Archive for October, 2015

Oversupply + Chinese collapse = cheap oil

30/10/2015

An interesting article argues that slowing Chinese economy will effect the global oil market.

It opens, “China’s disappointing economic growth isn’t just worrisome for Beijing — it’s also potentially very bad news for places as far apart as Texas, Alaska, and Scotland. China reported an official third-quarter GDP growth of 6.9 percent, just below the government’s target figure of 7 percent and the lowest figure since the depths of the global financial crisis. But China’s economic picture could be even bleaker: Economists and analysts are torn over how much credence to give to official Chinese data, which are habitually massaged and finessed for political purposes and which appear to contradict other economic indicators, such as falling energy consumption, which point to significantly less economic activity than the government’s headline figures suggest. Some experts figure China may only be growing half as fast as official figures claim. And that is spooking oil markets. Crude oil prices fell on Monday by 2.5 percent in New York to about $46 a barrel and by 3.5 percent in London to about $49 a barrel”.

Interestingly he writes “The global oil market is currently oversupplied, with producers in the United States, Russia, and OPEC pumping at near-record levels. Many analysts figure global oil demand will pick up next year, led by emerging markets such as China (the second-biggest oil consumer in the world), which would help balance supply and demand and push oil prices slowly back up. But China’s economic stumbles are starting to raise doubts about those expectations”.

He goes on to make the point that “It depends on how serious China’s slowdown really is. If the economy really is only growing half as fast as the Chinese government says, then, over the next year, China’s thirst for oil could well flatline, and there is no other single oil consumer in the world who could pick up the slack. Even if government figures are correct, a slower-growing China would likely require less additional oil than it has needed in recent years. Either way, the future development of the Chinese economy and how much oil it will require is a trillion-dollar question for roughnecks and oil executives all over the globe”.

Pontedly he argues “it’s hard to overstate the importance of Chinese demand growth for the global oil market as a whole: Just since 2010, China has gobbled up one out of every three new barrels of oil produced in the world. Cheap oil used to be good for oil-consuming developed economies like the United States and Europe and in many ways is still a plus, at least for consumers there. That’s because cheaper transport costs trickle through the whole economy, making everything from groceries to air travel less expensive, not to mention prices at the pump. Nationwide gasoline prices average just $2.26 a gallon, almost a dollar cheaper than one year ago, and new research suggests that U.S. consumers immediately spent most of that unexpected windfall, which essentially amounted to a giant $100 billion stimulus”.

Johnson continues the the Saudi strategy may be working, “now that the United States is again a major oil producer, and not just a consumer, lower prices promise plenty of pain, too. That’s particularly true because the U.S. shale revolution requires higher prices than traditional oil fields in the Middle East because it costs more to blast open subterranean rock to get at crude than it does to siphon oil out of massive reservoirs. U.S. shale producers weathered the plunge in crude prices over the past year and, thanks to gains in efficiency, were able to keep pumping profitably. But many producers appear to have reached a breaking point: Bankruptcies are starting to litter the U.S. oil patch, debt defaults in cash-strapped energy firms are growing, and big companies that thrive on a healthy oil sector, like Halliburton, are posting multimillion-dollar losses“.

Johnson concludes, “But the ripple effects from China’s slowdown aren’t just limited to the U.S. oil sector. Producers in places like Canada, Mexico, and Britain also need higher prices to keep pumping oil in the future. Lower oil prices helped tip Canada into recession earlier this year, and the province of Alberta is grappling with vanishing jobs and rising budget deficits. Oil sands producers, who’ve sunk billions of dollars into long-term projects, aren’t turning off the spigots, but they are shelving future projects that don’t make economic sense with cheap oil. Since Canada’s oil sands projects take years to develop, that could make it harder for Canada to jump back on the bandwagon and boost production if and when oil prices do go back up”.

For the UK, and Scottish nationalists he ends “Britain’s North Sea oil industry, which just a year ago was cast as the economic savior of a would-be independent Scotland, is now facing the prospect of a collapse thanks to cheap oil. Even flush Norway has been staggered by the plunge in oil prices: Unemployment has jumped even higher than it was during the worst of the financial crisis. Mexico, for its part, was counting on the historic opening of its energy sector to attract deep-pocketed foreign investors and kick-start a wheezing oil industry, but that’s a whole lot harder to do with cheap oil”.

Iran, exporting to Afghanistan

30/10/2015

Iranian Minister of Petroleum Bijan Zangeneh has come out in support of exporting oilproducts to neighbouring Afghanistan saying government-sponsored lawful shipments will check cross-border smuggling. On exports of oil products mainly gasoil to Afghanistan, Zangeneh said: “We decided that delegations from both countries will negotiate boosting export of Iran’s oil products from the authorised terminals and under government’s support.” “Increased exports will prevent smuggling so that only quality products will be exported toAfghanistan,” the minister said. “Iran’s assistance to Afghanistan in exploration of crude oil and natural gas was (also) top on the agenda of negotiations,” he said following a meeting with visiting Afghan Minister of Mines and Petroleum Daud Shah Saba on Saturday, Iranian media reported Monday”.

“Ending the biggest ­population-control experiment in history”

30/10/2015

The Washington Post reports that China has ended the one child policy, “China said Thursday that it will abandon its controversial “one-child” policy and allow all couples to have two children, effectively ending the biggest ­population-control experiment in history amid growing pressure from a rapidly aging population. The move, which came after a meeting of the Communist Party leadership, reflected concerns about potential labour shortages and rising numbers of elderly people that would greatly strain the economy in the years ahead”.

The piece goes on to report that “The communique from a plenary session of the party’s Central Committee did not say when the policy change will be implemented, only that the party had decided to “fully adopt the policy that one couple is allowed two children [and] actively take action on aging population.” China’s unpopular one-child rule was introduced in 1980 and was brutally enforced through huge fines, forced sterilizations and abortions, experts say. It empowered and enriched a huge swath of officials, with bribes often paid to skirt the rules. It also skewed China’s sex ratio as a result of the selective abortion of girls, who are much less favored in traditional Chinese culture”.

However, some have argued that the plan is too little too late and will not halt the dramatic collapse in its population. This will have subsequent effects on its economy, military power, and future strength all at a time when the UK is getting dangerously close to China.

The piece goes on to make the point that “Calls to abandon the policy have crescendoed in the past decade, but the Communist Party moved slowly, partly relaxing the rule in 2013 before Thursday’s announcement. Experts on Chinese affairs, including Wang Feng at the University of California at Irvine, have long warned that the country was heading toward a “demographic precipice” that could challenge the legitimacy of Communist Party rule. Wang called the policy’s abandonment “great news” even if the effects will take a generation or longer to filter through. “This really marks a historic point to end one of the most controversial and costly policies in human history,” he said. “But China for decades to come will have to live with the aftermath of this costly policy.” The nation’s fertility rate — estimates range from 1.4 children per woman to 1.7 — is far below that of the United States and many other nations in the developed world, leading to a rapidly graying society and increasing demands on the state, such as social programs and health care for the elderly”.

Pointedly the piece notes “It also means a substantial decline in the supply of young labour to power the world’s No. 2 economy as it seeks to dethrone the United States. China’s working-age population fell for a third straight year in 2014, declining by 3.7 million to 916 million, according to government data, in a trend that is expected to accelerate. Meanwhile, the number of people 60 or older will approach 400 million, or a quarter of the population, in the early 2030s, according to U.N. forecasts. The 60-plus age group represents about a seventh of China’s population. “The reform will slightly slow down China’s aging society, but it won’t reverse it,” said Peng Xizhe, a population professor at Fudan University. “It will ease the labour shortage in the long term, but in the short term it may increase the shortage because more women might stop work to give birth.” The policy was introduced in delayed reaction to booming birthrates as China recovered from Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and the famine of 1958 to 1962. But by 1980, it actually was no longer needed, many experts argue. Birthrates in China already had declined sharply during the 1970s”.

Unsuprisingly the policy has been criticised, “Wang said the one-child policy was “a textbook example of bad science combined with bad politics” that was morally questionable and primed a demographic time bomb by driving down fertility rates further. Despite the demographic pressure, Thursday’s communique said China was “sticking to the basic policy of state family planning” and “population growth strategy.” In other words, it is not taking its hands off the rudder entirely: Under the new policy, couples will still be limited to two children”.

Naturally, “The policy shift two years ago, however, did not appear to lead to a big boost in birthrates, with economic pressures and the cultural norms around having one child meaning that many families decided to stay as they were. “The change won’t cause a baby wave, as the last policy change proved,” Peng said. “Couples chose not to have a second child because of economic pressure and insufficient social welfare.” Another population expert, who was involved in policy formation and spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to give her name, said the change will not have significant economic effects. “Its political meaning is much greater than its demographic meaning,” the expert said. “Academics have continuously lobbied the government to abandon birth control for around 10 years. The good thing is the government is correcting the direction” of policy”.

“United States approved conditional sanctions waivers for Iran”

28/10/2015

The United States approved conditional sanctions waivers for Iran on Sunday, though it cautioned they would not take effect until Tehran has curbed its nuclear program as required under a historic nuclear deal reached in Vienna on July 14. “Today marks an important milestone toward preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and ensuring its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful going forward,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a White House statement. In a memo, he directed the secretaries of state, treasury, commerce and energy “to take all necessary steps to give effect to the U.S. commitments with respect to sanctions described in (the Iran deal).” Several senior U.S. officials, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said actual sanctions relief for Iran was at least two months away. Sunday was “adoption day” for the deal, which came 90 days after the U.N. Security Council endorsed the agreement reached by Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China under which most sanctions on Iran would be lifted in exchange for limits on Tehran’s nuclear activities”.

Cameron sells out to China

28/10/2015

An article notes the growing friendship between China and the UK, “Britain’s increasingly warm relationship with China is getting radioactive. On Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping and British Prime Minister David Cameron shook hands on a $9 billion Chinese investment to help build the first nuclear power plant in the U.K. in a generation. It was the shiny centerpiece of a $46 billion investment package the two countries agreed to during Xi’s four-day, red-carpet visit to his new “best partner in the West.” Britain hopes to ingratiate itself with the world’s second-largest economy, while China hopes the deals, especially the massive investment in the controversial and hugely expensive Hinkley Point nuclear power station, will serve as a bridgehead for more multibillion-dollar nuclear deals. The two countries are talking about Chinese investment in two additional nuclear plants, including one that will use Chinese-built reactors”.

The writer goes on to note crucially that the real driving force is not Cameron but Osborne, “The energy-sector investments are part of a broader British shift toward China, led by George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, Britain’s top Treasury official. He touted London as Beijing’s potential “best partner” on a glad-handing trip through China last month. And Xi’s visit to London comes after months of explicit British government support for a growing Chinese economic role in the world, from joining the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to supporting Beijing’s bid to transform the renminbi into a global reserve currency”.

The short term danger is that energy consumption has been declining in the UK for a decade and this energy deal will guarantee the Chinese a certain price irrespective of demand. This will naturally come from the UK taxpayers rather than “the market”. On that reason alone the deal is a disaster. The longer term concern is that it will prop up the Chinese regime and at the same time tie the UK government to this regime just as it is showing its manifold weaknesses.

Importantly the article makes the valid point that “More worrisome for Washington, the rapprochement comes as top British officials, including Cameron, shy away from confronting China on contentious issues like human rights or the militarization of the South China Sea — even as the United States tries to craft a tougher approach. That has plenty of observers in the United States and the U.K. fretting that Osborne’s courtship of China threatens the decades-old special relationship that has long served as the keystone of the trans-Atlantic alliance. While the White House publicly downplays the significance of the Sino-British embrace — “the United States welcomes strong relations between our allies and China,” press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday — many U.S. diplomats are privately said to be “incandescent” with rage at Britain. And many in Britain, from former officials to current opposition politicians, have excoriated what they see as a British sell-out to Beijing”.

The author goes on to argue “The British drift toward China, capped by this week’s big investment announcements, underscores the degree to which the relationship is still transactional. Like Russia, Pakistan, and others, Britain sees in China a deep-pocketed investor who can help underwrite needed but costly infrastructure projects. Beijing is investing hundreds of billions of dollars to build railroads, pipelines, deepwater ports, power plants, and more fromCentral and South Asia to Europe“.

The writer takes the energy deal as a case in point “Nowhere is that clearer than with the Hinkley Point nuclear plant, a mammoth, 3.2 gigawatt power station estimated to cost about $38 billion and which the British government says is needed to avoid the threat of future electricity blackouts. Britain, along with the plant’s lead corporate sponsor, France’s EDF, had struggled to get Hinkley Point out of the starting gate due to its huge budget”.

Crucially he continues “Hinkley’s opponents disagree. The British government had to offer investors guaranteed, high tariffs for the electricity produced by the power plant, which they say will cost British ratepayers billions of pounds every year for decades. That degree of state support for nuclear power has already put Britain at odds with Austria and other European Union countries. And Xi’s cash-fueled visit comes just as the bedrock of British industry, the steel sector, is reeling from layoffs caused in large part by unfair competition by Chinese firms. That has created terrible optics for Osborne’s panda hug. “It is difficult to comprehend exactly what the chancellor thinks he’s doing,” said Paul Dorfman, an expert on nuclear power at the Energy Institute, University College London, and an outspoken critic of Hinkley Point. He criticises the British decision to bet so heavily on nuclear power to avoid blackouts, given the reactor’s terrible track record so far. Experts estimate it could take another decade at least to come online. “If you are worried about an electricity gap, the last thing you want is to build an EPR, because it simply won’t be there,” Dorfman said”.

As if that was not enough the author notes the Sino-UK embrace will become a security threat, “The Chinese nuclear investment is causing additional worries, including cybersecurity. Former British officials and opposition politicians are afraid that Chinese ownership of a nuclear plant will give Beijing the opportunity to plant “Trojan horse” type cyberdevices inside critical infrastructure, or threaten to shut down the power plant at times of tension between the two countries. The United States, for example, carefully scrutinises all foreign investment in potentially strategic sectors, and in recent years has blockedsome Chinese deals, even in seemingly innocuous things like wind farms”.

Worryingly he ends “For now, Chinese money is set to keep flowing into Britain, and commercial imperatives look poised to bring London and Beijing closer together. But, just as Australia had to learn how to walk a fine line between trade and security when it comes to balancing relations with China and the United States, Britain too may soon face a difficult choice between its long-time ally and the new rising power”.

Iran meets a UN deadline

28/10/2015

Iran has met a deadline to give the U.N. nuclear watchdog information it needs to assess whether Tehran sought to develop nuclear weapons in the past, the agency said on Thursday, a step towards carrying out a deal between Tehran and world powers. The apparent progress reported in the longstanding U.N. investigation coincided with increasing Western disquiet over Iran’s test of a ballistic missile this week in defiance of a U.N. ban, a move France said sent a disconcerting message. It also followed an unusual broadcast by Iranian state television of footage of an underground tunnel crammed with missiles and launchers that appeared to signal Tehran’s determination to expand its large missile inventory. The Islamic Republic’s missiles are viewed with concern by its Western-allied Gulf Arab neighbors given what they see as the risk of Tehran tipping missiles with nuclear weapons, should it ever develop any in future. Iran has long denied that its enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel has any military ends, saying it is for civilian energy only. But its restrictions on U.N. inspections and intelligence suggesting it has researched nuclear bombs in the past raised concern and led to international sanctions.

“Francis tapped ideologically centre-left clerics”

28/10/2015

Yesterday Pope Francis appointed new archbishops in Palermo and Bologna.

John Allen writes “Many Catholics have a gut instinct that something revolutionary is afoot in the Church under Pope Francis, but for many, its precise contours remain a bit unclear. Perhaps one way to phrase it is that Francis is leading a “Pastoral Revolution.” The pontiff has insisted that he has no intention of altering traditional Catholic doctrine, but he wants a more compassionate and merciful application of that teaching at the pastoral level, meaning in parishes and other local venues in the Church”.

Allen goes on to mention “That was the spirit, for instance, in which a recently concluded Synod of Bishops treated the contentious issue of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics – upholding traditional doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage, but also appearing to leave a cautious opening for discernment about handling Communion privately on a case-by-case basis known as the “internal forum.” Tuesday brought two more major steps in Italy for this “Pastoral Revolution,” as Francis tapped ideologically centre-left clerics known for their social activism to head two of the country’s most important archdioceses in Bologna and Palermo”.

Crucially Allen argues that “Around the Catholic world, bishops’ appointments in Italy often are read as tone-setting moves for the entire Church, since pontiffs generally take a greater-than-average interest in their own backyard. From a political point of view, the transition in Bologna is especially striking”.

He continues, “There, Francis replaced Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, 77, a longtime champion of the Church’s conservative wing and a leading opponent of an opening for the divorced and remarried, with 60-year-old Matteo Maria Zuppi, well-known in the city of Rome as a fixture in the center-left Community of Sant’Egidio, known for its work in ecumenism, interfaith dialogue, and conflict resolution. Zuppi sometimes has been dubbed the “Bergoglio of Italy,” a reference to the given name of Pope Francis.  For observers of Italian Catholic affairs, the move may be seen as tantamount to what happened in Chicago in September 2014, when Francis replaced the late Cardinal Francis George, who led the US bishops in their standoff with the Obama administration over contraception mandates, with the moderate Archbishop Blase Cupich”.

Interestingly he adds “Over the years, Zuppi has also been involved in some of Sant’Egidio’s best-known efforts at diplomatic troubleshooting, including playing a key role in negotiations that led to the end of a bloody civil war in Mozambique in 1992. For his part in the peace talks, Zuppi was made an honorary citizen of Mozambique. Zuppi also has organised a series of efforts in the city of Rome to provide care for the elderly, the poor, gypsies, and drug addicts, much of it centered in the Trastevere neighbourhood where Sant’Egidio has its headquarters”.

