idea who any of the candidates were. It might have been a different story, though, if the political parties had nominated political heavyweights from large EU countries, such as former French president Nicolas Sarkozy or former British prime minister Tony Blair”.

Yet the very issue is that Guy Verhofstaft is the typical Eurocrat, uninterested in the people of Europe or what they really want. Instead they remain resolutely wedded to the idea of EU intregation despite all the evidence to the contratary.

He does thankfully concede “There are legitimate questions about whether the commission has abused its powers in dealing with small, vulnerable countries — or whether it should have such powers in the first place. But surely the best way to guarantee that the policies pursued by the EU executive are in tune with those of the people it is supposed to represent is to give voters a say. If they plump for parties backing a commission candidate advocating strict fiscal discipline, then they should not be surprised if austerity continues”.

2014 Curial assignments

29/05/2014

The Press Office of the Holy See informed that Pope Francis appointed as members of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia the following cardinals created during in February:

No honeymoon

29/05/2014

An article in Foreign Policy discusses the challenges faced by the next president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko.

It opens “Petro Poroshenko successfully won over at least 54% of Ukrainian voters, but even before the official count is over, he must turn to the challengers that weren’t on the ballot. First on that list, pro-Russian separatists that threaten to cleave off the country’s eastern regions demand Poroshenko’s immediate attention. After claiming victory, he said his first trip would be to Donbass, Ukraine’s restive southeast. Armed fighters blocked Sunday’s vote in certain areas and took over the Donetsk airport. The Associated Press reported that Ukrainian forces responded by launching an air strike against the militants. If confirmed, the assault would mark a sharp escalation of Kiev’s military operations against the rebels and risk inflaming tensions with Moscow — which has promised to protect the country’s Russian speakers — just as they seemed to be slightly cooling. Ukraine’s weak military has battled the eastern fighters they deem terrorists for weeks without successfully re-establishing control. Poroshenko said Monday that the effort should be concluded much more quickly”.

The piece adds “To achieve his goal of quickly making peace in the east, Poroshenko may have to give the separatists more autonomy. Many observers see Kiev giving up more regional power as an inevitability after the Donetsk and Luhansk regions voted two weeks ago to become independent”.

This autonomy will mean langauge concessions also. Poroshenko must be willing to give the Russian speaking Ukrainins guarantees if it he is to keep the country together and avoid giving Putin another reason to “protect” people.

The article goes on to mention “If Poroshenko can resolve the immediate crisis at the Donetsk airport and broker a compromise that keeps Ukraine’s borders intact, he will still have to negotiate with Russia to make sure the deal sticks. Poroshenko said Monday he wanted to talk to Moscow and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomed the conversation. That suggests a possible willingness, once he formally takes power, to limit the military push there in favor of closer ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Moscow’s initial response was a warm one. ‘We are ready for dialogue with representatives of Kiev, with Petro Poroshenko,’ Lavrov said, according to Reuters. That warm reception is an about-face from earlier chilly relations between Moscow and Poroshenko, nicknamed the ‘chocolate king’ because of his Roshen confections company. Poroshenko’s vocal support of the protesters that overthrew Russia-friendly former president Viktor Yanukovych made him the target of Moscow’s ire. In March, Russian authorities retaliated against his candy business, shutting down his chocolate factory in Lipetsk, Russia”.

The author goes on to write that if Poroshenko can hold Ukraine together “the next challenge on his list will be the one that set off the crisis six months ago: his inheritance of a nearly bankrupt country. The International Monetary Fund has agreed to give Ukraine a $17 billion bailout, but is also requiring that Kiev impose austerity measures, such as raising taxes and cutting the gas subsidies that make it easier for many Ukrainians to heat their homes. The cuts and changes required to fix the country’s money problems will likely be unpopular with the voters that just put Poroshenko in power”.

He continues later in the article that “After years of mismanagement and alleged corruption under the Yanukovych regime, Poroshenko inherits empty state coffers and an economy in dire need for major reforms. Previous Ukrainian leaders have bought Russian gas at high prices and then sold it to businesses and individuals at lower subsidised prices, guaranteeing themselves a certain amount of political goodwill, but also bankrupting the state’s finances. The IMF deal also assumes that Ukraine’s borders remain intact, so if the separatists successfully break off, Kiev could need even more money than the IMF originally assumed”.

However the IMF needs to be aware of the complex situation and not assume everything is down to economics. If they can give Poroshenko some breathing space with the loan and how what they demand, then Ukraine could survive intact. However, if the IMF and others demand rapid action the country will be plunged back into disorder and instability.

The piece ends “In addition to support bringing pro-Russian separatists into line, Poroshenko also needs Russia to cut a deal over Ukraine’s outstanding debts. State-owned energy giant Gazprom holds a multi-billion dollar gas tab that Moscow has been happy to hold over Kiev’s head as a way of keeping the government in tow.  In addition, the Ukrainian government is on the hook for the first installment of Russia’s promised loan to Yanukovych, in the form of $3 billion in government bonds. Ukraine’s new president will face a headache over gas bills, even though its summertime and demand for Russian gas is low. Gazprom charges Ukraine about the highest prices in Europe, and has said that it will not consider opening negotiations on gas prices until Ukraine pays its outstanding debt for past deliveries, which sums $3.5 billion”.

“Appears to have ended”

29/05/2014

Just after midnight last Christmas, Pakistani officials say, two Hellfire missiles from a U.S. drone slammed into a house in Miramshah, Pakistan, killing four militants. It was an otherwise unremarkable episode in the sixth year of a relentless unmanned aerial campaign by the CIA. Unremarkable, except for this: There hasn’t been a drone strike reported in Pakistan in the months since. The secret targeted killing program that once was the mainstay of President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism effort appears to be winding down. In a major foreign policy speech at the U.S. Military Academy on Wednesday, Obama said the U.S. would continue to carry out occasional drone strikes, but he cited Yemen and Somalia, not Pakistan, where drone missiles once rained down at a rate of two per week. Armed U.S. drones are still flying regularly over Pakistan’s tribal areas, and CIA targeting officers are still nominating militants to a kill list, according to U.S. officials regularly briefed on the covert program who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss covert programs publicly. But over the past five months, no missiles have been fired. And while the CIA won’t say the program has ended, Obama announced this week a plan to pull nearly all American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016. The targeted killing program in Pakistan relies on drones flown from, and intelligence gathered in, U.S. bases in Afghanistan that would then be closed. “The program (in Pakistan) appears to have ended,” said Peter Bergen, who has closely studied drone strikes for the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank”.

“A spiritual Disneyland”

29/05/2014

As Pope Francis leaves the second trip of papacy and his first to the Holy Land an article in the Wall Street Journal notes the plight of Christians in the region, “At the Church of the Nativity, triumphal banners with biblical stories hang in Manger Square, where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass this weekend. But the festive mood belies an uncomfortable reality for Christians: Their numbers are dwindling here, as they are across the Middle East”.

The writers add “The vast majority in Bethlehem 50 years ago, Christians now make up 15% of the town, about enough to fill Manger Square. The pope arrives in the region on Saturday for a three-day tour, meant to commemorate a visit 50 years ago with the Patriarch of Constantinople, leader of many of the region’s Orthodox Christians”.

They continue “When the pope arrives on Saturday in Jordan, he will say Mass in a stadium among Christians who fled from war and sectarian strife in neighbouring Syria and Iraq. On Sunday, he visits Bethlehem in the West Bank. Tensions between the Palestinian territory and Israel and a stagnant economy have caused a slow bleed of Palestinian Christians, who have emigrated to other countries over decades. The pope goes Monday to Jerusalem, where Christian sites were hit by anti-Arab vandalism ahead of his arrival”.

To give some context they mention that “A century ago, Christians accounted for 10% of the Middle East population, according to the Pew Research Center. Today they are 5%. Syria has seen an exodus of nearly half a million Christians, and in Jerusalem, a population of 27,000 Christians in 1948 has dwindled to 5,000. Pope Francis will find a Middle East where ‘moderation and stability that existed for Christians for centuries is now gone,’ said Justus Weiner, a human-rights lawyer and scholar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a think tank”.

They contuine “During his young papacy, Pope Francis has spoken out a number of times in defense of Christians in the region. In December, he celebrated Mass with the head of Egypt’s Coptic Christian church, which has come under attack since the ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011. He called for the right of Christians to ‘live peacefully in the places where they were born.’ The pope is expected to raise the plight of Christians in the region again during his trip. In an interview with Catholic News Service, the Patriarch Bartholomew, who Pope Francis will meet, said the pair will discuss the ‘diminishing Christian minorities in the Middle East.'”

The reason for this Christian exodus are manifold but they note that “in Bethlehem, it hasn’t been upheaval that reduced the Christian population, but decades of tension and economic decline as the community found itself caught between Palestinian nationalism and the Israeli state. The town had long been the home to some the region’s most prominent Palestinian Christian families, with 70% of the population belonging to a mix of Roman Catholic, Maronite, Syriac and Orthodox sects, local leaders say. By 1995, wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors had left the population well under a third, at 20,000. A turning point for Christians came in 2002 during the second Palestinian uprising. In April that year, a group of armed Palestinians barricaded themselves in the Church of the Nativity. For 39 days, the Israeli military besieged the church as the militants dug in and the priests looked on helplessly”.

They end the piece “Bethlehem’s Christian mayor, Vera Baboun, said the biggest hardship facing her community today is creating jobs for those separated from nearby Jerusalem by the wall that now divides the West Bank and Israel. Many were employed in Christian tourism, which dropped after Israel constructed the barrier in the wake of the second Palestinian uprising. ‘The movement between Bethlehem and Jerusalem isn’t just in the Bible. It’s an economic relationship that has been severed,’ she said. On Saturday in Jordan, the pontiff will hold an outdoor Mass for Christians, some of them among the than 17,000 Christians who have fled to Jordan from Syria, according to the Catholic Church”.

The end “A 49-year-old Christian refugee who gave only her first name Nazek recalled fleeing from a Damascus suburb to Jordan last February. At one point in the fighting, neighbours discovered a car bomb in front of a nearby church. When her 19-year-old son was called to the army, she decided to escape with her other two children, aged 26 and 27. She recalled seeing Pope John Paul II travel through Damascus in 2000, an event she described as uplifting. But she says much has changed for the worse since those times. ‘I want to tell Pope Francis about our suffering,’ she said. ‘We need your help pope. We need security.'”

Francis meets Fellay

27/05/2014

Bernard Fellay, the Superior General of the Society of Saint Pius X (Fraternité Sacerdotale Saint-Pie X – FSSPX / SSPX), was received by Pope Francis in the Domus Sanctae Marthae sometime in the past few months. In order to protect our sources, we cannot detail the date and persons involved in the meeting, but only generally locate it in time – if the current pontificate so far can be divided into two halves, the meeting took place in the second half. We can also add as part of this exclusive information that it was not a merely fortuitous event – that is to say, many off-the-record meetings with His Holiness have taken place since his election precisely because his being at Saint Martha’s House make him much more accessible and available than many previous pontiffs. No, that was not the case at all – the pope was previously duly informed and duly met Bishop Fellay. The meeting was apparently short and cordial”.

 

An earthquake in Europe

27/05/2014

In the wake of the elections to the European Parliament most of the results are in and the mainstream “European parties” of which national parties are members, have taken losses.

A report in the Telegraph begins with the most dramatic developments, “Marine Le Pen declared victory in European Union elections as voters backed populist, far-Right and Left-wing parties in a backlash against immigration and the euro’s economic policies. In a stunning defeat for the European political establishment, exit polls forecast that the French Front National, which wants to leave the euro and the EU, would win 25 per cent of the vote, more than ten points ahead of Francois Hollande’s Socialists. The victory means that Miss Le Pen’s Front National will increase its number of MEPs from three to 24 in an earthquake for French and eurozone politics. ‘Our people demand one type of politics: politics by the French, for the French, with the French. They don’t want to be led anymore from outside, to submit to laws,’ said Miss Le Pen. ‘Tonight is a massive rejection of the EU. What is happening in France prefigures what will happen in all European countries, the return of the nation.'”

The report goes on to mention plauged Greece, “exit polls put the far-Left Syriza party on almost 30 per cent of the vote as Greeks revolted over the eurozone crisis and austerity that have devastated their country, a victory that could herald a new political crisis. In Denmark, the far-Right Danish People’s Party beat the Social Democrats led by the countryメs prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the daughter in law of Lord Kinnock, the former Labour leader. In Italy, Beppe Grillo’s new populist, anti-euro Five Star party came second behind Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party as Italians once fervent pro-Europeans hit back against economic stagnation blamed on Europe’s single currency”.

Different reports have given the anti-EU UK Independence Party the most seats with 25 seats with Labour second and the Conservatives with in third place with 19 MEPs elected.

The piece adds “The French political establishment, the Gaullist UMP and Socialists, were in disarray last night after the far-Right Front National convincingly won the EU election to become France’s largest political party in the EU assembly. ‘It will mean that France would disappear from Europe’s political scene. It would be a tragedy for our country,’ warned Alain Lamassoure, representing the opposition centre-Right UMP for the Paris area. Socialist sources close to President Hollande spoke of ‘a new crisis of authority’ and market turbulence for his beleaguered administration that struggling to pull France out of recession”.

Indeed the scale of the win for the FN in France has huge consequences. These are two fold, symbolic and political. France was one of the founding members of the ECSC and after their 2005 rejection of the EU Constitution followed by this wave of support for the anti-EU,  anti-globalistaion, and anti-immigrant FN leads to the view that the French are becoming more wary of the EU, if not full blown Eurosceptics. Politically it has consequences as it may force the pro federalist main parties in the European Parliament, the EPP and Socialists to make concessions, though this is far from certain given the EU’s uncertain belief in democracy.

The piece adds “In Greece, voters delivered a clear verdict of disapproval for their government’s implementation of eurozone austerity policies with the radical leftist Syriza taking a clear lead over the ruling New Democracy party. The extreme-right Golden Dawn party garnered between 10 and 13 per cent of the vote in European elections, exit polls indicated, despite an ongoing criminal investigation that has put several of its leading members in pre-trial detention”.

The Telegraph in a seperate article notes that the “problem” has even spread to Germany, “Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats have been dealt an embarrassing blow by Germany’s new Eurosceptic party which won seven percent of the vote in the European election, putting the party on course to enter national parliament for the first time. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) , which wants Europe’s crisis countries, including Greece and France, to leave the Eurozone and aims to retrieve powers from Brussels, won seven seats in the European parliament and hopes to co-operate with Britain’s Conservatives. Bernd Lucke, the AfD’s economics professor leader told jubilant supporters in Berlin on Sunday after his party’s success: ‘The established parties are the losers in this election because they failed to address citizens’ concerns and problems. We are the new party of the people in Germany,’ he declared”.

The piece goes on to note “Post election analysis showed that the AfD owed its most of its success to former Christian Democrat voters who switched their allegiance to the new eurosceptic party, which could enter Germany’s national parliament for the first time if its popularity continues. The party also won support from sections of the electorate which normally don’t vote. For the first time, Mrs Merkel now finds herself confronted with a conservative political opponent which is both growing in strength and at loggerheads with her policies on Europe. Her party remained Germany’s biggest political force in polling on Sunday but her Social Democrat coalition partners made significant gains”.

It adds “Mrs Merkel expressed regret that populist parties had done well in EU elections and said it was up to governments in countries like France to win back voters with policies that foster growth, jobs and competitiveness. ‘As for the good results of the populists and the right-wing, it’s remarkable and regrettable,’ she said. ‘The question is how we win over voters. This is also the case for France,’ she said”.

What will be most interesting is how Merkel deals with AfD and the other anti-EU parties. Her reaction calling these parties “populist” is dangerous and risks further alienating people already dissillusioned with politics and the EU. Rather the belittle them Merkel needs to address their concerns with the EU lack of accountability and transperency, its lack of legitimacy and a host of other issues that the people of the European continent feel need to be addressed. If not the gulf between rulers and ruled will widen and social, political and economic chaos will inevitably occur.

