Archive for June, 2015

“Two authors of the letter disputed that interpretation”

30/06/2015

On this the nominal deadline for the Iran talks a piece from Foreign Policy argues that the recent letter in the New York Times has been misrepresented, “The bipartisan U.S. group of Iran watchers, including former officials from President Barack Obama’s administration, has drawn a line in the sand on five concessions they say must be part of a lasting deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program. Their letter was widely viewed on Thursday as an indictment of the nuclear talks by the president’s very own former advisors. But two authors of the letter disputed that interpretation in interviews with Foreign Policy. The letter comes as a U.S. delegation of 20 senior Obama administration officials head to Vienna in hopes of finally securing a diplomatic agreement to keep Iran from building a nuclear bomb — a deal that has been elusive for years. The rare grouping of luminaries who signed the letter includes well-known neoconservative hawks such as former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and liberals such as former Obama administration officials Robert Einhorn and Gary Samore”.

Interestingly the piece only notes that two of the signers distanced themselves from the letter. It remains to be seen what the other signatories make of these comments, distancing themselves. In some ways the letter is reminiscient of the 1998 Project for the New American Century signed by both GOP and Democrats concerning Iraq.

The report goes on to mention, “The White House insists that the five demands outlined by the group match the priorities that U.S. negotiators are seeking in Vienna. Yet media coverage of the letter has led many to believe that Obama’s former advisors have lost trust in the president’s negotiating team. Two signers of the letter say that’s patently false. “That’s not at all what the statement was about,” said Einhorn, a nonproliferation expert and a co-signer of the letter. “The key thing is not that there were some former Obama officials raising questions,” he added. “The key thing is you have this diverse group coming together on a set of reasonable and achievable recommendations.” Unlike a recently circulated set of demands by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Einhorn noted that the letter he signed doesn’t include so-called “poison pills” that Iran would never conceivably agree to”.

The article goes on to mention that “The bipartisan group demands that international monitors have “timely and effective access” to any military or nonmilitary sites needed to verify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal being negotiated by Tehran and six world powers. It also calls for strict limits on the research and development of advanced centrifuges, the ability to quickly reimpose sanctions if Iran violates the terms of a deal, and gradual, not immediate, economic sanctions relief for Tehran. Included in those demands is a preamble noting that “[m]ost of us would have preferred a stronger agreement,” suggesting growing discontent with the handling of the talks by Obama administration alumni”.

It adds “another signer of the letter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that’s not the case. He said the letter meant to bring Democrats and Republicans together around a simple set of “achievable goals” to demonstrate a bipartisan path to a deal”.

It ends “According to American officials, a tentative agreement inked in April in Lausanne, Switzerland, committed Iran to restrictions on R&D and enrichment capacity. It also insisted on delayed sanctions relief and access for intrusive inspections “anywhere in the country.” However, there still appears to be wide disagreement about what exactly Iran committed to during those framework talks. This week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, demanded that sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic be lifted the moment a deal is signed. He also ruled out freezing Iran’s controversial nuclear work for an extended period of time”.

Pakistan helps the Taliban attack

30/06/2015

Afghanistan’s intelligence service on Wednesday said a Pakistani intelligence officer helped the Taliban carry out an attack on the parliament in Kabul earlier this week. Afghan intelligence services spokesman Hassib Sediqqi said the officer in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence helped the Haqqani network carry out the attack outside parliament, which killed two people and wounded more than 30 as lawmakers were meeting inside. He identified the officer as Bilal, without providing his full name. Sediqqi says the suicide car bomb used in Monday’s attack was manufactured in Peshawar, Pakistan, just across the border. He says Afghan authorities were made aware of the attack on June 10 and had deployed extra security. Pakistani officials could not immediately be reached for comment. Afghan-Pakistani relations have improved in recent months following years of tensions, during which each had accused the other of supporting militants operating along their porous border. Afghan security forces have struggled to combat the Taliban following the conclusion of the U.S. and NATO combat mission at the end of last year. The Taliban launched their annual spring offensive in April with an assault on the provincial capital of the northern Kunduz province, nearly capturing the city as Kabul rushed in reinforcements”.

“Obama’s inner circle of Iran advisers have written an open letter”

30/06/2015
 A report in the New York Times notes that five former advisers urge caution on the nuclear deal with Iran whose deadline is today.
The piece opens “Five former members of President Obama’s inner circle of Iran advisers have written an open letter expressing concern that a pending accord to stem Iran’s nuclear program “may fall short of meeting the administration’s own standard of a ‘good’ agreement” and laying out a series of minimum requirements that Iran must agree to in coming days for them to support a final deal. Several of the senior officials said the letter was prompted by concern that Mr. Obama’s negotiators were headed toward concessions that would weaken international inspection of Iran’s facilities, back away from forcing Tehran to reveal its suspected past work on weapons, and allow Iranian research and development that would put it on a course to resuming intensive production of nuclear fuel as soon as the accord expires”.
The piece goes on to mention “The public nature of the announcement by some of Mr. Obama’s best-known former advisers, all of whom had central roles in the diplomatic, intelligence and military efforts to counter Iran’s program, adds to the challenge facing Secretary of State John Kerry as the negotiations head toward a deadline of next Tuesday. The letter was given to the White House and State Department on Wednesday. A senior administration official, asked about the contents, said that it “in large part tracks with the U.S. negotiating position inside the negotiating room.””
The report reminder readers that “Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, heightened the pressure facing negotiators by appearing to back away from several preliminary understandings reached between Iran and the West in early April, including in areas where Mr. Obama’s former advisers urged a hardening of the American position. For the White House, the letter may raise the level of political risk in seeking approval of any final agreement. A judgment from Mr. Obama’s own former advisers that the final accord falls short would provide ammunition for Republican critics who have already said they will try to kill it when it is submitted to Congress for review”.
Interestingly the piece argues that “it creates an opportunity for Mr. Obama as well. The letter was also signed by a number of prominent Republicans from President George W. Bush’s administration. A determination by them that the standards set out in the letter have been achieved would undercut the Republican critique. “Most of us would have preferred a stronger agreement,” the letter begins, going on to assess the proposed accord as useful for delaying Iran’s program, but not a long-term solution to the problem of a nuclear Iran”.
It continues “The substance of the letter is less notable for what it says — the positions were frequent talking points for the Obama administration before it faced the inevitable compromises involved in negotiations — than for the influence of its signatories. Among them is Dennis B. Ross, a longtime Middle East negotiator who oversaw Iran policy at the White House during the first Obama term; David H. Petraeus, the former C.I.A. director who oversaw covert operations against Iran until he resigned two years ago; and Robert Einhorn, a longtime State Department proliferation expert who helped devise and enforce the sanctions against Iran. Also signing the letter were Gary Samore, Mr. Obama’s former chief adviser on nuclear policy who is now the president of the advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, and Gen. James E. Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an architect of Mr. Obama’s effort to build up military forces in the region. Among Republicans, the most notable signatory is Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser in his second term, who presided over efforts to slow Iran’s progress”.
The report adds that “at the core of the letter are what Mr. Einhorn, now at the Brookings Institution, called “required elements that have not yet been achieved.” He said that all the signatories supported a negotiated settlement, and “there is no poison pill here” intended to undercut the chance of an agreement”.
The article continues, “The letter gets to the heart of some of those areas, all of which are still under negotiation and, in some cases, in bitter dispute. For example, the negotiations that ended in April resulted in vague statements about how inspections would work, beyond an understanding that Iran would sign an International Atomic Energy Agency convention giving inspectors broad rights to investigate suspicious sites. But Ayatollah Khamenei, along with his commanders, immediately ruled out allowing foreigners to visit military sites. The letter, referring to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said inspections “must include military (including I.R.G.C.) and other sensitive facilities. Iran must not be able to deny or delay timely access to any site anywhere in the country.” Similarly, while Mr. Kerry said last week that it was not necessary to make Iran account for evidence of past effort to work on weapons designs, because the United States and its allies already had “absolute knowledge” of those activities, the former advisers view the long-sought answers to those questions as vital”.
The piece ends, “On another delicate issue in the talks, the letter calls for “strict limits on advanced centrifuge R&D, testing, and deployment in the first 10 years,” and for measures to prevent “rapid technical upgrade” when those limits expire.  Some limits were negotiated in April, but the details remain to be resolved. Perhaps the hardest part from an Iranian perspective is the insistence in the letter that the United States publicly declare — with congressional assent — that even after the expiration of the agreement Iran will not be permitted to possess enough nuclear fuel to make a single weapon”.
It concludes “The letter emerged from a study group on nuclear issues organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a policy institute. Because only members of the group worked on the statement, it omits some former major players in the Obama administration’s Iran policy, notably Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will have to decide whether to embrace any final deal. For Mrs. Clinton, a presidential candidate who has recently separated herself from some of Mr. Obama’s policies, it will not be an easy decision: As secretary of state, she sent two of her most trusted aides, Jake Sullivan and William Burns, to begin the secret negotiations with Iran that set the negotiations in motion”.

“The president to get his controversial Asian trade bill through Congress”

30/06/2015

Nancy Pelosi led the Democratic rebellion against President Barack Obama’s trade agenda. On Wednesday, she admitted defeat, clearing the way for the president to get his controversial Asian trade bill through Congress. The California Democrat told her caucus Wednesday afternoon that she was dropping opposition to Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program to help workers negatively affected by jobs moving overseas. Democrats, who are traditionally fervent supporters of the program, opposed it on June 12 to derail Obama’s effort to get the ability to quickly push through trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But she’s been outmaneuvered by Republicans and the president. Obama allied himself with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who introduced standalone legislation giving Obama fast-track powers. It passed the House last week and is likely to get through the Senate Wednesday afternoon. It could be on the president’s desk as early as Thursday. This left Pelosi with a stark choice: fight against a worker’s program Democrats love and continue to derail the president’s trade ambitions, or admit she’s lost”.

Bush swings at Clinton

30/06/2015

A report discusses how Jeb Bush is targeting Hillary Clinton’s record at State and in the Senate, “New GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush is wasting no time targeting the likely Democratic nominee, calling Hillary Clinton’s record as secretary of State a failure and needling her wary relationship with the press. “I think she’s smart. I think she loves the country. I don’t ascribe bad motives for people that I don’t agree with. But as a senator, I think she passed — she has her name on three laws in eight years,” Bush said in an interview on Fox News’s Hannity to air Tuesday night. “As secretary of State, in all honesty, the things she’s known for, the reset [with Russia], the pulling back of our commitments, Libya, to put aside Benghazi, Libya in general. It turns out there was a complete failure.” Clinton sponsored three laws during her Senate tenure that became law, but co-sponsored an additional 74″.

The piece adds “Bush, who announced his presidential bid on Monday, also attempted to draw a contrast with Clinton over his willingness to address the media. Clinton has only held one major press conference since she announced in April, but her campaign has promised that she’ll be more available following her first rally last Saturday. The GOP frontrunner also criticized the Clinton camp for reports it shut out a Daily Mail reporter from traveling with the pool of campaign trail reporters who share their observations with the rest of the media. “I’m going to make mistakes. I can guarantee you that. I’m not going to hide from people that don’t agree with me. And if they’re people in the press, I’m not going to say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t come. I’m sorry I’m not going to answer questions,’” Bush said”.

The article adds “Bush also addressed suggestions his connection to former Presidents George H.W. Bush, his father, and George W. Bush, his brother, could hurt him on the trail. He said that he’s “blessed” by his extraordinary parents and that he loves his brother who left office in 2009 with plummeting approval ratings”.

Interestingly the piece goes on to mention “Bush also reiterated his stance on immigration, a potential landmine for him in the GOP primary. He previously supported a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally, a stance not in line with his party’s base, but he’s walked that back. “If we had a guest worker program along with securing the border, there’d be people coming seasonally to do the work in the fields and other things that are essential for our economy and then going back home,” he said, adding that border security has to be the “first priority.” Bush’s long-awaited announcement of his candidacy brought another major player to the ever-crowding GOP field. He’s now off to tour the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada”.

NATO returns to Iraq

28/06/2015

NATO is poised to return to Iraq in order to help fight Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), four years after leaving the country. The military alliance is close to launching a mission to train Iraqi officers as the Baghdad government struggles to repel the jihadist group. The programme, due to be launched next month, will coach senior commanders in developing a national defence strategy and commanding units in the field. NATO trained troops in Iraq from 2004 to 2011. The mission ended after Iraqi politicians failed to agree a legal basis for it to continue. Despite training thousands of troops, the Iraqi army has in many areas collapsed in the face of Isil’s advance, leaving behind US-supplied vehicles and weapons. Douglas Lute, the US ambassador to Nato, pointed out that the majority of the 62 nations in the current task force training Iraqis or conducting air strikes on Isil positions are either Nato members or supporters. Nevertheless, the involvement of the 28-nation alliance marks as escalation of the West’s mission against the terrorist group. Britain is second only to the US in bombing sorties, while British trainers are working to coach local officers”.

Israel’s tone deaf foreign policy

28/06/2015

An interesting report from the Economist notes the problems of Israeli foreign policy, “FIVE days after Binyamin Netanyahu’s government was sworn in, his defence ministry on May 19th issued a directive that had the effect of requiring Israelis and Palestinians to use separate buses when travelling from Israel to the West Bank. The ministry called it an administrative and security requirement; but its own security experts said there was no need for it. In fact, the directive is a result of pressure exerted on Moshe Yaalon, the defence minister, by Israeli settlers who say they are being “harassed” by Palestinians on the buses. The bus plan was roundly criticised by opposition figures and even by some within the ruling party, Likud. Yitzhak Herzog, the leader of the main opposition Labour party, called it “a stain on the face of the nation and its citizens”. A few hours later the prime minister capitulated and told Mr Yaalon to suspend the directive. In any event, the whole affair was a sign of the new government’s thinking, which could soon make Israel’s relations with the wider world pricklier than ever”.

The report goes on to make the point that “On May 15th Barack Obama admitted in an interview that his administration had failed in its attempts to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict. “We worked very hard,” he said. “But, frankly, the politics inside of Israel and the politics among the Palestinians as well made it very difficult.” Yet despite Mr Obama’s apparent acceptance of defeat, he is quietly talking to European governments about their plans to squeeze Israel harder. François Hollande, France’s president, wants a UN Security Council resolution to set a clear timetable for negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Mr Obama has asked France not to pursue its initiative until a deal is signed with Iran curbing its nuclear programme, which he hopes will be by the end of June. But he is not insisting that it be abandoned”.

The piece adds that “Israeli diplomats’ lament their country’s diminished international standing. “They used to talk to us, now they’re talking about us with others”, is a typical complaint. Whereas France has discussed its UN proposal with the Americans, the Arab League and the Palestinians, Israel learnt of it only at second-hand. Alongside the French plan, the EU is holding another threat over Mr Netanyahu’s head. A feeling in Europe is growing that future Israeli announcements of further Jewish settlement-building on the West Bank should be met with retaliatory measures. For a start, the EU may insist on labelling Israeli products made in the settlements. Next, it may put limits on European finance for joint research”.

The writer goes on to mention that “The Palestinians have been piling on the pressure, too. On April 1st Palestine officially joined the International Criminal Court (ICC), opening the way to the possible indictment of some Israelis for war crimes. And Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Football Association, is calling for a vote to suspend Israel from international football tournaments, including the World Cup, over claims of harassment and violence suffered by Palestinian footballers and their clubs. Neither step is likely make much practical difference in the near future”.

The piece ends “Some outsiders hope that a bit of pressure will spur Mr Netanyahu to adjust his right-wing coalition, bringing Labour into the government with Mr Herzog as foreign minister. But from the tone of his government’s first week, Mr Netanyahu is currently facing in the opposite direction”.

Russia threatens Sweden

28/06/2015

Nearly one in three Swedes think the country should join NATO, a major poll suggested last month, up from 29 percent of Swedes in 2013 and 17 percent in 2012. The shift in public opinion is largely credited to a rising fear in the Nordic country of a potentially aggressive Russia. Sweden’s security service Säpo recently stated that the biggest intelligence threat against the Nordic country in 2014 came from its eastern neighbour. On Thursday, Russia’s ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, hit out in an interview with the Dagens Nyheter daily at what he called an “aggressive propaganda campaign” by Swedish media. “Russia is often described as an attacker who only thinks of conducting wars and threatening others. But I can guarantee that Sweden, which is an alliance-free nation, is not part of any military plans by Russian authorities. Sweden is not a target for our armed troops,” he said. However, he underlined that if Sweden were to abandon its alliance neutrality and join the Western military organization, Russia would adopt “counter measures”. “I don’t think it will become relevant in the near future, even though there has been a certain swing in public opinion. But if it happens there will be counter measures. Putin pointed out that there will be consequences, that Russia will have to resort to a response of the military kind and re-orientate our troops and missiles. The country that joins Nato needs to be aware of the risks it is exposing itself to” he told DN”.

