Archive for August, 2015

China hacks India

30/08/2015

Hackers based in China are believed to be targeting India and its neighbors to obtain information on border disputes and diplomatic intelligence, according to cyber security company FireEye Inc. An advanced campaign over the past four years has targeted more than 100 people, 70 percent of whom are in India, according to a statement from the Milpitas, California-based company. Earlier this year it identified a decade-long cyber espionage operation against businesses and governments in Southeast Asia. “These attacks on India and its neighbouring countries reflect growing interest in its foreign affairs,” Bryce Boland, FireEye’s chief technology officer for Asia Pacific, said in the statement. The company said the attacks on India and its neighbors are now “commonplace.” Cyber attacks in India have grown in recent years. The National Crime Records Bureau reported a 70 percent increase in cyber-crime cases in 2014, though the most common was the publication of information deemed to be “grossly offensive.” China and India, which fought a war in 1962, vie for global energy resources. A spy ring traced back to China accessed documents on India’s military missile programs, security assessments of states bordering China, and files from Indian embassies, the Information Warfare Monitor, a research group associated with the University of Toronto, said in 2010″.

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Clinton at State, a GOP view

30/08/2015

William Inboden writes about the legacy of Clinton as secretary of State, “Will foreign policy really matter in the upcoming presidential election? Folks like me (and many FP readers) who work on this stuff for a living would like to think that it is always a top tier concern, though oftentimes the interests of average American voters are much more about pocketbook issues closer to home. Yet there are some early signs that national security policy could be a significant factor in the 2016 presidential race. The state of the world has much to do with this, with voters being regularly inundated by headlines of international turbulence ranging from the Islamic State depredations to the Iranian nuclear negotiations to Russian aggression to Chinese assertiveness. To many Americans, the world really does feel chaotic, unstable, and dangerous”.

Yet as others have argued foreign policy may not be as important as the GOP think, or would hope, for three reasons.

Inboden goes on to make the point that “Then there’s also the fact that much of the early back and forth between leading Republican candidates and (with apologies to the growing legions of Bernie Sanders fans) presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has been not on Obamacare, not on the anemic economic recovery, not on social issues, but on foreign policy. So while the average American voter won’t begin tuning in to presidential politics for a few more months, some of the early contours of the presidential contest are starting to take shape, and foreign policy will likely be a prominent feature. Hillary Clinton is the only major candidate of either party to have held an executive branch cabinet position on foreign policy. One would think this might be an asset for her. But the way she and her campaign are acting — by barely mentioning her record as secretary of state, dodging questions about her Iraq decisions, and only talking about foreign policy by attacking the George W. Bush administration — it would seem that they privately regard her tenure as secretary of state as a liability”.

Inboden argues that “In light of her record as secretary of state, that assessment is not surprising. She seems to be, paradoxically, one of the most-traveled and least-accomplished secretaries of state of modern times. Clinton herself inadvertently admitted this when she infamously couldn’t identify any major accomplishments in an interview. It is sad but revealing that the one thing most Americans can identify about her tenure as secretary of state is not a major diplomatic accomplishment but rather her unauthorised (and arguably illegal) private email server”.

While this is correct much of diplomacy is necessarily behind the scenes. Only the good, and sometimes the bad, is shown to the public. Therefore, to write off her entire record at State could be in danger of being seen as partisan and thus lacking in any balance, nuance or fairness with the sole intention of scoring cheap political points.

He goes on to make the point fair point that “Given the ongoing debate over the deterioration in Iraq and rise of the Islamic State, it is noteworthy that Clinton is also the only major candidate of either party to have had any policy responsibility for all three major Iraq decisions of the last 12 years: the decision to go to war in 2003 (which she supported and voted to authorize as a U.S. senator), the surge decision of 2007 (which she fiercely opposed, also as a senator), and the decision to completely withdraw all U.S. troops in 2011 (which she supported as secretary of state). She has since repudiated her original support for the war, has since admitted that her opposition to the surge was politically-motivated, and now tries to evade questions about how the abandonment of Iraq in 2011 led to the rise of the Islamic State and the resurgence of Iranian influence (for a thorough treatment of this, see Peter Feaver’s excellent exploration here). In short, it is not an admirable record — she was wrong on all three major Iraq decisions“.

Inboden is correct on these points but curiously omits the role in the lack of reconstruction and security in the post 2003 Iraq War. Such an omission casts doubt on his partiality and his ability to correctly analyse the events over the last decade from 2003 to 2013.

He continues “The recent campaign skirmishes over Iraq have obscured Clinton’s larger record on the Middle East, which is also wanting. While a vocal advocate for and architect of the American military intervention in Libya that decapitated the Qaddafi regime, she failed to plan for the day after: the stabilization, reconstruction, and political reconciliation of Libya. Left behind instead is a failed state ravaged by competing militias, terrorist safe-havens, and an Islamic State outpost”.

All of what he said is true but his admission that the Bush administration failed to do these exact same things blunts the validity of his points.

He does correctly write that “Syria is an even bigger disaster, combining the humanitarian travesty of over 200,000 murdered Syrians with the proliferation of terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Nusra front, the ongoing use of chemical weapons, and the expansion of Iranian power. Another signature Obama-Clinton initiative, the Russia “re-set,” as misguided as it was in its own right, also contributed to the systemic failures of their Middle East policy. Putin emerged early on as, along with Iran, one of Bashar al-Assad’s most fervent supporters. The ideological blinders that caused Obama and Clinton to eschew any support for the moderate Syrian rebels — remember that in 2011 Clinton had infamously described Assad as a “reformer” — also handcuffed them from taking any steps that might cause friction with Putin”.

He mentions that “In short, it is not just the Obama administration’s abdication in Iraq that precipitated the explosive and catastrophic growth of the Islamic State since 2013. The Islamic State’s successes were also facilitated by the administration’s failures in Syria, and by its premature declarations of victory against terrorism. These blinded the administration to the rise of the Islamic State and the continuing appeal of violent jihadist ideology. In hindsight, 2011 may have been the year of Osama bin Laden’s demise, but it was also the tragically pivotal year when the Obama administrationabandoned Iraq, neglected Syria, and essentially declared “mission accomplished” in the war on jihadist terrorism — and when the Islamic State took advantage of this opening to rise from the defeated ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton approved of, and in many ways helped author these decisions. (Yes, the Islamic State traces its organizational roots back to AQI’s roots in 2002, and yes AQI grew in strength in the chaotic aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq. But under the Bush administration, AQI founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006, and the surge helped ensure that AQI was largely defeated by January 2009 when Obama and Clinton took office”.

Pointedly  he argues “not only is the region as a whole in turmoil, there is arguably not a single Middle Eastern nation — with the perverse exception of Iran — where the United States has a stronger bilateral relationship now than we did when Obama and Clinton took office (and the improved Iran relationship comes at considerable cost to American interests). Given this record, it is sad but telling that at this juncture, rather than an honest accounting, Clinton’s surrogates are reduced to caricatured fear-mongering and evasive blame-shifting. There is a possible alternative explanation for this litany of mistaken policies. Perhaps, in her time as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton advocated for vigorous American engagement with then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to secure a meaningful American troop presence in Iraq”.

He concludes “Since the Clinton presidential campaign faces a rather unappealing set of choices for discussing her tenure as secretary of state — either admit to costly policy errors or to manifest irrelevance — it is perhaps unsurprising that they keep trying to divert attention from her recent record. Yet Clinton also continues to struggle with potential voters on the “is she honest and trustworthy” question, as Chris Cillizza demonstrates. Of course much of that relates to the unfolding email controversy, for which she has much to answer. Perhaps one way to address this credibility problem will be to give a candid speech or interview in which she discusses her role in the Obama administration’s several deeply flawed Middle East policies, and describes how her possible presidency would correct these errors. Meanwhile, the lack of media scrutiny thus far on her policy record at the State Department is notable, and offers an opportunity for enterprising and thoughtful reporters to take up and explore. The story of her Middle East policy failures is a story waiting to be written”.

Abadi cuts his cabinet

30/08/2015

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq reduced his cabinet to just 22 members from 33 on Sunday as part of a major overhaul in response to mass protests against corruption and poor governance. The decision, announced by his office, would eliminate four ministries, including those of human rights and women’s affairs, and consolidate others. The announcement did not mention whether there would be changes to the remaining ministries. The move follows a far-reaching plan approved by Parliament last week that eliminated Iraq’s three vice presidencies and three deputy prime ministers. The plan also reduced the budget for senior officials’ bodyguards. The overhaul cut positions held by a number of prominent politicians, including Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, who was prime minister for eight years before being pushed out last August in response to growing outrage over the fall of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, to Islamic State militants”.

Trump, le Pen, Farage and democracy

28/08/2015

An excellent piece argues that the surge in support for Trump is the American version of Marine le Pen or Wilders.

It begins “The general consensus of commentators and reporters seems to be that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, fueled largely through outrageous statements about undocumented immigrants, personal attacks against journalists and respected party standard-bearers (see: John McCain), and reality television stardom, would quickly flame out, giving way to a more serious discussion between respectable candidates. Yet the latest polls show him solidly leading the GOP field and suggest he’d be competitive even in a general election. In Trump, analysts see the ghosts of populist U.S. history past, from William Jennings Bryan to Ross Perot. His boasts about his personal wealth and status as a television celebrity, his espousal of the birtherism, and his unapologetic gusto seem to embody a classic American brashness. But to truly make sense of “The Donald,” we need to look abroad, to a deeper and more troublesome trend on the other side of the Atlantic”.

The author correctly argues that “The political figures that Trump most mirrors are European populists like Britain’s Nigel Farage of the U.K. Independence Party, Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, and Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s populist National Front. Indeed, Trump is part of a global phenomenon: the still-rising backlash against political leaders of all stripes, along with the media and cultural elites — in short, the establishment. Trump himself might, and likely will, fizzle out. But he has established himself as a force to be reckoned with, not just a clownish curiosity before the serious stuff starts. And his success thus far speaks to a worrisome distrust toward the political process”.

Yet this backlash is partly of the making of the establishment who for too long have been held unaccountable. They have produced ever more “technical” solutions that have attempted to remove politics, and therefore democracy, from society. It is doubtful how knowing they were in this but now the backlash has occurred with people feeling increasingly disenchanted and disconnected from politics. If nothing is done than this disconnect will only worsen with unknown and perhaps dangerous consequences.

The writer goes on to make the point “Trump’s critics point to the vacuity of his policy prescriptions; they might hit the same wall as their European counterparts. But Trump, so far, has escaped attacks on his credibility because credibility isn’t the issue on which he’s running. Like Le Pen and Farage, Trump’s No. 1 issue is immigration. He has surged to the top of the polls by highlighting the supposed fecklessness of mainstream political figures on the issue. Republicans such as Jeb Bush, Trump says, may talk tough on illegal immigration, but they don’t do anything about it. And their lack of action, in Trump’s mind, reveals the rot at the heart of the political system. It’s similar in France, where for decades, the National Front has placed “national preference,” or the promotion of French workers over migrants, at the center of its platform. Likewise, in the United Kingdom, Farage has branded the “establishment” as “shameful” and “racist” against Britons for rejecting his proposal to scrap racial discrimination laws. For all three, success is not about policy specifics but tapping into a sense of resentment over the loss of power”.

He goes on to argue that “Trump is also unafraid to wield the occasional insult, as with his constant invocation of the term “losers.” Across the pond, his firebrand cousins are similarly unafraid of slinging a bit of mud. In February 2010, Farage famously claimed that then-EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy had “the charisma of a damp rag.” Le Pen, meanwhile, frequently denounces the “disdain” and “arrogance” of the French elite. In another particularly crude instance, she criticized Qatar’s alleged influence within Parisian policy circles, branding France “the strumpet of paunchy emirs.” More poetic than The Donald, perhaps, but conveying the same rejection of political correctness. Such attacks don’t fall on deaf ears. Polls show that the U.S. public’s trust in their political leaders to “handle domestic and international problems” is at historic lows. In France, polls this year show a similar trend, with 85 percent of people believing that political leaders “are not preoccupied” with their problems and 61 percent saying that democracy does not work very well. These concerns are not without their merits. Scholars have raised the alarm over the distorting influence of dark money on American politics. But rather than offering policy prescriptions to address these imbalances, Trumpian populism prefers to exploit fear and distrust to further a divisive agenda”.

He mentions “American commentators on the right have argued strenuously that Trump “isn’t a conservative,” hoping that GOP voters might wake up to the fact and turn to a more traditional candidate. In his praise of single-payer health care, Planned Parenthood, and his denunciations of free trade, Trump follows in the footsteps of Le Pen and other European populists, who claim that the traditional left-right axis, on economics and moral values, is outmoded. Indeed, in terms of policy, Le Pen offers a grab bag from across the spectrum. She combines vigorous anti-immigration policies with protectionist economics, while advocating for a higher minimum wage and a lower retirement age. She is less vocal in her opposition to gay marriage than the center-right Union for a Popular Movement. And she drapes her policy proposals in fierce anti-trade, anti-Europe, and anti-globalization rhetoric that would make even the harshest activists blush”.

Worryingly he writes that “Trump’s success, even if short-lived, underscores troubling trends about the level of distrust voters express for the political process and more generally the pillars of democratic institutions. Le Pen, Wilders, Farage, and their firebrand brethren, meanwhile, are permanent, nagging fixtures on the European political landscape. This new populism is no mere passing fancy. In Europe, the political class has been unable to deal with questions surrounding rapid economic transformations, large-scale immigration, and the very endurance of national identity. If they have dealt with them, they have usually done so by insisting they are the product of “irrational fears,” armed with statistics to prove it. This has done little to temper the sense among a growing number of Europeans that the game is rigged against them”.

He end “The same problems afflicting Europe are present in the United States, albeit in attenuated form. And yet, the rise of Trump, however ridiculous and offensive he is, has proved that the United States is far from immune against the problems that European populists have tapped into but failed to address. They show a troubling distrust in the traditional process, elected officials, and the media — the very pillars of democracy”.

China, dragging down the rest of the world

28/08/2015

The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 just suffered their worst week since November 2011. On Friday, the Dow fell 531 points, or three percent; it shed more than 1,000 points this week. Other markets around the world also got shellacked; the Shanghai Composite dropped 4.3 percent on Friday, while the DAX, in Germany, closed down nearly 3 percent. Commodity prices are tanking; oil prices hit their lowest levels since 2009, below $40 a barrel. Now, there are fears that America’s six-year bull market could be heading for a correction. The culprit? Growing fears and evidence of an economic slowdown in China. The string of bad economic news out of Beijing continued Friday. The latest concerns came from China’s manufacturing sector, which shrunk to its lowest levels since 2009 during the Great Recession. This all comes after China devalued its currency last week, as year-over-year exports decreased by 8.3 percent in July and concerns grow that Beijing won’t hit its 7 percent growth target for 2015. Now, analysts are split over whether recent downward trends on global markets is a short-term scare or a larger sign of a global slowdown. For his part, Jim Chanos, an American hedge fund manager, who is president and founder of Kynikos Associates, said to brace for the worst”.

America’s self inflicted wound

28/08/2015

A report argues interestingly that Syria is the self inflicted wound of the United States, “On Aug. 16, Syrian regime aircraft bombed a vegetable market in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, slaughtering over 100 Syrian civilians and wounding some 300 more. Many of the victims were children; it was one of the deadliest airstrikes of a brutal war. This is far from the first regime-committed atrocity in a Damascus suburb: Exactly two years ago today, Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, which killed hundreds. In the case of the Douma attack, President Barack Obama’s administration reacted with its usual pantomime of outrage: strong verbal condemnation, condolences for the families of victims, and a plea that the international community “do more to enable a genuine political transition in Syria.” A genuine political transition in Syria, however, is not right around the corner. Yet every airstrike by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is fueling radicalization in the Syrian here and now. The only clear winner in the Douma abomination was the pseudo “caliph” of the so-called Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a hardened criminal who recruits followers courtesy of the Iranian-sponsored Assad regime’s atrocities and Western complacency. Iran and Assad know exactly what they are doing by bolstering this evil. The West, meanwhile, is complacently unresponsive”.

The writer goes on to make the point that “For Obama, who has said that his goal is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” an organistion known variously as the Islamic State, ISIL, ISIS, and Daesh, Assad’s atrocities ought to provoke a reaction that extends beyond the same tired rhetoric. They do not. This is because Iran — the object of the administration’s courtship — is fully enabling the mass homicide strategy of its Syrian client”.

He mentions that “In its single-minded pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran, the Obama administration adopted a Syria policy rich in rhetoric and empty of substantive action. Until June 2014, when the Islamic State used its bases in Syria to overrun much of Iraq, the administration could use the indifference of the U.S. and European publics to Syria’s agony to duck the fact that Assad had continuously undermined the White House’s credibility — ignoring the president’s loose talk about how Assad had lost legitimacy and the chemical “red lines” that ought not be crossed”.

The author goes on to note that “The Islamic State became the Assad regime’s enemy of choice; an adversary that would supplement regime attacks on nationalist rebels, only engaging regime forces in combat when they sat atop something they wanted, such as an oil field, a military base replete with weapons stockpiles, or a town filled with priceless antiquities. This symbiotic relationship enabled the Islamic State to sweep through much of Iraq in June 2014, pulling American combat aviation and ground forces back into Mesopotamia and the Levant. Iranian fingerprints were all over the Assad regime’s scorched-earth policies, which enabled this catastrophe. In a diplomatic tactic designed to advance the nuclear talks, the Obama administration pretended that Washington and Tehran were essentially on the same page with respect to the Islamic State. But they were not, and they are not”.