It adds, “The AfD leadership has ruled out any form of political co-operation with Britain’s UKIP and has made scornful remarks about Nigel Farage’s stance on immigration.However the AfD’s youth wing invited Mr Farage to address them as a guest speaker earlier this year. The party’s leaders have nevertheless stressed that they think it would be a “ disaster” if Britain were to leave the European Union and have tried to fight off allegations that the AfD is essentially a far right party in sheep’s clothing. Hans-Olaf Henkel, the AfD’s front runner in the European elections and a former chairman of the German Industry Federation told The Telegraph earlier this month that he considered David Cameron’s Conservatives to be the AfD’s “natural partners” in Europe”.

Meanwhile in reaction to this President Hollande of France spoke to the nation in which he said some remarkable things, “French President Francois Hollande has said the EU must reform and scale back its power, amid a surge in support for Eurosceptic and far-right parties. Mr Hollande, whose party was beaten by the far right in last week’s European Parliament election, said the EU had become too complex and remote. In response, he will tell EU leaders at a meeting in Brussels later that they must focus on boosting the economy. The three big pro-EU centrist blocs are still on course for a majority. But they have lost seats in the European Parliament to parties seeking to curb EU powers or abolish the union, among them the UK Independence Party which came first in the domestic vote with 27% according to provisional results“.

The EU response, it is reported will come tonight as “Europe’s leaders are to hold crisis talks tonight on the future of the European Union after stunning victories by populist parties on the far-Right and Left in pan-Europe elections. At a Brussels summit dinner David Cameron will demand urgent change to the EU’s Lisbon Treaty to give powers back to national governments, a task he set as a ‘real test’ for the Government ahead of next year’s general election. ‘The results show a very clear message, which is people are deeply disillusioned with the EU, with the way that it’s working, with the way that it’s working for Britain, and they want change,’ the Prime Minister [David Cameron] said. ‘The challenge is now for my party to demonstrate that we have the plan to deliver that change: to renegotiate Britain’s place in Europe; to get a better deal for Britain; to change Europe.’ Urgent reform of the EU, a potentially risky turn away from cuts to unpopular austerity in the eurozone and new rules to reduce alleged benefit tourism by people from poor East European member states will top a five-year programme aimed at wooing voters”.

In an intesting piece however, Mats Persson writes that the peak of anti-EU feeling has not ended, “So, as predicted, the rise of anti-EU and protest parties on the Left and Right became the big story of this year’s European elections. Anti-establishment parties didn’t blow the established parties away in all countries – they under-performed in Finland and the Netherlands, for example. However, the trend was clear: citizens voted for anti-incumbent alternatives in greater numbers than ever before. Collectively, anti-EU or anti-establishment parties will win 31 per cent of seats in the European Parliament, translating into 229 out of 751 seats – up from 21 per cent of seats in 2009 (though remember the figures are still preliminary)”.

He goes on to argue “Brussels politics will become more unpredictable, though the anti-establishment parties won’t form a coherent bloc and the main centre-Right and centre-Left factions in the EP will continue to dominate. As I’ve argued before, the result may even strengthen their resolve to club together, possibly resulting in more “more Europe”.  The share of MEPs dedicated to free market policies drops, from 32 per cent to 28 per cent, which is bad news for David Cameron’s free trade agenda but not a deal breaker.  The overall turnout stayed flat at a low 43 per cent, despite more powers for MEPs since the Lisbon Treaty and the EU becoming a high-profile issue in the wake of the eurozone crisis. Hardly a resounding victory for pan-European democracy”.

He ends “The temptation in Brussels and national capitals will be to view this as the peak of anti-EU sentiment as the eurozone crisis calms down and the economy improves. This would be a huge gamble. The make-up and reasons for the rise of these parties are complex, but it’s clear that the best way to cut off their oxygen is to show that the EU can reform itself and respond to voters. While an artificially polarised EP may itself be a bit of a headache for David Cameron – MEPs will have an effective veto over many of his reform proposals – Downing Street’s greatest hope is that EU leaders understand that things now need to change. These elections are a clear warning: offer voters a polarised choice between more Europe and no Europe and sooner or later they will choose the latter. Reform is the only other option”.

“A simple majority”

27/05/2014

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) established a simple majority on its own in the Lok Sabha, according to election results on Friday that gave the main opposition party more than five times as many seats as the ruling Congress—buoying the stock markets and the rupee. The BJP, led by its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, won the Lok Sabha elections, with 282 seats on its own. The alliance it leads—National Democratic Alliance (NDA)—has 336 seats in the lower house of the Parliament. This is the highest number of seats won by any party on its own since the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, when the Congress, led by then prime ministerRajiv Gandhi won a landslide victory. The 1991 Congress government was a minority one, and the party had just 244 seats in the Lok Sabha. Modi first acknowledged the people’s mandate with a tweet, and then a public rally in Vadodara. “Good times are coming,” said the BJP prime ministerial candidate, adding that “with all and development for all, will be my government’s motto and not an empty slogan”—thus, continuing the development plank on which he contested the general elections”.

 

“Starting to look very like Japan”

27/05/2014

An article in the Telegraph seems to confirm what has long been suspected, the Chinese economy is preparing to burst.  It begins “China’s authorities are becoming increasingly nervous as the country’s property market flirts with full-blown bust, threatening to set off a sharp economic slowdown and a worrying erosion of tax revenues. New housing starts fell by 15pc in April from a year earlier, with effects rippling through the steel and cement industries. The growth of industrial production slipped yet again to 8.7pc and has been almost flat in recent months”.

The piece adds “Land sales fell by 20pc, eating into government income. The Chinese state depends on land sales and property taxes to fund 39pc of total revenues. ‘We really think this year is a tipping point for the industry,’ Wang Yan, from Hong Kong brokers CLSA, told Caixin magazine. ‘From 2013 to 2020, we expect the sales volume of the country’s property market to shrink by 36pc. They can keep on building but no one will buy.’ The Chinese central bank has ordered 15 commercial banks to boost loans to first-time buyers and ‘expedite the approval and disbursement of mortgage loans’, the latest sign that it is backing away from monetary tightening. The authorities are now in an analogous position to Western central banks following years of stimulus: reliant on an asset boom to keep growth going. Each attempt to rein in China’s $25 trillion credit bubble seems to trigger wider tremors, and soon has to be reversed”.

He goes on to mention “Wei Yao, from Société Générale, said the property sector makes up 20pc of China’s economy directly, but the broader nexus is much larger. Financial links includes $2.5 trillion of bank mortgages and direct lending to developers; a further $1 trillion of shadow bank credit to builders; $2.3 trillion of corporate and local government borrowing ‘collateralised’ on real estate or revenues from land use”.

He continues adding that China’s financial system is exposed to the property market by perhaps as much as 80% of GDP, “the risk is that several cities will face a controlled crash along the lines of Wenzhou, where prices have been falling non-stop for two years and have dropped 20pc. President Xi Jinping has made a strategic decision to pop the bubble before it spins further out of control, allowing bond defaults to instil market discipline. But the Communist party is in delicate position and may already be trapped”.

The author goes on to discuss “Reliance on ‘fair weather’ land revenues to fund the budget is like the pattern in Ireland before its housing bubble burst. The IMF says China is running a fiscal deficit of 10pc of GDP once the land sales and taxes are stripped out. Zhiwei Zhang, from Nomura, said the latest loosening measures are not enough to stop the property slide, predicting two cuts in the reserve requirement ratio (RRR) for banks over the next two quarters. He warned that any such move will merely store up further problems. Nomura said the inventory of unsold properties in the smaller third and fourth tier cities – which make up 67pc of residential construction – has reached 27 months’ supply. The bank warned in a recent report that the property slump could lead to a ‘systemic crisis’. The Chinese state controls the banking system and has $3.9 trillion of foreign reserves that can be deployed in a crisis. The RRR is extremely high at 20pc and can be slashed if necessary. A cut to 6pc, the level in 1998, would inject $2 trillion in liquidity”.

He ends “What is certain is that China’s demographic profile is already changing the economic calculus. The workforce contracted by 3.45m in 2012 and another 2.27m in 2013. For better or worse, China is already starting to look very like Japan”.

“Sentenced former president Hosni Mubarak”

25/05/2014

“An Egyptian court has sentenced former president Hosni Mubarak and his two sons to jail for corruption. Mubarak was sentenced to three years in prison and his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, received four-year sentences for embezzling LE125 million ($17.9 million) of funds earmarked for the renovation of presidential palaces. The three were also fined LE125 million ($17.6 million) and ordered to reimburse LE21.19 million ($2.9 million) to the state treasury. Four other defendants were acquitted in the case. Mubarak and his two sons – who both face a separate corruption case – also face trials for involvement in the killing of protesters during the January 2011 uprising.  The ailing former president could serve his sentence in hospital if doctors advise that his health does not permit his transfer to prison, and if prosecutors approve, a judicial source told Ahram Online. Mubarak, 86, was released from jail in August but has been kept under house arrest in a military hospital in Maadi, a Cairo suburb, because he had spent the maximum amount of time in pretrial detention. Since he was taken into custody in early 2011, Mubarak has spent much of his detention in hospitals due to his fragile health”.

 

An autocratic suicide pact

25/05/2014

An article in Foreign Policy examines the Sino-Russian gas deal. It begins, “A marathon negotiating session that lasted until almost four in the morning, Russia and China inked one of the world’s biggest energy deals Wednesday, a 30-year, $400 billion pact that will send natural gas from Siberia to energy-hungry China. The successful conclusion of talks that began in the late 1990s, and which were nearly derailed Tuesday on the first day of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip to China, presages a new era in global energy trade. The implications are potentially huge for Russia, for China and much of Asia, and also for Europe, still Russia’s biggest energy consumer”.

He goes on to write “For Russia, the deal is a way to finally start selling more of its energy to Asia after decades spent supplying Europe with oil and natural gas. For China, the pact offers a way to meet part of its fast-growing demand for energy, especially energy that’s cleaner than the dirty coal that has fueled three decades of growth. Europe, meanwhile, is watching the Sino-Russian bear hug with a mixture of relief and apprehension: While the deal potentially gives Russia a way to sidestep European and American pressure on Russia’s energy exports in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, it also offers Europe hope of landing its own favourably-priced energy contracts in years to come”.

The scale of the agreement is apparent when he writes, “The agreement reached Wednesday calls for Moscow to provide 38 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year to Beijing for three decades. Exact details of the landmark pact are still scanty; Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom has not revealed the price at which the contract was signed. But people close to the talks and in the industry said that China had secured a long-term supply of gas at about $350 per thousand cubic meters — less than what Russia wanted to charge, and less than the $380 that it has traditionally charged European customers”.

Yet the autocratic embrace could be the death knell for both governments. Signing a 30 year agreement with many countries is not uncommon and is often needed for stability. However, the length of this contract is so long that it could end up fundamentally damaging both signatories. Russia has obvious problems, both political and especially economic. Its economy is becoming increasingly reliant on the energy imports but little else, due to corruption and a lack of openness.

China’s long term economic forecast is bleak, the BRICs have slowed considerably, China’s housing bubble is ready to burst,  if it has not already, to say nothing if its debts. Add in its crumbling demographics and the deal could be large enough and long term enough to bring about even greater pressure on each other’s economies with Russia desperate to sell gas and China needing less and less and its economy either implodes or declines.

He goes on to note “The deal — which Putin called a ‘historic event for Russia’s gas sector’ — will lead to the massive development of gas fields in Russia’s far east, requiring at least $50 billion in investment by Russian firms and, Putin said, perhaps $20 billion in Chinese investment. Most importantly, the deal is the first major shift to Asia in terms of Russia’s gas exports. It has sold modest amounts of oil to China for years, and is trying to ramp up its exports of liquefied natural gas to thirsty markets in Asia. But the China deal is a big step toward the eastern diversification of energy markets that the Kremlin laid out in 2010, and could pave the way to additional big future deals with South Korea, Japan, and India”.

Interestingly he mentions the long term investment needed from the Russia side, “While the new Siberian gas fields will require heavy investment and years of development before they come online, the deal also offers Russia an alternative to its heavy reliance on Europe for gas exports. That means that, by the end of the decade, Russia will have more ability than ever to sidestep any U.S. or European efforts to use Moscow’s reliance on revenue from its energy sales to Europe as a weapon. To date, at any rate, neither Washington nor Berlin has quite had the stomach to use Moscow’s $100 million-a-day of European gas sales as a point of leverage in the standoff over Ukraine”.

He continues, “Russia and Putin have perhaps more reason to celebrate than Gazprom does. The deal was delayed for years in large part because Gazprom wanted to replicate in Asia the kinds of profitable gas contracts it had in Europe; China simply refused. The reported price agreed upon in Shanghai would be about break even, or just under, for Gazprom. The China contract will diversify revenues, in other words, but not fatten profits. Gazprom shares briefly jumped Wednesday before giving up most of their gains. ‘It’s a political deal. Whether it’s good for Gazprom and for cash flow is always a secondary priority’ for the Kremlin, said one European diplomat who works on energy issues with Russia”.

He goes on to write “The pact seems to be a clearer victory for China, which locks up future supplies of natural gas at a reasonable price. That’s important for several reasons. China’s demand for natural gas is expected to skyrocket in coming years, in large part because the government wants to reduce the role that dirty coal has played in powering the economic miracle since 1978; coal-related pollution has become a political liability for Beijing. Estimates of Chinese gas demand range widely, but analysts agree that gas consumption will double or triple in the next decade. Conservative estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Administration suggest developing countries in Asia will lead the world in gas demand growth between 2010 and 2040, and that China will account for more than 60 percent of that increase. Some companies with a dog in the fight, such as General Electric, which makes gas-fired turbines for the power sector, are even more bullish. Importantly for China, the deal with Russia won’t require a Faustian bargain. Unlike many small European countries who are nearly 100 percent dependent on Russia for their gas supplies, and thus vulnerable to blackmail and supply outages, China will likely only rely on Russia for 10 percent or so of its gas when the project is completed”.

He ends “To be sure, Putin said after the signing that talks are beginning on a second deal with China to supply gas from western Siberian fields, and that Russia’s ultimate goal is to link the mature gas fields in the west with the virgin fields in the east, ‘making it possible if need be to diversify supplies from west to east and east to west.’ But that will require years of work and billions of dollars of investment to make it a reality. Until the initial Siberian fields and pipelines are built, Russia will still rely on the European market for the bulk of its gas revenues. That will start to change after 2020, but given the lower prices conditions that China appears to have secured, the Asian market will be less profitable for Gazprom than the European market has been”.

Modi invites Sharif

25/05/2014

Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi’s move to invite Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has aroused political backlash. While Congress has critised Modi of having ‘double-standards’ with regards to Pakistan, parties in the South are protesting the invite issued to Rajapaksa. “BJP earlier criticized us saying no relations with Pakistan till our soldiers are killed on border, what is Modi doing now?,” asked Meem Afzal of Congress. According to Times Now sources, Nawaz Sharif, who has accepted Modi’s invitation, is likely to attend the cermony. Meanwhile, Modi’s invitation to Mahinda Rajapaksa to attend his swearing-in ceremony on May 26 has put BJP’s allies in Tamil Nadu and chief minister J Jayalalithaa in a tight spot. With Rajapaksa accepting the invitation”.

“A net negative for the West”

25/05/2014

After the victory of Narendra Modi in the Indian general election there has been discussion of his foreign policy. Some have correctly argued that the broad contours will not change. On the specific level however a piece in Foreign Policy discusses that Modi will displease many in America.

The article opens, “India is about to install a new prime minister who is not a Gandhi, not a member of the Congress party, not a policy intellectual, and not a product of India’s westward-looking professional class. After a decade of increasingly stagnant Congress rule, India is heading into the great unknown. Narendra Modi had said a great deal about how he wants to change India’s economic policy — even if most of it is vague and hortatory. But he has said next to nothing about foreign policy. A figure as forceful as Modi and as disdainful of the country’s political class would seem likely to reshape India’s posture toward the world”.

The piece notes “like the United States, India is a continental nation with water on either side; very few people live near a foreign country. Questions of poverty, economic development, political corruption, and caste identity are vastly more pressing for voters than India’s relations with its most powerful neighbours, China and Pakistan. Even India’s professional and policy elites are far more preoccupied with domestic concerns than with foreign issues. For this reason, India’s conduct of foreign policy has changed very slowly since independence and almost always owing to an evolving consensus rather than a change of government. Modi could, in fact, choose to let the machine run on its own”.