Moving on to Sicily Allen notes that “In Palermo, Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Paolo Romeo, also 77, and tapped 53-year-old Corrado Lorefice, another figure well known in Italian ecclesiastical circles for his anti-Mafia activism, his efforts on behalf of the victims of prostitution and human trafficking, and his writings on the Church’s “option for the poor.” Lorefice is known as a great admirer of the late Sicilian priest the Rev. Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, who worked in a tough Palermo neighbourhood called Brancaccio trying to keep young people out of organized crime and was shot to death by Mafia hitmen in 1993. Puglisi was beatified, the final step toward sainthood, just two months after the election of Pope Francis in March 2013”.

The choices are of particular import as “Both Bologna and Palermo have traditionally been dioceses whose leaders automatically become cardinals. Pope Francis, however, appears to prefer to lift up new cardinals from traditionally neglected areas, so there’s no guarantee that either Zuppi or Lorefice will necessarily be inducted into the College of Cardinals. However, given their relatively young age for senior churchmen (60 and 53, respectively), Zuppi and Lorefice are positioned to be points of reference on the Italian Catholic scene for some time to come, regardless of whether they receive the “red hat” designating them as cardinals”.

Montenegro, joining NATO?

26/10/2015

In 1999, NATO was dropping bombs on Montenegro, a small state in southeastern Europe that at that point was part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia alongside Serbia. Sixteen years later, things have certainly changed. If a now-independent Montenegro gets what it hopes for, it could be asked to join NATO in just a few months. “I am certain the conditions are there for the alliance member states in December to take the decision to invite Montenegro to join,” Montenegrin Foreign Minister Igor Luksic told Reuters. Top NATO officials have been visiting Montenegro this week, a trip they say is designed to assess whether the country has made progress on reforms required to join the alliance. The country is one of four seeking NATO membership (alongside Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Georgia), but experts say it is most likely to join next”.

“Turkey has little power to alter the energy relationship for now”

26/10/2015

Following the increased tensions between Turkey and Russia after Russian jets were in Turkish airspace, an article discusses the threat that Turkey could pose to Russian energy plans.

It begins “Russia’s military adventure in Syria seems to have angered most of the Sunni world, and reports of stray Russian missiles hitting Iran could well tick off the Shiite one, too. But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s armed support for Syria may also cause another casualty with even bigger long-term implications: an abrupt chill in Russian-Turkish relations. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, lashed out Thursday for thesecond time this week about Russian adventurism in his neighbourhood, warning Moscow that such behaviour could scupper multibillion-dollar energy deals between the two countries, including a burgeoning natural gas trade and a new nuclear power station.

Johnson goes on to make the point that “Such antics, Erdogan said, could drive Turkey to find other energy suppliers. “If necessary, Turkey can get its natural gas from many different places,” he said. Russia’s lunge into the nearly five-year Syrian civil war has shaken Turkey’s leaders, who less than a year ago were clasping hands and proclaiming a “strategic partnership” with Moscow. The centerpiece of that partnership was a huge new natural gas pipeline that would cross the Black Sea, enter Turkey, and fuel both the local market and southern Europe. The accord was greased with billions of dollars in Russian financing for a long-planned nuclear plant in Turkey. Yet Ankara has summoned Moscow’s ambassador three times in the past week to protest what Russia is doing in Syria, even as Erdogan is basking in public support from the very partners — NATO and the United States — he has spent his time in office spurning”.

Johnson notes that “The big question now is whether Moscow’s mission in Syria — and Ankara’s unease with its increasing dependence on Russian energy supplies — will end up ultimately sundering what looked like a beautiful friendship. “There could potentially be a silver lining. This is pushing Turkey more toward the West, and toward its NATO allies, which could be a good thing in the medium and long term in terms of the geopolitical situation,” said Emre Tuncalp, a senior advisor at Sidar Global Advisors, a risk consultancy. That isn’t to say that a pair of wandering Russian jets have by themselves torpedoed the Turkish Stream pipeline or plans for the big nuclear plant. Both energy projects have been wobbly for quite a while. Doubts over the viability of the pipeline surfaced as soon as it was announced, since Russia has little money to finance it and it is hardly an appealing route for European gas consumers. Even before Erdogan’s scolding this week, Russian gas firm Gazprom abruptly announced it would cut the planned pipeline to half its size. The nuclear plant, meanwhile, had already faced years of delays”.

Johnson continues that “Faced with a military adventurism that threatens to upend his Syria policy, and buffeted by a growing chorus of voices at home warning about the perils of relying too much on Russia as an economic, trade, and energy partner, Erdogan had little choice but to take a hard rhetorical line with the Kremlin. But Erdogan has a credibility gap. Despite his bluster, Turkey has little power to alter the energy relationship for now. Russia is Turkey’s biggest supplier, and there are few alternatives that could make up any shortfall if Ankara started shopping around, which leaves the fate of Turkish power plants and factories essentially in Russian hands. Additional volumes of gas from Azerbaijan and Iran would take years to bring online; importing gas from Iraq is a dicey proposition with the Islamic State still entrenched. The eastern Mediterranean Sea may hold plenty of gas, but that isn’t an option for Turkey right now. And the country has only two terminals to import liquefied gas from places like Algeria, Qatar, or the United States”.

He concludes “What’s more, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was precisely the driving force behind Turkey’s cool relations with Washington and Brussels — and cozier links to countries like Russia. The rhetorical about-face seems designed to let Erdogan zig after years of zagging”.

“Obama halted the withdrawal of American military forces from Afghanistan”

22/10/2015

President Obama halted the withdrawal of American military forces from Afghanistan on Thursday, announcing that the United States will keep thousands of troops in the country through the end of his term in 2017 and indefinitely prolonging the American role in a war that has already lasted 14 years. In a brief statement from the Roosevelt Room in the White House, Mr. Obama said he continued to oppose the idea of “endless war.” But the president, who once traveled to Afghanistan to declare “the light of a new day on the horizon,” said Thursday that a longer-term American presence there was vital to the security of the United States and a country that is beset by the Taliban, their allies from Al Qaeda, and militants from the Islamic State. “While America’s combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and its people endures,” said Mr. Obama, flanked by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and top military leaders. “I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.” The decision, reached after what White House officials called an “extensive, lengthy review,” ensures that Mr. Obama will leave office in 15 months without making good on a seminal promise of his presidency: to responsibly end the military involvements started by his predecessor, George W. Bush, and withdraw all American troops from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan”.

The Synod’s closing document?

22/10/2015

John Allen examines the closing document of the Synod of Bishops, “As the Oct. 4-25 Synod of Bishops on the family nears its end, two features of the process seem especially striking. One is how much the bishops have left to do; the other is how much uncertainty still surrounds exactly what they’re doing”.

Allen goes on to make the point that “The final result is to be a document to be presented to Pope Francis. It’s designed to be based on a working document distributed before the synod, but there’s been enough dissatisfaction with that earlier text that it’s possible the 10-member drafting committee could essentially start from scratch.

That drafting committee includes:

  • Cardinal Peter Erdo, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and the synod’s relator general
  • Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary of the synod
  • Archbishop Bruno Forte, archishop of Chieti-Vasto, Italy
  • Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay, India
  • Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, DC
  • Cardinal John Dew, archbishop of Wellington, New Zealand
  • Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina
  • Bishop Mathieu Madega Lebouakehan, bishop of Mouila, Gabon
  • Bishop Marcello Semeraro, bishop of Albano, Italy
  • The Rev. Adolfo Nicolas, head of the Jesuit order

Whether the group overhauls the original working document, called the Instrumentum Laboris, or goes back to the drawing board, it’s supposed to incorporate the hundreds of suggestions made by the synod’s 13 small working groups”.

He goes on to write that “On Tuesday morning, those groups were supposed to finish putting together their proposals, with a 1 p.m. deadline in Rome. Tuesday afternoon, the entire synod was to hear a report from each of the small groups, and in the evening, reporters for each group were to meet to assess the proposals to pass along to the drafting committee. Synod officials vowed to bring food to the group so it could work through dinner, with a deadline of noon Wednesday in Rome. In the meantime, their final set of individual reports are scheduled for release to the media Wednesday morning”.

He writes that “The drafting committee has already been meeting to get organized. Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge wrote in a blog postTuesday morning that one member told him Pope Francis had popped in unannounced on Monday, mostly to urge the committee to produce a “good document.” The synod will have a free day on Wednesday to allow the drafting committee to work. Reflecting the fluidity of the situation, the schedule has been adjusted on the fly to make Thursday morning free as well, followed by a general session in the afternoon to discuss an initial draft of the final document. That discussion will continue Friday morning, followed by a free period in the afternoon for final adjustments”.

Allen correctly writes that three questions have yet to be answered, In past synods, two documents were produced at the end: a set of specific propositions, sometimes as many as a hundred, intended for the pope, and a concluding message addressed to the wider world. This time there are no propositions and no message, only the one final document. As of Tuesday morning, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who’s taking part in the synod, told Crux it’s still not clear to him whether that document is supposed to be addressed only to the pope or also crafted for public consumption. Presumably that’s a decision the drafting committee will have to make, perhaps based on suggestions from the working groups”.

Allen continues, “In an interview with Crux last week, Wuerl, a member of the drafting committee, said his understanding was that its function is to report on areas where there was “general support” among the bishops, which he defined in terms of something like 80 or 85 percent agreement. The way to know that something did not enjoy such a consensus, he said, would be if it doesn’t appear in the document. In his own Crux interview, however, Australian Cardinal George Pell said that he feels the document needs to report not only on agreement but also division, saying that if the synod is split 50/50 on something, “the Catholic world has to know that.” Presumably, another decision the drafting committee will have to make is whether the document will simply be a report on the synod’s discussions, or a more ambitious attempt to present a Catholic vision of the family based on those discussions”.

On the question of when the document will be released to the public Allen contends that “Vatican briefers repeatedly have said that it’s up to the pope when, and if, the synod’s final document will be released to the public. That could happen Saturday night after the final ballot, they’ve said, along with the paragraph-by-paragraph vote totals. It could be a few days later, after the text has been reviewed and translations prepared. Or Pope Francis could decide he wants to keep the document to himself to use as the basis for his own eventual reflections. Most observers in Rome believe the smart money is on the document and the results of the voting being released right away Saturday night, for two reasons. First, there have already been widely voiced charges of manipulation and stacking the deck during the synod, and if there’s a delay in releasing the document, it’s likely someone would cry foul. Second, as Pell noted in his Crux interview, it’s a near-certainty the document would leak anyway, making efforts to keep it under wraps futile”.

“Ramping up operations to retake Baiji and Ramadi”

22/10/2015

Iraqi forces battled ISIS militants on separate fronts Thursday, ramping up operations to retake Baiji and Ramadi, two of the conflict’s worst flash-points. The Baiji area has seen almost uninterrupted fighting since ISIS swept across Iraq last year, but top officers said Thursday that the Baiji refinery, the country’s largest, was almost secure. There were contradictory statements from the armed forces and the allied paramilitary Popular Mobilization (Hashed al-Shaabi) on whether or not the refinery had been fully retaken. Senior commanders said it had been “completely cleared” but the Joint Operations Command said late Wednesday that the sprawling complex had not yet been extensively swept by Iraqi forces. The refinery itself, which once produced 300,000 barrels per day of refined products meeting half of Iraq’s needs, is said to have been damaged beyond repair and no longer of huge strategic interest”.

“Sanctions alone may not be sufficient to get Putin’s attention”

20/10/2015

An article discusses the problems of Putin and asks, how to deal with Putin, “RT reported that four Russian missile ships in the Caspian Sea attacked 11 targets inside Syria with 26 cruise missiles. “According to objective control data, all the targets were destroyed. No civilian objects sustained damage,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. The missile barrage — and, one might argue, the whole Russian adventure in Syria — illustrates Russian bullying. When a former University of Chicago professor encounters a former KGB agent, one plays a “win-win” game where both stand to benefit while the other plays, “I win, you lose.” It’s time President Obama learned how to negotiate with a bully”.

The piece argues “First, the president needs to negotiate like one because President Vladimir Putin is a bully. Obama has to see Putin as mainly an opponent not primarily a partner; Putin is the KGB agent fostering a new Cold War on the horizon. (But Europe is not the only theater where bullying is occurring. Think East and South China seas involving China, the Philippines, Japan, and Southeast Asia.). Second, negotiating from strength means slowing down withdrawals and reinserting American military forces into Europe and the Middle East. It also means using the bully pulpit, and then supplementing words with military moves. Otherwise, America loses and our adversaries win. Third, in the air, Obama should transfer F-22s to Israel to counter state of the art Russian Su-34s now in Syria. On the ground, have an “Islamic State no-go zone” in northern Syria, with U.S. air and limited land presence, as James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey and now at The Washington Institute, suggested“.

Correctly the author writes that “the Sept. 28 U.N. addresses by Obama and Putin suggested Obama was losing the battle for worldwide public opinion and actions in the Middle East. In a readout of the speeches by Obama and Putin on Sept. 28 by Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East, in Forbes, Borshchevskaya showed how Obama played into Putin’s hands at the U.N. She held that the Putin U.N. speech repeated his longstanding narrative of moral equivalence and the “blatant hypocrisy of his foreign and domestic policy has gone largely unchallenged by the Obama administration.” Obama did not do well with either the public optics or with results in their private session. He gave Putin a propaganda platform to go head-to-head with an American president and obtained a stamp of approval that Russia was a player on the international stage. By setting up a foursome of Iran, Iraq, Russia, and Syria without Obama’s knowledge or U.S. inclusion, Putin seized the advantage in the Middle East. The road to war and peace now goes through Moscow”.

Pointedly the writer states that “Putin plays to win and for Obama to lose and is continuing to do so today. As a part of his playbook, Putin supported his allies in Iran and Syria and expected Obama to do the same, favoring those whom Putin backed. While the Obama and Putin sidebar took place, thousands of moderate Syrian rebels and Iranian dissidents met near the U.N. in an anti-Rouhani rally that highlighted Iran’s violations of human rights. Reuel Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, provided the backstory for that protest of the supposedly moderate President Rouhani. On July 31, Gerecht lambasted the search for a moderate in Iran because it ignored Iranian street protests, the assassination of expatriates, and the mass executions of political prisoners. On July 27, Gerecht decried absence of human source intelligence on the ground in Iran that indicated a coming failure of intelligence. By dancing to the tune of “Putin Rules,” Obama loses Iranian Street intelligence as a new Cold War heats up”.

The writer goes on to make the point “Sanctions alone may not be sufficient to get Putin’s attention. They need to be reinforced by military actions. NATO was on the right track holding Allied Shield exercises in June that brought together 15,000 service members from 19 member nations and three partners. To deter potential Kremlin aggression, NATO stepped up exercises in reaction to Russian threats. Lethal equipment and enhanced sanctions would raise the cost of a Russian attack on Eastern Ukraine. On Sept. 18, Peter Feaver and Eric Lorber pointed out that flip-flopping on the rationale for the nuclear deal with Iran weakened the credibility of the sanctions regime. They called for legislation that would prohibit U.S. and some European companies from doing business with any terrorist-related Iranian organizations to keep the up the pressure”.

He ends “When a player repeats the same approach in the face of failure, it is makes no sense. Obama’s pursuit of “win-win” when Putin follows “win-lose” is a recipe for U.S. failure. Our coercive diplomacy requires military forces to backstop diplomatic initiatives. For Obama to negotiate from strength means arresting his cutbacks in the defence budget, slowing down troop withdrawals, and reinserting American military forces in the Middle East and in Europe, (with forces able to maintain deterrence and defense in Asia regarding China). Unless our opponents and allies perceive there is an American will to employ those forces, the partners must receive means they require to deter and defend. How to negotiate with a bully? Use the bully pulpit with words complemented by military moves. Otherwise, we lose and our adversaries win”.

“U.S. Navy will not be deterred”

20/10/2015

The U.S. Navy will not be deterred from conducting a close patrol of China’s man-made Spratly Islands, if it chooses, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Tuesday. “We will fly, sail, and operate wherever the international law permits, and we will do that at the times and places of our choosing, and there’s no exception to that,” Carter said in Boston, where he and Secretary of State John Kerry were meeting with their Australian counterparts. “Whether it’s the Arctic, or the sea lanes that fuel international commerce widely around the world, or the South China Sea.” Carter said the United States wants China and the other countries to halt reclamation and militarization activities on the Spratly Islands, a collection of islands, rocks and elevated coral reefs. According to a recent maritime report by the Department of Defense, there are more than 200 Spratly land features, though that figure varies based on how geographers count them”.

The Synod’s ostriches

18/10/2015

A piece from Crux notes the progress of the Synod, “Given the blindingly obvious fact that there are deep divisions at the 2015 Synod of Bishops, various ways of analyzing those fault lines have been proposed. Some see them in terms of the difference between a deductive and inductive approach, some between meeting the world halfway versus not being swallowed up by it, and so on. As the synod rolls into its second week, yet another way of understanding the fundamental divide is coming into focus: The gap between those who believe the demands of classic Catholic teaching on sex, marriage, and the family may be unrealistic or inappropriate for some share of the contemporary population, and those convinced that it’s widely attainable in the here-and-now”.

In his classic style Allen writes, “Perhaps one could call the latter position the “Yes We Can!’ brigade at the 2015 synod. (Presumably, the irony of applying Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan to a bloc of folks who would generally be seen as cultural conservatives isn’t lost on anyone.) Many in this camp suspect that advocates of a more “pastoral” approach on matters such as homosexuality and divorce have quietly thrown in the towel on the idea that it’s reasonable to expect lifelong faithful marriage to be the norm, or that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics shouldn’t be sexually intimate, and so on. The “Yes We Can!” faction wouldn’t deny that many people don’t actually live those teachings, but they insist that it can be done, and fear that by not encouraging people to do so, the Church clearly risks selling them short”.