“United Kingdom’s outsized and overleveraged financial sector made the nation suffer disproportionately”

28/06/2015

A report in Foreign Affairs discusses the recent British general election. It argues that both main parties mislead the public about their economic policies.

It opens “This May’s general election wins for British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party confounded opinion pollsters and surely surprised Cameron himself. Despite presiding over five years of budgetary austerity and welfare cuts, a drop in wages by over eight percent from their 2007 peakzero growth in national productivity (which reflects the growth of part-time low-skill employment since the crisis), and missed budgetary targets, the electorate punished not Conservatives but rather their junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, who lost all but eight of their 57 seats in the House of Commons. The Labour Party’s failure to improve significantly on its weak 2010 performance, paired with the quirks of the United Kingdom’s first-past-the-post electoral system, did the rest of the work needed to secure a Conservative victory”.

The author correctly notes that “Commentators on the right have been quick to interpret this result as a triumph for austerity politics and fiscal rigour over supposedly anticapitalist (or at least pro-Keynesian) policies advocated by former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who resigned following the results. The Conservatives’ political message throughout the election revolved around the “tough decisions” it had made to cut government programs in order to reduce the budget deficit left behind by the previous Labour administration. Meanwhile, on the center-left, Labour’s failure is seen as proof that it should never have abandoned Tony Blair’s “third way” strategy of socially progressive neoliberalism, which had successfully attracted aspirational middle-class voters”.

He goes on to argue that “A closer look at this election’s results suggests that both of these interpretations are off the mark. Although Labour gained only 700,000 votes since 2010, the true cause of the Conservatives’ success is the spectacular collapse of the Liberal Democrats. By associating with the Conservatives’ austerity policies, the Liberal Democrats forfeited some 4.5 million votes—two-thirds of its vote share. The Conservatives’ real vote share—although the party claimed that it provided Cameron with a mandate to govern—only increased by half a percent”.

As ever in UK politics the major culprit for these skewed figures is the wacky electoral system of fptp, a system that should only ever by used in a two party system. Now however the two party system is dead but the two main parties are trying desperately to cling onto it instead of having some form of PR and a more representative and democratic system of electing MPs.

He mentions that “Cameron’s party may have another five years in power, but the real winners of this year’s election were fringe parties such as the UK Independence Party, which advocates a freeze on immigration and an exit from the European Union, and the Scottish National Party, which wants Scottish independence and an end to austerity. Both of these parties took millions of votes that Labour was hoping to claim, clearing a path for Cameron’s victory despite most of the British public actively rejecting his party’s policies”.

Pointedly he argues that for all the talks about cutting the deficit the Tories did not really do want they proudly said they would, “Despite Conservative spending cuts, the United Kingdom’s deficit was reduced by only half of what the party anticipated when it took office in 2010. The nation’s economy did not start to grow until late 2013, after a panicked treasury minister, George Osborne, relaxed austerity measures. The United Kingdom’s economic problems, the Conservatives maintained, were the result of Labour’s supposed profligacy in running budget deficits during the boom years of the early 2000s, leaving the economy exposed to the financial crisis. This, they argued, made draconian spending cuts inevitable. However, as the crisis hit in 2007, the United Kingdom had the lowest debt to GDP ratio in the G7, lower than when Labour had taken power a decade earlier. And if Labour was supposedly running excessive deficits, the markets remained strangely unconcerned, with market rates on British bonds running close to pre-collapse lows. This left many wondering why the British budget exploded in 2008 and what it might say about coalition rule in the United Kingdom”.

The writer makes the excellent point that “Cameron did not discuss why the United Kingdom’s outsized and overleveraged financial sector made the nation suffer disproportionately from the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Financial deregulation and the unsustainable growth in private, not public, credit fatally exposed the United Kingdom’s banks to the United States’ subprime credit crisis. The collapse in credit growth in 2007–09 hurt the United Kingdom’s budget not because the Labour government was too deep in debt but because the national economy was more dependent on financial activity than elsewhere. By 2007, the British Exchequer was taking nearly 25 percent of total tax revenue out of the financial sector just prior to the crisis, which was a mere ten percent of the economy. With the financial crisis, these revenues plummeted, leaving the government short of cash and needing to borrow heavily”.

He correctly writes that the poor suffered most under the government, “The Conservative–Liberal Democratic coalition diagnosed the nation’s woes as symptoms of Labour spending excessively on welfare and wealth redistribution. The government then set about reducing the deficit by slashing social programs and public employment. Austerity policies very quickly pushed the economy back to a near recession, averted only by slowing the pace of deficit reduction and encouraging private sector credit growth through government guarantees on home loans. The coalition’s spending cuts were never reinstated once the economy began to recover, and its austerity policies were politically selective. Health care and pensions were spared the ax—programs that disproportionately benefit older citizens who tend to vote Conservative. The government focused its cuts instead on the younger end of the working population. Spending on these groups was already lower than on the elderly, which required cuts to be deeper in order to provide substantial savings”.

He concludes “The economic crisis that hastened New Labour’s demise had nothing to do with overspending and everything to do with its uncritical acceptance of twenty-first-century financial innovation and its excesses. Before analysts conclude that Labour has no choice but to shift to the right, we need to remember the lessons of the global financial crisis: a balanced budget will not save a government from the failures of a banking sector that is too big to bail out, and mere economic facts seldom defeat ideologies”.

Wikileaks vs Saudi Arabia

28/06/2015

At the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, diplomats talked about airing the grievances of disenchanted local youth using Facebook and Twitter. At the embassy in Khartoum, they reported anxiously on Iran’s military aid to Sudan. Meanwhile, the Saudi mission in Geneva got stuck dealing with a multi-million dollar limo bill racked up by a Saudi princess and her entourage. The incidents are mentioned in diplomatic documents published Friday by WikiLeaks, only the first batch of what the transparency group says will be a much larger release. But they’ve already provided an unusual level of insight into day-to-day Saudi diplomacy – giving a snapshot of the lavish spending habits of senior royals and the political intrigue percolating across the Middle East”.

Gay marriage in America

26/06/2015

In a momentous judgement today the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that there can be no discrimination that would otherwise allow gay couples to marry. The ruling comes just weeks after the people of Ireland voted by referendum to allow gay marriage.

A report in the Washington Post opens “The Supreme Court on Friday delivered a historic victory for gay rights, ruling 5 to 4 that the Constitution requires that same-sex couples be allowed to marry no matter where they live and that states may no longer reserve the right only for heterosexual couples. The court’s action marks the culmination of an unprecedented upheaval in public opinion and the nation’s jurisprudence. Advocates called it the most pressing civil rights issue of modern times, while critics said the courts had sent the country into uncharted territory by changing the traditional definition of marriage. “Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. He was joined in the ruling by the court’s liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. All four of the court’s most conservative members — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — dissented and each wrote a separate opinion, saying the court had usurped a power that belongs to the people”.

The report goes on to mention that “Reading a dissent from the bench for the first time in his tenure, Roberts said, “Just who do we think we are? I have no choice but to dissent.” In his opinion, Roberts wrote: “Many people will rejoice at this decision, and I begrudge none their celebration. But for those who believe in a government of laws, not of men, the majority’s approach is deeply disheartening.” Scalia called the decision a “threat to American democracy,” saying it was “constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine.” In a statement in the White House Rose Garden, President Obama hailed the decision: “This ruling is a victory for America. This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts. When all Americans are truly treated as equal, we are more free.” Obama said change on social issues can seem slow sometimes, but “sometimes there are days like this when that slow and steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt. This morning the Supreme Court recognized that the Constitution guarantees marriage equality. In doing so they’ve reaffirmed that all Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law. . . . Today we can say in no uncertain terms that we have made our union a little more perfect.”

The piece continunes “There were wild scenes of celebrations on the sidewalk outside the Supreme Court, as same-sex marriage supporters had arrived early, armed with signs and rainbow flags. They celebrated the announcement of a constitutional right to something that did not legally exist anywhere in the world until the turn of the new century. Jim Obergefell, who became the face of the case, Obergefell v. Hodges, when he sought to put his name on his husband’s death certificate as the surviving spouse, said: “Today’s ruling from the Supreme Court affirms what millions across the country already know to be true in our hearts: that our love is equal.” “It is my hope that the term gay marriage will soon be a thing of the past, that from this day forward it will be simply, marriage,” he said. “All Americans deserve equal dignity, respect and treatment when it comes to the recognition of our relationships and families.’’ But Austin R. Nimocks, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a pro-traditional marriage group, said: “Today, five lawyers took away the voices of more than 300 million Americans to continue to debate the most important social institution in the history of the world. That decision is truly unfortunate. . . . Nobody has the right to say that a mom or a woman or a dad or a man is irrelevant. There are differences that should be celebrated. Millions of Americans still believe that.’’ This country’s first legally recognized same-sex marriages took place just 11 years ago, the result of a Massachusetts state supreme court decision. Now, more than 70 percent of Americans live in states where same-sex couples are allowed to marry, according to estimates. The Supreme Court used cases from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, where restrictions about same-sex marriage were upheld by an appeals court last year, to find that the Constitution does not allow such prohibitions”.

It concludes “The questions raised in the cases decided Friday were left unanswered in 2013, when the justices last confronted the issue of same-sex marriage. A slim majority of the court said at the time that a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act — withholding the federal government’s recognition of same-sex marriages — was unconstitutional. In a separate case, the court said procedural issues kept it from answering the constitutional question in a case from California, but that move allowed same-sex marriages to resume in that state. Since then, courts across the nation — with the notable exception of the Cincinnati-based federal appeals court that left intact the restrictions in the four states at issue — have struck down a string of state prohibitions on same-sex marriage, many of them passed by voters in referendums. When the Supreme Court declined to review a clutch of those court decisions in October, same-sex marriage proliferated across the country. Public attitudes toward such unions have undergone a remarkable change as well. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll showed a record 61 percent of Americans say they support same-sex marriage. The acceptance is driven by higher margins among the young. When the justices declined in October to review the string of victories same-sex marriage proponents had won in other parts of the country, it meant the number of states required to allow gay marriages grew dramatically, offering the kind of cultural shift the court often likes to see before approving a fundamental change. The Obama administration had urged the court to find that the Constitution requires such restrictions be struck down, and Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. made the case on behalf of the administration at the court’s oral arguments in April. “In a world in which gay and lesbian couples live openly as our neighbours, they raise their children side by side with the rest of us, they contribute fully as members of the community . . . it is simply untenable — untenable — to suggest that they can be denied the right of equal participation in an institution of marriage, or that they can be required to wait until the majority decides that it is ready to treat gay and lesbian people as equals,” he said”.

In a related piece the way conservatives gave up fighting the movement is assessed, “The incredibly swift public opinion battle on same-sex marriage appears to be over — even moreso than you might think. A new Pew Research Center survey released this month reinforced what we already know: That a clear and growing majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. But here’s something perhaps even more telling: Even those who don’t support same-sex marriage (mainly, religious conservatives) also thought it’s inevitable same-sex marriage will soon be legal across America — something that came true Friday”.

The piece goes on to mention that “The empathy factor also plays in gay marriage supporters’ favour. A majority of Americans now think gays are born that way, according to a recent Gallup Poll. That helps supporters shift the debate to a civil rights issue. Perhaps most importantly, this month’s Pew survey found that nine in 10 Americans know someone who is gay. And simply knowing someone who’s gay is a major indicator when it comes to whether people opposed to gay marriage will change their minds, according to the 14 percent of Americans (a large number for such a partisan entrenched issue) who told Pew in 2013 that they changed their mind in support of gay marriage”.

A report questions if the GOP can get back into step with modern America, “Mike Huckabee — former Fox News personality, Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher — gathered with a modest crowd here in the back of Breadeaux Pizza on his “Main Street American Family” tour and opened the floor to questions. The very first one set the tone. Jeff Hontz, 49, a Baptist pastor in town, said he has been anxious because he sees “America going down the wrong roads morally.” God decreed unchanging standards in Scripture, Hontz argued, but society keeps changing — and fast. “I saw a commercial this morning about a transgender show, and everybody was praising it,” he said, prodding the presidential candidate. Huckabee responded by declaring that the standard of all truth is the Bible. Distorting the laws of nature, he said, is akin to playing the piano without a tuning fork — or baking a cake without the proper measurements of salt, flour and sugar. “You’re going to have a disaster on your hands,” he said. The exchange illustrates the vexing challenge now facing Republican presidential candidates and the GOP itself: how to get in step with modern America”.

It continues noting that “The GOP’s activist base wants its leaders to fight loudly for traditional, Christian values and sew together a moral fabric they see as frayed, even shredded. This is especially true here in Iowa, which hosts the first caucuses and where candidates will not easily avoid pressure from the far right. Yet political survival demands evolution with popular opinion. So far, many contenders are giving the base what it wants”.

“The Taliban attacked the Afghan Parliament”

26/06/2015

The Taliban attacked the Afghan Parliament on Monday just as lawmakers were convening for their third attempt to confirm a defense minister, while in northern Afghanistan a second district fell to Taliban insurgents. At least two bystanders died in the attack on Parliament and more than two dozen were injured, but government officials said that all members of Parliament had been taken to safety with at most only minor injuries. The seizure of the Archi district, which was confirmed by an Afghan Local Police commander, deepened concern that an attack on neighboring Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz Province, was imminent. Archi was the second neighboring district to fall in two days. On Sunday, the Ministry of Defense and other officials confirmed Taliban claims that the Chahar Dara district had fallen to the insurgents that morning. The Parliament attack was an embarrassment to the government, apparently timed to coincide with the appearance of the acting defense minister, Masoom Stanekzai, in an effort to win confirmation. The attack was initiated just as Mr. Stanekzai and the country’s second vice president, Sarwar Danish, arrived at the hall in southwestern Kabul.

The benefits of diplomacy

26/06/2015

An article notes that the about to be concluded Iran talks “proves” that diplomacy can work.

The begins “It is difficult to maintain much hope in humanity these days. The Islamic State is on a rampage in Iraq and Syria; Bashar al-Assad’s government continues to massacre its own people; the war in eastern Ukraine grinds on; even in the United States, where war feels like a distant notion, mass shootings have become a regular feature of modern life. More than ever before, peace seems an aberration — and conflict, the norm. But there are bright spots. And there is one development, in particular, that may be a new frontier in humanity’s ability to be humane: The effort by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany and Iran, to resolve the latter’s nuclear program through peaceful diplomacy”.

The author goes onto argue that “Behind the wonky op-eds about enrichment, breakout capability, and sanctions relief, there is an innovative attempt to find a lasting peace that I believe is unparalleled. If the two sides manage to reach a deal by their June 30 deadline, their achievement will go beyond just preventing a war or blocking Iran’s paths to a bomb. The real achievement may be that a major international conflict — a conflict that has brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war in recent years — has been resolved through a compromise achieved by diplomacy. This may sound unexceptional — isn’t that the work of diplomats, after all? — but if this feat is accomplished, few examples in history will match its magnitude. It is the norm that diplomacy settles a new peace after devastating carnage — not before”.

Yet the whole reason that ISIS, Ukraine and Syria have not been solved in a similar way is that the parties involved do not want to talk. They see no benefit, think they have the upper hand or are ideologically opposed to talks in the first place. It is not that people are not willing to talk to Assad or Putin but that Putin and Assad are unwilling to talk back.

He goes on to make the point that “There are four characteristics of the nuclear talks that make this case unique. First, the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program is a major global dispute. It involves the entire international community, not just Iran’s neighbours. This is important because larger conflicts like this are rarely resolved through diplomacy without the various sides going to war first. And only the most extreme voices hold out that war with Iran would be quick and easy — most military experts believe it would be a massive, costly, and lengthy engagement with no certain outcome. Second, the two sides were actually on the brink of war. War against Iran has been on the agenda in Washington since at least 2005. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate is credited with thwarting the George W. Bush administration’s plans — confirmed to me by administration officials — to attack Iran by revealing that the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that Iran did not have an active nuclear weapons program”.

He continues “Third, the outcome of the negotiations will be the result of genuine compromise. This is perhaps the most astonishing characteristic of the ongoing diplomacy. Neither side is negotiating the terms of its defeat or capitulation; nor are they securing a zero-sum victory. They are, instead, defining the terms of their mutual victory — a “win-win” as the Iranians have cast it.

