Archive for September, 2014

Airstrikes inside Syria

29/09/2014

Following reports about US action, it has been confirmed that US airstrikes inside Syria have begun, “Capping months of tense internal deliberations, the Obama administration and an array of Arab allies launched a broad series of airstrikes against Islamic State targets inside Syria, opening a new — and risky — front in the expanding U.S.-led effort against the militants controlling large portions of both Syria and Iraq. The Obama administration has been signaling for weeks that it was prepared to hammer militants inside Syria, and the campaign finally began late Monday night, Sept. 22, with what the Pentagon described as a “mix of fighter, bomber, and Tomahawk land attack missiles.” In a statement, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, made the decision to launch the airstrikes earlier in the day after receiving authorization from President Barack Obama. The American strikes, launched by air and by sea, also involved armed Predator and Reaper drones”.

He adds “Obama is expected to speak about the strikes tomorrow morning at the United Nations, according to a senior U.S. official. The official said that aircraft are conducting strikes against a “litany” of Islamic State targets including command and control facilities, headquarters, and training centers. A White House official said late Monday night that the president “is being updated on the operation.” In a major win for the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts to build a broad anti-Islamic State coalition, aircraft from several Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, also took part in the strikes. An Arab diplomat familiar with the matter said the strikes were being carried out by aircraft from the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Most of the nations were flying U.S.-made F-16s. The diplomat said Qatar was flying airplanes but not actually dropping any bombs. Significantly, no European countries took part in the strikes — a reflection of the deep reluctance many American allies have about getting involved in Syria amid the country’s brutal, years-long civil war”.

The writer adds “Indeed, on Sept. 11, one day after Obama spoke to the nation and promised that “America will lead a broad coalition” against the Islamic State, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Turkey all announced that they wouldn’t take part in any airstrikes in Syria. The administration spent the next few weeks insisting that other nations had signed onto the battle, but officials refrained from any announcement, they said to let each nation come forward on its own to describe its contribution. Then, on Monday, Sept. 22, France announced it would not join the air campaign in Syria, just four days after the country launched its first airstrikes on the Islamic State in Iraq. The White House itself had long tried to avoid getting involved in Syria; last year, Obama said that any use of chemical weapons by Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad would cross a “red line” and bring about a U.S. military response. Assad went ahead with just such an attack, but the administration held off on carrying out a retaliatory strike, infuriating key allies across the region. Obama himself also overruled his war cabinet and personally vetoed the idea of arming Syria’s moderate rebels, a move that may have helped lead to the rise of the Islamic State, which overran northern Iraq and took large quantities of U.S.-made armaments and ammunition”.

The report goes on to note “Arab allies, who fear the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) could eventually destabilize their own countries as well, weren’t as reluctant to join in the type of strikes inside Syria that American military officials said were vital to defeating the militants. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as early as August that defeating the Islamic State would require eradicating the group’s hideouts in Syria. “We still haven’t addressed the issue of ISIS in Syria,” he told USA Today. “That’s an important part of this, and that has yet to be addressed.” Thirteen days ago, Obama himself announced the beginning of a broad campaign to target ISIS that he said would involve military strikes against its strongholds inside Iraq and, if necessary, inside Syria as well”.

Crucially he notes “the administration’s current plan to destroy the Islamic States relies on a ground offensive, as well. Iraqi and Kurdish fighters will attack the militants in Iraq. But a band of U.S.-trained and armed Syrian rebels will conduct the ground war in Syria. The United States may provide vital air support and cover, but it’s unclear how closely that operation will be dictated by the White House. On September 17, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Obama would tightly control a future U.S. air campaign in Syria, personally signing off on individual strikes. But the next day, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the report was “not true,” noting that once he approves an air campaign, the president gives authority to military leaders to carry out that policy. The point was quickly reaffirmed by White House press Secretary Josh Earnest”.

He ends “But that hasn’t stopped Iraqi officials from meeting with the embattled Syrian president about their own progress in the fight against the Islamic State. The Obama administration and its Western allies may be swearing off any collaboration with the Syrian regime. But if one of America’s essential partners in the ground war is willing to cozy up to Assad, Obama may be forced to go to war with him one way or another”.

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Afghan national unity government

29/09/2014

As expected, the presidential candidates on Sunday signed a long-awaited deal on forming a government national unity, ending several weeks of intense negotiations and uncertainty. Representatives of both contenders confirmed signing the agreement on the formation of the new government, paving the way for the announcement of the long-delayed election results. In line with the accord, former World Bank economist Dr. Ashraf Ghani will take over as president and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah will be given the chief executive position — a slot specially created to end the political impasse. The deadlock surfaced after the June run-off election that Ashraf Ghani won by a huge margin. But his rival alleged industrial-scale fraud in the polls, refusing to accept the result. The standoff raised questions about the country’s future”.

A dumb war?

29/09/2014

Rosa Brooks writes in an incendiary article and calls the US intervention in Iraq a “dumb war”.

She opens “when he was just a U.S. Senator, Barack Obama used to say that he didn’t oppose all wars, just ‘dumb wars.’ I assumed that by ‘dumb wars,’ he meant wars to address phantom or exaggerated threats (see: Iraq, 2003), or wars launched to achieve domestic political objectives (see also: Iraq, 2003), or wars begun without sufficient attention to alternatives, capabilities or strategic consequences (see yet again: Iraq, 2003). Apparently, I was wrong: all Obama really meant was that he opposed long, expensive, politically unpopular wars involving lots of American ground forces and lots of American casualties. He’s fine with other kinds of dumb wars”.

Leaving aside her overly simplistic contention and partisan sniping about Iraq, Brooks  misunderstands the context of President Obama’s remarks. Firstly when he said this “dumb war” statement he was a senator and had a wildly different view, and an election to campaign for, then where he now sits. It is also somewhat hypocritical of Brooks to eloquently defend the use of drones but then attack the use of US air power in Iraq.

She goes on to argue that the war in Syria is a “dumb war” she writes, “How is it dumb? Let me count the ways. First: the Islamic State (IS) is an undeniably nasty group, but even the president admits that IS poses no immediate threat to the United States. Second, other actors may be better suited than the United States to combatting the regional threat IS poses. Third, U.S. military strikes against IS in Syria risk inspiring more new violent extremists than they kill, undermining long-term U.S. security interests. Fourth, our current fixation on IS also carries opportunity costs. Fifth, Obama’s willingness to embrace and expand George W. Bush’s doctrine of unilateral preventive self-defence is one more nail in the coffin of the fragile post-World War II collective security system”.

On the notion of “Threat Inflation” she writes “According to the latest Washington Post poll, 59 percent of Americans think that IS poses a ‘very serious threat to the vital interests of the United States.’ They didn’t think this a few weeks ago, but televised beheadings have a way of capturing public attention. Nonetheless, two tragic and gruesome beheadings do not an existential threat create. If beheadings were a sufficient causus belli, we should consider air strikes against violent Mexican drug cartels, several of which appear to specialise in decapitations“.

This reasoning is flawed, and Brooks knows it. She seems to argue against herself, that public opinion is not important to her argument because the public changed their mind as a result of the evil beheadings of US and other nationals. Her argument about Mexico is spurious as it equates the threat of ISIS to drug dealers. This is hyperbolic on her part. While the threat to Mexico from drug dealers is high and should therefore be a priority for America, and Mexico, ISIS is not in the same league as them and any attempt to put them together seems both naïve and cruel.

She does mention “IS is plenty brutal, but most experts say it is neither as well-organised nor as sophisticated as al Qaeda was before 9/11. Most estimates suggest it has no more than 20,000 fighters, many of them inexperienced; Obama admits that there is no evidence that it has cells in the United States or has the ability to stage attacks inside the United States”.

Here Brooks misses the point, the reason Obama is dealing with ISIS now in this state is because of a lack of an acknowledgement of the threat they posed in Syria two years ago where he did nothing. If they are as weak and inexperienced as she argues this would make defeating them, providing the correct strategy was used, all the easier.

She goes on to write “IS is also a threat to Iraq’s increasingly nominal central government, but here again, this doesn’t necessarily make it a threat to a core U.S. interest. While the group has ample capacity to cause mayhem — and its rapid advance into Iraq revealed the hollowness of portions of the Iraqi Army — there is little reason to believe it has the ability to hold and control the territory it has seized. As American troops learned many times over the last 13 years, it’s one thing to seize territory; holding and building is another thing altogether. Iraq’s remaining armed forces greatly outnumber IS’s small band of fighters; with intelligence, planning and logistics assistance from U.S. military advisors, they stands a decent chance of turning the tide against IS without the aid of additional U.S. strikes in Syria”.

Why would America want ISIS in charge of some of the largest oil reserves in the world? Of course it would rather a government not backed by Iran but this would be preferable than one where ISIS controls Iraq. She does make a valid point that it has little chance of keeping the terrority it has but the region is not stable and as a result it would be dangerous to assume that countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia would team up to remove ISIS from Iraqi territory and let Assad cleanse them from Syria.

The second part of her argument rests of the notion that the problem, which she seems to imply does exist, needs US support. She writes that “Assad, the Al Nusra Front, and the Iraqi government aren’t the only actors dismayed by IS’s advances. Our Iranian adversaries — who provide substantial backing to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, as well as to private Shiite militias, and who have also been supporting the Assad regime in Syria — are appalled by IS’s progress. Meanwhile, our frenemies the Saudis, who even more fond of beheadings than IS, nonetheless recognize IS as a profoundly destabilizing force. Ditto for the Jordanians, the Kurds, and the Turks.

Her third point is about that airstrikes will end the threat. On this point she is correct. There needs to be troops in Iraq to end the terror of ISIS, she notes “Air strikes are an excellent way to turn live people into dead people, and the United States has an impressive ability to carry them out with minimal damage to unintended targets. But air strikes are a very poor way to hold territory, and an even worse way to establish stable and legitimate governance structures. Without capable partners on the ground in Syria, it’s not clear that U.S. airstrikes against IS will achieve the objectives we want to achieve — though anything that hurts IS will surely gladden the twisted little hearts of Assad and leaders of rival extremist groups. It would be really nice, just about now, to have some well-armed, well-led, realio-trulio moderate Syrian rebels with whom we could coordinate — but I think we missed that boat a long time ago. Today, rebels who are both moderate and good at fighting are about as common in Syria as pink fluffy unicorns”.

 Her fourth reason to say it is “dumb” is that America does not pay attention to Mexican drug dealers or the problems in Ukraine. It seems odd to America is capable of doing more than one problem at a time.  Her final argument is that it sets “bad legal precedents”, here she rushes to the defence of the UN and “international law” simply because it exists rather than having to do with any real legitimacy or importance in the real world.

America bombs Syrian targets

29/09/2014

The United States and its Arab allies bombed militant groups in Syria for the first time on Tuesday, killing scores of Islamic State fighters, members of a separate al Qaeda-linked group and opening a new front amid shifting Middle East alliances. The attacks encountered no objection, and even signs of tacit approval, from President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government, which said Washington had warned Damascus in advance. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates participated in or supported the strikes against Islamic State targets, U.S. Central Command said. The countries are hostile to Assad but now fear the fighters who emerged from the rebellion they backed in Syria’s 3-year-old civil war. U.S. President Barack Obama said in a televised statement that the breadth of the coalition, including the five Arab states, showed the United States was not alone in its second campaign of air strikes. Since Aug. 8, U.S. air strikes have hit militant targets in Iraq, where Washington supports the government, but had held back from a military engagement in Syria, where it is at odds with Assad”.

“Irrelevant to global affairs”

29/09/2014

An article in Foreign Affairs argues that the new president of the European Council and the EU foreign minister will be “weak and weaker”.

It opens “Late last Saturday evening, European leaders collectively rendered the European Union irrelevant to global affairs. Through their choice of nominees to two of the EU’s top posts, and their decision to postpone sanctions on Russia even as its troops invaded Ukraine, they made it clear that they prefer a Europe that is internally incoherent and unable to defend its interests abroad. Whether the European heads of state and government acted out of ignorance or cowardice, the repercussions will be felt by ordinary citizens throughout the continent. Indisputably, EU politics are more incoherent than ever before. The special EU summit appointed Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk as the next president of the European Council, the body that convenes the leaders of EU member states to give policy direction. The president’s ostensible purpose is to embrace the interests of the entire continent (as opposed to those of individual member states), and to forge consensus among the various national capitals through extensive bilateral communication. Tusk may be a talented politician: He is the only re-elected prime minister of post-communist Poland. He may also be a well-liked figure in Brussels — he did, after all, revive Poland’s standing within European circles after the tumultuous leadership of Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski — Poland’s former president and prime minister, respectively — and is known as a tough negotiator in the European Council”.

He goes on to make the point, “Tusk is nevertheless an exceedingly unlikely architect of continental consensus. Unlike his predecessor, outgoing Council President Herman Van Rompuy, whose background in Belgium’s federalized politics gave him decades of experience building bridges among many competing factions, Tusk is not known to be a skilled coalition-builder. Both of his governments in Poland relied on only one coalition partner in the lower house (and none in the Senate). Plus, Tusk speaks no French and has limited command of English. It is hard to believe that he could construct creative bargains among his former colleagues given all the trouble he’ll have simply communicating with them in a common language. The message in his appointment is clear: National leaders in Europe would prefer that no one push a distinctly European perspective that might get in the way of their lowest-common-denominator approach”.

Rightly he makes the argument that “making matters far worse, the summit’s nominee to serve as the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is Federica Mogherini, the current Italian foreign minister. In contrast to Tusk, Mogherini is multilingual. She is also a breath of fresh air in the geriatric milieu of Italian politics. But she lacks two of the most essential characteristics to be an effective spokesperson for the EU’s foreign policy: executive experience and international stature. Mogherini has no background in the EU’s complex institutions. She has no first-hand experience in the tricky bureaucracy of the European External Action Service which she will head, nor has she spent much time participating in the Council — after all, she has been the Italian foreign minister for only six months. Mogherini cannot claim any prior ministerial or executive office — her previous posts within her political party were of a very different caliber. She has only been an elected politician for six years”.

As with many EU jobs he mentions that “Mogherini’s clout when attempting to speak in Europe’s name will therefore be minimal — foreign governments are unlikely to take her seriously. To make matters worse, she is reputed to be overly eager to accommodate Russian interests. Whether true or not, only time will tell”.

He ends “the leaders at the summit decided to equivocate on further sanctions on Russia. Even with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in attendance — warning about Russian tanks crossing the border and leveling towns — European leaders could only agree to ask the European Commission to undertake preparatory work for presenting proposals within a week. Rumours had been swirling about serious economic sanctions (including banning Europeans from purchasing Russian government bonds) and strong symbolic steps (such as a European boycott of the 2018 soccer World Cup, to be held in Russia). Yet the overall sense at the end of the summit was that the timing of the sanctions was vague, and the criteria for imposing them unclear. This is hardly sufficient to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from further aggression”.

The piece concludes “The deeper lesson, however, is still a dark one, for it speaks volumes about the current leaders of EU member states. They are wary of filling top EU positions with high-profile political figures who could challenge their national interests in the name of a common European good. And individually they are weak and powerless — no European state today can significantly influence world affairs alone. Thus, by appointing underwhelming personalities to important posts, European leaders are undermining their own ability to tackle the major challenges of our time, such as a resurgent and expansionist Russia. This weekend’s summit was closely watched in both Moscow and Washington. To the Russians, the decisions amounted to a green light for escalating their attacks on Ukraine — Putin now knows that the EU is unlikely to be a serious obstacle to his plans. To the United States, the summit proved, once again, that even on issues that should rightfully be the EU’s problem, Europeans will drop the ball and shirk responsibility. Alone, the EU’s member states lack power. Together, they lack ambition. And either way, Putin is about to take them for a ride”.

Stopping ISIS for more enrichment?

29/09/2014

Iran is ready to work with the United States and its allies to stop Islamic State militants, but would like more flexibility on Iran’s uranium enrichment program in exchange, senior Iranian officials told Reuters. The comments from the officials, who asked not to be named, highlight how difficult it may be for the Western powers to keep the nuclear negotiations separate from other regional conflicts. Iran wields influence in the Syrian civil war and on the Iraqi government, which is fighting the advance of Islamic State fighters. Iran has sent mixed signals about its willingness to cooperate on defeating Islamic State (IS), a hard-line Sunni Islamist group that has seized large swaths of territory across Syria and Iraq and is blamed for a wave of sectarian violence, beheadings and massacres of civilians. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said recently that he vetoed a U.S. overture to the Islamic Republic to work together on defeating IS, but U.S. officials said there was no such offer. In public, both Washington and Tehran have ruled out cooperating militarily in tackling the IS threat. But in private, Iranian officials have voiced a willingness to work with the United States on IS, though not necessarily on the battlefield. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday that Iran has a role to play in defeating Islamic State, indicating the U.S. position may also be shifting. “Iran is a very influential country in the region and can help in the fight against the ISIL (IS) terrorists … but it is a two-way street. You give something, you take something,” said a senior Iranian official on condition of anonymity”.

Decision time in Tunisia

29/09/2014

A piece notes the events in Tunisia, “Tunisia will vote in national elections in national parliamentary and presidential elections — marking the second and third vote since former dictator Ben Ali was driven from power during the first Arab Spring uprising. When voters cast their ballots, they will have to choose between two competing visions for the future of their divided society. One vision is devoutly religious, conservative, and more rural, turning its gaze east toward Tunisia’s co-religionists in the Middle East. The other sees a secular, liberal, and urban Tunisia, yearning to emulate Europe rather than far away desert kingdoms. Luckily, the two big-tent parties that dominate Tunisian politics seem to be putting the country before ideological divides, hoping to build a Tunisia that has as much room for the sacrosanctity of the Quran as it does for democracy, human rights, and individual liberties. On the right is Ennahda, a moderate Islamist coalition that was created in 1989 and was outlawed and persecuted heavily under Ben Ali’s reign. On the left is Nidaa Tounes, or “Call for Tunisia,” a hodgepodge of secular leftists, progressive liberals, and moderate pragmatists that were previously affiliated with Ben Ali’s former Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party”.

Of course the choice is not as stark as this and Tunisia will not become some Las Vegas of the Middle East overnight, should the “secularists” win the votes. The writer adds “Rather than doing what politicians do best — exploiting national divides for personal and political gain — both sides have made a conscious choice to seek consensus. Last week, for example, Ennahda announced that it would not field a presidential candidate in the upcoming November election, because its leaders do not want to expand its considerable power over the state. Such profound symbols of pragmatic reconciliation are a bold attempt to build a bridge between the two Tunisias”.

This is indeed certainly a bold gesture and one that should be warmly welcomed. The danger however is that rather than allow these arguments to be debated in the public sphere as openly as possible, the result of this could be a clositered Ennahda and its followers could feel cheated by being deprived of the chance to vote for it in national elections.

He goes on to note “That being said, these admirable efforts haven’t gone over well with everyone. Groups like Ansar al-Sharia have made clear that they intend to destroy anything but a firmly conservative country, turning to violence rather than reconciliation and putting ideology before national prosperity. Tunisians that flocked to Islamic State (IS) bases in Iraq and Syria may attempt to return for the vote, an explosive risk to Tunisia’s fragile democracy. Spillover violence from Libya’s low-level civil war is also a grave risk. But even if terrorists don’t derail the elections, internal political rivalries could. After a generation of brutal dictatorship, the country is divided over whether former members of Ben Ali’s regime should be allowed to stand as candidates in the upcoming vote. That debate is a political minefield, especially for Ennahda. Many of its current members were dedicated to the Islamist cause from the early days, only to end up rotting and tortured in jails during Ben Ali’s dictatorship”.

