Archive for October, 2014

Overview of the Synod

30/10/2014

Now the the Synod of Bishops has concluded the key events are noted. Rocco writes that “After an unusual 12-day wait, yesterday finally brought the Holy See’s translations of the Final Relatio (report) from this month’s assembly. As the Pope himself stipulated in his closing remarks, it bears particular reminding that the 62-paragraph text doesn’t merely represent the closing snapshot of the first gathering, but now becomes the Lineamenta – the initial “baseline” of next year’s Ordinary Synod – presented to the episcopal conferences and the wider church for its discernment in setting the agenda of the climactic showdown, scheduled for 4-25 October 2015 in Rome. (To put the text’s significance in context, the extensive survey released last year under Francis’ close watch served as the Lineamenta for the Synod just past.) With every paragraph of the document voted on by the 183 Synod Fathers – a process previously known as the “Propositiones” all forwarded to the Pope – all of the sections attained an absolute majority of support from the floor. However, three grafs (52, 53, 55) narrowly failed to reach the required two-thirds’ margin (122 votes) for approval, yet were published regardless. While the release of the full list of propositions likewise happened at the close of the last Synod in 2012, the disclosure of the vote-counts on each portion was an innovation at this assembly”.

He goes on to write “Among the sections which garnered the supermajority but registered significant opposition nonetheless, the slimmest margin of full passage belonged to paragraph 41, which called for an improved “pastoral discernment” toward couples living outside the state of Christian marriage. The proposal passed by three votes, 125-54″.

Meanwhile, John Allen writes in Crux that the just ended dramatic Synod of Bishops was just a warm up with an Ordinary General Synod taking place in October 2015.

Allen begins, “Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the tumultuous Synod of Bishops on the family, conclusions are up in the air as to what it all meant. Given the clear divisions that ran through the summit, it should be no surprise that after-the-fact interpretations are also all over the map. For some, the outcome was a defeat for Pope Francis and the more open line they perceive him to represent on issues such as gays and divorce and remarriage. For others, the fact that even watered-down language on those points survived in the synod’s final document represents a watershed, even if, like Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster in the United Kingdom said, they feel it “didn’t go far enough.” Those in favour of allowing Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church to receive Communion can claim a breakthrough in a call for further study on the issue, since previous Vatican documents have closed the door entirely. Some believe the soap opera quality of the two-week gathering, with conservatives complaining of a plot to stifle their voices and liberals grousing about a lack of nerve, suggest Francis has let loose forces he can’t control”.

Allen posits three conclusions “about the 2014 Synod of Bishops that seem reasonably objective. This is not the end, only the beginning. All along, the 2014 synod was designed to do no more than prepare an agenda for the larger Synod of Bishops on the family called by Pope Francis for October 2015. Among other things, that’s why the fissure Saturday night over whether the bishops had “rejected” two paragraphs in the final document by failing to get a two-thirds vote, one on gays and the other on divorce and remarriage, was a category mistake. In reality, the purpose of this meeting wasn’t to “accept” or “reject” anything”.

Allen goes on to write that “Between now and next year, Francis will likely make some important personnel moves that may alter the character of the next group he brings together. For one thing, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who emerged as a leader of the conservative forces during the synod, likely won’t be at the next one because he’s about to be replaced as the head of the Vatican’s highest court. It’s also possible that German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who was another strong conservative voice in the synod, will no longer be running the Vatican’s top doctrinal office by October 2015. Depending on who takes over, that, too, could alter the chemistry. In general, if the pope’s plan to streamline the Vatican by eliminating or consolidating some its departments is in place, there may be fewer Roman officials in the next synod”.

Burke’s removal has long been known, all that is needed is the official announcement of his appointment. Allen’s point about Cardinal Muller is strange. He has confirmed Muller in his post at the CDF. To then transfer him seems odd. This is not to say that Francis could not change his mind. He could send Muller back to Germany as bishop of Mainz, or perhaps archbishop of Berlin. This would leave a vacancy at CDF. While by no means certain, Archbishop Ladaria Ferrer SJ could take the role as prefect.

Interestingly Allen goes on to note “By the same token, retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the chief protagonist of the permissive line on Communion for the divorced and remarried, was at this synod only by special papal invitation, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be back, especially after a sideline controversy over remarks about Africans “not telling us what to do.” For their part, the African bishops were surprised when none of them were named to the drafting committee of the final document, and it’s likely they won’t wait to get to Rome next time before making it clear that they expect a place at the table from the very beginning”.

The second point Allen makes is that “The 2014 synod marked a big win for transparency. For that, those on the conservative side of its arguments can claim most of the credit. At the beginning, Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary general of the synod, announced that the texts of bishops’ talks would not be released, and that Vatican spokesmen would provide only generic overviews to the press without citing speakers by name. That led to mounting protests from conservatives, who suspected an effort to mute criticism of the more liberal line held by some of the synod’s key figures. The discontent burst into full public view last Monday, when an interim report contained remarkably positive language on gays, living together outside marriage, and divorce and remarriage. Conservatives objected, and rightly, that the report was taken as the conclusions of the whole synod when not everyone agreed with it”.

The result of this is that “From that point forward, things became steadily more open. Baldisseri was compelled to go along with releasing all the internal reports from the 10 small groups at the synod, and at the end, Francis decided to release not only the synod’s final document, but also the vote totals for each paragraph — and in record time. It seems probable the next synod will be far more transparent from the beginning, because no one will want to go through this again”.

Interestingly Allen writes that “it’s also a safe bet that a few prelates may quietly suggest to Francis that he consider finding other work for Baldisseri, who left a number of people underwhelmed by his performance”.

Where he could go and whether he would be moved is difficult to say. Technically Cardinal Baldisseri would be 75 just before the start of the next Synod and could be retired on age grounds. Yet, Francis may not want to do this and may decide it is better to have Baldisseri see out the 2015 Synod before retiring him. Francis may also be concerned that if he gave ground and replaced Baldisseri then it would look like the project that he may, or may not have in mind, would be under question from Francis himself.

The final point Allen notes is that “Francis doesn’t choke in big moments. He delivered a speech at the end of the synod that virtually everyone agreed was among the best of his papacy. It offered the vision statement of a moderate pontiff, urging the Church to shun both a “hostile rigidity” and a “false mercy.” He drew thunderous applause, including from prelates who shortly before, at least metaphorically, had been at one another’s throats. In effect, it was the kind of speech that both a Raymond Burke and a Walter Kasper could walk away from feeling as if the pope understands them, and it seemed to allow what had been a sometimes nasty two-week stretch to end on a high note. However neat a trick that was, however, it may pale in comparison to the challenge of holding the Church together as things go forward”.

Indeed the speech given by Pope Francis at the close of the Synod was remarkable for a number of reasons. During his speech Francis said “One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals”.

This approach, as Allen said, eased the still substantial tensions Francis said “The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.””

Francis went on to mention “Personally I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions”.

Interestingly, Francis, not given to quoting Canon law said that the Synod was cum Petro et sub Petro (with Peter and under Peter), he went on to say, “the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being – by the will of Christ Himself – the “supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful” (Can. 749) and despite enjoying “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church” (cf. Cann. 331-334)”.

This was a very clear word to Cardinal Burke. By quoting Canon Law,  Francis effectively reminded Burke, on Burke’s “turf”, that the pope is in charge.

 

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Afghan IEC reports

30/10/2014

The results of this year’s Provincial Council elections were announced after over four and a half months delay. According to the Independent Election Commission (IEC), 458 individuals won seats on provincial councils around the country, and 97 of them are women. When asked about the cause of the months of delay, the Independent Election Commission Chairman said it was the result of the Electoral Complaints Commission’s (ECC) review of complaints. “All the results were with the Electoral Complaints Commission for the past four months and 19 days and we did not have access to them to announce them,” IEC Chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani said. The IEC had planned to announce the results at 2:00pm on Saturday, but ended up doing it around 4:00pm.  The IEC has received a good deal of criticism over its performance during this year’s election process, especially from Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and his supporters. Indeed, reform in the election commissions was part of the national unity agreement made between Abdullah and President Ashraf Ghani. “If Dr. Abdullah Abdullah or any other government official wants to bring reform in the IEC or any other institution, we accept it, but only if its based on the law,” Nuristani said on Saturday.The IEC said that 2,590 individuals ran in the provincial council elections. And that out of 6,097,992 votes, in the end, 747,000 ballots were discarded by the audit”.

Slow reform in China

30/10/2014
A piece discusses the Chinese Central Bank. It begins, “How quickly will China follow through on the ambitious package of economic reforms its government adopted last November? With quarterly growth in the country’s output at a five-year low, at least according to official statistics, it’s the trillion-dollar question. That’s how much economic activity might be unleashed by breaking open state-dominated industries and taking the brakes off capital markets. And the first part of the answer may come down to a choice between two men. One of the most eager reformers in Beijing is Zhou Xiaochuan, the longtime governor of the People’s Bank of China, the country’s central bank. He wants to remove controls on interest rates and allow the renminbi to float freely on international markets, with the goal of giving China a convertible currency — money that traders and investors can buy and sell as often as they want and will accept as they would dollars or euros. At times, his rhetoric has even pushed beyond the comfort level of the Politburo, China’s 25-member leadership council”.
There has been much talk but little action as China in unable to overcome the domestic opposition to privatising state run industries and the workers that are loyal to these companies and thus the state. At the same time they know that growth is slowing and will continue to slow. How this affects the CCP is uncertain but negatively is a safe bet.

The article adds that “Zhou has been in his job since 2002, and his term ends in 2018. His goals for the modernization of China’s monetary policy are in sight, albeit on the horizon. But already there is talk of replacing him — and not for the first time. His tenure predates Xi Jinping’s regime, which began in 2012, and Xi may want a closer ally at the helm of China’s monetary policy. So if Beijing replaces Zhou before 2018, who might his successor be? For years, the logical choice appeared to be Yi Gang, a U.S.-trained academic and internationally respected expert on capital markets and exchange rates. Yi has run the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, the government’s currency board, since 2009, and as such he has been at the vanguard of Zhou’s agenda — though his rhetoric has arguably been more cautious. If China had wanted its central bank governor to stand among the likes of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s Janet Yellen and the European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi, Yi would have fit the bill”.

Indeed if China and the renminbi are to have any credibility to international status then it must float freely. Yet politics is getting in the way of the choice of the successor to Zhou and thus the future of China is also at stake, “now it seems that may not be the case. Guo Shuqing, the governor of Shandong province who is a friend of Zhou and is believed to be a trusted advisor to Xi, apparently has the inside track to the job. He’s known as a reformer too, but he may have been sent to Shandong to cool off after some vigorous work at the China Securities Regulatory Commission.  Ending Zhou’s term early in favour of Guo might be a sign that Xi was more concerned about consolidating his power than about implementing reforms quickly and working in a collegial fashion with the global central banking community”.

As has been seen elsewhere, putting off reform is an easy decision to make but ultimately it will only make decisions harder in the long term. Sadly this is not just a problem for autocracies but democracies as well with America being the obvious example.

The writer goes on to note “If Yi is the pick — and he receives the support from Xi that such a pick would imply — then the demand for renminbi-denominated assets will be likely to spike in response to expectations of looser capital controls, a floating (and perhaps somewhat higher) exchange rate, and a greater opening of the Chinese market in general. The resulting inflow of capital and foreign investment could raise China’s economic growth rate by a couple of percentage points; rapid and full implementation of the reform package might even push the growth rate briefly back into the double digits. But if Guo is the next governor, things might take more time. In that case, the speed of reform might only be enough to cushion the slight decline in economic growth that China has experienced during the past several years. And indeed, Xi may be in no hurry to bring his own plans to fruition. The question is whether he needs a new central bank chief to ensure reform takes his preferred pace.  Xi’s priority so far seems to be to create an image of a strong, modern, and even inspirational leader who reflects his growing nation”.

The writer implies that Guo will be chosen, “Xi may be reluctant to rattle the cages of the vested interests in China’s economy much more. He probably has eight more years to help the Chinese economy progress, and he may value stability and rising stature — both for China and for himself — above sharp increases in incomes. He may prefer to be known as a steady guiding hand or, better yet, another father of his country, rather than as an iconoclast or agent of change. This attitude will suit the vested interests just fine. The longer Xi takes to privatise state-owned enterprises, many of which have grown to enormous size because of constant agglomeration, the more their managers will be able to enrich themselves. The same goes for the bankers, shadow and otherwise, who have exploited the controls in China’s capital markets. They will surely try to give Xi even more reason to drag his feet”.

The key issue is that “The problem is that Chinese economic growth is slowing rather more quickly than expected. Continued weakness in the global economy has slackened the demand for Chinese exports — as has the gradual appreciation of its currency, overseen by Zhou and Yi — and the International Monetary Fund has had to lower its forecasts for China’s GDP half a dozen times in the past three years. Fortunately for Xi, there are other options in case the headline-grabbers in the reform package fail to become reality. Another one of the proposals, a land reform, would give peasants ownership rights and the opportunity to borrow against or sell their plots, perhaps to start a business or move to the city. Loosening rules on internal migration would make urbanization, along with the greater economic prospects that result, easier for many millions of Chinese”.

He ends “Picking the head of a central bank is a momentous decision in any country, let alone the world’s second-biggest economy. This time, the succession may also be a concrete indication of Xi’s thinking about reform: fast or slow”.

 

UK leaves Afghanistan

30/10/2014

The last UK base in Afghanistan has been handed over to the control of Afghan security forces, ending British combat operations in the country. The union flag was lowered at Camp Bastion, while Camp Leatherneck – the adjoining US base – was also handed over to Afghan control. Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would never forget those who had died serving their country. The number of deaths of British troops throughout the conflict stands at 453. The death toll among US military personnel stands at 2,349″.

What ceasefire?

30/10/2014

An article from Chatham House argues that the notion of a ceasefire in Ukraine is an illusion. It begins, “The survival in both Russia and the West of assumptions inherited from the bipolar era of the Cold War gets in the way of policy-making. The Russian narrative argues that because Moscow’s right to rule as a Great Power has been deceitfully frustrated over decades by the West, the Kremlin’s support of forceful action against an allegedly Western-manipulated Kyiv is justified, indeed necessary, in defence of Russian national interests”.

Importantly he argues “This argument is accepted by a number of Western analysts. NATO is depicted as the principal culprit, abetted by the foolishness of the European Union, an interpretation exacerbated by a certain urge in Western countries to don the mantle of guilt, or at least to see the United States as clumsily provocative of Russia”.

He makes the point forcefully that “Putin’s word is worthless. A statelet in Eastern Ukraine would be unstable, disorderly and expensive, as well as a menace to the rest of Ukraine, and to Russia too. Russian-promoted violence cannot enforce brotherhood, just contingent and uncertain subservience. The logical objective for Moscow of its present policies and their consequences is the complete subjection of the whole of Ukraine to the Kremlin’s will. There are many in the West who would prefer it if the problem of Ukraine had never arisen, and who hope that a plausible fix can be found, if only for a period, so that other pressing problems can be addressed, including by working with Moscow”.

The writer adds that “Moscow’s policies towards Ukraine are presented as a struggle between Russia and the West, but are more accurately to be seen as the present outcome of Russia’s failed transition from its Soviet past towards a greater chance of achieving lasting prosperity and a rule-based polity. Sanctions add to the deepening difficulties of the country’s economy, but it was Putin’s decision to close the door on economic and political change after his return to the Kremlin in May 2012 which lies at the root of Russia’s poor prospects. It was Putin’s decision to turn to repression and the tightening of the intellectual and political atmosphere that has still further concentrated both power and policy-making within a narrowing and hermetic circle around him. Even if he wanted to, he could not now turn back. Hatred of the West buttressed by shameless untruth is now an essential element of his rule. So too is the further brutalisation of Russia’s structures. ‘Hybrid warfare’ has been described in the West as effective, but is also despicable. Beating up those who seek the truth about the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine is the sort of degradation that grows. Putting a sticking plaster over Ukraine’s wounds will not address the problem of what has happened to Russia, especially but not only since May 2012, and what that portends for its future”.

He concludes “Putin holds good tactical cards, but his medium and longer-term prospects are poor. Moscow has not turned out to be the partner that many in the West had hoped for. If that is not yet obvious to decision makers in the EU or the United States the risk is that they will be forced to learn it again. The ceasefire in Ukraine is a lull, not an opening for a secure future”.

 

Pakistani Taliban sanctuaries

30/10/2014

Pakistani officials claim to have found evidence of ‘new sanctuaries’ set up by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its affiliates in the Afghan territory near the border with North Waziristan Agency, where a massive military operation, codenamed Zarb-e-Azb, has been ongoing since mid-June. A senior security official told The Express Tribune that the new sanctuaries have been established to create difficulties for Pakistan’s military and disrupt Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the troubled agency. “It is a worrying development that the TTP is regrouping close to the border right under the nose of the Afghan security forces,” said the official, who did not wish to be named”.

Backlash against Francis?