He adds that “The fourth and final reason this deal will be a unique achievement for world peace is because of its scope. It does more than just limit Iran’s nuclear program: It addresses the evolution of the broader relationship between Iran and the West. This conflict has always been about much more than nuclear enrichment, and while few would suggest that Iran and the United States are likely to form an open alliance, a transformation of their enmity is plausible. The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, has said that the United States and Iran can, in a post-deal environment, “behave in a way that they do not use their energy against each other.” If Iran and the United States can reach a détente and avoid getting entangled with each other, this would be a radical shift from their antagonistic rivalry of the past three decades. It wouldn’t necessarily be a partnership — much less an alliance — but their relationship would no longer be characterized by enmity, but rather by a truce”.

He goes on to draw parallels. “The Cuban missile crisis may come close. A global conflict was on the verge of a massive war, and a tense standoff was resolved through talks that led to a mutual compromise. But on the fourth characteristic, transforming the nature of a historically antagonistic relationship, the missile crisis can’t compare with the Iran nuclear deal. After the crisis, Washington and Moscow remained in a tense and dangerous Cold War. Forget about partnership — that deal didn’t even produce a real truce. Another possible example is Operation Brass Tacks. In November 1986, tensions between India and Pakistan climaxed, with India deploying 400,000 troops within 100 miles of the border with Pakistan for a military exercise. It was a massive affair. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan felt threatened and put its military on high alert. A hotline between the two countries was activated, and officials from both sides tried to ease fears of an open conflict”.

He ends “Perhaps the most celebrated American diplomatic feat is the Shanghai Communiqué. Born out of President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s famous 1972 trip to China in the middle of the Cold War, the communiqué paved the way for the normalization of U.S.-China relations and created a framework for Beijing and Washington to resolve their differences — or to make sure their differences didn’t lead to conflict. The two sides also agreed that neither would seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. The communiqué was indeed a diplomatic success that transformed U.S.-China relations. But compared with the Iran nuclear negotiations, it falls short on a major point: China and the United States were not on the brink of war. Rather, the United States cleverly took advantage of rising Russian-Chinese tensions to further the rift between the communist countries during the Cold War”.

Saudi pivot to Russia?

26/06/2015

Saudi Arabia and Russia have signed an agreement to cooperate on nuclear energy development, a Saudi government body in charge of such projects said. The government body, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, announced the cooperation deal on its website on Thursday but gave no further details. Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV, citing unnamed sources, said the kingdom planned to build 16 nuclear reactors which Russia would play a significant role in operating. The Saudi atomic and renewable energy body has already signed nuclear cooperation deals with countries able to build reactors, including the United States, France, Russia, South Korea, China and Argentina. It is not clear if this new deal, announced on Thursday, will take cooperation with Russia to a more advanced level. Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi was due to meet his counterpart Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak in St Petersburg on Thursday to discuss a broad cooperation agreement. In 2012, Saudi Arabia said it aimed to build 17 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power by 2032 as well as around 41 GW of solar capacity. The oil exporter currently has no nuclear power plants”.

“Significant share of Russia’s external debt is owed not to Western banks”

26/06/2015

An article from Chatham House argues that Russian finances are not as weak as they seem.

He begins “A large volume of scheduled external debt repayments has led to speculation that Russia could experience a financial crisis in the near future. However, these financial vulnerabilities are not as worrying to Russian policy-makers as they might appear. A significant share of Russia’s external debt is owed not to Western banks, but instead to other Russian parent or holding companies registered abroad. This ‘intra-group’ debt is easily rescheduled, which means that Russia is unlikely to suffer a currency crisis – though other indicators, such as foreign direct investment, are more worrying for the health of the economy”.

He goes on to make the point that “The dramatic depreciation of the rouble over the winter, along with a decline in Russia’s international reserves, vividly illustrated Russia’s economic weaknesses and vulnerability to declining oil prices. However, one of the principal causes of the rouble’s poor performance in the final quarter of 2014 was not directly related to the falling price of oil. Instead, a spike in external debt repayments also created downward pressure on the rouble. Because of financial sanctions imposed by Western states, access to Western capital markets was effectively closed to a large number of Russian corporations, and not just those directly targeted by sanctions. Unable to refinance existing debt, Russian firms were forced to repay their debts on schedule. As a result, Russia’s total external debt fell from around $728 billion in January 2014 to $597 billion at the end of 2014. This sharp reduction of over $130 billion in the stock of external debt was due to a combination of repayments (primarily to Western banks) and a reduction in the dollar value of rouble-denominated debt”.

He goes on to argue that there is still great flexibility in Russia, “Some, such as the Atlantic Council’s Anders Aslund, have suggested that this cocktail of declining reserves and high external debt threatens the financial stability of Russia. This is, he suggests, because (a) Russia’s international reserves might not be liquid enough to be used to meet external financial obligations; and (b) Russia’s foreign debt obligations in the near future exceed the readily available stock of reserves. However, both claims are exaggerated. First, Russia’s international reserves are liquid, as clearly documented by Ben Aris in a recent BNE article. Second, and less widely documented, is the fact that Russia’s foreign debt obligations over the next two years are not as imposing as might first appear. According to data publically available on the Bank of Russia website, a little under $75 billion of external debt repayments are scheduled to be repaid over 2015 (a further $45 billion was scheduled for repayment between January and May 2015), and $68 billion over 2016. That means that between now and the end of 2016, over $140 billion is currently scheduled to be repaid. Set against around $350 billion in international reserves, this looks like a substantial and worrying amount”.

He asks the important question “how much of Russia’s external debt does intra-group debt account for? Overall, it accounts for around a quarter of total external debt. But even more importantly, it accounts for around half of the repayments that are scheduled for 2015 and 2016. This means that the total ‘hard’ external debt repayments over the next 18 months amounts to a figure nearer $70 billion than $140 billion. Given Russia’s still substantial international reserves, and the fact that many firms continue to generate large volumes of foreign currency revenues, this amount will not worry policy-makers in Russia. Looking to the future, because much of Russia’s external debt will likely be rescheduled, we should expect to see the total stock of external debt decline quite slowly, and the share of intra-group debt to rise. This should mean that the headline short-term debt figure will grow and perhaps appear disconcertingly high. But, as this note shows, a careful reading of the data should lead to a less alarming conclusion”.

He concludes “Does this mean that the Russian economy is safe? Well, it does mean that the likelihood of a financial crisis is quite low. Of course, another sudden and sustained decline in the price of oil would cause problems. But in a relatively benign baseline scenario of stable oil prices, it is unlikely that onerous external debt repayments will cause a dramatic financial crisis like the one Russia suffered in August 1998. Unfortunately for Russia, other economic indicators look more worrying. For example, inflows of foreign direct investment (IFDI) in Russia have fallen to worrying levels. In the second half of 2014, IFDI was negative. While this is not unprecedented, the fact that it accompanied a wider contraction in investment indicates that the prospects for investment in Russia appear bleak. This is of tremendous importance because IFDI is a crucial source of technology and knowhow. If this trend persists, the effectiveness of Russia’s aggregate investment will decline, productivity growth will slow, Russia’s international competitiveness will slump further, and ultimately living standards will fall”.

Khamenei’s new demands

26/06/2015

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday issued a new set of demands to world powers negotiating a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program. Like the previous instances, in which Khamenei attracted attention with his hard-bargaining “red lines,” the new demands are far outside the realm of what the West would offer the Islamic Republic in the current negotiations. Unlike previous instances, these demands come days away from the June 30 deadline, prompting questions about whether the Iranian leader is going to blow up a deal at the last minute or is merely engaging in theatrics — a time-honoured tradition during the talks. In his televised speech on Tuesday, Khamenei said sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic should be lifted immediately after a deal is signed. He also ruled out freezing Iran’s controversial nuclear work for an extended period of time. “Freezing Iran’s research and development for a long time, like 10 or 12 years, is not acceptable,” Khamenei said, according to Iranian TV. “All financial and economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. Congress, or the U.S. government should be lifted immediately when we sign a nuclear agreement.” The United States and its negotiating partners — Britain, France, China, Germany, and Russia — insist that Iran commit to restrictions on its program for at least 10 years on sophisticated nuclear work. The United States has also insisted that sanctions be lifted gradually as Iran comes into compliance with the deal, not all at once”.

Blair’s Scottish legacy

24/06/2015

A piece in Foreign Affairs examines the legacy of Tony Blair on the United Kingdom, “In 1998, the British Parliament fulfilled an election promise that then Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair had made in 1997 and passed the Scotland Act, paving the way for Scotland to elect its own legislature. In 1999, almost 300 years after the old “Estates of Scotland” were absorbed into the Palace of Westminster, an independent unicameral Parliament returned to Edinburgh. For the next 15 years, the Scottish executive and Parliament focused on the nuts and bolts of institution building and governance. Then, in September 2014, Scotland exploded. The ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) presided over a referendum on national independence that sent shock waves across the United Kingdom”.

The writer goes onto argue “Days before the referendum, with the race too close to call in polling, the Scottish Labour Party scrambled to ramp up a “Better Together,” or “No,” campaign, which received a behind-the-scenes assist from the virtually moribund Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Labour’s performance was feeble. Had it not been for voters’ fears about negative economic repercussions of independence and a rousing 12th-hour speech in defense of the union from former Labour leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown—a Scot with a flair for fiery oratory—the “Yes” votes might have won the day. In the event, the SNP lost the referendum. But the Labour Party seems to have lost Scotland”.

He goes on to mention that “The May 7 British general election thus seems set to rewrite the political legacy of Tony Blair. Up until 2014, Blair—who left 10 Downing Street in 2007 after a decade in power—was credited with putting Labour back in power after years of failure. Blair won three successive general elections by pulling Labour from left to center, by giving more powers to Scotland and other local authorities after decades of centralisation under Conservative Party governments, and by essentially usurping key elements of the Conservatives’ economic and social agenda. His twin goals were to strengthen the Labour Party and to strengthen the union. In 2015, both look weaker than before, and Blair’s political heirs are dealing with the unintended consequences of his policy success. Scottish devolution led the United Kingdom to the brink of dissolution in 2014—and it may well again. Blair’s blurring of the traditional British party distinctions in creating “New Labour” has resulted in one of the most contested and consequential elections in decades”.

He adds that “During his time in office, Blair steadily distanced himself from the old Labour base of rank-and-file party activists who entered politics through the industrial trade unions. He filled his cabinet with technocrats and “professional politicians,” who were elected to safe parliamentary seats in the Labour heartland. Blair and many of the people he picked were socially and educationally similar to their ideological rivals in the Conservative Party. New Labour’s MPs had few roots in their constituencies and very little in their personal backgrounds that resonated with the average voter. Today, Miliband and Cameron struggle to distinguish themselves from each other and a larger pack of political contenders who are widely seen as members of a homogeneous London-centric elite”.

He ends the piece “In the midst of their posturing, Nicola Sturgeon, the new leader of the SNP and first minister of the Scottish Parliament, has been hailed as one of the most charismatic British politicians of her generation. One of Sturgeon’s speeches on March 28 in Glasgow was described by a British political commentator as “the kind of speech . . . that a Labour politician in Scotland would have wanted to make and that a Scottish Labour voter would have wanted to hear.” Sturgeon and the SNP have galvanized voters with their anti–Westminster elite, pro-people message. Other national party players such as Wales’s Plaid Cymru and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which will both gain seats in Westminster, have helped amplify this message”.

He notes that “It is a message that also resonates in England, but for different reasons. In the 1990s, Scots felt detached from London because of Conservative government policies in the previous decade that had concentrated political and economic power in Westminster. Now the English feel detached from London because of the devolution of power away from Westminster. Since 1999, resentment has increased in the English electorate about what is sometimes called the West Lothian question: Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs can vote on all matters affecting Britain, but English MPs have no say in the legislative process in devolved territories”.

“Yemen’s exiled government and Shiite rebels”

24/06/2015

Yemen’s exiled government and Shiite rebels who control the capital failed to agree on even a temporary cease-fire Friday as they wrapped up U.N.-brokered talks aimed at ending a conflict that has killed more than 1,000 civilians and displaced more than a million since March. The collapse of the talks came as Saudi-led air strikes continued to pound the Iran-backed rebels, known as Houthis, and their allies, killing at least 10 civilians in a northern rebel stronghold, witnesses said. The U.N. meanwhile called for $1.6 billion to help millions of Yemenis avoid a “looming humanitarian catastrophe.” U.N. envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who mediated the talks in Geneva, told reporters that the two sides broadly favour a cease-fire that would have rebels withdraw from cities and towns seized in recent months and the coalition halt its air campaign against them. “We didn’t reach a final agreement. We have to be clear and transparent,” he said, adding that a deal “will require further consultation.” “I come out with a certain degree of optimism,” he added. “It’s a matter of time.” The fighting in Yemen pits the Houthis and allied troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against southern separatists, local and tribal militias, Sunni Islamic militants and loyalists of President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi, who is now based in Saudi Arabia. The rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, in September”.

Britain’s feeble military

24/06/2015

A report from the Daily Telegraph notes the future British military capacity, “The military might of Britain has been rendered “feeble” in the face of threats from around the world, some of the country’s most senior military commanders have said. Four former leaders of the Armed Forces issue a passionate warning about the decline of British influence, saying they are deeply concerned by the UK’s failure to act as crises grow in Iraq, Syria and Russia. The four men — Admiral Sir Nigel Essenhigh, Admiral Lord Boyce, Field Marshal Lord Walker and Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Squire — liken Britain’s inaction to the “appeasement” of Nazi Germany before the Second World War”.

The report goes on to note that “Writing in the Telegraph, Sir Nigel, a former First Sea Lord, says there are “disquieting parallels” between Britain’s unwillingness to arm itself now and in the 1930s when it failed to prepare to combat the growing threat from Hitler until it was “nearly too late”. The legacy of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean there is no public appetite for further conflict and this has led to “feeble” responses to security threats in the Middle East, including in Libya, Syria and the “exponential” threat posed by the terrorists of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil). The former commanders warn that cuts to the Forces in the past five years have already “seriously undermined” Britain’s military alliance with America. Britain is now facing the real risk of being drawn into a conflict with an increasingly aggressive Russia in Eastern Europe, but there are serious questions over whether the UK would be able to respond, the former commanders say”.

The piece continues “Sir Nigel’s warning, which is backed by former chiefs from all three services, comes as the Ministry of Defence faces another round of savage budget cuts when Whitehall spending is scrutinised once more in the autumn. The Government has begun a new defence review which it says will assess the threats the country faces and the equipment and manpower required to counter them. But there is widespread fear among defence chiefs that it will be a repeat of the 2010 review, which forced sweeping austerity cuts on the Armed Forces and saw the Army cut from 102,000 to 82,000. George Osborne, the Chancellor, has already announced that the Ministry of Defence will have to find another £500 million of cuts this year. Unlike the international aid budget and the NHS, the MoD has not been ring-fenced and further cuts are widely expected”.

The scale of the problem facing the UK is seen when the writer adds that “Experts at the Royal United Services Institute said it is “touch and go” whether Britain will this year hit the agreed Nato target to spend 2 per cent of GDP on the military. In his article, Sir Nigel warns there are “disquieting parallels between the situation that confronted our country some 90 years ago and that which now prevails”. Britain in the 1920s and 1930s was still too horrified by the First World War “and all but bankrupt as a result of it” to face up to the “growing menace that Nazism presented to European stability”, he says”.

The report adds “At last week’s G7 summit in Germany, world leaders expressed concern about an upsurge in fighting in eastern Ukraine, in violation of the ceasefire agreed in April. Sir Nigel continues: “If the outcome of the [defence] review is a further reduction in military expenditure and not a commitment to a sustained increase, then the Government will be neglecting its prime and overriding duty, the defence of the nation, by failing to halt the progressive decline of British military capability into penny packet numbers.” Isil has in recent weeks made significant advances in Iraq. As part of an international coalition, British bombers have launched air strikes inside Iraq but have not committed to attacks in Syria. Deploying ground troops to fight Isil has been ruled out by the Prime Minister”.

The piece mentions that “Sir Peter and Lord Boyce said the trigger for a war between the West and President Putin could be a Russian invasion of a Nato ally such as Latvia. “Russia has the military strength, technology and comprehensive military forces to fight a very serious war,” Sir Peter said. Lord Boyce added: “Putin is behaving in a very aggressive and expansionist way and the Government does not seem to take it seriously because it is inconvenient to have to do something about it. When facing the threat from Hitler in the 1930s, we woke up to it too late and so we were on the back foot from the start.” An MoD spokesman said Britain has the second-largest defence budget in Nato and the largest in the EU”.

Laughably the piece ends with a formulaic statement from the government, ““The Government is committed to spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence this financial year,” the spokesman said. “Over the next decade we are committed to spending £163 billion on equipment and equipment-support to keep Britain safe and right now we are deployed around the world on more than 20 operations.””

