Archive for February, 2015

No more half measures for Ukraine


Kurt Volker has called for tougher measures against Russia.

He opens “One need only look to the forced retreat of Ukrainian forces Feb. 18 in the strategic city of Debaltseve to see that the cease-fire that emerged last week from the meeting of French, German, Ukrainian, and Russian leaders in Minsk is less than meets the eye. Even if a shaky truce begins to hold after the Ukrainian retreat, the cease-fire agreement is laden with future problems that will emerge in the coming weeks and months. This half-measure cannot be allowed to stand as the final commitment to Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity. While welcoming an immediate end to violence — should that really occur — the United States should press full steam ahead on a wider strategy for supporting Ukraine financially, strengthening Kiev’s armed forces, seeking the withdrawal of all Russian forces, and restoring Ukrainian sovereignty over its own territory”.

He rightly points out “The problems with the cease-fire as negotiated are many. First and fundamentally, it does not constitute a peace agreement that restores Ukrainian sovereignty. In other words, the Russian-supported rebels have not relinquished any claim to control part of Ukraine. Moreover, there is no requirement that Russian heavy weapons be withdrawn fully from Ukrainian territory. The notion that this might happen by the end of 2015 is scarcely credible at this point. Further, the cease-fire establishes an international presence inside Ukraine, monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to police a line of control and separation of forces. This is tantamount to the institutionalization of a frozen conflict inside Ukraine — along the lines of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Transnistria in Moldova. This is exactly what the Kremlin wants”.

He makes the excellent point that “Any future progress toward a settlement now also depends on Kiev giving significant new powers to the breakaway regions. Yet even this concession is no guarantee of a lasting deal: All that the Russian-supported rebels need to do is simply state that what Kiev offers is not sufficient, thus legitimising a pretext for continuing the conflict long into the future. It adds up to near-permanent leverage for Russia”.

He realistically argues that “as with the Minsk agreement in September 2014, there is little reason to think this cease-fire will last more than the few weeks it will take for Europe to again lose interest in Ukraine. Indeed, given events in Debaltseve, it may never have really taken effect at all. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Russia is using the time to reinforce the rebels militarily and plan for the next land grab when the cease-fire inevitably breaks down for good”.

The solutions he suggests begin with the most fundamental, “The United States, Europe, and Ukraine need to use the time as well. They must proceed full-bore with plans to strengthen Ukraine economically, politically, and militarily. This is important not only for saving Kiev, but for Europe more broadly; the viability of the post-Cold War settlement of borders and independent states may well rest on whether the international community can stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advances in Ukraine now. For starters, we must be absolutely clear about the goal: It is the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over its own territory”.

He says a strong aid package is needed, “Such funds would be tied to Kiev’s implementation of economic and political reforms to fight corruption, introduce transparency, and improve the business climate. It is essential that the part of Ukraine that is still free be inclusive, prosperous, and sustainable”.

He forcefully adds that “When it comes to military aid, the time for half-measures is over. We need to undertake a full-scale effort to train, equip, and advise the Ukrainian defense forces. This should include the delivery of sophisticated anti-tank, counter-artillery, and anti-aircraft systems; intelligence-sharing; and military advisors embedded in the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. Some will continue to argue — as did Merkel on Feb. 7 in Munich — that there is no amount of arms the West could send to Ukraine sufficient to defeat Russia, and thus no arms should be provided at all. That is the wrong measure. The goal of having a better trained and equipped Ukrainian military is not to attempt to march on Moscow, but to increase the costs of further Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and thus give time for sanctions, declining oil prices, and other pressure to mount. To the extent that Russia bears heavier costs, it will give the Kremlin an incentive to seek a negotiated solution and make it think twice about sending its men into harm’s way”.

Yet the fear is that even these measures will not be enough. There is no guarantee that arming the Ukrainians will change the calculus of Putin. Related to this is the fact that Putin may have no interest in talking anyway and may just prefer to keep Russian meddling in Ukraine for as long as possible. Thus, there could be nothing that Putin may want that would end the crisis in Ukraine. The only other option is to further esclate the response from NATO towards Russia.

Volker ends, “The European Union and the United States should also continue to raise the sanctions stakes on Russia. Travel and financial sanctions on Putin and his family would be appropriate at this point, as would taking further steps to attempt to restrict Russian access to global financial transactions. It is time to urge the banks making up the SWIFT network to suspend Russian bank participation in financial data transactions. Finally, we should put in place preventive NATO-nation deployments to the Baltic states, Georgia, Moldova, Romania, and western Ukraine near Transnistria. We must not make the mistake, as we did in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, of waiting for Russia to launch subversive military action and then deciding that any direct response would be escalatory. Deterrent forces must be put in place now to prevent Russia from opening a new front in the conflict”.

He correctly writes that “pursuing these measures, Western leaders should be prepared for Russia to escalate further. Moscow may seek to open new fronts through ethnic demonstrations in the Baltic states or energy shut-offs. These should not deter efforts. The fact is that Russia has used past Western passivity to keep moving the goal posts on its ambitions in Europe’s east. It will continue to do so — unless preventive actions to support Ukraine and deter Russia go into effect now. The West is far wealthier and far stronger and has far more staying power than Russia. But only through steadfast resolve, even under escalation, can we convince Putin that the costs to him personally, and to Russia, are unbearable. And only then can Ukraine have any chance at re-establishing a sustainable peace”.



Bibi proved of lying


Binyamin Netanyahu’s dramatic declaration to world leaders in 2012 that Iran was about a year away from making a nuclear bomb was contradicted by his own secret service, according to a top-secret Mossad document. It is part of a cache of hundreds of dossiers, files and cables from the world’s major intelligence services – one of the biggest spy leaks in recent times. Brandishing a cartoon of a bomb with a red line to illustrate his point, the Israeli prime minister warned the UN in New York that Iran would be able to build nuclear weapons the following year and called for action to halt the process. But in a secret report shared with South Africa a few weeks later, Israel’s intelligence agency concluded that Iran was “not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons”. The report highlights the gulf between the public claims and rhetoric of top Israeli politicians and the assessments of Israel’s military and intelligence establishment”.

Obama vs Bibi


Following on from the report noting the relationship between President Obama and the prime minister of Israel, Netanyahu, the wider implications of the row are examined.

The article opens “Next week Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu plans to address a joint meeting of Congress. InvitationGate has already triggered a fierce debate and generated some pretty tough words between the prime minister and the Obama administration. National Security Advisor Susan Rice told Charlie Rose on Feb. 23 that the partisanship engendered by Netanyahu’s upcoming visit was “destructive of the fabric of the [U.S.-Israeli] relationship.” On Wednesday, Netanyahu accused the Obama administration and its allies of “giving up” on stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Kerry got into the act too by mocking Netanyahu’s support for the Iraq War and saying he was also wrong on the U.S.-Iran interim agreement. So what’s really going on here? Is InvitationGate just another episode in the ongoing soap opera that has passed for the pseudo-relationship between Obama and Netanyahu or could it reflect a more permanent dysfunction in relations between the two countries? In short, is this brouhaha a headline or a trend line?”

The piece goes on to note “The answer to that question may not be available anytime soon, at least not until the alternative can be tested: Will a new U.S. president — perhaps a third Bush or a second Clinton, let’s say — and another Israeli prime minister get on any better? But right now, that’s still very much a thought experiment. Indeed, depending on the results of the March 17 elections, this very odd couple may have to endure their disgruntled relationship for another 18 months”.

He posits that “the Obama-Bibi disconnect is hardly the first manifestation of serious tension in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Other U.S. presidents have tangled with tough Israeli prime ministers. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened sanctions (and he was serious) over Suez if Israel didn’t withdraw its forces; during the Ford administration, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger threatened reassessment over Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s failure to sign a second Sinai disengagement; President Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin went at it over settlements; President Ronald Reagan delayed F-16 deliveries over Begin’s extension of administrative law to the Golan Heights; and George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker delayed — with the aim of denying — housing loan guarantees because of Yitzhak Shamir’s settlement policies. In 1990, Bush, believing that Shamir had lied to him about settlements during their first meeting, would square off in a nasty battle over housing loan guarantees to Israel, one that included a bruising tousle with AIPAC and Baker telling Congress in open testimony that Israel should call when it was serious about peace (he even provided the White House phone number)”.

He add that despite these tensions “previous administrations and Israeli governments actually produced stuff like peace treaties, peace conferences, and disengagement agreements. In this case, for the past five years, we’ve seen tension without much production. And the perfect storm that brought on this latest contretemps — clashing interests over an Iran deal and a Republican-controlled Congress unhappy with the president’s foreign policy all set against the backdrop of impending Israeli elections — isn’t going away. Deal or no deal with Iran, the divide between Netanyahu and Obama isn’t going to get any smaller. There are probably no resets here. One or both will need to leave the scene if trust and confidence is to be restored”.

Yet this may have been true but what Netanyahu  has done has been not only diplomatically outrageous and unprecedented but that Netanyahu has openly criticised the Obama administration. The GOP have been used as pawns in Netanyahu’s game with President Obama. Worse still have shown no backbone and seem to be quite willing to take this role as long as it Netanyahu look good.

Pointedly the writer adds that the consequences of this could be profound, “There is one elemental fact in the U.S.-Israeli story that must be factored in — always. Where a nation stands on a given issue is often determined by where it sits. No matter how close the United States and Israel may be as friends and allies, there are practical limits to how much the United States and Israel can agree on”.

He continues noting that Israel could go its own way. If this were the case then an even stronger case could be made for those who seek a more more normal relationship with Israel. It would be thus harder to deny that Israel’s interests and US interests are not equal and more often than not barely compatible.

Related to this he writes that “As the Gallup sympathy polls conducted since 2001 reveal, support for Israel runs deep, largely because of the perception that the United States and Israel share common values in a turbulent Middle East. Still, the argument that the occupation of the West Bank, Israeli settlement policies, and the changing demographic character of the Israeli electorate are eroding the democratic and even Jewish character of the state can over time erode that sense of value affinity, particularly among a younger generation of Americans. That Israel and the United States appear to be at odds with one another at the official level can only reinforce the perception among the public that something is amiss. Indeed, when the image of Israel as an ally of the United States changes in the mind of America, so too will the U.S.-Israeli relationship change — for the worse”.

Israel is slipping away from its democratic roots in the 1950s ad 1960s and moving to what ironically is a mirror image of Iran, a theocracy where religion over powers the state to be detriment of both.

He ends writing “the way a traditionally bipartisan issue — deemed to be a long-standing national interest — has been compromised by the partisan tactics of both the prime minister and the Republican leadership and perhaps some Democrats too. This business played out in a way that it was seen to be far more than only being about Israeli fears of a bad U.S. deal with Iran. The prime minister might have approached both Republicans and Democrats in a more direct manner and asked for an opportunity to speak to Congress, or even to a bipartisan group of senior lawmakers. The White House would have still been opposed. But Netanyahu would have demonstrated that he was prepared to go to great lengths to defend Israeli interests and still preserve bipartisanship. But InvitationGate wasn’t just about Iran. It was also about how Netanyahu could frame a campaign commercial weeks before the Israeli elections and how the Republicans could steal a march on the president, put a unique stamp on the party’s foreign policy, and slam an Iran deal that the Republicans fear, too. And those factors made a legitimate concern also a highly politicised one”.

Rather spurisously he concludes “unlike Lehman Brothers, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is too big to fail. I’d bet that under either a third Bush or a second Clinton, things might not be great between the United States and Netanyahu, but they would be better than they are right now. And a violent and dysfunctional Arab world remains the most compelling set of talking points for an enduring U.S.-Israeli relationship”.

It is rather the opposite. As President Obama said in his speech to the people of Israel when he visited, Israel has serious problems that need to be addressed. If these are solved then the relationship between the two countries can be renewed. As Walt has argued, only when Israel is treated like any other country will America and the Middle East seem more stable and secure. Thus, the very opposite should occur to what the writer is saying. Instead of holding Israel tighter, America should dramatically loosen its embrace with Israel.

China promises a power plant


China has promised to help build a hydroelectric power plant in a violent Afghan border region, as well as road and rail links to Pakistan, in the latest sign it is taking a more active role in Afghanistan. The assistance will include an unspecified amount of financing, an Afghan foreign ministry spokesman, Sirajul Haq Siraj, said on Tuesday, a day after senior Afghan, Chinese and Pakistani diplomats met in Kabul. “China agreed to support relevant initiatives for projects including the Kunar hydropower plant and strengthening road and rail connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing in Beijing. The planned 1,500 megawatt dam on the Kunar River, was previously supported only by Pakistan, which could buy some of the electricity it generates. In 2013, Pakistan said it would also build a motorway connecting the Pakistani city of Peshawar to Kabul, as well as a railway line from Chaman, on the Pakistani side of Afghanistan’s southeastern border to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar”.

LNG winners and losers


A piece from Foreign Policy notes the gain for Asia as a result of the recent fall in oil prices.

It begins “The swoon in oil prices is driving another big change in global energy markets — a collapse in the price of liquefied natural gas in Asia. That promises big implications for producers and consumers alike and could even have knock-on effects on Russia’s plans to shift more of its energy business to the east. For years, Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea have been the biggest importers of tankers full of liquefied natural gas (LNG), and as a result, the region has always paid more than other parts of the world. That so-called “Asian premium” grew so big early last year, thanks to rising oil prices and steadily growing demand for gas, that countries such as Japan paid five times as much as the United States did for the clean-burning fuel”.

Johnson goes on to write that “Now that premium is evaporating, making gas cheaper for big Asian buyers — and making the future a whole lot darker for gas exporters like the United States and Australia. Delivery prices for LNG in Japan reached $20 per million British thermal units in March 2014, twice as high as prices in Europe. One year later, LNG prices in Asia have plummeted to about $7 — slightly lower than what Europeans now pay. Part of that plunge is due to lower oil prices, which have fallen about 50 percent since last summer. Most gas contracts in Asia are linked to the price of oil, so when crude gets more expensive, so does gas — and vice versa”.

The key point Johnson notes is that “part of the sharp decline is also due to the same sorts of supply and demand fundamentals that have roiled oil markets. Asian economies like Japan and China are slowing down, which depresses their demand for gas even as more and more of it floods into the market. As a result, loaded LNG tankers have been piling up around big Asian trading hubs, hoarding cargoes that are only one-third as valuable as they would have been last year. Other tankers slow-foot it on their way to the Pacific, hoping the market improves by the time they arrive. One-tenth of the global LNG tanker fleet is currently idled, waiting out the doldrums”.

Johnson continues, “That’s what it is starting to look like in the United States and Canada. Both are trying to turn a domestic energy boom into an export bonanza, and both are banking heavily on the Asian market. But a slump in demand for gas, and much lower prices, make the prospect of building additional, multi-billion terminals a tough proposition. Things are just as glum Down Under, where analysts were already wringing their hands about the coming “train crash” of Australia’s LNG hopes. Of course, if it’s any consolation for Washington and Ottawa, the sudden transformation of the global gas market is also creating headaches for Russia. Moscow had big plans to jump into the LNG market with both feet, as well as expand overland energy trade with China. The price collapse threatens both”.

He goes on to write that “And cheaper gas could also be good news for countries like China and India, which are trying to figure out how to use less coal in their electricity sectors to curtail deadly air pollution. Chinese energy giants such as PetroChina, Sinopec, and China National Offshore Oil Corporation are all snapping up bargain-priced LNG cargoes for delivery this spring. In India, the sudden availability of relatively affordable gas means that the country can use power plants that had been offline due a lack of supplies. That means the country should avoid big power shortages this year, New Delhi’s energy minister said. That said, cheaper LNG won’t kick coal entirely out of the energy mix, because the dirty black rock has also gotten cheaper thanks to the global slump. Natural gas prices would have to fall even further to be economically competitive with coal for power generation in China and India. As Energy Aspects, a U.K.-based consultancy, noted recently: If using previously pricey LNG to run power plants was like drinking champagne as a thirst quencher, using slightly cheaper LNG for power is like chugging cava”.

The falling cost of LNG has effects in Europe as well, “the collapse of the Asian premium carries benefits. Europe has long been second-tier market for LNG cargoes, because it offered skimpier returns for gas sellers. Even so, LNG imports were still more expensive than Russian natural gas brought overland in pipelines. Many cargoes that did land were simply re-exported to Asia, chasing a bigger payday. All that simply reinforced Europe’s dependence on Moscow for energy supplies. But cheaper LNG in Asia means Europe is becoming as attractive a market. That’s great news for countries such as Lithuania and Poland, which are turning to LNG to break Moscow’s grip. And for Europe as a whole, the availability of more LNG sloshing around gives Brussels more energy options”.

Naturally there are losers as a result of this fall in prices, “Countries such as the United States, Canada, and especially Australia were pinning hopes for multi-billion dollar gas export projects on a lucrative Asian market. With the collapse of the Asian premium, the economics on many of those projects — and especially the high-cost developments in Australia — simply look untenable. That holds true for yet-to-be-developed gas export plans in East Africa, too. U.S. gas export projects, especially those on the West Coast, are finding it hard to attract the billions in financing needed to build the sophisticated terminals. Some analysts expect the vast majority of the 30-odd projects under consideration will wither on the vine due to lousy economics. A similar gloom is descending on Canada’s hopes to turn the Pacific coast into a gas-export hub”.

