Archive for March, 2015

“Freeze U.S. troops levels in Afghanistan”

31/03/2015

President Obama said Tuesday that he would freeze U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan at 9,800 through the end of the year but vowed to end the American war by the end of his presidency. Obama announced that he would slow the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops after a White House meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The decision to keep more U.S. forces in Afghanistan this year was driven by the administration’s confidence in Ghani, whom Obama praised repeatedly. Relations between Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, and the U.S. government had been steadily deteriorating for years. Obama lauded Ghani, who took office in September, for taking on “the mantle of commander in chief in a way that we have not seen in the past from an Afghan president.” But Obama also made it clear that he wouldn’t depart from his current plan to close the remaining U.S. bases in Afghanistan and consolidate the remaining U.S. forces in Kabul by the end of 2016″.

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A Chinese collapse?

31/03/2015

A collection of academics question when the CCP will collapse. It begins “The endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun,” influential China scholar David Shambaugh wrote in a March 7 article in the Wall Street Journal. “And it has progressed further than many think.””

The piece opens with Ho-fung Hung an Associate Professor of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University. He argues fairly that “there are serious cracks in the CCP regime, not only because of his arguments and evidence but also because of his deep knowledge about and long-time access to the party’s elite. Whether these cracks will lead to the end of CCP rule, nevertheless, is difficult to predict. The prediction about a CCP endgame this time might end up like the many unrealized predictions before. It may also be like the story of boy crying wolf: The wolf didn’t come the first two times, but it finally came when nobody believed it would come. The bottom line is, the CCP is facing very tough challenges. Whether and how it can weather them is uncertain. Xi is a leader who came to power with very few sources of legitimacy. Mao and Deng were among the founding fathers of the People’s Republic of China. Deng handpicked his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao — both of whom got the backing of party elders when they came to power. Xi, despite his princeling background, is the first leader chosen out of a delicate compromise among party factions”.

Interestingly he lends credence to “the mysterious Wang Lijun incident occurred, followed by the unusual downfalls of former top leaders Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang. What Wang actually told the American diplomats during his sleepover in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, and what sensitive information he eventually conveyed to Beijing is still unknown. But the rumour that he revealed a plot by other princelings to get rid of Xi through a coup does not sound too crazy. If this is true, then Xi’s frenetic purge of other factions in his anti-corruption campaign makes sense as a desperate move to whip the disrespectful elite to submission through creating a culture of terror within the Party. Xi’s purges surely make new enemies and make most of the Party elite feel deeply anxious about their fortunes. It won’t be so surprising if some of those anxious elite conspire to depose Xi. Such internal coup against unpopular leaders is not alien to the CCP — it happened with the downfall of the Gang of Four in 1976, and former party chairman Hua Guofeng a few years later”.

He goes on to make the point that “the party’s internal rift is unfolding at the worst possible time, as far as the economy is concerned. Yes, a 7.4 percent annual growth rate is an enviable number to many other emerging economies. But with the soaring indebtedness of the Chinese economy and the ever aggravating unemployment problem, the Chinese economy needs higher-speed growth to stay above water. The debt hangover of the 2008-09 stimulus is worrying. China’s debt to GDP ratio jumped from 147 percent in 2008 to 282 percent now, and is still growing. It is at a dangerously high level compared to other emerging economies. The economic slowdown will lead to profit decline for companies and revenue shortfall for local governments, increasing their difficulty in servicing and repaying debts”.

He admits that the CCP cadres could still prefer to keep Xi over chaos. He ends “we should also ponder another possible scenario: the rise of a hysteric and suffocating dictatorial regime which maintains its draconian control over a society gradually losing its dynamism. Perhaps we can call this hypothetical regime North Korea lite”.

The next writer, Arthur KroeberEditor of the China Economic Quarterly: writes “Neither China nor its Communist Party is cracking up. I have three reasons for this judgment. First, none of the factors Shambaugh cites strongly supports the crackup case. Second, the balance of evidence suggests that Xi’s government is not weak and desperate, but forceful and adaptable. Third, the forces that might push for systemic political change are far weaker than the party. Shambaugh thinks the system is on its last legs because rich people are moving assets abroad, Xi is cracking down on the media and academia, officials look bored in meetings, corruption is rife, and the economy is at an impasse. This is not a persuasive case. True, many rich Chinese are moving money abroad, both to find safe havens and to diversify their portfolios as China’s growth slows. But in aggregate, capital outflows are modest, and plenty of rich Chinese are still investing in their own economy. Following an easing of rules, new private business registrations rose 45 percent in 2014 — scarcely a sign that the entrepreneurial class has given up hope”.

He continues “As for the economy and the reform program, it is first worth pointing out that despite its severe slowdown, China’s economy continues to grow faster than that of any other major country in the world. And claims that the reform program is sputtering simply do not square with the facts. 2014 saw the start of a crucial program to revamp the fiscal system, which led to the start of restructuring local government debt; first steps to liberalize the one-child policy and the hukou, or household registration system (discussed for years but never achieved by previous governments); important changes in energy pricing; and linkage of the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock markets. News reports suggest that we will soon see a program to reorganize big SOEs under Temasek-like holding companies that will focus on improving their flagging financial returns. These are all material achievements and compare favorably to, for instance, the utter failure of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to progress on any of the reform agenda he outlined for his country two years ago”.

Crucially, and perhaps correctly he argues “Finally, there is no evidence that the biggest and most important political constituency in China — the rising urban bourgeoisie — has much interest in changing the system. In my conversations with members of this class, I hear many complaints, but more generally a satisfaction with the material progress China has made in the last two decades. Except for a tiny group of brave dissidents, this group in general displays little interest in political reform and none in democracy. One reason may be that they find uninspiring the record of democratic governance in other big Asian countries, such as India. More important is probably the fear that in a representative system, the interests of the urban bourgeoisie (at most 25 percent of the population) would lose out to those of the rural masses”.

Pointedly and worryingly he writes that the whole China collapse syndrome has “a long and futile history. Their persistent failure stems from a basic conceptual fault. Instead of facing the Chinese system on its own terms and understanding why it works — which could create insights into why it might stop working — critics judge the system against what they would like it to be, and find it wanting. This embeds an assumption of fragility that makes every societal problem look like an existential crisis. As a long-term resident of China, I would love the government to become more open, pluralistic and tolerant of creativity. That it refuses to do so is disappointing to me and many others, but offers no grounds for a judgment of its weakness”.

 

The next section, written by Suisheng Zhao of the University of Denver argues, “the CCP regime is in crisis. But it has muddled through one crisis after another, including the catastrophes of the chaotic, decade-long Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, by tackling its symptoms. It is too difficult to predict the arrival of the cracking up moment now. This current crisis comes after more than three decades of market-oriented economic reform under one-party rule, which has produced a corruptive brand of state capitalism in which power and money ally. The government officials and senior managers in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have formed strong and exclusive interest groups to pursue economic gains. China ranks among the countries of the highest income inequality in the world at a time when China has dismantled its social welfare state, leaving hundreds of millions of citizens without any or adequate provision of healthcare, unemployment insurance, and a variety of other social services. Meanwhile, China has become one of the world’s most polluted countries. The crisis has worsened as China’s economic growth is slowing”.

He mentions that “President Xi Jinping is likely aware of the danger of possible collapse and has been trying to prevent it from happening. Opposite from the prescription by liberal scholars and Western leaders, Xi has seen that the key to keeping the CCP in power is to further empower the authoritarian state led by the Communist Party, reflecting the long struggle of the Chinese political elites in building and maintaining a powerful state to lead China’s modernisation”.

He continues “The authority crisis called for the creation of an authoritarian state through revolution and nationalism. The Chinese communist revolution was a collective assertion for the new form of authority and a strong state to build a prosperous Chinese nation. The very essence of CCP legitimacy was partly based upon its ability to establish a powerful state as an organizing and mobilizing force to defend the national independence and launch modernization programs. To rectify his predecessors’ overemphasis on the transformation of China through reforms that weakened the state’s authority and the CCP central leadership, Xi has made concentrated efforts to over-empower the authoritarian state. Repeatedly warning against “Westernization,” Xi emphasizes a unified national ideal of the “China Dream” and has allowed the security/propaganda axis to tighten up controls on expression of different political ideologies and opinions”.

He ends “Whether or not empowering the authoritarian state is a long-term solution to the current crisis, it seems to have targeted some of its symptoms and temporarily silenced its liberal critics inside China. As a result, it may help postpone the arrival of a cracking up moment — at least for now”.

 

“Issue a general statement agreeing to continue talks”

31/03/2015

Wrapping up six days of marathon nuclear talks with mixed results, Iran and six world powers prepared Tuesday to issue a general statement agreeing to continue talks in a new phase aimed at reaching a final agreement to control Iran’s nuclear ambitions by the end of June, officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday. Officials had set a deadline of March 31 for a framework agreement, and later softened that wording to a framework understanding, between Iran and the so-called P5+1 nations – the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. And after intense negotiations, obstacles remained on uranium enrichment, where stockpiles of enriched uranium should be stored, limits on Iran’s nuclear research and development and the timing and scope of sanctions relief among other issues. The joint statement is to be accompanied by additional documents that outline more detailed understandings, allowing the sides to claim enough progress has been made thus far to merit a new round, the officials said. Iran has not yet signed off on the documents, one official said, meaning any understanding remains unclear. The talks have already been extended twice as part of more than a decade of diplomatic attempts to curb Tehran’s nuclear advance”.

Threats and less money for the PLA

31/03/2015

An article discusses the Chinese PLA and the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

It opens “The last three decades have been relatively easy for China’s defence planners. But its economy is stagnating and its security environment is deteriorating. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s military, will face some tough choices. Decades of double-digit budget increases have allowed it to concentrate on building what Beijing most desires: a strong, maritime-focused force. China now has the world’s most active precision-strike missile program, is acquiring submarines at a faster rate than any other navy, and is building a large surface navy. After the fall of the Soviet Union and until very recently, China’s land borders appeared secure — to borrow a metaphor from U.S. history, its “frontier was closed.” With China’s explosive economic growth over the last few decades, it not only quickly became one of the most important maritime trading nations in the world, but could also shower largesse on the PLA (while China faces periodic bouts of domestic unrest, the PLA is no longer in charge of that mission). Until recently, the PLA had but one main requirement: build a military capable of protecting China’s regional maritime interests”.

He goes on to note that “the easy days are over. Resources are shrinking. The situation is Xinjiang is getting worse. And an anti-corruption campaign announced by CCP secretary Xi Jinping shortly after he took office in November 2012 is starting to pick up steam in the military. Meanwhile, China’s land borders no longer appear as secure, as terrorists infiltrate China from South and Central Asia. For the first time since the Cold War, the PLA faces a real set of tough strategic and investment trade-offs and challenges to its weapons program development”.

Much has been written on these weaknesses of the PLA and there are serious doubts as to whether it will be able to control the problems China now faces.

He continues noting the economic instability of China, “First, China’s fiscal situation is under severe strain. Its debt burden increased from $7 trillion in 2007 to $28 trillion in mid-2014, while Chinese national wealth has only increased by $5 trillion since mid-2008. As my colleague Derek Scissors argued in a November essay, “Chinese growth since 2008 has been built entirely on sand.” China is also aging rapidly: its labour force shrunk by 2.44 million in 2013, and by a whopping 3.71 million in 2014. Moreover, its gross domestic product grew at only 7.4 percent in 2014 — a 24-year low — and Beijing is aiming for around 7 percent for 2015. The current economic slowdown could potentially derail the PLA’s gravy train. Its military budget will have to align with China’s fiscal realities. The CCP will have to meet pension obligations to retirees and try and service the debt”.

The author adds that “Second, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is going after PLA elites. In early March, the PLA announced that 14 more of its generals were targeted in the anti-corruption crackdown. And in October, Beijing indicted Xu Caihou, a former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, the body that oversees the PLA, on bribery charges. Xu, who died last week, was the highest military official in decades to be publicly accused of corruption. The anti-corruption campaign is likely making the PLA very cautious about procurement and innovation. And this caution will likely lead to poor investment decisions: fearful of drawing the attention of anti-corruption investigators, officers in the PLA will likely overcompensate and cut back more than they should”.

Not only will it make the PLA cautious, the system in China will not fundamentally alter and become less corrupt until there is political reform. Eventually the current crackdown will end, or run into sustained opposition, and the result will be that corruption will seep back into the system like a weed. Unless there is transparency it will only move the corruption.

The third point he mentions is that “China’s international security environment is changing. For the past 20 years, it has been primarily concerned with building a coercive force in maritime East Asia. However, domestic terror attacks have risen sharply since the Beijing Olympics. Between 2008 and 2013, China experienced 48 terror attacks, most of them attributed to radical Uighurs, an ethnically Turkic, Muslim minority group who live in Xinjiang, a massive region in northwest China. Long repressed by Beijing, some Uighurs have joined militant groups in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The Chinese government claims that over 300 Uighurs have joined the Islamic State (IS). While some Western analysts doubt the veracity of this figure, there have been firsthand accounts of Uighurs fighting on the front lines. In addition, several hundred Uighur fighters have established themselves in training camps along the rugged Afghan-Pakistan border”.

Needless to say the problems in the seas and with the Uighurs are entirely the making of the CCP. The force with which China has tried to deal with them have predictably backfired.

Another consequence of this is that “with growing Chinese oppression of Muslims, international jihadi groups like IS are reportedly setting their sights on China. While domestic security forces take the lead in counter-terror activities, the PLA will have to step up as well. Xinjiang’s long and porous border touches eight countries. Preventing terrorist attacks will not be easy. The Chinese leadership will debate where scarcer resources should be directed — pursuing maritime-based ambitions, or defending against continental threats and enhancing border security. The neglected PLA ground forces will see an opportunity to beef up mobile forces capable of crossing China’s borders, and work with Central Asian governments in counter-terrorism operations”.

He ends “the PLA may be entering a period of relative weakness. What does this mean for U.S. policy? Washington should avoid the temptation to overreact and worry less about the PLA. Instead, it should view periods of relative Chinese weakness as opportunities to consolidate advantages in its security competition with China. Washington can begin to roll back some of China’s maritime gains by convoying Philippine and Vietnamese oil and fishing vessels that China harasses, operating consistently in new maritime territories China is trying to claim, and building the maritime capacity of Southeast Asian nations”.

Three unresolved issues

31/03/2015

Iran and the six world powers (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany, or P5+1) could be poised to reach a political understanding on a final Iran nuclear deal by March 31, if they are able to overcome two core issues still under discussion here. They involve the scope of research and development that Iran could conduct in years 11-15 of a final accord, and what happens on UN Security Council sanctions, according to a senior US official. The aim this round, as the last foreign ministers from the P5+1 arrived in Lausanne on March 29, is to reach a political understanding on major parameters of a joint comprehensive plan of action, but it will not be written here, the US official, speaking not for attribution, said. Though any preliminary agreement reached here may not include a public text, US negotiators understand they will have to explain the potential solutions agreed, even if behind doors in classified briefings to members of Congress. If a political understanding is able to be reached here in the next days, it would hardly be the end of the negotiations, the official stressed. But rather, it would be followed by continued, intense negotiations on every word of a far more detailed and lengthy comprehensive accord document that is due to be completed by the end of June, the US official said. As to whether even the preliminary agreement for a final deal can be reached, diplomats at the talks said they were hopeful, but they did not know yet”.

Relatedly the New York Times reports another stumbling block, “With a negotiating deadline just two days away, Iranian officials on Sunday backed away from a critical element of a proposed nuclear agreement, saying they are no longer willing to ship their atomic fuel out of the country. For months, Iran tentatively agreed that it would send a large portion of its stockpile of uranium to Russia, where it would not be accessible for use in any future weapons program. But on Sunday Iran’s deputy foreign minister made a surprise comment to Iranian reporters, ruling out an agreement that involved giving up a stockpile that Iran has spent years and billions of dollars to amass”.

