Archive for December, 2015

“Scandinavia’s best lesson”

30/12/2015

An interesting piece discusses the “real” lessons of Scandinavia.

It opens “During this presidential campaign season, Scandinavia’s democratic socialism has had something of a starring role in Democratic discussions. In the debate on October 13, U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders extolled the virtues of Europe’s north: “We should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway,” he argued, “and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.” Sanders’ paean elicited a flat rebuke from Hillary Clinton: “We are not Denmark.” In truth, there are many things that the United States can learn from Scandinavia, but not what Sanders implies. Scandinavian countries call themselves foregangslande, or pioneers, and they have much to show in terms of forward-looking and innovative policy. Most everyone is familiar with the progressive ideas—from gender equality, universal health care, and energy sustainability—that have turned the region into a model for Bernie Sanderses everywhere”.

The article goes on to mention that this image has become tarnished, “However, in recent years, Europe’s north has also been home to more controversial practices—namely, restrictive immigration measures and austerity policies. They have also been rocked by the rise of radical populism. Because of their wealth and relatively small size, countries in northern Europe have had to face economic and social issues before some of the other Western countries. And the results reveal that it is best to be careful what you wish for. For the better part of the past century, Nordic countries seemed to provide a third way between East and West. At the height of the Cold War, this positioning was understood in diplomatic terms; some of the countries remained neutral. But before then and again more recently, it was a social-economic label. The region seemed to mix free markets and universal social protection better than anyone else”.

The piece adds “In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, policymakers and observers have understandably been tempted to draw back on the Scandinavian model for inspiration. But in the intervening years, the Nordic socioeconomic experience has changed beyond anything Childs could recognize. What made Scandinavia distinctive then was the state’s deep reach into the market; in recent years, it has retreated. Experiments such as the voucher system have introduced private choice in key public sectors such as health care and education. In Sweden, public spending as a percentage of the GDP has shrunk by a quarter over the past two decades. Bookshelves have filled with titles such as From Social State to Minimal State, a treatise by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, later to become Danish prime minister, in which he advocated an increase in private initiative”.

However the problem with this is example is that Rasmussen is from Vestre a liberal party that has an ideological commitment to shrinking the state. So to therefore imply that this is some kind of consensus is misleading, at the very least.

The author writes “In time, Scandinavians’ self-perceptions have changed. Globalisation and delocalisation have challenged the competitiveness of some of the region’s industrial champions. Inflows of migrants have made Nordic cultures more diverse. Over time, the Scandinavians have slowly crept away from traditional social democratic tenets toward more pragmatic and yet conservative positions. Even conservative icons such as Joseph Schumpeter and Ayn Rand have become increasingly popular at these latitudes. If Europe’s north still represents a middle way, it is not between free market capitalism and socialism. It is between two radically different visions of democratic politics. On the one hand, Europe’s north pioneered the kind of efficient and impartial technocracy that has been emulated elsewhere, most notably in the European Union. The region is a paragon of bureaucratic autonomy (defined as the extent to which the civil service is uncorrupt and operates without interference from political power). Not coincidentally, “getting to Denmark” is used metaphorically by scholars such as Francis Fukuyama and the World Bank before him as shorthand for states’ modernization and good governance”.

The author bemoans the rise of the technocracy and subsequent lack of accountable as it eats away at the consensus and communitarian values that have been the hallmark of much of Scandinavian governance yet the problems of technocracy and a lack of accountability and transparency are not uniquely Scandinavian but come from a general desire of politicians not to make decisions which could harm their electoral prospects.

He concludes “What Scandinavia has to offer the United States is more than a utopian vision of universal health care; it offers lessons about the future of liberal democracy. Scandinavia has accumulated valuable experience trying to reconcile technocracy and populism, a balance that can quickly deteriorate when it is not founded on a watertight social contract between the citizens and the state. The upheavals and wide divergence among Scandinavian countries in their responses to Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis testify to the risk. Indeed, Scandinavia’s best lesson for others is that, in the future, state success will rest on finding a middle way between the forces that pull liberal democracy in opposite directions”.

