Archive for May, 2015

“The possibility of formal Afghan peace talks”


A peace envoy from Afghanistan met in western China last week with former Taliban officials with close ties to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, in an attempt to keep open the possibility of formal Afghan peace talks, officials said Monday. The meeting, hosted by China and, in part, organized by Pakistani officials, took place Wednesday and Thursday in Urumqi, capital of the western region of Xinjiang, which has mountainous borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan and is home to many Muslims. The main representative of the Afghan government was Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, who was, at the time, a crucial member of the country’s Peace Council, the group charged with exploring talks with the insurgency, and since then has been nominated by President Ashraf Ghani as defense minister. On the other side of the table were three figures from the old Taliban government in Afghanistan, according to current and former officials with knowledge of the discussions who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. Mr. Stanekzai is awaiting confirmation as defense minister and has been the architect of efforts by the government to begin formal peace negotiations. “The meeting resulted from cooperation of the Pakistan and Afghan governments with the support of China,” said Barnett Rubin, a veteran scholar of Afghanistan who has worked in the United States government on Afghanistan policy”.


Pre-Synod games


Edward Pentin writes that there are pre-Synod games already taking place, he opens “A one-day study meeting — open only to a select group of individuals — took place at the Pontifical Gregorian University on Monday with the aim of urging “pastoral innovations” at the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family in October. Around 50 participants, including bishops, theologians and media representatives, took part in the gathering, at the invitation of the presidents of the bishops’ conferences of Germany, Switzerland and France — Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Bishop Markus Büchel and Archbishop Georges Pontier”.

He reports that “One of the key topics discussed at the closed-door meeting was how the Church could better welcome those in stable same-sex unions, and reportedly “no one” opposed such unions being recognised as valid by the Church. Participants also spoke of the need to “develop” the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and called not for a theology of the body, as famously taught by St. John Paul II, but the development of a “theology of love.” One Swiss priest discussed the “importance of the human sex drive,” while another participant, talking about holy Communion for remarried divorcees”.

Pentin’s idea of these talks is clear but many have merit. If all believers are equal before God why are gay unions considered second class? Equally the danger of the teachings of John Paul II is they turn the Church into a fertility cult with the entire focus on the procreation of children with little thought given to their quality of life and other attendant issues.

Pentin goes on to report that “Marco Ansaldo, a reporter for the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica, who was present at the meeting, said the words seemed “revolutionary, uttered by clergymen.” French Biblicist and Ratzinger Prize-winner Anne-Marie Pelletier praised the dialogue that took place between theologians and bishops as a “real sign of the times.” According to La Stampa, another Italian daily newspaper, Pelletier said the Church needs to enter into “a dynamic of mutual listening,” in which the magisterium continues to guide consciences, but she believes it can only effectively do so if it “echoes the words of the baptised.” The meeting took the “risk of the new, in fidelity with Christ,” she claimed. The article also quoted a participant as saying the synod would be a “failure” if it simply continued to affirm what the Church has always taught”.

Interestingly he writes that “The closed-door meeting, masterminded by the German bishops’ conference under the leadership of Cardinal Marx, was first proposed at the annual meeting of the heads of the three bishops’ conferences, held in January in Marseille, France. The study day took place just days after the people of Ireland voted in a referendum in support of same-sex “marriage” and on the same day as the Ordinary Council of the Synod of Bishops met in Rome. Some observers did not see the timing as a coincidence. The synod council has been drawing up the instrumentum laboris (working document) for the October synod on the family. Integrated into the document will be the responses of a questionnaire sent to laity around the world. Those responses, particularly from Switzerland and Germany, appeared to be overwhelmingly in favour of the Church adapting her teachings to the secular world”.

Some perspective is needed in this final statement. The Church is not jettisoning the death and resurrection of Christ or the foundations for the papacy, transubstantion, women’s ordination, the episcopacy or the Creed. It should simply be seen as refining Church teaching in light of scientific advances.

Pentin goes on to question why the meeting was held before closed doors, ” No one would say why the study day was held in confidence. So secret was the meeting that even prominent Jesuits at the Gregorian were completely unaware of it. The Register learned about it when Jean-Marie Guénois leaked the information in a story in Le Figaro. Speaking to the Register as he left the meeting, Cardinal Marx insisted the study day wasn’t secret. But he became irritated when pressed about why it wasn’t advertised, saying he had simply come to Rome in a “private capacity” and that he had every right to do so. Close to Pope Francis and part of his nine-member council of cardinals, the cardinal is known to be especially eager to reform the Church’s approach to homosexuals. During his Pentecost homily last Sunday, Cardinal Marx called for a “welcoming culture” in the Church for homosexuals, saying it’s “not the differences that count, but what unites us.” Cardinal Marx is also not alone, among those attending the meeting, in pushing for radical changes to the Church’s life. The head of the Swiss bishops, Bishop Büchel of St. Gallen, has spoken openly in favour of women’s ordination, saying in 2011 that the Church should “pray that the Holy Spirit enables us to read the signs of the times.” Archbishop Pontier, head of the French bishops, is also known to have heterodox leanings”.

If there is a problem it is with Pope Francis. He seems to favour smaller families but then reverse his statement and back large ones. His mixed messages do little to inspire clarity. Perhaps this is the purpose? Alternatively, Francis is so naïve as to think the Synod will not air any differing views other than Church thinking on these issues.

Pentin continues, “Among the specialists present was Father Eberhard Schockenhoff, a moral theologian. Some are particularly disturbed about the rise to prominence of Father Schockenhoff, who is understood to be the “mastermind” behind much of the challenge to settled Church teachings among the German episcopate and, by implication, at the synod on the family itself. A prominent critic of Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), as well as a strong supporter of homosexual clergy and those pushing for reform in the area of sexual ethics, Father Schockenhoff is known to be the leading adviser of German bishops in the run-up to the synod. In 2010, he gave an interview in which he praised the permanence and solidarity shown in some same-sex relationships as “ethically valuable.” He urged that any assessment of homosexual acts “must take a back seat” on the grounds that the faithful are becoming “increasingly distant from the Church’s sexual morality,” which appears “unrealistic and hostile to them.” The Pope and the bishops should “take this seriously and not dismiss it as laxity,” he said”.

The final section of the report, Pentin addresses the participation of the media, “Also noted were the large number of media representatives. Journalists from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, German broadcasters ZDF and ARD, the Italian daily La Repubblica and French-Catholic media La Croix and I-Media were also present. Their presence was “striking,” said one observer, who predicted they will be used to promote the agenda of the  subject matter under discussion in the weeks leading up to the synod. Monday’s meeting is just the latest attempt to subtly steer the upcoming synod in a direction opposed by many faithful Catholics. A statement on the study day released by the German bishops’ conference May 26 said there was a “reflection on biblical hermeneutics” — widely seen as code words for understanding the Bible differently from Tradition — and the need for a “reflection on a theology of love.” This, too, is seen as undermining Church teaching. By replacing the theology of the body with a “theology of love,” it creates an abstract interpretation that separates sex from procreation, thereby allowing forms of extramarital unions and same-sex attractions based simply on emotions rather than biological reality. Gone, say critics, is the Catholic view of marriage, which should be open to procreation”.


“Extended air strikes on Iranian-backed Houthi militia”


Saudi-led warplanes extended air strikes on Iranian-backed Houthi militia in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Friday, residents in the area said. They told Reuters that the strikes focused on the presidential compound district in Sanaa, which the Shi’ite Muslim rebels seized in September, and Houthi military sites in mountainous areas on the outskirts of the city. A Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen’s civil war eight weeks ago to try to roll back Houthi advances across the Arabian Peninsula country and restore exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in power. Sanaa residents said air strikes also continued overnight on fighters loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh who are allied with the Houthis in the conflict. There were also 10 air raids overnight on Houthi and pro-Saleh forces in the oil-producing province of Marib, according to residents in the region. In Saada province which borders Saudi Arabia in northwestern Yemen, the Houthis said they had seized several Saudi-controlled military sites and taken weapons and equipment there”.

“The church needs to take a reality check”


After the passing of the historic gay marriage referendum in Ireland a piece from the New York Times examines where the Church goes after the referendum, “The morning after Ireland learned it had become the first nation to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote, Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, looked out at the future of the Roman Catholic Church. It could be found at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral here, in downtown Dublin, as two rows of children awaited confirmation before him in the lofty, column-lined church. “Boys and girls, I made my confirmation 60 years ago,” he told them, adding, “Your world is different from mine.”

It adds “The size of the victory energized supporters, with the referendum affirmed by 62 percent of the electorate and passed in all but one of Ireland’s 43 districts. After the votes were counted, the carefully planned and executed campaign by activist groups seemed as much about putting behind a past entrenched in theocracy and tradition as it was about marriage for gays and lesbians. And it underscored how different Ireland is today for the young, who turned out in droves to vote. In a little more than a generation, Ireland has both distanced itself from the church and sharpened its secular identity”.

The report goes on to note “At St. Mary’s, the results of the referendum, as one might expect, did not come up — the archbishop instead quipped about his first experience with a cellphone. But afterward, speaking at a house next to the church, he conceded that much had changed. “The church needs to take a reality check,” Archbishop Martin said after the Mass, repeating a comment he had made Saturday. “It’s very clear there’s a growing gap between Irish young people and the church, and there’s a growing gap between the culture of Ireland that’s developing and the church.” The country’s cultural evolution reflects a blend of disaffection with the church, and Ireland’s willingness to embrace a wider vision of itself in the world. As the church lost many people in its scandals and its unwillingness to yield to sexual freedoms, the European Union found itself with a willing and eager member”.

Yet the reason Ireland was a “theocracy”, which of course it wasn’t, was because 95% of the people were Catholic. The Church gave people hope and provided services that the State were either unable or unwilling to provide.

When Same-Sex Marriages Became Legal

About 20 countries have already legalised same-sex marriages. Here is a list of when each did.

The Church still has much to give Irish society, through its teachings on poverty, the common good, care for all people irrespective of their status (economic or otherwise) but the obsession with sexual morality is unhelpful to both the Church and Irish society.

It continues “Or, as Mr. Flannery put it, “The day when the church had the power to influence social debate in Ireland, or to swing it, is gone.” The legal system began to chip away at the laws restricting homosexuals. In 1988, a lawyer named Mary Robinson successfully argued a case in the European court system challenging Ireland’s law that made homosexuality a crime. Five years later, after Ms. Robinson became Ireland’s first female president in 1990, she signed a law decriminalizing homosexuality. At the same time that the church’s moral authority was flagging, the Irish were finding a new identity within the European Union. They share the euro, and are more willing to take advantage of low-cost airfares for weekend jaunts to the Continent and beyond, broadening an outlook that for their parents and grandparents had been molded by the church and Britain”.

It mentions that “An influx of young people from Eastern Europe and elsewhere has made Ireland more diverse. The Irish political scene has largely avoided the toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric that has surfaced in much of Europe. In large part, that is because Sinn Fein, the opposition party that was once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, has gained ground by attacking austerity instead of immigrants. The same-sex marriage referendum had broad support across the political parties”.

It ends “Even as it widely celebrates the change that the same-sex marriage vote indicated, Ireland is not entirely beyond the kind of cultural battles that have led to far more contentious political campaigns in the past. Many believe there will be a much more fierce cultural debate over legalizing abortion. With the vote for the same-sex referendum going nearly two to one in favor, Archbishop Martin said Sunday that the church needed what he called “a new language that will be understood and heard by people.” Many young people, he added, “go in today and find a church that is for the like-minded,” as opposed to being inclusive”.

It concludes “he did not offer a solution for attracting young people back to the church, and reiterated his opposition to same-sex marriage. “For many, and I’ve said this before, inside the church becomes almost alien territory to them in today’s society,” he said. “If the leadership of the Irish Catholic church don’t recognize that, then they’re in severe denial. Have I got a magic formula? Certainly not.”

Assad’s PR moves


The Bashar al-Assad regime contracted a British law firm to fight allegations made against it in the British press in 2011, according to a trove of previously-unpublished documents seen by NOW.  The documents, which include nearly 3,000 emails from Assad’s personal account, also reveal hitherto-unknown relations with prominent Western journalists; interactions with officials from foreign states including Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, and the United States; ties to kidnappers and smugglers within Syria; a public relations campaign organized with an American Christian group; and more. In March 2015, this bundle of documents—which is an expanded version of the hacked emails first leaked by the Guardian in 2012—was passed by Syrian opposition sources to NOW contributor Michael Weiss, who then sent it on to the team in Beirut. NOW has contacted a number of the individuals named in the documents, none of whom challenged their authenticity. NOW has divided the noteworthy content of the documents into nine categories, each of which is published in a separate article in the new, dedicated #AssadLeaks section.

Blaming America for Chinese aggression


A piece discusses the tensions between China and the United States in Asia.

It begins “the United States military is trying to assert freedom of navigation by dispatching U.S. ships to sail within 12 nautical miles of China-controlled territories in the South China Sea, and by flying military aircraft over those territories. On May 16, during his visit to Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly claimed that this plan is not official U.S. policy. Yet, according to a May 20 CNN report, the Pentagon is flying the P8-A Poseidon, America’s most advanced surveillance aircraft, over the artificial islands Beijing is constructing on Chinese-controlled reefs and shoals in the South China Sea. Publicising the mission by allowing CNN onboard shows that the Pentagon is serious about their plan — and wants to shame China by exposing it to international castigation. By confronting China’s over its land reclamation projects, the Pentagon is making clear that the United States does not recognise Chinese claims”.

There are broader questions as to how effective this US military strategy will be. Short of using force, there seems little that the United States could do to compel China to change its behaviour. This raises the question of just how far America should push China in the first place.

The author admits that “China today is no longer susceptible to U.S. coercion or bullying. Under President Xi Jinping, the more confrontational stance Washington takes, the more assertive Beijing will become in response. That’s the new reality of Chinese foreign policy. And the Pentagon’s plan, if it were to become policy, would have the opposite effect of its intention — as happens often with ill-conceived strategic thinking. It would give China justification to regularly send naval units to the surrounding waters; to speed up the construction and installation of military facilities on the artificial islands; and to establish an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over its territory in the South China Sea”.

The writer goes on to make the point that “Before the Pentagon’s plan went public, China had no intention of declaring an ADIZ over the South China Sea anytime soon, said Zhou Fangyin, a professor at the Guangdong Research Institute for International Strategies. (An ADIZ extends a country’s airspace, allowing it more time to respond to foreign and possibly hostile aircraft.) The East China Sea — over which China declared an ADIZ in November 2013 — is already the site of a great power competition among China, Japan, and the United States”.

However the Chinese source that the writer mentions should not be taken with ay seriousness. China has a vested interest in proclaiming a “peaceful development” a phrase that had previously been “peaceful rise”. Neither should be taken at face value. Neither should the comments from this professor.

The author notes that “In April 2014, the United States committed itself to defending Japan’s claim to the Diaoyu Islands, thus officially embroiling itself in a territorial dispute between Beijing and Tokyo. But in the South China Sea, where Beijing faces several small powers, the United States is officially neutral. China is trying to manage competing claims and prevent diplomatic disputes with countries like Vietnam and the Philippines from degenerating into military conflicts”.

Yet this view does not take account of the fact that China is creating these disputes in the first place. It has been rowing with Vietnam and challenging the Philippines about the South China Sea. Therefore, to write it in such a way as to blame these nations for the way China is conducting itself seems bizarre.

He adds that “Chinese policymakers understand that there are many negative consequences that would come from establishing an ADIZ in the South China Sea. The scale and speed of China’s land reclamation projects have created widespread anxiety internationally, and many in the West already see China as a regional “bully.” Beijing does not want this perception to persist or grow; it cares about the reputational costs of land reclamation. As a result, Beijing has been reluctant to declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea, which the international community will surely perceive as another provocation”.

Again there is little evidence for what the author is claiming here. China has been doing nothing to ease the tensions in the region and has only heightened them over recent years. Its behaviour must change first it tensions are to deescalate.

He ends “It’s worth asking the big question: What American interests are served by dispatching military assets to Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea? U.S. ships will sail around the 12-nautical mile line; U.S. aircraft will fly over the islands. China will condemn such behavior without doing anything dramatic. No one seriously expects China to attack U.S. ships or shoot down American aircraft; nor vice versa. But Beijing will be forced to consolidate its military presence over the South China Sea to please a nationalist domestic audience”.


Ukraine at war with Russia


Ukraine’s president has told the BBC his country is now in a “real war” with Russia – and that Ukrainians should prepare for a Russian offensive. Petro Poroshenko told the BBC’s Fergal Keane he did not trust his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, but had no option but to negotiate with him. The Kremlin said it did not trust Mr Poroshenko either and accused Ukraine of “broken commitments”. Meanwhile Ukraine has charged two men it accuses of being Russian soldiers. Russia denies Western accusations that it has sent regular troops and armour to help rebels in eastern Ukraine. The United Nations says at least 6,000 people have been killed since fighting started in eastern Ukraine in April 2014″.

Differing pictures of inequality


An interesting piece form the Washington Post discusses the meaning of inequality in light of the 2016 presidential election, “Inequality, we keep hearing, will be a major theme of the upcoming election. Hillary Clinton has been preaching about it. Republicans are suddenly doing it, too. Both sides have been talking to the same eminent academics worried about what economic inequality could mean for the future of American children. But here is an important point worth remembering about the electorate these candidates have been talking to: Most people — regardless of whether you ask about the poor or the rich, income or wealth, the shape of the income distribution or an individual’s position in it — have a terrible sense of what inequality actually looks like”.