28/10/2014

As the Synod of Bishops is concluded an article questions if those conservatives, led by the soon to be exiled Cardinal Burke, will “turn on Pope Francis”.

It opens that the “surprise decision to release frank internal reports of its debates, one big-picture question captured by the event seems to be coming into clear focus. Here it is in a nutshell: Is a tipping point drawing close, when conservatives who have been inclined to give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt will, instead, turn on him? Granted, labels such as “liberal” and “conservative” often conceal as much as they reveal, especially when applied to the Church. That said, they capture something at a big-picture level, and the fault line between left and right has seemed especially clear over the past two weeks”.

Allen goes on to note that “Well before the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the family, there was a small but vocal wing of traditionalist Catholic opinion fiercely critical of the pope. In February, Italian Catholic writer and historian Roberto de Mattei posted a piece on the website of his Lepanto foundation asserting that developments since the election of Francis, including his famous “Who am I to judge?” sound bite about gays, risk “a road that leads to schism and heresy.” Another Italian writer, Antonio Socci, has a new book out titled “It’s not Francis: The Church in a Great Storm,” basically implying that the resignation of Benedict XVI was invalid and that Francis isn’t really the pope. Most mainstream conservatives, however, have argued that media hype, or perhaps unintentional ambiguity on the part of the pope himself, has been to blame for mistaken impressions that he’s engineering a radical overhaul”.

Thankfully, Benedict XVI has refused to recognise the rubbish proposed by Socci.

Allen writes that “In recent days, however, some of those voices have taken on a harder edge. We’ve seen a Paraguayan bishop post the following on his personal blog: “Inside the Church, and recently from some of its highest circles, new winds blow that aren’t from the Holy Spirit,” referring to what’s happening at the synod”.

Allen notes that, outrageously “Cardinal Raymond Burke openly faulted Francis for allowing Kasper to sow confusion about Church teaching on marriage by touting his proposal to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion, and basically suggested the pope owes the world an apology. A clear affirmation of Catholic doctrine by the pope, Burke said, is “long overdue.” Both Livieres and Burke have had their wings clipped by Pope Francis, so some of their grumbling may be personal. Both also represent the fairly hardline edge of the Church’s conservative wing. The same can’t really be said, however, of Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, who this week complained that the synod’s emphasis on mercy, one of the spiritual touchstones for Francis, has been overplayed”.

He goes onto mention “To some extent, this synod serves as a proxy for Francis, so that criticism of it is often, at least indirectly, also criticism of the forces he’s unleashed. It remains to be seen to what extent dissenters from the synod’s interim report on Monday, which contained a fairly strongly positive evaluation of same-sex unions and other “irregular” relationships, will be tempered in the final report due to be adopted on Saturday. If the final document contains anything resembling Monday’s draft, it’s likely criticism of Francis will intensify. Combine that with speculation that in the near future Francis will remove Burke from his position at the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s supreme court, and it’s not difficult to imagine that many on the Catholic right could conclude, once and for all, that Francis is not on their side”.

Worryingly Allen reports that Bishop “Livieres invoked the spectre of a formal schism, but for now, most observers regard that as a long shot. For one thing, a schism requires a bishop willing to break with Rome to create a parallel church, and so far no one’s actually volunteered for that role. For another, conservatives unhappy with the present drift don’t have the same exit option as disgruntled Catholics on the left, for whom their tie with their institutional Church sometimes isn’t as much of a value. On the other hand, it’s worth remembering that the last time we had a moderate in the papacy, under Paul VI, was when the seeds were sown of the only formal schism to follow the Second Vatican Council – the traditionalist rupture led by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre”.

The fact that people are even mentioning the spectre of a schism speaks volumes. Not only to the politicisation of the Church but how Cardinal Burke has made things worse by his constant media interviews.

Allen goes on to posit the theory that schism is unlikely but there are “two other options. First, many conservatives may settle into a kind of internal exile, focusing on their local parish and diocese and ignoring the Vatican. One prominent American conservative said this week that he’s got a good bishop and good situation in his local church, and he’s decided to pay no attention to Rome for his own spiritual health. Second, some conservatives may stop defending Francis, trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, and become locked into a cycle of suspicion and dissent about virtually everything that he says and does. If that happens – and, to some extent, the process is already underway – it will hardly be a novelty. Both of the foregoing options were common practice among liberal Catholics during the John Paul II and Benedict XVI years, so the only difference now is that the shoe is on the other foot”.

Crucially Allen says that there will be consequences to this “What people generally think of as “conservative” Catholics are often among the Church’s most dedicated members, among other things serving as major financial donors. Already, one head of a conservative think tank in Rome this week said he’d gotten a call from one of his benefactors saying that if things keep going the way they are, he was going to stop ponying up. More broadly, Catholics typically labeled as “conservative” are often people who carry water for the Church at all levels, from the local to the universal. If that pool of human capital begins to dry up, it could make it more difficult for Francis to advance his agenda”.

Ironcially this is almost exactly the same thing that happened to Pope Benedict when many in Rome disagreed with his agenda and threw up blockages that made his pontificatie less successful than it should have been.

The interview that wasn’t

28/10/2014

Edward Pentin notes the interview that Cardinal Kasper gave, which was then retracted quickly.

Congress, reaping what it sows

28/10/2014

David Sanger writes that any potential deal between the P5 + 1 could avoid Congress. Sanger writes “No one knows if the Obama administration will manage in the next five weeks to strike what many in the White House consider the most important foreign policy deal of his presidency: an accord with Iran that would forestall its ability to make a nuclear weapon. But the White House has made one significant decision: If agreement is reached, President Obama will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress vote on it”.

Indeed, this is right and proper. America can gain much from a potential deal with Iran, should President Obama decide the deal is worth accepting. Congress has done nothing but deride the agreement, or even any potential deal. It has been totally unreasonable, both Republican and Democrats and therefore should reap what they have sown and should be ignored, should any deal be agreed.

Sanger goes on to note “Even while negotiators argue over the number of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to spin and where inspectors could roam, the Iranians have signaled that they would accept, at least temporarily, a “suspension” of the stringent sanctions that have drastically cut their oil revenues and terminated their banking relationships with the West, according to American and Iranian officials. The Treasury Department, in a detailed study it declined to make public, has concluded Mr. Obama has the authority to suspend the vast majority of those sanctions without seeking a vote by Congress, officials say. But Mr. Obama cannot permanently terminate those sanctions. Only Congress can take that step. And even if Democrats held on to the Senate next month, Mr. Obama’s advisers have concluded they would probably lose such a vote. “We wouldn’t seek congressional legislation in any comprehensive agreement for years,” one senior official said”.

The report adds that “White House officials say Congress should not be surprised by this plan. They point to testimony earlier this year when top negotiators argued that the best way to assure that Iran complies with its obligations is a step-by-step suspension of sanctions — with the implicit understanding that the president could turn them back on as fast as he turned them off”.

Unsurprisingly, “many members of Congress see the plan as an effort by the administration to freeze them out, a view shared by some Israeli officials who see a congressional vote as the best way to constrain the kind of deal that Mr. Obama might strike”.

Sanger says that the three way negotiation is between American and Iran, the second is between Dr Zarif and extremist forces in Iran and lastly the problems faced by President Obama himself, “Some cracks are appearing in the sanctions regime. In the spring, the administration was alarmed to see a spike in Chinese purchases of Iranian oil, seeming to undercut the sanctions. More recently the figures have declined again. Nonetheless they are the subject of behind-the-scenes talks between American and Chinese officials. And the Iranians want far more than a suspension of American-led sanctions: They are also pressing for an end to United Nations Security Council resolutions that bar “dual use” exports that have civilian uses but also could be used in nuclear and missile programs; those resolutions give the United States and its allies a legal basis for demanding inspections of shipments to Iran that could be part of a covert program”.

He ends “Inside America’s intelligence agencies, the biggest concern is that Iran, concluding that its existing facilities are under too much scrutiny, would once again turn to covert means to obtain nuclear technology — buying it from the North Koreans, or building it in one of hundreds of tunnels”.

“More American military advisers”

28/10/2014

Any Iraqi request for more American military advisers or trainers to help the country’s security forces fight Islamic State militants would be considered, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday. The issue was discussed in meetings that deputy White House national security adviser Antony Blinken and other U.S. officials had with top Iraqi officials last week on a trip to Baghdad and other parts of the country. The United States has about 1,400 military advisers and diplomatic security personnel in Iraq. Senior administration officials said that, based on discussions with the Iraqis, U.S. officials are looking at where advisers can be helpful, and whether there is more they can do in terms of training”.

How it went wrong for Obama

28/10/2014

An opinion piece from The Hill asks where it all went wrong for President Obama. It opens “Fewer than two years ago, President Obama was elected handily to his second term, becoming the first Democrat since FDR to twice win an outright majority of the popular vote. Now, Democrats in competitive Senate races hope he stays as far away as possible, previous heartlands of support such as Iowa have turned against him and his approval ratings are languishing in the low 40s — sometimes lower. Political observers, from former Obama aides to staffers who served in previous administrations, say something is going to have to change if the president is to achieve anything at all in his last two years in office”.

The article goes on to argue that “Obama would be “well-advised” to reach out to the Republican congressional leadership immediately after the midterm elections, he said, and should resist the temptation to dig deeper into a partisan trench”.

Indeed this is a sensible piece of advice and Obama would be well advised to take it. However, the likelihood of getting something done as a result of this outreach is slim on account of the fact that the GOP will want things that are totally unreasonable thus ending any hope of proper bipartisanship on which America was built.

The writer adds “To be sure, the decline in Obama’s political fortunes cannot be blamed on the kind of major scandal that has marred other modern second terms, such as Watergate, Iran-Contra or the Monica Lewinsky affair. That leaves observers who are sympathetic to Obama putting forth all kinds of explanations, even as Republicans suggest the dwindling support for the president was both inevitable and overdue. Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to former President George W. Bush, believes Obama’s second term was over before it even started. He pinpoints the start of the problem as the “fiscal cliff” negotiations in December 2012, the month before Obama would take the oath of office for the second time. Obama won the tit-for-tat fight. But Fratto argued that the president pushed Republicans so far into a corner on that occasion that there was no possibility of them working with him on any other issue”.

This line of reasoning sounds sensible but taking the numerous pointless attempts to overturn Obamacare and the refusal of the GOP to work with Obama in his first term this argument does not hold water.

The piece ends “More broadly, senior administration officials disagree with any suggestion that Obama’s second term has fallen flat. They point out that the president has overseen an economy that has added 10.3 million jobs over 55 straight months of employment growth, the longest streak in recent history. The national unemployment rate fell to 5.9 percent in September, the lowest figure since 2008. There is more to boast about than just the economy, the officials add. When it comes to climate issues, the use of wind power has tripled and solar power has increased tenfold, they say. And they highlight Obama’s second-term work on healthcare, noting that 10.3 million previously uninsured Americans are now covered”.

It concludes “even former aides to Obama are casting around for explanations as to why his stock of political capital has depleted so rapidly. “I’m still struggling to figure this out,” said one former senior administration official. “I think a lot of it boils down to this mindset that, ‘we all have the answers and we’re smarter than everybody else and we can do this.’ ” This source said that the element of hubris was exacerbated by the “level of insularity,” adding, “I don’t know if the president has stopped trying or he’s tired of it but the White House seems to be perpetually in a bunker mode.” A second former senior administration official suggested that a lack of focus had allowed erstwhile priorities like immigration reform and gun control to slip away”.

It closes “Former officials and other observers agree that, above all, Obama has failed to connect with the American public, particularly on big, unfamiliar issues such as the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This, observers say, could explain his low approval numbers. But the communications failure is particularly striking from a president whose soaring oratory played such a big part in his initial rise to prominence and power. “The president is not engaging externally on a personal level,” said the first former official. “It’s all done through analysis and fact sheets. But he’s not someone with the retail side. I think he’s right on the facts but he’s wrong on packaging it and making people feel invested in it the way someone like Bill Clinton can.” Recalling Obama’s now-famous 2012 remark that Clinton was the “secretary of explaining stuff,” Galston said he heard in that comment a “tacit concession” that Obama himself wasn’t particularly adept in that area”.

Portraying a compromise

28/10/2014

Iran is pushing what it portrays as a new compromise proposal in nuclear talks, but Western negotiators say it offers no viable concessions, underscoring how far apart the two sides are as they enter crunch time before a Nov. 24 deadline. In the negotiations with six major powers, the Iranians say they are no longer demanding a total end to economic sanctions in return for curbing their nuclear program and would accept initially lifting just the latest, most damaging, sanctions. Western officials dismiss the proposal as nothing new and say the Iranians have always known that the sanctions could only end gradually – with each measure being suspended and later terminated only after Iranian compliance had been proven”.

Change people to change policy?

28/10/2014

An interesting piece argues that, at this stage of his term, President Obama needs to move personnel in order to improve his policies. It starts, “History is likely to be much kinder to U.S. President Barack Obama than many of his former colleagues have been. On a wide range of domestic issues, he will win praise much like that already being doled out by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in the current issue of Rolling Stone. As Krugman rightly observes, a great number of accomplishments — including overseeing efforts to bring the economy back from crisis, incomplete but nonetheless meaningful health care and financial services reforms, an extended period of job creation, the potential for real gain on environmental policy, and the good fortune associated with America’s energy boom — will lastingly be associated with this president. That said, it is impossible to overlook the fact that even a cheerleader like Krugman, who is on a dedicated mission to counter conventional wisdom about the beleaguered chief executive, seeks to make his best case by skimming over the issues of national security and foreign policy that are Obama’s most glaring and now almost universally acknowledged weaknesses”.

The writer goes on to note that “Panetta, Robert Gates, and Hillary Clinton, the core of Obama’s first-term national security team, have all offered stinging critiques of the president. Other senior officials, like former State Department officials Vali Nasr and Robert Ford, have done likewise. And in public and private settings you will hear other cabinet-level officials and flag officers leveling their own sharp criticisms. And the farther away you get from the White House and the closer you get to Foggy Bottom or the Pentagon, the louder and more pointed the second-guessing and expressions of frustration become. In the wake of the Panetta critiques, the small wagon train of defenders circling the president urged former colleagues not to pile on or support Panetta’s message, and whispered about the former CIA director and defense secretary’s lack of loyalty. This was much the same technique they used when Gates’s book was published. But is it disloyal for these men who have devoted decades to public service and strengthening U.S. national security to offer perspectives that they think might help right the ship and set it on a better course? Or would it be more disloyal to be quiet? Saving their criticisms for after the president left office would not help him at all, would support the illusion that things were functioning better than they were, and would allow past errors to be compounded without challenge”.

The author notes that “David Ignatius, the widely respected Washington Post columnist and one who has reported fairly on both the ups and the downs of Obama’s international policies, acknowledged the degree to which change was needed in a column this week that hinted at the possibility of personnel moves on the national security side at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. While Ignatius did not name names, the implication was clear. The system was broken and for the president to regain his footing and have a chance at finishing his tenure with a better international performance, some key players would have to go. As Ignatius noted (and as I covered in my piece “National Insecurity” in the current issue of Foreign Policy and in my upcoming book of the same name), George W. Bush was able, despite a disastrous first term, to turn things around in his second term with a series of very significant adjustments to his team — and to his own approach to leading. The Bush changes involved shifting Condoleezza Rice from the National Security Council to the State Department, promoting her deputy Stephen Hadley to be the new national security advisor, bringing in a top-notch White House chief of staff in Josh Bolten, handing the reins of China policy to a new treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, and, ultimately and importantly, replacing Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates”.

He argues that the “team” Obama started with was good. Yet, no matter how good the team is if the decisions being taken are wrong as they clearly are now there is no point in changing people. If however, a change of people will signal a real change in the direction of policy with Syria, Iraq and a host of other problems then it should have been done months ago.

The writer posits two reasons why the “breakdown has occurred, “the disproportionate influence of the people immediately around the president, the so-called bubble, and the president himself”.

He goes on to elaborate, “The first changes in this term — replacing Clinton with Kerry, Gates with Hagel, and moving John Brennan to the CIA — did not address this problem. It was not the fault of these players. Rather, not only had the range of views in the administration diminished, but many personnel decisions actually strengthened the influence of those in the Obama White House’s national security bubble”.

In some ways this is the problem faced by President Clinton early in his first term, quickly however he realised his mistakes and brought in people who were skilled and adept like Leon Panetta to head the OMB.

He adds “The other clear problem is that the national security process, which sometimes spluttered but often worked fairly well during the first term, has completely broken down since. Tension with cabinet agencies like State and Defense is high; coordination has suffered, with mixed messages coming from State and the White House on issues from Egypt to Israel to the response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. On multiple issues the process just did not produce the necessary responsiveness, decisiveness, or good policy outcomes — from last year’s red-line debacle in Syria to failing to spot or address the rise of IS, from lack of follow through in now-decaying Libya to ineffective coalition management in Europe versus Putin or, for example, in the cases of Turkey or Qatar in the Middle East. Some initiatives — going after Joseph Kony or trying to help the 200 kidnapped Nigerian girls or targeting a handful of top Putin aids — have been empty gestures just for show. Some efforts, like touting the deal for Bowe Bergdahl or managing the NSA scandal with allies, have been fiascoes, self-inflicted wounds”.

