Archive for April, 2015

“Nusra Front, captured the northwestern Syrian town”

30/04/2015

Islamist insurgents including al-Qaeda’s wing in Syria, Nusra Front, captured the northwestern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday, for the first time in the four-year-old conflict. Syrian state media said the army had redeployed to the town’s surroundings “to avoid civilian casualties”. They said the army was battling “a large number of terrorists coming from the Turkish border.” The capture of the strategic town is the latest in a series of setbacks for government forces in the south and the north. Opposition fighters and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the town, on a road between the coastal city of Latakia and city of Aleppo, was now fully controlled by insurgents “All of Jisr al-Shughour is now liberated, there is no more regime there,” Ahmad of the media office of the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group, which is taking part in the battle, told Reuters”.

Advertisements

“China cannot continue pursuing a risk-averse foreign policy”

30/04/2015

A piece from Foreign Policy argues that sooner or later China will have to pick a side in the Middle East.

It begins “To understand China’s role in the Middle East, consider one recent event, and one recent non-event. In late March, Beijing made headlines by sending warships to rescue hundreds of Chinese and foreign nationals from conflict-torn Yemen. Yet in early April, Chinese President Xi Jinping canceled what was supposed to be his first official trip to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, reportedly as a result of the fighting in Yemen — underscoring that Beijing would rather get out of the kitchen than stand the heat of Middle Eastern politics. Indeed, it is China’s considerable absence, rather than burgeoning influence, that continues to define its role in this turbulent region. China has good reasons to care about events in the Middle East: Roughly half of its oil imports come from the Persian Gulf. Moreover, Beijing worries about extremist elements in the region providing training and inspiration to Muslim separatists in western China”.

The writer adds that “in stark contrast to Xi’s ambitious domestic agenda — reforming key sectors of the economy, including banking and agriculture; easing restrictions on China’s outmoded household registration system; and relaxing its infamous one-child policy — he has done little in foreign policy that would merit a memoir like Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices. In fact, despite Xi’s call for a more “proactive” Chinese foreign policy, Beijing has still only contributed to the safe and soft domains of international politics, such as economic development, anti-piracy, global public health, and U.N. peacekeeping”.

He goes on to write that “China doesn’t expend significant blood or treasure abroad combating violent extremism, settling bloody civil wars, or mediating major regional conflicts. Beijing has instead remained allergic to confronting tough political and security issues overseas, acutely limiting its geopolitical influence. As a result, China’s persistent appeals for “win-win” cooperation, which may make sense in economic affairs and other dispassionate realms, hold little water where political battles are zero-sum and fought over indivisible and deeply contested stakes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East, where China’s influence on regional issues is surprisingly marginal, even as its growing energy dependency is compelling deeper partnerships with the likes of Saudi Arabia”.

He continues “Unwilling to put teeth behind its positions, China has made tentative forays into the Middle East morass that have largely fallen flat. In October 2012, China’s then foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, rolled out a “Four-Point Plan” for Syria that called on all sides to stop fighting, end the crisis, and initiate a political transition. The Associated Press noted that the plan generated little international interest: Most observers found it “vague, and likely aimed at bolstering China’s reputation following criticism of its moves to join Russia in blocking U.N. resolutions aimed at ending Syria’s bloodshed.” Needless to say, this was a failure. The problem is that Beijing does not want to choose sides in a region that regularly demands it. By contrast, Washington has made considerable commitments in the region: The United States remains the de facto guarantor of external security for Saudi Arabia and the rest of the states in the Gulf Cooperation Council. The dominant American naval presence safeguards the free flow of oil resources out of the Middle East, underwriting the economic prosperity of many of the region’s actors, and Washington remains deeply engaged in the thankless task of trying to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians”.

The writer makes the point that “It is hard to see how a deeply risk-averse China could step into a leadership role in any of the region’s fiery disputes. Beijing’s most difficult balancing act will be trying to maintain good relations with both Riyadh and Tehran amid escalating regional and sectarian competition. Saudi Arabia’s greatest concern about the Iranian nuclear agreement, which may be completed by the end of June, is that the removal of banking and oil sanctions will give Tehran the resources to wreak even more havoc through its proxies in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. The majority of new money pouring into Iran would come from China — Iran’s largest trading partner. Indeed, only days after the Iranian nuclear agreement was reached in early April, Iran’s oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, was on his way to Beijing”.

He ends “Beijing has sided with Moscow at the Security Council, blocking resolutions that would have increased pressure on Assad. At the same time, hedging its bets, China has repeatedly hosted Syrian opposition groups in Beijing, and in March 2012 it sent a special envoy to meet them in Damascus”.

He concludes “Of course, few would disagree with President Barack Obama’s characterization that the Chinese “have been free riders for the past 30 years and it’s worked really well for them” in the Middle East. In that sense, Beijing may be prudent not to get involved in the region’s seemingly intractable conflicts. Nevertheless, China cannot continue pursuing a risk-averse foreign policy and simultaneously emerge as a leader in the rough-and-tumble arena of Middle East politics. For Xi, it will be an either-or decision”.

 

“Saudi-led military coalition bombed targets”

30/04/2015

Warplanes of the Saudi-led military coalition bombed targets in the Yemeni capital on Sunday for the first time since Saudi officials said they were shifting the focus of their campaign against a Yemeni rebel group toward political negotiations and humanitarian relief. Also on Sunday, at least seven people were killed and dozens wounded in escalating violence in the southern city of Taiz, which was emerging as the latest lethal flash point in Yemen’s civil war. In addition to the bombings in Sana, the capital, which struck a military base and the presidential palace, the coalition carried out airstrikes in several other provinces, suggesting a broadening, rather than a scaling back, of the monthlong Saudi air offensive against Houthi rebels. Despite vague talk of negotiations last week, there was little sign that any of the combatants in Yemen’s conflict were preparing to halt the fighting. Rather, the violence heightened in recent days as it became more apparent that the warring parties were locked in a standoff, with the Saudis insisting that the Houthis retreat and the Houthis demanding an unconditional end to the airstrikes. Saudi Arabia said the military operation was intended to shake the grip of the Houthis on crucial Yemeni cities and to restore the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was forced from power and into exile, by the Houthis this year”.

Economist 2015:Crime

30/04/2015

An article from a series in the Economist on the upcoming UK election notes that law and order is not a big issue but argues that it should be taken more seriously. However, crime rates are falling to lows despite the savage cuts wrought by the Tory government.

It begins “BRITONS may at last be grasping what has long been true: theirs is an increasingly staid, law-abiding country. The official Crime Survey of England and Wales—which, contrary to what newspapers and opposition politicians say, does not lie—shows that crime has fallen to its lowest rate since 1981. Voters continue to tell pollsters that lawlessness must be going up. But they appear not to believe themselves. In May 2005 crime was top of the list of people’s concerns, as measured by Ipsos MORI, a pollster. It is now tenth on the list. That may be in part because Britons have other things to worry about, like the economy and immigration. And, strangely, the economic slump that began in 2007 may actually have contributed to the fall in crime. Many assumed that lawlessness would soar after the financial crisis, as unemployment rose and welfare cuts bit. Apart from a brief spasm of rioting in 2011, that did not happen. Violent crime has fallen since the coalition came to power, perhaps because young men have less money to go out boozing. Acquisitive crimes such as burglary and car theft are also down, by 14% and 27% respectively (although shoplifting and pickpocketing have ticked up). Anti-social behaviour, once the country’s great bugbear, continues to drop”.

The author writes that the coalition just tried to “save money”, “In one area the cuts have hurt. Prison officer numbers dropped by 41% between 2010 and 2014, and some Victorian gaols have been shut. Yet the prison population is no lower than it was when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came to power. The remaining prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, and becoming more violent. Perhaps more promisingly, the coalition tried to cut costs by outsourcing probation services to private companies, although the extent of any savings—and the impact of the new system on reoffending rates—are unclear”.

Interestingly he mentions that “The most radical reform to criminal justice in the past few years has nothing to do with the coalition. In April 2013 Scotland, then as now run by the Scottish National Party, merged its eight local police forces into just one. Some Scots fear that policing is becoming too uniform and that the police will abandon rural areas. But the reform saved £64m in its first year and the transition has been fairly smooth. Police chiefs south of the border look on enviously. England and Wales plod on with 43 forces, many of them far too small to deal with complex crimes such as kidnap and trafficking. Labour has implied it would ditch the current set-up and move to a smaller number of regional forces, although it has not gone into much detail”.

He goes on to write that “The Conservatives are unlikely to entertain such a reform, partly because it might offend their rural supporters but also because it would entail abolishing their biggest criminal-justice innovation in government: police and crime commissioners (PCCs). These 41 elected watchdogs—one for each police force in England and Wales outside London—were meant to provide democratic oversight for the police. Yet they have failed to grab the public imagination. Fewer than 15% bothered to vote for them in 2012, the lowest turnout in any election since the second world war. When the PCC for the West Midlands died two years later, just 10% went to the polls to choose his replacement. He had argued his job should be scrapped; Labour has promised to do just that”.

He ends “As more Britons go to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and fears about home-grown radicals swell, though, no politician will want to look soft on terrorists. Labour has called for stricter security measures, including the revival of its control orders. On this issue, at least, the politics of law and order may turn into a fight to be toughest”.

Kerry meets Zarif

28/04/2015

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart will meet this week for the first time since they laid out the framework for a nuclear deal earlier this month. The State Department said Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would meet Monday in New York where both men are participating in a conference at the United Nations on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The meeting comes as nuclear negotiators try to complete a comprehensive agreement by the end of June. The State Department said that in addition to his meeting with Zarif, Kerry will also see the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan at the U.N. In early April, Iran and world powers sealed a breakthrough agreement after months of negotiations outlining limits on Iran’s nuclear program to keep it from being able to produce atomic weapons. The Islamic Republic was promised an end to years of crippling economic sanctions, but only if negotiators transform the plan into a comprehensive pact”.

Economist 2015:NHS

28/04/2015

A piece from the series of the Economist dealing with the NHS discusses how it has been used in election campaigning. It begins “BRITONS will not hear a bad word said about the National Health Service, but its problems are becoming hard to ignore. A combination of austerity and an increasingly needy population has left it short of money. It also suffers from a kind of developmental disease. The NHS was built in the 1940s, when health care was mostly about treating broken legs and infections in hospital. Its biggest task now is to improve the quality of life of chronically ill old people. The NHS needs to change profoundly while running flat out. Managing that will be a mighty challenge for the next government. In 2010 the Conservative Party put up posters promising the party would “cut the deficit, not the NHS”. The Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition stuck to that promise, yet the health service is feeling the pinch. Although NHS spending has risen by an average of 0.7% a year in real terms, spending per person has been falling in England since 2013”.

The author writes that “The Conservative Party is again pledging to protect the NHS budget if it returns to power, with up to £2 billion extra a year until 2019-2020. Labour has promised to shell out £2.5 billion more than the Conservatives, spending it on new doctors and nurses, although the cash might not be available until 2017-18. The Liberal Democrats plan to spend £8 billion more a year by 2020, the sum NHS executives say is needed, increasing yearly spending after tackling the deficit in 2017/18. If the Tories have a plan to reform the NHS, they will probably keep quiet about it: after all, they spent the second half of the 2010-15 parliament rowing back from an immense reorganisation that they had launched in the first half. This reform, which aimed to stimulate competition and enabled groups of local doctors to purchase services, was unpopular with voters, caused much upheaval and delivered few obvious benefits. The Tory health secretary, Andrew Lansley, was replaced by Jeremy Hunt, who has mostly tried to keep the NHS out of the news”.

He writes that “many think structural reform is overdue. Healthcare is currently separate from “social care”—a catch-all category encompassing mental-health services, nursing homes and the like, which are often run by local councils. Fusing the two seems sensible. And it would probably save money, if hospital beds could be emptied of people who could manage at home with a bit of extra help. Labour has claimed the idea as its own, dubbing it “Whole Person Care”; the Tories quietly back a similar plan by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England. But no party will be drawn into discussing specifics. Moving care into the community might mean closing hospitals, which would be desperately unpopular. And it would not be easy to keep the current service ticking along while the new one is built”.

He continues, “Labour will accuse the Tories of plans to shrink and privatise the NHS. In fact, by signing up to Simon Stevens’ plan Labour has committed to stepping up privatisation, and in any case much of the private provision in the system appeared as a result of reforms launched by the last, Labour, government. Under the coalition, on the other hand, competition has not grown much. The Tories retort that Labour’s line is mere “political posturing”. Polls suggest most people do not much care about how NHS services are delivered, as long as they are good and free at the point of access. The Liberal Democrats are likely to talk about their Better Care Fund, which has managed to shift small amounts of money from the NHS to social care. Nick Clegg is also keen to prioritise mental health. Both ideas, of course, could starve other NHS services of money”.

The piece ends “Conservatives were outraged when it was suggested that Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader, wanted to “weaponise” the NHS as a political issue in the election. But it is already so. Scottish separatists claimed last year that the country must break away to protect its health service from free-market Tories in London. David Cameron has attacked Labour’s management of the NHS in Wales. Every party will wield health care as a weapon, regardless of the strength of its arguments”.

“Saudi-led coalition pounded Houthi militiamen”

28/04/2015

Warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition pounded Houthi militiamen and military bases with at least 20 air strikes throughout Yemen on Thursday, residents said, despite Riyadh saying it was winding down its campaign. On Tuesday, the Sunni Arab alliance announced an end to its month-old bombing operation in Yemen but strikes have continued. A Saudi spokesman later said forces would continue to target movements of the Iran-allied Houthi militia. The Houthi-controlled health ministry said on Thursday that air strikes had so far killed 951 people, among them 134 children, and had wounded 3,311. The figure could not be independently verified. Most of Thursday’s raids hit Houthi vehicles and gatherings on battlefields where the group is fighting supporters of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in six central and southern provinces. Other air strikes hit military camps housing units loyal to the Houthis in the Western Red Sea port of Hodaida. One strike hit Houthi tanks near the port city of Aden in the south, residents told Reuters.”

Kill over capture

28/04/2015

A piece from Foreign Policy discusses the drone policy of President Obama which is to kill rather than capture. It opens “The New York Times published an important article on Monday, April 13, by Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmidt that explores an important question regarding U.S. counterterrorism policy: Is it better policy to simply kill suspected terrorists with drones, or to attempt to capture them with U.S. special operations forces in order to collect intelligence from the detained individuals? Mazzetti and Schmidt’s article reviews specifically the Obama administration’s decision to work with Pakistan to capture U.S. citizen Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, who, according to an unsealed Justice Department complaint, traveled to Pakistan in 2007 to provide material support to al Qaeda. The decision to capture Farekh was made even though “[d]rones spotted him several times in the early months of 2013” and both the Pentagon and CIA sought to have him placed on a kill list so he could be lawfully targeted”.

He continues, “The capture of Farekh and his eventual transfer to the United States for trial is notable because it is one of the rare occasions when U.S. counterterrorism practice aligned with stated U.S. policy objectives. Since September 2011, the Obama administration has repeatedly and strenuously claimed that it always prefers capturing suspected terrorists rather than killing them. This was first put forth by then-senior White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan at a Harvard Law School speech entitled ‘Strengthening our Security by Adhering to our Values and Laws.’

He writes that “That relatively few counterterrorism capture operations have been attempted in comparison to drone strikes suggests that whatever unique intelligence these suspected terrorists hold is not particularly valuable or timely. If that information was key to saving the lives of U.S. citizens, then surely it would be worth placing U.S. special forces’ lives at some degree of risk, or potentially upsetting bilateral relations with the government where the individuals reside. However, these suspected terrorists are being killed continuously at a safe distance with little apparent regard for or interest in retrieving the intelligence that they possess. This also suggests that they are overwhelmingly neither “high-value” terrorists nor engaged in ongoing plots against the United States or U.S. citizens living abroad. It is useful to remember that capturing terrorists to extract intelligence was once the norm in U.S. counterterrorism strategy. As the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism: 2002 report reads: “In January, the Government of Pakistan arrested and transferred to U.S. custody nearly 500 suspected al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists.” And that’s just Pakistan. In December 2002, CIA Director George Tenet stated: “Since September 2001, more than 3,000 al-Qaida operatives or associates have been detained in over 100 countries.” From there, they entered the CIA’s “black sites,” undeclared Pentagon detention facilities, and Guantánamo Bay”.