He ends, “Cheaper LNG in Asia could also produce another, less expected, loser: Russia. Lower prices, and Western sanctions, have already put Russia’s LNG projects under severe pressure. Companies building one LNG terminal on the Yamal peninsula are hoping demand will pick up enough in the next few years to make the economics work. But even Russia’s pipeline dreams could be in danger. Last year, as part of its long-term plan to shift more energy sales to Asia, Russia inked a pair of mammoth, if preliminary, natural-gas deals with China. Work on the first, the Power of Siberia pipeline, is already underway. A flood of cheap LNG imports into Asia calls into question the viability of the second big project, the Altai pipeline from Western Siberia into Western China. That could derail the project right when Russia needs to get in on the ground floor of the Asian market”.

Afghanistan, talking to the Taliban?


Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Dr. Abdullah Abdullah on Monday hinted at early beginning of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership, but said national interests would be kept supreme. Chairing a meeting of the council of ministers, Abdullah assured the Afghans that national interest would not be damaged in the peace process, the details of which would be released in the next few days. He said the nation would be kept onboard with regard to any progress in the yet to be started negotiations and that no behind the scene deal would be struck with the insurgents. “The people of Afghanistan will be informed from where these talks will start and what are the developments during the talks,” Abdullah said. “The chief of staff of Pakistan’s [army] and his delegation visited Afghanistan a few days ago, we welcome that they said Afghanistan’s enemy is Pakistan’s enemy, and Pakistan has told those people that are involved in the war that they do not have any other option than negotiating with Afghanistan’s government”, he said. The CEO said every Afghan wanted peace and stability and they were optimistic the new peace bid would help stabilise Afghanistan”.

“Libya isn’t Iraq or Syria”


A report discusses ISIS in Libya, “The Islamic State’s videotaped beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach — and the airstrikes Cairo launched in response — have sparked fears that the terrorist group is trying to expand its self-proclaimed caliphate into a third country. That may be harder than the militants think: Libya isn’t Iraq or Syria, and it won’t be easy for the Islamic State to duplicate its earlier successes. That’s because the militants face competition from other well-entrenched Islamist groups in Libya and also because the country lacks the kind of sectarian divide that provides kindling for escalating violence. The Islamic State’s success in Iraq and Syria was fueled in part by its control of some of the region’s richest oil fields, but the group will be hard-pressed to turn Libya’s oil reserves into a steady source of financing”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer, said the Islamic State’s presence in Libya “has great potential to blow up into a security nightmare, but [is] also one that is a football used by many competing sides.” Skinner, who is now at the Soufan Group, a New York-based security intelligence firm, said the question now is “how much traction do they get in the slippery soil of Libyan conflict and politics?” The terrorist outfit, also known as ISIS, appears to be steadily expanding its operations inside Libya, though the gains there don’t compare with its campaigns in Iraq or Syria. On Sunday, Feb. 15, it released a video showing the killings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians whom it had kidnapped in Libya. In retaliation, Egypt on Monday launched an airstrike against Islamic State targets inside the coastal Libyan town of Derna. The group has also hit oil facilities and pipelines. Additionally, in January the group claimed responsibility for an attack against the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, which killed 10 people”.

Worryingly the author notes the moves by ISIS in Libya, “The Islamic State’s efforts to broaden its theater of operations beyond Syria and Iraq began last year, when the terrorist group dispatched one of its top recruiters from headquarters in Syria to Libya, a senior U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy. The militant group also started encouraging its Libyan members to return home to fight, he said. Libya has traditionally provided human cannon fodder to wage jihad in other countries; on a per capita basis, Libya’s 6 million people have provided more fighters for conflicts in Iraq and Syria than any other countries. But now, the home front is turning into a battlefront. Skinner said the Islamic State counted about 550 Libyan fighters in its ranks as of late last summer, a number that he said has certainly grown. He said that today there are about 1,000 to 3,000 fighters loyal to the Islamic State in Libya, many of whom have returned home with considerable front-line combat experience”.

ISIS is so advanced in Libya he notes that “The Islamic State now has self-declared provinces in Tripoli, the southwest region of Fezzan, and the eastern region of Barqa, which includes the cities of Benghazi and Derna. Although the group is getting stronger inside Libya, Joscelyn said its strength is sometimes overstated. He noted that it does not control all of Derna, where rival groups like the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade still play a major role”.

Of course the government of Libya, as it currently exists, can do little but ask for support from the West. Indeed, this is a damning indictment of the treatment of Libya in the post-Gaddafi era. The West is now paying the price for this grave mistake.

The writer adds, “One of the challenges to the Islamic State’s expansion in Libya is that the country lacks the divide among Sunni and Shiite Muslims that exists in Iraq and Syria. That split enabled the Islamic State’s forerunner, al Qaeda in Iraq, to unleash a sectarian civil war in Iraq. But virtually all of Libya’s Muslims are Sunni, removing that potential source of strife”.

Thankfully he writes that “The final challenge has to do with oil. Libya is rich in the stuff, but the Islamic State in Libya likely won’t be. In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State used oil wealth to become one of the best-financed terrorist groups in history, though the group’s ability to turn black gold into millions of dollars a day in revenue has been degraded by Western airstrikes on oil facilities and falling oil prices. The Islamic State has been trying to get its hands on Libya’s oil, but that’s proving to be much harder. Late last week, terrorists attacked security forces at two oil fields in a bid to control them. One of them, Mabruk, was hit for the second time this month, and an oil pipeline was also attacked. The terrorist group has not yet managed to wrest control of the oil fields, as it had done in Syria and Iraq. But its battle for oil is part of a wider struggle between Libya’s dueling governments and militias for control of the country’s resources. With violence rising, Libyan officials said over the weekend that growing violence could force the shutdown of the country’s oil production. The country’s oil output has already fallen from about 1.6 million barrels a day before the Arab Spring to less than 300,000 barrels a day today. Pipeline attacks make it harder for the government to earn oil-export money that could be used to bolster the fragmented state”.

He ends “That would leave oil exports as the only way to capitalise on the country’s crude. But as seen last year, when rebel leader Ibrahim al-Jathran seized an oil-export port in the country’s east, finding buyers for that crude is a tall order. One rebel group finally loaded an oil tanker last spring with what the Libyan and U.S. governments considered stolen oil, only to see it intercepted by two dozen U.S. Navy SEALs while it was steaming through the Mediterranean. That put paid to militia efforts to directly export big volumes of Libyan crude, and things won’t be any easier for the Islamic State”.

A revised BSA?


The United States and Afghanistan are nearing agreement to rewrite key aspects of their plan for ending U.S. military involvement in the war against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters here, U.S. and Afghan officials said Saturday. In a joint appearance, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter acknowledged that they are rethinking the pace of the U.S. military withdrawal, the scope and frequency of U.S. counterterrorism raids and whether they should keep U.S. bases open longer than projected. Although they declined to offer more specifics, they indicated that a new deal could be reached as soon as next month, when Ghani is scheduled to visit Washington to meet with President Obama. Afghan officials and U.S. military commanders have previously acknowledged pressing Obama for more leeway in determining how quickly the remaining 10,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are withdrawn over the next two years. But the comments Saturday by Ghani and Carter were the clearest sign yet that changes are afoot”.

Coccopalmerio vs Pell


John Allen writes about the impending financial reforms of Pope Francis. He starts “Any day now, Pope Francis is expected to issue a new legal framework for three financial oversight bodies in the Vatican he created last year”.

Allen says that these are the Council for the Economy, the Secretariat for the Economy. He goes on to note that “Strictly from a political point of view, the decision will be taken by many observers in Rome as a thumbs up or thumbs down for Australian Cardinal George Pell, who took the Vatican by storm a year ago as the pope’s chosen financial reformer and who has played to mixed reviews ever since. For fans, including a wide cross-section of fellow cardinals who recently gathered in Rome to receive a progress report, the 73-year-old Pell is just what the doctor ordered: a tough, no-nonsense administrator capable of bulldozing through established patterns of doing business and ushering in a new era of transparency and accountability”.

To his great credit, Allen goes on to balance this noting that Cardinal Pell, “For critics, including some long-time Vatican insiders, Pell seems more interested in accumulating power than in achieving reform. They see him as blithely indifferent to legal limits on his freedom of action, and sometimes replicating the very cronyism and secretiveness he was intended to dislodge. The fact that much of this criticism is unfolding in Italian has led some to suspect a clash of cultures, pitting the Vatican’s Italian-speaking old guard against a new English and German-speaking financial regime”.

Pointedly he gives a concrete example of this, “That impression was reinforced recently when Italian Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, suggested amendments to the looming statutes that would impose significant new limits on Pell and his staff. (Here’s one indication of cultural issues at work: When the Secretariat for the Economy was established, both Italian and English were designated as working languages in order to expand the international talent pool. Coccopalmerio proposed eliminating English, arguing that if non-Italians need translation they can get it.) At the big-picture level, there are four major decisions Pope Francis has to make. Observers will read how they’re resolved as a referendum on Pell’s future as the point man for the pope’s reform project”.

This row gives us a glimpse of the power struggles in the Curia over the reforms being made by Pope Francis. It will come down to force of wills rather than argument or any kind of negotiation.

Allen goes on to mention that “In his recommendations, Coccopalmerio suggested creating a four- or five-member council of cardinals to supervise the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, meaning the job held by Pell. The idea would be to create a body of cardinals to exercise oversight similar to the one responsible for the Vatican bank. Such a move, however, would be at odds with the original vision for the structures launched by Francis a year ago, in which the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy reports directly to the Council for the Economy, a 15-member body composed of cardinals and lay financial experts”.

Pointedly he makes the argument that “One observer suggested that the actual motive for Coccopalmerio’s recommendation was to empanel “a group of Italian cardinals who can control this Australian,” thereby, perhaps, preserving at least some aspects of past practice. If the idea of a new supervisory council is adopted by Francis, it would be seen by most insiders as a significant defeat for Pell; if it’s rejected, it would be seen as a vindication”.

On the APSA Allen notes that “Last July, Francis approved transferring the “ordinary section” of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, known by its acronym APSA, to Pell’s secretariat. The “ordinary section” is responsible for personnel, procurement, and real estate, as opposed to the “extraordinary section” that manages the Vatican’s investment portfolio. In practice, that means Pell’s office is both responsible for managing a chunk of the Vatican’s financial activity and also supervising that management, which critics see as a conflict of interest. As a result, some have proposed returning the ordinary section to APSA.There’s another problem: Much of the Vatican’s real estate is legally titled to APSA, and its status is governed by treaties between the Vatican and Italy. It’s not clear ownership can be unilaterally transferred. If the pope were to recognize APSA as responsible for real estate, therefore, it wouldn’t necessarily signal a lack of confidence in Pell”.

Allen goes on to end that “From the beginning, there’s never been any real pushback against the idea that Pell’s Secretariat for the Economy should oversee budgets and accounting for, say, the Vatican Observatory or the Pontifical Academy for Sacred Music. Those are small operations with a limited financial footprint, and most are probably glad for the help”.

He makes the crucial point that “The issue is the relationship between the new Secretariat for the Economy and the Vatican’s big fish, meaning its major financial centers: the Secretariat for State, the Government of the Vatican City-State, APSA, and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (the Vatican’s powerful and wealthy missionary department, better known as Propaganda Fide.) The original idea was that the Secretariat for the Economy would not “take over” those entities, but would be responsible for collecting information from them for purposes of budgeting and consolidated financial statements, and also organizing regular audits”.

If Cardinal Pell were to bring these big beasts under his control then much of the work will have been done. Of course it will take time for the system to become ingrained but if Pell is allowed “free reign” by Francis he will have put the Church in a good long term position.


“Gained back the territory they lost”


Syrian opposition fighters on Wednesday said that they had gained back the territory they lost near the divided northern city of Aleppo a day earlier, when government forces carried out a surprise attack in an effort to cut off their main supply route to Turkey. Casualties were reported to be heavy on both sides in the battle for an area north of the city where insurgents have been trying to prevent pro-government forces from completely encircling Aleppo and besieging rebel-held areas”.

Another Westminster scandal


Another political scandal has broken, just months before the 2015 General Election.

The report begins, “Two former foreign secretaries are exposed for their involvement in a new “cash for access” scandal. Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind offered to use their positions as politicians on behalf of a fictitious Chinese company in return for payments of at least £5,000 per day. Mr Straw, one of Labour’s most senior figures, boasted that he operated “under the radar” to use his influence to change European Union rules on behalf of a commodity firm which pays him £60,000 a year. He has been suspended from Labour following the disclosures, described by the party as “disturbing”. Mr Straw claimed to have used “charm and menace” to convince the Ukrainian prime minister to change laws on behalf of the same firm”.

The article adds that “Mr Straw also used his Commons office to conduct meetings about possible consultancy work — a potential breach of rules. And he suggested that his Commons researcher had worked on his private business matters, raising further questions. Sir Malcolm, who oversees Britain’s intelligence agencies on behalf of Parliament, said he could arrange “useful access” to every British ambassador in the world because of his status. He has told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was “quite unrealistic” to think MPs could live on “simply £60,000” a year without looking for extra income. The senior Conservative told undercover reporters from this newspaper and Channel 4’s Dispatches, to be broadcast on Monday night, that he would submit questions to ministers on behalf of a paying client, without revealing their identity”.

Such arrogance shows the level of disconnect between MPs and people, most of whom earn about £20,000 a year. In fact Rifkind’s basic salary is 67k and this excludes the array of directorships that take is salary to the hundreds of thousands of pounds. One could almost be forgiven for voting for UKIP out of sheer rage.

Worse, the piece reports that Rifkind only dug himself deeper, “Sir Malcolm also described himself as “self-employed” and had to “earn my income” — despite being paid £67,000 by the taxpayer for his work as an MP. The disclosure that two of Britain’s most senior politicians are embroiled in a new “cash for access” scandal highlights Parliament’s failure to address the issue which has plagued British politics for a generation”.

The report goes on to mention that “More than five years ago, David Cameron warned that lobbying was the “next big scandal” and promised to tighten the rules — a pledge which has not been properly enacted. Over the past few months, reporters approached 12 MPs asking if they would be interested in joining the advisory board of a Chinese company. They were chosen because of concerns about their business activities. Six of the 12 did not respond and one said his contacts were not “for sale”. Mr Straw and Sir Malcolm agreed to enter discussions with the fictitious Chinese company looking to expand its business interests in Europe. Last year Sir Malcolm registered earnings of £69,610 — more than £1,600 an hour — from his work outside of Parliament, while Mr Straw earned £112,777 from his outside business activities”.

To have to arrogance and greed, or as is more likely, lack of self awareness to think he is self employed while the British state is paying him almost £70,000 is simply stunning behaviour. Cameron was right to warn that lobbying was the next big scandal but in his five years in office has been either too incompetent or too spineless to do anything about it. The only other alternative is that he seems to think there is no problem which only shows how warped his own worldview has become.

The report adds, “Analysis by this newspaper of MPs’ overall earnings showed they made more than £7.4 million from outside work in the past year. The Chinese “company” wanted to form an advisory board. Undercover reporters met Sir Malcolm at the fictional firm’s Mayfair office in January. Sir Malcolm, who served as foreign secretary under Sir John Major, described the access he could offer. He said he could meet “any ambassador that I wish to see” in London. “They’ll all see me personally”, he added. “That provides access in a way that is, is useful”. In a second meeting, Sir Malcolm suggested that he would be willing to write to ministers on behalf of the company without declaring the name of the firm.  Sir Malcolm’s offer to write to ministers without “nam[ing] who was asking” is likely to cause concern because of the rules governing interests when communicating with ministers or officials”.

As if it could get any worse the piece goes on to mention that “During a discussion about the former minister’s availability, he disclosed that he had a lot of “free time”. The undercover reporters met Mr Straw at his office in the House of Commons”.

This comment is not only stupid but dangerous. As well as being an MP where he is meant to scrutinise government legislation, Sir Malcolm, was chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. This committee has the job of holding the security services to account. Having lots of “free time” is a bad sign both for Sir Malcolm and the committee which he is meant to oversee.

The report turns to Straw “The MP explained how he had helped ED&F Man, a commodities company with a sugar refinery in Ukraine, change an EU regulation by meeting officials in Brussels. He also claimed that he had overturned a law in Ukraine that would have hindered the commodities firm operating a factory they had recently refurbished. The law made their activities “completely uneconomic” and so Mr Straw took company representatives to see Mykola Azarov, the then Ukrainian prime minister, in September 2011. “It’s a combination of sort of charm and menace … I mean he [the prime minister] understood.” On Sunday night it was reported that Mr Straw will refer himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner”.