He finally gets to the point and argues that “There are rumours that the dedicated and capable Denis McDonough might leave as White House chief of staff after the election. He has served the president diligently and, for the most part, well. But he has been an important part of that inner circle from the beginning and getting someone new in this vital job, someone who will challenge the president and run the process, would be a good idea. Many problems are associated not just with individuals, but with the cocktail of personalities that make up the core team. The wrong mix will amplify certain tendencies, promote groupthink, or become defensive, seeing the world in “us vs. them” terms. Thus, while I don’t want to be perceived as calling for McDonough to go, a change at his level could be helpful. If the president wants to fix a broken national security apparatus, however, he will have to consider a change at the top of the NSC. Susan Rice has also served the president from the earliest days of his campaign and has been a smart and capable aide. She was also unfairly attacked by partisans over Benghazi and the president loyally and admirably stood by her. But there is no denying that she has presided over the NSC during one of its roughest patches in modern memory and that some of the responsibility for the problems it incurred must rest with her. She is part of the problem with relations with other departments, with key allies, and she is not seen as the kind of disinterested “honest broker” a national security advisor should be. Rice is also decidedly not strategic, and a different national security advisor who could better emulate the model set by successful predecessors like Gen. Brent Scowcroft on both fronts would be welcome”.

He ends the piece “Alternatively, the president needs to sit down with Rice and lay out a clear set of priorities for fixing what is broken in the White House system that addresses these problems. Perhaps other high-level adjustments to personnel could assist with this. In any event, defensively sticking with the status quo will send a message to the world that Obama does not recognize his errors or is unwilling to acknowledge them, which will not only exacerbate the problems but effectively marginalize him for the remainder of his term”.

He concludes importantly, “With that in mind, regardless of what Obama does on the personnel front, one more change is critical. That one is not just internal to the White House. It is internal to the president. Not only does he have to admit he has a problem that needs to change, he has to admit he’s part of that problem. He’s had very strong advisors and produced weak results in the past. That drives home a critical message. The trick is not just getting a team and a process together that could produce good advice…. The trick is actually taking the best of the advice and translating it into the right decisions. For that, only one person in the U.S. government is ultimately responsible. And he is the one person who cannot lose his job or see his role diminished in a White House shuffle. He’ll be there, right where he is in that Oval Office, for better or for worse, until January 2017”.

 

“With a renegade general”

26/10/2014

Libya’s beleaguered elected parliament has declared a formal alliance with a renegade former general, as it struggles to assert some authority in a country many fear is sliding into outright civil war. Three years after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, the oil-producing desert state is in chaos, with Islamists and other militias fighting for territory and influence and the regular armed forces left with little power. One militia faction has seized Tripoli, setting up its own assembly and administration in the capital and forcing the government to take refuge in the eastern part of the country”.

Succeeding Burns

26/10/2014

A blog post from The Cable discusses the “race” to choose the next Deputy Secretary of State. It opens “The race to succeed the nation’s No. 2 diplomat is pitting a senior White House official with close ties to the president but little experience at the State Department against a veteran Foggy Bottom hand respected within the department but unpopular on Capitol Hill. According to multiple State Department sources, the top contenders to replace Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns are Tony Blinken, the president’s deputy national security adviser, and Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. To a lesser extent, sources have also floated the possible appointment of Tom Shannon, the State Department’s counselor and a longtime foreign service officer”.

He goes on to write “Burns is scheduled to step down later this month, but a White House spokesperson declined to offer the name of his replacement. “No personnel announcements to make,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan. The exit of Burns, who was instrumental in leading secret back channel talks with Iran on its nuclear program, will leave a significant void if the United States extends negotiations on restraining Tehran’s nuclear capabilities beyond the current Nov. 24 deadline. Burns’s partner in those early talks, former deputy assistant to the president Jake Sullivan, announced his departure from the White House in August, although he agreed to stay on as a senior advisor on the Iran nuclear issue. Burns will also stay on for a limited number of weeks in November to wrap up his work on the talks. Sherman currently leads the negotiations, so her elevation could require the White House to tap someone new to lead the day-to-day talks, taking place in Vienna.”

Thankfully he writes that “Sherman, the fourth ranking official at the State Department, maintains respect within the building, but could have problems making it through the confirmation process. In her current post running the Iran talks, Sherman has repeatedly drawn fire from a bipartisan cavalry of hawkish, pro-Israel lawmakers who view the delicate diplomatic discussions as a fool’s errand. “There’s a feeling that we already confirmed her once, and doing so again would not be easy,” said one State Department official. During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the negotiations in July, for instance, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called Sherman’s painstaking diplomatic work a “disaster.” “It’s not just an embarrassing diplomatic failure. This is a dangerous national security failure, in my opinion,” he said. Key Democrats such as Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have also been highly critical of the administration’s negotiations”.

The writer goes on to mention that “many of Sherman’s current and former colleagues bristled at the idea that her efforts to neuter Iran’s nuclear program, one of the thorniest issues in the Middle East, would disqualify her for Burns’s position. “It’s absurd that doing her job somehow constitutes a blemish, but that’s Congress,” said a former State Department official. “She takes her marching orders from the president and she’s executed those orders with tremendous aplomb,” added Michael Breen, the executive director of the left-leaning Truman National Security Project. “I’d like to see how this turns out before we start assigning blame.” Blinken, the most likely pick for the nomination, wields immense power within the White House, especially on Syria policy. With close ties to the Clintons and Vice President Joe Biden, Blinken is widely viewed as a collegial and non-ideological consensus-builder in the Oval Office”.

He concludes “However, closeness to the White House can also breed suspicion from State Department rank-and-file, who’ve become alienated by the National Security Council’s increasing monopolization of U.S. foreign policy and want to see a foreign service officer appointed to the position.”At the top of the State Department — where you have to understand how these programs and operations lead to coherent policy — wouldn’t you want someone with experience running these programs before?” said Robert Silverman, president of the American Foreign Service Association, a union that represents foreign service officers. “Should the surgeon general be a doctor? Wouldn’t that be the best background?” During the George W. Bush administration, Blinken worked as a senior fellow for the Center for Strategic and International Studies and staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, focusing on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior to that, he served in the Clinton administration as senior director of Europe at the National Security Council. In 1993, Blinken served as special assistant to the assistant secretary of state for European affairs”.

He closes “Swapping Blinken for Burns, only the second career diplomat to rise to the position of deputy secretary, could disappoint diplomats hoping for a career foreign service officer to fill the role. At the same time, Sherman herself is not a career foreign service officer — so her appointment could disappoint a large chunk of diplomats as well, but less so because her promotion would allow for the appointment of Tom Shannon to her job as undersecretary of state for political affairs”.

“Intelligence-gathering missions over Syria”

26/10/2014

Britain’s defence ministry says Royal Air Force drones will fly intelligence-gathering missions over Syria, in a broadening of U.K. operations against the Islamic State group beyond Iraq. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Tuesday that British Reaper drones and Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft would be starting operations “very shortly.” In a written statement to lawmakers, Fallon said the aircraft would “gather intelligence as part of our efforts to protect our national security from the terrorist threat emanating from there.” He said the drones were not authorised to use weapons in Syria”.

“Simply had too much supply”

26/10/2014

Keith Johnson writes that the fall in oil prices is not shocking at all. He begins “Crude oil prices in New York and London kept falling early Thursday, Oct. 16, sending the price of oil back to those long-ago, halcyon days of 2010 and prompting an orgy of hand-wringing about how cheap oil spells doom and despair for everybody from Vladimir Putin to Texas wildcatters. But does it? Oil’s recent slide, from prices around $115 a barrel over the summer to the low $80s today, has unleashed a torrent of speculation about what it all means. The New York Times Thomas Friedman imagines that the United States and Saudi Arabia are conspiring to cripple oil-dependent Russia and Iran; energy-industry advisor Nick Butler worries that the Saudis have lost control of the oil market; all sorts of folks are gaming out the decline and fall of petrocracies from the Persian Gulf to Maracaibo; and analysts are scratching their heads to figure out if and when falling prices will kill the U.S. oil boom. And if the United States does reach a deal with Iran on that country’s nuclear program and eases current restrictions on Iranian oil exports, that could push prices even lower”.

Johnson argues that “In reality, what has happened is that froth has come out of a pricey oil market that simply had too much supply chasing anemic demand in a wheezing global economy. Falling oil prices don’t necessarily mean cheap oil prices; in real-dollar terms, oil has only been this expensive for a half-dozen years or so since the end of the U.S. Civil War. After early declines, oil in New York traded around $82 a barrel at midday, and oil in London at around $84 a barrel”.

In a balanced way Johnson notes that “Lower, if not cheap, oil prices do potentially have some implications: good, bad, and indifferent. For consumers, falling prices are a good thing. For dysfunctional petrostates, like Venezuela, cheaper oil aggravates existing woes like squeezed federal budgets and fears of default. For flush petrostates, like Saudi Arabia, $80 oil does not spell hair shirts. And thanks to rapid increases in drilling efficiency, U.S. tight-oil producers have more protection against softening prices than they did just a few years ago, making it unlikely that today’s prices will rabbit-punch the industry’s surprise story”.

On how the price of oil will effect “consumers” he notes pithly that “The recent fall equates to a massive, unplanned stimulus package for the world’s shoppers. Citigroup, for instance, figures that cheaper prices amount to a $1.1 trillion global shot in the arm. Others liken cheaper oil to a spontaneous round of global, quantitative easing — an injection of easy money into a moribund economy”.

Johnson then discusses states like Venezuela, “Falling oil prices mean falling government revenues for lots of countries that rely on oil exports to pay the bills. For a country like Venezuela, that’s terrible news because the logical recourse — printing more money — would only fuel the runaway inflation that is wrecking the country’s economy already. Then again, the epic economic mismanagement by former President Hugo Chávez and current President Nicolás Maduro means that oil-market fluctuations simply aggravate an already bad situation, rather than create it”.

In the same section he notes that, “Russia is a different matter. Its budget loses about $2 billion for every $1 drop in the price of a barrel of oil. Anything below $104 a barrel, by some estimates, will push the Russian budget into the red. And that comes on top of U.S. and Western sanctions, which have mauled the ruble and the Russian stock market and have spooked foreign capital. But budget deficits, as former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney famously noted, don’t mean demise. Five years ago, when oil prices plunged with the global recession, Russia ran a hefty budget deficit. Apparently that didn’t permanently hamstring its leaders, its military, or its ability to make mischief in nearby countries”.

Turning to the Middle East he mentions that “countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the like have heftier obligations than they used to: It takes plenty of cash to pacify restless domestic populations and prop up welfare states. That’s why the so-called break-even fiscal prices for Gulf states have soared from the $60s a few years ago to about $90 today.  Some Saudis are worried about falling prices and the kingdom’s seemingly blasé attitude”.

Importantly he adds “as with Russia, the specter of lower prices doesn’t necessarily mean government downfall. It means that countries swimming with hard-currency reserves and next to no debt might have to run deficits for a little while, as they’ve done before. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has three-quarters of a trillion dollars in its piggy bank”.

Johnson posits the theory that “producers like Saudi Arabia seem so comfortable with falling prices that it has sparked concern that OPEC’s heavyweights are deliberately trying to push down oil prices enough to drive some expensive U.S. oil production offline. Gulf oil officials told the Wall Street Journal they’ll oppose any oil-production cuts at November’s OPEC meeting, and they pointed to $70 a barrel as a likely perch for oil prices”.

He adds that this may not be the reason or consequence of OPEC decisions, with weak demand a major cause, on the US energy side he mentions “if the price of oil keeps falling toward the magical $70 figure at which Gulf officials now point? Analysts are all over the map when they try to figure out what kind of tolerance U.S. producers have. Some say U.S. tight oil will be fine down to $75 a barrel; others, like oil-services company Baker Hughes, figure that most U.S. projects will be fine with oil in the $60-to-$70 range. Still others argue that U.S. tight oil can remain economic with oil as low as $50 a barrel”.

He concludes “The one thing that is generally certain is that the cost of producing U.S. tight oil has fallen sharply — and keeps falling. A Morgan Stanley analyst estimated that costs per barrel overall may have fallen as much as $30 a barrel in just the last two years, thanks to advances in fracking that make it cheaper and easier to get more oil out of each well drilled into the rock. All that leaves a whole lot more wiggle room to deal with falling prices. And even if falling prices dampen oil companies’ enthusiasm for expensive and risky new projects, it makes it unlikely that this autumn’s oil-price correction will somehow shutter hundreds of thousands of barrels of U.S. production”.

“Allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters”

26/10/2014

Turkey said Monday that it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its border into the besieged Syrian town of Kobane, where Syrian Kurds are battling Islamic State militants. The opening of a land corridor would be another potential boost for the Kobane defenders following U.S. airdrops of weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to them late Sunday. But the deal, the subject of intensive U.S. diplomatic talks over the past week, also depends on whether the separate Kurdish groups can resolve their deep differences in the interest of confronting a common enemy. The tentative nature of the agreement reflected the convoluted history and political calculations of all parties, particularly the Kurds, whose ethnic homeland spreads across Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran”.

“Long pledged to make China’s economy more efficient”

24/10/2014

An article from the Economst argues that China’s weakening prouctivity which cast doubt on China’s long term future.

It opens “THE growth of China’s economy is staggering: it produced $9.5 trillion-worth of goods and services in 2013, nearly three times more than in 2007. But has that growth come simply from deploying more labour and capital? Or did total factor productivity (TFP)—the efficiency with which those two inputs are used—also increase? China’s future growth hinges on the answer. A period of high growth does not necessarily involve a rise in productivity. The more people there are in employment, and the more factories and roads there are for them to use, the bigger an economy will be. But those workers and roads may not be put to good use. As long as the amount by which labour and capital grow outpaces any fall in productivity, GDP will still increase. Growth of this sort, however, can last only so long. Neither labour nor capital are infinite. In the long run, improving the productivity with which they are used is the magic ingredient for any economy, the only path to sustainable growth. Hence the concerns about China. A series of estimates published this year have all suggested that productivity is flagging”.

Importantly the writer mentions “At the pessimistic end of the range is Harry Wu, an economist who has devoted much research to the shortcomings of China’s official economic data. He finds that since 2007 TFP has actually been a drag on the economy, denting growth by about 0.9 percentage points a year. At the more optimistic end, researchers at the World Bank think TFP added nearly three percentage points a year to growth from 2000 to 2010—but even they reckon that is 40% lower than in the 1990s. In between these two estimates are Jianhua Zhang, Chunxia Jiang and Peng Wang, two of whom are with the People’s Bank of China. They conclude that productivity increased just 1.5% a year between 1997 and 2012”.

The point to take out of this is that “As these diverging estimates suggest, overall productivity growth, despite being central to economics, is frustratingly difficult to pin down. It cannot, after all, be seen. When comparing two workers with the same job in the same company, it is easy to determine which one produces more. For economies, such apple-to-apple comparisons are not possible. Instead, economists get at TFP by subtracting the change in capital and labour deployed from the change in overall output. The difference (known as the Solow residual, after Robert Solow, the economist who pioneered this method) reflects the contribution of productivity to growth. In this way, the unseen becomes visible”.

As with much economic theory, masquerading as science, “the process requires several accounting somersaults. Assumptions are needed about, among other things, the size of the capital stock, the rate of capital depreciation and the level of workers’ education. Mr Wu does not trust official GDP figures and so constructs his own. Because his estimate of average annual growth for 2008-12 (6.5%) is dramatically lower than the official figure (9.3%), his calculations yield a negative Solow residual. Productivity, in other words, appears to have gone into reverse”.

Controversially the author notes that “This conclusion looks too gloomy. For one thing, there are problems with Mr Wu’s own numbers. He relies on a selective sampling of official data and applies far-reaching yet apparently arbitrary adjustments to them, assuming, for instance, that reforms in the 1990s added only 1% to services growth. Many other economists see problems with Chinese data—lumpy growth figures are often smoothed, for instance—but not enough to justify such extensive revision, especially during the past decade when there has been a proliferation of data from China’s trading partners that can be used to verify the Chinese numbers”.

While the “gloomy” estimate maybe just that, there is sound advice that argues that it is much better to assume the worst and then build up from that rather than take the best estimate as the baseline figure and go on from that. This should be obvious sense, especially in relation to China.

As has been noted elsewhere, especially in the work of George Magnus, “There is another, more worrying factor behind the deceleration in productivity, however: bad lending and investment decisions. Financial development, handled well, should promote growth by improving the allocation of resources. But the researchers from the central bank find a strongly negative correlation in China between growth in lending and in TFP. That is an indication that state-owned banks, which still dominate China’s financial sector, are not disbursing enough credit to the country’s most deserving companies. And the economy is consuming more and more capital. China’s incremental capital-output ratio (ICOR), a measure of how much investment it takes to achieve each percentage point of growth, rose to 5.4 in 2012 from 3.6 over the preceding two decades, according to the World Bank. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were far more efficient during their high-growth phases, with ICORs of 2.7-3.2”.