Allen goes on to add “We caught an early glimpse of this position in the first cycle of reports from the synod’s small working groups, which were released last Friday. The base text for the synod, known as the Instrumentum Laboris, came in for fairly withering criticism in those reports — as a colleague in the press corps put it, had this been a college term paper, the kid who wrote it would have flunked. A key point was the assertion by several groups that the document portrays an overly negative assessment of the situation facing the contemporary family, seemingly more focused on where families break down than where they flourish”.

However, this group of single men, whom Allen calls the “Yes we can group” know nothing about the real lives of the people that they are supposed to be leading. To pretend that all is well in the Church’s teaching in this regard is simply to bury their heads in the sand.

Allen gives an example, “The group led by Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto arrived at a similar conclusion. “Most of our group felt the Instrumentum Laboris should begin with hope rather than failures, because a great many people already do successfully live the Gospel’s good news about marriage,” it said. On Monday night, I attended an event organized by one of the participants in the synod featuring a couple of well-known Roman experts on issues pertaining to marriage and sexual ethics, where the refrain was much the same. One of the evening’s most powerful moments came when a speaker complained that in its debate over the issue of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried — known in shorthand fashion as the “Kasper proposal,” since its leading advocate is German Cardinal Walter Kasper — the synod risks treating such believers as “second-class” Catholics, incapable of living out what the Church asks”.

 

Correctly he mentions that “No one in the synod would deny that there are Catholics out there, perhaps more than one might imagine, who do accept the full version of Church teaching. Virtually everyone could probably agree that such folks deserve whatever pastoral backup the Church can muster. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who’s also at the synod, posted a blog item on Monday suggesting that these people form a “new minority” in the contemporary world, writing that “they are looking to the Church, and to us, for support and encouragement.” The question is, how should the Church treat people who can’t, or don’t want to, make those choices? For one side of the synod’s debates, it might be time for the Church to honestly acknowledge that such folks are likely to be the majority, and often for understandable and morally defensible reasons”.

Allen concludes “Without giving up on the ideal, this group would say the Church needs to make better accommodations for those who fall short. The “Yes We Can!” camp, however, believes Church teaching isn’t just an ideal, but a practical way of life, though without minimizing the sacrifices it may entail. As they see it, the synod’s message ought to be, “You’re called to this, and we’re going to have your back in pulling it off.” How those two instincts might be reconciled, and whether that’s even possible, will help shape the drama of the synod during the two weeks left on its calendar”.

“One of its senior members was killed in an airstrike in Iraq”

18/10/2015

The hardline Islamic State group confirmed on Tuesday that one of its senior members was killed in an airstrike in Iraq earlier this year, the SITE monitoring service said. Islamic State’s spokesman said in an audio message that Abu Mutaz Qurashi, also known as Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali, had been killed, SITE said. The White House said on August 21 that Hayali was killed during a US air strike in Iraq and described him as the second-in-command of the group, which has seized swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq”.

“Putin has been playing his weak hand better than Obama”

16/10/2015

A piece asks who is the better strategist, Putin or Obama, “That’s not quite the right question, of course, because both leaders depend to some degree on intelligence reports and advice from trusted advisers and not just their own judgment. Accordingly, any assessment of their relative performance is to some degree an evaluation not just of the individual leaders but also their respective foreign-policy brain trusts. Still, the buck does stop at the top, and Russia’s recent move into Syria has a lot of people wondering if the Kremlin has outflanked, outwitted, and outgunned the White House once again”.

The report goes on to note “One way to address this question is to take a broader look at how each country has fared over the past seven years or so. Putin’s record looked pretty good for awhile: The Russian economy grew rapidly through 2012 (due to high oil and commodity prices), it gained entry into the World Trade Organization, and the so-called “reset” restored a degree of cordiality to the strained relationship between Washington and Moscow. But Putin’s overall record since looks much less impressive: The Russian economy is now in a serious recession, while America’s is chugging along reasonably well. And consider this: Russia’s 2014 GDP was less than $2 trillion, so over the past six years the US economy grew by an amount larger than Russia’s entire economy. The U.S. economy is also far more diverse and resilient”.

Importantly he writes “Equally important, the United States hasn’t lost any key allies over the past seven years and its relations with a number of countries (e.g., India, Vietnam, etc.) have improved significantly. Russia and China are cooperating a bit more but are hardly close allies while the Ukraine crisis has damaged relations with Europe significantly and gotten Russia suspended from the G-8. The United States just signed a massive trade deal with an array of Asian partners, whereas Putin’s efforts to build a “Eurasian Economic Union” have been mostly stillborn. And the fact that Putin felt compelled to bail out the Assad regime in Syria tells us that its overall position in the Middle East is tenuous”.

Yet he writes , “yet, it is hard to escape the impression that Putin has been playing his weak hand better than Obama has played his strong one. These perceptions arise in part because Obama inherited several foreign-policy debacles, and it’s hard to abandon a bunch of failed projects without being accused of retreating. Obama’s main mistake was not going far enough to liquidate the unsound positions bequeathed by his predecessor: He should have gotten out of Afghanistan faster and never done regime change in Libya at all. By contrast, Putin looks successful at first glance because Russia is playing a more active role than it did back when it was largely prostrate. Given where Russia was in 1995 or even 2000, there was nowhere to go but up. But Putin has also done one thing right: He has pursued simple objectives that were fairly easy to achieve and that played to Russia’s modest strengths. In Ukraine, he had one overriding goal: to prevent that country from moving closer to the EU, eventually becoming a full member, and then joining NATO. He wasn’t interested in trying to reincorporate all of Ukraine or turn it into a clone of Russia, and the “frozen conflict” that now exists there is sufficient to achieve his core goal. This essentially negative objective was not that hard to accomplish because Ukraine was corrupt, internally divided, and right next door to Russia. These features made it easy for Putin to use a modest degree of force and hard for anyone else to respond without starting a cycle of escalation they could not win”.

Correctly he argues “Putin’s goals in Syria are equally simple, realistic, and aligned with Russia’s limited means. He wants to preserve the Assad regime as a meaningful political entity so that it remains an avenue of Russian influence and a part of any future political settlement. He’s not trying to conquer Syria, restore the Alawites to full control over the entire country, defeat the Islamic State, or eliminate all Iranian influence. And he’s certainly not pursuing some sort of quixotic dream of building democracy there. A limited deployment of Russian airpower and a handful of “volunteers” may suffice to keep Assad from being defeated, especially if the United States and others eventually adopt a more realistic approach to the conflict as well. By contrast, U.S. goals toward both of these conflicts have been a combination of wishful thinking and strategic contradictions”.

He continues “Needless to say, U.S. policy in Syria has been even more muddled. Since the uprising first began, Washington has been vainly trying to achieve a series of difficult and incompatible goals. It says, “Assad must go,” but it doesn’t want any jihadi groups (i.e., the only people who are really fighting Assad) to replace him. It wants to “degrade and destroy ISIS,” but it also wants to make sure anti-Islamic State groups like al-Nusra Front don’t succeed. It is relying on Kurdish fighters to help deal with the Islamic State, but it wants Turkey to help, too, and Turkey opposes any steps that might stoke the fires of Kurdish nationalism. So the United States has been searching in vain for “politically correct” Syrian rebels — those ever-elusive “moderates” — and it has yet to find more than a handful. And apart from wanting Assad gone, the long-term U.S. vision for Syria’s future was never clear”.

 

He ends “On one side, Obama does have an underlying sense of realism and understands that U.S. interests in many places are limited. He also grasps that our capacity to dictate outcomes is equally constrained, especially when it involves complicated matters of social engineering in divided societies very different from our own. In other words: Nation-building is expensive, goddamn hard, and for the most part unnecessary. But he has to lead a foreign-policy establishment that is addicted to “global leadership” — if only to keep giving itself something to do — and he faces an opposition party that derides any form of “inaction,” even when its proposed alternatives are “mumbo-jumbo.” Putin, by contrast, has done a better job of matching his goals to the resources he has available, which is one of the hallmarks of a good strategist. His failing is that it’s all short-term and essentially defensive; he is fighting a series of rearguard actions designed to prevent Russia’s global position from deteriorating further, instead of pursuing a program that might enhance Russia’s power and status over the longer term”.

“60 to 70 percent of the Taliban would end up reconciling”

16/10/2015

About 60 to 70 percent of the Taliban would end up reconciling with the Afghan government, General John Campbell told lawmakers here on Thursday. The US and NATO top commander in Afghanistan said he did not expect the Haqqani network, members of Al Qaeda and a section of the Taliban coming forward for peace talks. “The estimates I’ve heard both from Afghan perspective and probably from Intel community is anywhere between 60 or 70 percent with potentially reconcilable on the Taliban side,” Campbell told members of House Armed Services Committee during a Congressional hearing. “You probably would not have Haqqani, who continues to be an enemy, and is dangerous to both the coalition of the Afghan civilians because they attack civilians; they’re the ones that are responsible for the high profile attacks in Kunduz,” he said. He believed the Haqqanis would probably not reconcile and there was probably members of Al Qaeda who would not reconcile”.

Obama gets tough on China?

16/10/2015

An article in Foreign Policy argues that the United States is finally becoming tougher in Asia, “The United States is poised to send naval ships and aircraft to the South China Sea in a challenge to Beijing’s territorial claims to its rapidly-built artificial islands, U.S. officials told Foreign Policy. The move toward a somewhat more muscular stance follows talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington last month, which fell far short of a breakthrough over how territorial disputes should be settled in the strategic South China Sea. A final decision has not been made. But the Obama administration is heavily leaning toward using a show of military might after Chinese opposition ended diplomatic efforts to halt land reclamation and the construction of military outposts in the waterway. The timing and details of the patrols — which would be designed to uphold principles of freedom of navigation in international waters — are still being worked out, Obama administration and Pentagon officials said”.

The report goes on to mention “The move is likely to raise tensions with China. But U.S. officials have concluded that failing to sail and fly close to the man-made outposts would send a mistaken signal that Washington tacitly accepts Beijing’s far-reaching territorial claims. As the unprecedented scale of Beijing’s reclamation work came to light earlier this year, Defense Secretary Ash Carter asked commanders to draw up possible options to counter China’s actions in the South China Sea, which serves as a vital transit route for global shipping. Now, the administration is preparing to endorse what the military calls enhanced “freedom of navigation operations,” which would have American ships and aircraft venture within 12 nautical miles of at least some artificial islands built by Beijing”.

The piece adds “China argues it has sovereign authority around each of its newly built islands within a 12-mile boundary, a legal argument rejected by neighboring countries as well as by the United States. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea — which Beijing has signed — does not recognize artificially constructed outposts as legitimate islands. The expanded patrols by the U.S. Navy could mean more close encounters between American and Chinese vessels and aircraft, raising the risk of a potential collision or volatile incident. Just days before Xi’s trip to Washington, a Chinese fighter jet flew in front of a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance plane east of the Shandong Peninsula in the Yellow Sea. And in August 2014, a Chinese J-11 fighter jet passed within 20 feet of a U.S. P-8 Poseidon aircraft, performing a barrel roll in a maneuver the Pentagon condemned as reckless”.

It goes on to mention “To avoid misunderstandings and possible crises, U.S. and Chinese defense officials have recently worked out protocols for encounters between ships at sea. And last month during Xi’s visit, the two sides announced amemorandum on rules for action when aircraft from the two nations fly in close proximity. Apart from China’s assertive military stance in the western Pacific, American ships also must contend with swarms of Chinese fishing boats, which Beijing has employed as maritime militia to assert its territorial demands without taking explicit military action. The United States and its partners in Southeast Asia have grown increasingly alarmed by China’s massive reclamation effort in the Spratly Islands. In less than two years, China has built outposts on top of seven reefs covering more than 3,000 acres, according to the Pentagon”.

Importantly, “Stepped-up U.S. naval patrols would be welcomed by China’s neighbours in the region, which have sought out American diplomatic and military assistance to try to counter Beijing’s actions. The United States has stressed it does not take a position on rival territorial claims among China and other states in the area. But it has voiced concern over tactics aimed at coercing other countries and attempts to install military bases on disputed reefs or rocks. Washington believes that a crucial principle is at stake in the dispute over the South China Sea — the international laws and rules that serve as the foundation of the global economy”.

Unsurprisingly it notes “Despite satellite imagery showing long runways and helipads under construction, China’s president said during his visit to the United States last month that his country “does not intend to pursue militarization” of the South China Sea. Xi reiterated his government’s view that Beijing has had sovereign authority over the South China Sea islands “since ancient times.” China repeatedly cites a “nine-dashed line” that lays claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, rejecting rival claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other countries. That controversial demarcation line appeared in a map from the Nationalist government that was toppled in the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and is now featured in Chinese passports. But the line is based on what China calls “historical” claims that are not recognized under the law of the sea”.

The piece ends “It remains unclear if U.S. ships or aircraft would operate near all the man-made islands or only those that were built on top of submerged natural features that were never recognized as islands. A number of the Chinese outposts are built on rocks that jut above the water and could qualify under international law for a 12-mile boundary. The United States has carried out “freedom of navigation” patrols for decades around the world, contesting what it considers “excessive” maritime claims by allies as well as adversaries. In the South China Sea, other countries over the years have also dredged up sand and piled it on top of reefs or rocks to buttress their claims. But land reclamation carried out by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines adds up to an area of less than 200 acres, and it occurred over decades — not months”.

 

It concludes “One of the main challenges, he said, comes from how military ships deal with the fishing boats, which are manned by civilians, but which may be conducting business on behalf of the Chinese military. A paper recently published by two researchers at the U.S. Naval War Collegeargues that the use of the fishing boats “exploits a seam in the law of naval warfare, which protects coastal fishing vessels from capture or attack unless they are integrated into the enemy’s naval force.” The maritime militia provides the Chinese navy “with an inexpensive force multiplier, raising operational, legal and political challenges for any opponent,” the paper states”.

Iran approves the deal

16/10/2015

Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament passed a bill on Tuesday approving its nuclear deal with world powers, signaling victory for the government over hardline opponents who worry the accord opens a door to wider rapprochement with the West. Many conservative lawmakers opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that President Hassan Rouhani’s government agreed with the six powers on July 14, and the vote — which followed a bad-tempered, rowdy debate on Sunday — lifts a significant hurdle to putting the deal into effect. With strong parliamentary backing, the bill is likely to be ratified by a clerical body called the Guardian Council. The exact stance of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on all matters of state, is not known. To date, he has neither approved nor rejected the agreement, but has commended the work of Rouhani’s negotiating team. Provided Khamenei does not openly oppose it, many expect Iran will begin shutting down parts of its nuclear program in coming weeks. When completed, that process will result in most international sanctions, imposed on Iran since 2006 over concerns it was covertly seeking atomic bombs, being lifted”.

Ryan, left or right?

14/10/2015

As the quest to find a new speaker continues a report notes that some consider the lead candidate too left wing, “Far-right media figures, relatively small in number but potent in their influence, have embarked on a furious Internet expedition to cover Representative Paul D. Ryanin political silt. In 2012 when Mitt Romney picked Mr. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, as his running mate, the concern among some in their party was that Mr. Ryan was too conservative, particularly when it came to overhauling social programs likeMedicare and Medicaid. Now, as he agonises over whether to answer the appeal of his colleagues to become their next speaker, the far right is trotting out a fresh concern: Mr. Ryan is too far left”.

The article notes that “He is being criticized on issues ranging from a 2008 vote to bail out large banks to his longstanding interest in immigration reform to his work on a bipartisan budget measure. On Sunday night, the Drudge Report — a prime driver of conservative commentary — dedicated separate headlines to bashing Mr. Ryan on policy positions. Even a self-congratulatory book outlining how Mr. Ryan and two other Republican House leaders drafted Tea Party candidates to help them take over the House in 2010 — “Young Guns” — is being recast by some as a manual of how to be traitorous to conservatism”.

Interestingly the article makes the point that “The influence of conservative websites has enraged members who were once considered right of center themselves, and who are desperately trying to keep Mr. Ryan from getting spooked. “Anyone who attacks Paul Ryan as being insufficiently conservative is either woefully misinformed or maliciously destructive,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma. “Paul Ryan has played a major role in advancing the conservative cause and creating the Republican House majority. His critics are not true conservatives. They are radical populists who neither understand nor accept the institutions, procedures and traditions that are the basis of constitutional governance.” To some degree, the attacks on Mr. Ryan, so far an unwilling draft pick by his colleagues to replace Speaker John A. Boehner, reflect criticism of flashes of pragmatism by Mr. Ryan, the architect of his party’s conservative budget dogma”.

The report goes on to mention that “Since the 2012 general election defeat, Mr. Ryan has indeed become more of a consensus builder and leader in the House, even as he has maintained his ideological tilt. He has largely voted for bills to keep the government operating and the debts paid when many other Republicans vote against them these days. He was half the brain on a 2013 compromise with Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, to funnel more money to the government and avert two years of budget brinkmanship, even though two years earlier, he had refused to sit on the original committee that tried and failed to find a solution to the government’s financial problems”.

It later adds, “Mr. Ryan moved this year to the chairmanship of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee from the Budget Committee because he said he wanted even greater influence on national fiscal policy, and his prescriptions are anathema to most Democrats. But the current flak following Mr. Ryan stems from a growing and powerful collection of far-right pundits and news media — from Mark Levin to Laura Ingraham to the sites RedState and Breitbart and the new Conservative Review — that have successfully wielded influence over Republican voters and lawmakers in strongly conservative districts. Their bill of particulars against Mr. Ryan have shifted from the national debt and spending to immigration. Lately, they have focused on Mr. Ryan’s enthusiastic support for free trade, traditionally a policy that has gotten broad Republican support but is now being used as a bat against him. Beyond Mr. Ryan, the conservative targets have seemingly shifted from old time establishment lawmakers to a process seemingly more akin to random selection”.

