Archive for November, 2014

No agreement on cutting production

29/11/2014

Keith Johnson writes what will OPEC do as oil prices continue to fall.

He begins “For the first time in six years, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ meeting in Vienna on Thursday actually matters. But in the grand tradition of cartels everywhere — and this oil-pumping one in particular — internal discord, conflicting agendas, and vastly different thresholds for pain are conspiring to make it all but impossible to reach agreement on cutting oil production, which is needed to reverse a sharp and prolonged downturn in global oil prices. In a nutshell: Those that need prices to rise won’t cut production. Those that don’t need prices to rise could cut, but probably won’t. And those that need a cut and could cut won’t either, since no one else seems to want to. So though there will be plenty of Thanksgiving afternoons filled with acrimony, shouted accusations, bitter resentments, and unspoken ire, few will likely rival OPEC’s own dysfunctional Thanksgiving in Vienna on Nov. 27”.

Johnson goes on to argue “The oil market fundamentals are pretty clear: The world has more oil sloshing around than it really needs. Partly, that’s because oil-producing countries outside the cartel, especially the United States, have ramped up crude output. Partly, it’s because OPEC, which produces about one-third of the world’s oil, has kept the pumps running nearly flat out despite all the trouble in the Middle East. And partly it’s because much of the global economy, from Brussels to Beijing, is sputtering, which depresses demand for oil. Put together, that mismatch has pushed benchmark oil prices down almost one-third since summertime peaks. On Wednesday afternoon, ahead of the OPEC meeting, crude prices in New York and London were stable at about $74 and $78 a barrel, respectively. In June, prices reached $115 a barrel”.

He continues noting the differing circumstances of OPEC members, “For countries that live and die by exporting oil, both inside and outside OPEC, that decline in prices is bad news. Some, such as Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and Iraq, desperately need oil prices to return to stratospheric levels so they can stanch the bleeding in their national budgets. Others, especially the big and wealthy oil giants of the Persian Gulf, are less worried. Still other big oil producers, such as the United States, are watching OPEC’s meetings with a wary but different eye: Oil prices don’t matter for government revenues, but cheaper oil could well kneecap the remarkable boom in newfangled U.S. oil production that requires relatively high oil prices to be profitable”.

The easy answer to this drop in prices and collapse in budgets is as he says simply to raise the price and cut production yet,”On paper, OPEC’s dilemma seems to have a simple solution: Cut oil production by a significant amount and watch crude prices jump back above $90 a barrel. That would make life easier for the well-off countries, make life more bearable for the basket cases, and keep the U.S. oil boom in business. But as Clausewitz said, ‘Everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult.’ Start with the key question: Which countries, exactly, would cut production? The countries that most need prices to go back up — Iran, Iraq, and Libya — are said to be exempt from taking part in any OPEC output cuts because they’ve had such a hard time even maintaining normal crude production”.

As ever with OPEC things turn to the Saudis, “That leaves OPEC’s big players, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, to shoulder the burden. Even though those countries have bulging piggy banks and can best withstand a period of lower oil prices, they’re not champing at the bit to curb production. What’s more, everybody inside OPEC is determined to protect their market share, lest they cede more ground to newcomers like the United States. Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi flagged Riyadh’s reticence when he said Wednesday that the ‘market will stabilize itself.’ The United Arab Emirates’ oil minister echoed that line, telling Reuters, ‘This is not a crisis that requires us to panic.’ He suggested that everybody, inside and outside the cartel, share the pain of prospective cuts”.

Johnson makes the curious point that “The boss of Rosneft, Russia’s biggest oil company, said the country will keep pumping even if oil falls to $60 a barrel”.

He posits the theory that the OPEC meeting could decide to move in a number of ways. The first he says is that “OPEC could do nothing at all, which would almost certainly send oil prices lower. OPEC could decide to actually respect its current production quotas, which it habitually ignores; that would amount to an effective cut of about 300,000 barrels a day. But oil prices would likely fall anyway”.

The second possible outcome of the meeting would be that “OPEC could herd its cats and agree to a real cut, on the order of 500,000 to 1 million barrels a day. But given the sloshy market, that probably wouldn’t be enough to boost oil prices very much, if at all”.

Lastly he writes that “OPEC could surprise everyone and make a serious production cut in excess of 1 million or 1.5 million barrels a day. If the market believes those cross-my-heart, hope-to-die cuts would actually happen, that would be enough to send oil prices back up — for a little while. But it would also greenlight further U.S. oil output, which would make the market sloshy all over again — and give OPEC something to fight about at its next meeting”.

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“The world’s fastest growing nuclear programme”

29/11/2014

Pakistan has the world’s fastest growing nuclear programme capable of weaponising up to 200 nuclear devices by the year 2020, a US-based think tank says in a recently released report. “Pakistan…is believed to have enough fissile material to produce between 110 and 120 nuclear warheads,” says the report Strategic Stability in the Second Nuclear Age Council released by the influential Council on Foreign Relations.”

Not Hagel’s fault

29/11/2014

Rosa Brooks writes about the depature of Chuck Hagel.

She begins “Goodbye, Chuck Hagel: We hardly knew ye! Perhaps there wasn’t much to know. Or perhaps you contain hidden depths. Who can say? For almost two years, you seemed barely there, an irascible half-presence in the Pentagon’s E ring. Soon you won’t be there at all, and no one will much notice. For what it’s worth, Chuck, I think you got a bum rap. President Obama nominated you to be secretary of defense because he wanted a policy nonentity, and that’s exactly what he got. He wanted doormat, and you gave him doormat”.

She adds that “true, U.S. ‘national security policy … has too often been incoherent and shifting,’ as the New York Times‘ editorial board put it this week, but that’s not your fault either. U.S. national security policy was incoherent long before you first passed through the Pentagon’s River Entrance. Your sole claim to fame beyond your Vietnam War service was your opposition to the war in Iraq, which made you unpopular with your fellow Republicans and something of a hero to Democrats tired of wandering in the national security wilderness”.

She goes on to make the point that “When you were first nominated in 2012, many in the press convinced themselves that you were some sort of heroic closet Democrat, a virtual left-wing pacifist who just happened to have accidentally dressed in wolf’s clothing. They were wrong. Your Iraq War opposition aside, you were basically a standard-issue Republican for most of your political career. You tossed out a few anti-gay slurs; you backed prayer in public schools; you opposed abortion and gun control; you favoured George W. Bush’s tax cuts”.

Interestingly she interupts the partisan narrative noting that he “didn’t pretend to be anyone but who you were. If some Democrats had stars in their eyes when they looked at you, you weren’t the one who put them there. On the contrary. You made no claims to policy genius and you made it clear you were no threat to anyone, and this went down well with a White House that doesn’t care for those who step out of line. So you became secretary of defense, and for nearly two years you bumbled along, doing no harm and letting others — mainly Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — take the lead in meetings, congressional hearings, and policy debates”.

She posits the theory that “not being there” could have allowed Obama to cut Hagel off but “Maybe when you finally decided to make some helpful noise, you were a little too noisy. The Islamic State was an ‘imminent threat to every interest we have … beyond anything that we’ve seen,’ you insisted at an August press briefing at the Pentagon. Whoops. Wrong thing to say when everyone else was trying to sound all measured and statesman-like. General Dempsey must have shot you a dampening look”.

She continues, “The truth is, you just couldn’t win. When you stayed in the shadows and let Dempsey do the talking, you were accused of being overly deferential to the military. White House staff wanted you to be their doormat, not the military’s. But when you stepped out on your own — when the internal contradictions in the administration’s national security policy became too much even for you, and you penned a snappy internal critique of the administration’s Syria policy — everyone got mad at you. In the end, though, you did the nation a service. If nothing else, your impending departure highlights once and for all the fact that there’s just no pleasing this White House”.

Fairly she writes that the White House is now the Goldilocks of defence secretaries, “Gates? Too strong. Panetta? Not serious enough. Hagel? Too weak. Even Goldilocks eventually found some porridge she was willing to swallow. Not so with this White House. No surprise that two of the top contenders to fill your soon-to-be empty post, former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy and Sen. Jack Reed, took only hours to declare firmly that they had no desire to become the replacement doormat — or the next sacrificial lamb”.

She ends “If President Obama still had the good sense he displayed on the campaign trail in 2008, he’d see this as an occasion to take a hard look in the mirror. House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon got it right when he quipped, “The Obama administration is now in the market for their fourth secretary of defense. When the president goes through three secretaries, he should ask, ‘Is it them, or is it me?'” Chuck Hagel, go in peace”.

 

UN coverup

29/11/2014

Late last month, a senior U.N. investigator scolded officials with the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, UNAMID, for repeatedly withholding evidence of alleged Sudanese government crimes against civilians and peacekeepers. Clearly, UNAMID didn’t get the memo. Earlier this month, the mission issued a press release indicating that a probe into local media reports alleging the mass rape of some 200 local girls by Sudanese forces in the village of Tabit, in northern Darfur, turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. ‘None of those interviewed confirmed that any incident of rape took place in Tabit on the day of that media report,’ the UNAMID press release stated. ‘The team neither found any evidence nor received any information regarding the media allegations during the period in question.’ The press release also noted that village community leaders had told the peacekeepers that the town’s residents ‘coexist peacefully with local military authorities in the area.’ The problem is that UNAMID’s sunny account of the mission’s findings omitted extensive evidence of Sudanese government attempts to keep the peacekeepers from actually mounting a serious investigation into the rape allegations”.

History in Tunisia

29/11/2014

A report discusses the first round in the presidential election in Tunisia.

It starts “On Sunday, Nov. 23, Tunisians voted in their first democratic presidential election. None of the candidates won a majority, so a second round is scheduled to take place next month. But it’s already clear that the race to the finish line is going to be very, very close. To nobody’s surprise, veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi came in first with 39.46 percent of the popular vote, followed by incumbent interim president Moncef Marzouki, who secured 33.43 percent”.

He gives vital context, “Essebsi is the leader of the secular Nida Tounes movement, which includes many political figures from the pre-revolutionary era, while Marzouki and his party have a more solid record of opposition to the dictatorship that ruled Tunisia until 2011. Marzouki’s party, the Congress for the Republic (CPR), is known for its hostility to former regime figures and its sympathy to the more conservative faction of Tunisian society, a group of voters that helped Marzouki secure the second place in the first round of the presidential election. However, the party has seen its popularity shrink over recent years, as it went from winning 29 seats in 2011 election to getting just four seats in last month’s legislative poll. Were it not for the (sometimes tacit) support of Islamists, it would have been difficult for Marzouki to make it to the runoff. It remains to be seen if Marzouki will be able to gain the support of more Tunisians to get reelected”.

He adds that “The failure of the Troika, the tripartite coalition between the Islamist Ennahda party and two other centrist parties (including Marzouki’s Congress of the Republic), to address people’s social and economic concerns made it easier for their strong rival Nida Tounes to win a plurality in last month’s parliamentary election. Nida Tounes, formed by Essebsi in July 2012, is a heterogeneous party that brings together trade unionists, secular and progressive political activists, and “counterrevolutionary” figures associated with Tunisia’s autocratic leaders, Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Both men were notorious for their lack of respect for human rights and their hostility to Islamists”.

The writer goes on to make the point “Many of those who support Nida Tounes and Essebsi’s candidacy do so out of despair over the scarcity of options. Moreover, Nida Tounes presents itself as the party that has the know-how to run the country, in contrast to the Islamist leaders who spent the past decades in exile or jail”.

He continues giving the case of “Yosra Tlili, a 35-year-old engineer, said she was opting for Essebsi because she wanted to make sure she put her vote to use. “I love Hamma because he’s a brave and impressive activist,” she told me. “But this is no time for emotions.” Tlili was referring to Hamma Hammami, the candidate of the leftist Popular Front, a long-time political activist who is also married to Radhia Nasraoui, a renowned anti-torture activist. However, Hamma came in third with only 7.8 percent of the popular vote, excluding him from the second round”.

The piece ends “While some people seem relatively unconcerned about the return of figures from the pre-revolutionary system, and express a willingness to sacrifice some of their newly gained freedoms for the sake of security and promised economic prosperity, others still prefer a chaotic post-revolution Tunisia to the ghost of the former regime. “My brother went to jail and was prevented from graduating from university because he was a religious kid,” Kamel told me. “I don’t want that to happen again.” Kamel (who declined to give me his first name) was standing in line to vote in the Rue de Marseille polling station in downtown Tunis”.

He concludes “Next month, Tunisians will find themselves facing hard choices. It seems that most Tunisians have reservations about both candidates. Nevertheless, people are forced to choose between two bad alternatives: an elderly remnant of the former regime, associated with decades of oppression, and an ineffective president who stands as a reminder of the failure of the Troika years”.

India-Sino border tension

29/11/2014

India today said that repeated incursions by Chinese troops into its territory “do not augur well” for maintaining cordial bilateral ties and accused China of illegally occupying Aksai Chin. Addressing an election rally here, Home Minister Rajnath Singh also said that several development schemes could not be implemented in the region due to Article 370 and urged people to vote for BJP which promises to implement the 73rd Amendment in the state”.

After Hagel

29/11/2014

Following the effective dismissal of Chuck Hagel the next secretary of defence will have to pick up the pieces.

An article begins “President Barack Obama in late August admitted that he had no ‘strategy yet’ on how to deal with the Islamic State. Obama might say something similar now to explain why Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was pushed out or what the administration hopes to achieve with this change in Pentagon leadership. Although the White House portrayed Hagel’s departure as a usual cabinet change post a midterm election that resulted in Democrats losing their Senate majority, unnamed administration officials have said that Hagel wasn’t up to the task of leading the fight against the militant group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, that now controls broad parts of Iraq and Syria. The Obama administration’s strategy for countering the Islamic State has lurched from focusing the fight first inside Iraq to figuring out how to expand the battle into Syria, where the militant group is headquartered — and trying to do both without getting involved in replacing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or sending American ground troops into battle. To make matters even thornier, many of America’s allies in the Middle East haven’t fully signed on to the U.S. strategy of focusing primarily on the Islamic State; they’d prefer to see Assad driven from power as well”.

He goes on to write “Absent clearer direction from the White House, Hagel’s successor could have just as hard a time articulating and carrying out a new strategy, said Andrew Bacevich, an Army veteran and Columbia University professor who has been a fierce critic of the administration’s handling of both Iraq and Afghanistan”.

He adds “Irrespective of who’s picked as Hagel’s successor, he or she is likely to face the same issues that bedeviled not only Hagel but his two predecessors as well — White House aides with little national security experience trying to micromanage military campaigns and political advisors keen to ensure that Obama’s promise to end America’s wars isn’t eroded by new military adventures that require potentially open-ended U.S. troop involvement. The new Pentagon chief will also face a Congress fully controlled by Republicans devoted to battering the administration for missteps, real and perceived. More broadly, Hagel’s successor will need to face the reality that Obama himself is deeply conflicted about how far to go in battling the Islamic State and countering Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. No matter how experienced or good a defense secretary is at the job, he or she will be responsible for implementing policies forged elsewhere. If the White House is indecisive or reverses itself on key decisions, senior cabinet members can get caught in the lurch. That’s precisely what happened in the summer of 2013, when Obama ordered the military to prepare for airstrikes against Assad after the Syrian strongman gassed his own people, only to reverse himself without first telling Hagel”.

He goes through the obvious qualifications of “Flournoy and Carter would bring impressive résumés to the post. Flournoy served twice at the Pentagon — once in the late 1990s during Bill Clinton’s administration and more recently in the Obama administration as the department’s top policy official — its No. 3 post. She was widely respected inside and outside the Pentagon as a sober-minded thinker and manager with a gift for maintaining strong relationships on Capitol Hill and throughout the military. Still, if Obama is looking for fresh ideas, it’s not clear Flournoy can deliver them. During her time at the Pentagon, Flournoy had close ties to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top brass but was seen as a cautious policymaker reluctant to contemplate high-stakes, high-rewards approaches to thorny issues such as the rise of Islamist extremism in Africa and much of the Middle East. Meanwhile, Flournoy has recently publicly defended the Obama administration’s current strategy against the Islamic State even though it hasn’t prevented the group from continuing to make territorial gains in both Iraq and Syria”.

He mentions that Flournoy is more “hawkish” than others in the administration, “In 2009, when the Obama administration debated how large of a surge force to send to Afghanistan, Flournoy argued for a bigger one that would remain longer than the White House wanted, according to Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward. That put her in line with the thinking of the nation’s top military officers, a source of unease for some administration officials, who worried that she was too close to the Pentagon’s brass and would be unable, or unwilling, to order those in the brass to fall in line with White House decisions they opposed”.

He goes on to profile Dr Carter, “Carter, the other top contender, has held three Pentagon posts: nuclear arms reduction expert in the Clinton administration, top weapons buyer for the Defense Department in Obama’s first term, and, starting in October 2011, deputy defense secretary. A nuclear scientist who later became a Harvard University professor, Carter came to be known as an expert in managing the Pentagon’s labyrinthine weapons-buying process. After runaway costs threatened to implode acquisition budgets even as overall defense spending was starting to decline, Carter tried to hold the line by shifting more burdens onto the defense industry. In the 1990s, he co-led the Catastrophic Terrorism Study Group with former CIA Director John Deutch; the group was one of the first to call attention to the risk of militant attacks from extremists outside the country. When Obama bypassed Carter and Flournoy in 2012 to pick Hagel, he was getting what he wanted: a former senator with deep international experience and a war veteran who was skeptical about the efficacy of achieving long-term gains with American military power. Even Hagel’s detractors in the Senate, many of whom didn’t vote to confirm him, said the administration’s muddled strategy for confronting the Islamic State reflected the president’s own uncertainty and shifting thoughts about what to do and wasn’t entirely Hagel’s fault”.