The writer adds unsuprisingly that “In the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamists with both experiences found themselves in the same party once more. Unsurprisingly, the formerly jailed members resented those who had been strolling the streets of Paris and London. The former exiles also tend to be more moderate, talking the talk of a sort of “Islamism-lite” that European diplomats could support. In other words, even within the Islamist party, the divide of two Tunisias is apparent. Ultimately, the internal battle played out as conservative members of Ennahda (partnering with hardliners from the Wafa Movement) backed a full purge of anyone who had previously been a member of Ben Ali’s regime. Moderates backed inclusion in the spirit of putting the past behind Tunisia. The moderates won the debate; in June, the Tunisian Assembly rejected the conservative push to put exclusion and vengeance over inclusion and reconciliation. As a result, the upcoming elections will be inclusive, and to put the icing on this consensus-building cake, moderate members of Ennahda are now suggesting a grand bargain with Nidaa Tounes — a party led by a man that would have been excluded under the political exclusion law. Even Kemal Morjane, a former defense minister and minister of foreign affairs under Ben Ali, announced last Saturday that he would be a candidate in the election.

He ends the piece “If the birthplace of the Arab Spring is to bridge its internal divides and create one stable, peaceful Tunisia, the October and November elections must go smoothly. Elections are not a panacea, but clean and peaceful elections will offer a rebuke to Islamist extremists. They must not be marred by violence and terrorist attacks. The West can and should help. In late August, the United States announced that it would send $60 million in new military aid to Tunisia to help it fight its terror threat. In mid-August, Tunisia’s government announced that it would be calling up reservists, attempting to field a ragtag group of 30,000 soldiers — many of them reservists — so that those on active duty can continue hunting terror cells. These are excellent first steps. But the United States and other international partners can still do more to help shore up security before, during, and after Tunisia’s elections. The fragile Tunisian government could use more military advisers and logistical support. Drone surveillance should be used to help stem the threat of cross-border terrorism from Libya”.

He closes on a note of caution “If these elections proceed peacefully, Tunisia could serve as a beacon of hope for the Middle East, exemplifying a successful transition from ruthless dictatorship to hybrid Islamist democracy — all while maintaining multi-party elections, human rights, and a thoughtful, consensus-driven political dialogue. If they do not, and Tunisia’s extremists are able to hijack the elections by creating chaos, then Tunisia’s budding democracy will collapse under the weight of two competing visions. Yet another Arab Spring country will wither, wilt, and collapse, following in the bloody footsteps of Libya and Syria”.

 

French airstrikes

29/09/2014

French jets have carried out their first strikes against Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq, the office of President Francois Hollande says. A statement said planes had attacked an IS depot in north-east Iraq, and there would be more raids in the coming days. The US has carried out more than 170 air strikes against the jihadist group in Iraq since mid-August. IS remains in control of dozens of cities and towns in Iraq and Syria, where it has declared a caliphate”.

Support for walking away?

27/09/2014

As the talks on Iran’s nuclear programme continue an article argues that Dr Rouhani could walk away from the talks altogether, “Six months ago, nuclear diplomacy with Iran almost seemed too big to fail. The dire consequences of diplomatic collapse — a return to a path toward war — were enough to get all parties involved to muster the political will to move toward a deal. But today, as talks resume in New York, even optimists recognise that the prospects are dimming for a comprehensive nuclear deal between Iran and the West. What’s lowering expectations isn’t just what’s taking place in the negotiating rooms. Just as Iran is a domestic political issue in the United States, the United States is not a mere foreign-policy matter in Iran. Nuclear talks with Washington are not just about whether Tehran can continue enriching uranium; they are about which domestic political faction will be at the helm of Iranian decision-making. Will it be the moderates like President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who reject a zero-sum rivalry between Iran and the West? Or will the conservative establishment whose comfort zone is hostility toward the United States come out on top?”

The writer goes on to make the point that “Over the past few months, the talks in Vienna between Iran and the P5+1 have gotten stuck on the details, primarily the number of centrifuges Iran operates and Iran’s ability to conduct nuclear research and development. Accepting limitations on these issues is hard for Rouhani to sell back home. Ultimately, he wants and needs a deal, but can’t afford one that will end his political career in Iran. In fact, when Rouhani and his team look to politics back home, they may start to believe that they can afford to allow the nuclear negotiations to fail. Rouhani’s conservative opponents fear that a nuclear deal will pave the way for a major shift in Iran’s foreign-policy orientation and further push the conservatives away from Iran’s centers of power. Regardless of the deal’s contents, they are likely to oppose any contract with the West that reduces Iran’s number of centrifuges. If presented with an agreement that does that, they will portray it as a defeat at best and treason at worst. Their intent may not be to scuttle the agreement, but at a minimum, they would want to ensure that the deal becomes a political defeat for the Rouhani government. They may even secretly support the deal, while demonizing the negotiation to seal Rouhani’s political demise”.

On a somewhat positive note he mentions “these hard-liners face an uphill battle. The negotiations remain popular with the Iranian public, as recent polling shows. The Iranian public catapulted Rouhani to power in the 2013 elections — surprising the hard-liners, who had otherwise managed to sideline all of their political rivals. Public opinion could do the same with the nuclear talks, ensuring that sabotage efforts by the hard-liners fail to weaken Rouhani. If Rouhani and his team come back from Vienna in November with a proposed nuclear agreement, a major debate will erupt in Iran, both within Iran’s political elite and the society at large. This will be the most vital decision the Islamic Republic has faced since the Iraq-Iran cease-fire proposal in 1988. Beyond the immediate impact on the balance of power between Rouhani and his conservative political rivals, the outcome of this episode will likely determine the crucial parliamentary elections in 2016 and, ultimately, the presidential elections in 2017, when Rouhani is up for re-election. The Iranian public will play an important role in this debate”.

Interestingly though depressingly he argues that “While all indications show that the public supports a deal, a new poll by the University of Maryland may shed light on the thinking behind Iran’s negotiating position, but also explain why the Rouhani government may think it can live with a no-deal scenario. The poll shows that the Iranian public is resistant on two key matters: rolling back the number of operating centrifuges and limiting Iran’s ability to conduct nuclear research. Demands for strict limitations on these issues by the P5+1, the group of six world powers negotiating with Iran, would essentially be deal breakers for the Iranian public: 70 percent oppose dismantling half of Iran’s existing centrifuges and 75 percent oppose limits on Iran’s research activity. The public’s position on these matters is likely rooted in both a long-standing narrative of the West seeking to keep Iran weak, dependent, and downtrodden by depriving it of access to advanced science“.

He makes the point that “If the final deal forces Iran to yield significantly on research and development and dismantle its centrifuges, hard-liners can turn the public against it and use it to bury the Rouhani team politically by accusing them of failing to uphold Iran’s sovereignty. The public is more likely to accept the hard-liners’ rejectionism in the face of such a deal. This is critical for Rouhani because his power base is not within any of Iran’s institutions. He is most responsive to the electorate that brought him to power in 2013. Rather than return to Tehran with a deal they know will get rejected, potentially ending their political careers, Rouhani’s negotiators may opt to leave the talks without a deal at all and instead play the nationalist card: blaming the West for the collapse of the talks and declaring that while Tehran was ready for a deal, it could not accept one that violated Iranian sovereignty and rights. This is a far worse outcome for Tehran than a good deal, but several factors may cause the Rouhani team to believe it can survive walking away from the nuclear talks”.

However, both of these are unlikely to occur at the same time. If Iran were to compromise of the number of centrifuges and have a reliable inspection regime then Rouhani and Dr Zarif could get a deal. Naturally however this does not mean that the US Congress would see sense and pass it which is another matter entirely.

He argues that “Iran can afford to say no to a deal that doesn’t meet its bottom line requirements. Many in the West and in Iran are skeptical that the views of the Iranian public matter to policymakers. A former member of Iran’s parliament told me that, ultimately, Rouhani only needs to convince one person in order to make a deal work: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That may seem well known, but even the former MP also acknowledged that the supreme leader’s office itself conducts at least one public opinion poll a month. Rarely are these made public, yet the supreme leader’s office carefully studies them — as does the Iranian negotiating team. As they look at these opinion polls, the policymakers in Tehran would do well to remember that the wheels of history are driven by mistakes and miscalculations as much as enlightened strategies”.

Yet this is too overestimate the strength of the Iranian position. He writes that Iran thinks the sanctions regime will collapse but there is not indication that this will occur and should the talks break down more sanctions will be placed on Iran and the many moderates in Iran may blame Rouhani for his inability to bend, or worse the Supreme Leader himself could be the target of their ire.

He ends “Rouhani’s team will be committing a potentially irreversible mistake if they calculate that they can manage the consequences of diplomatic failure. As my colleague Reza Marashi and I recently argued, failure to secure a deal would not just continue the status quo between Iran and the West. The situation would deteriorate, with severe military, economic, and security consequences. And it may take another decade or two before the politics of Washington, Tehran, and the region align to give diplomacy a chance. Moreover, the volatility in the region means that geopolitical shifts that thus far may have benefited Iran can easily shift in the opposite direction. Washington must proceed carefully, too. Even though public sentiment in Iran regarding centrifuge numbers and nuclear research may be a direct product of the government’s own domestic rhetoric, the public’s attitude may nevertheless paint the governing elite in a corner. Pressure from the West will not break this deadlock”.

 

America arms the Syrians

27/09/2014

The US House of Representatives has approved President Barack Obama’s plan to train and arm the moderate Syrian opposition taking on Islamic State. The vote passed by a large majority in the Republican-controlled House and is expected to be adopted in the Senate. The endorsement came after President Obama repeated that he would not be committing American combat troops to ground operations in Iraq. The US has undertaken 174 air strikes against IS in Iraq since mid-August”.

The Senate does its job, finally

27/09/2014

After some not-so-subtle prodding from the State Department, the Senate has finally confirmed a handful of ambassadorial nominees from the long list of men and women who have been waiting — and waiting, and waiting — for approval. Between returning from summer recess and adjourning for midterms Thursday, the Senate approved 13 diplomats. Among them are John Hoover, who had waited 428 days for confirmation after being nominated as ambassador to Sierra Leone, and Matthew T. Harrington, approved as ambassador to Lesotho after waiting 411 days. While they were waiting, Ebola broke out in Sierra Leone, and Lesotho plunged into political crisis after an alleged coup. Among the other nominees confirmed this week were John R. Bass as ambassador to Turkey and Jane D. Hartley as ambassador to France — important appointments for U.S. efforts to strengthen the coalition against the Islamic State. Also approved, as ambassador to South Korea, was Mark Lippert, a controversial nominee for Republicans due to his close ties with the Obama White House. Ambassadors to Ireland, Zambia, Guatemala, Namibia, Monaco, and various international bodies won approval, as well, but more than 50 other nominees are still waiting. Noah Mamet and Donald Lu, nominees to Argentina and Albania, respectively, have been in limbo since July 2013″.

Salmond’s dangerous myth

27/09/2014

In an article in the Telegraph it has been reported that Alex Salmond has been propogating the myth that no voters were tricked. This could have very dangerous consequences in the future.

It opens “Alex Salmond has claimed No supporters were “tricked” into rejecting independence and raised the prospect of another referendum as he abandoned his promise to help unite Scotland after the divisive vote. The First Minister appeared to blame elderly Scots, who were most hostile to leaving the UK, for holding back younger generations and argued that independence is inevitable after they die off. In a startling intervention, he also claimed that another referendum may not be required to break up Britain as the Scottish Parliament could unilaterally declare independence after gaining increasing numbers of powers. Jim Sillars, his former mentor and a former SNP deputy leader, tweeted that the nationalists should “assert” a new rule that Scotland would become independent if separatist parties won a majority of votes and seats at the 2016 Holyrood election. Mr Salmond promised in his concession speech in the early hours of Friday morning to accept the referendum’s result and urged Yes supporters to do the same”.

The piece adds “neither he nor Nicola Sturgeon, his likely successor, attended a specially-convened Church of Scotland reconciliation service on Sunday morning amid growing concerns that the SNP intends to pursue a “neverendum” strategy by pushing for another vote within a decade. Opinions polls conducted since Thursday’s vote have showed the economic risks of independence was the main reason it was rejected and a majority of Scots believe another referendum should not be staged for at least 15 years”.

Worryingly it goes on to note “Salmond told the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme that No voters would feel “misled” and “gulled” because the UK parties were reneging on a promise to draw up draft laws by January for devolving more powers. The First Minister said he had been genuinely convinced that the Yes campaign was going to triumph and claimed it had been the timetable that had convinced Scots tempted to back separation to vote No. “I am actually not surprised they are cavilling and reneging on commitments, I am only surprised by the speed at which they are doing it. They seem to be totally shameless in these matters,” he said”.

This has all the hallmarks of a dejected, infantile leader blaming everyone but himself for the poor case he put to the people. It would be dangerous for him to continue with these remarks as it would only engender feelings of betrayal and anger in the sizable minority who voted to leave the UK. Scenes of violence that have been reported by Unionists could only worsen and Scotland could become more divided and more hsotile not just with England but itself. This is no way to start a new nation.

Amazingly the report adds “Mr Salmond said his “personal view” was that a referendum could only be staged around once in every 20 years but added: “There are always things can change circumstances.” He said another vote would be justified if the UK left the EU against the wishes of a majority of the Scottish people in David Cameron’s promised referendum. Another vote could also be staged if the UK parties did not honour their extra powers pledge. In a separate interview with Sky News’s Murnaghan programme, the First Minister argued the break-up of Britain is inevitable despite having lost the referendum by 55 per cent to 45 per cent. “I mean when you have a situation where the majority of a country up to the age of 55 is already voting for independence then I think the writing’s on the wall for Westminster. I think the destination is pretty certain, we are only now debating the timescale and the method,” he said”.

Interestingly the author writes “Salmond said a referendum was the “best route” to independence but others were available including getting more and more powers for the Scottish Parliament “until you have a situation where you’re independence in all but name.” “Then, presumably, you declare yourself to be independent. Many countries have proceeded through that route,” he said”.

Rightly the piece ends “James Kelly, a Labour MSP, said: “Alex Salmond has created divisions in Scotland where there was none. Now when the nation should be healing, the retired Salmond seeks to divide Scotland further. “He should be true to his word and accept the result. Let Scotland move on without him rather than allow him to ferment division.” Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said he was “scrabbling around for a new grievance to nurse.” Jackson Carlaw, Scottish Tory deputy leader, said: “The First Minister’s grace in defeat lasted barely a day. Instead there is petulance, bravado and a crass finger cocked at the majority of Scots.” Mr Miliband rejected the First Minister’s claims about the powers timetable, saying there was “no ifs, no buts” it would be implemented and it did not depend on the proposals for English votes on English laws”.

Unlikely diplomatic breakthrough

25/09/2014

A diplomatic breakthrough is unlikely on a nuclear deal to end sanctions against Iran when talks resume in New York this week between Tehran and six world powers deadlocked after a year of negotiations. The talks between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China are re-starting after a two-month hiatus and amid Washington and Tehran ruling out cooperation on fighting Islamic State militants who have taken over swaths of Iraq and Syria. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will discuss the negotiations on a long-term nuclear deal over lunch on Thursday, diplomats said. The EU has been a kind of interlocutor for the six powers. Diplomats from the six countries will begin meeting among themselves on Thursday before they all sit down with the Iranian delegation on Friday. The negotiations are expected to run until at least Sept. 26 on the sidelines of next week’s annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly. Ahead of the formal negotiations, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman – the number 2 and 3 diplomats at the State Department – will hold bilateral talks with Iranian officials on Thursday and Friday, the State Department said”.

 

More of a threat than ISIS

25/09/2014

An article in Foreign Policy argues that the Shiite militias of Iran, operating in Iraq are as big a threat to America as ISIS. It begins “Armed men posing with severed heads, massacres of mosque-goers during Friday prayers, massive reliance on transnational jihadists — these are crimes that are usually associated with the Islamic State (IS). However, they’re also the actions of some of Iraq’s growing Shiite militia organizations, which are playing an increasingly prominent role in fighting the Sunni jihadists. These groups, many of which have deep ideological and organizational links to Iran, are sweeping away what is left of any notion of the Baghdad government’s authority — and represent a massive challenge to President Barack Obama’s stated goal of working with an inclusive Iraqi government to push back IS. Over 50 Shiite militias are now recruiting and fighting in Iraq. These groups are actively recruiting — drawing potential soldiers away from the Iraqi army and police and bringing fighters into highly ideological, anti-American, and rabidly sectarian organizations. Many of these trainees are not simply being used to push back Sunni jihadists, but in many cases form a rear guard used to control districts that are supposedly under Baghdad’s control”.

Unsuprisingly he adds “Shiite militias have embedded themselves within the structures of the Iraqi government, which has become far too reliant on their power to contemplate cracking down on them. Together, they have committed horrifying human rights abuses: In early June, Shiite militias, along with Iraqi security forces, reportedly executed around 255 prisoners, including children. An Amnesty International report from June detailed how Shiite militias regularly carried out extrajudicial summary executions, and reported that dozens of Sunni prisoners were killed in government buildings. The militias also played a leading role in the liberation of the besieged Shiite Turkmen town of Amerli. Kataib Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group and direct Iranian proxy, even used Iraqi government helicopters to deliver arms and other supplies during the battle. Just as IS has captured and used U.S.-supplied vehicles, U.S.-made M1A1 Abrams tanks provided to the Iraqi government have flown sectarian Shiite banners and supported Kataib Hezbollah operations. Those tanks are not alone: U.S.-made armored Humvees, which Kataib Hezbollah once targeted during the Iraq War with rocket-propelled grenades (when driven by Americans), have also been taken by the militia and used in operations”.

He goes on to mention “The Badr Organization, an armed group in the thousands and one of Iran’s primary clients in Iraq, is another pillar of Tehran’s efforts to develop Shiite militias. During the Iraq War, through its domination of government offices, the group ran a number of sectarian death squads. Badr has also been involved in the fighting in Syria, creating the Martyr Baqir al-Sadr Force for that purpose. But it is in Baghdad where the Badr Organization’s influence is strongest”.

He continues, “Iran’s most powerful proxies in Iraq have worked closely together to prop up the Assad regime in Damascus. Kataib Hezbollah and Badr formed the Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada (“The Master of the Martyrs Brigade,” or KSS) in early 2013 to fight in Syria. KSS is led in part by Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani, a commander affiliated with both Badr and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. The group’s secretary-general, Mustafa al-Khazali, deployed to Syria and was wounded in the suburbs of Damascus. Now, the commanders who cut their teeth in Syria are returning home to play a political and military role in the struggle for Iraq. Khazali went on to win a seat in parliament during Iraq’s parliamentary election in April, when his group took on the role of political party and ran in the city of Basra on then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law electoral list. KSS commanders are also engaged in fighting against their domestic enemies: Abu Mujahid al-Maliki, a KSS veteran from Syria and Khazali’s campaign manager, was killed fighting in Iraq in August”.