It may be correct that “more preoccupied with domestic concerns” but India cannot just ignore its foreign policy to the exclusion of all else. It lives in a very dangerous part of the world and while Modi may be focusing on internal issues events will eventually force his hand and his attention to foreign matters.

The writer mentions that he ” called Hardeep Singh Puri, Modi’s spokesman on foreign affairs and India’s former ambassador to the United Nations, to ask whether his new prime minister had a worldview and, if so, what it was. ‘Modi’s worldview,’ Puri responded, ‘is captured in the Indian concept of ‘the whole world is one family.” That’s good to know, but it doesn’t dictate much in the way of policy choices. I posed the same question to a seasoned Indian diplomat whom Modi had consulted on foreign affairs. ‘His worldview is more economic than geopolitical,’ he said. ‘He speaks very warmly of East Asia and how they have outdistanced us economically. I have no doubt that Japan will be the first country he will visit.'”

The danger of course is that this is the view to which many in the EU remain wedded, despite evidence that the world of power politics still exists on its doorstep. This view may have held water in the EU for decades and there are obvious reasons for the belief in this view but India and the countries that surround it have a much more geopolitical view, beccause they have to.

He goes on to note with a tone of caution, “On matters of national security, India’s most fraught relationship is of course with Pakistan. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its roots in Hindu nationalism, has traditionally adopted a bellicose posture toward Pakistan. During the campaign, Modi took the kind of cheap shots at Pakistan that played to the gallery. He jeered at the Congress party defense minister, A.K. Antony — who declined to authorise a sharp military response to a murky cross-border incident that led to the death of several Indian soldiers — as one of several ‘agents of Pakistan and enemy of India.'”

Though this lens does not necessarily force the view Modi will take, “That could be. India’s previous BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, made a historic visit to Pakistan in 1999 in the hopes of advancing talks on the disputed territory of Kashmir. Ashutosh Varshney, an India scholar at Brown University, has suggested that Modi could be India’s ‘Nixon in China.’ That might be stretching it, but Modi’s shrewd campaign left the impression that, whatever his personal views, he is more politician than ideologue”.

The author continues, “Modi is unlikely to give a high priority to relations with the United States, a country to which he has not been permitted to travel owing to his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Indians did not miss the brusque undertone of President Barack Obama’s invitation to Modi to visit the United States at ‘a mutually agreeable time.’ The Delhi policy elite believes, with some reason, that Obama has relegated India to the second-class status that it had endured until 2005, when President George W. Bush struck a “strategic partnership” with India, followed three years later by a major nuclear deal. Indians are mystified that Obama, unlike Bush, has not embraced an enthusiastically democratic nation with tremendous potential for economic growth”.

He metions “Obama will be, if anything, warier about an India under Modi than he was when the country was governed, more or less, by the anodyne Singh. The problem, however, is not personal. India illustrates the fallacy of the assumption that democracies share a common outlook on the world. As a young nation under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, India, like the United States in its infancy, saw itself more as a collective idea than as a set of interests, standing up for the principle of nonalignment and for international peace. But the 1950s were a long time ago. India is now a regional power with strong economic and national security interests, as well as a skepticism bordering on hostility toward many Western norms. It may well be the most vibrant democracy in the emerging world, but India does not believe in promoting democratic values abroad. India guards the sanctity of national sovereignty almost as zealously as China and Russia do”.

These concerns, while valid, have been consistent problems for America when dealing with India. It will take many decades for India to shed its non-aligned past and see that the world is a safer place with democracy and free markets. If it does then the world will be a safer place. The problem for America is trying to get India to this realisation.

He continues, “In an essay in the volume Shaping the Emerging World: India and the Multilateral Order, David Malone, Canada’s former high commissioner to India and a scholar of the United Nations, along with Rohan Mukherjee, a doctoral student, note a strange paradox: As India has grown stronger, it has become more defensive about sovereignty and less prepared to defend the international order. This inevitably places it at odds with the United States, the chief guarantor of that order”.

He concludes the piece “In short, Modi is likely to be a net negative for the West. But unless he picks a fight with Pakistan, that won’t matter nearly as much as whether he can address India’s sense of stagnation. Modi believes that he can spread the business-first, no-red-tape model he established in Gujarat across India. His stunning electoral victory (though with slightly under 32 percent of the popular vote) gives him a mandate to do so. Hundreds of millions of all-too-hopeful Indians are about to find out whether Modi can do what he said he would. Despite merited suspicions about Modi’s commitment to democracy and secularism, Western leaders need to begin thinking about what they can do to help him succeed”.

Moving away from pacifism

25/05/2014

“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be about to take one of his biggest steps yet to nudge Japan away from its postwar pacifism after a government advisory panel recommended Thursday that constitutional restrictions on the military be eased to allow Japanese forces to come to the aid of allied nations under attack. The panel, which was appointed by the Abe government, called on Japan to adopt a new legal interpretation of its war-renouncing Constitution that would permit an expanded role for its military, the Self-Defense Forces. Those forces have been strictly limited to protecting Japan’s own territory and people since they were created soon after World War II. The reinterpretation would allow Japanese armed forces to act in limited cases even when Japan is not at risk, such as by shooting down a North Korean missile headed toward the United States, something it cannot legally do now. The proposed change would also allow Japanese forces to play a larger role in United Nations peacekeeping operations, the panel said. Though Japan has sent troops to peacekeeping operations since 1992, they act under severe constraints”.

A coup in Libya

23/05/2014

Given the recent clashes and violence in Libya a report from Foreign Policy argues that it is in fact a coup.

It opens, “On Sunday, clashes erupted in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, between rival groups trying to control the country’s fragmented transitional institutions, leaving at least two dead and scores injured. The Libyan parliament also came under attack, prompting the evacuation of its members. The attacking forces announced the suspension of the Libyan parliament and the delegation of legislative powers to the recently elected Constituent Assembly, the body in charge of drafting the country’s constitution. The forces that took to the streets of Tripoli are claiming to be the “Libyan National Army,” led by senior officers who defected from the Qaddafi-era Libyan army to help topple his regime. These forces are loyal to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a retired army general who assisted in the 2011 ouster. The Libyan parliament, however, insists that the acts of these officers amount to a military coup to overthrow the democratically elected institutions in post-revolution Libya”.

By way of context he mentions “The clashes first broke out in Benghazi on Friday morning, leaving more than 24 dead and 146 injured, after forces loyal to Haftar carried out a surprise offensive against Islamist and extremist militias. The forces claimed these militias were behind the assassination campaign that has targeted army and security officers in eastern Libya for more than two years. (The photo above shows former rebel fighters guarding the western entrance of Tripoli on May 19.) Previously, on Feb. 14, Haftar announced a military takeover, the suspension of parliament, and a new “road map” for the future. Haftar’s announcement won the support of some army officers in eastern Libya and the QaaQaa and Sawaiq brigades in Tripoli. Others, however, laughed off this coup attempt, which was described by officials as “ridiculous.” Haftar was quick to say that his announcement was not a coup attempt, because a coup attempt would require a coherent government to overthrow in the first place”.

Following the coup announcement, the authorities in Tripoli issued an arrest warrant against Haftar. Yet since then he has continued to operate and move freely in eastern Libya, joining his supporters in demonstrations in Benghazi and urging action against the extremist and Islamist groups that, he says, have hijacked Libya. Haftar has used the months since his original takeover announcement in February to launch something of a charm offensive. His campaign focused on eastern Libya to rally support from tribal forces and Libyan army officers. Given the blatant neglect of the army by the current authorities in Libya, army officers have found their lost voice with Haftar, who has seemed to champion their cause in the face of a vicious assassination campaign by militias, which enjoy support and political backing from certain political groups in the Libyan parliament and government.

Haftar’s surprise attack will not change the status quo in Libya, as some would like. All groups, including the Islamist militias, are armed to their teeth and have enough followers and support to survive such offensives. The forces are evenly matched — and this will only change if a third party, such as some large regional group, weighs in to support one of the sides. Yet Haftar’s move exposes the weaknesses of the General National Congress (the country’s legislative body) and the central government. On many occasions, civilians in Benghazi have taken to the streets to demand that the government take action against these militias — and Haftar seems to be the only one willing to take action. The retired general engaged with local tribes and communities and promised to address their fears regarding the growing influence of extremists in eastern Libya, a task that Tripoli has been reluctant to take on.

Some are raising legitimate concerns over Haftar’s ambitions and his military background, fearing that Libya will follow in Egypt’s footsteps. But others have made no secret of their desire for a coup. By taking on extremists and Islamist militias, Haftar is positioning himself as Libya’s terrorism fighter and sending a message to Libyans and regional powers like Egypt and the United States that he is their winning card to fight terrorism in post-revolution Libya.

Haftar seems to have taken both the militias in Benghazi and the authorities in Tripoli completely by surprise. In a press conference held a few hours after the clashes broke out, acting Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and his army chief, Jadallah al-Obaidi, admitted that 120 armed vehicles belonging to Libyan army units that have pledged allegiance to Haftar had entered Benghazi to take on Islamist militias. In addition, air force jets were carrying out airstrikes against posts used by Islamist militias in Benghazi. The fact that army units are ignoring orders from the central authorities, acting without their consent, and joining forces loyal to a rogue army general is extremely embarrassing for the authorities in Tripoli and adds to the erosion of their weakened legitimacy.

After this eventful day, there are two competing narratives. The first is that patriots from the Libyan armed forces are finally waging a long-awaited war on terrorism in eastern Libya. The second is that a rogue army general with significant support is attempting to seize power by taking advantage of the deteriorating security situation and political polarization.

Libya requires a new and comprehensive political deal that takes into account the current reality of the polarized and divided political scene in Libya. Simply handing power over to the Constituent Assembly will not solve the problem. Such a step could complicate matters further and jeopardize the constitution-building process in Libya.

When Libya’s political leaders failed to address the needs of local communities, they opened the door for ambitious figures like Haftar and federalist leader Ibrahim Jathran to fill the vacuum. Meanwhile, these politicians are mired in a never-ending political struggle for power over state institutions and assets. These latest events will undoubtedly add to the political polarization. At this point, a peaceful political settlement between these competing factions in Libya is hard to imagine.

“Remains in control of the country”

23/05/2014

The Libyan government has insisted that it remains in control of the country despite a series of heavy attacks and clashes over the weekend. The parliament building in the capital Tripoli was overrun by a militia group, and two people were killed. Later a militia spokesman demanded that the assembly hand over power to a body drawing up a new constitution. Libya’s leaders have struggled to bring stability to the country since Muammar Gaddafi was removed from power in 2011. The planned new constitution remains unwritten and the country has had three prime ministers since March. Since the conclusion of Col Gaddafi’s one-man rule, militias of ex-rebels have become de-facto powerbrokers in the vacuum of Libya’s political chaos, correspondents say. They have carved out fiefdoms and are exercising their military muscle to make demands on the state. In a live televised statement, Justice Minister Asalah al-Marghani condemned the attacks, calling for an end to the violence and the need for a national dialogue. He said that the government is still working. Early on Monday there were reports of an attack on a military air base in Benghazi, which on Friday saw heavy fighting between the militias and Islamists”. Other reports mention ” There was also heavy fighting near an army camp in the eastern Tajoura suburb. “We’re hearing really loud explosions and gunshots near the camp but we don’t know is shooting,” a Tajoura resident said. Other parts of the capital appeared to be quiet. Tripoli had become calmer in the past two days after militiamen stormed the General National Congress (GNC) parliament and fought for six hours with other armed groups on the airport road on Sunday. Two people were killed, according to official data. The major oil producer struggles with chaos with the central government unable to control militias who helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but now defy state authority. On Friday, renegade General Khalifa Haftar started what he called a military campaign against Islamist militants in Benghazi in the east and also claimed responsibility for the attack on parliament in Tripoli. Several military units have joined him, risking splitting the nascent regular forces and different militia”.

 

China’s warped world view

23/05/2014

Following the Chinese infringement of Vietnamese territorial waters, China has been active but the lack of official media coverage has only inflamed Chinese nationalism.

The piece starts, “On May 18, Hong Lei, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said China ‘will suspend some of its plans for bilateral exchanges with Vietnam in response to the deadly violence against Chinese nationals in the country,’ according to state news agency Xinhua. Beginning May 13, local rioters set fire to an unknown number of foreign-owned industrial parks and attacked Chinese workers in residence there. In one of the deadliest confrontations between China and Vietnam since the two countries fought a war in 1979, two Chinese workers were killed and more than 100 injured. Meanwhile, as many as 1,500 Chinese have reportedly fledacross Vietnam’s border with Cambodia. Yet since tensions began, Chinese authorities have been surprisingly stingy with information and seemingly mindful of stoking anti-Vietnamese sentiment within China. On social media, users appear to feel the Chinese government failed to react with sufficient speed or urgency to the violence as it unfolded. At an iron and steel company in Ky Anh, a rural district of Vietnam’s north-central coastal province of Ha Tinh, one user of Weibo, China’s largest micro-blogging site, asked, “Why is there no one here to help us? Are we really abandoned?” Taking photos of the scene with a smart phone, the user, who called herself only “a woman lost in love,” later uploaded them to Weibo and appended a geo-tag placing her at Ky Anh. She described locals “burning the work sites, hitting people, and looting” and also “setting workers’ housing on fire.” She endedher message with a plea that seemed directed to her countrymen: “Aren’t we Chinese? How could people continue to neglect us like this?” Another steel worker from the same company fumed, “There is no air-conditioning, no water, and the temperature here” is almost 100 degrees. “Where are you, our motherland?” Despite the online outcry, for nearly a week after the violence first flared, Mainland Chinese media remained largely reticent on the issue”.

He mentions that there was little coverage from Chinese media, “censors tolerated discussion of the attacks, many comments raising questions about the government’s treatment of its citizens were quickly removed. (They remainviewable on FreeWeibo, a mirror site that catches deleted Weibo posts.) Some web users attempted to fill the void. Citing what he claimed was a friend trapped in a factory near Hanoi, An Puruo, an author of online fiction, turned his Weibo account into a news feed delivering daily updates from Vietnam to his 281,000 follower”s.

Chinese extreme nationalism reared its ugly head when the writer notes “Reflecting the high emotions of the moment, many users on Weibo quickly applied the racial epithet typically reserved for Japanese — guizi, which literally means devil — to Vietnamese, and, invoking the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979, called for a quick military intervention to reassert China’s sovereignty in the region”.

Of course none of this would have happened if China had not taken the aggressive and provocative steps that it had. China has had a history of this of late in the region and that latest incident shows just how bad things have gotten. China should not be suprisied when these actions have consequences.

The piece ends, “Beijing appears to be responding, if belatedly. On May 18, CCTV reported that five ships were rescuing the 3,000 workers still stranded in Vietnam. The comments on Weibo, however, have only grown more worrying. ‘In my opinion, a war with Vietnam is forthcoming, and it’s better to do it sooner than later,’ wrote Li Ao, a Taiwanese commentator who frequently appeared on Chinese media, on May 18. ‘This is predestined by both global and regional geopolitics; we have no control over it.’ In a deleted post, Wang Bing, a popular Chinese writer,wrote that same day that he found the conflict ‘thrilling,’ and exhorted, ‘Let’s support Chinese retaliation against Vietnam!'”

“Had not seen any sign of withdrawal”

23/05/2014

The Kremlin announced Monday that President Vladimir V. Putin had ordered Russian troops conducting exercises along the Ukrainian border to return to their home bases at the conclusion of the drills, apparently sending another loud signal that Russia is not planning any military action in eastern Ukraine ahead of that country’s presidential elections on Sunday. However, the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the Western allies had not seen any sign of a withdrawal of Russian forces. During a news conference in Brussels, Mr. Rasmussen noted that it was the third such statement by Mr. Putin without any evidence of a pullback of troops or equipment from the Ukrainian border”.

Giving Rouhani a helping hand

23/05/2014

A piece notes how to help President Hassan Rouhani deal with Iranian hardliners opposed to a deal.