France pushes Israel

31/03/2015

As US-Israeli relations continue to worsen, an article notes that France is no longer allowing the United States to control the peace process in the Middle East.

It begins “Barack Obama’s administration is hinting that it may push for a U.N. resolution endorsing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a move that would be the most concrete sign yet of Washington’s deteriorating relationship with Israel. In the end, though, it may be France that leads the diplomatic drive for a concrete plan laying out the terms for a negotiated peace. France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, told reporters this week that Paris is committed to seeking U.N. support for a resolution setting out guidelines for future negotiations and calling for an end to Israeli settlements. The French would be happy to see Washington take the lead on crafting a resolution and moving it through the U.N. Security Council, according to diplomats familiar with their thinking. But Paris will try to force Washington’s hand if the Obama administration hesitates for too long. “We won’t give up on this,” Delattre said. France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in New York on Friday, march 27, that Paris would start talks in the “coming weeks” on a parameters resolution, and issued a veiled appeal to Washington to come on board. “I hope that the partners who were reluctant will not be reluctant anymore,” Fabius said, according to Reuters”.

The piece goes on to mention “The United States has signaled to French, British, and German officials in recent weeks that it is willing to consider supporting a new draft resolution. But Washington, like Paris, is waiting for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new coalition government before determining when, or whether, to move forward. The French initiative is a retread of a previous drive late last year by Paris to muster support for placing the U.N. Security Council at the center of international efforts to promote a Middle East peace, a move that both the United States and Israel have long opposed. If the French effort fails, Paris has warned that it will unilaterally recognize the state of Palestine, following a handful of other European countries, including Sweden, Malta, and Cyprus”.

The writer notes that America has blocked French efforts for a plan for political talks on the Israel-Palestine issue, but “with the election over and Netanyahu seeming to drop his earlier support for a two-state solution, France has signaled its intention to press ahead on the plan, not immediately, but eventually. Neither Paris nor Washington has indicated when it would consider a move to the Security Council. The White House, fuming over Netanyahu’s election pledge not to pursue a two-state solution during his term, has said it is carrying out a review of its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process”.

Interestingly the author notes that the push by the French, which as he stated above has no real timeline and therefore is just words “is part of a broader diplomatic gambit by Paris aimed at breaking up Washington’s diplomatic monopoly on the Middle East peace process. French officials maintain that decades of U.S.-brokered negotiations have hit a dead end, raising the need for a new approach. France has proposed an international conference designed to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process that would include representatives from the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, the European Union, the Arab League, and key Arab governments”.

Vitally he notes that America may be willing to force Israel to the negotiating table if the deadlock continues “The confidential French draft resolution outlines a plan for a “just, lasting and comprehensive peaceful solution that fulfills the vision of two independent, democratic and prosperous states, Israel and a sovereign, contiguous and viable State of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security within mutually and internationally recognised borders.” A similar version of the draft was posted on the web site of a U.N.-based reporter in December. There is little optimism among U.N.-based diplomats that a new Security Council resolution will be enough to compel the Israelis and Palestinians to embrace a new round of peace talks anytime soon. And France has so far been unable to secure support from its most important European allies, Britain and Germany, which fear a resolution will be unacceptable to Israel and the United States. But U.S. officials have informed Paris that a resolution setting out such parameters may be worth pursuing if Israel’s government shows little sign of embracing a new peace push”.

He ends the article, “Israel might get at least one provision for which it has been calling for decades: a guarantee that the new state of Palestine wouldn’t have armed forces of its own. The resolution envisions “security arrangements that respect the sovereignty of a non-militarized state of Palestine, including through a full and phased withdrawal of Israeli security forces” while ensuring the “security of both Israel and Palestine through effective border security and by preventing the resurgence of terrorism.” The extent of Palestine’s control over its own borders — as well as Israel’s ability to police them — has been a sticking point for years, and the French resolution may have wisely stepped around addressing the specific areas of dispute. Israel has three primary demands: ensuring that Palestine doesn’t develop a formal military, retaining control over Palestine’s airspace, and keeping at least small numbers of troops in the Jordan Valley, which Israel says would be essential to preventing foreign militants from crossing the border into the West Bank. Palestinian leaders say the third provision would be a deal-breaker”.

He concludes “While the United States has yet to engage in formal negotiations with France over its plan, Washington has been informally advising Paris, either directly or through its European allies, to make specific changes to the text. For instance, Washington has insisted that any resolution recognise Israel as a Jewish state, a key demand by Israel that the Palestinians and other Arab states find objectionable. “The United States has been privately pressing France to refer to Israel as the ‘Jewish state,’ but Arab diplomats say that is a no-no,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former member of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Mideast peace team, which effectively disbanded last year amid a complete lack of progress.”

 

“Moving heavy military equipment”

31/03/2015

Saudi Arabia is moving heavy military equipment including artillery to areas near its border with Yemen, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, raising the risk that the Middle East’s top oil power will be drawn into the worsening Yemeni conflict. The buildup follows a southward advance by Iranian-backed Houthi Shi’ite militants who took control of the capital Sanaa in September and seized the central city of Taiz at the weekend as they move closer to the new southern base of U.S.-supported President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The slide toward war in Yemen has made the country a crucial front in Saudi Arabia’s region-wide rivalry with Iran, which Riyadh accuses of sowing sectarian strife through its support for the Houthis”.

The Saudi containment strategy?

29/03/2015

A report discusses the actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

It starts, “Saudi Arabia has launched airstrikes into neighbouring Yemen to try to blunt the advances of the Iranian-backed militia that holds sway over the country’s capital and is closing in on one of the last government-held cities. The questions Riyadh will have to answer in the days ahead are how far to push the fight — and how much risk it will be willing to accept as it fights a well-armed and well-trained enemy”.

The piece goes on to note that the president of Yemen has fled the country and the this chaos as worried the Saudis as the Houthis take over larger sections of the country.

The report continues “Speaking to reporters in Washington Wednesday night, Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir said the strikes were carried out with the support of other Arab states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to protect the legitimate government of Yemen and “prevent the radical Houthi movement from taking over the country.” He said Riyadh is “extremely pleased and extremely appreciative” of the support received from the United States, but noted that Washington is not participating in military operations against the Houthis. The ambassador defended Saudi Arabia’s actions against the Houthi rebels, saying that the “use of force is always the last resort.” He noted that the Iran-aligned group had seized some of Yemen’s military bases and weapons, including ballistic missiles. “This is a very dangerous situation,” he said”.

Interestingly the piece notes that the ambassador “declined to name the Arab countries participating in the air campaign and would not provide operational details of the strikes”.

The writer adds that the Saudis must chose whether the purpose of their mission is to stop the Houthis from attacking the kingdom or to have a counter coup to oust the Houthis altogether.

The author adds that a diplomat “said Saudi Arabia would likely rely on airstrikes against Houthi ground units and command-and-control centres, which would be easy to find: Many are housed in military facilities that had previously belonged to the armed forces of the Hadi government. Yemen’s military has basically disintegrated, with large numbers of troops either abandoning their posts or joining forces with the Houthi rebels, so Saudi Arabia is likely to be effectively attacking bases and equipment that until recently were under the control of a close ally. Saudi ground operations, the diplomat said, would be unlikely to begin until Saudi airstrikes had weakened Houthi positions enough to allow a measure of safety for an invasion force”.

The situation is likely to get worse and even more dangerous as the writer notes that “intervening militarily to try to restore order carry clear risks for Saudi Arabia and the Obama administration, which has long cited Yemen as a counterterrorism success story. If Riyadh opts for a containment strategy, Yemen could fall even more deeply into a bloody civil war that would allow an Iranian-backed militia to take power while potentially giving al Qaeda’s affiliate there — already widely seen as the most dangerous terror group in the world — vast ungoverned spaces it could use to plan attacks against targets outside of the country. The Houthis have promised to combat the Sunni fighters of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but it’s not clear how seriously they would pursue that goal while they focus on firming up control over much of the country and forming a new government”.

Importantly he mentions that “Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who now works at the Brookings Institution, noted that ground operations inside Yemen would be highly risky for the Saudi military, which could suffer significant military casualties”.

The author goes on to mention that US forces have left Yemen, “due to security concerns, threatens to significantly slow the fight against AQAP and leave the United States potentially more vulnerable to a strike. Washington has used drones to kill individual militants on the ground in Yemen, but Special Operations personnel concede that it will be extremely difficult to get accurate targeting information without any U.S. forces, or trusted Yemeni ones, on the ground to help. That means American drone operations in Yemen could become far less effective in the months ahead. The battle inside Yemen is taking place against the backdrop of a long-running shadow war between Riyadh and Tehran for primacy in the region. Iran maintains close ties to the Houthis and is believed to be supplying them with weaponry and training — something Tehran steadfastly denies — while Saudi Arabia has long tried to prop up the Hadi government to prevent Tehran from further expanding its sphere of influence”.

The piece concludes “Hadi, the Yemeni leader whom the United States saw as a valuable partner, sent a long note to the U.N. Security Council pleading for it to help “safeguard Yemen from sliding into more chaos and destruction” and noting that he had asked the GCC and the Arab League to immediately provide “all means necessary, including military intervention to protect Yemen and its people from the continuing Houthi aggression.” The GCC will be holding an emergency session Thursday to discuss the new strikes in Yemen. Hadi, meanwhile, appears to have given up, at least for the short term. After his reported fleeing of Aden by boat, the White House said it had no word on his current whereabouts”.

Cruz joins Obamacare

29/03/2015

Ted Cruz is signing up for ObamaCare one day after launching his presidential bid. Cruz, one of the biggest ObamaCare foes in Congress, found himself without health insurance after his wife, an executive at Goldman Sachs, announced she is taking an unpaid leave to join his campaign. He will now head to HealthCare.gov to sign up for a plan. “We will presumably go on the exchange and sign up for health care and we’re in the process of transitioning over to do that,” Cruz told the Des Moines Register on Tuesday. The Texas senator was previously covered by a Goldman Sachs plan that was worth at least $20,000 a year, according to a 2013 report from The New York Times. Cruz has previously boasted that he was not forced to buy coverage under ObamaCare. As a freshman senator in 2013, the Republican firebrand’s efforts to defund the ObamaCare reform law led to a government shutdown and rocketed him to the national stage. Lawmakers can receive subsidies to pay for their health care through the exchanges, but it was unclear whether Cruz planned to accept one”.

Israel spies on America

29/03/2015

Following on from the desperate tactics used to win the Israeli general election Israel yet again proves that it is not friend of the United States. A piece from the Wall Street Journal reports that Israel has spied on the ongoing Iran talks.

It begins “Soon after the U.S. and other major powers entered negotiations last year to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, senior White House officials learned Israel was spying on the closed-door talks. The spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal, current and former U.S. officials said. In addition to eavesdropping, Israel acquired information from confidential U.S. briefings, informants and diplomatic contacts in Europe, the officials said.  Soon after the U.S. entered negotiations last year to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, senior White House officials learned Israel was spying on the closed-door talks”.

The report adds that “The U.S. and Israel, longtime allies who routinely swap information on security threats, sometimes operate behind the scenes like spy-versus-spy rivals. The White House has largely tolerated Israeli snooping on U.S. policy makers—a posture Israel takes when the tables are turned. The White House discovered the operation, in fact, when U.S. intelligence agencies spying on Israel intercepted communications among Israeli officials that carried details the U.S. believed could have come only from access to the confidential talks, officials briefed on the matter said. Israeli officials denied spying directly on U.S. negotiators and said they received their information through other means, including close surveillance of Iranian leaders receiving the latest U.S. and European offers. European officials, particularly the French, also have been more transparent with Israel about the closed-door discussions than the Americans, Israeli and U.S. officials said”.

It goes on to mention “Using levers of political influence unique to Israel, Messrs. Netanyahu and Dermer calculated that a lobbying campaign in Congress before an announcement was made would improve the chances of killing or reshaping any deal. They knew the intervention would damage relations with the White House, Israeli officials said, but decided that was an acceptable cost. The campaign may not have worked as well as hoped, Israeli officials now say, because it ended up alienating many congressional Democrats whose support Israel was counting on to block a deal. Obama administration officials, departing from their usual description of the unbreakable bond between the U.S. and Israel, have voiced sharp criticism of Messrs. Netanyahu and Dermer to describe how the relationship has changed”.

The piece goes on to note the ever weakening ties between Israel and the United States, “Distrust between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama had been growing for years but worsened when Mr. Obama launched secret talks with Iran in 2012. The president didn’t tell Mr. Netanyahu because of concerns about leaks, helping set the stage for the current standoff, according to current and former U.S. and Israeli officials. U.S. officials said Israel has long topped the list of countries that aggressively spy on the U.S., along with China, Russia and France. The U.S. expends more counterintelligence resources fending off Israeli spy operations than any other close ally, U.S. officials said”.

It continues “As secret talks with Iran progressed into 2013, U.S. intelligence agencies monitored Israel’s communications to see if the country knew of the negotiations. Mr. Obama didn’t tell Mr. Netanyahu until September 2013. Israeli officials, who said they had already learned about the talks through their own channels, told their U.S. counterparts they were upset about being excluded. “ ‘Did the administration really believe we wouldn’t find out?’ ” Israeli officials said, according to a former U.S. official.  Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer met with U.S. lawmakers and shared details on the Iran negotiations to warn about the terms of the deal”.

It adds later “Mr. Dermer started lobbying U.S. lawmakers just before the U.S. and other powers signed an interim agreement with Iran in November 2013. Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Dermer went to Congress after seeing they had little influence on the White House. Before the interim deal was made public, Mr. Dermer gave lawmakers Israel’s analysis: The U.S. offer would dramatically undermine economic sanctions on Iran, according to congressional officials who took part. After learning about the briefings, the White House dispatched senior officials to counter Mr. Dermer. The officials told lawmakers that Israel’s analysis exaggerated the sanctions relief by as much as 10 times, meeting participants said. When the next round of negotiations with Iran started in Switzerland last year, U.S. counterintelligence agents told members of the U.S. negotiating team that Israel would likely try to penetrate their communications, a senior Obama administration official said”.

After the stunt pulled by Netanyahu in Congress the reaction only hurt the Israeli cause, “The congressional briefings and Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to address a joint meeting of Congress on the emerging deal sparked a backlash among many Democratic lawmakers, congressional aides said. On Feb. 3, Mr. Dermer huddled with Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, who said he told Mr. Dermer it was a breach of protocol for Mr. Netanyahu to accept an invitation from Mr. Boehner without going through the White House. Mr. Manchin said he told Mr. Dermer he would attend the prime minister’s speech to Congress, but he was noncommittal about supporting any move by Congress to block a deal. Mr. Dermer spent the following day doing damage control with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, congressional aides said. Two days later, Mr. Dermer met with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the SenateIntelligence Committee, at her Washington, D.C., home. He pressed for her support because he knew that she, too, was angry about Mr. Netanyahu’s planned appearance. Ms. Feinstein said afterward she would oppose legislation allowing Congress to vote down an agreement”.

In a related article the reaction from Congress is examined. It opens “U.S. lawmakers shrugged off a report Tuesday alleging that Israel spied on nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers in hopes of spurring Congress to scuttle a deal. The muted reaction to the explosive Wall Street Journal report highlighted Congress’ reflexive and bipartisan support for Israel — despite a White House backlash against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology this week for racially charged pre-election campaigning and an abandonment of a two-state solution with Palestine. Instead of expressing concern, anger, or a desire for more answers about the foreign collection of U.S. secrets, many top lawmakers either raised doubts about the report’s accuracy or declined to comment”.

The piece contines “The report said Israeli spies then passed information to members of Congress to undercut support for an agreement brokered by the White House. In an awkward turnabout, American officials apparently found out about Israeli snooping by spying on the Israelis themselves, according to the Journal. The newspaper said the White House was not angry about Israel’s collection of classified information on the Iran negotiations — either from signals intelligence, a mole in the negotiating team, or normal diplomatic conversations with French officials”.