He ends the piece “Moqtada al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam (“The Peace Brigade”) was established this June, at around the same time Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling for a jihad against the Islamic State. Sistani’s fatwa, however, was clarified to say that Iraqis should join the Iraqi army, whereas the fighters in Sadr’s new brigade have no loyalty to Sistani. Nevertheless, with the ability to draw on tens of thousands of Sadrist supporters, Saraya al-Salam certainly will not lack for fighters. Despite reported cooperation on some levels with Iranian proxies, Sadr’s forces have had years of conflict with AAH, Badr, and other groups. Additionally, his political party is currently in an alliance with a political bloc that opposes the State of Law coalition. When Saraya al-Salam was initially formed, Sadr called for it to engage mainly in defensive actions. In the past month, however, the group has been more heavily invested in offensive actions. Today, its deployments have occurred across Iraq, from the shrine city of Samarra, to the recently liberated Amerli, to the city of Jurf al-Sakhr, to Diyala in the east. Saraya al-Salaam’s large numbers, increasing activity in the conflict, and Mahdi Army background suggest the group could re-engage in sectarian mass killings”.

He closes “Iraqi Shiite militias are also on a collision course with the Kurdish community, a major U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State. Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba, another Iranian proxy group spun off of AAH, and Kataib Hezbollah both accused Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani of coordinating with IS and Baathist groups, and issued stern warnings against any Kurdish moves in Kirkuk. Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba’s spokesman went so far as to say, “the rockets of the Islamic Resistance will strike at Erbil” if Barzani continued to “coordinate” with the jihadists. The growing power of these militias is a sign that, despite Maliki’s removal as prime minister, the Iraqi government remains beholden to deeply sectarian forces. These militias have generally retained their operational independence from Baghdad, even as they exploit the country’s nascent democratic system to gain support through their domination of official bodies. They are not simply addendums to the state — they are the state, and do not answer to any authority in Baghdad, but only to their own clerical leaders or Tehran. While ostensibly focused on defeating the Islamic State, these armed factions also promise to be hugely influential in shaping the future of Iraq’s Shiite community. Their radical ideology and organizational ties suggest that they will allow Iran a greater influence in Iraq than ever before. If Washington does not take steps now to check their growth, it may discover too late that it has effectively ceded Baghdad to Tehran — and that there is no going back”.

 

Sino-Indian resolution

25/09/2014

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday committed to resolve the border dispute with India at an early date to improve peace and cooperation between both countries. “China has the determination to work with India through friendly consultation to settle the boundary question at an early date,” Xi said after summit talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. “We also have the sincerity to work with India to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas before we are finally able to settle the boundary question,”he said. Since the border is not demarcated there will be certain incidents, Xi said, adding that both sides are capable of effectively managing the situation  through border-related mechanisms so that they do not have a large impact on bilateral relations. Modi in his one-on-one meeting with the visiting Chinese president said India was “seriously concerned” about the repeated incursions along the border”.

How Salmond lost

25/09/2014

A piece from the Daily Telegraph notes how Alex Salmond the Scotland referendum. It opens “When Alex Salmond settles down to study a map of the referendum results that ended his domination of Scottish politics, he might want to have a glass of his favoured Glenglassaugh malt to hand. For it tells a story of disappointment for Scottish nationalists, defeat in many parts of the country where voters did not follow the Yes campaign’s script. The result that saved the Union had many vital components, but perhaps the most significant was the Yes faction’s failure to win in its own backyard”.

It goes on to note “Bluntly, it was Mr Salmond’s own SNP voters who helped destroy his dream. In areas where the SNP has its best results in elections, not enough voters backed the Yes campaign. Early analysis of voting patterns also shows that a significant number of SNP voters said No. At first glance, the results map makes the result look strikingly uneven, since swathes of Scotland are covered by council areas where a majority voted No. In only four, geographically small, areas did Yes prevail. That first glance is misleading, however, because it mainly reflects Scotland’s lopsided population distribution: the majority of Scots live in the central belt between the Forth and the Clyde”.

The writer adds “Glasgow council alone covers more than 11 per cent of the entire Scottish electorate, and the majority of voters there – 53 per cent – backed independence. Most people in the former Second City of Empire no longer wish to be British. Likewise, North Lanarkshire, part of the urban sprawl of the central belt. More than one in 20 Scottish voters lives there, and most (51 per cent) said Yes. Dundee, known as Yes City, also backed independence, adding another 53,000 votes to the tally. But if the Yes camp did well enough among Scotland’s urban poor, it was more rural and affluent areas that broke Mr Salmond’s heart. Clackmannanshire is tiny, but it was still considered a dead cert for Yes. In the event, almost 54 per cent of its 40,000 voters said No”.

He continues “In Angus, where the SNP holds both Westminster and Holyrood seats, only 44 per cent voted yes. Moray, which also returns a nationalist MP, said No by 58 per cent to 42 per cent. Falkirk was a disappointment, too. Home to the battlefield where William Wallace was defeated by Kind Edward I in 1298, the central belt town was a key test of Yes support, the sort of place where opinion polls and canvassing both suggested strong backing for independence. On Thursday, 53.5 per cent of Falkirk voters opted to remain in the UK”.

He goes on to write “According to the poll of 2,000 voters, one in five people who backed the SNP in the 2010 general election rejected independence this week. Even 14 per cent of SNP voters at the last Scottish Parliament election in 2011 voted No. Those votes in 2011 gave Mr Salmond control of the Scottish Parliament, and allowed him to foist the referendum on David Cameron. So why would voters who were instrumental in winning Scotland the chance to vote for independence then reject Mr Salmond’s plan to break away? One explanation is that SNP voters took heed of chilling warnings that an independent Scotland would be unable to keep the pound and so face economic turmoil. Another is that they never wanted independence, but simply voted for the SNP at Holyrood because they believed a nationalist administration in Edinburgh would get the best deal for Scotland within the Union”.

He ends “The Ashcroft polling also sheds light on the behaviour of voters by age. At the SNP’s insistence, the referendum franchise was extended to 16-year-olds, the first time children have been allowed to vote in a national election. The gambit paid off for the nationalists. Among the youngest voters, support for independence was 71 per cent, with just 29 per cent saying No. The figures show that the three most influential factors for voters were the NHS, disaffection with Westminster and currency issues. The first two were themes chosen by the Yes campaign; the third was the battleground of Better Together”.

He concludes “The No campaign’s relentless focus on currency drew criticism but the poll suggests that approach paid off. Some 47 per cent of No voters cited concerns about the pound and the economy as their reason for independence. Next came sentiment: 27 per cent said they voted No because of their attachment to the UK and its history. The third most important factor for No voters was the promise from Mr Cameron and others that if Scotland remained in the Union, it would get new devolved power. Some 25 per cent of No voters cited that offer as their reason for rejecting independence. That offer is now the focus of furious debate as Tories accuse Mr Cameron of a panicked bid to placate the Scots at English expense. But the Prime Minister may just see the Ashcroft data as justification, proof that his offer to give the Scots more freedom within the Union persuaded them to inflict a final shattering defeat on Mr Salmond”.

Deploying ground forces?

23/09/2014

US ground forces could be deployed against Islamic State (IS) militants if the current US-led strategy fails, top US General Martin Dempsey has said. President Barack Obama has repeatedly said that US ground troops would not have a combat mission in Iraq under the strategy outlined last week. The US earlier carried out its first air strike under the strategy, which seeks to “degrade and destroy” IS. The jihadists control huge areas of Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, Kurdish peshmerga forces backed by US surveillance jets and drones have been advancing against IS positions in northern Iraq. An attack into the IS-held plain of Mosul, east of the city, began at dawn while on the other side of Mosul, the Kurds have also been pressing towards the town of Zumar”.

Obama the unrealist

23/09/2014

Elbridge Colby writes in the National Review that President Obama is not the realist many make him out to be. He opens “before his presidency began, Barack Obama articulated a foreign-policy course markedly different from that of his immediate predecessors. Not only did he present himself as the anti-Bush, but he also indicated that his administration would take a different approach to national security than had the Clinton administration. He was to be, in his aides’ terms, a “realist,” much in the mold of George H. W. Bush. As his then–chief of staff Rahm Emanuel put it in 2010: “Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist. If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41.” Nor has this view been confined to the White House; many commentators across the political spectrum have remarked that the Obama administration epitomized what realism would look like in practice, even under a Republican president”.

Of course this is a gross simplification by Emanuel of Bush 41 and Bush 43 and the tenedencies that drove their foreign policies. There is plenty of idealist in Bush 41 and plenty of realist in his son, the obvious example is the six party talks with North Korea which was the carrot to the axis of evil stick.

Colby goes on to write “Nearly halfway through his second term, it is time to take stock. Is President Obama actually a realist? The answer matters, particularly for Republicans and conservatives, who traditionally have claimed the mantle of realism in foreign affairs. Potential 2016 presidential candidates are beginning to think through what line they will take on foreign policy, and the notion that Obama’s approach has been realist would no doubt lead many to recoil from realism”.

Colby argues that “Obama is no realist. The president might approve of restraint in international affairs; he might be skeptical of grand projects, ambivalent about the promotion of democracy and human rights, and even inclined toward retrenchment. But that doesn’t make him a realist”.

Indeed the only realism that should be praticed in this interconnted world is an expansive realism that sees events as interconnected as opposed to Obama who saw Syria and Iraq separately, a mistake he is now having to fix.

Colby adds “It helps to have a clearer sense of what realism is. Though there is a distinct school of thought that goes by this name (and even by the term “neo-realism”), practical realism (like conservatism) denotes a persuasion more than a clear doctrine. In essence, it is the view that the international arena is a lastingly tough and competitive one; that power matters in foreign relations and is often determinative; that countries pursue their interests more commonly than their stated ideals; and that force, deterrence, and coercion, while risky, are inherent elements of foreign policy and cannot be ignored or eliminated. In their policy prescriptions, realists tend to emphasize maintaining power and advantage, implementing a strategy to exploit strengths and mitigate weaknesses, pursuing the stable and satisfactory rather than the ideal, and sticking to the axiom that good fences make good neighbours”.

Colby makes the point that “If this sounds a good bit like what most people understand by conservatism, that is no accident. One can credibly argue that realism, with its Burkean focus on the achievable rather than the transformational and the prudent rather than the ideal, is nearly a synonym for conservatism. Of course, neither realists nor conservatives think that realism offers a complete account of what a nation’s foreign policy should be. The greatest realists, such as Eisenhower, were deeply moral in their approach. But the morality of what one might call “righteous realism,” with its emphasis on responsibility and stewardship rather than purity of intent, is different from the high-minded tub-thumping of Woodrow Wilson or the hand-wringing of Jimmy Carter. For instance, George H. W. Bush, that paragon of recent presidential realism, showed a profound sense of responsibility in how he handled the end of the Cold War and in his carefully targeted outrage at Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait”.

He goes on to make the point that “Obama’s approach exhibits some elements of realism, most notably a caution about the overuse of force. Realists emphasize that force is an unpredictable and often costly instrument, and they tend to be conservative in their estimates about how well things will work out when nations reach for their guns. But restraint is not what fundamentally characterises realism. Rather, because realists see the international arena as innately competitive and often dangerous, they believe that strength is critical to a successful foreign policy”.

He concludes “A review of the president’s foreign-policy record bears this out. Consider the president’s fumbling over his “red line” on Syria. No realist would so cavalierly draw a red line, especially over such a peripheral interest, only to do nothing when the line is crossed. No realist would allow the world — friend and foe — to take away the lesson that America’s pledge is so unreliable. Nor would a realist have pursued the uneven, unpredictable, and often contradictory approach toward the “Arab Spring” that this administration did. The president’s response to the upheavals in the Middle East has seemed to vacillate between a starry-eyed idealism about the prospect for a liberal revolution and a ham-fisted effort at realpolitik. Citing humanitarian aims, for instance, the administration intervened in Libya and helped upend Qaddafi’s regime; then it did virtually nothing to help stabilize Libya in the bloody aftermath. In the same way, the administration publicly pushed Mubarak to give up power in Egypt and then quietly accepted the government of General Sisi”.

800,000 votes ahead

23/09/2014

The vote audit shows presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai has a 800,000 vote lead over his rival Abdullah Abdullah, an official confided to Pajhwok Afghan News on Tuesday. As the Independent Election Commission (IEC) refused giving information about the audit’s outcome, a source in the commission said votes cast in 1,010 ballots boxes had been invalidated as part of the just-concluded process. The IEC launched the vote invalidation process on August 25 in presence of candidates’ representatives, national and international observes and completed it on Sunday (Sep 14)”.

“Weakened al-Qaeda and its affiliates”

23/09/2014

An article in the Washington Post argues that al-Qaeda is weakened but not defeated. There will never be such a thing as perfect security or a truly defeated foe but the point is to reduce it to such an extent that it is no longer a significant threat. The piece opens “In declaring that the United States would degrade and “ultimately destroy” an al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq and Syria, President Obama articulated an objective that the United States has yet to achieve against any of the Islamist adversaries it has faced since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Through two wars, thousands of drone strikes and hundreds of covert operations around the world, the United States has substantially weakened al-Qaeda and its affiliates, eroding their capabilities in ways that have reduced the threat they pose to the United States”.

It adds that “even as Obama warned that “it will take time to eradicate a cancer” like the Islamic State, the timing of his remarks — coming 13 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — underscored how elusive the finish line has been for the United States in a series of conflicts that have come to resemble a permanent war. Although the conventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have essentially concluded, the United States is still battling al-Qaeda affiliates in countries including Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. None of those groups has been eradicated, or even degraded to a degree that would allow U.S. counterterrorism operations to end. The only apparent exception to this pattern had been al-Qaeda in Iraq, a group that was seen as virtually dismantled until its reincarnation as the Islamic State. After conquering parts of Syria and Iraq in the span of six months, and beheading two U.S. journalists, the group is again in U.S. crosshairs”.

It mentions that “details of how the Pentagon will pursue the new offensive began to emerge. U.S. military officials said they have new authority to carry out strikes against the group’s leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who earlier this year declared himself the head of a restored caliphate. Such targets had been off-limits under the more narrow terms of an air campaign that Obama had described as a humanitarian effort to protect members of religious minorities and also shield American diplomats from Islamic State fighters in Iraq. Pentagon officials described their altered mission as a shift to offense from defence”.

The author writes about the dangers of ISIS/ISIL and notes “The group is a descendant of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a violent terrorist force founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that sought to ignite a sectarian conflagration in that country before it was subdued by Sunni tribal leaders who were dismayed by its tactics and backed by U.S. cash and commando teams. The group’s collapse was so complete that U.S. intelligence agencies estimated it had lost 95 percent of its membership and strength by the time U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011. But the group’s remnants relocated to Syria and took advantage of the chaos created by civil war there — as well as Sunni discontent with the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq — to regroup. This year, it severed ties with al-Qaeda and rebranded itself the Islamic State”.

Crucially the writer argues “Obama cited U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia as models for the strategy against the Islamic State. But the comparison is problematic because key factors in those countries don’t exist in Syria, including effective allies on the ground and free rein for U.S. aircraft including armed drones. In Somalia, the United States has spent much of the past decade organizing and largely paying for an international proxy force of about 18,000 African Union troops to counter the al-Qaeda linked group al-Shabab. The African force has gradually wrested territory away from the Islamist group, while the U.S. military has intermittently targeted leaders with raids and drone strikes, including a Sept. 1 air attack that killed its co-founder. In Yemen, the United States has virtually unchecked authority to patrol the country’s skies with armed drones. Yemeni counterterrorism forces are backed by U.S. funding, training and intelligence”.

He concludes “Even with drones and ground forces, the campaigns that Obama cited in Yemen and Somalia are far from over. Al
Shabab killed 67 people last year in a three-day siege of a crowded Nairobi mall. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based affiliate is known, has gone several years without launching a major attack but is still seen as the most direct danger to the United States, surpassing that posed by the Islamic State”.

 

“Stepped up its airstrikes”

23/09/2014

The United States, as promised by President Obama, has stepped up its airstrike campaign in Iraq, hitting targets near Baghdad in the effort to help the Iraqi government win back territory seized by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Pentagon officials said Monday. The offensive is the first expansion of the United States’ campaign against the Islamist militant group that Mr. Obama outlined last week in a speech to the nation.The new campaign included a strike on Monday southwest of Baghdad and one the day before near Sinjar, Iraq, the Defense Department said in a statement. The strikes, the Pentagon said, go beyond the United States’ initial mission announced last month of “protecting our own people and humanitarian missions.” The strikes on Sunday and Monday involved both attack and fighter aircraft, which the Pentagon said destroyed six vehicles near Sinjar and an ISIS combat post that was firing on Iraqi troops. The United States has now carried out 162 airstrikes across Iraq to counter an ISIS offensive that quickly gained ground in northern Iraq and Syria and set up what the group said was an Islamic caliphate”.

Obama’s dysfunctional coalition

23/09/2014

An excellent piece highlights the ulterior motives of allies in the fight against ISIS. It is too soon to say whether this lukewarm support will be fatal to the success of the US campaign. It opens “An effort to avoid any parallels to Bush 43’s war in Iraq, the Obama administration has studiously avoided the use of the term “coalition of the willing” in its campaign to line up allies in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). It’s just as well. The Europeans and NATO allies may well be able to bring real assets to the table. After all, they are real, functional countries — and actually are allies of the United States. That, of course, is not necessarily the case for the regional parties across the Middle East that the Obama administration is trying to enlist. Far from a coalition of the willing and enabled, these partners represent more of a coalition of the semi-willing, the constrained, and the self-interested. Perhaps, over time, they will prove their worth. And indeed, they will have plenty of time do so. The fight against IS may prove to be a long one”.

He divides the members into four groups, the first of these, he calls the not so willing are Turkey and Qatar, “These two Sunni Muslim countries could be of immense help in weakening IS … if they were prepared to give it their all. The Turks could be better controlling their long border with Syria, monitoring and intercepting foreign fighters, and preventing weapons and assistance from making their way to jihadist forces. And they might be able to help staunch IS’s illegal oil sales through Turkish brokers and prevent additional recruits to what are estimated to be 1,000 Turkish citizens who have joined the jihadi ranks in Syria. To be fair to the Turks, they are already engaged in doing some of this, including allowing the United States to use Incirlik Air Base to quietly fly surveillance drones over Iraq and facilitate humanitarian assistance to Syria. The idea that the United States could use the base for active combat missions or stage high-profile operations out of Turkey for attacks against IS in Syria, though, has so far been a bridge too far. There are many reasons Turkey will at best be a backseat driver in the coalition. Erdogan’s conservative Sunni base is opposed to a lead role; the president is worried that arms delivered to the Peshmerga might end up in the hands of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and thus increase the militant group’s leverage in the so-called peace process. And then there are those 49 Turkish diplomats IS has taken hostage in Mosul. Ankara’s ‘zero problems’ foreign policy might not be a raging success, but trying to be friends with everyone in the region — particularly the Islamists — is a clear constraint. There is also a very real fear that a lead role in striking IS could make Turkey a direct target of terrorist attacks”.