He goes on to argue “it is undeniable that the United States shifted markedly from capture to kill in George W. Bush’s second term. Moreover, this habit has been expanded markedly under President Obama’s watch. Whereas Bush authorized an estimated 50 drone strikes while in office, there have been 470 under Obama, which have killed an estimated 3,300 suspected terrorists and militants. We can never know what information they held, and whether it would have been useful to better understanding the tactics, techniques, and procedures of terrorist organisations or would have revealed any external plotting. All we know is that they — and several hundred civilians along with them — are dead”.

He ends “President Obama could reverse this practice if he was willing to approve the assumption of some risks and consequences for U.S. service members. In my conversations with a significant number of active-duty and retired officials and planners in the special operations community, they repeatedly emphasize the belief that they can execute capture missions at little risk to themselves or noncombatants, and they enthusiastically wish that the opportunity to conduct such missions were more forthcoming. They are better trained, equipped, and prepared to do this than any specialized military units in the history of the world”.

“a political agreement had almost been reached to end almost a month of conflict”

26/04/2015

A senior leader in Yemen’s Houthi militia said a political agreement had almost been reached to end almost a month of conflict involving Saudi-led air strikes against the group. Abdel Malek al-Ijri, a member of the Iran-allied movement’s politburo, expressed “surprise” at an announcement by a mostly Gulf Arab coalition to end its operation on Tuesday, but said the announcement coincided with progress toward an overall deal. “We were expecting there to be an agreement on a ceasefire after the signing of a political accord, on which an agreement is almost ready,” al-Ijri told Reuters by telephone from Yemen”.

Economist 2015:Foreign policy

26/04/2015

As part of the election special from the Economist, a piece called “Keeping up appearances” argues that with regards to foreign and defence policy no major party is willing to engage with the world properly.

It begins “GENERAL elections are hardly ever fought on foreign policy. Even the exceptions, such as one in 1935, which pitted Conservative rearmament against Labour pacifism, and 1983, in which Margaret Thatcher soared on the back of the Falklands war, were mainly about domestic issues. Yet the absence of foreign policy debate in the 2015 campaign is nonetheless remarkable. That is chiefly because the world is pressing. The takeover of eastern Syria and northern Iraq by Islamic State has produced a jihadist haven, on the edge of Europe, more threatening than anything Tony Blair or George Bush warned of. British warplanes are again bombing Iraq. And whatever government is formed in May, that campaign will not end soon, not least because it has an urgent counterterrorism purpose. Over 500 Britons—including the London-accented murderer known as Jihadi John—are among thousands of young Europeans with the death cult, and Britain’s domestic spy agency, MI5, claims to have foiled over a dozen terrorist plots inspired by it. It cannot be long before one comes off”.

The writer adds “Russia’s attacks on Ukraine have meanwhile stirred the NATO alliance, of which Britain is, even after recent defence cuts, probably the second-most capable member after America. This has raised questions about not merely the scale of the cuts, but also the purpose of Britain’s armed forces. The shrinkage they are undergoing—which by 2020 will reduce the regular army to 82,000 and cost it most of its heavy armour—is based on a notion that Britain no longer faces a serious conventional threat. Yet that is what Russia represents to NATO’s eastern flank. There is more than this for the next foreign secretary to worry about. Among failing states, Libya, northern Nigeria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan all represent particular British interests or responsibilities. Meanwhile Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, Europe’s to regain competitiveness and America’s for new Asian allies are strategic issues Britain is struggling to understand, let alone respond to”.

Pointedly the piece notes that “The world has been busy before, of course, and it is not easy managing a power that is fated—despite Mr Blair’s raging against the dying of the light—to decline in relative terms. These crises nonetheless amount to an important test of Britain’s ambition to be an active, collaborative, medium-sized Western power, which its leaders are flunking”.

The author adds that “The Foreign Office is underfunded and demoralised. The Conservative foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, is a competent manager with little enthusiasm for the wider world (a senior security official describes him as “not exactly a little Englander, but…”) Every other week a retired British general denounces the defence cuts. These were supposed to shrink the defence budget by 8%, but thanks to a historic shortfall of £45.6 billion in the kit budget and a decision to shift responsibility for maintaining Britain’s nuclear weapons to the defence ministry, the squeeze has been closer to 25%”.

Worryingly the author makes the valid point that “Neither the Tories nor Labour appear hugely troubled by this diminution. Bruised by economic weakness, the failures of Mr Blair’s hyperactivity and their own unpopularity, both parties seem increasingly resigned to Britain playing a sharply reduced role in the world—which is much less than the coalition government at first promised. Though it had little choice but to cut the defence budget, the government’s strategy review in 2010 promised a security policy with “no less ambition for our country in the decades to come”—and David Cameron at first seemed to mean that. He founded an admired National Security Council, set William Hague, as foreign secretary, to pep up the Foreign Office, showed enthusiasm for Britain’s military intervention in Afghanistan and launched a new one, alongside France, in Libya in 2011”.

The report adds “Libya is now a mini-Iraq, a source of extremism and regional instability, and Mr Cameron’s new model mainly looks like intervention on the cheap, without responsibility. The alacrity with which the prime minister washed his hands of Libya has done yet more damage to Britain’s reputation in the Arab world. If that suggested a prime minister with a sporadic interest in foreign policy, he has reinforced the impression. History must judge whether he was right to advocate bombing Syria’s regime in 2013, after it used chemical weapons against its people. But it is already clear that, having failed to win Parliament’s approval for that campaign, Mr Cameron has lost much of his former appetite for bold action abroad”.

He concludes “If the Tories return to power, even with a majority, there is no reason to expect a more ambitious or coherent foreign policy. Mr Cameron would remain ready to go to war, but perhaps only if it didn’t involve difficult rows in Parliament or look too expensive. The rise of IS and Russian marauding has made the threat assessment underpinning the strategic review look sanguine; but they have not persuaded George Osborne, the chancellor, against making further cuts to the defence budget. It is already bound to shrink below 2% of GDP—the level that NATO demands and which Mr Cameron endorsed passionately at the alliance’s summit last year. He can do passion, he can do intervention and, with his presentational gifts, he can look statesmanlike at times. But in foreign policy, as otherwise, Mr Cameron lacks the sustained grip that strong leadership requires”.

He concludes “The prime minister’s Europe policy is further evidence of this. Having sworn to stop his party “banging on” about Europe, he was bullied by those same head-bangers into promising a referendum on Britain’s EU membership by 2017. This would be a costly distraction and, in the event of an “out” vote, which Mr Cameron does not want, it would speed Britain’s global decline. (That is even before contemplating the prospect of Europhile Scotland demanding a fresh independence referendum, as it would, and seceding.) An “in” vote looks more likely. Even so, the exercise would cast additional doubt over Britain’s global posture and offend old allies. It already has—as witnessed by Britain’s no-show in a Franco-German effort to make peace in Ukraine. If Britain is feeling increasingly averse to its European friends, the feeling is mutual. Yet if it is not with Europe, where is it? The trans-Atlantic alliance is weakening with Britain’s wilting military punch—America has also warned Mr Cameron against further defence cuts. The Commonwealth, which Eurosceptic Tories dream of refashioning into an Anglophone trading block, is a non-starter: almost none of its members wants that. Meanwhile the government’s effort to improve relations with China and India, though good in itself, has seemed more craven than productive. Irked by its decision to join a new Chinese financial institution that might one day rival the World Bank, America snapped at Britain’s habit of “constant accommodation” to China”.

He makes the point “Labour should not find it too hard to improve on this record. And indeed, Ed Miliband’s refusal to match Mr Cameron’s referendum pledge looks sensible. So does the gist (despite its annoying name) of the “progressive internationalism” outlined by Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary. This would include more effort to build alliances—by which he mainly meant in Europe—and uphold the UN. Europe aside, in fact, there is not much to separate the two parties. Despite his refusal to support action in Syria, Mr Miliband is not flat against force: he voted to bomb Libya and Iraq. Labour shares Mr Cameron’s slightly quixotic commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid. Perhaps Labour would spend a bit more on the armed forces, given its historic reputation for being weak on defence. So the question is whether Miliband would be a stronger ambassador for British values and interests than Mr Cameron has been; and the answer is, maybe not”.

Worryingly he writes that “While instinctively comfortable in Europe, Mr Miliband shows little interest in Britain’s evolving role there, as a big economy outside the euro zone. As Labour leader, he has made only a handful of foreign trips. His critique of British capitalism takes such little note of global trends as to seem naive. Perceived in Washington as the villain of the Syria vote, he faces an uphill road there. “Ed doesn’t really do abroad,” a member of Mr Miliband’s shadow cabinet has quipped”.

Sixteen new Afghan ministers

26/04/2015

Sixteen ministers who got trust vote from Wolesi Jirga were sworn-in by President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday morning in Kabul. The 1st and 2nd Vice Presidents Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostam, Mohammad Sarwar Danish, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah and 1st deputy CEO Eng. Mohammad Khan were present during the oath-taking ceremony, a statement from the Presidential Palace said. The new ministers pledged to follow the teachings of Islam, implement constitutions and state laws, remain loyal to the independence and territorial integrity of Afghanistan and work honestly for the benefit of people, the statement said. After the end of the ceremony, the president congratulated the new ministers and wished them success in their new assignments”.

LCWR soft landing

26/04/2015

John Allen writes how the investigation into the LCWR ended, “Sometimes in the news business, stories run their course without the explosive ending their dramatic arc would seem to merit. Think a nasty lawsuit, for instance, which ends with an amicable settlement, or the early years of the Super Bowl when a matchup that looked like a heavyweight collision on paper ended with a blowout. Such would appear to be the case with the conclusion announced Thursday of the Vatican’s now six-year-old investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the main umbrella group for the leaders of women’s religious orders in the United States. The review was first communicated to the LCWR in 2009, and came to a preliminary crescendo with a tough “doctrinal assessment” in 2012 accusing the organization of various forms of dissent and error”.

Allen continues “Purely at the level of perception, this was a made-for-Hollywood standoff between rigid male hierarchs and feisty progressive nuns. Most media outlets and a solid chunk of Catholic opinion at the grassroots, naturally, sided with the nuns. “If the bishops really want to investigate somebody, maybe they should look at themselves,” became a common refrain. Coming on the heels of a separate Vatican probe of all women’s orders in the States, news of the LCWR crackdown fueled TV interviews with nuns in tears, saying they felt their life’s work was being called into question. Along the way, it prompted leading experts on religious life to speculate about the nuns “going non-canonical,” meaning cutting their ties with the institutional Church and setting up shop on their own”.

He notes that “Some Catholics who feel the LCWR long ago parted company with orthodoxy, embracing the push for women priests and adopting a sort of vague New Age spirituality, licked their chops at the prospect that someone had finally noticed. Many felt the natural ending would be to de-certify the LCWR as an authentically “Catholic” organization, as a warning to liberal nuns everywhere. The women religious, meanwhile, developed one of the most brilliant PR vehicles in recent Catholic history with the 2012 “Nuns on the Bus” tour. It actually had nothing to do with either the LCWR probe or the separate Vatican review of women’s orders, but was instead designed to raise the profile of social justice concerns in American politics. Given the coincidence, however, it was taken as a symbol of populist defiance by nuns determined not to back down. Despite all of that, the whole thing ended on Thursday with a whimper rather than a bang”.

The conclusion was announced with a brief, 1,000-word statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department that launched a doctrinal review of the LCWR in 2009, expressing satisfaction with the results and praising those who took part, including three American bishops who were empaneled to run the process.

“The very fact of such substantive dialogue between bishops and religious has been a blessing to be appreciated and further encouraged,” the document says. “The commitment of LCWR leadership to its crucial role in service to the mission and membership of the conference will continue to guide and strengthen LCWR’s witness to the great vocation of religious life, to its sure foundation in Christ, and to ecclesial communion.”

Allen writes that “No new disciplinary measures or controls were imposed, and there was no punishment for dissent or acknowledgment of error. In essence, everyone walks away unscathed”.

He argues that four important factors were key, the investigation of women’s order were “orphans almost as soon as they were born”.

He elobrates that “Both were pushed forward at the beginning by a handful of well-placed American cardinals in Rome coming to the end of their careers, who were convinced that they’d watched the progressive disintegration of religious life in the country and felt this was their last chance to do something about it. They persuaded friends in the right Vatican departments to set the wheels in motion. The US bishops were not consulted; had they been asked, most would have voted “no.” Even those who shared many of the same concerns about the drift in women’s orders, perhaps especially the LCWR, would have argued there were better ways of addressing them”.

The second point was that the election of Francis strengethen moderates, and that the LCWR worked with the system to “try to reach a compromise, made concrete in the choice of Holland as their leader during the peak period of the review. If somebody were to put together a short list of the most respected women in Catholicism by all ideological camps, Holland probably would be on it. She’s an old Rome hand and is still admired there, but she’s also cherished by the nuns, including more liberal elements who otherwise might be suspicious of someone with her Vatican pedigree”.

He ends noting that the “choice of Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle to oversee the LCWR probe for the American bishops was also an option for a happy outcome. In the eyes of some, Sartain profiles as a doctrinal conservative, but he’s got a pastoral streak a mile wide. Those who knew him understood that he would not go into the process looking to exercise the nuclear option. In other words, as much as it would have been fun to have a cataclysmic close to the LCWR story befitting the fireworks it produced, Thursday’s soft landing was, in many ways, written in the stars”.

Armenia remembers its genocide

24/04/2015

Armenians Friday marked the centenary of the massacre of up to 1.5 million of their kin by Ottoman forces as France called on Turkey to recognise the 1915 slaughter as genocide. At an emotional ceremony in the capital Yerevan, the French leader called on Turkey to use “other words,” referring to Ankara’s refusal to recognise as genocide the Ottoman Empire’s massacre of Armenians. “Important words have already been said in Turkey, but others are still expected, so that shared grief can become shared destiny,” Hollande told an audience that included Russian President Vladimir Putin, the leaders of Cyprus and Serbia and delegations from some 60 countries. The Kremlin strongman for his part said Russia was standing shoulder to shoulder with ex-Soviet Armenia. “There is no and cannot be justification for mass murder of people,” Putin said to a standing ovation from the audience at a memorial complex atop a hill in the Armenian capital. Putin appeared to use the ceremony to refer to the Ukraine conflict which pitted Russia against the West, pointing to the rise of “radical nationalists” and Russophobia. Armenia’s Serzh Sarkisian thanked leaders and dignitaries for attending the commemorations”.

Economist 2015:Cuts and savings

24/04/2015

Continuing the coverage of the Economist of the UK general election. It notes the differences of the parties on the economy. It begins “ALL the big political parties agree: Britain badly needs to get its public finances in order. The country probably borrowed about £90 billion, or 5% of GDP, in the 2014-15 fiscal year—more than Italy, France or even Greece. Yet the parties do not agree in the slightest on how much further borrowing ought to fall, or how to bring it down. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010 declaring that deficit reduction was “the most urgent issue facing Britain” and that it should be achieved mostly by cutting spending, not by raising taxes. Barely a month into his new job, the flinty Conservative chancellor, George Osborne, laid out a bold plan to do this. It turned out to be considerably more flexible than he implied”.

It goes on to mention “Osborne set out two targets. First and most important, the structural current deficit—that is, the deficit adjusted to reflect the economic cycle, and excluding investment—would be forecast to be in balance five years in the future. Second, national debt would fall as a percentage of GDP by 2015-16. At the time both targets sounded like a plan to finish the job of deficit reduction in one parliament. A euro crisis and sluggish growth quickly messed it up. The Treasury brought in less tax revenue than it had expected and had to spend more on benefits. As a result, borrowing stayed high”.

The author seems to think that this was all out of Osborne’s control. He could have easily borrowed less or taxed more but instead he was too afraid to do either of these as it would cut against his narrative of “fixing the country”. The result was the worst of both worlds.