He gives the list of tasks for Hagel who only entered office in February 2013 “Among Hagel’s top priorities was shrinking the U.S. Army to its pre-9/11 size as well as eliminating aging weapons such as the Air Force’s A-10 airplane. In his first budget presentation in February 2013, Hagel said his recommendations favored a ‘smaller and more capable force — putting a premium on rapidly deployable, self-sustaining platforms that can defeat more technologically advanced adversaries.’ Although those budget choices earned Hagel some enemies inside the Pentagon and among congressional backers of weapons programs, his challenges multiplied as the civil war in Syria against Assad grew worse and the regime began using chemical weapons against rebels, potentially triggering American military action as Obama had threatened in August 2012. At a hastily convened news conference at a luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi at the end of a five-day visit to the region in April 2013, Hagel beat the White House in announcing that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons”.

Interestingly he makes the point that “it was less than a flawless news conference for Hagel and his aides, who were forced to hold a separate briefing for reporters to explain what he meant to say. Hagel — accustomed to smaller audiences as a U.S. senator — found the global spotlight unnerving, and his comments and remarks sometimes were mangled. He survived a brutal confirmation hearing in January 2013 with senators from both parties questioning his stance on Israel as well as his views on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. Hagel did hurt his own cause at times, misstating the Obama administration’s policy on Iran as one of ‘containment,’ for example. He was confirmed by a fairly narrow 58-41 margin”.

He ends the piece “Some civilian employees of the Defense Department have complained about Hagel’s management style: He’s short-tempered; he doesn’t listen or sit through elaborate decks of Microsoft PowerPoint presentations — a holy grail in the corridors of the Pentagon; he hasn’t left a stamp on the building, unlike some of his predecessors, including Gates and Rumsfeld. Those complaints and gripes earned him the moniker “invisible man.” As for civil-military relations, Hagel’s brief tenure would hold up to scrutiny, said Richard Kohn, an emeritus professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and an expert on civil-military issues. Hagel managed to get the Pentagon to accept budget cuts imposed by Congress even as the military faced new conflicts, Kohn said. Hagel also had to deal with a “hyperpartisan and hypercritical Congress without the normal Democratic leadership to help him,” Kohn added. With no Democratic senators to push back strongly on McCain’s often acerbic attacks, Hagel was left to defend himself, he said”.

Putin prepares for economic war

27/11/2014

Russia has taken advantage of lower gold prices to pack the vaults of its central bank with bullion as it prepares for the possibility of a long, drawn-out economic war with the West. The latest research from the World Gold Council reveals that the Kremlin snapped up 55 tonnes of the precious metal – far more than any other nation – in the three months to the end of September as prices began to weaken. Vladimir Putin’s government is understood to be hoarding vast quantities of gold, having tripled stocks to around 1,150 tonnes in the last decade. These reserves could provide the Kremlin with vital firepower to try and offset the sharp declines in the rouble. Russia’s currency has come under intense pressure since US and European sanctions and falling oil prices started to hurt the economy. Revenues from the sale of oil and gas account for about 45pc of the Russian government’s budget receipts. The biggest buyers of gold after Russia are other countries from the Commonwealth of Independent States, led by Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan”.

Flournoy drops out

27/11/2014

A report in Foreign Policy notes that “Michèle Flournoy, widely seen as the front-runner to replace Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defense, abruptly took herself out of the running for the job Tuesday, complicating what will be one of the most important personnel decisions of President Barack Obama’s second term. Flournoy, the co-founder and CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank that has served as a farm league for future Obama administration officials, would have been the first female secretary of defense had she risen to the position. The news of her decision to withdraw was first reported by Foreign Policy”.

The report goes on to note that “in a letter Tuesday to members of the CNAS board of directors, Flournoy said she would remain in her post at the think tank and asked Obama to take her out of consideration to be the next secretary of defense. Flournoy told the board members that family health considerations helped drive her decision and the fact that two of her children are leaving for college in the next two years. ‘Last night I spoke with President Obama and removed myself from consideration due to family concerns,’ reads the letter, first obtained by FP. ‘After much agonizing, we decided that now was not the right time for me to reenter government.’ Flournoy’s decision means that only one of the three widely rumoured names for the post remains under consideration: Ashton Carter, the former deputy secretary of defense”.

The piece makes the point that after the announcement of Hagel “speculation had immediately turned to Flournoy, Carter, and Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a former Army Ranger. But Reed took himself out of the running shortly after Hagel announced his resignation. The decision by both Flournoy and Reed to pre-emptively turn down the job underscores the immense challenges facing the next secretary of defense and raised immediate questions about whether senior officials and lawmakers were scared off by the prospect of taking a post that would require dealing with a White House that has centralized much of the policymaking and strategic decisions in the West Wing”.

While this is certainly correct there is little doubt that an ambitious person like Flournoy would decline the job under a Clinton administration. Again the decisions of the Obama administration, or lack thereof, are having consequences that effect the governing of the DoD itself. If this is not a message to change policy than nothing will change Obama’s mind.

The article adds “Both of Hagel’s predecessors, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, complained about administration meddling and overreach in their respective memoirs. ‘Despite everyone being ‘nice’ to me, getting anything consequential done was so damnably difficult,’ wrote Gates. Beyond the bureaucratic issues, the next secretary will also have to manage the war against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria, find a way to close the U.S. prison facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, competently execute a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and right-size the nation’s military as Congress attempts to lift the across-the-board defense cuts known as sequestration”.

The one bright spot is that the Obama could be pushed into the right policy “The new Pentagon chief will also face a Congress fully controlled by Republicans devoted to battering the administration for missteps, real and perceived. That will mean having to make repeated trips to Capitol Hill to face angry questioning by incoming Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain of Arizona, who is salivating at the chance to push the next secretary to agree that stronger steps need to be taken against the Islamic State and that military force should remain on the table if the Iran talks break down”.

Such is the level of indecision and reversal that “senior cabinet members can get caught in the lurch. That’s precisely what happened in the summer of 2013, when Obama ordered the military to prepare for airstrikes against Assad after the Syrian strongman gassed his own people, only to reverse himself without first telling Hagel”.

The piece ends “With Flournoy out, White House officials will now need to make the hard choice of how to replace Hagel from an array of talented but flawed candidates. Carter, while respected for his intellect and management skills, was at times acerbic and condescending, according to a pair of senior officials who have worked with him. Privately, some senior Pentagon civilians have told the two officials that they would quit if Carter became defense secretary. A former administration official said that Carter had also alienated members of Obama’s close-knit inner circle — the very people pushing for Hagel’s ouster and charged with finding his successor — by openly expressing his displeasure at being passed over when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced his resignation in 2012. One of those key players is National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Carter could quickly find himself at odds with the strong-willed Obama confidante. Carter might still get the job, but two former senior administration officials said that they expected the administration to broaden their search to also include Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, Army Secretary John McHugh, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus”.

The author closes “James would, like Flournoy, be the first woman in the post, but she hasn’t been in her current job long and isn’t widely known in Washington or in foreign capitals. McHugh is personally close to the president and well-respected in the Pentagon, but tapping the former GOP congressman would mean that three of Obama’s four secretaries of defense were Republicans. Mabus, an avuncular former governor of Mississippi and ambassador to Saudi Arabia, campaigned for Obama in 2008 and was one of the then-senator’s senior Middle East advisors. Obama later tapped him to run the Gulf Coast restoration efforts after the BP oil spill. But with his tenure at the Navy focused largely on cost-cutting, Mabus would not bring the expertise in counterterrorism and war-fighting that Obama might want in the man or woman charged with heading the fight against the Islamic State”.

It finishes “officials said it was unclear if the White House had prepared and cleared a list of potential replacements before Hagel resigned, raising the possibility that if new candidates other than Carter and Flournoy had to be vetted and cleared through Congress, the process could drag on for months. That would leave Hagel in the uncomfortable position of having to manage affairs without the confidence of the president and his aides”.

“More expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan “

27/11/2014

President Obama decided in recent weeks to authorize a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year. Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions. In an announcement in the White House Rose Garden in May, Mr. Obama said that the American military would have no combat role in Afghanistan next year, and that the missions for the 9,800 troops remaining in the country would be limited to training Afghan forces and to hunting the “remnants of Al Qaeda.” The decision to change that mission was the result of a lengthy and heated debate that laid bare the tension inside the Obama administration between two often-competing imperatives: the promise Mr. Obama made to end the war in Afghanistan, versus the demands of the Pentagon that American troops be able to successfully fulfill their remaining missions in the country”.

Indispensable Oman

27/11/2014

A piece in Foreign Affairs discusses the role played by Oman in the region and calls the sultanate, the Indispendisable nation in the region.

The writer, Bilal Saab, opens “To many Omanis, it is offensive to openly contemplate life after Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, the widely admired albeit absolute monarch who has been receiving medical treatment in Germany since July. But policymakers elsewhere in the world have no choice but to do just that. The 73-year-old Qaboos is said to have colon cancer and rumours suggest he may not be around for too long. The Omani royal court has said he is recovering from successful surgery, and some say that he will return to Oman in time to attend the annual National Day military parade on November 18. But dark clouds of uncertainty nevertheless hover over the country’s future. And given Qaboos’ importance as a strategic partner for the West—and for Washington in particular—it’s only natural to wonder what will transpire after he is no longer in charge in Muscat. Oman tends to feature far less in international discussions about the Middle East than other countries in the region. But that is mostly a reflection of its deliberate preference for avoiding the spotlight. Indeed, Oman has long had tremendous strategic significance for Washington—although, unusually for the region, not because of its oil. Rather, it provides a rare regional example of domestic tranquility, cosmopolitanism, religious tolerance, and skillful diplomacy”.

He goes on to make the point that Oman is something of a well governed autocratic haven,  “Oman is also an island of religious moderation and tolerance in the region. The country is religiously distinctive from its neighbours: It is the only one in the Arab world with a population that predominantly adheres to Ibadism (a sect of Islam that is neither Sunni nor Shia); it is also the only Arab country that has developed truly tolerant religious traditions. It is common practice in Oman, for example, for different Muslim sects to pray in one another’s mosques. Amid the violent hostility between Sunni and Shia Muslims elsewhere in the Arab world, Oman offers a model of peaceful coexistence. Further, Oman does relatively well on gender equality. Given the rampant violations of women’s rights elsewhere in the Middle East, Oman has managed to recently pass legislation that supports women’s rights and addresses discrimination against women in education, the work force, and politics. National political institutions have tended to include a significant number of female political representatives”.

He posits the theory that “The country’s distinctive society and geography have also shaped its approach to diplomacy, allowing it to build bridges within the region and between East and West. Decades before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was preaching about a foreign policy of ‘zero problems with neighbours,’ Oman had already mastered it. Oman managed to maintain peaceful ties with both Iran and Iraq during the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War, and with both Iran and the United States after those countries had a diplomatic falling out in 1979. In recent years, Oman has managed to successfully organise border negotiations with both Saudi Arabia and Yemen, promote a measure of rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, facilitate better relations between Yemen and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and, most recently, mediate between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on the other”.

All this is mainly a result of Sultan Qaboos who “Since overthrowing his father with the help of the British government in 1970, he has personally led an effort to modernise Oman and raise its standard of living and regional profile. He engaged in tireless personal diplomacy to build peaceful relations with all his neighbours and demarcate all his country’s borders. He also instituted policies that opened up Oman and made it more attractive for foreign direct investment. But Qaboos’ determination has also created a problem: having accomplished so much almost singlehandedly, it’s unclear whether anyone could take his place. With no siblings, children, or heir to the throne, and few credible, authoritative political institutions (including political parties) to effectively manage a possible transition, it’s fair to wonder whether Oman can maintain its stability without Qaboos. Oman does not have sectarian and religious divisions, which reduces the likelihood of severe political violence, but, if opportunistic political actors see fit, it’s possible that old divisions between the north and south could re-emerge”.

Positively he writes that “Oman should be able to survive without Qaboos, despite his unique traits and accomplishments. The nation can rely on its geography, culture, and human capital to make a successful transition and stay on the path of development. Qaboos is also believed to have already made detailed plans for his succession. He is said to have drafted a letter that names his preferred successor (most likely one of his four cousins), a copy of which is in Muscat and another in Salalah, the capital of the Dhofar region in the south”.

He ends “The probability of a radical shift in Omani foreign policy may be small, but U.S. officials are understandably concerned that the next Omani leader might be less enthusiastic than Qaboos about the country’s strategic partnership with the United States, and more receptive to deeper ties with Iran. This could jeopardise the significant U.S. military assets (including the Masirah Air Base and the Thumrait Naval Air Base for anti-submarine patrol planes) that are stationed in Oman. The U.S. Air Force could also be denied access to Seeb International Airport. Any of those eventualities would have major consequences for U.S. military strategy in the region. But none of this is inevitable. Indeed, that longtime trusted advisors of Qaboos with whom I had a chance to meet on a recent trip, including Yusuf bin Alawi, the minister responsible for foreign affairs, are likely to remain politically influential in Muscat gives reason for optimism. Of course, it will be impossible to know for sure until there’s some clarity about the sultan’s physical condition. Ultimately, it is Qaboos’ task to continue his decades-long record of responsible leadership by being transparent about what lies in store in the immediate future”.

“Rebuilding a mutually beneficial relationship”

27/11/2014

The US and Pakistani militaries began a week-long strategic dialogue on Sunday to explore the possibility of rebuilding a mutually beneficial relationship. In doing so, both sides appeared eager to move away from unreal expectations and consequent disappointments of the recent past to an engagement based on ground realities. “We look forward to having close and honest consultations” with the Pakistani army chief and his team, said Daniel Feldman, the Obama administration’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistanis, while commending the US interest in “close and honest” talks, emphasise the need for an enhanced engagement”.

Obama acts justly

27/11/2014

An excellent piece discusses the recent executive order of President Obama.

It starts “As addled American bombardier Captain John Yossarian says of the one thing blocking his being grounded and saved from having to face combat again while he hangs upside down from the hatch of his bomber as it taxis yet again toward another mission, ‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22.’ In that moment, director Mike Nichols, who died this week, leaving a gaping hole in America’s cultural landscape, offered an image to echo, underscore, and bring to life his bewildered hero’s words: War is lunacy. Even the definition of lunacy in war is lunacy: If you thought war was crazy, then you were clearly sane enough that you couldn’t be grounded for being crazy. If you flew your missions, then you were clearly crazy and you shouldn’t be flying them, but the minute you asked to stop because you were crazy, then you were sane and had to fly again”.

He goes on to write that “Maybe, in retrospect, Nichols did all he needed to while making the underloved film Catch-22, the movie based on Joseph Heller’s genuinely great book. Because with an obstructionist Congress like the one Obama faces, the president can never win. If he tries to work with them, they will kill whatever he proposes. If he then recognizes this and tries to find a way to achieve what needs to be done via executive action, he is accused of circumventing Congress”.

He continues “trying to work with Congress would make Obama crazy, but he would be crazy to try to work with Congress. If he seeks progress in Congress, he gets nowhere and is then accused of being a do-nothing president, but if he recognises this and tries to do something on his own, he’ll be accused of being an out-of-control activist. When Yossarian was confronted by the idea of the logical trap that put his life at risk in Heller’s book, “[he] was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.” Fortunately for the United States, Obama was not content with such passivity. His decision to use his executive authority to shield undocumented immigrants in much the same way as every other modern president has — though at a scale none had attempted — was the right thing to do”.

Importantly he makes the point that “Not only was it consistent with the spirit of his predecessors’ actions, including those of Republican icons like Ronald Reagan, and their policy inclinations, including those of George W. Bush, but it was also, if anything, long overdue. The critique that Obama should have waited for the new Congress to take up this matter overlooks the six years of his administration thus far in which Congress did not act, the fact that the Senate passed a broad immigration reform bill with 57 votes, and the fact that the House never chose to take it up. Congress did not give Obama any choice but to use executive remedies to help ameliorate the case of these millions who have come to the United States, who have contributed to our society, who have often taken jobs that few Americans would accept, and who deserve to be treated humanely because that is not only the right thing to do morally, but also the very foundation of what has made America, a nation of immigrants, great. When Boehner and his colleagues rail against the president, arguing that his decision was precipitous, ask how much longer they feel he should have waited during his eight years in office. Until there was only one year left? Until there were millions more living in limbo?”

Crucially he posits the theory that “Obama did not act soon enough, and he did not offer reforms that were sweeping enough. His lawyers told him that were he to also determine not to prosecute the parents of those covered in this current measure, it would be a bridge too far. They told him it was not within his authority to provide health care or other social services for these people. And so he limited his action: 60 percent of America’s illegal immigrants are still unaffected by this action, and more than 6 million remain in limbo, at risk. It was not within his power to create a path to citizenship for this class of people who play an important role in American society. That is something we must wait for Congress to do. It is something many Republicans agree is important: Bush was in many ways more progressive on this issue than Obama was in his first years in office”.

The politics in the long term are perhaps the most consequential “Obama knows that with the Latino vote growing in America, the GOP can only hurt itself by trying to punish him on this. If they go too far in decrying his “illegal” action, they will appear to be attacking a group that is only going to become more important to their future. They painted themselves into this corner and there are Republican leaders who are actively behind the scenes cautioning party members to dial back their flaming critiques of the president. They have been outmaneuvered. A president who has moved too slowly on immigration has used the inertness of his opponents to appear decisive, turning a weak spot in his record into what will likely someday be seen as a signature victory”.