It makes the valid point that “This key point comes from a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Vladimir Gimpelson at the Higher School of Economist in Moscow and Daniel Treisman at UCLA. They looked at several sets of international survey data gauging how much people know in many countries, including the United States, about economic inequality, the ways it’s been changing and how their own incomes compare. Their conclusion, which minces no words:

In recent years, ordinary people have had little idea about such things. What they think they know is often wrong. Widespread ignorance and misperceptions of inequality emerge robustly, regardless of the data source, operationalization, and method of measurement.

People aren’t good at guessing the share of the population that lives in poverty in their country (this comes from a European survey)”.

Correctly the writer goes on to mention that “We’re not very accurate at estimating how much workers in various jobs earn (in the United States, we’re not bad with shop assistants and unskilled factory workers, but we way overestimate what doctors and Cabinet secretaries make). We’re also not that great at recognizing whether inequality and poverty are worsening or improving with time. And many of these surveys suggest that the rich think they’re poorer than they really are while the poor think they’re richer — a pattern that implies a lot of us like to think we’re hanging out somewhere in the middle”.

It goes on to add that “One survey used in the paper, the International Social Survey Project, asked people in 40 countries which type of society they thought they lived in:The context of the question was economic. If we assume each of those bars is an equally spaced income group, Gimpelson and Treisman calculated a Gini coefficient, measuring income inequality, to correspond with each diagram. By that standard, worldwide only about a quarter of people got this right for their country (the share varies a little if you consider income before or after taxes and transfers). That’s not much better than survey respondents would do if they were just guessing randomly”.

It ends “All of this undercuts the theory that there’s a direct link between high inequality and poverty and what we want the government to do about them. It’s hard to argue, for instance, that more people will support forms of income redistribution when inequality is high if most of us don’t recognise what high inequality looks like. Over the next year, Americans probably won’t be able to avoid the message that inequality is real and bad. But, Treisman says, we’ll all probably be picturing very different things in our minds when we hear that”.

“Pakistan and Afghanistan will now share information”


After years of antagonism and accusations, spy agencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan will now share information, the Pakistani military said, in another sign frosty relations between the neighbors may be gradually thawing.  Improved ties are key to tackling stubborn Taliban insurgencies on both sides of the border but there is a long legacy of suspicion to overcome. The announcement that a memorandum of understanding between the two intelligence agencies had been signed was made late on Monday by Major General Asim Bajwa, the Pakistan military spokesman, on Twitter. “MOU signed by ISI & NDS,” the tweet read, referring to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security. “Includes int sharing, complimentary and coordinated int ops on respective sides,” it said, referring to intelligence and operations. The announcement followed a visit by the Pakistan intelligence chief, chief of army staff and prime minister to the Afghan capital of Kabul last week. After Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was elected last year, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan began slowly improving following years of acrimony”.

Obama’s failed ISIS strategy


Hassan Hassan writes about the failure of President Obama’s strategy in fighting ISIS, “Once again, in less than a year, Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions en masse and fled in the face of advancing Islamic State forces. The fall of the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, leaves no doubt about the jihadi group’s capabilities: Despite U.S. attempts to paint it as a gravely weakened organisation, the Islamic State remains a powerful force that is on the offensive in several key fronts across Syria and Iraq. Ramadi is far from the only front on which the Islamic State is advancing. The group last week launched an offensive, supported by multiple suicide operations, in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor against President Bashar al-Assad regime’s holdouts in the military air base. In the central city of Palmyra, it attacked a regime base near the ancient Roman ruins. It also recently clashed with Syrian rebels and the regime in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, the provinces of Homs and Hama, and the southern city of Quneitra, near the border with Israel”.

He adds “The group has advanced deep into the Baiji oil refinery, the largest in the country. And it has since pushed on from Ramadi, attacking the nearby town of Khalidiya; if the group is successful, that might provide it with the territorial depth to advance on Baghdad. The Islamic State’s recent advance did not take the world by surprise, as it did when the group captured Mosul and other areas across Iraq last year. This time, the United States said it conducted seven airstrikes in Ramadi, in an effort to prevent its fall, in the 24 hours before the city was lost. Local officials in Ramadi, meanwhile, had repeatedly warned that the city would be overrun if they did not receive urgent reinforcements. But the international and Iraqi support that arrived was simply insufficient to hold the city”.

Correctly he writes that “the prevalent narrative that the Islamic State is destined to decline appears to be false. Rather than suffering from resource and manpower shortages, the group is only increasing its grip on the local populations in its strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, Syria; it is also attracting a considerable number of recruits, especially among teenagers. As with the occupation of Mosul, the fall of Ramadi will have a ripple effect across both the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields. In Syria, Iraqi Shiite militias fighting alongside the Assad regime will feel compelled to return to defend their home country, a move that would further undercut the regime’s ability to stop recent rebel advances”.

The consequences of this failed strategy is “increased tensions between Washington and Baghdad over the use of Shiite militias to push back the Islamic State. This is the second time this issue has arisen: In the battle to retake the city of Tikrit, the Iraqi government deployed the Hashd al-Shaabi, an umbrella organization for Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which prompted the United States to refuse to launch airstrikes in support of the offensive until the irregular units withdrew. The United States reportedly pressured the Iraqi government not to dispatch the Hashd al-Shaabi to Ramadi, insisting that local forces along with the Iraqi Army should fight in the Sunni city. As a result, some Iraqi officials blame the Americans for the fall of the city. With Shiite militias now heading to Anbar en masse to confront the resurgent threat by the Islamic State, the stage seems set for another confrontation with Washington, which fears that the fighters will only stoke sectarian tensions in the largely Sunni province”.

He adds that “Ramadi’s local leaders were instrumental in the U.S.-backed Awakening Councils, which were credited with the demise of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 and which bravely held out against the Islamic State for the past year. The fall of the city, however, will significantly undercut the U.S. effort to recruit and train Sunni forces to fight the Islamic State”.

He ends “the fall of Ramadi will echo far further than just across Anbar. In Washington, it should be clear that the current U.S. strategy to fight the Islamic State has failed. The White House’s focus on airstrikes in Iraq — while making little progress in training anti-Islamic State Sunni forces in either Syria or Iraq — is allowing the group immense space for planning, maneuvering, and redeployment”.

He concludes “Despite attempts by U.S. officials to downplay the significance of Ramadi’s fall, the development marks a dangerous new phase of the war. The Islamic State seems poised to take new areas despite American firepower and despite Iranian backing of tens of thousands of Shiite and Kurdish forces. The idea that the Islamic State is losing or declining now seems absurd”.


The fight for Ramadi


Thousands of Shi’ite militiamen on Monday prepared to fight Islamic State insurgents who seized the Iraqi provincial capital Ramadi at the weekend in the biggest defeat for government forces in nearly a year. A column of 3,000 Shi’ite militia fighters assembled at a military base near Ramadi, preparing to take on Islamic State militants advancing in armored vehicles from the captured city northwest of Baghdad, witnesses and a military officer said. The decision by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is a Shi’ite, to send in the militias to try to retake the predominantly Sunni city could add to sectarian hostility in one of the most violent parts of Iraq. Washington, which is leading a campaign of air strikes to roll back Islamic State advances and struggling to rebuild Baghdad’s shattered army, played down the significance of the loss of Ramadi, the capital of the vast western Anbar province. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it was a “target of opportunity,” that could be retaken in a matter of days, and U.S. officials insisted there would be no change in strategy despite a failure to make major advances against Islamic State”.

“Doesn’t the much weaker quotidian challenges”


A piece notes the problems of President Obama’s foreign policy in Asia, “Pyongyang’s provocative and erratic behaviour is starting to unnerve South Korea. “Many people are alarmed by the North’s recent provocative acts and as they learn of an extreme reign of terror within North Korea,” South Korean President Park Geun-hye said on May 15 — two days before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Seoul to show the United States’ “ironclad commitment” to South Korean security. In the last month, Pyongyang successfully tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, reportedly executed its defence minister for disobedience to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and fired shells near a sea border disputed between the two countries. South Korea and Japan, two of the most likely targets for North Korean violence, are U.S. allies and protected by its nuclear umbrella. But as Park’s comments imply, that may offer little comfort: U.S. extended deterrence is not curbing its ally’s fears”.

The author continues, “Since the early days of the Cold War, the United States has promised to deter and retaliate against a nuclear attack on select allies in Europe and Asia — in other words, the United States extends to them the capabilities it fields to protect the American public from nuclear attack. In Asia, the U.S. nuclear umbrella is reserved for only its close allies Australia, Japan, and South Korea — as it should be. Promises of nuclear retaliation on behalf of others shouldn’t be made lightly”.

He then implies, unfairly that the promise is weak because “it is a promise for the least-likely situation. And meanwhile, whether because of political expediency or the low stakes involved, the United States has played a marginal role in dealing with the smaller threats these two countries face: for Japan, Chinese harassment in waters around contested islands in the East China Sea; and for South Korea, conventional attacks by North Korea. The result? By failing to adequately tackle small-scale challenges with or on behalf of Tokyo and Seoul, the United States has cast doubt about its nuclear umbrella for those two countries”.

As he admits extending the nuclear umbrella is not to be done lightly, and of course other nations in an ideal world should be under it like Taiwan. However, the United States has other interests to look after, obviously China.

He does correctly argue that “This in turn reflects an unstated paradox: the strongest form of U.S. commitment doesn’t address the much weaker quotidian challenges actually facing its allies. Consequently, Seoul and Tokyo look to Washington and see its credibility eroding. Frank Sinatra once sang that if he could make it in New York, he “could make it anywhere.” This logic, dubbed the “Sinatra test,” suggests that those who can survive a hard test can survive an easy one”.

The United States should be doing more to deter Chinese aggression, the latest round of which is building islands with offensive capability. Yet, at the same time it does not want a war with China, even though some say this is inevitable. The United States must back Japan and South Korea and at the same time it needs to trade with China. Eventually it will have to decide which of these it wants as it cannot have both.

The author adds “Consider also what’s happened over the last five years to Japan, a top U.S. ally. China has repeatedly confronted Japan over the Diaoyu islands Tokyo claims (and calls the Senkaku). Beijing has asserted its claims with novel and aggressive moves that fall just under the threshold for retaliation — using water cannons, fishing vessels, reconnaissance drones, and military ships nominally designated as Coast Guard vessels to harass Japanese vessels. And consider, for example, Japan’s response to the unarmed Chinese reconnaissance drones Beijing has frequently dispatched into contested airspace over the last few years. In each case, Japan alone has scrambled fighter aircraft or sent maritime vessels in response. The more Japan does alone, the more it doubts the strength of the partnership. The U.S. commitment to protect Japan against existential threats risks being eroded by its irrelevance in protecting Japan from the primary — though relatively small — danger it faces today. As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bolsters Japan’s military, Japan’s departure from a long history of buck-passing its security burden to the United States only makes sense as a response to feeling more threatened and lacking confidence in U.S. reliability”.

He correctly writes “Extended deterrence is a blunt instrument: good for some things, like deterring nuclear attack, but not for others, like deterring provocations or low-intensity conflict. The United States has known this for a long time. One of the lessons of the Cold War was that nukes aren’t good for much — other than deterring other nukes. President Dwight Eisenhower’s doctrine of “massive retaliation” — promising nuclear retaliation against Soviet aggression — served many purposes, but non-nuclear deterrence or crisis management was not one of them. During the Korean War, U.S. nuclear threats failed to end the protracted conflict. In repeated crises with China in the 1950s, U.S. nuclear threats not only failed to prevent China from shelling and seizing Taiwanese-held islands, but boxed Washington into a path where some U.S. officials advocated nuclear attacks on China for the sake of strategically insignificant and militarily Taiwanese indefensible islands. These problems had to do with the credibility of proportionality: nobody believed big threats made over small issues. A nuclear umbrella, in other words, was too blunt an instrument to credibly wield as a coercive tool on the battlefield or as a means of preventing small-scale attacks against an ally”.

Helpfully he makes the point that “Rather than drawing greater attention to the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the United States should devise long-term policies that help South Korea and Japan deal with North Korean provocations and Chinese coercion respectively — small-scale but significant problems. The United States should launch strategic consultations with South Korea and Japan to compare notes on global and regional trends (which includes small-scale coercion), and how they affect national threat perceptions, mission priorities, and military weapons investments. Though far less sexy than nukes, elevating cooperation with South Korea and Japan to strategy and policy planning consultations might go a long way toward shoring up their confidence”.


ISIS, not the biggest threat


The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) does not pose the biggest threat to the U.S., according to a former leader of the CIA. It isn’t even in the top three. “Despite that significant threat from ISIS, it is not the most significant threat to the homeland today,” former CIA deputy and acting Director Michael Morell said on Monday. “The most significant threat to the homeland today still comes from al Qaeda and three al Qaeda groups in particular.” Those three al Qaeda subgroups — including the “core” al Qaeda branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as affiliates in Yemen and Syria — have shown more willingness to confront the U.S. on its home soil, Morell said. Of those, the most dangerous is the Yemen branch, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). “The last three attempted attacks to the United States were by al Qaeda in Yemen,” Morell said. He was referring to the failed 2009 “underwear bomber” plot on Christmas Day, as well as a scuttled 2010 plan to insert bombs into printer ink cartridges and the 2012 discovery of a plan to destroy a plane with a non-metallic suicide vest”.

Gay marriage in Ireland


In a historic referendum, with no precedent in the world, Ireland has voted to allow gay marriage in a constitutional referendum held yesterday.

The Irish Times reports Ireland has officially passed the same-sex marraige referendum with 1.2 million people voting in its favour. The result was confirmed just before 7pm on Saturday although the result was clear from very early in the count. The Yes vote prevailed by 62 to 38 per cent with a large 60.5 per cent turnout. In total, 1,201,607 people voted in favour with 734,300 against, giving a majority of 467,307. The total valid poll was 1,935,907″.

It goes on to report “Roscommon-South Leitrim was the only county to reject same-sex marriage. The No vote there finished with 51.4 per cent. Donegal, against some expectations, approved the amendment to the Constitution by a small margin. Donegal South West was on a razor edge with 50.1 per cent voting Yes, representing a margin of just 33 votes. A referendum presented simultaneously on reducing the permissible age for presidential candidates was roundly defeated. The Yes vote in Dublin in the same-sex marriage referendum was particularly pronounced”.

It adds that “Dublin Midwest recorded a Yes vote of 70.9 per cent, Dublin South West returned 71.3 per cent, Dún Laoghaire 71.6 per cent, Dublin North West 70.6 per cent and Dublin South Central 72.3 per cent, all in keeping with the 70 per cent-plus positive vote that had been anticipated in the capital. As the result emerged on Saturday afternoon thousands of people gathered in the courtyard of Dublin Castle amid scenes of widespread jubilation. Senior politicians welcomed the result, with Minister for Health Leo Varadkar saying the overwhelming Yes vote makes Ireland a “beacon of light” for the rest of the world in terms of liberty and equality. “It’s a historical day for Ireland,” he told RTÉ, a “social revolution”, adding that had any constituencies voted No, it would only have been a handful. In the end there was just one. Mr Varadkar revealed publically during the referendum campaign that he was gay”.

Gracious in defeat, “Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said it was now time to focus on other myriad inequalities in Irish society. “I have the strong belief – there is a strong belief in the church – about the nature of marriage and the family,” he said, after the result was beyond dispute. “I would like to have seen that the rights of gay and lesbian men and women could have been respected without changing the definition of marriage. That hasn’t happened, but that is the world we live in today.” The eyes of the world have been trained on Ireland with the story featuring prominently in international media throughout the weekend”.

The piece adds “Paul Moran of Millward Brown told RTÉ voter turnout had proved vital and that youth had driven the result, if not entirely deciding it. Social media has played a central role, he said. No campaigners congratulated the Yes side. Prominent No campaigner and director of the Iona Institute David Quinn seemed to concede the vote shortly after counting began when he tweeted: “Congratulations to the Yes site. Well done.” The Iona Institute issued a statement congratulating the Yes side “on their win” which they described as “a handsome victory”. “We hope the Government will address the concerns voters on the No side have about the implications for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience,” it concluded”.

The report continues “Yes campaigner and Fianna Fáil Senator Averil Power said gay campaigners who told their stories on the doorsteps of voters had “helped to change Ireland for all of us”, not just the gay community. She said she had seen many of them reduced to tears by the experience they had during the campaign. For them, it was often “an incredibly difficult thing to do”. Senator David Norris, who fought from the 1970s to 1993 to have homosexuality decriminalised, welcomed the result. “I believe that by the end of today gay people will be equal in this country. I think it’s wonderful,” he said. Minister for Children James Reilly said while the same-sex marriage referendum yes vote is strong in Dublin, it is also strong around the country. He says a lot of voters have been thinking about their grandchildren and giving them the same opportunities in life, should they be gay”.

It goes on to mention that “US vice president Joe Biden tweeted: “We welcome Ireland’s support for equality #LoveWins.” As with the last referendum, media facilities were made available at Dublin Castle, and a large international contingent was in attendance. Following calls from politicians and members of the public on Friday Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW Simon Harris announced that Dublin Castle would also be open to 2,000 members of the public”.