The piece ends “The Chinese government has warned about overcapacity in scores of industries from steel to textiles. Heavy capital spending gins up growth when factories are built, but it also shows up in the data as weak productivity if the factories are only partly used. Nevertheless, it is still alarming. The Communist Party has long pledged to make China’s economy more efficient. The data on TFP show that it is struggling to do that. Accumulating productive capacity is easier than putting it to productive use”.

Watering down the welcome

24/10/2014

The Vatican is watering down a ground-breaking overture to gays – but only if they speak English. After a draft report by bishops debating family issues came under criticism from conservative English-speaking bishops, the Vatican released a new translation on Thursday. A section initially titled “Welcoming homosexuals” is now “Providing for homosexual persons,” and the tone of the text is significantly colder and less welcoming. The initial English version – released Monday along with the original – accurately reflected the Italian version in both letter and spirit, and contained a remarkable tone of acceptance extended to gays. Conservatives were outraged. The first version asked if the church was capable of “welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities.” The new version asks if the church is “capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing … them … a place of fellowship in our communities.” The first version said homosexual unions can often constitute a “precious support in the life of the partners.” The new one says gay unions often constitute “valuable support in the life of these persons.” In nearly all cases, the first version followed the official Italian version in verbatim; the second provides a different tone altogether”.

Khomeini’s fatwa

24/10/2014

A piece notes that Ayatollah Khomeini has apparently, said that nuclear weapons should not be built. This echo’s the fatwa that was supposedly issued on the Islamic Republic’s prohibition of nuclear weapons.

The piece notes “The nuclear negotiations between six world powers and Iran, which are now nearing their November deadline, remain deadlocked over U.S. demands that Iran dismantle the bulk of its capacity to enrich uranium. The demand is based on the suspicion that Iran has worked secretly to develop nuclear weapons in the past and can’t be trusted not to do so again. Iran argues that it has rejected nuclear weapons as incompatible with Islam and cites a fatwa of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as proof. American and European officials remain skeptical, however, that the issue is really governed by Shiite Islamic principles. They have relied instead on murky intelligence that has never been confirmed about an alleged covert Iranian nuclear weapons program”.

The writer argues that “the key to understanding Iran’s policy toward nuclear weapons lies in a historical episode during its eight-year war with Iraq. The story, told in full for the first time here, explains why Iran never retaliated against Iraq’s chemical weapons attacks on Iranian troops and civilians, which killed 20,000 Iranians and severely injured 100,000 more. And it strongly suggests that the Iranian leadership’s aversion to developing chemical and nuclear weapons is deep-rooted and sincere. A few Iranian sources have previously pointed to a fatwa by the Islamic Republic’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, prohibiting chemical weapons as the explanation for why Iran did not deploy these weapons during the war with Iraq. But no details have ever been made public on when and how Khomeini issued such a fatwa, so it has been ignored for decades. Now, however, the wartime chief of the Iranian ministry responsible for military procurement has provided an eyewitness account of Khomeini’s ban not only on chemical weapons, but on nuclear weapons as well. In an interview with me in Tehran in late September, Mohsen Rafighdoost, who served as minister of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) throughout the eight-year war, revealed that he had proposed to Khomeini that Iran begin working on both nuclear and chemical weapons — but was told in two separate meetings that weapons of mass destruction are forbidden by Islam. I sought the interview with Rafighdoost after learning of an interview he had with Mehr News Agency in January in which he alluded to the wartime meetings with Khomeini and the supreme leader’s forbidding chemical and nuclear weapons. The interview had never been translated into English”.

This may all be very well but the fact of the matter is that an IAEA report issued two years ago and constant monitoring by the West has shown how Iran has hidden vast parts of their nuclear programme. There is no other explanation that they want a nuclear weapon. Whether they would use it or not is a different question.

He adds later that “Rafighdoost told me he asked some foreign governments for assistance, including weapons, to counter the chemical-war threat, but all of them rejected his requests. This prompted him to decide that his ministry would have to produce everything Iran needed for the war. “I personally gathered all the researchers who had any knowledge of defense issues,” he recalled. He organized groups of specialists to work on each category of military need — one of which was called “chemical, biological, and nuclear.” Rafighdoost prepared a report on all the specialized groups he had formed and went to discuss it with Khomeini, hoping to get his approval for work on chemical and nuclear weapons. The supreme leader met him accompanied only by his son, Ahmad, who served as chief of staff, according to Rafighdoost. “When Khomeini read the report, he reacted to the chemical-biological-nuclear team by asking, ‘What is this?'” Rafighdoost recalled”.

He goes on to add importantly that “Iran’s permanent representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) disclosed the details of Rafighdoost’s chemical weapons program in a document provided to the U.S. delegation to the OPCW on May 17, 2004. It was later made public by WikiLeaks, which published a U.S. diplomatic cable reporting on its contents. The document shows that the two ministries had procured the chemical precursors for mustard gas and in September 1987 began to manufacture the chemicals necessary to produce a weapon — sulfur mustard and nitrogen mustard. But the document also indicated that the two ministries did not “weaponize” the chemicals by putting them into artillery shells, aerial bombs, or rockets. The supreme leader was unmoved by the new danger presented by the Iraqi gas attacks on civilians. “It doesn’t matter whether it is on the battlefield or in cities; we are against this,” he told Rafighdoost. “It is haram [forbidden] to produce such weapons. You are only allowed to produce protection.””

The writer goes on to note “Khomeini’s Islamic ruling against all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, was continued by Ali Khamenei, who had served as president under Khomeini and succeeded him as supreme leader in 1989. Iran began publicizing Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons in 2004, but commentators and news media in the United States and Europe have regarded it as a propaganda ploy not to be taken seriously. The analysis of Khamenei’s fatwa has been flawed not only due to a lack of understanding of the role of the “guardian jurist” in the Iranian political-legal system, but also due to ignorance of the history of Khamenei’s fatwa. A crucial but hitherto unknown fact is that Khamenei had actually issued the anti-nuclear fatwa without any fanfare in the mid-1990s in response to a request from an official for his religious opinion on nuclear weapons. Mousavian recalls seeing the letter in the office of the Supreme National Security Council, where he was head of the Foreign Relations Committee from 1997 to 2005. The Khamenei letter was never released to the public, apparently reflecting the fact that the government of then President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had been arguing against nuclear weapons for years on strategic grounds, so publicizing the fatwa appeared unnecessary at that point”.  

He ends the piece “Since 2012, the official stance of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has been to welcome the existence of Khamenei’s anti-nuclear fatwa. Obama even referred to it in his U.N. General Assembly speech in September 2013. But it seems clear that Obama’s advisors still do not understand the fatwa’s full significance: Secretary of State John Kerry told journalists in July, “The fatwa issued by a cleric is an extremely powerful statement about intent,” but then added, “It is our need to codify it.” That statement, like most of the commentary on Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons, has confused fatwas issued by any qualified Muslim scholar with fatwas by the supreme leader on matters of state policy. The former are only relevant to those who follow the scholar’s views; the latter, however, are binding on the state as a whole in Iran’s Shiite Islam-based political system, holding a legal status above mere legislation”.

He concludes “The full story of Khomeini’s wartime fatwa against chemical weapons shows that when the “guardian jurist” of Iran’s Islamic system issues a religious judgment against weapons of mass destruction as forbidden by Islam, it overrides all other political-military considerations. Khomeini’s fatwa against chemical weapons prevented the manufacture and use of such weapons — even though it put Iranian forces at a major disadvantage in the war against Iraq and even though the IRGC was strongly in favour of using such weapons. It is difficult to imagine a tougher test of the power of the leader’s Islamic jurisprudence over an issue”.

 

ISIS leave Kobane

24/10/2014

The Islamic State (IS) militant group has been driven out of most of the northern Syrian town of Kobane, a Kurdish commander has told the BBC. Baharin Kandal said IS fighters had retreated from all areas, except for two pockets of resistance in the east. US-led air strikes have helped push back the militants, with another 14 conducted over the past 24 hours. Meanwhile, the new UN human rights commissioner has called IS a “potentially genocidal” movement. Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein described the group as the antithesis of human rights”.

 

The soap opera Synod

24/10/2014

A piece by John Allen argues that the Synod of Bishops on the family is more like a soap opera than a gathering of bishops. It begins “Every day, the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family, a summit of 260 bishops and other participants convened by Pope Francis, seems more and more like a daytime soap opera. Today brought more surprising turns on multiple fronts. For one thing, the bishops made the unprecedented decision to release internal reports of small group discussions about a working document released Monday that became a sensation due to its positive language about same-sex unions, couples who live together outside of marriage, and others in “irregular” situations”.

The piece notes “The reports photograph a vigorous debate within a divided synod, with one camp seemingly embracing a more positive vision of situations that fall outside the boundaries of official Catholic doctrine, and another clearly alarmed about going soft. Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, one of the leaders of the moderate camp, today compared the situation in the synod in which a mother says “watch out, be careful,” and the father says “no, that’s fine, go ahead.” In part, the decision to release the reports was probably a response to accusations that a policy of not providing individual speeches bishops had given earlier in the synod was intended to suppress conservatives who don’t support the line believed to be favored by Pope Francis. Also today, the Vatican released a slightly modified English translation of the report from Monday which softened its language on gays; for instance, changing “welcoming” homosexuals to “providing for” them, and saying their unions can provide “valuable support” for partners rather than “precious support.” Paradoxically, however, the Vatican also insisted that the Italian version is the definitive one, where the word accoglienza, meaning “welcome,” remains”.

Allen writes of the ever present geopolitics at the Synod, “On a different front, Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church used his speech in the synod today to take a shot at the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, basically telling them to stop complaining about Russian foreign policy and the support for Russian incursions in Ukraine voiced by Russian Orthodox leaders. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was sufficiently outraged that he grabbed Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church, who was also in the synod hall, and immediately taped a segment for his radio show in New York to object to Hilarion’s rhetoric. Outside the synod, things were no less interesting. In an interview with Rome-based journalist Edward Pentin, Cardinal Walter Kasper, renowned as the champion of the permissive camp on the question of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to take Communion, said that African bishops at the synod “should not tell us too much what we have to do.” Kasper later disassociated himself from the comments”.

Allen then goes on to mention that “The emergence of the Africans has been one of the more intriguing bits of subtext to the 2014 synod. The fact that they tend to be conservative on matters of sexual morality, especially gay relationships, is no surprise; what has raised eyebrows has been the forceful way they’ve been inserting themselves into the conversation. After Pope Francis named a six-member editorial committee to shape the synod’s final document, for instance, Africans objected that he hadn’t included anyone from the continent”.

Allen goes on to make the crucial point, “the fault lines at the 2014 synod don’t just run left/right, but also north/south. Each one of these twists probably deserves its own commentary, but for now here are three general observations. First, tune in Saturday evening to see what happens with the final document the bishops are slated to vote on, paragraph by paragraph. Given the divisions that have surfaced — which Francesco Miano, one of the laity in the synod, today phrased as a tension between truth and mercy — it’s virtually certain that some of the daring language from Monday’s interim report will be tweaked, more citations of Church teaching will be inserted, and a stronger focus on sin and the negative elements of certain relationships will emerge”.

He ends the piece “it will be fascinating to watch what bishops do over the next year, in the run-up to the larger Synod of Bishops on the family called by Pope Francis for October 2015. Some will undoubtedly use the synod’s final document as a basis for open debate on the issues raised, without any pre-determined idea of how they should be resolved. Others, however, may well use the following 12 months to marshal their forces to bolster the positions they support, much as happened during the periods between sessions of Vatican II. Next year, coincidentally, will mark the 50th anniversary of the closing of Vatican II in 1965. In many ways, the experience of this synod and what’s likely to happen from here is as close as the Church has come in the period sense to living some of the same drama. Whether that’s a welcome development or something to rue, of course, depends on one’s point of view”.

Haftar esclates attacks

24/10/2014

A Libyan general who has led a six-month campaign to rid the country of Islamists sharply escalated his attacks on Benghazi on Wednesday, with a concerted ground assault and airstrikes — pledging to give up command if he succeeds. Gun battles raged in several parts of the city throughout the day to an extent not seen since the general, Khalifa Hifter, 71, began his campaign six months ago, before a backlash by Islamist militias — some of them hard-liners like Ansar Al Sharia — forced his soldiers and their allies to retreat to the outskirts of Benghazi. In a televised address announcing the assault, General Hifter, who calls his campaign Operation Dignity, declared that his men “are now ready to reach their most important goal for this phase, which is the liberation of the city of Benghazi.” His latest advance is part of a sharp escalation of fighting on both the eastern and western ends of the country despite the urgent pleas of United Nations officials and Western diplomats for a nationwide cease-fire.”

Burke, letting the cat out of the bag

22/10/2014

In what is an set of words used with ever increasing frequency, in an interview given by Cardinal Burke has confirmed that he has been ousted from his role as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura.

The piece opens “A top cardinal told BuzzFeed News on Friday that the worldwide meeting of church leaders coming to a close in Rome seemed to have been designed to “weaken the church’s teaching and practice” with the apparent blessing of Pope Francis. Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who heads the Vatican’s highest court of canon law, made the remarks in a phone interview from the Vatican, where a two-week Extraordinary Synod on the Family will conclude this weekend. An interim report of the discussions released on Monday, called the Relatio, produced a widespread backlash among conservative bishops who said it suggested a radical change to the church’s teaching on questions like divorce and homosexuality, and Burke has been among the most publicly critical of the bishops picked by Pope Francis to lead the discussion. If Pope Francis had selected certain cardinals to steer the meeting to advance his personal views on matters like divorce and the treatment of LGBT people, Burke said, he would not be observing his mandate as the leader of the Catholic Church”.

The piece goes on to quote Burke, “‘According to my understanding of the church’s teaching and discipline, no, it wouldn’t be correct,’ Burke said, saying the pope had ‘done a lot of harm’ by not stating ‘openly what his position is.’ Burke said the Pope had given the impression that he endorses some of the most controversial parts of the Relatio, especially on questions of divorce, because of a German cardinal who gave an important speech suggesting a path to allowing people who had divorced and remarried to receive communion, Cardinal Walter Kasper, to open the synod’s discussion. ‘The pope, more than anyone else as the pastor of the universal church, is bound to serve the truth,’ Burke said. ‘The pope is not free to change the church’s teachings with regard to the immorality of homosexual acts or the insolubility of marriage or any other doctrine of the faith.'”

Of course this is true but only up to a point. Reason and faith, as Pope Benedict tells us, guide human action. When reason and science say that homosexuality is neither abhorrent nor chosen, then the Church, viewing things with new information has a duty to change. This is true of slavery which was backed by the Church for centuries until reason saw that owning another person as morally abhorrent. Burke, naturally, cannot see beyond the canons.

Importantly the piece notes context “Burke has publicly clashed with the pope since Francis took office in 2013, and he has come to represent the sidelining of culture warriors elevated by Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict and as the top doctrinal official under Pope John Paul II. Burke, who caused controversy while [arch]bishop of St. Louis by saying Catholics who voted for politicians supportive of abortion rights should not receive communion, went on Catholic television in 2013 to rebut remarks Pope Francis made to an interviewer that the church had become ‘obsessed’ with abortion and sexuality to the exclusion of other issues, saying, ‘We can never talk enough about that as long as in our society innocent and defenseless human life is being attacked in the most savage way,’ Burke said. While Francis famously responded to a question about homosexuality in 2013 by asking, ‘Who am I to judge?’ Burke described homosexual ‘acts’ as ‘always and everywhere wrong [and] evil’ during an interview last week”.

Crucially the author notes “Burke confirmed publicly for the first time the rumors that he had been told Francis intended to demote him from the church’s chief guardian of canon law to a minor post as patron to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. ‘I very much have enjoyed and have been happy to give this service, so it is a disappointment to leave it,’ Burke said, explaining that he hadn’t yet received a formal notice of transfer. ‘On the other hand, in the church as priests, we always have to be ready to accept whatever assignment we’re given. And so I trust, by accepting this assignment, I trust that God will bless me, and that’s what’s in the end most important.’ When the pope first took office, his pivot away from an emphasis on questions of sexuality were more a matter of personal tone rather than changes in church policy or personnel. There were rumours that he was trying to oust the man chosen by Pope Benedict to head the church’s office responsible for doctrine, Gerhard Müller, but last winter he instead elevated him from archbishop to cardinal”.

Technically Cardinal Burke has broken canon law here, as he well knows. He has broken the pontifical secret of his appointment which should not have been made public until it is formally announced. For a man so well versed in canon law Burke seems uninterested in this particular canon.