This does not obviously address the next financial year or the year after that. The Cameron government is obviously committed to making the UK even more of an irrelevance in international relations. No about of talking about the history of the UK or the “greatness” of its current staff or soldiers will do anything to undo the decisions he has taken, all in the name of budgetary “discipline”

 

ISIS attacks Yemen

24/06/2015

Several mosques have been hit in a series of explosions in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, causing dozens of casualties, officials say. At least two blasts were caused by car bombs. Health and security officials said more than 20 people had died. A building reportedly used as the headquarters of Houthi rebel officials was also hit. The Islamic State (IS) militant group, which has carried out attacks in Sanaa before, said it was behind the blasts. In a statement posted online, IS said that four car bombs targeted two areas of worship, as well as a house and an office belonging to what it called “Houthi apostates”, referring to the Shia Houthi rebels. In March, IS attacks on mosques used mainly by Houthis left more than 130 people dead”.

Good tactics or a Houthi trap?

24/06/2015

An article on the ongoing conflict in Yemen argues that the Houthi are trying to push Saudi forces into a ground war, “Riyadh sees as a dangerous Iranian proxy on its southern border. Yet despite thousands of airstrikes, the Saudi military operation has yielded anything but a decisive victory. The mission that started off as Operation Decisive Storm has failed to decisively alter the balance of power in Yemen, reinstall exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, or wrest the capital of Sanaa from Houthi control. If anything, the Saudi campaign bears a remarkable similarity to Israel’s 2006 war against the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah. That conflict also laid bare the limitations of air power in a war against an elusive guerilla organisation: Israel, despite launching 12,000 air raids over a 34-day period, failed to stop Hezbollah from firing daily rocket barrages and paralysing all of northern Israel. Nearly a decade later, Hezbollah remains a formidable foe and the most powerful actor in Lebanon”.

He argues that “When the Houthis took over Sanaa and ousted Hadi last September, Yemen analysts argued that it seemed like the Houthis had been reading Hezbollah’s playbook. In that respect, one of the most interesting byproducts of the ongoing Saudi-led campaign is the new light it has cast on Hezbollah’s influence over the Houthis’ war strategy. It should come as no surprise that the two Shiite, Iran-backed movements share operational military links. Last month, the Financial Times quoted a Hezbollah commander in Beirut as saying that Houthi fighters had “trained with us in Iran, then we trained them here and in Yemen.” A second Hezbollah source told the newspaper that while Iran was “probably” supplying weapons to the Houthis, “We are the guerrilla experts, so we give advice about the best timings to strike back, when to hold back.” However, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah provided the most interesting indication of the Lebanese organisation’s influence over the Houthis’ military tactics. Nasrallah has long argued that his organisation’s military experience against Israel constituted a “model” for other movements fighting an overwhelmingly superior military adversary”.

Crucially he goes onto write that “This model posits that the stronger side will eventually be compelled to limit or cease its airstrikes, or raise the stakes and deploy ground forces. Of course, ground maneuvers in asymmetrical conflicts are often costly and tend to play into the hands of guerilla organisations. This is precisely what Nasrallah has been telling the Saudis in recent weeks. In a televised address just one day after the Saudi air campaign began, he argued that the military operation was analogous to Israel’s experience in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and to that of the United States in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan”.

The piece goes on to mention that “On May 5, the Houthis and their local allies began shelling the very targets that Nasrallah had specified — initially employing mortar shells and Katyusha rockets, but gradually stepping up their attacks by using rockets and missiles with heavier payloads and longer ranges. The following day, Saudi officials reported that five civilians had been killed in both Jizan and Najran by mortar shells fired from northern Yemen. Houthi social media platforms are now replete with details and images of daily attacks on Saudi military posts. Two weeks ago, several video clips emerged on YouTube, allegedly showing the successful targeting of a major Saudi air force base some 60 miles north of the Yemeni border. On May 31, the Houthis released a video purportedly featuring the launching of Zelzal rockets — an Iranian missile with a 90-mile range — on Saudi Arabia”.

He concludes “With no immediate end in sight, it is too soon to draw conclusions about the Saudi war effort. Moreover, the kingdom’s highly restrictive media environment makes it all the more difficult to gauge the real impact of the Houthi cross-border rocket campaign. Nevertheless, the Houthis’ apparent ability to place Saudi assets at continuous risk could have a significant long-term impact on Riyadh’s threat perception and willingness to engage in similar military campaigns against the Houthis. In the long run, Saudi success will depend on its ability to prevent the establishment of a formidable Iran-backed military power across its southern border, like the one Israel faces on its northern border. However, Israel’s experience in Lebanon suggests that this is an extremely difficult mission — and one that requires more than just air power”.

 

Taliban warn ISIS

22/06/2015

The Taliban has warned the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group against waging a parallel insurgency in Afghanistan, following several defections and reported clashes with militants loyal to IS. In a June 16 letter addressed to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Taliban insisted that “jihad (holy war) against the Americans and their allies must be conducted under one flag and one leadership.” “The Islamic Emirate (Taliban) does not consider the multiplicity of jihadi ranks beneficial either for jihad or for Muslims,” said the letter signed by the Taliban deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor. “Your decisions made from a distance will result in (the IS) losing support of religious scholars, mujahideen… and in order to defend its achievements the Islamic Emirate will be forced to react,” it added”.

“Potential members of an anti-Iranian coalition do not share common ideas”

22/06/2015

A blog post asks why there is not an anti-Iran alliance in the Middle East, “Saudi Arabia is fighting in Yemen and supporting rebels in Syria in part to push back against Iranian influence. Saudi’s highly vocal efforts can distract from one of the most notable yet underappreciated elements of the current Middle East: the lack of a strong regional alliance against Iran. The absence of such a countervailing coalition is explained by what political scientist Randall Schweller termed “underbalancing,” the inability or unwillingness of states to form the kind of blocking alliances that balance of power theory would predict”.

The writer argues that “Iran is the undoubted geopolitical winner in the region’s upheavals. It is the most influential player in Iraqi politics, nurturing close relations with the Abadi government, sponsoring if not controlling a number of Shiite militias and maintaining a cooperative relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government (exemplified by its supply of arms to the KRG during the Islamic State offensive last summer). Iranian support also has been essential to the preservation of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, and its client Hezbollah remains the dominant force in Lebanese politics. While Tehran’s relationship with the Houthis is not as strong or as direct as that with Hezbollah or the Iraqi militias, the success of the Houthis in Yemen further contributes to the regional sense that Iran is on the march. Efforts by other regional powers to challenge Iranian gains have to date all failed, whether Turkish and Saudi support for the Syrian opposition, Saudi financing of the March 14 coalition in Lebanon and military aid to the Lebanese government, or the current Saudi air campaign against the Houthis”.

Yet while this may be true it should be noted that not everything is going the way Iran wants. The nuclear talks are still underway and it would be premature to pre-empt them. Secondly, the price of oil is still low. Many have argued that Saudi Arabia is keeping it low in an effort to squeeze Iran financially.  Even if a deal is reached with favourable terms for Iran, the low price of oil will not help the Iranian treasury. They will be tempted to pump more oil with what will be expected as agreements with oil companies if a deal with the United States is reached. However, if a deal is reached and if oil companies do enter Iran pumping more oil will only hurt the current oil price, making it fall further.

The piece goes on to mention that “According to balance-of-power logic and by its “balance of threat” alternative, the region should have witnessed a Turkish-Saudi-Israeli alignment aimed at Iran. Pooling resources makes sense since no single state can match Iran’s power. Israel and Saudi Arabia both seem to identify Iran as their major threat, and although Turkey may not be as focused on Iran, it still worries about Iran’s growing regional reach. A Turkish-Saudi understanding makes perfect sense by the sectarian logic that many believe is driving regional politics, as both are Sunni states. But neither the trilateral nor the bilateral balancing alignment against Iran has emerged”.

Pointedly he writes that “The biggest impediment to such a grand regional alliance is not the United States. Washington would like to see Iranian regional influence contained, even as it is negotiating with Tehran on the nuclear issue, and is hardly standing in the way of a regional alignment against Iran. Even if it were, there is little evidence that Turkey, Israel or Saudi Arabia are taking their cues from the Obama Administration these days. Rather, the primary reason for underbalancing against Iran is found in the realm of ideas. Iran does not simply represent a power challenge to its Arab neighbours. It also challenges the legitimacy of their domestic political systems through its rejection of monarchy and its strong appeal to many fellow Shiites. It refuses to accept the American-led regional order that has prevailed since the end of the Cold War and thus directly challenges the foreign policy of many of its neighbours”.

He does make the valid point that “The potential members of an anti-Iranian coalition do not share common ideas about how politics in the region should be organised and are wary of cooperation with each other. Saudi Arabia and Turkey represent very different models of domestic political order. The Saudis support fellow monarchs and discourage democratic reform both at home and abroad. Turkey under AKP rule has supported a version of populist, Islamist democratic reform in the Arab world, particularly by backing Muslim Brotherhood movements. Meanwhile, the Israel of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is following a barely-veiled colonialist project in the West Bank that makes it anathema to public opinion throughout the Muslim world. The Middle East is not simply a multipolar region in terms of power. It is also multipolar ideologically. Political scientist Mark Haas provides a framework to understand why regions with multiple and competing political ideologies at play are more prone to underbalancing. Haas argues that in systems characterised by ideological bipolarity, like the Cold War, alliances will tend to follow ideological lines (NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact) and be very stable. However, when there are multiple ideological principles at work, state leaders will eschew alliances that seem logical from a power perspective because they dislike and fear the ideological stance of a potential ally”.

He goes on to mention that “The Saudis seem uncertain about who is their greater threat, Iran or the Islamic State. The seemingly natural Turkish-Saudi balancing alliance against Iran is impeded by Saudi fears that the Turkish model of populist, democratic Islamism will aid the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world. While the Saudis clearly want to roll back Iranian influence, they have also declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. Turkey partnered with Qatar, another regional player that had bet on the Muslim Brotherhood, to encourage Islamist opposition to the Assad regime. But it now seems to be torn between the goal of Assad’s removal and the fear that the Islamic State has become the more salient threat to Turkish security. Ankara, which historically has maintained decent relations with Israel, has now chosen to distance itself in a very public way from Jerusalem for ideological and domestic political reasons. The desires of some of Israel’s friends in the United States to foster a Saudi-Israeli connection against both Iran and the Islamic State have not been realized. Riyadh cannot contemplate an open relationship with the Netanyahu government because of its fears of the domestic political consequences of such an alliance”.

He ends “These scattered events raise the possibility that the new Saudi king is reevaluating his predecessor’s ranking of the threats faced by Riyadh, downplaying the Muslim Brotherhood threat to Saudi domestic regime security and opening up the possibility of a Turkish-Saudi alliance against Iran. A successful conclusion of the P5+1 talks with Iran could further increase regional balancing incentives against the Iranians. If the Saudis and the Turks both decide that Iran presents a bigger threat to them than any other regional player, regardless of a successful P5+1 negotiation, then “underbalancing” against Tehran might end. However, a possible consequence of the formation of such an alliance might be more space for the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates to maneuver in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. More likely, the plethora of contesting ideological positions in the Middle East today will prevent decisive alliances from being formed against any regional power – Iran or the Islamic State. “Underbalancing” is likely to characterize the region for some time”.

“An accounting of prior military activity would be redundant”

22/06/2015

For years, the United States and other world powers have demanded that Iran come clean about its past nuclear weapons research. But with a deadline for a landmark deal rapidly approaching, President Barack Obama’s administration is now saying such an accounting of prior military activity would be redundant, as the United States already possesses a detailed understanding of Iran’s illicit nuclear activities. It has the ability to devise a stringent U.N. monitoring system capable of preventing it from cheating down the road. The shift in emphasis comes just two weeks before the June 30 deadline for what would be a landmark nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States and its allies. Stymied on trade and other issues, the Obama administration sees a pact with Tehran that would freeze Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for relief from punishing Western sanctions as a legacy-defining moment for a president in desperate need of a win. Skeptical lawmakers on Capitol Hill worry that the White House will concede too much to the Iranians to nail down a pact. The administration’s position on Iran’s past nuclear activity, outlined Tuesday by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, is an attempt to split the difference. Washington, Kerry said, would no longer be “fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another.” Put another way, America’s top diplomat is saying the White House would accept a deal that didn’t require Tehran to immediately disclose details about its nuclear program. Iran has steadfastly denied trying to build a bomb and instead insisted that it was researching civilian uses of nuclear power”.

“Gearing up for a renewed fight”

22/06/2015

A report notes that the Russian rebels are returning to war mode in Ukraine,

The article begins “Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine launched a significant offensive against Marinka, a town less than 10 miles west-southwest of Donetsk, the separatists’ capital. While the Ukrainian military repulsed the attack, there is now renewed fighting across eastern Ukraine. Not only has this fighting shattered February’s “Minsk II” cease-fire, which was already frayed, it may also have permanently destroyed the peace process with which the international community was seeking to end this war. And the rebels’ latest moves give a sense of what the Kremlin and its proxies could have planned next. On June 3, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned that Russia’s “terrorists” had launched a major military offensive in eastern Ukraine just hours after Moscow canceled a meeting of the trilateral contact group — which includes representatives of Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and is tasked with negotiating a settlement to the crisis”.

The report goes on to mention that “Within hours, it was clear that hundreds of rebel fighters were leading a direct ground assault on Marinka. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine witnessed around 100 separatist artillery attacks, but they also saw dozens of separatist armoured vehicles, trucks, artillery pieces, and Grad rocket launchers deploying to the battle, including T-72 Main Battle Tanks. Other accounts of the June 3 battle corroborate the OSCE report. The OSCE report and other testimony make clear that the separatists, not the Ukrainian military, were the aggressors. According to the OSCE, their attempts to contact separatist leaders and calls for a renewed cease-fire were ignored. Moreover, many of the separatist tanks observed by the OSCE were T-72s, tanks that Ukraine has not used in this conflict — indicating that they were almost certainly supplied or perhaps even directly operated by the Russian military”.

It continues, “Russia and its eastern Ukrainian proxies appear to be gearing up for a renewed fight. Throughout the end of April and the beginning of May, significant numbers of military convoys in separatist-held Ukraine were spotted by citizen observers, journalists, and OSCE international monitors. Those convoys included T-72 tanks, as well as Strela-10 anti-aircraft weapons, designed to guard against fast-moving strike craft on the front lines. In recent months, both NATO nations and the Ukrainian government warned that the Russian military was once again escalating its support for the separatists by supplying new weapons. In April, Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, warned that Russia was preparing for a new offensive and was taking advantage of the nominal cease-fire to reposition its troops and equipment and to train and supply the separatists. The separatists don’t seem to disagree: In late April, Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, told Vice News that he did not want the Minsk cease-fire to hold”.

Worryingly the writer casts some doubt as to the ability of the government in Kiev to withstand the fighting, “since a large amount of its forces and heavy equipment are stationed near Mariupol, the key coastal city south of Donetsk, near the Russian border and on the road between Russian territory and Crimea. It’s not clear if the Russian-backed separatists have enough firepower to ever capture Mariupol, but it is clear the Ukrainian military cannot risk losing the city, which is both the most important economic prize on the coast and a crucial bulwark against Russia establishing a land bridge to Crimea. Not only are large parts of its military resources stuck defending Mariupol, the Ukrainian military also has to take any enemy advances north of the city very seriously in order to ensure that it does not become surrounded. The focus on the front lines between Donetsk and Mariupol, which include towns such as Marinka, could leave the Ukrainian lines between Donetsk and Luhansk more vulnerable to the creeping advances of the Russian-backed fighters, which have been progressing — despite multiple cease-fires — since August”.

He ends “the battle for Marinka has also already had at least one tremendous consequence. Three days after the attack, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, who was in charge of the OSCE mission, resigned. She had been overseeing not just the monitoring of fighting in eastern Ukraine but also the cease-fire negotiations between Kiev, the rebels, and Russia. Tagliavini’s resignation is a sure sign that there is frustration within the OSCE about the deterioration of the situation in eastern Ukraine. But with Tagliavini out, it may not be possible to find a replacement who both Russia and the West can agree to support”.

New sanctions on Iran with UN backing?

22/06/2015

“In an unusual break from the Obama administration’s de facto policy of not discussing details of the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power vowed that any sanctions relief provided to Iran could be reinstated without unanimous support from the UN Security Council. “We will retain the ability to snap back multilateral sanctions architecture back in place, without Russian or Chinese support,” Power told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday morning, referring to the two countries most likely to block sanctions against Iran. “While I can’t get into the specifics of the mechanism right now, because we’re at a very delicate stage in the negotiations, and all of this is being worked through to the finest detail, I can say number one: Congress will be briefed as soon as the deal is done, if it gets done,” she continued. “And number two: we will not support a snap-back mechanism or an agreement that includes a snap-back mechanism that leaves us vulnerable.”