It reports “On Monday, a Tea Party group in Alabama sent out warning flares to Representative Martha Roby, a Republican, advising her that she would come under fire if she supported Mr. Ryan for speaker. While the influence of Fox News on conservative voters has been well documented, “There’s a lot we don’t know about this bumper crop of digital news start-ups of the past five or 10 years, especially ad-supported ones,” said Jesse Holcomb the associate director of journalism research at the Pew Research Center. “Many aren’t public and don’t produce earnings statements and aren’t required to release information on revenue or profit margins.” But House Republicans and their staff say millions of Republican primary voters have their opinions shaped by sites like Breitbart.com, which define a version of the conservative position of the moment, then whip their readers into a frenzy, imploring them to oppose anyone who takes a different position”.

The article ends, “The conservative rap on Mr. Ryan’s fiscal positions is especially curious. As Budget Committee chairman, Mr. Ryan was the author of plans that would convert Medicare into something akin to a voucher plan, where seniors would get government subsidies to purchase private insurance and move away from government-run health care. He also wanted to turn Medicaid into increasingly tight block grants to state governments, and he also called for drastic cuts in food stamps, Pell grants and many other domestic programs. But in 2013, Mr. Ryan and Ms. Murray reached an agreement, which passed 332 to 94 in the House, that modestly raised spending restrictions on military and domestic programs for two years, bringing temporary peace to the incessant budget wars that are now eliciting the wrath of the conservative industrial complex”.

It concludes “Immigration is proving to be an even more ripe area for venomous assessment of Mr. Ryan. He pressed for a vote on an immigration reform bill with his Republican colleagues in 2013, noting that “earned legalization is an issue I think the House can and will deal with” but was rebuffed. While 53 percent of Republicans support some earned path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally, said Robert P. Jones, the chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, citing a 2013 poll, “support drops well below majority to 45 percent among Republicans who identify with the Tea Party,” he said. The question for Mr. Ryan, now ensconced in Wisconsin with his family while Congress is in recess, is whether the heat from the right is worth the fight or whether he will gamble that he can overrun them and win far in excess of the 218 votes needed to elected speaker in spite of all that noise, and start off strong and ready for the next round.”

“Taliban overran two more districts in northern Afghanistan”

14/10/2015

The Taliban overran two more districts in northern Afghanistan, this time in the province of Faryab, where the jihadist group made a push to seize the capital just last weekend. The Taliban said it seized control of the districts of Garziwan and Pashtun Kot in two separate statements that were released on Voice of Jihad, the group’s official propaganda outlet. “Mujahideen of Islamic Emirate have managed to completely liberated [sic] Khwaja Musa district [Pashtun Kot] administration center, police HQ building and all the surrounding areas during a large scale operation,” the first statement said. “14 enemy check posts were overrun, forcing the enemy to flee while leaving behind 4 dead bodies and 2 APC wreckages.” The Taliban later stated that it “liberated [the] Garzewan administration center, police HQ building and all the surrounding buildings around 05:30 pm local time today” after launching an offensive yesterday. The Taliban’s claims were largely confirmed in Afghan press reports. Pajhwok Afghan News reported yesterday that the attack in Garziwan was executed by “hundreds of Taliban fighters, led by Mullah Shoib, Mullah Ahmad Shah, Qari Jailan and a Pakistani Sheikh,” and the Taliban advanced to within 4 kilometers of the district center as Afghan political leaders fled.

The disintegration of Saudi Arabia?

14/10/2015

An interesting article notes the internal problems of Saudi Arabia and questions if it will “fall apart”.

It opens “As if there weren’t already enough problems to worry about in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia might be headed for trouble. From plummeting oil prices to foreign-policy missteps to growing tensions with Iran, a confluence of recent events is mounting to pose some serious challenges for the Saudi regime. If not properly managed, these events could eventually coalesce into a perfect storm that significantly increases the risk of instability within the kingdom, with untold consequences for global oil markets and security in the Middle East”.

The first problem the author correctly identifies the cracks in the House of Saud, “Last week, the Guardian published two letters that an anonymous Saudi prince recently circulated among senior members of the royal family, calling on them to stage a palace coup against King Salman. The letters allege that Salman, who ascended to the throne in January, and his powerful 30-something son Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have pursued dangerous policies that are leading the country to political, economic, and military ruin. In an interview with the Guardian, the prince insisted that his demand for a change in leadership not only had growing support within the royal family but across broader Saudi society as well”.

Yet to then say that the Saudi leadership is fundamentally divided and incapable of taking decisions is gross exaggeration. The author does not mention that powerful role of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and his stabilising role as Crown Prince. Also there is the point to note that the princes have no interest in seeing the whole system collapse but are invested in maintaining it.

The second point which is more valid is the ongoing war in Yemen, “The longer it drags on, the greater the risk that the Saudi intervention against Houthi rebels could become a serious source of internal dissension. In its story on the prince’s letters, the Guardian reported that “many Saudis are sickened by the sight of the Arab world’s richest country pummelling its poorest.” Particular blame is attached to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who also serves as the kingdom’s defense minister and by all accounts has been the driving force behind the war effort. Tagged with the unofficial nickname “Reckless,” Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been accused of rushing into Yemen without a clear strategy or exit plan, resulting in mounting costs in blood and treasure, an ever-expanding humanitarian crisis, and growing international criticism”.

The war in Yemen is not going well and it has become invested with more than it should be. However, just because the war is not going well does not mean that it will lead to the disintegration of the kingdom as the writer argues. A badly prosecuted war will make people ask questions but will not lead to the downfall of the entire system.

The third point is as he writes is “largely to Saudi policy, oil prices plummeted by more than 50 percent in the past year. Facing a market glut due to the U.S. oil boom, Saudi strategy has been to maintain high production, fight for market share, allow prices to collapse, and wait for higher cost producers, particularly in America, to be driven out of business. With cheaper oil spurring increased demand and squeezing out excess supply, the theory was that higher prices would return before the kingdom ever felt any real economic pinch. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way — at least not as quickly as the Saudis anticipated. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s 2015 budget was based on the assumption that oil would be selling at about $90 per barrel. Today, it’s closer to half that. At the same time, the Saudis have incurred a rash of expenses that weren’t planned for, including those associated with King Salman’s ascendance to the throne (securing loyalty for a new king can be expensive business) and the war in Yemen. The result is a budget deficit approaching 20 percent, well over $100 billion, requiring the Saudis to deplete their huge foreign exchange reserves at a record rate (about $12 billion per month) while also accelerating bond sales. The Saudis have reportedly liquidated more than $70 billion of their holdings with global asset managers in just the past 6 months”.

Correctly he writes that “there’s no danger that the kingdom will run out of money anytime soon, the longer this trend of large budget deficits, lower oil prices, and declining foreign exchange reserves continues, the more nervous international markets will become — with potential implications for key indicators like credit rating and capital flight. Adding to long-term concernsis the fact that Saudi net oil exports have been in slow decline for years as internal energy consumption rises dramatically. Indeed, analysts nowsuggest that rapidly expanding domestic demand could render the kingdom a net importer of oil by the 2030s. It goes without saying that such a development poses a mortal threat to the kingdom, where oil sales still account for 80 to 90 percent of state revenues”.

The author is both correct and somewhat out of date. Reports said that the country would have to begin importing by 2038 but that since then consumption has slowed and greater efficiency measures have been taken. This is not to say that there are not problems but the short term problem of price can be “fixed” by slowing production.

Related to the section on Yemen he makes the valid point about the conflict with Iran but overstates the effects of it, “Iran in particular has seized on the hajj tragedy to intensify tensions with the Saudis — which, of course, were already at fever pitch over the nuclear issue and Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the region. More Iranians seemed to have died in the stampede than any other nationality; the latest count is 464, and it could still go higher. When the kingdom was slow in repatriating bodies, Iranian officials went on the attack. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,warned the Saudis that they could face a “brutal and violent reaction” if they “show the slightest disrespect to Iranian pilgrims.” Khamenei said that Iran had so far shown great restraint in the face of Saudi offenses, “but they should know that Iran’s hand is superior to many others and has more capabilities.” He concluded that, “If [Iran] wants to react to disturbing and sinister elements, [Saudi Arabia’s] situation will not be good.” Iran’s former defense minister, Revolutionary Guard Gen. Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, followed up by telling the Saudis to take Khamenei’s warning “seriously” because Iran was capable of giving a “strong and crushing” response to Saudi wrongdoings”.

Pointedly he argues that “Russia’s dramatic intervention in Syria has underscored a much broader threat now rocking the kingdom: the growing reality that America is abandoning its traditional role as guarantor of Middle East stability. That’s of course very bad news for the Saudis, who have hitched their survival for 70 years to Pax Americana. Now, that U.S.-defended order appears to be unraveling before their eyes. Instead, the new normal is Washington cutting diplomatic deals that promise to embolden the kingdom’s worst enemy in Iran, while protesting meekly as its main geopolitical rival, Russia, seeks to overturn the region’s balance of power. As surely as night follows day, the rapid decline of American power and reliability inevitably leaves Saudi Arabia increasingly exposed and vulnerable. No one has gotten rich betting on the House of Saud’s early demise. Over the decades, they’ve shown remarkable staying power in the face of political, ideological, and military currents that have swept away lesser regimes. So predicting that the royal family could now be on the cusp of real trouble is a bit of a fool’s errand”.

He makes the valid point that “What does seem safe to say is that most of the key indicators now appear to be headed in the wrong direction simultaneously — perhaps for the first time ever. In that sense, there could be a greater risk than in the past that, left unattended, these negative trends might eventually converge or cascade in ways that could overwhelm the system. Yes, the risks that the worst will happen may be low. But the consequences of widespread instability in the kingdom are potentially so deleterious to U.S. interests that the risks should nevertheless be heeded. As bad as things are now in the region, a meltdown in Saudi Arabia would make the current crisis pale in comparison”.

He ends “The question now is whether the Obama administration is even capable of recovering from the geopolitical mess it has triggered. Does it even have a clue about the disastrously destabilizing chain of events that have been unleashed by its very purposeful decision to put a “closed for business” sign on Pax Americana in the Middle East? Does it at last understand that what replaces the abandonment of U.S. leadership in the region is not some virtuous equilibrium or balance of power among local competitors, but accelerating levels of violence, extremism, and chaos? Does it have any idea of how it would go about the arduous task of rebuilding the strategic partnerships that its policies have so badly undermined, and stemming the rising tsunami of disorder that now threatens to swamp the region and U.S. interests? Alas, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that the answer to any of these questions is yes. In which case, the risks will continue to grow that on top of all the other disasters that President Obama will bequeath to his successor, he may yet add one more: an increasingly unstable and perilous situation in Saudi Arabia — the world’s largest exporter of oil, the site of Islam’s holiest sites, and a country awash, in almost equal measure, in advanced American weapons and angry Wahhabis”.

Russian missiles fall short

12/10/2015

Several Russian cruise missiles fired from warships in the Caspian Sea at rebel positions in Syria crashed instead in northern Iran, U.S. officials said Thursday, disputing Russian claims that all the missiles hit their intended targets. U.S. intelligence analysts believe that four of the 26 Kalibr guided missiles launched Wednesday fell short. Other officials said two may have crashed. It wasn’t immediately clear where they had struck, or whether they caused any damage or casualties. CNN first reported the U.S. claims”.

Economist tries to take down Bernie

12/10/2015

A piece in the Economist tries to negate the popularity of Bernie Sanders, “BERNIE SANDERS is due on stage. But a stream of Bostonians—mostly hip, twenty-something, often lightly bearded—is still flowing into the waterfront convention centre, pressing politely forwards and flustering the similarly youthful volunteers who are organising the Vermont senator’s Democratic primary bid. When the doors are eventually closed, over 20,000 people are crammed inside, warming up to John Lennon and Hunter Hayes (“Baby, kids on the run/Gonna party like we just turned 21”) as they await the 74-year-old socialist and grandfather of seven. Thousands more are shut out, watching on giant screens: it is said to be the biggest primary rally in Massachusetts ever”.

The report goes on to write “When Mr Sanders stalks into view, all white hair, bony limbs and baggy suit, a glowering scarecrow-prophet, the roar is tremendous, the atmosphere hilarious. It is tempting to think the huge support he is drawing could be America’s biggest-ever student prank”.

The Economist, who for decades has defended a failed mode of capitalism has sought, through cheap tricks to compare Sanders and his ideas to a clown, as if he were Donald Trump. Sanders who has been remarkably consistent in his ideas about poverty, inequality and its attempt to deride him in order to defend a morally bankrupt system only demeans the publications credibility.

The author adds “It is unexpected, admits Tad Devine, a veteran Democrat strategist who is working for him. When Mr Sanders declared his intention to stand in April, he says, “many people were incredulous. There was a feeling that there was no way this guy could knock such a formidable front-runner off the top spot.” Yet Hillary Clinton has been damaged by her peculiar use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state. And Mr Sanders, boosted by large, well-publicised rallies in student-heavy cities such as Portland, where he drew 28,000, and Seattle, where he drew 15,000, has soared. Polls suggest he could win the first two Democratic ballots; he is running Mrs Clinton close in Iowa, which votes on February 1st, and has a handsome lead in New Hampshire. An average of national polls puts him on 25% and Mrs Clinton 42%. Joe Biden, the bereaved vice-president, who is still making up his mind whether to stand, is on 19%—a wedge of which, Mr Sanders’s aides believe, is an anti-Hillary vote that could come their way”.

The author tries to dismiss Sanders further by drawing a false anology from a decade ago when things were very different, “The Democrats have been here before. In 2004 another left-winger from Vermont, Howard Dean, dazzled in the early campaigning, then died in the polls. Mr Sanders looks a bit different, however—not least because he is much more left-wing. The only socialist in Congress, he believes capitalism is screwing over 99% of Americans and, moreover, that the resultant “grotesque levels of income and wealth inequality” are no accident, but a scheme of the boss class to beggar the rest. “Why is it that with all the improvements to productivity from technology, people are being forced to work for longer hours, with lower wages?” he snarls on the stump”.

The piece then derides the ideas that the magazine and its ideology actually benefit from, “To peg back the plutocrats, he would abolish the corporate funding of elections that he himself disdains. “I don’t represent the interests of the billionaire class and the corrupt men on Wall Street and I don’t want their money,” he says. He would nationalise health care, break up banks and swell the size of the state. He would provide free college education for all and convert outstanding student debt into soft loans, at an annual cost of $70 billion, paid for with a special tax on Wall Street. The crowd in Boston loved that”.

Pointedly the piece adds “Sanders’s recent progress suggests he may be drawing broader support than his predecessor. In some polls, he is outgunning Mrs Clinton against the leading Republican contenders, which suggests many Democrats are at least thinking through the consequences of him winning. A survey last month put him ahead of Mr Trump by five points and level with Jeb Bush. Those kinds of numbers attract money. Mr Sanders raised $25.5m in the three months to October, mostly in small contributions; the average was around $25. By comparison, Mrs Clinton raised $28m, much less than she had managed in the previous quarter. This puts Mr Sanders within reach of the $50m Mr Devine says he needs to be competitive through to Iowa and New Hampshire, where he already has nearly 100 paid staff. The southern states, where he is only starting to build his organisation, are a tougher prospect. Black Democrats in the South like Mrs Clinton and hardly know Mr Sanders. Yet his advisers trust that early success and the prevailing anti-establishment mood will awaken a storm of interest in him, obliterating these weaknesses”.

The author, sounding concerned goes on to write, “If that is not entirely laughable, it is because Mr Sanders’s rise is being propelled by some novel factors. A combination of economic uncertainty and political polarisation has discredited the mainstream: the way Republicans are being bewitched by Donald Trump, another man selling simplistic solutions to complex problems, is further evidence of this”.

To compare Senator Sanders to Donald Trump is laughable. One, an elected official with legitimacy and decades of policy experience in Congress, the other an arrogant and moronic gas bag.  To say Sanders’ ideas are simplistic is both stupid and correct. These ideas have been tested for decades in nations that continually top rankings for quality of life, low levels of poverty and crime and a civilised society. Indeed the Economist itself has praised the very Nordic model that the author in this article is deriding.

The writer then tries to end the hopes of those who follow Sanders by saying that even if he is popular he won’t get elected because “The trouble with the millennials who dominate Mr Sanders’s rallies is that less than half of them actually vote. And there is still no reason to believe the wider support he is drawing will prove stickier than it was for Mr Dean. “The problems with candidates like that—and like me,” Mr Dean, who is backing Mrs Clinton, has said, “is that as you get closer to election time…you’re going to tend to want to see somebody who you think looks presidential.” That is, the joking stops there. Those who argue that this time will be different perhaps misunderstand the role anti-establishment feeling is playing on the left. The anger Mr Trump is drawing on is primarily directed at the Republican establishment; by contrast, Democrats like their party leaders, and hate Republicans. That makes them likelier to revert to the primary candidate who looks most likely to win the presidential election—which, as even some of the enthusiasts in Boston ruefully conceded, will not be Mr Sanders”.