 

Saudi refuses to cut production

29/03/2015

OPEC will not take sole responsibility for propping up the oil price, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister said on Sunday, signaling the world’s top petroleum exporter is determined to ride out a market slump that has roughly halved prices since last June. Last November, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries kingpin Saudi Arabia persuaded members to keep production unchanged to defend market share. The move accelerated an already sharp oil price drop from peaks last year of more than $100 per barrel that was precipitated by an oversupply of crude and weakening demand. Since the oil price collapse, top OPEC exporter Saudi Arabia has said it wants non-OPEC producers to cooperate with the group. But Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi said on Sunday that plan had so far not worked. “Today the situation is hard. We tried, we held meetings and we did not succeed because countries (outside OPEC) were insisting that OPEC carry the burden and we refuse that OPEC bears the responsibility,” Naimi told reporters on the sidelines of an energy conference in Riyadh”.

Never trust Bibi

29/03/2015

A report from Foreign Policy argues that, after his re-election victory Bibi Netanyahu should not be trusted again.

He opens “In recent weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown once again that he will do pretty much anything it takes to stay in power. If that means weakening Israel’s relationship with the United States, its most important ally, he will do that. If it means sinking to the level of crude, Jim Crow-like race-baiting, he will go there. If it means telling a huge whopper of a lie that anyone with a reasonable level of intelligence can see through, he will tell that lie. The key to understanding Netanyahu’s personality is to take it as self-evident that he cares about only two things: staying in power and maintaining Israeli control over the Golan and the occupied Palestinian territories. March 17’s electoral victory for Netanyahu shocked both Israeli liberals and foreign observers. The received wisdom throughout the campaign was that ordinary people were more concerned with pocketbook issues than security and that Bibi’s controversial March 3 address to the U.S. Congress had not only failed to garner him a bump in the polls, but had actually elicited a backlash for his having damaged relations with the United States. It seemed that Netanyahu’s practiced “shtick,” as one colleague called it, wasn’t working anymore. According to the final poll taken before election day, Netanyahu’s Likud party stood to win 20 seats, while its main rival, the Zionist Union, was holding steady at 24″.

The writer makes the valid point that “During the days immediately before the election, he basically went to the mattresses with the most vulgar, racist crude populism imaginable. He appealed to voters’ fears and to their need to belong to a tribe — the tribe of Likud supporters, who are as unquestioningly loyal to their party as an Englishman is to his soccer team. In a video interview with NRG, the Israeli digital news site owned by American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Netanyahu explicitly said that he would never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state on his watch. On his very active Facebook page and via Twitter, SMS messages, and robot voice mails, he exhorted Israelis to vote for him because he was all that stood between them and a left-wing government that would divide Jerusalem and withdraw to the 1967 boundaries, leaving the West Bank open for the Islamic State to establish an outpost overlooking Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport”.

He goes on to note “As one prominent Israeli journalist, Hanoch Daum, noted in a widely shared Facebook status, if one were to subtract the ultra-Orthodox voters and the votes of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, one in three Israelis voted for Likud. And the majority of the Knesset seats went to parties that were in the right-wing, nationalist camp. The rest of the world was shocked, but the fact is that Israel has become a right-wing society where nakedly racist language is common. “Arab taste” is a well-known term for vulgar, ostentatious style, for example. Right-wing legislators have in recent years physically assaulted Arab Knesset members while they were giving speeches. There are many examples that would shock Western liberals but are shrugged off in Israel”.

He continues “The White House indicated that Israel would face consequences in the diplomatic arena for having repudiated the two-state solution. A few months ago, Haaretz reported on a leaked European Union document that specified sanctions to be imposed on Israel in the event it officially rejected negotiating a withdrawal from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Suddenly it seemed that Netanyahu might have gone just a bit too far. But then, another volte-face: On Thursday, March 19, just two days after the election, Netanyahu calmly told a reporter for MSNBC that he had not, in fact, repudiated the idea of two states. Rather, he said, the reality had changed. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused to acknowledge Israel as the Jewish state, and furthermore he had made a pact with Hamas to destroy Israel”.

Correctly he makes the point “Both statements are, in effect, lies. It was Netanyahu who changed the situation in 2009 by imposing upon Abbas the condition of acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state. This was an entirely new condition that had never been part of previous negotiations with the Palestinians. As for the alleged Hamas-PLO pact, there is no such thing. Netanyahu simply made it up. But his delivery is very convincing, and he is poised beyond measure when he speaks to the American media and answers their softball questions. No wonder he has all but boycotted the Israeli media for years, while giving regular interviews to American networks”.

Pointedly he questions “The question now is whether the United States will continue to be Netanyahu’s enabler. Two days after he said in Hebrew, very clearly and without any equivocation, that he would never allow a Palestinian state to be established on his watch, he calmly told an American journalist in English, which he speaks fluently and without a foreign accent, that he had not meant what he said”.

It ends “The Obama administration should stop pretending it doesn’t quite see that Netanyahu is lying to it and that it doesn’t know he can’t be trusted. The best thing this administration could do would be to declare that the prime minister is persona non grata”.

 

UKIP expenses scandal

29/03/2015

Allegations of a “serious financial nature” against a UKIP MEP and general election candidate “couldn’t look worse”, Nigel Farage has said. Janice Atkinson, MEP for the South East, was due to fight the Folkestone and Hythe seat on 7 May. She was suspended after a Sun newspaper investigation into an apparent expenses claim by a member of her staff. Kent Police said it was investigating a fraud allegation. Party leader Mr Farage said: “It looks very bad – it couldn’t look worse and I’m astonished by it.”

Saudi bombs Yemen

27/03/2015

A piece discusses the recent Saudi led airstrikes in Yemen, “Don’t think that the events in Yemen, however, are peripheral. They are central to the balance of power within the Arab world, to tensions within Islam, and are at the core of fears in the global oil market. The new leadership of Saudi Arabia, whose military launched airstrikes on Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on March 26 and which has been steadily securing its grip on power, is the key player in shaping the course of this volatile new war in the Middle East. Still nonplussed? Well, consider the fact that central to Saudi decision-making is its new defense minister, Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the favourite son of the king and just two months into the job. Today’s Arab News features a picture of him chairing a meeting of top Saudi commanders. His full beard does little to hide his youth — he is variously reported to be as young as 27 or as old as 35. Either way, he has no military experience”.

The writer makes the point “Two days earlier, Prince Muhammad had attended the weekly meeting of the Political and Security Affairs Council, a top decision-making body set up by the new King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. He sat opposite Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who has had responsibility for Saudi international affairs since before Prince Muhammad was born, and to the left of the council chairman, Interior Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, another older cousin, whom Saudi watchers see as his rival for control of the Yemen portfolio. It was Muhammad bin Salman, not his older cousins, who traveled to Riyadh airport today to greet Yemen’s president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, upon his arrival in the Saudi capital. Prince Muhammad bin Salman may be youthful and inexperienced, but those flaws are counterbalanced by his access to his father, the 79-year-old King Salman, for whom he is said to act as a walking memory. The king’s role in the development of policy on the fast-moving Yemen crisis is not clear. A crucial meeting appears to have been held on March 21, when the crown princes of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Qatari prime minister and Kuwaiti deputy prime minister, visited Riyadh. That meeting was chaired by Interior Minister Muhammed bin Nayef, but also attended by Muhammad bin Salman. An indication of the king’s actual leadership role should emerge at the Arab Summit being held this weekend at the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh”.

He goes on to theorise that “The airstrikes, however, risk stirring Houthi antagonism rather than deterring it. Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi condemned Saudi Arabia today as a puppet of Israel and the United States, saying his group would “confront the criminal forces and their tools in the country.” The Yemeni crisis will also clarify the extent to which King Salman’s team is continuing, or diverting from, the foreign policy of the late King Abdullah. The former king was obsessed with getting rid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and containing the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon. In one particularly colourful State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, he professed his desire to “cut off the head of the snake” — meaning Iran”.

Interestingly he makes the point of comparison “The principal difference in Saudi Arabia’s new leadership so far is that Salman’s relationship with Qatar’s new emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, appears to be much better than Abdullah’s relationship with the previous leadership of the wealthy Gulf neighbour. Time will tell if this is just a stylistic, or a substantive, change. Despite Qatar’s return to the fold after a recent diplomatic spat with Riyadh, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman — still seems to be a five- rather than six-member body, because of Oman’s erratic behaviour”.

Correctly he notes “The big question is the extent to which the Houthis are backed by Iran — and whether Tehran regards the Houthi takeover as having been a strategic goal, or a fortuitous consequence of events. Certainly, Iran knows how to play on Arab phobias: Last year’s comment by a parliamentarian in Tehran that three Arab capitals — Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut — were already in Iran’s control led to the widespread perception that Sanaa has become the fourth”.

He aruges that both Iran and Saudi Arabia “have geographical interests in making sure that the crisis in Yemen abates. Saudi Arabia regards Yemen as its backyard, and faces a potential terrorist threat from jihadis who have established themselves in the country’s hinterlands. Egypt is far more distant — but Yemen controls the Bab el-Mandeb Strait at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. Less oil goes through these sea lanes than through the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, but any interference impacts on the Suez Canal at the northern end, Egypt’s greatest strategic asset”.

He makes the point that “A surprising feature of “Operation Decisive Storm,” as the Saudi-led operation in Yemen has been named, is the number and size of reported commitments to the coalition. The Saudis are contributing 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers, and some naval units, Bahrain is deploying 15 fighter jets, and Kuwait has committed the same number. Qatar is deploying 10 fighter jets while Jordan is contributing six. Even Sudan is promising three jets. Egypt is deploying unspecified naval and air force units, and ground forces will be deployed “if necessary.” The contributions involved in action against the Islamic State in Syria have been paltry in comparison”.

One cannot help but wonder if President Obama had been more forceful in Syria and Iraq. If he had kept troops in Iraq and been more aggressive in Syria earlier on then there is an argument that says that the Saudis would not have been brave enough to take this action on their own. Instead they see a weak Obama disengaged from the region and therefore see no problem that Obama will not deal with. The result is that they take action on their own.

He ends “So far, however, none of these states appear to have a “Plan B” if Hadi cannot be put back in his presidential palace. Such a failure will be at best embarrassing for Saudi Arabia — especially its new, and perhaps short-lived, defense minister. For Sisi, however, such a course of events could present an opportunity to reassert Egyptian leadership across the Middle East”.

 

Qaboos returns to Oman

27/03/2015

Sultan Qaboos of Oman flew home on Monday after spending more than eight months in Germany for medical treatment that was completely successful, state television reported. Qaboos returned after “having completed medical treatment in Germany whose results were crowned as a total success,” the television announced. Footage showed the visibly frail 74-year-old walking unaided from a royal aircraft and then along a red carpet before being driven away. In his last public address, Qaboos appeared on television in November to tell his nation that he would miss the 44th anniversary of his inauguration and national day, saying his treatment was giving “good results”. A diplomatic source in Muscat had said the sultan, who has ruled Oman since overthrowing his father in a bloodless 1970 coup, was suffering from colon cancer”.

Arming the rebels

27/03/2015

A piece from Foreign Policy argues that America is losing the war against ISIS and suggests a new strategy.

He begins “The current U.S. strategy in Syria isn’t working. Despite the coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State, the group still has strategic depth in Syria to back its campaign in Iraq. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, meanwhile, isn’t fighting the Islamic State — it’s locked in combat with the moderate opposition. Despite Washington’s hope for a national political transition away from Assad, there is no sign of a cease-fire, much less a comprehensive political deal. More than ever, Americans — and Syrians — need to ask themselves what has gone wrong and what can be fixed”.

Much of the blame should be laid at the feet of President Obama. He did nothing in 2011 when the regime of Assad was weak and has done nothing since. Indeed he has almost done worse than nothing. He said he would arms the rebels but has repeatedly refused to do so. He has taken steps so small as to be both militarily and politically insignificant. He has in effect taken the worst of both steps. He has neither said that there is no reason for America to get involved, nor has he committed significant and worthwhile numbers of troops and equipment to force a resolution.

The author adds “Obama’s administration should undertake a major diplomatic and assistance effort, or it should walk away from Syria. Merely continuing to inject small amounts of aid and men in the fight won’t sustainably contain the jihadis or be sufficient to reach the political negotiation the administration keeps hoping for. The quiet end to the Syrian armed opposition’s Hazm Movement, with which the Americans had worked in northern Syria, was the latest signpost of the current failed policy. With aid coming too little and too late, the movement was easily knocked aside by al Qaeda-linked extremists who gained new territory and border crossings. It is far from the only moderate rebel group to suffer large setbacks in recent months: Others are simultaneously under attack from Assad regime forces (which are strongly reinforced by Iranian and Hezbollah troops), jihadis from the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and the Islamic State”.

Correctly the author notes “the Americans didn’t ramp up aid to the secular moderates when they needed it most. Instead, assistance to moderate Syrian fighters has been small and erratic, and the rebel fighters have been badly divided by foreign states parceling out desperately needed aid among multiple groups. This has created a vicious cycle, forcing the moderate rebels to compete against each other and to sometimes cooperate with al-Nusra Front. That in turn has aggravated foreign states and scared off any regime elements that might want to negotiate a deal, thus extending the war of attrition to the benefit of the Islamic State”.

He pointedly makes the argument that “Rather than boosting the capacity of existing moderate fighting groups, the U.S. administration has decided to build an entirely new force. As currently envisioned, this plan will be too little, too late. The fighting units will be much smaller than Islamic State forces operating in Syria. In addition, the plan will further split the moderate armed opposition and will do nothing to counter the Islamic State’s biggest recruitment tool — the Assad regime’s brutality”.

He calls for “The key is settling on a revised strategy that establishes a unified command structure for the non-jihadi opposition. This unified structure must be the sole conduit for external funding, arming, and training. It must include the main non-jihadi rebel groups and must be led by a Syrian who enjoys wide support from Syrians fighting on the ground and from foreign states. Those who refuse to follow orders from the unified command must be cut off from any assistance. This is the only way to end the fragmentation that has long plagued the moderate armed opposition and to ensure it will support any eventual negotiation”.

He argues that US military aid should have conditions which include “That armed groups receiving assistance from the newly created central command will obey its orders only. That the armed opposition will stop atrocities against civilian communities that have backed the Assad regime and that the armed opposition command will accept responsibility for actions of its constituent groups. That the armed opposition will sever all ties with al-Nusra Front. That the armed opposition’s leadership must constantly reiterate that it is not seeking to destroy Christian, Alawite, or other minority communities and is prepared to negotiate local security arrangements, including with Syrian Arab Army elements, to protect all Syrians”.

He concludes “Implementing these steps would help create a moderate rebel force able to confront the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, and also pave the way for a real national political negotiation. If U.S. regional partners and the Syrian opposition won’t accept the strategy and the tactics to make it work, or if the Obama administration won’t expand its level of assistance and the air mission, then Washington needs to drop the goal of significantly degrading the Islamic State in Syria over the next several years. It would be better for American credibility to walk away than try more halfhearted measures in Syria”.

 

Bibi backtracks

27/03/2015

Days after winning re-election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday backtracked from hard-line statements against the establishment of a Palestinian state in the face of a diplomatic backlash. In the closing days of his campaign, Netanyahu said there could be no Palestinian state while regional violence and chaos persist — conditions that could rule out progress on the issue for many years. The comments, aimed at appealing to his nationalist voter base, angered the Obama administration, which views a two-state solution as a top foreign policy priority. Netanyahu said in a TV interview Thursday that he remains committed to Palestinian statehood — if conditions in the region improve — and to the two-state vision first spelled out in a landmark 2009 speech at Israel’s Bar Ilan University”.