He ends “The result of mastering the Catch-22 of contemporary Washington this week is an action on immigration that should be seen as a clear example of politically courageous leadership from the president — one that will rank near the top of his already formidable list of domestic policy accomplishments (that he could do a lot more to own and proclaim). In fact, given how twisted this city is, it seems vaguely fitting that the action will also contribute to this month’s success — despite the fact that it contained a massive Election Day drubbing for the president, it’s been the best one he has had since he received notification that he could transfer from Occidental College to Columbia. With a very productive trip to China, a significant climate agreement there, the immigration announcement, and the prospect of an announcement of some progress (at least) on the Iran nuclear talks, he has reversed a recent string of screw-ups and frustrations. Which just goes to show, in the upside-down, inside-out world of today’s Washington, nothing wins like losing”.

 

Ghani visits Pakistan

27/11/2014

President Ashraf Ghani’s inaugural visit to Pakistan may not have yielded any immediate breakthrough or produced a dramatic announcement, but it did at least take place in a more cordial and cooperative manner than the one which characterised Pak-Afghan relations during the Karzai era. Yet whatever the quiet diplomacy and serious security-related discussions that surely took place behind closed doors over the weekend, a genuine and lasting improvement in relations would necessarily require moves in the public domain too. What, for example, is the state of reconciliation talks with the Afghan Taliban? With 2014 rapidly drawing to a close, all other major events expected to take place this year have been largely navigated. Hamid Karzai exited without too much of a fuss; an election was held and winners eventually found. The foreign troop drawdown has progressed smoothly, with the Taliban making some gains but by no means being able to overrun the Afghan-led security forces. Meanwhile, the US got the deal that would allow a residual force in Afghanistan to stay on while ensuring economic assistance continues”.

Still the indispensable nation

27/11/2014

Micah Zenko argues controversially that America is no longer the indispensable nation.

He beigns “In 1996, political journalist Sidney Blumenthal and foreign policy historian James Chace struggled to come up with a memorable phrase to describe America’s post-Cold War role in the world. ‘Finally, together, we hit on it: ‘indispensable nation.’ Eureka! I passed it on first to Madeleine Albright,’ Blumenthal recalled. In his memoir of the Clinton presidency, The Clinton Wars, Blumenthal elaborated on what the phrase was intended to represent: ‘Only the United States had the power to guarantee global security: without our presence or support, multilateral endeavours would fail.’ Albright, then secretary of state, began using the phrase often, and most prominently in February 1998, while defending the policy of coercive diplomacy against Iraq over its limited cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors when”,

Zenko goes on to make the point “Over the last six months, the notion of American indispensability has resurfaced in a big way. U.S. President Barack Obama has emphasised this point repeatedly, and most expansively in May while giving a commencement address to West Point cadets: ‘When a typhoon hits the Philippines or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help. So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past and it will be true for the century to come.’ Beyond the White House, this assertion has recently been made by Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and Michelle Bachman. This bipartisan group may not agree on much, but they are all proudly ‘Indispensables.’ Like many foreign policy concepts overwhelmingly endorsed by officials and policymakers, this one has little basis in reality”.

Zenko adds “When Indispensables provide specifics to support their claim, they almost exclusively highlight some use of the U.S. military, whether for humanitarian purposes, coercion, or war fighting. More than any other country, the United States retains a far greater capacity to send troops, disaster response professionals, or bombs virtually anywhere in the world in a short time frame. Today, the U.S. Navy has 102 ships deployed around the world, the Air Force 659 strategic airlifters, 456 air refuelers, and 159 long-range bombers, and the Air Force and Navy combined some 3,407 fighter and attack aircraft. Not to mention the over 300,000 active-duty and reserve Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines deployed to warzones or stationed at America’s 576 active military facilities worldwide. These unmatched global military capabilities provide U.S. officials with an unmatched spectrum of policy options. However, these can be used for benign and relatively judicious missions, like responding to typhoons, or for profoundly destabilising and dumb ones, such as invading a distant country to topple its leader with minimal support from other countries and a totally implausible transition strategy”.

Zenko ignores the fact that hard power is often, thought not the only, way to ensure things get done. There have been debates as to whether it has been overused but the basic fact is that many of America’s enemies do not want to change their behaviour and so must be forced to do so.

He goes to argue that those who use the term indispensable “do so in an extremely selective manner. For example, using Obama’s examples, nearly all of the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls remain in the clutches of Boko Haram, and clandestine Russian security forces continue to operate with impunity in Ukraine. Abuja and Kiev looked to the United States for help, which it provided to the extent that their governments were willing to accept it. But in both countries the help was insufficient to achieve the intended objectives”.

Yet this just proves how indispensable America really is. If it wanted to it could have spent time and money to ameliorate both of these situations. It chose not to. Zenko seems to be arguing that because it hasn’t chosen to do so America is no longer indispensable, a strange logic.

He expands on this point “Relatedly, Indispensables also omit the vast number of instances where “the world” looks to America for help, and U.S. officials choose to do nothing. Earlier this year, as they have since 2011, mayors in Darfur, South Kordofan’s Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile, again requested a no-fly-zone to protect civilian populations from the indiscriminate airpower used by the regime in Khartoum. It was denied yet again”.

The fact that the mayors did not go to France or the UK or Germany for requests means that the point is proven. Only America has the power to do want is required and is thus still indispensable. It chose not to use this power for either political or military reasons, because it chose not to use it does not make it any less indispensable.

He quotes an administration official and then asks “why do so few countries with deployable military assets participate in U.S.-led campaigns in a meaningful way? The United States provided the majority of the actual combat forces and airpower in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and is doing so again in the air campaign to counter the Islamic State (IS). Most countries that could participate have either declined to do so”.

Obviously Zenko has never heard of free riding.

He ends making the fair point “the Indispensables belief that America’s role in the world is “absolutely necessary” in all areas is simply arrogant. It discounts the tremendous and essential contributions from non-U.S. countries, international non-governmental organizations, and civil society. This includes the 128 countries contributing 104,184 troops and police forces currently deployed in support of sixteen U.N. peacekeeping operations worldwide. The United States provides only 113 troops to U.N. peacekeeping operations, but, importantly, foots 27 percent of the bill and provides logistics support”.

 

“Weighing plans to esclate the CIA’s role”

25/11/2014

The Obama administration has been weighing plans to escalate the CIA’s role in arming and training fighters in Syria, a move aimed at accelerating covert U.S. support to moderate rebel factions while the Pentagon is preparing to establish its own training bases, U.S. officials said. The proposed CIA buildup would expand a clandestine mission that has grown substantially over the past year, U.S. officials said. The agency now vets and trains about 400 fighters each month — as many as are expected to be trained by the Pentagon when its program reaches full strength late next year. The prospect of expanding the CIA program was on the agenda of a meeting of senior national security officials at the White House last week. A White House spokesman declined to comment on the meeting or to address whether officials had reached a decision on the matter. Others said the proposal reflects concern about the pace of the Pentagon’s program to bolster moderate militias, which so far have proved no match for al-Qaeda offshoots including the Islamic State”.

Cardinal Sarah at CDW

25/11/2014

Yesterday Pope Francis ended the vacancy at the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and appointed  Robert Cardinal Sarah as the new prefect. This ends the vacancy that began when Cardinal Canizares Llovera was appointed archbishop of Valencia in August.

Rocco writes that “the most-awaited of the expected moves has been released with today’s appointment of Cardinal Robert Sarah, the 69 year-old Guinean until now in charge of the Vatican’s humanitarian efforts, as the new prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments”.

Rocco goes on to mention that Sarah was “Ordained a bishop at 34, in the post overseeing the global church’s formal life of prayer, Sarah succeeds Cardinal Antonio Cañizares, who was returned to his native Spain – by some accounts, at his own request – in late August as archbishop of his native Valencia. Having served as head of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum – in the coming shuffle, likely to be merged with the body for Justice and Peace – since 2010 and before that as #2 at the Propaganda Fide, not much is known about Sarah’s background or expertise in matters of worship; lacking a doctorate, the cardinal’s final degree was a licentiate in the Scriptures. Then again, the CDW under Francis is not expected to continue along the office’s path of recent decades, which saw the congregation preside over revolutionary shifts (e.g. the sweeping re-translation of the English Missal) alongside maintaining an intense disciplinary oversight of liturgical abuses – whether real or perceived – at the local level. (As a friend once mused – perhaps only half-jokingly – during Cardinal Roger Mahony’s quarter-century as archbishop of Los Angeles, CDW “had a whole wing” dedicated to handling complaints from the US’ largest diocese.)

Interestingly he writes that “the office’s new mission is likely to hew closer to Francis’ own liturgical approach – as one op summarized its principles: ‘Go by the book. Don’t make a fuss about it. And remember that liturgy’s always a means to an end – not an end in itself.’ Along those lines, the choice of a prefect whose ministry has been immersed in the work of charity and the perils of the missions – far removed from the boutique ‘liturgy wars’ so beloved by polarised Anglo-European elites (whose churches aren’t necessarily thriving) – serves above all as a fresh pointer to the risks, rewards and messiness of the ‘peripheries,’ the concept which remains the key to everything in this pontificate. Returning to the wider frame of Curia reform, while Italian and Spanish media accounts have been rife with suppositions and projections of the coming state of things over recent days, the reminder’s apparently in order of the degree to which Francis keeps his cards close until he’s ready to break out”.

Yet it would be a mistake to downplay the importance of the liturgy in the spiritual life of ordinary Catholics. Thus the reason for Benedict’s insistence of a liturgical life that was pointed, and turned to, God.

Some have argued that the appointment of Cardinal Sarah means that “he has appointed Cardinal Sarah as prefect to the Congregation for Divine Worship in order to foster a traditionalist liturgical revival. Pope Francis is a man of broad sympathies. He is steeped in the reformed liturgy, but has no particular liturgical ax to grind. He is not a liturgist. Everything he has done so far suggests that he is interested in pastors and regaining a sense of mission in the Church, and not at all in taking sides in liturgical disputes which can absorb much energy without obvious gains for the body corporate. Cardinal Sarah is clearly an unexpected and unusual choice to lead the CDW. He does not come to his new position as an authority on liturgy or even particularly as a student of the liturgy, much less an advocate for a “reform of the reform.” What he does have in his resume however is 22 years pastoring a diocese in Africa, the most rapidly growing area of the Catholic world”.

The writer goes on to note that “His appointment “works” internally (in the Curia) by removing him from Cor Unum, which is about to be absorbed into a larger agency in the coming reorganization, and giving him a new job. At the same time, it suggests there will be no crusading for liturgical agendas—of any ideological stripe—flowing from this Congregation in the months to come”.

John Allen writes that “despite the removal of Burke, he doesn’t seem to be conducting an ideological purge in senior Vatican positions, nor does he appear to be doling out punishment to those who opposed the progressive line at the recent synod. Second, Francis knows that many African prelates felt compelled to assert themselves during the synod, and wanted to send a signal of respect for the continent by making sure there’s an African prefect of a major Vatican department”.

Allen continues, “the Sarah appointment may also be part of a political balancing act by Francis. The pontiff may be trying to “reach across the aisle,” to use the American argot, and assure conservatives that he’s not the enemy. Doing so in the realm of liturgy may be especially deft, since the Church’s liturgical purists have felt some of the deepest ambivalence about Francis. They tend to believe he’s not nearly as passionate about the Church’s liturgical traditions as Benedict, and his crackdown on a small religious order called the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate that celebrates the old Latin Mass has exacerbated those impressions. In that light, handing responsibility for liturgy over to someone traditionalists generally perceive as a friend may shift the terms of debate”.

“Defended the Obama administation’s strategy”

25/11/2014

U.S. military leaders defended the Obama administration’s strategy against the Islamic State on Thursday, arguing before skeptical lawmakers that President Obama’s plan to put Iraqi forces at the forefront of the fight had achieved some limited battlefield success while laying the groundwork for a larger, long-term campaign against the group. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told members of the House Armed Services Committee that months of U.S. and allied airstrikes and growing on-the-ground support for Iraq’s military had stalled or reversed the Islamist group’s advance in certain areas of Iraq. “Sustaining this pressure on ISIL will help provide time and space . . . for Iraq to reconstitute its forces and continue going on the offense,” Hagel said, using another name for the extremist group that now controls a vast expanse across Iraq and Syria. Among the tactical successes that Hagel described was Iraqi Kurdish forces’ expulsion of Islamic State militants from the northern town of Zumar and Iraqi forces’ advance into areas around the Baiji oil refinery after weeks of fighting”.

“Another seven months to negotiate”

25/11/2014

Yesterday brought news of the extension of the Iran talks between the Islamic Republic and the P5 + 1.

An article by Aaron David Miller and Jason Brodsky argues that there are four reasons why the deal did not happen.

They open “So what went wrong? How come the champagne corks aren’t popping in Vienna? After all the hype, drama, and suspense, why is it that all we have to show is a close-but-no-cigar seven-month extension? All is not lost. With a deadline pushed until next summer, the negotiations are already set to resume in December. And though critics of the deal will shout from the rooftops that this extension will only give Iran more leverage, it’s still possible that a way could be found to reach a comprehensive agreement. But why wasn’t it possible by Nov. 24? As John Kerry suggested today, more time will not make matters easier. Sure, the gaps were wide, the suspicions deep, the politics constraining. All of this was known in advance. It’s not as if the U.S. negotiators realized at the eleventh hour that a comprehensive deal was a long shot”.

They go on to ask “was this a doomed enterprise from the start? Or was it just that more time was required to make a deal? Or was there something wrong with the structure of the trade-off: Iranian concessions on substance upfront for gradual removal of sanctions?”

They go on to describe four assumptions that people saw as being the reason why a deal was possible. The first they argue is that Dr Hassan Rouhani and Dr Mohammad Javad Zarif have the ability to do a deal, “The president and foreign minister of Iran may be moderates, but they are not free agents and don’t work for the United States. Iran is an authoritarian state — and yet one with a real political life, complete with tense divisions at the top, bottom, and center. But amid all the tea leaf reading and studying the entrails of goats, one thing is stunningly obvious even to the interminably obtuse: At the apex of this pyramid sits an aging theocracy at whose center is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — the final arbiter on all matters of state. Rouhani came to office promising ‘prudence and hope,’ and even penned an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled ‘Time to Engage.’ But these overtures all came with the blessing of the establishment: Khamenei gave the president the necessary breathing room to secure a comprehensive accord. For instance, in September 2013, as Rouhani was preparing to make his maiden voyage to New York, the supreme leader called for ‘heroic leniency‘ on the nuclear file, stressing that he was not opposed to ‘correct diplomacy.’ It has been Khamenei calling the shots throughout this entire process — setting clear red lines that were never to be crossed. Zarif said as much this September”.

Of course this is a valid point. The deal between Iran and the US and EU will be decided by Khamenei. Yet he is ill and while not dead and depending on how capable Rouhani is this could be used to his advantage. However, Rouhani would have to be clever and subtle at this. If his mentor Khatami could become Supreme Leader it would make a deal much more likely.

The end the section “Let’s also remember that it was Rouhani who resigned as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator after clashes with the newly elected hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad back in 2005; reports indicate that the Supreme Leader actively supported Ahmadinejad’s candidacy. With reformists and moderates out of fashion, Rouhani quickly lost his mandate. So Rouhani and Zarif — just like their predecessors — are on a retractable leash”.

The second point of their argument is that Iran might not desire a deal as badly as the United States. This was pointed out recently in what Iran’s strategy was based on. They write “In any negotiation, cutting a deal requires not just urgency but that both sides have clocks that are in sync or closely coordinated. The American sense of time is measured in four- and eight-year increments, driven by elections and politics; the Iranian clock is much more open-ended. Part of that flexibility has to do with the fact that however pressed those who want a deal may feel, Iran has demonstrated remarkable capacity to resist economic pressure and to adjust to the imposition of sanctions and declining oil prices. The sanctions may have brought the mullahs to the table, but that doesn’t mean that they can force a deal”.

They add evidence to their argument “The New York Times in August reported that the Islamic Republic found a way around the sanctions in exporting petroleum products to China and other Asian countries. According to ‘Iranian customs data, the country in recent months has exported 525,000 barrels a day of the ultralight oil, known as condensates, over two times more than it did a year ago. In the last three months, the sales have generated as much as $1.5 billion in extra trade — a rate of about $6 billion a year — based on Iranian trade figures and market prices.’ Not bad for a country under sanction. And later that month, Tehran and Moscow also inked a framework for a $20 billion oil-for-goods deal”.

They add in the third section that interests are important pride is a key factor as well, “The supreme leader has consistently coupled the nuclear file with the Islamic Republic’s perennial quest for dignity. And it’s personal for Khamenei. An internal IAEA document that was prepared in 2009 detailed an April 1984 high-level meeting at the presidential palace in Tehran in which Khamenei — then president of Iran — championed a decision by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to launch a nuclear weapons program”.

They note that the honour and dignity attached to the nuclear programme has “trickled down to the Iranian street. When Gallup asked ordinary citizens whether it was worth continuing to develop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear power program back in early 2013, almost two-thirds — or 63 percent — said yes. This narrative explains why Tehran has chosen to suffer under the punishing weight of economic sanctions. According to an estimate by the Carnegie Endowment in 2013, the mullahs’ nuclear program has cost the country more than $100 billion in lost oil revenue and foreign investment alone. To put that in perspective: Before the most recent round of oil-export restrictions in 2012, the Congressional Research Service estimated that oil revenue ‘generated about 20% of Iran’s GDP, about 80% of its foreign exchange earnings, and about 50% of its government revenue.'”