He concludes “Syrians who mourn for the dead and dying of Douma cry out to the civilised world for protection. To ignore their pleas risks consigning them to the “caliph.” Western leaders may be shamefully unmoved by the moral case to protect Syrian civilians, but they should at least be motivated by the fact that winning the war against the Islamic State requires making it harder for Assad and Iran to aid and comfort the enemy. Doing so might also help persuade a sufficient number of senators and congressmen to sustain the Iran nuclear agreement, for which so many Syrians have involuntarily paid such a high price”.

“Still offered no clue on whether he himself supported the accord”

28/08/2015

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Monday the fate of a historic nuclear deal with world powers is still unclear as lawmakers in both the Islamic Republic and the U.S. review it. The comments by Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran, suggests he supports allowing Iran’s parliament to review and vote on the deal. However, his remarks carried on his official website still offered no clue on whether he himself supported the accord. Referring to the U.S., Khamenei said: “In their understanding of the deal, of which its fate is not clear since it is not clear if will be approved here or there, their intention was to find a way to penetrate into the country.” He added: “We blocked the way. We will strongly block this way. We will not allow either economic penetration or political and cultural penetration into the country by the U.S.” Iran’s parliament and the Supreme National Security Council will consider the agreement in the coming days. On Sunday, more than 200 Iranian lawmakers issued a statement demanding the administration of President Hassan Rouhani submit the deal to parliament for a vote”.

Chinese pro-life movement

26/08/2015

An interesting article notes how China is becoming more pro-life, “On July 14, a U.S. anti-abortion group released an undercover video of an employee of abortion provider Planned Parenthood casually discussing, over wine and salad, the harvesting and donation of fetal tissue for medical research. The video provoked a nationwide outcry among pro-life activists and politicians, who have called for investigations into the national reproductive health care provider’s practices. The news quickly reached China, and within days the video had been posted to Chinese video streaming site iQiyi, where it received more than 170,000 views. China has the highest number of abortions in the world, with an estimated 13 million performed annually. Many in China view abortion as a purely personal decision, a necessary if sad option for people in difficult situations. Unlike in the United States, where abortion clinics face tight restrictions in some areas, similar facilities in China are readily available and widely publicized”.

Thankfully the author notes that “despite widespread support for abortion access, the government’s strict limits on family size, and tight controls on civil society and religion, China is home to a small but growing number of pro-life activists who deploy tactics that many Americans would find familiar. One such group of activists operates in the southwestern city of Chengdu. On May 31, 2012, Wang Yi, the pastor of a local official church called Autumn Rain Church, posted an open letter on microblogging platform Weibo calling for citizens to join him in demonstrating in front of abortion clinics. The next day — June 1, International Children’s Day — Wang and members of his church held a protest at a clinic and handed out flyers. Since 2012, Autumn Rain worshipers have run a campaign each year on June 1 called “No Abortion on Children’s Day.” Campaign members now operate social media accounts on microblogging platform Weibo and mobile messaging app WeChat, each with the slogan “Opposing abortion for Jesus” and a small number of followers. For the past three years prior to the holiday, the Christian group has distributed flyers, held small demonstrations, and once even ran a series of ads on public buses. Photos of the demonstrations and pro-life statements posted online do not seem to have been censored, perhaps because they are usually shared no more than a few dozen times”.

Naturally he notes that “The Chengdu pro-life group’s tactics, and even its social media content, closely resembles the methods and rhetoric of the pro-life movement in the United States. A May 30 post from the Chengdu group’s WeChat public account featured an infographic with images of skulls, grouped together in the shape of the national map, with a headline in a dramatic font: “There Are 13 Million Abortions Every Year in China.” During this year’s protest, a handful of protesters gathered in front of the Zangnan Women’s Hospital in Chengdu. Their faces downcast, they carried large posters with gruesome photos of aborted fetuses and headlines that read, “A fetus is a child too” and, “Who is qualified to determine life or death?” The group also appears to watch the U.S. pro-life scene closely. Two days after the video outcry involving Planned Parenthood (whose name in Chinese means “Planned Birth Association”), No Abortion on Children’s Day posted an article about the video”.

Interestingly the report goes on to mention “pro-life advocates, like other grassroots organizations in authoritarian China, can operate only by remaining small and strictly nonpolitical. According to a July 26 article by World, a U.S.-based Christian magazine, one church in China formed a partnership with a local hospital to open a crisis pregnancy center, painted pink and yellow, where volunteers speak with abortion patients about alternative options. Another organization in China provides financial assistance so that women can pay the fines that would otherwise push them towards abortion. Yet another, China Life Alliance, is U.S.-based but seeks change in China by helping to sponsor safe houses that serve Chinese women “at high risk for forced abortions,” according to the organization’s website. It also helps mobilize “abortion rescue teams,” volunteers who walk into abortion clinics and speak directly with patients to try to convince them to pursue other options, as well as providing training seminars for local churches. According to a map posted on the CLA website, pro-life volunteers operate in 29 cities around China. CLA did not respond to a Foreign Policy request for comment”.

Crucially for a country that is experiencing a religious revival, “Christianity is not the only religious force in China that opposes abortion. Buddhism, with more than 244 million adherents according to a 2012 Pew study, the most recent such study available, is the largest religion in China. It’s known for its strong opposition to killing of all kinds, and according to Buddhist understanding, human life begins at conception. In a November 1993 interview, the Dalai Lama, a revered Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader who fled China in 1959, told the New York Times that while “abortion, from a Buddhist perspective, is an act of killing.” He added that there were exceptions if the fetus had severe congenital defects, for example, or if having the child would put extreme strain on the parent”.

The piece adds, “China’s swiftly evolving society has shifted the demographics of abortion, creating a window for pro-life groups to prevent abortions without directly challenging family planning policies. The procedure used to be primarily associated with married women, but unwed women now undergo the operation in increasing numbers. Chinese attitudes towards sex have become significantly more liberal than they were two decades ago; premarital sex and cohabitation are now relatively common, with 71 percent having sex before marriage, according to one study. That has meant a rise in unplanned pregnancies among a group of women who then seek what could be considered, under the context of Chinese family planning law, preventable abortions. Like a second child, a baby out of wedlock triggers a fine of $6,400, more than the average annual salary in China. To avoid it, unmarried pregnant woman can abort — or they can keep the baby and marry the father. Encouraging unwed couples to marry can thus be an effective pro-life strategy”.

The writer makes the point that “Although anti-abortion sentiment and action groups exist in China, none of it has crystallised into anything approaching an organised pro-life movement, which in the United States has pursued legal and legislative means to reduce access or funding for abortion. Average Chinese citizens cannot vote for legislators, and activists seeking legal change are routinely detained or harassed. (Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer who rose to international attention after a dramatic escape to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, spent years under house arrest for his legal defence of victims of forced abortion.) Meanwhile, mass rallies such as the annual March for Life, held every year in Washington, DC, are impossible in China without the party’s blessing”.

The report ends “At the grassroots, abortion remains a largely accepted practice. Eight out of 13 respondents in the Chengdu pro-life group’s video, for example, agreed that abortion “killed people,” yet most further qualified their answers to add that abortion was a “personal decision,” that it depended on the health of the fetus and the mother, and that it was a morally complex affair. Only two stated that they were unconditionally opposed to abortion. Online, many web users expressed similar views. “The mother’s well-being is more important that of the fetus,” wrote one user in a popular thread on Zhihu, an online question-and-answer forum where young, often well-educated users often engage in in-depth discussions. “If the mother is not capable of looking after the child, giving birth to the baby would cause more damage.” Other justifications for abortion offered on Chinese social media might seem surprising to Western observers. A number of commenters argued that the procedure prevented infanticide — not a distant memory to some in China, where a traditional preference for sons led to a historical practice of female infanticide”.

Cultural terrorism of ISIS

26/08/2015

Militants from the Islamic State destroyed a temple in the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria, activists and government officials said on Sunday, continuing a pattern of destruction that they have visited upon historical sites across the territory they control there and in Iraq. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist and monitoring group based in Britain, said Sunday in a statement that Islamic State fighters detonated “a large quantity of explosives” that they had arranged around the Temple of Baalshamin, one of the most grand and well-preserved structures in the sprawling complex of ruins. A government official told reporters that it was heavily damaged by the blast. The Temple of Baalshamin was built more than 2,000 years ago and was dedicated to the Phoenician god Baalshamin. The temple stood “dozens of meters” away from a Roman amphitheatre where the Islamic State held a mass execution, killing 25 prisoners, in a video released last month, the activist group said”.

Chinese slowdown and Russia

26/08/2015

Keith Johnson writes how the Chinese stock market collapse is effecting the major oil producers “The Chinese contagion that sparked “Black Monday” is especially worrisome for crude oil prices, which this summer were thought to have finally found a floor after a year of steady price declines. But that floor suddenly looks rotten: U.S. benchmark crude prices fell well below $40 a barrel on Monday, their lowest levels since the depths of the global financial crisis. Though oil prices inched back up again on Tuesday, they are still at six-year lows. With question marks hanging over the world’s second-largest economy, hopes for a rebound in oil prices are fading — and that’s going to make for a painful reckoning everywhere from Moscow to Maracaibo. Monday’s global market slide, which saw huge drops in stocks from New York to Shanghai, was fueled by worries over China’s economic outlook. “Black Monday,” though largely erased in the United States by market gains early Tuesday, continued in China, forcing the government to slash interest rates and underscoring the degree to which one of the world’s engines of growth has suddenly become an engine of uncertainty”.

Johnson points out that “That’s troubling for oil-rich countries like Russia and Venezuela, which harnessed years of breakneck Chinese growth to power their own risebut now face the specter of a prolonged slump that could hammer already tottering economies. “I don’t want to use the phrase ‘nail in the coffin,’ but China is sort of piling onto the oil supply situation by adding some pretty material demand concerns,” said Richard Morse, a commodities analyst at Citigroup. The oil rout is hammering Russia: The ruble on Monday hit yearly lows and is now worth half what it was last year. Coupled with Western sanctions, the Russian economy and budget are under severe pressure, which in turn creates all kinds of political headaches for President Vladimir Putin”.

Johnson notes that the situation is worse in Venezuela, “Venezuela’s disintegrating economy, coupled with plunging oil prices, has investors seriously worried about default and even societal collapse. Nigeria, already under attack from Boko Haram terrorists, will likely have to devalue its currency in a bid to cope with collapsing oil prices, which will stoke inflation and threatens even more domestic instability. Lower oil prices just aggravate already terrible political situations in places like Libya and Algeria, threatening further domestic unrest. Even Saudi Arabia, an oil titan with hundreds of billions of dollars in its rainy day fund, faces credit downgrades, double-digit deficits, and concerns over fiscal stability. Bloomberg reported that Saudi officials are seeking to slash spending by as much as 10 percent to cope with oil’s collapse”.

Pointedly he writes that “The real irony, though, is what lies behind the current global market panic: the Chinese economic slowdown. For years, Russia and Venezuela, as well as Middle Eastern and African oil producers, watched happily as China’s voracious appetite for raw materials like oil pushed crude prices up to record levels. That oil windfall fattened petro-state coffers, bolstered their confidence, and helped shape their geopolitical strategies. Russia’s pivot to Asia was predicated, in large part, on never-ending Chinese demand for energy. And Putin’s economic “miracle” in the 2000s, not to mention his reelection as president, would have been a lot tougher without $100-a-barrel oil. Currently, though, some of Russia’s huge energy deals with China are on hold due to low oil prices”.

Turning to Latin America he notes, “Venezuela’s troublemaking throughout its neighbourhood, especially under former leader Hugo Chavez, was underwritten by hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue, even as the economy was propped up by huge loans from China. Iran, too, found in China its biggest single customer — and one willing to keep buying large volumes of oil even when international sanctions limited Tehran’s exports. Saudi Arabia’s newly expansive foreign policy, including vast amounts of financial support for Egypt, Pakistan, and others, rode the crest of a petro-windfall, again girded by Chinese thirst for fuel”.

Yet Johnson does not deal with the potential aftershocks of the Chinese collapse on the strength of the regimes. The long term decline of China is assured but the effects that it could cause instability in Russia, Iran and Latin America are both a cause for concern and optimism for the United States and its allies.

Correctly he writes that “Now, though, the Chinese economic roller coaster is screaming downhill, frightening traders, spooking markets, and further slashing the price of oil that ultimately underpins those economies. The biggest problem is that no one knows with certainty just what is going on in the Chinese economy. Official government data shows GDP growth exactly at target levels of 7 percent, but other indicators — from steel and copper consumption to electricity use — suggest China’s slowdown may be even greater than feared. China’s economic woes are directly affecting oil markets, because lower growth translates into lower demand for oil and thus lower prices. Crude fell a whopping 6 percent and 7 percent in New York and London, respectively, Monday in large part because of fears that the Chinese market meltdown is a sign that the economy is in much worse shape than official statistics suggest. And even some of the steps that China has taken to deal with the economic slowdown, such as devaluing the renminbi, are bad news for oil producers: A weaker currency makes imported oil more expensive, whichcould further dampen Chinese purchases and weigh even more on already battered oil prices”.

Johnson makes the excellent point “And that’s just what big oil producers don’t need. Thanks to years of high oil prices, underpinned by seemingly bottomless Chinese demand, OPEC countries and Russia skewed their spending plans. Iran needs oil at about $137 a barrel to balance its budget, according to estimates provided by the commodities team at Citigroup; Saudi Arabia needs $105 a barrel; and Russia needs at least $90 oil. Countries that thrived thanks to China’s boom, in other words, are now shuddering  thanks to China’s bust, just as they can least afford it”.

He make the valid point that “Of course, oil’s slump isn’t just due to the Chinese slowdown; oil producers inside and outside of OPEC have kept pumping full bore over the past year, creating a supply glut that pushed prices down from highs of about $115 a barrel last summer. And China’s woes don’t just hit petro-states. Australian ore and coal miners, Brazilian soybean growers, and Argentine ranchers all thrived from feeding the Chinese market for more than a decade, and now are all hunkering down”.

Johnson ends “Yet OPEC and other big oil producers are still pumping as if there is a bottomless pit of Chinese demand out there still waiting to snap up every available barrel of oil. OPEC production hit a three-year high in July. Russia, which isn’t a member of OPEC, is pumping at about the highest levels since the end of the Soviet Union. Even the United States, which can’t even export the stuff, is still pumping with abandon, despite the precipitous fall in crude prices. Big producers have kept the spigots wide open to maintain their market share; OPEC countries have tried to drive U.S. drillers — who need pricier oil to be profitable — out of business. It hasn’t worked yet. U.S. producers were expected to pack up and go home when oil fell below $80 a barrel, or if not then certainly at $70, and definitely at $60 a barrel. But it hasn’t happened — U.S. production has crept upward all year. Big gains in drilling efficiency have allowed many U.S. producers to stay profitable with much lower prices than they and everyone else thought just a year ago”.

“Pakistan and China”

26/08/2015

Pakistan and China on Wednesday signed 20 memoranda of understanding (MoU) worth $2 billion as the two-day historic moot of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Karamay-Xinjiang Forum concluded.  The MoUs were signed in sectors of energy, communication, social services, agriculture, health, education and infrastructure at the Karamay Government Municipal Auditorium. A consortium of 35 Chinese companies was also formed that will invest in Pakistan pushing forward the CPEC”.

“Diplomatic initiatives with Syria’s neighbours and the GCC”

26/08/2015

After the recent article on US moves to begin talks about the Syrian conflict another piece describes how the Saudis are acting as a back channel in the hopes of ending the war, “The aftermath of the nuclear agreement struck between Iran and six world powers, a number of the countries with a stake in Syria’s gridlocked civil war have pushed forward initiatives to end the conflict. While the negotiations involving Turkey, Russia, Iran, the United States, and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries have been undertaken in secret for months, Moscow and Tehran’s recent willingness to engage on this issue has made President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus more attentive to the proposals on the table. Ali Mamlouk, Assad’s national security advisor, made quiet visits at the end of July to both the Saudi city of Jeddah and to Muscat, Oman, according to both Saudi-based sources and sources close to the Assad regime. Mamlouk’s visit represents the first time Saudi Arabia and Oman have invited a senior Syrian official to the Gulf to discuss a political settlement. Following Mamlouk’s visit, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem made an official visit in early August to Muscat to meet with the Omani foreign minister where they discussed, according to Syrian state media, “efforts to put an end to the crisis in Syria … which preserves the sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity” of the country”.

He goes on to report “As early as 2012, Ali Mamlouk pursued different options to bring an end to Syria’s civil war. His efforts have ranged from exploring local cease-fires to quietly meeting with a limited number of opposition members. He has also explored diplomatic initiatives with Syria’s neighbours and the GCC, including the recent outreach in Jeddah and Oman. In interviews with individuals who have worked with Mamlouk at various points in Damascus, the Syrian intelligence chief is described as a strategic thinker skilled at managing Assad’s national security process and its tangled web of competing security services. Despite speculative press reporting that Mamlouk either was placed under house arrest for negotiating beyond his brief or had fled to Turkey, he remains a close confidant of Assad and remains largely above the fray of the deepening rivalries within Assad’s inner circle”.