It ends “His advisers understand this, which is why they are increasingly looking to turning blue-collar Republicans and the formerly apathetic—an effort in which Mr Sanders’s strong support from trade unionists is considered crucial. Over 70,000 union members have signed up to a support group, Labour for Bernie. In Larry Cohen, former leader of America’s largest communications union, Mr Sanders has also recruited a powerful ally. “The support we’re finding for him in working towns is overwhelming” said Mr Cohen, recently returned from an eight-city campaign tour. Yet the unions have never been weaker; only about one in ten American workers belongs to one. That is partly a consequence of the deindustrialisation Mr Cohen laments, but also of a dwindling of the class-based loyalties and faith in collective action he shares with Mr Sanders. They also share a strong protectionist urge; yet, while most Americans recognise that globalisation has made the jobs market harder, over two-thirds want more of it. This is why, as a political movement, able to mobilise large sums of money and get its candidates elected, the hard left in American politics that Mr Sanders represents is almost dead. He is not about to revive it”.

 

“Kerry has raised the possibility of a no-fly zone in Syria”

12/10/2015

Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the possibility of a no-fly zone in Syria to protect civilians even as President Barack Obama has consistently rejected the idea, several administration officials told CNN. Officials said Kerry has asked his staff to further develop the idea and raised the issue at a National Security Council meeting last week, where Obama discussed the U.S. strategy for stemming the bloody civil war in Syria with his top advisers. Kerry “wants to revisit this and for it to be looked at more seriously,” one senior administration official said, adding that the secretary of state has been advocating within the administration for “more robust measures” in Syria.

An ungovernable GOP

12/10/2015

After the withdrawal of Kevin McCarthy for the speakership a piece in the Washington Post questions the ability of the GOP to function as a party, “Less than a year after a sweeping electoral triumph, Republicans are on the verge of ceasing to function as a national political party. The most powerful and crippling force at work in the ­once-hierarchical GOP is anger, directed as much at its own leaders as anywhere else. First, a contingent of several dozen conservative House members effectively forced Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) to resign rather than face a possibly losing battle to hold on to his job. Now they have claimed House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who had been considered the favorite to replace Boehner until he announced Thursday that he is dropping out of the race”.

The piece adds that “With no obvious replacement for Boehner in sight, “it is total confusion — a banana republic,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). “Any plan, anything you anticipate — who knows what’ll happen? People are crying, they don’t have any idea how this will unfold, at all.” Parallel currents of rage and chaos have been roiling the 2016 presidential race, diminishing hopes that an eventual nominee can bring order and direction to the increasingly dysfunctional party. Initially, GOP elders believed that their primary would be a showcase for a cast of ­well-regarded senators and governors, current and former. They were confident it would be an appealing contrast to the quirky group of GOP candidates who had run in 2012, and to the Democratic contest, where Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to be cruising to the nomination”.

Sadly in an indictment of the GOP the author argues that “But government experience has become a liability for Republicans, rather than a credential. Celebrity billionaire Donald Trump, the leader in every poll, has rallied the conservative base by mocking the entire GOP establishment as weak and feckless. Many of the other candidates have followed his lead. “You know Kevin McCarthy is out, you know that, right?” Trump crowed to a crowd of about 1,500 in Las Vegas, “They’re giving me a lot of credit for that, because I said you really need somebody very, very tough — and very smart.” Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a presidential contender at the back of the pack, added in a statement blasted out by e-mail: “The race for Speaker of the House is not about Kevin McCarthy, it’s about burning the corrupt Washington political machine to the ground and rebuilding our country.” The forces that have made the House ungovernable are coming from the same wellspring of insurgency, beginning with the tea party movement, that propelled the Republicans back into control of Congress”.

The report adds “In the House, Republicans regained and expanded their majority by picking up 63 seats in the 2010 midterm elections and 13 more last year. They now have their largest majority since the late 1920s. Battalions of conservative ground troops have come to Capitol Hill in the past five years with expectations that were not in line with what could actually be achieved while there is still a Democrat in the White House. Disappointed in their ability to follow through on their campaign promises to turn back President Obama’s policies, they trained their fire on their own commanders. For all their gains on the state and local level, Republicans are deepening the problems that have cost them the popular vote in all but one of the last six presidential elections. The divisive and exclusionary rhetoric of their 2016 contenders has hit a chord with primary voters — Trump, for instance, has made a series of insulting comments about women and immigrants — but threatens to further alienate key groups of voters in an increasingly diverse country. Their contempt for compromise has also undermined the Republicans’ drive to prove that they can actually govern”.

Worryingly for the future of the GOP and the United States, “There are institutional forces at work as well that make it more difficult for the party to bring itself into anything resembling a formation. Junior members of Congress no longer have to seek the favour of more senior ones to rise through the ranks. Modern media has given them the power to play to a national audience — as presidential contender and first-term senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has demonstrated in the Senate. In July, Cruz went so far as to call Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a liar on the floor of the Senate. Such a breach of decorum would have been unthinkable in earlier times, but it has burnished Cruz’s image with the conservative base. Changes in campaign finance laws have made the parties themselves less powerful, and ideologically driven outside groups more so”.

Now both parties must realise that the decision of Citizens United has damaged them both as well as the noble democratic ideals that America was founded on. It must no be overturned.

The report goes on to mention “In the presidential race, the Republican National Committee set up a process aimed at making the nomination more orderly than in 2012 by compressing the calendar of state primaries and caucuses and allowing fewer debates. That strategy may have backfired. Given the size of the Republican field — 14 candidates at the latest count — the new party-imposed order may actually have made it more difficult for any of the more mainstream candidates to overtake outsiders Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina. At the Obama White House, officials were not gloating at the Republican turmoil — in part, because it could pose problems for carrying out their own agenda. For instance, the president is going to have to rely on a large number of GOP votes to pass a Pacific Rim free-trade deal that is drawing opposition from Obama’s own party. Among those who are expressing resistance is Clinton, despite the fact that she had promoted such a deal when she was secretary of state”.

“Condemned the latest destruction by Islamic State”

10/10/2015

The United Nations cultural organisation condemned the latest destruction by Islamic State of ancient monuments in Syria’s 2,000-year-old Roman city of Palmyra, saying it showed they were terrified of history. The perpetators should be tried and punished as war criminals, it said. Islamic State militants blew up the Arch of Triumph, a jewel in the exquisite collection of ruins in the oasis city, Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim said on Sunday. The militants had earlier destroyed temples at the Roman-era UNESCO World Heritage site, which it has controlled since capturing Palmyra from Syrian government forces in May, and mined other monuments and historic buildings. The group considers the buildings sacrilegious”.

GOP as banana republic

10/10/2015

The race to replace John Boehner has become much more open as Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy pulled out, “Thirty minutes beforehand, John A. Boehner had no idea. About 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, just before House Republicans were scheduled to choose his successor, the House speaker sat down with reporters from his native Ohio. He smoked a Camel. He talked about buying a car, a regular-guy moment to savour after nine years of being driven by the Capitol Police. And Boehner was certain that his top deputy — the affable, attentive, unobjectionable Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — was about to win”.

Pointedly the article notes “There had been reasons to doubt that. Last month, McCarthy had embarrassed Republicans by suggesting that the House committee to investigate the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, was designed to score political points. Two days before, a back-bencher who opposed McCarthy circulated a vague letter asking whether any top Republicans had committed “misdeeds.” One day before, McCarthy had been formally rejected by the House’s hard-right caucus. Still, after all that, McCarthy had the votes. Boehner was sure. After all, who else was there? “I’m confident he’ll win today,” he said, according to the account of a reporter from the Gannett News Service. The reporters left. Boehner went to perform a ceremonial duty, opening the House for the day. Then, at 12:03 p.m., a pair of staffers pulled him into an office to tell him he was wrong”.

The article goes on to mention “On Thursday, Capitol Hill was still struggling to make sense of McCarthy’s sudden withdrawal from the race for speaker. It was caused, in part, by a party at war with itself. The same hard-line conservatives who hounded out Boehner had hounded out his likely successor before he had even held the speaker’s gavel. On Thursday, McCarthy seemed like a bystander at his own big moment, so much so that he did not even warn his allies that he was about to give up. “I’m not the one,” McCarthy told the other Republicans, who’d come expecting a vote. He said it so softly that many members couldn’t hear him at all”.

The extent of trouble in the GOP is clear when the piece reports that “Boehner had announced his resignation on Sept. 25, after four tumultuous years as speaker. His obvious successor was McCarthy, 50. The golden era of his candidacy lasted all the way until Sept. 29. “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy told Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, who had challenged him to state a promise that Republicans had delivered on. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.” With that comment, McCarthy seemed to cast doubt on the credibility of the Benghazi committee, which discovered that Clinton had used a private e-mail account to conduct business as secretary of state. To Democrats, he seemed to be admitting that one of Congress’s most sacred duties — to investigate crimes and failings in government — had been perverted into a lab for political-opposition research”.

The article reconstructs the events speculating that “Last weekend, in private, McCarthy began to worry that he didn’t have the votes. He would need 218 votes to become speaker when the formal vote was held in late October. But no Democrats were going to back him. That meant McCarthy could afford to lose only 29 of the 247 House Republicans. On Thursday, the GOP would hold its internal vote, a crucial test of McCarthy’s strength. In his internal projections, he wasn’t getting what he needed. “I knew I could get 200-and-some votes. But getting 218 was not easy,” McCarthy said in an interview Thursday evening”.

Needless to say “That meant McCarthy needed to win over some of the House’s professional “no” votes, the same conservatives who had defied him and Boehner in votes over the debt limit, the “fiscal cliff” and the federal budget. This was a job McCarthy had never been good at. He was a walking personification of the problem that had felled Boehner — a human symbol of the GOP’s inability to keep order. McCarthy had recruited many of those conservatives, visited their districts, knew their families, bought them pizza. And, yet, even when he was the official party whip, they defied him. On Tuesday night, he went back to the same people, seeking a different result”.

The article goes on to add “McCarthy walked into a third-floor ballroom at the Capitol Hill Club, a bastion of the Republican establishment just south of the Capitol. Waiting for him were dozens of conservatives, including the crucial House Freedom Caucus — a group which says it has about 40 members (the exact number, and the full caucus membership list, are both secret). The Freedom Caucus had pledged to vote as a bloc if 80 percent of them could agree on one candidate. I’m my own man, McCarthy told them. I’m not John Boehner. I’m committed to creating a more inclusive House. He laid out plans to create a “kitchen cabinet” consisting of leaders drawn from conservative groups such as the Freedom Caucus. But they wanted him to make specific promises. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), the leader of the House Tea Party Caucus, asked McCarthy to publicly oppose efforts by establishment groups — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others — to run radio and TV ads criticising conservatives who defied their own leaders. McCarthy would not commit to a public pledge”.

Worryingly for the very future of the United States as a global power the piece mentions that “A few of them were willing to give McCarthy a chance, including some of those who McCarthy had recruited in 2010. But the vast majority couldn’t do it. Their constituents had been calling to complain that McCarthy was too much like Boehner. That left two other choices: Chaffetz and Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.). On paper, there was not much to recommend Webster: He was little-known in the House and was in danger of losing his seat entirely because of redistricting. His appeal as a leader was that, in effect, he was promising not to lead them. Elect me, he had told members, and every House member would be part of the team. No orders from on high. They chose Webster. If the Freedom Caucus followed through on its promise to vote as a bloc, that meant McCarthy might have lost 40 votes. Which would mean he couldn’t win”.

A related to this a piece speculates who might be the speaker if McCarthy is not “Conservatives seized the moment as McCarthy made his exodus, celebrating the departure of one of the GOP’s moderates and fastest-rising stars — and pledging to push for one of their own, a hard-liner on fiscal and social issues, to step forward in the coming weeks before the leadership elections are rescheduled. McCarthy’s associates, many hailing from mainstream Republican districts, urged caution and began efforts to draft another centrist Republican to succeed Boehner (Ohio). Boehner personally asked House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to run for speaker over two long phone conversations, according to two sources familiar with the exchanges. Boehner has told Ryan that he is the only person who can unite the House GOP at a time of turmoil. “It is total confusion — a banana republic,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a Boehner ally, as he recounted seeing a handful of House Republicans weeping Thursday over the downfall of McCarthy and the broader discord”.

Not surpurisingly the article notes “The scene at the Capitol yielded more questions than answers by the hour Thursday afternoon, with an array of influential figures such as  Ryan still reluctant to take McCarthy’s place as the consensus candidate of the party’s establishment and those averse to firebrands. As they mulled and were courted, a parade of hopefuls with low profiles beyond Capitol Hill — such as Rep. Daniel Webster (Fla.), a former state House speaker, and Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (Utah) — made the case in huddles and in the hallways that they are ready to be a fresh face for an unsettled House”.

Sadly the piece goes on to report “Boehner, who last month said he would resign the speakership after weeks of facing a near-certain revolt from conservatives frustrated by his handling of legislation and what they see as a lack of aggression in countering President Obama’s agenda, said he will “serve as speaker until the House votes to elect a new speaker.” The bench for the House GOP is sparse, emptied in recent years by the same forces that have vexed Boehner and McCarthy. Virginia’s Eric Cantor, then the majority leader and firmly in line to succeed Boehner, was defeated in a 2014 House primary by a conservative challenger, elevating McCarthy but gutting the leadership of the political capital that Cantor had accumulated. The committee chairmanships, long a grooming area for future leaders and the path Boehner took to the speakership, have been filled in places by youthful members such as Chaffetz, 48. And the leadership slots below Boehner and McCarthy – majority whip and chief deputy whip – are occupied by Steve Scalise (La.) and Patrick McHenry (N.C.), respectively. Both have served in the House for a decade or less and are inexperienced as national spokesmen — inside operatives but far from recognisable voices”.

The confusion seems to grow when the piece mentions “That left Republicans searching Thursday for new names to add to mix. King floated Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a respected former House GOP campaign chairman, as a person who could be a calming presence. Several conservatives suggested House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), a former leadership member who has strong relationships with the party’s conservative bloc. Others on the right said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which was wary of McCarthy, would best reflect the political drift and impulses of the House. But he told reporters that he is not interested”.

The problem grows worse when several senior Republicans have refused the speakership, “Another House Republican who drew interest was Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who is chairing the House Select Committee delving into the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya. William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said in a Twitter message that Gowdy should be “interim speaker for next year,” days after Gowdy was called to run for the post by conservative groups who have cheered his Benghazi investigation. But as the boomlet began, Gowdy said “no” when asked by reporters whether he would consider running. Scalise and McHenry, who had been running for lower leadership spots should McCarthy win the speakership, were encouraged to look higher up the chain of command. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who has been a front-line participant in the latest talks about the future of the GOP, also mulled his options”.

The piece adds that none of these names, bar Ryan, has the necessary qualities. Reports state that Boehner will have to remain until a replacement can be chosen, “Sensing that perhaps no one can ably navigate the terrain — or get the necessary votes, as required by the Constitution, to win the speakership in a floor vote — Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, said he would consider running to be interim speaker as the House GOP worked out who could actually lead it in the months ahead. Tea-party groups weighed in, hoping to exert their own pull on the speaker’s race. Activist Mark Meckler said in a statement that the House GOP must end the “Washington cartel at a time when people are looking to outsiders to challenge the status quo.” Tea Party Patriots’ Jenny Beth Martin said this was a “historic moment” that demands a speaker with deep support with grass-roots conservatives”.

The article concludes “McCarthy, in an interview with National Review on Thursday, said whoever follows will have to grapple with a right flank of about 40 members that wants to direct the leadership, rather than being led. “I wouldn’t have enjoyed being speaker this way,” he said. On who he’d like to step forward, McCarthy said, “I personally want Paul Ryan.” On whether the House can be led, he said, “I don’t know. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom.” It was that feeling, expressed across the GOP base, which gave candidates like Webster — a backbencher who won just 12 votes in the vote for speaker earlier this year — some optimism as others scrambled to fill the vacuum left by McCarthy”.

Gulf pushback against Russia

10/10/2015

Russian fighter jets launched from a new airbase in Syria have persuaded western critics to mute their demands for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, but another group of his opponents sees Moscow’s intervention as more provocative than decisive. Regional powers have quietly, but effectively, channelled funds, weapons and other support to rebel groups making the biggest inroads against the forces from Damascus. In doing so, they are investing heavily in a conflict which they see as part of a wider regional struggle for influence with bitter rival Iran. In a week when Russia made dozens of bombing raids, those countries have made it clear that they remain at least as committed to removing Assad as Moscow is to preserving him. “There is no future for Assad in Syria,” Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir warned, a few hours before the first Russian bombing sorties began. If that was not blunt enough, he spelled out that if the president did not step down as part of a political transition, his country would embrace a military option, “which also would end with the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power”. With at least 39 civilians reported dead in the first bombing raids, the prospect of an escalation between backers of Assad and his opponents is likely to spell more misery for ordinary Syrians.

Iran’s identity crisis

10/10/2015

After the completion of the Iran deal and its subsequent ongoing implementation some have argued that Iran has an identity crisis, “The flight from Istanbul to Imam Khomeini International Airport, I was struck by how few of the women were veiled. There were barely a handful of scarves amidst the stylish young women in tight jeans and high heels or sneakers and the older women wearing an array of everyday city clothes. By the time the plane landed, all the women, myself included, had donned the veil and the manteau, the long-sleeved, knee-length jacket that has been part of the mandatory attire for women in Iran since the revolution. This may seem like a superficial observation based on a scan of people’s appearances, but it’s a reflection of the gulf between the image Iran projects abroad and its diverse identity, the gap between the lives Iranians must lead inside their country and the life many of them would like to have”.

The writer goes on to note “For now, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been incessantly repeating that Iran will continue to counter U.S. influence in the region at every turn. No surprise there. But more interestingly last week he tweeted that the “[enemy’s] infiltration today is a great threat to Iran. Economic, security infiltration is less vital than mental, cultural & political ones” and that “[enemies] promise that #Iran will be totally different in 10 years; we must not allow such evil prospects and thoughts [to take] shape in enemy’s mind.” That’s the real concern: how to let the outside world in without undermining a system underpinned by the strictures of an Islamic theocracy”.