They end the piece noting that Iran will hold out for what it wants “We can’t end Iran’s nuclear capacity, so we are working to constrain it through buying time. Iran is trying to preserve as much of that capacity as possible while easing and eliminating economic pressure. And Iran is also playing with and for time. There’s really no end state, either on the nuclear issue or sanctions relief. And thus any comprehensive agreement is, by definition, interim at best. That just doesn’t add up in today’s highly charged and suspicion-laden political environment, no matter how moderate and well-intentioned the negotiators themselves may be. The fact is that Iran knows what it wants: to preserve as much of its nuclear weapons capacity as possible and free itself from as much of the sanctions regime as it can. The mullahs see Iran’s status as a nuclear weapons state as a hedge against regime change and as consistent with its regional status as a great power. That is what it still wants. And that’s why it isn’t prepared — yet — to settle just for what it needs to do a deal. Ditto for America. And it’s hard to believe that another six months is going to somehow fix that problem”.

In a related article John Hudson argues that the extension leaves the deal open to be blocked by those who oppose it. He writes “The failure of Barack Obama’s administration to secure a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program by Monday’s self-imposed deadline hands a significant gift to hard-liners in both countries: a seven-month window to criticise, and potentially sabotage, a final deal between Iran and the West. On Monday, Nov. 24, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Iran and six world powers are giving themselves another seven months to negotiate, with the interim goal of finalising a framework by March. ‘In these last days in Vienna, we have made real and substantial progress,’ Kerry said. ‘That is why we are jointly … extending these talks.’ However, many members of Congress who opposed the talks from the beginning want to implement a new round of economic sanctions against Tehran, which would expressly violate the terms of the interim agreement between Iran and Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States”.

Hudson adds that “After trouncing Democrats in the midterm elections this month, Republicans will dominate Congress through the talks’ final stages. Democrats with close ties to pro-Israel lobbying organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are likely to rankle President Obama on the sanctions score through the waning days of his presidency. For instance, Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for another month, has long made his distaste for a prolonged diplomatic effort known”.

He goes on to mention that “many congressional Democrats have recently shown an unusual willingness to defy the White House, a handful of key liberal senators support the extension, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan, Virginia’s Tim Kaine, and Connecticut’s Chris Murphy. ‘I would really hope that we support the administration in their requests for extended negotiating time,’ Murphy told Foreign Policy on Monday. ‘It would be incredibly counterproductive to have the Congress passing legislation that undermines our negotiations.’ Iran has its own hard-liner problem, but it’s not so much the country’s chorus of ultra-conservative clerics who pose a barrier as it is a single man: Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei”.

He closes “Whether Khamenei will make concessions in the next seven months and Congress can be persuaded against issuing new sanctions is anyone’s guess, but the longer a deal twists in the wind, the longer opponents have to undermine and unravel it”.

Still divided over Ukraine

25/11/2014

With European Union governments divided, a decision on whether to tighten economic sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine conflict is likely to be left to EU leaders, who next meet in mid-December, diplomats said on Thursday. EU foreign ministers will discuss Ukraine at a meeting in Brussels on Monday, the first chaired by the EU’s new foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. But no decisions on ratcheting up economic sanctions on Russia are expected despite the deteriorating security situation in eastern Ukraine. The United States warned Russia on Thursday the West might punish it further for its “military escalation” of the crisis, as Moscow and Kiev accused each other of truce violations in a conflict that has killed more than 4,000 people. But EU ministers, at most, may order officials to draw up names of eastern Ukraine separatists, and possibly some Russians, who would be added to an existing list of officials under EU travel bans and asset freezes, EU diplomats said.

Hagel goes, policy remains?

25/11/2014

Yesterday Chuck Hagel announced his resignation after less than two years as secretary of Defence. This comes after a particularly hard confirmation hearings.

Reports note that “Hagel is leaving the Obama administration after less than two years on the job amid concerns that he wasn’t up to the job of leading the Pentagon during its escalating war with the Islamic State. A senior administration official said that Hagel’s discussions with the White House over his own future began in October, when he “began speaking with the president about departing the administration given the natural post-midterms transition time.” The conversations had continued for the last few weeks, and President Barack Obama will announce Hagel’s resignation this morning at a White House event, the official said. Hagel will remain in office until a successor is named and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the official said”.

The article goes on to mention “Hagel too made mistakes by misstating the Obama administration policy on Iran as one of “containment.” He was confirmed on a fairly narrow margin of 58-41. Once in office Hagel faced challenges ranging from transferring prisoners out of Guantanamo Bay prison and the rise of the Islamic State to how to best manage the ongoing drawdown from Afghanistan and how many troops to send to Africa to help fight the Ebola crisis. While personable and engaging in private conversations, Hagel’s public performances lacked focus and were often dull, especially compared with Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with whom the defense secretary often appeared together. He also contradicted the White House’s public line about the Islamic State by describing them as an unprecedented threat just as the administration was likening them to a junior varsity basketball team”.

In a related piece David Rothkopf writes that ditching Hagel will not help Obama. He opens “As early as two months ago, the buzz coming from administration insiders was that Hagel might become a sacrificial lamb on that front. His relations with the White House were not great. He was not seen as a strong secretary of defence. And he was seen, in the words of one former senior Obama aide, as having ‘gone native.’ This meant he was becoming a conduit for the growing frustrations of the military leadership in the Department of Defence toward the reactive, strategically incoherent responses of the president and his White House team, particularly regarding the growing threat posed by the Islamic State spreading chaos in Iraq and Syria. Hagel’s appointment may have been a sign of the president’s and his closest advisors’ bad judgment when Hagel was hired. Hagel lacked the national security bureaucratic know-how and leadership of either Bob Gates or Leon Panetta, the much stronger pair who served the president in the Pentagon during his first term in office. Hagel was a sign of how small the president’s circle of acquaintances in the defense area were — drawn from the one pool Obama knew from his four years in Washington, D.C., prior to becoming president: the Senate. Hagel may have been a brand name but not a great choice. But he was comfortable, it was thought, with Obama, Joe Biden, and John Kerry, four former members — with Hagel — of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee”.

Rothkopf goes on to write “Hagel is not the problem. Sure he has been distant, spending much time on the road. But largely that was due to the fact that this administration has alienated its own cabinet members more than any other in memory. To illustrate this, one need only recall Mark Landler’s linein the New York Times about Secretary of State John Kerry being so disconnected from the White House that he resembles Sandra Bullock’s astronaut character from the movie Gravity, untethered and adrift”.

He goes on to make the point that “Hagel’s alienation, the tension between him and the White House, and the military leadership’s burgeoning frustration with the false starts, half-measures, and micromanagement that have marked the administration’s Iraq and Syria campaigns are signs of much deeper problems that lie within the way the president himself operates and, from a process perspective, from the way that his National Security Council (NSC) operates. At a moment when most second-term presidents have long since bid adieu to their campaign staffers and have focused on governing, Obama is drawing his closer, providing him more of a security blanket than an effective national security team. Susan Rice, his national security advisor, was passenger No. 1 on the Obama campaign’s national security team, leading its efforts and working closely throughout with Denis McDonough, now Obama’s chief of staff”.

On the choice to succeed Hagel he adds “Obama has a number of excellent choices he is likely to consider for the top job at the Pentagon. Michèle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense, would have been a better choice back when Hagel was first picked and remains a great choice now. So too would be the former deputy secretary of defense, the brilliant Ash Carter, or another to hold that post, John Hamre. Bringing in one of these folks will not fix the deeper problems within the administration. And, candidly, anyone offered the job ought to think long and hard about accepting it without assurances that the White House will give him or her (and the top military brass) the latitude needed to fulfill the missions being assigned. And frankly, the appointee ought to ask what changes will be made within the NSC process to ensure that the overconcentration of power within that bloated staff will be reversed and whether this administration that talks so much about “whole-of-government solutions” will start actually seeking them”.

Crucially he writes “The challenge is that the NSC and the national security team are always just a reflection of what the president wants. If President Obama is unwilling to ask himself how he must change in order to avoid and undo mistakes like those of the past two years, it doesn’t matter how many cabinet secretaries come or go. If the move to swap out Chuck Hagel (apparently after a rather contentious tug of war about whether he should depart) is as it appears to be — a gesture designed to avoid addressing the real problems within the Obama team — then it is worse than empty. It is a further sign that this is a president resistant to growth or to finding a way to effectively advance the national security interests of the United States”.

 

“Extended to the end of June”

25/11/2014

The deadline for a nuclear deal with Iran has been extended to the end of June after talks in Vienna failed to reach a comprehensive agreement. UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said good progress had been made, but it was “not possible to get an agreement by the [original] deadline”. Six world powers want Iran to curb its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions. Tehran says it is not seeking nuclear weapons, but wants atomic energy. The six countries – the US, UK, Russia, China, France and Germany – have been in negotiations with Iran to finalise a preliminary deal reached last year in Geneva. Speaking after the Vienna talks had ended, Mr Hammond said that negotiations would resume in December, and would be extended until 30 June 2015. Iran would be allowed to continue accessing $700m (£450m) a month in frozen assets during that period. Diplomats are hoping to reach a high-level political agreement by 1 March, with the full technical details of the agreement confirmed by 1 July”.

Public opinion, getting a deal?

23/11/2014

An optimistic article in Foreign Policy seems to indicate that Iran may be more willing to do a nuclear deal than was previously thought.

It opens “For the first time in more than a decade, the United States and Iran are both pushing hard to resolve their long-standing disagreements about Tehran’s nuclear program. Making that investment in nuclear diplomacy pay off requires bold leadership — and an understanding of public opinion in both countries. Shortly after President Hassan Rouhani took office, negotiators from Iran and six world powers (the P5+1) agreed on the elements of a solution ‘to ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful,’ as the Joint Plan of Action states. But as the Nov. 24 deadline for reaching a comprehensive deal approaches, large gaps remain between the parties on the scope, timing, and duration of an agreement. We can’t ignore the role of public opinion in bridging those gaps: Both President Barack Obama and Rouhani will be more likely to take political risks to reach an agreement if they think that the terms would have broad public support”.

He suggests that the problems of Iranian public opinion complicate things, “Iranians do not support the much tighter limitations on nuclear capabilities that some U.S. experts consider necessary to ensure that Iran could not “break out” of an agreement and amass a bomb’s worth of fissile material in less than a year — one metric that U.S. officials have used to quantify whether a deal would be acceptable. The University of Tehran’s Center for Public Opinion and the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,037 Iranians this summer to get a sense of just how far the Iranian public was willing to go to seal a deal. Depending on the rest of the agreement, large majorities of respondents were willing to accept a pledge never to produce nuclear weapons (79 percent), the continuation of current international oversight and inspections (76 percent), additional transparency measures (62 percent), and not enriching uranium above 5 percent for the duration of the agreement. But comparably large majorities staunchly oppose dismantling half of the centrifuges that Iran is currently operating (70 percent) and accepting limits on Iran’s nuclear research activities (75 percent) — concessions that correspond to demands often advanced by former Obama administration officials who remain close to the negotiations”.

On the other side of the table he goes on to posit the theory that “If Rouhani does not have public support for accepting certain demands, would Obama have domestic support for compromises that move toward the Iranian position? Conventional wisdom says he would be hard-pressed to get congressional approval to lift sanctions against Iran even if the breakout criteria were met, especially after the Republican Party won control of the Senate in the recent midterm elections. Although the White House could initially suspend some sanctions by executive order and delay asking Congress to remove legislative sanctions until Iran had complied fully with the next stage of the process, Congress has threatened to impose new sanctions if Iran does not dismantle its nuclear program”.

Unconventionally he writes that “In July, the Center for International and Security Studies and the Program for Public Consultation ran a decision-making simulation in which 748 randomly selected Americans were given a carefully vetted background briefing about the negotiations with Iran. They were then handed arguments drawn from congressional debates presenting them with two options: Respondents could decide to continue seeking a deal that places partial limits on Iran’s nuclear program and increases transparency in return for some sanctions relief, or they could decide to end negotiations and impose more sanctions in a renewed effort to stop Iranian enrichment altogether. Large majorities of participants found all arguments for and against both options to be at least somewhat persuasive. But when asked which option they would recommend, 61 percent (including 62 percent of the Republicans) chose the compromise deal, while only 35 percent wanted to end negotiations and impose new sanctions by pressuring other countries to cut their economic relations with Iran, in hope of finally persuading Tehran to completely stop all uranium enrichment”.

The problem with this is manifold. Firstly the low sample size. Secondly, the public are generally either misinformed or uninformed about international affairs, if they have an opinion it would be optimistic to expect people across America to pressure Congress to agree the specific deal that the White House lays before it. Thirdly, even if the first two are ignored, there is little chance that Congress would actually be receptive to the general public on this issue when there are much more powerful and wealthy lobby groups that would have a vested interest in it failing, who will work over members of Congress in a far more subtle and nefarious way then the US electorate.

The writer adds “Would a Republican-controlled Congress really want responsibility for scuttling a deal that placed limits on and increased the transparency of Iran’s nuclear program? The GOP’s alternative would be to convince other countries that supported the compromise deal to punish Iran, and bet that imposing yet another round of sanctions would coerce Tehran into giving up its enrichment program altogether. That’s a risky gamble: Iran responded to previous rounds of sanctions by increasing its nuclear activity. The prospects for agreement on such a compromise deal would be substantially improved if the P5+1 slightly altered its criteria for success. U.S. officials usually explain that they are trying to make it physically impossible for Iran to accumulate enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon before an enrichment or reprocessing capability could be destroyed”.

He nuances this, writing “Sometimes, though, U.S. officials describe their objective slightly differently. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, for example, said the goal is to make any effort by Iran to use its nuclear program for non-peaceful purposes ‘so visible and time-consuming that the attempt would have no chance of success.’ This standard suggests that the most viable way to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program remains exclusively peaceful is to give the international community a mechanism to ensure rapid warning if Iran ever started down a pathway to building a nuclear bomb. The difference is subtle but important. As the U.S. intelligence community has acknowledged, there is no plausible way to be completely certain Iran has been denied the technical capability to produce a nuclear weapon, if Iranian leaders have made a political decision to do so. Short of including access for international inspectors anytime and anywhere — an extreme form of transparency that no country has ever been willing to provide — any agreement would not be enough to convince critics that Iran could not possibly have a covert route to a bomb. A better way to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful is to focus on Iran’s political choices as much as its technical capabilities”.

He argues that using the Sherman objectives are more realistic, “For example, only a small minority of Iranians are unconditionally ready to accept limits on Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium (15 percent) and the quantity and quality of its centrifuges (19 and 16 percent, respectively) for an agreed period of time. But those responses change dramatically when the issues are framed as compliance with a comprehensive deal: A plurality of Iranians say that limits on stockpiles and centrifuge numbers could be acceptable depending on the rest of the deal (49 and 46 percent, respectively), and a comparable percentage (49 percent) would support a deal in which Iran reduced its enrichment activities and allowed extensive inspections for 10 years, in return for sanctions relief. Iran, in other words, may not be able to compromise on its stated desire for a large enrichment program — but it could agree to a very intrusive and intensive IAEA monitoring program to ensure that nuclear material wasn’t being diverted to build a nuclear weapon”.

Sadly these very bodies have been doubting Iran’s honesty on this key issue.

He ends “As Iran and the P5+1 approach their deadline, our research contains reasons for optimism that public opinion can sustain an agreement. Both the Iranian and American publics appear ready to support a comprehensive deal that extends the restraints Iran voluntarily implemented during the first stage of the agreement, with additional transparency and confidence-building measures. If negotiators can reach a deal on these terms, hard-liners would be hard-pressed to convince everyone else that the world would be better off without such a deal than with one”.

 

“Focused on reaching agreement by Monday”

23/11/2014

US secretary of state, John Kerry, arrived at nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna on Thursday, insisting negotiators were focused on reaching agreement by the Monday deadline. Kerry was responding to remarks on Wednesday by his British counterpart, Philip Hammond, who suggested that the deadline would have to be extended. “We are not discussing an extension. We are negotiating to have an agreement. It’s that simple,” Kerry said in Paris before boarding the flight to Vienna. “I know that secretary Hammond is concerned about the gaps. We all are. Both sides are taking this process seriously and both sides are trying to find common ground. That does not mean we agree on everything. But it does mean we have discussed in detail the full range of relevant issues that have to be part of a durable and comprehensive agreement.” While in Paris Kerry held talks with the foreign ministers of France and Saudi Arabia. Those talks were intended to help maintain the support of both countries – among the most hawkish on Iran – for the negotiations over a comprehensive deal. Meanwhile, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, complained that Iran had not been cooperating with its inquiry into evidence of past Iranian development work on nuclear weapons”.

End of the Francis honeymoon

23/11/2014

John Allen writes in Crux that the honeymoon for Pope Francis is well and truly over.

He opens “A kerfuffle broke out last week over a lecture given by Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput and sponsored by First Things magazine, generally considered the smartest journal of conservative Catholic opinion in America. In itself it may not loom especially large, but it’s illustrative of something broader. We are entering Phase Two of Francis’ papacy, in which a period of good feelings has given way to an era of edge”.