The writer warns of the danger of expecting too much, “In his meeting in Jeddah, Mamlouk discussed with senior Saudi officials the possibility of launching a political process. Saudi Arabia would withdraw its support for the armed Syrian opposition, and, in exchange, Damascus would commit to a vaguely defined process leading to an end of the civil war and U.N.-sponsored presidential and parliamentary elections. Such a resolution would then pave the way for both sides to form a united front in combatting the Islamic State. In exchange, Saudi officials demanded that Iran withdraw its proxy militias from Syria. The discussions did not delve into specifics on how such an agreement could be executed, and there are still significant gaps between both sides. Importantly, it still is unclear what degree of Iranian influence would be acceptable to Saudi Arabia and its allies, and what Assad’s position would be in such a settlement. It’s also up for debate how seriously Riyadh is pursuing such a settlement. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, at a press conference on Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, stressed that Assad cannot be part of a political solution in Syria”.

Interestingly he notes that “Mamlouk’s invitation to Jeddah, then, points more likely to Riyadh’s willingness to be seen as a constructive partner in Moscow’s renewed diplomatic efforts. In early August, Lavrov traveled to Qatar for meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry and Jubeir, while Russia’s special representative for the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, held meetings in Tehran. But since Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Moscow last month, Riyadh has better cards in play — notably with the recent U.S.-Turkish intervention in northern Syria and with increased efforts to train Syrian opposition and to combat the Islamic State. Mamlouk’s visit to Muscat shouldn’t be overlooked either. According to a source close to these ongoing negotiations, Mamlouk met with two senior GCC officials responsible for security affairs to discuss Saudi-UAE engagement with leading Sunni tribes in Syria”.

The importance of Iran is stressed when he states that, “Tehran has not publicly supported either of Mamlouk’s initiatives. Instead, Iran recently announced a parallel initiative, which will soon be presentedto the United Nations, proposing a cease-fire leading to a unity government. This proposal indicates Tehran may be willing to consider an agreement that ensures its interests and makes some concessions to the GCC — but would not go as far as meeting the demands the Saudis made to Mamlouk in Jeddah last month. As difficult as Assad’s military position currently is, the situation is not dire enough to force Iran to make the really difficult choices. Government forces still retain control of key terrain in Damascus and across western Syria, and can rely on continued Hezbollah and Iranian military support. The influx of new resources from the recent nuclear deal will likely allow Tehran to procrastinate further, regardless of Washington’s or Moscow’s hopes”.

He concludes “Tehran is also very unlikely to stand-down the new multinational Shiite army it has assembled from Hezbollah units, local paramilitaries, and Shiite militias from around the region. Not only is this force essential to Tehran’s struggle to preserve its role in Syria and Iraq, but it also provides a hedge against what it sees as an increasingly aggressive Saudi regional foreign policy. Until Tehran and Riyadh can reach an agreement that satisfies both states’ interests, a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis remains quite far off. Despite this uptick in diplomacy, neither side has reached this tipping point”.

Saudi forces capture Aden

24/08/2015

Saudi-led military offensive against Houthi rebels in Yemen has scored major gains this month, including recapturing the strategic port of Aden and the country’s largest air base, after the Pentagon more than doubled the number of American advisors to provide enhanced intelligence for airstrikes. The role of about 45 U.S. advisors, up from 20, at joint military operations centers in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has been vastly overshadowed by the far larger U.S.-led air war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. So has Yemen’s toll of civilian casualties and refugees. The turmoil has benefited Al Qaeda’s powerful local franchise, which remains resilient and continues to seize territory. Fighters loyal to the extremist group captured three towns in southern Yemen this month, adding to their control of Mukalla, a provincial capital and port where they patrol in looted military vehicles and run roadside checkpoints. But on Wednesday, five men identified by Yemeni officials as Al Qaeda fighters were killed in a presumed U.S. drone strike in eastern Yemen, indicating a continued U.S. focus on the group”.

Jeb rightly blames Obama

24/08/2015

A piece from Foreign Policy discusses Jeb Bush and his views on Iraq and the Obama administrations policy, “We do not have an expression, at least in English, for “the brother of the pot calling the kettle black.” If we did, we would apply it to the speech Jeb Bush recently gave at the Reagan Library in which he traced the rise of the Islamic State to President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq rather than to former President George W. Bush’s reckless invasion of that country. George Bush’s brother is not, shall we say, the ideal carrier of this message. Nevertheless, if I were Jeb Bush I would make the exact same allegation — first, because the Islamic State (IS) is the only adversary scary enough to make voters seek the protection of a saber-rattling Republican, and second, because Bush really can argue for a tougher policy on IS without sounding like a lunatic”.

The writer goes on to make the fair point “On the first of those two concerns, I remain unconvinced that foreign policy will play a major role, much less a decisive one, in 2016. Foreign affairs only weigh heavily in presidential elections when Americans feel deeply worried about the world, as they did during the Cold War, and in the disastrous aftermath of the Iraq war (though the economic crisis of 2008 ultimately eclipsed Iraq as a political issue). Neither Russia, China, nor Iran will haunt Americans’ dreams; the Islamic State, however, might. Their snuff videos have gotten voters’ attention. It’s true that Hillary Clinton had little oversight on the Iraq file, which Obama handed to Vice President Joe Biden in the summer of 2009. But since Clinton’s careful and largely hawkish tenure as secretary of state furnishes no obvious club with which to belabour her save “Benghazi” — a confusing crisis that did nothing to put core American interests at risk — IS is the best weapon the Republicans are likely to find”.

Crucially he argues “It’s beyond dispute that Abu Musa al-Zarqawi established al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor to IS, in the vacuum created by the war in Iraq, and that he won a following by appealing to Sunnis enraged at the Shiite-dominated government set up by the Americans (though not necessarily at the invasion itself). Ergo, the Iraq war gave birth to IS. Yet it is also true that the “surge” ordered by President Bush, combined with the indigenous uprising of Sunni tribes known as “the Awakening,” left the precursor to IS reeling. Jeb Bush was not wrong in describing the surge as a “turning point.” Then what happened? Did Obama’s “premature withdrawal” of forces from Iraq constitute the “fatal error” that gave birth to the Islamic State, as Jeb Bush insisted? This ignores the Iraqis themselves. The surge worked because it made political change possible; yet Nouri al-Maliki, then Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, frittered away that opportunity by turning on the tribes”.

He goes on to make the point that “In 2011, after failing to reach a deal on a status of forces agreement, or SOFA, Obama withdrew all troops from Iraq. Here, too, and more fundamentally, the question arises: Could he have done otherwise? In Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy, the Brookings analyst Michael O’Hanlon gives Obama great credit for listening to his generals and withdrawing troops from Iraq far more slowly than he had originally planned to do, or that his supporters wanted him to do; but he also notes that Obama might have been able to reach a deal with Maliki if he had tried harder. Weiss and Hassan observe that Obama offered to keep so few troops in Iraq — 3,500 rather than the minimum of 16,000 recommended by Mike Mullen, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — that Maliki had no good reason to press for ratification of the SOFA. One can exaggerate the leverage that comes with a military presence. Even 16,000 soldiers would not have stopped Maliki from persecuting Sunnis, or AQI from exploiting Sunni alienation”.

He ends noting “there’s a non-polemical case to be made that Obama did not act forcefully enough in Iraq, though he deserves far less blame for the current mess than either George W. Bush or Nouri al-Maliki (or, of course, Hillary Clinton). But it’s fair game, and Republicans have every right to make the case, at least if they begin by admitting George W. Bush’s culpability”.

Fairly he argues that “On Iraq, Bush vowed to do some things Obama is already doing, like training Iraqi forces and ushering political leaders away from the sectarian cliff, and some things Obama has declined to do, including putting forward air controllers on the ground to direct strikes and embedding U.S. troops with deployed Iraqi units. Bush pretended that these tactical choices would somehow turn the tide, which is absurd, though they would represent a heightened engagement which many Iraqis would welcome. His proposals on Syria, on the other hand, would represent a real departure from administration policy. A President Jeb Bush would establish “multiple safe zones” across the country rather than the single Islamic State “free zone” that the United States and Turkey are now contemplating in northwestern Syria. He would also ground the Syrian air force, and thus end the reign of the barrel bomb, by enforcing a no-fly zone across the country. Of course this would require a major commitment of air power, chiefly if not solely American, as well as the introduction of ground troops from … well, it’s not clear where. Even with the “vastly” improved program of training Syrian rebels that Jeb Bush promised in his speech, he would need a national army to enforce those safe zones. Not the American one, presumably”.

He concludes “Some leading Democrats, Hillary Clinton included, endorsed a more robust American military role in Syria in 2012. That was before the Islamic State. While it’s true that the “minimalist approach” has barely restrained IS, a maximalist approach may not achieve much more without a reliable partner on the ground. Clinton now seems comfortable with the administration’s containment policy, rather than the “rollback” preferred by many conservatives”.

 

Three dozen retired generals and admirals back the Iran deal

24/08/2015

Three dozen retired generals and admirals released an open letter Tuesday supporting the Iran nuclear deal and urging Congress to do the same. Calling the agreement “the most effective means currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” the letter said that gaining international support for military action against Iran, should that ever become necessary, “would only be possible if we have first given the diplomatic path a chance.” The release came as Secretary of State John F. Kerry said U.S. allies were “going to look at us and laugh” if the United States were to abandon the deal and then ask them to back a more aggressive posture against Iran. Not only would U.S. global credibility be undermined, Kerry said, but also the dollar’s position as the world’s reserve currency would be threatened. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” Kerry said in a public question-and-answer session at Reuters news service headquarters in New York . “But I’m telling you, there’s a huge antipathy out there” to U.S. leadership. Pointing to efforts by Russia and China to join forces with rising, nonaligned powers, he said that “there’s a big bloc out there, folks, that isn’t just sitting around waiting for the United States to tell them what to do.”

China devalues, hoping to sell more

22/08/2015

Patrick Chovanec argues why that the recent Chinese devaluations are bad for it and America, “the People’s Bank of China announced a decision to devalue China’s currency — the renminbi, or RMB — by 1.9 percent, by resetting the daily band within which it’s traded. That’s the largest single-day devaluation in the RMB since 1994 — and has important implications for the world’s two largest economies, that of China and the United States. In understanding the meaning of this move and the rhetoric around it, observers first need to recognise that U.S. political discussion surrounding the question of Chinese currency has fallen behind the times. Several years ago, the United States could advocate that Chinese policymakers let their currency float, while also advocating for a stronger RMB, confident that one would imply the other. Today, capital outflows from China are putting downward pressure on the country’s currency, meaning a freely traded RMB is likely to fall, not rise, against the U.S. dollar. This presents U.S. policymakers with a less obvious set of policy priorities and a more nuanced case to have to make for them”.

He goes on to write “The Chinese will try to argue they are just letting the market have its way. This is misleading: For years, the Chinese prevented the RMB from rising in value by buying nearly $4 trillion in foreign currency. The current market “equilibrium” is predicated on that massive distortion. The only way to get to a truly market-based RMB is to first unwind China’s past intervention by supporting the RMB and drawing down China’s foreign currency reserves. We shouldn’t want the RMB to float until that happens. While some argue that China’s currency is now overvalued, what they ignore is that China needs an overvalued currency to rebalance its economy. By maintaining a strong RMB, and unlocking the demand frozen in its reserves, China would help effect rebalancing, both internally towards a more consumer-driven economy”.

He adds “this is what the People’s Bank of China had been committed to. It understood that a strong RMB means rebalancing toward a more sustainable growth model. But with the Chinese economy slowing, the central bank, or someone above its paygrade, lost their nerve and are instead trying to shore up China’s existing, failing growth model. This is unfortunate, because it means China now joins Japan and Germany in trying to tap into U.S. consumption to drive their own growth, rather than unlocking their own excessive savings to create demand. In effect, they are trying to revert to the pre-2008 global growth model: relying on the United States going into greater and greater debt to function as the global consumer of last resort. This is not sustainable for them or for the United States. It’s a race to the bottom with no winners”.

He notes that “The significance of the central bank’s move is not the actual shift, of minus-1.9 percent, but rather the policy intention it signals. The U.S. Federal Reserve is widely expected to raise interest rates in the fall, based on a strengthening U.S. economy. Because Europe and Japan are still printing more money and pushing interest rates down in order to support their economies, this has attracted funds to the United States and caused the U.S. dollar to rise in relative value. It’s interesting that China’s recent devaluation almost precisely cancels out the 2 percent appreciation of the U.S. dollar in July, on a trade-weighted basis. It’s as though China is saying that it is not along for the ride as the Fed looks to tighten. That’s a mistake, though, because China actually needs to take away the punch bowl of easy credit more than anyone. At any rate, devaluation won’t actually solve the Chinese economy’s problems”.

He concludes “China has outgrown the export-led growth model that it relied on for decades, and there’s no going back. What devaluation will do is drive even more capital out of China, putting that much more downward pressure on the RMB. A 2 percent devaluation will satisfy no one and will make it that much harder for the People’s Bank to support the RMB against further depreciation. The practical effect for the U.S. economy from RMB devaluation is a revival and strengthening of the head winds from a strong U.S. dollar that slowed the American economy in the fourth quarter of 2014 and the first quarter of 2015. In the first quarter, the widening trade deficit from a strong U.S. dollar shaved almost two full percentage points from U.S. GDP growth. It also had a big negative impact on the U.S. dollar value of U.S. corporate earnings overseas, which hit their bottom line. This seemed to be getting better in the second quarter — now all bets are off”.

“Turkey will push again for a no-fly zone over northern Syria”

22/08/2015

The Turkish prime minister has told the BBC that Turkey will push again for a no-fly zone over northern Syria to protect civilians fleeing both Islamic State and Syrian government forces. Ahmet Davutoglu said he would work with the US to establish a “safe area” for people displaced by Syria’s conflict. Mr Davutoglu did not rule out sending Turkish troops in to protect the area. Turkey is home to more Syrian refugees than any other country – more than 1.8 million according to recent UN figures. In a wide-ranging interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, Mr Davutoglu called on the international community to do more to resolve the four-year conflict in Syria and denied that Turkey had helped so-called Islamic State and other extremist groups. He criticised the five permanent members of the UN Security Council for failing to make a “strong decision” to stop the atrocities in Syria”.

Schumer, lies and the Iran deal

18/08/2015

A report notes that Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will vote against the Iran deal, “Schumer is one of the most powerful members of the Senate, which is not quite the same thing as saying he’s dignified. Back in the 1990s, when he was a congressman, his House colleagues had a phrase for waking up to find he’d upstaged them in the media: to be “Schumed.” Washingtonians have long joked that the most dangerous place in town is between New York’s senior senator and a microphone. The Washington Post’s Emily Heil has suggested we retire that hackneyed cliché, replacing it instead with this bon mot from former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine: “Sharing a media market with Chuck Schumer is like sharing a banana with a monkey,” Corzine was quoted as saying in New York magazine. “Take a little bite of it, and he will throw his own feces at you.” On Thursday evening, right in the middle of the first GOP debate, Schumer reached back, took aim, and heaved a large one. He penned a long piece forMedium that some anonymous hack described as “thoughtful and deliberate.” Uh, ok. Maybe compared to Mike Huckabee’s outrage about “oven doors,” but good grief our standards for political discourse have fallen”.

The article goes on to argues that “Consider how Schumer describes the inspections regime in the Iran deal. Schumer starts by repeating the claim that “inspections are not ‘anywhere, anytime’; the 24-day delay before we can inspect is troubling.” This would be very troubling if it were true. It isn’t. The claim that inspections occur with a 24-day delay is the equivalent of Obamacare “death panels.” Remember those? A minor detail has been twisted into a bizarre caricature and repeated over and over until it becomes “true.” Let’s get this straight. The agreement calls for continuous monitoring at all of Iran’s declared sites — that means all of the time — including centrifuge workshops, which are not safeguarded anywhere else in the world. Inspectors have immediate access to these sites”.

He continues importantly, “That leaves the problem of possible undeclared sites. What happens when the International Atomic Energy Agency suspects that prohibited work is occurring at an undeclared site? This is the problem known as the “Ayatollah’s toilet.” It emerged from the challenge of inspecting presidential palaces in Iraq in the 1990s, which — despite the U.N. Special Commission’s demands for immediate access — the Iraqis argued were off-limits. Far from giving Iran 24 days, the IAEA will need to give only 24 hours’notice before showing up at a suspicious site to take samples. Access could even be requested with as little as two hours’ notice, something that will be much more feasible now that Iran has agreed to let inspectors stay in-country for the long term. Iran is obligated to provide the IAEA access to all such sites — including, if it comes down to it, the Ayatollah’s porcelain throne”.

Crucially he writes “What opponents of the deal have done is add up all the time limits and claim that inspections will occur only after a 24-day pause. This is simply not true. Should the U.S. intelligence community catch the Iranians red-handed, it might be that the Iranians would drag things out as long as possible. But in such a case, the game would be over. Either the Iranians would never let the inspectors into the site, or its efforts to truck out documents or equipment, wash down the site, or bulldoze buildings, etc., would be highly visible. These tactics would crater the deal, with predictable consequences”.

The author goes on to write, “Some of us might think it’s good that the agreement puts defined limits on how much Iran can stall and explicitly prohibits a long list of weaponisation activities. Opponents, like Schumer — apparently for want of anything better — have seized on these details to spin them into objections. A weaker, less detailed agreement might have been easier to defend against this sort of attack, perhaps. But let’s not be too critical of Schumer’s insincerity. Despite having repeated these and other arguments against the Iran deal, Schumer, although a member of the Democratic leadership, has gone out of his way to signal that other caucus members should vote their conscience”.