The report adds “Internal discontent among conservatives inside church leadership began to simmer over in the weeks leading up to the synod. Just before it began, Burke, Müller, and other senior cardinals published a book in several languages attacking the ideas laid out by Cardinal Walter Kasper on allowing those who had divorced and remarried to receive communion in a speech heartily praised by Pope Francis. It broke into open revolt at the midpoint of the synod, following publication of a document presented as a summary of discussions but that conservatives said misrepresented the debate by including passages on ‘welcoming homosexual persons’ and discussing some of Kasper’s proposal on divorce. The backlash appeared to have been especially strong from the English-speaking world, which includes a large number of African and American bishops; in an apparent attempt to mollify anglophone conservatives, the Vatican released a new translation of the report that changed the phrase ‘welcoming homosexual persons’ to ‘providing for homosexual persons’ and made other small changes, while leaving the versions in all other languages unchanged. The report is now being revised with feedback from small-group discussions held this week, and a final version is scheduled to be voted on on Saturday. Burke said he hoped that the committee writing the new report will produce a ‘worthy document,’ but said his ‘trust is a little bit shaken’ by the language in the interim draft he said lacks ‘a good foundation either in the sacred scriptures or in the church’s perennial teachings.’ But there seems to be little middle ground between Pope Francis’ worldview and Burke’s. Francis was president of the Argentinian bishops conference when that country passed a marriage equality bill in 2010 and reportedly tried to convince his colleagues to support a civil union proposal instead”.

Captured two Haqqani’s

22/10/2014

Afghan security forces said Thursday they have captured two senior leaders of the feared Haqqani network, a hardline group behind sophisticated attacks on Afghan and Nato forces. Anas Haqqani, the son of the network’s founder Jalaluddin Haqqani, was arrested late Tuesday along with Hafiz Rashid, another commander, by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence agency, officials said. “We hope that these two arrests will have direct consequences on the network and their centre of command,” NDS spokesman Haseeb Sediqi said. Anas played an important role in the network’s “strategic decision-making” and frequently travelled to Gulf states to get funding, Sediqi said”.

A welcoming Church?

22/10/2014

A post discusess where the new welcoming language in the Synod emerged from. It opens, “It’s one of the great mysteries of the meeting on family life taking place behind closed doors at the Vatican this week: Just where did the authors of a draft report come up with such ground-breaking language that gays had gifts to offer the church, and that even same-sex partnerships had merit? Officially speaking, the draft report was a synthesis of the interventions from more than 200 bishops, a starting point for small working groups to propose amendments, elaborations, additions, and subtractions to the drafting committee preparing a final report that will be released on Saturday. But conservative cardinals have said their views were not reflected in the draft. They blasted the report as “unacceptable” and said it was in sore need of an overhaul”.

It notes “Cardinal Timothy Dolan said his fellow American, hardline Cardinal Raymond Burke, reflected the view of “a good number of people in saying, boy, this document is a rough draft, does it ever need major revisions.” “I think he’s right, he’s picked up on the side that a lot of bishops, and I would include myself, feel that it needs some major reworking,” Dolan told “CBS This Morning.” The most contentious passage is contained in three paragraphs of the 58-paragraph report under the heading “Welcoming homosexuals.” It starts off by saying gays “have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community.””

Ironically, these words are minor in comparison in comparison to what is in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church where gays can supposedly reach perfection if they follow the legalistic teachings of the Church.

The piece adds “There was no reference to Catholic doctrine that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered,” sinful, or that gay orientation was “objectively disordered.” Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, the main author of the report or “relator,” defended the document, but acknowledged problems and said there was ample room for improvement. He told Vatican Radio that the 16 officials who drafted it struggled to synthesize the positions of 30-40 bishops on any given topic and rushed to finish it on time. He acknowledged that there may have been instances when the report said “many” bishops had proposed a certain position when only “some” had. But he said the final paper would provide “greater clarity, that doesn’t leave any doubt in any chapter because the faithful need a clear voice, an encouragement and an instruction.” Erdo has already named the official who wrote the section on gays, Monsignor Bruno Forte, appointed by Pope Francis as the special secretary to the synod. Forte is an Italian theologian known for pushing the pastoral envelope on dealing with people in “irregular” unions while staying true to Catholic doctrine”.

Importantly he makes the point that “Forte and all the members of the drafting committee had access to far more material than the bishops themselves since they had the lengthy written speeches each synod “father” submitted prior to the meeting. Those written speeches factored into the draft report, even if the bishops didn’t utter them during the four minutes each was allowed to speak. In fact, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said he recalled only one speech out of about 265 about gays during the debate. So it’s not surprising that bishops didn’t recognise everything in the draft report since these written submissions weren’t made public or distributed to the bishops themselves, and the oral presentations only reflected a summary or particular point that a bishop wanted to make. But at the same time, there is no real way to know which bishop or bishops had proposed such ground-breaking language or whether it was more a reflection of Forte’s view”.

He ends “As it is, he appointed a half-dozen perceived progressives to the final drafting committee after bishops themselves elected conservatives to head the working groups. These working groups will make proposed amendments, but in the end, it’s up to the drafting committee to write the final document that the bishops will vote to accept or not. None of Francis’ appointees are Africans, who are among the most conservative on family issues”.

“Intensified air strikes”

22/10/2014

American-led forces have sharply intensified air strikes in the past two days against Islamic State fighters threatening Kurds on Syria’s Turkish border after the jihadists’ advance began to destabilise Turkey. The coalition had conducted 21 attacks on the militants near the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani over Monday and Tuesday and appeared to have slowed Islamic State advances there, the U.S. military said, but cautioned the situation remained fluid. U.S. President Barack Obama voiced deep concern on Tuesday about the situation in Kobani as well as in Iraq’s Anbar province, which U.S. troops fought to secure during the Iraq war and is now at risk of being seized by Islamic State militants. “Coalition air strikes will continue in both of these areas,” Obama told military leaders from coalition partners including Turkey”.

France vs the ECB

22/10/2014

A report notes that France has stopped enacting the demands for austerity from Brussels/Berlin and the result is that a fight is about to take place. It opens “For the last two years, bond investors have turned a blind eye to the deep-seated problems of the eurozone, from the threat of outright deflation to the failure to build a proper political and fiscal union. Much of the credit for the resilience of Europe’s debt markets goes to European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi. His pledge in July 2012 to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro dramatically improved investor sentiment towards the bloc after four years when the currency’s dissolution seemed plausible if not imminent.

Yet over the past several months, the failings of what remains an ill-managed currency union have become much more apparent. The eurozone’s economic recovery has stalled. The ECB’s policies, like cutting interest rates to a record low and trying to encourage lending to small- and medium-sized firms, are proving ineffective in countering the threat of Japanese-style deflation. European stock markets have been in free-falldue to fears of continuing stagnation, dragging other markets down with them. Perhaps most worryingly, the bloc’s two most important members are at daggers drawn over economic policy. France, the eurozone’s second-largest economy and a founding member of the European Union (EU), is at the forefront of a campaign to ease Europe’s stringent fiscal rules. Made more stringent in 2012 at the request of Germany, the rules require all members of the EU to keep their budget deficits below 3 percent of GDP — even during severe economic downturns like that of the last few years. France’s plea for greater leniency over fiscal targets — which is supported by Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy, and has even found a sympathetic ear in Draghi — is strongly opposed by Germany, the eurozone’s biggest economy, its chief paymaster, and the bloc’s staunchest proponent of austerity”.

It should be reminded that ten years ago both Germany and France were unable to keep to this limit and whatever sanctions and fines they should have faced were waived. Not only is this grossly unfair to those smaller members who kept to the limits but it also says much that the EU cannot even enforce its own rules on every member, irrespective of how big or small they are. Ironically, this is a slightly more relaxed version of the dog-eat-dog world that the EU has been trying to escape from since its inception with poor results. Big states do what they want and small states do what they must. To say anything else is farcical.

The piece adds “In German eyes, it isn’t just southern Europe’s commitment to reform that is in doubt, as was the case in the early years of the eurozone crisis. Instead, the biggest fear in Berlin is Paris’s reluctance to undertake the reforms being demanded of it. That poses the biggest challenge to Europe’s single-currency area. Until several months ago, France had at least paid lip service to the need for fiscal consolidation. These days it doesn’t even bother: In its budget proposal for next year, published last week, the Socialist government of President François Hollande pushed back its already twice-delayed deficit target of 3 percent of GDP from 2015 to 2017. This year’s deficit, moreover, is expected to reach 4.4 percent of GDP, even higher than last year’s 4.3 percent”.

Most interestingly perhaps he writes that “the government is unapologetic. French Finance Minister Michel Sapin has not only made it clear that his government ‘rejects austerity,’ he has called on Germany to abandon its focus on deficit reduction and support a growth-friendly economic agenda featuring a significant increase in investment. France’s determination to force a change in eurozone policy is not surprising. Its economy is expected to grow a paltry 0.4 percent this year, having posted practically no growth in 2012 and 2013″.

The author notes that France “is warning of the dire consequences of imposing excessive austerity at a time when the recovery in the eurozone has been snuffed out. The government’s 2015 budget already includes 21 billion euros in spending cuts, with the axe falling on parts of France’s sacrosanct welfare state. More austerity could tip the economy into recession and play into the hands of Marine Le Pen, the increasingly popular leader of France’s far-right National Front party who, according to a recent poll, would beat Hollande, the most unpopular French head of state since World War II, in a second-round runoff for the presidency”.

Indeed, the German obsession with austerity that has not worked, is totally divorced from political reality. They demand austerity and are either surprised when anti-EU or anti-incumbent parties are elected, or if they are not surprised they are dismissive of those parties that seek reform or in some cases the outright abolition of the entire EU. As Italian PM Matteo Renzi has said demands for austerity will mean the election of Marine Le Pen.

The writer goes on to note “the commission is now seriously considering rejecting the government’s budget, which needs to be submitted to Brussels by Oct. 15 for approval. If the two sides are unable to agree on deeper spending cuts, or at least additional structural reforms in return for a slower pace of fiscal tightening, France could face financial sanctions, including a fine of up to 0.2 percent of GDP. Investors, however, appear unperturbed. The yield on France’s 10-year government bond currently stands around 1.2 percent — an historic low — and is down 1.3 percent (or 130 basis points) since the beginning of this year and, even more surprisingly, is only 30 basis points above the yield on benchmark German 10-year debt”.

He ends, controversially, “Germany cannot force France to reform, but the bond markets may be able to. So far there are no signs of this happening. Yet France is sailing close to the wind: The eurozone’s second-largest economy has been mired in stagnation for the last three years; it lacks the political will to embrace reform. The question is how long Germany will tolerate a reform-shy France and, more importantly, how long France’s own bond market will remain resilient. Time might be running out”.

 

Sharing intelligence

22/10/2014

Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday that the United States and Russia had agreed to share more intelligence on the Islamic State, as he sought to lay the basis for improved cooperation with Moscow. Just six months ago, Obama administration officials suggested that their goal was to isolate President Vladimir V. Putin following Russia’s decision to annex Crimea and provide military support to separatists in eastern Ukraine. But Mr. Kerry made it clear that he would welcome expanded cooperation with Mr. Putin after a meeting here with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. While nobody on the American side said the United States was undertaking another “reset” — the term the Obama administration used to describe its early attempt to improve ties with Russia — the tenor of Mr. Kerry’s comments suggested that the State Department was pursuing a new tack”.

An MP from UKIP

20/10/2014

After the first UKIP MP was elected reports mention the party is now proposing the ambitious target of winning nine seats in the 2015 general election. It opens, “Nigel Farage, buoyed by his party’s success after Douglas Carswell’s “Krakatoa” moment in Clacton, is now planning to target nine seats at the General Election. Ukip will now pour its resources into Rochester and Strood ahead of a by-election after Mark Reckless’ decision to defect from the Conservatives. The party will also target seven other seats identified from polling by Lord Ashcroft, the Tory donor, and Alan Bown, the Ukip supporter. According to the polling, Ukip is in the lead in four seats and within touching distance of winning in three others”.

The report goes on to note “If Ukip were to win them all, along with Mark Reckless’ seat in Rochester and Strood, the party would be the fourth largest party in the Commons, equal with the Democratic Unionists and larger than the SNP, Sinn Fein and Plaid Cymru. Mr Farage believes that Ukip could hold the “balance of power” after the next election. He said: “What I do regard now as being likely is Ukip winning enough MPs next May in the House of Commons in Westminster to make a difference”.

Yet the amount of coverage that UKIP is receiving is so out of proportion to the number of votes it has received, or will receive at a general election, any general election, that it seems mind boggling. This shows the UK and especially British obsession with immigration despite the fact that they as a country are more neoliberal than most of Europe, with some exceptions. Despite this neoliberalism, they seem to think it an excellent idea to close the borders and allow no-one in.

Worse still, it will give UKIP even more oxygen when they should be choked of it. Things are made worse by the fact that Cameron seems to want to appease these people rather than challenge them to live in reality.

A related piece notes how the election of Carswell will “change British politics”. The first example the author gives is the now obvious assertion that “UKIP can win seats”. This is obviously true, it mentions “Douglas Carswell insists he does not want to play “partisan games”, and will support the policies David Cameron has set out in his “fantastic” conference speech: human rights reform, tax cuts, fiscal consolidation and English votes for English laws. “I’m glad he agrees with me. What took him so long?” Mr Carswell tells me. High on Mr Farage’s shopping list for his man in Parliament is securing the abolition of First Past the Post system, replacing it with the more proportional AV+ system by 2020. More immediately, friends of popular and persuasive Mr Carswell know he is the party’s best hope of winning more defectors from the Conservative ranks as he works the tea rooms and bars of the House of Commons”.

The piece then goes on to put Carswell in the mold of some Ancient Roman tribune as a representative of the people. This is partially true. While he won 60% of the vote to then imply that UKIP has the backing of people up and done England is laughable.

The author does make the valid point that “Clacton was a Labour seat from 1997 to 2005, albeit before a boundary change. On paper, there’s no reason why the party shouldn’t be expecting to come second or reclaim it. It’s working class, with lots of people engaged in low-skilled services and light industry. The issues that recur on the doorstep – the NHS, cost of living, housing, where the jobs are coming from – are at the core of Ed Miliband’s platform. Yet many canvassers expect Labour’s share of the vote to half to little over ten per cent, with less than seven months to run to a general election. Crucially, as Chuka notes, it’s in the south of England. If Labour are crushed, expect rumblings around Mr Miliband to grow”.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/ukip/11150520/Ukip-a-new-dawn-or-false-dawn.html

Lastly, an article questions whether this will be another false dawn in the UKIP history, “It will be a “new dawn” if Ukip triumph in the Clacton by-election, Nigel Farage said on Wednesday night. The era of three-party politics will be over. Labour’s stranglehold on the working class vote will be broken. And no longer will people be able to write-off Ukip as a protest vote or a one-man band, he said. Mr Farage says his polling shows the Ukip vote is robust, drawn from across the political spectrum and not going to melt away come the general election. That view is rejected by some Tory strategists, who hope that voters will come back to them when the serious choice of David Cameron or Ed Mibiband as Prime Minister is presented. Others – such as Labour’s Chuka Umunna – believe that society has become more atomised, and politicians must get use to an era of multiple parties, a change in part driven by the internet. Others argue it mirrors the rise of an isolationist, anti-immigration radical right across Europe. Mr Farage is not the first charismatic leader to attempt to take an insurgent populist movement into the Commons, and stay there. Their impact and longevity has been a mixed bag”.

 

“They made some progress”

20/10/2014

In this the 3100th post “Iran and the United States said they made some progress in high-level nuclear talks but much work remained to clinch a breakthrough deal by a late-November deadline. Both sides said they still aimed to meet the self-imposed Nov. 24 date, despite doubts among many experts that they can reach a full agreement to end a decade-old dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program with just a few weeks remaining. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry left Vienna early on Thursday after six hours of talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton the previous day, but his officials remained to continue the talks through Thursday. “It was very difficult, serious and intensive … but instead of focusing on problems, we discussed solutions as well,” Zarif told Iranian media on Thursday, sources who were present told Reuters. “There was progress in all the fields.” The U.S. side also said progress was made”.

Who runs Libya?

20/10/2014

A piece in Foreign Policy documents the governance problems faced by Libya with competing factions claiming authority.

It starts “In a luxury hotel on Tripoli’s seafront, the man who claims to be running a government holds court. Omar al-Hasi, a university lecturer from the city of Benghazi, tried and failed this year to become Libya’s prime minister. Today he leads what he calls a “national salvation government” in opposition to that of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, who is currently based in eastern Libya”.

The author goes on to write that “For most ordinary Libyans, however, who exactly is in charge of their country remains an open question. Thinni is supported by an internationally recognised parliament, but his government’s writ extends little beyond its sparsely attended sessions in the small coastal town of Tobruk near the border with Egypt. Hasi was appointed by a rump of the new parliament’s unpopular predecessor, the Islamist-dominated General National Congress, which revived itself in Tripoli in the wake of a fierce weeks-long militia battle that tipped the balance of power to where it matters: the capital, home to ministries and state institutions like the national oil corporation. When Hasi says “we,” he means the thuwar, or “revolutionaries” — a word he uses liberally in conversation and in the speeches he has delivered to crowds in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square. But thuwar is a bitterly contested word three years after the uprising that dislodged Muammar al-Gaddafi. The militias that fought each other for control of Tripoli this summer were all on the same side in 2011. What divides them now is a scramble for power and resources, underpinned by rivalry between towns and tribes. Appeals to revolutionary sentiment may help rally Hasi’s base, but they leave a great many Libyans cold”.