Terrorism in Tunis

27/03/2015

A report discusses the recent attacks in Tunis and their significance, “gunmen stormed the National Bardo Museum of Tunis, killing 21 and briefly taking several hostages. The death toll may still rise. Two of the attackers were eventually killed, but others may be at large. While their motivations and ties are not yet clear, the impact of this event could be substantial for Tunisia’s political transition as a fragile post-Arab Spring democracy. This is a new frontier for Tunisia. The small country sandwiched between Libya and Algeria is the Arab Spring’s lone success story of political compromise and hard-fought consensus. The country’s citizens have not seen, until today, any serious terrorist attacks against civilians (though there have been assassinations and attacks on soldiers and military officials). Tunisians have forged a functioning democracy”.

The writer notes how peaceful Tunisia has been since the 2011 revolutions, “Libya has devolved into unending chaos, violence, and dysfunction. After a brief flirtation with democracy, Egypt returned to a thinly veiled military dictatorship. Today’s attack in Tunisia presents an important test for the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. If politicians respond the wrong way to this tragic event and let old divisions creep into the country’s fragile new political dynamic, Tunisia could fall into the same traps that derailed the Libyan and Egyptian transitions. In 2013, two assassinations of prominent politicians threatened to derail the country’s impressive political progress toward national reconciliation. For months, the legislature was shut down, its doors closed to debate and discussion. In that instance, it seemed, the terrorists had achieved their goal. Then, with strong leadership from both sides — moderate Islamists and pragmatic secularists from the ‘old’ Tunisia — the stalemate ended”.

He goes on to add that the “attack jeopardizes this success. For the most part, extremists have thus far been sidelined — but extreme elements, among both the Islamists and the old-guard secularists, will now be tempted to view this tragic event as a political gift, allowing them to grandstand, accuse their opponents, and employ divisive politics to jump-start their agendas. Elements within the party of newly elected president Beji Caid Essebsi will certainly call for a robust authoritarian crackdown. Moreover, members of his movement who believe that Islamists — writ large — are to blame for Tunisia’s turmoil and violence will speak with a louder voice after today, possibly gaining some influence”.

Naturally he makes the point that “It is crucial that President Essebsi be the president of all Tunisians by ignoring these divisive voices. Instead, he must stay the course of working with moderate Islamists while ensuring a robust security presence based on strong intelligence gathering — but without sacrificing either the political progress that has been so painfully achieved or Tunisians’ fundamental rights. On the opposite side of the political divide, Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Ennahda, must continue to work in good faith with the government and avoid provocative rhetoric that paints this attack as the fault of any political party of figure. Undeniably, resisting such methods will be difficult for both sides. But resist they must”.

He continues “attack may prod prospective visitors to consider Morocco instead — with important negative implications for Tunisia’s already fragile economy. In that sense, this attack may create larger ramifications for the political transition by crippling the country’s painfully slow economic recovery. This attack will likely not be the last. Tunisia is in a bad neighborhood. To the east lies the Libyan quagmire”.

He concludes “In just two days, Tunisia will celebrate its national independence day. On Friday, President Essebsi should invite the leaders of Ennahda and other political movements to the presidential palace in order to speak with one united voice, on one same stage, with one unifying mission: a stable, peaceful, democratic Tunisia that will not deviate from its course, turn to extremism, or be tempted by authoritarianism when terrorists attack. This is an opportunity for the Tunisian political elite to show clearly and resolutely that their Arab Spring will not wither in the face of cowardly violence”.

 

“Iran has failed to provide”

27/03/2015

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran has failed to provide the information or access needed to allay the agency’s concerns about the weapons potential of the country’s nuclear program. With the deadline nearing for international talks on constraining Iran’s nuclear program, Yukiya Amano, director general of the IAEA, said in an interview that Iran has replied to just one of a dozen queries about “possible military dimensions” of past nuclear activities. Amano said that Iran has provided only “very limited” information about two other issues, while the rest have not been addressed at all. “Recently, the progress is very limited,” he said. The IAEA is the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, and its inspections are considered a key safeguard against countries using civilian nuclear energy technology to produce weapons. Failure by Iran to comply with IAEA demands would undermine the country’s efforts to win the lifting of U.N. sanctions”.

Always in schism

27/03/2015

John Allen, after the consecretaion by Richard Williamson of a new bishop writes why any reconciliation, now or in the future probably will not occur.

He opens “Schism with the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970, was set in cement in 1988 when Lefebvre consecrated four bishops in defiance of Pope John Paul II. In general, Lefebvre and his following protested the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Their signature issue is the old Latin Mass but their objections cut much deeper, generally including ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue and the church’s effort to reach out to the secular world”.

He goes on to write “Just like the Palestinians, the traditionalists were offered almost everything they wanted during the Pope Benedict XVI years as a condition for reunion: Their own juridical structure under church law, giving them autonomy from what they regard as excessively liberal bishops, and a doctrinal statement that acknowledged legitimate diversity in interpreting the documents of Vatican II. Like Arafat they demurred, and the rest is history – the election of a pope not similarly invested in relations with the traditionalists, broader movements in Catholicism that make reunion less likely, and now an internal cleft in the traditionalist world”.

He continues “In truth, however – and as staggering a claim as this may seem – détente between Rome and the Society of St. Pius X was always, if anything, even less likely than Israeli/Palestinian peace. This week’s news, first reported on the Rorate Caeli blog, is that Bishop Richard Williamson, who made a name for himself in 2009 by denying that the Nazis used gas chambers and asserting that historical evidence is “hugely against” the idea that Hitler killed 6 million Jews, plans to ordain a new bishop in defiance of Rome. (Catholic News Service reported Thursday evening that Williamson went through with the illicit ordination and therefore was automatically excommunicated.) Williamson was declared excluded from the Society of Pius X in October, 2012, and the priest he plans to ordain is in the process of being kicked out. This act should certainly put an exclamation point on things”.

Allen mentions that “In the short run, Williamson’s act of defiance may prove a boon to dialogue between what’s left of the Society of St. Pius X and Rome. The head of the society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, is viewed as a realist who sees his movement’s future eventually in coming in from the cold. His freedom of action, however, has been constrained by the more intransigent elements in the fold. It’s conceivable that without Williamson and his following, Fellay may be able to move more boldly”.

Yet he correctly writes that “There’s a good reason, however, why every pope since Paul VI has worked hard to try to heal the schism. Catholic theology holds that any validly ordained bishop can ordain another bishop. Hence the Vatican will be constrained to recognize the Rev. Christian Jean-Michel Faure as a bishop after Williamson ordains him, though it will insist the ordination was illicit and will not recognize any ministry he exercises. In other words, a schism led by a real bishop can become self-replicating, a scenario any pope would want to avoid”.

Pointedly he argues that “there are three reasons why corporate reunion with the traditionalists was probably always a pipe dream and remains so today. First, Fellay is not Arafat, the founder of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the mythic father of the nation. Arafat may have been the only one who could have convinced the Palestinians in something resembling unified fashion to accept a deal. In the traditionalist world, that iconic role belongs to Lefebvre and no one else. As a result, when negotiations under Benedict XVI reached the moment of “fish or cut bait,” nobody had the moral authority to bring everyone along”.

He goes on to argue “one massive obstacle to an Israeli/Palestinian deal is Palestinian insistence on a “right of return,” meaning reclaiming lands and homes seized by the Israelis in the early stages of the conflict. However understandable it may be, it’s not going to happen, and makes any final resolution a non-starter. Similarly, many traditionalists see a formal renunciation of the Second Vatican Council as a condition for reconciliation with Rome, and that’s every bit as implausible”.

He ends “once the genie of schism is out of the bottle, it’s awfully hard to put it back in. Having lionized Lefebvre for breaking with Rome, one wonders how long it would be after a reunion deal before some elements of the traditionalist camp would find something else intolerable and walk off again. In the days to come, there may be speculation about the impact of the Williamson decision on relations with Rome, and some may predict that the path has been cleared for improvement”.

France warns of slow progress

27/03/2015

France warned on Tuesday that “insufficient” progress has been made toward a nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers with specific disparities over research and development and the issue of sanctions. “Iran must now make difficult choices if it truly wishes to regain the trust of the international community,” French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told a United Nations Security Council meeting on U.N. sanctions on Iran. Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China are to resume negotiations in Switzerland this week, aiming for a political framework deal by the end of March and a full nuclear pact by June 30. The biggest sticking point, Western officials say, remains Iran’s demands for no limits on research and development of advanced centrifuges, which purify uranium for use in nuclear reactors or, if highly enriched, in weapons. Another issue is sanctions. Iran wants all U.N. sanctions lifted immediately after a deal is agreed, along with the most crippling U.S. and European Union restrictions on Tehran’s energy and financial sectors”.

“Losing his privileges as a member of the College of Cardinals”

25/03/2015

John Allen elaborates on the new that Cardinal O’Brien resigned as a cardinal.

He opens “A Scottish cardinal who stepped down as an archbishop in 2013 amid revelations of sexual misconduct now has renounced his rights and privileges as a cardinal, although he will retain the title, the Vatican announced Friday. Though not quite unprecedented, the specter of a Catholic prelate all but losing his privileges as a member of the College of Cardinals is exceedingly rare, with the last such case coming in 1927”.

Allen mentions that “Cardinal Keith O’Brien, 77, originally quit his post as archbishop in February 2013 following accusations published in Scotland’s The Observer that he had engaged in sexual relations with four men, three priests at the time and one former priest, dating back to the 1980s. One of the men, who was not identified in the newspaper reports, alleged that the degree of control a superior has over subordinate priests made it hard for him to refuse O’Brien’s demands”.

Needless to say “After initially contesting the charges, O’Brien eventually acknowledged that at times his sexual behavior had “fallen beneath the standards expected of [him]” and announced his resignation as well as his withdrawal from the conclave in March 2013 that elected Pope Francis. O’Brien said at the time that he would be undertaking a period of prayer and reflection, and has not taken part in public activity since. Friday’s Vatican statement indicated that O’Brien is now making his withdrawal complete, in effect stepping down as a cardinal”.

Allen gives crucial background noting the last time it happened, “The last time a member of the College of Cardinals renounced that status came in 1927, with a French Jesuit named Louis Billot. He had been made a cardinal in 1911 and locked horns with Pope Pius XI during the 1920s over Action Français, a far right French monarchist movement. Billot would not back down from his support for the group and submitted his resignation as a cardinal after a stormy meeting with the pope in September 1927. He remained a priest and theologian and died in 1931″.

Allen writes that “It’s not yet clear if Francis compelled O’Brien to renounce his status in quite the same way. Nonetheless, the move could be seen as another step toward reform on the broader issue of sexual misconduct and abuse. Although he has pledged support for zero tolerance and created a special papal commission to promote reform, Pope Francis has faced criticism for not holding bishops accountable for dropping the ball and for creating new bishops who have a mixed record on misconduct and abuse”.

“To deter arch-rival India”

25/03/2015

Pakistan needs short-range “tactical” nuclear weapons to deter arch-rival India, a top adviser to its government said Monday, dismissing concerns it could increase the risk of a nuclear war. Khalid Kidwai also rejected concerns over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, insisting that adequate safeguards are in place to protect what analysts have described as the world’s fastest-growing atomic arsenal. Pakistan’s development of smaller warheads built for use on battlefields, in addition to longer-range weapons, has increased international concerns that they could get into rogue hands because of the pervasive threat of Islamic militants in the country. Pakistan and its larger neighbor India have fought three wars. They have held on-off peace talks over the years but are involved in a nuclear and missile arms race that shows no sign of abating. Neither side discloses the size of its arsenal. But a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations think tank estimated that Pakistan has enough fissile material to produce between 110 and 120 nuclear weapons, and India enough for 90 to 110 weapons”.

The anti-Christian Congress

25/03/2015

A piece in Foreign Policy argues that the war on Christians is not just in the Middle East but in the halls of Congress.

It begins “Last August, President Barack Obama signed off on legislation creating a special envoy charged with aiding the ancient Christian communities and other beleaguered religious minorities being targeted by the Islamic State. The bill was a modest one — the new position was given a budget of just $1 million — and the White House quietly announced the signing in a late-afternoon press release that lumped it in with an array of other low-profile legislation. Neither Obama nor any prominent lawmakers made any explicit public reference to the bill”.

Depressingly the report notes that “Seven months later, the position remains unfilled — a small but concrete example of Washington’s passivity in the face of an ongoing wave of atrocities against the Assyrian, Chaldean, and other Christian communities of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State has razed centuries-old churches and monasteries, beheaded and crucified Christians, and mounted a concerted campaign to drive Christians out of cities and towns they’ve lived in for thousands of years. The Iraqi city of Mosul had a Christian population of 35,000 when U.S. forces invaded the country in 2003; today, with the city in the hands of the Islamic State, the vast majority of them have fled. Every holiday season, politicians in America take to the airwaves to rail against a so-called “war on Christmas” or “war on Easter,” pointing to things like major retailers wishing shoppers generic “happy holidays.” But on the subject of the Middle East, where an actual war on Christians is in full swing, those same voices are silent. A push to use American aircraft to shield the areas of Iraq where Christians have fled has gone nowhere. Legislation that would fast-track visa applications from Christians looking to leave for the United States never even came up for a vote. The White House, meanwhile, won’t say if or when it will fill the special envoy position”.

He adds that “Last summer, an unusual symbol began replacing the avatars used on the Facebook and Twitter pages of thousands of individual Christians from Lebanon, Britain, the United States, and numerous other countries. It was the Arabic letter nun, written in gold against a black background, and it was there for a reason. When the Islamic State conquered Mosul in June 2014, the militants scrawled the letter on the homes of the city’s Christians. It was the first letter of the word “nasrani,” an Arabic term for Christians that is often used as a slur. The Islamic State then delivered an ultimatum: All Christians in the city must either convert to Islam, pay a tax, or face execution. Most of the city’s remaining 3,000 Christians fled their homes, marking what could be the end of the city’s centuries-old Christian community”.

Sadly he writes that “while the campaign raised awareness on social media, it didn’t spur many American Christians to push Capitol Hill for emergency aid or visas for the beleaguered Iraqis. That’s due in part to the international nature of the issue. Many Christians and Christian organizations are politically active on domestic issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. But international issues are “more intimidating to people,” Faith McDonnell, the director of Religious Liberty Programs at the Washington-based Institute of Religion and Democracy, said in an interview”.

Regrettably, “Christian leaders accuse the Obama administration of downplaying the crackdown on minorities in Iraq because of a perceived discomfort with the topic of religion. John Eibner, the CEO of Christian Solidarity International-USA, told FP that persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East, and especially Christians, has been difficult for Washington to directly address because it touches on a sensitive foreign-policy issue”.

There are some who are trying to help the helpless Christians, “The bill Eshoo introduced last Congress, the Nineveh Plain Refugees Act of 2014, would have expedited the visa process for current or former residents of areas controlled by the Islamic State who were “targets of persecution in that country” due to their race or religion. The bill would give “refugees of special humanitarian concern” designations to Christians as well as to members of groups like the Yazidis, the religious minority that the Islamic State tried to exterminate last year, sparking the initial U.S. military strikes against the group. The bill died a quiet death, failing to even get a committee vote. Eshoo plans to submit the bill again in coming weeks, but says she isn’t terribly optimistic about its fate this time around either”.

The author notes “In an interview, Rabbi David Saperstein, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said that he has devoted the majority of his time since assuming his post last December to the plight of the Christians and other groups that find themselves in the crosshairs of the Islamic State. Saperstein noted that when the Islamic State encircled thousands of members of the country’s Yazidi community and threatened to exterminate them last year, it was American warplanes that beat back the militants and allowed the civilians to escape their clutches. “There are scores of thousands of people who are alive because of what we did,” he said. The ambassador, a prominent Reform Jewish rabbi, visited Iraq for several days last month and said he heard firsthand about the fears many Iraqi religious leaders have about what will happen to their communities if the Islamic State isn’t beaten back”.