“Don’t have to declare a referendum on the fate of negotiations”

20/06/2015

An important article in the Iranian nuclear talks urges moderation in the reaction to the talks, “A few days ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released one of its quarterly reports on the implementation of safeguards in Iran, which my friends at the Institute for Science and International Security placed online. The report contains lots of information about Iran’s nuclear programs under safeguards, including the size of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU). Since the last report, in February, the amount of low-enriched uranium has increased about 10 percent, to 8714.7 kilograms”.

The writer goes on to note that “Despite Sanger and Broad’s analysis that “Western officials and experts cannot quite figure out why” this increase has happened, it’s actually very easy to see why. Iran’s program was limited for the duration of negotiations (“frozen,” if you must) to a certain number of centrifuges that are allowed to continue producing LEU. Those centrifuges produced about 800 kg of LEU since the last report. One can create a more detailed accounting of the uranium flows, but to a first approximation what happened was simply that Iran’s centrifuges that are allowed to enrich uranium enriched some uranium”.

The author continues “The Obama administration’s position is that there will be no sanctions relief until Iran reduces its LEU stockpile below 300 kg, among other steps. The Sturm und Drang in the New York Times story is odd because the extra 800 kg or so of additional LEU just isn’t going to matter come June 30. How the Iranians reduce the stockpile is up to them — they can ship the material out of the country, downblend it, or even sell it on the open market. The Iranians have recently made noises about not shipping the material abroad, but they will ultimately have to choose a method that balances pride with their desire for speedy implementation of sanctions relief. An extra 800 kg of LEU doesn’t really change that calculus, at least not so far as I can tell”.

He argues that “800 kg doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. That’s what I mean by calling the story odd. In 10 years, no one will remember how many hundred kilograms of LEU the Iranians had when the deal was struck — only how much they accepted as a cap and whether they actually got down to that number. But this does speak to a recurring problem in our discourse about these negotiations. People are naturally interested in the progress of negotiations. When an IAEA report comes out, people ask, “What does it all mean?” It’s an obvious question, even if the answer that it doesn’t really mean anything, at least not at the moment. The Great Iranian LEU Stockpile Panic of June 2015 replicates several other tempests that have excited pundits in recent months”.

The writer mentions that “the IAEA conducts inspections. But the Additional Protocol, which Iran had indicated that it would accept, refers to “complementary access” and “managed access” — terms that were chosen precisely to distinguish that access from inspections, including the dreaded and implicitly adversarial “special inspection.” Not surprisingly, the Iranians have now announced that “managed access” to military sites is fine. One lesson is obvious: Do not render vague political rhetoric into concrete demands before negotiators do”.

He fairly points out that “The Iranians, by the way, are every bit as bad as we are when it comes to speculation and tendentious description. Just this week, the supreme leader’s national security advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati, claimed that the United States had changed its position in negotiations, insisting on only 300 centrifuges at Fordow instead of 1,000. This is nonsense. What the parties agreed to in Lausanne was to allow six cascades totaling 1,044 centrifuges at Fordow — that is stated clearly in the fact sheet — but that Iran would operate only two cascades, or 348 machines. (That’s not stated so clearly, but that was the deal.) But whether it is 348 or 1,044 centrifuges, it doesn’t really matter. None of these machines would be permitted to enrich uranium”.

He concludes the article arguing that “Which brings me back to the big question asked in New York: Who to follow? I think, for the vast majority of readers, that is the wrong question. Unless you work on this issue for your day job, you can safely stop following the negotiations — at least for now. All the palaver about the negotiations will be immediately worthless on or about June 30, when the parties are supposed to have reached a deal. Catch up on Game of Thrones or work on your art car for Burning Man. Wendy Sherman will still be here when you get back. And if you really just need a fix, check up on John Kerry’s broken leg or speculate about Javad Zarif’s allegedly achy-breaky back. As for those of us who are professionally obligated to follow the twists and turns, we need to stop injecting garbage into the discussion. You know who you are. Political coverage is already dominated by nonsense like Hillary Clinton’s burrito preferences. We don’t have to declare a referendum on the fate of negotiations every time the supreme leader takes a dump”.

He ends “Once the deal materializes or collapses amid recriminations — circle June 30 on your calendar — we can all get together again. Plenty of us will go through the provisions with a fine-tooth comb. I’ll certainly write a column or two. And I am sure the comments section will contain the usual trenchant commentary on both my arguments and my parentage. But we’ll at least be in a position to examine all the compromises, fudges, and shortcomings that make up any deal, with the small benefit of context that helps make sense of it all”.

 

AQAP leader dead

20/06/2015

Al-Qaeda has confirmed that Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of its offshoot in the Arabian Peninsula, has been killed in a US drone strike in Yemen. His death was announced by the AQAP group in an online video. His successor was named as military chief Qasim al-Raymi. Wuhayshi was seen as al-Qaeda’s second-in-command and was a former personal assistant to Osama Bin Laden. He built one of the most active al-Qaeda branches, say US officials”.

“Long-term causes that will only have long-term solutions”

20/06/2015

A piece from Foreign Policy argues that the “bailouts” Greece has received from the troika are unhelpful.

It opens “The Greek bailouts have been incredibly stupid. There, I’ve said it. Let’s put aside the debate over whether rescuing Greece was a bad idea in the first place; a complete collapse of its economy might well have led to social unrest and even conflict. But how the Europeans and their cohorts at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailed out Greece was amazingly, insufferably stupid”.

He goes on to explain “The world has seen plenty of bailouts in the past, some that worked and others that didn’t. Argentina’s by the IMF in 2000 and 2001 didn’t work, because the peso was so overvalued that there was no way to make the country’s debts sustainable. Ireland’s bailout by the European Union in 2010 succeeded, in the sense that the country paid its way out of the program on schedule three years later, though its economy was still on a fragile footing. But Greece is neither Argentina nor Ireland. As a percentage of the economy, its public debt is much higher than Argentina’s was. Its business environment is nowhere near as dynamic as Ireland’s in the views of the World Bank and the World Economic Forum. And Greece’s shadow economy — the portion that doesn’t pay taxes — may be the biggest of the three”.

Yet even this misses serious errors. Ireland may be technically out of the IMF programme but the debt is still vast, indeed so vast that if things worsen in the Eurozone as the are expected to, another “bailout” is probably necessary.

He goes on “None of these problems has a short-term solution, and yet that is exactly the template that both of Greece’s bailouts have taken. Greece is still in crisis talks with its creditors because the payments it has been expected to make and the reforms it has been expected to implement have corresponded to unreasonable short-term expectations. Put simply, the problems in Greece have long-term causes that will only have long-term solutions. A public debt as big as Greece’s — currently more than 170 percent of its GDP — does not go away overnight, even with the harshest austerity measures. It will only erode during an extended period of robust economic growth as well as restrained spending. Austerity might make it possible for Greece to meet its payment obligations in the short term, but what’s the point if the economy is crippled in the long term? Greece’s climate for business won’t turn into a world-beater in just a few years, either”.

He makes the point that “Improving protections for investors, curtailing corruption, strengthening property rights, and — crucially — enhancing the enforceability of contracts are all on Athens’s to-do list, but the cultural and legislative changes they require will take time. Indeed, it would be a mistake to rush hastily written laws on such fundamental matters through the Greek parliament, especially without building widespread public understanding and support”.

He argues that “it’s foolish to believe that Greece will turn into a nation of chastened and loyal taxpayers in just a few short years. Tax avoidance and evasion have a variety of deep social roots; they can be affected by factors as diverse as religiosity, class divisions, individual psychology, and perceptions of fairness. Though some incentives can increase compliance with the tax system in the short term, the commitment to pay taxes has more to do with a feeling of stakeholdership and justice — something Greece, with its fractured politics and current disillusion, will need time to manifest”.

He concludes “the bailout backers set their criteria based on what they thought Greece should do, rather than what Greece was capable of doing. They were also preoccupied with ensuring Athens would work hard for each tranche of bailout funds, rather than ensuring Greece’s process of reform would be as smooth as possible. Given these disjoints, it’s no surprise that Greece may need a third bailout to avoid defaulting on its debts. A series of short-term cures will never solve a long-term problem. But officials in Frankfurt, Brussels, and Berlin never showed enough interest in the overarching challenges in Greece’s economy. Their goal all along has been to maintain the integrity of the eurozone, despite its flaws, as well as their own infallibility. Ironically, they might have been closer to their goal had they thought less about themselves and more about the Greeks”.

“Upheld a death sentence against former president”

20/06/2015

An Egyptian court upheld a death sentence against former president Mohamed Morsi on Tuesday as it issued sweeping judgments against him and dozens of his Muslim Brotherhood allies. The court decisions mark the latest move by authorities to punish and discredit Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Islamist-­inspired government was ousted by the military in 2013. The rulings also showed the increasingly tough stance of the current government, led by former army chief Abdel Fatah al­-Sissi, toward political opponents more than four years after the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring. Amid political upheavals, Egypt’s courtrooms have become the stage for a complex — at times confusing — array of claims and condemnations against Morsi’s network and the ousted regime of autocrat Hosni Mubarak”.

“It wants to remake the Asian order”

20/06/2015

A report explains China’s naval strategy, “active defence”, it piece opens “The just-completed Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore dwelt largely on China’s maritime ambitions, zeroing in on its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. In his keynote address, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter vowed to “continue to protect freedom of navigation and overflight principles that have ensured security and prosperity in this region for decades.” There should be no mistake, continued Carter, that “the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world.” The United States, its allies, and its partners will exercise “the rights of all nations” to their fullest, he said. That the U.S. secretary of defense traveled to the far side of the world to speak so bluntly shows how seriously Washington takes the China challenge. And understandably so. China is a big, ambitious, oftentimes domineering power. It covets dominion, if not ownership, of its maritime environs. It chafes at the liberal Asian maritime order over which the United States has presided since 1945 — and wants to redefine that order in keeping with its own interests and aspirations. This constitutes a challenge of the first order. Hence the fanfare surrounding “China’s Military Strategy,” as Beijing straightforwardly titled its new defense white paper, released in late May. But let’s not exaggerate the strategy’s novelty. For one thing, this isn’t China’s “first-ever defense white paper,” as one observer maintained. Beijing issued its first public defense white paper in 1998; they have appeared at roughly two-year intervals ever since”.

The author goes on to note “While the 2015 white paper is doubtless “assertive” (one adjective commonly affixed to it); assertiveness has been standard fare in these missives for quite some time. And the formula for the document remains much the same: Its framers first present the officialdom’s appraisal of the strategic environment, then explain in general terms how the PLA will configure itself to manage that environment — and in so doing, advance the CCP’s purposes”.

He goes on to make the point that “China’s seaward turn is nothing new. It began in the 1990s. By the turn of the century, respected commentators were holding forth on it at book length. By historical standards, in fact, China’s navy may be nearing maturity — giving Beijing the military implements to put force behind its words. Which brings us to another point of continuity between “China’s Military Strategy” and its predecessors: Beijing’s strategic outlook. Notes the strategy, the “strategic concept of active defense is the essence of the [CCP’s] military strategic thought.” So has it ever been. Active defense, say the authors, is a strategic concept that derives from “the long-term practice of revolutionary wars.” By this they mean the Chinese Civil War and the struggle to rid China of Japanese conquerors during World War II”.

Crucially he writes that “active defense is a concept older than the People’s Republic itself. Mao Zedong, the CCP’s founding chairman, was also the godfather of active defense. That’s what Mao dubbed the strategy his Red Army used to overcome stronger Nationalist and Japanese opponents from the party’s inception in 1921 until its greatest triumph in 1949. He codified the phrase in a much-studied 1936 essay on the “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War.” So much for active defense’s lineage. But what is it? In brief, it’s the strategically defensive posture that a big, resource-rich but weak combatant assumes to weary and turn the tables on a stronger antagonist. Such a combatant needs time to tap its resources — natural riches, manpower, martial ingenuity — so it protracts the war. It makes itself strong over time, raising powerful armed forces, while constantly harrowing the enemy. It chips away at enemy strength where and when it can. Ultimately the weaker becomes the stronger contender, seizes the offensive, and wins. It outlasts the foe rather than hazarding a battle early on — a battle where it could lose everything in an afternoon”.

This speaks not only to the breath-taking arrogance of China but also to their obvious ambitions in the region and beyond. That is why, the United States needs to begin to solve its problems with its defence budget, such as massive pension’s liabilities and a need for new strategies to counter this dangerous threat to its interests and values.

The writer goes on to note that “There’s a stark geospatial component to active defense. Commanders need lots of maneuvering space to make it work. Fortunately for them, a battlefield as large as China offers maneuver room aplenty. Mao’s Red Army had the luxury of withdrawing into the remote interior. Commanders compelled enemy forces to choose between breaking contact — and ceding the initiative — and giving chase and overextending themselves”.

He expands his definition that, “Luring U.S. Navy expeditionary forces in deep while pummeling them with missiles and torpedoes would help even the force balance. Active defence would grant PLA commanders some prospect for victory should a major fleet action transpire off Asian coasts. Seaborne active defence, admittedly, looks markedly different from the Red Army slugging it out in the mud against the Nationalists or the Imperial Japanese Army. But the strategic logic remains as sound on the briny main or in the wild blue yonder as it is in China’s hinterlands. What about individual PLA service branches? One passage from the 2015 white paper that was bandied about in press reports declares that the PLA Navy will “gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defence’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defence’ with ‘open seas protection.’” But Beijing has broadcast its intent to venture beyond the “near seas” — the Yellow, East China, and South China seas — for years now (see here and here). It’s now starting to make good on its intent. Western commentary also alighted on the 2015 white paper’s mandate for the PLA Air Force to “shift its focus from territorial air defense to both defense and offense.” But again, defense white papers as far back as 2004 directed the flying service to ready itself to wrest air supremacy from rival forces. And here’s the 2006 white paper: “The Air Force aims at speeding up its transition from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive operations….” Same, same”.

He notes that “The trend lines in Chinese foreign policy and strategy may be worrisome, then, but they’re not new. Beijing has been admirably frank about its purposes and power for nearly two decades now: It wants to remake the Asian order in its interest. What is new is that China increasingly boasts the physical might to put steel behind ambitious words. China, for example, now fields more submarines than the U.S. Navy. Its first aircraft carrier is now at sea. It has settled on a satisfactory design for guided-missile destroyers, modern navies’ premier surface combatant ships. Yes, questions linger about the quality of Chinese hardware and seamanship and tactical acumen within the officer and enlisted corps. Nevertheless, this is a sea power on the move”.

He ends “The United States, its allies, and its friends seem to be undergoing their “oh, you’re serious” moment vis-à-vis China’s rise to sea power. Intemperate words, brinkmanship on the part of PLA mariners and aviators, and quixotic yet oh-so-provocative projects like island building in the South China Sea have combined to bring about a great awakening. That is good. Now that we have awoken, by all means let’s parse the words of white papers and other Chinese statements of purpose. They furnish clues as to what to expect from China and how we can reply. But let’s also realize this is a challenge that’s been a long time in the making and, in all likelihood, will persist far into the future. Meeting it will require matching Beijing’s steadfastness of purpose”.

 

Hezbollah beat back ISIS

20/06/2015

Hezbollah and the Syrian army clashed with ISIS Tuesday in northern Qalamoun and on the eastern outskirts of a Lebanese border town, killing the group’s leader for the region, Al-Manar said. The Hezbollah-run station said in a news flash that Abu Balqis al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s “emir” for Qalamoun, was killed in shelling that targeted the area of Wadi Hmayed, on the outskirts of Lebanon’s Arsal. Further east, Hezbollah and the Syrian army captured fresh territory from ISIS outside a northern Qalamoun town. Al-Manar said the allied forces took over the areas of Tallet Ras Al-Kosh and Qornat Ras Al-Sahbah on the outskirts of government-held Jarajeer, in an advance that left scores of militants either dead or wounded. The station aired footage in the evening shot on the front line showing Hezbollah fighters taking the new hills. The videos showed the forces using heavy and light machine guns, sniper rifles and mortar shells. The footage included shots taken overnight and at dawn Tuesday when the group launched its offensive against militants located on the two peaks. Hezbollah also targeted ISIS positions on the outskirts of the Lebanese border town of Ras Baalbek, about 7 kilometers north of Arsal, using heavy artillery fire, Al-Manar reported. The attack targeted an area identified as Al-Zuweiteya, the report said. Last week, Hezbollah repelled an ISIS attack in northeast Lebanon, losing eight fighters and killing more than 50 militants, in the largest confrontation between the two groups since the Lebanese party joined the Syrian war three years ago”.

