Archive for December, 2014

“After the ink is dry”

30/12/2014

Peter D. Feaver and Eric Lorber  write in Foreign Affairs that even with the extentsion of the Iran talks the real work will only begin when the deal is signed.

They start, “The extension of the deadlines for the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 adds drama to a related standoff in Washington—that between President Barack Obama and Congress—over whether and how a deal should be struck. The Obama administration, eager to reach an accord with Tehran, seems ready to agree to terms that, a few years ago, it called unacceptable. But Congress, suspecting that the president would accept even a bad deal in order to claim a foreign policy victory, is threatening to ratchet up sanctions on Iran before a settlement is reached. During the next negotiating period, this dispute will only escalate. Yet the relentless focus on the agreement itself obscures an important truth: much of the struggle to ensure the deal’s success will come after the ink is dry. A host of obstacles could undermine the future agreement’s sustainability, and even the most favourable deal reached by the end of the new extension period would represent the start of the real work rather than a victory”.

This is true of any deal of this sort but is especially true of the talks with Iran. In 2003/4 they attempted to undo an agreement that had been agreed with the same group of nations. Now however the stakes are much higher and complicated by such an array of factors that any deal, let alone its passage, would seem a miracle.

They write that “The weeks leading up to Monday’s deadline saw surging expectations that a deal would be struck, fueled by what appeared to be an orchestrated series of leaks from the U.S. administration highlighting various potential compromise arrangements. Although Secretary of State John Kerry and his European counterparts ultimately failed to reach an agreement with the Iranian negotiators, their seven-month extension of the Joint Plan of Action gives the parties more time to find a compromise. It also prolongs the bitter dispute between the White House and Congress over whether any terms would be good enough”.

They continue “the administration itself has indicated that it would be willing to settle for a lesser goal: extending Iran’s so-called breakout window—the time that it would take the country to cross the nuclear arsenal threshold—from its current estimated level of two months to up to a year. Obama’s readiness to avoid seeking congressional approval for the agreement, if necessary, only deepens legislators’ suspicions”.

As has been argued here before, President Obama is only acting this way because he views the GOP as been totally and unquestioningly beholden to Israel and its fanatical friends in Congress. If the GOP and his own party, were more reasonable then Obama would not feel the need to avoid Congress.

The result of Obama’s actions are predictable, “To prevent the president from unilaterally signing what they see as a weak deal, senators from both political parties recently reintroduced legislation that would reimpose sanctions on Iran in the case of another extension. The legislation would also require that Congress get a 15-day review period to sign off on any agreement and allow it to cut off funding for implementing the deal, effectively killing it. Although the bill’s sponsors failed to force a vote last week, they have vowed to reintroduce the legislation once Republicans have control of the Senate in January”.

They make the fundamental point that “Even if the parties do reach a settlement, the process of implementing it would give rise to more significant challenges. If Congress remains unsatisfied with the agreement’s terms, for example, it could impose additional sanctions on Iran—a move that would probably scuttle the nascent deal. In fact, the severity of today’s sanctions is the result of tough measures Congress began passing in 2010, in response to what it considered an overly conciliatory stance taken by the Obama administration. The White House has tried hard to block those sanctions, mostly unsuccessfully. It then used the possibility of additional retaliatory measures as leverage with Iran to encourage the current round of talks”.

They rightly say that “Iran, for its part, may not be so likely to cooperate after the deal is struck. Obama administration officials have argued that Iran has honoured its obligations under the interim agreement that governs the negotiations, but critics in Congress dismiss such compliance as unimpressive. Instead, they slam the interim agreement for offering significant U.S. concessions on sanctions in exchange for only modest Iranian concessions on nuclear activities. In the aftermath of a settlement, even this current level of Iranian compliance would be far from guaranteed. Given Iran’s long history of secrecy over its nuclear program, a likely scenario would involve significant domestic clashes over the true meaning of the deal’s terms and the extent to which Iran must provide information and access. If the resulting uncertainty leads Obama, Congress, or other P5+1 countries to believe that Iran is defaulting on its obligations, the bargain could fall apart”.

Therefore, in light of Iranian intransigence and Congressional opposition it is vital that Obama and his team have as much flexibility as possible during the talks.

They go on to make the point that “some of the underlying drivers of the settlement, such as the perceived importance of Iran’s support in confronting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, may shift. If the United States has less need to cooperate with Iran—or if the expected benefits of such cooperation fail to materialise—some of the props reinforcing the deal might collapse”.

While the rise of ISIS and the Iran talks are related it would be dangerous to assume that once the talks are completed the relationship reverts to status quo ante. Rather the opposite, if a deal is agreed and ratified by both parties than co-operation should be ever greater over a host of issues, notably Hezbollah, Syria and Afghanistan.

Fairly they argue that “Even if a bargain is struck by the next deadline, the likelihood that it would weather such challenges over the medium and long term is lower than many believe. As difficult as it would be to reach that milestone, the Obama administration should think of signing the agreement as the starting point on a long road, not the finish line and a foreign policy victory”.

The piece continues “the very precariousness of a future settlement might work in its favour. Because any deal will be vulnerable in its infancy, the Obama administration will have to work diligently to protect it, rallying Congress, its own agencies, and its foreign allies to see the agreement through. First, the tenuous nature of the deal would give Congress the opportunity to influence the terms of its implementation after it’s signed. For example, if Congress remains unsatisfied with Iran’s willingness to share information or grant international inspectors access to nuclear facilities, it can press the president to be more aggressive by threatening to pass harsher legislation. But Congress should be wary of pushing too hard, since adopting a maximalist position could drive a wedge between the United States and the EU and cause the sanctions regime to collapse in the same way that multilateral sanctions on Iraq collapsed in the late 1990s”.

The article ends “Success, however, depends on whether Obama and Congress can cooperate, a sight that has become rare in recent years. Since the dramatic midterm elections, Obama has grown eager to pursue portions of his agenda that do not depend on Congress. When it comes to Iran, however, he may not have that option—not if he wants this agreement to last beyond the signing ceremony”.

 

“cost the U.S. a combined $1.6 trillion”

30/12/2014

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations have cost the U.S. a combined $1.6 trillion since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to a new Congressional Research Service analysis. Through fiscal 2014, which ended in September, Congress approved $815 billion for warfare in Iraq, $686 billion for Afghanistan and other operations against terrorism, $81 billion for other war-designated spending and $27 billion for Operation Noble Eagle air patrols over the U.S., according to the report posted on the agency’s internal website. The total includes $297 billion spent on weapon procurement and war repairs. The assessment is the agency’s first full update of war costs since March 2011. About 92 percent of the funds went to the Pentagon, followed by the State Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs. It includes war operations, training and equipping Iraqi and Afghan forces, diplomatic operations and medical care for wounded Americans over the past 13 years, the agency said in the report dated Dec. 8. It also includes most reconstructions costs”.

The real work in Cuba

30/12/2014

After the declaration to normalise relations with Cuba, with a little help from Pope Francis, a piece argues that the truly important work of advancing human rights in Cuba is only just beginning.

It starts “In foreign policy and especially human rights, champagne moments are rare. President Barack Obama’s announcement last week of the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba was grounds to break out the bubbly. The stranglehold of a shrinking group of impassioned and unyielding Cuban-American activists was finally broken. A static policy that had helped breed a stagnant society was finally ended. Ailing American detainee Alan Gross was released, along with a former U.S. intelligence agent jailed for 20 years, and 53 Cuban political prisoners. Corks popped in Washington, where policy wonks saw the chance to reshape the United States’ position in the Americas, and sparkling cider (since you can’t buy champagne in Cuba) flowed even faster in Havana where new products, business opportunities, and freedoms suddenly seemed within reach”.

Despite all the worthwhile celebration he writes that “the brutality and repression that fueled much of Washington’s anti-Cuban animus could well remain intact. And though the Obama administration was right to change tacks in its effort to advance basic freedoms and wellbeing in Cuba, normalization of relations needs to be the beginning, rather than the end, of that process”.

Pointedly he goes on to note “Even assuming that the congressionally-mandated trade embargo remains in place, the steps outlined by President Obama — including increased openness to travel, exports, and remittances — should up the standard of living in Cuba. Yet the idea that increased trade and rising income will lead inexorably to the expansion of human rights has been proven wrong. Havana can look to its largest trading partner, Venezuela, and its old friend China as role models for how to expand and develop economically while still keeping a tight lid on dissent, limiting freedom of expression and association, and maintaining the political hold of the Castro regime and its cronies”.

To show how bad things are in Cuba he mentions that “In Freedom House’s 2014 global index on freedom, Cuba was rated “Not Free” and in the bottom 10 percent of the 195 nations surveyed. Cuba is the only country in the Americas to suppress virtually any form of political dissent, utilising what Human Rights Watch has described as an Orwellian law that enables the punishment of potential dissenters before they have committed a crime. Dissidents receive long sentences after short, secret trials that rely on political conclusions, rather than evidence. Prison conditions are dire, with inmates denied access to adequate food and basic medical attention. In May of this year the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent monitoring group that the Cuban government views as illegal, documented over 1,120 short-term arrests of peaceful dissidents in that month alone, 6-10 of which led to transfers to high-security prisons. Comparable figures documented over time are staggering, with more than 10,000 such arrests every year”.

Thnakfully the upside of President Obama’s far sighted realism is that “it [will be] harder for the Cuban government to justify its draconian political repression of human rights activists, independent journalists, and civil society organizations as a necessary byproduct of its epic struggle with the United States. Yet the Castro brothers have never needed much of an excuse to justify their iron hold on power. Moreover, with the embargo still in place and Rául Castro’s continued defense of Cuban socialism, it is not as if the two countries are now bosom allies. The Cuban government has for so long tuned out exhortations on human rights from American politicians and Western non-governmental organizations that it is hard to imagine these voices suddenly being heard, much less heeded”.

He continues, “To date, the U.N.’s human rights mechanisms — including the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva — have been the venue for regular sparring rounds between U.S. and Cuban delegates. Cuba has built solidarity among the U.N.’s post-colonial majority to criticize the United States on issues including Guantánamo and torture and, for the most part, deflect attention from its own egregious record. For 21 years running, the U.N.’s General Assembly has passed an annual resolution calling for an end to the U.S. blockade. Seeing the world body as a source of succor, Cuba has invested heavily in its participation at Turtle Bay, staffing its mission with expert delegates and holding leadership positions on an assortment of U.N. bodies. But with Washington warming up to Havana, there is a chance to put these mechanisms to work in pushing for change in the island nation”.

Importantly he makes the delicate point that “The normalisation of relations has the potential to be a lifeline to long-suffering Cuban dissidents, journalists, editors, activists, and reformers. But large infusions of money and manpower from Washington-based democracy and aid organisations could run the risk of tainting genuine, indigenous efforts. They could trigger an intensified version of the regressive backlash witnessed from governments in Egypt, Russia, and elsewhere that systematically discredit local reformers as agents of Washington — an argument all too familiar in Havana”.

He ends “Pundits, exiles, and policymakers are already at war over whether President Obama’s bold move will herald the dawn of a new Cuba, or instead take away a powerful form of leverage Washington has exerted for more than five decades. The answer will depend on what happens after the champagne bottles are empty and the real work begins”.

 

“As soon as next month move to defang”

30/12/2014

President Obama will move as soon as next month to defang the 54-year-old American trade embargo against Cuba, administration officials said Thursday, using broad executive power to defy critics in Congress and lift restrictions on travel, commerce and financial activities. The moves are only the beginning of what White House officials and foreign policy experts describe as a sweeping set of changes that Mr. Obama can make on his own to re-establish commercial and diplomatic ties with Cuba even in the face of angry congressional opposition. “The embargo is a container — it’s been that way since President Eisenhower — that’s had regulations and laws put into it and taken out of it and mixed about,” said John Kavulich of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “President Obama is saying, ‘I’m going to leave a shell, but it’s going to be a proverbial Easter egg — it’s going to be hollow.’ ” The Treasury Department will issue a series of regulations to ease agricultural exports and establish banking relations, administration officials said, and the Commerce Department will move to allow United States companies to export construction and telecommunications equipment, among other things, for sale in Cuba.

Not blaming NATO

30/12/2014

A long article from Foreign Affairs rebuts the argument made previously by John Mearsheimer about who is really to blame for the behaviour of Russia. The writers, Dr Michael Mcfaul and Stephen Sestanovich open “John Mearsheimer (“Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” September/ October 2014) is one of the most consistent and persuasive theorists in the realist school of international relations, but his explanation of the crisis in Ukraine demonstrates the limits of realpolitik. At best, Mearsheimer’s brand of realism explains only some aspects of U.S.-Russian relations over the last 30 years. And as a policy prescription, it can be irrational and dangerous — as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s embrace of it demonstrates. According to Mearsheimer, Russia has annexed Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine in response to NATO expansion, which he calls “the taproot of the trouble.” Russia’s state-controlled media have indeed pointed to the alliance’s enlargement as an explanation for Putin’s actions. But both Russian television coverage and Mearsheimer’s essay fail to explain why Russia kept its troops out of Ukraine for the decade-plus between NATO’s expansion, which began in 1999, and the actual intervention in Ukraine in 2014. It’s not that Russia was too weak: it launched two wars in Chechnya that required much more military might than the Crimean annexation did”.

Interestingly McFaul writes “Even more difficult for Mearsheimer to explain is the so-called reset of U.S.-Russian relations, an era of cooperation that lasted from the spring of 2009 to January 2012. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to moves that they considered in the national interest of their respective countries. The two leaders signed and ratified the New START treaty, voted to support the UN Security Council’s most comprehensive set of sanctions against Iran ever, and vastly expanded the supply route for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan that travels in part through Russia. They worked together to obtain Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, created a bilateral presidential commission to promote cooperation on everything from nuclear energy to counterterrorism, and put in place a more liberal visa regime. In 2010, polls showed that over 60 percent of Russians held a positive view of the United States”.

McFaul then challenges the notion put forward by Mearsheimer that Putin is a master strategist.

He goes on to write that during the time when Medvdev was president that America  and Russia did not have a zero sum relationship, “At the time, the Obama administration was fighting desperately to keep open the U.S. military’s Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. Several weeks earlier, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev had traveled to Moscow and received a pledge for $2 billion in economic assistance, and soon thereafter he announced his intention to close the base. With Medvedev, Obama acknowledged the balance-of-power politics that the Kremlin was playing, but then asked if closing the base was truly in Russia’s national interest. After all, the U.S. soldiers flying through it were headed to Afghanistan to fight terrorists whom both the United States and Russia considered enemies. Keeping the base operating, Obama reasoned, was not a violation of Russia’s “sphere of privileged interests” but a win-win outcome for both Washington and Moscow. A realist would have rejected Obama’s logic and pressed forward with closing the base — as Putin eventually did, earlier this year. In the months after the Obama-Medvedev meeting in 2009, however, the Kyrgyz government — with the Kremlin’s tacit support — agreed to extend the U.S. government’s basing rights. Medvedev gradually embraced Obama’s framework of mutually beneficial relations. The progress made during the reset came about partly due to this shift in Russian foreign policy. Medvedev became so convinced about the utility of cooperation with the United States and support for international institutions that he even agreed to abstain from voting on (instead of vetoing) the UN Security Council resolutions authorizing the use of force against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011 — hardly behavior consistent with realism. After his final meeting with Obama in his capacity as Russian president, in South Korea in March 2012”.

McFaul ends “Russian foreign policy did not grow more aggressive in response to U.S. policies; it changed as a result of Russian internal political dynamics. The shift began when Putin and his regime came under attack for the first time ever. After Putin announced that he would run for a third presidential term, Russia held parliamentary elections in December 2011 that were just as fraudulent as previous elections. But this time, new technologies and social media — including smartphones with video cameras, Twitter, Facebook, and the Russian social network VKontakte — helped expose the government’s wrongdoing and turn out protests on a scale not seen since the final months of the Soviet Union. Disapproval of voter fraud quickly morphed into discontent with Putin’s return to the Kremlin. Some opposition leaders even called for revolutionary change. Putin despised the protesters for their ingratitude. In his view, he had made them rich. How could they turn on him now? But he also feared them, especially in the wake of the “color revolutions” in eastern Europe (especially the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine) and the Arab Spring. In an effort to mobilize his electoral base and discredit the opposition, Putin recast the United States as an enemy. Suddenly, state-controlled media were portraying the United States as fomenting unrest inside Russia. The Russian press accused me of being an agent sent by Obama to lead another colour revolution. U.S. policy toward Russia hardly shifted at all between the parliamentary vote and Putin’s reelection”.