The report ends “Saperstein declined to say whether he believed Washington should expedite visa applications from Christians living in areas menaced by the Islamic State. Part of the reason, he said, was that many of the religious leaders he spoke to didn’t want members of their communities to flee unless they absolutely had to. The Christians and Yazidis of Iraq have lived there for thousands of years, and Saperstein said many hope the U.S.-led efforts against the Islamic State will make it safe for them to continue doing so. That may be wishful thinking, at least in the short term. In late February, militants from the Islamic State assaulted a string of Christian villages in northeastern Syria, blowing up churches, lighting homes on fire, and abducting at least 250 people. Several dozen women, children, and elderly men were released recently after their families and friends paid ransoms to the very same people attacking other Christians. The remaining hostages haven’t been seen since”.

 

Kerry goes to Switzerland

25/03/2015

Secretary of State John Kerry will return to Switzerland for talks Thursday on a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, five days before a deadline to reach the outlines of an agreement. Kerry’s office said Monday he would meet his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Lausanne for the next stage in talks between the so-called “P5+1″ world powers and Iran. The delegates have in theory given themselves until the end of the month to agree the broad outlines of a political accord to govern a future final settlement of the stand-off. Washington and its allies believe Iran’s purportedly civilian nuclear power program is a cover for an alleged drive by the Islamic republic to develop atomic weapons.This would, they fear, upset the already precarious balance of power in the Middle East, trigger an arms race and pose a threat to US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia”.

Cruz 2016

25/03/2015
 Ted Cruz (R-TX) has launched his unlikely bid to become president in 2016.
A report from the Hill notes “Cruz made a bold play for grassroots and social conservatives on Monday by launching his presidential campaign at Liberty University, the nation’s largest evangelical school. “I believe in the power of millions of courageous conservatives rising up to reignite the promise of America,” the GOP hopeful proclaimed, pacing the stage and speaking without a teleprompter for a half-hour speech that had the feel and cadence of a megachurch sermon. “That is why today I am announcing that I’m running for president of the United States,” he said to cheers”.
The report goes on to note “The fiery address leaves no doubt his campaign will charge hard to the right in a bid to lock down the conservative core of the GOP base, with a special emphasis on social and religious conservatives. He is the first major candidate to formally launch his presidential campaign, putting pressure on other conservative rivals to possibly move up their time tables.  In announcing first, a surprise move that only leaked this weekend, Cruz is trying to jumpstart his campaign. He’s been stuck in single digits in many early state polls behind others he’d be battling for the conservative mantle, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and retired surgeon Ben Carson. Republican strategists say the firebrand Texas senator must quickly distinguish himself as the leading conservative alternative to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in next year’s GOP presidential primary”.
As to the success, or lack thereof of a Cruz candidacy the piece mentions, “During his impassioned speech to the packed basketball gym of about 10,000 people — mostly students who were required to be there as part of a weekly convocation — he positioned himself as a new wave of GOP leader.  “It is a time for truth, it is a time for liberty. It is a time to reclaim the Constitution of the United States. I am honored to stand with each and every one of you courageous conservatives,” he said.  Cruz packed his remarks with a litany of conservative policy dreams, implying that he is the only candidate rock-ribbed enough to deliver on the base’s long-held goals. It was no coincidence that his announcement coincided with the fifth anniversary of President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act into law, the implementation of which he famously filibustered for more than 21 hours in 2013, and the 240th anniversary of Patrick Henry’s famous call to, “Give me liberty or give me death.” He asked the crowd to imagine a simplified tax code that allows Americans to file their taxes on a form no larger than a postcard, a president who “finally secures the borders” and a federal government that “works to defend the sanctity of life” and “protects the right to keep and bear arms.” A Quinnipiac poll from late February showed Cruz in a pack of likely candidates vying for sixth place in Iowa, host of the first contest of the 2016 primary. The survey found Paul with 13 percent support, in second place behind Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Only 5 percent of respondents favored Cruz”.
A piece from the Washington Post reports the lack of support from his fellow Senate Republicans, “The guarded response from Republicans in the Senate, where Cruz has served just over two years, reflects the presidential ambitions of other senators — Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have openly pondered runs — but also Cruz’s famously sharp-elbowed relationship with his colleagues and the institution he inhabits. In his short time in the Senate, Cruz has arguably become the most polarizing figure in all of Congress. While he has won the loyalty of some rogue House conservatives and a small group of far-right senators, his tactics have angered many colleagues in both parties. Many Republicans and Democrats blamed the 2013 partial government shutdown on Cruz’s relentless effort to defund President Obama’s health-care law, which they saw as a losing battle from the get-go. Republicans suffered politically in the wake of that fight, polls showed. Some of the anger that surrounded Cruz in 2013 resurfaced last December when the Texas senator and his stalwart ally, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), forced the Senate into a marathon weekend session over concerns about immigration. Democrats used the time to move Obama’s executive branch nominees closer to confirmation”.
It adds “There is no rule that senators seeking the presidency need endorsements from colleagues to succeed, but it doesn’t hurt, especially when it comes to fundraising. Leaders such as McConnell and Cornyn, now the majority whip and previously chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in particular serve as gatekeepers to high-dollar national donors.But even senators who have served only a matter of weeks with Cruz were stinting with praise Monday. Freshman Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said he thought Cruz would be an effective communicator on the campaign trail but stopped short of endorsing him”.
A related piece notes that “If there is such a thing as being too conservative to be elected president of the United States, Ted Cruz is having none of it. Announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination Monday at Liberty University, the first-term senator from Texas offered himself as the pure essence of conservatism and challenged the tea party and evangelical wings of the Republican Party to rise up behind one of their own and take control of the party and the country. His candidacy is a test of a proposition, one that he has carried across the country for many months. He has argued that the party failed to win the White House not because it has become too conservative but because Republicans have nominated politicians who were not conservative enough, who could not carry the message of today’s conservatism with energy, optimism and authenticity”.
The report adds that “In his short time on the national stage, no politician has captivated grass-roots conservatives quite like Cruz. Elected to the Senate in 2012 over a weak establishment Republican, Cruz has become a star on the right, a politician who has shown almost perfect pitch before conservative audiences, with a message of smaller government, less regulation, a return to the Constitution, and the central role of faith and Christian values in governing. Nor has any politician so irritated fellow Republican elected officials or the party establishment, challenging his leaders in the Senate, urging on conservative rebels in the House and helping to engineer the partial shutdown of the government in 2013. If there is a senator who has had chillier relations with his colleagues, it would be hard to name that person”.
Obviously Senator Cruz will have the backing of the grassroots of the GOP but the fact that the establishment are cool on him, not least because he almost single handedly shutdown the Federal Government will mean that he will alienate huge swathes of the country who fear that he will take the country in the wrong direction. Tactically this gives Jeb Bush plenty of room to portray himself as the moderate Republican, capture not just the blessing of the establishment of the Party but also a swathe of those voters angry that the foreign policy of President Obama.

Wants a Palestinian state

23/03/2015

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Thursday walked back his pre-election declaration that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch, and said he had not been trying to suppress the votes of Arab citizens when he posted a video on Election Day warning that they were heading to polling stations in large numbers. Mr. Netanyahu said in an interview on MSNBC that he still wanted “a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that he had not intended to reverse the position he took endorsing that in a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University. But he said the Palestinian leadership’s refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and its pact with the militant Islamist Hamas movement, made that impossible right now. “I haven’t changed my policy,” Mr. Netanyahu said in the interview, his first since his resounding victory on Tuesday, which handed him a fourth term. “What has changed is the reality.” “I don’t want a one-state solution; I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change,” he added. “I was talking about what is achievable and what is not achievable. To make it achievable, then you have to have real negotiations with people who are committed to peace.”

The centrifuge problem

23/03/2015

A report from the New York Times discusses the continuing problems of centrifuges in the Iran talks. It begins “A dispute over what limits should be placed on the development of new types of centrifuges has emerged as a major obstacle as negotiators try to work out an initial accord on Iran’s nuclear program, Western officials said on Thursday. The negotiators’ goal has been to agree on the outlines of an accord by the end of March that would limit Iran’s nuclear program. A detailed and comprehensive agreement is to be completed by the end of June. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on Thursday that while some progress had been made, the negotiators were still “pushing some tough issues.” A European negotiator, who asked not to be named while discussing closed talks, was more skeptical, stressing that an accord would not be possible unless the Iranians showed significantly more flexibility over the coming days”.

Indeed the problem of centrifuges has always been an issue. In the 2003/4 deal between the EU 3 and Iran, it was the Iranians that wanted to keep a small number, 20, spinning even after the deal had been agreed.

The report adds that “In return for being allowed to keep such a substantial nuclear infrastructure, Iran would be required to take some offsetting steps, like shipping a large portion of its stockpile of uranium to Russia. (The idea of making the centrifuges less efficient by removing some piping that connects them appears to have been dropped, some diplomats say.) Though Mr. Kerry declined to describe the major barriers, the issues that have not been settled include the pace at which sanctions on Iran would be removed or suspended, how many years an agreement would be in effect and what monitoring would be put into place when it expired. France, for example, wants the agreement to last for 15 years and then be followed by 10 years of stringent monitoring measures, a Western official said. The question of what limits should be set on the research and development of new types of centrifuges is also a major sticking point”.

Needless to say “the United States and some of its negotiating partners have been worried that allowing the Iranians to perfect more sophisticated centrifuges would make it far easier for Iran to make a dash for a nuclear bomb if it decided to break out of an agreement or tried to do so after the accord expired. The ideas the Iranians have presented to bridge the gap between the two sides, some Western officials said, do not go nearly far enough. Iranian negotiators, an official said, had proposed that some advanced centrifuges it has produced be stored instead of dismantled or destroyed”.

He goes on mention that “The dispute is especially significant because the Iranians had told the United States that the second generation centrifuges they have developed but are not operating are about three to five times more efficient than the first generation models they are using. Iran has also designed third generation models that are even more efficient. The negotiating sessions on Thursday began in the morning when the United States energy secretary, Ernest J. Moniz, met alone with Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization. That was followed by two meetings that included Mr. Kerry; Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister; and Helga Schmid, the European Union’s political director. Iranian officials have spoken optimistically in recent days about the chances of sealing an initial accord, in an apparent move to build public pressure on the United States and its allies to make concessions and possibly to play to their public at home”.

The piece ends “In heated testimony on Thursday about the negotiations at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Mr. Kerry’s deputy, Antony J. Blinken, told the committee that, “like it or not,” Iran now knows how to enrich uranium and “we can’t bomb that away, we can’t sanction that away and, unfortunately, we probably can’t negotiate that away.” The only option, he said, is to limit Iran’s capabilities through an accord. Mr. Blinken also said that the inspections regime now being negotiated would be one of the most intrusive in history, seeming to suggest that it would go beyond the requirements of the “additional protocol,” a series of enhanced inspections standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Yet Mr. Blinken ran into sharp skepticism from the chairman of the committee, Representative Ed Royce, who objected to the administration’s assertion that even after the agreement expired Iran would be banned from building a weapon “in perpetuity.” That statement is based on the assumption that Iran remains a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and does not exit the treaty as North Korea did a decade ago”.

“Resignation of the rights and privileges of a Cardinal”

23/03/2015

The Holy Father has accepted the resignation of the rights and privileges of a Cardinal, expressed in canons 349, 353 and 356 of the Code of Canon Law, presented by His Eminence Cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien, archbishop emeritus of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, after a long period of prayer. With this provision, His Holiness would like to manifest his pastoral solicitude to all the faithful of the Church in Scotland, and to encourage them to continue with hope the path of renewal and reconciliation.”

“A right-wing and religious coalition with Netanyahu”

23/03/2015

A piece tries to solve how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election to a fourth successive term to lead Israel.

He opens “The Israeli elections — an unofficial referendum on the tenure of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — ended Tuesday in a clear endorsement of the prime minister by Israeli voters. With over 99 percent of the votes counted, Netanyahu’s Likud leads with 29 or possibly 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, compared to 24 for the center-left Zionist Union. Netanyahu will head the next Israeli government, very likely a government made up of right-wing, religious, and centrist parties”.

The article notes that “Herzog’s challenge, from the start, was to capitalize on Netanyahu’s electoral weaknesses on domestic policy, while limiting his own weaknesses on national security and foreign policy. Much of the competition was, therefore, a battle to set the agenda: Netanyahu traveled to Washington to drive home his message on Iran, with some added political benefit, while Herzog focused his campaign around socioeconomic issues. As is the norm in Israel, foreign policy determined the prime minister, returning Netanyahu to power. A new Netanyahu government means that Israel will continue its vehement opposition to U.S. policy on Iran, and its bitter feud with the White House. It will also mean a looming crisis of governance for the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, which faces an acute financial crisis due to lack of donations and because Israel has withheld Palestinian tax money in retaliation for the PA’s moves in international organizations intended to isolate Israel. These international moves will likely only intensify now”.

The author notes that “Israelis vote for parties, not individuals, in one national district. Each party puts forward a list of candidates, in rank order, and each voter chooses one list at the polls. The 120 seats of the Knesset are then divided among the lists in proportion to the national vote share each party receives, provided the party passes a minimum threshold (now equal to four seats). The result is a highly representative, but highly fractured political system. At least 10 factions will serve in the incoming 20th Knesset, representing a wide range of ideological positions and demographic constituencies. In this system, minorities of all kinds — including Israel’s large Arab minority — are represented in Parliament, but no single party has ever succeeded in garnering more than half the seats. Consequently, coalitions must be formed, and meticulously maintained, in order to govern; early elections, usually the outcome of a failed coalition, are the norm rather than the exception”.

After some polls showed that the opposition parties were leading “Netanyahu embarked on a last-minute campaign to rally the right wing to the Likud. He set aside his own commitment to the two-state solution, implying (and later denying) that it was “irrelevant,” and later making clear that a Palestinian state would not be created on his watch. On Election Day, the Likud even turned to (unfounded) claims of a supposedly illegitimate campaign to get out the vote among Israel’s Arab minority, which generally opposes Netanyahu. This campaign succeeded remarkably. The Likud not only closed the gap with the Zionist Union, it far surpassed it, doing so by siphoning votes away from its right-wing allies, in particular the Jewish Home party, headed by Naftali Bennett”.

He goes on to mention that “the unofficial results give the Netanyahu- and Netanyahu-leaning camp 57 seats, just four shy of the goal. Herzog could potentially earn the support of 53 recommendations (the Arab Joint List would likely recommend Herzog if he had a realistic chance of forming a government, though they may abstain in the current situation). With neither side clearly above 60, these totals leave a new power broker in Israeli politics: Moshe Kahlon. Kahlon himself is a former Likud minister who made a name as communications minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, starting in 2009. He introduced competition to the mobile phone industry, lowering prices dramatically. His popularity was such that Netanyahu even urged his other ministers to “become Kahlons.” But when Netanyahu refused to appoint Kahlon as finance minister in late 2012, Kahlon left the government and the party. This caused a personal rift between Netanyahu and Kahlon, and the two leaders face substantive differences as well. Netanyahu’s economic policy, for Kahlon, represents harsh neoliberal economics, in contrast to the more compassionate-conservative approach Kahlon espouses. He promises to introduce competition to the banking industry, which has far more powerful vested interests than the mobile phone industry, as well as the housing market. To do all this, Kahlon has demanded the Finance Ministry — and is very likely to get his wish”.

Worryingly for Israel society, “The most likely outcome is now a right-wing and religious coalition with Netanyahu at the helm, bringing in Jewish Home, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, and Kahlon’s Kulanu. With 67 projected seats, such a government could earn the confidence of the Knesset and would offer relative stability”.

As a sign of this danger he ends the piece “Ben-Gurion’s record appears safe for now. If history is any guide, the 20th Knesset, like the 19th, will likely not see its term through. In Israel’s political system today, the only thing that seems constant is further instability”.

Wanted to close Gitmo?