Allen mentions that the article is largely about the West and is of less relevance to those outside North America and Europe. Indeed this speaks volumes as to the divisions within Catholicism.

Allen writes “Though Chaput’s speech was not on the 2014 Synod of Bishops in Rome, he took a question about it from the audience. Stressing that he hadn’t been there and wanted to talk to bishops who had before reaching conclusions, Chaput nevertheless said that the ‘public image’ of the event had created confusion, and that ‘confusion is of the Devil.’ An interim report from that summit contained some daringly progressive language on homosexuality and other hot-button topics, although the final document adopted Oct. 18 was considerably more restrained”.

Allen goes on to note that “Two longtime observers of the Catholic scene, David Gibson of Religion News Service and Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter, wrote pieces suggesting Chaput had blasted the synod. Winters went further, implying that Chaput had criticized Pope Francis by proxy since the synod was the pope’s event. In return, several conservative Catholic bloggers and writers took Gibson and Winters to task for distorting Chaput’s point”.

Allen goes on to make the point that Archbishop Chaput’s reference to the devil has set off a reaction on the left of the ecclesial spectrum, “First, both the Kasper and Chaput controversies illustrate the importance of context in presenting comments from public figures, in this case senior churchmen”.

He goes on to argue that Cardinal Kasper’s “admittedly ill-advised remark about Africans seemed to mean that different parts of the world have different problems, and should be allowed to develop their own solutions. That nuance didn’t come across in much of the discussion – in part, perhaps, because some people weren’t interested in saving Kasper from himself. A similar point could be made about Chaput. Anyone who knows him realizes he’s a man of strong opinions about the risks of assimilating to secular culture, and not shy about voicing them. It’s legitimate to suspect he may be a bit uncomfortable with some of the new winds blowing in the Francis era”.

Crucially he continues “Yet Chaput is also a papal loyalist, and the idea that he would publicly accuse a pontiff of fostering the work of the Devil is implausible. If you read the full text of his response, it seems clear he was talking about media presentations of the synod, not necessarily the event itself”.

On the more interesting point Allen writes that “we have entered the next phase of Francis’ papacy. We’ve passed from a honeymoon period in which most Catholics were content to bask in the fact that the pope was the most popular figure on the planet, to an era in which a growing number of people seem to have a hair-trigger. For that, we probably have the Synod of Bishops to thank. It brought into sharp focus the battle lines in the Francis era, at least as regards the family and sexual morality”.

The “battle lines” as described by Allen concern gay unions. He elobrates on this point “not in terms of giving moral approval or abandoning its teaching on marriage, but finding a less confrontational way to talk about these relationships”.

Needless to say such a move would be welcome and move away from the stark hypriscocy and the outrageous comments by some in the Church. A change in attitude would also go a way to giving the Church some credibility with vast chunks of the West.

The other areas where Allen sees as battles “Can the Catholic Church identify moral value in all sorts of lifestyle choices that fall outside the bounds of its teaching, such as couples living together without being married? Can the Church say that although such arrangements aren’t ideal, they still may have positive elements such as fidelity and mutual support? Will Catholicism relax its ban on giving communion to Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church, as an act of mercy, or would that amount to a retreat from the doctrine that marriage is permanent?”

On the issue of communion to those who are (civilly) divorced should be dealt with cautiously. A change in language would be welcome and should be introduced but teaching should not change.

The point Allen goes on to make is interesting, “people on both sides bring deep passion. The progressive camp tends to feel emboldened, presuming that the pope is with them. Many conservatives feel alarm for exactly the same reason, fearing that Francis may not back them up. In this environment, many activists and thinkers seem to be slipping into battle mode, ready to pounce on any perceived misstep or faux pas from opponents. In other words, the undeclared Cold War in Catholicism, between those excited by the pope’s new tone and those ambivalent about it, is turning hot”.

As a solution to this Allen suggests that “One key may be to reach out to conservatives who suspect that Francis, or his allies, tried to stack the deck against them in the synod, and who in general wonder if the pontiff appreciates their concerns. In that regard, Francis may have helped himself on Monday when he attended the unveiling of a bronze bust in honor of Benedict XVI at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, where Francis praised his predecessor as a ‘great pope.’ Benedict, he said, is great ‘for the strength and penetrating quality of his intelligence, for his important contribution to theology, for his love for the church and for human beings, and for his virtue and religious character.'”

He ends “Though Francis undoubtedly meant every word, such a tribute to a pontiff who is still a hero to the church’s more traditional wing was also good politics. As a final thought, here’s a prediction as to when Phase Three of the Francis era will begin: Sometime after October 2015, when the process of reflection ends with the next Synod of Bishops on the family and the buck arrives firmly on the pontiff’s desk. There’s nothing like some actual decisions to shake things up again”.

Getting the French to bend

23/11/2014

The Obama administration is facing countervailing pressures in Washington, where Republican lawmakers have been urging the White House to harden its negotiating position. The talks will turn on how many and what type of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to keep to enrich uranium, what happens to the nuclear material Tehran already possesses, measures to constrain Iran’s ability to produce plutonium, and the duration of the accord. All measures need to be synchronized with a schedule for suspending or lifting sanctions that would mollify Iran while preserving the West’s leverage in case an accord begins to fray. Mr. Kerry’s meeting with Mr. Fabius was to coordinate the negotiating strategy. But another American aim is to create the impression that there is unity on the Western side. Last year, an important round of negotiations with Iran was complicated by reports that the French were insisting that the American position be toughened, particularly with regard to a heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak, Iran. American officials insisted that those reports, which were supported by comments by Mr. Zarif, were overblown and said there were no significant differences between Washington and Paris. But mindful of that episode, American officials are eager to counter any perception of fissures in the West’s ranks as the current round of negotiations moves into high gear. Mr. Kerry said after his meeting with Mr. Fabius that the French diplomat had given him a document listing four main points on the talks, and that he generally agreed with them”.

Another UKIP MP

21/11/2014

Another UKIP MP has been directly elected. A report from the Telegraph notes “The UK Independence Party has its second MP in the House of Commons after Mark Reckless won the Rochester and Strood by-election. Mr Reckless, the constituency’s former Conservative MP who defected in September, won with a 2,930 majority after a bitter seven week campaign. The victory is further evidence that Ukip’s hold on British politics is strengthening after the party won the Clacton by-election last month”.

The report goes on to mention “The result is a bitter personal blow for David Cameron, the Prime Minister, who visited the seat five times in five weeks to try to swing it for his candidate Kelly Tolhurst. Counting in a large gym in Medway Park, Gillingham continued into the early hours of the morning, with the final result announced just after 4am. In the event, Mr Reckless won with 16,867 votes, ahead of Miss Tolhurst on 13,947 votes”.

The paper reports with almost unadulterated glee that “The Liberal Democrats’ woes continued, with the party’s candidate Geoff Juby winning just 349 votes. The LibDem tally was the lowest ever for the party in a by-election and the lowest too by a party which was in Government. The LibDems’ vote share collapsed by 95 per cent since 2010, from 16.3 per cent to just 0.9 per cent of the vote”.

The article goes on to mention the victory speech given by Reckless, “‘As we savour victory, think of this: Rochester and Strood was our 271st most winnable seat. If we can win here we can win across the country.’ Mr Reckless said he wanted to see a ‘block of Ukip MPs at Westminster large enough to hold the balance of power’. Arriving at the count Ukip leader Nigel Farage proclaimed that his party was now the third force in British politics”.

Thankfully such thinking is, and will remain in the realm of fantasy. The threat from UKIP is complex but not to be overestimated. The party feeds on discontent, the obvious example being the expenses scandal. It is also a victor of the levels of inequality in the UK that are supported by the City and the Conservative Party’s allegiance to a refusal to raise taxes and neoliberalism despite its painfully obvious flaws. The other aspect that is more complex is UKIPs supposedly clear ideology. It is certainly true they wish to leave the EU but beyond that there is little that is clear in their “manifesto” this is made worse by their ever changing policies on every issue.

The article adds “Mr Reckless is now due to return to the Commons next week as the party’s second MP. Douglas Carswell, another former Conservative, in October became Ukip’s first MP in the Commons after winning a by-election in Clacton. Senior Tories are now braced for more MPs to choose to join Ukip ahead of the election. Mr Reckless has said he has held secret talks in recent weeks with two Tories about joining Mr Farage’s party”.

Unless Cameron decides to confront the UKIP threat directly then he will continue to grow ever weaker.

“Trying to ensure a united front”

21/11/2014

Secretary of State John Kerry crisscrossed Europe trying to ensure a united front among the U.S. and its main European and Arab allies as negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program drew closer to a Monday deadline. Washington, London and Paris have publicly presented a common stance on what they see as an acceptable final agreement with Iran over the future of the program. But current and former officials involved in the Iran diplomacy said questions linger over whether France might take a tougher line than the U.S. or whether the U.K. would veer from Washington’s views on a possible extension of the talks. On Wednesday, U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond publicly raised the prospect of extending the talks beyond the Nov. 24 deadline, just a day after meeting Mr. Kerry in London. “I’m not optimistic that we can get everything done by Monday,” Mr. Hammond told reporters in London. “But I think if we make some significant movement we may be able to find a way of extending the deadline to allow us to get to the final deal.” Senior U.S. officials have stressed that so far there have been no discussions with the Iranians about extending the talks, suggesting possible differences between the U.S. and U.K”.

“Prepared to live with Assad”

21/11/2014

A report in Foreign Policy discusses the bargain with Assad that may be needed to defeat ISIS. It opens “The Obama administration, as I wrote last week, has at least a hypothetical way forward in Iraq, but not in Syria, which it is currently treating as the rear sanctuary for Islamic State (IS) forces besieging Iraq. By the time its long-term plan to train insurgents to fight both IS and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad reaches fruition, there may be very little Syria left to save. Even that’s assuming that the administration takes its own plan seriously, which past history suggests it will not”.

The article goes on to mention “David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote about a leaked document proposing a set of local cease-fires between Syrian rebels and the regime that might ultimately lead to a process of political reconciliation. The column whipped up a tornado of speculation in the very small world of Syria experts. That, in turn, led David Harland, the head of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), the Geneva-based organisation responsible for the document, to produce a finished report outlining the proposal and then to send it to me. The document remains private, so I can’t link to it, but I can quote from it. The argument it makes must be taken seriously by anyone who cares about Syria”.

The column by Ignatius seems naïve in the extreme. There is little doubt that the idea is sound but the reality is very different, who would enforce these cease fires? Who would agree to them? When would it come into effect? What would happen if it was not kept? What would the fighters gain by having a ceasefire? The other point to bear in mind is that the regime though weakened has little or no incentive to agree a ceasefire or even keep to one if it does agree. Why should the world believe the Assad regime would keep should a pact? The other point is how would this lead to political “reconciliation”. It seems a bizarre plan.

He goes onto note that “Along with the United Nations, HD has been on the ground in Syria trying to broker ceasefires. In almost every case, the regime, lacking the firepower to defeat the rebels, has sought to starve them into submission, at which point the rebels have acquiesced to the agony of the local population. These agreements, which are really a species of blackmail, rarely hold, and never lead to anything resembling self-government. The HD report, in contrast, envisions an agreement forged by the United Nations or other interlocutors to create an entity called a ‘Peace and Reconstruction Authority,’ which would implement local cease-fire agreements and serve as an interim authority, so that the new municipal officials would be reporting, not to the regime, but to a neutral institution. The report emphasises that the proposals it advances ’emerge from Syrians’ and would be implemented by Syrians in a bottom-up fashion”.

This is further proof of the total detachment from reality in the proposal. How would this work in pratice? There seems little desire for a “bottom up” process and even less desire by the regime to see that it would be fair and free. Such a proposal is bound to fail and seems to have no grounding in reality. It would need monitors to ensure a fair vote but there is not authority to enforce the ceasefire on which the whole plan seems to be based. Without a ceasefire how could a bottom up vote take place?

Pointedly he notes “There are many reasons to think the HD plan won’t work. The portion of Syria controlled by al-Nusra and the Islamic State, neither of whom will ever accept reconciliation with Assad, is growing. They will pose a mortal danger to the exquisitely fragile peace which the plan envisions. HD’s plan foresees some kind of concerted action between Syrian regime forces and moderate rebels to take on the jihadists. Critics view this as a fantasy. Rosen responds that in five cases this past summer the regime collaborated with rebels in the fight against IS at the edge of the Damascus suburbs. This has not been reported, and if accurate would make this aspect of the plan slightly less far-fetched. Is it true that both sides have been sufficiently exhausted to make heretofore unimaginable sacrifices? One White House official who has seen Rosen’s draft told me that he sees no sign that rebel leaders would be prepared to sign off on a deal which would keep Assad in power. Nor was he persuaded that Assad had become so fearful about his survival that he was prepared to grant real self-government to the rebels. Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that he viewed the proposal as a Damascus-inspired ‘appeal for the international community to prop up what’s left of the Assad regime.’ Tabler believes that the regime has used Rosen, its ally, to buy time to consolidate its control over restive parts of the country”.

He adds importantly that “Rosen’s, and HD’s, calculations about what either the non-jihadi rebels or Assad (or the Saudis) would accept constitute a proposition that remains to be tested. That test will be made in the coming months as both HD and U.N. special representative Staffan di Mistura seek to broker cease-fires across the country. If they fail, we’ll have our answer. The resistance the HD plan has encountered, and will continue to encounter, is not just a matter of sober calculation but of moral principle”.

He closes “The idea of permitting Assad to remain in power — to get away not just with murder, but with mass murder — is repellent. Even if he stays on in a weakened form which limits his capacity to do evil, any deal which preserves his position feels like an act of cowardly submission. Rosen’s answer is that the rebels are no better than the regime, or the regime no worse than they. I recoil at the thought, though I accept that few outsiders have earned the right to make that judgment as he is. I’m not sure it matters in the end. We must leave it to God to weigh men’s souls. If the Syrian people have reached such a state of despair that they are prepared to live with Assad in exchange for an end to violence and chaos, that should be good enough for us”.

He finishes “what better do we have to offer? Tabler argues that once the cadres of U.S.-trained rebels cross back into Syria to take on IS and then the regime, starting this spring, ‘things are going to change.’ Obama is said to have belatedly realised that he has no Syria strategy, and ordered up a policy review which could include an acceleration of the military training program. Nevertheless, I suspect that the Obama administration will take its sweet time training insurgents, that the recruits will prove as refractory as they have in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that their numbers will be too small to seriously challenge IS. Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Syria and one of the most ardent advocates of arming non-jihadist rebels, told me that the combination of the administration’s apparent indifference to the rebels’ fate and the devastating reversals they have suffered in the field has now persuaded him that nothing will come of this path”.

Shutdown 2015?

21/11/2014

A high-ranking Senate GOP leader on Sunday left the door open to a government shutdown if President Obama moves forward with unilateral action on immigration reform. Asked by “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace if Republicans would “take the bait” and shut down the government, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said “it doesn’t solve the problem, Chris, but look, we’re having those discussions.” Thune noted that House and Senate leaders “are having discussions” on how to react if Obama takes action on the lightning-rod issue as soon as this week. But the Senate Republican Conference chairman charged that Obama would be “choosing friction and partisanship … instead of cooperation (which) would make it difficult” for a GOP-controlled Congress to do immigration reform “or anything” over the next two years  Asked if Obama should wait until after Congress has passed a must-pass government-funding bill when it expires on December 11th, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) responded that the “timing” could be “negotiable.” Whitehouse blamed the current impasse on immigration reform on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) who refused to consider the Senate-passed measure on comprehensive immigration reform”.

Winning in Hong Kong

21/11/2014

An excellent article in Foreign Affairs argues that the protesters in Hong Kong have already won.

He begins “The protests originated with a decision made in Beijing on August 31, when the National People’s Congress ratified a disappointing plan for Hong Kong’s election of chief executive in 2017. Hong Kong’s democrats want the city to select its own top official by popular vote, but universal suffrage turned out to be just a little too radical for Beijing’s mandarins to countenance, in keeping with a hundred years of resisting self-rule. Chinese citizens have elected their own national leaders just once, in the ill-fated election of 1912, a year after the fall of the Qing dynasty. Early on, Mao Zedong promised an inclusive, socialist form of ‘New Democracy,’ but that soon gave way to a totalist, top-down monopoly on political power. In the 1980s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping belatedly granted villagers powers to elect their chiefs, but this innovative experiment in ‘grassroots democracy’ never progressed to the county or city level, let alone to national leadership. Thus, Hong Kong’s 2017 vote — marking the twentieth anniversary of its ‘handover’ from British colony to Chinese appendage — could have been a historic opportunity to advance the country’s long march to self-government, a future first envisaged by ‘Father of the Nation,’ Cantonese-born revolutionary Sun Yat-sen (who went to college in Hong Kong). Instead of entrusting Hong Kongers with a grand experiment, though, Beijing offered them a Potemkin election. Only candidates chosen by a handpicked election committee of 1,200 will be eligible to stand for office — a kind of electoral college in reverse. The Chinese people, in other words, are still not trusted to choose their own rulers”.

He rightly goes on to make the point that “The stage was therefore set in September for some kind of civic rebuttal to Beijing’s fiat. As activist groups such as Occupy Central (Hong Kong’s answer to Occupy Wall Street) warmed up for nonviolent resistance, it was high school and university students who suddenly took the lead by boycotting classes en masse. Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old member of the student group Scholarism, marched the demonstrations to the doorstep of the chief executive building, and the police detained Wong and pepper sprayed his compatriots. Unwittingly, they were repeating the same mistake as Beijing back in May 1919 and the Communist Party in April 1989, when manhandling and arresting students only fueled larger protest and greater civic solidarity. Wong’s 40-hour detention, combined with more police aggression, including firing tear gas on the crowd on September 28, brought more than 100,000 demonstrators into the streets”.