He ends “In November 2013, Ukrainians took to the streets after Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the EU. The U.S. government played no role in sparking the protests, but it did prod both Yanukovych and opposition leaders to agree to a transitional plan, which both sides signed on February 21, 2014. Washington also had nothing to do with Yanukovych’s surprising decision to flee Ukraine the next day. Putin interpreted these events differently, blaming the United States for the demonstrations, the failure of the February 21 agreement, and the subsequent change of government, which he called a coup. Putin’s ideology compelled him to frame these events as a struggle between the United States and Russia. Constrained by this analytic framework, he reacted unilaterally in a way that he believed tilted the balance of power in his favour, annexing Crimea and supporting armed mercenaries in eastern Ukraine. He was not reacting to NATO’s long-ago expansion”.

Meanwhile Stephen Sestanovich  writes that “The United States has handled its relations with Russia so badly, John Mearsheimer argues, that it, not Vladimir Putin, should be held responsible for the crisis in Ukraine. By trying to get Ukraine into NATO, he writes, Western governments challenged Russia’s core security interests. The Kremlin was bound to push back. Meanwhile, silly idealism kept U.S. and European leaders from recognizing the trouble they were creating. To see what’s wrong with this critique, one can start by comparing it with Mearsheimer’s 1993 Foreign Affairs article, ‘The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent.’ Back then, Mearsheimer was already worrying about a war between Russia and Ukraine, which he said would be ‘a disaster.’ But he did not finger U.S. policy as the source of the problem. ‘Russia,’ Mearsheimer wrote, ‘has dominated an unwilling and angry Ukraine for more than two centuries, and has attempted to crush Ukraine’s sense of self-identity.’ Given this history, creating a stable relationship between the two countries was bound to be hard. ‘Hypernationalism,’ Mearsheimer feared, would make the situation even more unmanageable. In 1993, his assessment of the situation (if not his policy prescriptions) was correct. It should serve as a reminder that today’s aggressive Russian policy was in place long before the mistaken Western policies that Mearsheimer says explain it”.

He continues “Yanukovych’s fall was a historic event, but it did not, despite Russian claims, revive Ukraine’s candidacy for NATO membership. Ukrainian politicians and officials said again and again that this issue was not on the agenda. Nor was the large Russian naval base in Crimea at risk, no matter the feverish charges of Russian commentators. That Putin picked up this argument — and accused “fascists” of having taken over Ukraine — had less to do with Russia’s national security than his desire to rebound from political humiliation. Moscow had publicly urged Yanukovych to crack down hard on the protesters. When the Ukrainian leader obliged, his presidency collapsed, and with it Russia’s entire Ukraine policy. Putin’s seizure of Crimea was first and foremost an attempt to recover from his own egregious mistakes. This sorry record makes it hard to credit Mearsheimer’s description of Putin as “a first-class strategist.” Yes, Russian aggression boosted Putin’s poll numbers. But success in Crimea was followed by a series of gross miscalculations — about the extent of separatist support in eastern Ukraine, the capacities of the Ukrainian military, the possibility of keeping Russian interference hidden, the West’s ability to agree on sanctions, and the reaction of European leaders who had once sympathized with Russia. And all of this for what? Putin cultivates a mystique of cool, KGB professionalism, and the image has often served him well. But the Ukraine crisis has revealed a different style of decision-making. Putin made impulsive decisions that subordinated Russia’s national interest to his own personal political motives. He has not acted like a sober realist”.

Even if Putin is to blame for the current crisis, it might still be possible to find fault with U.S. policy of the past two decades. There is, after all, no doubt that Russians resented NATO enlargement and their country’s diminished international standing after the Cold War. For Mearsheimer, the West needlessly stoked this resentment. As he sees it, once the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was simply too inconsequential to be worth containing, since it was “a declining great power with an aging population and a one-dimensional economy.” Today, he calls its army “mediocre.” Enlarging NATO was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist.

He writes that the argument of Mearsheimer would be compelling expect for the fact that “in the early 1990s, Mearsheimer himself saw the post–Cold War world in much more menacing terms. Back then, no one knew what demons would be let loose by the end of East-West competition. Germany, just reunified, might once more go the way of militarism. Yugoslavia was undergoing a bloody breakup. Unscrupulous political leaders had been able to revive eastern Europe’s many ancient hatreds. Add to this the risk that Russia itself, once it regained its strength, might threaten the independence of its neighbors, and it was not hard to imagine a Europe of severe turbulence”.

He ends “The resulting analysis makes it much harder to see whose policies are working, and what to do next. Mearsheimer seems to take it for granted that Putin’s challenge proves the complete failure of U.S. strategy. But the mere fact that Russia has a leader bent on conquest is not by itself an indictment of the United States. Putin is certainly not the first such Russian leader, and he may not be the last. Nor are Ukraine’s current agonies, as acute and unnecessary as they are, the best way to measure what nato enlargement has accomplished. Two decades of U.S. policy have both stabilized Europe and narrowed the scope of the current crisis. Had NATO not grown to its present size and borders, Russia’s conflict with Ukraine would be far more dangerous than what is occurring today. Western leaders would be in a state of near panic as they tried to figure out, in the middle of a confrontation, which eastern European countries deserved security guarantees and which did not. At a moment of sudden tension, they would be obliged to improvise. Finding the right middle ground between recklessness and acquiescence would be a matter of guesswork, with unpredictable life-and-death results”.

“Army said it has killed 59 militants in clashes”

30/12/2014

The Pakistani army said it has killed 59 militants in clashes in the northwest, including 32 in an ambush in a remote valley near the Afghan border, in intensified fighting since this week’s Taliban massacre of children at a school. The ambush took place overnight in the northwestern Tirah valley in the Khyber agency, one of the main smuggling routes for arms and insurgents crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Security forces ambushed (the) moving group … Fleeing terrorists left behind bodies of their accomplices,” the military said in a statement”.

Francis vs the Curia

30/12/2014

John Allen writes about the stinging address given by Pope Francis to the Roman Curia.

He opens the article, “Pope Francis delivered a blistering criticism of the headquarters over which he presides on Monday, ticking off a catalogue of ‘spiritual diseases’ to which he believes Vatican officials are susceptible, such as careerism, arrogance, and gossip, calling it all the ‘pathology of power.’ His annual Christmas speech to the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s central administrative bureaucracy, played around the world as a scathing indictment. To insiders, it threw a key question into sharp focus: Is Francis in danger of alienating the very people he will need, sooner or later, to actually get anything done? ‘I have to say, I didn’t feel great walking out of that room today,’ one senior Vatican official said, who had been in the Vatican’s Sala Clementina for the speech and who spoke on the condition he not be identified”.

Not suprsingly Allen goes on to write that “The body language on Monday among the cardinals and archbishops who make up the Vatican’s power structure suggest that reaction wasn’t isolated. There were few smiles as the pope spoke and only mild applause; since Francis delivered the address in Italian, it wasn’t because his audience didn’t understand. By tradition, the Christmastime speech to the Curia is the Vatican’s ‘State of the Union’ address, when the pope looks back over the previous year and lays out a vision for the one to come. Last year, however, Francis upended that custom, delivering a warning that without a spirit of service, the Vatican risked turning into a ‘heavy bureaucratic customs house.’ As it turns out, that was simply an entrée ahead of the main course”.

Allen continues “Francis listed 15 ‘spiritual illnesses’ to which he suggested senior Church officials may be especially prone, including ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s,’ ‘excessive planning’ that seeks to ‘domesticate the Holy Spirit’ rather than leaving room for spontaneity and surprise, and “divinizing” one’s bosses and superiors. The pope blasted a psychology focused exclusively on ‘what one can obtain’ rather than ‘what one can give.’ Some of his sharpest language came in denouncing gossip and division, saying it’s ‘reprehensible’ that people try to ‘kill someone’s reputation in cold blood.’ The pope also warned against becoming part of “closed circles,” more focused on loyalty to a party rather than the whole Church”.

Allen writes that “the rhetoric about division and partisanship seems only natural in the wake of the October Synod of Bishops on the family, which surfaced deep divisions in the Church’s senior leadership over issues such as the role of gays and lesbians in the Church and Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. Also, Francis did begin on Monday by thanking Vatican officials for their hard work during the past year and also paid a tribute to priests in general, saying they ‘only make news when they fall’ but that ‘so many priests are still flying.’ Still, a key challenge for outsiders elected on a reform mandate, as Francis was, is how to avoid being assimilated to the system they were chosen to shake up, while also not breeding resentment among the insiders needed to implement whatever reform they want to achieve”.

Crucially he makes the point that “Question marks about the pope’s relationship with his Vatican team aren’t new. Immediately after his election, Francis disappointed many in the Vatican by announcing they would not be receiving the traditional bonuses paid out for overtime worked during a papal transition. Since then, he’s repeatedly signaled skepticism about many aspects of the Vatican’s internal culture. In 2013, for instance, he pointedly called careerism a kind of “leprosy” in the priesthood during a speech to future Vatican diplomats”.

He ends “Next October’s Synod of Bishops on the family is also expected to bring some tough decisions on matters such as allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive communion, and Francis will need key Vatican officials to help him manage whatever tumult those decisions may generate. In the end, in other words, this maverick pope will still need help from the system. The question is whether his sharp critiques have served to clarify his expectations and get his aides on the same page, or if they risk demoralizing the very people he most needs to motivate”.

“Fought their way to Iraq’s Sinjar”

28/12/2014

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have fought their way to Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains where hundreds of people have been trapped for months by fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, a Kurdish official has said. “Peshmerga forces have reached Mount Sinjar, the siege on the mountain has been lifted,” Masrour Barzani, head of the Iraqi Kurdish region’s national security council, told reporters from an operations centre near the border with Syria on Thursday. The assault, backed by US-led air strikes, ended the months-long ordeal of hundreds of people from Iraq’s Yazidi minority, who had been besieged on the mountain since ISIL stormed Sinjar and other Kurdish-controlled parts of northern Iraq in August, he said. “All those Yazidis that were trapped on the mountain are now free,” Barzani said, but added that the Peshmerga had not yet begun to evacuate them. He said 100 ISIL fighters had been killed – a claim that could not be independently verified. Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers began their offensive on Wednesday to break the Sunni armed group’s siege of the mountain and the town of Sinjar”.

Undermining Russia to help America?

28/12/2014

Following on from the recent post in trying to explain the collapse in oil prices a piece argues that the Saudi’s are trying to undermine the productivity of US shale. It begins “In a country that never tires of hearing itself described as ‘a nation of innovators,’ the idea that one such innovation — the shale oil boom — has galvanized the world’s most powerful cartel, OPEC, to launch a campaign to snuff it out has obvious appeal. But like most Hollywood notions of reality, however, this one is too good to be true”.

He adds that “Despite repetition in countless media accounts and analysts’ notes over the past few weeks, though, the idea of a ‘sheikhs vs. shale’ battle to control global oil supplies has precious little evidence behind it. The Saudi-led decision to keep OPEC’s wells pumping is a direct strike by Riyadh on two already hobbled geopolitical rivals, Iran and Russia, whose support for the Syrian government and other geostrategic machinations are viewed as far more serious threats to the kingdom than the inconvenience of competing for market share with American frackers”.

Interestingly he makes the argument that “Saudi Arabia has little to fear from shale. Saudi Arabia’s huge reserves of conventional oil can and probably will be produced for decades after the shale boom has run its course — which the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects to happen by 2050 or so — and at much lower costs. The numbers indicate that Saudi Arabia’s suffering from the so-called ‘shale revolution’ has been quite minimal. Think of current oil prices as the result of new supply sources combined with lower growth (and thus oil demand) in China, the European Union and a host of other medium-sized economies: While the U.S. surge in tight oil production has brought the country’s production to over 9 billion barrels per day (bpd), rivaling Saudi output at 9.8 bpd, the missing Chinese and European demand more than equals the additional U.S. supply. Experts differ on the tipping point for the decline in oil prices, but a strong case can be made for the October meetings of the International Monetary Fund, following a very bearish IMF quarterly update that showed emerging market growth down significantly”.

He adds to the argument that the notion of the shale revolution ending when oil reaches a certain point is incorrect, “While it may make sense to discuss that concept with a monolith like Russia’s state oil industry or even PEMEX in Mexico, U.S. tight oil derived from shale looks more like a constellation. Industry estimates vary greatly on how low prices would have to go to shut down a significant portion of shale production, but most agree that even at $60 per barrel a majority of players will remain solvent — particularly in a world where all the other factors suggest prices will ultimately bounce back up. If China’s emerging middle class stopped buying cars, Europe never exited its recession, and emerging markets like Brazil and India stayed in the doldrums, then the Saudis might be able to undermine fracking. But that’s not the world we live in”.

He ends the piece “By deciding not to act, Saudi Arabia has not only inflicted severe economic pain on its rivals, but it has also deftly reinforced Riyadh’s centrality as the only oil producer truly able to influence global oil markets on its own. The Saudis likely consider this a particularly important message to deliver now, given their fears that a successful conclusion to the nuclear talks with Iran will cause Washington to cozy up to Tehran. But the idea that the conclusion of a verifiable nuclear proliferation treaty will mean the end of 40 years of pragmatic power politics between Washington and Riyadh is fanciful”.

He closes “Whether or not their concerns are valid, it’s these geopolitical questions swirling around Iran and Russia that Saudi Arabia is concerned about — not launching a plot to “find the bottom” of the shale revolution. The Saudi imperative today, as it has been for decades, is to reinforce its importance as a U.S. ally and bolster its claim to leadership of the Arab world and stewardship of Sunni Islam. And it just might work: When it comes to the relationship with Washington, nothing says “we love you” like undermining the Russians. It worked in Afghanistan, and it’s working again now. If the “shale revolution” hits a bump in the road as a result, that’s an extra bonus for the world’s biggest oil producer. But it’s hardly the main point”.

Germany, helping the peshmerga

28/12/2014

German lawmakers will debate whether to authorise the proposal in January, but as the German government has a large parliamentary majority it is expected the mission will be approved. Germany has already delivered weapons and supplies worth some 70 million euros ($87.1 million) to help Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga forces. The controversial delivery was agreed to by the government in August, in order to help combat “Islamic State” militants who control swathes of northern Iraq and Syria. Germany also sent 13 Bundeswehr soldiers to Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital, to give instruction on how to operate the equipment. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that Germany had “good experiences with the peshmerga. They are reliable and motivated, but they need good equipment and training.” The Bundeswehr will provide various types of training in line with the peshmerga’s requests, including medical services, clearance of mines and telecommunications”.

The Saudis, hurting Iran

28/12/2014

Due to the recent and continuing decline of the price of oil a piece argues that Saudi Arabia is letting the price fall to hurt Iran. He opens noting that in 1977 Iran said it was broke and urged OPEC to cut production. The author makes the point that “King Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud argued that a price hike wasn’t justified when Western economies were still mired in a recession — but he was also eager to place economic constraints on Iran at a time when the shah was ordering nuclear power plants and projecting influence throughout the Middle East. So the Saudis ‘flooded the markets,’ ramping up oil production from 8 million to 11.8 million barrels per day and slashing crude prices. Unable to compete, Iran was quickly driven from the market: The country’s oil production plunged 38 percent in a month. Billions of dollars in anticipated oil revenues vanished, and Iran was forced to abandon its five-year budget estimates”.

The writer brings it into the present day when he makes the point that “oil prices have again plummeted, from a high of $115 per barrel in August 2013 to under $60 per barrel in mid December 2014. Western experts, predictably, have seized the opportunity to ponder what cheaper oil might mean for the stock market. As for why prices have dropped, some analysts have suggested it has little to do with any manipulation of Saudi spigots: A December essay in Bloomberg Businessweek credited the American shale revolution with ‘breaking OPEC’s neck.'”

He goes on to note that “There’s no doubt that shale has eroded Saudi Arabia’s ‘swing power’ as the world’s largest oil producer. But thanks to their pumping capacity, reserves, and stockpiles, the Saudis are still more than capable of crashing the oil markets — and willing to do so. In September 2014, they did just that, boosting oil production by half a percent (to 9.6 million barrels per day) in markets already brimming with cheap crude and, a few days later, offering increased discounts to major Asian customers; global prices quickly fell nearly 30 percent”.

He continues “As in 1977, the Saudis instigated this flood for political reasons: Whether foreign analysts believe it or not, oil markets remain important venues in the Saudi-Iranian struggle for supremacy over the Persian Gulf. This isn’t the first time since the late 1970s that Saudi Arabia has used oil as a political weapon against its rival”.

He cites an advisor to Prince Turki who wrote in November 2006 that a fall in the price of oil would destroy Iran, he writes “Two years later, at the height of the global financial crisis, the Saudis acted: They flooded the market, and within six months, oil prices had fallen from their record high of $147 per barrel to just $33. Thus, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began 2009, an election year, struggling with the sudden collapse in government oil revenues and forced to slash popular subsidies and social programs. The election’s contested outcome was accompanied by economic contraction and the worst political violence in Iran since the fall of the shah”.