The writer does admit that “ever more of the output lost to the recession was written off as gone forever, making more of the deficit look structural. Mr Osborne could have got back on track by cutting spending more deeply or raising taxes. Instead, he quietly allowed the completion date to slip. As long as the job was still forecast to be completed five years in the future, he had not missed his main goal”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Beyond the protective “ring-fence” the coalition erected around the NHS, schools and international aid, departmental budgets have been slashed by 21% on average. Local government is getting by on two-thirds of its pre-austerity budget. Public-sector employment has fallen from 6.3m to 5.4m. Civil servants’ pay was frozen for three years and then rose by only 1%. The government saved about £25 billion from the welfare budget, mainly by limiting annual increases and means-testing child benefit, a previously universal handout. (Other welfare reforms grabbed headlines without saving much money.) But an ageing population and generous increases in the state pension—which accounts for 40% of the welfare budget—have offset these savings. Overall, welfare spending has barely changed since 2010”.
This means that the cuts inflicted were worst on areas like defence, where the UK still insists on thinking of itself as a great power when it is really nothing of the sort. The refusal to cut the international aid budget is laughable but seems to be based wholly on polling data. The refusal of both main parties to cut it and transfer the money to defence or have smaller cuts elsewhere has not been countenanced. At the same time the savage cuts to welfare and the refusal to tax the richest in society has made this “rebalancing” not only immoral but in the long run dangerous. It has transferred vast amounts of wealth to the richest in society in the wrong belief that it will “trickle down” and all of society will therefore somehow benefit.

The piece adds “If the Tories win, Mr Osborne must do it all again. Provided the recovery is sustained, the chancellor wants a £7 billion overall surplus by the end of the parliament in 2020. Current government plans imply a further cut of 16% to departments outside the ring-fence, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank. That will be tough, for three reasons. First, the easiest cuts have been made. It is hard to see local government repeating the big savings made during this parliament, for example: councils will soon run up against their legal obligations to provide services. Reforms to university funding, which provided the bulk of the business department’s savings, were a one-off. Second, holding down public-sector salaries will become harder as private-sector pay rises. Third, the population is older and needier. The NHS says a freeze in its budget will not do—it wants an £8 billion boost”.

He goes on to note that “Labour promises only a surplus on the current budget, excluding investment—which on current plans will be £30 billion in today’s money (or 1.4% of GDP) in 2019-20. The party has not specified when exactly it would achieve this. By contrast, both coalition parties want current balance in 2017-18, which would demand deep cuts for two years. From then on, the Lib Dems would borrow about half the investment budget, putting them, as so often, in a middle ground. The SNP does not want to cut at all, and instead suggests a 0.5% annual boost to departments’ budgets. That would leave a small current budget deficit in 2020”.

The piece concludes “The gap between Labour and the Tories is huge—£30 billion amounts to about a quarter of the entire health budget. The IFS reckons Labour could, as a result, make no cuts and instead raise departmental budgets by 2%. The two parties have not been so far apart on fiscal policy for at least five elections. Labour does not emphasise this difference, for fear of looking spendthrift. But the choice facing voters is stark”.

“Assured Saudi Arabia of its support in enforcing”

24/04/2015

The government said on Thursday it had assured Saudi Arabia of its support in enforcing the United Nations Security Council’s arms embargo on Houthi militia and forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, which could entail a role for the Pakistan Navy. The commitment was conveyed to the Saudi leadership by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif who visited the kingdom on Wednesday as special envoy of the prime minister, along with Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security Sartaj Aziz, Chief of General Staff Lt Gen Ashfaq Nadeem and Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry. Briefing a specially convened meeting at the Prime Minister’s House on the trip, the delegation members said: “They affirmed to the Saudi leadership that the government of Pakistan would fully participate and contribute to the implementation of the UNSC resolution.” A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office did not explain how Pakistan planned to help Saudi Arabia in enforcing the arms embargo. Speaking to Dawn on the background, a key government figure said a separate announcement would be made by the government about committing its naval vessels for the purpose”.

Economist 2015:Economy

24/04/2015

The Economist has published a series of reports on the UK general election which is to take place on 7th May. The piece begins “LISTEN to a Conservative politician for more than one minute and he or she is sure to utter the words “long-term economic plan”. The slogan is projected behind them when they give speeches and plastered across their campaign literature. It has been shoehorned into any number of policy announcements, no matter how uncomfortably. A scheme to give miscreant drivers 10 minutes’ grace before they are slapped with parking tickets, for example, was said to be part of a long-term economic plan. The phrase bores Tories to tears—yet it might win them the election. Just two and a half years elapsed between the run on Northern Rock bank, which marked the start of Britain’s financial crisis, and the formation of the coalition government in May 2010. In the meantime the economy took a huge hit. From the peak in early 2008 to the trough in 2009, GDP per person fell by 6.9%”.

The author notes “The new government promptly dedicated itself to fixing the resulting hole in the public finances (see article). But the big economic problem was weak demand. Fearing for their jobs, consumers were paying down debt rather than splashing out on new cars or televisions. Businesses were not investing. Unemployment rose to 8.5%—lower than in other wealthy countries, but still painfully high. And many of those in work had too little of it: part-time jobs and self-employment had replaced many full-time jobs. Then, just as things began to look up, the euro crisis crushed Britain’s biggest export market. By 2013 the IMF was complaining that Britain remained “a long way from a strong and sustainable recovery”. Moody’s, a credit-rating agency, downgraded the country’s debt from AAA to AA1, citing “continuing weakness” in growth. And the Labour Party, which had lost economic credibility during the financial crisis, began to close the gap with the Conservatives on economic competence”.

Predictably with the Economist everything and everyone is boiled down to numbers. The fact that the author tries to minimise the 8.5% unemployment figure shows where its priorities lie. The closeness of the Tories to the banking sector, having sold Northern Rock cheaply to Richard Branson and let the taxpayer taken the hit does little to help their economic reputation. At the same time the cuts they inflicted have been criticised on both the left and the right. The real point however was that it was the worst of both worlds. They did not commit fully to their (savage) cuts and have firm ideological principles, nor did they admit that their cutting was mitigated by massive borrowing. They had the worst of both worlds and now are only associated with cuts to the great annoyance of a raft of academic economists and many in the public.

The article chimes with the Tories excuse of blaming the euro zone crisis but the fact that they expected the economy to improve in time for the 2015 general election and held off shows that they are little more compentent than Labour. The veneer of competence given to them by being allied to the banking industry, that supports them heavily, shows their competence is really only a vested interest in the City of London at the expense of a more mature, rounded economics.

The author goes on “Then things began to turn round. The economy grew by 1.6% in 2013. The next year, growth accelerated to 2.8%—faster than any other member of the G7 group of rich countries. On the way Britain created a million net new jobs, taking the employment rate to its highest ever level, 73.3%, and unemployment back down to 5.7%. In January Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, praised Britain’s leadership as “eloquent and convincing”. The recovery would appear to set the Conservatives on course to win the election. Voters often tell pollsters that they are most concerned about things like immigration and health care, but their behaviour suggests economics trumps such worries: Labour won big victories in the 2000s despite dire ratings on immigration, for example. And the public is crediting the Tories. David Cameron and George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, have a 15- to 20-point lead on economic competence over Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader, and Ed Balls, his economics spokesman. But it is not as simple as that, because Britain’s recovery has been so joyless”.

Pointedly the author writes that “Real wages had already been falling for two years when Mr Osborne entered the Treasury. For most of the 2010-15 parliament they continued to decline. This was all the more painful because Britons had become accustomed to steady rises in living standards. From the turn of the millennium to the eve of the crash, real earnings had grown by an average of 2.6% per year. Since then they have fallen by an average of 1.2% a year, putting Britons through the longest period of real wage falls since records began in 1855, according to the Bank of England’s data”.

He notes “Much of this was caused by imported inflation. The tumble of the pound after the crisis made imports more costly, before energy and food prices soared in 2011-12. In the government’s first two years, inflation was more than a percentage point above its 2% target for 22 of 24 months. Little could be done about this: tighter monetary or fiscal policy would have strangled a weak economy and further pummeled wages”.

The piece does make the fair point that “Labour and the Conservatives go into this election talking across each other. The Conservatives argue that the economy is recovering. Labour says that households are struggling. Both are right. Yet this is something of a puzzle when one considers what has driven Britain’s growth over the past few years. A few years ago it was an article of faith among all the major parties that the economy would have to be sustained by something less gluttonous than consumer spending. There was talk of Britain paying its way in the world through stronger exports, and of a manufacturing revival. That has not happened. Instead, the recovery has been domestic. Since 2013 consumer spending has grown at a healthy annualised rate of 2%. Buoyed by the return of consumer confidence, firms have boosted investment in tandem”.

He does thankfully admit that “Another, classically British, stimulus kicked in at about the same time. House prices went up by 5.5% in 2013 and by another 9.8% in 2014. In crowded London they have risen by 27% in the last two years. This made household finances healthier and may have given consumers the confidence to open their wallets. The sober-headed will not celebrate that trend. Young people—nicknamed “generation rent”—find it ever harder to buy a home. To address this, in 2013 the coalition launched a scheme—named “help to buy”—to top up some mortgages with government loans and guarantee others. That, of course, probably pushed prices even higher. In his final budget, Mr Osborne announced subsidies for those saving for a first home. That would be likely to create still more demand. The fundamental problem is too few houses: in the decade to 2014 only 176,000 were built per year on average, when perhaps 240,000 were needed. Antiquated planning regulations constrain supply, especially in the prosperous south-east. Britons are ever more desperate to get on the housing ladder before it is pulled up out of reach. As a result, the Bank of England worries about a debt-fuelled bubble and in 2014 intervened in the mortgage market to curb excessive lending”.

In a damning indictment of the Tories he writes “Britain has returned to its old ways: growth has been led by consumers and fuelled by house-price increases. Net trade has in fact made a slightly negative contribution since 2009, as British firms have struggled to export to a Eurozone that is only starting to recover. British consumers, meanwhile, continue to import aplenty. This, together with a drying up of income on Britain’s overseas investments, has pushed the current-account deficit to fully 5.5% of GDP”.

He ends “A consumer-driven recovery is not necessarily a concern. There is nothing inherently good about exports or inherently bad about consumption. But in the long run, more household spending must be funded by wage rises, not declining saving or a boom in house prices. The next government’s main challenge will to boost productivity rather than demand. That will require careful thought, targeted investment, and an acknowledgment that cutting the budget deficit is not the be-all and end-all of economic policy”.

The myth of nuclear weapons?

24/04/2015

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told military commanders on Sunday the US had created the “myth” of nuclear weapons to portray Iran as a threat, hardening his rhetoric before nuclear negotiations resume this week. Khamenei, the highest authority in Iran, has supported the talks but continues to express deep mistrust of the US. “They created the myth of nuclear weapons so they could say the Islamic Republic is a source of threat. No, the source of threat is America itself, with its unrestrained, destabilising interventions,” Khamenei said in a televised address to a hall of several hundred military commanders. “The other side is methodically and shamelessly threatening us militarily … Even if they did not make these overt threats, we would have to be prepared,” he said. Iran and six world powers, including the US, reached a framework accord on Iran’s disputed nuclear programme this month and will resume negotiations in Vienna this week, aiming to reach a final deal by the end of June”.

“One of the finest days of Barack Obama’s presidency”

24/04/2015

A piece discusses the success of the outlines of an Iran deal. It begins “April 2, 2015, may well be remembered as one of the finest days of Barack Obama’s presidency. Of course, Obama hasn’t had many fine days. Virtually all of his successes in foreign policy have been subtractive ones, achieved by unwinding onerous commitments made by his predecessor”.

This comment immediately diminishes the role of President Bush during his eight years in office. The implementation of the Iraq strategy was a disaster and mistakes should be learned but at the same time the administration had successes such as improved relations with India and the pivot that began under his watch in 2007.

Yet, the writer goes on to note fairly that “the nuclear framework deal signed with Tehran stands out: Obama has achieved something affirmative, fundamental, long-sought. He has demonstrated the value of old-fashioned diplomacy — a discipline he has rarely seemed to believe in, or practice, as ardently as his Secretary of State, John Kerry. Of course, no one will long remember April 2 should the deal unravel. Right now it’s only an “understanding,” not a final pact. What’s more, Iran’s hard-liners could sabotage the agreement by violating its terms, for example through clandestine research on enrichment or weaponization. (If Ayatollah Khamenei unambiguously endorses the deal, the likelihood of such trickery diminishes drastically.) It is no less unlikely that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has insisted that the deal would “threaten the survival of Israel,” could scuttle it by assassinating a nuclear scientist or two. And then, of course, Republicans in Congress might refuse to lift sanctions, thus persuading Iran to halt its cooperation”.

He goes on to note “But all that buzzkill lies in the future. Let us, for the moment, accentuate the positive. According to the fact sheet issued by the State Department, Iran will decommission all but 5,060 of its 19,000 centrifuges; turn the underground facility at Fordow into a nuclear-free research center; redesign the heavy-water facility at Arak so that it cannot produce plutonium; idle its more advanced centrifuges; accede to the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, granting far more intrusive access to international inspectors; and largely eliminate almost all of its existing stock of enriched uranium. This is far more than most observers expected”.

Interestingly the author adds that “It is absolutely true, as a Washington Post editorial alleges, that Obama had demanded a tougher deal three years ago. However, it is also true that Obama couldn’t have gotten that deal then — or now. People who say he should have held out for more concessions –including Netanyahu — are really saying that he should only have accepted the kind of deal to which Iran would never have agreed. For example, the Emergency Committee for Israel — i.e., William Kristol and the crowd at the Weekly Standardcomplain that the framework agreement gives Iran’s nuclear program “international legitimacy” by virtue of not destroying it altogether. That’s true, too. That was the price to be paid to get a deal at all”.

He fairly notes that “it is also true that while the deal will end the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran for a decade and, one hopes, for much longer than that, it will not bring peace to the Middle East. Iran will remain a state sponsor of terrorism, an indispensable backer of Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, an open wallet for Shiite militants in Lebanon and Iraq. Iran’s adventurism will continue to provoke Saudi Arabia into turning the region into a cockpit of sectarian struggle. And yet the best hope for a less militant Iran lies in a less isolated Iran, an Iran that increasingly answers to the aspirations of its growing middle class, not its zealots. The nuclear agreement will allow those aspirations to flourish — as the early news from Tehran, where citizens have already begun fantasizing about direct flights to New York, plainly shows”.

He continues “The administration might have hoped but could not have known that the economic damage wrought by the sanctions would so alter Iran’s politics that Ahmadinejad’s chosen successor would lose to the reformist Hassan Rouhani. But that is what happened — a rare example of American policy altering the domestic affairs of a rival (for the better, that is). In 2010 the United States had no one to negotiate with; in 2013, it did. The last two years of discussions have been a slow, at times agonizing, unfolding of the dynamic produced by that moment”.

The writer makes the valid point “It is striking that Obama’s greatest foreign-policy achievement should involve such classic statecraft. The Obama of 2009, as I argued in a recent analysis of his speeches, saw himself as a transformative figure who would work across the grain of traditional diplomacy, appealing directly to people around the world to demand that leaders address such global problems as nonproliferation and climate change. That effort largely failed. And the element of Obama’s Iran policy that involved forging a bond with the Iranian people failed as well”.

As has been stated here before, either Obama genuinely thought he could transform the international system and therefore human nature in which case he was astoundingly arrogant and naïve at the same time, a dangerous combination. Or, he knew exactly what his own limitations were and thought that he could and should ride the wave of hope and optimimism for as long as possible so he could keep domestic support.

Correctly the writer argues “There is a lesson here that liberal idealists, especially, need to learn: Appeals to human reason, to hopes for the future, to the wish for peace rather than war, cannot magically leap over the obstacles of national interests. Statecraft, tedious and compromising, cannot be wished away. The next president, whoever he or she is, will confront an unforgiving world which will not yield to oratory, whether in Obama’s or George Bush’s vein. It is best to recognise that now. Obama has, I think, reluctantly learned that lesson. He does not have the temperament for diplomacy. The president does not seem to like his fellow heads of state, and would rather deliver his happy new year’s wishes from a distance. In this respect he is fortunate in having as a secretary of state a man who is practically addicted to diplomacy, and is prepared to spend whatever it time it takes to wear down his adversary (or friend)”.

The piece ends “Until now, I would not have said that Obama and John Kerry make a good team. Obama seemed to have given Kerry permission to embark on one failed diplomatic campaign after another. With each doomed effort, Kerry has opened himself up to more ridicule. Suddenly, however, the Withholder and the Embracer have proved to be an effective pair, the one patient and the other persistent. Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize when he didn’t deserve it. Now, perhaps, it will go to Kerry. God knows he’s worked hard for it”.

Rubio’s confused position

22/04/2015

Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is opposed to same-sex marriage, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t attend a gay wedding. “If it’s somebody in my life that I care for, of course I would,” Rubio said in an interview with Fusion on Wednesday. “Ultimately, if someone that you care for and is part of your family has decided to move in one direction or another or feels that way because of who they love, you respect that because you love them,” he said.  Rubio, who announced Monday he will run for the White House in 2016, is Catholic. He told MSNBC on Tuesday he believes “the decision on how we define marriage has always belonged to the states.”