It opens “Hassan Rouhani is under fire from his right flank. Less than a year after the reform-minded Rouhani was elected, hard-line critics say that engagement in negotiations with the P5+1 over Iran’s nuclear program puts the country in grave danger. The negotiating team is reading the “last rites for the Islamic Republic,” one hard-liner said after a May 3 conference of Rouhani critics called “We Are Concerned.” That may be an exaggeration. The Rouhani government, with tentative backing from the powerful clergy, is making earnest efforts to reach an agreement over the future of Iran’s nuclear program. But under pressure from political adversaries at home and influential quarters in the Middle East, Rouhani will need the West to cooperate too”.

He goes on to write “Hard-liners have transformed the negotiations into an excuse to weaken and possibly paralyze the Rouhani administration. They reject the “dishonourable” interim Geneva accord that freezes Iran’s nuclear program in return for temporary, partial sanctions relief. They claim that Iran has made every concession, but received nothing in return, and that the most crippling economic sanctions are still in place — and may not be lifted for years, even if a final agreement is reached. They also claim that the Rouhani administration has colluded with the West and has retreated significantly from Iran’s defensible position of maintaining a meaningful nuclear enrichment program, but has received no concessions in exchange for its sacrifices”.

Naturally this position is more motivated by ideology than facts, much the same as the US Congress. There have been concessions by both sides with monies being released to Iran and reports showing Iranian compliance.

He goes on to mention “While Rouhani’s critics oppose the sanctions, they also refuse to make concessions that might get them lifted for good. The sanctions are not a response to Iran’s nuclear program, they say, but an instrument to topple the Islamic Republic. They fear that even if Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States — plus Germany) reach a comprehensive agreement, the sanctions may not be lifted. The hard-liners declare that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is a national achievement and thus should not be given up or scaled back, and that Iran can resist the sanctions by resorting to what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei refers to as the “resistance economy” of self-sufficiency. Thus, the hard-linersreject any reduction in the number of centrifuges that Iran may have, oppose redesigning the new research reactor under construction in Arak to produce far less plutonium, and will not accept a complete halt to production of enriched uranium at 19.75 percent”.

He continues “And the chorus of dissent within Iran is growing louder. In a May 21 newspaper editorialKayhan, the mouthpiece of the hard-liners, declared that “all the concessions made to Iran in the Geneva accord were only promises” and that in return for Iran’s “27 obligations” made to the P5+1, the West had committed itself to stop its efforts to halt the flow of Iran’s oil exports. But, claimed the editorial, under U.S. pressure, Iran’s oil exports greatly decreased in March and April. Moreover, Iran was to receive payments of $4.2 billion, but has received only $2.65 billion because, due to the sanctions on Iranian banks and financial institutions, the rest of the funds cannot be transferred to Iran. Japan has transferred what it owed Iran to banks in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, but the funds cannot be transferred to Tehran”.

He posits the theory that “Put simply, the hard-liners are worried that control is slipping away, and they appear intent on undermining the Rouhani government. Some conservatives, however, say that these proclamations about Rouhani single-handedly bringing down the Islamic Republic are unnecessarily alarmist. The Iranian Constitution stipulates that the supreme leader has a final say on matters of national security and won’t allow a deal to move forward that undermines the regime”.

Interestingly he mentions, “Khamenei himself may not be in line with the most extreme of these anti-negotiation positions, but he does have concerns. He has said repeatedly that he is not optimistic about the talks with the P5+1, predicting that Washington will force them to fail by demanding too many concessions from Iran. “I have always supported creativity in foreign policy and diplomatic negotiations,” but the United States and its allies are “trying to force Iran to retreat and bringing it to its knees,” Khameneisaid this month. And the supreme leader, who has final say over the country’s foreign policy, has his own red lines as well. Iran’s conventional missile program is one of them. The legal precedent seems quite clear: U.N. Security Council Resolution 1696 calls on governments to “exercise vigilance and prevent the transfer of any items, materials, goods and technology that could contribute to Iran’s enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and ballistic missile programmes.”Resolution 1929 stipulates that Iran “shall not acquire an interest in … technology related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” Khamenei rejects both resolutions and views them as illegitimate”.

He argues that he nuclear talks have move than just international significance “As the ayatollah tries to pour cold water on the nuclear deal, the P5+1 has an even bigger role to play. If Rouhani doesn’t receive tangible results from the negotiations, the Rouhani government may have to forgo any hope of genuine domestic reform — potentially, a decade-long setback. But the nuclear negotiations don’t have to lead to failure despite contentious issues. All political factions in Iran have repeatedly stated that their country is not pursuing nuclear weapons. Khamenei has even issued a fatwa against the production of nuclear weapons. Iran has indicated its willingness to allow extensive inspections led by the International Atomic Energy Agency to prove its intentions”.

He ends the piece “Significant sanctions relief that will help in reviving Iran’s economy will go a long way toward this goal. That has not happened yet. On the contrary, several months after signing the Geneva accord, the West — and, in particular, the United States — has still not delivered on its commitment to supply Iran’s old civilian aircraft with the spare parts that will allow them to fly safely. And, as the Kayhan editorial notes, Iran still does not even have direct access to the oil revenue that is to be released in installments according to last November’s Geneva agreement. Rouhani wants to reach a comprehensive and final nuclear agreement. He believes that diplomatic relations with the United States — suspended since 1980 — can resume after an agreement is reached. But serious forces are aligned against him. Iranian, American, and Israeli hard-liners oppose and are doing their utmost to scuttle the negotiations. The consequences could be dire”.

He concludes “If the negotiations fail, the Middle East will witness more wars, and regional and international security will be unstable for years to come. A collapse of the nuclear negotiations will increase the likelihood of a war between Iran and Israel, a situation that would dramatically disrupt the flow of oil from the region — and with it inflict serious pain on the global economy. The West must aid the Rouhani administration in its efforts. If a final agreement is reached, it will have profound consequences for peace and stability in the Middle East and beyond. The future of any hope for stability and genuine reform in Iran, too, hangs in the balance”.

“At least ten suspected militants”

21/05/2014

At least ten suspected militants were reportedly killed and 14 others were injured on Wednesday during a US drone strike at the Pak-Afghan border, official sources claimed. According to sources, some vehicles of the militants have also been destroyed in the attack. Sources further said, US drones fired three missiles on a militant’s compound and on some vehicles of the militant group. Media persons and journalists, having been barred, have no access to the area and the death-toll could not be independently verified. Government sources could not ascertain the exact location of the attack. The last drone attack occurred in the last week of December, 2013, killing three suspected insurgents”.

Clinton and America’s apathetic voters

21/05/2014

An article from the Economist last week discusses the potential problems for Hillary Clinton in 2016. It begins, “Friends and foes of Hillary Clinton agree: the former secretary of state, senator and first lady is the Democrats’ default candidate for president in 2016. If she enters the contest, she will be the front-runner. Some eccentrics may not relish thinking about an election that is still 30 months away, but Mrs Clinton’s shadow presidential campaign is already creaking into motion. Big-name Democrats and former Obama campaign gurus are rallying to Ready for Hillary, a ginger group set up by Clinton-fans. On May 2nd Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia gave a pre-emptive endorsement, praising Mrs Clinton’s ‘deep history’ in domestic policy and ‘unmatched’ global contacts, and declaring it time for a woman president. Mr Kaine has form. As Virginia’s governor he was one of Barack Obama’s first declared supporters, startling those who had assumed that the 2008 presidential primary would be a coronation march for Mrs Clinton”.

The writer adds “On May 3rd, at a dinner for the White House press corps, it was Mr Obama’s turn. The president cracked gags about Mrs Clinton as his successor—Fox News would find it harder to convince Americans that ‘Hillary was born in Kenya’, he joked—and his audience of insiders chortled knowingly. Opinion polls give Mrs Clinton hefty leads against hypothetical Republican challengers—a recent poll put her 12 points ahead of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, with still-larger margins of victory among women, the young and non-whites”.

It mentions, “The Washington wisdom is that Mrs Clinton, who will turn 69 a few days before the next presidential election, will not reveal her plans before congressional elections in November. She is said not to relish the prospect of another campaign. Lofted above domestic politics as secretary of state, her approval ratings soared. She dealt with foreigners, who do not have to be grovelled to, rather than voters, who do. Out of office, she has spent her time on charity work, lucrative speeches, receiving prizes and writing a new memoir, to be launched in June. If she runs, she will have to plunge straight back into the mire. The press, which she loathes, will go wild”.

The piece turns to the GOP, “Republicans are ready for Hillary, too. Some will remind older voters of scandals like Whitewater (involving real estate in Arkansas). But many voters have either forgotten, don’t care or were born after it happened. (Plenty remember Bill Clinton as a sort of roguish uncle who presided over an economic boom.) So Republican leaders in the House of Representatives are digging for fresh dirt, preparing a select committee to probe the 2012 killing by terrorists of America’s ambassador to Libya and three colleagues in Benghazi, near the end of Mrs Clinton’s time at State. It will be Congress’s eighth Benghazi investigation”.

He makes the vital point that “Democrats should not be too cocky. Their heroine might not run. Two big reasons for Democrats to back her—namely that the party owes her, and her rivals are either little-known or too left-wing to seek national office (hello, Senator Elizabeth Warren)—are of no interest to regular voters. Nationwide polls putting Mrs Clinton ahead of possible Republican rivals mean only so much at this stage. Mr Obama’s genius in 2008 and 2012 was to mobilise groups who vote only sporadically, such as unmarried women, the young and non-whites. That required campaign wizardry. Mrs Clinton can buy that. But it also involved excitement. For all her virtues, Mrs Clinton does not make crowds swoon. Inspiring people to go out and vote will be her biggest challenge”.

President Obama, at least in 2008, was the anti-establishment candidate, the exact opposite to President Bush (jn most ways). Yet, Clinton has been inside Washington since at least 2001 and Clinton will not have this platform to run on when she does decide to become a candidate. She will have to be something different. If she uses her experience, she may alientate chunks of the black community who would see it as a snub to President Obama.

The piece goes on to argue “Mrs Clinton’s admirers grasp the importance of mobilisation. Ready for Hillary has Latino, black, women, young, Asian and gay subgroups. Allies recently founded a separate outfit, Faith Voters for Hillary. Fans talk of showing Mrs Clinton that if she decides to run, she will have a ‘grassroots army’ behind her. Mrs Clinton cannot wait much longer to take the hardest decision of her career. Nobody wins the presidency by default”.

“Appear to have slowed down”

21/05/2014

“Iran’s attempts to illicitly procure materials for its disputed nuclear and missile programs appear to have slowed down as it pursues talks on a long-term accord with world powers, a U.N. expert panel said in a confidential report seen by Reuters. The U.N. Panel of Experts, who monitor compliance with the Security Council’s sanctions regime on Iran, presented this conclusion cautiously, suggesting it was also possible Tehran has simply learned to outsmart security and intelligence services in its pursuit of sensitive components and materials. The report cited “a decrease in the number of detected attempts by Iran to procure items for prohibited programs, and related seizures, since mid-2013 … It is possible that this decrease reflects the new political environment in Iran and diplomatic progress towards a comprehensive solution.” Tehran embarked on a negotiated solution to its nuclear dispute with big powers after moderate President Hassan Rouhani won election last June, replacing a confrontational ideologue. The high-level talks have yielded an interim deal easing fears of a wider Middle East war and will resume this week in Vienna. The report said it had become increasingly difficult to pinpoint any links between “dual-use” items – those with both civilian and military applications – that Iran has sought to procure and potential recipients in the Islamic Republic. But, the report cautioned, “this may be a function of more sophisticated procurement strategies on the part of Iran, which has developed methods of concealing procurement, while expanding prohibited activities. Such methods can also be used by Iran to procure andfinance legitimate trade, which further complicates the efforts of states to identify illicit procurement.” The report added that Iran had “also demonstrated a growing capability to produce key items indigenously”. Among sensitive dual-use items Iran has pursued abroad over the years have been aluminum, carbon fiber and special valves”.

“An indictment of the European Union”

21/05/2014

The front article in the Economist discusses the upcoming European elections. It begins, “After five gruelling years, many of Europe’s citizens must wish they could dispatch the entire political class to hellfire and torment. As it happens, the ballot for elections to the European Parliament from May 22nd to 25th does not include that option, so a record number will probably not bother to turn out. Many of those who do will back populists and extremists. Broadly anti-European parties may take well over a quarter of the seats. The French National Front, the Dutch Party of Freedom and the UK Independence Party are likely to win their highest vote ever. This will cause domestic political ructions, but it is also an indictment of the European Union, a project that millions of voters have come to associate with hardship and failure”.

As with most EU institutions it feeds off ignorance and suits many of the MEPs who disappear off for five years for the Parliament to be so little understood. This problem is compounded by the fact that the media across the continent do nothing to cover it and attempt to hold the people to account.

The problem for the EU is that the backing of “populists and extremists” is entirely their own fault. The EU has done nothing to assuage the concerns and fears of voters and worse, many feel more disenfranchised and anger at what has been done to them. National governments in Spain, Greece and Ireland are widely seen as the stooges of the EU who increasingly control the strings of what these countries do.

The piece adds, “Europe’s political leaders will be tempted to pay little heed. Economies are improving. After a grinding recession and years of battling the euro crisis, growth is returning and bond yields are sharply down. The danger that financial markets might blow up the euro (and the EU) has disappeared, at least for now. A new Pew Research poll this week even suggests that trust in the EU may be reviving a little. If the politicians can just hang on, won’t a slow but steady recovery win back all those disgruntled citizens? No. The last crisis may be over, but it has exacerbated a deep contradiction at the heart of Europe—between euro-zone economies’ need for integration and the voters’ rejection of it. If populism continues to rise, a euro-zone member could elect a government set on tearing up the rules and quitting the single currency. That would reignite the euro crisis—and political upsets can be harder to put right than economic ones”.

The article is correct to point out the dangers of populism and the dormant euro crisis but to say the crisis is over is wrong. The debt of Ireland, Spain, Greece and a host of other countries in the “eurozone” is still high and without significant debt forgiveness these economies will be hampered by low growth, if any, for decades. This is all as a result of ECB/German demands, going against all economic logic and prudence, that these countries cut spending bringing a spiral of unemployment and reduced spending. The notion that this crisis is over bears little relation to the facts.

As the article rightly point out, “European leaders’ wishful thinking starts with the economy. Growth may be back, but it is anaemic. Unemployment remains horrific: as many as 26m people in Europe are now out of work. Almost everywhere debt is dangerously high. With banks fragile, credit is hard to come by, and parts of Europe are on the verge of deflation. The euro zone may be heading into a lost decade similar to Japan’s in the 1990s. Japan is a socially cohesive nation-state; the diverse EU is far less likely to survive such an experience. The EU could help bolster growth. The European Central Bank could ease monetary policy, including by unconventional means. The European Commission could make a renewed push at completing the single market in services, digital technology and energy, for instance, or could press ahead with a free-trade deal with America”.

The author makes the point “Yet a blast of reformist zeal from Brussels would hardly mollify Europe’s disgruntled voters. For one thing, reforms tend to produce short-term pain before long-term gain—one reason why many European governments have found them so hard. For another, voters do not like being pushed around by Eurocrats”.

He mentions the fundmamental contradiction at the heart of the eurozone deal, “The battle to save the euro has led to the centralisation of powers over banking, taxing and spending; and, while most euro-zone voters want to keep the euro, they have made it quite clear that they oppose the accretion of ever more intrusive powers to the ECB, the European Commission and the European Parliament. The EU’s abandoned constitution and its successor, the Lisbon treaty, were together rejected in three out of six referendums; ten governments broke promises rather than hold votes on the final version. In France, a founding member, the EU today attracts even more resentment than it does in famously Eurosceptic Britain. The populists’ appeal in the European elections is based largely on rising hostility to interference by Brussels”.

The crucial point as he argues is “This is an issue of democracy, not of economics. Voters are not impressed when they toss out an incumbent government only to be told by the EU that its replacement must stick to the same fiscal rules and economic policies. Since the transfer of powers to the centre has come about as a result of economic failure, and not of broader political debate or of resounding success, the chances of its being meekly accepted are slim”.