Laudato Si, the environment, the human person and the limits of technology

18/06/2015

Michael Sean Winters writes about the encyclical released today by Pope Francis.

He begins “Laudato Si’ indeed! On one of the most important issues of the day, our Holy Father has blessed the Church with a document that is accessible to virtually anyone, rich in the collected wisdom of the Catholic faith, attuned to the signs of the times, forceful in its call to urgent action on behalf of our sister, Mother Earth. Here are five things that jump out at me based on a first reading of the text”.

Winters correctly argues that “the theology is very traditional. The quotes from Saint Pope John Paul II remind us that there was more to John Paul than what his neo-conservative “interpreters” in the U.S. chose to highlight. Pope Francis quotes from his encyclical Centesimus Annus, writing, “Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in ‘lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.’” Likewise he quotes Pope Benedict XVI, who so far from the caricature of a reactionary, called for “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.” Interestingly, having cited his predecessors, Pope Francis gives even more attention to the writings of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who wrote, “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins.” And, he cites the Patriarch on the call “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.” I do not recall any previous papal document devoting such attention to a Christian leader who is not a Roman Catholic in an official document such as this”.

Winters goes on to write “The spirituality of St. Francis has touched Pope Francis deeply. Francis’ reflections on his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, almost bring one to tears:

He shows us just how inseparable is the bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.  Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’”

Winters goes on to make the point that “What follows in this encyclical, all of it, the commentary on science, the analysis of socio-economic structures, the call for political action, all flow from these spiritual insights into the relationship between the human person as creature, Creation and the Creator”.

Winters argues that Pope Francis does not dispute the science, “The heart of the Holy Father’s handling of the issue that has caused such controversy, at least in the US, the issue of how he would deal with science, is found in Paragraph 23 and it is remarkably straightforward:

A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it….The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.

We cannot overstate the degree to which these sentences are unremarkable outside the US. It is only here, where think tanks and pseudo-think tanks, and some political candidates, are so dependent on extraction industries, they are loathe to accept what is, in fact, virtually common knowledge”.

Winters goes on to make the link Laudato Si’  and Evangelii Gaudium, “The section on Global Inequality develops some of the themes Pope Francis articulated in Evangelii gaudium, and applies those themes specifically to the issue of environmental degradation. Our laissez-faire friends will be gnashing their teeth, of course, over these words of his:

In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system, where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked. Many people will deny doing anything wrong because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is. As a result, “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule”.

He goes on to an extensive analysis of the modern, technological mindset and its limits. On Monday, I suggested that I wished Benedict XVI had written an encyclical on this issue because we would have certainly gotten some of von Balthasar’s trenchant critique of the Cartesian cogito and its progeny. Pope Francis delivers his critique via the theology of Guardini, who, of course, had a profound effect on von Balthasar and Benedict, and was the intended subject of Pope Francis’s never completed doctoral dissertation. I will leave it to the theological pro’s to explain how Guardini differs from Balthasar on this point, but the essential critique is the same: The modern, technological mindset tends to see human persons as commodities, and replaceable commodities at that, it presents a truncated vision that pushes out the transcendent and, just so, makes authentic relationships impossible, and, in the context of the environment, it prevents us from seeing Creation as a gift. Creation is, like everything else, a tool. The next time a free marketer says that capitalism is merely a tool, to be used well or badly”.

Crucially Winters makes the excellent point that “Francis’ ringing call for attention to the common good is an ethical call. It questions not just the current pro-market ideology of both parties in the US, but some of the basic assumptions of Madison and Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, where the competition among self-interested individuals and groups is seen as the guarantor of liberty. Society is about more than liberty, Francis is telling us, better to say, liberty is about more than a lack of government interference. The Holy Father calls us to the freedom of the children of God, not to the negative freedoms ordained by our Founding Fathers. Francis follows his critique of the modern technological mindset with a beautiful meditation on human work. He is again building on the writings of his predecessors, but his style is so accessible and so obviously rooted in experience. Reading that section, you know that this pope really has spent time with people who work hard to earn their daily bread”.

Winters ends the piece, “The calls of previous popes for a conversion of lifestyles went unheeded if not unheard. Will it be different this time? I do not know. I fear that things must get worse in our culture before we learn again to acknowledge our God with humility, just as the human body, towards the end of its time on earth, breaks down, reminding us of our dependence upon our Creator. I may be doubtful, but the pope is hopeful. “Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning,” he writes”.

He concludes, “When the issue is the environment, it is not only our lives or our souls that are at stake. It is the planet. It is future generations. The evidence of the danger is all around and the cure will require more than a successful round of agreements at Paris this autumn, although we need them too. Pope Francis does not cite Abraham Kuyper in his text, but last night, reading James Bratt’s biography, I came across Kuyper’s most famous line: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” That sense of God’s presence permeates the text of Laudato Si’, and the Holy Father extends the cry to the whole domain of Creation. He wants us to look at Creation and see the handiwork of the Creator, at all times and in all our decisions. He is brutally frank about the entrenched ways of thought and powerful interests that hope we will do nothing of the sort. But, I am betting Pope Francis can and will change the conversation. At a time when the leadership of the world seems so unequal to the challenges, there is a giant in our midst, who took the name Francis. Some will be upset by this encyclical. No one should be surprised”.

 

Sanders surge in NH

18/06/2015

Sen. Bernie Sanders is surging in New Hampshire, where one poll shows him just 10 percentage points behind Hillary Clinton and tied with the front-runner among self-identified liberals. Sanders (I-Vt.) gets 31 percent in a new Suffolk University poll, compared to Clinton’s 41 percent. It’s one of his best showings in the Granite State. The two are also tied among liberals at 39 percent, though Clinton holds a 20-percentage-point lead with centrist Democrats. Clinton also holds strong leads with white voters and female voters, while Sanders has a slight lead among men. The results come just one day after an opt-in poll from the Morning Consult showed Sanders within 12 points of Clinton. Sanders has emerged as the leading liberal challenger to Clinton with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) declining to enter the race. He’s well known in New Hampshire, as he has been a fixture on neighboring Vermont’s political scene since his election to the U.S. House in 1991. Before that, he served 8 years as mayor of the state’s largest city, Burlington. Vice President Biden finished third in the poll with 7 percent, followed by former Gov. Martin O’Malley (Md.) at 3 percent. Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb won about 1 percent of the vote each. Fifteen percent of New Hampshire Democratic voters are undecided”.

A history of environmental concern

18/06/2015

An article from Crux on the newly released papal encyclical, LAUDATO SI, opens that many popes have remarked on the environment, “Anxiety has so gripped American conservatives over Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on the environment that you might think a pope had never before blamed fossil fuels for global warming. Or accused energy companies of hoarding the Earth’s resources at the expense of the poor. Or urged the rich to consume less and share more. But several of Francis’ immediate predecessors have done just that, inspired by the Bible itself — raising the question of what all the fuss is about. Why would US Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic who says he loves the pope, urge Francis to “leave science to the scientists” and stop talking about global warming? And why would conservative Catholic commentators attack the Vatican for hosting the United Nations secretary-general at a climate conference? It turns out that environmental issues are particularly vexing for the Catholic Church, especially in the United States. They carry implications for Big Business and their Catholics supporters, as well as for the world’s growing population, which brings up questions of birth control. For the religious right, the Vatican’s endorsement of the UN agenda on global warming amounts to an endorsement of the UN agenda to give women access to contraception and abortion”.

The report adds “How Francis deals with population growth as it affects the environment is one of the key questions that will be answered when the encyclical, entitled “Laudato si (Be Praised), On the Care of our Common Home,” is released June 18. Despite such divisive issues, popes in recent decades have not shied from framing ecological concerns in moral terms, given that in the Bible itself God places mankind in the Garden of Eden with the explicit instructions to not only “till” the ground but to also “keep it.” Recent popes have made clear that human activity is largely to blame for the environmental degradation that is threatening the Earth’s ecosystems. They have demanded urgent action by industrialized nations to change their ways and undergo an “ecological conversion” to prevent the poor from paying for the sins of the rich”.

The piece notes the John Paul II added to the papal mageristum on this topic, but it goes on to note  “Before him there was Pope Paul VI. In his 1967 encyclical, “Populorum Progressio” (Development of Peoples), Paul wrote that while creation is for man to use, the goods of the Earth are meant to be shared by all, not just the rich.

“No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life.”

And then there was Pope Benedict XVI, dubbed the “green pope” because he took concrete action to back up his strong ecological calls: Under his watch, the Vatican installed photovoltaic cells on the roof of its main auditorium, a solar cooling unit for its main cafeteria, and joined a reforestation project aimed at offsetting its CO2 emissions”.

The piece goes on to mention “In his 2009 encyclical “Charity in Truth,” Benedict wrote:

“The fact that some states, power groups, and energy companies hoard non-renewable energy resources represents a grave obstacle to development in poor countries. The international community has an urgent duty to find institutional means of regulating the exploitation of non-renewable resources, involving poor countries in the process, in order to plan together for the future.”

In that encyclical, the German theologian addressed the population issue by denouncing mandatory birth control policies and noting that even populous countries have emerged from poverty thanks to the talents of their people, not their numbers. At the same time, though, he stressed “responsible procreation” — a theme Francis is likely to take up himself given that he has already said Catholics need not reproduce “like rabbits.””

Interestingly the writer adds “So what is so new about Francis’ encyclical? First, no pope has dedicated an entire encyclical to ecological concerns. And no pope has cited the findings of the UN International Panel on Climate Change in a major document, as Francis is expected to do. Francis, history’s first Latin American pope, will also be bringing the point of view of the “Global South” to a social teaching document of the Church, which is in itself new. But on the whole, the Church’s environmental message has been articulated for years, though it has gotten lost in other issues. “To be honest, we have been talking about this, but not with enough emphasis,” said the Rev. Agostino Zampini Davies, the Argentine theological adviser to CAFOD, the development agency of the Catholic Church of England and Wales”.

He ends “Amid the alarm that Francis will go far beyond what past popes have said, US Cardinal Donald Wuerl recently addressed a conference of business and Church leaders on how sustainable actions can drive the economic growth needed to lift people out of poverty. “The teaching of Pope Francis and his efforts to address the environment are in harmony with those of his predecessors,” he insisted”.

“Poised to store battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons”

18/06/2015

In a significant move to deter possible Russian aggression in Europe, the Pentagon is poised to store battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons for as many as 5,000 American troops in several Baltic and Eastern European countries, American and allied officials say. The proposal, if approved, would represent the first time since the end of the Cold War that the United States has stationed heavy military equipment in the newer NATO member nations in Eastern Europe that had once been part of the Soviet sphere of influence. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine have caused alarm and prompted new military planning in NATO capitals. It would be the most prominent of a series of moves the United States and NATO have taken to bolster forces in the region and send a clear message of resolve to allies and to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, that the United States would defend the alliance’s members closest to the Russian frontier”.

“Viewing China in darker terms”

18/06/2015

A superb article by Gordon Chang in the National Interest argues that the “Chinese century” is already over, “John Kerry completed a two-day trip to Beijing. The day before, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi wrapped up his three-day visit to Xian, Shanghai, and Beijing. Everyone, it seems, is going to China, implicitly acknowledging that this is indeed its century. In reality, however, the period of Chinese primacy, if it ever existed, is just about over. Neither Modi nor Kerry was in any mood to accommodate Beijing on core issues. We start with Modi. The Indian leader was happy to travel to China to pick up commitments for Chinese investment into his country, and on this score, he appeared successful. On Saturday, he inked twenty-six memos of understanding for business deals valued by his government at $22 billion”.

Chang goes on to note that “Modi, however, was not persuaded to agree to what Beijing wanted. He did not, for instance, endorse Chinese president Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road.” This initiative, considered the centerpiece of Xi’s foreign policy, seeks to create trade routes through Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian Ocean connecting China to Europe. Modi, of course, did not give an inch on China’s expansive claims to India-controlled territory. And in public, he surprised observers by telling the Chinese to be more accommodating. “I stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realizing full potential of our partnership,” Modi said while in Beijing”.

Chang goes on to write that “Kerry also used strong words, from all accounts. As a State Department official said before the visit, the Secretary of State was traveling to China to “leave his Chinese interlocutors in absolutely no doubt that the United States remains committed to maintain freedom of navigation.” Xinhua, China’s official news agency, put it this way: Kerry was coming to Beijing to “pick a fight.” In fact, Kerry had hoped to find a diplomatic solution, but neither side budged on the South China Sea during the weekend meetings”.

He goes on to write that China claims the entire South China Sea, “Chinese officials maintain America has no legitimate interest there. “The United States is not a party in the South China Sea disputes, which are between China and other claimants and should be handled by those directly involved,” Xinhua stated on Saturday. So China is telling Washington to abandon America’s oldest foreign policy, the defense of freedom of navigation. That is unacceptable for the ultimate guarantor of the global commons. Various sources, starting with the Wall Street Journal, have pointed out that the Pentagon is drawing up plans to send U.S. vessels and aircraft to challenge Beijing’s sovereignty claims that impinge on freedom of navigation; in other words, those claims that purport to turn international sea into Chinese territorial water. At the beginning of this century, Beijing was able to compromise on those claims. Yet, for more than a half decade, it has not signed an agreement to settle a border dispute. And there is little sign of compromise in the near term, as Xi Jinping’s statements make clear. As the Chinese economy continues to erode, the Communist Party is increasingly relying on nationalism to bolster legitimacy, and as it becomes more nationalistic, its ability to work with other nations has markedly declined”.

He ends the article, “Washington once had a policy of moving on whenever there was disagreement with Beijing. The concept was that America could overlook current problems because eventually the Chinese would enmesh themselves into the international system and work as partners for peace. That optimistic view is changing as it is becoming increasingly evident that Chinese officials do not share American goals or the goals of China’s neighbours”.

He concludes, “in New Delhi there seems, over time, to be less optimism as well. Modi’s China trip was not the “complete and utter failure” that some charged—partisan criticisms can be overblown—but not many thought real progress had been made, either. And that is why the Chinese century is coming to a close. Both the world’s most populous democracy and its most powerful one are now viewing China in darker terms—and beginning to act accordingly”.

 

“Against the mastermind of the 2013 terrorist seizure of an Algerian gas plant”

18/06/2015

The United States carried out an airstrike in Libya early Sunday against the mastermind of the 2013 terrorist seizure of an Algerian gas plant that left 38 foreign hostages dead, American and Libyan officials said on Sunday. The Libyan government issued a statement Sunday night saying that the airstrikes killed the terrorist leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and “a number” of Libyan terrorists in the eastern part of the country. American officials confirmed that Mr. Belmokhtar was the target of the strike, carried out by multiple American F-15E fighter jets. But they expressed caution about his fate, saying forensic proof was needed to declare with certainty that Mr. Belmokhtar had been killed. Given the likely extent of the damage — multiple bombs were dropped on the target, officials said — that determination could take some time unless terrorist websites issue an official statement of mourning”.

Obama’s trade legacy

18/06/2015

A piece writes about the positives of Obama’s foreign policy concerning trade, “While U.S. President Barack Obama’s national security team remains adrift, strategy-less, incremental, and reactive in crisis zones worldwide, the rest of his international team seems poised to achieve a series of successes that could make 2015 the best year yet for Obama’s foreign policy. The key question will be whether progress with acronyms and abbreviations like TPA, TPP, and Exim can drown out the setbacks and frustrations associated with others, like IS, ISIS, and ISIL, the plethora of shorthand monikers by which we refer to the brutal thugs rampaging through Syria and Iraq. Approval of the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in the House of Representatives on Friday will clear the way for the final agreements to be worked out on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. That deal will remove trade barriers for countries — on both sides of the world’s largest ocean — whose combined economies comprise 40 percent of the world’s total output. It will be the most significant international trade deal struck in over two decades, and it will be one for which President Obama will deserve great credit”.

The piece adds “According to one senior administration economic official, the president and his team “put their shoulders into this deal with a kind of effort I haven’t seen since the fight to pass healthcare reform.” It has not been easy. As has been the case since the 1990s, trade deals are among the few things that bring together the far left and the far right — both sides hate trade deals though for very different reasons”.

He notes “The result has been old-fashioned horse-trading and a refreshingly intensive effort by the White House to use the president’s power, prestige, and persuasive capabilities to eke out the votes they needed to win the day. Friday’s vote will be close. But with “fast-track” TPA assuring that there will be only an up or down vote on the ultimate TPP deal that is struck, the way will be clear for U.S. negotiators to hammer out the final details of the agreement with the Japanese and others who have open issues”.