On Qatar he notes that “The Qataris are another potentially useful but reluctant partner. For a start, the Qataris could stop doing bad things, specifically the funding of jihadist groups through private sources. Al Jazeera, their powerful media empire, could stop praising Islamists and mount a campaign to create an anti-jihadist narrative to counter much of the Islamic State’s propaganda. You’d think — given the Qataris’ close relations with the United States (weapons sales, the giant Al Udeid Air Base) — that there would be a little more reciprocity. They do allow combat missions and drone surveillance to be flown out Al Udeid, but try to put a tight lid on public exposure. Qatar, as a tiny state in a dangerous neighbourhood, has a strategic approach to foreign policy that has much to do with buying insurance and hedging its bets against attacks by enemies. It seeks to maintain its independence from Saudi Arabia, punching above its weight with billions in petrodollars to buy as wide an array of regional influence as possible, particularly with Islamists”.

The next group he writes is that which he calls the weak willed, which comprise Egypt, Jordan, the Saudis and the UAE, “Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE clearly see a significant threat from the Islamic State. After all, this was the very coalition that sought to pressure Hamas during the recent Gaza war and to counter Qatari and Turkish efforts to support it. The administration will have the greatest success in mobilizing these Sunni countries to support their anti-IS campaign (within limits). Jordan is already providing intelligence and backing moderate Syrian opposition forces; it has also provided staging grounds for possible U.S. action in Syria. The Saudis, meanwhile, have offered to host — and pay for the training and equipping of — the 5,000 Syrian opposition forces the Pentagon believes it can train during the first year. Likewise, the UAE has already offered to host Australia’s contribution of eight fighter aircraft and 600 forces for the anti-IS campaign”.

He makes the point that “This group of nations is too diverse, weak, and preoccupied to provide the necessary traction to aid the war against the Islamic State in a measurable way — either from the air or ground. The notion that Arab state forces will be mobilized in large numbers to fight IS in Syria, or to fly hundreds of sorties above Iraq, is a real stretch. The Saudis are much more concerned about Iran, which they consider a 50-year problem. Let’s be clear. If you look at all previous Middle East coalitions (Bush 41 in Iraq; Bush 43 in Iraq; NATO in Libya), it was the West — not the Arabs — that took the lead and was the most effective on the military side”.

He ends noting the secret “unwilling”, both Syrian regime and Iran, “One of the cruelest ironies is that two of the best fighters in the campaign against the Islamic State come with price tags that are just too prohibitive for the United States to afford and with conflicting agendas too incongruous for Washington to accommodate. Iran is probably willing to do more against IS; indeed, its Shiite militias and the Iraq Army (long supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) are already doing battle up near Mosul. The United States has already said that it will “deconflict” attacks with Iranian forces, but it is unlikely to go much further. Were the United States willing to recognize Iran as a major player in this fight and include it in bilateral dialogues and multilateral conferences as a full participant and co-equal, there might be greater and more effective cooperation. But, for many reasons (not least that the mullahs support Bashar al-Assad and fund Hezbollah), Washington can’t give Tehran the impression that it has leverage — particularly when the nuclear negotiations are reaching a critical phase”.

He closes with the “All Too Willing” which is Israel and ends “The Islamic State’s real power flows not from its ideology, but from the fact that it’s operating in a beneficial environment. Its advantage is not the purity of Islam but that it’s opposed by weaker forces within two failing states — one locked in civil war, the other highly decentralised and dysfunctional. And that problem won’t be fixed by a coalition of hangers-on and the not-so-willing — nor, frankly, by the superwilling. This is ultimately a Syrian and Iraqi problem; it will require the kind of local buy-in that doesn’t exist now and perhaps has never existed. The regional coalition the Obama administration has assembled is not to be dismissed as a failure. But it’s not to be overestimated or trumpeted, either. Together with U.S. military power, it’s a way to help keep the Islamic State off balance and to degrade it, certainly in Iraq and perhaps in Syria. But it cannot destroy it. Only Syrians and Iraqis can do that”.

 

Progress in Afghan talks?

21/09/2014

The office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai reported “progress” in talks with presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah in a bid to end the country’s crisis over the disputed presidential election. Karzai hosted the talks with the candidates in Kabul on September 15. Karzai spokesman Aiamal Faizi reported after the three leaders met that there had been a “breakthrough” in efforts to sign an agreement detailing a power-sharing arrangement for the two candidates. Faizullah Zedki, a member of Ghani’s election team, told RFE/RL after the leaders met that a power-sharing agreement could possibly be signed on September 16. The June 14 run-off election between the two candidates was thrown into controversy when Abdullah accused Ghani and election officials of engaging in massive fraud to rig the election for Ghani. A UN-sponsored audit of the millions of votes was carried out but the results have not been publicly announced”.

The dangers of inequality

21/09/2014

An old article from Bloomberg notes the problem of growing income inequality in America and the real dangers this poses to America both to future financial crises and the danger of decline if it is not addressed. It opens, “A widening gap between rich and poor is reshaping the U.S. economy, leaving it more vulnerable to recurring financial crises and less likely to generate enduring expansions. Left unchecked, the decades-long trend toward increasing inequality may condemn Wall Street to a generation of unimpressive returns and even shake social stability, economists and financial-industry executives say. “Income inequality in this country is just getting worse and worse and worse,” James Chanos, president and founder of New York-based Kynikos Associates Ltd., told Bloomberg Radio this week. “And that is not a recipe for stable economic growth when the rich are getting richer and everybody else is being left behind.” Since 1980, about 5 percent of annual national income has shifted from the middle class to the nation’s richest households. That means the wealthiest 5,934 households last year enjoyed an additional $650 billion — about $109 million apiece — beyond what they would have had if the economic pie had been divided as it was in 1980, according to Census Bureau data”.

He goes on to write “Disputes over what constitutes economic fairness are moving to center stage amid a near-stagnant U.S. economy saddled with 9.1 percent unemployment yet boasting record corporate profits. President Barack Obama last month targeted “the wealthiest taxpayers and biggest corporations” for higher taxes, saying they should pay “their fair share.” That drew charges of “class warfare” from House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio”.

The piece goes on to write “Branko Milanovic, a World Bank economist, added in a September article: “Widespread education has become the secret to growth. And broadly accessible education is difficult to achieve unless a society has a relatively even income distribution.” Since 1968, incomes in the U.S. have become steadily less equally distributed, according to the standard statistical measure of inequality known as the Gini coefficient. The U.S. Gini score rose from .39 in 1968 to .47 in 2010, meaning that incomes were becoming increasingly unequal”.

Crucially he notes “The typical American household, meanwhile, has yet to regain the ground it lost during the recession. The median income of $49,445 at the end of 2010 remained below the level reached in 1997. The widening chasm between haves and have-nots has tangible consequences. Societies with a narrower gap between rich and poor enjoy longer economic expansions, according to research published this year by the International Monetary Fund. Income trends in the U.S., where the wealthy over time have pulled away from the rest of society, mean that future U.S. expansions could last just one-third as long as in the late 1960s, before the income divide began widening, said economist Jonathan Ostry of the IMF. Expansions — or what Ostry and coauthor Andrew Berg label “growth spells” — fizzle sooner in less equal societies because they are more vulnerable to both financial crises and political instability. When such countries are hit by external shocks, they often stumble into gridlock rather than agree to tough policies needed to keep growth alive”.

The article mentions “On the surface, inequality might appear to be a problem of the have-nots. Yet the haves will suffer, too. Barry Ritholtz, CEO of the investment research firm Fusion IQ, says millions of potential investors may conclude, as they did following the Great Depression, that the stock market is a rigged game for insiders. Such seismic shifts in popular sentiment can have lasting effects. The Dow Jones Industrial Average didn’t regain its September 1929 peak of 355.95 until the same month in 1954. “You’re going to lose an entire generation of investors,” says Ritholtz. “And that’s how you end up with a 25-year bear market. That’s the risk if people start to think there is no economic justice.” Rising inequality contributed to the onset of previous financial crises and may already be laying the groundwork for the next one, some economists say. During both the 1920s and the most recent decade, the rich enjoyed large income gains, much of which were made available to the working poor and middle class via credit channels. Politicians encouraged the resort to credit as a way to bridge the gap for those struggling to sustain living standards amid flatlining wage income, according to Rajan’s 2010 book”.

It ends “The government’s response to the financial crisis may also have exacerbated the rich-poor gap by shifting liabilities from private banks to taxpayers. Households and businesses have trimmed their debts since the 2008 peak while government borrowing — to recapitalize the nation’s banks and battle the recession — has exploded. As a result, total domestic nonfinancial sector debt topped $36.5 trillion at mid-year, compared with $32.4 trillion in mid- 2008. And that massive load leaves the economy vulnerable to future shocks. “In the current climate, if nothing is done about income inequality there may be recurring crises,” says Kumhof, adding: “Leverage has not significantly improved. In terms of the danger of another crisis, we’re right back where we started.””

French recon

21/09/2014

France has joined Britain in carrying out reconnaissance flights in support of the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq, the defense minister said on Monday. “This very morning, the first reconnaissance flights will be carried out,” Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French troops, including pilots. According to the minister, the flights are being carried out in agreement with the Iraqi authorities. Shortly afterwards, two French Rafale fighter jets took off from the base in the Gulf, an Agence France-Presse correspondent reported. The announcment came as French President Francois Hollande called on Monday for a global reponse to counter ISIS militants, saying the group posed a security threat the world over. Meanwhile, Paris is hosting an international conference aimed at hammering out a strategy to deal with ISIS, which has seized swathes of Iraq and neighbouring Syria”.

Burke to Malta?

21/09/2014

Following on from the rumours of the departure of Archbishop Mamberti, Sandro Magister writes that the exile of Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke is all but assured.

He opens “The “revolution” of Pope Francis in ecclesiastical governance is not losing its driving thrust. And so, as happens in every self-respecting revolution, the heads continue to roll for churchmen seen as deserving this metaphorical guillotine. In his first months as bishop of Rome, pope Bergoglio immediately provided for the transfer to lower-ranking positions of three prominent curial figures: Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Archbishop Guido Pozzo, and Bishop Giuseppe Sciacca, considered for their theological and liturgical sensibilities among the most “Ratzingerian” of the Roman curia”.

Magister writes that “an even more eminent decapitation seems to be on the way. The next victim would in fact be the United States cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, who from being prefect of the supreme tribunal of the apostolic signatura would not be promoted – as some are fantasizing in the blogosphere – to the difficult but prestigious see of Chicago, but rather demoted to the pompous – but ecclesiastically very modest – title of “cardinal patron” of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, replacing the current head, Paolo Sardi, who recently turned 80”.

He notes “If confirmed, Burke’s exile would be even more drastic than the one inflicted on Cardinal Piacenza, who, transferred from the important congregation for the clergy to the marginal apostolic penitentiary, nevertheless remained in the leadership of a curial dicastery. With the shakeup on the way, Burke would instead be completely removed from the curia and employed in a purely honorary position without any influence on the governance of the universal Church. This would be a move that seems to have no precedent. This is what was done with cardinals Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro (appointed Grand Prior in 1896 while remaining secretary of state), Gaetano Bisleti (at the same time prefect of the congregation for Catholic education), Gennaro Granito Pignatelli (cardinal dean and bishop of Albano), Nicola Canali (governor of Vatican City), Paolo Giobbe (leader of the apostolic dataria), Paul-Pierre Philippe (until the age of 75 also prefect of the congregation for the Oriental Churches), Sebastiano Baggio (removed from the congregation for bishops but kept on as governor of Vatican City and camerlengo), Pio Laghi (until the age of 77 also prefect of the congregation for Catholic education)”.

Perhaps this is no bad thing. Francis knows his time is limited and unlike Benedict sees no reason not to push people who do not share he view, out of the way. This will mean that Francis will get more done as opposed to the gentlemen that was Benedict who waited until those in the Curia reaching retirement before placing his own people in their place.

Magister adds “Above all, Sardi’s retirement would not be a compulsory act, since the age limit of 80 does not apply to positions outside of the curia. And in fact, with the exception of Paulo Giobbe, all of the aforementioned cardinal patrons went on to a better life “durante munere.” Burke is 66 years old, and therefore still in his ecclesiastical prime. Ordained a priest by Paul VI in 1975, he worked at the apostolic signatura as an ordinary priest with John Paul II, who made him bishop of his native diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1993. It was again pope Karol Wojtyla who in 2003 promoted him as archbishop of the prestigious see, once cardinalate, of St. Louis, Missouri. Benedict XVI called him back to Rome in 2008, and made him a cardinal in 2010. With a very devout personality, he is also recognized as having the rare virtue of never having struck any deals to obtain ecclesiastical promotions or benefices. In the liturgical and theological camp, he is very close to the sensibilities of Joseph Ratzinger. He has celebrated a number of times according to the ancient rite, even donning the “cappa magna,” as do cardinals George Pell and Antonio Cañizares Llovera, without being punished for this by Pope Francis”.

It should be noted of course that Cardinal Cañizares Llovera asked to be transferred to Valencia and seems not to have been pushed. This shows that Francis does not oppose those who have different views but Buke has made so many statements that directly undermine Francis, Burke’s exile.

Magister adds “A great expert in canon law, and appointed to the apostolic signatura for this reason, he is not afraid to follow it to the most uncomfortable consequences. Like when, to the tune of articles of the Code – number 915 to be precise – he upheld the impossibility of giving communion to those politicians who stubbornly and publicly uphold the right to abortion, bringing the rebukes of two colleagues in the United States valued by Pope Francis, Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston and Donald Wuerl of Washington. Free in his judgments, he has been among the very few to make critical remarks on “Evangelii Gaudium,” pointing out that in his view it is orientational but not truly magisterial. And in view of the upcoming synod of bishops, he has repeatedly taken a stand against the ideas of Cardinal Walter Kasper – well known to be in the good graces of Pope Francis – in favor of communion for the divorced and remarried. The dicastery headed by Burke, eminently technical, recently accepted an appeal from the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate against a provision issued for them by the congregation for religious. A courageous move on the part of Burke, situated within the context of the punitive action undertaken by the Vatican congregation against one of the most substantial realities of Catholic traditionalism, an action that Pope Francis endorsed by approving in specific form the congregation’s decision to prevent the Friars of the Immaculate from celebrating the Mass according to the “Tridentine” rite. It is only with this kind of pontifical approval, in fact, that a decree of the curia can overturn standing law, in this case the motu proprio of Benedict XVI “Summorum Pontificum.” It is difficult to identify among these episodes the ones that may have have had the greatest influence on the fate of Cardinal Burke. But it is easy to predict that his definitive downgrading will provoke both a tumultuous reaction within the traditionalist world, where Burke is seen as a hero, and a corresponding wave of jubilation in the opposite camp, where he is instead considered a bogeyman. On the latter side it can be recalled that the “liberal” Catholic commentator Michael Sean Winters, in the “National Catholic Reporter” of November 26, 2013, had called for the head of Cardinal Burke as a member of the congregation for bishops, because of the nefarious influence, according to him, that he was exercising over episcopal appointments in the United States”.

He ends “now he seems right at the point of giving the go-ahead for the second and more grave demotion of one of the most untarnished personalities the Vatican curia knows”.

“By an means necessary”

19/09/2014

Leaders of more than 30 countries who gathered in Paris on Monday to discuss a global response to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pledged to support Iraq by all possible means to fight jihadists, including providing military support. “They committed to supporting the new Iraqi government in its fight… by any means necessary, including appropriate military assistance, in line with the needs expressed by the Iraqi authorities, in accordance with international law and without jeopardizing civilian security,” said a statement after Monday’s talks. “They will ensure that the commitments made today are implemented and followed up on, notably in the framework of the United Nations.” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said many of the participants spoke of the need to sever the ISIS’ funding, adding that a conference on this subject would soon be organized by Bahrain. “The throat-slitters of Daesh – that’s what I’m calling them – tell the whole world ‘Either you’re with us or we kill you.’ And when one is faced with such a group there is no other attitude than to defend yourself,” Fabius told a news conference at the end of the talks”.

Scotland’s silent majority

19/09/2014

The Telegraph reports that “An early indication that all was not well for the nationalists came before midnight when Alex Salmond did not turn up at his local count in Aberdeenshire, which was expected to vote No. He is expected to stage a press conference on Friday. This was a surprise as Mr Salmond had been widely expected to attend the count where he could have received regular updates from other parts of Scotland. His non-attendance suggested that he didn’t want to do the inevitable media interviews that would have accompanied those possibly disappointing results”.

It goes on “At 1.30am the first of Scotland’s 32 local authorities announced its result and set the tone for the night by announcing a surprise majority for No in an area where the separatists had been predicted to win well. Better Together campaigners celebrated wildly after the local counting officer in Clackmannanshire announced 19,036 votes for No and 16,350 for Yes. As expected, the Unionists overwhelmingly won Shetland and Orkney, where the separatists have traditionally struggled to garner much support. But the nationalists received another nasty surprise when the Western Isles, which is represented by SNP politicians at Westminster and Holyrood, voted No. The separatists then lost in two more of their target areas, Inverclyde and Renfrewshire, with the former proving a particular shock. After losing in the first six council areas to declare, a Yes victory appeared to be a remote prospect. At just before 4am the nationalists won in Dundee, said to be the most pro-separatist city in Scotland, by a margin of 57 per cent to 43 per cent. But campaign insiders said they had to win by more to compensate for their lacklustre performance elsewhere”.

Christian Caryl writes about the silent majority in Scotland that defeated the independence referendum. He opens “One of the most surprising things about the Scottish independence referendum, at least here in the country’s capital, is the seeming discrepancy between advocates of independence (the “Yes” camp) and Unionists (the “Nos”). Most of thefinal polls released ahead of the vote suggest that the Unionist side is ahead, in some cases by as much as 8 percent. (There were also some outliers that still gave the pro-independence camp a good shot.) Yet that’s not at all how things look on the ground. As you walk around the historic city the pro-independence forces are visible at every turn, while the Unionists are conspicuous mostly by their absence. “Yes” stickers and posters, in the blue-and-white colors of the Scottish flag, are ubiquitous, and those who sport them are positively bursting with elan. Their opponents, or at least those who are willing to mark themselves as such, crop up almost exclusively at polling places, where they try to remind voters by their presence that at least someone still favors keeping Scotland in the United Kingdom”.

He mentions that “It’s also striking that most members of the “No” camp that I’ve met here aren’t Scots but visitors from other parts of Britain — people like Nathan Hazlett, a 29-year-old teacher from northeastern England sporting a “No” sticker over his Union Jack T-shirt as he stands outside a polling station in downtown Edinburgh. “I’m sort of wondering where the rest of our side are,” he says. “I’ve been looking all day and I’ve barely seen any.” The Unionists say that the reason is intimidation. Some are afraid to show themselves openly because of threats by their opponents. They have been dubbed “traitors” or pelted with eggs. In one town on Thursday, someone daubed the words “Vote Yes or Else” on a polling station. Labor Party leader Ed Miliband cut short his appearance at an Edinburgh shopping center two days ago, and canceled two others, after he was jostled by a hostile crowd. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and the head of the independence camp, dismisses the accusations, saying that both sides have “nutters.” His sympathizers insist that the British media are exaggerating such cases to discredit the independence movement. Sorting out the veracity of such claims is hard amid the intense emotions generated by the campaign”.