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Syrian opposition agree to unity

30/12/2015

An array of Syrian opposition groups agreed here on Thursday to form a new and more inclusive body to guide the diverse and divided opponents of President Bashar al-Assad in a new round of planned talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war. The formation of such a body has been seen by the United States and the opposition’s other international supporters as a prerequisite for new talks, and the new body appeared to fit the bill by pulling together political dissidents who have long distrusted one another as well as rebel groups fighting the Syrian Army. “This is the widest participation for the opposition, inside and outside of Syria, and we have the participation of the armed groups,” said Hadi al-Bahra, a member of the exiled Syrian National Coalition who attended the two-day conference that produced the new body. The agreement in Riyadh, which Secretary of State John Kerry called “an important step forward,” followed a truce between rebels and government forces in part of the strategic city of Homs, which a senior United Nations official said could serve as a building block for a broader cease-fire agreement, so long as the government can hold up its end of the deal as proof that it “cares about its people.”

China and India, playing geopolitics

30/12/2015

A piece in Foreign Affairs discusses the problems of Sino-India rivalry, “President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington has had media outlets abuzz about cybertheft and sandcastles rising out of the South China Sea. But in many ways, these issues are side plots to a larger story: the New Great Game for influence in the Indo-Pacific, which has arisen at the confluence of three strategies, China’s Maritime Silk Road, India’s Act East Policy, and the United States’ Rebalance to Asia. It is possible for all three strategies to work together, but it won’t be easy—particularly for the United States”.

The article argues “India and China might struggle for political and commercial influence in the Indo-Pacific region, but both would do better to coordinate their policies, since as neighbours, their economic and political success depends on deepening engagement with each other and other countries in the region. At the moment, both recognise that there is little to be gained from proxy wars and have instead favoured soft power diplomacy. Huge stakes are involved. Trade, energy, and geostrategic imperatives are driving both Chinese and Indian ambitions. Between the Indian and Pacific Oceans lies the main choke point of world commerce, the Malacca Strait. Today, more than half of the world’s container traffic and one-third of all maritime traffic crosses the Indian Ocean and passes through this point and into the South China Sea”.

The writer notes the feelings of China of the toward this weak spot, “so over the last decade, China has sought to secure its access to the critical sea lanes, including by creating artificial islands with airfields in the South China Sea and declaring an expansive and novel Exclusive Economic Zone—one that is far larger and includes far more prerogatives than permitted under The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea—over the area. From this perspective, Chinese Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai’s recent, and rather incendiary, declaration that the South China Sea “belongs to China” makes strategic sense: It is after all their path to the greater Indo-Pacific. Plenty of ink has been spilled over the South China Sea, and appropriately so. But the South China Sea is just an example of a larger game that is already underway”.

He adds that to avoid this Malacca problem China has given money to Pakistan and Burma but “this approach has been hurt by China’s more muscular activities in the South China Sea, which have scared the country’s smaller neighbours into closer alliances with India, Japan, and the United States.  As China has become more assertive, India has focused on its own rapidly growing need for access to critical sea lines and opportunities for trade and investment. In 2011, maritime trade constituted close to 41 percent of India’s overall GDP; the figure reached 45 percent in 2015. India now imports about three-fourths of its oil through the Indian Ocean. India fears that China, relying on its alliance with Pakistan, might encircle India on land and at sea. For Indian strategists, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that China would use its increased maritime capability to create a zone of naval exclusion that stretches from the South China Sea to the Persian Gulf”.

He mentions that in response to this “India hopes to use its funding, increased trade focus, military diplomacy, and cultural ties—its so-called Act East policy—to maintain and expand its leverage over the Indian Ocean Rim states to preclude a more permanent Chinese presence in those waters. Competition in the Indian Ocean begins in Bangladesh, a country that is currently the second-largest recipient of Chinese assistance in the region. Over the last decade, two-thirds of Chinese assistance has gone to the transportation sector, since, China believes, new port and rail links from China to Bangladesh can serve as a pressure valve for the Malacca Strait. China has spent significant capital upgrading Bangladesh’s port infrastructure: Bejing is a major donor to the Chittagong Port project and had agreed to build a deep-sea port at Sonadia before the plans were shelved when India, Japan, and the United States voiced concerns. Now Beijing is eyeing another deep-sea port project at Paira”.