In an attempt to backtrack the article notes that “The spokesman said Mr Straw’s use of the phrase “charm and menace” would have been “colloquial and a purely conversational description of the approach he had adopted”. Asked about Mr Straw boast that he operated “under the radar”, his spokesman said: “This was a reference to his preferred strategy of affecting a change to regulations by discussion and negotiation, rather than conducting a high-profile public campaign.” The spokesman said Mr Straw used his parliamentary office to hold the meeting “to save time” because of his “busy schedule”. The spokesman added that the work carried out by the researcher for ED&F Man “is not paid by the public funds”. Mr Straw said that when he mentioned the £5,000 fee he was giving it as an example and not as part of a negotiation”.

The result of the disclourses was predictable, “Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the Conservative MP embroiled in cash for access allegations, is to step down as an MP at the General Election and has also resigned as chairman of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. Sir Malcolm was suspended by the Conservative Party pending an internal investigation on Monday after telling undercover reporters from The Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches that he would use his position as a politician to help a fictitious Chinese company. His decision to stand down as the Conservative MP for Kensington means there will be a contest for one of the Conservative Party’s safest seats. In a statement he said: “I had intended to seek one further term as MP for Kensington, before retiring from the House of Commons. I have concluded that to end the uncertainty it would be preferable, instead, to step down at the end of this Parliament. “This is entirely my personal decision. I have had no such requests from my constituency association but I believe that it is the right and proper action to take. As regards the allegations of Channel 4 and the Daily Telegraph I find them contemptible and will not comment further at this time”.

Pointedly the piece adds “He will also stand down as chairman of Intelligence and Security Committee, the body which oversees the security services, ahead of the publication of a major report into the balance between privacy and security. In a statement, about the committee, he said: “None of the current controversy with which I am associated is relevant to my work as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament”.

The Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband lead the way on this when on Wednesday he said “Ed Miliband has accused David Cameron of failing to live up to “big” commitments in opposition about limiting the outside earnings of MPs, after the government rejected a Labour proposal to ban MPs from having paid directorships and consultancies. In one of his most confident performances at the dispatch box, the opposition Labour leader offered to amend his party’s plans to accede to a demand by the prime minister to ban MPs from acting as paid officials. But Cameron declined to accept the Labour proposal, which is due to be put to a Commons vote late on Wednesday”.






“Ended a round of high-level nuclear talks”


Iranian and American officials ended a round of high-level nuclear talks here on Monday considering a proposal that would strictly limit, for at least 10 years, Iran’s ability to produce nuclear material, but gradually ease restrictions on Tehran in the final years of any deal. The proposed phasing out of restrictions is part of a broader effort to mollify critics in Tehran, where some hard-liners in the government and the military oppose any deal that would force Iran to forsake nuclear production for a generation, and Washington, where some members of Congress have objected to an agreement that would not impose lengthy restrictions on Iran’s program”.

“A clever scheme that is also doomed”


An article from the Economist notes that the GOP are playing dangerous with issues that they hold dear, just to score points against President Obama.

It begins “WITH terror threats on every side, how did Republicans—by tradition the party of national security—find themselves pondering a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)? The quick answer involves political calculation, and a desire among conservatives to be seen fighting President Barack Obama over his plans to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation with a few strokes of his pen”.

The author goes on to note that “A longer answer involves political weakness. In publicly contemplating a partial government shutdown—the first since the autumn of 2013—Republicans in the House of Representatives are pandering to their party’s angriest grassroots supporters, who have convinced themselves that Mr Obama is not just mistaken in his policies, but is a constitution-trampling tyrant. Calling the president a serial law-breaker helped power Republicans to a thumping win in the mid-term elections last November, handing them control of both chambers of Congress. Since then, Republican leaders have united their fractious party by assailing the constitutionality of Mr Obama’s moves to grant temporary legal papers to more than 4m foreigners living in the country unlawfully, who were either brought to America as children, or who are the parents of citizens or legal residents. The charge has been led by John Boehner, the Speaker of the House—a man who, not so long ago, was derided by hardliners as an establishment squish”.

The writer says that Boehner is using the power of the purse to fight the executive, but the author goes on to mention that “Alas for Mr Boehner, the same Founding Fathers made sure those budget powers are both potent and hard to use. House Republicans have passed a bill that amounts to a precision attack on Mr Obama’s immigration agenda, surgically cutting money for what they call his “executive amnesty” from the funds that flow through the DHS, while ensuring that billions of dollars are available for border guards, immigration agents, counter-terrorism units and other voter-pleasing things. It is a clever scheme that is also doomed”.

Thankfully he reports that “It cannot pass the Senate, where the Republican majority is too slim. The party is even further from the super-majorities needed for Congress to overcome a presidential veto. As a result, Republicans face some ugly choices. They can either let current funding for the whole DHS expire; or, if that does not appeal, they can surrender, or pass a short-term bill to postpone the crisis a while longer”.

The result of all of this bickering is “Ahead of a February 27th deadline to renew DHS spending, Washington folk have turned to a favourite game: guessing who will be blamed if funds dry up. Some House Republicans aim their fire at party colleagues in the Senate, grumbling that they should re-write their chamber’s voting rules in order to ram the House-amended bill past Democrats. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a pugnacious right-winger, has an elaborate explanation as to why Democrats will be blamed. If Democrats decline to vote for a spending bill with riders added to destroy Mr Obama’s immigration policies, he says, they will be irresponsibly defunding homeland security in an “extreme” bid to protect the president’s “lawless amnesty”. The DHS stand-off was complicated on February 16th, when a federal district judge in Texas agreed with a complaint filed by 26 states and temporarily blocked the most recent of Mr Obama’s immigration actions, finding that the president had exceeded his powers. The wrangling may yet end up in the Supreme Court”.

In the long term it is the American people and the reputation of America that will suffer, “the shutdown threat raises larger questions about divided government in the Obama era. Mr Boehner and his allies have kept House members content by adopting a staple of Tea Party rhetoric: presenting a policy dispute with Mr Obama as a battle to defend the constitution itself. Once made, that is a hard argument to back away from. If that sort of dogmatism is applied to future budget disputes, gridlock will only worsen. Government shutdowns in modern times have often involved disputes about abortion, welfare and even nuclear-missile funding, with Democrats questioning Ronald Reagan’s strategy for avoiding a third world war. But all sides typically accepted that the constitution obliged them to negotiate and make divided government work. Today, too many Republicans hear the constitution telling them to dig in and seek Mr Obama’s surrender”.

He writer ends the piece “The Founding Fathers did worry about overweening presidents trampling the constitution. They might even have been alarmed at the scope of Mr Obama’s immigration actions. That is why they created independent courts as a check on the executive and—for when that failed—gave Congress powers of impeachment. Today’s Republicans fear even to use the I-word, remembering the backlash that followed the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. As a result, they seem tempted to use their budget powers as a sort of impeachment-lite”.

Of course what the Founding Fathers did not bet on was a group of unhinged Republicans bent of destroying the entire US government to please their own insane “ideology”.

He concludes “More pragmatic Republicans, notably in the Senate, are appalled by renewed talk of shutdowns. A rare House moderate, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, says a number of his Republican colleagues “are tired of being driven into a ditch by bad tactics”. He disagrees with Mr Obama’s executive actions on immigration, but says their legality “will be settled in the courts, not in the halls of Congress”. Meanwhile, with Islamic State fanatics on the march, Congress should do its job and fund the DHS. If after that Congress still dislikes Mr Obama’s actions, Mr Dent concludes, it should take up its own immigration legislation. He is right. Alas, many of his colleagues prefer to be seen fighting Mr Obama’s plans, not fixing them”.

“Guide it out of a political crisis”


Yemen’s feuding parties have agreed on a “people’s transitional council” to help govern the country and guide it out of a political crisis, UN mediator Jamal Benomar has announced. The decision on Friday came after the takeover of power by the Houthi movement, a Shia Muslim group, which led to the resignation of the president last month and the paralysis of many of Yemen’s state institutions. “This progress is not a [final] agreement, but an important breakthrough that paves the way towards a comprehensive agreement,” Benomar said in a statement”.

No short term Libyan solutions


An article discusses the best way to intervene in Libya.

It opens “On Feb. 17, 2011, Libyans launched the uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi, who had lorded it over them for 42 years.* The popular revolt came at a high cost: Thousands died in the fighting that toppled the dictator. Still, the overwhelming majority of the population welcomed their new freedom with joy. There was also a widespread sense of gratitude to the NATO forces that had intervened on the side of the revolution. Today there is little rejoicing to be seen. The mood now is one of desperation, and the general sense of optimism that accompanied the end of the Qaddafi era has evaporated. For the past four years the rest of the world watched idly as Libya descended into chaos; now it looks less like a country inspired by the promise of democracy than a textbook example of a failed state. It is indicative of how far Libya has fallen that the forces of the Islamic State (IS) have managed, with apparent effortlessness, to gain a foothold in the country. On Sunday, IS forces issued a gruesome video that purported to show the mass execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians captured by the group. That atrocity prompted the Egyptian government to launch airstrikes yesterday on the Libyan city of Derna, an IS stronghold. As a result, almost four years after the revolution, Libya now finds itself facing a new kind of intervention — one that takes place amid the post-revolutionary chaos and instability that have engulfed the country, forcing regional players to take unilateral action”.

The writer makes the valid point that “Yet the situation is hardly clear-cut. Is a spontaneous and virtually unplanned Egyptian air campaign against IS really a good move? The Islamic State threat in Libya has been there for many months, and those who wish to strike a decisive blow against it can only do so if their actions are based on a comprehensive strategy. The airstrikes might win applause on the streets in both Egypt and Libya for a few days, but in the medium term Cairo’s actions could prove counterproductive”.

He goes on to note that “If planners in Egypt and elsewhere wish to avoid such mistakes, they could start by analyzing the shortcomings of NATO’s intervention in 2011, which offers a case study in the hazards of embarking on military action in political transitions without first devising a solid political strategy to deal with the aftermath. Egypt, Italy, and France are currently leading an effort to persuade the U.N. Security Council of the need for a new military intervention in Libya to bolster the internationally recognised government against IS. But embarking on such an ill-thought-out action is highly unlikely to yield favourable results, especially since the Islamic State is well positioned to exploit the current lack of unified government and strong state institutions. It’s worth noting that this is far from the first attack staged by IS forces in Libya. Last month IS gunmen shot their way into a luxury hotel in Tripoli that houses the Islamist government that is the main rival of the government in the east”.

The remedy to this he argues, is “In addition to securing the country’s borders, any intervention in Libya should also focus on protecting vital oil infrastructure. Rebuilding the security and defence sectors should also be a top priority — but without ill-advised efforts to appease militias or their leaders by trying to integrate them without proper vetting, training, or discipline. One British effort to train members of Libyan militias, which resulted in a string of criminal acts in a town near the U.K. training facility, offered an excellent example of the sorts of disasters that can occur. That experience should service as a valuable lesson for both Libyan and international partners seeking to train members of the security forces in the future. For their part, Libyans have to ensure that economic and governance opportunities are fairly distributed, pushing back against post-revolutionary policies that institutionalised exclusion, injustice, and lack of accountability. Only by uniting can Libyans face the challenges of the future”.

He ends “The crisis in Libya is becoming less of a local problem and more of a regional and international one. Both Libyan leaders and the international community must acknowledge this reality. While a homegrown solution to the crisis would have been the preferred option, Libyans now lack the capacity to address their problems on their own. Their country needs the help of the outside world. It is crucial that any solution must be coordinated with trustworthy Libyan partners who can join the international community in the struggle against the rise of the Islamic State and who stand for inclusion, democracy, and the rule of law. Such Libyan voices are indispensable to any international or regional solution”.

“Qatar has recalled its ambassador”


Qatar has recalled its ambassador from Egypt following a row about air strikes on Islamic State targets in Libya. Foreign ministry officials said it was prompted by comments made by Egypt’s delegate to the Arab League, who accused Qatar of supporting terrorism. Qatar had expressed reservations over Egypt’s unilateral military action in another Arab League member state and the risk of civilian casualties. Relations between Doha and Cairo have been strained in recent years. The Qatari government backed President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood before his overthrow by the Egyptian military in 2013. The Qatari-owned TV network, Al Jazeera, has also been a major source of tension, with the Egyptian authorities accusing it of serving as a mouthpiece for Mr Morsi’s supporters and prosecuting its journalists”.

Obama’s confused strategy


A piece follows on from the recently released National Security Strategy but rightly criticises the lack of definition of “strategic patience”.

He begins “The much-delayed second iteration of the Obama administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) was published on Friday, after the longest gap between such publications since the NSS came into existence. As predicted in a January Chatham House research paper, the new document underlines the administration’s ‘cautious, restrained approach to the wielding of American power and its aspirations to facilitate the integration of rising powers into the liberal order’. However, it did little to specify how the United States will find equilibrium in its efforts to balance competing imperatives on three key fronts: American intervention in others’ civil conflicts; support for democracy and human rights in places where the US has other priorities; and the management of China’s potentially destabilising rise”.

He goes on to argue that “The NSS has two purposes. First, it provides a means by which the president can explain his worldview to a wide audience and try to link that worldview to current events and strategic trends. But it also provides a means by which the president and National Security Council can attempt to bring the large organisations of national security into concert in pursuit of something resembling a coherent vision”.

He notes that “Like others before it, the Obama administration’s NSS surveys a wide array of issues, but nevertheless manages to convey a central theme: restraint in the use of American power, combined with the establishment and maintenance of American ‘leadership’ and a ‘rules-based international order’ with liberal characteristics. This continues themes articulated in the administration’s first NSS, released in 2010. The Obama administration has faced a growing chorus of criticism for passivity in the face of emerging threats, from Islamic State to Russian actions in Ukraine. In response, the new NSS defends the philosophy of the administration as one of ‘strategic patience’ and cautions against ‘overreach’. It also seeks the high ground against critics on both moral and practical grounds”.

Yet this laughable strategy is easily picked apart, “The strategy struggles, however, to clarify how the US will find balance between competing imperatives in three key areas in the years ahead. First, the strategy makes it clear the US has ‘moved beyond’ and ‘shifted away from’ the fighting of ‘costly, large-scale ground wars’, but also commits to ‘acting decisively to defeat direct threats’ from Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, and build ‘the capacity of others’ to counter ‘extreme and dangerous ideologies’. This sets the stage for an à-la-carte combination of direct military strikes and the arming and training of proxies in civil wars where the US perceives a security interest. But the criteria based on which the US will assess whether it has a truly vital interest at stake in the outcome of others’ wars − or the actions/events that would trigger particular levels of American response on the spectrum from detached well-wishing to direct military engagement − are unspecified, and thus remain to be decided in the heat of future crises”.

The writer goes on to note “Second, the strategy affirms the United States’ belief in the ‘universal’ validity of liberal values and ‘enduring commitment to the advancing of democracy’, while expressing the desire to ‘advance equality’ and ‘support emerging democracies’. At the same time, however, it notes the existence of cases where ‘our strategic interests require us to engage with governments that do not share all our values’, and admits that it will ‘support’ such governments, though this will be ‘balanced with an awareness of the costs of repressive policies for our own security policies and the democratic values by which we live’. In other words, the US will support democratic forces in the absence of an incentive to do otherwise, but if antidemocratic leaders have something of value to offer then the US can and will support them”.

He continues “Third, the strategy seeks to tread the delicate line between welcoming ‘the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China’, while also putting down a marker that it will ‘manage competition from a position of strength while insisting that China uphold international rules and norms’ and will ‘closely monitor’ China’s ‘ expanding presence in Asia’. Essentially, the US needs to show enough steel to deter China from bold, expansionist behaviour towards its neighbours, but without allowing American efforts to contain China to become the pretext for confrontation themselves. The hope that a rising China can be assimilated within the ‘rules and norms’ of the American order is clear – but what the US would do if China tests those boundaries remains much less so”.

He ends “This new strategy, issued just under two years before Obama’s successor takes the oath of office, is unlikely to be remembered as a turning point in the history of American national security. Rather, it is – as predicted in January – an adaptation of the strategy of 2010 designed to retroactively justify the Obama administration’s choices in the tumultuous years since. Meanwhile burning questions regarding the limits of American restraint, and how balance between conflicting priorities can be found, remain unanswered here”.

“Fighters for potential participation”


The United States has so far identified about 1,200 Syrian opposition fighters for potential participation in a U.S. military-led program to help train and equip them to battle the Islamic State, the Pentagon said on Wednesday. The fighters will undergo vetting for the program, which is expected to begin in March at multiple sites outside of Syria and train more than 5,000 Syrian fighters a year. Some 3,000 could be trained by the end of 2015, a U.S. official said. The program is expected to vet fighters using both U.S. government databases as well as intelligence from regional partners. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have publicly offered to host the training and Jordan has privately offered to do so. One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said training is likely to start in Jordan. At the Pentagon, spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby declined to specify which sites might host the potential Syrian recruits identified so far”.

OPEC’s future


A piece from Foreign Affairs discusses how OPEC can save itself with oil prices being so volatile.