An opnion piece notes why young people were so invoved in the debate, it begins “On a bleak November afternoon, hundreds of students lined up to fill in voter registration forms at a stand in University College Cork (UCC). They smiled as they posed for selfies in the queue, proud to be doing their civic duty. By the end of the 15-day student-run registration drive, 3,677 first-time voters — nearly 20 per cent of the UCC student population — had been signed up. James Upton, the outgoing auditor of the UCC LGBT society, had manned the stand with other volunteers from 10am until 4pm every weekday for the duration of the three-week campaign. The efforts of UCC activists are just one strand in the story of how young people mobilised in historic numbers ahead of yesterday’s marriage referendum. Speaking on Newstalk about yesterday’s high voter turnout, Minister for Communications Alex White, the Labour Party director of elections, said there had been a “remarkable” galvanisation of young voters in recent weeks. “We couldn’t have won it without them,” Colm O’Gorman, director of Amnesty International Ireland, told Morning Ireland earlier today. At least 27,633 young people were directly registered to vote this academic year by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), which secured a unanimous mandate from its members to support marriage equality in 2012. Laura Harmon, the USI president, attributes the success of campus registration drives to the momentum created by student campaigners. “We have had a very engaged LGBT student community for many years now,” she says. “You only need to look at the way people have campaigned for LGBT flags to be flown on different campuses and tried to get exam dates changed so students could vote in the referendum.” Young people engaged in the campaign for marriage equality because they understood the direct impact it would have on gay friends and family members, adds Ms Harmon. Ian Power, the executive director of youth information website, agrees. “Personal testimonies have been very important,” he says. “Previous referenda — on the Seanad, the Court of Appeal, judges’ pay and Oireachtas inquiries — were all about the system, which young people can find hard to connect with on a personal level. But with this referendum, people understand the consequences”.

Fintan O Toole writes “The overwhelming victory for the Yes side in the marriage equality referendum is not as good as it looks. It’s much better. It looks extraordinary – little Ireland becoming the first country in the world to support same sex marriage by direct popular vote. But actually it’s about the ordinary. Ireland has redefined what it means go be an ordinary human being”.

O’Toole goes on to argue that “We’ve made it clear to the world that there is a new normal — that “ordinary” is a big, capacious word that embraces and rejoices in the natural diversity of humanity. LGBT people are now a fully acknowledged part of the wonderful ordinariness of Irish life. It looks like a victory for tolerance. But it’s actually an end to mere toleration. Tolerance is what “we” extend, in our gracious goodness, to “them”. It’s about saying “You do your own thing over there and we won’t bother you so long as you don’t bother us”. The resounding Yes is a statement that Ireland has left tolerance far behind. It’s saying that there’s no “them” anymore. LGBT people are us — our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbours and friends. We were given the chance to say that. We were asked to replace tolerance with the equality of citizenship. And we took it in both arms and hugged it close”.

Poientently he adds “It looks like a victory for articulacy. This was indeed a superb civic campaign. And it was marked by the riveting eloquence of so many people, of Una Mullally and Colm O’Gorman, of Mary McAleese and Noel Whelan, of Ursula Halligan and Colm Toibin, of Averil Power and Aodhan O Riordan and of so many others who spoke their hearts and their minds on the airwaves and the doorsteps. The Yes side did not rise to provocations and insults, it rose above them. Many people sacrificed their privacy and exposed their most intimate selves to the possibility of public rejection. Their courage and dignity made the difference. Even so, this is not a victory for articulate statement. Deep down, it’s a victory for halting, fretful speech. How? Because what actually changed Ireland over the last two decades is hundreds of thousands of painful, stammered conversations that began with the dreaded words “I have something to tell you…” It’s all those moments of coming out around kitchen tables, tentative words punctuated by sobs and sighs, by cold silences and fearful hesitations. Those awkward, unhappy, often unfinished conversations are where the truths articulated so eloquently in the campaign were first uttered. And it was through them that gay men and lesbians became Us, our children, our families”.

He goes on to aruge that “It looks like a victory for Liberal Ireland over Conservative Ireland. But it’s much more significant than that. It’s the end of that whole, sterile, useless, unproductive division. There is no longer a Liberal Ireland and a Conservative Ireland. The cleavage between rural and urban, tradition and modernity that has shaped so many of the debates of the last four decades has been repaired. This is a truly national moment — as joyful in Bundoran as it is Ballymun, in Castlerea as it is in Cobh. Instead of Liberal Ireland and Conservative Ireland we have a decent, democratic Ireland. It looks like LGBT people finally coming out of the closet. But actually it’s more than that: it’s Ireland coming out to itself. We had a furtive, anxious hidden self of optimism and decency, a self long clouded by hypocrisy and abstraction and held in check by fear. On Friday, this Ireland stopped being afraid of itself. The No campaign was all about fear — the fear that change could have only one vehicle (the handcart) and one destination (hell). And this time, it didn’t work. Paranoia and pessimism lost out big time to the confident, hopeful, self-belief that Irish people have hidden from themselves for too long”.

He ends “It looks like a victory for global cosmopolitanism. But actually it’s a victory for intimacy. It was intimacy that made Ireland such a horrible place for gay and lesbian people, for all those whose difference would be marked and spied on and gossiped about. But intimacy is a tide that is just as powerful when it turns the other way. Once LGBT people did begin to come out, they became known. Irish people like what they know. They like the idea of “home”. On Friday, the wonderful spectacle of people coming back to vote, embodied for all of us that sense of home as place where the heart is — the strong, beating heart of human connection. Finally, it looks like a defeat for religious conservatives. But nobody has been defeated. Nobody has been diminished. Irish people comprehensively rejected the notion that our republic is a zero sum game, that what is given to one must be taken from another. Everybody gains from equality — even those who didn’t think they wanted it. Over time, those who are in a minority on this issue will come to appreciate the value of living in a pluralist democracy in which minorities are respected. By pushing forward on what only recently seemed a marginal issue, the LGBT community has given all of Irish democracy one of its greatest days. It has given our battered republic a new sense of engagement, a new confidence, an expanded sense of possibility. It has shown all of us that the unthinkable is perfectly attainable”.

After the defeat it has been reported that Archbishop Martin said that “The Catholic Church needs “a reality check” in the wake of the same-sex marriage referendum and needs to ask if it has drifted away from young people, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has said. “I think really that the church needs to do a reality check, a reality check right across the board, to look at the things it’s doing well, to look at the areas where we really have to start and say, ‘Look, have we drifted away completely from young people?’ ” he told RTÉ News. He said the referendum result was “an overwhelming vote in one direction” and he appreciated how gay men and lesbian women felt after the endorsement of same-sex marriage – “that they feel this is something which is enriching the way they live”, he said”.

The report adds that ““I think it’s a social revolution… It’s a social revolution that didn’t begin today,” he said. “It’s a social revolution that’s been going on, and perhaps in the church people have not been as clear in understanding what that involved. “It’s very clear that if this referendum is an affirmation of the views of young people, then the church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and to get its message across to young people, not just on this issue, but in general.” Dr Martin said it was important that the church must not move into denial of the realities. “We won’t begin again with a sense of renewal by simply denying,” he said”.

When he met Pope Benedict after he became archbishop, the pope asked him where were the points of contact between the Catholic Church and the places where the future of Irish culture was being formed, he said. “And that’s a question the church has to ask itself here in Ireland,” Dr Martin said”.

The report ends “Dr Martin added that “we tend to think in black and white but most of us live in the area of grey, and if the church has a harsh teaching, it seems to be condemning those who are not in line with it. “But all of us live in the grey area. All of us fail. All of us are intolerant. All of us make mistakes. All of us sin and all of us pick ourselves up again with the help of that institution which should be there to do that. “The church’s teaching, if it isn’t expressed in terms of love – then it’s got it wrong,” he said”.

Saudi airstrikes resume


Saudi-led coalition airstrikes targeting Shiite rebels resumed early Monday in the southern port city of Aden after a five-day truce came to a close following talks on the war-torn country’s future that were boycotted by the rebels. Coalition airstrikes hit rebel positions and tanks in several neighborhoods of Aden after the cease-fire expired at 11 p.m. on Sunday, Yemeni security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The cease-fire hadn’t halted all fighting in Yemen between the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and government forces loyal to exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Earlier Sunday, hundreds of Yemeni politicians and tribal leaders gathered in Saudi Arabia for three days of talks on Yemen’s future, but the Houthis refused to participate. The Shiite rebels reject the main aim of the talks — the restoration of Hadi, who fled the country in March in the face of rebel advances — and the location of the negotiations in Saudi Arabia, which is leading an air campaign against the Houthis and their allies. The absence of the Houthis means the national dialogue is unlikely to end the violence”.

Yemen, ISIS and Saudi Arabia


A piece from Foreign Policy reports that those in Saudi Arabia are supportive of the governments fight against Yemen but less pleased about the action that needs to be taken against ISIS.

It opens “On a recent Saturday morning, Saudi national guardsman Abdulaziz Al Omran and his friend Khaled bin Mohammed sat down at a cafe on Tahlia St. to discuss their country’s military operations in Yemen. The 30-somethings wore designer sunglasses, one with shorts and a t-shirt and other in the baggy pants of a Riyadh hipster. They blended in amid a handful of tables full of similarly dressed young men. For the last six weeks, Saudi Arabia has launched airstrikes in Yemen aimed at re-installing the country’s president, now in exile in the kingdom, and stopping Iran-backed Houthi rebels”.

The report goes on to note “As Gulf leaders gather for a summit at Camp David on Wednesday, Yemen is likely to be on the agenda. White House and Gulf officials have said the meeting will reaffirm U.S. ties to the Arab Gulf monarchs, in the face of a looming deal between the United States and Iran over its nuclear program. While Riyadh argues that it is at war in Yemen with Iranian proxies who threaten the kingdom’s security, Washington has gently pushed for an end — or at least a pause — to the military activity as the humanitarian crisis there deepens. A five-day ceasefire is set to begin on May 12 to allow aid and medicine to move into besieged areas — but all indications suggest that the war will resume after this brief hiatus. In the hours before the truce was set to begin, Saudi Arabia amassed troops along the Yemeni border and Houthi rebels battered the Saudi cities of Jizan and Najran with rockets”.

The writer interestingly notes that “the Saudis seem in no hurry to end the fight is that there has so far been no hint of public dissatisfaction at the military campaign. Both in the tightly-controlled domestic press and social media, many have praised the Saudi efforts: Newspapers laud each day’s airstrikes, the radio plays songs in praise of the operation, and Twitter and Facebook are alight with praise and heroic-looking montages of the king. Some Saudi women took up a social media campaign urging fellow females to put aside fears of long deployments and marry soldiers, explained 26-year-old Alanood at a café in central Riyadh”.

The writer argues that “Such support could be key for a new monarch, who has ordered dramatic changes to the kingdom’s government in his first 100 days in office. Since taking the crown in January, the new monarch has reorganised the government, reshuffled the cabinet, and revamped the succession order, placing his son second-in-line to the throne. Liberals, too, have voiced uncommon support. From his home in East Riyadh, writer and translator Khaled al-Ghannami — a former religious radical who reformed and became an outspoken critic of the government-backed clerical authorities”.

The story then turns to a “dusty campus of Saudi Arabia’s counter-radicalisation program, counselors say they hope their country’s Yemen operation will also win over another cohort: Islamic extremists. Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry says some 2,500 Saudis have left to Iraq and Syria in recent years to join groups such as the Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. Many of the young recruits — the average age is between 18 and 25, according to the Interior Ministry — see their jihadist mission as an essentially humanitarian one. For years, they have watched fellow Sunnis in Syria and Iraq suffer at the hands of Iranian allies — whether Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus or Shiite militias in Iraq. Radical groups use the suffering as a lure: You have a duty to help, they say, because no state or government is fighting back against Iran. At the Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Care, where all returned foreign fighters must spend at least three months before returning to society, religious counselors say the Saudi operation in Yemen has given them a counter argument”.

The author notes that this counterargument rests on the notion that the Saudi government will do what is right. The hope following on from this is to stop young Saudis taking on the “responsibility” of going to Syria and Iraq themselves.

He adds “the Saudi de-radicalisation program aims to convince the jihadists that the Saudi state can do a better job at helping Sunnis than any individuals can on their own. Nearly 3,000 jihadists have made their way through the kingdom’s rehabilitation program since it began in 2005. According to the Center’s director, Maj. Gen. Nasser Al Mutairi, 86 percent of them have returned to their normal lives without incident; 13 percent have relapsed, and of those, half have been re-arrested”.

The do nothing attitude of the Obama administration has led to “Saudi Arabia’s stance on Yemen has emboldened many here and across the Gulf to imagine new theaters for Riyadh’s regional influence. They see the tides turning against Tehran and think: If Saudi Arabia is willing to push back in Yemen, why not in other Arab capitals like Damascus and Baghdad, too? The Syrian opposition is wondering out loud whether Saudi Arabia may start transferring more advanced weapons to the rebels, even if the United States objects. Riyadh recently said it would soon host a conference of opposition groups fighting Assad, in a bid to unify competing rebel factions”.

The writer ends “Riyadh’s position may weaken if the conflict drags on further, or fails to push back the Houthis. The Saudi coalition has met a number of its military objectives, such as eliminating the Houthis’ stocks of ballistic missiles, but have so far failed to push the rebels from either the capital of Sanaa or the port city of Aden after six weeks of bombing. International criticism may also start to grate. On May 10, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Yemen accused the Saudi-led coalition of breaking international law, bombing schools and hospitals in a barrage of 130 airstrikes over 24 hours. Relief organizations are also warning of a humanitarian catastrophe as the conflict drags on. So far, however, the war remains popular. Most Saudis say that the Yemen operation was warranted, and that the Houthis do indeed pose a direct threat. Back on Tahlia St., the young men say they are ready to fight”.

Morsi sentenced


An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced to death the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with more than 100 others, for fleeing prison during the 2011 revolt against President Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Morsi’s conviction is the latest sign of the undoing of the uprising that overthrew Mr. Mubarak. Mr. Morsi, who was Egypt’s first freely elected leader, now faces the death penalty for escaping extralegal detention — a form of detention that many Egyptians hoped would be eliminated by the revolution. If carried out, the sentence could make Mr. Morsi a martyr to millions of Islamists in Egypt and around the world. In a statement about the sentencing, Amr Darrag, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who was a cabinet minister under Mr. Morsi, said it was “one of the darkest days of Egyptian history” and a symbol “of the dark shadow of authoritarianism that is now cast back over Egypt.” Judge Shaaban el-Shami issued the ruling in a courtroom in a converted auditorium on the grounds of a police academy on the outskirts of Cairo. Mr. Morsi, wearing a blue prison uniform, stood inside a metal and glass cage built in the courtroom. Some of his co-defendants, including other senior Brotherhood leaders, also appeared in the cage”.

“10 days of combined exercises”


An article notes that Chinese and Russian naval ships are in European waters as an Asian pivot, “On May 11, nine ships from the Russian Navy and China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) kicked off 10 days of combined exercises in the Mediterranean Sea, for their first joint naval war games in European waters. What does this nautical confab, dubbed “Joint Sea 2015,” entail? “Maritime defense, maritime replenishment, escort actions, joint operations to safeguard navigation security as well as real weapon firing drill,” according to Sr. Col. Geng Yansheng, a spokesman for China’s Defense Ministry. The aim of the exercises is to “further deepen friendly and practical interaction between the two countries,” maintained the Russian Defense Ministry. Moscow added that the drills “are not aimed against any third country.” Despite the soothing words, some Western commentators opined that Europe’s middle sea constitutes an “unlikely and provocative venue” for this venture. Yes, Moscow and Beijing chose the venue precisely to be provocative — the exercise is a throwback to Soviet maneuvers in the Mediterranean 40 years ago. It was predictable that an allied fleet would eventually put in an appearance off NATO’s southern, nautical flank”.

The author goes on to note “Does a Sino-Russian naval presence off NATO seaboards sound frightening to you? It shouldn’t — there’s nothing new nor especially worrisome here. It represents normalcy in a world of geostrategic competition — the kind of world that’s making a comeback following a quarter-century of seaborne U.S. hegemony. The United States wants to preserve its primacy, along with the liberal maritime order over which it has presided since the end of World War II. Challengers such as China and Russia want to amend that system while carving out their own places in the sun of great naval power. Irreconcilable differences over purposes and power beget open-ended strategic competition”.

Yet to preserve this primacy the United States needs to understand that the threat from China is real and needs to be met, and paid for.

The writer goes on to discuss the problems of interoperability for Russia and China. “Let’s start with the obvious motive, and the official one. Russia and China are doubtless sincere about harvesting the dividends that come from steaming around together and practicing routine operations. Both navies need to learn, and they can learn from each other. China is constructing its first world-class navy since the 15th century. Russia is recovering from the dreary post-Cold War years when ships rusted at their moorings and sailors went unpaid. Both countries’ sea services are now trying to put things right following protracted intervals of decay — a lapse of centuries in China’s case, decades in Russia’s. So where does this newfound strength come from? Materiel — reliable, technologically sophisticated hardware and weaponry — and the proficiency of its users. Maneuvers like Joint Sea 2015 help the navies improve along both the material and human axes. In material terms, the Russian and Chinese navies need to bolster their equipment “interoperability” — their capacity to back up the Sino-Russian partnership’s policies efficiently and effectively. Call it a form of multinational gunboat diplomacy. Armed services order their kit from defense manufacturers. Such firms may — or, more likely, may not — build their products to a common standard. Their wares are far from interchangeable. Dissimilar hardware makes it hard to work together, even for armed forces flying the same national flag. To take a workaday example: think about trying to use tools designed for English and metric measurements together”.

He adds “Interoperability, then, is the process of devising procedures or material fixes to make incompatible machinery compatible. Yes, the PLAN and Russian Navy have a fair amount of equipment in common: China imported Soviet-built weaponry to help kick start its naval renaissance in the 1990s. But at the same time, Chinese industry started building ships, planes, and armaments with zest — even as Russia fields newfangled hardware of its own. Consequently, the navies are drifting apart in compatibility terms. Interoperability is on the decline. Exercises help restore it”.

Worryingly the Chinese obsession, and misreading of history comes to the fore again, “To Chinese and Russian eyes, surrendering control of offshore waters to the U.S. Navy looks like surrendering control to the Royal Navy and fellow imperial powers a century ago. Historical memory is especially acute for China, which lost control of its seaboard and internal waterways to waterborne conquerors. But Russia endured traumas of its own: It watched the Imperial Japanese Navy demolish the Russian Navy during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. China and Russia hope to banish such memories while turning Spykman’s logic of nautical supremacy to their advantage. If successful, they’ll stiff-arm the United States in Asia while projecting power into NATO waters”.