He ends, “Congress has a long history of members voting against agreements while working to pass them. Sen. Mitch McConnell, when he was minority leader, openly opposed the New START agreement, while paving the way for a small number of Republican senators to cross party lines to secure its ratification. Schumer appears to be doing something similar in this case, stating his personal opposition but not whipping votes against the deal”.

5/60 US trainees captured

18/08/2015

The U.S. now believes five of the 60 Syrian rebels it trained and equipped have been captured by al Nusra in recent days and one rebel was killed, according to a senior defense official. This happened since the Friday attack on their compound, but U.S. officials declined to say exactly when. The U.S. is now developing plans to help the rebel force reposition to safer locations because they have come under constant attack by al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria”.

The GOP, Trump and anger

18/08/2015

An interesting article in the Economist asks what will the GOP do with those who support Trump after his inevitable collapse.

It opens, “AS A rule, supporters of the Republican Party tend to dislike losing elections to Democrats. Bear this in mind as opinion polls emerge, suggesting that Donald Trump may have peaked as a front-runner among Republican presidential hopefuls. The Trump surge was always likely to slow at some point because most Republican activists—for all their bluster about the two parties’ ruling elites being as bad as each other—would rather win the 2016 election than see President Hillary Clinton sitting in the Oval Office. Though Mr Trump for a while seemed to defy the laws of political gravity, surviving gaffes and rows that would have brought other candidates to earth, most conservatives already knew that the splenetic property tycoon is unelectable (thanks to the size of the field, he has routinely led with the backing of just one in four Republicans)”.

The piece goes on to mention that “That does not mean that party grandees can relax, for they have not seen the last of the anger that has fuelled the Trump run. Fed-up grassroots conservatives remain sure that Barack Obama is bent on destroying their country and cannot understand why Republican leaders have not done more to thwart his agenda despite controlling both chambers of Congress. They are reluctant to accept that governing in a large, messy democracy involves compromise, or that the concerns of hard-core conservatives do not always enjoy majority support. They are quick to believe that their elites have been bought by corrupt special interests. Mr Trump has sought to fuel those suspicions, boasting that his cash allows him to boss politicians of both parties around. His particular genius has been to offer cynical voters not reform, but his own services as a leader too rich and clever to be suborned”.

The report goes on to note the problems of some of those who support the gasbag, “Some Trump fans simply relish the skunk-at-a-picnic aspects of his presidential bid. They do not care that his policy platform is a mess of boastfulness and absurdity (his plan for Islamic State: “We go in, we knock the hell out of ’em, we take the oil”). They cheer every time Senator This or Governor That—not to mention the mainstream media—is left spluttering by his outbursts. At the RedState Gathering, a conservative forum held in Atlanta from August 6th-8th after the first televised presidential debate in Cleveland, a dismaying number of activists saw nothing wrong with Mr Trump’s repeated assertion that the Mexican government deliberately sends criminals north across the border, and gets away with it because American politicians are “stupid”. Nor did activists quibble with his fantastical solution: a border wall, for which a President Trump would make Mexico pay”.

The writer continues “Yet a straw poll of activists at RedState suggests that what really upset them was Mr Trump’s disloyalty. They were aghast that, in the debate’s opening moments, Mr Trump declined to pledge his support for whomever becomes the Republican nominee and then refused to rule out an independent run for the presidency, explaining that this would give him “a lot of leverage”. An ex-cop who owns a security business in Dahlonega, Georgia, recalled voting for the third-party candidacy of another billionaire populist, Ross Perot, in the presidential election of 1992, only to watch Bill Clinton win the White House for the Democrats and deny George H.W. Bush a second term”.

Correctly, but sadly, the article makes the point that “Republicans of all stripes agree that the 2016 campaign is unfolding in an angry country. They give credit to Mr Trump for tapping into a mood of grievance, and suggest that a clever conservative can now harness that emotion to unify a broad electoral coalition on the right. That is too glib. Mr Trump’s most loyal supporters—white men without college degrees—have much to be cross about. They have lost economic and social power, thanks partly to global competition and automation but also to feminism and civil rights. All politicians know they cannot ignore the pain of those who have lost their jobs. Mr Trump offers simple, dazzling solutions, involving fines for firms that ship jobs abroad, or promises to use his dealmaking savvy to transform trade relations with China. But some voter anger—notably towards professional women and non-whites—is illegitimate”.

 

Turkey, protecting ISIS?

18/08/2015

The man leading the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has accused Turkey of trying to protect the Islamic State group by attacking Kurdish fighters. Cemil Bayik told the BBC he believed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wanted IS to succeed to prevent Kurdish gains. Kurdish fighters – among them the PKK – have secured significant victories against IS militants in Syria and Iraq. But Turkey, like a number of Western countries, considers the PKK a terrorist organisation. A ceasefire in the long-running conflict with the group appeared to disintegrate in July, when Turkey began bombing PKK camps in northern Iraq, at the same time as launching air strikes on IS militants. Observers say PKK fighters have been on the receiving end of far more attacks than IS. But Turkish officials deny that the campaign against IS group is a cover to prevent Kurdish gains. On Wednesday, Turkey said it was planning a “comprehensive battle” against IS”.

“Open to discussions on Syria”

18/08/2015

A piece in Foreign Policy notes that after the successful Iran deal questions there are plans to revive peace talks in Syria, “The United States has launched a fresh attempt to revive peace talks designed to end the four-year Syrian civil war, hoping to capitalise on the aftermath of the Iran nuclear accord and the battlefield setbacks of the regime in Damascus. U.S. officials cautioned that the effort led by Secretary of State John Kerry was at an early stage and — like previous diplomatic attempts — could end in failure due to the deep differences that still separate the main players and their patrons in the multisided conflict. And officials said Washington wasn’t offering a specific peace proposal and didn’t have a timeline for developing one. As the primary backer and lifeline for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iran could hold the key to any sort of peaceful settlement of the civil war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives and sent millions of Syrians fleeing into other countries. But as long as the delicate nuclear talks were underway, U.S. diplomats had been reluctant to engage Tehran on Syria to avoid giving the Iranians possible leverage that could have strengthened their bargaining position in the negotiations”.

The report goes on to note “After the nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran was clinched on July 14, it opened a possible door — albeit a narrow one — to diplomacy on the Syrian conflict, Obama administration officials said”.

Interestingly he notes “Days after the nuclear accord was unveiled, Kerry suggested that Iran’s leadership appeared ready for discussions on “regional issues” and that it was worth exploring the opportunity. “My judgment is that there are possibilities there, but I’m not going to promise them, I can’t tell you where they’ll go, and I’m not betting on them,” he said. As part of the renewed American push, Kerry has been discreetly reaching out to his counterparts in Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states in the Persian Gulf to see if there are grounds to breathe life into a potential peace process. Turkey and the Gulf monarchies have backed various Sunni rebels in the Syrian civil war and long focused on Assad’s ouster, though the nations are increasingly invested in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State”.

 

He mentions that “Assad himself has publicly acknowledged that his army can no longer secure parts of the country. The government troops and Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militia have suffered serious casualties and lost key battles in Idlib, eastern Homs province, and in the south at Deraa, and the regime appears to be retrenching to western strongholds, including Damascus and the Alawite heartland along the Mediterranean coast, which account for barely a fifth of the country. Although the regime is not on the verge of collapse, “they’re tired, [and] they’re overstretched,” the official said. President Barack Obama told the New York Times on July 14 that Russia appeared more open to discussions on Syria as it recognized “the Assad regime is losing a grip over greater and greater swaths of territory inside of Syria.” He added: “That offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them.” The effort to start those conversations got a boost on Aug. 6 when the United States persuaded Russia to back a United Nations resolution setting up an independent panel to identify suspects behind ongoing chlorine chemical weapons attacks in Syria”.

He continues making the point that “In another sign of a possible shift, Russia announced an invitation to the Syrian National Coalition, the country’s main opposition group, for talks in Moscow later this month. The cooperation between Washington and Moscow on the U.N. resolution came amid a flurry of diplomacy surrounding the Syrian conflict. Kerry discussed Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Doha on Aug. 3. And Kerry and Lavrov held another meeting two days later on the sidelines of a summit in Kuala Lumpur. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, meanwhile, flew to Tehran, where he met Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers on Aug. 5 and then headed to Oman the next day”.

Pointedly, “Oman, which maintains friendly ties with both Shiite-ruled Iran and Sunni Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf, emerged as a pivotal interlocutor for the United States in the nuclear negotiations between Tehran and world powers. And the small kingdom still has diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime, unlike other Gulf States. Although the combination of military defeats for the regime and the nuclear deal with Iran has cleared the way for a new diplomatic effort, the prospects for success remained uncertain and fraught with risks, officials said. “There’s a more concerted effort to get a political solution there through diplomacy,” said another administration official familiar with the talks”.

Yet, “Having thrown its full weight behind the Damascus regime, there is no indication yet that Tehran is ready to dramatically alter its position over Syria, analysts and former U.S. officials said. “I don’t see any sign, based on what the Iranians are saying both publicly and privately, that they are looking to negotiate a serious change,” said Robert Ford, who was the last U.S. ambassador to serve in Syria before relations collapsed. Iran recently announced it would present a peace plan for Syria this month to the United Nations, but Tehran has said the outline is a revised version of a previous proposal — which did not call for Assad’s ouster. The conclusion of the nuclear accord with Iran removed a possible impediment to peace talks on Syria, but it also will ease sanctions on Tehran that could enable it to bolster its support for the Assad regime — and undermine any negotiations, Ford said”.

He concludes “Even if American diplomats find some sliver of common ground with their Iranian counterparts on the Syrian conflict, they will face deep suspicions from Sunni Arab countries already anxious about the implications of Washington’s nuclear accord with their rivals in Tehran. Any diplomatic progress with Iran over Syria would confirm fears in the Gulf that Washington is plotting to tilt its strategic approach in the Middle East towards Iran, said Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior State Department official. Before any potential diplomatic breakthrough, he added, the Obama administration will have to do more to reassure its Arab allies that there is no tectonic shift under way in its foreign policy”.

 

“First international container ships began arriving”

16/08/2015

The first international container ships began arriving in Iran this week after the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, yet many ship owners remaing wary of resuming business until sanctions are removed – still some months away. Iran had depended on foreign ships for much of its imports, but has relied more on land routes and its own commercial fleet, particularly since 2012, as layers of sanctions led to an exodus of Western shipping firms, leading to supply disruptions. In one of the first signs of change, the world’s third largest container shipping group, France’s CMA CGM, said on Monday it would restart services to Iran in early August. The UK-flagged CMA CGM Andromeda container ship arrived in Iran’s Bandar Abbas port on Thursday, ship tracking data on Thomson Reuters Eikon showed. CMA CGM declined further comment”.

“Beijing must be seen to have the investors’ backs”

16/08/2015

An article notes that reaction to China of how it has bailed out its stock market.

It begins “Like the old Wall Street saying goes, you can’t catch a falling knife — and this is a particularly sharp one. Even after deploying more than$400 billion of public money and enforcing the aid of many private firms, Beijing is having a hard time propping up share prices in Shanghai and Shenzhen. After their initial plunges, stocks are on a roller coaster ride as investors try to anticipate the government’s next buying spree. To outsiders, it seems like chaos. But to China, it makes perfect sense. Americans are plenty familiar with bailouts after the global financial crisis almost brought down giants like General Motors and AIG. But even if the Chinese bailout worked, and stock prices stabilized above their lows, economists would cry foul. By insulating investors from the ups and downs of an open market, China has essentially created an even greater appetite for risk. Confident that the government has their backs, they’ll trade even less responsibly, taking on more leverage with money they don’t have. This is moral hazard, and China is generating a lot of it”.

He goes on to make the point needless to say Chinese paranoia and opportunism play their part, “China is also doing its best to make life difficult for foreign investors. The state-controlled media has accused them — apparently without evidence — of causing the dive in share prices, in part by betting that the markets would fall further. Some foreign accounts have been frozen altogether, including one belonging to Citadel Securities, an affiliate of one of the biggest hedge funds in the United States. Yet relaxing restrictions on foreign money might have been one of the only ways to support stocks without intervening directly”.

The fear is that if this blaming of outside investors continues, then the government may be forced to eat its words by the financial community and have far greater restrictions on outside investment. This would mean less investment by non-Chinese companies which would in turn mean less growth in an economy that is already slowing quickly.

He note “As the media have been reporting for months, the majority of Chinese investors who fueled the stock bubble are poorly educated and inexperienced, with relatively small portfolios. These are exactly the people on whom Beijing’s power depends. They have experienced China’s rising economic tide, and they expect to benefit from it as well. They tend to support the government as long as they get their share of the spoils; this is the social contract upon which Beijing relies. But these Chinese haven’t received much training on how to navigate the financial system. For them, trading on the margin may have seemed like gambling with house money as the markets climbed ever higher; now they could lose their houses. If these small investors do lose everything, then the social contract — as Beijing has long led them to understand it — will have been breached. The government can’t allow that to happen”.

Crucially he makes the point that “Beijing must be seen to have the investors’ backs. And if it can cast some blame on the foreigners who would corrupt their citizens’ unsophisticated minds with notions of economic and political freedom, so much the better. The cost is almost immaterial, when the support of an entire generation may be at stake. And China’s leaders don’t care what wiser voices may say, even within the country’s own borders; the citizens who are questioning the government’s policies now probably weren’t its strongest supporters in the first place. The key is to maintain the quiescence of those who were. Won’t all this set Chinese financial development back a couple of decades? Not necessarily. China is moving through economic time at breakneck speed. Even with their restrictions on cash flows and foreign involvement, its capitalist institutions are growing so fast as to outpace the education of its people — as well as the government’s ability to monitor and regulate. Where officially sanctioned markets and exchanges haven’t yet appeared, black markets and shadow economies have”.

The piece concludes “The main risk for Beijing now is that the oceans of cash it has plowed into stocks will end up in the wrong people’s pockets. If all those undereducated investors were driven out of the markets by falling prices and margin calls, then only the bigger and more sophisticated investors would have remained to feel the boost. As Alice de Jonge of Monash University has pointed out, the end result may just have been a huge transfer of wealth from middle- and working-class Chinese to those who were already wealthy. Then all that money would have been better spent on a boring old social safety net — something the United States learned, too, after only 150 years”.

Another Democratic president

16/08/2015

A Democrat will win the White House next year by the narrowest of margins, according to a well-known election forecaster. Moody’s Analytics is predicting that the Democratic presidential nominee will capture 270 electoral votes in 2016, edging out the Republican nominee’s total of 268. The model from Moody’s, a group that analyzes economic trends, has a perfect track record, accurately predicting every presidential election since 1980; it nailed the number of electoral votes in President Obama’s 2012 victory. The economics-based election model — which relies on presidential election results since the 1980 Ronald Reagan-Jimmy Carter contest — aims to predict voting decisions based on each state’s economic and political situation. Moody’s will update its prediction each month in the run-up to November 2016. Overall, the most important economic variable in the model is income growth in the two years leading up to the election. Wage growth has been tepid this year, though it is expected to pick up as the job market approaches full employment”.

Mohammed bin Nayef vs Mohammed bin Salman?

16/08/2015

Simon Henderson writes about the leadership of the House of Saud, “Saudi Arabia’s local chapters of the Islamic State have turned out to be less than discriminating in their target selection. In May, two Shiite mosques in the Eastern province were hit, killing 26 people. On August 6, the jihadi group blasted a Sunni mosque in the kingdom’s southwest, close to the Yemen border; 15 people died, mostly Saudi security personnel. It was a reminder to Saudi royals that the Islamic State, while sharing their anti-Shiite instincts, also loathes the House of Saud and everything it stands for. It’s also a reminder that Saudi Arabia’s ongoing clampdown on the Islamic State will continue. Last month, Saudi authorities announced the arrests of 431 suspected members of the group. Although the vast majority of the kingdom’s roughly 27 million citizens probably prefer the leadership of King Salman to the chaos which has swept the Arab world since 2011, a not insignificant portion of Saudi youth appear inspired by visions of jihad constantly fed to them by social media and find that their youthful fervour is often not condemned by Saudi society”.

Henderson goes on to make the point that “The Saudi mosque bombings are just one sign of the mounting domestic and foreign crises facing the kingdom, many of which have a real or imagined link with Iran. Riyadh’s most visible response has been to gather messages of support and condolence from allies — while probably wondering which usual suspects to round up this time. Whatever the action is, it has to be seen as uniting rather than dividing the country. Achieving this balance will be particularly challenging if there are further incidents attributable to the Islamic State or any sign of retaliation from Saudi Arabia’s Shiite population. But it’s not clear that the kingdom’s leadership is up to the task — regarding the spate of terrorist attacks on its soil or the other myriad problems it faces. The country’s monarch can’t even plan a vacation properly: Last week, King Salman apparently decided he disliked southern France, even though the public beach in view from his vacation villa had been cleared of French sunbathers; he relocated with his more than 600-person entourage to his palace in Morocco. On the home front, meanwhile, the government is in the hands of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s favuorite son and conduit for the monarch’s policy preferences”.

Interestingly Henderson posits that “The relationship between Mohammed bin Nayef and Mohammed bin Salman has prompted much debate in foreign-policy circles across the world. There is little doubt that the Saudi monarch wants Mohammed bin Salman to become king someday; the only question is whether Nayef will be allowed to squeeze in a reign between the two men. Many Saudi watchers currently believe King Salman will announce his retirement and declare that Mohammed bin Salman has replaced him — the system of succession is in flux, and the only ironclad rule seems to be that the king’s desires are paramount”.