SNP, holding the UK to ransom

22/04/2015

A report from the Daily Telegraph argues that the SNP are prepared to sacrifice the Armed Forces unless their demand for the abolition of Trident is met.

It begins “The SNP is prepared to paralyse Britain’s armed forces and shut down government departments if Ed Miliband is Prime Minister, the party’s deputy leader has suggested as Labour admitted for the first time that it is willing to do a deal with the nationalists. Stewart Hosie said the SNP will to block defence spending if Mr Miliband refuses to scrap Trident, raising concerns his party will force a US-style government shutdown. Senior Conservatives warned that the move would see troops go unpaid, equipment supplies like tanks and body armour delayed and major projects postponed”.

It adds “While the Conservatives have repeatedly warned of the chaos the SNP would bring to the UK, Mr Hosie’s remarks represent the first time his party has suggested it will try to use its clout in Westminster to put its own priorities ahead of the rest of Britain. Labour accused the SNP of “posturing” and said it did not take the threat seriously. It came as Angela Eagle, the shadow leader of the Commons, confirmed for the first time that Labour is prepared to speak to the SNP after the election to “try and build a majority” and get Mr Miliband into power”.

The report notes that “Later this week he will appear alongside Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, to warn of the risks posed by the SNP. Sir John Major, the former Prime Minister, will make a separate speech about the threat posed by the SNP on Tuesday”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, will put Mr Miliband and Labour at the heart of her party’s manifesto with a series of policies intended for the whole of the UK instead of just Scotland. She said on Sunday that her party will be in a “very, very strong position” if Mr Miliband is in power as she refused to rule out pushing for another referendum on Scottish independence.  Mr Hosie told the BBC’s Daily Politics that if a minority Labour government fails to reach an agreement with the SNP then it will vote against “any bit of spending” that it doesn’t agree with, such as the Trident nuclear deterrent. He said that the SNP could vote against parliamentary estimates, which legalise government spending commitments, in the Commons”.

It adds “Estimates are normally waved through, but The Telegraph understands senior SNP figures have been in contact with Commons clerks about putting them to a vote. Mr Hosie said: “If we didn’t agree with a bit of spending then of course we could vote against that. I certainly wouldn’t be happy if Trident was renewed.” Senior Conservatives compared the threat to government shutdowns in the US,when Congress fails to agree the Budget. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers are barred from working during the shutdown. Grant Shapps, the Conservative party chairman, said: “The SNP are threatening to hold Britain to ransom to guarantee an Ed Miliband government gives them what they want – weaker defences, more borrowing, more debt and more taxes.” In his article, Mr Johnson warns that the SNP are “lefties on steroids” and will form a “calamitous” partnership with Mr Miliband if Labour is in a minority government after the General Election”.

It concludes “Mr Cameron warned that any deal would risk leaving road bypasses unbuilt and hospitals underfunded. Speaking on the Andrew Marr show on BBC One, Mr Cameron said:”This would be the first time in our history that a group of nationalists from one part of our country would be involved in altering the direction of the government of our country and I think that is a frightening prospect. “Frankly, this is a group of people that wouldn’t care about what happened in the rest of the country. The SNP is a party that doesn’t want to come to Westminster to contribute to a government, it wants to come to Westminster to break up our country.””

“Giving Congress the right to reject an accord”

22/04/2015

Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday he is confident that the U.S. administration can conclude a nuclear deal with Iran after President Barack Obama agreed to sign legislation giving Congress the right to reject an accord. Kerry joined his counterparts from the Group of Seven industrial powers at a meeting in northern Germany on the gathering’s second day, flying in overnight after discussing Iran with lawmakers in Washington. “Yesterday there was a compromise reached in Washington regarding congressional input,” Kerry told reporters in the Baltic Sea port of Luebeck. “We are confident about our ability for the president to negotiate an agreement, and to do so with the ability to make the world safer.” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who hosted the G-7 meeting, welcomed the deal between the U.S. administration and Congress. “This is good because it preserves our chances of preparing a final agreement based on the framework agreement forged in Lausanne,” Switzerland, he said after the meeting. Steinmeier said diplomats would resume their talks next week so that foreign ministers can finalize the agreement with Iran again ahead of the June 30 deadline”.

“Readjustment in U.S. regional strategy are overblown”

22/04/2015

An interesting piece in Foreign Affairs discusses the recent outline of a deal with Iran and argues that the region has not been fundamentally re-altered.

It opens “In interviews following the announcement of the framework agreement in Geneva, U.S. President Barack Obama suggested that a final nuclear deal could be the start of a new relationship between the United States and Iran. Iran’s regional neighbours are worried about a deal for exactly these reasons—that a deal could tilt the regional balance of power in Iran’s favour”.

He makes the valid point that “fears that a deal will lead to a major readjustment in U.S. regional strategy are overblown. Even if the administration is interested in reorienting its regional policies, there are a number of obstacles that will stand in the way. In other words, as significant as a final nuclear agreement would be, it may not prove transformative—at least not without considerable effort”.

Indeed, world order, or reorder, does not occur overnight but takes decades. It took 50 years for the United States to accept its expanded role in the world and the UK a hundred years, at least, to accept its diminished role. Thus, to proclaim that the potential Iran deal would re-write international order seems bizarre and ahistorical.

He argues convincingly that “To begin with, the United States will likely pursue post-deal policies that contradict broader engagement with Iran. It is nearly a given that the United States will want to give a number of “assurances”—increased security assistance and cooperation (especially on missile defense)—to close partners. Reports suggest that Israel may be expecting U.S. pledges to protect Israel’s own nuclear deterrence capabilities. This will be tricky, since the Saudis will likely press the United States to do the opposite: build a nuclear-free Middle East by insisting that Israel get rid of its own capabilities. The United States won’t be able to do both. Meanwhile, stepped up U.S. security cooperation with its Arab allies in the region could lead Iran to feel encircled, which could embolden the hardliners who argue against expanding cooperation with Washington”.

He goes on to note “Iran’s own behaviour in the aftermath of a final deal could also get in the way of better relations with the West. Although Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has signaled his desire for improved ties, conservative forces in Iran likely still want to use Shia militia and parties in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen to advance Tehran’s interests. Although Iranian power and influence in the region are often exaggerated, Iran’s neighbours believe that the country has been making good use of the regional turmoil caused by the Arab Spring and, more recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to expand its reach. If Iran is eventually given credit for pushing ISIS back in Iraq, perceptions in the region that Iranian power is increasing as U.S. influence is decreasing will only strengthen. In those circumstances, it will be difficult for the United States to pursue new strategies that incorporate Iran into its regional planning”.

He makes the point that “the United States’ regional partners are not likely to sit quietly on the sidelines. Key players such as Israel and Saudi Arabia will likely adapt to a nuclear deal once it’s final, but a deal will certainly increase their desire to push back Iranian influence on non-nuclear fronts. For Israel, the warfighting capabilities Hezbollah has gained from its intervention in Syria will be of greatest concern. For the time being, neither Israel nor Hezbollah is interested in a war, but miscalculations could lead to a future conflict, especially if Hezbollah finds value in focusing its attention on Israel as a distraction from its losses in Syria. A new confrontation with thousands of Iranian-supplied missiles raining down on Israel would certainly get in the way of détente between the United States and Iran. And as in Yemen today, the Saudis may be more inclined to counter aggressively what they perceive as Iranian-backed groups in region, which will lead the United States to support their efforts (as it has recently announced it will do in Yemen) rather than work to de-escalate tension”.

Crucially he argues “All of this suggests more continuity than change in U.S. strategy in the Middle East. It will be difficult for the United States to break out of its current hedging policies given its longstanding mistrust of Iran and a military posture largely designed to counter Iranian influence. Despite such constraints, however, it would be wise to capitalise on the potential openings created by a deal and test whether new opportunities for engagement might be possible”.

He concludes “After the deal, the United States should also launch new regional initiatives, including a broader regional security summit that includes Iran, because, whether Washington likes it or not, Tehran plays a role in nearly every regional security challenge today. Increased Iranian engagement with the Gulf Cooperation Council will be particularly important. Continued sectarian divides are a losing proposition for people in the region and for U.S. regional interests. The United States should not engage in policies that fuel sectarianism and risk entanglement in regional rivalries”.

Turkey, joining Saudi Arabia?

22/04/2015

Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two nations with a long history of rivalry, are in high-level talks with the goal of forming a military alliance to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to sources familiar with the discussions. The talks are being brokered by Qatar. As the partnership is currently envisioned, Turkey would provide ground troops, supported by Saudi Arabian airstrikes, to assist moderate Syrian opposition fighters against Assad’s regime, according to one of the sources. President Barack Obama was made aware of the talks in February by the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al Thani, during the emir’s visit to the White House, one source said. A White House spokesperson declined to comment. The administration has generally encouraged Persian Gulf countries to step up and do more on their own to promote regional security, particularly in Syria, but such talk has largely remained just talk. It’s unclear whether this case will be different, but Saudi Arabia’s recent intervention in Yemen indicates the nation is becoming bolder with its own forces, rather than relying on proxies”.

An overstretched Iran?

22/04/2015

An interesting piece has argued that Iran is overstretched in the Middle East.

It begins “For the majority of Arabs, Syria symbolizes all that is wrong with Iranian influence in the Middle East. Since 2011, Tehran and its regional proxies have poured men, money, and weapons into Syria to prevent President Bashar al-Assad’s military defeat. In June 2013, Hezbollah’s intervention in the western city of Qusayr single-handedly turned the tide of the war in Assad’s favour. Iran’s stakes in Syria are high. Three overriding priorities drive its policy: to defend Hezbollah’s weapons transit route through Syria, and in the long term to ensure that the country will never become a platform to attack the Lebanese Shiite movement; to fight against a Saudi-led regional axis whose objective is to contain Iran’s rising geopolitical power; and to support a long-standing ally — some officials in Tehran speak of paying back an old debt owed to former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad for supporting Iran in its eight-year war with Iraq. In the event that Assad loses power, Iran fears that an implosion of the Syrian regime may enable the ascendance of an alliance of Sunni extremist groups that are anti-Shiite, anti-Iran, and anti-Hezbollah”.

He argues that “all is not going well for Iran in Syria. Tehran faces a classic case of mission creep: It is being forced to commit ever-greater military and financial resources in Syria, falling deeper into the Syrian quagmire with no clear exit strategy. After four years of war, Assad’s forces are overstretched, the regime’s Alawite base is demoralised, and the Syrian economy is in a free-fall. For Tehran, this means sustained military support by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah, and Iraqi militias, and extending more credit lines to Damascus. Meanwhile, Iran’s military effort to prop up Assad may only become more difficult in the days ahead. Its regional competitors — led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey — have reached a new understanding to regulate their cooperation in Syria and Yemen. Recent rebel gains in Syria are the first products of this new collaboration. The Saudi-led military operation in Yemen, even if mildly successful in the short term, might pave the way for a similar operation targeting Assad. This is why Iran will not let the campaign in Yemen go unpunished; Tehran wants to see the country become a festering wound that slowly bleeds out Saudi Arabia and its regional allies”.

He notes that “The information about the financial costs of the Syria war is not accessible to the Iranian public. There is also no evidence of an internal Iranian debate about the endgame in Syria: The moderate camp led by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has not staked a position different from the hard-liners, instead preferring to use their political capital toward reaching a nuclear deal with the world powers”.

Yet, to say that Iran is overstretched but then say that there is little public information about the conflict small numbers of deaths is a mismatch. Iran can, more or less, continue on this path, but only if it does not get any worse. If information seeps out or what is required is much more then Iran could well be overstretched.

He mentions that “At an off-the-record gathering with Iranian officials in Tehran last October, the line I heard about Syria from representatives of the “moderate” camp was neither moderate nor accommodating. It was the same line endorsed by Iranian hard-liners: The Syrian uprising was hijacked by jihadi radicals from the beginning, Assad has won an electoral mandate and is not going anywhere, and the priority in Syria should be fighting terrorism and not forcing Assad from power. This tired argument is destroying Iran’s reputation in the Arab world”.

Pointedly he writes that “Iran has a choice to make in Syria. It can continue to prop up Assad, thus prolonging the conflict, or take the lead in laying the groundwork for a serious negotiation process that leads to a new leadership. A prerequisite for such a solution will be for Iran to show a readiness to abandon Assad and for the pro-rebel regional coalition to recognize Iranian interests in the Levant”.

He notes that “The United States and Iran both have an interest in bringing the Syrian conflict to an end. Only a negotiated solution will preserve Syrian territorial integrity and state institutions. Iranian behavior in Syria undermines these interests: With every passing day, state institutions are being hollowed out, and the Islamic State has rendered Syria’s territorial integrity a thing of the past. More importantly, Syrian national identity is weakening: In its place, exclusive, divisive, sectarian, and ethnic sub-identities are taking hold. Whether Syria can be put back together is no longer a theoretical question”.

He ends “Syria is a test case for Iran to showcase what kind of neighbor it wants to be going forward. Tehran has a choice: It can be an agent for regional stability and cooperation, or a spoiler that is intent on propping up its proxies no matter the price to the people of the region”.

 

“Riyadh’s demands from Islamabad remain unchanged”

21/04/2015

Notwithstanding a Pakistani parliament’s nay for joining the Saudi-led nine-nation military coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen, Riyadh’s demands from Islamabad remain unchanged. The kingdom wants to see Pakistan stand with the coalition Riyadh has coalesced to quell the Houthi insurrection, Special Adviser to the Saudi Ministry for Religious Affairs Dr Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Amar said in an exclusive chat with The Express Tribune. Asked about Pakistani parliament’s decision to stay away from the conflict in the Arabian Peninsula, he said: “I don’t want to comment on the internal affairs of Pakistan, but the kingdom’s expectations from Pakistan are very justifiable and rational when we say join us to fight against a cruel minority [Houthis] to save an oppressed majority in Yemen.””

ISIS loses territory

20/04/2015

Islamic State (IS) has lost more than a quarter of its territory in Iraq since the US-led coalition air campaign began in August, a Pentagon spokesman says. Col Steve Warren said it was too early to say the tide was turning, but that air strikes and Iraqi ground forces had “unquestionably inflicted some damage”. IS took over swathes of Iraq and Syria last June. The announcement came ahead of talks between Iraq’s prime minister and US President Barack Obama in Washington. Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi wants the coalition to step up its air campaign against IS”.

An excuse for independence?

20/04/2015

An opinion piece from the Daily Telegraph argues correctly that the SNP will go to any lengths to breakup the United Kingdom. It opens “‘The SNP is a social democratic political party committed to Scottish independence.’ That is how the SNP defines itself, and that commitment must never be forgotten when assessing the party and its consequences. Independence is the objective; everything else is just a way to bring it about. So while any other party might regard the sort of general election results the SNP is heading for as a triumph in its own right, for the Nationalists overwhelming victory will be just another step in a longer journey”.

The only question is how would the SNP do such a thing so close after its defeat in the independence referendum. All parties after the failed independence vote said they would deliver more powers to Scotland. If the SNP would be satisfied with this then a compromise could be reached. However it would be unusual for the SNP to do this and end its raison d’etre. If however they push too hard they could get an independent country but at the same time they could fundamentally divided Scottish society for generations to come.

He author writes “How would the SNP use its 40 or even 50 MPs to advance the cause of independence? The answer depends a little on who is prime minister, but perhaps less than many would expect. Yes, another David Cameron premiership would allow the SNP to trade off Scottish unhappiness at being ruled by an English-led Tory party that is still hated by some Scots. But the Labour Party is these days not much more popular with Scots, and its leader Ed Miliband actually polls worse than Mr Cameron. A UK government of either sort can equally easily be portrayed as “the Westminster establishment” indifferent to Scots’ interests”.

The author adds “the SNP accepted some years ago that grievance alone will never lead Scots to independence. Instead of fixating on constitutional principles, its focus is on bread-and-butter politics, trying to prove to Scots that the more they are left to their own devices, the better everyday life is. Since 2011 the party has run Scotland’s devolved government, and winning more money and power for that administration is central to SNP strategy”.