He ends “However gratifying for Moscow, though, such capers set the law of unintended consequences in motion. By the 1980s, the Soviet naval rise jolted the United States into a naval buildup of its own — a buildup that empowered the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to reassert their supremacy in Eurasian waters while setting the stage for the United States’ post-Cold War preeminence. In short, Moscow’s propaganda coup backfired badly: it goaded Washington into action, prompting the Carter and Reagan administrations to fashion a new, offensive-minded maritime strategy prosecuted by a nearly 600-ship navy. That’s what strategists call self-defeating behavior. So be careful what you wish for, Russia and China”.

India builds another aircraft carrier


India has finally set the ball rolling for the eventual construction of its largest-ever warship, the 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier INS Vishal. The defence acquisitions council (DAC) has sanctioned an initial Rs 30 crore as seed money for the project. Just before PM Narendra Modi left for China on Wednesday night, the Manohar Parrikar-led DAC cleared a flurry of long-pending projects for ultra-light howitzers, medium-transport aircraft, light utility helicopters and the like worth over Rs 25,000 crore, as reported by TOI.

The inevitable rise of Tagle?


After the recent election of Luis Cardinal Tagle as president of Caritas Internationalis, John Allen writes that he will dominate Catholic politics for decades, “Right now, the Irish betting firm Paddy Power has Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle of the Philippines as the favuorite to be the next pope, giving him 11/2 odds. Already dubbed the “Asian Francis,” Tagle got another boost this week with his election to lead a global federation of Catholic charities. (For the record, Paddy Power has Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston as the American with the best odds, at 10-1.) Granted, such forecasts don’t have a particularly good track record. Papal elections occur only when the incumbent either dies or resigns, and at the moment Francis seems perfectly healthy with no sign of slowing down. Between today and whenever a conclave might occur, any number of things can happen to change the landscape. That dose of caution, however, rarely stops “next pope” rumours from being the Church’s favorite parlor game. So if we’re going to go down that route, there’s a great deal to be said for Tagle, who would make a strong runner if the key issue next time is continuity with Francis”.

Allen goes on to make the point “Seen as the Catholic rock star of Asia because of his high media profile and wildly successful TV and internet broadcasts, Tagle on Thursday was elected president of Caritas Internationalis, a network 165 Catholic charitable organizations around the world based in Rome. Building a “poor church for the poor” is the motto of the Francis era, and from his perch at Caritas, Tagle is now poised to become one of the most influential architects of that push after the pontiff himself. Serving as president of Caritas doesn’t mean Tagle will move to Rome, or abandon his position in Manila. It does mean, however, that he’ll often be asked to visit disaster zones or conflict areas, articulating a Catholic response. He’ll be more in demand on the lecture circuit, more sought after by the media, and generally will enjoy an ever higher degree of visibility”.

Allen notes the point that “Inside the Vatican, it means that Tagle will be more involved at the big-picture level in terms of fleshing out the pope’s broad social, political, and humanitarian agenda. Tagle won the May 14 ballot at the Caritas General Assembly by a wide margin, a reflection of two points: First, that he enjoys great respect and affection among the Church’s charity leaders; and second, those leaders are smart enough to know that Tagle has the pope’s ear and can move the ball. The Filipino cardinal wasn’t in Rome on the day of his election, because he was in Chicago to receive an honorary doctorate from the Catholic Theological Union. He knows the United States well, among other things having earned a doctorate in theology at the Catholic University of America in 1991”.

He adds that “Having hosted a triumphant papal visit to the Philippines in January that drew an eye-popping six to seven million people to the final Mass – in the teeth of a typhoon, no less – Tagle is a lock as the pope’s most important ally in Asia. The parallels with Francis are indeed eerie. Before taking over in Manila in 2011, Tagle served as bishop of the smaller Philippine diocese of Imus, where he was famous for not owning a car, preferring to either walk or to hop on one of the cheap minibuses known as a “jeepneys” working-class Filipinos use. He was also renowned for inviting beggars in the square outside his cathedral to eat with him. Theologically and politically, Tagle is a moderate. He’s open to allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to communion on a case-by-case basis, and he also resisted calls to take a more pugnacious line during a recent national debate in the Philippines over a controversial “Reproductive Health” law featuring public support for contraception”.

Yet, caution should be drawn about the equating Francis with Cardinal Tagle. Firstly, there is a saying, “after a fat pope, a lean pope”. This means that the new pope is nothing like the old pope. As Benedict XVI was a shy academic and curialist who chose his words carefully, Francis is the opposite of all of this. Therefore, in order to look for the next pope starting with what Pope Francis is not is a good place to start. Secondly, the issues of the next conclave will not be known. In 2013 it was governance and the Curia. Next time it could be relations with Africa or Islam which would lead to a dramatically different outcome. This is not to say that Tagle could not become pope but it is less likely.

Allen ends “Nobody at Tagle’s level is without critics, and he’s drawn fire on multiple fronts. Some question Tagle’s theological pedigree, noting that he was a member of the editorial board for a controversial progressive history of the Second Vatican Council criticized by Pope Benedict XVI. Last month Tagle blasted what he called the “harsh words” the Church sometimes has used for gays, unwed mothers and divorced and remarried Catholics. That remark drew blowback from pro-life Catholic groups. Whatever one makes of Tagle, because of his young age, 57, as well as the multiple leadership posts he holds, he will be a force in Catholicism for a long time”.

NATO stays in Afghanistan


NATO has decided to stay in Afghanistan even after the end of current Resolute Support (RS) mission and unlike other missions it would be led by civilians, NATO Secretary General said on Wednesday. Speaking to journalists in Turkey’s Antalya, Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, said NATO’s civilian and military authorities have been tasked to develop a plan for this continued NATO presence by the autumn that would also include presence of military contingent. He added preparations were underway to decide on concrete content of this Enduring Partnership (EP), but the only decision made as of now was that it would be a civil-military presence in Afghanistan led by civilians. “Our aim will be to advise and instruct the Afghan security institutions. To help them become self-sufficient and to build on what we have achieved so far,” he added Stoltenberg said Afghan soldiers and police have stood up against enormous challenges that made NATO’s combat operation to current mission of training, advising and assisting of ANSF smooth”.

“Pentagon has plucked two brainy candidates”


A report notes the recent nominations of President Obama for the Army and Navy.

It starts, “The Pentagon has plucked two brainy candidates out of relatively new assignments to lead the Army and Navy for the next four years, tapping Gen. Mark Milley as Army chief of staff and Adm. John Richardson as chief of Naval operations. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the nominations Wednesday, and neither Milley nor Richardson spoke during the Pentagon chief’s brief remarks to reporters. Richardson’s nomination was already widely reported, but Milley’s came as something of a surprise to many in the Army until just hours before the announcement”.

The report adds that “Carter called Richardson “a bold thinker, a tremendous leader and the go-to officer for many of the Navy’s tough issues in recent years.” He also said he had to wrestle Richardson “away from the Secretary of Energy” — a nod to the admiral’s relatively short tenure at Naval Reactors, where for the past three years he was focused on nuclear issues in a joint Defense-Energy program. That job specifically sought to keep Richardson from rotating into a new position for at least eight years. But his work on the Ohio-class nuclear submarine — which is a key component of the service’s modernization plan — likely won over Carter and other top managers searching for a new Navy leader. Carter has made upgrading the U.S. military’s nuclear arsenal a key priority”.

Interestingly it goes on to mention “Carter also knew Milley from time the two spent together in Afghanistan in 2013, when the Army general was the second-in-command of the war. Carter recounted flying with Milley to Afghanistan’s western Herat province the day after the U.S. Consulate there was targeted in a September 2013 truck bombing, where he “saw Mark take command of the scene, and stand with our people there.” At the time, Milley was serving under Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, whom the White House recently tapped as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Milley currently heads the Army’s Forces Command at Ft. Bragg, N.C., which tasks and manages missions for soldiers based in the U.S. He has served there for less than a year, and took over for Gen. John Allyn, who is now the Army’s vice chief. More recently, Milley oversaw the Army’s investigation of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked off his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and has since been charged with desertion”.

The piece goes on to mention “He has been in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and was the commanding general of Ft. Hood, Texas, in March 2014 when a soldier opened fire, killing four — including himself — and wounding 16 others. As a lieutenant in the early 1980s, Milley spent two years in the 5th Special Forces Group, which now works on special operations in the Mideast, but no information about his time there is publicly available. Earlier versions of his official biography says he commanded special forces units”.

He ends “With Ivy League degrees from Princeton and Columbia University, Milley was commissioned as an armour officer in 1980 and has served with infantry and Special Forces units, deploying to Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Richardson is rooted in science. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1982 with a degree in physics and earned Master’s degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He also commanded the nuclear submarine USS Honolulu”.


Obama assures the GCC


Charging toward an Iran nuclear agreement, President Barack Obama is assuring Arab allies that they are safe from the threat of an empowered Tehran as he seeks to shore up some of America’s most critical security partnerships. However, Obama’s claim of winning Arab support for his nuclear diplomacy appears far from certain. After a rare Camp David summit, the president on Thursday pledged Washington’s “ironclad commitment” to the Sunni governments of the Persian Gulf and even spoke of authorizing U.S. military force if their security is endangered by Shiite Iran or anyone else. The United States, he vowed, will “use all elements of power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region, and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and partners.” Obama invoked the start of a “new era of cooperation” that would last for decades to come, even as Saudi Arabia and others in the region are deeply unnerved by the prospect of an accord with Iran that would impose a decade-long freeze on its nuclear program and potentially provide it tens of billions of dollars’ worth of relief from international sanctions. The Sunni governments came to Washington looking for assurances that Obama would pair his diplomatic effort with a broader strategy to push back against Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle East. The U.S. and other world powers hope to clinch a final nuclear deal with Iran by the end of June. This week’s talks with top officials from the kingdoms of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were announced by Obama on April 2, when a framework with the Iranians was sealed”.

Franciscans at the UN?


A report argues that Pope Francis wants to move the Church away from sexual battles but, a piece argues that the mission of the Holy See to the UN is dealing with little else.

It begins “In August 2013, just months after being selected to lead the Catholic Church, Pope Francis told an interviewer that the Holy See’s clergy and diplomats should be less fixated on questions of sexual morality and show greater concern for the fate of billions of people abandoned by a modern “throwaway” culture that pays little heed to the world’s poor and persecuted. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” Pope Francis said in the interview, in which he underscored the importance of promoting peace and tackling poverty and wealth inequality. “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” The comments marked the start of a major rebranding campaign for the Catholic Church, whose image has been tarnished in recent years by the hierarchy’s failure to crack down on sexual abuse by priests and its clergy’s reputation as hard-bitten crusaders more committed to enforcing stringent moral codes than promoting peace and ministering to the world’s neediest”.

It seems the writer has some kind of inability to say Francis was elected. It may not have been a specifically representative vote but he was elected. The author is certainly correct in mentioning that Francis is trying to get away from the Cardinal Burke mode of talking endlessly about subjects that only alienate people. The key issue to take away is that there has been a rebranding, nothing more. This does not mean that Francis is going to, or wants to, change these teachings.

The piece goes on to note “Two years into his papacy, Pope Francis has also managed to successfully restore the Holy See’s reputation as an important diplomatic player. He has cultivated a personal image as peacemaker and truth-teller, brokered secret diplomatic talks between the U.S. and Cuba, and forced the world to confront uncomfortable truths, from the Armenian genocide to the deadly exodus of thousands of immigrants into Europe. He has also emerged as a powerful voice of compassion for those long living on the fringes of the church, or at least treated as second-class citizens, including the destitute, women, and openly gay Catholics”.

The writer says that Francis has restored the Holy See’s importance to IR, yet does not mention exactly how it was either important or unimportant or when, or why. Naturally, the diplomacy of Francis has been more public with the note on the Armenian genocide, the prayer of peace in the Middle East and the Cuba intervention all during his pontificate but much of this groundwork took place previously.

The author notes that “at U.N. headquarters, a central clearinghouse for world diplomacy and the September destination of the first papal visit since 1995, diplomats say the objectives of the Holy See have changed little under Pope Francis, and that the pope’s envoys remains very much entrenched on the front lines of the culture wars the pope himself has suggested he wants to leave behind. In debates on issues from development to poverty, the Holy See’s observer mission continues to serve primarily as a bulwark against efforts by Western governments to expand progressive policies, including sexual and reproductive rights, that have long been anathema to the church. Archbishop Bernardito Auza, a Filipino priest Pope Francis appointed as the Vatican’s de facto ambassador  to the U.N. last year, frequently uses the U.N. pulpit to promote the church’s conservative values, denouncing abortion and efforts to restrict population growth, and decrying the rise of artificial insemination as beneath the dignity of women and men alike”.

The first point to note is that the Church sees all of these issues as interconnected. Therefore, development the economy and poverty are all interlinked. To view them separately does not accord to the teaching of the Church. Secondly, the notion that Pope Francis wants to sideline the Church’s opposition to abortion completely is to both misread Francis and misunderstand the Church.

The piece goes on to mention “U.N.-based diplomats say that the pope, as well as Auza, have outlined a wide-ranging diplomatic agenda in their public statements. But they say the message hasn’t trickled down to the Holy See’s negotiators in New York. “We have been very happy to hear some of the signals that have come from Pope Francis: He has been more progressive and indicated that he didn’t want the church to be as dogmatic as it has been,” said one Western diplomat who has negotiated with the church’s diplomats at the United Nations. “But when you look at what is happening on the ground here in New York, you don’t really see that change at all.” A review of a confidential internal negotiating text from a recent conference on the Commission on Population and Development, obtained by Foreign Policy, show the Holy See’s negotiator working to strip out references to “reproductive rights,” which the Vatican sees as a green light for abortion, and “gender equality,” a phrase the Vatican views as an implicit endorsement of transgender rights”.

This proves, if proof were needed that only the style has changed, not the substance.

The author adds how the Holy See has become more relevant, “In an April interview with the Wall Street Journal, President Barack Obama said the United States consults “very closely” with the church about how the U.S. can help protect religious minorities in conflict areas. Obama will meet with the pope at the White House in September, where he intends to discuss climate change and matters of “war and peace,” including in the Middle East, “where Christians have been viciously attacked,” the president said in the interview. In a March speech at Durham University in England, Britain’s envoy to the Holy See, Nigel Baker, said his “embassy, and the other 80 or so resident embassies to the Holy See from governments around the world, have never been busier”.

He goes on to mention “Pope Francis intends to highlight his diplomatic ambitions in a high-profile trip next September to the United Nations, where he will address the U.N. General Assembly at a Summit on Sustainable Development, which will endorse a new set of 17 development goals, known as the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. He will also back as many as 169 more detailed targets that can be met by 2030, including the eradication of poverty and hunger, increase opportunities for the education of children and women, and the promotion of economic growth that is environmentally sustainable. The visit aims to underscore the church’s commitment to addressing “poverty and social justice” and drawing attention to the international community’s responsibility to uphold “religious freedom” and defend minorities from persecution, Auza said in an interview with the Deseret News previewing the pope’s visit “In the Middle East, the United Nations has been in a sense powerless, it has not been able to find a way how to stop bloodshed and persecutions, especially against Christians and minorities,” he said. Behind the scenes most of the Holy See’s diplomatic influence has been mustered to advance the Vatican’s position in supporting a traditional view of the human family that leaves little room for gays.  During negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals, the Holy See has largely devoted its energies to pushing back on efforts by Western government to expanding reproductive rights and the protections afforded women, girls, and gays. “They are focused on very few issues; the only time you hear about them in negotiations is on issues relating to abortion, women’s rights, the family,” said a European diplomat”.

He correctly notes the emphasis that has been placed by the Holy See on Christians in the Middle East, “The deadly exodus of migrants who leave North Africa and attempt to make it to Europe is a top diplomatic priority for Francis and his diplomats. The Vatican routinely scolds European envoys traveling through Rome about their failure to do more to to address the problem. Rome’s message is a blunt one: “The Mediterranean should not become a cemetery and the Europeans have a common responsibility to do something about it,” said one European diplomat. Francis’s personal outreach to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been particularly active. Last month, Francis hosted Ban at the Vatican for a discussion about climate change and the fate of the African and Middle Eastern refugees risking their lives on deadly boat trips in search of a better future in Europe. “They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war. They were looking for a better life,” Francis told thousands of followers during April 19 prayers in St. Peter’s Square. Next month, the pope plans to issue his first papal encyclical on the impact climate change inflicts on the world’s poorest. Behind closed doors at the Vatican, the Pope assured Ban of his commitment to fighting climate change. But the discussions soon veered off onto other topics, including the link between migration and human trafficking and the need to tackle the root cause of poverty and inequality”.

He ends, “Francis has also raised hopes that his papacy that would strike a dramatically different approach to gays than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who once signed a Vatican letter asserting that homosexuality is “an objective disorder” that reflects a “strong tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil.” Francis has spoken compassionately about gays, suggesting the church would be accepting of them. In February, the Vatican for the first time granted VIP seats to the New Ways Ministry, a group of visiting gay and lesbian Catholics, to a weekly audience with the pope at St. Peter’s Square. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?,” he said in an August 2013 interview.” Last October, the Vatican issued a report indicating that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian Church.” The pope’s remarks were embraced as the dawn of a more compassionate church that would focus on the matters that affect all humanity.  But on the eve of the pope’s upcoming visit to the United Nations, advocates for gays, women and other marginalized groups have been disappointed on that front, saying the Holy See’s diplomats have invested most of their diplomatic resources into leading a cultural war”.