If such a move were to occur it would upset the delicate balance within the House of Saud. Some have warned that if the correct attributes and factions are not appeased there could, in extreme cases, be civil war. This senario is unlikely however as the princes all have an interest in maintaining the system as it exists today.

Henderson adds “there is conflicting information on whether a rivalry exists between the two princes. Some say that Mohammed bin Nayef — or at least those courtiers who would lose out in this maneuver — is plotting his own accession, which will sideline his younger cousin. Other reports from foreigners who have dealt with them, however, say that the two rivals can actually function well as a team. The partnership will be increasingly tested in the coming months. The two men are charged with pushing Saudi Arabia’s often fractious defence establishment to work toward a common goal: Mohammed bin Nayef is also minister of interior, responsible for domestic security, and Mohammed bin Salman is defense minister and therefore de facto commander of the Saudi army, air force, and navy. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry and military do not function well together. A third force is the Saudi Arabian National Guard, commanded by Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, whose ambitions to be king diminished when his father died six months ago and vanished completely when the king elevated Mohammed bin Salman to the deputy crown prince slot in April. Mitab, seen as an ally of Mohammed bin Nayef, is clinging onto his national guard role despite reports that Mohammed bin Salman wants to absorb the essentially tribal force into the Saudi land forces, making Mitab redundant”.

The piece goes on to mention that “The Yemen campaign is the most immediate problem facing the kingdom’s new national security team. The Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes, which started in March, have failed to defeat the Houthi rebels and have turned the situation into a whack-a-mole game against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces, wreaking massive collateral damage on innocent civilians. The government of exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has recently reestablished a toehold in the southern port city of Aden, from which a United Arab Emirates tank column advanced northwards earlier this week. But the Saleh-Houthi alliance remains intact, and the former leader gave a pugnacious interview to the new Huffington Post Arabic website this week, calling for Hadi to be put on trial in The Hague”.

He ends the article, “Syria also remains a top Saudi concern, because of Riyadh’s antipathy toward President Bashar al-Assad and the desire to deal his Iranian backers a strategic defeat. There has been a great deal of diplomatic activity on this front in recent days: Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met in Doha this week; the Syrian foreign minister traveled to Oman; and there are rumours of a visit to Riyadh by a Syrian intelligence chief. In addition to its battles against foreign and domestic enemies, Saudi Arabia’s rulers must contend with a financial crunch. The price of oil has dipped south of $50 per barrel again, and Saudi Arabia has announced plans to borrow a whopping $27 billion. Heavy expenditures in Yemen and handouts of an estimated $32 billion to keep the population sweet when King Salman came to power have been a clear drain on the Saudi treasury”.

He concludes “Who is the key Saudi decision-maker on economic issues? That would be the 29-year old Mohammed bin Salman, in his role as chairman of the economic and development council. And once again, it points to the trouble facing the kingdom: The ledger of what needs to be done against what resources are available does not balance”.

Oman and Syria: working to end Syria’s war

16/08/2015

Muscat and Damascus agreed to work together to end Syria’s brutal war, official media reported, as the Syrian foreign minister Thursday made his first Gulf visit since the conflict erupted in 2011. Foreign Minister Walid Muallem met Oman’s chief diplomat Yussef bin Alawi to discuss “several regional and international topics of common interest”, the official Omani news agency ONA said. They agreed “that now is the time to unite the efforts to end this (Syrian) crisis”, according to Syria’s state news agency SANA. “The two sides agreed to continue cooperation and coordination to achieve the shared goals of their peoples and governments,” it said.Syrian daily Al-Watan daily, close to the regime in Damascus, pointed out that Muscat had not cut diplomatic and political ties with President Bashar al-Assad’s government, unlike other Arab countries in the Gulf. It was Muallem’s “first visit to an Arab state in nearly four years, at the official invitation of his Omani counterpart”, the paper reported in announcing the visit”.

The deal from Iran

16/08/2015

An article in Foreign Policy discusses the nuclear deal in Iran, “President Hassan Rouhani was grinning ear to ear when he spoke to Iranians on Aug. 2. In what was the biggest in a series of stage-managed government media appearances, Rouhani said on state television that “today’s achievements are more than what was imagined yesterday, and what we have achieved today is more than what we thought we could two years ago.” The message to the Iranian public was clear: The nuclear agreement is a good deal, and let’s get it done. In a sign of growing acceptance that he has won this domestic battle, there has been little dissent voiced recently in Tehran”.

The piece goes on to mention “With the nuclear deal in hand, the president has reason to be more confident that the political wind is at his back. His gamble with nuclear diplomacy seems to have paid off: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was struck in Vienna on July 14 and was greeted late that evening by celebrations in Tehran. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s name — not Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s or Rouhani’s — was sung in the streets. Unlike a speech given by Khamenei four days after the deal in which a giant crowd in Tehran chanted “Death to America,” there was no ill will expressed toward the United States by Iranians on the night of July 14. Many Iranians expressed gratitude to Secretary of State John Kerry for sticking with negotiations when it seemed it would be easier to walk away. Tired of being treated like international lepers, many Iranians want to come in from the cold. Rouhani is now capitalizing on that pent-up desire”.

He correctly notes that “A failure in the talks, on the other hand, would have finished Rouhani — if not immediately, then probably in 2017, when he faces reelection. Instead, the United Nations has passed a resolution that makes way for sanctions to be lifted. Few think that the U.S. Congress, which has less than 50 days left to review the deal, will be able to muster a veto-overriding majority against the deal. Iran’s parliament has seen some consternation about the agreement, too — but despite the noise, the lawmakers who shout loudly are a minority and will never oppose Khamenei”.

The report goes on to make the point that “spoilers within Iran’s complex power structure still threaten to throw a wrench in what should be Rouhani’s moment of victory. On July 20, as the U.N. Security Council prepared to pass a resolution on the deal, a top Iranian military figure broke ranks. “Some parts of the draft have clearly crossed the Islamic Republic’s red lines,” said Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Jafari argued that the resolution detrimentally affects the maintenance and upgrading of Iran’s ballistic missile industry, and therefore constituted an “unacceptable” interference in Iranian military capabilities. His intervention was nevertheless the IRGC’s way of noting that the shadowy military force is not at one with the government. “We will never accept it,” Jafari said of the resolution. The IRGC commander was supported by the bête noire of Zarif and his colleagues in the Foreign Ministry — Hossein Shariatmadari, editor in chief of Kayhan, the chosen journal of Iran’s hard-liners. “Even by simply looking at the deal you can see some vital red lines of the Islamic Republic have not been preserved,” he said”.

Interestingly he makes the point that “In the public-private labyrinth that is Iranian decision-making, this seems to be further proof that Khamenei is leaving himself an emergency escape route — should the deal collapse, he wants to be able to say that he warned all along that America could not be trusted. As one joke about his renowned ambiguity goes, the supreme leader’s speeches always carry at least two messages: Just in case he’s wrong on the first point, he can always say he was right on the second. Despite the naysayers, Zarif and his deputy, Abbas Araghchi, are holding firm. Iran has got a good deal, they say. Zarif even told parliament that “give and take” with the West was necessary. Such candid admissions are rare and not without risk in a forum which sees a lot of “Death to America” orations, despite many in the chamber resisting the sentiment”.

He continues “For now, however, Rouhani and Zarif appear to be ascendant. The foreign minister, after being more or less banished for the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s rule, is now the hero of the hour. Hard-liners, meanwhile, hate the thought of him or Rouhani garnering public adulation, given that it magnifies their own past failures. But the supreme leader appears to think differently: “Whether this deal is approved or not … they deserve their reward,” Khamenei said of Iran’s nuclear negotiators on July 18. For all the mystique that surrounds the IRGC, Khamenei’s words carry far more weight in determining the course of Iranian politics. As such, Jafari’s criticism of the deal is likely another smokescreen designed to insulate Iran’s main military force — whose chief task is to protect the revolutionary state from threats at home and abroad — from any hint that it would cooperate with the West”.

The piece mentions “Zarif, meanwhile, has sung a different tune. On July 8, when the nuclear talks seemed to be struggling, he held out the possibility of greater cooperation between Iran and the West in confronting the Islamic State. Iran, he wrote in the Financial Times, was “prepared to open new horizons to address the shared challenges,” such as the growth of extremism that, he warned, threatened to spread to Europe. The IRGC, already bogged down in Syria, is unlikely to share Zarif’s enthusiasm for any alliance. Rouhani’s supporters are already encouraging him to be bold. With the economy still hurting, the president remains on probation among ordinary Iranians as well as the elite, many of whom want him post-deal to act fast to effectively erase a black decade in the nation’s history”.

He notes importantly that “Another Iranian political battle has already been launched: Parliamentary elections will be held in February. Rouhani’s new challenge is to harness the momentum of the nuclear deal to allow his moderate allies to remove the Ahmadinejad-era cronies, who have opposed efforts at reform in the past two years. All Rouhani has said so far is that the elections should be fair, a demand likely intended to signify that not all of the reformists who were banished after 2009’s disputed presidential election should be disqualified this time around. To further complicate matters, a less heralded but arguably more influential vote will be held on the same day as the parliamentary ballot. Iran’s electorate will pick the country’s next Assembly of Experts, a powerful committee that appoints and theoretically has the authority to dismiss a supreme leader. Khamenei is now 76 years old. Rumours of health problems and possible prostate cancer persist, though he has looked and sounded remarkably robust of late. But many doubt he will be in power in a decade — when the nuclear deal’s main restrictions lapse — and when the effects of the agreement will be far easier to judge than they are now”.

The piece concludes “The length of the deal preoccupies the founders of the Islamic Republic who, 36 years after the revolution, are steadily dying out. But for all the talk of transformation in the next decade, Rouhani has to keep Khamenei on his side if he hopes to challenge Iran’s conservative establishment on difficult social issues, such as the hundreds of political prisoners jailed in the upheaval that followed the 2009 presidential election. The men who said that ballot was rigged — presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi — have been under house arrest for four years. Rouhani, as a candidate, said he hoped they could be freed. Few think they can, as long as Khamenei is alive. “That is the leader’s other red line,” a prominent reformist said. “Khamenei cannot control Karroubi or Mousavi, so they cannot be released yet.” Such a blockage does not help Rouhani, the man who says he is a reformer but has yet to show it in arenas beyond the nuclear dispute. But as he showed in the nuclear battle, Rouhani is capable of gritting his teeth for confrontation if necessary”.

 

 

P5+1 lobby Congress

16/08/2015

The White House says it’s confident it has the votes to override Republicans who reject the historic accord to limit Iran’s nuclear program agreed to by world powers and Tehran. But some of America’s closest allies are less certain, and are clearing their schedules to meet with wavering Democratic lawmakers in a push to keep the deal intact. Some of Washington’s less reliable partners are worried too: Top diplomats from Russia and China joined a rare meeting of world powers’ envoys on Capitol Hill this week with roughly 30 Senate Democrats to tamp down concerns over the nuclear agreement. “The prospect of the rejection of a deal makes us nervous,” Philipp Ackermann, the acting German ambassador to the United States, said Thursday. “It would be a nightmare for every European country if this is rejected.” The closed-door meeting, which was held Tuesday, sought to dispel criticisms and answer questions ahead of an expected September vote by Congress. That vote will determine whether to continue current U.S. sanctions against Iran and blow up the nuclear agreement, or let the sanctions expire over time as promised in exchange for Tehran rolling back its nuclear program. During the meeting, which was confirmed to Foreign Policy by an aide to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a number of Democrats expressed genuine confusion about how world powers would react if Congress rejected the deal, and whether a “better deal” could be struck in the future. Surprised by this lack of clarity, the diplomats pushed back on a number of counts”.

Putin’s collapsing energy strategy

14/08/2015

Keith Johnson writes about the energy markets and Russia, “President Vladimir Putin has been trying his own pivot to Asia, hoping that his country’s vast natural gas holdings could cement a new relationship with China while making it easier to bypass his quarrelsome neighbours in Europe. Unfortunately for the Russian strongman, things aren’t going so well.  Over the past year alone, Putin has inked a massive, $400 billion natural gas deal and a strategic partnership with Beijing. Russia also hoped to build a second Siberian pipeline to China that could give Moscow the ability to play off European energy customers against those in Asia”.

Johnson notes that “Putin also doubled down on Europe: When European Union officials blocked one $40 billion gas pipeline across the Black Sea, he simply dreamed up a new one through Turkey. That could be his key to finally bypassing troublesome Ukraine as a transit country for natural gas, tightening control over energy exports to Europe, and showering largesse on friends and allies. Case in point: When Greece came cap in hand to Moscow this summer, Putin promised to finance another $2 billion pipeline spur to tie into the Turkey project and cement ties with Greece’s left-wing government”.

Pointedly he goes on to mention “from Ankara to the Altai Mountains, Putin’s pipe dreams appear to be in disarray. China, realising it doesn’t need as much energy as it thought, has gotten cold feet on the second gas deal. Turkey and Russia still can’t reach an agreement on the so-called “Turkish Stream” project and have put off further talks until the fall. Other ambitious Russian projects, from liquefied natural gas terminals in the Far East to a gas line unifying Korea, are going nowhere, even as Russia keeps proposing more and more big energy projects. And in a telling about-face, Russia has now abruptly decided that it cannot simply bypass Ukraine and must keep pumping gas to Europe across the territory of its wary neighbour for decades to come”.

Oddly for Putin Johnson reports that “even as Russian projects move further and further away from apparent completion, more and more are announced. The latest is a planned expansion of the so-called Nord Stream pipeline that fuels Europe via the Baltic Sea. But that pipeline wouldn’t be necessary if Ukraine is still shipping gas, or if the Turkish project ever happens. “You get the feeling that the Russians have lost the plot a little bit, throwing up all these projects, some of which are of dubious economic value,” said Ed Chow, an energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has recently written about Russia’s proliferating pipelines”.

The reasons behind these failures appear to be because Russia’s “grandiose visions are colliding with reality. Global energy markets have been transformed in just the past year: Demand for oil and natural gas is weak, and prices have collapsed. A huge buyer’s market is bad news for a country reliant on energy exports for half its budget; the IMF said this week that cheap oil and sanctions will shrink Russia’s economy by 3.4 percent this year. The economic straitjacket brought about by Western sanctions on many big Russian firms, especially in the energy sector, chokes off financing and makes hugely ambitious projects even tougher to pull off, especially in the unrealistically short time frames Russia keeps proposing. And Russia has to grapple with all those challenges while juggling not just bottom-line economics, like any energy-producing country, but also Putin’s ever-shifting strategic calculus”.

Naturally, “The changing energy markets have hit Russia hard. New sources of supply of natural gas, from the United States and other places, have been eroding Moscow’s market dominance. The U.S. natural gas boom has weakened Russia’s hold on the European market even though the United States has yet to export a molecule there, simply by adding more gas to a well-supplied market. U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and many Republican lawmakers, have sought to use prospective U.S. gas exports to Europe as a way to weaken Russia’s hold. The United States also seeks to bolster Europe’s own ability to get energy from places other than Russia. State Department officials declined to comment for this story”.

Interestingly he writes that Russia is also being beaten where it failed to sell gas where there is demand, “Other new energy suppliers, such as Australia, also have set their sights on the Asian market, which Russia was slow to tackle seriously, giving Russia’s prospective customers a lot more bargaining power. Due to those market changes, especially the ripple effects of the U.S. gas boom, Vassilev, the former ambassador, said he expects Russian gas exports to become more like plain old oil exports, which aren’t used as a geopolitical weapon because oil is such a large, liquid market”.

After the signing of the deal in May 2014 between Russia and China for gas now looks like lunacy, “a year later, the Chinese economy has slammed on the brakes. Growth has slipped, and more importantly the rebalancing of the Chinese economy away from energy-guzzling heavy industry to leaner service sectors has walloped the demand outlook there. Energy consumption is growing at the lowest levels of the century so far. If China was already driving a hard bargain on price with Russia before the slowdown, it is now in a position to simply walk away from unnecessary projects”.

This will only further pressure the Russian treasury and its reliance on energy and thus the credibility of Putin and his regime.

Johnson ends the piece “Russia’s natural gas behemoth, Gazprom, doesn’t seem to have the financial muscle to build all these huge projects on its own. Thanks to weak demand in Europe, the company’s main market, plus all the strife in Ukraine, Gazprom’s profits fell last year by almost 90 percent. Whether it’s Turkish Stream, or the Greek spur, or the Altai route from western Siberia into the far provinces of China, those energy projects require plenty of upfront spending with no immediate return on investment. That is where Putin’s strategic visions keep colliding with marketplace realities”.

GCC back the Iran deal

14/08/2015

Gulf Arab countries offered their support for the United States’ nuclear deal with Iran on Monday, an important diplomatic victory for President Barack Obama’s administration as it seeks to sell Congress on the merits of the agreement. The expression of support came out of a meeting in Qatar of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a collective of oil-rich states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain. The move further isolates Israel, America’s other Middle East ally, which has vocally opposed the Iran deal. “This was the best option amongst other options in order to try to come up with a solution for the nuclear weapons of Iran through dialogue, and this came up as a result of the efforts exerted by the United States of America and its allies,” Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah said at a press conference. Qatar currently enjoys the chairmanship of the GCC. The Sunni-led governments, particularly Saudi Arabia, are fierce adversaries of the Shiite-dominated government in Tehran. However, the White House was worked diligently to reassure the Arab leaders that a deal is in every regional country’s best interest”.