He posits the theory that “The thinking is that the more power the Scotland (and thus the SNP) gets, the more different the country grows from the rest of the UK, the better things get for Scots. So why not take the next step to full independence? So instead of trying to wreck a London government’s agenda for ideological reasons, the SNP leadership (though maybe not some wild-eyed new MPs) would be likely to take a more hard-headed approach: yes, they’d withhold support on key votes if they didn’t get what they wanted. But they’d always have a price, if ministers in London were willing to meet it. Wrecking Westminster for its own sake – even bringing down a UK government — would win fewer votes for the SNP at future elections than forcing Westminster to give Scotland more money and power”.

It ends “And future elections matter very much to the SNP. Winning the Scottish Parliament elections next year matters at least as much as next month’s likely triumph. If the Scots chose a party committed to independence at both UK and Scottish elections, the nationalists would be in a strong position to claim a new mandate for independence – and perhaps even hold a second referendum whether politicians at Westminster agreed to it or not. After all, that was the threat that led to last year’s vote”.

Abadi visits Washington

20/04/2015

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq is using his first official visit to Washington this week to pursue billions of dollars in loans and international assistance as his government struggles with plunging oil prices and a yawning budget deficit. Mr. Abadi, who arrived here on Monday night, has a full agenda, including a meeting on Tuesday with President Obama. But a major priority is laying the groundwork for financial support to help the Iraqi government as it struggles to take back territory from the Islamic State. The prime minister plans to meet on Thursday with Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and with Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank. He also plans to meet with senior executives from oil companies and international banks, including Citibank and Deutsche Bank.

Too much sanctions relief?

20/04/2015

An article argues that Iran stands to benefit to the tune of $300 billion dollars after the sanctions have been lifted. However, this is want should be expected for a country that complies to the agreement of the deal.

The writer begins “It is one thing to relieve sanctions on Iran in exchange for the country giving up its nuclear weapons program. That was the purpose of imposing the sanctions in the first place. But Barack Obama’s administration and the other parties to the interim nuclear deal with Iran now seem to be saying they are willing to release to Iran between a third and a half a trillion dollars over the next 15 years in order for Iran not to give up the program, but to freeze it. In other words, we are not restoring Iran’s assets and income sources in exchange for permanently and irreversibly accepting international standards; we are just renting the country’s restraint, offering it access to hundreds of billions of dollars to make any future nuclear program development the problem of the next U.S. president — or the one after that”.

The writer belatedly notes that “How much Iran actually will make off sanctions relief is unclear. But based on the calculation that its overseas assets (which will likely be unfrozen) will total north of $120 billion, and the equally reasonable estimate that Iran may gain in excess of $20 billion a year in oil revenues, you end up with a 15-year deal that would result in a relative gain of $420 billion”.

The fact that it is not clear shows the danger of sensationalist media headlines. Of course Iran would benefit from the lifting of sanctions, there would be little other reason to enter talks otherwise. What should also be borne in mind is the state of the Iranian economy, mired in inflation and lacking in many of the advances taken for granted in the West. Thus, the figure of Iranian gains from sanctions relief was always likely to be vast.

The writer adds “To put this in perspective, Iran’s GDP in 2013 was roughly $370 billion. Or, to put it another way — relevant in the context of the kind of influence the cash might buy Iran in the region — its Syrian client state had a GDP of about $65 billion in 2011 before the crisis there heated up and devastated the country. Its would-be client Yemen has a GDP of about $36 billion. So the amounts in question would give Iran the means to not only shore up its own weak economy, but also to extend its influence, buy weapons, and underwrite terrorist groups to an even greater extent than it has been doing throughout the period the country has felt the squeeze of sanctions. (Iran is estimated to have given tens of billions of dollars to Syria during the period in question”.

Crucially he concedes that “Few would debate that Iran would be entitled to the restoration of funds and normal economic status should it end its nuclear program. Were Iran to do that, then clearly the sanctions program would be seen as a success. But the question the world is now confronted with is: Should Iran then also be entitled to economic normalization and the boon it would entail simply by putting its program on hold for a specified period of time? Such a deal — in that light — sets a new standard. The underlying message effectively says that the United States and other major powers will only impose sanctions on countries that get very, very close to having nuclear weapons — say less than a year away. But so long as those countries’ nuclear weapons programs remain in the state at which we are willing to freeze Iran’s, then those countries are still free to go about their business and run their economies in ways that enable them to better fund those programs in the future”.

He writes that “focusing on the Iran nuclear deal without simultaneously addressing Iran’s regional threat is a serious error. The White House’s recent reversal with regard to Egypt, resuming the sales of weapons to that country, is a positive step to address this. So too is the call to convene the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries next month to discuss America’s mutual interests with those states. Early behind-the-scenes talks preparing for the meeting to be held at Camp David in a few weeks suggest that an effort is afoot to formulate some kind of defense pact that might counteract Iran’s thrusts into the region and provide security in the wake of some change of course, should Iran choose to break out of the nuclear pact. But there are differences of opinion within the GCC about what individual countries may seek from these talks, and there will no doubt be reluctance within the White House to take any step that either obligates the United States to action in any but the most extreme circumstances or might be taken by the Iranians as such a great threat that it upsets the apple cart of rapprochement the president has been pushing”.

He makes the valid point that “The recent effort of the Obama administration to portray the Iran negotiations as part of a successful, systematic effort to strengthen America through engagement with once-reviled regimes like those in Myanmar or Cuba only worsens the concerns about how a post-deal Iran may be handled. In the case of Myanmar, the president went there recently and sought to put a good face on the changes there even though the government (and our onetime heroine Aung San Suu Kyi) are taking deeply troubling positions regarding the slaughter of the Rohingya people of northern Myanmar. In Cuba, we are moving forward with normalisation of relations without any real signs that the Cuban government is changing its policies regarding repression at home”.

He does make the valid point that “Relieving Iranian sanctions is an appropriate response for effectively ending the Iranian nuclear threat. Fully lifting sanctions is certainly not the right response for simply putting a program on hold. Not only does it send the wrong message to Iran and other countries considering the development of such programs, but it also enhances Iran’s influence and, by restoring economic and political ties worldwide, will almost certainly make it harder to restore sanctions should that be necessary in the future. (As I noted in my last column, we should drop the use of the term “snap-back.” It is a fiction.) Further, the goal of the negotiations was originally to eliminate the threat of regional proliferation. Certainly sanctions relief would be warranted if the end result of the negotiations did that”.

He ends “the months between now and when a final deal is reached will be vital in determining whether the proposed deal really makes the region safer or whether it will be seen in the future as a successful $300 billion shakedown by Iran that enabled it to expand its influence and bring further insecurity to a region that is already arguably the most dangerous in the world”.

“No sign of a breakthrough on aspects of its nuclear programme”

20/04/2015

The U.N. nuclear watchdog said it had a “constructive exchange” with Iran this week but there was no sign of a breakthrough on aspects of its nuclear programme that the agency says Tehran has failed to fully address. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is investigating Iran’s nuclear programme in parallel to talks between Tehran and six world powers that aim to broker a deal by the end of June to scale down the programme in exchange for sanctions relief. In any final deal, the IAEA would play a major role in monitoring Iran’s compliance. The IAEA said in March it expected progress with Iran this month on outstanding issues related to the nature of neutron calculations and alleged experiments on explosives that could be used to develop an atomic device. It said then it expected Iran to propose new measures to address other outstanding issues with the IAEA by mid-April. The IAEA on Thursday issued a short statement saying it had technical talks with Iranian officials in Tehran on Wednesday, making no mention of major developments. “The two sides … had a constructive exchange on the two practical measures under discussion,” it said. “The Agency and Iran will continue this dialogue and agreed to meet again in the near future.” Iran’s envoy to the Vienna-based IAEA did not respond to an email seeking comment”.

“China’s embrace of Pakistan”

18/04/2015

A piece from Foreign Policy notes the relationship between China and Pakistan. It begins “The two prongs of China’s “Go West” strategy, an overland route across Central Asia and a maritime belt across the Indian Ocean, appear to be converging in the deep waters of the port of Gwadar in Pakistan. Just as Washington is straining to flesh out its pivot to Asia, provoked in part by worries over Chinese aggression, Beijing seems to be accelerating both the economic and security aspects of its own lurch west, with potentially big implications for India, South Asia, and the Middle East”.

The author goes on to write “Chinese president Xi Jinping will visit Pakistan next week bearing gifts, some $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investment deals, Reuters and other media reported Thursday. The two countries enjoy close relations, often touted as an “all-weather friendship,” and Beijing and Islamabad have talked up multi-billion dollar projects for years, involving everything from hydroelectric plants to highways. But bilateral ties are intensifying due to Pakistan’s need to short-circuit public unrest at acute energy shortages, and China’s desire to bolster the economic prospects of its own underdeveloped western provinces and find fresh opportunities as its domestic economy slams on the brakes.

The article notes “China’s embrace of Pakistan goes further than investment deals. Media reports suggest that the two countries could finalise a long-discussed, $5 billion sale of Chinese submarines to Pakistan at a time when Islamabad and New Delhi are trying to bulk up their navies to ensure control of the Indian Ocean. Defense analysts suggest that the sub sale could include plans to upgrade Gwadar’s commercial port to serve as a logistics hub for Chinese navy ships in the region, which would go some way to fulfilling Beijing’s plans for a “Maritime Silk Road” that connects China to the Middle East by sea. The maritime route is at the heart of Chinese courtship of Sri Lanka and its own deep-water ports. To be sure, Pakistan and China have been trying to fully develop the container port in Gwadar for more than a decade. After helping build the first phase of the port, China Overseas Port Holding Company took operational control of the port in 2013 for 40 years, but a lot of work remains to be done to turn it into a true shipping hub, including building road and rail links to Islamabad and beyond. Pakistani officials said that the port should formally open later this month”.

The piece goes on to mention that “While China’s deepening relationship with Pakistan, as well as efforts to build a “string of pearls” across the Indian Ocean, make India and even Washington nervous, it could end up being a good thing for the broader region. Just as the launch of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank sparked concern in the United States that Beijing would turn its financial muscle into a stranglehold on the rest of the continent, bilateral investment deals create concern about potential Chinese dominance. But just like the AIIB, China’s double-barreled Silk Road project also promises to bring much-needed investment to a region starving for it. Pakistan’s two existing ports are close to capacity; Sri Lanka’s ports could use an upgrade. All that limits possible economic growth in the region”.

The danger however is that China will want more. It could use its influence to play America off Pakistan. The Chinese and their “no strings” attached deals sound tempting to Islamabad but in the long run they could doom Pakistan to years of economic contraction and decline. Pakistan needs to back the right horse and the only long term bet is the West, and ultimately the United States.

He ends “By bringing much-needed investment, whether it’s for Pakistani power plants or new highways and modern port facilities, China’s deep pockets could actually help stabilise a part of the world where the lack of economic opportunity has contributed to radicalization and violence. Unlike China’s big and destabilizing push in its own backyard, especially the South China Sea, “China’s growing economic and political role [on the Silk Road] doesn’t have self-evidently problematic security ramifications,” said the Marshall Fund’s Small”.

Kerry defends the Iran deal

18/04/2015

Secretary of State John Kerry defended on Sunday his presentation of a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program after a different interpretation was offered by Iran’s supreme leader, and a prominent U.S. senator said Kerry was “delusional.” “I will stand by every fact that I have said,” Kerry told ABC’s “This Week.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had strong words last week about Iran‘s agreement with major world powers, declaring that once a final deal was reached it should result in an immediate end to all sanctions on Iran. “You know, they’re going to put their spin on their point of view and obviously they’ll allege that we’re putting a spin on our point of view,” Kerry said of the Iranian comments. There were also differing U.S. and Iranian interpretations of a previous interim agreement with Iran, but Iran upheld that agreement, Kerry said. Iran and major world powers – the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – reached a framework nuclear agreement on April 2 that would curb Iran’s nuclear program and prevent it from being able to develop a bomb, in exchange for the West lifting economic sanctions. Iran has long maintained its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Kerry noted that President Barack Obama on Saturday delivered a public rebuke to Republican Senator John McCain for having called Kerry “delusional” in an interview in which McCain questioned whether Kerry was being forthcoming about the deal.

From outline to agreement

18/04/2015

Gary Samore discusses  the final issues that will turn the outline of a deal with Iran into a full agreement.

He opens “After the 18-month stretch of tough negotiations following the implementation of the interim agreement (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the nuclear negotiators are enjoying a well-deserved break from the bargaining table. On April 2, the European Union and Iran issued a brief “understanding” on a political framework for a future nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran. More detailed fact sheets unilaterally issued by the United States and Iran bolstered that document. The political framework is an important step toward a comprehensive agreement. For the first time, Iran has tentatively accepted substantial reductions in, and limitations on, its capacity to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons for 10–15 years, along with enhanced monitoring and inspections for up to 25 years. In return for implementing these measures, Iran will receive near-term relief from nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations Security Council”.

Samore writes that “The basic contours of the political framework are solid, but the parties have a lot more work ahead of them if they are to complete a comprehensive agreement by their self-imposed deadline of June 30, 2015. Comparing the U.S. and Iran fact sheets (as translated by the Belfer Center’s Payam Mohseni), here are some of the remaining disputes”.

He makes the point about what is to happen to existing Iranian low enriched uranium, “During the course of earlier negotiations, the United States agreed that Iran could retain 6,000–7,000 IR-1 centrifuges on the understanding that most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium would be shipped abroad for fabrication into fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power reactor, leaving only 300–500 kilograms on Iran’s soil at any time. This formula was necessary to preserve a one-year breakout period—the time required for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one bomb (27 kilograms of 90 percent enriched uranium) at its Natanz enrichment facility. In the final days of negotiations, however, Iran pulled back and declared that it had no plans to export its low-enriched uranium”.

Pointedly Samore writes that “The issue apparently remains unresolved. According to the U.S. fact sheet, Iran will retain 6,104 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz, 5,060 of which will continue enriching. The sheet also notes that “Iran has agreed to reduce its current stockpile of 10,000 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to 300 kg of 3.67 percent LEU for 15 years.” Iran’s fact sheet states that “Iran will be able to use the existing enriched stockpile for producing a nuclear fuel center and/or its export to international market in exchange for uranium.” The United States has suggested that any surplus low-enriched uranium in Iran beyond the permitted 300 kilograms should be “diluted”—that is, mixed with depleted uranium and returned to natural uranium. Iran prefers to “convert” the surplus from UF6 (a gas that can be used for further enrichment) to a solid oxide form to supply its efforts to develop an indigenous fuel fabrication facility. Resolving this issue is important because, in theory, Iran could re-convert any remaining low-enriched uranium oxide to UF6 and use it for enrichment, potentially reducing its breakout time below a year”.

The next question he raises is what will the limits be on Iranian enrichment between the tenth and fifteenth year of the agreement, “According to the U.S. fact sheet, the limits on enrichment to ensure a one-year breakout time will be enforced for ten years. These physical limits include caps on the number of installed and operating IR-1 centrifuges and the stockpile of low-enriched uranium, as well as prohibitions on the construction of additional enrichment facilities, enrichment above 3.67 percent, and enrichment with more advanced centrifuges. After 15 years, all of these physical limits will be removed. Between ten and 15 years, the U.S. fact sheet suggests that some limits will be eased, such as the ban on using advanced centrifuges for enrichment, based on an “enrichment and enrichment R&D plan” specified in the comprehensive agreement. The Iranian fact sheet, however, simply states that “the timeframe of the Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s enrichment program will be 10 years,” suggesting that all limits are removed after that point”.

Crucially he argues that “The final agreement will need to specify constraints on the number and type of centrifuges that can be deployed at Natanz between year ten and year 15, which will determine how much Iran could reduce the breakout timeline below a year after year ten of the agreement”.

The third area relates to the conversion of Fordow, “Both sides have agreed that the Fordow enrichment facility will be converted to a research facility, but several details remain to be determined. According to the U.S. fact sheet, Fordow will not be used for enrichment or enrichment research and development for 15 years. In addition, almost two-thirds of Fordow’s existing 3,000 centrifuges and infrastructure will be removed, with the remaining centrifuges not to be used enriching uranium. According to Iran’s fact sheet, “More than 1,000 centrifuges and all related infrastructure in Fordow will be preserved and maintained, out of which two centrifuge cascades will be in operation.” Two cascades equal slightly more than 300 centrifuges. Presumably, Iran intends to keep the remaining nearly 700 centrifuges at Fordow on standby to resume uranium enrichment if the comprehensive agreement fails. It is not clear that the United States has agreed to this arrangement. Both sides do seem to be in agreement that the operating centrifuges at Fordow will be used to produce stable isotopes for industrial or medical uses”.