The piece ends, “Voters’ resentment suggests that giving the European Parliament more power has not been a reliable route to democratic legitimacy. The parliament has failed in its 35-year strategy of persuading voters to take it seriously by winning an ever growing role (see article). Europe’s heads of government should stand against its latest power grab, which is to arrogate to itself the right to choose the next European Commission president by getting the main political groups to nominate candidates and refusing to accept any alternative. If the EU is to gain democratic legitimacy, it will do so not through the European Parliament but through national parliaments. That means giving powers back to them wherever possible, including greater fiscal flexibility and more national control over social policy and employment rules. It also means that national leaders must take responsibility for economic reform, rather than hiding behind the convenient fiction that painful choices are being forced on them by bad people in Brussels or Berlin. Recent experience shows that those who do so can benefit: countries which have made deeper changes at home, such as Spain and Portugal, are now bouncing back more strongly than reform laggards like France and Italy”.

He concludes “At one time Europe seemed to be moving inexorably towards “ever closer union”—and many federalists hoped the euro crisis, like previous crises, would mean another leap forwards. Yet in the wasteland left after the crisis, voters are shaking their pitchforks at the notion of a United States of Europe. Rather than seek to expand the role of the EU’s institutions, it would be better to reinforce the nation-states where legitimacy lies. Europe’s broad strategic direction should be set by heads of government, not by the European Commission, even though that body proposes the detailed laws. The European Parliament should be downgraded, with more democratic control given to national parliaments. If the EU is to survive, it must hand powers back to the people”.

Just short of recognising

21/05/2014

Russia stopped short on Monday of outright recognition of the contentious referendums organized by separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian-speaking provinces of southeast Ukraine, instead using the results to intensify pressure for a negotiated autonomy for those provinces. The separatist leader of the self-declared People’s Republic of Donetsk wasted little time in announcing that his province wanted to join Russia, but the question seemed to be whether Moscow was interested. Russia avoided any suggestion that it would react to the results with the same alacrity seen after the Crimean Peninsula referendum in March. Within hours of that vote, President Vladimir V. Putin declared that Russia was annexing Crimea, part of southern Ukraine that had once been part of Russia”

Caught in the act

21/05/2014

Following on from President Obama openly blaming China for hacking US companies and government, reports state that “In an unprecedented move that’s likely to heighten economic and political tensions between the United States and China, the Department of Justice is filing criminal charges against five Chinese military officials for stealing trade secrets and other private information from five large American companies and a labour union, according to U.S. officials and a federal indictment. It’s the first criminal indictment against state actors for cyber-spying against the United States. The alleged activities involve a years-long campaign by the Chinese military and its proxies to hack into the computer systems of American companies, trade associations, unions, and law firms and steal confidential information, including business plans, product designs, and private communications. In the current case, the Chinese hackers gave such information from the victim companies to Chinese state-owned companies, giving them an unfair advantage over their American competitors, Justice Department officials said in a press conference on Monday, May 19”.

He goes on to mention “Cyber-spying has been the subject of a long-simmering dispute between Beijing and Washington. But the criminal indictment — the first of its kind against Chinese military or government officials — would take the matter to a new level and signals that Barack Obama’s administration has decided its strategy of publicly shaming China into halting its cyber-espionage isn’t working. The Chinese hackers are accused of hacking into the computers of Westinghouse Electric, Alcoa, Allegheny Technologies, U.S. Steel, the United Steelworkers union, and SolarWorld, Attorney General Eric Holder announced. The companies are among the biggest manufacturing companies in the United States, and United Steelworkers is the largest steel labor union. The Chinese hackers stole pricing information and equipment designs in order to benefit Chinese state-owned industries, the Justice Department alleges. The hackers are connected to a unit allegedly run by the People’s Liberation Army that was identified in a public report last year by the computer security firm Mandiant. Known as Unit 61398, it’s believed to be responsible for a broad campaign of spying against American organizations, not just the six mentioned in the indictment. The U.S. government was aware of the report before it was published and contributed some information to it, according to individuals who are familiar with the report”.

In a related piece Shane Harris says that China has been caught red handed by the US government. He writes “The Obama administration took the unprecedented step Monday of indicting five Chinese military officials for hacking into American companies and stealing their proprietary data, ending Washington’s years-long war of words with Beijing over Chinese cyberspying in favor of tough action. The Chinese officials will almost certainly never see the inside of a courtroom — the United States has no extradition treaty with China. But China is certain not to take the indictments lying down”.

In reponse Harris notes that “Beijing has already canceled its participation in a U.S.-China working group on, in an ironic twist, cybersecurity. And cybersecurity experts questioned whether a legal counteroffensive is forthcoming in which Beijing indicts U.S. intelligence officials involved in Washington’s own ongoing cyberspying efforts. That could mean targeting relatively low-level American spooks, but Beijing could theoretically go after high-ranking officials like former NSA Director Keith Alexander, who also ran the military’s Cyber Command”.

The piece goes on to mention “The U.S. indictment, which was announced at a press conference at Justice Department headquarters in Washington on Monday, May 19, includes the first criminal charges against state actors responsible for alleged cyberspying against the United States. The alleged activities involve a years-long campaign by the Chinese military and its proxies to hack into the computer systems of American companies, trade associations, unions, and law firms and steal confidential information, including business plans, product designs, and private communications. The five men, all of whom allegedly worked for a hacker group known as Unit 61398 that was directed by the People’s Liberation Army, are accused of giving U.S. companies’ information to Chinese state-owned enterprises, providing them with an unfair advantage over their American competitors”.

Buried in the piece he goes on to mention “The tough talk suggests China might match the U.S. indictments with some if its own. There is precedent for foreign governments coming after U.S. intelligence personnel for operations undertaken on their soil. In 2009, an Italian court convicted in absentia 23 CIA employees for their role in kidnapping an Egyptian man in Milan six years earlier. (Like the Chinese hackers, the CIA personnel were not expected to ever spend time in prison.) But those were alleged crimes committed within a country. China and the U.S. spy on each other remotely. To have a credible case against a senior U.S. official or a lower-level hacker, the Chinese would have to provide something they’ve never been able to offer: evidence of American cyberspying”.

Where this leaves the US-China relationship is obviously worse off. Key questions such as Chinese holdings of US  debt could come under question, which if the Chinese were to use as a weapon, could spark a collapse in the dollar. However, this would probably hurt China as much as it would hurt America. Chinese options, short of war, are limited.

He continues, “The U.S. indictment is filled with specific allegations about the men, including where in China they worked, whom they reported to, the kinds of information they stole, what firms they targeted, and what they did with the pilfered data. Unless the Chinese can come up with a similarly detailed list of accusations against the National Security Agency, any legal countermove in a Chinese court is likely to be greeted derisively, said Rosenzweig. “I think the one thing the Chinese don’t want to be is laughed at.” Bejtlich predicted that at a minimum, so-called patriotic hackers in China, who undertake operations on behalf of the government and with its implied consent, would launch retaliatory strikes at U.S. targets, including the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania, where the indictment was filed”.

He ends the piece “China’s cyber-espionage is also of deep concern to the Pentagon, which fears Beijing is focused both on stealing plans for advanced armaments to build its own versions and on using that know-how to develop ways of countering high-tech American aircraft, drones, and other battlefield armaments. The Defense Department’s annual assessment of Chinese military strength, which is expected to show an ongoing spike in China’s cybercapabilities, is set to be released”.

A report in Reuters states that “China summoned the U.S. ambassador after the United States accused five Chinese military officers of hacking into American companies to steal trade secrets, warning Washington it could take further action, the foreign ministry said on Tuesday. The U.S. Ambassador to China, Max Baucus, met with Zheng Zeguang, assistant foreign minister, on Monday shortly after the United States charged the five Chinese, accusing them of hacking into American nuclear, metal and solar companies to steal trade secrets. Zheng “protested” the actions by the United States, saying the indictment had seriously harmed relations between both countries, the foreign ministry said in a statement on its website. Zheng told Baucus that depending on the development of the situation, China “will take further action on the so-called charges by the United States”. It was the first criminal hacking charge that the United States has filed against specific foreign officials, and follows a steady increase in public criticism and private confrontation, including at a summit last year between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping”.

 

 

“Made little progress this week”

19/05/2014

Iran and six world powers made little progress this week in talks on ending their dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program, U.S. and Iranian officials said on Friday, raising doubts over the prospects for a breakthrough by a July 20 deadline. After three months of mostly comparing expectations rather than negotiating compromises, the sides had intended to start drafting a final agreement that could end more than a decade of enmity and mistrust and dispel fears of a wider Middle East war. “We believe there needs to be some additional realism,” a senior U.S. official said on condition of anonymity, declining to provide details on what issues had caused the most difficulty. “Time is not unlimited here.” “In any negotiation there are good days and bad days, there are ups and downs, this has been a moment of great difficulty but one that was not entirely unexpected,” the official added. “We are just at the beginning of the drafting process and we have a significant way to go.” This fourth round of negotiations in the Austrian capital began on Wednesday and ended on Friday”.

The end of the Russian economy

19/05/2014

An article discusses the economy of Russia and the effect that the Ukraine crisis has had on the Russian economy. It starts, “Today, Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions are starting to hurt the Russian economy — but does anyone really care? It depends who ‘anyone’ is. Russia was not in great shape before Putin snaffled Crimea earlier this year, but things have only gotten worse since then. According to a report published last month by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Russia will see almost zero growth in GDP this year, ‘with considerable downside risks.’ And the top IMF official in Moscow said the country was already in recession“.

The author goes on to mention “With slackening growth, rising uncertainty, and sanctions on some financial institutions, billions of dollars have been leaking out of the Russian economy. The usual effects of this kind of capital flight are an increase in interest rates, a depreciation of the local currency, and a drop in the stock market. And indeed, Russian bond yields have spiked; the ruble has recouped less than half of its 10 percent depreciation since protests began in Ukraine in November; and the MICEX index has only recently begun to recover from losses that reached 17 percent in March. For the average Russian, none of this is good news. Falling exchange rates take a long time to translate into higher export volumes, but the tightening of credit markets will be felt right away by anyone looking for a loan. Less economic growth will mean fewer jobs and stingier raises, yet inflation shows no sign of abating. Prices have jumped by more than 7 percent in the past 12 months, well above the central bank’s target for this year of 5 percent”.

He writes that this is not just affecting the poor, “This isn’t great news for many of Russia’s oligarchs, either. The ones closest to Putin have managed to maintain their holdings in the country’s industrial giants, particularly in oil and gas. Higher interest rates will likely make their companies less profitable, and lower stock prices may put a dent in their wallets. For instance, Gennady Timchenko, a close associate of Putin who owns 23.5 percent of the natural gas giant Novatek, may have lost about 1.3 billion rubles ($37 million at current exchange rates) on that investment alone since November. Moreover, he and several other oligarchs already have to contend with personally targeted sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States”.

Yet, as with many things, the rich are hurt the least, “If you happen to be a wealthy Russian whose riches are stored away in accounts abroad, or at least invested in foreign securities, then things could not be better. The lower ruble means that your wealth is worth more in terms of local currency; you can live like a king or queen on your foreign dividends and interest payments. As the Russian stock market falls, you can snap up valuable assets for a snip. Even higher interest rates aren’t a problem, since you’re probably the one doing the lending”.

He concludes, “This may be why Western officials have said that the sanctions against Russia are intended to prick Putin indirectly. But short of a coup or a popular revolution, it’s hard to see what would cause Putin to react. As I’ve written here before, his goal appears to be the restoration of a greater Russia, with all the territory and power that implies. The destruction of wealth among some rich investors, both inside and outside Russia, is unlikely to be a major obstacle to his ambition”.

 

Riyadh invites Zarif

19/05/2014

Saudi Arabia has invited Iran’s foreign minister to visit Riyadh, hinting at the possibility of a thaw between the two bitter rivals whose struggle for influence is evident in conflicts throughout the region. Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal did not say when the invitation to Mohammad Javad Zarif had been made. “Any time that [Zarif] sees fit to come, we are willing to receive him. Iran is a neighbour, we have relations with them and we will negotiate with them, we will talk with them,” he said. Zarif has visited other Gulf Arab states but he has not yet been to Saudi Arabia. Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran have long supported competing factions in Arab countries, often along sectarian lines. But Iranian backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the aid Riyadh has given to rebels trying to oust him, has significantly raised tensions between the countries. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of fomenting unrest among the Shia majority in its neighbour Bahrain, and the Shia minority in its own Eastern Province, and also charges Tehran with plotting to assassinate its envoy in Washington in 2011.

Sanctions forced talks?

19/05/2014

An article argues that, far from sanctions bringing Iran to the nuclear talks, it was the outreach of President Obama.

It opens, “That myth — promoted by officials in President Barack Obama’s administration as well as powerful lawmakers like Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) — is that crippling sanctions brought the Iranian regime to its knees, forcing it to rush to the negotiating table to beg for mercy. In this narrative, the breakthrough in nuclear talks is credited to the Obama administration’s unprecedented economic pressure, which has essentially locked Iran out of the international financial system. And like JFK before him, Obama did not compromise with Iran. The mythical gold standard was met”.

The author goes on to mention, “Sanctions are neither the reason for the breakthrough, nor the impetus behind the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s openness to talks. They also did not get Rouhani elected”.

Boldly the author states, “The idea that the United States has the ability to engineer the outcome of elections in a country that is thousands of miles away, with which it has no trade, where it has had no diplomatic presence for 35 years, and where only a handful of current U.S. diplomats have ever served or even visited, expands the concept of arrogance to new and exciting frontiers”.

However this view is contradicted by none other than Joseph Nye.

She goes on to argue, “In reality, last year’s elections were a continuation of the fraudulent 2009 elections — some might argue, the completion of that tense chapter. Iranians wanted change in 2013, just as they did in 2009 — before the imposition of Obama’s sanctions. The last four years under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been worse than the first four. Repression had intensified, the security atmosphere in Iran made the heyday of McCarthyism look like the enlightenment, corruption and economic mismanagement was at an all-time high, and the hardliners had criminalized everything from academia to tourism. The population was suffocating. The regime had thwarted Iranians’ vote for change in 2009, and few believed they would even bother to cast their votes in 2013. This was the critical question — voter turnout — because hardliners in Iran only tend to win elections under two circumstances: When they cheat or when they convince the population that they will cheat. In the latter case, they suppress voter turnout and enable a core group of supporters of the regime to swing the outcome of the election”.

Yet this did not occur. Dr Rouhani lost Tehran but seemed to have done well in the smaller cities and the villages and the narrowness of the result would have made it easy for the regime to switch votes had it wanted to rig the election.

She adds that “a range of forces enabled Rouhani and his political allies to convince a large portion of the electorate that hardliners simply could not repeat the charade of 2009. Reformists led by former President Mohammad Khatami and political centrists supporting former President Hashemi Rafsanjani formed an unprecedented coalition in support of Rouhani, while conservatives failed to coalesce around a single candidate of their own”.

This is all true but at the same time nothing happens without the consent, tactit or otherwise, of the Supreme Leader.

She mentions interestingly that “Only 2 percent of Rouhani’s supporters listed the lifting of sanctions as a reason for supporting him. Twice as many — 4 percent — voted for him because he was a clergyman. Seven percent cited his ability to fix the economy. A later poll by Zogby International revealed that three out of the five most important issues to the Iranian electorate pertained to civil liberties, while a whopping 96 percent reported that sanctions were worth it in order to retain the country’s enrichment right. Rather than crediting sanctions for this unexpected outcome –without a shred of evidence — it should be acknowledged that Iran’s presidential election was unpredictable. The election could have easily produced a different result”.

She goes on to argue “Equally questionable is the argument that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table — or even that they are the driving force behind Rouhani’s appetite for diplomacy. Such claims ignore the fact that the team around Rouhani has had a long history of pursuing a more conciliatory policy towards the West, including on the nuclear issue. ouhani headed Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the equivalent of the U.S.’s National Security Council, in 2001, when Tehran helped Washington topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. According James Dobbins, who served as President George W. Bush’s envoy to Afghanistan in the months after the 9/11 attacks, Iran provided crucial intelligence as well as military and political support to the United States — long before any of the current sanctions were imposed. Later, it was Rouhani’s current foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who coordinated with Dobbins to secure support for the new post-Taliban constitution in Afghanistan. The Iranians hoped that their assistance in Afghanistan would open a new chapter in U.S.-Iran relations, but Bush was not interested. Instead, he included Iran in his “axis of evil,” effectively killing the collaboration in Afghanistan”.