It will be this heavy handedness that if it continues will doom Beijing and steadily weaken its grip on Hong Kong. This has been tried before in a host of scenarios but they have all backfired spectularly.

Showing how little China knows how to deal with the protests he goes on to make the point that “As our student delegation visited Taipei’s 228 Incident museum, which commemorated the victims of February 28, events were taking a violent turn in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok neighbourhood, where a mixture of disgruntled middle-aged residents and hired thugs, some with Mafia ties, assaulted the students’ protest tent. In the mainland, sending in thugs and holding back police is standard protocol for corrupt local cadres who want to silence critics — an example of the malicious abuse of state power that has led President Xi Jinping to launch a nationwide anticorruption campaign”.

Naturally the CCP “took this outbreak of ‘chaos’ as their cue to warn students not to push any further against the orderly forces of ‘rule of law,’ that is, the police and chief executive. Until then, mainland state media had been noticeably quiet about the demonstrations. But now, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, began firing salvos at the students by mocking their ‘daydream’ of igniting a ‘colour revolution’ on the mainland. The newspaper commentary, which came out on October 1, was enough to send chills up the spine of anyone old enough to remember April 26, 1989, when the People’s Daily ran an editorial slamming the student marches as ‘unpatriotic disturbances.’ That editorial, signed off on by Deng, outraged the intensely patriotic students and set them and party leaders on a crash course that would end in blood”.

Again the state of the media in China will ensure that the words of party hacks will backfire onto the CCP. The result, if the CCP does not back down could be the disintegration of China itself with nationalist movements in Tibet and Xijiang quickly gaining power.

He goes on to make the point that a bunch of children were more politically astute than the “best” in the CCP, “Adopting the prudent strategy of local protesters in the mainland, students focused their criticism on the Hong Kong government, not Beijing. Playful posters sprouted up deriding the sitting chief executive, C. Y. Leung, but left Xi alone. Despite the students’ self-restraint, by the second weekend of protest, Occupy Central seemed headed toward a tragic denouement. The People’s Daily had defined the protests as not just unlawful but tantamount to treason. Leung warned darkly that the streets must be cleared by Monday or else. The police commander who ordered tear gas unapologetically defended his action and publicly stated he was prepared to do so again. Fearing a repetition of June 4, Bao Tong, who was a reformist party official in those days and is now one of Beijing’s most prominent democracy advocates, advised the students to take a break”.

Crcuially he writes that “on Monday morning, the big crowds had dispersed, but a core of students held on to their prized protest spaces. Gently, they had called the state’s bluff, and quietly, they had won, although what came next remained uncertain. The odds of Beijing reversing its decision on 2017 are very slim. But in the history of student protest in modern China, winning the battle has been less important than fighting for the cause. Modern China’s first student demonstration, spearheaded by two young Cantonese intellectuals (Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao) visiting Beijing to take the civil service examinations in 1895, failed to achieve practical outcomes. The epochal May 4 movement of 1919 likewise had little immediate effect. And of course, student demands for democracy in 1989 were crushed by the tanks that drove them from Tiananmen Square”.

He ends “Yet no history of modern China is complete without telling the stories of those movements, and strung together, they chart an alternate trajectory for the Chinese nation. There is nothing inevitable about the prospect of self-government in China, and there are no right or wrong tides of history to take comfort in. But neither, as one former Obama administration official argued, is it a “reality” that “Beijing is not going to lose” and that the students’ call for genuine democracy is a mere “pipe dream.” For what history does record are long and hard-fought struggles between competing visions of political life and social order, and the students in Hong Kong have made themselves heard and their vision known. In the past two weeks, they have revived a tradition that goes back not just to 1989 but all the way to 1895 and reaches into the core of modern Chinese identity. Even if theirs is the losing side so far, they are keeping the candle of Chinese democracy lit”.

“Disappointed with Iran’s failure to engage”

21/11/2014

The United States is disappointed with Iran’s failure to engage with a U.N. nuclear agency investigation into suspected atomic bomb research, a U.S. envoy said on Monday. Western officials say Iran must improve cooperation with the long-running International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inquiry as part of a broader diplomatic settlement which Tehran and six world powers aim to reach by a self-imposed Nov. 24 deadline. Negotiators from Iran, the United States, France, China, Russia, Britain, Germany and the European Union meet in Vienna from Tuesday to try to end a long impasse over Tehran’s atomic program that has stoked fears of a new war in the Middle East. Potentially complicating those efforts, an IAEA report on Nov. 7 said Iran was failing to address suspicions it may have worked on designing an atomic bomb. Iran says it has no such aim and that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful”.

An empowered China?

21/11/2014

A report from the New York Times mentions that Xi Jinping wants to empower China. Under normal circumstances there is nothing unusual or wrong with this. However, China has continually posed a threat to US interests and US trade and thus an empowered China is not to be welcomed or encouraged.

Following the trade and military agreements signed by President Obama and Xi Jinping the article from notes that Xi is doing his utmost to empower China, “President Obama will sit down Wednesday with the kind of Chinese leader no American president has ever encountered: a strongman with bold ambitions at home and abroad who sees China as a great power peer of the United States. President Xi Jinping has amassed power faster than any Chinese leader in decades, and his officials have cast his talks with Mr. Obama and other regional leaders this week in Beijing as another affirmation of the ascendance of China and of Mr. Xi. For over 20 years, the Chinese Communist Party elite largely made decisions by consensus, seeking to avoid a repeat of the turbulence under Mao and Deng Xiaoping. But less than two years after assuming power, Mr. Xi has emerged as more than the “first among equals” in the ruling Politburo Standing Committee, shaking the longstanding assumption that China would be steered by steady, if often ponderous, collective leadership”.

The report adds “The implications of his rise for the United States, and for Mr. Obama, are two-sided. When the two leaders meet, Mr. Obama may have a surer sense that his counterpart has the power to make good on his promises. On Wednesday, they unveiled a deal on curbing greenhouse gases, including a landmark agreement by China to reach a peak in carbon dioxide emissions by about 2030. On Tuesday, China also said it would eliminate tariffs on many information technology products. But so much now depends on Mr. Xi’s political calculations, and he has shown himself to be wary of the West and disinclined to make concessions under pressure”.

A worrying comparison is drawn “‘Xi portrays himself in some ways not unlike Putin,’ said Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. ‘He’s basically saying that ‘I am here to defend the party, to defend the national interests in terms of national territorial sovereignty.’ ‘ Signs of Mr. Xi’s ascendancy are everywhere, from the collections of his speeches selling in bookstores to the intense, often adulatory, news coverage of his busy routine. In lighter moments, the state-run news media have taken to calling him “Xi Dada”: roughly, Big Papa Xi. Mr. Xi, 61, has shaken up party ranks with an extended campaign against official corruption and pursued a crackdown on dissent that has dismayed liberal intellectuals. Rather than distribute portfolios among his colleagues, he has hoarded control of the party’s most important policy committees, known as ‘leading small groups,’ and established several new ones under his command: on national security, military overhauls, economic restructuring and control of the Internet”.

The report adds that “Xi has overseen a muscular foreign policy, pressing China’s claims to disputed seas and islands, deepening rifts with Japan and neighbors in Southeast Asia. Those tensions have been tempered, for now, by an agreement with Japan on Friday acknowledging their differences and a trade agreement with South Korea announced Monday”.

The article goes on to make the point that “At the same time, Mr. Xi’s administration has resurrected and amplified traditional party themes that China’s woes have been exacerbated, even instigated, by “hostile forces” controlled by Western governments. Chinese officials accuse the United States of seeking to topple Communist Party rule, most recently by supporting pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, a charge the United States government denies. ‘There is this contradiction between this Cold War ideological thinking about hostile foreign forces and U.S. subversion, but at the same time saying that they want to have this new type of great power relationship,’ said Susan L. Shirk, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who was a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration. ‘It’s the domestic insecurity of the Chinese Communist Party.’ Gnawing fear and anxiety, Professor Shirk and other China experts say, are the flip side of China’s new strength and assertiveness, and may go a long way toward explaining what can appear to be dissonant positions”.

The power of Xi seems to stretch even further, “That calculus applies to domestic policies as well. Mr. Xi has already overseen the most intense and extended crackdown on political dissent in China in years, as well as a sweeping campaign against corruption whose targets have included retired senior security and military officials once thought of as immune to scrutiny. He has also vowed to overhaul the economy and give businesses more room to grow, and party leaders at a meeting last month endorsed proposals to give citizens fairer treatment at the hands of the police and in court. Several China scholars said Mr. Xi was likely to defy early expectations that he might shift to a more moderate course after consolidating power. Such a shift could be seen as a sign of dangerous weakness, they said”.

Thus a system that breeds paranoia and power is self sustaining but cannot survive indefinitely.

It concludes “Ms. Economy said she was skeptical that the calm would last. ‘There is certainly a foreign policy debate underway within China over whether China’s assertiveness in the region has been harmful to China’s broader foreign policy objectives,’ she said. ‘But I don’t think that it has been resolved in a way that suggests this moderation is permanent.'”

Sharif arrests his enemies

19/11/2014

A Pakistani court has issued arrest warrants for leaders of an anti-government protest over an attack on the headquarters of the country’s state-run television station, PTV. The Anti-Terrorism Court in Islamabad issued arrest warrants Wednesday for opposition politicians Imran Khan, fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and several other critics of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government. Khan and Qadri’s supporters have been waging months of protests calling for Sharif to step down over alleged rigging of the 2013 elections that brought him to power. Sharif has refused to step down, and protesters have been camped out around the country’s parliament for weeks”.

Inequality as national security problem

19/11/2014

David Rothkopf, in an unusual article lessens the risks of ISIS but rightly warns of the dangers of inequality. Taken with the problems in American democracy, if not corrected in the long term, American decline will occur.

He begins “the Islamic State is also an example of a threat that, if not overstated, has been largely misconstrued. It is, after all, only an organization of perhaps 20,000 to 35,000 fighters. It has very limited resources. Its hold on the cities it has claimed is tenuous and to a large degree desperate, depending more on threats than on the active support of the majority of local populations. It is not a major threat to the residents of the United States and certainly not anything like the existential threats Americans faced in the last century. We, however, have applied the transitive property of terrorism to elevate its status: We have come to see the Islamic State as the new al Qaeda, and al Qaeda, despite being a relatively small organization with limited capabilities, had previously been elevated to the role of America’s new Enemy No. 1, occupying a position once held by a real existential threat, the Soviet Union, which had inherited its root-of-all-evil mantle from the Nazis”.

He rightly conceded that ISIS is a threat “Yes, of course, a serious one. But it’s not as much of a threat at least for now to Americans and their way of life as it is to American interests and America’s allies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Were the Islamic State to establish a permanent radical state in the Middle East, that could be destabilizing for years. Further, such a state could serve as a petri dish for global mayhem, a place where the other real risk associated with the group — that of its growing army of foreign fighterscould be cultivated, made more dangerous, and released on different corners of the region or the world”.

He goes on to expand on a section on the future geolpolitical threats, including Pakistan and Russia, climate change, cyber threats but rightly taking an expansive view he argues “those associated with another global economic crunch or the growing risk of cyberconflicts, the consequences of which we barely understand and are ill-prepared to grapple with. In each case, these threats are simmering like that proverbial frog sitting in a pot of increasingly hot water. They may reach a boiling point before we know it and can jump out to save ourselves”.

He adds to an argument that has been noted before but that there are threats in the United States that will undermine the long term power of the country and, if not addressed, will lead to American decline, “They have to do with the fact that despite steady job growth rivaling the gains of the Clinton years, and despite a booming stock market and a rising GDP outstripping those of the world’s other major developed economies, wages are not rising and the quality of the jobs being created is disturbingly low. We are, in fact, seeing America’s first major post-recession recovery that has bypassed its middle class. Ninety percent of the gains have gone to the top 10 percent of the population. Something is broken.Something is badly wrong”.

He goes on to bloster his point “The most grotesque element of this existential threat to the American dream, to America’s sense of itself and to its fundamental social cohesion, is growing inequality. In fact, it is inequality at historic levels. Asreportedin the most recent issue of the Economist, the top one-tenth of 1 percent of America’s population is about to achieve a level of wealth equivalent to that of the bottom 90 percent. That’s just over 300,000 people with holdings equal to that of some 280 million. Those wealthy few will control 22 percent of the wealth. The bottom 90 percent, everybody essentially, will also have 22 percent. This in turn means that the top 10 percent of the U.S. population will control 78 percent of America’s wealth. Almost eight out of every 10 dollars of net worth”.

He strikes a note of balance noting that “This is not a uniquely American problem. The World Economic Forum, having conducted a survey of almost 2,000 global leaders, reports that they view rising inequality as the most threatening trend facing the globe in 2015. In all 44 countries polledby the Pew Research Center, majorities believe that inequality is a major problem in their countries, and in most of those countries (28 of them), they consider it a very big concern. The global numbers are pretty gut-wrenching too: Just 0.7 percent of the population controls 41 percent of the wealth. Roughly 70 percent have just 3 percent of the wealth. But the American case is special no matter how you slice it. It is because, for example, wage disparities between average workers and CEOs are greater in the United States than in any other place in the world — by a lot, more than five times than in the next-worse nation (Venezuela). While U.S. workers, according to a recent articlein the Harvard Business Review that analyzes a new study appearing in Perspectives on Psychological Science, think the difference between average wages and those of the boss should be about seven times, in fact it is 354 times. An analysis by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers puts the situation in further relief”.

Rothkopf argues that the level of inequality is becoming so bad that it will be a large part of the next presidential election, “Inequality is creeping steadily upward. In fact, the situation has become so bad that the American political party that has in recent years been seen as the champion of Wall Street and fat cats, the Republican Party, scored many of its 2014 election victories by emphasizing the gaps in the flawed economic recovery (which the Republicans, of course, blamed on President Barack Obama.) According to a Slate articleby William Saletan, “Republicans won big in the 2014 elections…. But they didn’t do it by running to the right. They did it, to a surprising extent, by embracing ideas and standards that came from the left…. I’m talking about the core of the liberal agenda: economic equality.” This is a harbinger of things to come”.

Crucially he argues “For candidate Hillary Clinton (who will certainly be the most well-versed and competent of any in the field in terms of national security and foreign-policy issues by virtue of her tenure as secretary of state), there will be a special challenge. She will have to offer an economic approach that is seen as something new, focused more on these issues of inclusion, opportunity- and quality job creation, rather than the message of growth and placating Wall Street that marked her husband’s tenure as president. (Note: I served as a senior economic official in Bill Clinton’s administration.) She will need a new team because those associated with her husband and Obama are too closely associated with Wall Street and bailouts and policies favouring the few, even if that is, to a large degree, an unfair oversimplification. Indeed, her biggest challenge over the next year will be convening a group of new faces with new ideas to tackle this greatest of all threats to the United States”.

He closes “Her competition will likely focus on the same issues — whether that competition consists of centrists like Jeb Bush or relative renegades like Rand Paul. Because at the end of the day, despite the din of media alerts and the flashing lights of government terrorism warnings, the real insecurity that haunts Americans late at night as they contemplate their futures involves not terrorists or rogue nations, but political and financial institutions at home that have been captured by the self-interested few and that are seeking to squeeze the hope out of Americans as no terrorist could do”.

 

“Not discussed extending negotiations”

19/11/2014

Iran and six major powers have so far not discussed extending negotiations on a nuclear agreement despite the fact that their deadline is a week away, a senior U.S. official said on Monday. Senior foreign officials from Iran and the six powers – the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – gather in Vienna this week for the last round of negotiations before a Nov. 24 deadline to reach an accord that would end sanctions in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s atomic program. “We have continued to make some progress in the course of these negotiations but we still have gaps to close and we do not yet know if we will be able to do so,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity. “Extension (of the negotiations) is not and has not been a subject of negotiations at this point.” Despite nearly a year of talks, Iranian and Western officials have said the deadline is unlikely to be met, and an extension is the most likely scenario. They say it is possible to agree the outline of a future agreement over the next week, but that the details would need months to work out. A new interim deal may also be possible”.

Russian tanks in Ukraine

19/11/2014

A long article details the extent of Russian military machinary in Ukraine after the collapse of the supposed “ceasefire”.

It starts “Russia’s invaded Ukraine — again. Though this time, it appears to be moving in weapons systems hitherto unseen on the battlefield, signaling perhaps the next, more deadly, phase in a six-month war which Vladimir Putin’s government continues to deny it is a party to. The Interpreter reported on Wednesday that two different journalists documented new and advanced weapons systems in eastern Ukraine: Menahem Kahana took a picture showing a 1RL232 “Leopard” battlefield surveillance radar system in Torez, east of Donetsk; and Dutch freelance journalist Stefan Huijboom snapped these pictures, which show the 1RL232 traveling with the 1RL239 “Lynx” radar system — as well as what looks like a mobile command unit and escort”.

He goes on “Military experts tell us that these vehicles are potent additions to the arsenal of the Russian-backed separatists. These armored and weaponized radar systems are meant to operate just behind front lines to track the movement of enemy convoys, troops, incoming artillery fire, and even low-flying aircraft (helicopters or drones). They also act as a precision targeting system, meaning that Russian-backed fighters will be able to transform crude artillery and Grad rockets into more devastating munitions, while simultaneously granting those fighters a better a tactical assessment of the battlefield beyond their line of sight. In fact, the 1RL232 is capable of detecting targets in the air, land, and sea that are up to 40 kilometers away”.