The fourth issue deals with implementation of inspections “According to the U.S. fact sheet, Iran has agreed to an impressive set of inspection and monitoring measures beyond the IAEA Additional Protocol, including a “procurement channel” to “monitor and approve” Iran’s acquisition of “certain nuclear-related and dual use materials and technology” and a challenge inspection mechanism to allow the IAEA “to investigate suspicious sites or allegations of a covert enrichment facility, conversion facility, centrifuge production facility or yellow cake production facility anywhere in the country.” The U.S. fact sheet also states that “Iran will implement an agreed set of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the Possible Military Dimensions (PMD) of its program,” referring to past and possibly continuing research on nuclear weapons. The Iranian fact sheet is silent on these additional verification measures, beyond its commitment to implement and eventually ratify the Additional Protocol”.

Samore ends with the issue of sanctions relief, “The U.S. fact sheet states that “the U.S. and E.U. nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps” and that “all past UN Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue will be lifted simultaneously with the completion, by Iran, of nuclear-related actions addressing all key concerns (enrichment, Fordow, Arak, PMD, and transparency).” Iran’s fact sheet is less clear. In one section, it states that “after implementation of the Comprehensive Plan of Joint Action, all of the UN Security Council resolutions will be revoked and all of the multilateral economic and financial sanctions of the EU and the unilateral ones of the US including financial, banking, insurance, investment, and all related services, including oil, gas, petrochemicals, and automobile industries will be immediately revoked.” Elsewhere, the Iranian fact sheet is more specific: “At the same time as the start of Iran’s nuclear-related implementation work, all of the sanctions will be automatically annulled on a single specified day.” Clearly, there is a major issue. The United States wants sanctions relief to be dependent on performance, whereas Iran wants immediate relief. Also worth noting is an underlying dispute on the content of the UN Security Council resolution required to implement the comprehensive agreement”.

He ends “None of these remaining issues are insurmountable. Given the progress to date and the interest of all sides in reaching a final agreement, it seems likely that a comprehensive agreement can be achieved. However, hard bargaining is ahead. To get the best deal, the U.S. negotiators should not be driven by the June 30 deadline to complete an agreement. The status quo under the interim agreement—which has frozen or capped most of Iran’s nuclear program while retaining most of the sanctions—gives the United States a strong bargaining position. Tehran needs a deal more than the Washington does. If a further extension of a few months beyond June 30 is necessary to get the details right and resolve the remaining issues to U.S. satisfaction, the American negotiators should be allowed more time. Accordingly, Congress would be wise to stop threatening precipitous sanctions legislation if an agreement is not reached by June 30. Perversely, such threats strengthen Iran’s hand by putting pressure on the U.S. negotiators to make concessions to avoid congressional action that would blow up the talks. Iran is counting on divisions between the administration and Congress (and between the United States and Israel) to get a better deal. Instead, the United States should present a common front and let time work on its side”.

“Clearly connected to Stéfanini being gay”

18/04/2015

“The Vatican has been dragging its feet on the approval of France’s ambassador to the Holy See, raising suspicions that it has effectively rejected the nomination of Laurent Stéfanini because he is gay. The Vatican declined to comment on speculation about the delay. Stéfanini, a 55-year-old practising Catholic, has been described in the Italian press as an exemplary candidate and a man of “exceptional culture”. He is a senior diplomat and chief of protocol in the French government of François Hollande. His nomination was put forward in January but the Vatican has not responded, usually an indication that the potential ambassador has been rejected. Reports in the French and Italian press suggested the decision was clearly connected to Stéfanini being gay. The controversy could tarnish Pope Francis’s image as being more tolerant than his predecessors over gay rights. When asked by a reporter in 2013 about the existence of a “gay lobby” within the Vatican, he responded: “Who am I to judge?” His words have been interpreted as a sign of some acceptance of gay people in a church that regards homosexual acts as a sin”.

 

AQAP gains in Yemen

18/04/2015

A fair article argues that AQAP will be the biggest winner in the turmoil in Yemen.

It opens “Amid the chaos and suffering of Yemen’s ongoing, and quickly internationalizing, civil war, one clear winner seems to have emerged: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the al Qaeda affiliate with the closest relationship to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The group, which U.S. officials have long labeled the most dangerous offshoot of the core al Qaeda organization, could be set to find an even more comfortable operations base from which to launch terrorist attacks and claim territory. Just this week, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter warned, “AQAP has seized the opportunity of the disorder there and the collapse of the central government.” On the other hand, maybe not. AQAP is in flux. The Yemeni civil war and Saudi Arabia’s intervention in it offer AQAP many opportunities, but they also pose many pitfalls and could dramatically reorient the organization in ways it has long sought to avoid”.

The writer notes that “What separates AQAP from other al Qaeda affiliates is the group’s willingness to strike outside Yemen and the Middle East, even making attempts inside the United States and Europe. Since the group formed in 2009, most of its attacks have focused on the Yemeni government. However, U.S. officials have tied it to sophisticated attempts to bomb American airliners in 2009 and 2010, and the group produces Inspire, a stylish English-language online magazine that regularly features anti-Western content, including calls for lone wolves to attack in the United States and detailed instructions for how to make or acquire the weapons to do so. AQAP also took credit for the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris in January, and the attackers trained with the group in Yemen”.

The author makes the point that after the collapse of the Hadi government to the Houthi’s “counterterrorism efforts against AQAP have eased. U.S. officials rightly fear that the group will enjoy greater freedom of action: Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, warned on Sunday that “the pressure has been taken off AQAP.” The Washington Post reports that as violence escalated, the United States pulled its military and intelligence personnel from the country, and our Yemeni counterterrorism partners are now in disarray. Last Thursday, AQAP conducted a massive prison break (the usual adjective before “prison break” is “daring,” but given the chaos this one seemed pretty easy), freeing many cadres and at least one senior leader. AQAP militants subsequently took control of the port city of Mukalla, where the prison is located. The group now reportedly controls the checkpoints at all five entrances to the city as well as the governor’s palace, the central bank, a military base, and several other key local government facilities. Armed tribesmen are trying to launch a counterattack to retake the city and drive out the jihadis but have so far been unable to get past AQAP’s checkpoints“.

He rightly notes the changed context that AQAP now operate in “it’s not necessarily springtime for the jihadis. The group is now operating amid an all-out civil war. Although we often think of civil wars providing safe havens for terrorists, in reality war zones can be dangerous for terrorists as well as civilians. The warring factions are armed and large, and it will be hard for AQAP to stay neutral, as it must protect its supporters and guard its own areas of operations. Perhaps the biggest challenge for AQAP is the growth of the Islamic State and its potential influence among Yemeni jihadis. How much support the Islamic State enjoys in Yemen is unclear”.

He makes the interesting point that “its embrace of sectarianism seems well-suited for the anti-Houthi struggle in Yemen. Houthis are Shiite Muslims of the Zaydi sect. Although the Zaydis are often seen as doctrinally closer to Sunni Islam than to the Twelver Shiites of Iran, in today’s environment no one seems to care. In March, the Islamic State bombed Zaydi mosques in Yemen, helping transform the civil war into a broader sectarian conflict. This challenge will put pressure on AQAP to join the sectarian fight against the Houthi “apostates” or risk been seen as irrelevant. However, the influence of Zawahiri may constrain AQAP from engaging in Islamic State-style sectarian attacks and extreme violence, as has been the case with al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in the Syrian civil war. Zawahiri has long urged his affiliates to avoid attacks against Shiite Muslims and has opposed the brutal treatment of civilians in areas under jihadi control. Indeed, it was partly his disapproval of such tactics that led him to disavow the Islamic State in February 2014″.

One scenario that could occur is that “AQAP may even end up fighting against the Islamic State and its sympathizers in Yemen. In Syria, the rivalry between al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State exploded into a bloody internecine battle that killed hundreds of fighters on both sides. Historically, such competition between terrorist groups often produces extreme violence, as each group tries to outdo its rivals either in the use of violence or through dramatic attacks that capture public attention. Of course, it’s hard to be more violent than the Islamic State. Indeed, the Charlie Hebdo attacks can be seen in this light, as an attempt by al Qaeda and its supporters to stay relevant in the competition for the soul of jihad that is taking place not only in Yemen but around the world”.

One important factor is what the Saudis will do, “On the one hand, Saudi Arabia opposes al Qaeda in general and AQAP in particular, as the latter has targeted Saudi security forces and, in 2009, even tried to kill Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, who is now in charge of Saudi military operations in Yemen. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has a history of working with Salafi-jihadi groups and may believe they are the lesser of two evils in the war against the Houthis, whom the Saudis believe are puppets of Tehran. Tehran has armed and otherwise assisted the Houthis, but the scale of Iranian involvement remains unclear. For the Saudis, the temptation to aid all the Houthis’ enemies, no matter how nasty, will grow should Saudi military operations stagnate”.

He ends “How AQAP is prioritizing its enemy list is unclear. It has condemned the Islamic State’s mosque bombing, but not the Saudi intervention. Trying to sit out the civil war is likely to prove impossible for AQAP, but entering the fray is both politically and militarily risky. It will certainly seek to exploit the civil war to expand its influence and control on the ground, but AQAP is likely to find that opportunity and danger go hand-in-hand”.

“to push around smaller nations in the South China Sea”

18/04/2015

President Barack Obama said Washington is concerned China is using its “sheer size and muscle” to push around smaller nations in the South China Sea, drawing a swift rebuke from Beijing which accused the United States of being the bully. China’s rapid reclamation around seven reefs in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea has alarmed other claimants, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, and drawn growing criticism from U.S. government officials and the military. While the new islands will not overturn U.S. military superiority in the region, workers are building ports and fuel storage depots and possibly two airstrips that experts have said would allow Beijing to project power deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

What does Hillary believe?

16/04/2015

An article from the Economist tries to pin down Hillary Clinton after the announcement of his presidential campaign. It opens “Clinton has had her eye on the top job for a long time. She nearly won it in 2008 and is in many ways a stronger candidate now. She and her husband have built a vast campaign machine. The moment Mrs Clinton turns the key, it will begin openly to suck up contributions, spit out sound bites and roll over her rivals. Some think her unstoppable”.

The writer goes on “The last time she seemed inevitable, she turned out not to be. The month before the Iowa caucuses in 2008, she was 20 points ahead of other Democrats in national polls, yet she still lost to a young senator from Illinois. She is an unsparkling campaigner, albeit disciplined and diligent. This time, no plausible candidate has yet emerged to compete with her for the Democratic nomination, but there is still time. Primary voters want a choice, not a coronation (see article). And it is hard to say how she would fare against the eventual Republican nominee, not least since nobody has any idea who that will be. The field promises to be varied, ranging from the hyperventilating Ted Cruz to the staid Jeb Bush. Rand Paul, a critic of foreign wars and Barack Obama’s surveillance state, joined the fray on April 7th (see article). Still, Mrs Clinton starts as the favourite, so it is worth asking: what does she stand for?”

The piece notes “Competence and experience, say her supporters. As secretary of state, she flew nearly a million miles and visited 112 countries. If a foreign crisis occurs on her watch, there is a good chance she will already have been there, read the briefing book and had tea with the local power brokers. No other candidate of either party can boast as much. She also understands Washington, DC, as well as anyone. For eight years she was a close adviser to a president (her husband) who balanced the budget and secured bipartisan agreements to reform welfare and open up trade in North America. Afterwards, as a senator, Mrs Clinton made a habit of listening to, and working with, senators on both sides of the aisle, leading some Republicans publicly to regret having disliked her in the past. A President Hillary Clinton could be better at hammering out deals with lawmakers (of both parties) than President Obama has been. She would almost certainly try harder”.

Yet there is no guarantee this would be the case. Clinton could feel no need to talk to the GOP if Democratic majorities are returned in Congress. Alternatively, and this is more likely, the GOP would make life harder for her as president. Congress would bog down and stalemate would ensue. In other words, business as usual.

The writer argues that “her beliefs are strangely hard to pin down. On foreign policy, she says she is neither a realist nor an idealist but an “idealistic realist”. In a recent memoir, she celebrates “the American model of free markets for free people”. Yet to a left-wing crowd, she says: “Don’t let anybody tell you, that, you know, it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.” (An aide later said she meant tax breaks for corporations.) Some candidates’ views can be inferred from the advisers they retain, but Mrs Clinton has hundreds, including luminaries from every Democratic faction. Charles Schumer, her former Senate colleague from New York, called her “the most opaque person you’ll ever meet in your life”. Mrs Clinton’s critics on the right fret that she is a power-hungry statist”.

Yet in truth both of these type are crude. Like many in politics Clinton in pragmatic. Blowing whichever way in popular and changing tack when she faces the wind. Thus it is unlikely that she will do anything too outside the mainstream, especially domestically now that Obamacare has been passed and seems to be accepted by more and more of the general populace.

The author notes “Perhaps she is something in between: a sensible moderate? She fits this bill better than, say, Elizabeth Warren or Martin O’Malley, two possible Democratic rivals who bash trade and banking. But voters need to know more. The last time Mrs Clinton set out a detailed economic plan, during the 2008 campaign, she placed herself a little to the left of her husband in the 1990s (less keen on trade deals, for example) and quite close to where Mr Obama has ended up”.

The piece goes on to mention “The world has since changed, and Democrats are furiously divided over how to ease inequality without constricting growth (see article). The Centre for American Progress, one of the think-tanks Mrs Clinton listens to, recently released a list of policies to promote what it calls “inclusive capitalism”. This contains lots of sensible stuff, such as boosting investment in infrastructure and expanding wage subsidies for hard-up workers; some intriguing ideas, such as encouraging “works councils” to bring labour and management together; and some dubious ones, such as ramping up implied subsidies for mortgages and creating make-work schemes for the young”.

It is interesting to note that Clinton began her campaign, not just in a low key way but set out her stall about America not working for Americans anymore. This seems to imply things like support for raising the minimum wage and other measures that would help restore the common good and redress the dangerous levels of inequality in American society.

The piece rightly notes that “On foreign policy, Mrs Clinton’s pitch is that she would be tougher than Mr Obama. She backed his surge of troops in Afghanistan but regretted the expiry date he put on it. She urged him to arm the non-Islamist rebels in Syria; he dithered. She chides him for failing to find a better organising principle for foreign policy than “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Yet she leaves many details unfilled. For example: does she think she could have struck a better nuclear deal with Iran? Nonetheless, many foreigners would welcome an American commander-in-chief who is genuinely engaged with the world outside America”.

AQAP’s top cleric dead

16/04/2015

Yemen’s al-Qaida branch announced on Tuesday that its top cleric, a Saudi-national who has had a $5 million bounty on his head, has been killed, allegedly in a drone attack. Al-Qaida said in a statement posted on Twitter that Ibrahim al-Rubaish was killed by a drone late on Sunday, along with other, unnamed members of the group. The statement did not specify the location of the drone attack. Yemeni officials had no immediate comment on the claim and the White House declined to comment. Al-Rubaish, believed to be in his late 30s, was released from Guantanamo Bay in 2006, after which he joined al-Qaida in Yemen. He was considered the group’s the main ideologue and theological adviser and his writings and sermons were prominent in its publications. Last year, he hailed the seizure of large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria by al-Qaida’s rival, the Islamic State group. “I ask God that efforts are united to target the enemies of the religion,” he said in a video recording at the time”.

Need to play hardball

16/04/2015

As the euro crisis rolls on a piece discusses the need for Greece to play hardball with Germany.

The author opens “The newly elected Greek government’s demands for debt relief and policy freedom from its eurozone creditors are both just and necessary. But Syriza doesn’t seem to have thought through how to achieve its objectives. Athens has tactics, policies, positions, poses, postures, arguments, claims, hopes, fears, and words aplenty — but seemingly no well-considered plan. With perhaps only weeks until it runs out of cash, Alexis Tsipras’s administration needs to get a grip and focus on how to get what it wants. Athens has scraped together the 460 million euros due to the IMF on April 9. But with other big bond payments due over the next three months, as well as wages, pensions, and other expenses to cover, the prospect of default will soon return. A chorus of commentators argue that Greece has no choice but to comply with its creditors’ demands and count on eurozone authorities’ (supposed) wisdom and goodwill to pull it through. But that isn’t true. Athens can obtain debt relief while remaining in the euro — but only if it plays its cards right”.