The writer goes on to meniotn “The president has made passage of the deal, which he argues will both promote export-driven job creation and send a message to China — not a party to TPP — that it will have to rise up and meet international trade standards or risk getting left behind economically. The positive impact on both fronts is probably somewhat overstated by the White House, but that’s always the case in such campaigns for a new deal. Nevertheless, the deal strengthens economic ties with some of the world’s most dynamic economies, removes key barriers to exports, and represents the most important progress on global trade since the Uruguay Round and NAFTA in the early 1990s”.

He goes on to argue that “While slam-dunks have gotten a bad name in Washington ever since George Tenet abused the term in the days before the Iraq War, the reauthorization of the U.S. Export-Import Bank (or Exim) should have been one of them. The bank is led by another of the Obama team’s standouts, Fred Hochberg. Hochberg has overseen a vast expansion of its lending, major pushes to extend its reach and support to small- and medium-sized enterprises, measures to ensure more lending on green projects, and active support for creating U.S. jobs through leveling the playing field against the super-aggressive tactics of other governments in the export financing space. Deals and lending have achieved all-time highs under his tenure and unlike most parts of the government, this one is actually profitable, returning over $1 billion to U.S. government coffers. That’s right, to shut down the bank, Congress would actually have to come up with new revenue to make up for that which the bank regularly produces. Think about that. Despite the fact that Exim is a profitable agency that creates much-needed jobs, supports businesses of every size from coast to coast, and also ensures fairer global competition, some in Congress have targeted the agency and tried to shut it down. Why? Because to some, it represents “corporate welfare.” (Meaning that it is seen as a subsidy to big companies that don’t need the help.) But not only does it finance many deals that couldn’t get commercial financing and many for smaller businesses, it also ensures that U.S. companies don’t lose out when other governments subsidize financing to their own companies”.

He ends “At a time when turning on the news in the morning typically makes one want to roll over and go back to sleep, it is worth noting and celebrating when progress is achieved. Of course, in some areas, such as the impending nuclear deal with Iran, we need to be careful about celebrating apparent successes when the real test of accomplishments occurs over extended periods of time. But even with such caveats included, if the Obama team can achieve TPA, TPP, reauthorizing Exim, continued U.S. economic leadership through the example of our sustained growth, a climate agreement in Paris, and a nuclear agreement with Iran, there will be no denying that the second half of 2015 will be the high-water mark of a foreign policy that has often spluttered and stumbled”.

 

“Transfer of six detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Oman”

18/06/2015

The United States announced the transfer of six detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Oman as part of an effort to eventually close the detention center in Cuba. All six detainees are Yemeni, and include alleged members of the al Qaeda terror group. With the latest transfer, 116 detainees remain at the facility as the clock ticks toward the end of President Barack Obama’s term. Obama signed an executive order on his third day in office in January 2009 to begin the process of shutting down Guantanamo Bay. “The United States is grateful to the government of Oman for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,” the Defense Department said in a statement”.

Francis ousts Neinstedt

16/06/2015

Rocco reports on the scandal from the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis. He opens “After two years of damning charges and revelations on several misconduct-related fronts, the Pope has moved on the beleaguered Twin Cities church with a historic wipeout of its top leadership”.

Rocco goes on to write that “the Holy See announced that Francis had accepted the resignations of both Archbishop John Nienstedt of St Paul and Minneapolis (above) and his senior auxiliary, Bishop Lee Piché, an unprecedented joint ouster coming just ten days after Minnesota’s lead diocese was hit with six criminal charges of child endangerment in the case of Curtis Wehmeyer, a laicized cleric who admitted to abusing three boys in 2012 after years of concerns raised to archdiocesan officials over his conduct. With Rome unprepared to name a new archbishop immediately, the Vatican likewise revealed that Coadjutor-Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Newark – Francis’ first top-level US appointee, and a figure widely admired for his mix of administrative skill, pastoral heart and an unimpeachable integrity – had been named apostolic administrator of the 825,000-member archdiocese, entrusted with the full powers of the archbishop until a permanent successor can emerge. Among other imminent challenges the archdiocese faces include the fallout of Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, another year remaining in the Minnesota “window” law which has suspended the statute of limitations for the filing of civil sex-abuse cases, the court process for the criminal charges and a state of morale among priests and people”.

Rocco adds that “In brief statements released upon Rome’s announcement, both Nienstedt, 68, and Piché, 57 – who became the archbishop’s top deputy shortly after Nienstedt’s 2008 succession – spoke of a need for the archdiocese to move forward. ‘My leadership has unfortunately drawn attention away from the good works of [the] Church and those who perform them,’ the archbishop said”.

Rocco goes on to mention that “For his part, Piché – a Columbia graduate who, before serving as auxiliary and vicar-general, was Wehmeyer’s pastor in the abuser’s first assignment – conceded that ‘the people of the archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis need healing and hope. I was getting in the way of that, and so I had to resign.’ Notably, the move comes as the Twin Cities presbyterate begins their annual convocation in Rochester, some 90 miles south of the archdiocese’s hub. In a letter to the priests obtained by his former canonical Chancellor, Jennifer Haselberger – whose whistle-blowing on the Chancery’s handling of cases in late 2013 sparked the long-simmering tumult – Nienstedt relayed that he ‘would have preferred to share this with you in person, but the desire of the Holy See to announce this made it impossible to wait until [the Rochester gathering] to tell you.'”

The report then mentions that “it is unclear what drove the Vatican to determine that the positions of both the archbishop and his lead auxiliary had become untenable. Beyond the corporate charges and the ongoing civil litigation over the abuse cases, Nienstedt – whose outspoken conservatism made him a polarizing figure in the archdiocese since his 2007 arrival – was likewise the subject of a Chancery-sponsored probe last year by a private law firm over allegations of misconduct with adult males. No conclusions of the latter process have emerged”.

Interestingly he writes that “a top-tier push to bring a resolution to the situation became apparent last week at the USCCB June meeting in St Louis, as several senior officials – including the Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, and the conference’s general secretary, Msgr Ronny Jenkins – were seen huddled in conversations late last Tuesday with the Twin Cities’ junior auxiliary, Bishop Andrew Cozzens, while a relaxed-looking Nienstedt (in shirtsleeves without his clerical collar) holed up across the Hyatt lobby with the bench’s vice-president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, whose longstanding close ties to Hebda from their days as priests of Pittsburgh would indicate his role as a likely architect of the striking arrangement that’s seen the Jersey archbishop shipped in to begin containing the fiasco”.

Rocco writes that “Currently the chair of the bishops’ committee on canonical affairs and church governance, before his 2010 appointment as bishop of Gaylord in northern Michigan, Hebda served as the #3 official at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, the Holy See’s clearinghouse for juridical questions. Known universally as “Bernie” and just as well-regarded among clerics and layfolk alike, the incoming administrator’s easygoing, unpretentious style conceals a considerable CV: degrees from Harvard, Columbia Law and the Gregorian, a chaplain to Blessed Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity as well as a years-long assignment as the lead canonist guiding the global Caritas federation of the church’s charitable agencies through the recent daunting revision of its statutes. In 2013, the new Pope shocked most observers by tapping the then 54 year-old as archbishop-in-waiting of the 1.4 million-member Newark church, one of the US’ ten largest, amid controversy over Archbishop John Myers’ handling of the case of Michael Fugee, a priest found to be working with young people despite a history of misconduct”.

He goes on to write that “Keeping to his usual earthy ways, Hebda chose to live in a chaplain’s room in the dorms at the diocesan-owned Seton Hall University, where he regularly celebrates the 10pm Sunday liturgy for students. As one colleague of the archbishop’s from Hebda’s former side-role as a spiritual director at the Pontifical North American College recently said of the prelate, “Our Lady of Humility” – the NAC’s historic patron – “has her arms wrapped all around him.” While Hebda could theoretically be tapped as the next Twin Cities’ archbishop, such a move would ostensibly be unlikely, even if it would hearken back to the early 1990s strategy (employed in Atlanta and Santa Fe) of initially “test-piloting” a potential successor as administrator of a scandal-scarred archdiocese before giving him the permanent appointment. If anything, with the coadjutor perceived as being largely kept to a backseat role in the operations of the considerably larger Newark church, the Twin Cities arrangement allows Hebda a role for his gifts to be employed to their fullest extent over the remaining 13 months before Myers reaches the retirement age of 75 in late July 2016″.

Crucially Rocco notes that “In a signal of the rapid execution of the move, the newly-named administrator was not present at a morning press conference outside the Twin Cities Chancery, which was instead led by Cozzens, 47, who has handled the archdiocese’s public messaging over recent months given the scrutiny facing both Nienstedt and Piché. In his own statement as a nearby bell tolled, the auxiliary said that the long season of scandal “has been a painful process. A change in leadership provides us an opportunity for greater healing and the ability to move forward”.

Later reports note that “Ramsey County authorities are investigating personal ties between former Archbishop John Nienstedt and the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest now serving time in prison for sexually molesting two boys in his parish, say sources familiar with the investigation into the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The inquiry is part of the county attorney’s ongoing probe into the archdiocese’s alleged lax handling of Wehmeyer, a priest known for sexual misconduct and alcohol problems. The criminal complaint filed earlier this month against the archdiocese cited multiple examples over years of Nienstedt’s failure to act on troubling information about Wehmeyer”.

The piece goes on to add, “Jennifer Haselberger, a former chancery canon lawyer who warned Nienstedt about Wehmeyer, said she was interviewed Monday by the county attorney’s office “regarding their ongoing investigation into potential criminal charges against Nienstedt, [former bishop Lee] Piché and/or other Chancery officials.” She said she was asked about any connections between Nienstedt and Wehmeyer, in particular about the questions she may have been asked by the Greene Espel law firm. The firm was hired in 2014 by the archdiocese to investigate allegations of sexual improprieties between Nienstedt and seminarians and priests before he became archbishop”.

Francis to meet a gay activist

16/06/2015

Pope Francis will meet a gay married activist in Paraguay next month, according to an LGBT rights group in that country. The pontiff is due to meet Simon Cazal, co-founder and executive director of SomosGay, on July 11 at the Paraguayan Episcopal Conference in Asuncion, the country’s capital. Catholic conference organizers approached Cazal earlier this month with an invitation in which they noted the “impact of your organization on Paraguayan society.” SomosGay said the letter marked a significant shift in the Catholic Church’s attitude towards gay rights groups. The invitation “symbolizes an openness and progress towards the LGBT community, remembering the ultraconservative context that has always characterized the Vatican,” the organization said in a statement. The group said it wanted to “pursue the democratic construction of a culture of dialogue,” working towards a diverse and inclusive Paraguayan society. Francis’ visit to Asuncion is part of his upcoming South American tour, which will include stops in Ecuador and Bolivia. He was last in the region in 2013, on an official trip to Brazil”.

“Threatens Saudi Arabia’s market dominance”

16/06/2015

Keith Johnson writes that Saudi Arabia is using oil as a weapon to beat Iran and Russia.

The article begins “The OPEC oil cartel made a surprising decision last fall to keep pumping oil into a market already awash in the black gold. On Friday in Vienna, they’ll almost certainly double down on that strategy. Despite plenty of brave rhetoric from OPEC ministers this week, that’s less a reflection that the cartel is winning the oil wars than a recognition that its most powerful member, Saudi Arabia, is in a long-term fight to defend its privileged position — and take geopolitical rivals like Iran and Russia down a notch”.

Johnson adds “Ahead of the meeting, plenty of OPEC bigwigs have been talking up the success of their strategy, which was to drive oil prices down, squeeze high-cost producers like those in the growing U.S. oil patch, and maintain their share of a very lucrative market. Qatar’s oil minister said Wednesday he feels “optimistic” that global demand for oil is picking up again. And Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, told reporters on Monday that everything is just fine and that there’s no need for the cartel to trim production to prop up weak oil prices”.

Johnson adds that “in reality, OPEC countries and especially the world’s biggest exporter, Saudi Arabia, are coming to grips with the fact that they have not been able to kneecap rival oil producers by flooding the market with their own record levels of oil output. Oil prices have plunged by more than 50 percent since last summer, but U.S. output has actually kept rising: Oil production is up half a million barrels a day since OPEC’s Thanksgiving wager and is at its highest levels in almost 50 years. Russia, too, has kept pumping and is tickling post-Soviet highs of about 10.7 million barrels a day. That belies OPEC’s rosy visions”.

The report goes on to mention that “lower oil prices have had some effect. Countries outside of OPEC, including the United States, added an extra 2.2 million barrels of oil per day in 2014, but are on track to add only half that this year, said energy analysts at Wood Mackenzie. At the same time, oil consumption is starting to pick up around the world after a dismal year in 2014. All that could slowly combine to balance the market and nudge prices up toward $70 a barrel next year, WoodMac said. Crude oil dipped to just under $60 a barrel in New York and $63.50 in London on Wednesday. At those prices, many companies — especially in the U.S. shale patch — feel that making high-cost investments in oil production doesn’t make economic sense”.

Pointedly he adds that “Plenty of big oil producers, especially Venezuela, Iraq, Iran, and Russia, are desperate to see higher prices, since cheap oil is battering their economies and impacting their social welfare systems at home and their ability to influence events abroad. But none of them are willing to cut their own production to make that happen. Indeed, nearly all of them are pumping at near-record levels. Despite its struggles with the Islamic State, Iraq notched record levels of oil exports in May, at more than 3 million barrels a day. Iranian officials, for their part, are still talking up their optimistic visions of pouring huge amounts of additional oil into the market if and when sanctions on Tehran are relaxed as part of the international negotiations over the country’s nuclear program. Iran’s oil minister on Wednesday said he expected other OPEC countries would make room for extra Iranian output. That may be optimistic, given the enmity many Gulf states — particularly Saudi Arabia — feel towards Tehran, and the Saudis have made it clear they don’t want to shoulder the burden of production cuts on their own.”

Crucially Johnson mentions that “by staying the course, Saudi Arabia is playing a game of chicken with those other big oil producers inside OPEC, as well as Russia, rather than trying to wreck the U.S. oil bonanza. Riyadh has hundreds of billions of dollars stashed away in reserve and can withstand lower prices for years if necessary; Iran, Iraq, and Russia don’t, and can’t. As all three ramp up oil production, that threatens Saudi Arabia’s market dominance. At the same time, from a strategic point of view, Saudi leaders view all three countries as potential troublemakers at a particularly delicate time in the Middle East”.

He ends “Iran is led by Shiite clerics deeply hostile to Sunni Saudi Arabia and its central place in the region; Iraq has had successive Shiite leaders and has moved closer to Iran in recent years. And Russia is causing problems in the Middle East by shipping advanced weapons to Saudi enemies like Syria and Iran. It’s also continuing to destabilize Europe, where it resumed hostilities in Ukraine on Wednesday. Once-skittish European officials now seem ready to renew energy sanctions on Russia for another six months, inadvertently helping Saudi Arabia in its ultimate aim of throttling Russian oil production”.

“Rejected a U.N. draft proposal to form a unity government”

16/06/2015

Libya’s elected parliament rejected a U.N. draft proposal to form a unity government and withdrew from talks aimed at ending the country’s crippling power struggle, a senior lawmaker said Tuesday. The decision will be a blow to efforts by United Nations Special Envoy Bernardino Leon, who had only on Monday presented a new proposal to form a unity government after hosting negotiations between the factions for months. Libya is in chaos, with two governments and parliaments fighting for territory and oil resources. The official administration has been based in the east since a rival faction seized Tripoli in August, setting up a rival government. The eastern parliament has also banned its delegates from traveling to Germany for a meeting with European and North African leaders to discuss Leon’s proposal, lawmaker Tareq al-Jouroushi told Reuters. “A majority of deputies voted to reject the proposal,” he said by telephone from Tobruk, an eastern city where the House of Representatives is now based. The house’s spokesman Farraj Hashem could not be immediately reached for comment. Late Monday, Leon submitted his fourth proposal for a unity government. Delegates from both factions had been expected to head to Germany before returning to consult with their political bases and traveling back to Morocco for more talks”.

“The reality might not be all gloom and doom”

14/06/2015

Michael Sean Winters writes that Ireland, after the historic gay marriage referendum has given the world and the Church a reality check. He opens “The vote in favour of same sex marriage in Ireland was overwhelming. The Irish people, especially Ireland’s young people, turned out in large numbers to support a measure that was unthinkable ten years ago and unheard of twenty years ago. There is a palpable sense that the Catholic roots of Ireland are no more, that traditional marriage was not the only thing on the ballot this past weekend, but Ireland’s Catholic heritage. There will be plenty of hand wringing in the days ahead. People will seek out a scapegoat. True, the clergy sex abuse crisis took an enormous toll on the moral credibility of the Irish Church. True, catechesis there, like catechesis here, has been weak the past few decades – although, in Ireland, most of those young people voting for same sex marriage went to Catholic schools. But, everyone, especially the leaders of the Church, should try to avoid making anyone or anything a scapegoat: The results point to a deeper reality”.