Interesting he goes on to mention that the Saudis knew when the best time to strike was, “when prices were already soft and consumer demand low. In early December, just a few months after Saudi Arabia unleashed its latest oil flood, Obaid wrote in a Reuters article that his government’s decision to depress prices is ‘going to have a huge effect on the political situation in the Middle East. Iran will come under unprecedented economic and financial pressure as it tries to sustain an economy already battered by international sanctions.’ Around the same time, the Saudis were no doubt pleased to see bread prices shoot up by 30 percent in Tehran. (Bread is a staple of the Iranian diet, and its prices are a bellwether for the economy.) On Dec. 10, the Saudi oil minister said his country would keep pumping 9.7 million barrels per day into the global markets, regardless of demand. For their part, the Iranians have shown alarm, if not yet panic. Without naming names — he didn’t have to — President Hassan Rouhani decried the ‘treacherous’ actions of a major oil producer”.

He ends “Riyadh’s real hope, if history is any indicator, is that escalated production will force Rouhani’s government to implement an austerity budget that will ultimately stoke underlying social unrest and once again push people into the streets. If this happens, it might not lead to an event as significant as the shah losing his grip on power — but it would reinforce the Saudis’ faith in oil as a potent weapon in the battle to dominate the Middle East. And oil floods, in turn, would likely continue their periodic, dangerous rattling of both the markets and the region”.

 

“Punitive action against the Taliban”

28/12/2014

The Pakistan military has taken punitive action against Taliban militants by launching massive air strikes against its border region strongholds in retaliation for the Peshawar school massacre that left 132 children and nine staff dead in one of the worst terrorist incidents in the country’s history. In an attack that provoked horror and fierce international condemnation, seven members of Tehrik-e-Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban, dressed in army uniform and wearing suicide vests, stormed the Army Public School mid-morning on Tuesday and began their shooting spree. Firefights with Pakistan commandos continued for about eight hours before the school was cleared. Pakistani security forces said some of the attackers had been killed by commandos and others had blown themselves up. Tehrik-e-Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in revenge for a ferocious army offensive – named Zarb-e-Azb – that has been underway in tribal areas since the summer and has left an estimated 1,000 militants dead and tens of thousands of people displaced”.

“Without a considered or explicit decision”

28/12/2014

Steve Simon writes in Foreign Affairs why the US might enter Syria even though it shouldn’t.

He opens “President Barack Obama has taken pains to avoid being drawn into Syria’s civil war. He does not appear convinced that the United States has sufficient strategic interests in Syria to warrant—let alone sustain—another long-term commitment of military force to shape the outcome of what is a complicated and many-sided struggle. Even as Obama has expanded the U.S. war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to include targets in Syria, then, he has tried to circumscribe the mission”.

Yet the fact that President Obama has put some force into use against ISIS shows the hollowness of this theory. If it was not important to US interests it won’t matter at all if ISIS had taken over all of Iraq and Syria. However the half hearted action by Obama demonstrates that the need for a coherent US policy on Syria/Iraq is desperately needed.

He goes on to write “Calls to help overthrow Assad grew louder after his regime used chemical weapons against civilian populations in August 2013. Again, Obama declined to strike once the United Kingdom opted out of military involvement and Russia proffered a diplomatic alternative that eventually stripped the regime of its chemical weapons. The resulting mix of disappointment and anger at home over a forgone opportunity to strike Assad’s forces was bound to make it harder for Obama to say no the next time a challenge arose”.

He adds that after ISIS overran Mosul and the deaths of two Americans that followed “in that early phase of U.S. military operations, the air campaign was in the service of a clear, if limited, interest in protecting the American strategic investment in Iraq by relieving jihadist pressure on Baghdad and pushing the divisive prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, out of office. To the extent that prospective strikes in Syria were discussed, their narrow aim was to deprive what was seen as an Iraqi insurgency of its sanctuary across the border. As the objective expanded to include the destruction of ISIS, though, U.S. strikes have extended as far west as the outskirts of Syria’s former cultural and economic capital of Aleppo, now a vast rubble field contested by the regime and a congeries of rebel militias, and as far north as the Turkish border”.

Simon continues “These attacks, with their implied promise of close air support for non-jihadist fighters assailed by ISIS, have brought the United States perilously close to entry into the Syrian civil war. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s recent offer to send Turkish troops into Syria if the United States would, in return, directly attack the Assad regime—and Ankara’s wrangling with the United States over access to Turkish air bases—has only added to sustained pressure coming from the Gulf allies”.

Pointedly he writes “The key question is: What happens if one of the non-jihadist opposition groups that the United States is aiding in the fight against ISIS requests urgent assistance against the Assad regime? If the United States fails to come to the group’s aid, the support the United States enjoys among these groups by virtue of its airpower and train-and-equip efforts would swiftly fade. But if the United States accedes to the request, then it unequivocally becomes a combatant in the civil war. And if the United States consents to Turkey’s proposal for a safe haven within Syria for refugees and possibly as a base for an opposition army—essentially a tethered goat stratagem designed to trigger regime attacks that American planes would then have to repel—Washington would become even more deeply engaged in the conflict”.

He makes the excellent point that “The civil war in Syria does, of course, endanger some U.S. strategic interests. Iraq, for example, is one, and the United States has acted decisively to protect it. Jordan is another, given the Hashemite Kingdom’s historically close relationship with the United States (it is a Major non-NATO Ally) and its close security links to Israel. The influx of Syrian refugees into that country is a threat to its stability, as is the receptive audience ISIS has found among the unemployed youth in its impoverished desert cities. In response, the United States ramped up its already considerable economic and military aid to Jordan and, last December, deployed 6,000 soldiers to Jordan for a large-scale exercise. Likewise, Lebanon has received billions in military aid from Riyadh, while Hezbollah fields a force that has faced the Israeli army on the battlefield and is ideologically primed to contest ISIS attempts to establish a beachhead in Lebanon.  And between 2012 and now, the United States has provided nearly $3 billion in humanitarian aid for displaced Syrians”.

Simon goes on to make the point that “On the one hand, military intervention in the civil war would commit the United States to an expensive and ongoing enterprise unrelated to a strategic interest in Syria itself. On the other, it might prove necessary in order to bring other countries’ firepower to bear against ISIS. While Washington debates the question, however, its air operations deep in Syrian territory could propel the United States into the civil war without a considered or explicit decision”.

He ends “A tragic choice is emerging between restraint against ISIS to avoid entanglement in Syria’s civil war or full engagement against ISIS with an eye to regime change and the reconstruction and stabilization of a devastated country. After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, we have a rough idea of what such an effort would entail and of the elusiveness of lasting gains. A decision to go all the way is one that should be taken only with the greatest of caution and a careful assessment of the gap between our resources and our maximalist goals and the gap between these goals and our strategic interests. At this stage, all these considerations remain badly out of sync and quite possibly irreconcilable”.

 

“Encouraging Moscow to seek compromise”

26/12/2014

The turmoil in the Russian economy appears to be encouraging Moscow to seek compromise in the crisis over Ukraine, although President Vladimir V. Putin has proved so erratic in past months that Western leaders are wary of proclaiming progress, officials and analysts said Wednesday. On Sunday and again on Tuesday night — after days in which the ruble gyrated wildly, raising the possibility of a broader financial crisis that could saddle Mr. Putin with deeper economic and political problems — the Russian president spoke by phone with his Ukrainian, German and French counterparts. Statements released afterward in all four capitals talked of moving quickly to cement a cease-fire broadly observed since last week in eastern Ukraine. Mr. Putin may make his intentions clearer at his annual news conference on Thursday. European leaders will meet later Thursday and Friday in Brussels amid growing indications that pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainians could meet Sunday or Monday for talks under European auspices. One wild card is the threat by the United States to move ahead with a new round of sanctions against Russia. The White House said Tuesday that President Obama, despite misgivings about falling out of step with European allies and complicating the talks, would sign newly passed legislation expanding the financial sanctions and providing additional military aid to Ukraine”.

“Work hard to keep the naval station”

26/12/2014

The retired four star admiral, James Stavridis writes that despite the opening of US-Cuba relations it should keep hold of the Guantanamo bay facility.

He begins “When I was the commander of U.S. Southern Command a few years ago, my responsibilities included military-to-military relations with all the nations of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. My headquarters and residence were in Miami, but I traveled extensively to virtually every nation and territory south of the United States. People would often ask me where I went most often: to Brazil, the huge mega-state? Perhaps to Colombia, our closest ally in the region? To Haiti, trying to help with the disaster relief? All good guesses — but the country I visited the most was … Cuba. Cuba, of course, is the location of Guantanamo Naval Station, our oldest and largest military installation in all of Latin America and the Caribbean. Now that we are moving forward with plans to open up our relationship with Cuba, the issue of closing Naval Station Guantanamo Bay will quickly be on the table, pushed hard and fast by the Cubans”.

He writes “For a variety of reasons, we should close the detention facility, but work hard to keep the naval station under U.S. control, despite what will be intense pressure from the Cubans desperately seeking to shut it down”.

He goes on to make the point “Guantanamo Bay is much more than the detention facility that has become so infamous around the world since 9/11. It is the logistical hub for the Navy’s Fourth Fleet, which conducts humanitarian projects, disaster relief, and medical diplomacy throughout the region. Guantanamo Bay is the staging area to help refugees, particularly in the event of a massive displacement of people following hurricanes, earthquakes, or political upheavals. And it is a source of intelligence collection and information sharing in the multinational counternarcotics mission attempting to reduce the flow of cocaine and illegal migrants to the United States”.

He goes on to make the argument “the words “Guantanamo Bay” instantly conjure up only the holding facility for combatants captured around the world. While the facility today is thoroughly inspected (including frequent visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross, media, legislators), it retains a highly negative reputation around the world. With fewer than 200 detainees remaining, it is increasingly difficult to justify the manpower and expense of keeping the facility open. But whether it can be closed will depend on the president’s willpower, the mood of the Congress, and the willingness of the international community to absorb some the detainees. We cannot know how the story of the detention facility will yet unfold”.

Pointedly he notes “we can be sure the Cuban government, now armed with the status of “normal relations” will instantly, loudly, and aggressively seek to have the base itself closed — regardless of the future of the detention facility. We should strongly resist doing so. The history is complicated: Guantanamo was essentially rented in perpetuity to the U.S. government for a nominal annual rent. The Castro regime has never recognised the legitimacy of the agreement (indeed, it has never cashed the rent checks, faithfully sent annually), and maintains that the base is an illegal enclave on their sovereign soil”.

He predicts that the Cuban government will use the argument that America has closed other bases in the region “and only operates its military throughout the region with the consent of the local state — with the exception of Cuba”.

He gets to the point of the piece “While normal relations will require a dialogue with the Castro regime, we should seek to continue operating the base under the existing legal rental agreement. The base has vital functions that go far beyond the detention facility, though of course that facility — despite its international unpopularity — may have to operate into the foreseeable future”.

Interestingly he writes that “there are benefits to maintaining the base for Havana, too, especially if the economy is opened. A base the size of Guantanamo Bay could help improve the economy of southern Cuba: at the moment, everything at the naval station is imported, but that could change to local procurement. It will also continue to be a hub for humanitarian and counternarcotics efforts on the part of the United States, providing a constructive linkage between the two governments as they seek to find zones of cooperation. It could also potentially serve as a multinational location for joint efforts in defense and developmental cooperation with partners and allies in the region”.

He ends “The normalization of relations with Cuba is — on balance — the right decision, and one that I have long publicly supported. But we should not rush to close a vital naval station as part of whatever deal is struck. Guantanamo Bay is much more than a detention facility”.

“Lingering gaps over key issues”

26/12/2014

Iran said on Tuesday bilateral nuclear talks with the United states were proceeding in a good atmosphere despite lingering gaps over key issues such as Tehran’s uranium enrichment capacity and how fast economic sanctions should be lifted.  U.S. and Iranian diplomats began a two-day meeting in Geneva on Monday to pave the way for resuming broader negotiations involving Iran and six world powers there on Wednesday. They are aimed at resolving a 12-year stand-off over Iran’s disputed nuclear aspirations that has wrought heavy economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic and fears of a new Middle East war unless the dispute can be settled diplomatically soon”.

“An economy reliant on sales of black gold”

26/12/2014

An article from Foreign Policy notes that continuing problems with the Russian economy. The piece opens “The West’s financial weapons against Russia were meant to hit President Vladimir Putin’s foundation of power — the men and companies close to him — with surgical precision. Instead, Western sanctions, falling oil prices, and Moscow’s clumsy attempts to stem the damage have helped push the Russian economy closer to a meltdown. With the stakes rising, the United States is doubling down on hurting Moscow. Despite earlier administration misgivings, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Tuesday that President Barack Obama will sign a bill Congress passed Saturday that authorizes additional sanctions on Russian energy and defense firms. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated his calls for Russia to reverse course on its occupation of parts of Ukraine”.

He goes on to make the point “The slow-motion agony of the Russian economy went into overdrive this week with a currency collapse sparked by Moscow’s own ham-fisted efforts at damage control. The ruble, which has been sinking all year, shed 10 percent on Monday, driving Russians and anyone stuck with rubles to scrounge for dollars. Early Tuesday, the Central Bank of Russia hiked interest rates from 10.5 percent to a whopping 17 percent in a futile bid to make rubles more appealing. It didn’t work; the ruble on Tuesday nose-dived another 10 percent. Despite spending $80 billion to prop up the currency, the central bank has seen the ruble fall 50 percent against the dollar this year, making it the world’s worst-performing major currency. The ruble is so unstable that even big firms such as Apple had to suspend online sales in Russia because of the difficulty of posting current prices”.

Importantly he makes the point that Russian mismanagement has made things worse ,”Western sanctions alone aren’t imploding Russia’s economy. Scads of pre-existing conditions, from corruption and cronyism to overreliance on the oil and gas sectors, and the 50 percent plunge in crude oil prices since this summer, have poleaxed an economy reliant on sales of black gold for revenue. But like the high-pressure chemical cocktail that U.S. oil companies use to split open shale rock, which has fueled the oil boom that has crippled Russia’s earnings, Western sanctions have blasted open the existing fault lines in corporate Russia, leading to a series of nasty knock-on effects with potentially catastrophic consequences”.

He goes onto note “Facing huge debts that have to be paid back later this month in dollars, Rosneft has been begging for a bailout from Russia’s $88 billion rainy-day fund. Instead, the central bank arranged a backdoor, sweetheart deal allowing the company to borrow money from local banks at a better rate than the government itself can borrow. The move seems to have spooked investors, who are now worried that Putin’s cronyism may extend to essentially printing money to back state-owned companies run by his wealthy friends. The implications are troubling both now and for later. The government could be on the hook for billions of dollars in corporate debt due next year. And if executives use their bailout funds to buy dollars, they will further drive down the rouble’s value. Rosneft, which has until Dec. 21 to repay $7 billion in loans, insisted it would not use its windfall to buy dollars, but convinced few. All in all, Russia’s actions amount to a self-inflicted wound”.

He continues “The question now for Washington and for European policymakers is how far to keep pushing Russia to reverse course on Ukraine. Kerry, speaking at a press conference in London on Tuesday, said that the United States isn’t targeting the Russian people with the sanctions but is trying to convince Putin to give back the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine and stop Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine”.

He concludes “Mujtaba Rahman, head analyst for Europe at risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said European leaders won’t roll back sanctions without a concession from Putin. However, the economic turmoil makes foot-dragging easier for those countries that were reluctant to escalate sanctions. ‘On the Europe side this resolves a lot of internal political pressure to do more,’ Rahman said”.

Puer natus est nobis

24/12/2014

Hodie Christus natus est!

Jeb, just like George?

22/12/2014

A piece in Foreign Policy compares Jeb Bush campaign for president to that of his brother.

He opens, “Jeb Bush knows exactly what to say about President Barack Obama, who he derides as weak when it comes to the Islamic State, naive when it comes to Vladimir Putin, and incompetent when it comes to Ebola. Figuring out what to say about Obama’s predecessor, Bush’s older brother George, will be a lot more complicated. Surprising virtually no one from either party, Bush, a popular former governor of Florida, announced on Facebook Tuesday that he would ‘actively explore’ a campaign for president”.

He goes on to write that “If Bush and Clinton wind up facing off in 2016, the race will be portrayed as a clash of dynasties, with the brother of one president fighting the wife of another”.

He adds that the crucial point however is that Clinton left office at a time of peace. He adds that “Clinton would need to figure out how to defend or distance herself from President Barack Obama, not from her husband”.

Yet this is only partially true. It was Clinton who reregulated much of the economic system that played a fundamental part in the financial crisis that still haunts the world today, he left Haiti in a mess and failed to do anything about Islamist terrorism. This obviously overlooks the mass murder he allowed happen in Rwanda which the author glosses over.