They open “Despite a steep drop in oil prices, OPEC decided in November not to decrease production, sending the price of crude oil to a five-year low. The decision was unwelcome among some members of the cartel. OPEC has been feeling the heat from rising shale production in Texas, North Dakota, and other places in North America. Venezuela and Iran wanted to cut output, in hopes of raising prices. But decision-makers in Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s most influential member, decided to defend the group’s market share, even if at a cost. If shale were the only problem, Saudi Arabia’s strategy might work. But OPEC also faces a larger, more fundamental threat: waning global demand for oil. Demand in industrialized countries fell from 50.1 million barrels per day in 2005 to 45.5 million barrels per day in 2013. Since the decline predated the beginning of the global recession, the shift is likely a result of long-term structural changes in the oil market, such as increased energy efficiency, and not just slow growth.

The International Energy Agency expects the decline in oil demand from the industrialized world to be more than offset by a rapidly increasing demand for energy in the developing world, most notably in China and India. As a result, the agency expects global oil demand to grow until 2040. But many experts say that global oil demand will peak even sooner than that, citing fuel switching, the removal of oil subsidies, and increased energy efficiency. Citigroup, for example, forecasts that oil demand will level off by 2020.

If Citigroup is right, the members of OPEC, whose economies hinge on export revenues from crude oil, are in trouble. But OPEC countries can pursue at least four different strategies to counteract the decline in demand—although none of them will be easy, and none guarantees success.


To bring prices up, major oil exporters could first work together to try to reduce global oil supply. But, historically, this sort of collective action has been difficult. Although OPEC introduced a quota system in 1982 to try to limit global supply, in practice, the group has more often adjusted its quota to align with actual production levels rather than the other way around. In a recent study, Jeff Colgan, a political scientist at Brown University, found that from 1982 to 2009, OPEC members cheated on their aggregate quotas 96 percent of the time.

OPEC countries have so much trouble cooperating because they have different goals. The so-called price hawks, notably Iran and Venezuela, have smaller oil reserves—relative to their populations—and want to drive prices up in the short term. But the so-called price doves, led by Saudi Arabia, have ample reserves and the luxury of thinking long term. They can afford to keep prices low in the short term to eliminate the competition from non-OPEC producers and eventually drive prices up again.

Limiting global oil supply, moreover, would provide only temporary relief against a structural slide in oil demand. In the short term, limiting supply might ramp up oil prices—and hence oil revenues—for OPEC. But in the long term, higher prices would likely accelerate the decline in oil demand in the major consuming countries.


If the major oil exporters cannot cooperate with one another, they will have to figure out how to maximize profits on their own. In the past, OPEC countries often decided to keep some petroleum in the ground, in hopes that the oil will be worth more later. Given the structural decline in oil demand, however, this strategy is no longer viable. Instead, OPEC countries have an incentive to produce and to sell as much of their oil as they can now, rather than wait for prices to drop even further. If producers start a race to sell, prices could collapse altogether, which might hook consumers to oil again.

Yet there are reasons to doubt this strategy, too. Because of technical constraints, oil producers cannot simply decide to increase their oil production at a moment’s notice. They can decide to increase investment in oil exploration and production capacity, but the specter of declining demand makes them unlikely to do so.


To extract greater profits from their oil fields without resorting to quotas or price wars, oil-producing countries can strive for greater efficiency in oil production, which would lower the production cost per barrel. A typical oil reservoir has a recovery rate of 35 percent, but a slate of so-called enhanced oil recovery techniques can increase that share. The International Energy Agency estimates that the application of these techniques to large fields around the world would unlock an extra 300 billion barrels of crude oil—more than the entire reserves of Saudi Arabia. But to gain access to state-of-the-art technologies, oil producers must become more open to foreign investment. Most oil-producing states currently rely on national oil companies, which are typically less efficient than foreign firms.

Oil exporters can also reap larger profits by reducing domestic oil use, thereby freeing up more petroleum for export. To reduce fuel use, countries can build more natural gas systems and phase out domestic gasoline and diesel subsidies, which are expensive and encourage wasteful consumption. These policies would have the added benefit for oil-producing states of cutting carbon dioxide emissions and making renewable energy more competitive.


If the above strategies fail, a fourth one has a good chance of success: oil producers may diversify their economies to prepare for a future in which the oil market has shrunk substantially. According to research by the World Bank, countries that diversify their exports enjoy higher long-term growth, whereas those that rely on a limited number of products do less well.

But few oil exporters have managed to break free of their dependence on oil production. Indonesia and Malaysia have successfully diversified as manufacturers, but they never produced as much oil or gas on a per capita basis as the core members of OPEC to begin with. Dubai has attracted foreign investment in infrastructure, services, and business, but the country’s heavy reliance on expatriate labor and skills makes this a unique developmental model that may be difficult to emulate.

Oil-rich countries that produce less oil, thereby offsetting carbon dioxide emissions, could also ask for compensation under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol. Article 4.8 in the UNFCCC and Articles 2.3 and 3.14 in the Kyoto Protocol require parties to the treaties to take measures to minimize the impact on energy-exporting countries of emission reduction measures. OPEC countries have argued that this should include monetary compensation for lost oil revenues and assistance for economic diversification. So far, however, their calls have been largely ignored.

In whatever form it takes, the move away from oil should be supported, especially because it is increasingly clear, environmentally speaking, that the lion’s share of fossil fuels­—including a sizable chunk of oil reserves—should be left in the ground. The OPEC countries face a serious economic threat, but if they diversify their economies, they might come out all the stronger.

“Greece’s financial rescue by four months”


Euro zone finance ministers agreed in principle on Friday to extend heavily indebted Greece’s financial rescue by four months, averting a potential cash crunch in March that could have forced the country out of the currency area. The deal, to be ratified once Greece’s creditors are satisfied with a list of reforms it will submit next week, ended weeks of uncertainty since the election of a radical leftist-led government in Athens pledged to reverse austerity measures. “Tonight was a first step in this process of rebuilding trust,” Jeroen Dijsselbloem, chairman of the 19-nation Eurogroup, told a news conference. “We have established common ground again to reach agreement on this statement.” The agreement, clinched after the third ministerial meeting in two weeks of acrimonious public exchanges, offers a breathing space for the new Greek government to try to negotiate longer-term debt relief with its official creditors. But it also forced radical young Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras into a major political climbdown since he had vowed to scrap the bailout, end cooperation with the so-called “troika” of international lenders and roll back austerity”.

“Saudi Arabia’s past, not its future”


A piece argues that King Salman is the past and not the future for Saudi Arabia.

It opens, “King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz will be remembered for his relatively reformist mindset and bold foreign policy initiatives. But the Saudi leader’s passing will have little to no impact on the Kingdom’s future, especially given the set of increasingly difficult challenges the country will have to face at home and abroad. Leadership matters, especially in the Middle East, where institutions are weak and often nonexistent. But charisma and talent, on their own, won’t be enough to dig Saudi Arabia out of the profound generational problems that go beyond Abdullah, his successor Salman, or any leader who will preside over the Kingdom. Diversifying the economy, reducing unemployment, practicing good governance, further empowering women, combating the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), checking Iran’s advances, improving relations with Washington, stabilising Yemen, and leading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—to name just a few—will require team work”.

He makes the point that if real results are desired on these complex issues “Prince Muqrin, whom Salman immediately appointed as the new crown prince, will have to create and manage a team of younger and more effective professionals who are in tune with the latest regional and global trends and know something or two about the demands of the twenty-first century. That, ultimately, is Salman’s biggest responsibility. He is already 79 and not in the best condition (rumours of dementia are unproven but he does have other health issues), so he should use what could be a relatively short stint in office to lay the groundwork for the next generation of Saudi leadership. Even though Salman has barely spent 48 hours in his new position, he is indeed Saudi Arabia’s past, not its future”.

The writer notes that Salman “has to refrain from upsetting or alienating the ultra-conservative clergy who have tremendous influence over politics; and he has to guard against the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical groups that constantly challenge the legitimacy of the House of Saud. There are few ways to balance all these demands, and Salman is likely to settle on the same ones as Abdullah. It is in foreign affairs and national security where Salman will arguably face the toughest challenges. Here, Abdullah’s rule left a lot to be desired, although it isn’t clear that anyone else would have handled the real external challenges he faced much better”.

He goes on to make the point that “It is reasonable to posit that Saudi Arabia is losing the regional competition with its archrival, Iran. In Syria, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his opponents—various jihadists including ISIS fighters and secular Syrian rebels—continue to battle, Iran seems to have the upper hand (Assad’s regime has survived) and Saudi Arabia’s interests are increasingly at risk. In fact, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Saudi Arabia’s fortunes in that war could improve anytime soon, because its allies—a collection of secular and Islamist rebels who presumably are not part of ISIS—are the weakest on the battlefield. Things could change should Western powers adopt a more aggressive stance toward Assad, but there are no signs that the United States, the leader of the anti-ISIS international coalition, is ready to do so”.

He concludes “Abdullah’s shortcomings notwithstanding, and knowing the nature of the Kingdom’s traditional society, Wahhabi ideology, and mysterious politics, he was a better leader for Saudi Arabia and the region than some of his predecessors. He did the best he could to open up and modernise his country, and he boldly and historically proposed peace with Israel in return for the latter returning territory it occupied in the 1967 war. Some say that he was a true reformer trapped in a conservative system, but that would be a stretch. Salman will have to not only preserve Abdullah’s relative successes but also reverse the failures, and those are not few. It is only with a new cadre in Riyadh and a fresh look to the future that the new king will be able to triumph”.


“Prices turned sharply south”


Oil prices turned sharply south on Thursday morning amid signs of a worsening supply shock. Brent crude fell as low as $58.46, while WTI sank to $49.73 as traders reacted to figures from the American Petroleum Institute showing that US crude stocks increased by 14.3m barrels last week, much higher than the expected 3m. These latest figures mean that traders expect the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) to report that American oil supplies increased at their sharpest rate on record last week. The EIA’s weekly supply report is scheduled for publication at 4pm London time. “US shale production has not budged, resulting in swelling inventories,” said Ken Hasegawa, commodity sales manager at Tokyo’s Newedge Japan. “Global production does not seem to be falling much, either, except some hitch in Libya output.”

Trying to oust Bibi


An unusual article notes how President Obama is getting involved in the Israeli general election due to take place in March.

It begins “The White House, Secretary of State John Kerry, and assorted U.S. officials have repeatedly made clear that Washington will not intervene in Israeli politics and elections. And, indeed, under normal circumstances, non-intervention is the rule. But what if Israel suddenly and blatantly intervened in America’s politics? Would an administration already fed up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and very much hoping for a new leader to come out of Israel’s March 17 elections — use such an intervention to try to tip what promises to be a close vote to a rival? Welcome to regime change, Obama-style”.

He goes on to report “By accepting Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint meeting of Congress — now widely seen as a real bungle — the prime minister has given the Obama administration an opening. And you can bet the White House is taking advantage to make it unmistakably clear that Bibi is bad for the U.S.-Israeli relationship. The White House has already made clear there will no meeting with President Obama, assuming that Netanyahu sticks to his word and actually shows up in early March. The good news for Netanyahu is that the two won’t have another bad meeting. The not-so-good news is that the White House door will be closed to a sitting Israeli prime minister — that doesn’t happen often”.

Yet there could be long term significance to this spat between two office holders who will eventually leave office. This could herald a reappraisal of US-Israeli relations. America could, though probably won’t, come to the conclusion that this small country of eight million people looks after its own interests before that of America’s. Of course, America should not place its interests before that of Israel which is seems to do consistently. In the long term this would be best for both nations. However, the chances of this happening in the short term are zero.

Interestingly the writer mentions “Meanwhile, the administration wasted little time in backgrounding the press on how angry it was at Israel’s ambassador, Ron Dermer, who was apparently the architect of the congressional invitation. A senior administration official said that Dermer had put Netanyahu’s political aspirations ahead of the U.S.-Israel relationship.  And let’s be clear: An attack on Dermer is an attack on Netanyahu. It’s rare to get that personal. Now, Dermer — like his boss — is getting a cold shoulder in Washington, another orchestrated signal of a dysfunctional U.S.-Israeli relationship. Indeed, U.S. Amb. Dan Shapiro had a tough meeting with Israeli officials last week. There will ultimately be a price for this, he was quoted as saying”.

Crucially he mentions “There’s no other way to read Biden’s absence than an orchestrated signal from Washington that something is very wrong in the relationship with Israel — and that the White House is working to deny Netanyahu any gains from the speech. Administration officials won’t be meeting with Netanyahu. But they are meeting with his key Labor party rival, Isaac Herzog. The Israeli press has reported Herzog’s informal meetings with Biden and Kerry on the margins of the Munich Security Conference this past weekend and gave prominent coverage to his remarks”.

He ends “There are many variables in determining the outcome of the March 17 elections. And clearly Barack Obama isn’t the key issue in the campaign. Indeed, Obama isn’t nearly as beloved as Clinton in Israel: A January 2014 poll indicated that only one in five trusted the president on Iran and a full 50 percent worried about his views on Israel. In any event, Israelis know that he’ll only occupy the White House for a couple of more years. But they also deeply understand that the U.S.-Israel relationship is important, particularly with the region melting down. In a close election, the perception that the incumbent has made hash of it might very well have an impact. And you’d better believe that the White House is aware of that fact. Both Obama and Kerry would love to see Netanyahu out and Labor’s duo of Herzog and Tzipi Livni in. And they’re doing everything they reasonably can — short of running campaign ads — to bring that about”.


“units shelling across the border into Ukraine”


When Ukrainian forces came under withering attack in the east of the country last summer, soldiers were surprised as much as scared by the ferocity of the attack. The separatists they were up against had proven fierce and organised. But this was something else. Now a group of British investigative journalists using digital detection techniques, satellite imagery and social media has provided near conclusive proof that the shelling came from across the border in Russia. The work by the Bellingcat investigative journalism group highlights a murky aspect of the war in Ukraine, which continues to sputter despite last week’s attempt in Minsk to draw up a ceasefire, with reports of heavy fighting around the railway hub of Debaltseve on Tuesday. Russia has long been accused of funnelling soldiers, munitions and military vehicles into eastern Ukraine to help separatists take on the Ukrainian army. But until now, little has been written about Russian military units shelling across the border into Ukraine“.

Germany needs to leave the euro


A piece  by Patrick Chovanec argues that Germany needs to leave the Eurozone.

It opens “Last year, Germany racked up a record trade surplus of 217 billion euros ($246 billion), second only to China in global export dominance. To some, this made Germany a bright spot in an otherwise anemic eurozone economy — a “growth driver,” as the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, puts it. In fact, Germany’s chronic trade surpluses lie at the heart of Europe’s problems; far from boosting the global economy, they are dragging it down. The best way to end this perverse situation is for Germany to leave the eurozone. Germans usually respond to such charges with a kind of hurt confusion. We run trade surpluses, they patiently explain, because we are simply much more competitive than most of our trading partners. Can you blame us, they ask, if the world prefers to buy superior German goods (and has nothing we want in return)? So goes the argument: The rest of the world just needs to up its game, get its house in order, and become a bit more like Germany”.

He goes on to make the valid argument that “Contrary to popular mythology, however, there’s absolutely no reason why being “competitive” should mean running a trade surplus. As far back as 1817, the economist David Ricardo pointed out that the optimal basis for trade is comparative, not absolute, advantage. In other words, even if a country is better at everything, it should export what it is best at, and import what it is less better at. Having an across-the-board advantage does not imply that it makes good economic sense to produce everything yourself, much less to sell more than you want in return”.

Here is yet another example of the supposedly rational market doing what is “best”. Germany, instead of doing what is rational (economically at least) and buying the products of others, seeks its own interest like a classical realist and embarks on a kind of self-sufficiency gone to extremes. Germany is happy to trade with the world, as long as it has no need to buy the products of other countries.

The writer adds, “Trade surpluses take place when a country chooses to spend less than it produces — when it has excess savings, beyond its domestic need for credit. It lends that excess savings abroad, financing another country’s ability to spend more than it produces and, by running a trade deficit, purchase the lender’s excess production. It’s true that a highly productive country might have the wherewithal to conjure up excess savings, while a less productive country might be inclined to borrow rather than scape up the savings it needs. But fundamentally, trade imbalances arise not from competitive advantage but from choices about how much to save, and where that savings should be deployed — at home or abroad”.

He goes on to argue that imbalances do make sense, “In the 19th century, Britain’s Industrial Revolution enabled it to reap vast earnings from expanded output, some of which it invested in the United States. The money lent to a rapidly growing American economy generated higher returns than it would have back home, while creating a market for British-made goods. The potential productivity gains made it a win-win: it made sense for the Americans to borrow, and for the British to lend. But the case also highlights something that’s easy to forget: running a trade surplus means financing someone else’s trade deficit.The eurozone crisis is often called a debt crisis. But, in fact, Europe as a whole did not have an external debt problem, but an internal one: German surpluses and mounting debt in Europe’s periphery were two sides of the same coin. Germans saved (a lot) and the single currency induced them — rather than save less or invest it at home — to lend it to their eurozone trading partners, who used the money to buy German goods”.

He mentions that “each country would pursue its own monetary policy, relying on exchange rate adjustments to shift the locus of demand from those who could not afford it to those who could. Under a single currency, though, this could not happen. Instead, Europe’s debtors were forced to slash demand, through a combination of fiscal austerity and debt deleveraging. Their trade deficits with Germany fell dramatically — but by buying less, not selling more. All of the so-called PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) saw their total trade with Germany shrink — in the case of Greece and Ireland, by more than one-third. So, to the extent Europe rebalanced, it did so at the cost of growth”.