He ends “Young people, too, often support independence — one reason why Salmond and his government pushed through a rule allowing the voting age to be dropped to 16 for the referendum. Nor is the “Yes” camp confined to “ethnic” Scots. One of the most ardent supporters of independence I met today was a third-generation Edinburgh Sikh: “I don’t want hospitals to be privatized, because that’s what they’re doing in England,” he told me. “And most of the oil is ours.” Nonetheless, the brutal reality for the separatists is that for all their soaring rhetoric they have spent almost the entire campaign trying to catch up to those who wish to keep Scotland in the U.K. And even if momentum is on their side, they still don’t seem to have closed the gap. Yet there is a sense in which they win even if they don’t. The independence campaign has endowed its followers with a sharp new sense of agency, and their forceful talk of the U.K.’s “democratic deficit” and attacks on the remoteness of the U.K.’s political establishment, have resonated with many non-Scots as well. Even if the bid for independence is defeated, Great Britain will not be going back to business as usual”.

“Decisively rejected independence”

19/09/2014

Scotland has voted to stay in the United Kingdom after voters decisively rejected independence. With the results in from all 32 council areas, the “No” side won with 2,001,926 votes over 1,617,989 for “Yes”. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond called for unity and urged the unionist parties to deliver on more powers. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said he was delighted the UK would remain together and said the commitments on extra powers would be honoured. Mr Cameron said the three main unionist parties at Westminster would now follow through with their pledge of more powers for the Scottish Parliament. “We will ensure that those commitments are honoured in full,” he said. He announced that Lord Smith of Kelvin, who led Glasgow’s staging of the Commonwealth Games, would oversee the process to take forward the commitments, with new powers over tax, spending and welfare to be agreed by November, and draft legislation published by January”.

Scotland, dodging an empty barrel

18/09/2014

The world of energy is uncertain and now that the Scottish referendum result is in with a majority wishing to stay within the UK, Keith Johnson writes before the result was announced that an independent Scotland would not have been able to rely on its energy reserves and higher prices could have come had they voted for independence. He opens “Oil and gas, of course, have fueled dreams of Scottish independence since the early 1970s, when the discovery of crude in the North Sea turned once sleepy ports such as Aberdeen into major hubs of the global energy business. Scotland is banking on billions in annual revenue from the aging offshore oil fields to fund its expansive vision of an independent state. But its push is dealing a weak hand to the electricity market, potentially imperilling billions of dollars in investment and raising the specter of higher power prices for Scottish families and businesses. At the heart of the matter is Scotland’s insistence that, if it prevails in Thursday’s referendum, it can pick and choose the best of both worlds. Scotland hopes to keep the British pound, for instance, though London has frowned on that idea; Scotland wants to scrap nuclear weapons yet still be part of a nuclear-armed NATO; it wants to leave Britain but join the European Union with British privileges”.

He notes “When it comes to electricity, Scottish nationalists tell voters that even after independence, London will underwrite billions of dollars worth of new renewable-energy projects needed to turn Scotland fully green. They also claim that Scotland will keep selling its excess electricity south of the border to desperate English customers. The Scottish government insists that the U.K. will need to import renewable energy from Scotland to meet legally binding targets. Yet officials in London have warned that if Scotland secedes, it will be left to its own devices when it comes to the electricity market. “If Scotland becomes an independent state, the current integrated Great British energy system could not continue as it is now,” the U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change told Parliament this spring”.

Johnson goes on to write that “The uncertainty surrounding the referendum and its aftermath is now starting to rattle the clean-energy sector, like oil and gas before it. In the last four years, Scotland has announced about $22 billion worth of private-sector, clean-energy investments there, which could create as many as 12,000 jobs. Much of that is out to sea pending the results of Thursday’s vote: Bloomberg New Energy Finance said in a report Monday that uncertainty could derail or delay $12 billion worth of projects. More worrisome for an independent Scotland are rising power prices. Maintaining the power grid in Scotland’s challenging geography costs more than in the rest of Great Britain. Only a few million Scots would bear the burden post-secession, rather than sharing them across the whole U.K., as is the case currently. That’s especially true for Scotland’s rapid growth in green but pricey renewable-energy projects”.

Crucially he notes “Scotland aims to generate 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. But that will be a tougher slog on its own that as part of Great Britain. The British government estimated that if Scotland alone has to pay for its renewable-energy development, rather than relying on London to the tune of more than $900 million annually, household power prices could jump by more than $300 a year and costs for businesses could rise by about $1 million. Energy economics could deal Edinburgh even more low cards. Decommissioning existing oil, gas, and nuclear installations will cost at least $50 billion; oil and gas pipelines under the North Sea will need to be dismantled when production winds down, as will old nuclear plants that have been running for decades. What’s less clear is how that burden will be divided between Scotland and the remaining United Kingdom if Edinburgh opts for independence; British officials have said only that “an independent Scottish state would be expected to take a share” in the costs”.

With the referendum decided it will be up to the Scottish National Party to decide how much their reliance on oil effected their campaign, and will decide any future campaigns they decide to hold.

The tradegy of Yes

17/09/2014

A piece in Foreign Policy writes that “To misquote Winston Churchill, this is not the end of the beginning. But it is, perhaps, the beginning of the end. The United Kingdom might have days to live. The polls in advance of the Sept. 18 Scottish independence referendum show a neck and neck contest. After a collapse in the “No” vote over the last month, the “Yes” to independence campaign’s momentum was only halted days ago after sterling tumbled on news of their temporary lead in the polls. We could weigh the merits of the policy arguments, but the death of a state goes beyond policy; fundamentally, it is a question of justice. Scotland is free to leave the union if it wants to. However, to recognize the justice of Scotland’s right to choose its own future is simultaneously to recognize the injustice that all other British citizens have no democratic voice in the future of their own state”.

He makes the point that “These two claims on the justice of the referendum and, consequently, of its possible result in the death of the United Kingdom, are incompatible. That is what invests in the potential of a Yes vote a profoundly tragic quality: If you celebrate the sound of Scotland’s freedom to choose its own future, consider for a moment the leaden silence of what it feels like — the anxiety, the anonymity, the anger — to be a British citizen outside Scotland, trapped between accepting the justice of the claim that Scotland should have the referendum and, by that very acceptance, the injustice of having no voice in the future of your own country”.

He adds “First, to have no voice feels culturally unjust. Not just for many of those among the 830,000 people born in Scotland who now live elsewhere in the United Kingdom (and thus can’t vote), but for many British citizens who feel that Scotland is inseparably intertwined with their broader cultural identity. Both my grandfather’s name (Simpson) and my grandmother’s maiden name (McDougall) are Scottish. My family can trace some of our Scottish ancestors back to the 19th century, and I take pride in that”.

He goes on to make the point about Alex Salmond and the campign he has lead “The Scottish nationalists have bullied the rest of the British citizenry out of a position in which we can feel comfortable in our own skin claiming a broad, tolerant, national civic identity — one in which a person can either identify simply as British, or find no inconsistency in describing one’s nationality as Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, English … and also British. To be days away from ripping apart centuries of common cultural heritage, intertwined not just in the legal entity of the state but in the very DNA of thousands of families, is a cruel fate for those of us who feel democratically powerless to be able to halt the Scottish nationalists’ cultural sectarianism”.

He ends “Not using a supermajority is unforgiveable not from a narrowly partisan perspective, but because whatever the outcome on Thursday, the simple majority system will lock in the bitterness that has accompanied this referendum into the politics of the foreseeable future. We know from the polls that the referendum will be close. The effect of a Yes vote that ends up, say, at just narrowly over 50 percent will be to embitter toward the new polity in Scotland those who voted No. Meanwhile, the majority of British citizens outside Scotland will feel that there was not strong enough support for such a fundamental break in centuries of common history. Conversely, if the vote is narrowly No to independence, the bitterness will flow the other way, and the specter of future divisive referendums will hang over the state for another generation”.

He closes noting that “I am against Scottish independence, and I feel that very strongly. But whatever your views on Scottish independence, a Yes victory would necessarily be a tragedy: The phoenix would rise from the ashes of the ideal that all citizens are equal, and have an equal say in the future of their country”.

“India and Vietnam”

17/09/2014

India and Vietnam today inked seven pacts, including one to enhance cooperation in the strategic oil sector, as they called for “freedom” of navigation in the South China Sea, a remark which could irk China which has been claiming territorial sovereignty over the high seas. The agreements were signed during the second day of the four-day state visit of President Pranab Mukherjee who held talks with his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang here. Both the countries decided to “strengthen and deepen bilateral cooperation on the basis of the strategic partnership with focus on political, defence and security cooperation, economic cooperation, science and technology, culture and people-to-people links, technical cooperation and multilateral and regional cooperation.” In a subtle message to China, the two countries, who established strategic ties in 2007, asserted that the freedom of navigation in the disputed waters of the South China Sea should not be “impeded” and called all the parties “concerned” to exercise restraint in this context”.

 

A mistake in leaving

17/09/2014

The Economist leader argues that Scotland leaving the UK would be a mistake it opens, “SCHOOLCHILDREN once imagined their place in the world, with its complex networks and allegiances, by writing elaborate postal addresses. British youngsters began with their street and town (London or Manchester, Edinburgh or Cardiff), followed by England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland; then came the United Kingdom (and after that Europe, the World, the Universe…). They understood that the UK, and all its collective trials and achievements—the industrial revolution, the Empire, victory over the Nazis, the welfare state—were as much a part of their patrimony as the Scottish Highlands or English cricket. They knew, instinctively, that these concentric rings of identity were complementary, not opposed. At least, they used to. After the referendum on Scottish independence on September 18th, one of those layers—the UK—may cease to exist, at least in the form recognisable since the Act of Union three centuries ago. As the vote nears, Scotland’s nationalists have caught up with the unionist No camp in the opinion polls, and even edged ahead (see article). More and more Scots are deciding that the UK, which their soldiers, statesmen, philosophers and businessmen have done so much to build and ornament, does not cradle their Scottishness but smothers it. This great multinational state could be undone in a single day, by a poll in which just 7% of its citizens will participate. That outcome, once unthinkable, would be bad for Scotland and tragic for what remained of the UK”.

The author goes on to note the damage the breakup of the UK would do “The rump of Britain would be diminished in every international forum: why should anyone heed a country whose own people shun it? Since Britain broadly stands for free trade and the maintenance of international order, this would be bad for the world. Its status as a nuclear power would be doubtful: the country’s nuclear submarines are based in a Scottish loch and could not be moved quickly. Britain would also be more likely to leave the European Union, since Scots are better disposed to Europe than are the English (and are less likely to vote for the Conservatives, who are promising a Euro-referendum if they win next year’s general election). The prospect of a British exit from the EU would scare investors much more than a possible Scottish exit from Britain (see article). The people of Scotland alone will decide the future of Britain, and they are not obliged to worry about what becomes of the state they would leave. But—perhaps not surprisingly, given the endurance and success of the union, imperilled though it is—Scots’ own interests, and the rest of Britain’s, coincide”.

He goes on to mention “But Scotland’s relative economic decline is the result not of southern neglect but of the shift of manufacturing and shipping to Asia. If Westminster has not reversed all the deleterious effects of globalisation and technology, that is because to do so is impossible. The nationalists know this, which is why, sotto voce, they would continue many of Westminster’s policies. Instead they make much of minor adjustments, such as abolishing the “bedroom tax”, a recent measure designed to nudge people out of too-large social housing. To break up a country over such small, recent annoyances would be nuts. The nationalists’ economics are also flawed. Scotland would not, in fact, be richer alone. The taxes that would flow to it from the North Sea would roughly compensate for the extra cost of its lavish state, which would no longer be funded by Westminster (last year spending was some £1,300 per person higher in Scotland than elsewhere in Britain). But oil revenues are erratic. They would have earned Scotland £11.5 billion in 2008-09 but only £5.5 billion in 2012-13. If an independent state were to smooth these fluctuations by setting up an oil fund, it would have less cash to spend now. In any case, the oil is gradually running out. In order to maintain state spending after it is gone, taxes would have to rise. And a crunch might come much sooner. Foreign investors and big businesses that mostly serve English customers could well move south”.

He ends the piece “In the end the referendum will turn not on calculations of taxes and oil revenue, but on identity and power. The idea that Scots can shape their own destiny, both at the referendum and afterwards, is exhilarating. Yet Scotland already controls many of its own affairs (even if Mr Salmond’s Scottish National Party, which runs the devolved government and is driving the Yes campaign, has not done much with its powers so far). Moreover, as Westminster politicians of all stripes have hastily made clear, if Scotland votes No, the devolved administration will soon get so much clout that the practical difference between staying in the union and leaving it will narrow. That would also lead to the distribution of power away from Westminster and to other bits of Britain, which should have happened long ago. So by staying in, Scots will not just save the union but enhance it, as they have for 300 years. For the UK, with all its triumphs and eccentricities, belongs to Scots as much as it does to the English—even if increasing numbers of them seem ready to disown that glorious, hard-earned heritage, and to simplify their identities by stripping out one of those concentric rings. That goes against both the spirit of this fluid century—in which most people have multiple identities, whether of place, ethnicity or religion—and the evidence of the preceding three”.

“Offered to conduct airstrikes”

17/09/2014

Several Arab states have offered to conduct airstrikes against militants in Iraq alongside the efforts of the United States, U.S. officials said Sunday as the Obama administration sought to bolster its case for action against the Islamic State. “A lot of this is still in the discussion phase, but I want to be clear that there have been offers, both to Centcom and to the Iraqis, of Arab countries taking more aggressive kinetic action against ISIL,” including airstrikes, a senior State Department official said in Paris, using an alternative acronym for the militant network. The military side of the widening campaign against the Islamic State is being coordinated by the U.S. Central Command, or Centcom. U.S. officials would not identify which nations made offers of active battlefield participation, or “kinetic action,” in military parlance. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron on Sunday condemned the “despicable” killing of British aid worker David Haines by Islamic State extremists and vowed to do everything possible to hunt down his killers and bring them to justice. “Step by step we will drive back, dismantle and ultimately destroy ISIL and what it stands for. We will do so in a calm, deliberate way but with an iron determination,” Cameron said in a televised statement. Cameron, who led an emergency government meeting Sunday to discuss the killing, said the country was “sickened” that a Briton could have done this to a fellow Briton”.

“Driven down benchmark crude”

15/09/2014

Keith Johnson writes on the odd scenario where the price of oil is falling in spite of the violence.

He opens “The world is in flames, with an Islamist terrorist group on the rampage across the Middle East, the White House weighing another fight in Iraq, Russia and Europe still trading sanctions and salvos, Yemen imploding, North Africa reeling from one mess to another, and, as if that weren’t enough, a deadly fever spreading exponentially in Africa. Yet oil prices keep falling and are now at their lowest levels in more than a year. But the markets aren’t crazy: Simple supply and demand are at play. The world’s economy, especially in Asia, has hit a brick wall, which has dented the growth in demand for oil, pushing it down to levels last seen during the Great Recession. On top of that, oil producers have kept pumping. The United States has added more than 3 million barrels daily in the last three years, and the annual jump in U.S. oil production just set a record. OPEC producers have been running full tilt, even Libya, which doesn’t even have a functioning government, and Saudi Arabia, which used to act as the voice of reason to keep oil markets more or less balanced. Only in August did the Saudis start to dial back oil production, only partially offsetting surprising supply increases elsewhere”.

He goes on to write “The result: a glut of oil that has driven down benchmark crude prices to levels last seen at the beginning of 2013. Brent crude in London traded at about $97 a barrel Thursday, Sept. 11, while West Texas Intermediate, traded in New York, threatened to dip into the high $80s per barrel”.

He continues “The global economy can’t seem to find the recipe for consistent growth: Japan’s horrific 7 percent contraction in second-quarter GDP may be extreme, but other Asian economies are also standing on the brakes. China’s year-on-year demand for oil (and other raw materials) is essentially flat, sending prices for oil, iron, and other basic commodities plunging. Europe is no help, even without worries of what the Russian bear will do next. Next to all of them, the U.S. economy (and its need for oil) looks almost robust. But even U.S. oil demand is at or below the average of the last five years — a dismal half-decade, for sure”.

Interestingly he argues “And the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) on Tuesday tweaked its outlook for oil prices to reflect the new market dynamics. In the reference case, the EIA now expects prices to stay below $100 a barrel until early in the next decade. Even when prices rebound, the EIA slashed its estimate for how high crude will go — to just $141 a barrel by 2040, rather than the $165 predicted just last year. If global economic growth remains sluggish, the EIA sees oil prices stuck below $75 a barrel for decades to come. Price fluctuation concerns everyone who pumps or burns oil, especially states — such as those in the Middle East, Russia, and parts of Latin America — relying on steadily rising oil prices to keep their economies afloat and their people pacified”.

He ends “Lower prices wouldn’t hurt just established producers. Kurdistan and Scotland, which are hoping to turn black gold into independence, stand to lose too. Baghdad isn’t sharing oil revenue with Iraqi Kurdistan anymore, making it dependent on turning its ample oil reserves into sales in order to make up the difference. Iraqi Kurdistan’s modest ambitions of selling 400,000 barrels a day are being sorely tested by a gun-shy market now. How it would sell even more to account for declining prices is unclear. Meanwhile, Scotland’s dreams of independence from the United Kingdom will be determined by a referendum on Sept. 18. A Scottish state’s viability hinges almost entirely on the question of how much oil is left in the North Sea and how much it will fetch”.

“Protest organisers will not let him”

15/09/2014

Arshad Shah, a Pakistani protester, feels trapped: worn out after weeks of street demonstrations against the government, he wants to go home but protest organisers will not let him. Like many other protesters led by cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, Shah said organizers had taken away his national identification card to prevent him from leaving the protest site outside government offices in the center of the Pakistani capital. “Some (organizers) will make up excuses for why they can’t return out cards yet, others will just say directly that we can’t leave until the sit-in is over,” said Shah who joined the rallies from the central Pakistani city of Sargodha. “I just want our cards back so we can leave.” Others said they were instructed to turn in their cards on a daily basis, get paid to spend the day at the rally and claim the card back at the end of the day. “I come in the morning and submit my CNIC (Computerised National Identity Card) to Qadri’s people who then give us our daily wages of 300-400 rupees ($3-$4). We then sit around here all day,” said Niaz Ahmed, a daily wage labourer. “After Dr Qadri makes his speech in the evening, we get our ID cards back and off we go. The next day we come back again. I’m making almost the same money sitting around here all day as I did working hard all day.”Anti-government demonstrations erupted in Pakistan last month, with protest organizers saying their supporters will not leave until Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resigns – a month-long standoff which has destabilized the South Asian nation”.

Saudi action?

15/09/2014

A report in the New York Times notes that Saudi Arabia is beginning to get involved in Iraq on the side of the US, at least partially, it begins, “Saudi Arabia has agreed to an American request to provide a base to train moderate Syrian opposition fighters, American officials said on Wednesday. “We now have the commitment from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to be a full partner in this effort — the train-and-equip program — to host that program,” said a senior Obama administration official, who added that discussions were underway to determine the specific site and other details. The Saudi willingness to host a training program comes as Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to fly to Jidda, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday morning for a high-level strategy session on how to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The meeting that is being hosted by the Saudis will also include senior officials from Arab states in the Persian Gulf region, as well as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. A senior State Department official said a number of initiatives to weaken ISIS would be stepped up, including efforts to stop the flow of money to the terrorist group by cracking down on oil smuggling and curtailing contributions from private donors”.