Naturally, Hasi has been accused of leading a coup, “In addition to the main Misrata forces, Libyan Dawn contains dozens of militias — both Islamist and non-Islamist — from Tripoli and several other western towns, as well as Amazigh (or Berber) fighters. The Misratans and the Amazigh in particular bridle at those who seek to cast Libyan Dawn as an Islamist takeover, a narrative pushed by their routed opponents.Part of this narrative are the whispering campaigns that allege Hasi is a former member of the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a militant group that posed the most serious threat to Qaddafi in the 1990s. Hasi says he once helped an injured LIFG figure escape from a hospital in Benghazi — a famous episode in the city — but was never a member. He says he does not even self-describe as Islamist”.

That diversity could well prove Libyan Dawn’s undoing, now that the goal that united its members — driving Zintan-linked militias from Tripoli — has been achieved. Misratan commanders, for their part, insist they can easily deal with hard-line Islamists within the coalition. “They know we are stronger than them and greater in number,” says one key militia figure from Misrata. “We’re not going to accept a religious dictatorship any more than we accepted Qaddafi.”

The consequences of this are plain to see, “The militias’ fighting this summer left Tripoli scarred: The international airport is a burned-out shell, and scores of homes lie ruined in the worst-hit neighbourhoods. But elsewhere in the capital, life goes on — families flock to the beach or busy cafes, and traffic snarls in the usual gridlock. There is little overt militia presence, apart from outside certain ministries and the area around the destroyed airport. The Dawn camp knows it needs to get the people on its side. Its effort is hindered, however, by lingering memories of the killing of more than 40 demonstrators by Misratan militiamen last year. “All these militias are as bad as the other, no matter who they claim to represent,” says one shop owner who shuttered his business for weeks in July and August”.

It concludes, “A U.N.-fostered dialogue began last week between parliamentarians boycotting and attending sessions in Tobruk, but many Libyans say such initiatives are merely window dressing if the deeper militia problem is not addressed. As the Tripoli versus Tobruk debacle continues, institutions like the Central Bank, which is based in the capital, are being pulled into the fray: Its governor was recently dismissed by the parliament in Tobruk; he is standing down while taking legal action against the move. In the meantime, Hasi is installing more appointees in ministries in Tripoli and claiming that the international community will have no choice but to recognize his administration sooner rather than later. The power struggle threatening to tear Libya apart is not just playing out among politicians and militiamen but also within families, with many divided on what they consider to be the legitimate authorities. Over a dinner at an upscale Lebanese restaurant in Tripoli, two brothers who live in opposite ends of the country illustrate the growing polarisation”.

A coalition of disagreements

20/10/2014

Two months after the start of its campaign against the Islamic State, the U.S.-led coalition conducting operations in Iraq and Syria has expanded significantly but remains beset by lingering strategic differences that threaten to undermine the fight. The Obama administration has emphasized the breadth of the coalition it has assembled to combat the militant group, including the participation of five Arab countries that have played a supporting role in the campaign of airstrikes in Syria. But serious disagreements remain, particularly over the coalition’s plan for Syria and whether the fight against Islamic State militants there will strengthen or weaken Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad in the long run”.

GOP, resorting to fear

20/10/2014

A piece from the New York Times discusses the Republican strategy for the upcoming midterms and that it is based largely on fear. Not only does this hurt the public discourse in the long run but it also harms Congress and the presidency itself, thus making the disapproval of democracy even worse.

It begins, “Republicans have made questions of how safe we are — from disease, terrorism or something unspoken and perhaps more ominous — central in their attacks against Democrats. Their message is decidedly grim: President Obama and the Democratic Party run a government that is so fundamentally broken it cannot offer its people the most basic protection from harm. Hear it on cable television and talk radio, where pundits and politicians play scientists speculating on whether Ebola will mutate into an airborne virus that kills millions. See it in the black-hooded, machine-gun-brandishing Islamic extremists appearing in campaign ads. Read about it in the unnerving accounts of the Secret Service leaving Mr. Obama and his family exposed. Republicans believe they have found the sentiment that will tie congressional races together with a single national theme”.

Drones kill eight militants

20/10/2014

At least eight suspected militants — including a senior member of al Qaeda’s South Asia franchise and a key Taliban commander — were killed and three others wounded in two US predator strikes in the Khyber and North Waziristan tribal regions on Saturday. In the first attack that took place around noon, a remotely piloted aircraft fired two missiles at a compound in the Chancharano Kandaw area of the remote Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency, tribal sources told The Express Tribune. They added that militants fleeing a military offensive in North Waziristan lived in the compound which was located in the area dominated by tribesmen from Kokikhel, a sub-clan of the Afridi tribe. Sources said that the missiles flattened the compound, killing four suspected militants and injuring two others. Among the dead were militants from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, commonly known as the Afghan Taliban. The casualties were shifted across the border, since the area where the predator struck is close to the Nazyan district of Nangarhar province of Afghanistan”.

Spreading Iranian influence

20/10/2014

A piece has argued that Iranian influence has seeped into Yemen.

It begins, “Stopping the Islamic State has taken over the headlines and dominated Middle East policy debates in recent weeks. While the jihadists’ rampage is cause for understandable concern, it has obscured a huge strategic shift in another Middle Eastern linchpin: Yemen. The takeover of Sanaa in mid-September by the Houthis, a Shiite minority group, has dire implications for Yemen’s neighbours and for the American war on terror. And further escalation seems likely. On Oct. 8, Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi called for mass demonstrations against foreign meddling in the country’s politics. Above all else, the latest developments in Sanaa represent a huge victory for Iran. But the Houthis’ decision to tie their fate to Tehran’s regional machinations risks tearing Yemen apart and throwing the country into chaos”.

He goes on to make the point that “many Yemenis have believed that Iran provides money and training to the Houthis, who comprise 30 percent of Yemen’s 25 million citizens. Officials in Sanaa, from President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to party leaders, have accused Iran of meddling in their affairs. Meanwhile, Iranian officials are all too happy to encourage such suspicions: In a recent statement, Ali Riza Zakani, Tehran’s representative in the Iranian Parliament, bragged that Sanaa would be the fourth Arab capital to fall into Iran’s hands. Houthi militias rode into Sanaa in mid-September, on a wave of popular discontent over rising fuel prices and rampant corruption”.

He goes on to make the point that “on Sept. 21, one day after Jamal Benomar, the United Nations’ representative in Yemen, announced an agreement to resolve the crisis, the Houthis took over ministries, military bases, government buildings, and the airport. Neither the army nor the police fought back. Sanaa was practically handed over to the Houthis — almost a mirror image of Iraq’s response to the Islamic State (IS) in June. Yemen’s prime minister resigned, accusing the president of  monopolising power, thus fulfilling the rebels’ main demand: the resignation of his government. The Houthis then sat down with the president and the other political parties, who had no choice but to oblige, after the balance of power had shifted in the Houthis’ favour. They soon signed the “Peace and National Partnership” agreement, which had been negotiated under Benomar. But it seems like Iran is getting the best deal out of it. The agreement called for the swift naming of a new prime minister, the formation of a new government, and the appointment of two presidential advisors who would influence the selection of cabinet members and the distribution seats among the various parties. Significantly, these advisors would be selected from the Houthis and Al Hirak, the southern separatist movement”.

He mentions that this did not end the crisis but it continued, “when the president named a new prime minister on Oct. 7, the Houthis rejected his choice, perpetuating Yemen’s political crisis. Houthi leaders accused the president, improbably, of bowing to American pressure during the selection process. If this kind of political spoiling seems familiar, that’s because the Houthis have ripped it straight from Hezbollah’s playbook. When the Iran-backed group took over Beirut in 2008, it used force against its political opponents, occupied the city, then sat alongside them to sign a new power-sharing deal and form a new government, giving the Shiite party veto power over its decisions. Six years later, Hezbollah’s hold over Lebanon is blocking the election of a new president, causing a political vacuum”.

He makes the point that “The implications of events in Yemen extend beyond its borders. Bab Al Mandab is a key strait that passes through the Gulf of Aden, linking the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean. It serves as the world’s main oil transit waterway, and main shipping lifeline through the Suez Canal. If the Houthis secured Bab Al Mandab and the sea in Al Hudaydah governorate, another strategic waterway, they would control the traffic from the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf, a sobering prospect for those worried about increased Iranian influence in the region. Hadi is well aware of the geo-political stakes. In his interview with Al Hayat he said that “whoever holds the keys to Bab Al Mandab and the Hormuz Strait does not need a nuclear bomb.””

The piece concludes “Sanaa faces yet another problem. Houthi leaders know how to speak to the fears of the West — and especially those of the United States. At his victory rally in Sanaa on Sept. 23, Houthi leader al-Houthi said the takeover of Sanaa will lead to stability. He spoke as a victor, presenting himself as the new power player and the enemy of al Qaeda, a signal to the United States and its allies that he is fighting terrorism just like them — exactly as Hezbollah claims it is doing now in Lebanon. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for its part, seems energised by the developments. On Sept. 25, it put out a statement accusing the Houthis of “completing the Persian project in Yemen,” and calling on the Sunnis to take up arms. Indeed, the group has already begun attacking the Houthis in different parts of Yemen, threatening to further enflame this this already-raging sectarian conflict”.

He closes “Sanaa, meanwhile, remains under occupation by the Houthis. They refuse to withdraw their heavy weapons from the capital, or return the large cache of weapons taken from the military. Meanwhile, President Hadi has yet to name a new prime minister. Interestingly, the U.N. Security Council has welcomed the new agreement, calling on all the parties to implement it and turn over “all medium and heavy weapons to legitimate state security bodies.” If the Houthis do not rein in their militias, withdraw their heavy weapons, fully implement the U.N. agreement, and mend their relations with the rest of the country, Yemen might spiral out of control. Tehran may be pleased with itself. But its Yemen adventure might show the limitations of its power, and the heavy price for its penchant to play the spoiler. In the meantime, it is in the interests of the United States, and the interests of Yemen’s neighbors to help roll back the Houthi advance and implement the peace agreement”.

 

Turkey bombs the Kurds

20/10/2014

Turkish fighter jets have bombed Kurdish rebel positions in the south-east of the country, raising further fears about Ankara’s commitment to the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) jihadists. The attack on positions of the outlawed PKK group which fights for Kurdish autonomy was separate from the battle between Kurdish fighters and Isil just over the border in Syria. But the PKK is allied to the YPG, the Syrian group which leads the fighting there and which has accused Turkey of deliberately sabotaging its defence of the border town of Kobane. Because of its fear of Kurdish separatism, Turkey has blocked arms and other support being taken into the town over the frontier. Kurdish officials on Tuesday said that arms sent by the Kurdish autonomous region in neighbouring Iraq were stuck in a separate Kurdish area of Syria, unable to reach the fighters because Turkey refuses to open a corridor for them”.

Burke’s “compassionate” response

20/10/2014

Reports from the Synod in Rome note that it is split on the issue of divorce and how the Church views homosexuality in concrete pastoral situations.

Reports begin, “The Extraordinary Synod on the Family is tackling the issue of remarried divorcees head on. The Synod Fathers have been dealing with the issue – which had emerged occasionally in previous discussions – since yesterday afternoon as they work their way through the Instrumentum Laboris, the Synod’s working document. “Participation peaked” during this very “passionate” debate, with the Synod split down the middle, between those in favour of allowing remarried divorcees to take communion in certain cases and others against. Both sides, however, are faithful to Jesus’ teaching on mercy and support the indissolubility of marriage. It is not yet time to take official counts, we don’t count who is “for” and who “against” at the Synod, Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi said”.

It goes on to mention that “Two main lines of argument emerged during the daily press briefing. One “insists on what the Gospel says about marriage: if a first marriage is valid, a remarried divorcee cannot be admitted to the sacraments, as there needs to be coherence between doctrine and faithfulness to the word of the Lord. The other line of reasoning recalls that “Jesus sees human  experiences with a merciful eye” and “takes into account” the “differences” in each “specific case”, which would make access to the Eucharist possible in some cases”.

In a related development the issue of Eucharist for those in relations “outside” the Church. Other reports note the moving witness given by an Australian couple to the Synod, “A married couple told Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops on the family that Catholic parishes should welcome same-sex couples, following the example of parents who invite their son and his male partner to their home for Christmas. “The church constantly faces the tension of upholding the truth while expressing compassion and mercy. Families face this tension all the time,” Ron and Mavis Pirola of Sydney told the synod Monday. “Take homosexuality as an example. Friends of ours were planning their Christmas family gathering when their gay son said he wanted to bring his partner home, too. They fully believed in the church’s teachings and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family. Their response could be summed up in three [sic] words, ‘He is our son.’ ” “What a model of evangelization for parishes as they respond to similar situations in their neighbourhood,” the Pirolas said. While Catholic teaching says homosexual people should not be discriminated against, it holds that homosexual acts are always immoral and that marriage can only be a union between one man and one woman”.

Unsurprisingly, Raymond Cardinal Burke, weighs in with all his usual subtly, gentleness and delicacy, “Cardinal Raymond Burke has responded to a controversial presentation by an Australian couple before 191 of the Catholic Church’s leading bishops and cardinals at the ongoing Extraordinary Synod on the Family this week. During their intervention, which has turned out to be one of the most widely reported interventions at the Synod, the Priolas asked and answered a question about what parents should do in the case where their son wants to bring his homosexual partner to a Christmas dinner where their grandchildren will be present. The Pirolas’ response, which they held up as a model for the manner in which the Catholic Church should deal with same-sex relationships, was that parents should accept the participation of the son and his homosexual partner knowing “their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family.””

The report notes that “Cardinal Burke, the Prefect of the Vatican’s Apostolic Signitura, called the Pirolas’ question a ‘delicate’ question that needs to be addressed in a “calm, serene, reasonable and faith-filled manner.” “If homosexual relations are intrinsically disordered, which indeed they are — reason teaches us that and also our faith — then, what would it mean to grandchildren to have present at a family gathering a family member who is living [in] a disordered relationship with another person?” asked the cardinal”.

As usual Cardinal Burke is wedded to a legalism that Jesus told the Church to abolish. He is unable to see the people behind the law, and while law is important and has a place, Burke elevates law above people making the Church a cold place bereft of joy and hope.

ISIS gain an army base

20/10/2014

Islamic State fighters on Monday seized control of an army base in western Iraq, the third to fall in three weeks, as Iraqi forces in the region appeared close to collapse despite U.S.-led airstrikes. Iraqi officials described the pullback from near Hit — a town in Anbar province about 115 miles west of Baghdad — as a “tactical retreat” and said the army hauled away equipment and burned food supplies to deny the Islamic State provisions and firepower. The withdrawal came just hours after the U.S. Central Command said coalition forces had conducted airstrikes in the area. The loss of the base deals another psychological blow to beleaguered Iraqi forces that have been battling Islamic State militants in Anbar for 10 months. Regional politicians have pleaded for increased U.S. support — with some even requesting a return of American ground troops — as fears grow that the province could fall completely”.

Fighting ISIS or the Kurds?

18/10/2014

Steven Cook writes that Turkey is doing nothing while the Middle East burns. He opens “Last week, the Turkish Grand National Assembly voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq. Turkish legislators also voted to permit the deployment of foreign forces in Turkey for the purpose of fighting against the Islamic State (IS). The votes were heralded in the Turkish and U.S. media as proof that Ankara is a dependable ally in the ongoing battle against the Islamic State. So why are Turkish forces sitting idly along the border while jihadist militants advance toward the border? The Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, along the Turkish frontier, is on the verge of falling to IS. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Tuesday that a ground invasion will be necessary to rescue the city. But Ankara has stood by for weeks as the jihadists have laid siege to the city. Even while Erdogan insists that it will take a ground invasion to keep Kobani from the hands of the self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Turkish tanks stand sentry along the border within view of the fight, doing little more than observing”.

Cook goes on to note “Turkey seems like it should be not just a part of the anti-IS coalition, but one of its leading members. Erdogan has insisted that Turkey does not support IS, has never allowed extremists to use Turkish territory to link up with IS, and regards IS as a major threat. Yet he refused to make any clear commitment to actually do anything to stop the terrorists’ rampage just across the border. Like everything else that Erdogan and other Turkish officials have said about IS since its forces stormed into Mosul in early June, these claims are sufficiently broad to be true enough, but are not entirely accurate. The Turks may not support the Islamic State, but there is circumstantial evidence that at times they were coordinating with the group (and other extremists) to advance Ankara’s interests in Syria in the last three years of civil war. Without stretching credulity, the Turks can claim that they did not knowingly allow foreign jihadists to transit through Turkey on the way to Syria. And yes, Ankara has consistently called IS a threat, although it has done very little about the gathering storm on two of its borders”.