He makes the simple point that “The eurozone was caught in a trap. Its countries needed to move in two separate directions, but under a single currency, they could only move in lockstep. A Europe that lived within its means meant a Germany that continued to save more than it spent, rather than driving much-needed demand. Thus came monetary easing — and a weaker euro — which merely redirected Europe’s internal imbalances outward”.

Now it is clearer than ever that the euro was a political project masked in economics and convenience. The people of the European continent were told they could move from Madrid to Brussels to Rome to Lisbon all in a single currency. Yet, the construction was so obviously flawed the EU elites were either incompentent, or wilfully malevolent. It is possible they were the former but probable they were the latter. They expected growth to keep going and an eventual currency union (and thus political union) to take place slowly, right under the eyes of the people of Europe.

He goes on to argue that “The best solution — and perhaps thus the least likely to be adopted — is for Germany to leave the euro, and let a reintroduced deutschmark appreciate. Here, the experience of the 1986 Plaza Accord offers some encouragement. While a stronger yen made barely a dent in Japan’s structural trade surplus, German behaviour proved far more responsive to the incentives embodied in a stronger mark. In the past year, German politicians have proven far more willing to try boosting demand by raising the minimum wage, cutting the retirement age, and increasing pensions — moves that may work, but risk harming productivity, which is ultimately the source of Germany’s capacity to consume. Perversely, those same politicians refuse to cut taxes or boost public spending, which in 2014 resulted in Germany posting its first balanced federal budget since 1969, a year earlier than planned”.

He ends “To most Germans, any suggestion that they should relax this fiscal discipline smacks of Greek-style profligacy, but there’s another way to think about it. The excess savings are already there; the only question is where to lend it. Borrowing it domestically to drive a genuine European recovery might be preferable to (once again) throwing it at foreigners to buy things they really can’t afford”.


“In retaliation”


In retaliation for the gruesome killing of Egyptian Christians on a beach in Libya, Egypt sent its air force on the attack against Islamic State targets there Monday, in a movethat threatened to ensnare Egypt in a regional conflict with the militants. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry on Monday called on the U.S.-led coalition striking Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq to broaden its scope to North Africa and take action against the extremist group in Libya. Italy said it would weigh a military intervention in its former colony across the Mediterranean to thwart the Islamic State. Libya’s air force also said that it had launched raids against militants in eastern Libya in coordination with Egypt and that the strikes had killed more than 60 fighters. The chief of staff for Libya’s air force told Egyptian state television that the raids would continue Tuesday”.

“Absolve Congress of the need to lift sanctions itself”


A report from Foreign Policy notes how Congress can learn to see the benefits of the Iran talks.

He opens “Now that President Barack Obama has promised to veto any legislation that imposes new sanctions on Iran, a clash between the White House and Congress seems inevitable. Republican congressional leaders have vowed to push ahead with new sanctions, despite the potential costs to the international effort to assure that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. Those opposed to diplomacy with Iran have even upped the ante, inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on March 3, where he will inevitably denounce Obama’s diplomacy with Iran. The dispute between the White House and the hard-line factions on Capitol Hill seems intractable — and may even derail efforts at reaching an agreement in the ongoing talks with Iran completely”.

Naturally he adds that “It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a solution that can satisfy both the White House and Congress and serve broader U.S. interests. It may sound crazy, but Congress could actually take a bold move that would allow it to get everything that Congress members claim to want in the negotiations, while actually helping to move along, rather than just scuttle, the talks. Two major sets of hurdles remain in the talks with Iran: one concerning the size and scope of the country’s future enrichment capacity, the other the pace at which U.S. and other international sanctions are lifted. To get the Iranians to move on the first hurdle, Washington needs to take action to address the second”.

He makes the point that “The greatest problem facing the talks with Iran is a lack of confidence and good faith. The Iranians have insisted repeatedly that the United States remove its most major sanctions at the front end of any nuclear deal, citing the fickle nature of Congress and the uncertainty that the next administration will honor the agreement. Understandably, Washington has rejected this demand, believing that sanctions preserve U.S. leverage throughout the duration of a nuclear deal and thus should only be removed gradually and in tandem with Iran fulfilling its nuclear-related obligations. Bridging this gap by offering more sanctions relief or threatening more sanctions may be futile. The problem is not that Tehran doubts Washington’s commitment to imposing more sanctions”.

Pointedly he argues that “The less confidence the Iranians have that the American side can uphold its end of an agreement, the more likely the Iranians will hold back from making the key compromises necessary to seal a deal and resolve the decade-old nuclear dispute. Only increasing the credibility of the sanctions relief already offered can actually bridge this gap. And the credibility gap is not a matter of mere perception, either. There are real question marks about what kind of assurances the U.S. side can provide in the negotiations as long as the disagreement between the White House and Congress is not resolved. In a closed-door retreat with Democrats on Jan. 15, even Obama noted that this fight threatens to undermine his authority in the negotiations and could lead others to blame Washington if the talks fail”.

He makes the excellent point that “Congress could play a productive role in the negotiations if it would pass legislation that addresses the lack of confidence. Such a bill would grant the president authorisation to lift the sanctions on a timeline agreed to at the negotiations and only on the condition that Iran has scrupulously adhered to its own commitments under any nuclear deal. This would absolve Congress of the need to lift sanctions itself, which is a politically difficult and challenging task, while protecting its legal authority by retaining the power to override any proposed lifting of sanctions. Perhaps some members of Congress doubt that more sanctions will be imposed if the talks fail. In that case, they could introduce a legislative package that firmly commits the United States to implementing additional punitive measures in the event that Kerry’s negotiating team and their Iranian counterparts fail to reach a final deal. That potential legislation would not just bind the president to new sanctions in the case of failure, but it would also bind Congress to relieving sanctions if the talks succeed. If this is the price necessary to secure a more credible option for sanctions relief, the administration and Congress would be wise to consider it”.

He concludes “This might seem like dreaming big but it is actually the most logical conclusion for all of the players involved. Moreover, conventional solutions will not break the current impasse. It will have to be an out-of-the-box solution. The net effect of this would be to cement sanctions-lifting authorities in the hands of the president and thus strengthen the United States’ hand at the negotiations, while signaling to Tehran the negative consequences a failure to reach a deal would bring. Endowed with the power to credibly promise sanctions relief to Iran, U.S. negotiators could demand further movement from the Iranians on the issue of enrichment capacity”.


Sisi calls for a coalition in Libya


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has called for a United Nations resolution mandating an international coalition to intervene in Libya after Egypt’s air force bombed Islamic State targets there. “There is no other choice, taking into account the agreement of the Libyan people and government and that they call on us to act,” he told France’s Europe 1 radio in an interview aired on Tuesday. “We have to work together to defeat terrorism.” Egypt directly intervened for the first time in the conflict in neighbouring Libya on Monday after an Islamic State group in the country released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians. Sisi said a 2011 NATO operation, which played a critical role in toppling Muammar Gaddafi, was an “unfinished mission”. The Western alliance imposed a no-fly zone on Libya and used air power to try to prevent Gaddafi’s forces attacking civilian areas held by rebels. But it then did little to prevent the country sliding into anarchy and chaos. “We abandoned the Libyan people as prisoners to extremist militias,” the Egyptian president said. Ahead of a U.N. Security Council meeting on Wednesday on the situation in Libya, Egypt’s foreign minister met on Tuesday with ambassadors from the council’s five veto-wielding powers – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China”.

“Tempted to align themselves with Rouhani”


A piece in the Foreign Affairs argues that Dr Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran, will fool America and its allies during the ongoing nuclear talks.

He begins “The Iranian nuclear negotiations have proven divisive enough within the United States and among the United States and its allies. But the bigger story is the wedge they have exposed between factions in Iran. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama and some of its partners in the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) see Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a critical partner, one with the potential to deliver a long-sought nuclear compromise and a broader rapprochement with the West. Skeptics in the United States and abroad, on the other hand, see Rouhani as little more than an Iranian hard-liner pretending to play nice. Both views, however, miss the larger drama. There is indeed a fundamental divide within the Iranian regime—with Rouhani leading one side—but it has less to do with Iran’s nuclear program or regional strategy than with the more basic question of how best to preserve the regime itself”.

He goes on to write “Thanks to the Arab uprisings and the thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations, the West has largely forgotten about Iran’s “Green Revolution” of June 2009, during which over 100,000 protesters flooded the streets of Tehran to protest what they saw as the fraudulent reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the revolution has not been forgotten in Iran itself. Indeed, the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain in confinement, and hard-liners to this day warn of these so-called seditionists who must be barred from power. The events of June 2009 represented a crisis of legitimacy for the Iranian regime”.

He notes that Iran is divided between reformists and hardliners, and that, “In the years following the suppression of the Green Movement, the pragmatists of the second camp found themselves increasingly aligned with the reformists in their calls for change. Regime leaders watched this coalescing alliance with alarm; after all, such coalitions had played key roles in all three Iranian revolutions of the twentieth century. To defuse the threat, the regime’s leaders allowed the presidency to pass from Ahmadinejad, a hard-liner, to Rouhani, a pragmatist. Although the Iranian public evidently preferred Rouhani to the other candidates, his election was also, in part, an effort by the regime to satiate the public’s desire for change while co-opting the second camp, forcing its leaders to attempt to solve the very problems they had decried”.

Interestingly he notes “Rouhani’s election, however, did not patch the rift between the two factions. On economic issues, both Rouhani and the hard-liners have stressed the need for an “economy of resistance,” whereby the country reduces its dependence on oil to circumvent international sanctions over its nuclear program. But they differ over how such a policy should work. Rouhani has called for domestic economic reforms and the expansion of economic ties overseas; the hard-liners have urged a return to the autarkic ideals of the revolution. Nevertheless, Rouhani has enjoyed some success on the economic front, mainly through smaller adjustments to fiscal and monetary policy rather than through large-scale reforms”.

The author notes that two camps have disagreed over foreign policy, most notably the nuclear talks, “Although Khamenei has voiced support for Iranian negotiators, he has at the same time severely restricted their room to bargain. And hard-liners continue to oppose the talks outright. In part, they resent that the negotiations require concessions to the United States, as anti-Americanism remains one of the regime’s central ideological pillars. In addition, many fear that a nuclear agreement will empower their pragmatic rivals and open the door to a broader rapprochement with the West—and thus to the expansion of foreign influence inside Iran. Rouhani, in response, has argued that foreign policy should be crafted on the basis of strategic interests, rather than on principles and ideals”.

Pointedly he goes on to argue that “Despite their disputes over the negotiations and their implications, however, there is little evidence that the two camps actually diverge on the value of the nuclear program or the security strategy of which it is part. Rouhani has not only downplayed his nuclear concessions but also boasted of his expansion of the nuclear program during the presidential administration of Mohammad Khatami. On Iranian regional policies, the two camps also appear to converge”.

He warns those policy makers inside Washington that “Viewing this internal struggle from afar, American policymakers might be tempted to align themselves with Rouhani and conceive of the nuclear negotiations not as pitting Iran against the international community but as pitting Western and Iranian negotiators against “hard-liners” on both sides. But Washington should be wary of pinning its hopes on Rouhani’s camp, much less on influencing the regime’s internal struggle. It is impossible to know whether a nuclear agreement will empower Rouhani and his allies or prove the end of their usefulness for the regime; although Khamenei has lent qualified support to the country’s nuclear negotiators, he appears far less enthusiastic about Rouhani’s broader agenda. Rouhani’s authority is limited not only by his ability to deliver on his campaign pledges but also by the considerable sway of hard-liners, especially over Iran’s regional policies and internal security”.

He ends controversially that “Further, even if Rouhani’s stock does rise in the wake of an agreement, it is far from clear that this would benefit the United States. Rouhani’s supporters remain committed to the survival of Iran’s regime, as well as to a security strategy in the Middle East that is at odds with U.S. interests. Indeed, following a nuclear deal, Washington and its allies may find themselves facing an Iran that is enriched, empowered, and no less committed to regional hegemony”.

The end result of this is somewhat suspect when he argues “In light of this, American policymakers should not offer additional concessions on the theory that a nuclear deal will yield ancillary security benefits”.


Greater Afghan press freedom


Despite a decline in freedom of information around the world, Afghanistan has been ranked 122 (up six places) in the 2015 world press freedom index by the Reporters without Borders. The Paris-based non-profit organization which released the index on Thursday said, “It ranks the performance of 180 countries according to a range of criteria that includes media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, and the legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which the media operate.” Based on the index, Finland has been still in first place securing the position for five consecutive years followed by Norway and Denmark. While on the other hand, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea were in the last places as the worst performers. The United States was ranked 49th (down three places), Japan 61st (down two places) and Russia is ranked 152 (down four places). However, in the regional level, Afghanistan is among the top-ranked countries as Pakistan was ranked 159 (one place down) India 136 (four places up) while Iran ranked number 173 remain unchanged”.

“It can obtain a fairer deal for the Greek people”


A piece in Foreign Policy notes that Greece is right morally and economically. He writes that Greece has more leverage than many assume.

It opens “Ever since the initial bargain in the 1950s between post-Nazi West Germany and its wartime victims, European integration has been built on compromise. So there is huge pressure on Greece’s new Syriza government to be “good Europeans” and compromise on their demands for debt justice from their European partners — also known as creditors. But sometimes compromise is the wrong course of action. Sometimes you need to take a stand”.

He makes the excellent point that “no advanced economies in living memory have been as catastrophically mismanaged as the eurozone has been in recent years, as I document at length in my book, European Spring. Seven years into the crisis, the eurozone economy is doing much worse than the United States, worse than Japan during its lost decade in the 1990s and worse even than Europe in the 1930s: GDP is still 2 percent lower than seven years ago and the unemployment rate is in double digits. The policy stance set by Angela Merkel’s government in Berlin, implemented by the European Commission in Brussels, and sometimes tempered — but more often enforced — by the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt, remains disastrous. Continuing with current policies — austerity and wage cuts, forbearance for banks, no debt restructuring or adjustment to Germany’s mercantilism — is leading Europe into the ditch; the launch of quantitative easing is unlikely to change that. So settling for a “compromise” that shifts Merkel’s line by a millimeter would be a mistake; it must be challenged and dismantled”.

It is something of a misnomer to compare the US to the Eurozone as one has a central bank the other, the ECB, is only this in name. Yet, the EU and the ECB led by Germany have made things irreparably worse with long term consequences that could be severe, both for democracy on the continent and the EU generally.

Nevertheless he adds “For the first time in years, there is hope that the dead hand of Merkelism can be unclasped, not just fear of the consequences and nationalist loathing. More immediately, Greece can save itself. Left in the clutches of its EU creditors, it is not destined for the sunlit uplands of recovery, but for the enduring misery of debt bondage. So the four-point plan put forward by its dashing new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, is eminently sensible. This involves running a smaller primary surplus — that is a budget surplus, excluding interest payments — of 1.5 percent of GDP a year, instead of 3 percent this year and 4.5 percent thereafter. Some of the spare funds would be used to alleviate Greece’s humanitarian emergency. The crushing debts of more than 175 percent of GDP would be relieved by swapping the loans from eurozone governments for less burdensome obligations with payments tied to Greece’s GDP growth. Last but not least, Syriza wants to genuinely reform the economy, with the help of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), notably by tackling the corrupt, clientelist political system, cracking down on tax evasion, and breaking the power of the oligarchs who have a stranglehold over the Greek economy”.

Pointedly he writes “Had the Varoufakis plan been put forward by an investment banker, it would have been perceived as perfectly reasonable. Yet in the parallel universe inhabited by Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, such demands are seen as “irresponsible”: Greece must be bled dry to service its foreign creditors in the name of European solidarity”.

He continues “The belief that Greece has little leverage in its negotiations with eurozone authorities is false. If no agreement is reached and Greece is illegally forced out of the euro by Berlin and Frankfurt, it would doubtless default on all its debts to both eurozone governments and the ECB, as well as the Bank of Greece’s Target 2 liabilities. Speculation would soon start about which country might be next to exit the euro — Portugal? — and the single currency would suddenly look eminently revocable”.

He ends the article noting “Do Berlin and Frankfurt really want to push Athens over the brink? I doubt it. Especially since, freed of its external debt and an overvalued exchange rate, Greece would doubtless be growing again once the immediate chaos subsided. After all, even an economy as badly managed as Argentina started growing again only a year after the government defaulted and junked its dollar peg in 2002. Of course, eurozone authorities may miscalculate, or allow their emotions to trump economic logic. And since Athens does not want to leave the euro, it also has a fallback option, as Willem Buiter, chief economist of Citigroup, and John Cochrane of the University of Chicago have pointed out. The Greek government could meet its domestic obligations, such as pension payments, by issuing tradeable IOUs that could also be used to make tax payments — in effect, creating a parallel currency. This virtual money could also be used for other purposes: for instance, to recapitalize ailing banks. That would enable the Greek government to default on its EU creditors relatively painlessly, while remaining within the euro”.