23/03/2015

President Obama said Wednesday that he wished he had brushed aside Republican objections and closed the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during his first days in office. Obama’s remarks on the controversial prison, which was opened in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, came in response to a seventh-grader’s question following a speech at the City Club of Cleveland. She asked what do-over he would like from the first day of his first term as president. “I think I would have closed Guantanamo on the first day,” Obama responded to applause from the crowd. “I didn’t at that time because we had a bipartisan agreement that it should be closed.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Republican presidential nominee, had also championed closing the facility during the 2008 election. Obama, however, was never able to build enough of a bipartisan consensus to shutter the prison and move the inmates to maximum security facilities in the United States or return them to their home countries. “The politics of it got tough and people got scared by the rhetoric around it,” he said. “Once that set in, the path of least resistance was to leave it open even though it is not who we are as a country.” Critics of the facility have said that the Guantanamo prison is routinely used by terrorists as a recruiting tool. In recent months, Islamic State terrorists in Syria have dressed American prisoners in orange jumpsuits, similar to those used in Guantanamo, prior to beheading them”.

“Obamacare may be making medicine thriftier”

23/03/2015

A piece from the Economist discusses if Obamacare will cut costs in the US healthcare system.

It opens “BACK in 1980, when Jimmy Carter was president and leg warmers were cool, America spent 9% of GDP on health care. Now it spends a whopping 17%—far more than any other rich country. In absolute terms it spends more than twice as much per head as Britain. And for what? American figures for diabetes, infant mortality and life expectancy are worse than the median for the OECD, a club of rich countries. For decades health spending has grown faster than the economy as a whole. The soaring cost of health insurance provided by employers has left little or nothing in the pot for pay rises. Out-of-control public-health programmes such as Medicare and Medicaid have threatened to crowd out everything else that Uncle Sam pays for”.

The article goes on to argue that “something appears to have changed. America is experiencing its slowest growth in health spending in five decades. In 2013 the share of GDP devoted to health care was the same as it was in 2009. Some of this is due to the recession and its aftermath—when Americans lose their jobs, they often lose their health insurance, too. But the Affordable Care Act of 2010, better known as Obamacare, may also have helped to curb costs. As the Supreme Court considers whether to strike down a crucial pillar of that law, economists are furiously debating how big that effect has been. By one estimate the economic downturn accounted for 77% of the dip in health-care inflation; by another, it was only 37%. Obamacare sought to fix two problems: coverage and cost. To extend coverage, the law made it compulsory for Americans to have health insurance, on pain of a fine. It also offers subsidies for those who cannot afford it”.

The writer goes on to note “Costs vary enormously from provider to provider—sometimes by an order of magnitude—and until recently were largely opaque. Medical bills were long paid by third parties, such as insurers, so patients neither knew nor cared whether one option was cheaper than another. Under the “fee-for-service” system every blood test, bandage or X-ray triggers a payment. Doctors are tempted to order lots of unnecessary procedures to pay for a new yacht or their children’s education. Obamacare introduced (or encouraged the adoption of) various tools to restrain all this. For example, health-care providers receive financial rewards for cutting costs and penalties for bad care, such as when patients have to be readmitted to hospital after they have been discharged or when they catch nasty infections in a clinic. Between January 2012 and December 2013 there have been 150,000 fewer readmissions among Medicare patients—an 8% decline. The law also requires greater price transparency. Doctors and hospitals are encouraged by the law to club together in Accountable Care Organisations”.

He goes on to mention hat “On January 26th Sylvia Burwell, the health secretary, said she hoped that by the end of 2016, 85% of Medicare’s payments would have some link to value and quality (as opposed to simply shovelling money out of the door willy-nilly), and almost a third will be via ACOs or bundles. Private insurers such as Anthem, Aetna and United HealthCare are following suit. The amount that Medicare spends on each beneficiary has actually declined in real terms, from $12,000 in 2011 to $11,200 in 2014. If this is sustained, it could make a huge difference. Medicare has long been the most frightening part of the federal budget. Falling Medicare spending could be driven by falling demand—lots of baby-boomers have just turned 65, and they are healthier than their elders. But it could also be because hospitals and doctors are working more efficiently. A paper by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that over the previous decade providers were trimming costs, for example by treating beneficiaries at lower-cost clinics, adopting more efficient procedures and introducing new technology more slowly”.

The report concludes “Overall the CBO projects that, if the law is unchanged, net federal spending for the government’s main health-care programmes in 2039 will be 8% of GDP, about 15% less than had been projected in 2010. Projections for Medicare and Medicaid spending between 2011-2020 have been revised downwards by $1.1 trillion. The government also claims that since 2011 some 50,000 fewer patients died in hospitals as a result of Obamacare. Far from bankrupting the nation, as its critics predicted, Obamacare may be making medicine thriftier. Even so, health-care spending as a share of GDP is likely to rise over the next decade as Americans age. With the economy recovering this year, the total health-care bill is projected to grow by 6%. Hold the champagne, then, and not just because it is bad for you”.

US-Cuba talks continue

21/03/2015

The latest talks between Cuba and the United States on restoring diplomatic relations concluded after one day, Cuba said on Tuesday without disclosing what may have been agreed. Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson met in Havana on Monday with Josefina Vidal, the Cuban foreign ministry’s chief of U.S. affairs, in what had been described as open-ended talks that could last a few days. The talks ended after just one day, Cuba’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “At the end of the meeting, which took place in a professional climate, the two delegations agreed to maintain communication in the future as part of this process,” the statement said. The former Cold War rivals severed diplomatic ties in 1961 and after decades of animosity announced in December they would seek to normalize relations. Jacobson and Vidal led their respective delegations with intense media coverage in Havana in January and in Washington in February, but reporters were excluded this time. U.S. officials had described Monday’s session as private discussions that did not qualify as a third round of negotiations. Before agreeing to restore ties, Cuba wants to be removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and also to find a bank willing to handle transactions for its diplomatic post in Washington. For its part, the United States wants to increase staff at its mission in Havana and have unrestricted travel for its diplomats on the island. Both countries reported progress after their meetings in January and February. Then on March 9 the United States declared Venezuela a security threat and ordered sanctions against seven officials from the oil-rich country, drawing rebukes from left-leaning governments in Latin America. Venezuela has replaced the Soviet Union as Cuba’s main benefactor. U.S. officials have said the Venezuela issue should not affect the Cuba talks, but Cuba has fulminated against the U.S. sanctions”.

Removing the sanctions

21/03/2015

A piece from Foreign Policy notes how hard it will be to remove sanctions on Iran.

The author opens “The Obama administration is moving closer to a landmark deal with Tehran that would impose new restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for loosening the punishing international sanctions that have brought the country’s economy to its knees. But if a deal is struck — which is far from guaranteed — dismantling the U.S. restrictions against Iran that have been layered on by successive presidential decrees and congressional directives is not going to happen overnight. The Treasury Department website lists 26 executive orders related to Iran sanctions, dating back to President Jimmy Carter’s original command to freeze the assets of the Iranian government in the United States during the embassy hostage crisis in 1979. There are also 10 statutes, four United Nations Security Council resolutions, and tens of European Union regulations and amendments to implement the U.N.’s sanctions”.

The problem he writes essentially comes down to Congress, “There’s a simple reason to doubt the success of the talks: A long list of governments and international agencies have helped to impose and shape the sanctions over the years, and they would all need to play a role in unraveling them. The United States and its negotiating partners (Russia, Britain, China, France, and Germany) are attempting to create one comprehensive agreement that would lay out a plan to unwind restrictions imposed by the Obama administration, Congress, the European Union, and the U.N. Security Council. The Obama administration could suspend most of the American sanctions and successive administrations could continue those waivers for the duration of the deal, which is expected to be 10 or 15 years long; if Iran complies with its side of the bargain, an act of Congress would be needed at the end of the deal to permanently lift them. But lawmakers are showing no signs of wanting to wait that long to weigh in and opponents in Congress could intervene and pass laws to interrupt the process”.

The report adds that “Visibly angry, Kerry used Senate testimony this week to accuse Republicans of recklessly inserting themselves into the talks with Tehran and argued that Congress has no authority to “modify an agreement reached executive-to-executive between leaders of a country.” The contretemps has alarmed America’s negotiating partners, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier saying Thursday that the Republican letter was “not really helpful, because we are in a decisive phase of the negotiations.” The political sparring comes amid heightened signs that the administration is preparing a broad suspension of sanctions that will let Tehran rebuild its battered economy and re-enter the international financial system while retaining much of its nuclear power infrastructure. In exchange, Tehran would have to permit unprecedented scrutiny of its approved nuclear activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), including a more detailed account of the steps it has taken in the past to acquire nuclear materials”.

Naturally “If a deal is reached, the Obama administration will have to justify scaling back the complex web of financial, military, and nuclear sanctions that it previously claimed had all but brought Iran to its knees. Many lawmakers of both parties are signaling a growing reluctance to relax the sanctions unless Iran agrees to a deal that includes terms stricter than what the White House has told Tehran it would be willing to accept. That is raising the odds of Congress stalling, and perhaps entirely derailing, the movement toward a deal”.

As has been long stated here before, foreign policy and sanctions, should be in the exclusive control of the president. Domestic political concerns should have little or no role in these talks. The expansive national interest of the United States should be the sole determining factor for the decision of the president, whatever party they belong to. The fact that almost half the Senate can make fools of themselves, and the foreign policy of the United States, should be reason enough to give the executive sole power in this regard.

The report adds that “Richard Nephew, who served as the State Department’s lead sanctions expert on the U.S. negotiating team until December, said he started out the nuclear talks as the “most optimistic person” in the group. But the growing congressional opposition now has him worried that a failure to strike a deal will make it harder for the United States to persuade major Iranian trading partners like Japan, India, and China to keep U.S. restrictions on Iran’s energy exports and financial dealings in place”.

The background is noted when he writes “After European-led nuclear talks aimed at heading off the crisis stalled, the Security Council passed a resolution in July 2006 demanding that Iran halt its enrichment and reprocessing of uranium and any work on its heavy-water facility. Six months later, the council imposed its first round of sanctions, restricting Iran’s trade in nuclear materials and freezing the assets of 22 Iranian individuals and institutions linked to the nuclear program. Faced with Iran’s persistent refusal to comply with its demands, the council gradually expanded the sanctions over the following years to ban its trade in conventional weapons, prohibit the development of ballistic missile technology, and impose constraints on Tehran’s ability to finance its nuclear activities. U.S. and European measures over the past five years have gone even further by targeting Iran’s economy and cutting off Tehran from the international financial system. In 2010, Congress passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, expanding restrictions against the country’s energy industry and threatening sanctions against foreign banks that work with blacklisted Iranian companies or individuals. These so-called “secondary” sanctions significantly increased the economic pressure on Tehran because they applied not only to U.S. companies, but also to foreign companies”.

He mentions that “Iran was further isolated in 2012 when the European Union cut off blacklisted Iranian banks from SWIFT, the messaging system banks use for cross-border transactions. Sanctions reduced Iranian oil exports in 2013 to their lowest level in 20 years. Iran’s currency, the rial, plummeted 60 percent between 2012 and 2013. Although the economy started to recover in 2014 and inflation dropped, the precipitous plunge in oil prices, which dropped 50 percent in the second half of the year, reduced the amount of revenue coming into government coffers. But while the Iranian economy has been ravaged, Tehran has continued to make strides in advancing its nuclear program. Since sanctions were first imposed in 2006, Iran has gone from operating about 300 centrifuges to about 20,000. Iran has also produced increasingly refined forms of enriched uranium, moving them closer to the purity levels needed for a nuclear weapon”.

 

 

“An unmistakable erosion in British power”

21/03/2015

With Europe facing its shakiest security environment in a generation, Britain has slipped into a familiar role: Washington’s tough-talking wingman. British leaders have led the rhetorical charge against the twin menaces of Russia and the Islamic State while browbeating reluctant European governments to wake up to the reality of a newly unstable continent. But behind the flinty facade lies an unmistakable erosion in British power, one that has reduced Washington’s indispensable ally to a position that U.K. officials, military leaders and analysts acknowledge could leave the United States without a credible partner in taking on the greatest threats to global ­security”.

” Putin’s regime will collapse”

21/03/2015

A piece argues that Putin has sealed his fate having invaded Ukraine.

It opens “The longer the Russian war against Ukraine continues, the more likely it is that President Vladimir Putin’s regime will collapse. Despite Putin’s bluster, the authoritarian regime he has constructed is exceedingly brittle. At the center stands Putin; surrounding him, the power-hungry loyalists he has folded into his inner circle. Some, called the siloviki, belong to powerful institutions such as the secret police or the army. Others, formally affiliated with various government agencies, are loyal only to Putin. In such a system, sycophantism is rewarded above good governance, empire-building runs rampant, policy loses its effectiveness, and corruption becomes routine”.

The writer argues that “Putin’s ability to retain their loyalty rests primarily on his control of the country’s financial resources. Thanks to the record-high energy prices that accompanied his assumption of power in 1999, Putin was able to personally purloin some $45 billion and still have enough money to raise the country’s standard of living, strengthen the Russian military, and keep his cronies happy. No longer. Oil prices have collapsed and are likely to stay low; Western sanctions are hitting hard; and the Russian economy is on the downswing”.

He makes the valid point that “Sooner or later Putin will be forced to make some cuts, but it is hard to know where that money will come from. Given the ongoing war in Ukraine and his anti-Western ideological crusade, reducing military funding will be unfeasible. And Putin’s popularity would take a serious hit if he were to roll back support to the lower classes. The only option, therefore, may be to stop his cronies from dipping into state coffers, even if doing so will alienate them”.

The writer argues that for years Putin had a number of successes including raising the living standards of his people. This is perhaps something of an exaggeration of Putin’s success and understates the problems that have gone unchallenged under Putin’s reign. The author goes on to mention that “just after the Sochi Olympics, he blew it all. The Crimean annexation has been an unmitigated economic disaster. The Russian war in eastern Ukraine has killed Russians by the thousands. Ukraine, which was well on its way to becoming a Russian vassal state under former President Viktor Yanukovych, has turned against the Kremlin. The ruble, along with the Russian economy, is in free fall, as Western sanctions bite”.

The writer goes on to posit the theory “All signs point to the eventual collapse of Putin’s regime. Although 85 percent of Russians currently support the president, an Orange Revolution in Moscow—a city that has seen a series of mass anti-Putin demonstrations in the past few years—is not out of the question. Such a movement need not encompass the entire country to be effective. Demonstrations in the capital, like past displays of “people power” in Cairo, Kiev, and Manila, can effect regime change. A coup d’état is another possibility. The siloviki, like all Praetorian guards, are a mixed blessing. They can keep him in power by crushing political opposition, but they can also stage a coup should they conclude that Putin’s policies are undermining their own security and wealth. Putin knows that he replaced Boris Yeltsin (and that Leonid Brezhnev replaced Nikita Khrushchev) in just this fashion”.

Of course a coup is a possibility as is a revolution but Putin has been very clever by painting those who oppose him as Western liberals, opposed to the Orthodox Church and “Russian values”. The other concern raised by a possible coup is who will replace Putin. Some have suggested that if there was a coup, a possible successor to Putin would be worse than Putin, even more nationalistic and more theocratic.

The writer admits that “Putin’s successor, whenever he takes power, is likely to be a hardliner; even so, his first priority will have to be to clean the mess created by Putin. Chances are that the new president will be more inclined to end the war and more likely to adopt a conciliatory tone vis-à-vis the rest of the world”.

However, the danger of this view is that it is want people in Europe and the United States want to hear. The other problem that the author does not envision is that the successor to Putin could be more violent and more aggressive than Putin ever was.

He ends “the West should do all it can now to support Ukraine and encourage Putin to deescalate the war. The West can also limit the fallout from a possible regime collapse by supporting Russia’s neighbors—especially Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine—economically, diplomatically, and militarily. When the rotten Russian dam breaks, as it inevitably will, only strong and stable non-Russian states will be able to contain the flooding, shielding the rest of the world from Putin’s disastrous legacy of ruin”.