Interestestingly he adds “Most importantly, to our knowledge these vehicles have never been spotted in eastern Ukraine before today. There have not been any large-scale battles in which Russian-backed rebels have captured Ukrainian military bases in many months. If these systems were captured from Ukrainian forces, then they would have been taken before the cease-fire started more than two months ago; if that were the case, then such game-changing hardware would have debuted before now. Kiev’s Anti-Terrorism Operation forces would have likely used them to better target separatist positions. For instance, for the full duration of the cease-fire, both sides have been engaged in a stalemated battle for the international airport in Donetsk, a campaign that has involved daily artillery bombardment, with shells often falling far astray of their intended targets. On Nov. 9, Nataliya Vasilyeva of the Associated Press reported that the previous night had seen the heaviest fighting in Donetsk for weeks. The very next day, Reuters reported the “heaviest shelling in a month” around the airport. The National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine reported that three soldiers had been killed and 13 wounded. The 1RL232 or the 1RL239 might have made all the difference in this protracted battle, yet it’s never been in documented use before”.

He continues noting that “some of the pictures and videos purportedly showing Russian vehicles operating in eastern Ukraine carry a symbol painted on the side that looks like “H-2200,” which is the Cyrillic letter “N” for “Negabaritnost” or “oversize load,” used by Russian Railways, the state-owned rail company headed by Vladimir Yakunin (who has been sanctioned by the United States for his involvement in the Ukraine crisis). VICE News‘ Simon Ostrovsky captured this picture on Nov. 9 in eastern Ukraine showing one of five tanks “spotted heading west out of Shakhtarsk” (a Ukrainian town east of Donetsk and west of Torez) and “2 APCs [armored personnel carriers] flying Russian flag following close behind.” The tank is a T-72, with white paint on its front wheel and faint white lettering on its side, behind the turret, which reads “H-2200.” Other T-72s, loaded onto trains, have been seen in the Rostov region of Russia carrying the same markings. One photograph was in fact retweeted by Daniel Baer, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); it shows T-72s on a train, reportedly in Russia, carrying the same white stripes on their wheels and the same “H-2200″ wide-load markings”.

The result of this is that “According to the Daily Beast, a former Pentagon advisor estimates that there are currently around 7,000 Russian troops inside Ukraine, backed by “as many as 100 tanks … more than 400 armored vehicles, and more than 150 self-propelled artillery and multiple rocket launchers.” Another 40,000 to 50,000 Russian soldiers, the same source claims, are positioned at the border with even more tanks, armored vehicles, and self-propelled artillery”.

The writer goes on to mention later that “Interestingly, in recent weeks, no major fighting has occurred in Lugansk apart from around the power station in Schastye, indicating that separatists may be busy consolidating their turf and possibly laying the foundation for an occupation regime, one which would necessarily be reliant on an energy supply independent of Kiev. Russian-sourced T-72 tanks and ground radar systems could be integral to seizing that power source. But they’d also help in fortifying another separatist enclave. The so-called “People’s Republic of Donetsk” (DPR), or the separatist administration in charge of the city, is now in Stalinist statelet-building mode, with a de facto government reminiscent of the Soviet politburo. It holds interminable meetings, hands out awards for public service, and issues decrees, with the pomp of officialdom — DPR seals and signatures. It’s also printing ATM cards for locals dependent on social welfare schemes; redistributing whatever aid comes in via Russia’s “humanitarian convoys” (of which there have now been seven in total); and repairing damaged homes, hospitals, schools, and shopping centers. It’s even conducting tax collection of some 33 percent of all enterprises registered in the DPR. (The alternative to paying taxes is being arrested or shot.) The DPR even created a Ministry of Transport and charged Oplot (“Bulwark”) — one of its elite battalions formerly led by Aleksandr Zakharchenko, who is now the “prime minister” of the DPR — to put an end to train robberies, which have become reportedly become a major problem in east Ukraine since the crisis began and which have resulted in the theft of enormous amounts of cargo”.

He ends “Putin hasn’t come this far, braving international opprobrium and penalties, only to see his imperial project fail. With Western attentions diverted in the Middle East, the European Union’s insistence that it has no plans to increase sanctions whatever he does, and the reality of Russia’s drip-drip invasion now of humdrum newsworthiness, he reckons he can’t lose”.

 

The Kurds want more

19/11/2014

Kurdish leaders in Iraq have quietly expanded a request to Washington for sophisticated arms and protective equipment to battle the Islamic State, but American officials have so far rebuffed the appeals out of concerns about defying the Iraqi government, according to Kurdish officials. The Obama administration’s reluctance to directly arm the Kurdish forces underscores the challenges the United States faces in Iraq, where it is seeking to expand its effort to help Iraqi forces combat militants without upsetting a fragile political balance between the country’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. A Kurdish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss official communications, said Kurdish leaders had presented the Pentagon with an expanded request for U.S. equipment, including mine-resistant armored vehicles and technology to counter improvised explosive devices, such as bomb-defusing robots. The peshmerga, as the militia forces of northern Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region are known, have had some success retaking territory that Islamic State militants seized this summer. But now, Kurdish officials say, the modestly equipped Kurdish force is struggling to respond to the evolving tactics of militants who are increasingly using explosive booby traps and roadside bombs to defend the territory they hold”.

Extended again?

19/11/2014

A report from the Wall Street Journal mentions the possibility of extending talks with Iran.

It opens, “Global powers and Iran signaled they will extend their diplomacy beyond a Nov. 24 deadline if necessary, as three days of talks aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear program failed to win any major breakthroughs. Senior U.S., Iranian and European diplomats stressed Tuesday that their negotiations in the Persian Gulf nation of Oman, which included direct meetings between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, solely focused on forging a comprehensive nuclear deal by late November. But diplomats involved in the Muscat talks also acknowledged that the limited advancements made here could lead the negotiators to extend their talks beyond Nov. 24″.

The report goes on to mention “Many said the negative fallout from a diplomatic failure could be too great for a region already facing rising instability in countries ranging from Syria to Yemen. The talks involved Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, a diplomatic bloc knows as the P5+1”.

The article goes on to quote “Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Dr Abbas Araghchi, stressed his government was working around the clock to reach a deal by the deadline, but indicated their wasn’t enough time. ‘We are not still in the position to say we made progress,’ Mr. Araghchi told Iranian state media in Muscat. ‘We are hopeful we will make it, though it will be very difficult.’ The U.S. suspects Iran has a clandestine program to develop nuclear weapons, which Tehran has denied. U.S. officials have said privately in recent days that an extension may be sought. But publicly, top aides to President Barack Obama said that Nov. 24 was still the focus of their diplomacy, which will move to Vienna, Austria, on Nov. 18 for a week of talks up to the deadline”.

Naturally any extension would “pose numerous political and diplomatic challenges, diplomats involved in the talks said. Reaching an agreement on balancing freezes in Iran’s nuclear program with economic incentives during the additional diplomacy could prove nearly as complicated as forging a final deal, they said. Also, the capturing of the U.S. Senate by the Republican Party last week could limit the White House’s diplomatic flexibility. Republican leaders have already said they are preparing legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran if an agreement isn’t reached this month—a step that might kill further diplomacy. And these lawmakers said they will seek to ensure the talks don’t run on indefinitely”.

The report goes on to mention that Iranian officials brought up the midterms and asked if they would effect the ratificiation of any potential deal, “‘You chat when you’re in the lunch table or milling around. Obviously, issues in the news come up,’ the senior U.S. official said of the election talk. ‘But I wouldn’t overemphasize that in terms of being part of the negotiations.’ Some participants said they believed to reach agreement on an extension, the parties will need to establish at least the broad parameters of an agreement to get political support at home”.

The piece ends “The main sticking points in the talks, according to U.S. and European officials, are the future scope of Iran’s nuclear capacity and the speed at which the Western sanctions would be removed. The Obama administration has sought to significantly limit Tehran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel through the enrichment of uranium. U.S. officials have said Iran should only be allowed to maintain a few thousand centrifuge machines used to enrich uranium, while Iranian leaders have said they would eventually need hundreds of thousands. Other issues that remain in dispute are the future of an Iranian heavy water reactor that will be capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium when it goes on line. The U.S. and its diplomatic allies are also seeking to drastically reduce Iran’s stockpile of nuclear materials”.

It closes “Moscow announced it had expanded a nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran that will see it enlarge a reactor complex Russia built in the coastal city of Bushehr. U.S. officials didn’t voice alarm about the deal, noting that it had long been in the works. But Russians have said they’re seeking to significantly increase their energy dealings with Tehran”.

Obama sees his error?

17/11/2014

President Barack Obama has asked his national security team for another review of the U.S. policy toward Syria after realizing that ISIS may not be defeated without a political transition in Syria and the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, senior U.S. officials and diplomats tell CNN. The review is a tacit admission that the initial strategy of trying to confront ISIS first in Iraq and then take the group’s fighters on in Syria, without also focusing on the removal of al-Assad, was a miscalculation. Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Thursday on CNN’s “New Day” that he had also heard that the White House was shifting its strategy, in part because Turkey and other Gulf states — which are hosting refugees from Syria — were pushing for the removal of Assad. In just the past week, the White House has convened four meetings of the President’s national security team, one of which was chaired by Obama and others that were attended by principals like the secretary of state. These meetings, in the words of one senior official, were “driven to a large degree how our Syria strategy fits into our ISIS strategy.” “The President has asked us to look again at how this fits together,” one senior official said. “The long-running Syria problem is now compounded by the reality that to genuinely defeat ISIL, we need not only a defeat in Iraq but a defeat in Syria.” The U.S. government refers to ISIS as ISIL”.

After Qaboos

17/11/2014

A piece mentions the succession problems in Oman. It starts “Monther al-Futeisi, an engineering student, was taking an exam on electromagnetics last week when Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said suddenly appeared on television. Murmurs spread through his classroom at Sultan Qaboos University. Futeisi, 22, had been studying for the test for a week, but when he heard from his classmates that the sultan was speaking, he put down his exam paper and left the room to watch. This was more important than electromagnetics. Work and school halted all across the sultanate of 4 million people. It was the first time since July, when the 73-year-old sultan traveled to Germany for medical treatment, that Omanis had heard their leader’s voice. Rumours had been festering that Qaboos was terminally ill or perhaps even dead. When he finally appeared on television, the sultan was alive but looked frail. And he had some distressing news: The overwhelmingly popular autocrat with no heir announced that he would not return for the country’s national day on Nov. 18. ‘It pleases me to send greetings to all of you on this happy occasion … which coincides this year with my being outside of the dear nation,’ Qaboos said. Then he added, enigmatically: ‘For reasons that you know.'”

The writer adds “In the following hours, the sultan’s phrase — “for reasons that you know” — echoed around the country. In fact, Omanis know little about his absence, which has stirred sadness and fear. Amid news reports that Qaboos has cancer, the royal court continues to issue statements that the sultan is in good health. His speech on Nov. 5 calmed nerves and dispelled rumours for a while. But many saw it as the sultan’s admission that he is, indeed, unwell”.

He goes on to note “Before the speech, Omanis expected Qaboos to return soon, not only for the holiday but also for talks in Muscat that took place this week between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Iran’s nuclear program. In the past, Qaboos — who enjoys good relations with both the United States and neighboring Iran — has played mediator between the two countries. In a region riven by competition and sectarianism, Oman is reliably neutral and a friend to Iran, the Arab Gulf countries, and the United States”.

The article continues “by necessity, Omanis are pondering their future. When Qaboos ousted his father in 1970 in a British-backed coup, the country was a backwater. In a much-cited statistic, the entirety of Oman had two hospitals and six miles of paved road. Since then, the country has transformed into a modern oil-exporting state with highways, universities, and a per capita GDP of $22,181. Unsurprisingly, most Omanis separate their country’s history into two stages: before and after Qaboos”.

Unsuprisingly “Qaboos has ruled completely since he took power. He is prime minister, defense minister, and finance minister. While an elected parliament can approve and block legislation, ‘the whole system hinges on one person,’ Mukhaini said. But the sultan, who has no children or brothers, never named a successor. Some Omanis fear that after he dies, royal infighting could destabilize the country. Others worry that old ethnic and tribal conflicts could resurface in the southern region of Dhofar or in the mountainous interior. Prior to 1970, the country’s diverse population shared little in the way of common identity. Only under Qaboos’s leadership has the state come together”.

The author continues “Ahmed Marhoon, a 23-year-old Omani blogger who often writes on politics. ‘I liken the future of Oman to throwing dice.’ Such concerns stem from the unusual transition of power laid forth in the Omani constitution, which states that within three days of the throne falling vacant, a council of royal family members should choose the next sultan. If they cannot agree, they are to open a letter naming Qaboos’s recommendation — until now, a secret. ‘Oman is a mysterious place,’ said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science in the United Arab Emirates. ‘The biggest mystery of all is who is going to come after Qaboos. This very simple question — even today with all the problems that the sultan is going through, he is not making himself clear.’ J.E. Peterson, an historian and analyst of the Persian Gulf, thinks the most likely candidates to follow Qaboos are the sons of his uncle Tariq: Assad, Shihab, and Haitham. Peterson could not predict which one, though”.

Of course the danger is that “The possibility that disagreements among branches of the royal family with competing interests could lead to a power struggle is not lost on Omanis”.

The article ends “A more common fear among Omanis is the possibility that Qaboos’s successor could be selfish or corrupt or could simply diverge from the path the sultan has set for the country — opening Oman to trade and tourism but maintaining a more moderate pace of development than neighbors like Qatar or the United Arab Emirates. It is unlikely, though, that the next ruler will change Oman’s foreign policy, said James Worrall, a lecturer in international relations and Middle East studies at the University of Leeds. Oman is a bit like an aloof relative in a family prone to bitter feuds: friendly with all, close to none. Even as other Gulf countries railed against Iranian influence, Oman signeda 25-year deal to import Iranian natural gas in March. And though Oman belongs to the Gulf Cooperation Council, it has always been somewhat apart from the group, resisting proposals from Saudi Arabia for a closer union. It is likely to remain a dependable Western ally”.

It concludes “The biggest challenges for the next ruler are likely long-term ones: weaning the economy off oil revenue, which accounts for 75 percent of the government budget; reducing unemployment, which stands at about 15 percent among nationals; and absorbing a youth bulge. Like many countries in the Middle East, Oman struggles to employ its graduates. Fostering political openness will also be crucial, Mukhaini said, suggesting that the next sultan could give more power to the parliament or even institute a prime minister. ‘That might provide a good message for the next generation and the next phase,’ he said. In 2011, when much of the Arab world exploded with pro-democracy protests, hundreds of young Omanis joined demonstrations in their country calling for political reforms and anti-corruption measures, while also expressing their loyalty to the sultan. In a Nov. 9 interview with the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, Yusuf bin Alawi, Oman’s ‘minister responsible for foreign affairs’ (technically, the sultan is the foreign minister), said there was no worry over the future”.

 

Russian deal with Iran

17/11/2014

Russia signed a nuclear deal with Iran on Tuesday that prompted anxiety in the West because it appeared to open the way for Tehran to potentially supply domestically produced fuel for its own nuclear reactors. Officials of Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear company, said they had agreed to build two more reactor units at the Russian-built nuclear power plant at Bushehr, Iran. In a separate agreement, the two countries said they might later build two more units at Bushehr and four more elsewhere in the country. Russian officials said the civilian reactors would be operated under supervision of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, a step aimed at reassuring the West that nuclear materials couldn’t be diverted for a military program. Russia would supply the fuel for the reactors, as it does for the existing reactors. But Rosatom raised concern by adding, in its announcement, that it intended to discuss with Tehran “the feasibility of fabricating fuel rods in Iran, which will be used at these power units.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

China thinks of war

17/11/2014

An article in Foreign Policy discusses the possiblity of China and America going to war.

It begins “At a Nov. 12 news conference in Beijing, General Secretary of the Communist Party Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to notify the other side before major military activities, and to develop a set of rules of behavior for sea and air encounters, in order to avoid military confrontations in Asia”.

The writer goes on to question “Should we really be worried about war between the United States and China? Yes. Over the last four decades of studying China, I have spoken with hundreds of members of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and read countless Chinese military journals and strategy articles. Chinese military and political leaders believe that their country is at the centre of American war planning. In other words, Beijing believes that the United States is readying itself for the possibility of a conflict with China — and that it must prepare for that eventuality”.

He continues “Tensions are high not just because of Beijing’s rapidly expanding military budget, or because the United States continues to commit an increasingly high percentage of its military assets to the Pacific as part of its ‘rebalance’ strategy. Rather, the biggest problem is Chinese opacity. While it’s heartening to hear Xi agree to instruct the PLA to be more open with regard to the United States, it is doubtful this will lead to any real changes. Washington is willing to share a substantial amount of military information with China, in order to ‘reduce the chances of miscommunication, misunderstanding or miscalculation,’ as then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during a January 2011 trip to Beijing. But the Chinese leadership, which benefits from obfuscation and asymmetric tactics, refuses to communicate its military’s intentions”.

This is broadly true. Yet, the pivot, as it exists on a military level has been quite minor. So to say that China should feel thretened because of this is somewhat bizarre.  