An article in Newsweek writes that “Western technicians at Dhahran Air Base like to joke that the only aircraft the Saudis can keep in the air by themselves is a model of a British Tornado on a pedestal at the gates. Indeed, the entire Saudi military arsenal—including the world’s biggest fleet of American F-15s outside of the U.S. and Japan—couldn’t function without the several hundred mostly American and British technicians who keep the royal family’s tanks, ships, artillery and warplanes in working order. As with everything else in the Saudi economy, from servants to oil field workers, the Saudis just don’t “do” such hands-on work. The same goes for Saudi ground troops: There are officers, and there are grunts (not all of them Saudis), and nothing in-between. The concept of a corps of sergeants actually running things, is, well, foreign, to the desert kingdom’s rulers, for a variety of tribal and cultural reasons.  But as any Western general knows, an army wins (or doesn’t) on the strength of its sergeants, the blue-collar guys down below the colonels, majors and lieutenants who prod the grunts and make sure things get done. And it’s the sergeants who do the training”.

He adds that “when Obama administration officials talk about helping finance and train so-called ‘moderate’ Syrians to take on the Islamic State, they’re only half-right. In the Saudis’ shopworn custom, the kingdom will certainly fork over millions to finance the fight, but if they do any training at all it will probably be carried out by others—the hundreds of U.S. and British military advisors on scene in the kingdom. Likewise, the prospect of Saudi pilots banking their F-15s into dive-bombing runs against ISIS targets in Iraq or Syria, is a fantasy. Just getting the king to issue a denunciation of the neck-slicing savages was considered a major victory in official Washington”.

The writer makes the point that “On top of that, the Saudi Ministry of Defense is facing a leadership vacuum, leaving it outside the loop of royal decision making, according to a former top U.S. diplomat in the region. But the Ministry of Interior, he added on condition of anonymity to discuss such sensitive matters, could offer substantive help to whatever coalition President Obama can string together to combat ISIS: After two decades battling al Qaeda-inspired domestic insurgents and terrorists, the 100,000-strong MOI knows the enemy and its techniques well, and almost certainly has its own intelligence sources in Syria (which Washington sorely lacks, by all accounts)”.

He ends the piece “‘It’s important for symbolic reasons,’ agrees Richard Barrett, the former head of counterterrorism for MI6, Britain’s secret intelligence service. ‘They can’t sit on sidelines… They have to take a role of some sort,’ he told Newsweek. ‘Even if their role is small, it should be visual and actual.’ Barrett also suggested the ‘allies’ start thinking the unthinkable: Saudi, Iranian and U.S. military commanders publicly coordinating attacks on ISIS—as a prelude to a regional peace agreement. Bombing ISIS into submission alone, he pointed out, won’t solve the bigger problem of the region—the struggle of Shiites and Sunnis for hegemony in the Middle East. ‘At some point,’ he said, ‘the Saudis and Iran will have to cooperate.’  Why not now?”

No Iranian help wanted

15/09/2014

US Secretary of State John Kerry has said it would be inappropriate for Iran to join a coalition that is seeking to fight Islamic State (IS) militants. Speaking on a visit to Turkey, Mr Kerry said he was confident the US could build a broad international coalition, of European and Arab countries. Both Iran and the US have offered military aid to hold back an IS advance across northern and western Iraq. But the US has clashed with Iran on its nuclear programme and policy in Syria. Earlier this week, US President Barack Obama unveiled plans for an expansion of the campaign against IS in the region. Ten Arab nations have agreed to help the US in its fight against the group, which the CIA says may have up to 31,000 fighters on the ground. France has also offered its support for military action against IS, as part of a coalition being formed by Washington”.

Iran in Iraq

15/09/2014

blog post discusses the fact that Iran has soldiers in Iraq. It notes “When U.S. President Barack Obama makes his speech Wednesday night about taking on the Islamic State, he’s sure to mention the nine countries that have signed on to aid the United States in the fight. He’ll leave out the one country that has already sent forces into Iraq and Syria to help beat back the terrorist group: Iran. Terrified at the prospect of giving the Sunni-led militants a permanent foothold inside Iraq, the Shiite government in Tehran is openly providing weapons, intelligence, and military advisors to Baghdad and the array of Shiite militias fighting alongside the beleaguered Iraqi military. Iran denies having combat troops inside Iraq, but a U.S. official familiar with the matter said that Iran has at times had hundreds of ground forces fighting alongside the Iraqi soldiers and militiamen”.

He writes “Tehran’s interventions in Iraq and Syria highlight the strange alliance that has emerged because of the Islamic State’s ongoing battlefield gains. Obama has called on Assad to step aside, but U.S. officials have privately welcomed the Syrian leader’s ongoing airstrikes against Islamic State targets within his borders. Relations between Washington and Moscow are icier than they’ve been in years, but Russia has sent Baghdad a dozen much-needed Su-25 ground-attack fighter jets, along with unspecified numbers of Russian military trainers. Meanwhile, Obama has American warplanes bombing targets in Iraq in unspoken support of the Iranian forces helping their Iraqi counterparts on the ground”.

The author notes that “Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that top Iranian officials appear to have the ‘freedom and license’ to operate inside Iraq and to help ‘shape the trajectory of the conflict and its priorities.’ Itani said that Iran maintains considerable influence inside its neighbour because, unlike the United States, it never withdrew its forces or disengaged from the country”.

He adds “The extent of Iran’s involvement was also captured in a photo of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, on the ground in the Iraqi town of Amerli following a successful effort to break an Islamic State siege of the town and prevent the slaughter of its inhabitants. Although it was well known that Suleimani had traveled to Baghdad a handful of times in recent months, the photo hinted that he might be playing a more hands-on role and had helped direct operations straight from the battlefield. The operation to free Amerli was an important victory against the Islamic State, but it was also noteworthy because of the team that formed to battle the militants. Iraqi security forces, Shiite militias, and Iranian operatives fought the Islamic State on the ground while U.S. air power took out Islamic State targets with a barrage of airstrikes”.

Crucially he notes “Indeed, the United States and Iran could work together without formally coordinating their operations. In Amerli, for instance, the militias relayed their operational plans to the Iraqi commanders overseeing the fight, who in turn passed the information to the American officials running the air campaign there”.

It ends “the Iranian presence in Iraq has been ‘confined almost completely to advisors, arms transfers, support from [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] trainers, but you’ve not had any significant Iranian ground presence and you have not had Iranian ground units.’ The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the advisors from the Quds Force play a very important role in Iraq, ‘but they don’t have to send in troops to play that role,’ Cordesman added. He points out that Washington’s aversion to deploying major land-combat units to Iraq is due to more than just U.S. war fatigue”.

He concludes “Iran does not share these kinds of concerns. On the contrary, it openly supports Shiite militias on the ground. In Syria, there is a much larger presence of Iranian paramilitary fighters taking on the Islamic State and other Sunni Islamist groups on behalf of Assad, plus teams of special forces providing training and intelligence to Syrian forces. There are also fighters from the Lebanese group Hezbollah on the ground in Syria, receiving support from Tehran. Meanwhile, Iran officially denies any involvement by its military in Syria. Iran’s backing of Shiite militias in Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria speaks to the fact that while the United States and Iran share tactical objectives, especially in Iraq, their longer-term strategic goals are very different”.

“Recovering from prostate surgery”

13/09/2014

“Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is recovering from prostate surgery, state media say. The operation, which took place on Monday at a government hospital in the capital, Tehran, was said to be “routine”. An announcement about the surgery ahead of the procedure was unprecedented, as the Ayatoll h’s health is traditionally a confidential subject. The 75-year-old cleric has led Iran since 1989 and is its top authority. Earlier on Monday, Ayatollah Khamenei was seen on Iranian state television asking people to pray for him, but said there was “no room for concern”. Ayatollah Khamenei’s health has always been a secret topic in Iran, like other aspects of his personal life, says BBC Persian’s Bozorgmehr Sharafedin”.

IMF not welcome

13/09/2014

As was has been warned previously the IMF could further destabilise Ukraine, “The war in eastern Ukraine continues to rage on, despite efforts by separatist and national forces to reach a cease-fire. But even if the warring sides reach a long-term truce, the government in Kiev is simultaneously fighting another, perhaps equally important battle: the economy. Unfortunately, President Petro Poroshenko is shooting himself in the foot. Ukraine’s government is in the middle of implementing a set of stringent economic reforms agreed to in April with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for a $17 billion bailout. Although Kiev has been commended by the IMF for a ‘bold economic program,’ the loan’s terms, combined with Ukraine’s political and economic crisis, are a recipe for disaster”.

Naturally the IMF are seeing the issue of Ukraine in purely monetary terms but they are wither unable or willing to see the wider geopolitical implications for their acts. As has been previously stated the IMF and World Bank need to give Ukraine time and space to recover from the last two years of shocks. Of course this will take even longer with Putin war mongering. Until the West strikes at Putin hard, be it with sanctions or something more than Ukraine will not be put on the path to peace and prosperity.

He goes on to make the point “We have seen this story before. During the 1990s, when I worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the office charged with managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union, I observed that the type of austerity now being required of Ukraine was the standard prescription for countries in economic crisis. The leading Washington financial institutions, such as the IMF, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury Department, were passing out this one-size-fits-all solution. And it almost never worked. Russia was the classic case. In the midst of the political shock caused by the breakup of the Soviet Union, neoliberal reformers supported by the West instituted a policy of so-called “shock therapy” involving an end to price controls and large cuts in government spending and subsidies. The result was a plunge in Russia’s GDP and inflation rates averaging 20 percent per month. As the poverty rate climbed to a full 55 percent of the population, there was a widespread political backlash against austerity led by Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoy, who termed the reforms “genocide” and led a failed attempt to overthrow President Boris Yeltsin in 1993″.

Fairly he does make the point that “This does not mean that Ukraine can forever neglect efforts to undertake reforms. The country has been racked by corruption and poor governance since it became independent in 1991. As a result, Ukraine has endured the worst economic performance of any country in the former Soviet Union. Reforms that reduce corruption and cut government spending and subsidies are necessary if Ukraine is ever going to come close to reaching its economic potential. However, with a collapsing economy and an ongoing war, Kiev needs a semblance of stability far more than shock therapy”.

He goes on to mention that “While the IMF’s loan is designed to support Ukraine’s budget and allow Kiev to pay its external debts as they come due, the fund now says that Ukraine’s central government will have a substantially higher deficit then originally predicted due to a spike in military expenditures combined with reduced tax collection as its taxable base shrinks along with the broader economy. The IMF now acknowledges that Ukraine could need a further $19 billion in emergency support over the next 16 months. Despite the economic crisis, the IMF’s loan requires Kiev to enact a series of policy changes, all of which will accelerate the collapse of the economy and decrease the purchasing power of ordinary Ukrainians. The IMF demands that Ukraine make immediate cutbacks to reduce the fiscal deficit. To meet this requirement, Kiev has already enacted a series of laws raising excise and property taxes, reduced social income support expenditures for retirees and public employees, frozen Ukraine’s minimum wage, and cut public-sector wages”.

He ends “The West could help Ukraine through this economic crisis. As a recent Bloomberg editorial noted, “In Ukraine, the IMF will in essence be trying an economic solution to a geopolitical problem.” Indeed, Kiev’s decision to implement austerity in the middle of a bitter civil war is foolhardy for both financial and political reasons: Wars cost money — lots of it — and unsurprisingly, Poroshenko has already announced $3 billion in additional defense spending for this year. Given that the second tranche of the IMF’s loan is $1.4 billion, the ongoing costs of the war make it extremely unlikely that Ukraine will be able to meet the IMF’s fiscal and financial targets. But the political problems with shock therapy for Ukraine are even greater. The austerity program will further alienate the very citizens of Donbass, the restive eastern region currently hosting the worst fighting. If the country will ever be put back together, the people of the east must feel that Kiev takes their concerns into account. Unfortunately, by implementing austerity when industrial output has as of July declined by 29 percent year-on-year in Donetsk and a whopping 56 percent in Luhansk, the government in Kiev provides just the opposite message to the east”.

Beyond the need to prioritize political stability over austerity, any economic reform program in Ukraine should include debt relief. This means that Ukraine’s foreign creditors should be made to take haircuts on their loans to Kiev. There is a recent precedent for this approach in Cyprus, where the holdings of large depositors and bondholders were converted to equity in the country’s largest bank, the Bank of Cyprus. Investors already understand that a Ukrainian debt restructuring is now a question of “when, not if,” and Ukraine’s Ministry of Finance and the National Bank of Ukraine should negotiate a comprehensive debt-restructuring program directly with foreign creditors”.

He concludes “Despite sometimes-lengthy delays in negotiations, a 2012 IMF study found that investors in emerging markets generally come to terms with debtors. This offers Kiev ample precedent to use in negotiations with its foreign creditors, making a debt restructuring the most logical course for Ukraine to follow. As with any restructuring of liabilities, the terms of the loan or bond determine how losses are allocated. Absent this “bail-in” of foreign creditors, Ukraine will simply be taking on more debt that it lacks the capacity to service, risking a long-term compound debt spiral for the country and practically guaranteeing a wholesale default down the road — and continuing political instability. Finally, the West should provide Ukraine with aid that doesn’t come with the IMF’s harsh conditions. Through a combination of grants and low-interest loans subsidized by the United States and the European Union that could be rolled over as necessary, Western governments directly — rather than the IMF — could assist Ukraine with a recovery program that focuses first and foremost on jump-starting the country’s economy rather than one that further squeezes it. The road ahead for Ukraine will not be easy. The country faces a violent civil war, political distrust, and a collapsing economy. It needs all the help it can get right now, not the IMF’s painful medicine”.

 

“Illogical demands”

13/09/2014

In this the 3000th post “Iran said world powers should abandon their “illogical demands” over its nuclear program, ahead of talks on Thursday to try to bridge wide differences in positions and end the decade-old dispute by late November. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, one of Iran’s chief negotiators, was speaking before a meeting in Vienna with senior officials from the three European members of the group of six world powers involved in the negotiations with Tehran. The talks between Iran and Britain, France and Germany take place less than a week after Iran and the United States held a bilateral meeting in Geneva. It was not clear when the Vienna talks would begin. The six powers, also grouping Russia and China, will hold their first full negotiating round with Iran since July on Sept. 18 in New York, seeking to narrow differences over the future size of Iran’s uranium enrichment infrastructure and other issues. “The talks can yield results if the other party shows goodwill and abandons some of its illogical demands,” Araqchi was quoted as saying in Vienna by Iran’s Fars news agency”.

End of the American dream

13/09/2014

Gregory Clark, writing in Foreign Affairs argues that the American dream is dead.

He begins “The combination of cheap transportation and enormous disparities in income across countries has inspired unprecedented numbers of people to uproot: there are now 230 million people around the world living outside the country of their birth, 46 million of them in the United States. Not surprisingly, immigration tends to flow from poor places to rich ones: in the world’s 18 richest countries, immigrants constitute 16 percent of the population. If one includes those who are descendants of recent immigrants, that percentage is significantly larger and is certain to grow, since immigrants generally have more children than domestic populations. Consider that, in 2010, 13 percent of the U.S. population was born outside the country, yet 24 percent of those younger than 18 had foreign-born parents. Policymakers in rich countries have tended to treat immigration as a challenge, but a surmountable one. Previous eras of mass migration produced good outcomes, for immigrants and settlement countries alike. The vast pool of immigrants that arrived in the United States prior to 1914 — a group that included Christian Arabs, Greeks, Hungarians, Italians, Japanese, Jews from the Russian Empire, and Scandinavians — assimilated rapidly and contributed to an economic boom. Similarly, since World War II, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have successfully absorbed large numbers of immigrants from varied countries and backgrounds”.

Importantly he argues “But it would be a mistake to assume that those experiences will be repeated for all immigrants. There is reason to believe that many recent migrants to both the United States and Europe will have a much more difficult time than their predecessors. Meanwhile, the countries in which they settle are less likely to see the benefits of immigration as they experience heightened social tensions and widening social inequality. Policymakers would be wise to take those risks into account. Rather than focus on policies for integrating new immigrants, they should concentrate on avoiding selection policies that threaten to create near–permanent ethnic or religious underclasses”.

Interestingly he goes on to make the point that “The successful assimilation of earlier immigrants is often misunderstood. It’s true that they managed to achieve equality in income, education, and wealth with native populations within one or two generations. On the basis of that experience, many have assumed that social mobility rates — the speed with which the children of families of low or high incomes, wealth, and education approach the average — are inherently rapid in modern societies, and that, as a result, any immigrant group was likely to assimilate quickly. But recent evidence suggests that, in reality, social mobility rates are extremely low. Seven to ten generations are required before the descendants of high and low status families achieve average status. Thus in modern Sweden the descendants of the eighteenth-century nobility are still heavily overrepresented — 300 years later — among higher social status groups: doctors, attorneys, the wealthy, members of the Swedish Royal Academies. In the United Kingdom, the descendants of families who sent a son to Oxford or Cambridge around 1800 are still four times as likely to attend these universities as the average person. Social mobility rates have also been relatively impervious to government policy”.

Unsurprisingly he writes that “The same pattern is echoed in Europe. In the 1960s and 1970s, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland created guest worker programs to recruit unskilled workers for basic factory jobs, often from Turkey’s poor, rural areas. Today, the children of those Turkish immigrants all perform worse on language and mathematics tests than domestic populations, which is a reliable indicator of lower social status. The lower status of their parents was thus reproduced in their new home countries.  By the same token, countries that selected elite immigrants to begin with now have high-performing immigrant classes. For example, the United Kingdom selects immigrants based more on education and skills”.

As a solution for this, instead of greater government intervention of education which has worked to a greater extent in Northern Europe he argues that “If Washington hopes to solve these looming problems, it will have to take a different approach. To avoid having a substantially poorer and less educated Latino underclass for many future generations, it should considering policies to increase the number of highly educated Latino immigrants. Latino migrants are actually a very diverse group, with many of the most highly educated people emigrating to the United States from countries in South America that lie geographically farther from the United States, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru. A program to boost the number of such educated immigrants could bolster the overall social status of the Latino population in future generations, and their representation in higher-status positions in the society. The United States seems to cherish an image of itself as a country of opportunity for all, a country that invites in the world’s tired, its poor, and its huddled masses. But the United States is not exceptional in its rates of social mobility. It can perform no special alchemy on the disadvantaged populations of any society in order to transform their life opportunities. The truth is that the American Dream was always an illusion. Blindly pursuing that dream now will only lead to a future with dire social challenges”.

Abdullah rejects results

13/09/2014

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah said Monday that he will not accept the expected official results of the election, breaking a pledge he made to the U.S. secretary of state and injecting new tension into an already drawn-out political process. Appearing tired and nervous, Abdullah told a nationally televised news conference that he believes he won both times Afghans voted this year — in April and again in a June runoff. He accused election authorities of violating the desires of voters by ignoring widespread fraud and preparing to declare his opponent, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the winner”.