 

ISIS, using NBC

21/03/2015

The Kurdish regional government in Iraq says it has evidence that Islamic State militants used a chemical weapon against Kurdish peshmerga forces. The Kurdistan Region Security Council released a statement Saturday alleging that chlorine was used in a January suicide bombing in northern Iraq. The statement said a lab analysis found chlorine traces in samples from the scene of the attack. The Kurds said the lab was located in a partner nation in the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, but they did not identify the nation or the lab. The January 23 suicide bombing took place on a road between the Islamic State-held city of Mosul and the Syrian border, according to the statement. The Islamic State group has been suspected of using chlorine in previous attacks in Iraq and Syria. Saturday’s allegation by the Kurdish government could not be independently verified”.

“United States is edging closer toward supporting”

21/03/2015

The victory of Israeli prime minister in the recent elections has left the Obama administration in an unusual position. The effects of which may be soon felt in the United Nations.

A report begins “After years of blocking U.N. efforts to pressure Israelis and Palestinians into accepting a lasting two-state solution, the United States is edging closer toward supporting a U.N. Security Council resolution that would call for the resumption of political talks to conclude a final peace settlement, according to Western diplomats. The move follows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decisive re-election Tuesday after the incumbent publicly abandoned his commitment to negotiate a Palestinian state — the basis of more than 20 years of U.S. diplomatic efforts — and promised to continue the construction of settlements on occupied territory. The development also reflects deepening pessimism over the prospect of U.S.-brokered negotiations delivering peace between Israelis and Palestinians”.

Hudson writes that “Shortly before this week’s election, the United States informed its diplomatic partners that it would hold off any moves in the U.N. Security Council designed to put Israel on the spot at the United Nations in the event that Netanyahu’s challenger, Isaac Herzog, won the election. But U.S. officials signaled a willingness to consider a U.N. resolution in the event that Netanyahu was re-elected and formed a coalition government opposed to peace talks. The United States has not yet circulated a draft, but diplomats say Washington has set some red lines and is unwilling to agree to set a fixed deadline for political talks to conclude”.

Hudson makes the point that “Netanyahu’s government will likely be made up of right-wing and Orthodox parties adamantly opposed to making concessions to Palestinians. According to a statement from Netanyahu’s office, the Israeli leader has already consulted with party leaders he plans to add to his coalition, including Naftali Bennett of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, Avigdor Lieberman of the far-right nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, and leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties”.

Finally it looks as if the United States may be willing to see Israel not as a special state but as a normal state that looks out for its own interests before that of the United States.

Crucially Hudson reports “State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki did not rule out the possibility of the United States supporting a U.N. resolution on Israel-Palestine.“We’re currently evaluating our approach. We’re not going to prejudge what we would do if there was a U.N. action,” she told reporters”.

He goes on to note that things are more complicated by the fact that “The deliberations over the future of the U.S. diplomatic efforts are playing out just weeks before the Palestinians are scheduled to join the International Criminal Court, a move that is certain to heighten diplomatic tensions between Israel and the Palestinians”.

Hudson writes that a possible outcome would be “the United States would seek guarantees from the international community to hold off on ICC activity in exchange for a Security Council resolution outlining international standards for a final peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians”.

The scale of the “problem” for Israel is made clear “one European diplomat said that there was “a broad understanding” at the time “that this was something that could be revisited post-election.” So far, U.S. talks with European allies have taken place in Washington and other capitals. There have been no substantive talks in New York among Security Council members. France, however, recently renewed its appeal to the United States to consider taking up the issue before the council, according to diplomats familiar with the matter. The United States, according to the diplomats, gave no firm commitment. But the administration indicated that it was willing to consider action in the council once a coalition government is put into place”.

 

Talks with Assad?

21/03/2015

Secretary of State John Kerry said he would be willing to talk with Syrian President Bashar Assad to help broker a political resolution to the country’s civil war. Kerry said in an interview with CBS News that the U.S. is pushing for Assad to seriously discuss a transition strategy to help end Syria’s four-year conflict, which has killed more than 220,000 people, given rise to the Islamic State group and destabilized the wider Middle East. “We have to negotiate in the end,” Kerry said. “What we’re pushing for is to get him to come and do that, and it may require that there be increased pressure on him of various kinds.” The Obama administration has long pushed for a political settlement to the Syrian crisis, and helped bring the Assad government and the Western-backed opposition to the negotiating table in early 2014″.

“Republicans can’t govern”

21/03/2015

Markos Moulitas says the problems of the GOP are self inflicted. He opens, “We’re only a few months into this congressional session, and it’s clear Republicans can’t govern. And it’s not Democrats or liberals making that observation — it’s Republicans. “We really don’t have 218 votes to determine a bathroom break over here on our side,” said Republican Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent. “So how are we going to get 218 votes on transportation or trade or whatever the issue?” That’s the polite way to put it. The less polite way? “Bad tactics yield bad outcomes,” he added, noting that Republican leadership had engaged in “tactical malpractice.” Also not polite? “There’s an element within our party, a wing within the Congress, which is absolutely irresponsible,” said Republican New York Rep. Pete King. “They have no concept of reality.” Harsh, but true. “I’ve had it with this self-righteous delusional wing of the party that leads us over the cliff,” he added”.

He adds “The American public certainly doesn’t have a problem with President Obama’s immigration orders prohibiting immigrant parents from being torn away from their American citizen children, but it does have a problem with jeopardizing national security thanks to the Republicans’ silly tantrum. So yeah, the GOP needs to work on that “popularity” thing a bit more. Still, with Republicans bitterly divided, their leadership has to now convince the nation it knows what it’s doing”.

He ends “As we’ve found out time and time again, “some way” really comes down to Democrats taking over the process and leading the way, just like they did with the clean funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security. No one should be surprised that the party hostile to government is terrible at running the government. It’s just nice seeing Republicans admit that fact”.

“Closing in on a historic deal”

19/03/2015

The United States and Iran are closing in on a historic agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program, but are confronting serious last-minute obstacles, including when United Nations sanctions would be lifted and how inspections would be conducted, American and European officials said. Secretary of State John Kerry, who heads to Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sunday night for a critical round of talks, is still clashing with his Iranian counterpart over Tehran’s demand that all United Nations sanctions be suspended as soon as there is a deal, as well as Washington’s insistence that international inspectors be able to promptly visit any nuclear site, even those on Iranian military bases. There are also disagreements over Iran’s research and development of advanced centrifuges, which would allow Iran to produce nuclear fuel far more quickly, as well as over how many years an agreement would last. The White House hopes that an accord might eventually open a new chapter in a relationship that has been marked largely by decades of mutual suspicion, Iranian-sponsored terrorism, American cyberattacks and Iranian retaliation. But even the prospect of the deal has set off a furious political confrontation between the White House and Republicans who say an accord will fail to end Iran’s bomb program and even encourage Arab nations to mount their own nuclear efforts. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Congress recently that the effect of the emerging deal with Iran would be “to move from preventing proliferation to managing it.”

Not terrorists, an army

19/03/2015

A piece from Foreign Affairs argues that the counterterrorism strategy against ISIS being used is wrong and will fail.

The article opens “After 9/11, many within the U.S. national security establishment worried that, following decades of preparation for confronting conventional enemies, Washington was unready for the challenge posed by an unconventional adversary such as al Qaeda. So over the next decade, the United States built an elaborate bureaucratic structure to fight the jihadist organization, adapting its military and its intelligence and law enforcement agencies to the tasks of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. Now, however, a different group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which also calls itself the Islamic State, has supplanted al Qaeda as the jihadist threat of greatest concern. ISIS’ ideology, rhetoric, and long-term goals are similar to al Qaeda’s, and the two groups were once formally allied. So many observers assume that the current challenge is simply to refocus Washington’s now-formidable counterterrorism apparatus on a new target”.

The author writes that in in September speech, “President Barack Obama drew a straight line between the group and al Qaeda and claimed that ISIS is “a terrorist organization, pure and simple.” This was mistaken; ISIS hardly fits that description, and indeed, although it uses terrorism as a tactic, it is not really a terrorist organization at all. Terrorist networks, such as al Qaeda, generally have only dozens or hundreds of members, attack civilians, do not hold territory, and cannot directly confront military forces. ISIS, on the other hand, boasts some 30,000 fighters, holds territory in both Iraq and Syria, maintains extensive military capabilities, controls lines of communication, commands infrastructure, funds itself, and engages in sophisticated military operations. If ISIS is purely and simply anything, it is a pseudo-state led by a conventional army. And that is why the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies that greatly diminished the threat from al Qaeda will not work against ISIS”.

She writes that “In 2011, as a revolt against the Assad regime in Syria expanded into a full-blown civil war, the group took advantage of the chaos, seizing territory in Syria’s northeast, establishing a base of operations, and rebranding itself as ISIS. In Iraq, the group continued to capitalize on the weakness of the central state and to exploit the country’s sectarian strife, which intensified after U.S. combat forces withdrew. With the Americans gone, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pursued a hard-line pro-Shiite agenda, further alienating Sunni Arabs throughout the country. ISIS now counts among its members Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders, former anti-U.S. insurgents, and even secular former Iraqi military officers who seek to regain the power and security they enjoyed during the Saddam Hussein era”.

She goes on to make the excellent point that “As ISIS has grown, its goals and intentions have become clearer. Al Qaeda conceived of itself as the vanguard of a global insurgency mobilizing Muslim communities against secular rule. ISIS, in contrast, seeks to control territory and create a “pure” Sunni Islamist state governed by a brutal interpretation of sharia; to immediately obliterate the political borders of the Middle East that were created by Western powers in the twentieth century; and to position itself as the sole political, religious, and military authority over all of the world’s Muslims”.

She adds later that “Holding territory has allowed the group to build a self-sustaining financial model unthinkable for most terrorist groups. Beginning in 2012, ISIS gradually took over key oil assets in eastern Syria; it now controls an estimated 60 percent of the country’s oil production capacity. Meanwhile, during its push into Iraq last summer, ISIS also seized seven oil-producing operations in that country. The group manages to sell some of this oil on the black market in Iraq and Syria—including, according to some reports, to the Assad regime itself. ISIS also smuggles oil out of Iraq and Syria into Jordan and Turkey, where it finds plenty of buyers happy to pay below-market prices for illicit crude. All told, ISIS’ revenue from oil is estimated to be between $1 million and $3 million per day”.

She goes on to argue “ISIS offers short-term, primitive gratification. It does not radicalize people in ways that can be countered by appeals to logic. Teenagers are attracted to the group without even understanding what it is, and older fighters just want to be associated with ISIS’ success. Compared with fighting al Qaeda’s relatively austere message, Washington has found it much harder to counter ISIS’ more visceral appeal, perhaps for a very simple reason: a desire for power, agency, and instant results also pervades American culture”

She ends noting that the situation of 2006 is not comparable to the Iraq and Syria of today, “terrorism wasn’t the only element of national security practice that Washington rediscovered and reinvigorated after 9/11; counterinsurgency also enjoyed a renaissance. As chaos erupted in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion and occupation of 2003, the U.S. military grudgingly starting thinking about counterinsurgency, a subject that had fallen out of favor in the national security establishment after the Vietnam War. The most successful application of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine was the 2007 “surge” in Iraq, overseen by General David Petraeus. In 2006, as violence peaked in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, U.S. officials concluded that the United States was losing the war. In response, President George W. Bush decided to send an additional 20,000 U.S. troops to Iraq. General John Allen, then serving as deputy commander of the multinational forces in Anbar, cultivated relationships with local Sunni tribes and nurtured the so-called Sunni Awakening, in which some 40 Sunni tribes or subtribes essentially switched sides and decided to fight with the newly augmented U.S. forces against AQI. By the summer of 2008, the number of insurgent attacks had fallen by more than 80 percent”.

Worrying she writes “The sobering fact is that the United States has no good military options in its fight against ISIS. Neither counterterrorism, nor counterinsurgency, nor conventional warfare is likely to afford Washington a clear-cut victory against the group. For the time being, at least, the policy that best matches ends and means and that has the best chance of securing U.S. interests is one of offensive containment: combining a limited military campaign with a major diplomatic and economic effort to weaken ISIS and align the interests of the many countries that are threatened by the group’s advance. ISIS is not merely an American problem. The wars in Iraq and Syria involve not only regional players but also major global actors, such as Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states. Washington must stop behaving as if it can fix the region’s problems with military force and instead resurrect its role as a diplomatic superpower”.

She ends “The major powers and regional players must agree to stiffen the international arms embargo currently imposed on ISIS, enact more vigorous sanctions against the group, conduct joint border patrols, provide more aid for displaced persons and refugees, and strengthen UN peacekeeping missions in countries that border Iraq and Syria. Although some of these tools overlap with counterterrorism, they should be put in the service of a strategy for fighting an enemy more akin to a state actor: ISIS is not a nuclear power, but the group represents a threat to international stability equivalent to that posed by North Korea. It should be treated no less seriously. Given that political posturing over U.S. foreign policy will only intensify as the 2016 U.S. presidential election approaches, the White House would likely face numerous attacks on a containment approach that would satisfy neither the hawkish nor the anti-interventionist camp within the U.S. national security establishment. In the face of such criticism, the United States must stay committed to fighting ISIS over the long term in a manner that matches ends with means, calibrating and improving U.S. efforts to contain the group by moving past outmoded forms of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency while also resisting pressure to cross the threshold into full-fledged war. Over time, the successful containment of ISIS might open up better policy options. But for the foreseeable future, containment is the best policy that the United States can pursue”.

 

Williamson ordains a bishop

19/03/2015

A Holocaust-denying Catholic bishop who made headlines in 2009 when Pope Benedict XVI rehabilitated him and members of his breakaway traditionalist society is heading for new trouble with the Vatican. Bishop Richard Williamson is planning to consecrate a new bishop Thursday in Brazil without Pope Francis’ consent — a Church crime punishable by excommunication. The Rev. Rene Miguel Trincado Cvjetkovic confirmed the planned consecration of the Rev. Christian Jean-Michel Faure in an e-mail to The Associated Press. The consecration was first reported by the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli. Williamson, Trincado, and Faure have all been, or are in the process of being, kicked out of the Society of St. Pius X, which was formed in 1969 by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in opposition to the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council. They have opposed the society’s recent efforts at reconciliation with the Holy See. In 1988, the Vatican excommunicated Lefebvre, Williamson, and three other bishops after Lefebvre consecrated them without papal consent. In 2009, Benedict removed the excommunications in a bid to bring the group back into full communion with Rome and prevent further schism. But an uproar ensued after Williamson said in a television interview aired just before the decree was made public that he did not believe Jews were killed in gas chambers during World War II.

A short reign?

19/03/2015

John Allen writes that Pope Francis has again hinted at a short papacy. He begins “Pope Francis marked the second anniversary of his election on Friday with yet another blockbuster media interview, this one with the Mexican network Televisa. One headline from the conversation with veteran Vatican reporter Valentina Alazraki focused on his expectations for a short papacy. As he has on other occasions, Francis hinted that he doesn’t expect to be around very long. “I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief … four or five years. I don’t know, even two or three,” he said”.

In classic Francis style however he straight away muddied the water, “The pontiff called this nothing more than a “vague sensation.” “Maybe it’s like the psychology of the gambler who convinces himself he will lose so he won’t be disappointed, and if he wins, he’s happy,” Francis said. “But I feel that the Lord has placed me here for a short time, and nothing more … But I always leave the possibility open.” This isn’t the first time the pontiff has augured a short reign. Last August, he predicted he’d be around no more than two or three years in comments to reporters aboard the papal plane returning from a trip to South Korea, though again in the same breath leaving the door open to the chance that things may play out differently”.