Worryingly he makes the point that “Despite repeated entreaties from American officials, Beijing is unwilling to talk about many key military issues — like the scope and intentions of its rapid force buildup, development of technologies that could cripple American naval forces in the region, and its military’s involvement in cyberattacks against the United States — that would lower friction between the two sides. And sometimes, as in 2010 after U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Beijing breaks offmilitary-to-military contacts altogether — leading to an especially troubling silence. As a result, there is a growing mistrust of China among many thoughtful people in the U.S. government”.

The author goes on to make the point “Over at least the last decade, on several occasions the United States has pressed China to be more forthright about its military intentions and capabilities. In April 2006, after a meeting between President George W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Chinese President Hu Jintao, both governments announced the start of talks between the strategic nuclear force commanders on both sides. This move would have been extremely important in demonstrating openness about military intentions. But the PLA dragged its feet, and the talks never started”.  

He ends “In a September 2012 trip to Beijing, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tried to persuade Beijing to enter military talks. Like his predecessor Gates, Panetta called for four specific areas of strategic dialogue: nuclear weapons, missile defense, outer space, and cybersecurity. But the Chinese objected, and again the talks never happened. Sure, Beijing could follow through on the agreements announced during Obama’s recent trip. But I’m sceptical. One of the biggest advantages China has over the United States is the asymmetry of military knowledge. Why would they give that up?”

 

Unable to meet the deadline

17/11/2014

Despite nearly a year of negotiations, Iran and six major powers are unlikely to meet a Nov. 24 deadline to reach a final deal to lift international sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, officials say.  Western and Iranian officials told Reuters the two sides would probably settle for another interim agreement that builds on the limited sanctions relief agreed a year ago as they hammer away at their deep disagreements in the coming months. “We could see the outline of a final deal emerging by Nov. 24 but probably not the deal itself,” a Western official said. Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, along with the European Union’s former foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton are locked in talks which have shuttled between Brussels, Oman and Vienna. Publicly all sides say it is still possible to reach a comprehensive agreement to end all sanctions in return for long-term limits on Iran’s nuclear program to ensure it never makes an atomic weapon. Privately, expectations of what is achievable when senior foreign ministry officials begin the final week of talks next Tuesday in Vienna are much more modest”.

“Improving an often-tense relationship”

17/11/2014

A report from the Wall Street Journal mentions that a US-China deal may help avert a military confrontation. It starts “China and the U.S. struck new climate, military, trade and visa agreements during a marathon two days of talks, as presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping made significant strides in improving an often-tense relationship. In an unexpected move, the two leaders on Wednesday unveiled substantial new commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions, with China agreeing for the first time to stop increases in carbon dioxide emissions by around 2030 or earlier, U.S. officials said”.

While tensions may have eased for now, there has been no fundamental changes that wold alter the relationship. To expect that there will be a long term improvement in relations would be naïve, if not outright dangerous.

The authors goes on to write that “Messrs. Xi and Obama also reached two new agreements designed to avert military confrontations in Asia, one on notifying each other of major activities, such as military exercises, and the other on rules of behaviour for encounters at sea and in the air. Shortly before the summit, the two sides completed deals to issue 10-year tourist and business visas and to drop tariffs on semiconductors and other information-technology products, which backers say could cover $1 trillion in trade”.

The report adds that “Relations have foundered over the past year on cyberspying, democracy demonstrations in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong and China’s rough-elbowed approach to territorial disputes with Japan and the Philippines, both U.S. allies. Discord between Messrs. Xi and Obama was also apparent in the days leading up to their summit as they both championed rival free trade pacts at a gathering of Asia Pacific leaders in Beijing earlier this week. Differences on many core issues endure and the new agreements do not amount to a sea change in bilateral ties. But both men appear eager to recalibrate a relationship that has largely failed to match the promise of their first summit 16 months ago at the Sunnylands estate in California, when they tried to establish a personal rapport with an informal shirt-sleeves meeting”.

The authors go on to mention “In another unexpected move, Mr. Xi took questions at a news conference following the summit. U.S. officials had pushed for that, but Chinese officials had long resisted, favoring a more scripted joint appearance without questions. To recapture some of the informal Sunnylands atmosphere, Mr. Xi led Mr. Obama on a walk Tuesday night through gardens at Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party’s leadership compound next to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The two wore suit jackets and overcoats but no ties. Their discussions on Tuesday night were scheduled to finish in under three hours but lasted for four hours and 40 minutes, U.S. officials said. The progress reflects Mr. Obama’s desire to strengthen relations with China as one of the three main planks of his legacy on Asia policy, aides say. He also aims to boost the U.S. military footprint in Asia and promote democracy in Myanmar, where he goes next”.

They go on to write importantly “The military agreements reflected the surprising progress made on defence ties since the Sunnylands summit. The need for better military relations has been underscored by China’s efforts to enforce contested maritime claims across the South China and East China seas. ‘It’s incredibly important that we avoid inadvertent escalation and that we don’t find ourselves again having an accidental circumstance lead into something that could precipitate a conflict,’ said Ben Rhodes, a U.S. deputy national security adviser. In his public statements on Wednesday, Mr. Obama said the two sides ‘have made important progress’ in discussing China’s territorial disputes. ‘Even more progress is possible,’ he said. China’s defence ministry said the agreements would have ‘important effects and significance for promoting China-U.S. strategic trust and building a new type of military relationship.’ The agreements are part of a broader effort to encourage the Chinese military to adopt international norms and to persuade other Asian nations to strike similar agreements, defense analysts said”.

The end the section “China has long opposed a military-encounters agreement with the U.S. on the grounds that it implied an adversarial relationship like that between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. That has changed in the last year as both sides have recognized that they can’t reconcile their interpretations of international law on maritime issues, but also can’t allow unintended military encounters to derail their overall relationship”.

They end the article “China, the U.S. and 19 other countries with navies that operate in the Western Pacific agreed in April to establish the region’s first code of conduct for unplanned encounters between military ships and aircraft in international waters. But China hasn’t always observed that in areas that it sees as territorial waters and that the U.S. regards as international waters. In August, the Pentagon accused Chinese jet fighters of flying dangerously close to U.S. surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea. In recent meetings, Chinese military commanders have privately assured U.S. officials that such close encounters shouldn’t happen again, according to the people familiar with the discussions”.

“Expressing hope that they could reach deals”

17/11/2014

After years of clashes and a grudging truce, fiscal and economic policy was brought back to center stage by the wave of Republican electoral victories on Tuesday, with President Obama and the new congressional leadership expressing hope that they could reach deals to simplify the tax code, promote trade and eliminate the budget deficit. The president and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the presumptive next majority leader, immediately pointed to tax-code changes, international trade and budget policy as potential common ground for a divided government in Mr. Obama’s final two years in office. On Thursday, Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, listed a tax overhaul and the federal debt as the House’s top two priorities. “We have this tax code that doesn’t bring stability and certainty to the economy,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and chairman of the Finance Committee, who will hand over his gavel to a Republican, Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, in the next Congress. “Historically, Republicans have wanted efficiency. Democrats want fairness. I want both, and we’re getting neither.” Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republicans’ last vice-presidential nominee, will seek the House Ways and Means Committee chairmanship to pursue a broad overhaul of the tax code. And two conservatives, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Representative Tom Price of Georgia, are expected to take over their chambers’ budget committees. Both are considering turning to a parliamentary procedure called reconciliation to cut the costs of social programs like Medicare and ease the passage of a simplified tax code”.

Libya’s production problems

15/11/2014

As the price of oil continues to fall, Keith Johnson writes about the production of oil in Libya.

He begins the piece “The stunningly improbable return of oil production in Libya, right in the middle of a civil war, is one of the reasons crude prices have been tumbling. But now this Libyan crude renaissance looks to be ebbing — with potentially nasty consequences for Libya and a fresh dose of uncertainty for an already rattled oil market. The latest development is an armed struggle for control of Libya’s biggest oil field, El Sharara, in the country’s south. Reuters reported that an armed group linked to the rebel government in Tripoli stormed the field last week, marking the first time that the breakaway government sought control of the country’s oil resources”.

Johnson makes the point that “On Monday, Nov. 10, that militia appeared to have control of the field; even so, Libya’s National Oil Corp. hopes to restart production as soon as Wednesday. In the meantime, that struggle disrupted the power supply to another nearby oil field, taking it offline too. Together, those losses have temporarily cut Libya’s precarious oil output by about 300,000 barrels a day. Back in the summer — during an apparent high-water mark — Libya was pumping as many as 900,000 barrels daily. Fresh protests in an eastern Libyan port are disrupting oil exports there, further complicating matters. Libya’s oil miracle looks like the latest victim of the factional violence that has rent the country to pieces since the 2011 uprising”.

The situation, Johnson mentions is worsened by “Libya’s civil war has spawned rival governments, each with its own loyal militias. On Wednesday, car bombs ripped through cities in eastern Libya, including Tobruk. To make matters worse, last week the Libyan Supreme Court in Tripoli declared the exiled, internationally recognised parliament in Tobruk illegal, sowing further political uncertainty that could worsen conditions for Libya’s oil industry”.

Interestingly he posits the theory that “it’s unclear just how much the factional fighting will hurt Libya’s oil industry, as there are no reliable estimates on current production. Before the 2011 uprising, Libya produced about 1.6 million barrels a day. This year, amid standoffs between rival factions, Libya’s output dropped to as little as 100,000 barrels. A sudden and stunning recovery followed. OPEC figures that Libya, a core member of the oil-exporting cartel, produced more than 750,000 barrels daily in September and may have pumped almost 850,000 barrels a day in October. Some estimates put Libyan output even higher. That doesn’t seem to be the case today. National Oil Corp. insiders just told Platts, the energy-market experts, that production has plummeted to 540,000 barrels. But even that figure doesn’t really add up: Libya doesn’t seem to be exporting anywhere near what it claims to be producing. Also, its domestic refining industry is too small to be eating the difference. Confusion over how much the country is producing is mirrored by confusion over who’s overseeing production”.

He adds later in the piece “What’s not clear is what comes next. ‘They could use oil infrastructure for political leverage or instead keep the hydrocarbon sector out of politics,’ Porter said. Libya is already paring back its budget, and a sustained drop in oil production could force even more austerity. In late October, the rump parliament slashed the budget by 20 percent because of the shortfall in oil revenues during the first half of the year. Libyan lawmakers estimate the budget deficit this year could hit $15 billion. Although parliament is trying to spare public-sector salaries the ax, needed infrastructure projects could get squeezed, possibly fueling more unrest”.

The consequences of this lack of funds available could mean militias not being paid which would mean “the country’s oil production could decline further. Security guards, for example, went on strike over unpaid wages at one of the country’s main ports for oil exports over the weekend. That locks up one-tenth of Libya’s export capacity. But Libya’s petro-dysfunction probably doesn’t remove enough barrels from the glutted global market to send oil prices rising again”.

Johnson closes “Despite the chaos in numerous oil-producing countries, Libya included, oil traders have shrugged off the uncertainty. On Monday, when fresh reports surfaced of trouble at Libya’s biggest oil field, crude prices ended up falling on the day. Tuesday and Wednesday, benchmark crude traded in London continued to fall. In other words, oil prices tumbled when Libyan production was roaring and continued falling when Libyan output sputtered”.

He ends “Financial markets abhor uncertainty, basic economics holds, but the turmoil across the Middle East has not rattled traders. Nor has it seemed to cut supply lower than demand, making investment banks increasingly bearish about oil prices. JPMorgan Chase just slashed its outlook for Brent crude prices next year”.

ISIS allies in Egypt

15/11/2014

Egypt’s most dangerous militant group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, also pledged obedience to the organization that calls itself the Islamic State, becoming its first significant international affiliate in the bet that the link will provide new money, weapons and recruits to battle the government in Cairo. The affiliation could pull the militant group away from its current, almost exclusive focus on attacking Egyptian military and security forces toward the Islamic State’s indiscriminate mass killings of civilians. The pledge alone could undermine the government’s efforts to win the trust of Western tourists, a vital source of hard currency. The decision injects the Islamic State into the most populous and historically most influential Arab nation, a milestone weeks into an American-led bombing campaign against its strongholds in Syria and Iraq. The endorsement is a major victory for the Islamic State in its rivalry with Al Qaeda — a group with deep Egyptian roots — and could now help recruit fighters and affiliates far beyond Egypt”.

“Tighten the bear hug between Moscow and Beijing”

15/11/2014

Following the Sino-Russia energy deal that was agreed just months ago there has been another, “Just as President Barack Obama landed in China to try to salvage his vision of an American-led trading order in Asia, Russia and China took a giant step toward closer economic and political ties with an agreement on another massive energy deal that promises to tighten the bear hug between Moscow and Beijing for decades to come. The preliminary accord, which comes just months after China and Russia inked a landmark, $400 billion natural gas deal, is a reflection of the shifting balance of power in Asia. It’s a marriage based on needs: Russia’s to break out of the isolation imposed by the West in the wake of its annexation of Crimea and China’s for reliable and affordable sources of energy”.

The consequence of this however is that it will make the Russian economy even more reliant on energy which will further weaken Russia in the long term.

Johnson goes on to make the point that “Coupled with China’s economic offensive in Asia — which includes everything from new trade pacts with U.S. partners such as Australia and South Korea, to a push for Chinese-led development banks that can wrest financing muscle from the West — the latest gas deal shows what kind of challenges await the U.S. economic and diplomatic pivot to Asia”.

Yet, no matter how many trade pacts China has with South Korea and others it will not fundamentally change the balance of power or indeed, the values, in Asia. China is attempting to remove the box that it has put itself into through trade but in the end it will not work.

He goes on to make the point that “At a time when the United States is pushing back against China on a host of fronts, ‘China would like to show openly that Sino-Russian energy cooperation is no longer driven by necessity but forms a core part of strengthened, strategic-level cooperation between the two countries,’ said Keun-Wook Paik, an associate fellow at Chatham House and an expert on China-Russia energy dealings. On Sunday, Nov. 9, Russia and China signed a memorandum of understanding on a second gas-export route from western Siberia to China’s western provinces. The 30-year accord, if consummated, would see Russia ship 30 billion cubic meters of gas to China starting in 2018 and would see Russia gain a big new customer right as it is feeling the squeeze from Western financial sanctions. Together with the deal signed in May, Russia could supply at least 68 billion cubic meters of gas annually to China, or about one-fifth of that country’s expected gas demand in 2020″.

Of course this sounds wonderful but nothing is that simple. Russia may wish to sell gas to China but as China witnesses a demographic decline it will no longer need nearly as much as Russia needs to sell to it.

He goes on to write “This time, Moscow fears it will have to make even more concessions. Crude oil prices are falling; the Chinese gas contracts are linked to the price of oil, meaning they’re already worth less to Russia than just a few months ago. The prices paid under oil-linked contracts vary as crude oil’s value fluctuates: As oil gets cheaper, so too will Russia’s gas. Of course the inverse is also true. At the same time, the new deal was always expected to be less lucrative than the eastern Power of Siberia pipeline because Russia will be shipping gas to China’s sparsely populated west. From there, China will have to ship the gas thousands of miles overland”.

Importantly Johnson makes the key point that “Russia has been eagerly anticipating this second big deal ever since the ink dried on the first one in May. Moscow has long sought more energy trade with Asia but has intensified its drive east since the West slapped punishing sanctions on its energy, defense, and finance sectors in retribution for its aggression in Ukraine. Snagging another major contract with China would significantly offset its reliance on the European market and give Moscow a powerful ally when friends appear hard to come by. Gazprom boss Alexey Miller said that the new gas deals could eventually eclipse Russia’s gas trade with Europe”.

He ends with the question “A bigger question might be why China suddenly warmed to the deal. Even though Russian officials, including Putin, were bullish on the western gas route all year, Chinese leaders remained mostly mum.  A host of factors seem to have changed China’s mind. First, there’s the simple energy part of the deal: As China seeks to clean up its economy and reduce the importance of coal in its energy mix, it will need huge amounts of natural gas. While the country ramps up its own production and has gas-import deals with Central Asian countries and more than a dozen gas-importing terminals mushrooming on the coast, Russia’s massive gas fields offer a close and ready supply of clean fuel. At the same time, big gas pipelines — whether from western or eastern Siberia — present a potentially safer option than seaborne shipments of liquefied gas. Chinese leaders have never been comfortable with the country’s growing dependence on seaborne energy imports, especially crude oil, because it exposes a critical vulnerability in a world still dominated by the might and reach of the U.S. Navy”.

He closes “More broadly, China’s push into Central Asia, including existing energy deals and the latest “Silk Road” economic drive, has raised tensions with Russia, which historically has viewed Central Asia as its stomping grounds. Signing another major contract with Moscow is a way to mollify it”.

 

“Make-or-break moment”

15/11/2014

The West is facing a “make-or-break” moment to reach a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, Germany’s foreign minister said Tuesday after high-level negotiations again failed to reach a breakthrough. The statement by Germany — part of a six-nation group in talks with Iran — underscores the growing pressures to achieve at least a general accord before a self-imposed Nov. 24 deadline. Talks resumed Tuesday in Oman’s capital, Muscat, with various envoys after meetings that included Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. A senior State Department official described the tenor of the Kerry talks as “tough, direct and serious” but declined to characterize them as productive. The official said, however, that negotiators still think it is possible to reach a comprehensive accord before the deadline. Among the many issues is Iran’s level of uranium enrichment, the process to make fuel for nuclear power plants. Iran claims it seeks only reactors for energy and medical research. The United States and its allies fear that Iran’s uranium-enrichment program could eventually be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons”.