The piece continues turning to the GOP, “Jeb Bush, by contrast, would need to grapple with the legacy of his older brother’s record, since the decisions George W. Bush made in office — invading Iraq, signing off on the CIA’s use of torture, failing to grasp the true nature of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his willingness to use force against his neighbors — are still reverberating more than six years after he left office, with many Republicans increasingly questioning those choices. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, for instance, is polling well largely because GOP voters support his views on keeping the U.S. from getting enmeshed in new foreign conflicts abroad”.

This is more partisan than anything else. It selectively takes the most divisive parts of the legacy of President Bush and at the same time ignores that issues that would beset a Clinton campaign. He writes  that Jeb would “grapple with the legacy of his older brother” but that that logic George HW Bush would grapple with the legacy of his father, Senator Prescott Bush.  Secondly, Iraq works both ways, President Clinton did nothing about al-Qaeda during his time in office and while President Bush may have dealt with terrorism too much, Clinton did little or nothing on the issue until history again came knocking in 2001. On the specific issue of torture that has been roundly condemned Clinton was part of an administration that promised to close the detention centre in Cuba but for unclear reasons it remains open. This argument also ignores the positive legacy of President Bush. Why is a legacy only a bad thing? Would Jeb not reap the rewards, by this logic, of the humanitarian legacy of his brother? It is Rand Paul that poses the greatest threat to America rather than a Bush or Clinton presidency. It should come as no surprise the Paul’s siren call is popular on foreign policy but when the world comes knocking it is certain Paul would be forced to deal with reality.

He goes on to make the argument that “Bush is playing it safe. When it comes to the Islamic State, for instance, Bush has blasted Obama’s strategy for combating the militants without saying what he would do differently — or weighing in on the hot-button debate over whether to send in American ground troops. He has yet to weigh in the torture report or specify what he do to prevent Putin from further meddling in eastern Ukraine. There are unpredictable issues that are certain to pop up and force Bush to talk about his brother’s position and articulate his own. Take the Obama administration’s surprise deal Wednesday to free former USAID contractor Alan Gross in exchange for several Cuban intelligence agents held in the U.S. since 2001. George W. Bush drew a firm line with Cuba, introducing new restrictions on travel and cash transfers”.

Interestingly he notes “Jeb Bush’s origin story is well known. A political natural known for intellect, calm demeanor, and long record of public service, Jeb was the one his parents always thought would run for president. Bush had spent extensive time abroad, living in Venezuela from 1977 to 1979, and making multiple visits to Israel, including a private trip with his immediate family in 2007. Bush’s wife is Mexican, and he speaks fluent Spanish, both traits likely to appeal to at least portions of the Hispanic community”.

He goes on to write “Jeb Bush would first to have to get his party’s nomination, no easy task given that his foreign policy views are squarely in the mainstream, establishment wing of the party at a time when much of the GOP base seems more excited by Paul and Texas Republican Ted Cruz, who has called for a cautious approach to fighting the Islamic State and staked out a more hard-line position on illegal immigration than the former Florida governor. Bush began articulating his foreign policy vision this spring, one premised on the idea that Obama is a weak president willing to shirk America’s traditional responsibilities as a superpower”.

Naturally, Jeb would not radically re-alter US foreign policy but would stay within the mainstream of the tradition. He would, if he were elected, keep within this tradition but would probably overturn some of the specific policies of President Obama on Iraq/Syria.

The writer goes on to mention “Bush offered his most expansive and direct attack on the Obama administration during a wide-ranging interview in September with the Washington Post. While Bush supported Obama’s decision this year to intensify the campaign against the Islamic State (IS), he took issue with Obama’s alleged failure to bring Europe fully into the fight, an allusion to the fact that the vast bulk of Western airstrikes against the militants in Iraq and Syria have been carried out by the U.S. Like many, Bush also used the hysteria over Ebola’s spread to the United States to slam the president’s response in October”.

He ends “As the rate heats up, Jeb Bush may benefit from one unexpected dynamic: a continued improvement in public views of his brother, who left office in 2008 with a 35 percent approval rating. According to a Gallup poll released Monday, 49 percent of Americans now have a favorable image of him, versus 46 percent with an unfavorable view. The 49 percent includes 84 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of Democrats; both of those figures are up by more than 10 points since 2009. This marks the first time since 2005 that a majority of Americans, albeit a slim one, support the former president. That suggests the Bush name may not be the blessing it once was, but it may not be quite as much of a curse either”.

Bail for LeT commander

20/12/2014

A Pakistani anti-terrorism court on Thursday granted bail to LeT commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, charged with involvement in the Mumbai attacks. The ATC granted the bail on a bond of Pakistani Rs 500,000. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) prosecutor disagreed with the bail request. However, advocate Rizwan Abbasi, representing Lakhvi, appeared before the court as the bail pleas was granted, Dawn online reported”.

Ditching Reagan?

20/12/2014

After the recommendations by David Frum to modernise the GOP a related piece from Foreign Affairs by Byron York discusses who might led the reforms.

He opens “This past January, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives held their annual winter retreat at a waterfront resort in Cambridge, Maryland. Their aim was to debate the party’s 2014 agenda among themselves before committing publicly to any big-ticket proposals. The meeting featured panels on health care, immigration, jobs, taxes, and more — capped with an appearance by the former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, whose rousing speech party leaders hoped would encourage a spirit of team play. Yet the most striking part of the gathering was a presentation given by Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, who would lose his seat six months later in a stunning GOP primary upset. Cantor’s talk was about connecting with the middle class, and his message should have been obvious: most Americans don’t own their own businesses; instead, they depend on someone else for a paycheck”.

The fact that this came as news to many in the GOP ranks speaks volumes as to how little they really know about the real America. It is not the America of benefit cheats and lazy students but of high end tax cheats and high end gambling with other people’s money more commonly known as the stock market.

York goes on to mention that “This seemed to come as news, however, to the lawmakers in the audience who had swooned over Mitt Romney’s celebration of entrepreneurs during the 2012 presidential election. Many of them still subscribed to the assertion of his running mate, Paul Ryan, that the world was divided into entrepreneurial ‘makers’ and government-dependent ‘takers.’ Cantor told the group, however, that the majority of Americans do not even aspire to start their own businesses; instead, they dream of ‘a good job with an income that will allow them to support their family.’ Cantor went on to chide Republicans for failing to reach out to the vast and troubled middle class, a great number of whom had ended up voting to reelect President Barack Obama in 2012. ‘We shouldn’t miss the chance to talk to these people,’ he said”.

The fact that the GOP were surprised by this shows just how out of touch they really are. Those few with business ideas that have the guts and ambition to try should be allowed to try and fail. However, as York fairly points out, this is a role of very few people in society. Should binary language of makers and takers is also unhelpful and not worthy either as discourse or as helpful policy guidance.

York goes on to write that “The very fact that Cantor felt it necessary to explain such an elementary truth of modern American politics speaks volumes about the present state of the Republican Party. Although the GOP has been successful at the congressional level, its candidates for president have lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections, in large part because they failed to attract many of the millions of voters who are not entrepreneurs. Unless things change, the landscape could look just as bleak in 2016”.

On an upbeat note he argues that “Not all Republicans, however, have failed to appreciate the concerns of middle-class Americans. A loose confederation of conservative thinkers and politicians is now developing a new approach based on policies designed to help the GOP reach such voters. These reformers could well save the Republican Party — but first, they need to win over their fellow conservatives. In May, they released a manifesto of sorts called Room to Grow, under the auspices of the YG (“Young Guns”) Network, a group founded in 2011 by Cantor, Ryan, and Kevin McCarthy, who recently took over as House majority leader. The book is a collection of policy proposals by conservative wonks on ten issues: health care, taxes, K–12 education, college, entitlements, jobs, energy, regulation, labour, and the family. That’s a lot of ground to cover, but the fundamental thrust of the book could be summarised in a single proposition: Ronald Reagan is gone. The last truly successful Republican president left office a quarter of a century ago, and yet many GOP politicians have steadfastly clung to not only his legacy but his policies as well”.

If this is what the Young Guns and their manifesto truly argue then the GOP will be in good shape I the coming elections. A party that is obsessed with the past is dangerous not only for itself but for the nation it wants to govern. The same problem afflicts the Tory party and their obsession with Thatcher. Both parties have charted the same course with Reagan and Thatcher. The Tory party had to loose several elections in the 1990s with a string of leaders each further to the right than the last. Now it seems the GOP are beginning to learn the lessons of the Tories.

The article goes on to report that “an overwhelming majority believe it is harder to keep up today than it was ten years ago. Yet in response to this challenge, nearly every Republican presidential candidate in 2012 seemed to have the same answer: more Reagan, in the form of lower taxes and less government. The reformers agree that such an approach made sense in the 1980s. But they argue that, some three decades later, it’s high time conservatives offered something new”.

York writes that “Tax policy stands at the center of the reformers’ effort to move beyond Reaganism. It’s the issue that conservatives most closely associate with the Reagan legacy and the one they are wariest of waffling on. After all, the typical Republican still favors tax cuts as a solution to nearly every public policy dilemma. In Room to Grow, Robert Stein, who served in the Treasury Department during the George W. Bush administration, argues that cutting marginal tax rates was the right policy in 1981. At that time, the top rate was 70 percent, a level that stifled initiative, discouraged work, and created strong incentives for elaborate tax-avoidance schemes. But that was then. Now, the top marginal rate is 40 percent, and much of the middle class pays little, if any, federal income tax”.

He continues that “The reform conservatives still believe in tax relief, but they have to figure out how to enact cuts in an age when income taxes are no longer a pressing problem. For Stein, the answer is a new and generous tax break for parents. Reducing burdens on families would not only make life easier for the middle class; it would also end what is in effect a per-child penalty on those raising the next generation”.

He adds that “All these proposals would repeal Obamacare, and Capretta suggests replacing much of the law with a number of simpler measures. For starters, he would correct the imbalance between the price of employer-provided insurance, which the government subsidises, and that of plans on the open market, which it does not. (He would cap the amount of tax subsidy offered to individuals covered by their employers and use the savings to give the same benefit to those without employer-based insurance.) His scheme would also allow for some policies now associated with Obamacare to remain law. Americans who switch jobs, for example, could keep their insurance, and no one could be denied coverage for having a preexisting condition. Finally, Capretta would abandon Obamacare’s detailed requirements on what features various insurance products must offer, giving providers more flexibility to sell the less deluxe plans that some consumers want”.

He goes on to write that “apart from taxes, the divisions within today’s Republican Party mostly concern topics that Room to Grow avoids. The manifesto notably lacks a chapter on immigration — a topic for which no single substantive policy proposal could possibly unite the GOP. Its business wing and its donor class, as well as the political consultants who profit off them, strongly favour comprehensive immigration reform along the lines of the bipartisan bill the Senate passed in the summer of 2013. That piece of legislation, and others like it, was based on granting quick legal status to and creating an ultimate path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants now living in the United States illegally. But unlike the lawmakers and industry leaders who have backed such bills, much of the GOPs base bitterly opposes any policy involving amnesty, and so far, there has been no way of bringing the two sides together. Room to Grow doesn’t even try”.

This is an especially important point. The ever shifting demographics of the United States means that the GOP will have to come to terms with the reality of immigration reform. President Obama, by his executive action has solidified the Hispanic vote but also meant that justice has been served. The GOP has a chance to do what is right and at the same time tap into the Hispanic vote but it must face this issue unified behind a single line.

Naturally the proposed reforms have brought some opposition, “The reformers face resistance not just from the corners of the conservative world that disagree with them on taxes, immigration, and other, perhaps lesser issues. They are also under attack from those in the Republican establishment who see no need to reevaluate GOP policies. According to this faction, the party doesn’t have a policy problem; it has a messaging problem. Whether or not that’s true — whether what’s hurting the GOP more is bad policies or poor communication — the cure is the same: a good Republican presidential nominee. A smart, talented, and appealing candidate could convince reluctant politicians to embrace new ideas, pull big donors and grass-roots activists onto the same track, and focus the energy of the party on defeating Democrats rather than fighting among itself. It can be done; in 1992, Bill Clinton dragged a reluctant Democratic Party toward a repositioning that allowed it to win national elections again”.

York goes on to suggest who might fill the role for he GOP, “From the reformers’ perspective, the best prospect is probably Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, who has enthusiastically supported their positions. ‘Rubio is becoming the early policy leader among potential 2016 aspirants,’ tweeted the National Review editor Richard Lowry in June, after the senator delivered a speech on economic reform at Hillsdale College, in Michigan. Rubio, who almost destroyed his presidential prospects by pushing immigration reform, clearly thinks he can use the cause of reform to force his way back to the front of the pack. If New Jersey Governor Chris Christie can’t recover from his current woes, and if former Florida Governor Jeb Bush stays out of the race, Rubio might pull it off”.

He concludes, “Without a charismatic champion, the reform effort, like virtually every other cause in Washington, could eventually turn into just another business. Although the reformers themselves are generally serious people, with day jobs, who truly want to reinvent the GOP, they are also subject to the demands of the modern political system”.

Nusra gets an army base

20/12/2014

Al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of of al Qaeda in Syria, captured the Wadi Deif base some 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Aleppo on Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Another hardline Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham, had is reported to have taken the nearby Hamadiyah base. “The jihadists’ advance has major symbolic importance, and it also shows the rebels that Al-Nusra Front really is in control of the area,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman. At least 31 government soldiers were killed in the attack on Wadi al-Deif, as well as 12 jihadists, the British based Observatory said. Al-Nusra reportedly also used tanks and heavy weapons captured last month from the Western-backed Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF). Al-Nusra is now one of the most powerful armed groups in the region, after defeating the more moderate SRF in November, and pushing them out of a large area in the northwest”.

“It has united Pakistanis of all backgrounds”

20/12/2014

After the evil attack on the school by the Pakistani Taliban an article argues that it is the beginning of the end for the group.  It begins “when six terrorists attacked an army-run primary and secondary school, killing nearly 150 people, mostly children. Since 2008, Pakistan has been among the world’s top targets of terrorism. But this attack was particularly gruesome. Attackers stalked through the school room-by-room, pumping bullets into the bodies of small children and teenagers. A teacher who tried to save them was set on fire. The terrorists made no demands. Murder alone, it seems, was the only thing on their minds. The attacks, perpetrated by the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban, were roundly condemned by Pakistan’s politicians, military officials, and civil society members. Leaders from across the globe, including India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also spoke out against the carnage in Peshawar. Many key jihadi leaders, including Lashkar-e Taiba’s Hafiz Saeed and Zabihullah Mujahid, the Afghan Taliban’s spokesman, also decried the bloodbath”.

He writes that “strategically, the TTP stood to gain little from them. The group has been hammered both by the Pakistani military and defections from within its ranks. And now it has united Pakistanis of all backgrounds and beliefs in revulsion. On Wednesday, Islamabad called for a three-day mourning period. This week, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will also convene a conference of leaders from Pakistan’s major political parties to solidify the country’s commitment to fight terrorism. But this may matter little to the TTP, a group seemingly motivated by a mix of desperation and a lust for revenge against the Pakistani military, as well as Pakistan’s political class. Over the past year, the TTP has been reduced to a shell of its former self. Founded in December 2007, it was once a formidable umbrella organization uniting scores of Taliban-style groups across Pakistan’s border regions with Afghan jihadis in a war against the Pakistani state. By the spring of 2009, the TTP controlled most of the country’s northwest, holding territory just 60 miles from Islamabad. While two major Pakistani army operations in 2009 managed to repel them from the capital, the TTP proved resilient, thanks in part to the safe havens it had carved out in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area and in parts of Afghanistan”.

He writes that this was the high point for the group, the drone strike that killed its leader and not only that but his “successor, Fazlullah, failed to assert control of the group — in part because he wasn’t a member of the Mehsud tribe, which spawned the TTP’s first two leaders. In February, ground operations seemed imminent. Instead, the prime minister announced before parliament that the government would begin talks with the TTP. But those deliberations soon reached an impasse and an impatient army decided to begin its military campaign”.

He goes on to argue that “Pakistan broke the back of the TTP. As the military moved deeper into North Waziristan, the TTP’s internal fissures grew. Umar Khalid Khorasani, an Afghanistan-based leader of the TTP’s Mohmand tribal agency chapter, established a splinter group, the Tehreek-e Taliban–Jamaatul Ahrar (TTP-JA). The Pakistani army and air force kept up their campaign, continuing to hit the TTP and TTP-JA hard through the summer and into the fall. And in recent weeks, the United States has conducted rare drone strikes against TTP and TTP-JA targets inside Afghanistan. Like a bloodied, weakened beast, the TTP lashed out viciously”.

Yet while he is correct to say that the TTP have been weakened he makes little reference to the funding and support of the Afghan Taliban.