However, this is a particularly narrow case where America and Iran have common interests, both being against the Taliban. She then goes on to mention the 2003 Iranian proposal to America which Iran put everything on the table, Hezbollah, the nuclear talks and sanctions. This was rejected by American officials for unknown reasons.

She notes however that “Zarif was one of the authors of that document. Among other things, Iran offered to make its nuclear program fully transparent (at the time, it had only 164 centrifuges, compared to the 19,000 it has now), disarm the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and indirectly recognis Israel. But once again, the Bush White House rejected Iran’s outreach.  Two years later, during his last months as head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, Rouhani made one final attempt to meet the West halfway. In March 2005, he instructed Zarif — then Iran’s U.N. ambassador — to submit to the Europeans a proposal that would have limited the number of Iranian centrifuges at 3,000. Iran negotiated directly with the EU at the time because the Bush administration refused to come to the negotiating table. But the Europeans never responded to this offer, mainly because they knew Washington would reject any deal that allowed for even one spinning centrifuge on Iranian soil. A senior official in the Obama administration told me a few months ago that the United States would jump at such a proposal today because of the significant progress the Iranian nuclear program has made since 2005 — sanctions notwithstanding”.

She makes the valid point that “the pragmatic faction within the Iranian government has on numerous occasions offered more attractive nuclear proposals to the West — prior to the crippling economic sanctions imposed by Obama — fundamentally undermines the notion that sanctions were needed to reach a deal”.

She does concede however that “While it is true in a limited sense that sanctions provided the United States with added leverage (assuming it can lift them as part of a deal), the other side of the equation is all too often conveniently forgotten: During this same period, Iran aggressively expanded its nuclear capabilities, which in turn provided it with added leverage over the West. Iran increased its centrifuge count from 3,000 to 19,000 and built a number of advanced centrifuges it didn’t have back in 2005. It also amassed thousands of kilograms of low enriched uranium, as well as roughly 200 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium — of which it had none prior to 2010″.

She ends the piece, “In reality, it was neither the sanctions nor Iran’s centrifuges that produced the current breakthrough. The diplomatic opening came about for the same reason it did during the Cuban Missile crises: Both sides compromised. Tehran stopped advancing sensitive parts of its program and agreed to greater transparency. And Washington finally accepted enrichment on Iranian soil in the November 2013 interim agreement. Tehran had long insisted that if its enrichment was accepted, it would agree to transparency as well as restrictions”.

She concludes, “Obama missedone such opportunity for compromise in May 2010, when Brazil and Turkey convinced Iran to accept an American proposal to ship out 1,200 kg of its stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) in exchange for fuel pads for its Tehran Research Reactor. Despite the fact that Obama welcomed Turkey and Brazil’s efforts and spelled out the specific conditions Iran needed to accept in a letter dated April 20, 2010 — all of which Tehran accepted — the United States reneged on its promise and rejected its own proposal. There were numerous reasons Obama chose to reject the Tehran Declaration, as the Turkish-Brazilian deal came to be called, but perhaps the two most important ones were the unstoppable momentum of sanctions and the issue of Iranian enrichment. After the failure of the 2009 nuclear negotiations, support for sanctions on Capitol Hill was strong and growing. The Obama administration chose not to oppose this pressure, but rather to delay until it had first secured a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions”.

She concludes the piece “Yet the myth that sanctions produced the current diplomatic breakthrough persists. Lawmakers continue to argue for more sanctions, even though such action would cause the talks to collapse, claiming that since sanctions brought Iran to the table, more sanctions will give the United States even more leverage. If the myth of the sanctions success prevails, American foreign policy will be led down a perilous path. A false and dangerous blueprint for dealing with proliferators and international disputes in general will emerge: Forget diplomacy, never compromise, impose sanctions, threaten war — and hope for the best. With Iran, thanks to the quiet compromise on enrichment, war is more distant than ever since the crises erupted. The world may not be as lucky next time it goes down an all-out sanctions path”.

“10 new SSN 774”

19/05/2014

“The Navy announced a record $17.645 billion contract Monday to build 10 new SSN 774 Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines. The order assures prime contractor General Dynamics Electric Boat and chief subcontractor Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding of submarine orders through 2018. The fixed-price incentive multiyear contract for 10 Block IV subs provides for two ships per year over the five-year period, each yard delivering one sub per year. The two shipbuilders share equally in a teaming arrangement to build the subs, with each yard responsible for certain portions of each hull”.

“Berlin’s relationship with Moscow”

19/05/2014

Following on from articles on the EU “position” on Ukraine and the awkward and embarrasing position Gerhard Schröder puts Merkel in a position between two camps.

A piece notes the “dilemma” faced by Merkel. It begins, “In Germany these days, there are two camps when it comes to dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. They’re referred to here as Amerika-Freunde (America-friends) and Putin-Versteher (Putin-sympathizers) and can apply to foreign-policy circles as well as the person on the street. In navigating the Ukraine crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is leading the international community’s negotiations with Putin, is currently caught between them. In fact, the fault lines run right through her own cabinet of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. Merkel’s task is to chart a middle ground — or formulate a new vision, if she’s up to it — that will ultimately define not only German foreign policy but the country’s function in 21st-century Europe”.

The problem for the uber cautious Merkel is that there is no middle ground in a situation like this. There is no half way house. Side with Putin and secure energy supplies for Germans, and probably Europe generally, or side with America and fear Putin’s “wrath“.

He writes that Merkel may try to formulate a “new vision” but if the euro crisis is anything to go by then this new vision will either be non-existant, or be so limp as to be a typical EU fudge pleasing no one and alienating everyone.

He writes “with the situation on the ground deteriorating from day to day, pressure is building on Merkel to act with resolution and impact. In desperation, she has yanked her country’s top diplomat out of retirement to broker enough stability on the ground for Ukraine to hold nationwide elections on May 25. So far, however, she shows no signs of extricating Germany from anachronistic Cold War categories and, at long last, defining a post-reunification German foreign policy for the future”.

He goes on to note the different camps,  starting with those pro-Americans “The reflex of dyed-in-the-wool transatlanticists is to believe that, in terms of foreign policy, the United States is almost always right, whatever the issue, be it West Germany joining NATO in the 1950s, deploying intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Northern Europe in the 1980s, or invading Iraq in 2003. America-friends in Germany aren’t going to harbour Edward Snowden or even allow him to testify at Bundestag committee hearings as long as Washington objects. This much Merkel will do for her buddy Barack Obama. The America-friends in Berlin insist that never again will Germany plot a Sonderweg, namely a separate path between East and West. Germany is in the Western camp to stay: a loyal member of NATO, the indispensable military alliance of choice, and of a European Union firmly anchored in the West — and exclusively so. In the Ukraine-Russia crisis, the remaining America-friends, like the Christian Democrats’ Ruprecht Polenz and Friedrich Merz, more or less echo Washington, demanding tougher sanctions against Russia and sharper rhetoric against Kremlin policies, and gladly see a new raison d’être for NATO. The America-friends are viscerally distrustful of Putin’s Kremlin and believe that force is the language it understands best. Putin should be dealt with the same way the West knocked out the Soviet Union: with tough talk, punishment when necessary, and overwhelming arsenals”.

Interestingly he puts Merkel in this camp, “by nature an America-friend and deeply wary of ex-KGB officer Putin from the beginning, Merkel is understandably hesitant to throw caution to the wind and declare Russia the enemy. Rigourous sanctions would hurt German industry and imperil its shaky economic recovery; the United States, on the other hand, has little to lose. Moreover, it wasn’t so long ago that Germany was the front line in the East-West conflict — and Merkel was on the eastern side of the wall, living under a dictatorship. As someone who profited so immensely from the close of the East-West conflict, she is hard-pressed to redraw the lines of confrontation in a newly divided Europe”.

As has been argued above Merkel’s inherent caution is useful in many circumstances but her excessive caution could destroy what is left of the credibility of German foreign policy and Merkel could then by pushed by events rather than lead them.

He goes on to discuss “the so-called ‘Putin-sympathizers.’ Cooperation, not confrontation, with Russia is their mantra, incidentally the same one Obama adopted when he took office in 2009. It’s important to note that the members of this camp (with some exceptions) aren’t enamored with Putin himself, but rather underscore the necessity of reaching out to Russia and including it in Europe — but not in the EU itself. Even though there are Putin-sympathisers across the party spectrum in Germany — from the far left to the far right — the most important are the Social Democrats, including former statesmen with considerable gravitas such as former chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Schmidt, as well as the late Willy Brandt’s confidant, Egon Bahr. Indeed, the heirs of Brandt call their approach to Eastern Europe and Russia the New Ostpolitik, after Brandt’s visionary Cold War-era policies”.

However the problem with this position, as has been ably pointed out elsewhere recently, is that Putin cannot be trusted or reasoned with.

Worryingly the writer goes on to argue that Ostpolitik helped end the Cold War, as opposed to overwhelming force and superior economics. He adds “Germany’s Social Democratic foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is the man in Brandt’s shoes today. By far the most influential Putin-sympathiser, though a comparatively moderate one compared with the likes of Schmidt and Schröder, he is Merkel’s partner in Ukraine crisis management. Steinmeier began plotting a New Ostpolitik for Germany during the 1998-2005 Social Democrat-Green government, when he served as Schröder’s chief of staff, by putting Germany-Russia relations on a new footing. These ties deepened from 2005 to 2009 when Steinmeier was foreign minister in the first grand coalition under Merkel and persisted behind the scenes even when the Social Democrats left office for a term. Although he’s considerably more Putin-friendly than Merkel, she obviously trusts and relies heavily on Steinmeier, who has been racing around Europe without pause to halt Ukraine from falling apart”.

He goes on to mention that “The Putin-sympathisers insist that Germany has to understand where Russia is coming from and judge it by relative criteria, not those, say, of European Union members or presumptive candidates. In the spirit of Brandt’s Ostpolitik, they argue that through intensive trade and diplomacy, Germany and its EU peers can turn Russia into an indispensable partner, which implicitly lends Europe leverage to sway Moscow. The more closely linked, the more clout Germany has. Sanctions and isolation are thus exactly the wrong way to deal with a contrary Kremlin. Even when Russia goes astray, such as by jailing gays, punk rockers, and opposition business tycoons, or by violating international borders, the Putin-sympathizers call for patience, condemning Moscow in soft tones, if at all. The priority is to keep Moscow in the game at all costs”.

The problem of course is that the costs for keeping Russia “in the game” are too high and will only be be paid by Ukraine neighbouring countries with Putin realising he can get away with more and more.

He continues, “In the German media as well as on the floor of the Bundestag, the Putin-sympathizers are quick to “explain” Putin, even if it can sound more like an apology. They point out again and again that Russia objected to the eastward encroachment of NATO and the EU every step of the way — and was willfully ignored. The same goes for the missile systems deployed in Central Europe. They also concede that Moscow has legitimate special interests in Eastern Europe — even a “sphere of influence.” They condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea — but are quite understanding about why Putin did it. Since the New Ostpolitik began in the late 1990s, the Social Democrats have bent over backward to accommodate Putin. Although no longer an active politician, Schröder personifies this course, having struck up a friendship with Putin and serving as a paid lobbyist for Russian gas giant Gazprom since leaving office. Even many of his fellow Social Democrats cringed when in April he gave Putin a warm hug at the Russian president’s birthday party in St. Petersburg, an image that made it into every newspaper in Germany. But many also confessed that Schröder’s visit could be a legitimate means to get Putin to bend on Ukraine — not pretty, but effective. Again, realpolitik”.

He makes the excellent point that the results of the Putin followers has brought nothing for either Germany, America or Europe “So, if the proof is in the pudding, then what has all this painstaking diplomacy (and groveling) brought Germany? It seems next to nothing. Putin looks intent on upending the European order and refuses to budge on even the smallest German requests from Merkel, like allowing observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) into Crimea or getting the eastern Ukrainians to call off their phony referendums. He lies to Merkel and Steinmeier over the phone in one conversation after another: about joining a contact group, about Russian special forces in Crimea, about stirring up trouble in eastern Ukraine. The list is long. Indeed, these days Germany doesn’t appear to have any more clout in Moscow than France or Britain. The Social Democrats are obviously crestfallen, but they intend to keep their course, arguing that there is no other way forward. In a recent interview, Brandt’s former aide, Bahr, a top Social Democratic strategist, told a German daily: ‘I think Putin is a rational person. Chaos in Ukraine is not in his interests.’ Bahr’s recommendation, just when everybody else is trying to lessen dependency on Russian hydrocarbons, is to build yet another gas pipeline from Russia to Germany in order to intensify ties further”.

He notes that “Merkel is hamstrung between two ostensibly irreconcilable paths that divide her own government: the Amerika-Freunde on the one side and the Putin-Versteher on the other. But neither track has born results”.

This is not exactly true. Sanctions, so far as they have existed, have been minor, but should the real decision to implement full sanctions would destroy Russia, and Putin, without a shot being fired. If only America would decides to take this course of action.

He ends the piece, “The impasse has prompted Merkel and Steinmeier to reach out to one of Germany’s most respected and able statesmen, Wolfgang Ischinger, to head up a round table that will bring together Ukraine’s government, the opposition, and Russian-speaking regional representatives. The round table is part of an OSCE mission to Ukraine that is ramping up and will try to smooth the way to free elections on May 25. Coming out of retirement for the posting, the 68-year-old Ischinger is a career diplomat widely respected in both Moscow and Washington. Ischinger played a key role in negotiating reunification, which is how the Russians know him. And he helped U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke end the Balkan wars, as well as served as German ambassador to the United States from 2001 to 2006″.

He concludes, “even if this eleventh-hour crisis management bears fruit, which seems increasingly unlikely, it doesn’t answer the big questions about the nature of Berlin’s relationship with Moscow or of Germany’s role in Europe, issues that loom over Merkel and her coalition government. The current fiasco is, in part, a consequence of Berlin’s not having a foreign policy in place. Merkel isn’t one for sweeping, big-picture decisions. But these are the old German Questions, which no German leader can escape. As the Ukraine crisis shows, they can’t be put off any longer”.

 

Baldisseri speaks

17/05/2014

Following on from the actions of Pope Francis “In a development likely to cause more unease about the upcoming synod on the family, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops has given an interview in which he says he wants a change in Church teaching on marriage. According to the Belgian newspaper De Standaard, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri says it is time to update Church marriage doctrine, for example in connection with divorce, the situation of divorcees and people who are in civil partnerships. His comments will appear in an exclusive interview with the Christian weekly magazine Tertio, published on Wednesday. “The Church is not timeless, she lives amidst the vicissitudes of history and the Gospel must be known and experienced by people today,” Cardinal Baldisseri says”.

Turkey’s tyrant

17/05/2014

A piece in Foreign Policy highlights the increasingly autocratic behaviour of the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It opens, “There is no denying Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s talent as a politician, or the considerable popular support he enjoys. But under this charismatic leader, Turkey is embarking on a dangerous experiment of undermining basic rights and the rule of law as constraints on majoritarian rule. As I saw on a recent visit to Turkey to meet with senior officials, a major corruption scandal has triggered Erdogan’s worst autocratic reflexes, undermining the foundation of Turkey’s democracy. To give credit where due, Erdogan, during the 11-year rule of his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), can boast of a booming economy and enormous political progress. The atrocity-ridden repression of a Kurdish insurgency has wound down, with talks under way to end the conflict and with growing respect for the cultural rights of the country’s large Kurdish minority. Religious freedom for the Sunni majority has been enhanced: Bans on women wearing headscarves in public-service jobs and universities have been removed without imposing the religious puritanism of harsher forms of Islamic rule. Systematic torture in police custody has ended, though the police’s use of excessive force remains a problem”.

For several years, Turkey’s hope of entering the European Union encouraged reform. But the opposition of some key EU states, articulated most clearly by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, undermined Turkey’s accession hopes. The dashing of EU prospects slowed reform and contributed to some reversals, but it is only in the last year or so that Erdogan has begun to take major steps backward on basic rights”.