He concludes “The Vatican’s views on homosexuality reveals a deep seated anxiety about the way that U.N. bureaucrats and Western governments have framed international discussion on development and concerns about efforts to control population. Those concerns were heightened in debates on population and women’s rights in the mid-1990s in Cairo and Beijing, which fueled calls for universal access to reproductive health services and family planning information by 2015. The Vatican’s principle preoccupation is less about sex than about what it views as the emergence of radical new definition of gender, which see human beings, not simply as men and women, but as individuals who can determine their own sexual identity control their natural reproductive cycle. For the Church, this represents an affront by liberals and feminists to the natural biological order and the traditional family, headed by a man and woman, and contributes to homosexuality, abortion and the erosion of the family”.

He finishes “The Catholic hierarchy is largely divided into camps: the theologians, who ascribe to a pure reading of church doctrine, and the diplomats, who think the church should be more focused on matters of peace and justice. For now, the diplomats are in ascendance at the Vatican, but the pope has had to assure the theologians that he is not rewriting church doctrine. Last August, Francis visited a so-called cemetery for “abortion victims” outside of Seoul South, Korea, to underscore the church opposition to abortion. Francis has “to convince the pro-life contingent in the church that he is not their enemy,” said Allen. “And he has done stuff to make clear he is not waiving the white flag in the culture wars.”


ISIS nears Palmyra


Islamic State fighters are attacking Syrian troops near the ancient Roman site of Palmyra, one of the world’s finest set of classical ruins. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) have suffered losses in Iraq but have continued to advance against Assad regime forces in neighbouring Syria. In the north-east of the country, they have cut supply lines from regime-held Homs to Deir Ezzour, a city in a largely Isil-held area parts of which are holding out for the government. The fighting has now brought Isil within reach of Palmyra and the city of Tadmor, in which the ruins are sited. “Violent clashes between IS and the government troops are still taking place around the city,” the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said. “The clashes resulted in the death of 70 members of the government troops at least, including 6 officers and 40 IS militants, including 2 Arab commanders.” The Isil advance is not aimed at the ancient city itself, but has raised fears for its future“.

“A growing challenge to U.S. supremacy in Asia”


A report from Foreign Affairs discusses the rising defence budget in China. This follows on from a recent piece about how to balance against China.

It begins “China has done it again. In early March, it released its defence budget for 2015, and as in almost every year for over almost two decades, it increased its military expenditure by double-digit percentages. This year, the Chinese defence budget will rise by 10.1 percent, to roughly $145 billion. And it seems likely that the trend will continue, much to the concern of Washington and regional capitals. Already, China is the second-biggest military spender in the world, having surpassed the United Kingdom in 2008. China’s new budget for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is more than three times those of other big spenders such as France, Japan, and the United Kingdom, and nearly four times that of its rising Asian rival, India. It is also the only country besides the United States to have a triple-digit defense budget (in billions of U.S. dollars). This level of spending is all the more remarkable given where China started. In 1997, Chinese military expenditures totaled only about $10 billion, roughly on par with Taiwan and significantly less than that of Japan and South Korea”.

The author adds “Beginning that year, however, China’s defence budget began to rise. There were two economic factors that made this growth possible. First, the country’s economy soared; in 1997, defence spending made up less than two percent of GDP, which remains roughly the same share today, at least according to Beijing. Second, low inflation rates over the past two decades have meant that real growth in defence spending has nearly matched nominal growth; even the most conservative estimate of actual growth rates (accounting for inflation) reveal a five-fold real increase in military expenditures since 1997. What is particularly striking about the growth in defense spending over the last two decades is that it has almost always outpaced GDP growth. Between 1998 and 2007, China’s economy grew at an average annual rate of 12.5 percent, while its defence spending increased at an average of 15.9 percent per annum. Given that the economy is likely to grow by only seven percent in 2015, and its defence spending is growing at double digits, the disconnect between economic performance and defense spending is becoming more pronounced”.

Worryingly he makes the point “it is commonly assumed by many in the West that the official defence budget does not provide a full picture of Chinese military spending and that the central government hides expenses for certain items—for example research and development, arms imports, and subsidies to defense industries—in other parts of its overall budget”.

He goes on to write “the exercise in guesstimating “actual” Chinese military expenditures has become increasingly irrelevant. With an official military budget approaching $150 billion, the PLA has all the on-the-books money it needs to underwrite a very aggressive military modernisation program, and if the military wants more, Beijing appears more than ready to provide it. There is, quite simply, no reason for Beijing to conceal actual military spending, at least the overall figure. China is still opaque, with some reason, about how it allocates its defence budget. The country has never released separate figures for its ground forces, navy, or air force. Chinese defence white papers (released every two years, starting in 1998) once broke down spending by personnel, operations and support, and “equipment” (which presumably includes weapons procurement and defense research and development). But that stopped in 2009”.

The writer continues “China’s budget for equipment alone is greater than the total defence budgets of Japan, India, or any other Asia–Pacific rival. Not surprisingly, from roughly the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, China became one of the world’s largest arms importers: buying advanced fighter jets, submarines, destroyers, and transport planes from Russia, missiles from Ukraine, and drones from Israel. Since the early 2000s, China has begun to phase out arms imports in favour of homegrown weapons. Fueled by an explosion in research and development spending and the injection of new funds to modernise arms factories, China’s domestic defence industry has begun turning out scores of new, very advanced weapons systems”.

He makes the point that China sees itself as surrounded by enemies but, “almost the same breath, Beijing argues that its military expenditures are still relatively meager. The latest rise in defense spending is the lowest increase in five years, officials claim, and military spending still accounts for less than 1.5 percent of the country’s GDP. They also assert that in terms of per capita military spending, China’s defense budget is still only one-fifth of Japan’s”,

Crucially he mentions that “Much of what China says is true but misleading. For instance, this year’s 10.1 percent rise, although on the low side, is otherwise more or less in line with China’s defense spending increases over the past two decades. That could mean that China is trying to use a small dip in its spending growth to downplay its military spending overall, in order to head off criticism that it has issued the largest defense budget in China’s history, and to bolster Beijing’s “peaceful development” approach”.

He concludes “Certainly the United States continues to be the bigger spender, outpacing China on defense by a factor of four to one. Moreover, by nearly every metric—quantity and quality of weaponry, soldierly prowess, training, and leadership—the U.S. military outclasses the PLA. Still, a progressively modernizing Chinese military constitutes a growing challenge to U.S. supremacy in Asia. Along with its assertive and unapologetic stance on raising its military expenditures, China is increasingly aggressive in contested areas around China, particularly the East and South China Seas. Moreover, China is committed to modernizing its military to a point where it can be supreme in the region. There likewise exists a strong national will to spend the money to make this happen. This trajectory may not necessarily put China on a collision course with the United States, but it doesn’t bode well for regional security over the long run. It does not help that Washington’s emerging war strategies for dealing with China—AirSea Battle (now known as the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons)—are equally potentially confrontational. As China—powered by hubris and backed by an increasingly capable military—becomes increasingly aggressive in the region, it could possibly provoke a U.S. pushback. If the arms race escalates, security and stability in the Asia–Pacific can only grow more fragile”.





“A bill calling for a halt”


A group of Iranian lawmakers are claiming that a bill calling for a halt in nuclear talks with the United States is not the one they signed and was not a matter of “triple urgency.” Signatory Hojjat Khoda’i-Suri said within hours after the bill was passed by a parliamentary review board that the legislation as presented was “bogus.” Furthermore, he told the official IRNA news agency, the 80 lawmakers who signed the bill were not aware that it would be given “triple-urgency” status. According to the Iranian Constitution, a triple urgency bill must go to parliament within 24 hours and is only required at a time of emergency or crisis. Khoda’i-Suri said he was told that he was signing a mere “double-urgency” bill, which would head to a parliamentary committee before being presented to parliament. “My signature was in relation to a letter to the president to strengthen the nuclear team,” he told IRNA. “And if that would not work, a double-urgency bill ensuring the parliament would supervise the negotiating team would then be considered.” Mohammad Bayatian, another lawmaker, said he did not even know he was signing a bill”.

When Raul met Francis


A report from Foreign Policy notes the recent meeting of Raul Castro and Pope Francis.

It begins “In 1962, in the depth of the Cold War, the Vatican excommunicated communist-revolutionary-turned-Cuban-president Fidel Castro after he banned religious celebrations and the building of new churches in Cuba, which would later declare itself an officially atheist state. But half a century later — two decades after the Cold War’s end — Fidel’s brother Raúl, Cuba’s current president, says he’s so impressed by Pope Francis that he’s considering going back to church. After a very friendly visit with Francis at the Vatican, Castro told reporters on Sunday, “I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church, and I’m not joking.” Castro visited Francis on his way back from Moscow, where he was reportedly the only Western Hemisphere leader to attend celebrations marking the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazism”.

The report adds “Warming relations between Havana and the Vatican demonstrate a broader trend of reconciliation between the once-hostile ideologies, which has accelerated under social welfare-minded Francis. The basic principles behind Communism and Catholicism have been fundamentally at odds ever since Karl Marx famously wrote that religion is “the opiate of the masses.” Antipathy arguably reached its height with the Vatican’s 1949 “Decree against Communism,” which excommunicated all Catholics involved with communist groups. It continued with Pope John XXIII’s endorsement of democracy over other forms of government in 1963″.

The report goes on to mention that “More recently, and particularly with Francis’s emphasis on egalitarianism and fighting poverty, the two ideologies’ goals, at least as preached by Francis and the Castros, have started to sound more similar. After the Cold War ended, Cuba  lifted restrictions on Catholic practice, allowed Catholics to join the Communist Party, and removed its constitution’s declaration of atheism. Catholics – nominally about 60 percent of Cuba’s population — no longer have to practice in secret, although many who’ve been baptized don’t practice regularly”.

Communism and Catholicism are not the same. The authors’ assertion that they are “starting to sound more similar” is a misreading of Catholic Social Teaching. The Church, following the teachings of Christ seeks an “option for the poor” but it does not seek to overthrow capitalism or abolish property. Instead it seeks a via media between the two on the one hand respecting property and the general goals of the free market but at the same time it seeks to avoid the idolisation of wealth and the accumulation of profit at any cost, irrespective of the social or moral cost.

The writer continues, “Fidel Castro visited the Vatican in 1996, paving the way for Pope John Paul to become the first pope to visit Cuba in 1998. Pope Benedict met Fidel and Raúl, both of whom were baptized and have showed some religious tendencies in the past, in Havana in 2012. Last year, the BBC reported that building was underway on the first new church since a freeze on construction after the Cuban Revolution. Now, as a 2013 Atlantic article titled “The Vatican’s Journey from Anti-Communism to Anti-Capitalism” points out, Francis has declared “a new enemy for the Catholic Church: modern capitalism.” According to Francis, “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” But “this opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” With the Cold War long over and communism soundly defeated as an ideology in all but a handful of countries – Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, Laos, and (nominally) China — Francis argues that for the welfare of mankind, states need to exercise more, not less, control over financial markets”.

Here this reflects the believe of the Church that man goes first and the profit of the market must come second.

The piece ends “Still, Communism and Catholicism now have more to talk about than they have for the past several decades. As the Atlantic’s Emma Green pointed out, Argentina-born Francis’s message seems to be crafted less for North America and Europe — the epicenters both of recent church scandals and of what Francis sees as individualistic capitalism’s corrupting influence — and more for Latin America and Africa, where economic development has left many behind. On Sunday, Castro and Francis spoke in their native Spanish, building on a dialoge that Castro has credited with helping thaw relations with the United States under President Barack Obama and move toward a lifting of sanctions that – along with communist rule itself — have helped impoverish the country”.

“No longer automatically lose their jobs”


Germany’s Roman Catholic Church, an influential voice for reforms prompted by Pope Francis, has decided lay employees who divorce and remarry or form gay civil unions should no longer automatically lose their jobs. Catholic bishops have voted to adjust Church labour law “to the multiple changes in legal practice, legislation and society” so employee lifestyles should not affect their status in the country’s many Catholic schools, hospitals and social services. The change came as the worldwide Catholic Church debates loosening its traditional rejection of remarriage after a divorce and of gay sex, reforms for which German bishops and theologians have become prominent spokesmen. “The new rule opens the way for decisions that do justice to the situations people live in,” Alois Glueck, head of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics, said after the decision on new labour guidelines was announced on Tuesday. Over two-thirds of Germany’s 27 dioceses voted for the change, a Church spokesman said, indicating some opposition. There is no worldwide Catholic policy on lay employees. German law allows churches to have their own labour rules that can override national guidelines.

Blame Maduro


An unusual article has argued that the collapse in the oil price is not to blame for the death of the economy in Venezuela.

He opens “Venezuela is a formidable petro-state. It has more proven oil reserves than Saudi Arabia, and exports most of the oil that it produces. Between 2004 and mid-2014, when historically high oil prices were the norm, Venezuela enjoyed one of the largest revenue windfalls in the world. Now it is experiencing one of the most severe recessions. All oil-based economies have suffered from the decline in oil prices since June 2014. But Venezuela’s economy has essentially collapsed, ravaged by what we might call RIDDS: recession, inflation, dwindling foreign reserves, debt, and shortages. According to the government, Venezuela’s woes are the fault of foreign actors and local capitalists. Saudi Arabia’s refusal to cut oil production, the United States’ reckless fracking, rumour-mongering by Wall Street speculators, hoarding of products by Venezuela’s own “parasitic bourgeoisie” — this is all president Nicolás Maduro talks about these days”.

Despite Maduro’s claims, Venezuela’s RIDDS is not the result of external shocks, or even the local bourgeoisie’s “economic warfare.” It’s not the result of oil dependence, either. Neither does it have much to do with the economic incompetence of the country’s leaders, conspicuous as that factor may be. Venezuela’s economic woes started long before the current downturn in oil prices and the start of Maduro’s administration. Rather, the blame for Venezuela’s RIDDS must be laid on the nature of the country’s regime, which disincentivised its leaders from competently managing the oil boom, and is now crippling the government’s ability to respond to the downturn. In the early 2000s, Venezuela’s regime under Hugo Chávez became semi-authoritarian and hyper-populist”.

He goes on to make the valid point that “The electorally competitive aspect of the regime helps explains why, under Chávez, and now Maduro, the Venezuelan state developed a chronic spending problem. Venezuela’s spending was done mostly in secret, but much of it clearly went to generate a consumption boom, with the aim of counteracting the ruling PSUV party´s waning electoral competitiveness. All forms of fiscal stimuli were tried: direct cash transfers to low income groups, subsidised consumer goods, multi-million dollar contracts for local firms, low tariffs, and preferential access to inexpensive dollars. By the end of the Chávez era in 2013, Venezuela’s fiscal deficit reached approximately 15 percent of GDP. This contrasts with the OPEC countries during this period, most of which took advantage of the recovery in oil prices since 2009 to re-accumulate surpluses. Until the price of oil began to decline, Maduro did nothing to cut back”.

He continues noting how “Comedians had a field day in late April when a women threw a mango at President Maduro’s head, asking him to call her back, which he did. It turned out that the woman wanted a new apartment — and Maduro obliged. The incident became an Internet sensation because it served as a perfect parody of Venezuela’s consumption-oriented populism: hit the government hard with a petition, and you might get lucky enough to win a new house”.

Interestingly he notes that if the regime does collapse, or get overthrown the problems will long outlast Maduro, “Lavish spending wouldn’t have been nearly as bad if it hadn’t been accompanied by the simultaneous destruction of the country’s only milk cow — its oil industry. Venezuela is one of the few petro-states in the world that, despite registering increasing levels of proven oil reserves since the mid-2000s, has experienced decreasing production and rising debt for over a decade. This is the result of two fateful decisions by the government. The first was to deprive the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, of much-needed capital. The second was to replace trained personnel with hordes of “revolutionaries” eager to go along with any of the president’s wishes. The result has been a productivity crisis almost unheard of in the oil world”.

He goes on to mention “The connection between PDVSA’s woes and regime features is clear. The erosion of checks and balances granted the president full prerogative to use revenues at will. Populism directed the president to spend oil revenues on consumption (and corruption) rather than on production-enhancing investments, such as rigs. Sectarianism explains why PDVSA was bloated with loyalists rather than technical experts. In Colombia, where checks and balances have been increasing since 2010, and populism has never been a major part of the state’s DNA, oil management has been of an entirely different quality”.

The author adds that the entire economy has suffered, “The regime’s harmful effects are evident not just in PDVSA, but in the economy as a whole. Venezuela responded to the oil boom by engaging in massive statism. Nobody disputes that some state intervention in the economy is crucial to encourage growth, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and tackle inequality. But Chávez and Maduro have gone far beyond what’s reasonable. Under their directives, the state nationalised, over-regulated, and over-spent like few other contemporary petro-states. Any basic economics textbook teaches that monetised deficits lead to high inflation, and Venezuela was no exception. The country’s annual inflation rate averaged 27.4 percent per year between 2007 and 2013, at least five times the rate for all of Latin America. Even countries ideologically aligned with Venezuela, such as Nicaragua, or those equally resource-dependent, such as Mexico, or both, such as Bolivia, have significantly lower inflation. Currently, Venezuela’s inflation may be as high as 68 percent — possibly the highest in the world”.

Pointedly he goes on to write “As bad as RIDDS might be, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Venezuela is in the midst of a severe governance crisis. Chavismo is now facing a chronic incapacity to effectively deliver social services. This is a terrible handicap during a recession, because it means that the poor are left with almost no protection. The governance crisis is particularly visible in the health sector, where hospitals are facing scarcity of even basic products such as acetaminophen. In September, the scarcity index for medications was estimated at around 60-70 percent. Diseases long eradicated in Venezuela, such as malaria, dengue fever, and tuberculosis, are making a comeback. Like previous statist episodes in Latin America, chavista economics has now created a need for exactly what it hates the most: draconian adjustment policies. Each of the options under consideration is enormously costly: Reducing spending would undermine the most important electoral tool available to the government. Selling nationalised firms would generate few revenues because they are in total disrepair and interested buyers are scarce. Selling CITGO would reduce Venezuela’s access the U.S. markets, which continues to be the most reliable source of foreign reserves. Defaulting on foreign debt would make future borrowing too costly. Increasing the price of gasoline at home would hurt low-income groups the most”.