He continues “Early reports indicate that the attackers came from all over. Some may have looked Uzbek, suggesting that the attackers may have been at least partially constituted of members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), perhaps the most extreme of the jihadi groups that fled Afghanistan after 9/11 and settled in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Pakistani airstrikes since last winter have hit the IMU particularly hard. And statements by the IMU reflect revulsion not just for the Pakistani military, but also Pakistani society. Revenge may have motivated another potential accessory to the carnage in Peshawar: the Afghan intelligence service. While there is no evidence linking Afghan intelligence to the attack, leaders of both the TTP and TTP-JA are based in Afghanistan”.

Crucially he adds, “Even if Afghan intelligence was not involved in the Peshawar attack, the two countries will not find peace until they work together to root out jihadism and articulate a vision of Islam that fosters citizenship, justice, and pluralism. While the Afghan Taliban may have condemned Tuesday’s horrific attack, it has undoubtedly inspired the generation of terrorists that haunts Pakistan today”.

Yet this is very unfair to Afghanistan. The vast majority, if not all, of the violence has come from the Pakistani side of the border. Pakistan has been using terrorists in Afghanistan to spite its old rival, India. To say therefore that “the two countries will not find peace until they work together” is unfair to Afghanistan and too lenient on Pakistan.

He admits that “Pakistan’s military is learning from its mistakes in the past. But it confuses tactical with strategic gains. Pakistani TV channels, perhaps encouraged by the military, interviewed jihadi leaders such as Fazlur Rehman Khalil and Hafiz Saeed to get their response to Tuesday’s carnage. They were presented as legitimate religious leaders. But even though they condemned the school attacks, they regularly advocate violence against targets outside of Pakistan and are not among the country’s top clerics. It is but another reminder that the government in Islamabad has failed to effectively delegitimise jihadi violence against the state”.

He ends “Military operations alone won’t make Pakistan safer. For the government to give its citizens the peace they deserve and earn respect in the international community, the business of jihad will have to come to a close”.

 

“An assault on a crowded school”

20/12/2014

First the Pakistani Taliban bombed or burned over 1,000 schools. Then they shot Malala Yousafzai, the teenage advocate for girls’ rights. But on Tuesday, the Taliban took their war on education to a ruthless new low with an assault on a crowded school in Peshawar that killed 145 people — 132 of them uniformed schoolchildren — in the deadliest single attack in the group’s history. During an eight-hour rampage at the Army Public School and Degree College, a team of nine Taliban gunmen stormed through the corridors and assembly hall, firing at random and throwing grenades. Some of the 1,100 students at the school were lined up and slaughtered with shots to the head. Others were gunned down as they cowered under their desks, or forced to watch as their teachers were riddled with bullets. Their parents crowded around the school gates, praying their children would survive while listening to the explosions and gunfire as Pakistani commandos stormed the building”.

Obama, Castro and Francis

20/12/2014

In what is a long overdue and truly historic move, it has been reported by the BBC that “President Barack Obama has hailed a ‘new chapter’ in US relations with Cuba, announcing moves to normalise diplomatic and economic ties. Mr Obama said Washington’s current approach was ‘outdated’ and the changes were the “most significant” in US policy towards Cuba in 50 years. Cuban President Raul Castro said he welcomed the shift in a TV address. The move includes the release of US contractor Alan Gross and three Cubans held in the US. Wednesday’s announcements follow more than a year of secret talks in Canada and at the Vatican, directly involving Pope Francis. US-Cuba relations have remained frozen since the early 1960s, when the US broke off diplomatic relations and imposed a trade embargo after Cuba’s revolution led to communism”.

An article in Crux reveals the extent to which the Holy See was involved. It opens “The restoration of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, as well as a prisoner exchange that secured the release of American Alan Gross, was brokered, in part, by the Holy See. A high-ranking Vatican official confirmed today that the Obama administration and the Vatican have been working together for more than a year to end decades of hostility and restore relations between the US and the Caribbean nation. After 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, the pontiff hosted the final meeting at the Vatican in October between US and Cuban officials, according to the Vatican. The final agreement was reached during a telephone call between Obama and Castro Tuesday”.

The authors continue, “Pope Francis sent private letters to both President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro last year, the Vatican confirmed, and Obama said that he and the pope discussed Cuba during the president’s visit to the Vatican in March.  The pope’s involvement had its roots in Boston, according to the co-founder of a Cambridge-based conflict resolution group that asked Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley to talk about Cuba with the pope. O’Malley has visited Cuba seven times since his first trip in the 1980s, meeting with religious and government officials, including in 2012 as part of a delegation traveling with Pope Benedict XVI”.

Interestingly they write that “Timothy Phillips, whose group Beyond Conflict has participated in conflict resolution initiatives in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and several countries in Latin America, said his group decided to approach O’Malley about a year ago, to see if O’Malley would be willing to ask the pope to become directly involved in efforts to normalize relations with Cuba”.

The article mentions “In his announcement of the new diplomatic relations today, President Obama thanked Pope Francis for his role in the process, ‘whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.’ US Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican whose parents immigrated from Cuba in 1956, blasted Obama for not securing more concessions from Cuba in exchange for restoring diplomatic relations, and also took a swipe at Pope Francis’ role. ‘I would … ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy, which is critical for a free people — for a people to truly be free,’ Rubio, a Catholic”.

After the official announcement took place the Secretariat of State issued a formal evening statement welcoming the move.  Others, notably the Guardian, praised the involvement of the Holy See.

John Allen writes that the success is a vindication of the police of “détente” persued by the Holy See. In effect this is a long term view with short term trade offs. Allen writes “The normalisation of relations between the United States and Cuba may be primarily a turning point for those two nations, but it also represents a victory for a Vatican policy of détente that reaches back at least to the papacy of John Paul II”.

He writes that “Lay faithful have faced discrimination in the workplace based on overt expressions of religious identity, for instance, and Church officials are still awaiting a breakthrough on the return of Church properties expropriated by the regime 40 years ago. Facing those realities, the Vatican’s line over the past 40 years has favoured engagement and the gradual reinsertion of Cuba into the community of nations, on the theory that a Cuba moving toward the center would also be friendlier to religion”.

Allen says that the basic point of this policy was effectively realism, “John Paul did call on the Cuban authorities to provide greater freedom of expression and association, but in general treated Castro as a legitimate head of state rather than a pariah. In return, Castro made a point of wearing a suit rather than combat fatigues for his encounters with the pope, and shortly after John Paul II left, Castro restored Christmas as a national holiday. The pope sent Castro a note of thanks, irritating many anti-Communist hawks on Cuba. Five years later, the Vatican’s top missionary official at the time, Italian Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, traveled to Cuba to celebrate the reopening of a convent for the Brigittine order of Catholic nuns. Sepe came in for criticism from Catholic conservatives who denounced the gesture as nothing more than a photo-op for the Castro regime, but Vatican officials insisted the trip was part of a long-range strategy for steering Cuba down a more moderate path. That policy of détente extended into the Benedict XVI years. When Benedict visited Cuba in 2012, he pointedly declined to meet a delegation from the “Ladies in White,” one of the most prominent anti-Castro opposition groups in the country. He also denounced the US trade embargo on Cuba, saying it “unfairly burdened” the Cuban people”.

“Below $59 a barrel”

20/12/2014

The price of Brent crude oil has fallen below $59 a barrel for the first time since May 2009. After dropping below $60, the Brent price then fell to $58.50 a barrel, before recovering slightly to $59.01. Oil prices have now nearly halved since June as a result of waning demand and increased supplies. The latest fall was triggered by news of a fall in industrial activity in China, the world’s second largest consumer of oil. The price of US crude fell by $1.86 to $54.05 a barrel”.

A breakthough with Cuba

20/12/2014

A piece reports the exciting news that a real breakthrough has occurred between Cuba and the United States.

It opens, “Barack Obama has wanted to build a new relationship with Cuba ever since his Senate days. Now, thanks to a surprise deal to free an imprisoned American subcontractor, he’ll finally have the chance. Alan Gross, an American who had been languishing in a Cuban prison for five years due to a fierce anti-Cuba push on Capitol Hill, Obama administration inertia, bureaucratic hurdles, and the difficulties of dealing with Raúl Castro’s regime, has been released as part of what is the first step toward a massive overhaul in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Gross, who was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development when he was arrested in 2009 for delivering satellite phones and other communications equipment to the island’s small Jewish community, spent the last five years locked up in a Havana prison. He was set to serve 15 years but was released by Cuba on humanitarian grounds. A U.S. intelligence asset imprisoned for 20 years was also swapped for three of the so-called Cuban Five — a group arrested in 2001 after being dispatched to Florida to spy by then-Cuban President Fidel Castro”.

He adds that “The new agreement contains an array of far-reaching changes, including paving the way for the United States to open an embassy in Havana. A number of travel restrictions have been lifted, though tourism is still prohibited. U.S. debit cards will now work in Cuba, and U.S. financial institutions will be permitted to open accounts at Cuban institutions. As far as Cuban cigars go, U.S. travelers to Cuba will now be allowed to bring back $100 worth of tobacco products. The United States and Cuba have opened a formal channel of communication, and the State Department is reviewing Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. However, the president is not asking Congress to lift the formal embargo on Cuba, though the White House is open to considering it”.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, “In his address to the nation, President Obama thanked Pope Francis for helping broker the talks. ‘His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, urging us to resolve Alan’s case and to address Cuba’s interests in the release of three Cuban agents, who’ve been jailed in the United States for over 15 years,’ Obama said. According to a senior administration official, the Vatican and the Canadian government hosted key meetings to help broker a deal. Pope Francis was the only other foreign leader with direct involvement in the deal besides Obama and Castro”.

Of course not everyone will be pleased with the deal, “Republicans, joined by some hawkish Democrats, reacted angrily. Cuban-American lawmakers like Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, a likely GOP presidential candidate in 2016, have both opposed negotiating for Gross’s release. Fierce Hill opposition had helped torpedo earlier talks over Gross’s release. Last year, Menendez and Rubio lobbied colleagues to remove their names from a letter calling on the White House to negotiate for Gross’s release”.

Yet this is as much politics as what is actually good for the country. The GOP are well aware that the sanctions regime has not worked and done little to pressure the Castro regime to change. Now however things will change with hopefully increased change and more trade between the two nations. This will make the United States more normal and much less the “imperialist dog” that it has been portrayed as by the regime. This is not to say that there will not be domestic political benefits for the Democrats in the years to come as a result of this. Yet, the GOP could also gain if it just modernised and began to put the interests of the United States before its own interests.

The writer also notes that “The release will also pose political challenges for Rubio’s likely rivals for the GOP’s presidential nod in 2016. Jeb Bush, who effectively entered the race Tuesday, is a fierce Cuba hawk but will have to deal with the reality that changing demographics in his home state of Florida mean some younger voters will be open to just this kind of deal. Cruz has long favoured maintaining the embargo. For Obama, meanwhile, the deal is a win after years of wanting to improve ties with Havana. Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic standard-bearer in 2016, also favours ending the long-standing trade embargo against Cuba. ‘Since 1960, the United States had maintained an embargo against the island in hopes of squeezing Castro from power, but it only succeeded in giving him a foil to blame for Cuba’s economic woes,’ Clinton wrote in her book Hard Choices. ‘It wasn’t achieving its goals, and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.’ In the aftermath of Wednesday’s deal, Democrats praised the president for securing Gross’s release and opening up a window for better relations with Cuba”.

Lifting sanctions on Russia?

20/12/2014

Russia has made constructive moves in recent days towards reducing tensions in Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday, and he raised the possibility that Washington could lift sanctions if Moscow keeps taking positive steps. Speaking in London, Kerry said the United States and Europe could lift sanctions within days or weeks if President Vladimir Putin keeps taking steps to ease tensions and lives up to commitments under ceasefire accords to end the Ukraine conflict”.

Brennan responds to the report

20/12/2014

After the report into the actions of the CIA, a piece notes the reaction of John Brennan.

It begins, “At an unusual news conference at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, spy chief John Brennan disavowed the agency’s former system for detaining and brutally interrogating terror suspects in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and said some of the methods used were ‘abhorrent,’ but he refused to join President Barack Obama in admitting that they had crossed the line into ‘torture.’ Asked repeatedly whether waterboarding suspects or threatening them with mock executions led to actionable intelligence, Brennan insisted that the agency couldn’t conclusively say that harsh interrogations produced information that could otherwise not have been obtained”.

The piece goes on to mention “The CIA chief declined to say if a future American president might once again order the use of brutal interrogation methods in a crisis. ‘I defer to the policymakers in future times when there is going to be the need to be able to ensure that this country stays safe if we face a similar type of crisis,’ Brennan said. Brennan’s ambiguous response immediately led to a rebuttal from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who oversaw a years-long investigation into the CIA’s torture practices. The report, released Tuesday, concluded that the agency had systematically exaggerated the value of the intelligence gained through torture and misled Capitol Hill and the White House about its brutality and effectiveness”.

The writer says that it is doubtful if such a piece of legislation would make its way through the GOP controlled Congress. The article notes some of the techniques used and the occasional resultant deaths, he writes that “Brennan said that the fatalities were largely the result of a few bad actors going outside the bounds of prescribed techniques. ‘I look back at the record and I see that this is a workforce that was trying to do the right thing,’ Brennan said. But still, ‘I cannot say with certainty whether or not individuals acted with complete honesty,’ he said about some officers who may have misled Congress and other U.S. officials. Brennan criticized the Senate committee for not interviewing CIA officials who ran the interrogation program when it functioned and instead relying only on memos and documents to compile the report. Pressed by a reporter to answer if a future American president could turn to the now discredited techniques, Brennan said the CIA was out of the business of detentions”.

He ends the article “The Senate report noted multiple instances where CIA leadership refused to punish officers who severely abused detainees, even when that behavior was specifically called out. ‘On two occasions in which the CIA inspector general identified wrongdoing, accountability recommendations were overruled by senior CIA leadership. In one instance, involving the death of a CIA detainee,’ reads the report. Some of those agents have since retired, but when asked why Brennan couldn’t begin holding the remaining officers accountable now, a CIA officer told Foreign Policy that the time has passed. ‘We can’t go back in time,’ said spokesman Preston Golson. ‘Should there have been more accountability? You can arguably say yes.’ He noted that individual agents have been subject to accountability review boards, and that revisiting that process, in some cases, would amount to double jeopardy”.

“Called for more NATO support”

18/12/2014

Ukraine’s prime minister on Monday called for more NATO support to reform its military as the country’s crisis with Russia has given new life to a once abandoned effort to eventually join the U.S.-led alliance. “I do remember nine months ago when we said NATO membership is not yet on our radars,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said during a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “I will tell you the screen of this radar has entirely changed.” The presence of Russian tanks, howitzers and soldiers in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces, has changed the security equation in the country, Yatsenyuk said. Russia has denied sending troops or weapons to the separatists”.

Just like Maliki?

18/12/2014

A piece in Foreign Policy discusses the views of the new Iraqi prime minister, Hadier Abadi on the Sunni minority in Iraq. The piece opens “Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s recent visit to Baghdad and his tense meetings with leaders there have left some American officials worried about Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s commitment toward reconciliation with Iraq’s embattled Sunni minority, which is key to the U.S.-led effort to rebuild the Iraqi military forces and defeat the Islamic State. Abadi not only pressed Hagel to supply more American weapons and increase the tempo of U.S.-led airstrikes on the Islamic State — taking the Pentagon chief by surprise — but also expressed doubts about normalizing relations in the long term with Iraq’s Sunnis, according to two senior American officials”.

The report goes on to state that “Leaders of the Sunni tribal groups in Anbar province that the United States wants to organize and equip into national guard brigades to take on the Islamic State are not trustworthy, Abadi, a Shiite, told Hagel in a Dec. 9 meeting in Baghdad, according to the two U.S. officials and a European official whose country is involved in the coalition against the Islamic State. In a further surprise for the visiting U.S. delegation, Hagel was made to wait for about 25 minutes to meet Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi after the two of them had finished a meeting with Abadi. For some U.S. officials, the wait seemed to be a replay of December 2009, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates was made to wait a full day before meeting then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki”.

The result of these actions has led many to “worry whether the U.S.-led coalition is rushing to train and rebuild Iraq’s military forces without getting a matching commitment from the Iraqi government to make peace with its Sunni tribes. An American official said that one way to indicate U.S. displeasure at Abadi would be to hold back the deployment of the 1,500 additional American troops that President Barack Obama has authorised to be sent to Iraq to bolster the 1,400 troops who are already there, while another official cautioned that such delay tactics may backfire. All officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because no decisions have been made”.

The article adds that “In 2011, Maliki also arrested several prominent Sunni lawmakers and tried to arrest the country’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, after accusing him of running an anti-government death squad. Hashimi later fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. The U.S.-led coalition strategy rests on training and equipping the Iraqi Army so it can mount a counteroffensive against the Islamic State. U.S. officials have been clear that the fight against the militant group will be Iraq’s to wage, even though Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said he may recommend American troops taking a more active role in the fight. So slowing down the departure of additional American trainers would mean a delay in getting Iraqi troops ready and consequently the planned offensive to retake Mosul”.