He adds “While eurozone authorities’ position is weaker than it seems, they certainly have a coherent strategy. This consists of conceding as little ground as possible, making clear that their commitment to keep Greece in the euro is conditional on it complying with their demands, and curbing Greece’s access to cash — thereby forcing Athens to capitulate. Thus eurozone authorities insist that Greece must pay its debts in full, while hinting that the terms of those debts may be eased a little if Athens implements a list of reforms. Berlin and Brussels have allowed the new government to draft its own list, while insisting that the effects of those reforms must be equivalent to those of the ones imposed on its predecessor. While Athens kicks, screams, and struggles to comply, eurozone authorities tighten the noose. Since the formation of a Syriza-led government in January, the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt has cut off Greek banks’ access to the unlimited cheap liquidity that other eurozone banks enjoy and instead drip-feeds them pricier exceptional liquidity. Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem has suggested that Greece may need to impose capital controls, encouraging withdrawals from Greek banks and hence deepening those banks’ dependence on the ECB. Frankfurt has also refused to allow Greek banks to buy more Greek Treasury bills, limiting the government’s funding options”.

Interestingly he writes that “In 2012, eurozone authorities promised Greece debt relief once it achieved a primary surplus, which it did last year. Now, they are demanding further reforms, too. Greece undeniably needs root-and-branch economic and political reforms, but eurozone authorities’ insistence on instant action now is more about forcing Syriza to break its election promises than rescuing the Greek economy. For the past five years eurozone authorities have allowed previous Greek administrations to neglect reform so long as they implemented austerity measures”.

He suggests that “Greece should ignore the defeatists who wrongly say it must comply with creditors’ demands because Athens has no leverage and the alternative would be worse. Capitulation is not a solution to Greece’s plight: It merely stores up bigger problems for the future, because the economy cannot recover without debt relief and unending suffering is not politically sustainable. Even if the costs of challenging eurozone authorities prove to be large in the short term, they are dwarfed by the enduring misery of debt bondage. Second, Athens should prepare plans for a parallel currency, so that if eurozone authorities cut off its access to cash, it can default while remaining in the euro. It could issue tradable IOUs that could be used to pay past, present, and future taxes, and thus would be valuable for other domestic payments. This isn’t as crazy as it might sound: In 2009 the state of California issued IOUs without quitting the dollar. The knowledge that the Greeks have a backup plan to create a parallel currency would make eurozone authorities think twice before trying to push them over the edge”.

He continues, “Tsipras’s government needs to learn to speak with one voice — and instead of public grandstanding, negotiate calmly and firmly in private. It should stop making wild threats, such as the far-right defense minister’s threat to unleash a wave of illegal immigrants and Islamic State combatants on Europe. Ministers shouldn’t talk at cross purposes. Everyone should remain measured, focused, and private. To be fair, Tsipras seems to have tried that at his meeting with Merkel in Berlin on March 23, from which he emerged empty-handed. But that is because he didn’t have the leverage of a backup plan. Fourth, the Greeks should try to find ways to achieve debt relief without harming European taxpayers too much. One idea would be to suggest that they be compensated by a levy on the French and German banks that were, in effect, bailed out by their loans to Greece”.

Correctly he notes “The costs of a “Grexit” to the rest of the eurozone, though, would be substantial. The immediate ones are financial: default on all of Greece’s obligations to eurozone authorities, as well as the Bank of Greece’s Target2 liabilities. The enduring ones are economic: Confirming that countries can leave the euro would add an uncertainty premium to every struggling southern European country, stifling investment and making the eurozone even more fragile. In a post-QE world, it would make it more likely that the ECB would need to trigger its outright monetary transactions (OMT) program — exposing that ECB chief Mario Draghi’s declaration that he would do “whatever it takes” to hold the euro together isn’t as robust as it seems. Grexit would also cause political contagion. If Greece were soon growing again outside the euro — as even European Commission officials privately suggest it would — other countries could decide to leave, too”.

He ends “Many governments are unhappy with both the substance and the nature of the German-led response to the crisis. France and Italy would have much to gain from a debt conference that crafted a grand bargain for a less disciplinarian and more fiscally flexible and democratic eurozone. Many other governments are unsettled by Germany’s bullying of Greece: They know that what Berlin does to Athens, it could also do to them. (That said, if Tsipras can get a narrow deal, he should go for it.)

Greece’s plight, while terrible, is not tragic in the ancient Athenian sense: Its fate is still in its own hands. With a skillful strategy, it can still all end in smiles, not tears.

America helps Tunisia

16/04/2015

The United States will increase military aid to Tunisia threefold this year and help train its troops, a senior U.S official said on Friday, weeks after the country suffered its deadliest militant attack in more than a decade. The U.S. government aimed to provide Tunisia with more equipment, weapons and technical support, U.S. deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken said. “Our goal is to enhance their ability to defeat those who threaten the freedom and safety of the nation,” he told a news conference after meeting Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid. Since a 2011 uprising that toppled Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has, in contrast to much of North Africa and the Middle East, experienced a comparatively trouble-free transition toward democracy. But it has also seen a rise in Islamist militancy, and last month gunmen stormed the national Bardo museum in the capital Tunis, killing 21 foreign tourists in an attack for which Islamic State claimed responsibility”.

“American abdication”

14/04/2015

A piece argues that America under President Obama has left the Middle East to burn. This Obama style isolationism has been commented many times before now the consequences are being discussed.

Traub opens “In the speech on counterterrorism policy that he delivered last year at West Point, President Barack Obama made clear that the United States would no longer try to fight the terrorist threat abroad on its own, but rather would aim to “more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” Last month, the Arab League answered that call by pledging to establish a joint Arab military force to respond to the growing chaos in the region”.

He adds “The actual details of this proposed army, including its members, force structure, and location, are to be worked out over the next several months. And as Arab unity — political or military — has often proved to be a mirage, there is good reason to be skeptical that the force will ever come into being. Even if it did, fundamental divisions among Arab states would ensure that a joint force would look more like a shifting coalition of the willing than a collective body like NATO, or even like the African Union’s Peace and Security Council. Nevertheless, a sense of real danger, combined with a fear of abandonment by the United States, has propelled the idea onto the Arab agenda. Egypt, which has pushed hardest for the joint force, worries that extremist violence in Libya will spill across the border between the two countries. After Islamic State fighters in Libya beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for a U.N.-backed intervention force, or, failing that, the lifting of the arms embargo on the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tobruk. When the United States and Britain opposed both measures, Sisi apparently concluded that he would have to rely on his fellow Arabs, and began sounding the tocsin for a joint force”.

Worse still the Obama administration is locked in an alternate reality, “The administration defends the Saudis’ resort to force to stem the tide of the takeover of Yemen: The Houthis had placed Scud missiles on the border, while Iran had begun regular flights to Saada, the Houthi stronghold. But the State Department official I spoke to added that the hostilities would have to end soon in order to limit death and destruction, and to bring the Houthis to a political settlement. There is, unfortunately, no sign that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz agrees with that proposition. His apparent plan is to bomb the Houthis into submission”.

Traub continues, “The United States has learned the hard way that it cannot simply prop up governments seen as illegitimate by their own people; that’s why Obama has tried to condition military assistance to Iraq on political reform that offers a significant role to Sunnis. Arab autocrats do not accept this principle. Saudi Arabia reacted to political dissent among the Shiite majority in Bahrain by sending in a military force to help the Sunni monarchy in Manama crush the peaceful movement. The Sisi regime treats domestic dissent as a threat to national security; from Cairo’s point of view, members of the Muslim Brotherhood are “terrorists” — a fifth-column version of the Islamic State”.

He ends the piece “the United States also has a very serious interest in rolling back the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and suppressing al Qaeda and curbing the Houthis in Yemen. Here U.S. and Arab interests converge. The West cannot solve the problem of Islamic extremism; only the Islamic world itself can do that. Obama has said that the United States will henceforward work through partners when it comes to counterterrorism. As one Arab diplomat said to me about the proposed force, “If Obama’s policy is to get the region to take care of its own problems, I think this is a good place to be.” Indeed, from the Arab point of view, it is precisely the American abdication that has necessitated the new Arab activism”.

He concludes tellingly, “When you’re the hegemon, you can tell your partners how to behave; when you’re not, you can’t. The United States can no longer afford to play that role, and in any case doesn’t want to. It must rely on, rather than simply conscript, its partners. And that means it must adapt, more than it has in the past, to its partners’ views. Washington is thus in no position either to oppose the Arab joint strike force or to tell it how and where to act. It really is a lamentable state of affairs. But it’s where we are”.

 

Somalia joins Saudi Arabia

14/04/2015

Somalia has approved the use of its airspace, territorial waters and land for Saudi-led air strikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. According to security sources in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, the president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, gave his consent to the military action during last month’s Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Abdisalam Hadliye, Somalia’s foreign minister, said on Tuesday his country had “officially approved its airspace, land and territorial waters to be used for the air invasion to prevent the Shia Houthis’ takeover of Yemen”. He added: “We are worried about the situation in Yemen. Somalia shares the same crisis existing in Yemen and we cannot watch what is going on there. Houthis are trying to topple a legal government so it is the responsibility of the Arabs to protect, and Somalia is playing its role to that end.” Sources in Mogadishu said Bosaso in north-east Somalia and the Berbera seaport in the breakaway region of Somaliland are to be used for the operation because of their proximity to Yemen. They said: “The approval came with a leasing of Somalia’s airspace by the oil-rich Gulf states.”

2015 Curial assignments

14/04/2015

The Press Office of the Holy See has released the curial assignments for the newly appointed cardinals.

What is most interesting is that bodies like the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, Migrants and Itinerants and Justice and Peace all received new members. These bodies are under review and are thought to be abolished. Cardinal Sarah was moved to CDW and no replacement named. Interestingly, bodies like the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and the Pontifical Council for the Family got no new members appointed. This may indicated that Pope Francis is seriously considering abolishing these discastaries as well. The fact that the newest Pontifical Council, got one new member means that Francis probably has a role for the body in the revised Roman Curia.

“Vietnam has long been suspicious”

14/04/2015

Chinese President Xi Jinping told the visiting head of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party on Tuesday that the two countries must manage their dispute over the South China Sea well to maintain peace and stability, state media reported. Communist parties rule both countries and trade has swelled to $50 billion annually, but Vietnam has long been suspicious of its giant neighbour, especially over Beijing’s increasingly assertive claims to almost the entire South China Sea. Anti-Chinese violence flared in Vietnam last year after a $1-billion deepwater rig owned by China’s state-run CNOOC oil company was parked 240 km (150 miles) off the coast of Vietnam in the South China Sea. Since then, however, China has sought to make amends with Vietnam, including sending senior officials to Hanoi. Meeting in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Xi told Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party, that cooperation was good for the two countries, the China News Service reported. “(We) must strictly abide by the important consensus the leaders of both parties have reached, jointly properly manage and control maritime disputes, maintain the broader picture of relations and peace and stability in the South China Sea,” the report quoted Xi as saying. Trong told Xi that Vietnam put great store on having friendly relations with China, which was Hanoi’s long-term strategic policy, the report added. The official Xinhua news agency, in a commentary ahead of the visit, said the two countries had “managed to ride out a considerably disturbing episode” in their dispute over the South China Sea. But it warned of problems ahead”.

Lessons from Libya

14/04/2015

Alan Kuperman examines the mess that is modern day Libya. Yet he fails to acknowledge that his solution would have left the country in a much worse position.

He opens “On March 17, 2011, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973, spearheaded by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, authorizing military intervention in Libya. The goal, Obama explained, was to save the lives of peaceful, pro-democracy protesters who found themselves the target of a crackdown by Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Not only did Gaddafi endanger the momentum of the nascent Arab Spring, which had recently swept away authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, but he also was poised to commit a bloodbath in the Libyan city where the uprising had started, said the president. “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi—a city nearly the size of Charlotte—could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world,” Obama declared. Two days after the UN authorisation, the United States and other NATO countries established a no-fly zone throughout Libya and started bombing Qaddafi’s forces. Seven months later, in October 2011, after an extended military campaign with sustained Western support, rebel forces conquered the country and shot Qaddafi dead”.

After the bombing campaign Kuperman notes that “the United States seemed to have scored a hat trick: nurturing the Arab Spring, averting a Rwanda-like genocide, and eliminating Libya as a potential source of terrorism. That verdict, however, turns out to have been premature. In retrospect, Obama’s intervention in Libya was an abject failure, judged even by its own standards. Libya has not only failed to evolve into a democracy; it has devolved into a failed state”.

Controversially he argues “there was a better policy available—not intervening at all, because peaceful Libyan civilians were not actually being targeted. Had the United States and its allies followed that course, they could have spared Libya from the resulting chaos and given it a chance of progress under Qaddafi’s chosen successor: his relatively liberal, Western-educated son Saif al-Islam. Instead, Libya today is riddled with vicious militias and anti-American terrorists—and thus serves as a cautionary tale of how humanitarian intervention can backfire for both the intervener and those it is intended to help”.

Such a view not only distorts the history of Libya it makes a mockery of the brutal regime that he led. It assumes that Gaddafi would have given power to his son and that his son would have turned Libya into a Switzerland of North Africa.

The writer notes “Optimism about Libya reached its apogee in July 2012, when democratic elections brought to power a moderate, secular coalition government—a stark change from Qaddafi’s four decades of dictatorship. But the country quickly slid downhill. Its first elected prime minister, Mustafa Abu Shagour, lasted less than one month in office. His quick ouster foreshadowed the trouble to come: as of this writing, Libya has had seven prime ministers in less than four years. Islamists came to dominate the first postwar parliament, the General National Congress. Meanwhile, the new government failed to disarm dozens of militias that had arisen during NATO’s seven-month intervention, especially Islamist ones, leading to deadly turf battles between rival tribes and commanders, which continue to this day. In October 2013, secessionists in eastern Libya, where most of the country’s oil is located, declared their own government. That same month, Ali Zeidan, then the country’s prime minister, was kidnapped and held hostage. In light of the growing Islamist influence within Libya’s government, in the spring of 2014, the United States postponed a plan to train an armed force of 6,000–8,000 Libyan troops”.

He notes that “By May 2014, Libya had come to the brink of a new civil war—between liberals and Islamists. That month, a renegade secular general named Khalifa Hifter seized control of the air force to attack Islamist militias in Benghazi, later expanding his targets to include the Islamist-dominated legislature in Tripoli. Elections last June did nothing to resolve the chaos. Most Libyans had already given up on democracy, as voter turnout dropped from 1.7 million in the previous poll to just 630,000. Secular parties declared victory and formed a new legislature, the House of Representatives, but the Islamists refused to accept that outcome. The result was two competing parliaments, each claiming to be the legitimate one”.

He argues that “As bad as Libya’s human rights situation was under Qaddafi, it has gotten worse since NATO ousted him. Immediately after taking power, the rebels perpetrated scores of reprisal killings, in addition to torturing, beating, and arbitrarily detaining thousands of suspected Qaddafi supporters. The rebels also expelled 30,000 mostly black residents from the town of Tawergha and burned or looted their homes and shops, on the grounds that some of them supposedly had been mercenaries”.

Yet the writer has learnt the wrong lessons. Instead of not interventing and leaving Libya in the hands of a supposed Ghandi in the making, it would have been better to give Libya the support, both technical and financial that it needed to allow it to have a gradually emerging civil society where there was none under Gaddafi. This would have taken time, perhaps years, or a decade, but the long term benefits would have been enormous. It would have meant a stable, democratic and wealthy Libya that would have been safe and stable.

As a result of this not occuring the costs have been clear, “Libya’s quality of life has been sharply degraded by an economic free fall. That is mainly because the country’s production of oil, its lifeblood, remains severely depressed by the protracted conflict. Prior to the revolution, Libya produced 1.65 million barrels of oil a day, a figure that dropped to zero during NATO’s intervention. Although production temporarily recovered to 85 percent of its previous rate, ever since secessionists seized eastern oil ports in August 2013, output has averaged only 30 percent of the prewar level. Ongoing fighting has closed airports and seaports in Libya’s two biggest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. In many cities, residents are subjected to massive power outages—up to 18 hours a day in Tripoli. The recent privation represents a stark descent for a country that the UN’s Human Development Index traditionally had ranked as having the highest standard of living in all of Africa”.