He concludes “The eurozone establishment and much of the media think Greece is foolish to stand up to Germany. But what would be truly foolish is giving in. That would leave only the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn in the anti-Merkelism camp, which might portend ill political omens. So long as the Greek government is willing to stand firm — as a vast majority of Greeks and many Europeans are urging it to — it can obtain a fairer deal for the Greek people and, with luck, the Eurozone”.


“Militants have attacked worshippers”


Taliban militants have attacked worshippers at a Shia mosque in the Pakistani city of Peshawar with guns and grenades, killing at least 20. Police killed one of the militants in a gunfight around the mosque, in the wealthy Hayatabad district. Another of the militants blew himself up with a suicide vest, and a third was arrested, police said. Two weeks ago, another attack on a Shia mosque in Sindh province’s Shikarpur district left more than 60 people dead. Sunni militants linked to the Taliban said they had carried out the Shikarpur attack, which was the deadliest in years. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed his grief for the loss of life and said that the government remained committed to “eradicating the menace of terrorism”. Over the past decade, Pakistan has experienced an increasing number of sectarian attacks. Most are carried out by hardline Sunni Muslim groups against Shias, who comprise about 20% of the population”.

The Houthis and America?


A report argues that America is working with Iran in Yemen.

It opens “The Iranian-supported Houthi takeover in Yemen has spooked Washington and its allies in the Middle East — and boosted the chances that Americans could again effectively find themselves fighting alongside Iranian-backed forces in an explosive and strategically important country. U.S. and Iranian interests have aligned in Iraq, where the United States is not only conducting a major air campaign against the Islamic State, but also has 2,600 conventional troops plus a special operations task force assisting the Iraqi government and Kurdish Peshmerga militia in their fight against the Sunni terrorist group. Also joined in battle against the Islamic State, meanwhile, are Iranian Quds Force operatives, Hezbollah fighters, and Iraqi Shiite militias that are little more than Iranian proxies”.

The author goes on to note that “In Yemen, the United States responded to the Houthi takeover by suspending operations at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and evacuating its American staff on Feb. 11. However, a U.S. special operations force engaged in the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is staying in Yemen, a senior defense official said”.

He mentions that “the U.S. special operations task force remains in Yemen, even though the Houthis owe their success in part to Iranian support, adds another complication to the awkward balancing act that U.S. military and intelligence forces are performing across the Middle East when it comes to Iran. Houthi supporters in Sanaa marched through the streets chanting, “Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews.” Behind the scenes, though, Houthi leaders have said they want normal relations with the United States. There’s a simple reason for their potential willingness to work with Washington: The Houthis, like other Iranian-supported groups through the Middle East, hate and fear al Qaeda and are as just as devoted to fighting the militant group as the United States is”.

This is a very important point that cannot be overstated. While the result may be to give Iran greater control in Yemen it would be far more important in securing a peaceful and stable Yemen. If the other option is leaving Yemen to AQAP than the choice should be obvious.

The writer goes on to note “For instance, while the United States finds itself fighting uncomfortably on the same side as Iran and its allies in Iraq and Yemen, on the high seas the U.S. Navy continues to conduct maritime interdiction missions aimed at Iranian attempts to supply weaponry to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that uses them to menace neighboring Israel, Harmer said. The extent to which the Quds Force or its Arab proxies are assisting the Houthis is the subject of some debate. As evidence of Iranian influence over the Houthis, Katherine Zimmerman, a Yemen analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, pointed to two events that occurred shortly after a Sept. 21 agreement in which President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi appeared to acquiesce to the demands of the Houthis, who had occupied key positions in the capital. On Sept. 23 the Yemeni government released two Lebanese prisoners who were suspected of being Hezbollah members and who had been arrested in Aden for allegedly providing military training to the Houthis; two days later, Zimmerman said, the government released three suspected Quds Force members accused of being members of an Iranian spy ring”.

Interestingly he writes that “these examples aside, unclassified proof of Quds Force, Hezbollah, or Iraqi Shiite militia advisors working with the Houthis is harder to come by”.

Crucially he writes that “Some in the U.S. government contend that Iranian support for the Houthis does not necessarily equate to Iranian influence over the group. “There’s no indication the Iranians exert command and control over Houthi activities in Yemen,” said a U.S. official. While there are U.S. military trainers in Yemen, the units with which they are working are not collocated with the Houthis, Zimmerman said. However, she added, there have been instances in recent weeks of Houthi and Yemeni government forces cooperating on the battlefield — she cited fighting against AQAP in south-central Yemen as an example — and the Houthis are now trying to integrate their fighters with the formal Yemeni armed forces”.

Naturally he notes that “The degree of coordination between the United States and the Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria is also unclear. The United States does not appear to be coordinating its air campaign in Syria with Iran or those allied forces, Harvey said. But in Iraq “there has to be some level of coordination,” even if it’s transmitted via Iraqi or Kurdish intermediaries, he added”.

He goes on to mention, ” with U.S. and Iranian special operators likely to be working in close proximity to each other in Iraq, Syria, and possibly Yemen well into the future, the question remains as to which side stands to benefit more from the uneasy partnership. Because the United States enjoys such a huge advantage in electronic intelligence gathering, the opportunity to observe U.S. forces up close could serve to even the intelligence playing field for the Iranians or their agents, Harmer said. “My tendency is to think they get more out of that than we do,” he said”.

He concludes the piece correctly noting “Rising Iranian influence in Yemen poses a potential longer-term strategic challenge to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which are looking to sidestep Iranian control of the Strait of Hormuz by expanding the export of oil via ports on the Red Sea. Harvey suggested that within a few years Iran might use its sway in Yemen to also threaten those vital shipping lanes, either by deploying Silkworm missiles to the north side of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which joins the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, or through small attack craft using swarming tactics. Alternately, Iran or its Yemeni proxies could simply lay mines across the narrow waterway”.

He finishes adding “The Houthis’ success has only deepened a sense of concern among American allies in the Middle East — a worry shared by some American analysts — that the United States is willing to allow Iran a sphere of influence in the region, in part to help lock down a nuclear deal. A January 2014 recording — leaked in October — of White House security advisor Ben Rhodes appearing to equate a nuclear deal with Iran with Obamacare in terms of its significance to the Obama administration did nothing to dampen these fears”.

Carter confirmed


he Senate confirmed Ashton Carter as defense secretary Thursday in a vote 93 to 5. He is replacing Chuck Hagel, who announced his resignation in November. Carter’s first day at the Pentagon will be Tuesday, according to an official associated with the confirmation. It’s been widely assumed Carter would face an easy confirmation since President Barack Obama announced his nomination in early December. Carter is viewed as a smart choice to run the Pentagon, having previously served as the deputy defense secretary and the military’s top weapons buyer. His nomination was unanimously confirmed by the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week. “Ash Carter served as a key leader of our national security team in the first years of my presidency, and with his overwhelming bipartisan confirmation by the Senate today, I’m proud to welcome him back as our next Secretary of Defense,” President Barack Obama said in a statement”.

“Ignores the congressionally mandated budget caps”


A piece from Foreign Policy argues that President Obama is remaining with the pivot to Asia.

It begins “President Barack Obama’s 2016 budget for national security is a reflection of the administration’s desire to hold fast to its Asia-Pacific pivot strategy even as newer threats like the rise of the Islamic State and Russia’s aggression in Europe impose new spending demands on various U.S. agencies. The Obama administration’s $4 trillion budget for 2016 includes $619 billion for a broad set of defense programs and another $54 billion for all the U.S. intelligence agencies to meet both long-term challenges and more immediate threats that have emerged in the last two years. The State Department sought another $50.3 billion — an increase of 6 percent from last year — including $7 billion for ongoing operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, and $8.6 billion for international security assistance that pays for a range of programs including counter-narcotics, peacekeeping, and training foreign militaries”.

He goes onto make the point “Obama’s budget calls for raising taxes on multinational corporations and rich Americans while overhauling the country’s immigration system to boost the economy with newly legal workers. The spending proposal, which ignores caps set by law, will likely face a barrage of opposition in Congress, where there’s no consensus on how to pay for increasing costs without raising revenues. Speaking at the Homeland Security Department’s headquarters Monday, Obama said his spending plan “recognizes that our economy flourishes when America is safe and secure.” He said it aims to support American troops, bolster U.S. borders from threats, and help confront global crises including the Islamic State and Russia’s violent overreach in Ukraine”.

The author adds later that “The Obama administration said the Pentagon’s budget is driven by the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, a once-in-four-year strategy document that mostly focused American forces toward the Asia-Pacific region while aiding allies in developing defenses to deal with regional crises on their own. The strategy calls for spending heavily on long-range bombers, new fighter aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, and naval vessels, as well as cybersecurity efforts. The Pentagon’s budget includes $534.3 billion for regular Defense Department operations — an 8 percent increase over what Congress approved for 2015 — and an additional $50.9 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations that pays for ongoing wars and conflicts. That fund was reduced from the $64.2 billion Congress approved for last year, largely because of the drawdown of forces from Afghanistan”.

Not surprisingly he goes on to note that “The budget supplement includes $1.3 billion to train and equip Iraqi and Syrian forces to fight the Islamic State, while providing few new details on how the Obama administration plans to combat the group in the years ahead. Of that amount, $700 million is for Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, and another $600 million is to train and equip vetted moderate Syrian opposition fighters. In 2015, the Pentagon got $1.6 billion for these programs”.

In comparison to the defence budget is the budget of the State Department, “budget also provides another $3.5 billion toward countering the Islamic State, which controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria, and $275 million to bolster Ukraine’s fledgling government as it confronts a Russian-backed rebellion in its east. The administration has to date resisted providing the fragile pro-Western government in Kiev with weaponry and other lethal ammunition, but the New York Times reported that the White House is now seriously considering doing so. It also outlines the goals of the Obama administration’s program in Syria: namely, to continue training and equipping vetted moderate opposition forces to reclaim territory. The document also calls anew for the Syrian opposition forces to work toward a peace agreement to end the civil war that has raged for four years. The U.S. has backed the moderate rebels’ demand for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave power as a condition for peace”.

Crucially the author adds that “In one indication of the Pentagon’s focus on the Asia-Pacific, the Air Force is pushing forward with its controversial proposal to retire its A-10 warplane. The debate around the aircraft has become so heated that an Air Force two-star general threatened his airmen with treason last month if they shared information about the plane with Capitol Hill, where several lawmakers oppose the plan to remove the airplane from the U.S. fleet. The Air Force says it has to retire the plane to make room for investments in newer aircraft, like the F-35 — a radar-evading plane — which is aimed at potential threats like China. The A-10’s proponents point to the plane’s proven utility, including its use in close air support operations in Iraq against the Islamic State”.

He ends “Obama’s security budget ignores the congressionally mandated budget caps — known as sequestration — that will remain in place for 2016 unless Congress passes legislation to lift them. Under sequestration, the Pentagon’s base budget is capped at $499 billion. The Pentagon’s request comes in $35 billion over the cap. “Funding levels lower than the president is proposing, especially at full sequestration cap levels, our defense strategy will become brittle and more prone to breaking,” Work told reporters at the Pentagon Monday. The war funding budget also includes a healthy dose of classified spending: $3.5 billion for Defense Department programs, and another $5 billion for non-defense activities”.

“Threatening an air base”


Islamic State insurgents took control on Thursday of large parts of the western Iraqi town of al-Baghdadi, threatening an air base where U.S. Marines are training Iraqi troops, officials said. Al-Baghdadi, about 85 km (50 miles) northwest of Ramadi in Anbar province, has been besieged for months by the radical Sunni Islamist militants who captured vast swathes of northern and western Iraq last year. Militants attacked al-Baghdadi from two directions earlier in the day and then advanced on the town, intelligence sources and officials in the Jazeera and Badiya operations commands said. The officials said another group of insurgents then attacked the heavily-guarded Ain al-Asad air base five km southwest of the town, but were unable to break into it. About 320 U.S. Marines are training members of the Iraqi 7th Division at the base, which has been struck by mortar fire on at least one previous occasion since December”.

Putin’s rouble problems


In Foreign Affairs Daniel Cloud discusses the problems of the rouble for Putin. He starts, “The ruble has already lost almost half its value against the U.S. dollar this year, and its potential collapse has pushed Russian President Vladimir Putin into an increasingly tight corner. In Ukraine, where hostilities have brought sanctions and alienated investors, Putin has only bad options to choose from: He can either make a deal now—one he won’t like, since he holds few cards—or compromise later, once his negotiating position has deteriorated further. No matter what happens, he will end up badly wounded. The question is whether he will drag his country down with him, turning Russia into a full-fledged pariah state. When Putin first moved on Ukraine, Western leaders confidently predicted that the economic consequences would force him to retreat. But things didn’t play out that way. After Russia annexed Crimea, the ruble actually strengthened, thanks in part to Moscow’s huge foreign exchange reserves (equivalent, on paper, to half a trillion dollars at the end of last year). Putin seemed to be winning, and it looked as if the potential consequences—capital flight, a currency collapse, a replay of the financial crisis of the late-1990s—would never materialise”.

Importantly he notes that “that supposed victory was always an illusion. To believe it was real, one would have had to believe that Putin’s adventure in Ukraine would be quick and easy. Many did, especially in the Kremlin. But it should have been clear to Putin and his advisers that if the war lasted much longer than a few months, some exogenous event, such as a European recession or another 2008-style financial panic, would eventually make it impossible to defend the ruble. A drop in oil prices ended up doing just that. The price of crude has been sliding ever since the U.S. Federal Reserve ended its bond-purchasing program last summer, and prices now stand at a little more than half what they were a year ago. The price of Brent oil, a key benchmark for global prices, has dropped from $90 a barrel at the beginning of October to well under $60 today. Two-thirds of Russia’s export revenues come from petroleum, so at today’s prices, it’s hard to see how Moscow can keep its once-formidable trade surplus positive. The economy, meanwhile, is forecast to shrink at least four percent next year, although that estimate now seems conservative”.

Crucially he makes the point that “investors have concluded that the Russian central bank’s defense of the ruble was a temporary solution to a permanent problem. Capital flight has accelerated as a result, and Russia’s reserves now total less than $400 billion. That still sounds like a lot of money, but most of it is illiquid; the bank has at most $150 billion of usable reserves left. In October, the last month for which figures are available, at least $10 billion dollars fled the country. The price of oil is a lot lower now, so the outflow could only have worsened since then”.

He goes on to note that “No matter what Putin does at this point, the ruble remains in serious trouble, simply because at this oil price, Russia’s foreign exchange reserves, which are already seriously depleted, will continue to shrink rapidly over time. It might be possible to avoid another 1998-style ruble crash if he were to mend ties with the West tomorrow. But that would require him to make politically costly concessions”.

He concludes arguing that “With nothing to lose, the Kremlin could act even more aggressively, exercising the sort of freedom the North Koreans and Iranians enjoy. But it won’t be easy to survive the inevitable political blowback. Russians aren’t ready for a permanent return to the darkest days of the 1990s. To persist in his present course and maintain power, Putin will have to abandon all pretense of regular government or the rule of law and construct a comprehensive, Soviet-style police state. If Putin thought he could defeat the West in a proxy war, he may actually believe himself capable of this task, too. But the cost of the Soviet system wasn’t just the brutality required for its maintenance; it was also the bloodshed required to set it up in the first place. Paying that price is what Putin will be committing himself to if he doesn’t back down before the ruble crashes completely”.

He finishes “Once Putin starts down such a path, it will become much harder for him to relent. The United States must therefore do what it can to persuade him to step back from the ledge, even if that means allowing him to save face. If Washington wants to end the Ukraine crisis swiftly, now is the time”.

Germany annoys the British


British intelligence officials are so alarmed at a parliamentary inquiry into their activities in Germany that they have threatened to stop sharing information if it goes ahead. According to a report in Focus magazine, British spy chiefs are worried that German politicians could reveal classified information about their joint projects, including details about code-breaking and technology. They fear a Europe-wide surveillance project that began last year, and includes British and German intelligence, could be comprised. Germany is taking the threat, said to have been made by senior British officials, seriously. Gerhard Schindler, the head of Germany’s federal intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) reportedly brief the parliamentary inquiry on the “unusually tense relations with British partner agencies” on Wednesday evening. German intelligence depends on shared information from the UK, particularly when monitoring jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq. “Without the information from British signals intelligence we would be blind,” an unnamed senior intelligence official told the magazine”.

Iraqi WMD?


A report from the New York Times notes that

It begins “The Central Intelligence Agency, working with American troops during the occupation of Iraq, repeatedly purchased nerve-agent rockets from a secretive Iraqi seller, part of a previously undisclosed effort to ensure that old chemical weapons remaining in Iraq did not fall into the hands of terrorists or militant groups, according to current and former American officials. The extraordinary arms purchase plan, known as Operation Avarice, began in 2005 and continued into 2006, and the American military deemed it a nonproliferation success. It led to the United States’ acquiring and destroying at least 400 Borak rockets, one of the internationally condemned chemical weapons that Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government manufactured in the 1980s but that were not accounted for by United Nations inspections mandated after the 1991 Persian Gulf war”.