He reminds the reader that “Obama announced in November that the United States would send 1,500 additional troops as part of a $1.6 billion effort to train and equip nine Iraqi brigades and three Kurdish brigades for a renewed push against the Islamic State. Iraqi officials say that offensive could begin before the end of December, significantly before many American officials believe the Iraqi troops would be ready for what would almost certainly be a lengthy and bloody campaign involving house-to-house combat in Mosul and other densely packed Iraqi cities. The United States also wants to create as many as three brigades of Iraqi national guard units drawn from members of Sunni tribes in the Anbar province to fight the militants. Those tribal militias were a vital part of the so-called Sunni awakening that began in August 2006, during which Sunni fighters turned against al Qaeda in Iraq and helped American troops kill large numbers of militants, pushing the group out of Anbar province, which had been its longtime stronghold. The Islamic State’s current offensive began in Anbar, and the militants have been steadily consolidating their control over the province”.

He later mentions that “The Abadi government is still in its nascent stages and the United States and its coalition members must ‘resist making major assumptions about the trajectory of the situation in Iraq based on anecdotal information or a few data points.’ The U.S.-led coalition includes major Western nations such as the U.K., France, Germany, Australia, Italy, and Canada, as well as several Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey. Arab partners in the coalition are keen to see that Abadi doesn’t end up being another Maliki who alienates Iraq’s Sunni population, which led to the rise of the Islamic State. And for that reason the Arab coalition members — many of whom fear the spread of the Islamic State’s power and reach could undermine their own governments — are weighing and watching their support for Iraq’s government”.

He ends “If the United States waits to deploy additional forces “or if we look like we are starting to wobble in our commitment to Iraq we’ll pay for that inside the coalition and we’ll pay for that with our Arab partners,” the U.S. official said”.

“Too early to say”

18/12/2014

Israel said it hoped the United States would veto any moves at the United Nations to set a time frame for its withdrawal from territory Palestinians seek for a state, but a senior U.S. official said it was too early to say. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Rome on Monday to discuss various proposals for a Palestinian state that are circulating at the United Nations. Later on Monday, Kerry will travel to Paris for talks with European counterparts and then on to London to meet Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and a delegation from the Arab League, who will urge the United States not to use its U.N. Security Council veto to block the proposals. The hastily-arranged meetings suggested urgency in America’s drive to manage efforts among Security Council members to draft a new proposal before Israeli elections in March. Kerry said on Friday he wanted to defuse tensions during the talks”.

“The United States is bursting at the seams”

18/12/2014

Ed Morse writes that America will become an energy export power.

He begins, “When it comes to crude oil and other hydrocarbons, the United States is bursting at the seams. The United States has very rapidly become a powerhouse as an exporter of finished petroleum products, natural gas liquids, other oils including ethanol, and even crude oil — with total gross exports of all of these combined expected to reach 5 million barrels per day (mb/d) or more by the end of this year, up a stunning 4 mb/d since 2005. Total oil exports in 2014 pushed the commodity to the top of the list of U.S. exports by category, far surpassing all agricultural products, capital goods, even aircraft as the largest sector of U.S. export trade. Meanwhile, U.S. crude oil exports, largely to Canada, are 500 percent above what they were a year before, and are heading for around 500,000 b/d by year end. This remarkable boom is unlikely to stop even if prevailing prices for oil fall as low as $50. Indeed, even if light sweet crude (WTI) prices fell below $75 for a while, production growth would continue at relatively high levels for years to come. While the debate in the United States intensifies over whether the country should lift restrictions dating back to the 1970s on exporting crude oil”.

Indeed Morse writes that “By late 2014, every barrel of locally produced petroleum product and crude oil — as well as the yet-to-be-legally-defined category of condensate (chemically, a form of ultra-light crude oil) — that can get out of the country is, in fact, getting out. Too much attention has been placed on whether to lift the “ban” on crude oil exports. Only a limited ban effectively impacts oil produced in federal waters or transported through a federally mandated pipeline”.

The scale of the exports are, he writes, already apparent, “Allowable exports of crude oil and condensates will exceed 1 mb/d gross by early 2015, if not before. Exports to Eastern Canada are marching toward a half a million barrels a day, and we can expect a return to exports out of Alaska, which could grow to a higher, steadier state of above 100,000 b/d. We can expect exports to Mexico to begin to materialise at least under an exchange program and to grow possibly to well over 200,000 b/d”.

He adds that America has “reduced its net oil imports (that is, net imports of crude oil and petroleum products combined) by a stunning 8.7 mb/d over a very short period of time — that’s more than the total production of any country in the world other than the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Just eight years ago, in August 2006, the United States imported, net, a little over 13.4 mb/d of crude and products; by the middle of 2014, that had fallen to 4.7 mb/d”.

He says that there the “oil import gap” or what is sometimes called energy independence “will be totally closed well before the end of the decade, possibly by 2019 if not by 2018, at which time the United States should become a net exporter of crude oil and petroleum products combined. But that doesn’t mean that obstacles have been overcome”.

One of the biggest problems that will be faced is the lack of infrastructure “to get new production to domestic markets and product and crude oil to foreign markets. An enormous build-out of rail transportation for crude has resulted, bringing oil to pipelines, refineries, and ports both within the United States and from Canada to the United States”.

Ironically this is just what is needed anyway with US infrastructure spending far below what it should be. Now ironically, the energy boom has resulted in building the transport links that will hopefully be used not just by the energy industry but by the whole country to the benefit of all.

More specifically he warns that “Despite the fact that pipeline transportation is far more efficient than transportation by rail, barge, and truck, adequate investments are not being made in broad pipeline infrastructure to keep up with the rate of growth of U.S. oil production. The North American rail system in particular is becoming congested and, after some major accidents, safety measures for rail transportation of crude oil are being hotly debated”.

Interestingly he argues that “The lag in pipeline infrastructure is part of a big chicken-and-egg problem. Most of the rail transportation comes from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota where some 70 percent of production is shipped by rail, mostly to the East and West Coasts. Refiners on the U.S. Gulf Coast do not need light sweet crude and indeed have a superabundance of it locally in the Eagle Ford and Permian Basin in Texas. But refiners on the two coasts are fearful that, if they commit to use pipelines to transport the crude oil they need, they could end up in an unfavorable position economically if the United States were to ease restrictions of exports. Similarly, companies and investors are unwilling to commit to build new refinery capacity lest Washington lift the export restrictions, impacting their feedstock costs”.

He ends the piece noting that the balance between domestic consummation and its price and its relationship to exports will soon be solved, “there remains an inevitable day of reckoning when U.S. crude production cannot escape its North American confines, pushing down domestic crude oil prices and endangering production, without widely liberalised exports. That day may be coming sooner than people expect, perhaps before the end of 2015”.

He ends “There is unlikely to be a sudden change in the restrictive framework that limits crude oil exports from the United States. But progressive change is highly likely. The special conditions which now allow a significant volume of exports to Canada are undoubtedly being extended to Mexico. Other Free Trade Agreement partners, including especially Chile, Israel, Singapore, and South Korea are likely to petition for similar status. Eventually, restrictions on condensate exports, already reduced by recent decisions to allow processed condensate for export, are likely to be further eliminated with the development of a clear definition of what constitutes condensates. Meanwhile, exports from Alaska are likely to continue to grow in volume. The re-export of imported crude oil from Canada is also expected to grow significantly, soon to 200,000 b/d and later to perhaps twice that level”.

 

“20 airstrikes against Islamic State”

18/12/2014

The United States launched 20 airstrikes against Islamic State militants in recent days, military officials said in a statement on Wednesday. Since Monday, U.S. forces conducted seven strikes against the militant group in Syria and led 13 strikes in Iraq with its partner nations, according to the statement from the Combined Joint Task Force for the coalition overseeing the operation. The strikes, centered in the Syrian border town of Kobani as well as near Sinjar, Qaim, Ramadi, Mosul and Samarra in Iraq, hit numerous Islamic State fighting positions, buildings, vehicles and fighting units, the statement said.

Warren and the future of the Democratic Party

16/12/2014

A long article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs discusses the future of the American left. This follows on from the long piece by David Frum who wrote about the need for the GOP to modernise.

It begins “Talk of the Republican Party’s internal divisions has become a staple of the American news diet. Battles between the conservative establishment and the Tea Party, over matters ranging from foreign policy to immigration, have played out on cable news channels like movie-house serials. Yet no such internal malady seems to be afflicting the Democrats. That’s not because things are going so swimmingly on the left. After all, the median American household income — the amount earned by the very people the Democrats claim to champion — totaled just over $51,371 in 2012, a staggering 6.6 percent decline since 2000. The Democrats want to deliver more for the middle class, but after more than five years under President Barack Obama, they haven’t. Luckily for the Democrats, they have reactionary Republicans to blame for their inability to make headway on their top priorities, from creating an infrastructure bank to enacting a carbon tax to raising the minimum wage“.

He asks if the Democrats had 68 senators and a veto proof majority in the House, the party would not be united, but then neither would the GOP, he makes the point that “Such divides among Democrats are generally not matters of deep ideological conviction”. He argues that there is no Rand Paul for the Democrats. This is true and does lend to a more cohesive party but at the same time there are a number of Democrats which would be use this supposed majority to move America in a European direction. This is of course not a bad thing but America is not Europe and the Democrats would still be operating within an American political context. The author writes that the party was pushed left by President Bush. This may be true but Bush presided over the biggest expansion of Medicare in the programme’s history and at the same time increased the size of government during the beginnings of the financial crisis and with the creation of the DHS. Crucially he does note that ” the gradual leftward movement of U.S. public opinion, compounded by broader demographic changes, permitted Democrats to take more openly liberal positions on a few controversial issues, such as same-sex marriage and immigration. That landed the Democratic Party of today slightly to the left of where it was under Clinton. But the party’s approach has remained largely Clintonian when it comes to what matters most: the economy”.

He correctly argues that “Obama, in fact, has not departed from Clintonism on the economic front in any significant way. He appointed two former Clinton administration officials to key posts: Lawrence Summers, as director of the National Economic Council, and Timothy Geithner, as treasury secretary. And he settled for what many liberals saw as a measly $800 billion stimulus, nearly 40 percent of which took the form of tax cuts”.

He goes on to argue that polls of have shown that majorities support higher taxes, “This is the source of the real fissure that divides Democrats today: the split between the party’s rank and file and its donor and policymaking elites over economic issues. As polls suggest, ordinary Democrats overwhelmingly support paying higher taxes to advance progressive policies. But the elites regard such a posture as too left wing. Until recently, the Democratic masses were starved for a spokesperson, a leader unafraid to challenge elite assumptions. And in Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, they have found one”.

He goes on to argue that Senator Warren expresses the views of many when she argued in 2011 that the notion of the individualist businessman fighting against state regulation is a myth when the roads and people he employs were built and educated by the state and paid for by taxes.

He goes on to make the point that “In contrast to many political aspirants who emerge from the legal world, including Obama, Warren was not taken with constitutional law and other abstract matters. Instead, this daughter of near poverty ‘headed straight for the money courses’ because she ‘loved the idea of mastery over money.’ Her fascination with money led to years of groundbreaking research on bankruptcy that challenged several old-school assumptions about who declares bankruptcy and why, and it won her the recognition that led to tenure at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Harvard Law School — and, eventually, to the government appointments in Washington that first gained her national prominence”.

He says that the memoir of Warren discusses TARP and “the genesis of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a government agency that Warren first promoted in 2007 and helped launch in 2010; and her Senate race. Here, Warren gets to the meat of her story and to the kind of dishy details required of any proper (and marketable) political memoir. Warren hasn’t included such anecdotes, however, simply to boost book sales. Her narrative has an obvious political point: to distinguish her from the party establishment”.

He continues writing that there are Democrats who are insiders with access who get stuff done and those on the outside who don’t and can’t.

He adds later in the article that both Ted Kennedy and Barney Frank helped her create that CFPB. The writer goes on to describe how she became the interim head of the new agency but that she was not able to be confirmed on a full time basis. The result of this was that “Ultimately, she served as a handy bargaining chip: Obama agreed not to name her, and Republicans agreed not to filibuster the candidate he did name, Richard Cordray, a former attorney general of Ohio. Being spurned in this way by the Washington establishment only helped transform Warren into an object of liberal adulation. When discussion in Massachusetts turned to finding someone to unseat then Republican Senator Scott Brown, despised by the left because he was occupying Kennedy’s old seat, Warren was a natural choice. The campaign was rocky for a while — and was almost knocked off course by allegations that Warren had exaggerated the extent of her Native American heritage while applying for jobs. But the race was a perfect setup for Warren. Brown was one of Wall Street’s favorite senators, which gave Warren ample opportunity to draw a stark contrast between them. The polls were neck and neck for most of the race. Yet in the end, with turnout at 73 percent, Warren won by nearly eight points”.

Interestingly he makes the point that “As a senator, Warren has done exactly what she advertised: she focuses on those households making $51,371 or less. And since the Democrats’ donor class remains wary of her, she hasn’t sought its sign-off on her efforts to increase funding for science research or to require banks to provide fairer student loans. Talk of her becoming president will probably remain just talk: Warren is 65 years old and has suggested that she won’t run if Hillary Clinton does. Since a Clinton run seems likely, it may never be in the cards for Warren to have a shot at the presidency. But her gravitational pull within the party will remain strong, and her influence on Clinton could be immense”.

He ends “More broadly, how will the divide between the party’s rank-and-file progressives and its more pro-business, centrist establishment play out? That will depend to a considerable extent on what happens in the 2016 election. If Clinton wins the White House, she will probably be able to maintain a rough consensus by shifting a few ticks to the left on some household economic matters — backing a modest program for paid family leave, say — while still trying to make sure that Wall Street knows she’s no lefty. Clinton understands that the liberal wing is now more powerful than it was in 1992, and, within limits, she would respond to their demands accordingly. If a Republican wins, however, then the two Democratic camps will likely revert to the kinds of recriminatory debates that they carried out during the Reagan era and after the 2000 election. And in both of those cases, the centrists basically won”.

“Resume on December 17 in Geneva”

16/12/2014

The European Union confirmed Friday that talks between Iran and world powers on Tehran’s nuclear program will resume on December 17 in Geneva. The talks, first announced in a report from Iran on Thursday, will be at the level of senior officials rather than ministers, the EU’s diplomatic service said. “The political directors of the (world powers) and Iran will meet again on 17 December 2014 in Geneva for a one-day meeting to continue diplomatic efforts towards reaching a long-term, comprehensive solution,” it said in a statement. Despite making progress, the UN’s five permanent Security Council members plus Germany and Iran failed to clinch a definitive deal by a November deadline at talks in Vienna and agreed to extend the talks until July 1″.

Cardinal Chaput, Gomez or Cupich?

16/12/2014

John Allen writes about the recently announced consistory that will take place in February.

He opens the piece “The Catholic Church’s most exclusive club will have new members come February, as the Vatican announced Thursday Pope Francis will hold a consistory to create new cardinals Feb. 14-15. Almost nothing a pope does is as critical to the direction of Catholicism, in part because cardinals are the most influential leaders in the Church after the pontiff himself. In part, too, a pope shapes the future by selecting cardinals, because they will eventually elect his successor. Although dates for the consistory have been announced, we don’t yet know the names”.

This echoes the trend that Francis began last year. At the same time the fact that the consistory takes place over two days suggests a reversal of the reforms introduced by Pope Benedict who shortened the ceremony to take place over one day.  The events of the 15th however could simply be a collective Mass with the new cardinals but it is obviously too soon to tell.

Allen says this consistory will be smaller than 2014. Francis should have 10 electoral slots to fill which would bring the College of Cardinals back to its 120 limit. However there is a strong possibility that Francis could go over this with only four other cardinals losing their voting rights next year. Thus Francis could easily have a consistory that would make the electors 124 and simply wait until Cardinal Naguib, Cardinal Rigali, Cardinal de Paolis and Cardinal Abril y Castello all age out by September. Of course Cardinal Lajolo will have already turned 80 in January by the time the consistory will take place.

Naturally Francis will have a small group of those over 80, so the class of new cardinals for 2015 could be 16 or 17 with 14 of these being electors.

Allen adds that “A pope isn’t obliged, however, to follow the rules. In 2001, John Paul II blew past the 120 limit by raising the total of voting-age cardinals to 135 in one of the largest consistories ever, with a total of 38 new under-80 cardinals, plus two more announced to the world who had previously been named in pectore, meaning secretly. Last February, the take-away from Francis’ first round of new cardinals is that it was the ‘Consistory of the Peripheries.’ The global south had nine cardinals out of the 16, while only three red hats went to members of the Roman Curia, meaning the Vatican’s administrative bureaucracy. The pope also made a point of giving cardinals to places that never had them before, such as Haiti, and even within countries he tended to select smaller and often overlooked dioceses, such as Cotabato in the Philippines and Perugia in Italy”.