Yet beyond the progress he writes that “The most obvious manifestation of Turkey’s eroding freedoms occurred a year ago, during the so-called Gezi Park protests. Erdogan took these demonstrations, which were launched to oppose his plan to build a shopping center at the site of one of central Istanbul’s last parks, as a personal affront. He saw them as a revolt by an urban elite, allegedly part of an international conspiracy, to topple the pious conservative majority from the Anatolian heartland that he had brought into the halls of government. Police responded to the sit-ins by violently dispersing them with water cannons and tear gas”.

He makes the point that “Erdogan’s response to the corruption investigation shows both the extent of his power and his disregard for the basic safeguards of a democratic society. Turkey’s mainstream media is largely owned by conglomerates that are vulnerable to economic retaliation and political pressure — and therefore are all too ready to dismiss journalists and columnists who criticize Erdogan. Several tapes suggest that, in some instances, journalists have been fired after the direct intervention of Erdogan himself, while others have been prosecuted for criminal defamation following complaints from Erdogan and his allies. Almost none of the mainstream media headlined the bombshell revelation of the father-son conversation to hide huge sums of cash, at most alluding to it tangentially. As a result, Turks took to social media to learn about the leaks. The tapes were posted on YouTube and disseminated via Twitter, where critics of the government wrote freely about the corruption allegations. Erdogan’s response was to shut down access to both sites, only reluctantly reopening Twitter access after the Constitutional Court ordered it”.

He adds later in the piece that “Erdogan seems to see his considerable electoral support as justification for such moves. He may think the public is willing to overlook corruption — but that assumes there has been a public airing of the corruption allegations, which Erdogan’s censorship has been designed to thwart. It also assumes that a public vote can justify undermining basic rights by suppressing public protest, censoring the media, and interfering with judicial independence. As Erdogan amplifies his complaints about an alleged plot to overthrow his government, he has accused his onetime ally, Fethullah Gulen, of being the ringleader. Gulen, a Sunni Muslim cleric who left Turkey over a decade ago for, of all places, rural Pennsylvania, where he has been based ever since, presides over a loyal, almost cult-like following, nurtured by a vast network of widely respected private schools in Turkey and across the globe. The network is known in Turkey for identifying talented people and encouraging them to become judges, prosecutors, and police, leading to its alleged domination of law enforcement institutions. Until recently, it proceeded without AKP objection. As AKP allies, the Gulenists undoubtedly played a leadership role in the prosecution and media coverage of two mass trials of senior military officials that cemented civilian control of the military”.

Erdogan’s popular support follows the same line as that trod by Morsi, the ex-president of Egypt who mistakenly thought one popular election meant autocratic rule was allowed. Morsi then destroyed the constitution, and procedded to ruin Egypt. The spiral instituted by Morsi has led Egypt to where it is now. The obvious danger is that Erdogan will follow the same path, leading to the collapse of Turkey and the respectibility that is has gained.

The piece goes on to mention “Erdogan is assessing his political options. While his efforts to pass constitutional reforms that would usher in a fully empowered presidential system have faltered, he is still likely to run for president. Although the office remains a largely ceremonial position, it will grow in stature when the president is elected by popular referendum for the first time in August. The word on the street is that Erdogan would like to be president through 2023, when Turkey celebrates its centenary as a modern nation following the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan would presumably handpick his successor as prime minister. President Abdullah Gul, also a founder of the AKP, has rejected suggestions that he could become premier, nixing the possibility of a maneuver similar to the swapping of leadership positions perfected by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev”.

Worryingly the author adds “Like other long-serving leaders, Erdogan has acquired a growing number of opponents. A committed democratic leader would bow to that reality, recognizing that a nation’s democracy is more important than his individual political fate. Moreover, a leader with foresight would recognize that undermining democratic institutions sets precedents that endanger himself and his followers when, inevitably, they find themselves outside the corridors of power. But Erdogan seems to be dangerously conflating his own political future with his country’s best interest. For much of the past decade, the two coincided, but as street protests and official corruption plague him, Erdogan’s growing autocracy has replaced the military as the greatest threat to Turkey’s prospects as a rights-respecting democracy”.

He concludes “But with Erdogan’s deepening authoritarian streak, these visions of Turkish leadership seem sadly outdated. For the benefit of the people of Turkey and for those in the region who still look to it with hope, Erdogan urgently needs to recommit himself to human rights and the rule of law”.

After the mining disaster in Soma, Erdogan again shows his nature. Instead of allowing peaceful protest, “Turkish police have fired tear gas and water cannon at thousands of protesters in the eastern town of Soma, where some 300 miners died on Tuesday. The demonstrators in the town shouted anti-government slogans. The protest occurred after the mine operators held a news conference to deny any negligence over the disaster. There have been angry anti-government rallies across Turkey for the last three days over what has become the country’s worst-ever mine disaster. An explosion sent carbon monoxide gas into the mine’s tunnels while 787 miners were underground”.

 

 

“Expanded access to memos on the legality”

17/05/2014

The White House pledged Tuesday to give lawmakers expanded access to memos on the legality of killing American citizens in drone strikes, a concession aimed at heading off Senate opposition to a judicial nominee involved in drafting those secret documents.The move was designed to salvage the nomination of David J. Barron to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit and address growing frustration among lawmakers over secrecy surrounding the administration’s counterterrorism operations a year after President Obama vowed greater transparency.  Barron, who previously worked in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, was a principal author of at least one memothat served as the legal foundation for Obama’s decision to order a 2011 drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who had become a senior al-Qaeda operative in Yemen. White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the administration would make “available in a classified setting a copy of the Awlaki opinion to any senator who wishes to review it prior to Barron’s confirmation vote.” The documents previously had been made available only to members on certain committees. The statement came after several senators threatened to oppose Barron’s nomination unless Obama agreed to give members full access to the Awlaki memo and other drone-related documents the White House has fought to keep secret”.

 

Drafting an agreement?

17/05/2014

As another round of talks with Iran get underway. The concern now is the drafting of an agreement, ” Talks between six world powers and Iran on the country’s controversial nuclear programme are to resume in Vienna. Negotiators are expected to begin trying to draft an agreement that will provide a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Although meetings have been held since February, correspondents say nothing of substance has yet been agreed. Both sides hope to build on an interim deal that saw uranium enrichment curbed by Iran in return for sanctions relief. The accord – which was signed in Geneva in November but only took effect in January – gives them until late July to agree a comprehensive solution, although that deadline can be extended by mutual consent”.

The piece goes on to mention that the issues of contention are Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, the heavy-water reactor at Arak and the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme.

In an article, Reuters reports that there is a further level of complication, “Signs that a U.N. watchdog investigation into suspected atomic bomb research by Iran is making little progress could further complicate broader diplomatic efforts to end the decade-old nuclear dispute that resume in Vienna this week. The International Atomic Energy Agency indicated after a three-hour meeting with Iran on Monday that more work was needed to fully implement a series of nuclear transparency measures by Tehran by a Thursday deadline. Iran says it has already done so. The IAEA also made clear that no agreement had yet been reached with Iran on what issues to tackle in the next phase of a cooperation pact aimed at allaying fears that the country may have been seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability. The outcome is likely to disappoint Western diplomats, who want Iran to move much faster in addressing the IAEA’s questions about alleged activities in the past that could be relevant for any bid to build a nuclear missile. Iran denies any such work. ‘Everybody is fairly frustrated at the lack of progress,’ said one Western envoy familiar with the Iran nuclear file”.

The New York Times writes “Both the Iranians and the Western powers have said their talks so far have been productive, with little of the drama, the ultimatums and the entrenched positions that have marked previous efforts. But until now, there has been no formal discussion of how much nuclear infrastructure the United States and its allies would demand that Iran dismantle in return for the gradual easing of sanctions. ‘This is the sticker-shock conversation, and we haven’t had it yet,’ one senior administration official said”.

If this report is accurate and there has been little drama and entrenched positions, then there is hope for a final deal.  To have gotten this far without either side leaking or even walking out of the talks is in and of itself a huge achievement. However, this is obviously not enough for a deal but if good will remains then a final settlement on a hugely controversial issue will be within reach.

Most interesting of all was a report carried in the Washington Post the notes the invitation of Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal to Iran’s foreign minister, Dr Javad Zarif, “Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that it had invited Iran’s foreign minister to visit Riyadh, breaking the ice in one of the most hostile relationships in the Middle East ahead of key talks on Iran’s nuclear program in Vienna this week. Speaking to reporters in the Saudi capital, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom was ready to host Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif ‘anytime he sees fit’ and indicated that Riyadh is willing to open negotiations with its nemesis on the many combustible issues dividing them. ‘We are ready to receive him,’ Faisal said, adding, ‘We will talk with them. Our hope is that Iran becomes a part of the effort to make the region as safe as possible.’ The invitation came after months of indications that the two rival powers are moving to ease tensions that have helped fuel the war in Syria and the hostilities in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran have backed opposing sides in each of the conflicts, deepening the sectarian dimension of the instability plaguing the region. It is too early to tell, however, whether the Saudi move signals the beginnings of a broader rapprochement that could help stabilise the region”.

Of course this is true but the fact that the invitation was offered in the first place should be seen as a positive step. Shia Muslims in the overwhelemingly Sunni kingdom are often seen as barely Muslims at all and are often assumed by many in the Saudi government to be working to destabilise the kingdom from within. The fact that Saudi Arabia seems to be altering its policy shows true realism, and its benefits when circumstances change.

Obama warns Israel

17/05/2014

“Palestinian efforts to gain international recognition — which could, ominously for Israel, include the International Criminal Court — are going to create a diplomatic wildfire for Israel. The United States has long carried water for Israel in international forums like the United Nations, but this could prove increasingly difficult. As President Barack Obama recently noted in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction … if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous, sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.” Obama’s words are another harbinger of troubles ahead for the Israelis. When one factors in Obama’s inclination to pursue a nuclear deal with Iran (against the strident opposition of Israel), the declining influence of AIPAC in Washington, and the evident frustration among American diplomats over the apparent failure of the current peace talks, we seem to be entering a period of frostier U.S.-Israel relations”.

“Diminish Russian influence over time”

15/05/2014

A piece in Foreign Affairs charts the seizure of Crimea in the context of Russia’s strategy for maintaining its sphere of influence but he argues it will cost Russia in the long term.

He opens, “Despite analogies to Munich in 1938, however, Russia’s invasion of this Ukrainian region is at once a replay and an escalation of tactics that the Kremlin has used for the past two decades to maintain its influence across the domains of the former Soviet Union. Since the early 1990s, Russia has either directly supported or contributed to the emergence of four breakaway ethnic regions in Eurasia: Transnistria, a self-declared state in Moldova on a strip of land between the Dniester River and Ukraine; Abkhazia, on Georgia’s Black Sea coast; South Ossetia, in northern Georgia; and, to a lesser degree, Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked mountainous region in southwestern Azerbaijan that declared its independence under Armenian protection following a brutal civil war. Moscow’s meddling has created so-called frozen conflicts in these states, in which the splinter territories remain beyond the control of the central governments and the local de facto authorities enjoy Russian protection and influence”.

He posits the theory that “Until Russia annexed Crimea, the situation on the peninsula had played out according to a familiar script: Moscow opportunistically fans ethnic tensions and applies limited force at a moment of political uncertainty, before endorsing territorial revisions that allow it to retain a foothold in the contested region. With annexation, however, Russia departed from these old tactics and significantly raised the stakes. Russia’s willingness to go further in Crimea than in the earlier cases appears driven both by Ukraine’s strategic importance to Russia and by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s newfound willingness to ratchet up his confrontation with a West that Russian elites increasingly see as hypocritical and antagonistic to their interests”.

The result of this interference he writes is that “Moscow’s support for separatist movements within their borders has driven Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova to all wean themselves off their dependence on Russia and pursue new partnerships with the West. Ukraine will likely follow a similar trajectory. By annexing Crimea and threatening deeper military intervention in eastern Ukraine, Russia will only bolster Ukrainian nationalism and push Kiev closer to Europe, while causing other post-Soviet states to question the wisdom of a close alignment with Moscow”.

He goes on to mention a slew of examples of ethnic and religious minorities across the USSR, “For a long time, the strategy of ethnic division worked. During the 1980s, most of these minority groups opposed the nationalist movements that were pressing for independence in many of the Soviet republics, viewing the continued existence of the Soviet Union as the best guarantee of their protection against the larger ethnic groups that surrounded them. As a result, local officials in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria largely supported the August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, who they believed was speeding the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In Crimea, only 54 percent of voters supported Ukrainian independence in a December 1991 referendum — by far the lowest figure anywhere in Ukraine. As the Soviet Union dissolved, many of these divisions sparked intercommunal violence, which Moscow exploited to maintain a foothold in the new post-Soviet states”.

He goes on to cite the precedent that “In 1989, as part of a national project to promote a shared linguistic identity with Romania, its neighbor to the west, the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic voted to reinstitute the Latin alphabet and adopt Moldovan as its only official language, downgrading Russian. Feeling threatened, the ethnic Russian and Ukrainian populations of Transnistria declared the area’s independence in 1990, and, in an eerie preview of recent events in Crimea, pro-Russian paramilitary units took over Moldovan government buildings in the territory. Later, in 1992, when fighting broke out between Transnistrian separatists and a newly independent Moldova, Russia’s 14th Army, which was still stationed in Transnistria as a holdover from Soviet times, backed the separatists”.

He goes on to rightly unmask Russian motives, “The moves have been opportunistic, driven more by a concern for strategic advantage than by humanitarian or ethnonational considerations. Pledges to defend threatened Russian or other minority populations outside Russia may play well domestically, but it was the Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Moldovan governments’ desire to escape Russia’s geopolitical orbit — more than their real or alleged persecution of minorities — that led Moscow to move in. Russia has never intervened militarily to defend ethnic minorities, including Russians, in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, who have often suffered much more than their co-ethnics in other former Soviet republics, probably because Moscow doesn’t assign the same strategic significance to those Central Asian countries, where Western influence has been limited. Leading up to the annexation of Crimea, Putin and his administration were careful to talk about protecting “Russian citizens” (anyone to whom Moscow has given a passport) and “Russian speakers” (which would include the vast majority of Ukrainian citizens)”.

Interestingly he writes that “It is important to note that although Russia has felt free to intervene politically and militarily in all these cases, until Crimea, it had never formally annexed the territory its forces occupied, nor had it deposed the local government (although, by many accounts, Moscow did contemplate marching on Tbilisi in 2008 to oust Saakashvili). Instead, Russia had been content to demand changes to the foreign policies of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova, most notably by seeking to block Georgia’s NATO aspirations. The annexation of Crimea is thus an unprecedented step in Russia’s post-Soviet foreign policy. Although in practice the consequences may not be that different from in the other frozen conflicts (assuming Russia does not precipitate a wider war with Ukraine), Moscow’s willingness to flout international norms in the face of clear warnings and the Obama administration’s search for a diplomatic way out of the crisis hints at other motivations. More than in the conflicts of the early 1990s or even in Georgia in 2008, the Kremlin conceived of the invasion and annexation of Crimea as a deliberate strike against the West, as well as Ukraine. Putin apparently believes that he and Russia have more to gain from open confrontation with the United States and Europe — consolidating his political position at home and boosting Moscow’s international stature — than from cooperation”.

He goes on to make the valid argument that “the Kremlin’s tactics since the fall of the Soviet Union is Russia’s paternalistic view of its post-Soviet neighbours. Russia continues to regard them as making up a Russian sphere of influence”.

Validly he mentions that “Such thinking plays another role as well. These days, Russia has little to justify its claims to major-power status, apart from its seat on the UN Security Council and its massive nuclear stockpile. Maintaining Russia’s influence across the former Soviet Union helps Russian leaders preserve their image of Russia’s greatness. Under Putin, the Kremlin has sought to reinforce this influence by pushing economic and political integration with post-Soviet states, through measures such as establishing a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan and forming the Eurasian Union, a new supranational bloc that Putin claims is directly modeled on the EU and that he hopes to unveil in 2015 (Belarus and Kazakhstan have already signed on; Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have expressed their interest). Putin hopes to turn this Eurasian bloc into a cultural and geopolitical alternative to the West, and he has made clear that it will amount to little unless Ukraine joins”.