The piece goes on to mention that “The effort was run out of the C.I.A. station in Baghdad in collaboration with the Army’s 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion and teams of chemical-defense and explosive ordnance disposal troops, officials and veterans of the units said. Many rockets were in poor condition and some were empty or held a nonlethal liquid, the officials said. But others contained the nerve agent sarin, which analysis showed to be purer than the intelligence community had expected given the age of the stock. A New York Times investigation published in October found that the military had recovered thousands of old chemical warheads and shells in Iraq and that Americans and Iraqis had been wounded by them, but the government kept much of this information secret, from the public and troops alike”.

It adds later that “These munitions were remnants of an Iraqi special weapons program that was abandoned long before the 2003 invasion, and they turned up sporadically during the American occupation in buried caches, as part of improvised bombs or on black markets. The potency of sarin samples from the purchases, as well as tightly held assessments about risks the munitions posed, buttresses veterans’ claims that during the war the military did not share important intelligence about battlefield perils with those at risk or maintain an adequate medical system for treating victims of chemical exposure“.

The writer goes on to mention that “The purchases were made from a sole Iraqi source who was eager to sell his stock, officials said. The amount of money that the United States paid for the rockets is not publicly known, and neither are the affiliations of the seller. Most of the officials and veterans who spoke about the program did so anonymously because, they said, the details remain classified. The C.I.A. declined to comment. The Pentagon, citing continuing secrecy about the effort, did not answer written questions and acknowledged its role only obliquely”.

It concludes “Retired Army Lt. Gen. Richard P. Zahner, the top American military intelligence officer in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, said he did not know of any other intelligence program as successful in reducing the chemical weapons that remained in Iraq after the American-led invasion. Through the C.I.A.’s purchases, General Zahner said, hundreds of weapons with potential use for terrorists were quietly taken off the market. “This was a timely and effective initiative by our national intelligence partners that negated the use of these unique munitions,” he said”.

“Slow the pace of the withdrawal of U.S. troops”


President Barack Obama is considering a request from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to slow the pace of the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a senior administration official said on Wednesday. “President Ghani has requested some flexibility in the troop drawdown timeline and base closure sequencing over the next two years, and we are actively considering that request,” the official said, speaking on background. Ghani will travel to Washington next month to meet with Obama. Last month, the Afghan president spoke publicly about the U.S. plan to halve the number of troops in Afghanistan in 2015 and cut them further in 2016. He made clear he would prefer a longer timeline and said: “deadlines should not be dogmas.” The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan ended its combat mission after 13 years of war at the end of 2014. About 13,000 foreign troops, mostly Americans, remain to train Afghan forces. Afghan troops continue to fight Taliban militants. The International Committee of the Red Cross has said it had seen twice as many fatalities on the battlefield in 2014 than in the previous year as fighting intensified. U.S. officials are looking for ways to support Afghanistan. U.S. General John Campbell, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, has developed recommendations on ways to train, advise and assist Afghan forces and maintain counterterrorism capabilities, the official said. The White House has already twice adjusted its plans to cut U.S. troops to about 5,000 by the end of this year and draw down to a “normal” U.S. embassy presence in Kabul at the end of 2016″.

UKIP takes the long view


A piece from the Economist notes the rise of UKIP.

It begins “AT FIRST Nigel Farage seemed unwelcome in Rotherham. The leader of the populist UK Independence Party (UKIP) was visiting the hilly Yorkshire town on February 6th to open its campaign headquarters there, but was now trapped inside it. Protesters had gathered outside the front door, chanting and brandishing placards accusing UKIP of bigotry. Passing cars and vans honked, to cheers. But it soon became clear that the horns, and many residents of the town, were for UKIP”

The writer adds that “Opinion polls suggest that one in five Britons could vote for UKIP in the general election on May 7th. Though hugely disadvantaged by the first-past-the-post electoral system, the party could win a handful of seats. By taking Conservative votes in up to 100 others, it could also deny that party a second term. Yet the drama in Rotherham also hinted at a bigger future for UKIP. Long a party of the Tory south of England, it is increasingly one of the Labour north, too. That shift has big implications for its character and prospects. The southern third of Britain’s east coast is generally considered UKIP’s heartland (pushing the point, a Labour politician says it does well where there is good fish and chips).”

Crucially the piece goes on to note that “Margate, a faded seaside resort in the neighbouring seat of North Thanet, shows why the nostalgic party does so well in such places. On the seafront, paint peels off the boarding houses where Victorians once summered. Now divided into cheap flats, many house Poles and Latvians who work as cleaners or at Thanet Earth, a nearby complex of greenhouses. Locals who have lived in the area for decades feel ‘pissed off and alone’, says Chris Wells, a Tory councillor who defected to UKIP last October. Many of these ‘bungalow Tories’, working-class folk who voted for Margaret Thatcher, are attracted by the party’s small-state message and its warnings about the economic impact of immigration, he says”.

However the picture that the author paints of Margate is more relevant than immigration. The ever increasing centralisation of money in London has sucked many of the regional towns around it dry of people. Successive governments, both Tory and Labour, have done little to help people in these towns as they have concentrated on the City and the myth that it was the key to solving all problems. As has been argued here before, immigration is only really an issue during bad economic times but it is made worse by poverty and deprivation. UKIP and other related parties feed on these interrelated issues and make political hay out of them.

The piece adds “far from the Kent coast, another UKIP heartland is emerging in northern towns hobbled by the decline of traditional industries such as coal and steel. If Mr Wells sounds like a traditional Tory politician, Jane Collins, the party’s candidate in Rotherham, sounds like a Labour one. As MP, she pledges, she would focus on “social cohesion”. Perched next to her on a sofa in his party’s besieged office, Mr Farage reels off a list of northern by-elections in which his party has recently come second: South Shields, Barnsley Central, Middlesbrough. All are places neglected by Labour and where UKIP alone speaks to voters’ gut instincts, he claims. Some of them have well-established Asian Muslim minorities that remain semi-detached from their white residents—so concerns about immigration there are more cultural than economic”.

Interestingly the writer notes that “Farage is doing something British political leaders rarely do: thinking beyond the next election. Matthew Goodwin, the co-author of a book on UKIP, says its strategy is to come second in some 50 or 60 northern Labour seats this May and thus be in a position to win them at the next general election. That explains why, though its most immediately promising constituencies are southern, UKIP held its annual conference last year in Doncaster and why Mr Farage will spend much of the election campaign touring the north”.

Worryingly the piece goes on to note, “In the long term, UKIP’s prospects may be best there. Voters who switch from Labour to the party generally remain more loyal to it than do former Tories, observes Mr Goodwin. And as the main anti-Labour force in places like Rotherham it will face little competition. The Tories are electorally toxic and organisationally moribund there; and the Liberal Democrats have been tainted by association with them. If May’s election produces an unstable Labour government, Mr Farage’s party will stand a decent chance of sweeping to victory across the urban north in 2020”.

It is uncertain how many seats UKIP will gain, not many is the most likely answer. However, it will take much longer for Labour and the Tories to undo the years of neglect that have led people in Thanet and Margate to consider voting for such a party as UKIP when what they are really doing is demanding that the political class pay attention to them.

He ends “The success or failure of his strategy is bound to influence UKIP’s ideological direction. A party rooted in economically leftish constituencies where immigration is mainly a cultural issue will be markedly more statist and authoritarian than one rooted in coastal, Toryish seats where it is not—probably excessively so, for some libertarian, pro-market types in UKIP. Tilting northward could leave Mr Farage more powerful than ever, but with a fractious, divided party”.

The collapse of Yemen


The United Nations warned on Thursday that Yemen is “collapsing before our eyes”, on the brink of civil war and prime for Al Qaeda militants to grow stronger in the country as talks on a political settlement continue. Al Qaeda and other Sunni Muslim militants have stepped up attacks since rival Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim Houthi fighters from the north seized the capital in September and started expanding across the country. The Houthis have sidelined the central government in Yemen, which borders oil giant Saudi Arabia. The country is also home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the global network’s most active arms that has carried out attacks abroad. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his special envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, briefed the Security Council on Thursday”.

America, the swing producer


Keith Johnson writes that America is about to become the swing producer and change the game of oil production forever.

He begins “This, the International Energy Agency said Tuesday, is most definitely not your father’s oil market. In its annual five-year oil market outlook, the IEA, which is the energy agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said that the rise of the United States as a heavyweight crude producer, OPEC’s abdication of its historical role as the arbiter of world oil supply, and sluggish oil demand growth worldwide will have big implications for oil producing and consuming countries alike. The upshot: generally smooth sailing for the United States, a few years of discomfort for cash-rich oil giants in the Persian Gulf, and years of turmoil, crippled finances, and political instability in petrostates like Venezuela. Russia will be hit hardest, the IEA said”.

Johnson goes onto note “In contrast to the continued increase in U.S. production over the next five years, the IEA expects Russian oil output to shrink by half a million barrels a day, thanks to lower crude prices, devastating Western sanctions, and a withering currency. All those factors make it hard for Russia to invest in capacity to maintain oil production at old fields, let alone tap exotic new projects in the Arctic or offshore”.

Johnson goes on to discuss whether the plunge in oil prices is over, “the oil market has one big, immediate question: Is the rout over? Prices fell more than 50 percent from summertime highs, which in turn scared the industry into slashing investment, which in turn has spooked oil traders and sent prices back up in recent days. With the price per barrel in the mid-$40s, American drivers got a jolt of nostalgia as gas prices plummeted at the pump to less than $2.50 per gallon in many parts of the country. That’s changed a bit in recent days, with U.S. oil prices rebounding to about $50 a barrel. (That also nudged prices at the pump back up.) Oil analysts are divided about whether the whiplash-inducing price swings will come to an end anytime soon. Some, such as Citibank’s veteran Edward Morse, think oil could go as low as $20 a barrel. Optimists inside OPEC think it could soar again as high as $200 a barrel”.

Interestingly he makes the point that “Figuring out who’s likelier to be right is tricky because of the double-barreled change in how oil markets work. U.S. oil output, largely dependent on fracking hundreds of individual wells, is a lot more responsive to price swings than huge, multibillion-dollar oil projects in other parts of the world. That means the supply side of the market is twitchier than it’s ever been. But the old rules of oil consumption are also out the window, the IEA said. First and foremost, oil demand is no longer about the industrialised world: In 2014, for the first time, developing countries outside the OECD burned more oil than the rich countries inside it. In 2015, for the first time, Asia will consume more oil than the Americas”.

He continues noting that “What’s more, the whole nature of oil consumption is changing, too. In the past, there was a straight line between cheaper oil and increased demand. Not anymore: Thanks to a global hangover from the Great Recession, greater energy efficiency, and a conscious move to put energy-guzzling economies like China’s on a diet, cheaper oil no longer automatically finds buyers”.

The key to all this “Underlying the whole convulsing market is the U.S. tight oil revolution. Last year, the United States far outpaced every other country in the world in boosting oil production. The IEA expects that to continue: The United States will pump two out of every five new barrels that come out of the ground in the next five years. Canada will also keep growing, adding an extra 800,000 barrels a day of production over the period, despite fears in the industry that lower oil prices will kneecap producers”.

The obverse is true for the once powerful OPEC, “The oil-producing cartel will increase production only about half as much as the United States, the IEA said, and Iraq accounts for nearly all of that projected growth. Given the threat Iraq faces from the Islamic State, combined with a shrinking budget and worries over how to keep juicing production at its big southern oil fields, that is one very wild wildcard. Though for the IEA, Libya is OPEC’s real problem child. The country is torn by feuding governments and dueling militias, with Islamists fighting over control of oil fields. That has reduced Libyan oil production to a “trickle,” the agency says. Iran presents the opposite case: The prospect of a deal with Western countries over Iran’s nuclear program raises the possibility of an end to the sanctions that have hamstrung Iranian oil exports. If a deal is reached, the IEA warns, more than 1 million barrels a day of Iranian will flood the markets, upending trading patterns globally and sending prices lower”.

Johnson ends “Sechin expects falling prices to squeeze producers so much that there will be a supply shortfall later this year. For the IEA, that’s a little doubtful. Lower prices will lead to a tighter market later this year, but hardly a supply shortfall. More to the point, the global oil market revolution, especially in the United States, will not go gently into that good night”.

“A new $17.5 billion lifeline”


The International Monetary Fund agreed on Thursday to throw a new $17.5 billion lifeline to Ukraine, hoping to stabilize the country as it teeters on the edge of default. The new plan replaces a $17 billion emergency bailout that was extended last year after mass street protests in Ukraine ousted the country’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovych; Russia annexed Crimea; and a violent separatist uprising began in the east of the country. That uprising has now stretched into a nearly yearlong battle that has devastated Ukraine’s economy. In addition to the heavy costs of the continuing military operation and the displacement of more than one million people from the east, Ukraine has had to grapple with a collapse in the value of its currency, the hryvnia, and spiking inflation. Trade with Russia, long Ukraine’s largest partner, has plummeted, paralyzing many industries. Foreign investment has dried up amid the turmoil. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, who recently visited Kiev to reiterate American financial support for Ukraine, issued a statement praising the new rescue plan”.

“Clarity as a first step in a long duel with Moscow”


A piece in Foreign Policy argues why the troops in Ukraine should be armed. It begins “With battles raging in eastern Ukraine, it should be abundantly clear that the euro-Atlantic community is involved in the most serious conflict since the end of the Cold War — less bloody, so far, but more dangerous than the Balkan wars. Absent a true breakthrough in the Angela Merkel-Francois Hollande effort to broker peace this week, the United States must decide whether to provide weapons systems to Ukraine. This decision is fraught with danger; regardless of what the Obama administration decides to do, blood will be spilled. After leading thinkers from three think tanks, and Secretary of Defense nominee Ash Carter, advocated (in Carter’s case, hinted at) providing lethal weapons, various commentators typically skeptical of muscular foreign policy — including John Mearsheimer and, in Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt — spoke out against such a step.  Like the advocates of further intervention, they have reasonable arguments: I agree with both of them that Ukraine should remain neutral, for example”.

He goes on to write “the key argument they make, specifically Walt’s argument that Washington faces not a “deterrence” but a “spiraling” scenario generated by Vladimir Putin’s fears of Western encroachment — which thus makes deterrent action counterproductive. I know that argument well, because I, as acting national security advisor, agreed with it in August 2008, when Russian troops invaded Georgia. Not acting aggressively was the right choice then, but that is exactly why it is the wrong choice now. Even if the lethal “defensive” weapons like anti-tank missiles that Ukraine’s government is calling for were shipped quickly (for once) to Kiev, the hard truth is that it really won’t make much of a difference on the ground. While better weapons would likely allow Ukrainian forces to do greater damage to insurgents and Russian paramilitary forces, Vladimir Putin is not likely to be dissuaded by body bags. American weapons would be a shot in the arm for the Ukrainian government, but that likely will not change the outcome of disguised Russian control of much of eastern Ukraine”.

He makes the excellent point that “Providing arms would end Washington’s “not providing arms” policy, thereby establishing moral clarity as a first step in a long duel with Moscow. It is the established position of NATO, the European Union, and the United States that Ukraine is facing external aggression from Russia. Under those circumstances, to not provide arms is to undercut that position — to intimate that somehow the democratically elected government in Kiev is not fully legitimate, and is to blame for the conflict. Critics of this policy argue that arming Kiev would only intensify Moscow’s reaction. That may be true, but it’s not entirely without utility. From a practical perspective, weapons shipments would give a battlefield edge to the Ukrainian Army and would force Putin into a less covert means of pursuing his aggression — which has both moral and diplomatic value”.

He adds that the consequences of arming the rebels may be significant, U.S. arms deliveries are not cost free; they would generate diplomatic headaches by splitting Washington from most of Europe, and possibly even encourage intransigence in Kiev. Worries that shipping weapons would lead to a direct U.S.-Russian confrontation, however, are overblown: President Obama is not about to deliver munitions to Kiev that would put Moscow within shooting distance. But accidents happen in war, and thus this risk has to be managed. Still, the strongest theoretical argument against providing weapons to Ukraine is Walt’s “spiraling” worry — that, as Putin is not an aggressor but reacting defensively, it would only pour gasoline on the fire”.

He ends “It would be foolish after Georgia, after Crimea, and after what has transpired in eastern Ukraine to believe that Putin still doesn’t quite “get it” — that a bit more forbearance, or a little more understanding of how our mistakes fueled Russia’s resentment, will bring him to his senses. Rather, it is many in the West, for ideological or economic reasons, who don’t get it: Putin rejects a “win-win” liberal international order. It is he who plays by a different set of rules that harken back to 1914. That is why the time has come to take risks, and why Barack Obama must introduce military force — however limited — into a dynamic that affects more than just Ukraine. Not because these steps will necessarily deter Vladimir Putin, but because it steels America and our allies, generates a new unity around the reality that is today’s Kremlin, and sends a clear signal to Moscow that we have bent and acquiesced for long enough. That the period of testing is over, and that Washington will resist, not submit”.


Assad, talking to America


Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad says his government is receiving messages from the US-led coalition battling the jihadist group, Islamic State. Mr Assad told the BBC that there had been no direct co-operation since air strikes began in Syria in September. But third parties – among them Iraq – were conveying “information”. The US National Security Council has denied co-ordinating with the Syrian government. A spokesperson told the BBC that there has been no “advance notification to the Syrians at a military level”.