By way of context Allen makes the point that Europe has 54 cardianls, Latin America has 16, North America has 15, Africa has 12, Asia has 11, Mid East with 2, Caribbean 1, and Oceania has 1.

Allen continues that “almost two-thirds of the voting cardinals (69) still come from the global north, while two-thirds of the world’s Catholic population today lives in the global south. Benedict XVI began to address this imbalance in his last consistory in November 2012, in which he named seven new cardinals without a single European. Francis continued to move towards realignment in his first consistory, and will presumably do so again next February. In terms of candidates from the United States, there are three prelates from archdioceses traditionally led by a cardinal who are currently in line. In order of how long they’ve been waiting, they are: Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who took over in March 2011; Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who was appointed three months later in July 2011; and Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, tapped by Francis in September 2014 and installed in November”.

He mentions that “In Los Angeles, retired Cardinal Roger Mahony is 78; in Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali is 79; and in Chicago, Cardinal Francis George is 77. However, Francis has already demonstrated a willingness to break with protocol. So the question would still be asked of why he chose not to in this case. Moreover, Rigali turns 80 in February and George is in ill health, so there would be a clear logic for setting tradition aside in at least those two cases. No matter what Francis does, many Americans will be tempted to read it as a statement. If a red hat goes to Gomez, it will be seen as history’s first pope from Latin America creating the first Hispanic cardinal in the United States, thereby giving a shout-out to the country’s burgeoning Latino Catholic population. If it’s Chaput, it will be styled as a sign of confidence ahead of the pope’s trip to Philadelphia next September for a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families”.

He ends the piece, “If it’s Cupich, the perception may be that Francis is moving quickly to ensure that his hand-picked allies occupy the Church’s most senior posts. Critics may resurrect charges familiar from the John Paul era, albeit in a different ideological direction, that the pope is ‘stacking the deck’ in the College of Cardinals. If the pope bypasses the United States, it may be seen as a snub ahead of his American trip, since this will almost certainly be the only consistory between now and then. On the other hand, it could also be spun as an education for Americans in the realities of living in a global Church”.

Obama doesn’t take sides

16/12/2014

A day after the Senate Intelligence Committee released a blistering report on the C.I.A.’s interrogations of terrorism suspects a decade ago, Mr. Obama, who banned such methods when he took office, came under fire from Democrats on the committee for declining to endorse the report’s conclusion that they were ineffective and standing by the C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan. Mr. Obama’s attempt to find a balance on a polarizing issue inherited from his predecessor was seen by those critics as a failure to hold the agency accountable. Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, a Democrat on the committee and a longtime critic of the C.I.A. interrogations, took to the Senate floor to excoriate the agency for failing to come to terms with its mistakes and the White House for enabling its deceptions.

Another synod, another questionnaire

16/12/2014

John Allen discusses the other big event of 2015 for Pope Francis. The Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family. This follows on from the Extraordinary Synod that took place earlier this year.

He begins “In the run-up to last October’s synod of bishops on the family, one of the more sensational developments was the Vatican’s decision to ask bishops around the world to survey the grassroots on matters such as same-sex marriage, divorce and remarriage, and cohabitation outside marriage. Some bishops’ conferences made a big deal of the questionnaire, even creating online opportunities for people to submit reactions, while others played it down out of concern that raising these questions risked a false impression that Church teaching is up for grabs. In hindsight, it was an early hint that the synod would be a tumultuous experience”.

Allen goes on to note that “the Vatican released the lineamenta, or preparatory document, for the next synod called by Pope Francis for October 2015, also focused on the family. The document contains 46 questions covering much of the same ground as last time, even if the wording is designed to make clear that the basics of Catholic doctrine aren’t in doubt. For instance, the term ‘indissolubility’ appears in the document four times, underlining the traditional teaching that marriage is permanent and hence divorce is taboo”.

Allen mentions that “There are clear references to the Church’s ban on birth control, to condemning the ‘plague of abortion,’ and to promoting ‘an efficient culture of life.’ Tuesday’s document was released in Italian, with a statement that translations in the various languages would soon be sent to bishops’ conferences. It asks that responses to the questions be submitted to Rome by April 15”.

This is an obvious reference to appease people like Cardinal Burke who said that the Church could never talk enough about abortion just days after Pope Francis said the exact opposite.

Allen then notes the major issues that divided those in the Synod about how welcoming the Church should be to people living in gay unions, people living together before marriage and the situation of those in communion.

Allen makes the obvious point that the “debate over those matters is not resolved. On the issue of communion for the divorced and remarried, question 38 reads: ‘Pastoral and sacramental care for the divorced and remarried needs further study, evaluating the Orthodox practice and keeping in mind ‘the distinction between an objective situation of sin and extenuating circumstances.’’ ‘What are the perspectives in which to move?’ it asks. ‘What are the possible steps? What suggestions are there for eliminating types of impediments that aren’t warranted or necessary?’ The reference to ‘Orthodox practice’ is something frequently cited by advocates of relaxing the communion ban. Orthodox Churches generally permit only one sacramental marriage, but will bless a second or third union under certain circumstances if the initial marriage fails. In other words, the phrasing does not close off the possibility of some change”.

On the issue of homosexuality Allen says a question asks “‘How can the Christian community direct its pastoral attention to families that contain persons with a homosexual tendency?’ ‘Avoiding any unjust discrimination, in what way can it take care of persons in these situations in the light of the Gospel?’ it asks. ‘How should the exigencies of the will of God be proposed in their situation?’ The question is introduced with the observation that ‘pastoral care of persons with a homosexual tendency today poses new challenges, due in part to the manner in which their rights are socially proposed.’  Whatever the wording, the presence of the question suggests that this issue too will be in the mix during next October’s summit”.

On those living together before marriage Allen says that “Argument at the last synod over what it means to say there can be positive values in such situations was intense, and the wording of this question may reignite the debate. To be sure, these three points aren’t the heart of the questionnaire. It’s largely focused on how the traditional pillars of Christian life, such as the sacraments, the Bible, and priestly formation, can be better utilized to support couples and families”.

Interestingly Allen says that the “statement also urges bishops to do everything possible to avoid “starting over from zero,” but rather to take account of what already happened in the first synod. One thing that happened last time, however, was intense clash on the three hot-button issues noted above, and there’s little about the new questionnaire to suggest they won’t be in play next October as well”.

“A searing report by the Senate Intelligence Committee”

14/12/2014

“The release of a searing report by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA’s interrogation program Tuesday was the latest morale-sinking moment for an agency that has been buffeted repeatedly throughout its history, from the Bay of Pigs fiasco to the Nixon-era domestic abuses to the 1980s scandals tied to Iran and Latin America. If anything, the cycle has only been compressed in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, with at least four major investigations, not to mention criminal probes, during a frenetic 13-year span. That collection now includes a 528-page account of alleged CIA abuses and dishonesty in its brutal treatment of terrorism suspects. [Read: Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA program]  The Senate report is a substantial blow to the CIA’s reputation, one that raises fundamental questions about the extent to which the agency can be trusted. And yet, as in those previous instances of political and public outrage, the agency is expected to emerge from the investigatory rubble with its role and power in Washington largely intact. Indeed, the CIA is in many ways at a position of unmatched power. Its budgets have been swollen by billions of dollars in counterterrorism expenditures. Its workforce has surged. Its overseas presence has expanded. And its arsenal now includes systems, including a fleet of armed drones, that would have made prior generations of CIA leaders gasp”.

A Bush campaign?

14/12/2014

A piece from the Wall Street Journal discusses the recent moves by former governor of Florida to begin his presidential campaign, “Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Monday said he is nearing a decision on whether to run for president and laid out a governing blueprint that could serve as the underpinnings of a 2016 campaign platform. Mr. Bush, addressing The Wall Street Journal CEO Council annual meeting, ticked off his priorities: an ‘all-in’ energy policy that expands the use of the nation’s natural resources; a reduction in business regulations; a simpler tax code; an ‘economically driven’ overhaul of the immigration system; and a ‘radical transformation’ of the education system”.

The article goes on to metion “The changes he proposed regarding education would break up the ‘politicized, unionised, government-run monopolies’ of local school districts and better serve the needs of individual children, he explained. Mr. Bush spoke forcefully about his interest in overhauling the education system. ‘The fact is, the end is near if we don’t fix this,’ he said, calling it a tragedy when low-income children are relegated to failing public schools. He reiterated his support for higher academic standards—whether they are the Common Core national standards or other equally rigorous benchmarks”.

Indeed, if the education system is to be reformed the Democrats must give way and help improve standards. This is crucial not just to the future of American leadership in the world.

The report goes on to note “After all of those issues are addressed, Mr. Bush said, the nation needs to tackle ‘the other big thing that is not going to happen soon, which is entitlement reform.’ Mr. Bush also offered some tough love to the incoming Republican majority in Congress that seemed aimed at heading off a showdown over the federal budget that could lead to a repeat of last year’s government shutdown”.

This is a crucial question also, however the GOP must realise that they too have a role in solving this problem in the long term. They must accept that taxes must rise.

Interestingly the piece ends “Bush said he disagrees with President Barack Obama ’s decision to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation through executive action that bypasses Congress, but he cautioned Republicans to take the lead on the issue ‘rather than have their heads explode.’ He said the immigration system should expand access to the U.S. based on the country’s economic needs and prioritise allowing ‘first-round draft picks’ to come, rather than uniting families. ‘It’s probably the easiest way to get to sustained economic growth, which is what we desperately need,’ he noted”.

He ends “Mr. Bush suggested that the Republican nominee needs to be willing to ‘lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles.’ For Mr. Bush, that would mean standing by the Common Core standards and his support for legalizing undocumented workers despite opposition from conservative quarters. The former governor said he expects foreign policy to play a significant role in the 2016 campaign, and he made it clear that he belongs to the interventionist wing of his party”.

Quds in Iraq

14/12/2014

United Nations sanctions monitors have said photographs taken inside Iraq appear to confirm that the head of Iran’s elite military Quds Force, one of Iran’s most powerful people, has been in the country in violation of a U.N. travel ban. Qassem Soleimani, chief of the force which is an overseas arm of the Revolutionary Guards, has been subject to an international travel ban and asset freeze by the U.N. Security Council since 2007. An Iranian general said in September that Soleimani was in Iran’s western neighbour and was playing a critical role in the fight against Sunni Islamic State militants. A seven-page report by the U.N. Panel of Experts on Iran, seen by Reuters on Monday, said Soleimani “has been photographed and videoed on a number of occasions, allegedly in Iraq.” “One photograph reportedly shows him near the city of Amerli in northern Iraq after Iraqi forces re-took the city from ISIL (an acronym often used for Islamic State),” it said. The report included a photo purporting to be of Soleimani in Iraq. Iran is supporting Iraqi government forces and Shi’ite militia against the militants, who have seized large swaths of Iraqi and Syrian territory”.

The Tunisian model

14/12/2014

An article from Foreign Affairs discusses the recent peaceful election in Tunisia and is seen by the authors as the model for the rest of the Arab world.

They begin, “Nearly four years ago, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled for his life when the first of the Arab Spring uprisings forced him from power. Most of his ministers were close on his heels, scurrying to save themselves in exile. Many of those who did not flee went into hiding or jail. Several months later, Tunisia held its first competitive multi-party elections. In that vote, however, Tunisians did not have complete freedom of choice; all the top-level figures associated with Ben Ali’s toppled regime were banned from running—a short-term measure that was designed to protect the fragile new democracy from slipping back toward dictatorship”.

He writes that several former members of the old regime are running for election,  “three former top-level Ben Ali­-era ministers will compete in presidential elections in late-November: Kemal Morjane, Mondher Znaidi, and Abderrahim Zouari. The sitting government gave them permission to run in the spirit of national reconciliation and inclusivity. That decision might seem surprising. After all, in addition to keeping the state running, new democratic politicians must decide how to cope with the cobwebs of authoritarianism. They are inevitably eager to ensure not only that the dictator is removed, but also that members of the dictator’s regime are purged”.

He makes the vital point that “If Ben Ali’s former ministers had been banned, they could have become a source of volatility—as symbols of political martyrdom to their followers. Banned candidates may also launch coups and civil wars, taking power with bullets after being excluded from the ballot box”.

Of course not all ideas are equal. Some have been proven to be worthless but some ideas have more muscle behind them than others so to say that let all of them fight it out in the debating ring and the best will win, is naïve.

He goes on to argue that “With few exceptions, Tunisia has avoided similar mistakes. Instead, the country has designed its transition to build consensus rather than exploit divisions, on constructive dialogue rather than protracted standoffs, and on inclusion rather than exclusion. For one, none of the major institutional organs of Ben Ali’s state—including the military—was excised or disbanded. Instead, each was reformed and molded to respond to Tunisia’s new and democratically elected government. That same restraint stopped Tunisia from making the mistake of blindly purging politicians and bureaucrats with considerable expertise. In 2011, a commission led by the respected jurist Yadh Ben Achour ruled that ministerial-level politicians under Ben Ali’s regime should be disqualified from the country’s first democratic elections, but not from future participation in public life or politics. This decision coincided with the disbanding of Ben Ali’s ruling RCD party, but did not prohibit former members of the party from contesting future elections”.

He ends “This month’s elections are thus both a celebration of Tunisia’s success and a crucial test. Throughout 2013, hardline Islamists (including conservative members of Tunisia’s big-tent Islamist party, Ennahda, and their further-right counterparts, the Wafa Movement) proposed to renew the directive that disqualified the Mounachidine and banned from standing for election anyone who had served in Ben Ali’s government. When it came to a vote in May, though, the legislation was rejected—even with the Mounachidine provision stripped from the final proposal”.

He concludes “Polls suggest that the Islamist coalition, Ennahda, is most likely to win the parliamentary vote, but that the presidency will most likely be captured by the secular 87-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, a former minister of foreign affairs for Ben Ali’s predecessor who also served as the interim prime minister of Tunisia after Ben Ali fled the country in early 2011. Essebsi does have some ties to Ben Ali (he served as the president of the Chamber of Deputies for a year in the early 1990s), but he is not considered a close ally of the deposed strongman. His age may prove to be an issue, but he is a competent leader who is neither a staunch defender of Ben Ali nor a zealous secularist unwilling to compromise with the country’s moderate Islamists. It would have been a shame, in other words, to disqualify him”.

 

“Candid assessment of the war”

14/12/2014

“Shortly after the speeches concluded, the flags were folded and the band silenced, the last American general to lead combat operations in Afghanistan offered his candid assessment of the war. “I don’t know if I’m pessimistic or optimistic,” said Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the departing commander, considering the United States military’s reduced role next year. “The fact that we are in less places, the fact that there are less of us as a coalition, is obviously concerning.” In an interview Monday in his office after the lowering of the flag that signaled the official end of the coalition’s war-fighting mission, General Anderson offered a nuanced take on the final year of America’s longest war. The record casualties of Afghan forces are not sustainable, and neither are their astounding desertion rates, he said. Political meddling, not intelligence, drives Afghan military missions. The police and the army do not work together”.

“Privately accused Iran”

12/12/2014

John Hudson writes that there has been a breech by Iran of the agreement.

He begins “The United States has privately accused Iran of going on an international shopping spree to acquire components for a heavy-water reactor that American officials have long feared could be used in the production of nuclear weapons-grade plutonium. A U.S. delegation informed a U.N. Security Council panel of experts monitoring Iranian sanctions in recent months that Iranian procurement agents have been increasing their efforts to illicitly obtain equipment for the IR-40 research reactor at the Arak nuclear complex”.

He goes on to report that “The American allegations, which have never before been reported, come more than a year after the Iranian government pledged as part of an interim agreement with the United States and other big powers to scale back Iran’s most controversial nuclear-related activities, including the enrichment of high-grade uranium, in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief. They stand in stark contrast to recent remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry, who has repeatedly credited Tehran with abiding by the terms of the November 2013 pact”.

Hudson writes that “The U.S. allegations were detailed in a confidential Nov. 7 report by an eight-member panel of experts that advises a U.N. Security Council committee that oversees international compliance with U.N. sanctions on Iran. The report, which cites an unnamed state as the source of the allegation, doesn’t identify the United States by name. But diplomatic sources confirmed that the United States presented the briefing. The confidential report, portions of which were made available to Foreign Policy, notes that ‘one member state highlighted during consultations with the panel a number of developments regarding proliferation-sensitive procurement by Iran.’ The delegation, the report continued, ‘informed the panel that it had observed no recent downturn in procurement’ in recent months. It did cite a ‘relative decrease in centrifuge enrichment related-procurement’ in recent months. But it added that it had detected ‘an increase in procurement on behalf of the IR-40 Heavy Water Research Reactor at Arak.’ The United States indicated that foreign businesses and purchasing agents interested in doing business with Iran have been taking advantage of the improved diplomatic atmosphere to broker new deals with Iran. At the same time, they say there is overwhelming evidence that Tehran continues to transfer huge amounts of weapons to its proxies and allies, including Syria and Iraq. In June, the U.N. panel of experts asserted that an Iranian shipment of rockets, mortars, and other arms seized in March by the Israeli navy while en route to Sudan violated the U.N. arms embargo”.