He argues that “by the time NATO intervened, Libya’s violence was on the verge of ending. Qaddafi’s well-armed forces had routed the ragtag rebels, who were retreating home. By mid-March 2011, government forces were poised to recapture the last rebel stronghold of Benghazi, thereby ending the one-month conflict at a total cost of just over 1,000 lives. Just then, however, Libyan expatriates in Switzerland affiliated with the rebels issued warnings of an impending “bloodbath” in Benghazi, which Western media duly reported but which in retrospect appear to have been propaganda. In reality, on March 17, Qaddafi pledged to protect the civilians of Benghazi, as he had those of other recaptured cities, adding that his forces had “left the way open” for the rebels to retreat to Egypt. Simply put, the militants were about to lose the war, and so their overseas agents raised the specter of genocide to attract a NATO intervention—which worked like a charm. There is no evidence or reason to believe that Qaddafi had planned or intended to perpetrate a killing campaign”.

This is nothing but a fantasy. Gaddafi would only have continued to bomb his own citizens into submission until he had decided they had had enough. The writer admits, “Admittedly, the government did attempt to intimidate the rebels, promising to pursue them relentlessly. But Qaddafi never translated that rhetoric into targeting civilians. From March 5 to March 15, 2011, government forces recaptured all but one of the major rebel-held cities, and in none did they kill civilians in revenge, let alone commit a bloodbath. Indeed, as his forces approached Benghazi, Qaddafi issued public reassurances that they would harm neither civilians nor rebels who disarmed”.

He correctly notes that “Another unintended consequence of the Libya intervention has been to amplify the threat of terrorism from the country. Although Qaddafi supported terrorism decades ago—as witnessed by his regime’s later paying reparations for the Lockerbie airplane bombing of 1988—the Libyan leader had evolved into a U.S. ally against global terrorism even before 9/11. He did so partly because he faced a domestic threat from al Qaeda–affiliated militants, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group”.

He does add rightly that “Since NATO’s intervention in 2011, however, Libya and its neighbour Mali have turned into terrorist havens. Radical Islamist groups, which Qaddafi had suppressed, emerged under NATO air cover as some of the most competent fighters of the rebellion. Supplied with weapons by sympathetic countries such as Qatar, the militias refused to disarm after Qaddafi fell. Their persistent threat was highlighted in September 2012 when jihadists, including from the group Ansar al-Sharia, attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, killing Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three of his colleagues. Last year, the UN formally declared Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization because of its affiliation with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Libya’s Islamist militants are now fighting for control of the entire country, and they are making headway. In April 2014, they captured a secret military base near Tripoli that, ironically, U.S. special operations forces had established in the summer of 2012 to train Libyan counterterrorist forces. Qatar and Sudan have flown weapons to the Islamists as recently as September 2014. In response, the more secular governments of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt launched air strikes against Islamist militants in Tripoli and Benghazi in August and October of last year. Libya’s jihadists now include more than just al Qaeda affiliates; as of January 2015, factions aligned with ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, have perpetrated killings or kidnappings in all three of Libya’s traditional administrative zones”.

Laughably he writes that Gaddafi was preparing Libya for rule by his son who would have radically altered the country for the better “Despite the massive turmoil caused by the intervention, some of its unrepentant supporters claim that the alternative—leaving Qaddafi in power—would have been even worse. But Qaddafi was not Libya’s future in any case. Sixty-nine years old and in ill health, he was laying the groundwork for a transition to his son Saif, who for many years had been preparing a reform agenda. “I will not accept any position unless there is a new constitution, new laws, and transparent elections,” Saif declared in 2010. “Everyone should have access to public office. We should not have a monopoly on power.” Saif also convinced his father that the regime should admit culpability for a notorious 1996 prison massacre and pay compensation to the families of hundreds of victims. In addition, in 2008, Saif published testimony from former prisoners alleging torture by revolutionary committees—the regime’s zealous but unofficial watchdogs—whom he demanded be disarmed. From 2009 to 2010, Saif persuaded his father to release nearly all of Libya’s political prisoners, creating a deradicalization program for Islamists that Western experts cited as a model. He also advocated abolishing Libya’s Information Ministry in favor of private media. He even flew in renowned American scholars—including Francis Fukuyama, Robert Putnam, and Cass Sunstein—to lecture on civil society and democracy”.

Yet all of this was at the same time when the United States was threatening action against Libya until it gave up its WMD programme. To then say that in this context Saif would have turned Libya into some kind of democracy would be ridiculous. All the arguments the author put forward are nothing compared to the violence and brutality he meted out to rebel groups in 2011. At the same time his behaviour during his father’s regime should not be forgotten and no attempts were made to have democracy and human rights during his father’s rule. To pretend that once Saif came to power everything would change is nothing sort of make believe.

He concludes “Obama also acknowledges regrets about Libya, but unfortunately, he has drawn the wrong lesson. “I think we underestimated . . . the need to come in full force,” the president told the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in August 2014. “If you’re gonna do this,” he elaborated, “there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies.” But that is exactly the wrong take-away. The error in Libya was not an inadequate post-intervention effort; it was the decision to intervene in the first place”.

Again he is wrong. This is exactly the course that should be taken, but the ADD that afflicts America and all democracies dealing with long term foreign policy decisions remains. Unless politicians are willing to take the hard measures needed half hearted measures like Libya, and the mistakes that go with them will not end.

Clinton launches her campaign

12/04/2015

Hillary Rodham Clinton will seek the presidency for a second time, one of her top advisers said Sunday, ending two years of speculation and coy denials and immediately establishing herself as the likely 2016 Democratic nominee. The announcement came in emails from John Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, to donors and others. “I wanted to make sure you heard it first from me – it’s official: Hillary’s running for president,” the email reads. It goes on to say that Mrs. Clinton will soon meet with voters in Iowa and will host a formal kickoff event some time next month. The announcement effectively began what could be one of the least contested races, without an incumbent, for the Democratic presidential nomination in recent history — a stark contrast to the 2008 primaries, when Mrs. Clinton, the early front-runner, ended up in a long and expensive battle won by Barack Obama. It could also be the first time a woman captures a major party’s nomination. Regardless of the outcome, Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 campaign will open a new chapter in the extraordinary life of a public figure who has captivated and polarized the country since her husband, former President Bill Clinton, declared his intention to run for president in 1991. Mrs. Clinton was the co-star of the Clinton administration, the only first lady ever elected to the United States Senate and a globe-trotting diplomat who surprised her party by serving dutifully under the president who defeated her”.

China’s naval scaremongering

12/04/2015

James Holmes writes that Japan is continuing to push back against China, “Size matters. But rhetoric matters even more. Is the Izumo, the ship Japan calls a “helicopter destroyer,” really an “aircraft carrier in disguise,” as Chinese commentators allege? The vessel was commissioned into the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) in late March: Judging from the number of stories repeating the phrase “aircraft carrier in disguise” since then, many foreign commentators seem to think so. This suggests that Beijing, not Tokyo, is telling the more compelling story about Japan’s purposes in putting aviation-capable ships to sea. This comes as little shock. For all its virtues, democratic Japan isn’t forceful about or adept at telling its story when it comes to military matters. But seizing control of language comes as second nature to China’s ruling Communist Party — descended from founding chairman Mao Zedong, who taught that peacetime politics is merely war without bloodshed and that there can never be too much deception in war. Beijing isn’t citing Japan’s bloody past just to fire up patriotic Chinese. Calibrating language to foreign audiences is standard practice for Chinese officialdom. In this case, the message is that Japan’s imperial itch is back; the island nation is rearming to terrorise Asia once again; Asians should worry and Washington should abandon its long-standing ally lest it be complicit in aggression”.

Holmes continues “Is the Izumo an aircraft carrier? Yes, it’s the latest in a series of JMSDF light aircraft carriers, all designated helicopter destroyers. But Tokyo forgoes the label “aircraft carrier” to avoid dredging up memories of its imperial, militarist past. China cries foul, accusing it of building a new carrier force while dissembling about its purposes. Beijing appears to have the upper hand in the battle of narratives about carrier aviation. The Chinese do a great job drawing sinister implications from a superficially accurate comparison between contemporary and World War II-era carriers. But it’s absurd to depict the Izumo — as CNN did — as a warship “as large as the storied Yamato-class battleships which fought U.S. naval forces in the Pacific theater of World War II.” Yes, the two warships are both a bit over 800 feet long, but the resemblance stops there. The Yamato was an armoured behemoth boasting triple the tonnage of the Izumo, a 24,000-ton light aircraft carrier. These ships also had/have dramatically different purposes. Battleships blasted away at enemy battleships with their massive guns, while carriers use embarked aircraft to duel enemy fleets and pummel shore targets”.

He disagrees with the World War Two comparisons noting that “The Izumo will sport only 23 helicopters, whereas IJN flattops disgorged dozens of fighters and attack planes. While Japanese defense officials disclaim any plans to operate jets from the Izumo’s deck, the vessel could conceivably undergo modification to operate up to 17 F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter/attack jets. (Its helicopters would have to stay behind to make room for a fighter squadron that large.) Ergo, it could have some offensive potential following a refit of significant proportions. But even an F-35 squadron would only constitute a modest-sized modern “air wing,” the term for a flattop’s complement of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. It would be smaller than the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning’s 36-plane air wing and only about one-quarter the complement carried onboard a U.S. Navy nuclear-powered carrier”.

He makes the point that “Calling a light aircraft carrier a destroyer, then, signals that Tokyo rejects rearmament that would defy democratic Japan’s anti-war traditions. The Izumo is an impressive warship that could be outfitted for offensive missions. And Japan can experiment with the ship, learning lessons that would advance its capacity to build and operate front-line carriers. But predicting that it will indeed pursue a carrier fleet is premature in the extreme. Beijing excels at pedantry and at interpreting Japanese policies in the most conspiratorial light possible. In branding terms, the Izumo is the JMSDF’s answer to a coastal-defence battleship — a vessel whose designation expresses the leadership’s defensive outlook. How much does it matter whether Beijing defines the terms of maritime debate? Not much. It’s doubtful Beijing will loosen the U.S.-Japan alliance or convince anyone else that Tokyo is again on the march. But China may come to rue harping incessantly on Japanese misconduct during World War II and the echoes of history today. Doing so prompts observers to ask who’s acting like a militarist”.

He ends “Liberal Japan has maintained an inoffensive profile for decades while spending a trifling sum on its military. China, by contrast, boosts its defense budget by double digits nearly every year, spending part of that figure on aircraft carriers that aren’t in disguise. It preys on its neighbors’ maritime territory. It wants to carve out a zone of exceptionalism in East Asia where the Chinese Communist Party makes the rules. It proclaims that might makes right within that zone”.

Iranians visit China

12/04/2015

Iranian oil officials are in Beijing this week to discuss oil sales and Chinese investments in Iran, just days after Tehran and world powers reached a framework nuclear deal, and with the OPEC nation’s oil minister due to arrive Thursday. Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh is set to make his first trip to Beijing since joining the then-new government two years ago, one Iranian oil official and a senior Chinese industry official told Reuters. China, Iran’s largest trade partner and oil client, has bought roughly half of Iran’s total crude exports since sanctions against Iran were tightened in 2012. Iran, once the No. 2 exporter of OPEC, is looking to ramp up its exports quickly after sanctions are lifted”.

Energy as foreign policy

12/04/2015

Michael Klare writes about the usefulness of energy as a foreign policy tool. He beigns “The debate over whether U.S. interests abroad are better served by hard power—coercive means such as military force—or soft power—less aggressive means of persuasion, such as diplomacy, economic aid, and propaganda—is perennial. Since becoming president, Barack Obama has emphasised soft power, suggesting that an over-reliance on military force has alienated many of the United States’ friends and allies without achieving much in return. But many Republicans, and even some Democrats, accuse him of overcorrecting and, in turn, inviting bad behaviour from the likes of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. For all their finger-pointing, both parties have, in reality, come to embrace an intermediary approach—what can best be called “energy power.” Energy power is the exploitation of a nation’s advantages in energy output and technology to promote its global interests and undermine those of its rivals”.

Klare adds “This could mean, for example, providing energy to friends and allies that have become heavily dependent on supplies provided by a hostile power, as in U.S. efforts to wean Europe off its reliance on Russian natural gas. It can also mean deploying an oil rig in disputed waters as a means of asserting control, as in China’s drilling operations in the South China Sea. Energy power can be used to bolster ties with a geostrategic partner, as in the nuclear agreement forged between the United States and India, or to punish a recalcitrant neighbor, as in Russia’s repeated shut-off of natural gas supplies to Ukraine. Although not as harsh as hard power, energy power can entail policies that rise above the level of soft power”.

He argues that energy power has had a long history, not least the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. Klare notes that over Ukraine and Russia’s behaviour “even the most hawkish of Republicans are ruling out the use of force. Instead, Democrats and Republicans alike have appointed the energy sector as their favoured channel for scolding Putin. The Obama administration, for its part, has sought to deny Western financing and technology to Russian energy firms, hoping that doing so will slow the economy; the Republicans, preferring something more muscular, want to accelerate the delivery of U.S. natural gas to countries now reliant on Russian supplies”.

There are a number of reasons why energy power is taking center stage, beginning with the reluctance to resort to hard power, especially against major powers. At the same time, however, many in Washington have become unsatisfied with soft power alone, and so seek more potent tools of influence. To these considerations, add growing fears about energy security and the safety of international supply networks. Even more significant, perhaps, is the dramatic surge in U.S. oil and gas production. According to the Department of Energy, U.S. crude oil production jumped from a low of 5.0 million barrels per day in 2008 to an estimated 9.2 million barrels in January, a remarkable increase of 84 percent. Assuming that prices rebound from their current lows, U.S. production is expected to continue rising over the next few years, reaching a projected 9.6 million barrels in 2020. Domestic gas production is also on a growth spurt, rising from 20.1 trillion cubic feet in 2008 to 24 trillion in 2015, and with output expected to reach as much as 36 trillion cubic feet in 2035″.

He correctly notes that “just as Middle Eastern petro-states have sometimes done, the United States can use its oil and gas as a cudgel to promote its overseas interests. Alluding to Iranian threats to provoke a global oil crisis in the dispute over nuclear enrichment, for example, Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power and The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, suggested that “new supply in North America becomes all the more important as a potential offset” to any such moves”.

He mentions that “the Democrats and Republicans are much closer in their views on security strategy than the current debate in Washington would suggest. Although discord will persist over the relative emphasis to place on hard and soft power in confronting the United States’ adversaries, both sides are eager to increase reliance on energy power as an instrument of foreign policy. In addition to the initiatives already underway, such as Kerry’s drive to promote energy diversification in the former Soviet expanse and the recent nuclear deal with India, U.S. leaders are likely to seek other opportunities to exploit the United States’ energy clout in furthering its objectives abroad”.

He concludes “As an alternative to hard power, energy power communicates the United States’ seriousness of intent, but without inviting the perils of military action; as an alternative to soft power, it provides a degree of leverage not available from diplomacy alone. But the use of energy power is hardly risk free. The United States may enjoy some advantages in this realm due to its prolific oil and gas output, but other countries (among them, Russia) also possess significant reserves and are just as likely to wield the energy cudgel, possibly to the United States’ disadvantage. At the extreme, such action could provoke a military response. China’s May 2014 deployment of an oil-drilling rig in Vietnamese-claimed waters, for example, led to a naval standoff in the South China Sea and deadly anti-Chinese riots in major Vietnamese cities. There is also a significant environmental dimension to this issue: Any further increase in U.S. oil and gas production will require extensive use of hydro-fracking, a technique that requires vast amounts of water and poses a threat to the safety of municipal and agricultural freshwater supplies. At the very least, though, there is some good news to be found in the fact that Democrats and Republicans are able to agree on something, especially in the foreign policy area”.

 

Khamenei backs the deal?

12/04/2015

In his first official remarks about the framework agreement between Iran and Western powers, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said on Thursday that nothing is finalized, and therefore the understandings remain non-binding. “I’m neither for nor against the outcome of the recent talks. According to the Iranian officials involved no measure has been taken yet and there are no binding results,” said Khamenei during a televised speech on Thursday. Khamenei added that in light of past experience, he is not optimistic regarding the negotiations with the U.S., but allowed for the talks to take place anyway, stressing that he supports the ongoing negotiation, and would support a future agreement if it upholds Iran’s honour and interests. Khamenei also said that it’s too early to tell if the talks will lead to an agreement, and called for restraint among Iranians on announcing victory or failure in the negotiations.