Allen makes the fair point that “In the first instance, it’s important to observe that he’s done so because he’s been asked. He’s never brought the subject up himself, but instead has spoken in reply to queries from journalists. It’s hard to fault him for giving a straight answer to a straight question. Moreover, it’s hardly the most earth-shattering hunch for a pope elected at the age of 76, who had part of one lung removed during a health crisis as a young man, to suspect that his time might be limited. Francis also knows he has an exit option not really open to most of his predecessors, since Benedict XVI already set the precedent by resigning”.

Allen correctly writes that “Beneath his humble, simple exterior lies the mind of a brilliant politician. He’s a media- and politics-savvy figure, and so the question has to be asked: What political advantage does Francis derive from publicly suggesting he’ll have a short shelf life?”

One of the reasons is that it will help Francis strengthen his support, especially in the Curia, “Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio movement that’s committed to ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue — precisely the kind of force in Catholicism most emboldened by Francis — has written that the chief obstacle the pontiff faces isn’t overt resistance, but rather sloth among people inclined to back his agenda. In effect, Francis is sending a signal that this isn’t likely to be the St. John Paul II era, in which those Catholics most enchanted with the Polish pope’s vision would have more than a quarter-century to chip away at a sometimes recalcitrant institution. Instead, he seems to be saying, if you want to get something done, now is the time”.

The second reason Allen gives is that it disrupts the “opposition”, “Logically speaking, forecasts of a short papacy might have the same impact on his opposition, but in fact, they may actually have the effect of encouraging it to bide its time”.

Allen elobrates that “a longtime Italian observer of the Vatican scene, noted some time ago that its old guard is composed of masters at the time-honored Roman art of riding out the storm and then going back to business as usual. Hearing Francis drop hints that he won’t be around very long may well encourage those folks to revert to their default setting. Rather than actively trying to sabotage the new regime, they may be more inclined to go underground and wait things out”.
The final point he makes is that “Francis may derive from talking about a short papacy is making the job more manageable for himself. As it’s come to be understood in our time, the papacy is really an impossible post. People expect popes to be intellectual giants, political titans, cultural and spiritual gurus, adept managers of a complex institution, media rock stars, and of course, living saints. Any one of those is difficult to do well, but rolled together they’re a prescription for chronic heartburn”.

In truth the one abiding thing that can be said is that Francis will keep people who like him, and those who don’t guessing. This will give him more flexibility where he needs it and at the same time more leverage with people who oppose his “agenda”.

Bibi wins

19/03/2015

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party won a clear and decisive victory in Israel’s parliamentary elections, paving the way for him to serve a record-breaking fourth term as prime minister, according to an almost complete vote count Wednesday. Netanyahu and Likud overcame a strong challenge from his main opponent, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. “Against all odds, we achieved a great victory,” Netanyahu told his supporters in a packed hall in Tel Aviv about 1 a.m. Wednesday. “Now we have to form a strong and stable government.” Israelis expected a possibly long and drawn-out struggle between Netanyahu and his challenger, with both men and their parties claiming the mantle of leadership and trying to form governing coalitions. Herzog conceded the election in a telephone call to Netanyahu Wednesday morning”.

The end of energy subsidies?

19/03/2015

Keith Johnson asks if the drop in oil prices will end the energy subsidies in the Middle East.

He opens “Lower oil prices seemingly present a golden opportunity for Middle Eastern countries to roll back expensive domestic energy subsidies without risking popular fury. Doing so could bring plenty of benefits immediately, by shoring up wobbly budgets, and in the long term, by helping to husband energy resources earmarked for export. But in a region where government largesse remains one of many regimes’ few tangible carrots, there may be a lot less maneuvering room than international bankers and credit analysts might think. Egypt and Jordan suffered public protests in recent years when they started rolling back energy subsidies. This week, fuel shortages again erupted in Egypt, and government officials blamed long lines and short tempers at gas stations on rumours of fuel price hikes. The United Arab Emirates is already experiencing an inflation jump after Abu Dhabi hiked power prices”.

He makes the valid point that “This may still be a good time for the regimes to try. Crude oil prices have fallen about 50 percent since last summer and are now parked around $50 a barrel in the United States and $60 a barrel in London. That could allow both oil exporters like Saudi Arabia and oil importers like Egypt to roll back costly subsidies without sparking popular outrage”.

Not only is this a fair suggestion but Johnson reports that it is actually being acted upon by some government, “plenty of countries are already rolling back subsidies. Persian Gulf countries have taken steps to hike prices for electricity (the United Arab Emirates), diesel fuel (Qatar and Kuwait), and natural gas (Oman and Bahrain). Iran just increased domestic fuel prices again. Egypt jacked up fuel prices last summer. Jordan is continuing efforts to increase fuel and electricity prices. North African countries like Morocco and Tunisia are also redoubling their steps to make consumers pay something closer to market prices for energy. Reform momentum is building because the cost of subsidies is so gigantic. Gasoline at the pump costs about $0.60 a gallon in Saudi Arabia and $0.80 a gallon in Kuwait; other Gulf states price gas at about $1 a gallon. Average electricity prices in Saudi Arabia are a fraction of what power costs in Europe or the United States. The IMF estimated that Middle Eastern and North African energy subsidies cost more than 8 percent of regional GDP per year, or more than $230 billion in 2011. The price slump has already cut the subsidy bill a bit, to about $200 billion per year”.

Johnson continues, “For oil exporters, whose budgets have been hit hard by the decline in crude prices, reining in costly subsidies is one way to avoid even bigger deficits. IMF officials in Oman last week urged the government to step up reform of energy subsidies to stanch the fiscal bleeding. Kuwait just slashed projected spending in the next budget by 18 percent, yet it still faces a massive deficit. And for energy-exporting countries, hiking bargain-basement prices is another way to curb runaway domestic energy consumption, which threatens to gobble up valuable resources that could be exported instead. But though subsidy reform seems a no-brainer, in reality it’s trickier to pull off successfully. That’s due to a host of factors. To a large degree, cheap energy is one of the few governmental benefits that societies across the region enjoy, and many consider it their birthright. And because the better-off (who consume more energy) generally pocket bigger benefits than the poor, plenty of vested interests fight reform”.

He ends “Even in places where the tender shoots of democracy are taking root, the pressure to take away decades-old entitlement programs in the name of healthy budgets is not sitting well. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, government plans to placate the IMF with tax hikes and energy reform are again stirring grumbling in the streets. That gives more-authoritarian leaders something to think about”.

“Poised to slow withdrawal plans”

17/03/2015

“The Obama administration is abandoning plans to cut the number of US forces in Afghanistan to 5,500 by year’s end, bowing to military leaders who want to keep more troops, including many into the 2016 fighting season, US officials say. While no final decision on numbers has been made, the officials said the administration is poised to slow withdrawal plans and probably will allow many of the 9,800 American troops to remain well into next year. There also are discussions about keeping a steady number of counterterrorism troops into 2015, including options under which some would remain in the country or be nearby beyond 2016. Currently, about 2,000 US troops are conducting counterterrorism missions, and military leaders have argued that they will need to continue pursuing the remnants of al-Qaida and to monitor Isis militants looking to recruit in Afghanistan. Officials say Barack Obama probably will use a Washington visit by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani this month as the time to announce his decision on a new withdrawal timeline. US officials familiar with the debate said it’s not clear yet whether the White House will agree to a small, symbolic decrease by the end of this year or insist on a larger cut. They note that there is some stiff opposition to any change, largely from national security adviser Susan Rice”.

A deal is better than no deal

17/03/2015

Given the recent article decrying the supposed deal between Iran and the P5 + 1 a related piece argues that a bad deal is better than no deal at all.

He begins “Back in November, I warned that the decision to extend negotiations with Iran into March was a death sentence because the Republican-controlled Senate would move swiftly to impose additional sanctions on Iran”.

He goes on to argue “Even Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) came out against his own sanctions bill, at least for the time being. It also split Republicans along a question of fundamental strategy: Should they press for more sanctions or for a congressional opportunity to vote on any agreement?”

He continues, “And now comes the letter. Oh, the glorious letter. Led by newly minted U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), 47 Republican Senators signed a letter to the “Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” that explains the constitutional system of government in the United States, with the intended purpose of warning Iran that the Republican party will attempt to undo any agreement reached with President Obama. The ever-restrained New York Daily News headlined its story with “TRAITORS.” When asked directly whether he was trying to sabotage a deal, Cotton avoided answering. But almost immediately, the opposition research dug up a talk to the Heritage Foundation in January”.

Interestingly there is a legal case for the GOP to answer when the author makes the point that “The letter is arguably a violation of the Logan Act, although the statute is never enforced. (That’s probably a good thing, actually.) Still, the letter managed to further solidify support for the president among congressional Democrats — something Obama seems incapable of doing unaided. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) called the letter “partisan and nutty.” More importantly, it deepened the split among Republicans. Seven Republicans declined to sign the letter, which by the standards of contemporary partisanship is pretty amazing”.

The writer makes the key point “The thing is, there is no “good” deal. Any deal will be a compromise that leaves in place many dangers to Israel, as well as Iran’s neighbors and the United States. The essential thing is to delay as long as possible an Iranian nuclear bomb. Almost any deal will buy more time than if talks were to collapse. If Iran and the United States agree, we can debate the details about whether Iran got too many centrifuges, too much sanctions relief, or isn’t subject to intrusive enough inspections. And whatever the Iranians get to do with the plutonium production reactor at Arak will be not wholly satisfying. But there is no good reason to believe that walking away from a deal now puts the United States in position to get a better one in a few years”.

He goes on to make the point that “One of the most frustrating things about following the past decade of negotiations is watching the West make one concession after another — but only after the Iranians had moved so far forward that the concession had no value. The people arguing now for a “better” deal at some later date are the same people who in 2006 said 164 centrifuges was way too many and, that if we just held out long enough, we’d haggle the Iranians down to zero. Look what that got us”.

While that is broadly true it also ignores the proposed 2003 deal where Iran was willing to put everything on the table, support for Hezbollah, nuclear weapons, support for the War on Terror, everything in return for a normalisation of diplomatic relations and sanctions relief. The Bush administration stupid refused. History in Iraq and America could have been very different had the deal been at least discussed.

He does make the point that “If negotiations collapse, the United States will take the blame from Europe and the sanctions regime will unravel. And here’s the best-case scenario: Any military action against Iran will set its nuclear program back, at best, a couple of years. But the anger will last generations”.

In some ways this is exactly what Iran has been planning for the whole time. To accept such blame would be both wrong and dangerous.

Correctly he concludes, “Republican administration, if given a chance, would negotiate exactly the same agreement that this administration is negotiating, with all its flaws and shortcomings. Republican partisans are convinced they are tougher than Democrats, just as Democratic partisans believe they are more respected in the world. Each party thinks it could get a better deal than the other. This is just Meet the Press nonsense. The outlines of any deal with Iran are largely determined by the relative power of the parties — how advanced Iran’s nuclear programs are, what U.S. military options look like, the vitality of the sanctions regime, etc. — not the personal qualities of the presidents we elect. You can believe that George W. Bush’s flinty gaze would have stared down Hassan Rouhani or that Ali Khamenei will understand that Barack Obama is a transformational figure of historic importance. You can believe those things, but you’d be an idiot”.

He finishes “A deal on Iran’s nuclear program won’t resolve all the issues that trouble our relationship with Tehran. Iran is still going to engage in all kinds of regional aggression that threatens our allies and our interests. It will still treat its citizens terribly. But it might not have a bomb — at least, not for the moment”.

 

Saudis vs the Swedes

17/03/2015

Saudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador from Sweden, widening a diplomatic rift between two countries with sharply contrasting views on everything from women’s rights to criminal justice. The move comes after Sweden refused to renew a 10-year-old weapons deal with Saudi Arabia and the Saudis blocked the Swedish foreign minister from giving a speech to the Arab League. Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesman Gabriel Wernstedt said Wednesday that the Saudis were recalling their ambassador because of “Sweden’s criticism regarding human rights and democracy” in the ultra-conservative kingdom. The official Saudi Press Agency reported that the Saudi Foreign Ministry recalled its diplomat because it considered remarks by Sweden’s foreign minister about the kingdom as “blatant interference it its internal affairs.”

Obama’s Bay of Pigs

17/03/2015

A piece has been published with the valid anology of President Obama and the Bay of Pigs.

It begins “The Bay of Pigs invasion was a unique foreign-policy catastrophe, destined to fail due to the CIA’s overconfidence and assumptions that went unquestioned during the transition between the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Nevertheless, the Bay of Pigs provides a useful frame of reference for thinking through a contemporary and similarly implausible foreign-policy scheme: the U.S.-led training and equipping of Syrian opposition forces scheduled to begin next month. The next step of this campaign will more deeply commit U.S. prestige and power into the outcome of the Syrian civil war. To date, the U.S. military effort to degrade and ultimately destroy (or defeat) the Islamic State has centered on gradually deploying more and more U.S. troops into noncombat training and advising roles — currently there are 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq (plus 5,000 contractors) and another 9,700 in Kuwait — and standoff air power in the form of more than 2,400 airstrikes, or 81 percent of all coalition strikes”.

The author notes how America got where it is in Syria, “To understand this state of affairs, look back to September, when, in reaction to the release of horrific Islamic State videos, Congress rushed through legislation “to provide assistance, including training, equipment, supplies, and sustainment, to appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.” After three years and six months of refusing to support large-scale, Pentagon-run training and arming of rebel forces — there has been a limited and reportedly ineffective CIA-led training effort for more than two years — Congress reversed course with limited clarity about what exactly those forces would do once they were trained, equipped, and deployed back into Syria”.

Now however the “chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) asked Secretary of State John Kerry whether it was moral to equip and train people and then not protect them from the barrel bombs that Syrian President Assad is dropping on them. After Kerry endorsed the principle of “defending those who are engaged in the fight of ISIL,” using another name for the Islamic State, Corker asked again about defending against Assad’s air power. Kerry acknowledged that the form of U.S. military support was still under debate”.

The key point is clear when the author notes that “President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to publicly articulate what will be the U.S. military commitment has made it difficult to attract potential Syrian rebels. In mid-January, Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, commander of Special Operations Command-Central, who is overseeing the train-and-equip program, met with Syrian opposition and civil society leaders in Istanbul”.

He goes onto make the point that there are a slew of unanswered questions, “that should be debated and addressed by Congress and the White House before this program progresses any further. White House clarifications of such questions are owed to the American people, the other countries in the anti-Islamic State coalition, and, of course, the trained Syrian rebels themselves”.

One of these is what is an appropriate target, “Will the United States provide close air support for the trained rebels when they are attacked by the Islamic State, but withhold it when the aggressors are the Syrian army, government-sponsored militias, or other rebel forces? If the United States suddenly finds itself at war with Syria, there will need to be a massive wave of cruise missiles and airstrikes to destroy the regime’s air defences”.

Even more importantly he asks in what way will America decide when and to what extent it gives air support, “Will the United States provide close air support for the trained rebels when they go on the offensive against Islamic State units, but withhold it for attacks against the Assad regime or against other rebel forces? Integrating air support with the fire and movement of paramilitary forces will be much more difficult than simply providing air cover for well-defended static targets, as was largely the case for Kurdish forces in Kobani”.

Another key question is to what extent US troops would become involved if the rebels were losing, “If the trained rebels were about to be overrun and eliminated, would the United States commit to sending in a high-risk, helicopter-borne special operations force to extract them from Syria, as was done for Hamid Karzai’s militia force from Taliban-held southern Afghanistan in November 2001?”

 He ends “Last September, the White House and Congress agreed to authorize and fund a train-and-equip project similar to the Bay of Pigs, but this time in the Middle East, without any discussion about phase two. The Syrian project resembles 1961 in two ways: What happens when the fighting starts is undecided, and the intended strategic objective is wholly implausible. Before this project proceeds, Obama owes U.S. citizens answers and some evidence that phase two has been studied and makes sense.”