The governments solution he writes is to “the government knows that any of these policy options are ideologically embarrassing and politically dangerous, it is choosing stealth adjustment instead. It is gradually devaluing the currency by reducing the number of transactions eligible for the cheapest exchange rate. It is gradually reducing imports by restricting access to foreign exchange. The other response of the government has been to become more autocratic. As the price of oil declines, dependence on the military is increasing. Loyal military figures are being given more cabinet posts, more benefits, and more discretion. One of the perks the military now receives under Maduro is greater latitude to repress dissidents and to engage in illicit market activities, including drug trafficking. Whereas in the 2000s, the regime came to depend for its survival on the so-called bolibourgeoise — business tycoons who have prospered from state contracts and state protections — in the 2010s, the regime now depends on what we might call mili-narcos: state security forces linked to drug trafficking”.

He ends “The main paradox of hyperpopulism is that it is the quickest route toward its ideological nemesis. RIDDS is hampering governance and forcing the government to pursue harsh austerity. Public support for the government has plummeted, and this decline in support, in turn, is leading to more militarism. Venezuela’s lesson for voters is straightforward. To protect one’s country from savage neoliberalism and militarism, start by never electing radical populists to begin with”.


“Anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false”


The White House is dismissing as “baseless” a controversial report alleging President Barack Obama’s administration lied about the circumstances surrounding the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden. “There are too many inaccuracies and baseless assertions in this piece to fact check each one,” White House National Security spokesman Ned Price said in a statement to reporters. He took aim specifically at journalist Seymour Hersh’s assertion that the administration collaborated with Pakistani officials to kill the al Qaeda leader, saying that “the notion that the operation that killed Osama Bin Ladin was anything but a unilateral U.S. mission is patently false.” “As we said at the time, knowledge of this operation was confined to a very small circle of senior U.S. officials. The President decided early on not to inform any other government, including the Pakistani Government, which was not notified until after the raid had occurred,” Price said.

Holy See and Palestine


Justine Drennan writes that the Palestine has scored a major victory by having the Holy See fully recognise it as a soverign state.

She begins “With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process all but dead and buried, a growing chorus of countries and international bodies are moving toward recognising Palestinian sovereignty in an attempt to push the Israeli government to make concessions toward their Palestinian rivals. On Wednesday, that effort received a powerful boost when Pope Francis announced that the Vatican has concluded a treaty recognizing the state of Palestine. The move, a Vatican spokesman told the Associated Press, indicates a “recognition that the state exists.” Following the collapse of U.S.-brokered talks to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Palestine has begun circumventing Washington by applying for membership at several U.N. bodies. It recently joined the International Criminal Court, where it’s lodged complaints over what it says are Israeli war crimes”.

She adds “The United Nations upgraded Palestine to a “non-member observer” in 2012, perturbing Israel, which faces increasing international isolation because of its continued occupation of Palestinian lands. Repeated fighting in the Gaza strip between Hamas militants and Israeli forces has further galvanized world opinion against Israel. While many argue that the Vatican’s statement Wednesday has no legal significance, it does have important symbolic weight. The Vatican’s move can be seen as part of a growing movement to apply pressure on Israel to facilitate progress in the peace process”.

She goes on to mention “Following the re-election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the United States signaled that it will re-evaluate the diplomatic protection it has offered Israel in the international fora where Palestine is now pursuing its claims to statehood. There is a growing movement at the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution outlining a roadmap for future peace talks. The Vatican statement is also the latest major diplomatic move by Francis, who since assuming the papacy in 2013, has emerged as an enormously popular champion of the global poor and other progressive causes. He has become a major diplomatic player, helping to broker the recent rapprochement between the United States and Cuba“.

She ends, “Wednesday’s announcement is not Francis’s first foray into Israeli-Palestinian politics. Francis expressed support for recent U.S.-backed talks and hosted then-Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican last year for a prayer meeting for peace in the Middle East. When he visited last year the Israeli-built wall that separates Israeli- and Palestinian-dominated territories, he lamented the “tragic consequences of the protracted conflict.”

Dunford as Chairman


Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford will be nominated as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the White House on Tuesday morning, putting a wartime commander into the nation’s top military post for the first time since the start of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As President Barack Obama’s second nominee to the chairmanship, Dunford will enter a world vastly different than the one his predecessor, U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, saw when he assumed the role as the president’s top military advisor in October 2011. If confirmed by the Senate — which seems virtually certain — Dunford will leave his post as the commandant only months after taking the job late last year. Dunford’s ascension has significant ramifications inside and outside the Defense Department. Within the Pentagon, Dunford’s appointment means that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter now has his top uniformed counterpart in place and that the White House has completed the leadership team that will run the Pentagon until Obama leaves office. More broadly, Dunford — will spent a year commanding all U.S. forces in Afghanistan —  begins his tenure at a time of deep uncertainty for the nation’s armed forces and will need to help the president maneuver through a welter of difficult policy decisions”.

Obama seeks trust from the GCC


A piece discusses the delicate balancing act of President Obama as a result of the ongoing Iran talks and its relations with other nations in the Middle East.

It begins “As President Barack Obama and the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sit down at Camp David this week, the White House’s goal is clear: reassure America’s Middle Eastern partners that it remains committed to their security. But the summit is clearly not off to a good start, with only two of the six GCC monarchs planning to attend — and King Salman of Saudi Arabia waiting until the last moment to announce he is not coming. According to media reports, the Obama administration is preparing to assuage skepticism toward the potential nuclear agreement with Iran by focusing on new security arrangements and billions of dollars in weapons that the United States may offer to sell to the Gulf states. Arms sales and security guarantees may be a piece of the equation — but they won’t be enough. The most effective way for the Obama administration to make headway with the Gulf is by signaling a more comprehensive approach to countering Iranian influence in the Middle East”.

The question is will the summit and the inevitable security guarantees be enough for the leaders of the GCC to believe President Obama. Much scorn has rightly been pored on his foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. Now with Iran emboldend due to a possible deal and the Saudi’s and Egyptians nervous or lacking interest in any American guarantees they are forging their own foreign policies, especially in Yemen.

He goes on to note “What the Gulf states fear most is that in the aftermath of a nuclear agreement, the United States will cut a deal with Tehran to divide the region and abandon its Arab partners. Saudi Arabia has been the most vocal in expressing concerns that the United States is so interested in achieving an agreement on the nuclear question that it is willing to tolerate Iran’s unchecked influence throughout the region. To many of America’s partners, Iranian nuclear ambitions are inextricably linked to Tehran’s aggressive support of its proxies through the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which provides training, funding, and support for Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, the Houthis in Yemen, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, among other groups”.

He mentions that “it’s going to take more than ever-larger arms sales to convince the Gulf states that Iran isn’t on the march in the Middle East. In 2014, U.S. allies in the GCC outspent the Iranians by a margin of more than seven-to-one, investing over $113.7 billion in their militaries compared to Iran’s $15.7 billion. The United States has long given its Gulf allies some of its most advanced military equipment, such as the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets that it sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Riyadh alone spent more than $80 billion on defense in 2014. And Saudi air defenses — bolstered by advanced F-15 fighters, top-of-the-line intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and missile defense capabilities — are more than capable of defending the kingdom from Iran’s conventional military attacks. Yet, anxiety in the region is still high”.

He goes on to argue that “There are a number of steps Obama can take this week beyond arms sales to reassure his Gulf partners. He can start by putting the regional challenges caused by Iran at the top of the agenda at Camp David: If the president and his team start the discussion with a focus on what the Gulf states view as their top priority, instead of focusing on the Iranian nuclear challenge, it would send a strong message that the United States is listening to its partners’ concerns. As part of this effort, the United States might also consider increasing interdictions of Iranian weapons shipments, improving intelligence cooperation, pursuing more aggressive joint covert actions against Iranian-supported terrorism, and finding ways to expose Iranian operatives and embarrass Iran when it pursues irresponsible destabilizing policies in the Middle East. The United States has already started to increase its support for such efforts by providing intelligence for the Saudi military operations against the Houthis in Yemen, and increasing its naval presence to deter Iranian arms shipments in the Gulf. The United States also sent a strong signal in the aftermath of the Iranian seizure of the container ship Maersk Tigris, beginning military escorts of U.S. and British commercial vessels throughout the Gulf, which likely played a role in the ship’s release”.

He makes the point that “The Obama administration should also embark on a long-term effort to train these U.S. allies how to more effectively counter Iran. There is already a potential model in Jordan, which is particularly focused on building the capacity of partners on the ground to defeat jihadists such as the Islamic State. The Jordanians are set to take the lead in a mission to train Iraqi Sunni Arab National Guard units, and Amman is expressing public intent to recruit and train Syrian fighters from tribal groups that live in Islamic State-controlled areas of eastern Syria. Other U.S. allies — including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey — are scheduled to provide training sites and support for the U.S.-led program to train and equip Syrian rebels, which has already reportedly begun in Jordan”.

Yet Jordan is among the nations joining the Saudi airstrikes in Yemen. The question of trust is important. Can the United States trust Jordan not to abuse the efforts it gives them to counter Iran not to be used elsewhere, eg in cracking down on dissidents. At the same time from a Jordanian point of view there seems little trust tat Jordan can give to the US after it leaves the Middle East to burn.

He goes on to mention “The United States can also send a message to both its partners and to Iran that it is not abandoning the region by enhancing the current U.S. force posture in the Middle East. Obama should tell his GCC allies that the approximately 40,000 U.S. military personnel, and the robust U.S. naval and air capabilities, are not only in the Middle East to stay but will be enhanced. Forward stationing more advanced manned and unmanned aircraft and missile defense assets in the region, for instance, would help assure America’s wary partners”.

He concludes “In the end, it will not be possible for President Obama to fully reassure America’s regional allies in the aftermath of a nuclear deal with Iran. Their concerns about a “Persian pivot” will remain, and their distrust of the president will make U.S. relations with the Gulf states difficult. But if Obama is able to begin to implement an effective reassurance strategy, he can hand off a better situation to his successor — who will have to do the bulk of the work in repairing some of America’s relations with the Gulf states in the aftermath of a nuclear deal with Iran”.

US plan for Syria


The latest U.S.-led plan to train and arm a Syrian opposition force will start in Turkey on May 9, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a Turkish newspaper. The programme to train and arm a force that is expected to eventually total more than 15,000 troops has been mired in delays as many details of the plan, such as whether or how Washington would come to their aid on the battlefield, remain unclear. A rebel commander last month told Reuters he expected the training to start in July. On Friday Cavusoglu told Turkish daily Sabah that the U.S. and Turkey share the view of a Syria without President Bashar Assad. “There isn’t any political or other issue. At first, 300 people will be trained, followed by the next 300 and, at the end of the year, the number of trained and equipped fighters will reach 2,000,” he said. Rebel groups have already been receiving weapons and training from a CIA-led programme that Washington has never acknowledged. The new programme is under the direction of the Defense Department.

“The sheer scale and complexity of the Syrian insurgency”


A report from Foreign Policy suggests that Assad is losing the war in Syria, “After roughly two years of being on the defensive, Syria’s rebels are making dramatic gains in the north of the country. In the span of six weeks, coalitions of insurgent fighters captured the city of Idlib and won a series of key strategic victories elsewhere in the governorate. In the face of the opposition, the Syrian Army and its supporting militias appear at their weakest point since early 2013. However, while much of the subsequent commentary proclaimed this as the beginning of the end for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, we are still a long way from that. In fact, the regime reacted to its dramatic losses in the north by carrying out hundreds of air strikes, barrel bombings, and chlorine attacks in rural Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo. Regime ground offensives were launched in eastern Damascus, in areas of Homs, and in the mountains around Zabadani near the Lebanese border. Meanwhile, a major joint regime-Hezbollah offensive in the Qalamoun mountains now also looks imminent”.

The report adds “Recent events have clearly tipped the psychological scales back into the opposition’s favor: Losses in Idlib and the southern governorate of Deraa have placed great pressure on Assad, whose severe manpower shortages are becoming more evident by the day. Frustration, disaffection and even incidences of protest are rising across Assad’s most ardent areas of support on Syria’s coast — some of which are now under direct attack. Hezbollah is stretched thin and even Iranian forces have begun withdrawing to the areas of Syria deemed to be the most important for regime survival”.

He mentions “The regime is no longer militarily capable of launching definitively successful operations outside of its most valuable territories, while its capacity for defense against concerted attack now appears questionable at best. It also looks diplomatically weaker, as Russia appears no longer wedded to the Assad regime’s long-term survival and is now more open to the idea of a managed transition that would ensure the best chances of post-regime stability. Meanwhile, Iran’s apparent rapprochement with the United States and its expected involvement in talks in Geneva convened by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura may open the door for, at the very least, discussions of a negotiated solution in Syria”.

He goes onto argue, “Considering the immense complexity of the northern Syrian insurgency, the opposition’s gains in Idlib therefore represent an impressive feat. But planning alone did not ensure the victories: The operations also displayed a far improved level of coordination between rival factions, spanning from U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades, to moderate and conservative Syrian Islamists, to al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and several independent jihadist factions. Although this went largely unacknowledged by the groups involved — and while media coverage broadly portrayed the Idlib offensives as “jihadist” or al Qaeda-led — the reality on the ground was that the recent offensive brought together many groups holding very different ideologies. FSA groups only played a minor role in the advance into Idlib city itself, but played a crucial support role in preventing regime reinforcements from going to the city’s defense. Moreover, their role in Jisr al-Shughour’s capture was more significant and they are similarly active elsewhere to this day”.

Worryingly he writes “The rebels’ newfound coordination was also certainly bolstered by the campaign’s reliance on Idlibi commanders. Ahmad al-Ulwan, Yusuf Qutb and Hossam Abu Bakr are all local rebel commanders who played a prominent role the capture of Idlib city; meanwhile, the principal commander at Jisr al-Shughour was Eyad Sha’ar — an Ahrar al-Sham commander who enjoys sky-high prestige within the opposition at large. Sha’ar hails from Jisr al-Shugour, but left Syria with his parents 37 years ago during the beginnings of the Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in Syria. Despite his status as an Afghan veteran and a founding member of Ahrar al-Sham, his return to his hometown for the first time since his departure was celebrated across the opposition spectrum. Local connections have proven valuable unifiers in Syria so far — particularly in areas where a provincial identity is particularly strong, like Homs, Idlib, and Aleppo. Although many of the most prominent commanders in recent Idlib operations were Islamists of one kind or another, their roots in the province’s society appears to have discouraged the kind of inter-group and intra-ideological rivalries that have arisen elsewhere in the country. This is not to dismiss the very real differences that exist between, say, Jabhat al-Nusra and the FSA-affiliated 13th Division, but the very fact that they did not appear to negatively affect advances on regime-held territory is a sign that they are a powerful unifying factor”.

Interestingly he notes that “As things stand today, the uptick in U.S. and Saudi-led support for “moderate” FSA factions and Turkey and Qatar-led assistance to Islamists appears to be complementary, rather than done in competition as has been the case in the past. However, many obstacles to this strategy lie on the road ahead — not least the actions of Jabhat al-Nusra, which thus far has demonstrated an impressive knack for manipulating the dynamics of the Syrian opposition to its advantage. The Islamic State also threatens to derail the opposition’s recent string of successes. Since late 2014, the jihadist group has quietly infiltrated new areas and co-opted local allies to gradually expand its reach. Thus far, this strategy — which it used to great effect after its arrival in Syria in early 2013 — has resulted in hostilities breaking out on multiple occasions across the country, from Deraa and Quneitra in the south, to the capital of Damascus, and the western governorate of Hama. Such an expansionary policy risks re-opening the ideological divides within Syria’s broader opposition that are currently being brushed under the carpet”.

He ends “Due to the sheer scale and complexity of the Syrian insurgency, dealing with it effectively is neither easy nor without its risks. However, dealing with it intermittently and with one hand behind your back is a sure way of giving your adversaries opportunities to grow even more dangerous”.

The threat of a breakdown in talks


America’s top negotiator in the Iran nuclear talks offered a surprisingly detailed assessment of Tehran’s existing nuclear capabilities on Monday as she warned that failing to secure a final deal with the longtime adversary would seriously threaten American national security. The remarks by Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department, come at a pivotal juncture in U.S. politics as Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill wrangle over provisions in a new bill allowing Congress to review a final agreement. Sherman, speaking at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, said that failing to reach an agreement would leave Tehran closer than ever to acquiring a bomb. Without a deal, Sherman said, Iran would expand its nuclear enrichment program to 100,000 centrifuges in the next few years instead of shrinking that figure to 5,000 as agreed in the framework agreement brokered in Lausanne, Switzerland on April 2. She also said Iran could produce enough weapons grade plutonium to produce two bombs each year”.


German inequality


An article from Foreign Policy argues that Germany has a problem with inequality.

It begins “The signs of Germany’s economic might are hard to miss. There are the swanky new high-rise hotels cropping up on Berlin’s main shopping mile and luxury condominium complexes spreading across the government quarter. In the southwest, Germany’s engineering heartland, auto parts factories are humming and newfound confidence is brimming. In a little over a decade, the country has transformed from Europe’s “sick man,” as the Economist once famously called it, to the continent’s economic engine. The export industry is already the second largest in the world and outperformed expectations in February, bolstered by a weak euro. Notoriously tightfisted Germans are starting to open their wallets — consumer confidence has hit a 13-year high. Greece and Italy are struggling under the weight of their debt burdens, but Europe’s wunderkind notched a record current account surplus in February”.