Hudson goes on to say that some have cast doubt on the claims, “Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based group that favours a nuclear deal with Iran, said there is cause to be cautious about Washington’s latest allegations. In the past, evidence of Iranian smuggling has often come to light months or years after the crime has occurred, which means that the sanctions violations cited by the Americans may ‘predate the interim agreement,’ she said. Davenport also pointed out that much of Iran’s illicit procurement activities are conducted by private entrepreneurs and regime hard-liners who, like their conservative counterparts in Washington, may be keen to scuttle a historic nuclear deal. She said that Tehran had scrupulously upheld its commitment to the United States and its diplomatic partners to suspend activities at Arak and fashion an agreement with the IAEA to ensure that the site is never used to develop nuclear weapons”.

Worryingly he notes “as the world’s big powers prepare for a final round of talks on the fate of Iran’s nuclear program, many foreign governments from Asia to the Middle East have effectively stopped reporting Iranian violations to the United Nations, according to several U.N.-based diplomats. In its November report, the panel, which is charged with tracking Iran’s nuclear purchasing program, said that they had not received a single report from a U.N. government of a sanctions violation by Iran between July and November 2014”.

Hudson ends the piece “There are various conflicting theories making the rounds in U.N. circles. Iran may have developed a more sophisticated system for concealing the illicit trade, or it may have simply slowed down its illicit activity to avoid confrontations with the West that could undercut prospects for a nuclear deal under negotiation with the world’s six key powers that could ease its economic isolation and reset its relationship with the United States. The temporary diplomatic pact in place since last November — which included a commitment by Tehran to suspend some of its more advanced enrichment activities — may have simply reduced Tehran’s need for foreign supplies for parts of its nuclear program, particularly for the enrichment of uranium. The current slowdown in activity by the panel contrasts with the flurry of international reports describing the ongoing seizure of sensitive materials at sea”.

Worryingly for the future keeping of the agreement Hudson goes on to write that “The apparent decline in sanctions-evading activities has not translated into increased cooperation with the U.N. or the IAEA. Tehran has largely ignored edicts emerging from the U.N. Security Council, which it derides as an illegitimate tool of the United States and its European allies. While Iran has authorised increasing numbers of inspections by experts at the IAEA, meanwhile, it has yet to comply with the U.N. nuclear energy agency’s requests for information about the Iranian military’s involvement in the country’s nuclear program”.

Hudson adds to this gloom when he mentions that “Iran has long denied it is pursuing a nuclear weapon, it has publicly boasted about its ability to circumvent U.N. and Western sanctions aimed at denying its ability to enrich uranium. ‘Of course we bypass sanctions,’ said Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, during a televised address to the nation last August. ‘We are proud that we bypass sanctions, because the sanctions are illegal.’ Iran’s defiance reflects a deep antipathy towards the U.N. Security Council, which it claims lacks legitimacy. Tehran has argued that the 15-nation council overstepped its authority by enforcing limits on its nuclear program”.

Interestngly he closes ,”the prospects of continued U.N. sanctions are going to be hard for Iran to withstand. “It is very difficult for the Iranians to accept that they are not going to get any of the big sanctions lifted at an early stage because it would leave them in a vulnerable position as they defend the deal back in Iran,” said Trita Parsi, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program and occasional contributor to Foreign Policy. “The way the Iranians see this is they are being asked to make immediate, painful concessions but the relief is going to come quite late on sanctions. [President Hassan] Rouhani needs to be able to show tangible economic impact relatively soon after the deal because there are going to be elements in Iran that are going to go after the deal.” Parsi said that American negotiators went into the talks signaling that they planned to provide limited relief from U.N. sanctions. It remains unclear how much Washington has yielded on the topic in recent weeks. “From the Iranian perspective the view is that the [U.S.] president will have greater difficulty lifting U.S. sanctions as result of a Republican Senate,” he said. Tehran believes that “something has to be done on the U.N. or the European side, and their preference is for the U.N. side. At the end of the day something has got to give.”

A deal by June?

12/12/2014

John F. Kerry predicted Sunday that a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity could be reached in three or four months, or even sooner. Appearing at the Saban Forum, which is affiliated with the Brookings Institution, Kerry defended the decision two weeks ago to extend nuclear negotiations with Iran for up to seven months. The extension came after the parties failed to agree on a comprehensive pact in last-minute talks leading up to a Nov. 24 deadline. But Kerry said it will become apparent, long before the new June 30 deadline, if an agreement is feasible. “We’re not looking at seven months,” Kerry said. “I think the target is three, four months, and hopefully even sooner if that is possible.” Kerry’s hour-long speech at the forum — called “Stormy Seas: The United States and Israel in a Tumultuous Middle East” — was preceded by a heavy dose of skepticism from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke for 10 minutes on a video link from Jerusalem, which he called “the united capital of Israel.” Netanyahu suggested Israeli opposition to a deal with Iran was a factor in the negotiations’ failure. Netanyahu lobbied hard against a deal, personally calling every foreign ministerfrom the countries negotiating with Iran, known as the P5+1, to outline his objections. On Sunday, his words seemed to rebuke Kerry’s efforts to find a compromise with Iran”.

“More Sino-Russian competition”

12/12/2014

An article from Foreign Affairs argues that the Russo-Sino friendship will continue. It truly began with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent energy deals between the two countries.

It begins “Recently, China and Russia have challenged the international order by giving each other diplomatic backing to confront Ukraine and Hong Kong, respectively. But Western observers have mostly misunderstood the countries’ reasons for building closer ties with each other. They have been motivated less by shared material interests than by a common sense of national identity that defines itself in opposition to the West and in support of how each views the legacy of traditional communism. Moscow and Beijing have disagreements about the future order they envision for their regions. But they agree that the geopolitical order of the East should be in opposition to that of the West—and that has led to significantly closer bilateral relations”.

He goes on to write “China is now in the position to act as the dominant partner in the relationship, it has shown restraint. Leaders in Moscow and Beijing want to avoid allowing chauvinistic nationalism in either country to trump their mutual national interest in minimizing the influence of the West in their respective regions. To that end, the governments of both countries have been consciously emphasising foreign policies that dismiss Western legitimacy, while carefully refraining from commenting on the foreign policy ambitions of each other. Chinese President Xi Jinping has described a so-called China Dream that involves a new geopolitical order in Asia built by the governments of that region—with Beijing playing an outsize role. Russian President Vladimir Putin has likewise clarified that his goal is to create a Eurasian Union, in which relations between former Soviet states are determined by Moscow. Both states have accused the United States of following an aggressive Cold War mentality by trying to contain their rightful ambitions in their regions”.

He says that there are “at least six reasons to believe that this tacit partnership between Russia and China is durable. First, Putin and Xi have been relying on very similar ideologies to justify their rule. They both emphasize pride in the socialist era, Sinocentrism or Russocentrism that seeks to extend the countries’ existing internal political order outward, and anti-hegemonism”.

Next he says “China and Russia are underscoring their historical differences with the West and emphasising their Cold War­–era divide with the United States. Officially sanctioned writing in both countries makes scant mention of the Cold War Sino-Soviet dispute. Although some Chinese historians had previously acknowledged that the Korean War began because of North Korean aggression in South Korea, the latest textbooks universally blame the United States for the war”.

He adds thirdly, “both countries have argued that the global financial crisis of 2008 demonstrates that the West’s economic and political model is on the verge of failure and inferior to their own models. (The latter half of this argument has resonated more in China than in Russia.) Leaders in both Beijing and Moscow have refused to allow civil society to pose a threat to their rule, cracking down more ruthlessly in 2014 than at any time since the beginning of the 1990s”.

The fourth reason he argues is the importance of “Chinese-Russian bilateral relations in the face of outside threats” while the fifth is that both “have made a successful effort to stay on the same side in international disputes. Rather than clash openly over regional issues, such as Vietnam’s territorial and energy policies, China and Russia have discouraged public discussion of their differences, thus minimising public pressure in each country to stand up to the other. At the same time, each country has trumpeted the threat of the United States and its allies in any dispute that bears on either country. This campaign has been so effective that it was sometimes difficult this year to distinguish between Russian and Chinese writing on the Ukraine crisis or the Hong Kong demonstrations”.

There will soon come a time however, if it has not come already, when this cosy agreement will break. Not in a dramatic fashion but there will come a time when their interests will diverge and one will come out better for it. This will lead to resentment from one “power” over another.

He ends “China’s rhetoric in support of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Russia’s rhetoric endorsing Xi’s thinking about East Asia is not a coincidence. Rather, it is a feature of a new, post–Cold War geopolitical order. As long as the current political elites in China and Russia hold on to power, there is no reason to expect a major shift in either country’s national identity or in the Sino-Russian relationship. Countries hoping to create a divide between the two—including Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—are bound to be disappointed. It is no accident, in other words, that the United States has failed to win China’s support against Russian expansionism in Ukraine. Whether the issue is North Korea, Iran, or some other challenge to the West, one should be prepared for more Sino-Russian competition, not less”.

“An additional 1,500 troops to Iraq”

12/12/2014

The US-led coalition fighting Islamic State (IS) militants has pledged to send an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq, a top US commander has said. Lt Gen James Terry, who is co-ordinating efforts against IS, said the soldiers would be in addition to 3,100 US soldiers already promised. He did not say which coalition nations would provide the extra troops or what role they would play. The US has agreed to send troops to Iraq in an advisory role. Coalition members discussed the Islamic State issue and made the troop pledge at a security conference in the region last week, Gen Terry said. Gen Terry also told the conference that air strikes against IS were taking a toll on the militants’ campaign in Iraq and Syria. The US state department says nearly 60 countries belong to the coalition, although most play no direct role in the air strikes. It is hoped the deployment of additional soldiers will increase the effectiveness of the Iraqi army, much of which proved ineffective under an IS onslaught last summer”.

Francis, Turkey and the UGCC

12/12/2014

Victor Gaetan comments on the recent visit of Pope Francis to Turkey.

He starts, “In the last few days of November, Pope Francis will use a visit to Turkey to advance two goals: winning greater protection for Christians in the Middle East and drawing the Catholic and Orthodox Churches closer together. Neither is new; Pope Benedict XVI was in Istanbul eight years ago with a similar agenda and near identical itinerary. But the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine have make Francis’ mission more urgent than ever”.

Gaetan notes the theological and political signifance of Turkey, “Turkey has never had a large Catholic population, but the country looms large in Church history. Catholics believe that Jesus’ mother, Mary, died in Ephesus (Selçuk today). Turkey is also the birthplace of St. Paul, whose missionary journeys in Asia Minor and subsequent letters to new Christian communities comprise several New Testament books. Further, the Book of Revelation was composed on the Aegean island of Patmos, off the Turkish coast. Turkey is also one of the Vatican’s oldest formal bilateral relationships: The Vatican and Turkey established diplomatic relations in 1868, more than 100 years before the United Kingdom (1982), the United States (1984), and Mexico (1992). The relationship hasn’t always been easy. When he took power in Turkey in the early 1920s, Kemal Ataturk created a radically anti-religious regime. The state confiscated church property, banned religious garb, prohibited the public display of religious symbols, and made Muslim imams public employees. Even so, the Catholic archbishop, Angelo Roncalli, dutifully represented the Vatican in Turkey between 1934 and 1944, and his humility and respect for Turkish culture made him a popular, effective diplomat”.

He adds that “Although it might seem incongruous for the notoriously frugal pontiff to be seen in Erdogan’s ostentatious palace, the Vatican doesn’t consider the president’s style choices relevant to this mission. Nor will the pope heed some commentators’ advice to talk about anti-Christian prejudice and violence in the country, which many believe some Turkish officials are stoking, and which has resulted in several high-profile murders over the last eight years—including the beheading of a beloved bishop by his driver. Two years ago, Erdoğan Bayraktar, the minister of environment and urbanism, declared that “Christianity is no longer a religion” but a culture, suggesting that it deserves neither respect nor institutional recognition. Instead, the pope will emphasise points of agreement with Erdogan. Following Catholic catechism, Francis emphasizes shared Christian and Muslim belief in one God. Islam considers Jesus to be a prophet, born to a virgin, and Mary is the most frequently mentioned woman in the Koran. Francis will visit Mary’s House in Selçuk, a popular Muslim shrine and Catholic pilgrimage site, thus highlighting common elements between the two faiths”.

He notes that despite these diffeences there are similarities, “Francis will also focus on the two leaders’ common enemy: Islamic fundamentalism. Most of the victims of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have been Muslim. But the group has also systematically targeted Christian communities“.

Yet the concern is that this is only half the story. Turkey has been a supporter of Hamas and other organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. This is classic realism not just on the part of the Holy See but as a result of the realities of life. However, this should not blind us to the other realities that Turkey is not a democracy and is a supporter of terrorism.

Gatean writes importantly that “what’s most urgent for Christians when it comes to Turkey is the refugee situation. Of the estimated 13.6 million people displaced by conflict in Iraq and Syria, some 1.1 million are Iraqi Christians and at least 500,000 are Syrian Christians. Turkey has received approximately 1.6 million refugees, providing shelter, food, and medical care for about 1.1 million of them in over 20 refugee centers. To make progress in each of these areas, Francis will appeal to Erdogan as Ataturk’s more pious successor. Francis will urge Erdogan to reject violence done in Allah’s name against innocents. He may also put forward a plan proposed by lay Catholic leader Andrea Riccardi to save Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, now under siege. Aleppo has important religious sites and a significant Christian population. Riccardi envisions creating humanitarian corridors to Aleppo to allow in supplies to civilians and a UN peacekeeping force. To date, the proposal has attracted support from a wide range of international figures including Muslim leaders from Pakistan, Indonesia, Lebanon, and France. Erdogan’s support of the plan could turn it into a reality”.

Gaetan goes on to downplay the Schism between East and West, “The pope’s second assignment while in Turkey is easier because it is more straightforward: publicly demonstrating his respect and affection for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as part of an ongoing, 50-year dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, which comprised one church until 1054’s Great Schism. The pope also aims to boost the standing of the beleaguered patriarch in the face of a dismissive Turkish government and an often overbearing institutional daughter, the Russian Orthodox Church. Francis’ visit is timed to the November 30 Feast of St. Andrew, the apostle who founded the Christian Church in the East. St. Andrew was the biological brother of St. Peter, who founded the Catholic Church in the West. There’s no dispute between the two churches regarding apostolic lineage or the validity of their respective sacraments; the two differ mainly in form, not doctrine—except for the main stumbling block, Catholic doctrine on papal primacy”.

He writes about the harsh treatment of the Orthodox by the Turkish government, it “does not recognize the Patriarch’s global role, preferring to see him as a local bishop with a tiny, and shrinking, flock of some 20,000 Greek Orthodox nationwide—just .03 percent of the population. Even worse, the Turkish government closed the Orthodox Church’s only seminary in 1971, thus denying it the ability to produce new leaders (by Turkish law, the patriarch is required to be a Turkish citizen)”.

Much of the problem between the East and West are as a result of the Easts loathing of the UGCC, “The Russian Orthodox Church blames the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), centered in Western Ukraine, for fomenting war and creating an alliance with “schismatic” elements of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. In the Russian church’s view, the UGCC, together with two Orthodox Church entities seeking independence from Moscow”.

He adds, “Francis is thus in an awkward situation, which if exacerbated, tensions between the church’s branches could blow up. Currently, the level of misunderstanding between the pro-Western side (UGCC and UOC–KP) and the Russian Orthodox Church—is worrisome. Francis still sees Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch, as a potential mediator in what could become a civil war, especially if the domestic religious groups dig in or intensify their faceoff. Bartholomew is considered wise and good, a Holy Man who enjoys being called the “Green Patriarch” for his dedication to the environment. But Francis might be mistaken if he believes that, after 2014, peacemakers in Ukraine are still blessed”.

He ends “In other words, Francis might face a harder task in Turkey than his predecessors. Although willing to enter dangerous zones to advance peace and seek kindred partners, it remains to be seen if Erdogan is willing to use his immense power in a papal partnership or if Bartholomew will win back the clout needed to function as first among equals. One thing is certain, Francis is undeterred in his peace-seeking mission”.

 

Consistory in February

12/12/2014

Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., announced the Holy Father’s wish to convene a Consistory for the creation of new cardinals on 14 and 15 February 2015. He also announced two other important appointments: a meeting of the Council of Cardinals for the reform of the Roman Curia (9 to 11 February) and a meeting of the College of Cardinals (12 to 13 February) to discuss matters relating to the reorganisation of the Holy See”.