Sources of dysfunction

13/09/2014

Francis Fukuyama writes in Sources of Political Dysfunction in Foreign Affairs that the problems faced by America at this moment in history are a result of how the political institutions were created and have been made worse by worsening polarisation. He argues that the decay is likely to continue and be a real threat to democracy.

He opens “The creation of the U.S. Forest Service at the turn of the twentieth century was the premier example of American state building during the Progressive Era. Prior to the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, public offices in the United States had been allocated by political parties on the basis of patronage. The Forest Service, in contrast, was the prototype of a new model of merit-based bureaucracy. It was staffed with university-educated agronomists and foresters chosen on the basis of competence and technical expertise, and its defining struggle was the successful effort by its initial leader, Gifford Pinchot, to secure bureaucratic autonomy and escape routine interference by Congress. At the time, the idea that forestry professionals, rather than politicians, should manage public lands and handle the department’s staffing was revolutionary, but it was vindicated by the service’s impressive performance. Several major academic studies have treated its early decades as a classic case of successful public administration. Today, however, many regard the Forest Service as a highly dysfunctional bureaucracy performing an outmoded mission with the wrong tools. It is still staffed by professional foresters, many highly dedicated to the agency’s mission, but it has lost a great deal of the autonomy it won under Pinchot. It operates under multiple and often contradictory mandates from Congress and the courts and costs taxpayers a substantial amount of money while achieving questionable aims. The service’s internal decision-making system is often gridlocked, and the high degree of staff morale and cohesion that Pinchot worked so hard to foster has been lost. These days, books are written arguing that the Forest Service ought to be abolished altogether. If the Forest Service’s creation exemplified the development of the modern American state, its decline exemplifies that state’s decay”.

He goes on to write “The belief that public administration could be turned into a science now seems naive and misplaced. But back then, even in advanced countries, governments were run largely by political hacks or corrupt municipal bosses, so it was perfectly reasonable to demand that public officials be selected on the basis of education and merit rather than cronyism. The problem with scientific management is that even the most qualified scientists of the day occasionally get things wrong, and sometimes in a big way. And unfortunately, this is what happened to the Forest Service with regard to what ended up becoming one of its crucial missions, the fighting of forest fires”.

He adds “The Forest Service’s performance deteriorated, in short, because it lost the autonomy it had gained under Pinchot. The problem began with the displacement of a single departmental mission by multiple and potentially conflicting ones. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, firefighting began to displace timber exploitation, but then firefighting itself became controversial and was displaced by conservation. None of the old missions was discarded, however, and each attracted outside interest groups that supported different departmental factions: consumers of timber, homeowners, real estate developers, environmentalists, aspiring firefighters, and so forth. Congress, meanwhile, which had been excluded from the micromanagement of land sales under Pinchot, reinserted itself by issuing various legislative mandates, forcing the Forest Service to pursue several different goals, some of them at odds with one another. Thus, the small, cohesive agency created by Pinchot and celebrated by scholars slowly evolved into a large, Balkanized one. It became subject to many of the maladies affecting government agencies more generally: its officials came to be more interested in protecting their budgets and jobs than in the efficient performance of their mission. And they clung to old mandates even when both science and the society around them were changing”.

In general his point about lost autonomy is correct however it is very important that many of these organisations can become a law unto themselves and need guidance and structure. The problem that he identifies is correct in that organisations like the Forest Service need clarity which is not what is given to them either by Congress or the executive branch. Some of the problems are worsened by the supposed need for openness which more often than not is a way for lobbyists like loggers and real estate companies with money to influence things to their advantage.

He goes on to argue that “The story of the U.S. Forest Service is not an isolated case but representative of a broader trend of political decay; public administration specialists have documented a steady deterioration in the overall quality of American government for more than a generation. In many ways, the U.S. bureaucracy has moved away from the Weberian ideal of an energetic and efficient organization staffed by people chosen for their ability and technical knowledge. The system as a whole is less merit-based: rather than coming from top schools, 45 percent of recent new hires to the federal service are veterans, as mandated by Congress. And a number of surveys of the federal work force paint a depressing picture”.

In a section that he calls “Why Institutions Decay” he  notes “In his classic work Political Order in Changing Societies, the political scientist Samuel Huntington used the term ‘political decay’ to explain political instability in many newly independent countries after World War II. Huntington argued that socioeconomic modernization caused problems for traditional political orders, leading to the mobilization of new social groups whose participation could not be accommodated by existing political institutions. Political decay was caused by the inability of institutions to adapt to changing circumstances. Decay was thus in many ways a condition of political development: the old had to break down in order to make way for the new. But the transitions could be extremely chaotic and violent, and there was no guarantee that the old political institutions would continuously and peacefully adapt to new conditions. This model is a good starting point for a broader understanding of political decay more generally. Institutions are ‘stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour,’ as Huntington put it, the most important function of which is to facilitate collective action. Without some set of clear and relatively stable rules, human beings would have to renegotiate their interactions at every turn. Such rules are often culturally determined and vary across different societies and eras, but the capacity to create and adhere to them is genetically hard-wired into the human brain. A natural tendency to conformism helps give institutions inertia and is what has allowed human societies to achieve levels of social cooperation unmatched by any other animal species. The very stability of institutions, however, is also the source of political decay. Institutions are created to meet the demands of specific circumstances, but then circumstances change and institutions fail to adapt. One reason is cognitive: people develop mental models of how the world works and tend to stick to them, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Another reason is group interest: institutions create favored classes of insiders who develop a stake in the status quo and resist pressures to reform”.

Interestingly he makes the point “In theory, democracy, and particularly the Madisonian version of democracy that was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, should mitigate the problem of such insider capture by preventing the emergence of a dominant faction or elite that can use its political power to tyrannize over the country. It does so by spreading power among a series of competing branches of government and allowing for competition among different interests across a large and diverse country. But Madisonian democracy frequently fails to perform as advertised. Elite insiders typically have superior access to power and information, which they use to protect their interests. Ordinary voters will not get angry at a corrupt politician if they don’t know that money is being stolen in the first place”.

He adds that “liberal democracy is almost universally associated with market economies, which tend to produce winners and losers and amplify what James Madison termed the ‘different and unequal faculties of acquiring property.’ This type of economic inequality is not in itself a bad thing, insofar as it stimulates innovation and growth and occurs under conditions of equal access to the economic system. It becomes highly problematic, however, when the economic winners seek to convert their wealth into unequal political influence. They can do so by bribing a legislator or a bureaucrat, that is, on a transactional basis, or, what is more damaging, by changing the institutional rules to favour themselves — for example, by closing off competition in markets they already dominate, tilting the playing field ever more steeply in their favour. Political decay thus occurs when institutions fail to adapt to changing external circumstances, either out of intellectual rigidities or because of the power of incumbent elites to protect their positions and block change. Decay can afflict any type of political system, authoritarian or democratic. And while democratic political systems theoretically have self-correcting mechanisms that allow them to reform, they also open themselves up to decay by legitimating the activities of powerful interest groups that can block needed change”.

This is why the system of political funding in America, in Europe is of such importance. Whoever has funding and access to politicians will inevitably gain. The solution is obvious and has been stated before but the state must control all funding of political parties based on a proportion of how each party does at election time. All other sources of funding such be effectively banned, apart from small donations of 100 or 200 dollars or pounds or euros. The consequences of not doing this has been seen, so what is to be lost in doing it? This will only be done if governments can challenge and unseat vested interests but it is only likely to do this if the problem becomes so bad that there is no other alternative.

He mentions that “Modern liberal democracies have three branches of government — the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature — corresponding to the three basic categories of political institutions: the state, the rule of law, and democracy. The executive is the branch that uses power to enforce rules and carry out policy; the judiciary and the legislature constrain power and direct it to public purposes. In its institutional priorities, the United States, with its long-standing tradition of distrust of government power, has always emphasized the role of the institutions of constraint — the judiciary and the legislature — over the state”.

He notes the “the apparently irreversible increase in the scope of government in the twentieth century has masked a large decay in its quality. This is largely because the United States has returned in certain ways to being a “state of courts and parties,” that is, one in which the courts and the legislature have usurped many of the proper functions of the executive, making the operation of the government as a whole both incoherent and inefficient”.

He turns to the courts and writes that “The primary mover in the Brown case was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a private voluntary association that filed a class-action suit against the Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education on behalf of a small group of parents and their children. The initiative had to come from private groups, of course, because both the state government and the U.S. Congress were blocked by pro-segregation forces. The NAACP continued to press the case on appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was represented by the future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. What was arguably one of the most important changes in American public policy came about not because Congress as representative of the American people voted for it but because private individuals litigated through the court system to change the rules. Later changes such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were the result of congressional action, but even in these cases, the enforcement of national law was left up to the initiative of private parties and carried out by courts. There is virtually no other liberal democracy that proceeds in this fashion. All European countries have gone through similar changes in the legal status of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and gays in the second half of the twentieth century. But in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, the same result was achieved not using the courts but through a national justice ministry acting on behalf of a parliamentary majority. The legislative rule change was driven by public pressure from social groups and the media but was carried out by the government itself and not by private parties acting in conjunction with the justice system”.

Depressingly he writes “The explosion of opportunities for litigation gave access, and therefore power, to many formerly excluded groups, beginning with African Americans. For this reason, litigation and the right to sue have been jealously guarded by many on the progressive left. But it also entailed large costs in terms of the quality of public policy. Kagan illustrates this with the case of the dredging of Oakland Harbor, in California. During the 1970s, the Port of Oakland initiated plans to dredge the harbor in anticipation of the new, larger classes of container ships that were then coming into service. The plan, however, had to be approved by a host of federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as their counterparts in the state of California. A succession of alternative plans for disposing of toxic materials dredged from the harbor were challenged in the courts, and each successive plan entailed prolonged delays and higher costs. The reaction of the Environmental Protection Agency to these lawsuits was to retreat into a defensive crouch and not take action. The final plan to proceed with the dredging was not forthcoming until 1994, at an ultimate cost that was many times the original estimates. A comparable expansion of the Port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, was accomplished in a fraction of the time. Examples such as this can be found across the entire range of activities undertaken by the U.S. government. Many of the travails of the Forest Service can be attributed to the ways in which its judgments could be second-guessed through the court system. This effectively brought to a halt all logging on lands it and the Bureau of Land Management operated in the Pacific Northwest during the early 1990s, as a result of threats to the spotted owl, which was protected under the Endangered Species Act”.

He argues that “A decentralised, legalistic approach to administration dovetails with the other notable feature of the U.S. political system: its openness to the influence of interest groups. Such groups can get their way by suing the government directly. But they have another, even more powerful channel, one that controls significantly more resources: Congress”.

He goes on to elaborate,”With the exception of some ambassadorships and top posts in government departments, U.S. political parties are no longer in the business of distributing government offices to loyal political supporters. But the trading of political influence for money has come in through the backdoor, in a form that is perfectly legal and much harder to eradicate. Criminalized bribery is narrowly defined in U.S. law as a transaction in which a politician and a private party explicitly agree on a specific quid pro quo. What is not covered by the law is what biologists call reciprocal altruism, or what an anthropologist might label a gift exchange. In a relationship of reciprocal altruism, one person confers a benefit on another with no explicit expectation that it will buy a return favour. Indeed, if one gives someone a gift and then immediately demands a gift in return, the recipient is likely to feel offended and refuse what is offered. In a gift exchange, the receiver incurs not a legal obligation to provide some specific good or service but rather a moral obligation to return the favor in some way later on. It is this sort of transaction that the U.S. lobbying industry is built around”.

He makes the point that “The explosion of interest groups and lobbying in Washington has been astonishing, with the number of firms with registered lobbyists rising from 175 in 1971 to roughly 2,500 a decade later, and then to 13,700 lobbyists spending about $3.5 billion by 2009. Some scholars have argued that all this money and activity has not resulted in measurable changes in policy along the lines desired by the lobbyists, implausible as this may seem. But oftentimes, the impact of interest groups and lobbyists is not to stimulate new policies but to make existing legislation much worse than it would otherwise be. The legislative process in the United States has always been much more fragmented than in countries with parliamentary systems and disciplined parties. The welter of congressional committees with overlapping jurisdictions often leads to multiple and conflicting mandates for action. This decentralized legislative process produces incoherent laws and virtually invites involvement by interest groups, which, if not powerful enough to shape overall legislation, can at least protect their specific interests. For example, the health-care bill pushed by the Obama administration in 2010 turned into something of a monstrosity during the legislative process as a result of all the concessions and side payments that had to be made to interest groups ranging from doctors to insurance companies to the pharmaceutical industry. In other cases, the impact of interest groups was to block legislation harmful to their interests. The simplest and most effective response to the 2008 financial crisis and the hugely unpopular taxpayer bailouts of large banks would have been a law that put a hard cap on the size of financial institutions or a law that dramatically raised capital requirements, which would have had much the same effect. If a cap on size existed, banks taking foolish risks could go bankrupt without triggering a systemic crisis and a government bailout. Like the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, such a law could have been written on a couple of sheets of paper. But this possibility was not seriously considered during the congressional deliberations on financial regulation”.

An example of this he argues is the “Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which, while better than no regulation at all, extended to hundreds of pages of legislation and mandated reams of further detailed rules that will impose huge costs on banks and consumers down the road. Rather than simply capping bank size, it created the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which was assigned the enormous task of assessing and managing institutions posing systemic risks”.

Under the heading, What Madison Got Wrong he writes “The economist Mancur Olson made one of the most famous arguments about the malign effects of interest-group politics on economic growth and, ultimately, democracy in his 1982 book The Rise and Decline of Nations. Looking particularly at the long-term economic decline of the United Kingdom throughout the twentieth century, he argued that in times of peace and stability, democracies tended to accumulate ever-increasing numbers of interest groups. Instead of pursuing wealth-creating economic activities, these groups used the political system to extract benefits or rents for themselves. These rents were collectively unproductive and costly to the public as a whole. But the general public had a collective-action problem and could not organize as effectively as, for example, the banking industry or corn producers to protect their interests. The result was the steady diversion of energy to rent-seeking activities over time, a process that could be halted only by a large shock such as a war or a revolution. This highly negative narrative about interest groups stands in sharp contrast to a much more positive one about the benefits of civil society, or voluntary associations, to the health of democracy. Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America that Americans had a strong propensity to organize private associations, which he argued were schools for democracy because they taught private individuals the skills of coming together for public purposes”.

He elobrates “Madison himself had a relatively benign view of interest groups. Even if one did not approve of the ends that a particular group was seeking, he argued, the diversity of groups over a large country would be sufficient to prevent domination by any one of them. As the political scientist Theodore Lowi has noted, “pluralist” political theory in the mid-twentieth century concurred with Madison: the cacophony of interest groups would collectively interact to produce a public interest, just as competition in a free market would provide public benefit through individuals’ following their narrow self-interests”.

He goes on later in the article to note, “Democracies must balance the need to allow full opportunities for political participation for all, on the one hand, and the need to get things done, on the other. Ideally, democratic decisions would be taken by consensus, with every member of the community consenting. This is what typically happens in families, and how band- and tribal-level societies often make decisions. The efficiency of consensual decision-making, however, deteriorates rapidly as groups become larger and more diverse, and so for most groups, decisions are made not by consensus but with the consent of some subset of the population. The smaller the percentage of the group necessary to take a decision, the more easily and efficiently it can be made, but at the expense of long-run buy-in. Even systems of majority rule deviate from an ideal democratic procedure, since they can disenfranchise nearly half the population. Indeed, under a plurality, or “first past the post,” electoral system, decisions can be taken for the whole community by a minority of voters. Systems such as these are adopted not on the basis of any deep principle of justice but rather as an expedient that allows decisions of some sort to be made. Democracies also create various other mechanisms, such as cloture rules (enabling the cutting off of debate), rules restricting the ability of legislators to offer amendments, and so-called reversionary rules, which allow for action in the event that a legislature can’t come to agreement”.

He makes the point that “the so-called Westminster system, which evolved in England in the years following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, is one of the most decisive in the democratic world because, in its pure form, it has very few veto points. British citizens have one large, formal check on government, their ability to periodically elect Parliament. (The tradition of free media in the United Kingdom is another important informal check.) In all other respects, however, the system concentrates, rather than diffuses, power. The pure Westminster system has only a single, all-powerful legislative chamber — no separate presidency, no powerful upper house, no written constitution and therefore no judicial review, and no federalism or constitutionally mandated devolution of powers to localities. It has a plurality voting system that, along with strong party discipline, tends to produce a two-party system and strong parliamentary majorities. The British equivalent of the cloture rule requires only a simple majority of the members of Parliament to be present to call the question; American-style filibustering is not allowed. The parliamentary majority chooses a government with strong executive powers, and when it makes a legislative decision, it generally cannot be stymied by courts, states, municipalities, or other bodies. This is why the British system is often described as a “democratic dictatorship.” For all its concentrated powers, the Westminster system nonetheless remains fundamentally democratic, because if voters don’t like the government it produces, they can vote it out of office. In fact, with a vote of no confidence, they can do so immediately, without waiting for the end of a presidential term. This means that governments are more sensitive to perceptions of their general performance than to the needs of particular interest groups or lobbies”.

He goes on to contrast the budget process in the UK “The Westminster system produces stronger governments than those in the United States, as can be seen by comparing their budget processes. In the United Kingdom, national budgets are drawn up by professional civil servants acting under instructions from the cabinet and the prime minister. The budget is then presented by the chancellor of the exchequer to the House of Commons, which votes to approve it in a single up-or-down vote, usually within a week or two” with that in the US which can and does take months, “The budget works its way through a complex set of committees over a period of months, and what finally emerges for ratification by the two houses of Congress is the product of innumerable deals struck with individual members to secure their support — since with no party discipline, the congressional leadership cannot compel members to support its preferences. The openness and never-ending character of the U.S. budget process gives lobbyists and interest groups multiple points at which to exercise influence. In most European parliamentary systems, it would make no sense for an interest group to lobby an individual member of parliament, since the rules of party discipline would give that legislator little or no influence over the party leadership’s position. In the United States, by contrast, an influential committee chairmanship confers enormous powers to modify legislation and therefore becomes the target of enormous lobbying activity”.

He adds later that “In full perspective, therefore, the U.S. political system presents a complex picture in which checks and balances excessively constrain decision-making on the part of majorities, but in which there are also many instances of potentially dangerous delegations of authority to poorly accountable institutions. One major problem is that these delegations are seldom made cleanly. Congress frequently fails in its duty to provide clear legislative guidance on how a particular agency is to perform its task, leaving it up to the agency itself to write its own mandate. In doing so, Congress hopes that if things don’t work out, the courts will step in to correct the abuses. Excessive delegation and vetocracy thus become intertwined. In a parliamentary system, the majority party or coalition controls the government directly; members of parliament become ministers who have the authority to change the rules of the bureaucracies they control. Parliamentary systems can be blocked if parties are excessively fragmented and coalitions unstable, as has been the case frequently in Italy. But once a parliamentary majority has been established, there is a relatively straight-forward delegation of authority to an executive agency”.