He argues that “Erdogan’s inaction can be explained by the unique dilemmas IS poses for Turkey. Every policy response designed to resolve these dilemmas merely creates new challenges, from domestic politics to the long-simmering question of Kurdish autonomy. There is no exit for Erdogan. Action or inaction against IS both contain security threats and political risks that the Turkish president would prefer to avoid. First and foremost, Ankara cannot seem to decide which is a bigger threat: IS or the Kurds. On the one hand, President Erdogan, in his 12 years as prime minister, worked harder than any of his predecessors to resolve the “Kurdish problem,” most recently undertaking peace talks with the PKK, a group that has waged war against the Turkish state since 1984. But from the Turkish perspective, coming to the rescue of Kobani actually threatens to undo the progress that his government has made in recent years”.

Cook argues that “The PKK is a terrorist organization, but it came out looking very good after Iraqi Kurdish leaders — in an act of desperation — requested the help of PKK guerillas after the Islamic State’s siege of Mount Sinjar in August. The PKK performed well, in contrast to the Peshmerga fighters loyal to Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP)”.

Yet this is a tad simplistic as the PKK have started a truce and withdrawn from large sections of what is Turkish territory. Importantly Cook notes that “This inaction risks angering Turkey’s own Kurdish population (almost 14 million in total) and has thrown the peace process with the PKK in jeopardy. The organization’s leaders have threatened to end their cease-fire with the Turkish armed forces if the Turks allow Kobani to fall — which seems likely — but Ankara clearly believes that is a preferable outcome to throwing the Turkish military into the fight against IS, thereby helping the PYD and PKK”.

Cooks ends the piece “The Turkish analysis of the situation is different from that of the United States and the Europeans. Ankara believes that IS emerged as a result of the Syrian civil war, which in turn is the result of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s intransigence and brutality. The Turks thus insist that getting rid of Assad is the only way to get rid of IS. This is both simplistic and self-serving: Given that Ankara has been vocal in its support for regime change in Syria, anything less would be a profound embarrassment to Erdogan and Davutoglu. Inasmuch as Erdogan does not believe that the United States is going to do in Assad and may even sometime down the road tacitly agree to some sort of deal that leaves the Syrian dictator in place, the Turks remain cool to taking part in the anti-IS coalition. Finally, though it may be hard to believe, there are elements of the AKP’s constituency that regard IS as a legitimate group seeking to protect Sunni interests in Syria and Iraq amid ongoing sectarian bloodshed”.

He concludes “Turkish leaders know they are boxed in. This tough position has them frozen in fear — any move they make seems likely to blow back at them in a way they don’t want. The Turks may yet pull the trigger against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces, but only after a lot of kicking and screaming”.

Extend or renewed confrontation?

18/10/2014

With differences still unresolved and the deadline for a deal nearing, Iran and the U.S. have a choice to make: Extend nuclear talks for a second time or face the risk of renewed confrontation and armed conflict. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets Wednesday in Vienna with Iranian Foreign Minister Dr Mohammad Javad Zarif to try and advance the talks and meet the target date of Nov. 24. But with less than six weeks left until Nov. 24, there may be no alternative to prolonging them. Iran denies wanting nuclear weapons. But if the talks fail, Tehran will return to expanding programs that could be turned from peaceful purposes to making such arms. That in turn could revive the chance of a new Middle East conflict through attacks by Israel and possibly the U.S. The Americans insist the focus remains on sealing a deal by the end of the current four-month extension, but refuse to rule out that they will continue past Nov. 24. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Dr Abbas Araghchi said last week that Tehran is already talking to the U.S. and five other world powers at the talks about a possible extension. That may not happen, though, if the critics have their way. Opposition is certain from skeptics in U.S. Congress and from Iran’s hardliners. Both already fear a nuclear sellout. Seeing prolongation as a trick by the opponent to gain further advantage, they are likely to use all possible means to oppose it”.

Cutting off the funds

18/10/2014

Keith Johnson asks if America has ended the supply of oil used by ISIS for its wealth.

He opens noting “Having control of oil helped make the Islamic State the richest terrorist group ever. That’s one reason that U.S. and allied airstrikes have hammered its oil operations since late September. But two weeks later, one big question remains: Is the U.S.-led campaign succeeding in strangling the Islamic State’s golden goose? The terrorist group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, turned its control of oil fields in Syria and Iraq into a lucrative revenue stream. By some accounts, the group was earning as much as $2 million a day from the illicit sales of crude oil and refined products, which were smuggled across the border to Turkey in pipelines and trucks. The oil money, combined with other illegal businesses, made the Islamic State largely self-funded. But it also created a host of fresh vulnerabilities: oil infrastructure that U.S. and allied warplanes could target for destruction”.

He mentions that “Two weeks after the beginning of the Pentagon’s campaign to degrade and destroy ISIS in Syria, the U.S. military’s Central Command says that it has hit some 16 mobile oil refineries, a key piece of ISIS’s ability to make money off the oil fields found in territory it has overrun. But the Defense Department is not tracking the impact of those strikes on ISIS’s oil operations; that falls to the Treasury Department, which spearheads the fight against terror financing. A Treasury spokesperson said that it is too soon to make any formal estimate of how the military campaign has affected ISIS’s oil operations. Still, rough estimates are available. The Pentagon said that each of those mobile refineries could churn out between 300 and 500 barrels a day of refined products such as diesel fuel. So airstrikes so far may have wiped out as much as 8,000 barrels a day of ISIS’s refining capacity — or almost half the 18,000 barrels a day of capacity that ISIS was believed to have at the peak of its expansion this summer”.

Johnson makes the point of the importance of hitting the oil supplies “Crippling that capacity could pay dividends for the United States and its Arab allies in two ways: by cutting into ISIS’s ability to make money, and by curtailing its own fuel supplies, which are needed to run military vehicles and meet civilian energy needs in the areas it controls. “Taking half of that refined capacity out would be very problematic for the group,” said Valérie Marcel, an oil expert at Chatham House in London. “If there are fuel shortages everywhere they are in charge, they aren’t providing services, and if their military logistics are affected by a lack of refined products, it would be very serious for them,” she said”.

He adds later that “At the same time as the airstrikes, ISIS’s oil operations have come under siege from another direction: Turkey. After months of seemingly turning a blind eye to the endemic smuggling across Turkey’s long and porous borders, Turkish officials started cracking down on illicit fuel sales in recent months. Local reports suggest that in some areas, illicit cross-border fuel sales may have fallen by as much as 80 percent due to tougher Turkish measures. Still, it’s not totally clear to what degree the U.S.-led military campaign has really managed to disrupt ISIS’s oil business. One militant told the Wall Street Journal that oil production and refining continues apace, despite the military campaign. “The airstrikes have been lamer than expected,” he said”.

He ends the piece “ISIS could also theoretically rebuild some of the shattered refining capacity taken out of action by allied airstrikes. Marcel of Chatham House said that mobile refineries could be built in 10 days at a cost of about $230,000 each — provided the terror group could get its hands on the equipment. Treasury officials concede that targeting small-scale smuggled oil is harder than tracking illicit terror financing. A former State Department official said that oil smuggling continues, despite the attacks on the mobile refineries; only by rolling back ISIS on the ground can the United States and its allies permanently kneecap its moneymaking operations”.

Johnson ends with the advice that a growing number of people have been arguing, taking the territory back from the hands of ISIS.

Allowed to use Turkish bases

18/10/2014

Turkey will allow American and coalition troops to use its bases, including a key installation within 100 miles of the Syrian border, for operations against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, Defense Department officials said Sunday. Obama administration officials have urged the Turkish government to play a more significant role in fighting the extremists who have seized large parts of Iraq and Syria and driven refugees into Turkey. An American military team will arrive in Turkey this week to work out details of the training program and discuss what kind of missions can be flown from the Turkish bases, administration officials said. The basing and training agreement follows two days of talks in Ankara, the Turkish capital, between the authorities there and John R. Allen, the retired American general who is coordinating the coalition’s response to the Islamic State. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has been traveling in South America, has said the United States has sought access to Turkish air bases, including one at Incirlik in southern Turkey”.

Mearsheimer blames NATO

18/10/2014

John Mearsheimer argues in Foreign Affairs that the West is to blame for Putin’s actions. He begins “According to the prevailing wisdom in the West, the Ukraine crisis can be blamed almost entirely on Russian aggression. Russian President Vladimir Putin, the argument goes, annexed Crimea out of a long-standing desire to resuscitate the Soviet empire, and he may eventually go after the rest of Ukraine, as well as other countries in eastern Europe. In this view, the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 merely provided a pretext for Putin’s decision to order Russian forces to seize part of Ukraine. But this account is wrong: the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis. The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West. At the same time, the EU’s expansion eastward and the West’s backing of the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine — beginning with the Orange Revolution in 2004 — were critical elements, too. Since the mid-1990s, Russian leaders have adamantly opposed NATO enlargement, and in recent years, they have made it clear that they would not stand by while their strategically important neighbour turned into a Western bastion”.

He goes on to make the point “Putin’s pushback should have come as no surprise. After all, the West had been moving into Russia’s backyard and threatening its core strategic interests, a point Putin made emphatically and repeatedly. Elites in the United States and Europe have been blindsided by events only because they subscribe to a flawed view of international politics. They tend to believe that the logic of realism holds little relevance in the twenty-first century and that Europe can be kept whole and free on the basis of such liberal principles as the rule of law, economic interdependence, and democracy. But this grand scheme went awry in Ukraine. The crisis there shows that realpolitik remains relevant — and states that ignore it do so at their own peril. U.S. and European leaders blundered in attempting to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia’s border. Now that the consequences have been laid bare, it would be an even greater mistake to continue this misbegotten policy”.

It is not correct to say, as he does, that people do not believe in realism any more. President Obama in his 2009 Nobel Prize Speech gave a masterful defence of realism to what was no doubt a surprised audience. He gives little evidence for this supposed lack of belief in realism but it remains the dominant view in international relations, with a few exceptions. He is correct to say that liberalism, or liberal internationalism holds sway in Europe. This is clearly seen by their refusal to countenance either a collective or well armed and funded defence force as others have advised repeatedly. Yet what Mearsheimer does not account for is the Georgia war of 2008. Georgia had not joined NATO, although there is talk that it could join the organisation.

He goes on to argue “As the Cold War came to a close, Soviet leaders preferred that U.S. forces remain in Europe and NATO stay intact, an arrangement they thought would keep a reunified Germany pacified. But they and their Russian successors did not want NATO to grow any larger and assumed that Western diplomats understood their concerns. The Clinton administration evidently thought otherwise, and in the mid-1990s, it began pushing for NATO to expand. The first round of enlargement took place in 1999 and brought in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. The second occurred in 2004; it included Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Moscow complained bitterly from the start. During NATO’s 1995 bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs, for example, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said, “This is the first sign of what could happen when NATO comes right up to the Russian Federation’s borders. … The flame of war could burst out across the whole of Europe.” But the Russians were too weak at the time to derail NATO’s eastward movement — which, at any rate, did not look so threatening, since none of the new members shared a border with Russia, save for the tiny Baltic countries”.

A constructivist analysis of NATO expansion has argued that President Clinton did not initially want NATO expansion for the very reason that Mearsheimer suggests. However, what he fails to account is the desire of the “new” states of Eastern Europe to be part of the Western democratic bloc.

He adds “Yet despite this clear warning, NATO never publicly abandoned its goal of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance. And NATO expansion continued marching forward, with Albania and Croatia becoming members in 2009. The EU, too, has been marching eastward. In May 2008, it unveiled its Eastern Partnership initiative, a program to foster prosperity in such countries as Ukraine and integrate them into the EU economy. Not surprisingly, Russian leaders view the plan as hostile to their country’s interests. This past February, before Yanukovych was forced from office, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the EU of trying to create a “sphere of influence” in eastern Europe. In the eyes of Russian leaders, EU expansion is a stalking horse for NATO expansion. The West’s final tool for peeling Kiev away from Moscow has been its efforts to spread Western values and promote democracy in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, a plan that often entails funding pro-Western individuals and organizations. Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, estimated in December 2013 that the United States had invested more than $5 billion since 1991 to help Ukraine achieve “the future it deserves.” As part of that effort, the U.S. government has bankrolled the National Endowment for Democracy. The nonprofit foundation has funded more than 60 projects aimed at promoting civil society in Ukraine, and the NED’s president, Carl Gershman, has called that country “the biggest prize.” After Yanukovych won Ukraine’s presidential election in February 2010, the NED decided he was undermining its goals, and so it stepped up its efforts to support the opposition and strengthen the country’s democratic institutions”.

He elobrates that “The West’s triple package of policies — NATO enlargement, EU expansion, and democracy promotion — added fuel to a fire waiting to ignite. The spark came in November 2013, when Yanukovych rejected a major economic deal he had been negotiating with the EU and decided to accept a $15 billion Russian counteroffer instead. That decision gave rise to antigovernment demonstrations that escalated over the following three months and that by mid-February had led to the deaths of some one hundred protesters. Western emissaries hurriedly flew to Kiev to resolve the crisis. On February 21, the government and the opposition struck a deal that allowed Yanukovych to stay in power until new elections were held. But it immediately fell apart, and Yanukovych fled to Russia the next day. The new government in Kiev was pro-Western and anti-Russian to the core, and it contained four high-ranking members who could legitimately be labeled neofascists”.

Yet there is little sense in leaving non-democracies on the “border” of the EU if with just a little effort they could become democracies which are safer for their neighbours and more prosperous economically. As has been noted before, the NATO expansion was not simply a matter of security but a desire for non NATO members to be seen as part of the liberal democratic club.

Mearsheimer goes on to make the point that “Putin’s actions should be easy to comprehend. A huge expanse of flat land that Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany all crossed to strike at Russia itself, Ukraine serves as a buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia. No Russian leader would tolerate a military alliance that was Moscow’s mortal enemy until recently moving into Ukraine. Nor would any Russian leader stand idly by while the West helped install a government there that was determined to integrate Ukraine into the West. Washington may not like Moscow’s position, but it should understand the logic behind it. This is Geopolitics 101: great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory. After all, the United States does not tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, much less on its borders. Imagine the outrage in Washington if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico in it”.

It is certainly true that Ukraine was a buffer state but the argument Mearsheimer puts forward totally exhoroates all of Putin’s actions, making him a mere robot destined to follow the norms and rules of offensive realism. This cannot be the case, Putin could have expressed his concerns to “the West” and being a supposedly rational actor should have taken succour from this.

In a balanced way he writes “Officials from the United States and its European allies contend that they tried hard to assuage Russian fears and that Moscow should understand that NATO has no designs on Russia. In addition to continually denying that its expansion was aimed at containing Russia, the alliance has never permanently deployed military forces in its new member states. In 2002, it even created a body called the NATO-Russia Council in an effort to foster cooperation. To further mollify Russia, the United States announced in 2009 that it would deploy its new missile defense system on warships in European waters, at least initially, rather than on Czech or Polish territory. But none of these measures worked; the Russians remained steadfastly opposed to NATO enlargement, especially into Georgia and Ukraine. And it is the Russians, not the West, who ultimately get to decide what counts as a threat to them. To understand why the West, especially the United States, failed to understand that its Ukraine policy was laying the groundwork for a major clash with Russia, one must go back to the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration began advocating NATO expansion. Pundits advanced a variety of arguments for and against enlargement, but there was no consensus on what to do. Most eastern European émigrés in the United States and their relatives, for example, strongly supported expansion, because they wanted NATO to protect such countries as Hungary and Poland. A few realists also favored the policy because they thought Russia still needed to be contained”.

He then overemphasises the role of idealism in US foreign policy, while others stress its idealism, they cannot both be right.  He mentions that “In essence, the two sides have been operating with different playbooks: Putin and his compatriots have been thinking and acting according to realist dictates, whereas their Western counterparts have been adhering to liberal ideas about international politics. The result is that the United States and its allies unknowingly provoked a major crisis over Ukraine”.

He does make the valid point “Other analysts allege, more plausibly, that Putin regrets the demise of the Soviet Union and is determined to reverse it by expanding Russia’s borders. According to this interpretation, Putin, having taken Crimea, is now testing the waters to see if the time is right to conquer Ukraine, or at least its eastern part, and he will eventually behave aggressively toward other countries in Russia’s neighborhood. For some in this camp, Putin represents a modern-day Adolf Hitler, and striking any kind of deal with him would repeat the mistake of Munich. Thus, NATO must admit Georgia and Ukraine to contain Russia before it dominates its neighbors and threatens western Europe. This argument falls apart on close inspection. If Putin were committed to creating a greater Russia, signs of his intentions would almost certainly have arisen before February 22. But there is virtually no evidence that he was bent on taking Crimea, much less any other territory in Ukraine, before that date. Even Western leaders who supported NATO expansion were not doing so out of a fear that Russia was about to use military force. Putin’s actions in Crimea took them by complete surprise and appear to have been a spontaneous reaction to Yanukovych’s ouster. Right afterward, even Putin said he opposed Crimean secession, before quickly changing his mind”.