Ultimately, there is little evidence that this can be done. Iran with either remain a staunch theocracy, or as the author has already alluded to, will slip into a rightfully uneasy relationship with modernity.

The piece adds “In August, I traveled to Iran for the first time, on a weeklong assignment for the BBC, the longest the organization has been allowed to report from inside the country since 2009. Access to Iran for Western media is tightly controlled by the authorities, and visas are doled out carefully. There are only a couple of Western reporters based in Tehran full time; most media organizations rely on Iranians or dual Iranian citizens. One of them, the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, has spent the last 14 months in jail facing charges of spying. I have spent most of my career reporting on the Arab world, and, of course, Iran’s influence in countries like Lebanon or Iraq is part of the beat. I know Iran’s politics and post-revolutionary Islamic culture through my encounters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, Iran’s first revolutionary export, which keeps a tight lid on the Shiite community and exercises outsize control over Lebanon’s fate”.

She notes “Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the religious police were out inforce, even fining women for each painted fingernail. Men with long hair or sporting bracelets were also targets. But after he was elected in 2013, President Hassan Rouhani promised to rein in the morality police, and their presence has become much less noticeable, though they are still there in the shadows. But now they can also be the butt of jokes. At the Parsi movie theater, I sat in on Nahang-e Anbar, a comedy about life and love through the years since the revolution. A turbaned cleric showed up on the screen to the theme song of Mission: Impossible, walking down the street in slow motion with his bodyguards pushing people out of the way, sending the pomegranates of a fruit vendor rolling over the sidewalk. Irreverence toward the clergy is unlikely in most other Muslim countries”.

Of most relevance she mentions “For a country that has been under layers of sanctions since 1979, Iran, or at least Tehran, feels less isolated, more modern than Iraq under Saddam Hussein. On my visits there before the 2003 fall of Baghdad, the decay under the embargo and the burden of life under the most ruthless dictatorship in the region were blatantly obvious. You couldn’t even fly to Iraq, so traveling there involved a mind-numbing 12-hour drive through the desert from Jordan; it was a trip back to the 1970s, a drab city with poor infrastructure, open sewers in some parts, and a people often too afraid to even speak out the names of Saddam’s two ruthless sons, Uday and Qusay. I know Iranians have been crushed by sanctions, their spending power slashed and their thirst for innovation blunted, but their capital reminded me of Istanbul: mostly low-rise buildings, bustling and very pedestrian, but built on the side of a mountain, at more than 3,000 feet in altitude. Surprisingly green, dotted with gardens and parks, and trees lining the streets, its notorious traffic jams were even worse than I expected. The ski slopes are only 20 minutes away, and, in the summer, young Iranians take to the hills for paragliding, hiking, or motorbike obstacle racing”.

She notes the lack of the call to prayer and that “With politics so inherently tied to the duty of prayer, showing up at the mosque is seen as an endorsement of the regime — another possible explanation for why mosque attendance is so low in Iran. In Tehran, a city of 12 million, there are only roughly 10,000 loyalists who show up on Friday. Everyone else seems to be out at lunch judging from the waiting lines at the restaurant I went to that day a short drive away from the university. But it’s at Tehran University that you find the voices supporting Iran’s role in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. “Syria’s President Assad was our ally and supported Iran during the war with Iraq,” a retired government employee told me. “And Hezbollah, who is [fighting] against Israel, is also our friend. Our policy for the time being is to protect and support these two allies, especially Syria.” But Iran needs the money being spent to support Syria, I pressed. “Yes, of course, our country needs it even more, but they also need us,” he said. “This is not just foreign policy, but it is also our religious duty to protect the oppressed wherever they might be.” And, yes, it’s here that the faithful chant “Marg Bar Amrika” — “Death to America” — a somewhat tired ritual. Instead, today it seems that Iranians, certainly those who are conservative and who follow politics, are a lot more preoccupied with enmity toward one neighbour”.

She goes on to note “Every conversation I had that touched on Iran’s regional role immediately brought fierce, derogatory comments about Saudi Arabia. Outside Friday prayers, I spoke to conservative cleric Sheikh Mohsen Mahmoudi. When I asked him how Tehran and Riyadh could overcome current tensions between them, he just said, “Saudi Arabia is not a democratic state because it has no elections,” as though it meant Iran didn’t have to stoop so low as to think about how to deal with Riyadh”.

Correctly she writes that “From dissidents jailed and harassed to a staggering wave of executions without due process, Iran’s own record is far from pristine — but it does have elections and women do serve in high office. To its credit, Iran is also the only country in the region where the leadership seems to have understood a lesson that Arab leaders have ignored with devastating consequences. When Iran’s uprising warning came in 2009, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest Ahmadinejad’s contested reelection, the demonstrations were violently repressed; prominent leaders of the Green Movement, including Ahmadinejad’s opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, still remain under house arrest. But the events shook the leadership and awoke everyone to the dangers of having the whole system brought down by unrest. When ordinary Iranians look to Syria, or Libya further away, they see the outcome of a civil protest movement against leaders that refuse to leave power and have nowhere else to go. When Iran’s leaders look at those countries, they are reminded of the dangers of refusing even a modicum of change and openness”.

She continues arguing that “So this is the gamble that Iran’s leadership took when it decided to go ahead with the nuclear negotiations: to offer hope and the prospect of economic prosperity so it can keep Iran’s restless youth on board, in a country where more than 60 percent of the population is under 30 years old. More crucially, it coincided with the interests of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most powerful branch of Iran’s military, which also presides over lucrative businesses and was feeling the bite of sanctions. If Iran has learned the hard way that violent change can take the country into volatile directions, this is also a country that has a surprising ability to reflect on the past and preserve it”.

She ends “Time has stood still for Iran in many ways since the day the shah made his exit and the country entered into isolation. Despite the new cars, the sprinkling of Western shops, Tehran feels in a bit of a time warp, reminiscent of Turkey in the early 1990s, its bottled-up entrepreneurial spirit ready to emerge”.

“Wears a cross that belonged to a Iraqi priest”

10/10/2015

Pope Francis revealed Thursday that he now wears a cross that belonged to a Iraqi priest who was wearing it when he was slain for his faith. He said he had been given it by another Iraqi priest he met on St Peter’s square. “It is a cross this priest had in his hands when he had his throat cut for refusing to renounce Jesus Christ,” the pontiff told a gathering of young monks and nuns. “This cross, I wear it here,” he added, indicating his chest. Francis, who has regularly spoken out on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, added: “Today we have more martyrs than in the first centuries (after Christ).” Iraq is now home to an estimated 400,000 Christians, compared to 1.4 million in 1987.

An embarrassing speaker?

10/10/2015

As Speaker Boehner has resigned a piece looks at the candidates to replace him and the potential foreign policy implications of this, “as foreign policy looms large over the GOP presidential race, foreign affairs and homeland security are increasingly taking center stage in another pivotal and closely-watched Republican showdown: The battle to replace John Boehner as Speaker of the House. The one time presumptive favourite House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R.-Calif.) recently pledged to make defence his “top” priority if elected speaker and has sought to burnish his foreign policy credentials criticizing the Obama administration’s current approach to Iran, Syria, and more. So far, though, McCarthy’s foreign-policy forays have done little to bolster his image”.

The piece goes on to note “He boasted that House oversight investigations into the deadly consulate attacks in Benghazi, Libya, had taken a political toll on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner in the Democratic race for president. That sent the House Republican caucus into an uproar, since it has always maintained that the investigations were non-political; many colleagues condemned McCarthy’s comments and demanded an apology, which he eventually provided. Leading the pack is the man running against McCarthy for the most powerful job in the lower chamber: Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R.-Utah). He wasted no time in defending the Benghazi investigations and lambasting McCarthy. It was an “absolutely inappropriate statement,” he told CNN. “That was not the reason we started. We started because there were four dead Americans and we didn’t have answers,” he said”.

Not surprisingly the author adds “McCarthy, not known as gifted extemporaneous speaker, tried to hammer his favourite foreign-policy talking points in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, who has become an unintentional mine field for Republicans. McCarthy jumbled together criticisms of the Iran deal, the threat of terrorism, and the force level of the U.S. Army in a confused answer to why he wants to prioritize defense if he wins the Speaker’s job”.

Hilariously the article continues “Republican strategist Ed Rogers is worried about McCarthy’s “verbal bumbling or embarrassing ignorance,” as he wrote last week, saying that Republicans better brace themselves for his gaffes if he is elected. Late last month, McCarthy also delivered his ”foreign policy vision” to the John Hay Initiative, a conservative organization that grooms Republican politicians on the finer points of speaking about foreign policy. In the short speech, he reiterated standard criticisms of the national security failures over the past six years”.

This is contrasted when the piece notes “As Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Chaffetz has been more concerned with Homeland Security than events overseas. He has been one of the most vocal critics of the Transportation Security Administration and the security measures put in place in the wake of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He also recently expressed concern over terrorists hiding among the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East. But most famously, Chaffetz has wrangled with another part of the Department of Homeland Security: the Secret Service. As head of the oversight panel, Chaffetz led the investigations into the Secret Service’s numerous and well-publicized security failures, the most serious of which was a man jumping the White House fence and entering the building last fall. In apparent reprisal, the agency decided to use Chaffetz’s own application to join the Secret Service in 2003 against him”.

The piece ends “While the two men battle it out for votes on the House floor, the window for campaigning is closing fast. House Republicans will vote by secret ballot on Thursday, followed by a full floor vote later in the month”.

Clinton calls for Syria no-fly zone

08/10/2015

In an apparent break with the Obama White House, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for the creation of a no-fly zone inside Syria Thursday, the day after Russian warplanes started bombing rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “I personally would be advocating now for a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air, to try to provide some way to take stock of what’s happening, to try to stem the flow of refugees,” Clinton said in an interview with NBC affiliate WHDH in Boston after a campaign event nearby.  U.S. officials confirmed Wednesday that Russian planes had started bombing anti-Assad forces in Syria, but that they did not appear to be targeting Islamic State forces as promised. “I think Putin is playing a very dangerous and cynical game. He’s clearly doing everything he can to prop up Assad and to establish sort of a Russian presence in Syria and the broader Middle East,” Clinton added”.

The Teflon pope

08/10/2015

A report notes that Pope Francis is playing with “house money” in the 2015 Synod, “In the abstract, Pope Francis might have reason to be a bit nervous that his much-ballyhooed Synod of Bishops on the family, an Oct. 4-25 summit he’s been touting as a potentially defining moment of his papacy for almost two years, might be about to run off the rails. We’ve already had confirmation, for instance, that a clash among the bishops over the hot-button question of allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to Communion is far from resolved”.

Allen reports that “On day one, Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő basically tried to bury the issue. Yet on day two, Italian Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli used a Vatican news conference to say that it remains “completely open,” and pointedly asked that if all the bishops were going to do was to echo Erdő’s line, then “what are we doing here?” Similarly, there was enough blowback against changes to the synod process on the opening day that Francis felt compelled to take the microphone to insist that he’d personally approved the new rules, which critics feel are designed to limit the information flow and stack the deck in favour of desired outcomes”.

The piece continues “Much like the last edition of the synod in 2014, there’s also a risk that expectations are being created that might not be realised. On Tuesday, for example, a Vatican spokesman said some participants have called for rejecting “exclusionary language” on homosexuality. “These are our children, our family members,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, summarising points made inside the synod. “They aren’t outsiders, but our own flesh and blood. How do we speak about them [positively] and offer a hand of welcome?” It remains to be seen, however, if a majority of bishops are on board. As Archbishop Paul-André Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec, put it on Tuesday, for every prelate seeking to overcome a “growing gulf” between Church teaching and the realities of family life by meeting the world halfway, there’s another worried about not being swallowed up by it. For them, the challenge isn’t rephrasing doctrine so much as reinforcing it”.

Naturally Allen notes that “Francis is no naïf, so the question has to be asked: Knowing how easy it would be for things to go wrong, why would he put his credibility on the line by allowing a potentially rancorous summit to play out this way? Part of the answer may be that Francis is in a position to ride out whatever storms may come because he’s insulated by his own narrative. That narrative, of course, is that Francis is the “People’s Pope,” a humble, simple reformer trying to steer Catholicism toward greater compassion and mercy. It’s made him a moral hero outside the bounds of the Church, as well as something of a “Teflon” figure to whom no criticism ever seems to stick for very long. Recent days have brought confirmation of the point by inviting a comparison with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI”.

Allen expands on this point “At different moments in their respective papacies, each has faced criticism for a move with regard to a previously little-known bishop. The controversies involved two chronic sources of anguish for the Catholic Church — its record on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in the case of Benedict, and its reaction to the clergy sexual abuse scandals for Francis. In 2009, Benedict lifted the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops, including one, Richard Williamson, with a history as a Holocaust denier. That decision sparked global outrage and became a front-page story for weeks, deepening impressions of Benedict as out of touch and insensitive to public opinion. The outcry became so intense that two months later, Benedict released an unprecedented letter to the bishops of the world, apologizing for mishandling the affair and revealing how isolated he was from information anyone could find easily on the Internet. Flash forward to 2015, when Pope Francis named a new bishop for the diocese of Osorno in Chile who critics believe covered up crimes by his country’s most notorious abuser priest. The appointment triggered protests in Chile and objections from some of the pontiff’s own advisors on anti-abuse efforts, but has had little echo anywhere else”.

Pointedly Allen argues “Francis hasn’t responded with a heartfelt mea culpa like Benedict, but with defiance. In a five-month-old video, Francis is heard telling an employee of the Chilean bishops’ conference that people criticizing his move are being “led around by the nose by leftists,” and that the country has “lost its head.” While the substance of the two situations may be very different, the potential for backlash is eerily similar. Just imagine what the reaction would have been had Benedict blamed his own woes on “leftists,” and you’ll understand the difference between the narratives the two pontiffs carry around. It’s striking that outside the Spanish-speaking media, there’s been relatively little reaction to the Barros affair, certainly nothing like the firestorm Benedict faced six years ago”.

Allen then relates this to the Synod “No doubt, Francis would prefer that the summit reach an inspired result on the contentious questions, such as divorce and pastoral approaches to gays and lesbians, and also to generate momentum toward a renewed commitment to supporting families both in their struggles and their triumphs. Yet it’s entirely possible that’s not how things will end. It could be that the synod produces heartache and acrimony, with bishops walking away unsatisfied and Catholics at the grassroots left dazed and confused. The experience of the last 18 months, however — reinforced both by the relatively mute reaction to the Barros controversy, and by the perceived success of the pontiff’s outing to the United States — suggests such a scenario might not put much of a dent in Francis’ own political capital. In terms of broad public opinion, it’s plausible to believe that if the synod is seen as a success, Francis will get the credit. If it’s seen as a shipwreck, the takeaway may be that it’s despite his leadership rather than because of it”.

He ends “At least in part, it may be because Francis grasps that when he rolls the dice these days, he’s basically playing with house money. If he loses, he’ll still be flush; if he wins, he just might break the bank”.

China seeks Syria resolution

08/10/2015

China’s foreign minister has repeated a plea for the crisis in Syria to be resolved politically, during a meeting of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the Xinhua state news agency reported on Wednesday. Russia and the United States, two other permanent members, agreed on Monday to look for a diplomatic end to the Syrian civil war but clashed over the central question of whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should retain power”.

Russia bombs the good guys

08/10/2015

A piece argues that Russia is not hitting ISIS, “Barack Obama’s administration said Wednesday that it doesn’t know whom Russia is bombing inside Syria. Rebel leaders on the ground there say they know precisely whom Moscow is targeting — and it isn’t the Islamic State. Instead, Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria — which dominated the final day of the United Nations General Assembly session — appear to have struck a rebel group that likely was vetted by the CIA, uses U.S.-made weapons, and has publicly backed the international coalition fighting the Islamic State. The group is also part of the ad hoc alliance of militias battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which means that the early phase of Moscow’s military intervention will strengthen Assad at least as much as it will weaken the Islamic State”.

The article continues “U.S. officials were quick to criticize the strikes, which they said had hit targets that didn’t appear to be linked to the Islamic State. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at the Pentagon that the strikes were in areas “where there probably were not ISIL forces,” using an alternate acronym for the group. White House spokesman Josh Earnest, for his part, told reporters that it was “too early for me to say exactly what targets they were aiming at and what targets were actually hit.” The strikes come amid a flurry of diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations, where Moscow and Washington have traded potshots about who is to blame for the rise of the Islamic State and who should take the lead in fighting the group”.

The author goes on to write “In public comments at the United Nations, Russian officials have said that the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State isn’t working and instead have called for working more closely with Assad and Iran to defeat the group. But rather than spurring cooperation over the shared threat posed by the Islamic State, Moscow’s moves threaten to usher in a new era of conflict with Washington by weakening groups devoted to the fight against Assad while bolstering Tehran’s influence in the region”.

Later he goes on to argue “Experts say those videos show that the group is clearly receiving American weaponry. According to N.R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of specialist technical intelligence consultancy Armament Research Services, or ARES, the video of the attack on the Syrian tank shows a U.S.-made AN/TSQ-136 missile guidance set, consistent with other U.S.-made TOW missile systems that ARES has documented being used in Syria. According to Jenzen-Jones, the missiles “offer a noteworthy increase in anti-armor capability when compared to the majority of systems which are employed by the Syrian Arab Army and various rebel groups.” U.S.-made military equipment, most prominently anti-tank missiles, have been distributed to rebels through an operations center, called the Military Operations Command (MOC), that’s organized by countries arming the anti-Assad opposition, which allows them to vet the groups receiving support. The operations center reportedly includes U.S. intelligence officers, which suggests that the United States authorized the distribution of weapons to Tajammu al-Aaza”.