He gets to the core of the argument, “The bigger problem, however, is that Moscow’s coercive diplomacy and support of separatist movements diminish Russian influence over time — that is, these actions achieve the exact opposite of what Russia hopes. It is no coincidence that aside from the Baltic countries, which have joined NATO and the EU, the post-Soviet states that have worked hardest to decrease their dependence on Russia over the past two decades are Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova. These states have moved westward directly in reaction to Russian meddling”.

He concludes the piece, “Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, especially if it is followed by incursions into eastern Ukraine, will have the same effect. Far from dissuading Ukrainians from seeking a future in Europe, Moscow’s moves will only foster a greater sense of nationalism in all parts of the country and turn Ukrainian elites against Russia, probably for a generation. The episode will also make Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, including those targeted for membership in the Eurasian Union, even more reluctant to go along with any Russian plans for regional integration. Russia may have won Crimea, but in the long run, it risks losing much more: its once-close relationship with Ukraine, its international reputation, and its plan to draw the ex-Soviet states back together”.

 

Not longer exist?

15/05/2014

Egyptian presidential favourite and former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has vowed that the banned Muslim Brotherhood group ‘will not exist,’ should he win. In his first interview with Egyptian TV, he added that two assassination plots against him had been uncovered. Mr Sisi removed Egypt’s first democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi from power last July. He is widely expected to win the presidential election on 26-27 May. Mr Sisi had denied he had any political ambitions when he ousted President Morsi and launched a crackdown on the Brotherhood last year. In a joint interview with Egypt’s privately owned CBC and ONTV television channels on Monday, he said: ‘I want to tell you that it is not me that finished [the Brotherhood]. You, the Egyptians, are the ones who finished it.’ Asked whether the Brotherhood would cease to exist if he should gain the presidency, the former field marshal – dressed in a suit – answered: ‘Yes. That’s right.’ He said there had been two attempts to assassinate him, but added: ‘I believe in fate, I am not afraid.’ He did not provide details of who was behind the alleged plots or how advanced they were”.

China rams Vietnam

15/05/2014

An article in Foreign Policy notes the recent tension in which China has continued to aggressively and tactlessly persue to claims to the entire South China Sea.

Keith Johnson writes “China’s muscular efforts to extend its control over broad reaches of the South China Sea have already clashed — literally — with neighbouring countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines that appear increasingly determined to push back against Beijing. Just days after Beijing dispatched an oil rig to waters claimed by both China and Vietnam, Chinese naval vessels apparently rammed and damaged at least one Vietnamese patrol boat in the area. Though no shots were reported to have been fired, Vietnamese media said Chinese ships used water cannons to enforce an unusually large three-mile no-go zone the Chinese have established around the rig”.

The incident, the latest escalation in a regional flashpoint already primed for conflict,

He adds that the Chinese action “underscores the lengths China seems prepared to go to defend its ambitious territorial claims as well as the unintended consequences of China’s take-no-prisoners approach to foreign relations. More specifically, experts on the region said that China risks creating a coalition of the exasperated among the oft-bickering nations of Southeast Asia who are increasingly speaking out against Beijing’s aggressive territorial claims”.

He makes the interesting point, “by picking a fight with Vietnam, China could complicate its relationship with Russia. Moscow has assiduously cultivated closer ties with Vietnam in part to hedge against Chinese expansion in Southeast Asia. Russia will finance and build the construction of new nuclear reactors in Vietnam, which will tie the two countries together in an energy relationship for decades, for example. The two countries are even closer when it comes to defence. Hanoi’s most ambitious recent arms purchase was the acquisition of six modern, Kilo-class Russian submarines — meant explicitly to give Vietnam more naval muscle to deal with China’s rapidly growing navy. Russia has sold Vietnam a number of other naval vessels, including frigates and small craft, and is trying to lock up a supply arrangement for its own ships at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay naval facility. The moves are widely seen as a part of a concerted Russian bid to rebuild its influence in the region and check Chinese expansion in Asia”.

The ugly head of Chinese nationalism reared its head, as Johnson writes, “Chinese state media urged the country to teach Vietnam a “lesson” by taking a hard line. After the ramming, Vietnam’s foreign minister again asked his Chinese counterpart to remove the contentious rig, which he called a violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty. He also said that Vietnam ‘will take all suitable and necessary measures to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests,’ according to a release from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry. A spokeswoman at the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said that Vietnam should stop interfering with what China views as legal activities”.

He mentions the American response, “The State Department responded late Wednesday, sharply rebuking China for the episode. ‘China’s decision to introduce an oil rig accompanied by numerous government vessels for the first time in waters disputed with Vietnam is provocative and raises tensions,’ State Dept. spokesperson Jen Pskai said in a release. ‘This unilateral action appears to be part of a broader pattern of Chinese behaviour to advance its claims over disputed territory in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region.'”

However as Dr Ely Ratner has argued, this soft approach will only embolden China in the future unless the United States, and hopefully Asia push back against Chinese aggression. This could take the form of increased patrols or at the very least, stronger words. However, the first response should come from Asia itself. If not action is taken this behaviour will continue unchecked.

However Johnson writes that doing nothing may have its own advantages, “China’s resort to more aggressive tactics, including the use of both naval and coast guard vessels to protect its drilling rig, seems to be boomeranging on Beijing in a way that the country’s earlier, less overt moves into disputed seas did not. The Philippines set a precedent earlier this year when it sued China over Beijing’s snatch and grab of several specks of land in the South China Sea claimed by both countries. Vietnamese officials, their nationalism at a high pitch with the 60th anniversary of its victory over French forces in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, have deployed both strong words and strong vessels to push back against what they see as Chinese intransigence”.

However, it is too soon to tell if these efforts are enough to make China think twice before it acts in this way or whether, as is feared, it will only put pressure on China to further raise tensions.

The piece closes, “China’s aggressive approach to disputes with neighbors in the South China Sea could make its rapprochement with Moscow tougher to pull off, said Ratner. ‘China’s bullying around Asia is going to put limits on how close it can get with Russia, because some of the victims of that bullying are close with Russia,’ he said”.

“Diplomatic status”

13/05/2014

As a delegation of Syrian opposition leaders arrived in Washington to plead for more American support, the Obama administration on Monday granted the group diplomatic status and pledged an additional $27 million in nonlethal assistance. The moves, announced by the State Department, are calculated to bolster the opposition’s prestige at a time when President Bashar al-Assad’s government has made military gains, though the changes do not reverse the White House’s longstanding reluctance to get more deeply involved in the conflict. As a practical matter, the decision confers foreign mission status on the Syrian opposition’s offices in Washington and New York — a step short of full diplomatic status. That will make it easier for the United States to provide security and to expedite banking transfers. Symbolically, the administration said, the new status underlines American support for the moderate opposition, which has lately seemed to have been marginalized in the ferocious battle between Mr. Assad’s forces and extremist groups, some with links to Al Qaeda”.

Obama’s rhetorical games

13/05/2014

In response to President Obama’s speech on his own view of his foreign policy, James Traub makes the excellent point that Obama is only lying to himself.

Traub opens, “the admittedly low standards of his profession, Barack Obama is an intellectually honest man. I was first drawn to him in early 2007 when I read Dreams from My Father, a pitilessly self-scrutinising memoir. Five years in the White House have not made him less introspective: earlier this year, he toldDavid Remnick of the New Yorker that ‘there’s going to be tragedy out there and, by occupying this office, I am part of that tragedy occasionally,’ but that he believed that ‘at the end of the day’ he would make things ‘better rather than worse.’ Yet there is one subject on which the president’s rueful self-awareness gives way to utter hypocrisy: Syria”.

Traub goes on to note that “Obama reminded us once again of this strange twitch when he insisted in a press conference in Manila earlier this week that his critics are yearning for ‘military adventures.’ Once they concede that a ‘land war’ in Syria is off the table, he said mockingly, their argument ‘trails off.’ How many times have we watched Obama stand up this straw man? He told Remnick that the only alternative to his risk-averse policy on Syria was ‘an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq’ — a revival of the Powell Doctrine, whose premise is that the United States must either deploy massive force or not use force at all”.

Pointedly Traub writes that “Obama is unable to even honestly present those choices anymore. No one is suggesting an all-out or even limited land war in Syria; the outer limit of his critics’ proposals is an air campaign comparable to the one mounted against Libya. (See the most recent columnby Frederic Hof, Obama’s former special advisor for the transition in Syria and now one of his most persistent and eloquent critics.) Obama’s own senior staff argued in 2012 for a more aggressive campaign of arming moderate rebels. How can he keep declaring that on Syria, it’s all or next-to-nothing? It doesn’t take much psychological insight to suggest that Obama is trying to obscure a painful truth from himself. This would be easy enough if he had the gift for believing whatever was useful for him to believe, a trait which George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan had in spades”.
He makes the excellent point that “Republican hawks like John McCain claimthat Obama is squeamish about the use of force, in Syria and elsewhere. That’s the armchair belligerence Obama was mocking in Manila. You would think the president’s aggressive use of drones would put that argument to rest. If there is an ignoble explanation for Obama’s persistent choice of the ‘do-less’ option in Syria, it’s that he fears that the American people just want awful problems abroad to go away, and would never forgive him if, say, an American plane went down and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad got to brandish a U.S. pilot before the world. Whatever the case, Obama appears to have persuaded himself of the tragic premise that whatever actions the United States takes (beyond providing training and very modest equipment to non-radical insurgents) will do more harm than good. Even so, if he actually wanted to tip the balance of force in Syria, the president plainly should have authorized the provision of more weapons to more fighters at an earlier stage. Now those moderate insurgents are barely hanging on, while the lunatic-fringe jihadists known as Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are seizing territory”.
He goes on to write later in the article that “The Obama administration has also taken tentative steps to supply such weapons to vetted rebels units. According to a recent account in the Washington Post, Harakat Hazm, a disciplined and effective fighting force operating in northwestern Idlib province, has received a shipment of 20 American anti-tank missiles, apparently from one of the Gulf states, acting with U.S. consent. The shipment, said the group’s commander, ‘suggests a change in the U.S. attitude.’ That’s an optimistic assessment. There is no sign of any change in Obama’s risk-averse policy. Nevertheless, it has become impossible to sustain the fiction that Assad and his cronies will leave pursuant to a negotiated solution — unless a drastic change occurs on the battlefield. A civil war within the civil war now pits ISIS against both less extreme insurgents and some Kurdish forces”.
Traub ends noting, “The time has come for Obama to stop protecting himself from the risk of failure and reproach, and to stop shooting uncontested lay-ups against talking heads. These rhetorical games should be beneath his dignity. And the consequences of inaction — for Syria, for the United States and for Obama’s own legacy — are much too grave”.

 

Abdullah vs Ahmadzai

11/05/2014

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) wants to conduct the run-off presidential election on June 14, although a second round has not been formally announced so far, an official said on Wednesday. An IEC source, who did not want to be named, confided to Pajhwok Afghan News the commission had decided to hold the second-round ballot in mid-June, 17 days behind original schedule. He refused to go into details, but the panel has repeatedly said it is ready to conduct the run-off election. IEC Secretary recently told this news agency they were prepared if the vote went to the second round.  According to the preliminary results announced on April 26, none of the candidates could secure 50+1 percent of votes. Presidential runner Dr Abdullah Abdullah secured 44.9 percent of votes followed by Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai with 31.5 percent”.

The untouchable ISI?

11/05/2014

A piece in Foreign Affairs discusses the role of the ISI in Pakistani society. It opens, ” On April 19, unknown gunmen shot Hamid Mir, a well-known Pakistani journalist and private TV news anchor, in the port city of Karachi. By some stroke of luck, he survived. Mir’s family immediately blamed the attack on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), specifically naming its director general, Lieutenant General Zaheerul Islam Abbasi, as the culprit. Mir’s employer — Geo TV, one of Pakistan’s most popular stations — hurriedly broadcast the allegations, splashing Abbassi’s picture across TV screens in Pakistan for hours, setting off a political and media maelstrom in a country where the generals consider themselves above reproach and are certainly never named and shamed for crimes”.

He goes on to write “In several cities, ISI-backed militant organizations, such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, staged angry protests, which competitor media organisations then gleefully broadcast along with talk shows segments questioning the patriotism of Mir and Geo TV. Ultimately, Geo and its affiliated newspapers were banned from military bases and units. The more the generals crack down, the deeper the stain of their guilt sets. Before he was attacked, Mir had informed his family and close associates that the ISI was plotting to assassinate him and that the agency should be held responsible if he was harmed. The generals, he believed, were furious about his sustained reporting of their dirty war against Baluch insurgents in Baluchistan province”.

He adds that this is not the first time the ISI has acted in this way, “Two years ago, the spy agency also threatened journalist Saleem Shehzad with dire consequences for offenses against “national security.” Shehzad had crossed the military when he revealed that al Qaeda sympathizers within the navy’s ranks had facilitated a terrorist attack on a major naval base in Karachi in May 2011. Two days after his story was published, he was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. Circumstantial evidence, including the death threats that Shehzad had received from ISI personnel before his abduction and the mysterious disappearance of his cell phone records from the database of a private cellular company, clearly pointed to the ISI. Even so, a government commission appointed by the previous administration to investigate Shehzad’s death expectedly exonerated the agency of any wrongdoing. As ever, the ISI and the military have proved untouchable”.

The reason for its power, he writes, “Using Pakistan’s enduring rivalry with India, the generals have manufactured a narrative of existential danger that privileges the military as the sole provider of national security. In that sense, the organization operates more like a crime racket than a state institution subject to the rule of law. Anyone who seriously questions its activities is branded a traitor, one who must be intimidated into silence and, ultimately, terminated. What is new is that civilians, even though they could be killed, have begun to break the long-standing taboo against publicly calling out the military for its misdeeds. Shehzad did and lost his life. Mir did and will likely do so again”.

Importantly he goes on to argue “in an important victory for the rule of law, on March 31, Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former president and army chief, was indicted for treason for unlawfully suspending the constitution and declaring a state of emergency in November 2007. Musharraf is the first army chief to face prosecution for his extraconstitutional actions. While holding him individually accountable will not drastically rebalance power between the civilians and the military, it will carry significant symbolic value and could help puncture the military’s veneer of invincibility. It is not surprising, then, that the military has fought back. The generals first tried to shield Musharraf by providing him sanctuary in a military hospital in the garrison city of Rawalpindi under the cover of a heart ailment. No longer able to keep up that charade in the face of repeated court summonses and increased criticism from journalists and some government ministers, Raheel Sharif, the current army chief, drew a line in the sand on April 16 by warning the military’s critics to refrain from attacking the institution’s “dignity.” The day Mir was attacked, Musharraf was quietly moved to Karachi for treatment at another, “more secure,” military hospital, which implied the civilian government’s acquiescence”.

He ends the piece “If Musharraf does manage to escape the law, it will only reinforce the military’s impunity. And as long as its presumption of exemption is intact, Pakistanis and the rest of the world will continue to suffer the consequences, including military patronage of violent Islamist groups and the persecution of journalists and other critics who speak out against its stranglehold on national security. But there is a silver lining to all this: both Musharraf’s indictment and Mir’s defiance may mean that the military can no longer take for granted the conspiracy of silence that surrounds its unlawful actions”.

“Beyond the control of the authorities in Kiev”

11/05/2014

Much of eastern Ukraine slipped beyond the control of the authorities in Kiev as pro-Russian militants began taking control of a string of official buildings more than three weeks ago. The separatists have also captured a German-led team of military observers affiliated with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Both sides gave competing accounts about the fighting on Friday, agreeing only on the unverified claim that at least two Ukrainian helicopters had been hit by ground fire. The Defense Ministry in Kiev said two Mi-24 attack helicopters had been shot down, killing at least two airmen. The Ukrainian domestic intelligence agency, S.B.U., said that one helicopter had been brought down with a heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missile, and suggested that the presence of such a weapon in the conflict showed the separatists had outside support. By night in Ukraine, neither side had shown clear evidence of heat-seeking missiles or downed aircraft, although one pro-Russian television station showed footage of what it said was a captured pilot. Vyachislav Ponomaryov, the self-appointed mayor of Slovyansk, said four or five members of the city’s antigovernment militias had been killed, and at least three others wounded. His figures could not be corroborated”.