On the punishment of sanctions he correctly writes that “Such measures will have little effect. Harsh sanctions are likely off the table anyway; western European countries, especially Germany, have resisted imposing them for fear that Russia might retaliate and cause serious economic damage within the EU. But even if the United States could convince its allies to enact tough measures, Putin would probably not alter his decision-making. History shows that countries will absorb enormous amounts of punishment in order to protect their core strategic interests. There is no reason to think Russia represents an exception to this rule”.

Interestingly he posits the suggestion that the only way to resolve the crisis is “The United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia, akin to Austria’s position during the Cold War. Western leaders should acknowledge that Ukraine matters so much to Putin that they cannot support an anti-Russian regime there. This would not mean that a future Ukrainian government would have to be pro-Russian or anti-NATO. On the contrary, the goal should be a sovereign Ukraine that falls in neither the Russian nor the Western camp. To achieve this end, the United States and its allies should publicly rule out NATO’s expansion into both Georgia and Ukraine. The West should also help fashion an economic rescue plan for Ukraine funded jointly by the EU, the International Monetary Fund, Russia, and the United States — a proposal that Moscow should welcome, given its interest in having a prosperous and stable Ukraine on its western flank. And the West should considerably limit its social-engineering efforts inside Ukraine. It is time to put an end to Western support for another Orange Revolution. Nevertheless, U.S. and European leaders should encourage Ukraine to respect minority rights, especially the language rights of its Russian speakers”.

This plan seems quite reasonable, and in some ways it is. Yet, the danger is that the Ukrainian people themselves will push the country towards the EU and away from Russia. This could easily bring a return to the crisis that began in February with Russian interference. The second point is that while Russia would welcome a “prosperous and stable” Ukraine it would be even more welcoming of a weak, divided and poor Ukraine that it could influence. If Russia were given a hand in the economic reconstruction of Ukraine it could not be trusted to play by the rules but would only seek to undermine all that has happened thus far.

He does note that “One also hears the claim that Ukraine has the right to determine whom it wants to ally with and the Russians have no right to prevent Kiev from joining the West. This is a dangerous way for Ukraine to think about its foreign policy choices. The sad truth is that might often makes right when great-power politics are at play. Abstract rights such as self-determination are largely meaningless when powerful states get into brawls with weaker states”.

He ends “Sticking with the current policy would also complicate Western relations with Moscow on other issues. The United States needs Russia’s assistance to withdraw U.S. equipment from Afghanistan through Russian territory, reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, and stabilize the situation in Syria. In fact, Moscow has helped Washington on all three of these issues in the past; in the summer of 2013, it was Putin who pulled Obama’s chestnuts out of the fire by forging the deal under which Syria agreed to relinquish its chemical weapons, thereby avoiding the U.S. military strike that Obama had threatened. The United States will also someday need Russia’s help containing a rising China. Current U.S. policy, however, is only driving Moscow and Beijing closer together. The United States and its European allies now face a choice on Ukraine. They can continue their current policy, which will exacerbate hostilities with Russia and devastate Ukraine in the process — a scenario in which everyone would come out a loser. Or they can switch gears and work to create a prosperous but neutral Ukraine, one that does not threaten Russia and allows the West to repair its relations with Moscow. With that approach, all sides would win”.

ISIS near Baghdad

18/10/2014

Militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have infiltrated one of Baghdad’s outer suburbs, Abu Ghraib which is only eight miles from the runway perimeter of Baghdad’s international airport. It’s cause for serious concern now that the Iraqi Defense Ministry has confirmed ISIS has MANPADs, shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles. The Iraqi army is still patrolling Abu Ghraib, but they play cat and mouse with the ISIS fighters who stage hit and run attacks on security forces. It’s a mixed picture around the city. ISIS took over the city of Fallujah — only about 40 miles west of Baghdad — in January, and the Iraqi security forces have fought in vain for a year to force them out. Instead, and in spite of weeks of U.S.-led airstrikes, ISIS has gradually extended its reach. The extremist group is now either present or in control of a huge swath of countryside, forming a 180-degree arc around the Iraqi capital from due north around to the west, and all the way to the south”.

Africa’s slow march

18/10/2014

A piece deals with the topic of gay rights in Africa.

It opens “Gay rights activists worldwide exulted Sept. 26 when the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva passed a landmark resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity. Only the second of its kind (the first was in 2011), the resolution, passed by a count of 25 yes votes to 14 no votes (and seven abstentions), called for a U.N. report on how to combat discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals. Given the composition of the Human Rights Council — which includes many countries with egregious rights records — a resolution that goes so far as to protect transgender rights, which are recognized in just 16 U.S. states, seems a remarkable victory. But the triumphant roll call in Geneva, while reason for hope, masks a more tortured reality for gay people around the world. Of the council’s 13 African member states, just one, South Africa, voted for the measure. Seven of the African countries voted against, and the others abstained or escaped to the bathroom or the coffee bar when ballots were cast”.

It goes on to note, “Behind the no votes in Geneva lurks a dark reality for gays back home: 38 out of Africa’s 55 nations have sodomy laws on the books; harsh new restrictions on gay rights have been adopted in Nigeria and Uganda over the last year (Uganda’s law was struck down in August on technical grounds but could be reintroduced); a bill passed in Gambia this summer would impose life sentences for some homosexual acts; and being gay is a capital offense in Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan. Even in South Africa, the first country to recognize gay rights in its constitution, is showing signs of backsliding. The country’s first gay-friendly mosque, located in Cape Town, was threatened with an order to shut down (on the grounds that it has too few parking spaces), only to be targeted by arson this past Saturday, Oct. 4. South African gays are the target of frequent hate crimes, including the September stoning of a gay man in Port Elizabeth. The picture is at least as bleak in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait — the Near Eastern countries represented on the Human Rights Council — all opposed the U.N. resolution, with Egypt interfering to push for amendments that would have stripped the text of all references to sexual orientation and gender identity. While gay rights are on the march in many parts of the world, the very progress that activists have celebrated in the halls of the United Nations, on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, and in confetti-dusted city halls around the United States may actually be worsening the danger for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in far-flung parts of the world. Over the last six years, 19 U.S. states have legalized same-sex marriage, the European Court of Justice has recognized anti-gay threats as grounds for asylum across the continent, and Brazil, Uruguay, and several Mexican states have allowed same-sex marriage. But in much of Africa, the Mideast, and Central Asia — including Russia — a nasty backlash has ensued that, at least for now, may be making life worse for some of the world’s most vulnerable gay populations”.

The writer goes on to discuss the fact that “The international community increasingly looks like a tale of two closets when it comes to gay rights. In the United States, the door is being flung open. While de facto and de jure discrimination persist, the string of victories at the state level and the U.S. Supreme Court’s latest decision to clear the way for same-sex marriage to become legal in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin make the movement’s momentum in the United States seem unstoppable. Progress has been dramatic in South America as well. The surge in left-leaning governments has overcome the resistance of the Catholic Church to propel progress, with wins on civil unions in Ecuador, adoption by gays in Uruguay, same-sex marriage in Argentina and Brazil, and insurance coverage for sex-reassignment surgery in Argentina and Cuba. The September U.N. resolution was introduced by Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay as an effort to prove that the gay rights agenda isn’t confined to the West”.

The other side of the coin however has been that “Elsewhere in the world, though, signs of momentum in the global gay rights struggle are fueling a determined effort to slam the closet door though legal measures, harassment, and violence. Anti-gay legislation in Nigeria, Uganda, and Gambia has bred an environment of undisguised hostility and brutality. This year in Abuja, Nigeria, a mob armed with clubs and sticks brutally beat up 14 men who were exposed as gay by a newspaper report. When some of the victims were marched by the mob to a police station, the cops beat them, kicking and punching them and threatening them with jail time. In Cameroon, a high-profile gay prisoner of conscience, jailed for a text message telling another man that he loved him, was provisionally released on medical grounds and died in his home village this year after his family, ashamed, turned him away. In August, a bill was introduced in the Kenyan Parliament that would permit publicly stoning to death gay foreigners. A Russian law passed in 2013 that prohibits “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” has led to witch hunts targeting teachers and students suspected of being gay. Egypt is now trolling on social media to entrap gay people — arresting and trying people for crimes that include advertising apartments available for gay sex and videotaping a gay wedding”.

The reasons behind the homophobia in Africa, the writer says, are threefold. “Part of the blame lies in the American Bible belt. The signing of Uganda’s law this February drew attention to the active role of evangelical American Christians in proselytizing against homosexual behavior in Africa, capitalizing on local phobias. When she keynoted a Nigerian Bar Association conference, Sharon Slater of Arizona-based Family Watch International urged delegates to reject homosexuality, arguing that they would forfeit their religious and parental rights if they backed “fictitious sexual rights.” A few days later, an email to the organization’s supporters crowed that, based on Slater’s remarks, Nigeria’s Anglican leader had called on the government to withdraw from the United Nations in protest of the body’s support for gay rights”.

The second reason that is given is that “in local cultures, traditional values tend to be a powerful strand in anti-gay attitudes. To be sure, not everyone accepts the idea that indigenous cultures rejected homosexuality; some dismiss such claims as a way to invidiously compare the supposedly enlightened West with the benighted cultures of less-developed regions. And the history of anti-gay bigotry belies pat cause-and-effect explanations. Human rights groups have pointed out that in Africa, for example, sodomy laws were introduced by colonial powers. Some analysts of the gay rights movement have cited further evidence that indigenous cultures should not be seen as inherently homophobic; scholar and columnist Jay Michaelson counts more than 20 cultural varieties of indigenous African same-sex intimacy that have been recorded by anthropologists. Nonetheless, African leaders often cite homosexuality as an affront to homegrown morality”.

Lastly he writes that “the undeniable element in the surging repression of gays is direct backlash against the heightened visibility, organization, funding, and openness within the gay-advocacy community worldwide. As gay rights advocates around the world have become emboldened by progress, their opponents have upped the ante”.

Thankfully the piece adds that “If backlash is in part fueled by ire against outside intrusion, the West isn’t letting repressive regimes have the last word. In response to new legislation, Western groups have pressed successfully for reductions in foreign aid aimed to punish regimes hostile to gays. When European governments in February announced cuts to foreign aid to Uganda in response to the country’s anti-gay law, a Ugandan government minister shot back via Twitter: “The West can keep their ‘aid’ to Uganda over homos, we shall still develop without it.” But rather than convincing them to back off punitive tactics, the imperviousness of some African leaders to financial and political pressure has actually galvanized the global gay rights movement”.

The reality of these actions are clear when it is noted that “Although it’s possible that gay rights advocacy is making life worse for gays in the short term, there are steps that may help keep gay people safer around the world and lessen the chance that the current standoff over gay rights goes on for decades. On tactical questions like whether aid conditionality is effective, Western activists and governments should pay close attention to the views of local groups. In 2011, a large group of African social justice organizations issued a statement opposing a proposal to condition British aid, arguing, among other things, that doing so risked alienating local LGBT activists from other civil society groups. Although this doesn’t mean that every proposed set of LGBT-related conditions is unwelcome, it does underscore that opinions on the utility of aid conditionality are divided and that local views need to be carefully canvassed and considered”.

Another way of increasing support is that “finding ways to broaden the domestic constituencies in favour of gay rights in places where governments are hostile. If the voices in support of fair treatment are limited to LGBT groups and foreign advocates and governments, they have proved relatively easy to dismiss. But if mainstream domestic social justice and civic organisations, religious institutions, intellectuals, trade unions, businesses, and other constituencies can be mobilised as well, the political price of repression will gradually increase. Rather than applying pressure directly, Western governments can seek opportunities to mobilize international businesses with in-country subsidiaries and partners, liberal church denominations, and academic and intellectual networks to sensitize counterparts in countries on the front lines of gay rights battles”.

It ends on a much needed note of optimism, “In the long run, history suggests that when human needs are framed as rights, political momentum tends to gradually and irreversibly build in their favour. There is little question that this is happening in the realm of gay rights, and it’s hard to fathom that, eventually, most parts of the world won’t begin to come around. In the meantime, though, Western tactics can risk playing into the hands of bigoted leaders eager for an excuse to repress. As the global gay rights movement moves from strength to strength, it’s essential to keep in mind those most vulnerable populations whose stakes in ultimate success are greater than anyone else’s”.

 

The wonders of the free market

18/10/2014

Let’s say you are someone who has recently returned from traveling in West Africa. You have visited an Ebola-ravaged country. You are understandably worried about contracting the disease during this worst-ever epidemic and, upon returning home, you catch a fever. You might then go online to try to find information about the disease and to assess whether the crippling fear you are experiencing is, in fact, well placed. That search might lead you to Ebola.com, but little do you know that that site is nothing but a moneymaking ploy. In today’s information economy, there are few more useless money-grubbers than domain squatters, and that is exactly who owns Ebola.com. Blue String Ventures, the company sitting on the domain, is asking for a mere $150,000 to transfer ownership of the site”.

The Synod of gradualism?

16/10/2014

Amid Cardinal Burke’s seemingly endless interventions in the media an article reports from the ongoing Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family.

John Allen writes, “All of a sudden at the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family, “gradualism” as a concept in both Catholic moral theology and pastoral practice, which not so long ago seemed on the verge of being stricken from the official lexicon, is back with a vengeance. There have been multiple references so far to the “law of graduality,” more commonly referred to by theologians over the years as “gradualism.” Its apparent popularity may offer a clue to how things are evolving in the keenly watched debate over divorced and remarried Catholics, but understanding why requires a bit of background. At one level, gradualism is no more than the common sense observation that virtues such as honesty and courage aren’t all-or-nothing propositions, and that people move towards them through stages and at different speeds. It implies that just because someone’s current situation falls short of perfection doesn’t mean it has no moral value, and it’s often better to encourage the positive elements in someone’s life rather than to chastise their flaws. It was probably that sense of gradualism Pope Benedict XVI had in mind in 2010 when he said in an interview with a German journalist that if a male prostitute uses a condom to try to avoid infecting people with HIV/AIDS, it can be “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” Benedict wasn’t repealing the church’s opposition to condom use, but he was saying that there are times when it suggests a concern for others which, in itself, is laudable. Where gradualism becomes more of a bone of contention is when it’s invoked to justify a permissive approach to moral rules”.

Allen goes on to write “For instance, some theologians and even a few bishops over the years have invoked gradualism to defend going easy on Catholics who practice birth control, arguing that while the teaching of Pope Paul VI in 1968’s Humanae Vitae reaffirming the traditional ban represents an ideal, there may be valid reasons why lots of people can’t be expected to fully embrace it right now. For those concerned with defending tradition, this second sense of gradualism can make it sound like another word for “relativism”, meaning watering down objective standards of morality. By the same token, it also makes gradualism a favorite refuge for moderates who accept the content of Church teaching, but who don’t want to go to war over it”.

Allen with his usual excellent insight writes “The last time the Vatican staged a Synod of Bishops on the family, which was almost 35 years ago in 1980, talk about gradualism was in the air, too. Pope John Paul II was sufficiently concerned about where it might lead that he included a warning in a homily he gave for the closing Mass of the synod, a line he then also dropped into the meeting’s concluding document, Familiaris Consortio. “What is known as ‘the law of gradualness’,” John Paul said, “cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law’.” The gist was there’s just one set of rules for everybody, and they’re not going to change. Since that time, the Vatican has occasionally circled back to the theme. When the Pontifical Council for the Family put out a guide for priests hearing confessions on matters having to do with married life in 1997, it warned that the “law of graduality” shouldn’t induce priests to send the signal that sin isn’t still sin”.

Interestingly Allen makes the point that “In his opening address on Monday, Cardinal Péter Erdő of Hungary argued that Humanae Vitae should be read in light of graduality. In a session with reporters at Vatican Radio Monday night, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich invoked graduality as a key to helping the church develop a new way of talking about sex. In a briefing session for reporters on Tuesday, a Vatican spokesman described graduality as among the synod’s emerging themes”.

The key point Allen adds is that “Here’s why the vocabulary matters: Everyone knows that the hottest issue at this synod is the question of whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics ought to be able to receive Communion. Moderates supporting that change need to find a way to justify it that doesn’t seem to call into question the principle that marriage is for life. “The law of graduality” could be one way of doing the trick, and thus references to it could be understood as an early show of strength for the moderate position. It’s also perhaps an index of how things have changed under Pope Francis that bishops feel licensed to use the phrase without a truckload of qualifications, given the increasingly disapproving tone of most Vatican statements on it in the recent past. In other words, the sudden return of gradualism may be a central part of the storyline about the 2014 synod”.

Canada joins the fight

16/10/2014

Canadian legislators on Tuesday approved government plans to send fighter jets to Iraq, where they will take part in U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State militants for up to six months. The result of the vote was never in doubt, since the ruling Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons. Members of Parliament voted 157-134 in favor of the mission. The two main opposition parties had opposed the mission on the grounds that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had not given enough details and could drag the country into a long drawn-out war. Harper has promised that Canada will not deploy ground troops against Islamic State”.