He writes that the “obvious solution to a legislature’s inability to act is to transfer more authority to the separately elected executive. Latin American countries with presidential systems have been notorious for gridlock and ineffective legislatures and have often cut through the maze by granting presidents emergency powers — which, in turn, has often led to other kinds of abuses. Under conditions of divided government, when the party controlling one or both houses of Congress is different from the one controlling the presidency, strengthening the executive at the expense of Congress becomes a matter of partisan politics. Delegating more authority to President Barack Obama is the last thing that House Republicans want to do today”.

Thankfully he realises that “In many respects, the American system of checks and balances compares unfavorably with parliamentary systems when it comes to the ability to balance the need for strong state action with law and accountability. Parliamentary systems tend not to judicialize administration to nearly the same extent; they have proliferated government agencies less, they write more coherent legislation, and they are less subject to interest-group influence. Germany, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries, in particular, have been able to sustain higher levels of trust in government, which makes public administration less adversarial, more consensual, and better able to adapt to changing conditions of globalization”.

He concludes “The U.S. political system has decayed over time because its traditional system of checks and balances has deepened and become increasingly rigid. In an environment of sharp political polarization, this decentralized system is less and less able to represent majority interests and gives excessive representation to the views of interest groups and activist organizations that collectively do not add up to a sovereign American people. This is not the first time that the U.S. political system has been polarized and indecisive. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, it could not make up its mind about the extension of slavery to the territories, and in the later decades of the century, it couldn’t decide if the country was a fundamentally agrarian society or an industrial one. The Madisonian system of checks and balances and the clientelistic, party-driven political system that emerged in the nineteenth century were adequate for governing an isolated, largely agrarian country. They could not, however, resolve the acute political crisis produced by the question of the extension of slavery, nor deal with a continental-scale economy increasingly knit together by new transportation and communications technologies”.

He ends, “Two obstacles stand in the way of reversing the trend toward decay. The first is a matter of politics. Many political actors in the United States recognize that the system isn’t working well but nonetheless have strong interests in keeping things as they are. Neither political party has an incentive to cut itself off from access to interest-group money, and the interest groups don’t want a system in which money won’t buy influence. As happened in the 1880s, a reform coalition has to emerge that unites groups without a stake in the current system. But achieving collective action among such out-groups is very difficult; they need leadership and a clear agenda, neither of which is currently present. The second problem is a matter of ideas. The traditional American solution to perceived governmental dysfunction has been to try to expand democratic participation and transparency. This happened at a national level in the 1970s, for example, as reformers pushed for more open primaries, greater citizen access to the courts, and round-the-clock media coverage of Congress, even as states such as California expanded their use of ballot initiatives to get around unresponsive government. But as the political scientist Bruce Cain has pointed out, most citizens have neither the time, nor the background, nor the inclination to grapple with complex public policy issues; expanding participation has simply paved the way for well-organized groups of activists to gain more power. The obvious solution to this problem would be to roll back some of the would-be democratizing reforms, but no one dares suggest that what the country needs is a bit less participation and transparency. The depressing bottom line is that given how self-reinforcing the country’s political malaise is, and how unlikely the prospects for constructive incremental reform are, the decay of American politics will probably continue until some external shock comes along to catalyze a true reform coalition and galvanize it into action”.

Abadi takes office

13/09/2014

Iraq’s parliament approved a new government headed by Haider al-Abadi as prime minister on Monday night, in a bid to rescue Iraq from collapse, with sectarianism and Arab-Kurdish tensions on the rise.  Abadi, a Shi’ite Islamist, included members of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority and its Kurdish and Sunni minorities in his cabinet as he started his uphill task to unify the country after this summer’s devastating loss of territory across northern Iraq to Islamic State fighters. Adel Abdel Mehdi from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq was named oil minister while Ibrahim Jafaari, a former premier, was named foreign minister. Rowsch Shaways, a Kurd, was named finance minister. No interior or defense minister was named but Abadi pledged to do so within a week, bringing the cabinet to 37 posts. Abadi’s deputy prime ministers are Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd and Iraq’s only post-Saddam Hussein foreign minister, Saleh Mutlaq, a secular Sunni Muslim who served in the same position in the last government, and Baha Arraji, a Shi’ite Islamist and former lawmaker. The parliament approved for the ceremonial posts of vice presidents the last prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, like Abadi from the Shi’ite Islamist Dawa party; former premier Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite; and the last parliament speaker Usama al-Nujaifi. The three have been seen as political rivals”.

Obama’s half hearted intervention

11/09/2014

President Obama has given a speech laying out his strategy to deal with the threat of ISIS, an article notes “authorized a major expansion of the military campaign against rampaging Sunni militants in the Middle East, including American airstrikes in Syria and the deployment of 475 more military advisers to Iraq. But he sought to dispel fears that the United States was embarking on a repeat of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.authorized a major expansion of the military campaign against rampaging Sunni militants in the Middle East, including American airstrikes in Syria and the deployment of 475 more military advisers to Iraq. But he sought to dispel fears that the United States was embarking on a repeat of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”.

The piece goes on to mention “The president drew a distinction between the military action he was ordering and the two wars begun by his predecessor, George W. Bush. He likened this campaign to the selective airstrikes that the United States has carried out for years against suspected terrorists in Yemen and Somalia, few of which have been made public. After enduring harsh criticism for saying two weeks ago that he did not have a strategy for dealing with ISIS in Syria, Mr. Obama outlined a plan that will bolster American training and arming of moderate Syrian rebels to fight the militants. Saudi Arabia has agreed to provide a base for the training of those forces. Mr. Obama called on Congress to authorize the plan to train and equip the rebels — something the Central Intelligence Agency has been doing covertly and on a much smaller scale — but he asserted his authority as commander in chief to expand the overall campaign, which will bring the number of American troops in Iraq to 1,600″.

In a superb article David Rothkopf writes that by limiting the goals of American forces In Iraq, President Obama has made the worse mistake, not doing enough to end ISIS and its reign of terror and having US forces leave.

He opens “last night, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of those attacks, President Barack Obama — elected in large part to bring American troops home from the Middle East — announced with palpable reluctance and grim resolve, another open-ended commitment of the U.S. military to go to war in the region. Judging from the president’s words and the complexity of the fight America is now entering, it seems likely that my daughters’ generation — that of the young members of the U.S. military who will serve in this latest conflict — will themselves welcome their own children into a world in which American troops are still fighting in the desert battlegrounds in and around Iraq. This was not what Barack Obama had envisioned for his presidency. But the threat posed by the rise of the radical jihadist Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq has proven too great to ignore. The deaths of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, have galvanized public attention and offered graphic testimony to the manifest evil of the extremists’ tactics and intentions. The fact that IS, during the course of the past year, has gained control of large swaths of Iraq and is threatening to install its self-described caliphate in the heart of an already volatile region created a strategic threat — not only to American interests but also to a broad cross-section of U.S. allies and rivals in the region. As the Islamic State rampaged — virtually unchecked — across the Levant in recent months, it became clear not only that something must be done but that there might be a ready coalition in place to help do it”.

Crucially he argues that “Obama held back. The carnage of Syria, the crucible in which the Islamic State was forged, had been as horrific a humanitarian crisis as had emerged during his watch as president. His advisors, notably former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA director David Petraeus, urged him to take action to help contain the devastation. And yet, he had also held back then. Last year, the president almost acted against the Damascus regime, but even then, even in the face of chemical weapons atrocities, he was so committed to resisting the lure of this region’s unending wars that he pulled back at the last minute from even a fairly modest military intervention. Getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan was what he had entered the White House to do. If anything, Obama had pressed to get every last troop out of Iraq before Baghdad was ready to handle its own security problems, before it had resolved its own internal political problems”.

Rothkopf writes that “If the prior administration had erred in the direction of being too quick to intervene, Obama was the opposite. Even when he did take action, as in Libya, he got out so quickly that more chaos followed. Wearied by a generation at war, this president (who was still in law school when the first Gulf War began, who was himself of a generation who had spent its entire adult life witnessing these distant wars), viscerally felt the country had no appetite for more. That is why it is so important to look at Obama’s remarks last night outside the politics of the moment, to set aside one’s personal feelings about his competence or choices as a president thus far, and to see them in a historical context. It is hard to imagine an American president more committed to not deepening this country’s involvement in the Middle East. Yet there he was. And here we were again”.

He summarises the speech, “Seeking, as ever, to avoid the perceived mistakes of the Bush era and to minimize risks, Obama laid out a plan that called for a coalition of nations to pool their resources to fight the Islamic State. It had four elements: airstrikes, more support for ground forces (not American), ramped-up efforts to fight terrorism, and increased humanitarian assistance. Obama announced that he would chair a U.N. Security Council meeting to win international support for the effort and that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel the world seeking to expand the coalition and deepen its capabilities and resources. And, he made clear, the United States will avoid fighting this war like the last Iraq war. Rather, he asserted, it will be more like the American effort against terrorists in Yemen and Somalia — conflicts in which drones, intelligence, and limited special operations involvement have surgically chipped away at enemies without exposing ground troops to the risks of conventional battles”.

Rothkopf makes the point that “Yet the reality is that was that while Barack Obama is acutely aware of, and inclined to avoid, the pitfalls of his predecessors — and even as he took a strong stand not just against terror but against his own past policies in Syria and Iraq — the speech has raised as many questions as it answered: particularly as he has yet to acknowledge many other of his administration’s prior errors and misfires. The president’s address offered inevitable platitudes about leadership and resolve, but the examples it offered were oddly not comforting. He spoke of American prowess fighting terror — even as he noted its spread throughout the region (official assessments in recent days that the Islamic State may pose a greater threat than al Qaeda only add to this dissonant message). His desire to ensure limits on U.S. actions, while understandable, has repeatedly undercut his effectiveness in the region. Indeed, it was troubling to note that, despite the advice to the contrary of senior experts with whom he met prior to the speech, a substantial portion of his remarks were devoted to what this new intervention was not going to be”.

He adds, “A strategy requires achievable goals and a plan to realize them. A good U.S. national security strategy also should be built around an outcome that enduringly advances national interests. This speech lacked several key components in both respects. It did not specify who was in the coalition that would help achieve our goals or what the division of labor would be among the participants. Most glaringly in this respect, it did not address the issue of who would be providing the critical “boots on the ground” component of the coalition, the ones our air power would support. There is no strategy without them. There is also no good strategy if, by default, they end up being bad guys who pose a different kind of threat — as would be the case if we end up being the air force for the Syrian regime in its battle with IS, or with Iranian troops, or with Iranian-led Iraqi troops (as has already been the case in Mosul and Amerli). The speech also posited an end game where empowered Sunnis in Iraq would fill the political void left by the destruction of the Islamic State — even though the idea that the government in Baghdad will embrace and actively support such a reality is wishful fantasy”.

He mentions later that “But even were these problems to be addressed successfully, the bigger issue is that the threat to regional stability and U.S. interests is not posed by the Islamic State alone but by all the extremist groups in the regions — Hamas, Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda, Ansar al-Shariah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the list goes on. Defeating just one only leaves us where we would be with the destruction of core al Qaeda. But the problems lie even deeper. The president may want to cherry-pick his enemy of the moment, but members of our would-be “coalition” — like key Gulf Allies or Jordan — are willing to participate only to the degree that the effort extends beyond IS to the broader threats that are of greater concern to them. If we drag our feet on this expanded target list (as we will), so will they. More problematically, some possible members of this coalition (see: Qatar, Turkey) actively support some of these other groups. Combine that with the fact that our actions may actually help advance the interests of Iran, Shiites in Iraq, and Assad in Syria — all anathema to key members of the coalition — and you can’t help but conclude that holding this group together will be much more difficult than actually convening it”.

Rothkopf concludes, “Hence, there is only one conclusion one can draw from last night’s speech: What Obama began last night will be left to another president to finish. And it will continue to be a troubling constant in the life of a generation of Americans who have never known life without their countrymen engaged in military action in the Middle East”.

 

America and Saudis talk

11/09/2014

Saudi Arabia will hold talks about militant violence in the region on Thursday with the United States and Muslim allies, the kingdom announced on Tuesday, in an apparent attempt to support international efforts to tackle crises in Iraq and Syria. The world’s No. 1 oil exporter is unnerved by the rapid advance of Islamic State — a militant group that has overrun swathes of Iraq and Syria — and fears it could radicalize some of its own citizens and lead to attacks on the U.S.-allied government. “The meeting will tackle the issue of terrorism in the region and the extremist organizations that stand behind it and the means of addressing it,” a statement carried on the official Saudi Press Agency said. It said the participants would include Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and member states of the six-country Gulf Coopertion Council (GCC), which in addition to the kingdom comprises Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. Arab League foreign ministers agreed on Sunday to take all necessary measures to confront the Islamic State”.

Putin using nukes?

11/09/2014

An article in Foreign Policy questions whether Putin will start World War III with his threats to use nuclear weapons. It opens, “Ever the one to administer bracing doses of Geopolitics 101 to his opponents, especially those inclined to underestimate his nerve, President Vladimir Putin, at a youth forum north of Moscow last week, reminded the world that “Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. This is a reality, not just words.” (Indeed it is.) Fifteen days earlier, on Aug. 14, at a conference in Yalta, the Russian president had told the assembled factions of the State Duma that he soon planned to ‘surprise the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons about which we do not talk yet.’ This came as Russian strategic nuclear bombers and fighter jets have been accused of violating the airspace of the United States and Western European countries with mounting frequency, while under the surface of the world’s seas Russian and U.S. nuclear submarines have been involved in confrontations recalling the worst days of the Cold War. As NATO leaders convene for their summit in Wales, Russia just announced that its strategic nuclear forces will hold exercises of unprecedented dimensions this month. And the Kremlin, for its part, just declared that it will amend its military doctrine to reflect Russia’s growing tensions with NATO. What this means exactly remains unclear, but in view of the rising tensions with the Western alliance, it cannot be good”.

He adds “Russia has also been purportedly breaching the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibits Russia (and the United States) from possessing the sort of missiles that could be used against targets in Europe. If Barack Obama entered the White House hoping to reduce atomic weapons stockpiles and make the world a safer place, it looks like he will leave it with a Russia boasting a more lethal arsenal of nuclear weapons than at any time since the Cold War. But Putin would never actually use nuclear weapons, would he? The scientist and longtime Putin critic Andrei Piontkovsky, a former executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow and a political commentator for the BBC World Service, believes he might. In August, Piontkovsky published a troubling account of what he believes Putin might do to win the current standoff with the West — and, in one blow, destroy NATO as an organisation and finish off what’s left of America’s credibility as the world’s guardian of peace”.

He goes on to mention “Piontkovsky explains the positions of the two camps presenting Putin with advice about how to resolve the Ukraine crisis. The first, the “Peace Party,” as he calls it, composed of those occupying posts in influential think tanks, including, in this case, Sergey Karaganov, the head of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, urges Putin to declare victory in Ukraine now and thereby end the conflict. Having taken note of the lengths to which Moscow will go to prevent Ukraine from slipping out of its orbit, NATO will almost certainly never invite the former Soviet republic to join its ranks, the Peace Party argues. And Russia has already won tacit acceptance from the international community of its acquisition of Crimea. Piontkovsky dismisses out of hand the possibility of Putin pursuing this solution. If Putin chose to go this route, he would look defeated, and looming before him would be the fate of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was deposed and forced into retirement following his failed, and nearly catastrophic, 1962 attempt to secure communism in Cuba by stationing nuclear missiles there”.

The other camp putting pressure on Putin, the “War Party,” however, gives the president two options. The first, writes Piontkovsky, is a ‘romantic and inspiring scenario: World War IV between the Orthodox Russian World, now risen from its knees, against the rotting and decadent Anglo-Saxon World.’ (World War III, in his view, has already happened: the Cold War.) This World War IV would be a conventional war with NATO — and it would not go well. Given NATO’s superior armed forces and Russia’s comparative economic, scientific, and technological weaknesses, a conventional campaign would, Piontkovsky concludes, end with Russia’s defeat”.

Worryingly he adds that “That leaves Putin only one option: a nuclear attack. Not a massive launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles at the United States or Western Europe, which would bring about a suicidal atomic holocaust, but a small, tactical strike or two against a NATO member that few in the West would be willing to die to protect. Piontkovsky surmises that, in such a conflict, the nuclear-armed country with the ‘superior political will’ to alter the geopolitical ‘status quo’ and — most importantly — with the ‘greater indifference to values concerning human lives’ would prevail. Any guesses which country that would be? But what would trigger a Russian attack? According to Piontkovsky’s scenario, it could be something as simple as a plebiscite: the Estonian city of Narva, overwhelmingly ethnically Russian and adjacent to Russia, deciding to hold a referendum on joining the Motherland”.

He adds “Suddenly, the most terrifying nightmare becomes reality: NATO faces war with Russia. How would Putin then react? Piontkovsky believes that NATO would balk at attacking Moscow over a small country remote from NATO’s heartland and the hearts of its citizens. Piontkovsky imagines the course of action open to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Obama as he contemplates unleashing a planetary holocaust over a ‘damned little city no one has even heard of’ while the American public cries out, ‘We don’t want to die for fucking Narva, Mr. President!’ Piontkovsky also cites a German public opinion poll asking what Berlin should do if Estonia enters an armed conflict with Russia: 70 percent would want their country to remain neutral”.

In some ways a war with Russia would be welcomed. It would end in a humiliating defeat for Russia and bring it back to reality ending the worsening bubble that modern Russians live in thanks to Putin’s tyranny.

The writer goes on to mention “It might all sound a bit far-fetched. On the surface, there are obvious reasons that Putin would not want to be the first to fire nuclear weapons at anyone, even his die-hard adversaries in NATO. It would be, to put it mildly, risky, and would irremediably besmirch his place, and Russia’s, in history. The world would unite against him and could do more damage to the Russian economy, which is highly dependent on food imports and the export of hydrocarbons, than anyone now can imagine. And domestically, Russian anti-war sentiment is formidable. The Russian public has, throughout the crisis, adored Putin for standing up to the West and retaking Crimea, and it even supports Russia’s arming the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. But Russians have shown no appetite for direct military intervention, which is one reason the Kremlin repeatedly asserts that it has no troops or materiel on Ukrainian soil”.

He ends “But it’s worth remembering that since 2000 Russian nuclear doctrine has foreseen the deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons to de-escalate a conflict with NATO, if Russian forces were about to suffer defeat in a conventional conflict — which shows that the Kremlin has already been betting that neither Obama nor the leaders of other nuclear powers would push the button if they could avoid it. The Kremlin is probably right”.

“Discrepancies and questions”

11/09/2014

The United Nations said on Thursday that discrepancies and questions still surround Syria’s chemical weapons declaration as the United States expressed concern that any omitted toxins could fall into the hands of the Islamic State extremist militants. Sigrid Kaag, head of a joint U.N. and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, said that since President Bashar al-Assad’s government submitted its original declaration late last year, Damascus had made four amendments. “The declaration by the Syrian authorities themselves – there are still some discrepancies or questions that are being asked,” she said after briefing the U.N. Security Council for the last time before the joint mission ends on Sept. 30. “It’s a discussion that’s continuing in Damascus as well as The Hague.””There are concerns over possible discrepancies in volume and other such matters,” she said. “I am heading back to Damascus in the coming period and we will also pursue that.” But with the ultra-hardline al Qaeda offshoot Islamic State now in control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said there were worries that any undeclared chemical arms could fall into their hands”.