Yet the power of Germany should not be overestimated. Others have written about the weaknesses of German growth and the high debt levels due to irresponsible lending by banks. Thus, far from being bullet proof and above all other economies that make up the EU, Germany has serious problems. Some of these are unique to Germany but others, like massive debt are seen continent wide It is therefore outreagous that Germany should be telling other nations how to behave.

The piece adds “In February, the Berlin-based Paritätische Gesamtverband, a leading welfare association, reported that poverty is at its highest level in Germany since reunification 25 years ago. Some 12.5 million of Germany’s 80 million are now classified as poor; they earn less than 60 percent of the median household income (for a single household, about 900 euros a month). Seniors and single parents are the most likely to slip through the cracks. But an especially troubling trend, say the study’s authors, is the growth in the number of working poor. According to the Federal Statistical Office, a little over 3 million German workers now fall below the poverty line. The Paritätische says the increase stems from years of chipping away at important labor protections”.

The piece goes on to note “The roots of that trend go back more than a decade. If asked why their country has withstood the economic crisis that has plagued much of Europe, most Germans will point to Agenda 2010, a package of reforms former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder enacted in 2003 to tackle stubbornly high unemployment and jump-start the economy. Agenda 2010 introduced a new class of flexible, part-time employment. Any job is better than no job, was the idea. The legislation largely deregulated temporary work, freeing up employers to hire and fire part-time workers by putting them on more equal footing with full-time workers. It also ushered in the mini-job, a form of part-time employment that pays 450 euros a month tax-free”.

The writer goes on to add, “The linchpin of Schröder’s reforms was called Hartz IV, which pulled together various public benefits into one streamlined unemployment program and limited welfare payments. Those out of a job for more than 18 months — later reduced to 12 months, with exceptions for older workers — were rolled over into the general welfare program, which pays out a basic living standard — now 399 euros a month — and living allowances. Employment agencies were tasked with making the job search the top priority; they would help but also prod welfare recipients to find a job, increasing the pressure to accept temporary or part-time employment offers. The idea behind Agenda 2010 was to give the unemployed and poor a chance to work, paving a path toward steady full-time employment. The reality, say many economists and labour unions, looks very different”.

It continues, “The temporary work sector has boomed. Germany’s Federal Employment Agency says the number of temporary jobs has doubled over the past 10 years. The agency notes that half of the temporary work contracts end after less than three months, and the wages earned are well below what full-time employees earn in the same companies. Mini-jobs, meanwhile, have turned into multi-jobs. Workers often string together various part-time positions to make ends meet. Labor statistics show the number of workers who registered a mini-job as an extra source of income exploded by 120 percent between 2003 and 2012”.

The piece adds “That lack of mobility means inequality is increasing. A 2013 study by the Macroeconomic Policy Institute in Düsseldorf reported that the Gini coefficient, a measure often used to rate income inequality, rose by nearly 13 percent from 1991 to 2010. Martin Ehlert of the Berlin Social Science Center says the shift away from low-skilled manufacturing jobs in Germany’s industrial zones was long buffered by the government’s more-generous welfare system. But the labor reforms have changed that”.

He goes on to argue “Ehlert notes that poverty and inequality in Germany are relative. The middle class here has remained stable, labour rights have remained strong for the core workforce, and the welfare system is still generous by international standards. Single households receive an unemployment allowance of 399 euros, rent and heating subsidies, and, of course, unlimited access to the statutory health insurance system. But the growing chasm between rich and poor, and the lack of economic mobility, undercuts what many Germans hold dear. The vaunted Prussian work ethic goes hand in hand with the idea of fairness: Hard work earns you a salary and a chance to lead a decent life. If the urgent appeals and warnings ring true, Germany is turning into a country of haves and have-nots”.

He notes that “Unions have launched campaigns to protest the 10th anniversary of the official introduction of Hartz IV. Verdi members in Berlin protested outside a welfare center last month, handing out fliers to job-seekers and urging them to organize against the government’s welfare program. And inequality is a touchstone issue for voters and politicians. Studies conducted by the Allensbach Institute, a market research group, revealed that more than 60 percent of Germans believe inequality is growing. And in a televised debate between Chancellor Angela Merkel and challenger Peer Steinbrück before the 2013 elections, Steinbrück’s strongest jabs linked Merkel’s government to the ballooning low-wage sector, unrivaled in Europe”.

The author goes on to end “Today, a nationwide rate of 8.50 euros per hour is supposed to address low-income families’ problems, especially in fields that have been particularly deregulated. But some analysts are worried the minimum wage will lead employers to lay off workers in order to keep up with higher labor costs and avoid bureaucracy. Others have said it could lead to a boom in the underground economy, as employers simply pay employees under the table instead of raise wages. That may be why Andrea Nahles, the Social Democrat labor minister, unveiled a new job scheme in January intended to help about 750,000 unemployed people find work. With EU funding, Nahles promised 26 new programs directed at youth, immigrants, and the long-term unemployed. Christine Schmelzle, the hairdresser and single mom, says she hopes she will be able to cobble together a living on her own, once her child is in kindergarten. Until then, though, she sees little chance of forgoing the state’s help and the long lines at the welfare center”.


“Oversaw the deal for the sale of 24 Rafale fighter jets”


French President François Hollande boosted ties in the Gulf on Monday as he oversaw the deal for the sale of 24 Rafale fighter jets and headed to Saudi Arabia for a summit. Hollande was to be the first Western head of state to attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh. “If we are present here in Qatar and the region it is because France is considered a reliable country which a partner country can give their confidence to,” said Hollande as Paris tries to deepen political and economic relations with the Gulf monarchies, particularly Qatar. The 6.3-billion-euro contract – the third one this year for Dassault after deals to sell Rafale to Egypt and India – also includes MBDA missiles and the training of 36 Qatari pilots and 100 technicians by the French military”.

“A frontal collision between Moscow and Brussels”


A piece notes the role of Gazprom in Putin’s dealings with the EU, “the European Union’s antitrust case against Russian energy giant Gazprom is a clear challenge to a company that has alternately succored and bedeviled the Old Continent for decades. But the landmark case, formally opened last week after more than three years of investigation by the EU’s army of gray suits, also raises a host of questions about the relationship between the EU and Russia specifically, and between markets and politics more generally. One immediate question is how the case will affect relations between Gazprom’s corporate leadership and the company’s political masters — and whether Gazprom will seek to fend off the full impact of the EU charges by hiding behind the Kremlin”.

It should be noted that this piece follows on from a recent article by the same author that describes the problems encountered by Russia as a result of the actions of EU regulations and officials. Similarly, the EU and its obsession with avoiding, and being unable to use hard power, means that law and regulations are the only real “weapon” the EU has to deal with Russia. Whether it will be effective or not remains to be seen but there are significant doubts as to its efficacy.

The author notes “The EU has accused Gazprom of undermining competition in Europe by hindering natural gas flows among EU member states and by charging discriminatory prices, among other things. And the EU case worries Gazprom, as much as the firm might dismiss the charges as “unsubstantiated,” because Europe is far and away the company’s main cash cow. But Gazprom could try to argue that, as a strategic, state-controlled company, ordinary competition law doesn’t apply to it. That would likely be a tough sell with EU regulators. Gazprom is, of course, nominally a regular energy company”.

He correctly writes that “in reality, Gazprom has long served as Russia’s cudgel when it comes to using energy exports as a geopolitical tool”.

The problem with the EU regulators, he writes, could be solved be “some sort of negotiated settlement with regulators in Brussels, as Western energy firms have done in years past. That could help parry the threat of civil lawsuits. It could even help Gazprom adjust its business model to the emerging realities of the world’s energy business. That could help it maintain a strong position in the European market, which accounts for the lion’s share of its revenues and profits”.

The writer adds that Gazprom is so tied to the Russia state that “Indeed, the very different perceptions of the antitrust case make it less likely that the two sides will be able to come to an agreement. Brussels sees it as a purely regulatory affair, devoid of broader political meaning; EU competition authorities have been targeting anti-competitive behaviors across the 28-nation bloc for years. Many in Russian political circles, in contrast, see the formal antitrust charges as a politically motivated vendetta inseparable from the broader tensions over Ukraine”.

He ends “It’s far from clear that this legalistic strategy will be enough to save Gazprom’s endangered business model or salvage its dominance in the crucial European market. Europe would have the final say on implementing any remedies it might call for in the course of the investigation, and those would likely concern assets and businesses inside European territory, not in Russia. But one thing’s for sure: Such a frontal collision between Moscow and Brussels on the very nature of the EU and the rule of law will only aggravate the broader economic and trade tensions that have reached a fever pitch in the past year”.

“Israel selling drones to Russia”


Last month, when President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced plans to sell a powerful anti-missile system to Iran before the lifting of international sanctions, Israel was quick to join the U.S. in expressing shock and anger. But behind the public announcements is a little-known web of arms negotiations and secret diplomacy. In recent years, Israel and Russia have engaged in a complex dance, with Israel selling drones to Russia while remaining conspicuously neutral toward Ukraine and hoping to stave off Iranian military development. The dance may not be over. Critics of the Russian move say it undermines efforts to apply pressure to Iran by removing one building block of a sanctions regime that will be hard to put back together. It would also enhance Iran’s defenses against a potential U.S. or Israeli attack, as both countries have said they’d consider using force if diplomacy fails. Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warned that the missiles, known as S-300s, would provide the Islamic Republic with a military shield that would encourage further adventurism, and expressed concern they could end up in the hands of Iranian allies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah.Others argued that the Russian move shouldn’t be taken at face value”.

Where to draw the line with China?


An interesting piece asks where to stop the line being drawn when balancing against China, “Is it time for the United States to get serious about balancing China? According to Robert Blackwill and Ashley Tellis, the answer is an emphatic yes. In a new Council on Foreign Relations report, they portray China as steadily seeking to increase its national power, reduce the U.S. security role in Asia, and eventually dominate the international system. To deal with this clear challenge to U.S. primacy, they call for “a new grand strategy toward China that centers on balancing the rise of Chinese power rather than continuing to assist its ascendancy.” In their view, success in this endeavour will require the United States to revitalise its economy, build preferential trading arrangements with Asian partners (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership), deny critical technology to Beijing, and shore up U.S. and allied military capabilities in Asia”.

He adds “They also recommend that Washington strive to manage Sino-American relations through sustained high-level engagement with Beijing, and good things like that. But their overriding goal is to “limit China’s capacity to misuse its growing power.” Needless to say, it is hard for a realist like me to find much fault with these prescriptions (and other prominent realists have been sounding similar warnings for some time now). But recognising the need to balance a rising power just gets us started: The critical question is how one goes about it — and where one draws the line. And though Blackwill and Tellis’s report does offer an imposing array of steps to be taken, it doesn’t answer that crucial question directly”.

The report adds that “In international politics, the capacity to shape existing norms, institutions, and political arrangements — aka the “status quo” — depends primarily on relative power. As the balance of power shifts, rising states invariably try to revise the status quo in ways that benefit their interests. This tendency makes perfect sense. Why would any country want to tolerate arrangements that were not to its advantage? If China’s power continues to grow, therefore, it will inevitably seek further adjustments to the current international order. It would be naive indeed to expect Beijing to passively accept institutional and territorial arrangements created by others and especially those features of the existing order that were put in place while China was weak. It is all well and good to advise China to become a “responsible stakeholder,” as former World Bank President Robert Zoellick once did, but having a bigger stake in the system doesn’t preclude trying to revise certain parts of it as well. Beijing won’t seek to overturn features of the existing order that it likes, of course, only those it regards as inimical to its own security or long-term prosperity”.

He asks the question, “how far should this process of adjustment proceed? Even if we recognize that a rising China will inevitably enjoy greater influence and might even have legitimate reasons to adjust the status quo in some areas (such as voting shares within the International Monetary Fund), that admission hardly implies allowing Beijing to have anything its leaders might want.The crucial question is easy to ask but hard to answer: Where should the United States (and others) draw the line?

Yet this statement seems to assume American decline. The weaknesses of China’s economic system are plain to see and coupled with a host of other flaws mean that it would be wrong to assume China’s inevitable rise.

He adds “What makes this issue especially tricky is the importance of preserving some degree of Sino-American amity. Taken together, China and the United States amount to a third of the world’s economy and about 25 percent of the world’s population. If Washington and Beijing maintain constructive relations over the next several decades, it will be easier to address critical global issues such as climate change, global health, macroeconomic management, and even some tricky regional conflicts”.

He argues that China and America have much that unite them but this narrowly economic argument overlooks the vast differences in culture and values that underpin these two nations.

Pointedly he argues “Compared with the need to maintain global economic growth or prevent irreversible and potentially catastrophic damage to the Earth’s atmosphere, going to the brink over some piles of sand around Mischief Reef doesn’t seem all that significant. It’s a classic use of “salami tactics,” where a revisionist power seeks to alter the status quo through a series of small steps, each of them seemingly innocuous but whose cumulative impact could be enormous”.

He correctly writes “At this point it is useful to remind ourselves (and others) that the United States is not a “pitiful, helpless giant.” China’s economy may overtake America’s in absolute terms in the next few years, but U.S. per capita income is far higher and China still has to devote a greater share of national income to meeting basic needs. America’s military capabilities still dwarf China’s by a considerable margin, and its geopolitical environment is much more favorable. The United States has two friendly countries on its borders (Canada and Mexico), and no powerful enemies or nuclear-armed states nearby. By contrast, China has 14 countries on its borders, four of them with nuclear weapons, and relations with several of these neighboring countries are — to put it mildly — delicate”.

He ends the piece that the question is really where to draw the line, “First, as Blackwell and Tellis note (and as I’ve emphasized in the past), any effort to balance China more energetically will require a lot of buy-in from Asian states that have the most to fear from Chinese dominance. Managing these alliance relations will not be easy, however, for three reasons: 1) some of these states remain wary of each other; 2) none of them will want to disrupt their own economic ties with China; and 3) the distances involved are vast and tend to magnify the usual collective-action problems”.

He ends “though Blackwill and Tellis do not address it, making China the centerpiece of U.S. grand strategy will require Washington to set priorities more carefully than it has in the past two decades and avoid costly quagmires in other places. The era when the United States could dominate most of the world’s regions simultaneously is over; today U.S. leaders have to concentrate more on vital interests and steer clear of quixotic crusades. The neoconservatives’ disastrous Middle East adventures were the greatest gift Beijing could have wished for, and pushing Moscow into Beijing’s arms makes little sense if China is the real long-term peer competitor. Yet the current field of Republican presidential candidates seems to have learned nothing from these past errors and seems all too willing to repeat them. As a respected member of the Republican Party’s vanishing realist wing, Blackwill could do the nation a great service by bringing some much-needed sanity back to the party’s foreign-policy discussions”.


Taliban and Afghan meet


Afghan government officials and Taliban militants began two days of meetings on Sunday in the gulf state of Qatar, and for once neither side denied that the sessions were taking place. Both were also quick to insist that they were not holding peace talks. A statement by the Taliban called the meetings a “research conference,” while Afghan government officials described them as “scientific discussions.” Still, after years of efforts to get an active peace process going, hopes and expectations were relatively high for the talks, which are being hosted by the Pugwash Conferences, a Nobel Prize-winning science group dedicated to promoting peace. Many of the representatives sent by the Afghan government and the Taliban were the sort likely to participate in any formal peace talks. “These are not peace talks. But it would be fair to say that this is the most encouraging development we’ve seen in a while,” said Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar, the foreign policy committee chief at the Afghan government’s High Peace Council. “After all, peace talks between China and America started with a Ping-Pong game.” This is not the first such Pugwash Conference to include the two sides, and there have been other similar Track Two talks, as indirect, non-negotiation meetings between the two sides have been called. But in the past, such talks were held under a cloak of secrecy, and actual peace discussions between representatives of the government and the Taliban were routinely denied when news of them became public”.

“Signs that the regime itself is fraying under the strain”


frayiA piece in the Washington Post argues that Assad is more at risk than ever before. It begins “A surge of rebel gains in Syria is overturning long-held assumptions about the durability of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which now appears in greater peril than at any time in the past three years. The capture Saturday of the town of Jisr al-Shughour in northern Idlib province was just the latest in a string of battlefield victories by rebel forces, which have made significant advances in both the north and the south of the country”.

It notes “As was the case in the capital of Idlib province last month, government defences in Jisr al-Shughour crumbled after just a few days of fighting, pointing as much to the growing weakness of regime forces as the revival of the opposition. The battlefield shifts come at a time when the Obama administration has set aside the crisis in Syria to focus on its chief priorities: defeating the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and concluding a nuclear deal with Iran. Yet the pace of events in Syria may force the United States to refocus on the unresolved war, which remains at the heart of the turmoil engulfing the Middle East, analysts say. Iran backs ­Assad, Saudi Arabia backs the rebels, and a shift in the balance of power in Syria could have profound repercussions for the conflicts in Iraq and Yemen”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Other observers say the prospect of a government collapse in Damascus is still remote. The capital is well defended, and the rebels’ gains have come mostly on the periphery of the country, where the regime’s supply lines are stretched. But perceptions that Assad will survive indefinitely or serve at least as an interim counterbalance to the Islamic State and its strongholds in northeastern Syria are in doubt, said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The growing strains on Assad’s manpower and resources “are becoming extremely obvious, and the magnitude of his losses are now too big to hide,” Hokayem said”.