He ends “Earlier Wednesday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that a Russian official had informed the United States that Russia would begin flying missions over Syria shortly before the strikes began. It’s not clear whether Moscow also told the United States that the first group it would bomb would be one that had received arms from Washington”.

“Struck a rebel group that likely was vetted by the CIA”

08/10/2015

Barack Obama’s administration said Wednesday that it doesn’t know whom Russia is bombing inside Syria. Rebel leaders on the ground there say they know precisely whom Moscow is targeting — and it isn’t the Islamic State. Instead, Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria — which dominated the final day of the United Nations General Assembly session — appear to have struck a rebel group that likely was vetted by the CIA, uses U.S.-made weapons, and has publicly backed the international coalition fighting the Islamic State. The group is also part of the ad hoc alliance of militias battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which means that the early phase of Moscow’s military intervention will strengthen Assad at least as much as it will weaken the Islamic State”.

Francis changes America?

06/10/2015

Allen writes that only time will tell if Pope Francis has fundamentally changed the United States, “By any reasonable standard, the keenly awaited Sept. 22-27 visit of Pope Francis to the United States, his first outing to the country in his entire life, has to be judged a massive short-term triumph. The pope wowed crowds everywhere he went, whether it was leading the “Mass on the Grass” outside the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, making a swing through Central Park before 80,000 pumped-up New Yorkers on his way toplay Madison Square Garden, or drawing hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic Mass-goers to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The “People’s Pope” received overwhelmingly positive media coverage, and in a badly polarized America already in the throes of a rancorous 2016 presidential election season, he managed to avoid stirring significant political controversy despite delivering several speeches and gestures rich with political content”.

Realistically Allen writes that “While it’s just a guess at this stage, after-the-fact polls probably will show that most Americans, already charmed by Francis at a distance, will feel even more fondness having seen him close-up. Truth to be told, however, virtually the same thing could be said about past papal trips to the United States, of which there have been nine (including one by Paul VI, seven by John Paul II, and one by Benedict XVI.) Occasionally a visit goes off the rails, but in general they’re well-choreographed affairs designed to showcase each pontiff at his best”.

Fairly he adds “It takes time to assess a trip’s lasting impact, in part because it depends on not just what the pope said and did while he was here, but how his audiences respond once he goes home. Experience teaches that when popes hit the road, their messages are crafted to reach several different audiences, and in the case of this outing, there are many concentric circles:

While it’s too early to hazard answers as to what difference the trip made for these constituencies, one can at least sketch the questions to be asked”.

Allen goes on to write that “Facing what was perhaps the largest gathering of world leaders in history at the United Nations, Francis ticked off a long list of issues that he feels merit concern, including his signature causes: poverty, war and the arms trade, immigrants and refugees, human trafficking, and so on. At one level, Francis helpfully has already established a litmus test for the impact of his message: the UN climate change summit in Paris Nov. 30-Dec. 11, and whether it adopts the “courageous choices” for which the pontiff has called”. Also in the here-and-now, another test for the impact of what Francis said over the past week will be whether European policy-makers adopt a generous stance towards the estimated half-million refugees who have arrived on the continent via the Mediterranean Sea this year”.

The article goes on to note “Next month, Francis will visit the Central African Republic, where a UN-backed interim government is struggling to maintain a fragile peace. Francis has a unique opportunity there, since a main factor threatening to plunge the country back into war are Christian militias that conduct routine reprisals against Muslims. It will be more difficult for those armed gangs to assert that they’re acting in the name of Christianity if the pope comes to town and begs them to stand down. Pope John Paul II helped end the Cold War by playing a role in the end of European Communism. Francis has said that today we’re in the middle of a Third World War, being fought piecemeal in various hotspots. Perhaps he can play the same transformative role as his Polish predecessor by engaging in equally piecemeal diplomacy”.

On the relationship between the visit of Francis to the US, Allen continues, “In terms of his message to the United States, Francis got it across in three cornerstone addresses: his speech to President Barack Obama on the South Lawn of the White House on Sept. 23, his speech to a joint meeting of Congress on Sept. 24, and his address at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Sept. 26. Putting those three talks together, what emerges is a deeply countercultural political and social agenda for the United States. On one hand, it’s clear that Francis aligns with the political left in the United States on a variety of themes, especially immigration reform, the death penalty, and anti-poverty efforts. He repeatedly identified himself as a “son of immigrants” and reminded the United States that the country was largely built on the backs of generations of immigrant communities”.

Crucially he argues “Yet on other matters, Francis is just as clearly more congenial to the cultural and political right.The pontiff told the US bishops that “I appreciate the unfailing commitment of the Church in America to the cause of life and that of the family” and he called on Congress “to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” both unmistakable endorsements of the pro-life cause. He made an unscheduled visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington, clearly offering support for their lawsuit against the Obama administration over the contraception mandates. On the plane on the way back to Rome, he endorsed a “human right” to conscientious objection for government officials vis-à-vis gay marriage laws, albeit without directly commenting on the Kim Davis case, the Kentucky county clerk who refuses to issue marriage licenses to gay couples”.

Most interestingly he mentions “Going forward, perhaps one good way to gauge the political impact of Francis’ trip is not whether left and right suddenly agree with one another, but whether American liberals and conservatives at least become less likely to demonize one another over the issues Francis has identified as part of a single continuum of concern for life and dignity. If so, that would be a major breakthrough indeed for the “Francis effect.””

 

Taken together, the foregoing suggests an awfully lofty standard by which to measure whether the pope’s six days in America come to be seen as a long-term success:

  • Ending a piecemeal “Third World War”
  • Transforming the left/right divide in American politics
  • Fighting religious extremism based on the American experience
  • Steering America’s bishops in the direction of dialogue as a method and “doing” rather than “explaining” as a modus operandi.

Any one of these outcomes would be miraculous, and believing that any single papal outing, however massively successful, could accomplish all four at once is probably delusional.

Yet in that speech to Congress in which the pontiff lifted up four Americans as role models, there’s a fifth he didn’t mention but who, in at least one key respect, seems a kindred spirit.

Daniel Burnham was one of American’s great architects and urban planners, among other things designing the Union Station train terminal in Washington, DC that Francis may have glimpsed during his movements through the city.

Famously, Burnham once said:

Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.

In that vein, Pope Francis is not a pontiff of little plans.

When he visited Our Lady Queen of Angels school in Harlem on Sept. 25, which serves low-income and immigrant children, it was probably the single moment along the way when Francis was most himself. In improvised Spanish, he urged the young people to dream.

“It is beautiful to have dreams and to be able to fight for them,” he said. “You have a right to dream … Wherever there are dreams, there is joy, Jesus is always present.”

Given the papal exhortation, one is entitled to dream that Francis’ Sept. 22-27 trip to the United States was more than a series of feel-good photo ops and lofty rhetoric. Over time, perhaps it will emerge as the game-changer for the world and the country that Francis clearly intended it to be.

 

 

India buys Apaches

06/10/2015

A few hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama met in New York, the two sides signed final agreements for the purchase of two of the most advanced American helicopters in a deal worth about $3 billion. Ministry of Defence spokesperson Sitanshu Kar announced on his official Twitter handle: “Contract for purchase of 15 Chinook and 22 Apache helicopters signed.” Just an hour after the official announcement, Mr. Modi and Mr. Obama met in New York with a warm hug. According to officials, the deal value is worth about $3 billion (Rs 19,800 crore) and would be completed in four years. The agreements were signed in the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence in South Block. For the Chinook helicopters, the agreement was signed between representatives of MoD and Boeing. For Apache, there were two separate contracts —one between MoD and Boeing representatives and the other between the governments to cover parts of the deal under the Foreign Military Sales programme. Like the agreement signing on Monday, the deal itself was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security just moments before Mr. Modi left on his visit of Ireland and the U.S. last Tuesday. The deal had been on the backburner for the past five years”.

Petraeus suggests Syrian safe zones

06/10/2015

A report notes the David Petraeus says the US needs to play a bigger role, “In his first testimony since resigning from the CIA, David Petraeus apologized to Congress for leaking classified information to his former lover and advocated a stepped-up military intervention into Syria that would go well beyond what the Obama administration has so far been willing to do. Petraeus, a retired four-star Army general who previously oversaw the war efforts in both Iraq and Syria, said the U.S. should establish safe zones in Syria for refugees and demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stop dropping barrel bombs on military and opposition targets. If Assad failed to head those calls, Petraeus said the U.S. should shoot Syrian aircraft out of the sky”.

The piece goes on to report “Petraeus, speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee,  argued that protecting more refugees and giving U.S.-backed Syrian rebels the authority to attack Syrian government forces as well as Islamic State militants would help the U.S. win over broader swaths of Syria’s Sunni majority. The testimony comes as the Obama administration has acknowledged the failure of the Pentagon’s program to train and equip moderate members of the Syrian opposition. Earlier this month, a senior U.S. general acknowledged that the $500 million program, which planned to produce 4,500 Syrian rebels by the end of the year, had only succeeded in training a handful of fighters currently operating within the country. Still, while advocating for more muscular military efforts, Petraeus cautioned Republican senators about the importance of securing a political agreement with the Assad government to resolve the Syrian conflict. He warned that a hasty overthrow of the Assad regime could result in a worse outcome than currently exists”.

The piece notes that “Members of the Senate panel uniformly thanked the general for his service, but offered little indication that they would act on his recommendations through legislation. At the outset of the hearing, Petraeus apologized for leaking classified information to his mistress, Paula Broadwell, while she was researching a book about his leadership methods — an event that led to his resignation in November 2012. “Four years ago, I made a serious mistake — one that brought discredit on me and pain to those closest to me,” Petraeus said. “It was a violation of the trust placed in me and a breach of the values to which I had been committed throughout my life.” “There is nothing I can do to undo what I did,” he added. “I can only say again how sorry I am to those I let down and then strive to go forward with a greater sense of humility and purpose, and with gratitude to those who stood with me during a very difficult chapter in my life.”

“Opec’s largest oil producer seeks to plug its budget deficit”

06/10/2015

Saudi Arabia has withdrawn as much as US$70 billion from global asset managers as Opec’s largest oil producer seeks to plug its budget deficit after crude slumped, according to financial services market intelligence company Insight Discovery. “Fund managers we’ve spoken to estimate Sama has pulled out between $50bn to $70bn from global asset managers over the past six months,” Nigel Sillitoe, chief executive officer of the Dubai-based firm, said by telephone Monday. “Saudi Arabia is withdrawing funds because it’s trying to cut its widening deficit and it’s financing the war in Yemen,” he said, declining to name the fund managers. Saudi Arabia is seeking to stem a decline in its finances after a 50 per cent drop in oil during the past 12 months. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority’s reserves held in foreign securities have fallen about 10 per cent from a peak of $737bn last August to $661bn in July, according to data from the central bank”.

“Francis appears to want two things from the synod”

04/10/2015

As the Synod on the Family opens today, John Allen writes that “In the wake of bitter controversy surrounding a private meeting with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis during his trip to the United States last week, Pope Francis has a chance beginning Sunday to get back “on message” with the opening of a Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome. The Oct. 4-25 summit of prelates from around the world is a critically important moment for the pontiff, one he’s been building toward for more than a year. If past is prologue, however, he may face a stiff challenge in steering it toward his desired outcome. On Friday, the Vatican issued a brief statement on the encounter with Davis, saying it was not intended to endorse her position “in all its particular and complex aspects.” Whatever one makes of how the meeting happened, or what it ultimately says about Francis’ views – and theories on both matters abound – the big picture remains intact and works to validate a fairly firm conclusion about this pope”.

Allen mentions that “Francis clearly upholds traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and the family. He believes those doctrines don’t make the Church the great “Doctor No” of the modern world, but rather mark out a path to genuine human fulfillment. He also believes strongly in religious freedom, one of the core messages he came to the United States to deliver. At the same time, Francis is also the pope of “Who am I to judge?” with regard to gay people trying to live faithful lives, recoiling from anything that makes Catholicism seem intolerant or merciless. After all, although he met Davis, he also met a same-sex couple and voiced no objection when Mo Rocca, an openly gay TV personality, delivered a reading at his Mass at Madison Square Garden”.

Crucially Allen writes “Francis appears to want two things from the synod. First, he wants a balanced approach to hot-button issues such as homosexuality and Communion for the divorced and remarried, blending defense of tradition with new language and a new pastoral approach that emphasizes inclusion. Second, he doesn’t want synod debates to be consumed by those issues”.

Yet with his missteps and misinterpretation he seems to have made these subtle, admirable goals achieveable in the climate in which the Synod takes place.

Allen makes the valid point that “If recent experience is any guide, the pope may have his work cut out for him. This synod is actually round two of a process that began last October with a first summit on the family. Back then, fierce debate broke out over homosexuality, the pastoral care of divorced Catholics, and what to make of other “irregular” relationships. The hope had been that the year between the first synod and the second one might allow time to cool those tensions and find common ground, but there’s not a great deal of evidence that things have played out that way”.

Allen admits that the hopes of the Synod of Francis might not come to fruition, “there seems to be a mounting tendency on all sides to suspect skullduggery and underhanded tactics. In the run-up to this summit, a well-known journalist in Rome published an e-book asking whether last year’s edition of the synod had been “rigged,” implying that a cabal of progressives had tried to stack the deck in favour of a more permissive line on matters such as homosexuality and divorce. On the other side, a minor Vatican aide announced on Saturday that he’s gay and happily in love, and called on all gay Catholics who have been “persecuted by the Church” to fight for their rights. Predictably, the official in question, Polish Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa, was swiftly fired from his Vatican position”.

Pointedly he adds “Whenever topics such as homosexuality and divorce are on the docket, feelings will run strong. What’s new now is a sense, however exaggerated, that movement might actually be possible. That’s elicited strong passions both from those who see such movement as desirable, and those who view it as alarming.  On Friday, a synod official tried to play down impressions of division. “There’s no surprise about the fact that there are opposing opinions,” said Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who briefed reporters on the synod process. True enough – there are more than 5,000 Catholic bishops in the world, and the idea that they’ll ever be in complete agreement is fantasy. What’s a bit more unusual, however, is to put those divisions on full public display. Yet that seems to be the forecast in Rome. If Francis is to get the synod he wants, he may need to spend some political capital along the way to bring people together. Over the next three weeks, we’ll see if he’s got enough left in the bank to pull it off”.

 

 

 

 

 

Cameron changes his Assad position

04/10/2015

David Cameron has indicated that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, should face international criminal prosecution, despite having dropped his opposition to the dictator staying in power temporarily as part of a transitional government. On the eve of a UN general assembly meeting, the prime minister emphasised his belief that Assad, who is backed by the Kremlin and Iran, has “butchered his own people” and fomented the rise of Islamic State in lawless areas of the country. He also signalled that he still believed Assad should be prosecuted for war crimes if he is proven to have broken international law by unleashing chemical weapons. However, Cameron is among the western leaders to have shifted his position from demanding the immediate departure of Assad to accepting he could be allowed to stay on as part of a transitional government – a plan supported by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. ”Conversations about how we bring about transition are important and that’s what we need to see progress on,” Cameron said. Asked how long Assad could remain in post as part of a deal with Russia, he replied: “I’m not going to speculate. But he can’t be part of Syria’s long-term future. That’s very clear.”

Francis muddies the waters over homosexuality

04/10/2015

Having met Kim Davis, the Holy See issued a press release. John Allen reports that the Church is walking back from this, “Facing mounting controversy over a brief private meeting between Pope Francis and Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis last week, the Vatican broke its silence Friday with a statement saying the pontiff did not intend the encounter as a form of support for her case “in all its particular and complex aspects.” Meanwhile, CNN reported — and the Vatican confirmed — that the day before Francis met Davis, he held a private meeting with a longtime friend and former student from Argentina who has been in a same-sex relationship for 19 years. Davis, an Apostolic Christian, is the clerk who spent five days in jail in September for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite the US Supreme Court ruling in June that legalized gay marriage nationwide. The meeting with Davis was thus seen as the pontiff wading deeply into America’s culture wars”.

However, the statement from the Press Office of the Holy See trying to muddy the waters and reduce the significance of the meeting is odd. It would be hard to construe the meeting between Davis and Francis as anything other than an endorsement of the actions of Davis. Thus, the question is why did the press office put out such a statement. The bishops in the United States have had no compunction about doing so.

Allen adds that “The temptation to read the meeting as an endorsement of Davis was especially strong given comments made by the pope aboard the papal plane returning to Rome that conscientious objection on same-sex marriage, including for government officials, is a “human right.” Davis and her lawyers also trumpeted the meeting as support for her cause. Earlier this week, Davis said that when she and her husband met the pope at the Vatican ambassador’s residence in Washington, DC, where the pontiff was staying, he encouraged her to “stay strong.” She later told ABC: “Just knowing that the pope is on track with what we’re doing and agreeing, you know, it kind of validates everything.” The Vatican statement Friday made clear the pope intended no such validation”.

Allen makes the point that “The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, made it clear that Davis was one of several dozen people the pope greeted at the residence as he prepared to depart for New York City, and was not an “audience” with the pope. “Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the pope’s characteristic kindness and availability,” the statement read. “The only real audience granted by the pope at the nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.” That student, according to CNN, was Yayo Grassi, an openly gay man who brought his partner, Iwan, as well as four friends to the Vatican embassy Sept. 23. A video of the meeting shows Grassi and Francis greeting each other with a warm hug”.