Searching for the next Greece

14/08/2015

Daniel Altman tries to discuss who might leave the eurozone, apart from Greece, “With Greece enjoying a temporary lull in its apparently permanent crisis, we can take a moment to look around its neighbourhood at other candidates for trouble. There are several — and the euro’s future looks far from bright. Greece ran into trouble mainly because it should never have been in the eurozone in the first place. Its governments couldn’t balance their budgets, and its economic cycle was far out of sync with those of the eurozone’s leading lights. When Germany grew, Greece shrank, and vice versa. Using the same monetary policy in both countries made no sense at all”.

Altman notes that “the first in line are Portugal, whose government bonds are rated as junk by Standard & Poor’s, and Italy, which receives the lowest investment-grade rating of BBB-. Each country’s government is carrying a debt bigger than its GDP, something the IMF doesn’t expect to change any time in the next five years. Spain, whose debt-to-GDP ratio is below 70 percent but may rise in the coming years, is rated BBB”.

However, Italian debt is odd as most of it is held within the country rather than from outside creditors. Therefore, from this point of view there is less wrong with Italy than Greece. Italy’s main problem is that it has an almost medieval economic system with little ability to change quickly in addition to a corruption problem. Matteo Renzi is attempting to solve some of these problems with legislation that would give Italy more stable governments which would in then then be able to press for the most badly needed reforms. So while Italy has problems there is the possibility of progress, under certain circumstances.

Altman goes on to note that “Not far behind are Ireland, whose debt burden of 86 percent of GDP is supposed to decline rapidly now that economic growth has resumed, and France, at 89 percent, where growth rates may struggle to crack 2 percent in the coming years. Both of them receive reasonable grades from Standard & Poor’s — AA for France and A+ for Ireland, with AAA being the safest of all”.

Yet Altman’s anaylsis should be taken with a warning. Reports from Ireland show that “Ireland’s economy grew by more than 6 per cent in the first three months of the year compared with the same period in 2014, new figures reveal. Data released this morning in Dublin by the Central Statistics Office shows that gross domestic product (GDP) in the first quarter of 2015 accelerated by 6.5 per cent year-on-year while gross national product (GNP) advanced by 7.3 per cent”.

He goes on to argue “it’s important to take these ratings with a grain of salt. After all, Standard & Poor’s gave Greece’s debt a grade of A- until December 2009, when the fiscal writing was already on the wall. Partly because of the rating, Greece had no trouble borrowing at reasonable interest rates as late as November of that year, just as Portugal can today. Yet at the end of 2009, all of the countries above except France were once again being called by their pejorative acronym: the PIIGS. Going forward, the primary risks for these countries are dips in government revenue (mostly likely stemming from disappointing economic growth) and the buildup of other fiscal obligations. Either one could force a decision like the one that faced Greece: to pay or not to pay”.

Importantly he notes “Of course, collecting revenue is one thing; what a government chooses to do with it is another. During those heady high-revenue years from 2005 through 2007, Ireland paid down almost 30 percent of its debt, but Spain shrank its liabilities by only about 13 percent. Yet Portugal took the brass ring for most profligate fiscal policy, with its debt load rising sharply every year — despite a growing economy and rising tax revenue — for a total increase of 36 percent. If any of these events reflects long-term tendencies, then Portugal is one to watch. Another risk for these countries is the possibility that their economic cycles will fall out of sync with the rest of the eurozone or, more pertinently, with Germany. The PIIGS and France rely much more on tourism, for instance, than Germany; as a result, trends in their exports may depend on demand from wealthy households in China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States more than on industrial activity in the eurozone”.

Crucially he writes “the rates of economic growth in these five countries were most similar to Germany’s during the worst years of the global financial crisis. Then, in the past few years, all five fell behind Germany. As Germany recovered more quickly, driving the ECB toward a more hawkish stance on inflation, the other countries were left without the monetary support they needed to escape recession. And most recently, Irish growth has exceeded German growth by more than 2 percentage points; Ireland may eventually need higher interest rates to avoid overheating, but the ECB is unlikely to provide them anytime soon”.

He goes onto make the point that “When the next recession hits the eurozone, the laggards will again come under threat. And there’s no reason to believe that some of them will be any more capable of snapping back. Italy, Portugal, and Spain have enormous baby-boom generations a decade or two from retirement, whereas France has a more stable population profile and Ireland has young reinforcements on the way. For the first three countries, the costs of pensions and medical care will loom large for at least the next two economic cycles”.

He ends “These costs will imply hard choices like the one that caused Greece to falter. Its government ended up in the worst of both worlds, making deep cuts to the very jobs, benefits, and services that it chose to fund in lieu of repaying its debts. Given the staggering cost Greece has already paid to stay in the euro, the next country engulfed by crisis might choose a third option: leave the eurozone sooner rather than later”.

Trump starts to fall

14/08/2015

Businessman Donald Trump’s support has fallen following the first Republican presidential debate last week, according to a poll from the right-leaning Rasmussen Reports released Tuesday. The celebrity real estate tycoon is supported by 17 percent of likely GOP primary voters, a 9-point decline from the same national poll conducted in late July.  The poll offers some hope to other candidates, who have sought to climb out from under Trump’s dominating performance in polls heading into last week’s debate.  Trump took the top spot in polls this week in early-voting states, overtaking Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in an Iowa poll and besting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in a New Hampshire survey.  Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has jumped in the Rasmussen poll from 5 percent two weeks ago to 10 percent, tying for second place with Bush, whose support has remained unchanged”.

“The possibility of moderating Iran’s behaviour over time”

14/08/2015

After the previous articles about the Middle East after the Iran deal another article from Foreign Affairs discusses the consequences of the deal on the region.

It opens “To be sure, there are risks associated with a deal as well, including the possibility that Iran will fail to implement the agreement, resume a nuclear program once the nuclear agreement expires, or covertly continue elements of its program beyond the surveillance of the international community. There have been countless assessments of all the things that could go wrong; that’s why negotiators in Vienna are working “don’t trust and verify” measures into any conceivable final deal. But debates about any such agreement must include assessments of the risks of having no deal at all”.

The piece goes on to mention that “The first and most dangerous scenario is that Tehran could break out of the interim nuclear agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, which has essentially frozen Iran’s nuclear program for nearly two years. With no promise of lasting and more significant sanctions relief, Iran may decide to resume its nuclear enrichment program at levels that reduce the time it would need to weaponize its nuclear program. Iran could still remain in the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and come dangerously close to developing the capabilities to quickly break out if there is no international agreement placing further restrictions and inspections on its activities”.

He goes on to make the point “To make matters worse, unless it is clear that Iran is at fault for the breakdown in nuclear talks, the current broad international support for sanctions against Iran could weaken. U.S. sanctions against Iran have proven effective because of the backing they have garnered among key oil-importing countries such as China, India, South Korea, and Japan. International sanctions have, by some estimates, cut Iran’s oil exports by more than half in recent years, costing Iran up to $40 billion in revenue annually. Continued unilateral American sanctions and secondary U.S. sanctions on countries and institutions doing business with Iran following the breakdown of a deal would likely continue to keep U.S. and European companies away from Iran. But other key international powers, and even some in Europe, may tire of self-imposed restrictions, especially if Iran appeared to have negotiated in good faith. So, Iran could find itself less isolated over time, especially if Congress rejected the deal, leaving the United States to blame for the failure. Indeed, this is the worst-of-both-worlds outcome—few constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and dissipating international pressure on Iran”.

Naturally the writer turns to the elephant in the room, “Israeli leaders are likely to return to open threats about military options against Iran’s nuclear facilities should Iran resume its enrichment program to levels that bring it closer to a weapons capability that crosses Israeli red lines. Pressures on neighbouring states to consider nuclear programs of their own would also likely increase, even if concerns about the intentions and ability of neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia to pursue nuclear weapons capability are largely overblown”.

He ends “there are also opportunity costs of a no-deal outcome. It is difficult to know whether a deal will moderate Iran’s regional behavior or improve U.S.–Iranian relations and cooperation on issues of common concern, such as countering Sunni extremist forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are probably more constraints on such radical transformations of U.S.–Iranian relations than some pro-deal advocates may acknowledge. Regional neighbours have good reason to worry that Iran’s links to destabilizing groups throughout the region will continue”.

Crucially he writes “But what is certain is that the absence of a deal will foreclose possibilities for even limited cooperation and the possibility of moderating Iran’s behaviour over time. As U.S. President Barack Obama noted in a discussion of his administration’s revision of Cuba policy, current policies of pressure and isolation haven’t worked, so logic dictates a new approach. The same can be said of the United States’ Iran policy: The policies of isolating and punishing Iran—which has spanned Democratic and Republican administrations—have not produced more moderate Iranian behavior at home, in the region, or across the globe. It might be time to test whether engagement with a nuclear-constrained Iran can produce better results”.

He concludes “The Middle East today is in serious turmoil. No one should be under the illusion that even a strong nonproliferation agreement that prevents all possible pathways toward the Iranian bomb will magically transform this volatile region. But on balance, the Middle East would be better off with a good nuclear deal than without one”.

“Will reduce its air patrols over the Baltic states”

12/08/2015

NATO on Tuesday said that from September it will reduce its air patrols over the Baltic states, which it stepped up amid concern over Russia’s activity in the region. “As of the 1st of September NATO will have eight aircraft assigned to the Baltic air policing mission,” NATO military spokesman Jay Janzen told AFP. “Right now we happen to have 16 aircraft assigned to the mission but that’s well above the military requirements.” Lithuanian Defence Minister Juozas Olekas downplayed the defence alliance cutback, telling AFP it would not affect regional security. “Recently there were no airspace violations. Russian aircraft were escorted many times but we avoided violations. Taking that into account, the decision was made based on a rational use of resources.” NATO allies had gradually increased the number of aircraft patrolling over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, from four fighter jets early last year, amid tensions between Russia and the West over the crisis in Ukraine. NATO has been guarding Baltic skies since 2004, when the trio joined the defence alliance but lacked the air power to monitor their own airspace”.

Francis muddies the Communion waters

12/08/2015

John Allen writes about the recent words of Pope Francis, “Parsing the words of Pope Francis is a notoriously hazardous undertaking, as he tends sometimes to say things that seem almost deliberately open to multiple interpretations — remember “Who am I to judge?” — and then play his cards close to the vest in terms of what policy implications, if any, may ensue. That’s a caution worth reiterating as his words at Wednesday’s general audience on divorced and remarried Catholics make the rounds. The bottom line is that while what the pope said was interesting, it didn’t signal any specific policy choice”.

Allen goes on to make the point that “the Catholic Church is gripped by a debate over whether Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church ought to be allowed to receive Communion. That was the hot-button issue at last October’s Synod of Bishops on the family, and it will be front and center again at a follow-up synod this October”.

However, it has only gotten attention since Pope Francis, was elected and gave his approval to some of Walter Cardinal Kasper’s theological writings. It would be unwise to assume that Francis agrees with all of what Kasper writes but there has been little effort made by Francis to distance himself from Kasper.

Allen adds “Church rules bar the divorced and remarried from Communion. One wing of Catholicism, up to and including several cardinals, supports flexibility in inviting such people to the sacrament on a case-by-case basis. That view was summed up by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich last October as, “Not for everyone, and not for no one.” Another wing, also including several cardinals, believes such a move would be a betrayal of traditional teaching on the permanence of marriage. Although there are no hard figures for the number of such Catholics worldwide, they form a pool estimated at 4.5 million people in the United States alone. As a result, this is an issue that isn’t merely symbolic, but packs real-world pastoral significance”.

Allen reports that Francis “took it up in a brief 660-word reflection, the gist of which was to call the Church to greater compassion for people in this situation. Francis said from the outset that marrying outside the Church after a divorce “contradicts the Christian sacrament.” At the same time, he insisted that such people remain part of the Church — they are not “excommunicated,” he said — and need to be cared for, in part for the sake of their children. “If we look at these new unions through the eyes of small children … we see even more the urgency of developing in our communities a real welcome towards people who live in these situations,” the pope said. The welfare of the children seemed the pope’s paramount concern”.

Allen makes the point that “Francis also insisted on the need for “discernment” in individual cases, citing the difference between someone who “suffered” the break-up of a marriage versus someone who “provoked” it. He pointed to the need “to demonstrate openly and coherently the disposition of the community to welcome and encourage” the divorced and remarried, “so they can live and develop ever more their belonging to Christ and to the Church with prayer, listening to the Word of God, attendance at the liturgy, the Christian education of their children, charity and service to the poor, [and] a commitment to justice and peace.” So what does that mean for the Communion debate? One could read the pope’s call for welcome and encouragement as an indirect boost for the reform position, a way of preparing Catholic opinion for an eventual change. That’s an especially tempting conclusion in light of his emphasis on discernment in different situations”.

Pointedly Allen notes that “Just as easily, however, one could read his language as a way of preparing people hoping for such a change for disappointment. Francis could be saying, “Even if we don’t budge on the Communion ban, that doesn’t mean we’re abandoning you.” It’s notable that Francis explicitly said that remarriage after divorce “contradicts” the sacrament. Moreover, in ticking off ways in which divorced and remarried believers can still be part of the Church — through prayer, attending liturgies, etc. — Francis didn’t say anything about Communion”.

He ends “Both sides could read what Francis said Wednesday and feel encouraged, but neither can claim a papal endorsement. In the end, perhaps that was the point. Perhaps what Francis really wanted to say is that whatever he does about the Communion question after October, no one should pretend that the hard work of outreach and reconciliation with divorced and remarried Catholics will be finished”.

Yet this is the worst position to be in. At the same time Francis is rising the hopes of people and almost in the same sentence he is taking them away. He is muddying the waters on this issue, whether it is what he wants to do or not remains to be seen but he will only anger and upset people in these situations if he continues. With his predecessors he there was clarity on this issue. It may not have been what people want but there was at least clarity. With Francis, even this is now no longer the case.

“Founder of the militant Haqqani network, has been dead for almost a year”

12/08/2015

Pakistani media are quoting unnamed Taliban sources as saying that Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the militant Haqqani network, has been dead for almost a year. Jalaluddin Haqqani died of natural causes and was buried in the province of Khost, Afghanistan, Geo TV and dawn.com reported on July 31. The Taliban-linked Haqqani network is an Islamist militant group operating on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. The network was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani to fight Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The movement’s current leader, Jalaluddin’s son Sirajuddin Haqqani, is one of the United States’ most wanted men, with a $10 million bounty out for his capture”.

“The Taliban seem closer than ever to splitting wide open”

12/08/2015

A  piece asks about the future of Taliban leadership, “Two days before the second official meeting between the Afghan government and the Taliban is scheduled to take place, fresh rumours are swirling that Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has been dead for two years, killed either in an internal power struggle or from tuberculosis. Even before word of the reclusive leader’s unconfirmed death, speculation of his demise and questions about who actually controls the movement have persisted since shortly after his escape from Kandahar in late 2001 — no doubt fueled by the fact that he has appeared in public only a handful of times, even during his rule over Afghanistan in the 1990s. With talks (hopefully) less than 48 hours away, the question now more than ever is: Who leads the Taliban?”

The writer goes on to note “Though the Taliban’s leadership structure is purposely oblique, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour has long been seen as the insurgency’s second-in-command. Setting aside whatever Omar’s current physical condition may be, Mansour has been making more day-to-day decisions and had more non-symbolic power than anyone else in the movement. He arguably has greater influence on the Taliban shadow government operating inside Afghanistan than any other Taliban leader. More importantly, he has maintained working relations with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), something that separates him from the “Taliban Five,” the former Guantánamo Bay detainees released in a prisoner exchange and currently residing in Doha, Qatar”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Like many Afghans, Mansour grew up in Pakistan during the communist and mujahideen governments of the 1980s and early 1990s, earning a degree from Darul Uloom Haqqania, a madrasa outside of Peshawar known as “Jihad U” and the “University of Holy War” due to the number of extremists it matriculated over the years. By 1993, Mansour had moved southward to the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders Kandahar and from where a good deal of the Taliban’s leadership-in-exile has long resided. From his position in Balochistan, Mansour played an early key role in linking Omar to Pakistan’s ISI, a connection that sustains the movement to this day”.

Worryingly for the ongoing, though nascent peace talks in Afghanistan “While other Taliban leaders have been imprisoned or put under house arrest by Pakistani authorities, Mansour remains a favoured son in large part because he has remained in step with ISI policy and has often served as a link between the Haqqani network of Waziristan and the Afghan Taliban of Balochistan”.

Importantly the article note “As late as 2012, Mansour was seen as a hardliner among Taliban leaders, opposing any talks with Hamid Karzai’s government. From about 2013 onward, his position appears to have changed, putting him directly at odds with Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a Taliban military leader from northern Helmand who has for years commanded arguably the largest organized insurgent front inside Afghanistan. Throughout 2014, Mansour and Zakir bickered over the direction of the movement, with Zakir adopting a hard line and eventually being sacked, only to be re-instated after a reconciliation involving a few slaughtered goats and hearty man hugs. By early 2015, however, the two “frenemies” were reportedly at odds again. The most recent news reports of Omar’s death also speculate that Mansour and Omar’s son are involved in a fight for control”.

It concludes “Given his historically close ties with Pakistan, Mansour’s moderation could be read as a clear indicator that Pakistan’s calculus has indeed changed. The fact that the first and second rounds of peace talks will be held in the Pakistani resort town of Murree, which until now was mostly known as a nice day trip from Islamabad and for its brewery, also plays to Mansour — and Pakistan’s — strength, particularly as regards the Doha-based leadership. For all the things that Mansour may be, he is definitely not Mullah Omar. Far more than al Qaeda, and perhaps even more than the Islamic State, the various competing interests inside the Taliban have remained nominally united due to the belief that Omar is the amir ul momineen (leader of the faithful). Omar’s spiritual status has long been the only thing holding the Taliban together. Mansour may have important friends in Pakistan but he is no leader of the faithful, and on the eve of negotiations, the Taliban seem closer than ever to splitting wide open”.