It continues “The revival of rebel fortunes is attributed to a large degree to the recent rapprochement between a newly assertive Saudi Arabia and its erstwhile rivals for influence over the rebels — Turkey and Qatar. Since inheriting the throne in January, Saudi King Salman has moved forcefully to challenge the expanding regional influence of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s biggest foe, most publicly by embarking on an air war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. He has also acted to shore up the flagging and deeply divided rebels in Syria, in coordination with Qatar and Turkey, Khashoggi said. The result has been an unexpectedly cohesive rebel coalition called the Army of Conquest that is made up of al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, an assortment of mostly Islamist brigades and a small number of more moderate battalions. The coalition, which launched last month, has proved more effective than expected”.

The report says that just a rebels have pushed into government territory, “government forces have been proving increasingly ineffective. The collapse of two much-trumpeted offensives earlier this year, in southern Syria and in Aleppo, presaged the success of the recent rebel offensives, suggesting that even if the government can remain in control in Damascus, its chances of regaining the rest of the country are slipping. There are signs that the regime itself is fraying under the strain of the four-year-old war. On Friday, pro-government news outlets reported the death of political security director Rustom Ghazaleh, a longtime Assad stalwart, after months of rumours that he had fallen out with the regime, had been badly beaten up by a rival and was languishing in a hospital”.

Interestingly the piece adds that “The tensions are reaching into the heart of the Assad family, whose four-decade-old rule had seemed unshakeable until the revolt erupted in 2011. Hafez Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin, was fired late last year as head of security in the province of Damascus and has since fled the country, the diplomats say. Another cousin, Munzer al-Assad, was detained this month amid rumours that he had been plotting a coup. “It looks like there are major rifts going on inside the Assad regime,” one of the diplomats said. “A military collapse on the regime side is not impossible.” Much will depend on Iran, which has stepped up in the past to dispatch men, money and arms whenever Assad seemed to be faltering. But Iran is stretched, too, by the economic effects of continued international sanctions and by the competing demands of the war next door in Iraq, which has diverted some of the Iraqi Shiite militias that had been fighting for the regime in Syria”.

It ends “In a commentary for the Middle East Institute in the past week, Robert S. Ford, a former U.S. envoy to Syria, said a regime collapse cannot be ruled out. The regime’s schisms, its battlefield setbacks and its manpower shortages “are all signs of weakness,” he wrote. “We may be seeing signs of the beginning of their end.”

“Yemenis from the south who had trained in Saudi Arabia”


Yemeni fighters who are believed to have received training and weapons in the Persian Gulf entered combat around the southern city of Aden on Sunday, joining with militiamen who are battling Houthi rebels, according to local militia fighters in Aden.  The new troops arrived by sea in the last few days, they said. They all appeared to be Yemenis from the south who had trained in Saudi Arabia and possibly other Persian Gulf states, according to a senior local commander, a fighter and an allied resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss troop actions. Their claims could not be independently verified. If confirmed, the influx would represent one of the first major deployments of ground troops trained by the Saudi-led coalition, and would shift the makeup of a military operation that has largely relied on airstrikes through its first weeks. The reinforcements, who the commander said had been given equipment including anti-tank weapons, are entering a fight in Aden that has become a deadly stalemate. Hundreds of people have been killed and whole neighborhoods destroyed in fighting over the last few weeks between the local militias, on one side, and the Houthis and their allied security forces on the other”.

“Unclear exactly when Greece would run out of cash”


A  piece discusses the Greek euro problem.

It begins “Greece is one step closer to running out of money, after a meeting of European finance ministers Friday closed without a deal or any indication that a compromise over a needed influx of bailout money was likely before the end of the month. The impasse is bringing Athens closer to default and the possible need to leave the Eurozone. Instead of an agreement that would unlock the next $7.8 billion in bailout money, both sides restated their cases at a meeting in Riga, Latvia, on Friday. Eurozone leaders reiterated that Greece needs to implement an array of fiscal reforms and budget cuts in order for the hundred-billion-dollar rescue spigot to stay open. Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, meanwhile, said that failing to solve the crisis wouldn’t be good for Greece — or the rest of the countries in the currency union”.

It notes that “Dijsselbloem dismissed the idea that Greece might get some smaller slice of bailout funds in exchange for a shortened list of concessions. And he also put a stake in the Greek government’s hopes that a deal would be forthcoming by the end of the month, saying that eurozone finance ministers would not consider the issue again until May 11. Though it’s unclear exactly when Greece would run out of cash, the lack of a deal in April means that the Greek government will have to go to even more desperate lengths to make upcoming debt payments and may even have to resort to IOUs to pay pensioners and public sector workers. Varoufakis tried to paint the meeting in a positive light, saying that there had been “convergence” over the past few weeks and expressing confidence that a deal would come together quickly”.

It adds that “In an attempt to scrape together enough cash to pay public sector workers at the end of the month — and maybe even have enough left over to make the next $830 million debt payment to the IMF on May 12 — Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras ordered local governments to move their money to the central bank on Monday. It’s unclear how much more barrel-scraping Greece can do”.

The piece ends “As Greece stumbles toward default and a possible forced exit from the euro bloc, speculation has turned to what that might mean for the rest of the world. While German officials have signaled for months that a goodbye for Greece might not be that bad of a thing, U.S. officials are a little more worried. A White House economic advisor warned Tuesday that a “Grexit” wouldn’t just be bad for Europe, but could shake the global economy’s fragile recovery. “A Greek exit would not just be bad for the Greek economy, it would be taking a very large and unnecessary risk with the global economy just when a lot of things are starting to go right,” Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told Reuters“.

“Not doing enough to stop Hindu zealots”


India has criticised a US congressional panel claim that minorities in the country have been subjected to “violent attacks” after Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP came to power. The foreign ministry said the panel report “appears to be based on limited understanding of India”. Critics say Mr Modi’s government is not doing enough to stop Hindu zealots targeting minorities. Mr Modi has vowed to protect all religious groups. The latest US Commission on International Religious Freedom report says that “since the [last year’s] election, religious minority communities have been subject to derogatory comments by politicians linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and numerous violent attacks and forced conversions by Hindu nationalist groups, such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP)”. The report said Hindu groups had announced plans in December to forcibly “reconvert” at least 4,000 Christian families and 1,000 Muslim families to Hinduism in Uttar Pradesh as part of a so-called ‘ghar wapsi’ (homecoming) programme”.

Conservative victory


In a mix of pathetic pleading and bullying in the day before the general election David Cameron has “urged the British public not to “do something you’ll regret” as voters head to the polls for the closest general election in a generation. With the final round of opinion polls showing Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck, the Prime Minister uses a Telegraph interview to urge voters to reflect in the “solemn quiet” of the polling booth before casting their ballot. Mr Cameron says that the 2015 general election will “define this generation” with major constitutional and economic issues at stake for the country. The last round of opinion polls and forecasts from bookmakers suggests that the election will lead to a chaotic result – with Labour and the SNP vying with the Conservatives, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, to form the next Government. Senior Conservatives privately hope that, as in 1992, the opinion polls are not reflective of the nation’s mood and that so-called “shy Tories” or people having last-minute doubts over Labour’s credibility could yet swing behind Mr Cameron. On current polling, the Tories are hopeful of winning at least 290 seats – potentially as many as 300. They require at least 323 seats to claim a majority in the House of Commons and would therefore need the support of at least one other party under this scenario”.

These gains have come at the expense of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems went from nearly 60 seats to less than 10. Reports indicate that “Nick Clegg is expected to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats after the party slumped to its worst ever showing at a general election. After narrowly hanging on to his Sheffield Hallam seat with a much reduced majority, Mr Clegg said he would make an announcement about his future after meeting with colleagues today. Nick Clegg came under heavy fire from Labour, which hoped to decapitate the Lib Dem leadership. In the event, Mr Clegg held on, albeit with a reduced majority”.

At the same time as the Lib Dem wipeout the Labour Party has been destroyed in Scotland. The Guardian reports that the SNP “has won an extraordinary landslide victory in the general election in Scotland after the Scottish National party crushed Labour, inflicting a series of humiliating defeats on the party’s leadership. In a series of dramatic victories for the SNP that left Scottish Labour effectively decapitated and the Liberal Democrats reduced to a tiny handful of seats, Sturgeon’s party was on the brink of securing nearly all of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. The SNP swept aside once-unassailable majorities for Labour with swings as high as 35%, as voters threw out Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader, its former deputy leader, Anas Sarwar, and Margaret Curran, the shadow Scottish secretary. The avalanche also carried off Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary who had been in charge of Ed Miliband’s general election campaign. He was defeated by Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old politics student who has yet to finish her degree and who is now the youngest MP elected since 1667. Alexander admitted Scotland’s voters had lost trust in the Labour party, which had started the campaign defending 41 seats”.

Related to this is the loss of many high profile names, “During a night that saw the Scottish National Party wipe Labour off the map in Scotland and a huge decline in support for the Liberal Democrats there were many big name MPs that could not hold onto their seats. Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander was the highest ranking politician to lose his seat in the general election. The Liberal Democrat, who was at the heart of the coalition government, is one of many who have been ousted from office in the wake of the SNP’s historic landslide. Vince Cable blamed a campaign of “fear” by the Tories for a “terrible night” for the Liberal Democrats as he became the latest in a string of high-profile party figures to lose their seats. The Business Secretary was defeated by Conservative Tania Mathias by 25,580 votes to 23,563 in the seat he had held since 1997″.

The piece adds later that “Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy lost his seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. Mr Kennedy has endured the highs and lows of political life. Having taken his party to its best election result since the 1920s, his leadership ended in ignominy when he was forced to quit after admitting a drink problem. But the Liberal Democrats were not the only party to lose high profile figures. Esther McVey, the Conservatives’ employment minister and one of the most prominent female figures in the Cabinet, lost the key marginal of Wirral West to Labour’s Margaret Greenwood by just 417 votes. It had been a bitter campaign, with anti-Tory activists labelling her “evil in its purest form” and “the smiling, jack-vooted assassin of welfare reform”.

In an image reminiscent of Margret Thatcher’s 1979 victory where she promised to “bring healing” and did the exact opposite, Cameron said that “David Cameron has said he wants to govern for “everyone in our United Kingdom” amid growing fears for the future of the Union after Labour was virtually wiped out in Scotland by the SNP. Alex Salmond warned that Mr Cameron will have “no legitimacy whatsoever in Scotland” after he became one of 56 SNP MPs in Scotland. Only four seats went to other parties. The rise of the SNP saw Labour lose Douglas Alexander, the party’s election chief and shadow foreign secretary, and Jim Murphy, Labour’s leader in Scotland. The Liberal Democrats lost Danny Alexander, the former chief secretary to the Tresury”.

The piece adds “Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and new Tory MP for Uxbridge, said that the Conservatives will need to make a “federal offer” to Scotland. He said: “Everybody needs to take a deep breath and think about how we want the UK to progress. “I think even most people in the SNP, probably in their heart of hearts, most people who voted SNP tonight, do not want to throw away absolutely everything.” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, said that the Conservatives will continue with plans to devolve more powers to Scotland and also press ahead with plans for English votes for English laws. He emphasised that Scotland decided to remain in the Union amid fears that the SNP is now likely to use its mandate to push for a second referendum on Scottish independence”.

A piece notes that “The Conservatives are expected to get a 37% share of the national vote, Labour 31%, UKIP 13%, the Lib Dems 8%, the SNP 5%, the Green Party 4% and Plaid Cymru 1%. Ed Miliband steps down after a “difficult and disappointing” night for Labour which saw Ed Balls lose and Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander defeated by the SNP. Nick Clegg said he would quit as leader after a “crushing” set of losses, which saw Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, David Laws, Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy among a slew of Lib Dem casualties. George Galloway, who was reported to the police for retweeting an exit poll before voting ended, has lost to Labour in Bradford WestNigel Farage has quit as UKIP leader after failing to be elected – although he may stand in the ensuing leadership contest. Douglas Carswell retained his Clacton seat. Conservative minister Esther McVey was the highest-profile Tory loser, defeated by Labour in Wirral West. The Green Party gets one seat after Caroline Lucas retains the Brighton Pavilion constituency she won in 2010″.




“Saudi forces on Yemen’s northern border”


Dozens of Houthi fighters were killed in clashes with Saudi forces on Yemen’s northern border, Riyadh said on Thursday, while air strikes and artillery fire rocked the southern city of Aden in fighting residents said was the worst in over a month of war. Three Saudi soldiers were killed in the fighting, which began when Houthis attacked a border post in Najran province and were repulsed, Riyadh’s Defence Ministry said. Earlier, the Interior Ministry said a border guard was killed by a shell while on patrol in a different area, bringing the number of Saudi casualties in the five-week campaign to 14. The Iran-allied Houthi rebels and local militiamen also traded tank and mortar salvos in Aden’s Khor Maksar district near the airport from Wednesday into Thursday and warplanes from a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states bombed Houthi positions. In the capital Sanaa, new air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition hit the airport days after jets bombed the runway to stop an Iranian plane landing, an airport official said. Damage to the airport has stopped aid deliveries, officials said. Residents in Aden said dozens of families had fled, braving Houthi sniper fire and checkpoints as homes were shelled and burned. “The scene is disastrous, not just in the streets where fighting is going on but inside houses where families are often trapped and terrified,” local activist Ahmed al-Awgari said. “Women and children have been burnt in their homes, civilians have been shot in the streets or blown up by tank fire,” he said. Scores of residents and fighters from both sides have been killed throughout the conflict, and residents said at least six Houthis and two local militiamen were killed overnight”.

Using al-Qaeda to destroy ISIS


An unusual article has argued that the United States should accept al-Qaeda to fight ISIS.

The writer opens “Since 9/11, Washington has considered al Qaeda the greatest threat to the United States, one that must be eliminated regardless of cost or time. After Washington killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, it made Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s new leader, its next number one target. But the instability in the Middle East following the Arab revolutions and the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) require that Washington rethink its policy toward al Qaeda, particularly its targeting of Zawahiri. Destabilising al Qaeda at this time may in fact work against U.S. efforts to defeat ISIS”.

He adds that “There is no doubt that relentless U.S. strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan weakened al Qaeda by taking out the group’s central command and making it extremely difficult for it to plot attacks in the West. Pulverising al Qaeda central also exacerbated difficulties it was already having in communicating with and supervising its various outposts. As a result, these branches either diverged from the parent organisation’s strategy by fighting local regimes or overreached by targeting Muslim civilians, particularly Shiites. For example, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, formerly the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, carried out an unapproved attack in November 2005 that killed numerous civilians in Amman, which was also outside his area of responsibility. These distractions prevented the various branches from contributing much to al Qaeda’s overarching goal of fighting the West, or the “far enemy.” With the exception of its Yemeni subsidiary, al Qaeda’s franchises were largely limited to targeting the “near enemy” in their designated zones. And so, notwithstanding their contribution to the spread of al-Qaeda, its franchises were more of a liability than an asset to the brand name”.

He correctly writes that “Washington’s reluctance to deploy combat forces against ISIS has limited its options to airpower and a reliance on allies’ ground forces. There are some merits to this strategy and signs that it is indeed bearing fruit: ISIS’ astounding advance has been rolled back in some locations, such as in Sinjar, Iraq, and Kobani, Syria. But the unwillingness to invest greater American resources comes with a price: the United States is settling for limited and gradual progress, which is not enough to destroy ISIS”.

Crucially he argues that “In order for U.S. President Barack Obama to fulfill his promise to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, he must weaken ISIS’ control of Mosul, Raqqa, and other large population centers, as well as stop its expansion. Inadvertently, the administration’s cautious approach to military intervention makes al Qaeda—which views ISIS as a renegade offshoot—an important player in curtailing ISIS’ growth”.

Interestingly he makes the point that “This advantage may not last long. ISIS’ surprising territorial gains and its ability to recruit an estimated 20,000 fighters (more than any terrorist organization since the 1980s, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence) are putting pressure on al Qaeda, particularly its various branches, to defect and jump on the ISIS bandwagon. By announcing himself as caliph, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has revealed that his ambitions extend beyond capturing Iraq and Syria. He has essentially demanded that all other jihadist groups pledge their allegiance to him. If Baghdadi were to succeed, he would command a much more powerful force, with assets throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. The pressure for all terrorist groups to unite under one camp only increased after the United States joined the fight against ISIS in August”.

Indeed this may be a reason to do nothing. The fact that Baghdadi’s claims to Islamic leadership are so extensive they easily push him into open confrontation with al Qaeda. If the United States could assist both groups to intensify fighting each other it would be a drain on their material and resources. Whether this is possible is another question.

The writer adds that “Although al Qaeda agrees that jihadists should collaborate against their shared enemy the United States, it nevertheless refuses to join ISIS by following Baghdadi. Notwithstanding the fact that Zawahiri is less influential than his predecessor, he has so far been able to keep all of al Qaeda’s branches on his side. Although all the branches renewed their pledges to al Qaeda after Baghdadi announced his plans to create a caliphate, there was a leadership change in al Shabab (al Qaeda’s Somali branch), which made it more susceptible to defecting”.

He notes that if Zawahiri is killed and it is  “likely that in Zawahiri’s absence, al Qaeda would drift into ISIS’ camp, offering it manpower, resources, and access to arenas such as Algeria and Yemen where al Qaeda’s dominance has so far hindered ISIS’ expansion”.

He ends “More so than during the bin Laden era, al Qaeda’s cohesiveness depends on the ability of its leadership to hold the various franchises together, and it is unclear whether al Qaeda can endure another succession since al Qaeda’s veteran leaders have dwindled considerably in recent years, making it more dependent on old guard figures such as Zawahiri to maintain unity. As such, the group’s fate may depend on Zawahiri’s personal survival. It is certainly ironic that at this point, when the United States is the closest it has ever been to destroying al Qaeda, its interests would be better served by keeping the terrorist organization afloat and Zawahiri alive”.