Obama’s flawed strategy


An article has been published that analyses the new National Security Strategy published by President Obama. It opens “The White House’s new national security policy, issued Friday, urges a long-term view of confronting conflict in a world awash with urgent crises. It served as more of a defense of President Barack Obama’s response to threats rather than offering a new direction, and bolsters his belief that acting deliberatively now could stave off worse threats later. “Progress won’t be quick or linear,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice told an audience at the Brookings Institution think-tank, where she unveiled the strategy — the second and likely final policy document of its kind for the Obama administration. ‘But we are committed to seizing the future that lies beyond the crisis of the day, and pursuing a vision of the world as it can and should be,’ Rice said. It was an attempt to push back on the criticism that for years has been heaped on Obama for failing to quickly deal with crises — including the rise of the Islamic State and Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine — that have erupted on his watch. Rice urged a policy of “strategic patience” that allows America to prove its power when it must, but as often resists reflexive responses that could ensnare the U.S. in long-term conflicts”.

Needless to say there is a disconnect in the logic of the administration. The problems of today do not solve themselves and can quickly become the problems of tomorrow.

The writer goes on to add “A White House summary of the strategy, released ahead of Rice’s remarks, repeatedly highlighted the administration’s intent to lead — in partnerships, with military power, and ‘with a long-term perspective, influencing the trajectory of major shifts in the security landscape today in order to secure our national interests in the future.’ That is a clear pushback to lawmakers, policy experts, and prominent U.S. journalists who have lambasted the White House for ‘leading from behind’ — a catchphrase that the administration itself once used to describe the U.S. role in the 2011 coalition bombing campaign in Libya, but has since become shorthand for being too passive in global crises”.

The piece mentions “Stewart Patrick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Friday’s strategy plan fails to make clear how the U.S. should choose between competing priorities of responding to immediate threats while still refusing to fully invest in helping solve world crises. He said the Pentagon, the State Department, and other security and diplomatic government agencies may be unable to build their own respective strategies without clearer advice from the White House”.

The flawed logic is seen again when the author notes “The strategy document also calls for stopping “mass atrocities” and reaffirms America’s role in protecting civilians from genocidal regimes. But Obama has been hesitant to intervene in a number of global hotspots, including the ongoing slaughter of civilians in Nigeria by Boko Haram extremists”.

Pointedly he adds that “Obama and European leaders have imposed crippling economic and financial sanctions against Russian firms and officials, and Ukraine separatists. Critics have blamed the administration for not sending weapons to Ukraine to defend itself from Russian military aggression, even though the White House is now considering doing so. Additionally, the White House calls climate change and energy security as key to U.S. national security. It says America is a world leader in oil and gas production, and can afford to reduce foreign energy imports. But it cites a ‘significant stake’ for the U.S. to help secure Europe’s energy needs, and thereby wean much of the West off its dependence on Russia for oil and gas. That will help undercut Putin’s campaign to roil Ukraine”.

He goes on to note “In his earlier security strategy paper, issued in May 2010, Obama focused on ending the war in Iraq and adding more troops to the fight in Afghanistan. Lawmakers have been expecting to see an updated strategy at least since late 2013, but, ironically, its release has been delayed as the administration has struggled to keep up with quickly unfolding crises. Iraq has returned to haunt Obama since U.S. troops withdrew from Baghdad in 2011 — fulfilling his campaign promise to end the war that killed nearly 4,500 American troops and cost hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. Last year, Obama agreed to send American troops to back Iraq after seeing fighters for the Islamic State extremist group overrun the war-torn nation and systematically murder its people. The militancy has its roots in Iraq and Syria, where Obama also has been roundly criticized for offering too little help, too late, to staunch oppressive policies by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that, in turn, fueled the insurgency”.

It seems even Obama is going against the advice of his “dovish” advisers, “Against the advice of some of his own top advisers, Obama refused to arm moderate, vetted Syrian rebels early in their fight against Assad. It is a prime example of the administration’s restrained foreign policy, against the backdrop of a civil war that has killed nearly 200,000 in four years. The chaos gave the Islamic State an opening to control large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. Obama later relented, and by mid-2013 allowed the CIA to begin arming a small group of rebels. That effort is now said to have stalled, and the Pentagon has taken over the effort to vet, recruit, and train as many as 5,000 rebels a year under a $500 million program”.

A related piece notes the role in crafting the NSS played by Dr Susan Rice. The writer notes that “How you read U.S. President Barack Obama’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) will depend mostly on how you feel about the administration’s foreign policy to date. If you are an Obama admirer, you will see it as a reaffirmation of all the reasons you appreciate the president: his restraint, his prioritization of domestic issues, his sense of the limitations of American power, his desire to make fiascos like the Bush wars in Iraq and Afghanistan less likely on his watch. If you are a critic, you will see it as a confirmation of everything you feared: From its doctrine of ‘strategic patience’ to its absolute absence of anything that actually resembles a real strategy, you’ll see it as the written embodiment of the attitudes and muddle-headedness that have diminished America’s standing internationally and contributed to deteriorating situations on the ground, from Ukraine to Syria, from Libya to Afghanistan. Or perhaps, if you are a critic of the president’s from the left, you will see it as dripping with hypocrisy, talking about a values-driven foreign policy that ignores, sidesteps, or whitewashes the president’s ratcheting up of drone strikes and NSA surveillance”.

To be fair, most documents like this read like brochures. (Although thanks to its language and its focus, this one has more the feel of the annual report of a really big NGO than it does an official planning document of the most powerful nation the earth has ever known.) Most of it is written, as the old song goes, to accentuate the positive. The discussion of the rising cyber-threat — which of course, is well in hand — is under a heading called “Access to Shared Spaces.” It is preceded by “Climate Change” and followed by “Increasing Global Health Security.” Thereafter are sections entitled “Prosperity,” “Values,” and “International Order.” All of which are important topics, to be sure.

The writer goes on to make the point that it only deals with the positive aspects and the consequence of this is that “combine that framing with repeated assertions that all is well thanks to American leadership and a glossing-over of real problems and a kind of wink-and-a-nod approach to real strategic thinking — our goals are peace and prosperity and we’ll get there through leadership, values, and continuing to do what we’ve done — and it all seems as though it was drafted by a junior writer for Madame Secretary. Now, National Security Strategies, despite their imposing names, tend to be softer and cuddlier than real life because they are written for public consumption. It is impossible to say some of what the authors really think in them because some of the most important ideas can’t be articulated because they would cause an international incident. To take just one case in point: China. While the NSS tiptoes around potential areas of tension with China — like cyberattacks or the rivalry over islands in the South China Sea — it doesn’t speak directly to the longer-term reasons why America’s largest military force (in the Pacific) is deployed and equipped in ways that clearly are more designed to offset and contain Chinese power”.

He notes that “Rice presented the highlights of the report on Friday at an address delivered at the Brookings Institution, her employer prior to entering the Obama campaign and administration. Early reports, like that of the New York Times, were rather gentle, asserting that the document ‘seems to mix legacy with strategy.’ But, then again, perhaps gentle is what is called for, as the release of the NSS was really just a PR exercise, and Rice’s speech was really just a speech about a document that was itself just a speech by other means. Very meta. Spin about spin about spin. A mishmash leavened by good intentions but unintentionally spiced up by oversights, misrepresentations, and a bad track record”.

He continues “Some of the key messages presented by the NSS are actually shrouded in denial or hypocrisy. Take statements like ‘To succeed, we must draw upon the power of our example — that means viewing our commitment to our values and the rule of law as a strength, and not an inconvenience.’ It is followed by a self-delivered pat on the back saying, ‘That is why I have worked to ensure that America has the capabilities we need to respond to threats abroad, while acting in line with our values — prohibiting the use of torture; embracing constraints on our use of new technologies like drones; and upholding our commitment to privacy and civil liberties.’ Paging Dr. Snowden, paging Dr. Greenwald, paging Dr. Merkel, paging Dr. Rousseff. Does anyone remember the serial violation of national sovereignty by drones“.

He correctly writes that “Some points seem to be just clueless about the reality on the ground worldwide. These include touting the effectiveness of pressure on Putin (not working), of intervening in Libya (not working), of programs to stabilise Iraq and Afghanistan (not working), of efforts to promote prosperity among all Americans (not working), and so on. (There are many examples here.) Some are just cases of ridiculous hyperbole, such as touting a commitment to combatting genocide and mass slaughters (despite inert or confused policies in Syria or African war zones), or overstating the success of our efforts to fight terrorists in conjunction with the Iraqi, Afghan, and Somali governments, or inflating our achievement in combatting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (we got some chemicals eliminated in Syria … so Bashar al-Assad is just using different ones; the jury is still out in Iran). Another bit of hyperbole is celebrating our 60 partners in combatting the Islamic State (IS) when, in fact, the workload of the coalition is being handled primarily by us (80-plus percent of all air missions) and a few others, and most are just busy offering up moral support”.

He ends “if you see the president’s primary mission as undoing the policies of George W. Bush (an approach that certainly has its appeal on many levels), then you may well see all this as a reaffirmation of why you supported Barack Obama in the first place. If you are a critic, it will have you shaking your head. For me, personally, as a guy who voted for Barack Obama twice, the strategy’s aspirational and rational elements explained why I voted for him, and its blindness to deteriorating situations worldwide, its lack of any real strategic vision, and its seeming desire to justify past policies that just haven’t worked explain why I have so often regretted it”.


“Resumed United Nations-mediated talks”


Feuding political parties resumed United Nations-mediated talks with the Houthi militants controlling Yemen’s capital on Monday, but two parties withdrew within hours complaining of threats from the Houthis. The talks are regarded as crucial to reverse deepening political anarchy in Yemen, the Arab world’s most impoverished country and an incubator of Qaeda militants who are a frequent target of American drone strikes. United Nations officials had coaxed the parties back to negotiations three days after the Houthis’ unilateral declaration of a plan to form a new government and choose a president. But soon after the first session began on Monday, Abdullah al-Noman, the secretary general of the Nasserist Organization, a small party, accused one of the top Houthi negotiators, Mehdi al-Meshaat, of threatening to use force to compel the other parties to accept the Houthis’ plan. Citing those threats, the larger Islah party later said that it was boycotting the talks as well, according to a statement on its website. The Islah statement also objected to the Houthis’ insistence on sticking to their unilateral plan to form a government. The Islah party is an Islamist Sunni grouping that has bitterly opposed the Houthis, who are dominated by Zaydis, adherents of a sect that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam”.

Beijing’s heavy hand


An interesting piece argues that China is making its “terrorism” problem worse.

It opens “When an SUV crashed through a crowd at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in late 2013, killing two bystanders and injuring 40, it didn’t take Chinese officials long to name culprits. The attackers, they said, had been members of China’s Uighur Muslim minority, with “links to many international extremist terrorist groups.” Police said they found a flag bearing jihadi emblems in the crashed vehicle and blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, a group named after the independent state China says some Uighurs want to establish in the far-western region of Xinjiang. After the attack, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called ETIM “China’s most direct and realistic security threat.” Beijing has long characterized cases of Uighur violence as organized acts of terrorism and accused individual attackers of having ties to international jihadi groups. Back in 2001, China released a document claiming that “Eastern Turkistan” terrorists had received training from Osama bin Laden and the Taliban and then “fought in combats in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Uzbekistan, or returned to Xinjiang for terrorist and violent activities.” Since then, China has frequently blamed ETIM for violence in Xinjiang and elsewhere”.

He goes on to note that “scholars, human rights groups, and Uighur advocates argue that China is systematically exaggerating the threat Uighurs pose to justify its repressive policies in Xinjiang. The region’s onetime-majority Uighur population of roughly 10 million, which is ethnically Turkic, has been marginalised for decades by ethnic Han Chinese migrants that Beijing has encouraged to move there in the hope that they’d help integrate the restive region into China”.

Unsuprisingly for China the piece adds, “The repression has been getting worse. Since the region’s bloody ethnic clashes in 2009, the government has increased regulations on Muslim practices, restricting veils and beards and strictly enforcing rules that prohibit many from fasting during Ramadan or visiting mosques. Heightened security operations have led in some cases to imprisonment, executions, and suspected torture. Government materials about how to spot extremists (hint: they tend to look like Uighurs) elide religiosity with terrorism”.

Predictably he mentions that “with the rise of the Islamic State, China has again ramped up its claims  about Uighurs waging international jihad. Chinese government-run Global Times asserted in December that about 300 Chinese “extremists” were fighting alongside ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and in January  that another 300 had traveled to Malaysia en route to joining the group. The reports suggested that many were “terrorists from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.” On Thursday,  Global Times said ISIS had executed one of these Uighur recruits in September and two in December when they tried to flee its control, attributing the information to an anonymous Kurdish official”.

Interestingly he goes on to note “China isn’t wholly inventing the threat. Propaganda material from a group China links to ETIM that calls itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) suggests there are at least 30 to 40 Uighur jihadis in Syria and Iraq, according to Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Aaron Zelin, who runs the website TIP has an increasingly active online presence that includes footage of young children firing guns in mountain valleys. In recent years, it has also claimed responsibility for attacks like the Tiananmen Square SUV incident via videos in which its purported leader, Abdullah Mansour, has called for more attacks”.

Crucially he adds “many researchers doubt TIP’s claims, as its accounts of attacks often contradict facts on the ground that don’t seem to indicate the sophistication of internationally organised terrorist operations. The general consensus, according to Georgetown professor James Millward, is that radicalised Uighur expats, who mostly seem to be based in Pakistan rather than Iraq and Syria, haven’t provided any operational support for recent violence in China, but rather just propaganda. And any who are fighting with Middle Eastern jihadi groups don’t seem to be rising very high in their ranks, said Raffaello Pantucci, an analyst at London’s Royal United Services Institute”.

Pointedly he mentions “George Washington University’s Roberts concluded in a 2012 paper titled “Imaginary Terrorism?” that Washington also may have inflated the Uighur threat. The Uighur detainees at Guantánamo who said they’d received jihadi training described a training camp in Afghanistan that amounted to a small, run-down shack. The highlight, in Roberts’s words: “A one-time opportunity to fire a few bullets with the only Kalashnikov rifle that was available at the camp.” Although detainees expressed anger about Chinese rule, they all denied belonging to ETIM, and many said they’d never heard of the group. Roberts has argued that the United States may have backed China’s claims about ETIM in order to cement China’s support for the occupation of Afghanistan and, later, Iraq. Nevertheless, various international terrorism analysts continued to perpetuate the allegations about ETIM in work that cited government statements as their primary sources. According to Georgetown’s Millward, China uses this echo chamber of supposed evidence about ETIM to keep alive the idea of an international Uighur threat, conflating ETIM with the newer, propaganda-producing Turkistan Islamic Party”.

He ends the piece “there aren’t too many promising signs from Xinjiang. And China isn’t the only place taking a hard line. Over the past year, governments from the U.K. to Kosovo to Jordan have been accused of clamping down on civil liberties or political opponents in the name of counterterrorism, some basing their actions to seize passports and detain suspects on the U.S.-backed U.N. foreign fighters resolution. Several Xinjiang experts draw parallels between radicalized Uighurs and young men from other countries drawn to extremism in part due to Islamophobia or alienation at home”.

He concludes “As for Xinjiang, Gladney said, there are “growing concerns at all levels of Chinese society” — even among some government wonks — that China’s policies aren’t working. Many believe the “western development” strategy meant to lift minorities out of poverty and integrate them into Chinese society, as well as the “strike hard” campaign of the past several years, have only stoked further resentment and violence, spread alarm through the population, and drawn more international attention to Uighurs’ plight. As scholars long predicted, China’s actions against a perceived Uighur threat seem to have actually made that threat more real. “Twenty years ago people thought I was crazy talking about Uighurs,” Gladney said. “Now there’s lots of interest.” Despite increased attention at home and abroad, Gladney didn’t see China making significant changes to its Xinjiang policy any time soon. “But they may tweak it,” he said, “and that will be the thing to watch.””


No longer petro-terrorists


Money from illicit oil sales is no longer the main source of revenue for the Islamic State, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday. Oil smuggling had become a crucial source of revenue for the group, which holds a handful of oil fields in Iraq and Syria. Oil profits set the extremist organization apart from other terrorist groups that are more reliant on outside donations. But oil production is also a vulnerability for the group, as it provided the U.S.-led coalition with relatively easy targets to hit with airstrikes. Over the summer, before U.S. airstrikes began, the Islamic State was believed to be producing more than 80,000 barrels a day. Because it was selling the oil on the black market, the group took a major discount compared to global market prices, but experts still estimated it was collecting between an estimated $1 million to $3 million a day. Kirby said he did not know how long it had been since oil was no longer the top revenue source, but cited donations and other black-market sales as other valuable streams of money. U.S. and coalition aircraft have hit targets associated with oil production — mostly oil refineries — in Iraq and Syria over the last several months. In October, the International Energy Agency estimated that the airstrikes had reduced Islamic State production to about 20,000 barrels daily”.