Winters notes the comments from Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on the need for the Church to face a reality check, “It is impossible to disagree with +Martin’s call for a reality check. Is it possible that those Irish young people did not vote for same sex marriage despite their Catholic education but, in part, because of it? At a time when the face of religion on the nightly news is the face of inhumane intolerance, perhaps we should not bemoan a victory for tolerance, even if that tolerance extends to something the Church does not endorse. It is not an easy question. The Church teaches that sexual relations find their full and proper place within the marriage covenant, and that the procreation of children is, like the unity of the spouses, an integral aspect of those sexual relations, a participation in God’s on-going creation. It is a beautiful teaching and, as I have written before, I think society can and should privilege traditional marriage. But, how often, instead of simply proclaiming our faith, have we wrapped it in judgment of others”.

The danger of as Winters’s argues that there should be a “privilege traditional marriage” results in a new level of bias against gays. The tiny number of people that identify as gay should not, and do not, discriminate against straight marriages. To then say that this number, which is so small, means that straight marriage needs to be elevated seems odd.

Winters adds “What does a reality check look like? The first thing the hierarchy – in Ireland and in the United States – should do is have some long listening sessions with young people. Ask them why they support same sex marriage. They are not trying to destroy Western civilization. Most of them are not gay or lesbian themselves. To them, society must be first and foremost about mutual respect and religion should learn to be more tolerant. They are not wrong to think that. It is good Catholic theology. Bishops and pastors and lay leaders should ask them how they seek to follow the Lord Jesus in their romantic and sexual lives. Do they keep religion and sex separate? Do they think God has something to say about the subject? Before preaching to the next generation of Catholics, Church leaders are well advised to listen to them first, and not just to the choir a la Mrs. Clinton, but a real listening session with people who are not hand-picked for their docility”.

He then makes the correct point that “The second thing the leaders of the Church must do is stop using phrases like “intrinsically disordered” which have been a disaster pastorally and misunderstood theologically. They should have the courage to admit in public what many will admit in private, that the Church’s theology on homosexuality is woefully inadequate. They must stop acting as if knowing this one discrete fact about a person, the fact that he or she is gay, is enough to form a judgment about the whole person. We don’t think our society is justified in sentencing Dzohkar Tsarnaev to death on account of his one, truly terrible act; We should not justify societal exclusion based on one characteristic. The Church at Her best never ceases proclaiming the integrity and dignity of the human person, the whole human person, no matter their choices and their preferences, still less something over which they have no choice whatsoever”.

He adds rightly that “The third thing the hierarchy must do actually sit down with same gay and lesbian Catholics and listen to their stories, find out how they reconcile what the hierarchy currently sees as irreconcilable. Look for areas of commonality, instead of starting with how different each others’ views on human sexuality are. What do they mean when they say “marriage” and “equality”? And, the bishops are well advised to do this before both the Synod on the Family and, here in the United States, before the Supreme Court issues its ruling on same sex marriage at the end of next month. Their statements after that decision should be scrubbed of negativity and hand wringing”.

He ends “I confess I would be more supportive of the fight for same sex marriage if it did not seem so trendy. I worry that the support for gay rights may be inch deep, a passing fad, and could, in the wrong set of circumstances, fail to grow deep roots and be unable to protect gays and lesbians from new hatreds. (The anti-immigrant fervor in Europe will not long be content with only one scapegoat.) If a nation as schooled in the faith as Ireland reaches the conclusion it did, then it truly is time for a reality check, but the reality might not be all gloom and doom. I do not know where such a reality check would lead. I know that our Catholic understanding of human sexuality will always be different from that achieved by merely human reason. But, I suspect the result in Ireland contains more good news for the Christian faith than many realize at first blush. It is not a catastrophe. Wake up calls are always unwelcome, but they help us avoid catastrophes”.

 

“Up to 450 more American troops to Iraq”

14/06/2015

President Obama has authorized the deployment of up to 450 more American troops to Iraq to train and assist the Iraqi forces battling the Islamic State, the White House announced on Wednesday, signaling a major shift of focus in the fight against the Sunni militant group. The United States forces will use Al Taqqadum, an Iraqi base near the town of Habbaniya in eastern Anbar Province, as their training hub, the White House said. Mr. Obama opted to send them at the request of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq, and after consultation with Ashton B. Carter, the secretary of defense, and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “These new advisers will work to build capacity of Iraqi forces, including local tribal fighters, to improve their ability to plan, lead and conduct operations against ISIL in eastern Anbar under the command of the prime minister,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said in a statement, referring to the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL. “This train, advise and assist mission builds on lessons learned during the past several months and is just one aspect of our commitment to support the Iraqi Security Forces.” Mr. Obama will also speed up the delivery of weapons and equipment to Iraqi forces, including pesh merga and tribal fighters who are under Iraqi command”.

Searching for an Islamic Luther

14/06/2015

Following on from the article in Foreign Affairs about Islam, a contraty piece in Foreign Policy, Nick Danforth writes that Islam will not have a reformation.

He opens “in his annual Christmas address, Pope Francis prayed for victims of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. His prayers for both Christian and Muslim victims of the jihadis’ violence were a fitting tribute to one of the most dismal aspects of 2014. But the pope’s words also offered a striking contrast between the manifest humility of the Vatican — back on the good side of what seems like a decades-long good-pope/bad-pope routine — and the savagery of a newly declared caliphate. This contrast led some observers (like, say, Bill Maher) to declare we should stop being so politically correct and state the obvious: Islam remains stuck in the Middle Ages. And even those who found this particular formulation too crude were still struck trying to explain why it seems that so many western countries have figured out how to separate church and state, while Muslim countries from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Turkey continue to struggle”.

Danforth goes on to argue “One of the most enduring explanations is that the Islamic world really needs its own Reformation — a Muslim Martin Luther to bring the religion of Mohammed into modernity. It’s an argument that Thomas Friedman and various others have been making for over a decade. In the last year alone Fetullah Gulen and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi were added to the short list of potential Martin Luthers. Many analysts and critics of Islam seem committed to the idea that, be it a reclusive Turkish preacher or an authoritarian Egyptian general, there must be someone out there who can straighten out the confusion over church and state in in the Muslim world, and finally help Islam make the jump from totalitarian fundamentalism to enlightened, liberal religion, from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to Pope Francis.” 

Danforth warns westerners not to apply the lessons of Europe to the Middle East, let alone the Muslim world “Wasn’t the Reformation an attack on the Catholic Church? Didn’t Martin Luther, the man who began it, once write a book called Against the Roman Papacy: An Institution of the Devil? Indeed, every time a western writer identifies an Islamic Martin Luther, it highlights an unresolved question about western society itself: Is today’s modern Christian world a triumph of Protestantism over the pope? Or is it a reflection of Christianity’s more secular essence, inherent in Protestantism and Catholicism alike? Neither. The different political cultures in Christian and Muslim countries we debate today resulted from a convoluted history, a twisting path that offers few simple or satisfying lessons”.

He argues that “For most of American history, it would have been self-evident to the majority of American Protestants that the celebrated separation of church and state in the United States only became possible because the Protestant Reformation tamed the Vatican in the 16th century. Most viewed Catholicism as a medieval religion at odds with the Anglo-American tradition of secular democracy”.

Rightly he notes that “most Protestants would likely agree that Pope Francis seems like a pretty nice guy, and certainly no threat to democracy. The pope — this one especially — is on board with progress. And maybe even with evolution now. So what happened? For most of Europe’s past, the only thing church leaders and their monarchical counterparts agreed on was that church and state should be united. They just disagreed over who should be holding the reins. In fact, if anything kept church and state separate, it was the power struggle between the two camps”.

He makes the argument that “The pope’s earthly power frequently brought him into conflict with Europe’s kings. When these rulers tried to seize church land or appoint bishops, the Catholic Church called on its considerable allies and resources to resist. This conflict would pit some of Europe’s most powerful rulers — Charlemagne, several Holy Roman Emperors, and King Philip IV of France — against the pope over the question of whether kings should choose popes or popes should choose kings. Both sides wanted to play the “caliph,” with the joint spiritual and temporal authority that role entailed. But while both church and state relied on the other for legitimacy, neither could permanently gain the upper hand for centuries. The Protestant Reformation finally gave European monarchs like Henry VIII the theological justification to unite church and state under their authority instead of the Vatican’s. Indeed, Protestants only favoured the separation of church and state so long as the church in question was the Catholic one”.

What Danforth does not point out however is that the supposed separation of church and state in the times of Henry VIII really meant the State controlling the Church. This is the case, to a greater or lesser extent in the UK and Denmark. It was the case in Sweden until 2000. In all of these cases the State had control, either explicit or implicit over the religion. This is exactly what President Sisi is trying to do in Egypt at the moment, have the State control Islam.

Danforth goes on to write “Uniting church and state under protestant kings like Henry only helped facilitate modern secularism because these rulers were more serious about their new-found power than their theology. They wanted their countries to become rich and powerful. In their new roles as religious authorities, they could bend or warp religious rules for earthly end goals. As European states became richer, more stable, and more powerful over the ensuing centuries, their political cultures became more liberal and democratic. And religion in the hands of protestant monarchs kept pace. Queen Elizabeth, weighed down by an elected parliament and generations of English common law, could no longer use her authority as Anglican potentate to, say, endorse enslaving prisoners of war as the Islamic State recently did. In short, she isn’t the kind of caliph anyone in the Islamic State wants”.

He adds “The church-state relationship developed differently in countries that remained Catholic, like France or Italy. Rather than become leaders of new churches, subsequent revolutionary leaders like Robespierre in France or Garibaldi in Italy sought to abolish Catholic institutions entirely. The French Revolution, for example, confiscated church land, banned monastic orders, and forced priests to swear an oath to the civil constitution (of course, all this involved many more beheadings). The pope and his faithful were, understandably, horrified. The Vatican spent the better part of the 19th century on the political sidelines, refusing to engage with Europe’s secular regimes”.

Crucially he notes “The history of how secularism developed in Protestant and Catholic countries serves as a reminder that politics and circumstance shape religion, and its application to society, far more than abstract theology does. And these forces can change a faith dramatically even while scripture remains the same”.

Danforth asks if that if separation of church and state is about politics rather than theology will there be a Muslim Robespierre, he argues “Unlikely. The real answer is that there’s no single, obvious, historically proven path to modern secularism. Take just one example: The French revolutionary approach to dealing with the church served as the example for one of the most famous secularisers in the Islamic world, Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk saw the Islamic religious establishment as an enemy force — just like French revolutionaries saw the Vatican — that had to be defeated. He expropriated the property of religious foundations and banned religious orders. And he was so committed to teaching an anti-Catholic view of European history — inspired by both protestant prejudice and French revolutionary secularism — that even today a surprising number of Turkish high school graduates have told me they believe Protestants are the modern Christians and Catholics the backwards ones. But anyone who’s been following the news from Turkey over the past decade or so knows that a century on, Ataturk’s approach did not work perfectly. Turkish politics remain bitterly divided between those who think the country is too secular and those who complain it is no longer secular enough”.

He concludes “So if even Ataturk couldn’t do it, is there any hope for creating a consensus on the role of religion in public life sufficient to facilitate liberal democracy in Muslim-majority countries? Or at least sufficient to forestall some of the violence we saw in 2014? Looking optimistically toward the new year, one lesson from several millennia of church-state conflict in Europe is that even without following any particular model, Muslim countries might just succeed in blazing their own paths, much like the Vatican managed to do, even without a Catholic Martin Luther of its own”.

“Bolstered the constitutional role of the president”

14/06/2015

“The Supreme Court on Monday bolstered the constitutional role of the president, and not Congress, in setting the nation’s foreign policy, declaring the executive office has the “exclusive power” to recognize foreign governments and negotiate sensitive disputes. The ruling struck down a never-implemented 2002 law that attempted to give American parents the right to have “Israel” listed as the birthplace of a child born in Jerusalem. By a 6-3 vote, the justices agreed with Presidents Obama and George W. Bush that this measure infringed on the power of the president and his secretary of State to resolve the long-running dispute over the status of the ancient city. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital, and U.S. policy has long held that officially identifying the city as part of Israel would hinder negotiations between the parties. The ruling is a defeat for the parents of Menachem Zivotofsky, who is now 12. They had sued under the law to have his passport list his birthplace as “Jerusalem, Israel.” Beyond the narrow dispute at issue, the court’s opinion was a strong endorsement of presidential power at a time when Republicans are increasingly criticizing Obama for bypassing Congress and exceeding his authority, including on foreign matters such as the pending Iran nuclear deal”.

Cameron finds, and loses his backbone

12/06/2015

In a welcome development, David Cameron seems to have found a spine and demanded loyalty from his party. In comments made during the G7 meeting he seemed to give an ultimatum, “David Cameron has told his ministers that they will have to resign if they want to campaign and vote for Britain to leave the European Union. Risking a major confrontation with members of his Cabinet, Mr Cameron made his strongest comments yet on the subject, and raised the prospect of resignations by a number of Eurosceptic ministers before the vote, which could be held as soon as next year. At the G7 conference in Germany, Mr Cameron was asked whether he had “absolutely closed” his mind to allowing ministers a free vote. He replied: “I’ve been very clear. If you want to be part of the Government, you have to take the view that we are engaged in an exercise of renegotiation, to have a referendum, and that will lead to a successful outcome.” When asked whether anyone in Government who opposes that will have to resign, he said: “Everyone in Government has signed up to the programme set out in the Conservative manifesto.” Downing Street sources confirmed that Mr Cameron would expect any minister who planned to campaign for Britain to leave the EU to resign. At least five ministers are known to believe that Britain should vote to leave the EU if the Prime Minister is unable to secure major reforms from Brussels”.

The report adds “Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, and Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, are all notable Eurosceptics who have previously hinted they could accept a vote to leave the EU. Boris Johnson, who attends Mr Cameron’s political Cabinet but is expected to be promoted when his term as Mayor of London ends, has also said that Britain must be prepared to “walk away” from Europe if Britain cannot secure a good deal during negotiations”.

However, no sooner had Cameron found a spine he managed to lose it, “David Cameron’s approach to the EU referendum was in danger of slipping from confusion to farce when he clarified his position by saying he had not yet decided if ministers will be free to campaign as they wish. But the prime minister insisted the government will have a view on the outcome of any negotiations on the terms of British membership and will not be a bystander when the referendum campaign is in full swing. Cameron had been widely reported as planning to impose collective ministerial responsibility during the campaign following a briefing he gave to reporters at the G7 on Sunday. But the prime minister later said he had been misinterpreted, and blamed reporters accompanying him at the summit in Bavaria for misunderstanding him”.

The article goes onto mention that Cameron’s “initial remarks on Sunday caused some surprise in Westminster where at least one member of the cabinet said in private that he had made a mistake which was bound to be corrected. But the government initially appeared to see no need for a clarification. James Wharton, the junior communities minister who sought to introduce a private member’s bill in the last parliament for an EU referendum, was dispatched onto the airwaves on Monday morning to defend the prime minister. A few hours later, at the G7 summit, Cameron said he had been misinterpreted as he explained that collective ministerial responsibility only applied to the current stage of the renegotiations. No decision had been made on whether ministers would be free to make the case to stay in or leave during the referendum campaign. He said ministers were currently required, as part of being in government, to expect a successful outcome to EU negotiations”.

The piece goes on to mention “Cameron’s press conference at the end of the summit was dominated by questions on his approach to ministerial responsibility during the referendum campaign. He will be frustrated that his first appearance on the world stage since his re-election largely involved answering questions on how he is to prevent his party fracturing on whether the UK should stay in the EU. The prime minister said he only realised his remarks had been misinterpreted when he read the newspapers on Monday morning. His officials denied he had been forced into a hasty U-turn by an angry reaction to the newspaper reports in London from senior Conservative figures such as Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip, and David Davis, the prominent rightwing backbencher”.

“Signed a historic agreement to simplify their border”

12/06/2015

Bangladesh and India have signed a historic agreement to simplify their border by exchanging more than 150 enclaves of land. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi ratified the deal with his counterpart Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka. Thousands of Bangladeshis inhabit more than 50 enclaves in India, while Indians live in around 100 areas within Bangladesh. The countries will now swap territories and residents can choose where to live. “We have resolved a question that has lingered since independence. Our two nations now have a settled boundary,” Mr Modi said at a press conference”.