Interestingly Allen reports that “Grassi, who said he is not Catholic, said he decided to make his meeting public because he felt Davis was misrepresenting her encounter with the pope. An audience differs from a meeting in that it is a planned, somewhat formal affair. Popes have audiences with heads of state. They have meetings and greeting sessions with benefactors or Catholic VIPs. So the fact that Lombardi described Grassi’s encounter as the only “real audience” in Washington made clear that Francis wanted to emphasize that encounter over Davis’ “brief meeting” with several dozen other people invited to the embassy at the same time”.

All this do is muddy the waters further, which is presumably what Francis wants to do.

The piece goes on to note “As for the Davis meeting, the Vatican statement said that the pope “did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.” However, Davis’ attorney, Mat Staver, disputed the Vatican’s description and interpretation of the meeting. The Liberty Counsel released a statement early Friday that said the meeting was an affirmation of the Kentucky county clerk’s right to be a conscientious objector”.

He continues “Staver said an unnamed Vatican official initiated the meeting on Sept. 14, the day Davis returned to work after being jailed, saying the pope wanted to meet her. He said Vatican security picked up her and her husband from their hotel and told her to change her hairdo so she wouldn’t be recognized since the Vatican wanted the meeting kept secret. Staver said the couple was in a separate room with Francis and Vatican security and personnel, and that no member of the general public was present, to keep the meeting secret. He said the Vatican official who arranged the meeting insisted that it not be made public until after Francis had left the United States, and gave him the “green light” to make it public after Francis was back in Rome. The dispute may center on what Staver means by the term “Vatican” and what the Church means. The Rev. Thomas Rosica, who assists the Vatican with English-speaking media, seemed to indicate that the meeting had been arranged by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who serves as the pope’s ambassador in the United States”.

The article ends “Since news of the meeting was first reported on Tuesday by Inside the Vatican magazine, the Vatican had refused to comment — not denying the meeting, but declining to elaborate on how it happened or what it meant. That changed Friday with the statement from Lombardi, which Rosica elaborated on later. Rosica denied that anyone had attempted to manipulate the pope into meeting Davis, but said there had been a failure to advise the pope properly on the magnitude of the encounter. “I don’t think anyone was willfully trying to trick the pope,” he said, “nor was the pope briefed properly on who he was meeting. He wasn’t properly briefed on the person or the impact of such visit.” Rosica said he has heard the US bishops were not aware of the meeting, and suggested it may have been “orchestrated” by Davis’ legal team. Rosica also said that Francis had personally approved issuing Friday’s statement after learning the reaction the encounter had generated”.

 

“Iran-backed Houthi rebels put up heavy resistance”

04/10/2015

In Yemen’s Marib province, a key battleground in the fighting against Shiite rebels, frustration is growing in the ranks of troops backing the country’s president-in-exile after more than a week without gains on the ground. The pro-government forces’ advance on the capital, Sanaa, has stalled as Iran-backed Houthi rebels put up heavy resistance and despite an airstrikes’ campaign by a Saudi-led coalition that has relentlessly pounded rebel positions. The difficulty highlights the stark challenges facing the diverse set of fighters that make up the pro-government forces as they set their goal on Sanaa, about 165 kilometers (103 miles) to the west of Marib. Ground commanders from the Yemeni army complain of poor logistical coordination, along with slow communication and decision-making between the Marib front-lines and the military leadership in Riyadh. Troops have grown nervous, commanders say, after two incidents when Saudi-led airstrikes hit and killed allied fighters”.

Obama gives Putin the Middle East

04/10/2015

A piece notes that Putin is taking control of the Middle East in the absence of Obama, “Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, met with journalists in New York last Friday, he took pains to note that Iran and Russia were not joining together in a “coalition” in Syria. They were sharing intelligence. They were discussing strategy. They were in constant communication. But a coalition? No. Two days later, the Iraqi government announced it too was sharing intelligence with Russia, Iran, and Syria. So perhaps Rouhani was being literal in a different way when he disavowed being in a coalition with Russia — because what he was actually involved in was a coalition with Russia, Iraq, and Syria”.

The piece adds that “During his discussion of the non-coalition coalition, Rouhani did not hesitate to emphasise how closely aligned his country’s views regarding the situation in Syria are with those of the Russians. He described them as “a mirror” of one another. Then, in recounting a conversation he had with Vladimir Putin prior to the recent Russian military buildup in Syria, he spoke of the Russian president’s expressed desire to get involved in that country in order to mount a “more effective” campaign against the Islamic State (IS)”.

Correctly he goes on to make the point that “The implication was clear. Putin, who views a collapse in Syria as a local issue with the regime in Damascus serving as a bulwark against the spread of extremism into the gut of Russia, doesn’t think much of the U.S.-led efforts to date against IS. In fact, during his address to the U.N. on Monday, Putin implied the United States was doing nothing to fight IS in Syria, stating, “We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurdish militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.” Interestingly, Rouhani also said that Putin told him that he had let Barack Obama know of his plans to dial up the heat during a conversation with the American president. This is unsettling because the United States has seemed so unprepared for the Russian escalation, although apparently the White House had a president-to-president heads-up that it was coming. Indeed, according to recent reports like this one in the Washington Post, Obama, for his part, is still reportedly trying to figure out what the heck his next halfway measure should be in Syria — should he dial up more tweets from the NSC or perhaps give another speech about how bad the options are in that country? Certainly, his U.N. address on Monday did not offer any clear answers — about anything. (For those of you who missed it, here is a summary of Obama’s U.N. remarks: “Good morning. Cupcakes. Unicorns. Rainbows. Putin is mean. Thank you very much.”) Perhaps I am being unfair”.

The author then notes that “Despite the fact that our efforts against IS are clearly not working, cooked intelligence notwithstanding, and that the extremist group is actually gaining strength in important ways (see this weekend’s New York Times story), it may be that this is all part of a grand plan on the part of the U.S. president. He wanted out of the region. He did not want to put U.S. boots on the ground. He wanted someone or a group from the region to pick up the slack. And that’s exactly what he’s getting”.

The writer makes the valid point that “Putin has repeatedly shown that he would not hesitate to put boots on the ground (even if periodically he does resist the temptation to send his troops in wearing other pieces of their uniforms — for example, insignia as in Ukraine). Neither has Iran shown any hesitation in extending its influence in the region via either its military, military advisors, or sponsored proxy warriors, or toward using the economic, political, or intelligence means at its disposal. In fact, according to a senior Israeli official, Bibi Netanyahu’s government believes that Iran has moved some 1,500 troops into Syria in recent days. The governments in Damascus and Baghdad have long been beholden to the kindness of the not-quite-strangers from Tehran and Moscow. All of these actors see the rise of the Islamic State and the civil wars in Syria and Iraq as direct and serious threats to core interests (in ways that others with proxy stakes in Syria — like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Qatar — do not). For all of these reasons, quite apart from the more recent heads-up from Putin, the president of the United States and his advisors must have known that the most likely people to answer their wishes and step up to deal with IS must have been this non-coalition coalition. And since the United States has only taken steps to empower the Iranians of late while soft-pedaling issues that might have put us in even more adversarial positions vis-à-vis Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and the Iraqis, it seems clear that the president was perfectly comfortable giving them the room to do as they have done”.

Worryingly, though perhaps correctly, he notes that “Obama’s plan is now becoming clear. We’ll leave Syria and Iraq to the Russians and the Iranians. Both of the war-torn countries are a mess. There is no political will in the United States to get more involved. What could go wrong? What could the long-term implications be of allowing the Russians and the Iranians to continue their clear and thus far successful strategies of extending their influence in their overlapping neighbourhoods by fueling fractures within their neighbours and then stepping in and gaining influence over chunks of those neighbours, thereby also weakening their opponents? It is an approach that has given Russia bits of Georgia and Ukraine and has explained muscle-flexing in Belarus and the Baltics”.

Sadly he continues “We have gone from the victory-at-any-cost mindset of World War II to the exit-at-any-cost mindset of the Obama years. While self-described “realists” may hail the restraint and President Eeyore’s unrivaled mastery of focusing on the downside to any possible U.S. action, and while the president’s defenders will no doubt also revert to the always legitimate argument that the disastrous invasion of Iraq played a big role in getting us to where we are today, they neglect a critical fact. What’s done is done. We are where we are. Let’s stipulate that Iraq was a disaster. Let’s stipulate that the Arab Spring was largely a self-inflicted wound on the part of regimes that neglected their obligations to their people and to modernity. Let’s stipulate that we had no good options in Syria. When an American president is left with a lousy situation and no good options, then there is still the necessity of figuring out how to best advance U.S. interests going forward”.

Interestingly he writes “By the way, none of this means that it will be easy for the Russian-Iranian team to defeat extremists. Nor do I think that is their primary objective at the moment. What they seek to do is gain the kind of foothold that will guarantee them critical leverage in any political settlement to come in Syria. They will either be able to keep Assad in place or, alternatively, ensure him leadership for a transition period and then have the ability to select or veto his successor. This will guarantee both of them what they have wanted most all along — continued influence in Damascus. That is what both their regional strategies require, and because the United States, Europe, the Sunnis, and even the Israelis would all be perfectly happy with that in exchange for putting a lid on IS and stemming refugee flows, it seems likely that the Russian-Iranian gambit will work. They will get what they want, and the world, including Obama, will declare it a victory”.

 

Kunduz recaptured

04/10/2015

Afghan security forces have recaptured Kunduz City, the capital of northeastern Kunduz province, from the Taliban, the government announced on Thursday. On September 29, hundreds of Taliban gunmen stormed Kunduz City from various directions and captured it after a few hours of clashes with security forces. Sediq Siddiqui, the Interior Ministry spokesman, told Pajhwok Afghan News security forces conducted an operation on Wednesday night to drive militants from the city. He said the security forces were able to take control of the entire city during the operation that continued until 3:30am. NATO forces provided air support, Siddiqui added. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed the security forces wrested back Kunduz City despite strong resistance from the militants.

Francis the diplomat

02/10/2015

Given the recent trip of Pope Francis an article in Foreign Affairs notes the role of the pope as politician, “On Friday morning, the Vatican’s yellow-and-white flag was, for the first time, hoisted over the United Nations. Other than the flag, there will be little else to mark the occasion of Pope Francis’ address to the UN General Assembly. In fact, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office had to convince the pope’s team to accept even that honour. The issue first came up when Palestine, the assembly’s other permanent observer, promoted a resolution to allow the two nonmember banners to stand next to 193 member flags. The Vatican pressed to have its name removed from a draft text; the Holy See signed its first bilateral accord with Palestine in May and has referred to the “State of Palestine” since Francis visited last year, but Francis still considered the motion to be unnecessarily antagonistic toward Israel and the United States, which both opposed it. In the end, even though the specific reference to the Holy See was deleted, the resolution still referred more generally to “raising the flags of nonmember observer states,” a category that includes the Vatican. The resolution passed with 119 votes in favour, including France, Italy, Japan, Spain, Sweden, and Poland; eight votes against, including Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United States; and 45 abstentions, including Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Baltic States”.

This is primarily a result of the intense, even excessive, desire to be neutral. The simple raising of a flag is, in the eyes of the Holy See, an intensely political act which should be avoided.On the Church acts over what it considers to be its freedom of speech or doctrine is extremely political. To pretend that it is not is simply untrue.

The writer continues “The episode sums up Francis’ diplomatic style in a nutshell—promote reconciliation without offending key stakeholders. Press antagonists to encounter each other while avoiding affronting political leaders. For example, last week in Cuba, even as Francis called for a “revolution of tenderness,” he resisted pressure to meet with the island’s persecuted political dissidents. In Ecuador two months ago, the pope likewise avoided photo ops with President Rafael Correa’s critics, who mounted major street protests in the weeks leading up to the pontiff’s visit”.

The writer mistakenly writes “As a religious leader, Francis is charged with upholding values that transcend politics, which is why he tries not to play in political games. At the same time, however, human dignity can hardly flourish in conditions of deprivation or destruction, which is why he and his tight-knit diplomatic team have not been afraid to advocate justice, peace, and mercy to those in power. In that way, he has had to be more actively politically engaged than previous popes, but also more careful in how he does it”.

Yet this is somewhat simplistic. The role of Francis, and any pope, is entirely political, though obviously not exclusively. The exercise of religion is inherently political. Of course all modern popes have tried to focus on the transcendent but crucially the author admits that he “tries” to avoid political games.

The writer adds that “Among modern pontiffs, Pope Pius XII (1939–1958) faced extensive political challenges during and after World War II, yet even he was not expected to travel the world meeting with global leaders. Pope John Paul II (1978–2005), who dealt with a world tensely divided between the West and the Soviet Union for 13 years and a dominant United States thereafter, pushed for change but faced more intransigent world orders. Pope Benedict XVI (2005–2013) left the post, in part because of the complex political demands of the office. One reason Francis was elected for the job after Benedict was an intervention he gave to the conclave in 2013, in which he criticized the Catholic Church as too self-referential. Instead, he urged, it needed to focus on bringing Christ’s message to the world—and that’s just what he is doing”.

Interestingly he argues “Despite his reputation for humility, Francis is comfortable playing the prophet. His first official trip outside Rome was to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa in 2013, where he spoke of the plight of refugees, mainly Muslims, fleeing failed states and war. Arriving on an Italian coast guard ship, he cast a wreath into the sea to honour those who had drowned. Later, he met with men from Eritrea and Somalia who made the crossing. In an emotional homily the day of the visit, the pope said that he came “to reawaken our consciences”—to cast out indifference toward suffering born out of a “culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing.” His startling language and use of symbolism—his altar was fashioned from an old fishing boat, his chalice and staff made from wood pulled from the ocean—prompted the Italian government to form, in October, Mare Nostrum, a rescue mission that saved over 150,800 refugees and arrested 330 smugglers before it was replaced by a European Union initiative”.

The article continues “Francis’ response to the refugee crisis is also unique. Before flying to Cuba, he met with a Syrian refugee family now living in a Vatican-owned apartment. The family of four, members of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, arrived in Italy the day Francis asked all Catholic communities across Europe to accommodate at least one refugee family. Humanitarian service, as opposed to political action, has been the Catholic Church’s standard response to cataclysm. For Francis, though, the church should take a more proactive geopolitical role. With priests and religious leaders being kidnapped and murdered, while thousands of believers are forced to flee ancient communities in the cradle of Christianity, Vatican engagement is not optional. And so Francis has encouraged the church to be more active on behalf of refugees and migrants, which typically leads to more political engagement. For example, in the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has made immigration reform a high priority and lobbies constantly for progressive legislation. The bishops didn’t need to be pressured to do so: the vast majority of immigrants from Latin America are Catholic”.

He mentions that the Holy See “has had formal, uninterrupted diplomatic relations with Iran since 1954; friendly correspondence between popes and Persian shahs dates back to the sixteenth century. Of the 180 countries with which the Holy See enjoys diplomatic relations, Iran maintains one of the largest delegations, which meets monthly with Vatican advisers. Encouraged by these connections, in March 2014, three U.S. bishops met with four leading ayatollahs in Iran. They were hosted by the Supreme Council of the Seminary Teachers of Qom, Iran’s spiritual center. With backing from the Holy See and a blessing from the U.S. State Department, the participants used the four-day session to establish a dialogue on nuclear weapons and the role of religious leaders in diplomatic engagement”.

He goes on to note that “One of the bishops involved in the Iran dialogue on religion and nuclear arms, McCarrick, also played a role in negotiations to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations. He sat by the pontiff’s side during the first Mass in Havana earlier this week. The Vatican’s engagement on Cuba and Iran helped the pope build a personal relationship with Obama and so much political capital in Washington that he was invited to address a joint session of Congress—a first for a pope. This is all the more remarkable considering that 34 years ago, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan decided to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See, it was controversial—so controversial, in fact, that a legal challenge brought by a diverse coalition of religious groups went all the way to the Supreme Court. The White House won. These days, the Vatican is frustrated by U.S. activities in the Middle East, but it hopes that the goodwill it has built up in the United States can lead to more collaboration, possibly including on Syria. Sources in Rome say the pope considers it a very positive sign that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently described Syrian peace negotiations as a “process.” After talks with the British foreign minister last week, Kerry noted that “we need to get to the negotiation”.

The article ends “One relationship Francis has patiently cultivated is with Putin. The Vatican has earned its bona fides in Moscow by exercising restraint with regard to Ukraine. Instead of siding with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (which has a strong anti-Russian streak, having been persecuted by the Soviet Union), the pope counseled its leaders to avoid politicising the church. The Vatican recently relocated to Switzerland its American-born nuncio to Kiev, Thomas Gullickson, allegedly because Moscow complained that he was biased against Russia. What is notable is that, in Pope Francis’ view, not only are dissidents expendable in the interests of a larger process but so are church members and employees”.

He concludes “It’s an understatement to say that Francis is ambitious. He is leading the church into the world, as he pledged to his peers that he would do. No other pope has written a stand-alone document on the environment, probably because it requires so much simultaneous engagement in international and local politics, public policy, science, and education. His fearlessness and willingness to go there has contributed to his popularity. But global popularity has a downside: besides creating unrealistic expectations, there’s a risk that the multiplication of goals obscures the spiritual heart of his enterprise. Can a pope be a man for all people? Who knows. But Pope Francis is willing to try, and the world seems willing to let him”.

 

 

Kerry and Zarif meet since the deal

02/10/2015

The top U.S. and Iranian diplomats met on Saturday for the first time since their countries reached a historic nuclear deal in Vienna. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sat down in New York at the United Nations to discuss the path forward for the implementation of the agreement, which lifts sanctions against the Iranians in exchange for their pledge to not pursue nuclear weaponry. Congressional Republicans have tried to stop the deal, which they say would aid U.S. enemies. The pair also discussed regional instability in Syria and Yemen, State Department spokesman John Kirby said, along with the status of detained and missing U.S. citizens in Iran”.