In some ways this will make talks harder but in the long term it could bury the Taliban and their “ideals”.

Afghan Taliban’s divisions

12/08/2015

The new leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, has called for unity in an audio message, saying that the group will continue fighting. Mullah Mansour was named as the new leader on Thursday, after the death of former head Mullah Omar was confirmed. But a Taliban spokesman told the BBC he had not been appointed “by all Taliban”, going against Sharia law. The audio message said fighters should unite as “division in our ranks will only please our enemies”. It also said that the Taliban would “continue our jihad until we bring an Islamic rule in the country”.

“1.7 children per woman in 2012”

10/08/2015

An interesting piece notes the demographics of Russia, “For decades, first the Soviet Union and then Russia languished under adverse population trends. Deaths far outpaced births, life expectancy was dismally low, and social ills, from alcoholism to unsafe abortion practices, were rampant. Over the past several years, however, this demographic picture has somewhat brightened. In 2012, live births outnumbered deaths for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. That indicator has remained marginally positive, and others have also begun to improve. By 2013, Russia’s average life expectancy reached a historic high, at 71 years, and birthrates nearly matched European averages. These reversals have been modest, but they have been enough for the Kremlin to proclaim victory in its decades-long fight against demographic decline. In a December address to Kremlin officials, for instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated the “effectiveness” of Russia’s demographic programs in reversing the country’s trajectory”.

He continues “His conclusion, however, is extremely premature. That is the assessment of a 2015 study by the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), a state university. The report points to some marked improvements in Russia’s recent demographic fortunes, with fertility rates, for example, rising from 1.3 children per woman in 2006 to 1.7 children per woman in 2012. But it maintains that Russia’s demographic prospects are profoundly negative in the longer term. “Despite . . . recent positive dynamics,” the report notes, “the potential for a demographic crisis is not over.” Indeed, Russia’s window for further population growth is rapidly closing. Within a decade, according to RANEPA’s estimates, the population of Russian women aged 20 to 29 will shrink by nearly 50 percent. The corresponding decrease in birth rates, particularly when combined with the country’s mortality rates—the 22nd highest in the world, according to the study—makes it clear that Russia is still in for long-term decline”.

Yet pointedly the author writes that “Russia’s window for population growth is rapidly closing.  In fact, without remedial action, Russia’s population could shrink to 113 million by 2050, a decrease of more than 20 percent from today’s population of 144 million. And in a worst-case scenario, RANEPA argues, Russia’s population could fall by nearly a third, to 100 million, before midcentury. The economic effects of such a shift would be dramatic; Russia’s working-age population would decrease by more than 26 million, making the country less competitive and less prosperous. But there is still some hope: if Moscow takes measures to reduce mortality and boost the birthrate, RANEPA estimates that the Russian population could rise modestly, to 155 million, by 2040. In other words, Russia has a choice to make—one with deep social and economic consequences. If implemented in the near term, improvements in health care, tax benefits for families, and steps to discourage emigration could offset and even reverse Russia’s long-term population decline. The opportunity to do so, however, will be lost over the next decade, and the social and economic consequences of governmental inattention could be catastrophic”.

The author makes the point that “Unfortunately, there’s little chance that the Kremlin will seize the moment. In recent years, preoccupied with regaining its place on the world stage, Moscow has only peripherally addressed the long-term sources of national decline. Instead, it has prioritized spending on programs that reinforce its reputation as a great power. Even before the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, it was estimated that Russia planned to spend upward of $600 billion on upgrading its military capabilities by 2020. The increased expenditures have funded, among other projects, the creation of new intercontinental ballistic missiles, the deployment of additional long-range strike capabilities, and serious work on electromagnetic pulse weapons. Over the past year and a half, as Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated and as its economy has suffered under Western sanctions and slumping oil prices, Moscow has assumed an even more martial focus.

The piece concludes “That’s a potentially dangerous mistake. Unless Moscow gets serious about Russia’s internal health, and does so quickly, the country’s recent population rebound is destined to be temporary —and Russia’s negative demographic future will return with a vengeance”.

 

“Prospects for faster solutions in Syria and Yemen”

10/08/2015

Iran’s president said Sunday his country’s nuclear deal with the West would create better prospects for faster solutions in Syria and Yemen, two of the Middle East’s worst conflict zones. In a live appearance on state television, Hassan Rouhani said the July 14 agreement had shown diplomacy and engagement were the only way to solve serious political problems and end crises. “The final solution in Yemen is political, in Syria the final solution is political,” he said. “The agreement will create a new atmosphere. The climate will be easier.” The near two years of talks between Iran and six world powers — Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany — was a “Herculean task” but was worth it, Rouhani argued. “I was never despondent,” he said of the talks which seemed to be faltering at numerous stages, with negotiators at loggerheads over the terms of the deal”.

“it is a game-changer for the Middle East”

10/08/2015

An interesting piece argues that the Iran deal is transformational for the region. This counters an opposite piece that has argued that there will be little change in the region.

It opens “The president of the United States has argued that the Iran nuclear deal, which will almost certainly become the centerpiece of his foreign-policy legacy, is not transformational. In a confident and telling interview with the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, President Barack Obama asserted that, “We are not measuring this deal by whether it is changing the regime inside of Iran.” That statement — which came amid a list of assertions by the president of what the deal is not — is unsettling for several reasons, even for those of us who support the flawed but useful deal”.

He goes on to rightly argue “First, it is unsettling because it runs directly contrary to the argument that senior administration officials and supporters of the deal have been giving for some time now defining why the deal was important — that it would ultimately change Iran. While it is understandable that the administration would seek to cut back possible avenues of criticism of the deal, the pivot from building up to pruning perceptions of the impact of the deal, is not only intellectually dishonest and an obvious defensive gambit, it also poses other, greater problems”.

He contiunes noting that “One of those problems was highlighted by the very next effort at expectation management offered by Obama to Friedman in that interview: “We’re not measuring this deal by whether we are solving every problem that can be traced back to Iran, whether we are eliminating all their nefarious activities around the globe.” The president’s point, taken in conjunction with his previous one, is troubling because the greatest threat Iran has long posed to the region has not been its nuclear program, but rather its “nefarious activities” like sponsoring terrorism, seeking to impose its will, and aggressively expanding its influence throughout the Middle East — including via one of history’s most notoriously bloodthirsty regimes, the one in Syria”.

Yet there is some room for debate on this point. There is plenty of debate as to whether a nuclear armed Iran is dangerous to the United States. Some have argued that even if it acquired a nuclear weapon that it would not use it but the writer’s point shows the level to which the debate in the United States over Iran, and many other topics, is skewed by Israel.

He adds later that “That said, the biggest problem with Obama’s argument that the deal is not “transformational” is that the argument is wrong. Because whether the deal ultimately changes Iran or not, it is a game-changer for the Middle East and relations between and among not only the major players in that region, but also between and among them and the major powers of the world. In fact, it is already transforming those relations on many levels. One does not have to look too hard or too far for evidence of this. Today, America is fighting alongside Iranians in the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq. Despite the fact that administration and U.S. military officials regularly repeat the mantra that the United States is not coordinating with them, that is just not true. We are. We are together fighting a common enemy. We are communicating through interlocutors like the Iraqi government. We are effectively accepting them in a role in which Iranian military leaders like Qassem Suleimani, who once directed Iranian-supported militias in battles against U.S. soldiers, are seen on the ground in Iraq as heroes of the fight against the Islamic State. We can say all we want to the contrary. The reality on the ground says differently. Furthermore, no honest observer can disregard how different America’s attitude toward the Iranian involvement against the Islamic State is now compared to what our position once was”.

He continues “transformation-related challenges await America’s allies in the Gulf, notably Saudi Arabia. They have been seen as invaluable because of their opposition to Iran. Indeed, this role has made the alliance with them essential even as they were seen as a very problematic partner due to the support that has come from within their borders for extremist groups, their repressive attitudes toward dissent and toward women, and their historic enmity for America’s ally, Israel. But now senior U.S. officials and senior international officials who supported this deal will have an incentive to cast Iran in a different light — to illustrate that their handiwork has been something more than “just a (short-term) nuclear deal.” Further, Iran — in seeking to take advantage of international sanctions relief, welcome foreign trade and tourism, and regain international standing — will take steps periodically, if not consistently, to shore up support for its new role. (I would not be a bit surprised if one or more of the Americans being held in Tehran were released prior to the Senate vote.) This does not have to produce a 180-degree shift in views to have a seriously negative impact on the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks, and others. Incremental change could result in there being less tolerance by the United States and the international community for their various abuses. This could be a good thing. Or it could add uncertainty to already fragile alliances”.

He concludes “Make no mistake, this deal is just the latest in a series of seismic shocks that are remaking the modern Middle East. Some have been generational. Some have been technological. Some were manifested in the Arab Spring. Some have been driven by America’s growing energy independence or the rise of China as the global resource market of last resort. Some came with the end of the Cold War. Some came with the evolution of the extremist threat from al Qaeda, to the Islamic State, to whatever comes next. Some are unique to the massive changes taking place within individual countries — from Israel, to Syria, to Libya, to Yemen, to Iraq. But all are part of this being a transformational moment, and all will be impacted by this deal and its consequences, intended and otherwise. For the president, this administration, and our allies, therefore, it is essential that they don’t make the mistake of believing their own spin. This is a transformational deal in the midst of a transformational moment. The deal’s architects and its champions must recognize that it is up to them to determine what kind of transformation that entails. But so, too, must its opponents”.

“Resumed formal security talks with Egypt”

10/08/2015

Despite persistent human rights concerns, the United States on Sunday resumed formal security talks with Egypt that were last held six years ago and kept on hiatus until now amid political unrest that swept the country in the wake of the Arab Spring. Two days after the U.S. delivered eight F-16 warplanes to Egypt as part of a military support package that the Obama administration is boosting to help Egypt counter an increasing terrorist threat, Secretary of State John Kerry restarted the so-called “strategic dialogue” with Egyptian officials in Cairo. The dialogue was last held in 2009 and did not occur in subsequent years due to the Arab Spring and turmoil following the ouster of Egypt’s authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Kerry said the administration is committed to working with Egypt to enhance its military capabilities as it confronts growing threats from extremists, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula. That aid had been on hold until earlier this year due to human rights and democracy concerns in the wake of the military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013″.

“A prolonged period of lower prices”

10/08/2015

Keith Johnson writes that the recent oil glut has made producers in the United States and in OPEC suffer, “Oil bears are rampaging across the globe, sending crude prices tumbling to six-month lows and raising fears of a reckoning for the U.S. producers who helped create the mess in the first place. Crude oil dropped again in early trading in London and New York, sending prices well below $50 a barrel in the United States and just over $50 in Europe, before clawing back their losses later in the session. But the months of respite for oil traders seem over: Brent crude has lost almost 20 percent in July”.

As he has pointed out before Johnson writes, “At root, it’s easy to see why: The world is simply awash in the stuff, and there isn’t enough demand out there to soak up all the supply. The world has added about 3.1 million barrels a day of oil production this year, but consumers are only buying an extra 1.4 million barrels a day. Since OPEC decided last November to keep pumping regardless of lower prices, it hasn’t looked back, adding 1.5 million barrels a day of oil to markets that don’t need it. Put another way, OPEC is still pumping 2 million more barrels a day than it needs to sate global demand.“Prices fell, [and] people thought, okay, ‘Production is going to go down.’ But the opposite has happened: Production has continued to go up,” said Jim Burkhard, head of oil market research at IHS Energy. That’s due both to OPEC’s decision to keep pumping and to the surprising resilience of U.S. oil producers, who so far this year have shrugged off the lower prices that were expected to poleax them and have continued to pump at the highest levels in 40 years”.

Crucially he makes the point that “If anything, the Iran nuclear deal threatens to make the mismatch between global supply and demand even worse. Once sanctions on Iran are lifted, the country will be free to ramp up crude exports. With sanctions in place, Iran’s oil exports were cut in half, from about 2.5 million barrels a day to around 1.1 million barrels a day in recent months. Iranian oil officials and energy analysts figure by early next year, Iran could add another 300,000 to 500,000 barrels a day to already glutted markets. That would be bad news for U.S. producers, who need higher prices to blast oil out of shale formations deep underground”.

Fairly Johnson notes that “Either demand has to pick up, or supply has to cut back. And that’s where the outlook gets grim. OPEC producers show no signs of retreating from their decision last fall to throw open the spigots. And U.S. producers, who generally need higher prices than producers elsewhere because of the costs of fracturing shale formations, have learned to live with cheaper oil, for now at least. That’s due to rapid increases in efficiency among producers in shale formations, who have on average cut drilling costs by about 20 percent. For companies like Continental Resources, which operates in North Dakota’s Bakken formation, $60 oil these days is about as profitable as $80 oil was in the past. Overall, the United States is currently pumping 1 million barrels a day more than it was last summer when crude cost $115 a barrel”.

From a US perspective he notes that “analysts expect that the price plunge will finally take a toll on U.S. producers in the second half of the year, when production will stop growing, though it won’t shrink. That has the industry bracing for some tough times. Oil companies and service providers are slashing investment budgets and cutting thousands of jobs; investment bank Goldman Sachs reported the oil-patch pain knocked half a point off U.S. GDP growth in the first six months of the year”.

On the demand side he writes “Even though oil — and refined products like gasoline and diesel — got a whole lot cheaper in the last year, that didn’t translate into a surge in consumer demand as in the past. Global demand picked up earlier this year, then fizzled, even though crude costs about half what it did this time last year. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to come roaring back next year, either. The International Energy Agency, in its latest oil report, expects oil demand to creep up in 2016 by about 1.2 million barrels a day. OPEC is a bit more optimistic. Either way, that still won’t be enough to absorb all the extra barrels that Saudis, Iraqis, and Americans have been pumping over the last year — and any extra oil that Iran dumps onto the market. And that points to a prolonged period of lower prices — with negative implications for Middle Eastern producers heavily reliant on oil sales for their budgets, for Russia’s recession-riddled and oil-dependent economy, and even for the green shoots of healthy economic activity in places like Texas and North Dakota”.

The elephant, or as it were tiger, in the room is China, “When China was growing at 10 percent a year and becoming the world’s largest auto market, Chinese demand for oil — and every other commodity — skyrocketed, helping the country surpass the United States as the biggest oil importer. But now the Chinese economy is adjusting to a new normal, with much more modest GDP growth rates and a shift away from energy-gobbling sectors to leaner activities such as services. All that means is that the wildcard of limitless Chinese demand just isn’t in the deck anymore”.

Pointedly he ends “And that raises the longer-term question of just how sustainable America’s energy boom really is — not from any shortage of resources under the ground, but a dearth of buyers above it. The industry has proven it can live with lower prices, at least for a time. But expectations that developing countries, especially in Asia, would gobble up as much oil and natural gas as they could get their hands on aren’t panning out”.

Saudi ground troops in Yemen

08/08/2015

The Saudi-led Arab coalition has deployed 3,000 troops and battle tanks in Aden, according to sources in Yemen. Images have appeared over the past hour on Twitter from a number of Yemeni media outlets showing United Arab Emirates LeClerc main battle tanks, BMP armoured vehicle, including M-ATVs, being offloaded on to a port in Aden.”

Losing America’s military edge?

08/08/2015

A report from the Economist argues that the United States may be losing its military edge.

It opens “SINCE the end of the cold war one simple geopolitical rule has endured: do not take on America. The country’s armed forces have been so well resourced and so technologically superior that it would be utterly foolish for any state to mount a direct challenge to the superpower or its allies. This rule still holds—but it is no longer quite as compelling as it once was. Although America still possesses by far the most capable armed forces in the world, the technological advantage that guarantees it can defeat any conceivable adversary is eroding rapidly. “We are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space—not to mention cyberspace—can no longer be taken for granted,” admitted Chuck Hagel, the outgoing secretary of defence, last year. He argued that America urgently needed to develop a new generation of military technologies, lest another country come to feel capable of challenging it. His warning was timely”.

The author points out that “The others are certainly growing more assertive. China is increasingly keen to press its territorial claims in the western Pacific. Russia is intent on re-establishing its influence in what it regards as its “near abroad”, as it has shown in Ukraine. Less powerful but more reckless states such as North Korea and Iran might also become more inclined to make mischief if they believe they can inflict so much damage on the American forces that seek to punish them that Washington will think twice about doing so”.

China is certainly assertive but there are doubts as to its long term sustainability, both as an untested military power and a “rising” power. Certainly Russia is causing problems but there are questions as to its long term power. Yet, this does not weaken the authors argument, in the short term there is much wrong with American strategy and if it is to be arrested much needs to be done.

The report adds “The effort that Mr Hagel called for is known as the “third offset strategy”, because it is the third time since the second world war that America has sought technological breakthroughs to offset the advantages of potential foes and reassure its friends. The first such moment occurred in the early 1950s, when the Soviet Union was fielding far larger conventional forces in Europe than America and its allies could hope to repel. The answer was to extend America’s lead in nuclear weapons to counter the Soviet numerical advantage—a strategy known as the “New Look”. A second offset strategy was conceived in the mid-1970s. American military planners, reeling from the psychological defeat of the Vietnam war, recognised that the Soviet Union had managed to build an equally terrifying nuclear arsenal. They had to find another way to restore credible deterrence in Europe. Daringly, America responded by investing in a family of untried technologies aimed at destroying enemy forces well behind the front line. Precision-guided missiles, the networked battlefield, reconnaissance satellites, the Global Positioning System (GPS) and radar-beating “stealth” aircraft were among the fruits of that research”.

Crucially he writes “Bob Work, the deputy secretary of defence charged with overseeing the new offset strategy, says that by the mid-1980s Soviet generals who studied the results of early demonstrations of the operational concept that became known as Air-Land Battle realised what they were up against. “We were an aggressive first mover,” Mr Work says. “We had picked an area that we knew our most likely adversary couldn’t copy.” The impact of this “revolution in military affairs” was hammered home in 1991 during the first Gulf war. Iraqi military bunkers were reduced to rubble and Soviet-style armoured formations became sitting ducks. Watchful Chinese strategists, who were as shocked as their Soviet counterparts had been, were determined to learn from it. The large lead that America enjoyed then has dwindled. Although the Pentagon has greatly refined and improved the technologies that were used in the first Gulf war, these technologies have also proliferated and become far cheaper. Colossal computational power, rapid data processing, sophisticated sensors and bandwidth—some of the components of the second offset—are all now widely available”.

The writer goes on to lambast recent American actions as a “distraction”. This is at best, unkind, the United States needed to, and still does need to fight terrorism to reduce their capabilities to they cannot attack the United States with any significant weapons.

Flowing from this he notes that “China, in particular, has seized the opportunity to catch up. With a defence budget that tends to grow by more than 10% a year, it has invested in an arsenal of precision short- to medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines equipped with wake-homing torpedoes and long-range anti-ship missiles, electronic warfare, anti-satellite weapons, modern fighter jets, integrated air defences and sophisticated command, control and communications systems. The Chinese call their objective “winning a local war in high-tech conditions”. In effect, China aims to make it too dangerous for American aircraft-carriers to operate within the so-called first island chain (thus pushing them out beyond the combat range of their tactical aircraft) and to threaten American bases in Okinawa and South Korea. American strategists call it “anti-access/area denial”, or A2/AD”.

He writes that the significance of this for American allies is that China could grab islands or resources and the US military will not be able to respond. He notes that this could lead to countries allying with China. While this latter aspect is far fectched due to the history and culture of Asia to say nothing of recent Chinese aggression, the first point is valid. However, it is important to separate the permanent from the temporary. The presidency of Barack Obama will soon end and a different strategy, though not too different, will replace him. It could be hoped that when he leaves office the United States will reengage with Asia as he said he would but has not ease the fears of allies like Japan.

The author adds “Although China is moving exceptionally quickly, Russia too is modernising its forces after more than a decade of neglect. Increasingly, it can deploy similar systems. Iran and North Korea are building A2/AD capabilities too, albeit on a smaller scale than China. Even non-state actors such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Islamic State in Syria and Iraq are acquiring some of the capabilities that until recently were the preserve of military powers. Hence the need to come up with a third offset strategy. But the economic, political and technical circumstances are very different from the ones that prevailed in the 1950s or the 1970s. America needs to develop new military technologies that will impose large costs on its adversaries, even as budget caps ordered by Congress are squeezing its own defence spending”.

Correctly, he writes that “The programme needs to overcome at least five critical vulnerabilities. The first is that carriers and other surface vessels can now be tracked and hit by missiles at ranges from the enemy’s shore which could prevent the use of their cruise missiles or their tactical aircraft without in-flight refuelling by lumbering tankers that can be picked off by hostile fighters. The second is that defending close-in regional air bases from a surprise attack in the opening stages of a conflict is increasingly hard. Third, aircraft operating at the limits of their combat range would struggle to identify and target mobile missile launchers. Fourth, modern air defences can shoot down non-stealthy aircraft at long distances. Finally, the satellites America requires for surveillance and intelligence are no longer safe from attack. It is an alarming list. Yet America has considerable advantages, argues Robert Martinage of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an influential Washington think-tank that has consistently drawn attention to the need to counter Chinese A2/AD capabilities. Those advantages include unmanned systems, stealthy aircraft, undersea warfare and the complex systems engineering that is required to make everything work together”.

He goes on to make the point that “Contracts will be awarded this summer for a long-range strike bomber, the first new bomber since the exotic and expensive B-2 began service two decades ago. The B-3, of which about 100 are likely to be ordered, will also have a stealthy, flying-wing design. This time, costs will be kept down by using proven technologies, but with a modular approach to allow for upgrades to be simply plugged in when necessary to counter improving air defences. Targets for the B-3, perhaps supported by unmanned aircraft, will include mobile missile launchers and command bunkers. If surface vessels, particularly aircraft-carriers, are to remain relevant, they will need to be able to defend themselves against sustained attack from precision-guided missiles. The navy’s Aegis anti-ballistic missile-defence system is capable but expensive: each one costs $20m or so. If several of them were fired to destroy an incoming Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, the cost for the defenders might be ten times as much as for the attackers. If carriers are to stay in the game, the navy will have to reverse that ratio. Hopes are being placed in two technologies: electromagnetic rail guns, which fire projectiles using electricity instead of chemical propellants at 4,500mph to the edge of space, and so-called directed-energy weapons, most likely powerful lasers. The rail guns are being developed to counter ballistic missile warheads; the lasers could protect against hypersonic cruise missiles. In trials, shots from the lasers cost only a few cents. The navy has told defence contractors that it wants to have operational rail guns within ten years”.

He goes on to mention “If defence spending remains tight, as seems likely, the money for breakthrough technologies will have to be found from somewhere. That means Congress allowing the Pentagon to make the savings it wants. The most pressing task is to reform military pay and benefits, which are eating up an ever-bigger slice of the defence budget despite falls in the number of Americans in uniform. Closing unwanted bases would also help. So would reforming the way the Pentagon buys things. To get its hands on the technologies it needs, the military establishment and the armed forces themselves may have to take an axe to cherished programmes. One possibility would be to scale back plans to buy nearly 2,500 F-35 fighter jets, which have too short a range for many situations, and use the money to buy unmanned combat aircraft and a bigger fleet of long-range strike bombers. The navy might have to give up on two of its fabulously expensive carrier groups in recognition of their growing vulnerability in favour of investments in submarines, both manned and unmanned. None of this will be easy. The men who command air forces tend to be former fast-jet pilots still in love with their steeds; the sailors who run navies are attached to the muscular power that only big surface ships can display. The army, too, will have to shrink”.

He ends on a pessimistic note “Even if all these obstacles are overcome, it is unlikely that a third offset strategy will secure Western military dominance for as long as the first two did. Technology spreads much more quickly these days, partly thanks to the internet, which the Pentagon helped to create and which now helps rival powers steal America’s military secrets. Technological change of all kinds has become speedier, too, thanks to fierce competition in fashion-conscious consumer markets. The second offset strategy benefited from some unusual circumstances that left America as the world’s unchallenged hyperpower after the end of the cold war. That world has vanished. In the military-technological struggle to come, the contest will be relentless and the victories probably more fleeting. It would help if America’s allies weighed in. They should come up with innovations of their own—or at least invest in the capabilities required to be a useful military partner by adapting to changes in how the Pentagon invests and plans to fight. Few have even begun to think about this. In Britain, for example, politicians and general are arguing about whether defence spending should be allowed to fall below 2% of GDP rather than about how the money should be spent”.

He concludes “Yet if a foe comes to believe it might win what the great strategist Thomas Schelling called “a competition in risk-taking”—an idea that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, actively encourages—the rational response to the other side’s technological superiority might be nuclear brinkmanship. As Elbridge Colby of the Centre for a New American Security argues: “The more successful the offset strategy is in extending US conventional advantages, the more attractive US adversaries will find strategies of nuclear escalation.” The enemy always gets a vote”.

 

Nicholas Burns helps sell the Iran deal

08/08/2015

A former top diplomatic appointee in the administration of President George W. Bush will help sell the Iranian nuclear deal to House Democrats this week. Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008, will brief the caucus on Wednesday at the invitation of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Burns, who helped Bush design the current detente with Iran, is a strong proponent of the nonproliferation deal. Pelosi has taken the lead whipping Democratic support for the Iran deal. She invited Secretary of State John Kerry to answer lawmakers’ questions last week and has said she wants to make key Obama administration officials available to address any further concerns from lawmakers.

 

Obama speaks on the deal

08/08/2015

A report in the New York Times notes a speech by President Obama recently on the Iran deal.

It opens “Obama took on critics of the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers in an aggressive speech on Wednesday, saying they were the same people who created the “drumbeat of war” and played on public fears to push the United States into the Iraq war more than a decade ago. “Let’s not mince words: The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some sort of war — maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon,” Mr. Obama told about 200 people in a speech at American University. “How can we in good conscience justify war before we’ve tested a diplomatic agreement that achieves our objectives?” Mr. Obama, opening a new, more overtly political phase of his public campaign for the accord, portrayed the coming vote in Congress to approve or reject the deal as the most consequential foreign policy decision for lawmakers since Congress voted in 2003 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He implored them to “shut out the noise” and back the deal”.

The report goes on to note “Delivered in stark terms that surprised some foreign policy analysts and left no room for questioning whether the agreement is good for American security — “It’s not even close,” Mr. Obama declared at one point — the president’s speech was a striking display of certitude about a diplomatic deal that has split the American public and presented a dilemma for lawmakers, including many in his own party. Mr. Obama criticized Republicans who are pressing forward with legislation to block the accord, which is on track for a vote in September”.

Interestingly it adds that “Opposition to the agreement, he said, stems from “knee-jerk partisanship that has become all too familiar, rhetoric that renders every decision made to be a disaster, a surrender.” He said hard-liners in Iran who chant “Death to America” were “making common cause with the Republican caucus.” Lawmakers who oppose the deal said they were not persuaded, and some said they resented the president’s tone. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said the speech had done a disservice to lawmakers in both parties who “have serious and heartfelt concerns.” “These Democrats and Republicans deserved serious answers today, not some outrageous attempt to equate their search for answers with supporting chants of ‘Death to America,’ ” Mr. McConnell said, adding that Democrats who had declared their opposition would be “especially insulted” by the president’s remarks. “This goes way over the line of civil discourse,” he said”.

The piece mentions that “Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who has served in Republican and Democratic administrations, said that Mr. Obama’s speech seemed intended to leave no doubt “that those who oppose it are either uninformed or, in the case of the Iraq war comparison, recklessly marching to the next war in the Middle East.” Mr. Miller called the speech a “stunning” show of boldness by a president who feels empowered in the final stages of his presidency to pursue an accord he believes could be transformational. “There is a real danger here for him in overselling” the deal to a skeptical Congress, he said. In making his case, Mr. Obama made an unusual, personal appeal to voters — more in keeping with a 30-second political television advertisement than a foreign policy address — urging them to contact their representatives and press them to accept the deal, which would lift some sanctions against Iran in exchange for new restrictions meant to suppress its ability to obtain a nuclear weapon”.

Needless to say the piece notes the section of the speech where President Obama confronted “pro-Israel groups, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, which are sending hundreds of activists to lobby lawmakers to reject the deal and are planning to run more than $25 million in television advertising to rally opposition to it. The struggle is playing out this month as members of Congress leave Washington to face voters in their home states and districts. “If the rhetoric in these ads and the accompanying commentary sounds familiar, it should,” Mr. Obama said. “Many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.” Aipac responded forcefully on Wednesday to the president’s characterization of its campaign of opposition to the deal”.

The piece rightly mentions that “Obama’s tone came as a surprise to some political and policy analysts who said he had delivered a speech that seemed intended to stoke fear instead of foster discussion. David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said that even though the White House had been effective at privately engaging skeptics of the deal on its merits, Mr. Obama appeared to be “hyping” his case to the public, perhaps in an effort to match the incendiary language of his opponents”.

It concludes “While Mr. Obama’s comparison to the Iraq war appeared to be an effort to distinguish his own approach from that of President George W. Bush, some critics said his speech employed the same with-me-or-against-me trope associated with Mr. Bush. “It comes remarkably close to the cartoon image that he has painted of Bush’s rhetoric,” said Peter D. Feaver, a political scientist at Duke who was a national security aide to Mr. Bush from 2005 to 2007”.

 

“More than $3 billion on the military campaign against the Islamic State”

08/08/2015

The United States has spent more than $3 billion on the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Pentagon said in an update Monday. The U.S. has spent $3.21 billion as of July 15, spokesman Bill Urban said. Since the campaign against ISIS began on Aug. 6, the military operations have cost an average of $9.4 million per day. A bulk of the money, 53 percent, has been spent on airstrikes, according to the Defense Department. Just under a quarter of the money has been spent on weapons, with the rest spent on missions involving military carriers and other operations. The average daily cost of the ISIS campaign has risen since September, ticking up to $9.9 million a day after costing around $5.6 million per day in the first few weeks”.

“Democrats will blame Netanyahu and Israel”

08/08/2015

A piece argues that if the Iran deal falls through Democarts will blame Israel for a generation. This could continue the trend toward a normalisation of relations with Israel and the United States and if the author is correct the weakening of the partisan consensus on Israel.

It opens  “Secretary of State John Kerry defend the Iran nuclear deal at the Council on Foreign Relations. Richard Haass, president of the organization, began by asking Kerry to explain what “we have gained by this agreement.” The first thing the secretary said was that he was “very proud” of his “100 percent voting record for Israel” as a senator. The second thing he said was that nobody had worked harder than he had to bring peace to the Middle East. The third thing was, “I consider Bibi” — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — “a friend.” What we have gained, Kerry summed up, is “safety and security … for Israel and the region.” I found it astonishing that Kerry had answered a question about the most consequential diplomatic agreement the United States has signed over the last four decades as if he were the foreign minister of another country. Wasn’t the “we” in question “the American people”? Of course, Kerry’s political instincts were perfectly accurate. He knows that he and President Barack Obama don’t need to persuade the Democratic left of the deal’s merits and needn’t bother trying to convert Republican conservatives. He needs to reach the people who view American national security as not just inextricable but indistinguishable from Israeli security”.

Pointedly the author adds that “On the way out, I saw once such personage and asked, jokingly, whether he had come around on the deal. He hadn’t, of course, but he conceded that he would have to live with it. On the other hand, he added darkly, he knew very well what would happen if Congress voted against the agreement and then overrode Obama’s veto: “They’ll blame the Jews.” No, they won’t. Most Americans who hate the Jews also hate Obama and Iran, and so will be happy to see the deal go up in smoke. Maybe they’ll thank the Jews. What will happen, though, if Congress overrides Obama’s veto — thus destroying the signal foreign-policy achievement of his tenure, humiliating the president before the world, and triggering a race for nuclear weapons capacity in Iran and across the Middle East — is that Democrats will blame Netanyahu and Israel. And it won’t just be the American left, which already regards Israel as an occupying power. The fraying relationship between Israel and the Democratic Party will come apart altogether. Pro-Israel Democrats like Hillary Clinton will have to begin calculating how high a price they’re prepared to pay for their continued support”.

He goes on to note that “Now consider the congressional math. To override a presidential veto in the Senate, opponents of the deal will need to find 67 votes. All 54 Republicans seem prepared to vote against the president — many of them gleefully. But 13 Democrats must be prepared to defy their president on a question that will help define his place in history. How many of them would take such a stand if, say, the Saudis and the Emiratis opposed the deal and Israel favoured it? How would Chuck Schumer, the New York senator and third-ranking Democrat, vote? Do we even have to ask? (So far, the senator has said only that he plans to “carefully study” the language of the deal.) Such is Schumer’s influence among liberal Democrats that he could single-handedly scuttle the deal by voting against the measure. I have no reason to doubt that Schumer sincerely believes that Kerry might be wrong, and Netanyahu right, about the dire effects that the nuclear deal would have on Israel’s security. And I know that many Israelis, and not just die-hard Likudniks, appear to believe that a military strike on Iran, with all its calamitous consequences, would be better for their security than the agreement Obama has struck.”

Crucially he writes that “Of course Kerry can’t say, “This is a great deal for the United States, even if it’s a slightly less great deal for Israel.” Political reality compels him to sustain the myth that those interests cannot diverge. Nevertheless, I find it offensive that Kerry had to indulge in such contortions in order to demonstrate his bona fides toward Israel. Meanwhile, his “friend” Netanyahu has received the administration’s endless stream of entreaties with contempt — a fact that Kerry not very obliquely acknowledged by referring in his speech to unnamed “people” who “rant and rave” about the agreement, including “the prime minister with a cartoon of a bomb at the U.N.” Yet Kerry and Obama must continue trying to reach Americans who defer to Netanyahu as the arbiter of American national security. Those who say, “I will never choose between Israel and the United States” are being disingenuous. They are choosing”.

He ends “If 13 Democrats heed the Israeli siren song and the nuclear deal collapses, only a fantasist can believe that Iran will come back for a new and harsher deal or that the United Nations and the European Union will hang tough on sanctions. Instead, Iranian centrifuges will start spinning once again, while Pakistani scientists carrying nuclear blueprints will make clandestine visits to Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu will then take the game one step further by calling for airstrikes against Iranian facilities. If he succeeds — which I doubt — Americans will never forgive Israel for its role in a catastrophic decision. Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that he is perfectly prepared to pay that price. Can Chuck Schumer say the same? I would suggest that his higher obligation would be to protect Israel from its own worst instincts”.