The writer then notes the tussle of the two nations over Burma, “China has invested heavily in Bangladesh’s next-door neighbour Myanmar. Beijing stayed friendly with the military regime in Naypyidaw during the regime’s decades of isolation to cultivate an ally for trade and access to raw materials. From 1988 to 2013, China built ports, dams, and oil and gas pipelines throughout the country, accounting for 42 percent of the foreign investment in Myanmar. The Kyaukphyu Port became the cornerstone of Beijing’s strategy in the country, as it provides valuable land-based access to the Indian Ocean. In 2013, the countries inaugurated a gas pipeline from Kyaukphyu to China, which is scheduled to begin moving crude oil later this year”.

Yet this has been matched by India, who has sought to go “beyond development cooperation. Taking advantage of a May 2014 border and security cooperation agreement, in June 2015, Indian Special Forces launched a raid on an insurgent camp in Myanmar. The move relieved pressure on Naypyidaw’s forces, which were then stretched thin battling anti-state militants in three other regions of the country. Previously in 2013, India agreed to build four Offshore Patrol Vehicles for Myanmar’s navy and to train more of Myanmar’s military officers. In turn, Myanmar, long a client state of Beijing, has started pivoting away from China. The first major blow to the relationship was the suspension of the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam project on the Irrawaddy River in 2011; after the Myanmar military junta dissolved in 2010, the new government caved to public pressure against the dam. The second was China’s authorization of live-fire drills along the Burmese border in June 2015. In China’s strategic loss, India is the big winner—a pattern that has replicated itself across several Southeast Asian countries”.

The piece goes on to discuss Pakistan which is no loss to India. Indeed, it would be bizarre if India even bother to woo Pakistan after all that has occurred.

The piece adds that the two nations are struggling over Sri Lanka, “A final case study makes the nature of the growing rivalry between China and India abundantly clear. Under the previous government, India ceded influence in Sri Lanka to China because China had provided the previous Sri Lankan government with the military hardware and diplomatic cover that enabled it to win its 25-year-old civil war against the Tamil Tigers. The funding was something neither India nor Western countries were willing to provide due to fears of human rights violations. And so China built Hambantota Port in southern Sri Lanka, which, when the third phase of construction is completed this year, will be South Asia’s largest port. China also started building a $1.4 billion port project near Colombo. The agreement will last for 99 years and gives Beijing jurisdiction over 50 acres of land. Indeed, the Colombo Port City Project, as its name suggests, will be a city under Chinese lease, replete with apartment buildings, shopping malls, and golf courses. In times of conflict, China would likely be able to make military use of the facilities. Indeed, in 2014, Sri Lanka granted a form of privileged access to China, permitting Beijing to dock its submarines at the Colombo South Container Terminal—a deep-water facility built and managed by Chinese firms—instead of at the Sri Lanka Port Authority, which is mandated to host military vessels. The Sri Lankan government then attempted to keep the media in the dark on the matter, in contrast to its usual vocal pronouncements when other countries made port calls in the country”.

Interestingly however the writer notes that Sri Lanka too could fall to India, “in February 2015, Sri Lanka’s newly elected president, Maithripala Sirisena, whose campaign focused on charges of corruption in the Chinese investments in Sri Lanka, changed course. He made his first foreign trip to India, signing a broad range of agreements to strengthen strategic and economic ties, including on civil nuclear cooperation. Sirisena has now put the Colombo port project on hold, although Beijing is using all its leverage to restart it. During Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka, the first by an Indian premier in 28 years, India agreed to deepen strategic, economic, and defense ties with the country. Modi extended a $318 million line of credit to Colombo for the expansion of its railway sector, and the two countries struck agreements to jointly develop Sri Lanka’s coal and petroleum sectors and launch a joint task force on the ocean economy”.

Crucially he writes “Instead of shouting itself hoarse about Chinese encroachments, India has focused on revitalizing its relationships in South Asia and expanding its contacts with potential partners from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. At the same time, it has directly challenged Chinese positions throughout the region. Speaking in front of the Sri Lankan parliament, Modi said that his vision of an “ideal neighborhood” was one in which “trade, investments, technology, ideas and people flow easily.” This vision matches with the United States’ own ambitions in the region, expressed in the “US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” signed in January, and later in the U.S. Department of Defense’s “Asia-Pacific Maritime Strategy,” which specifically embraced India’s Act East policy”.

He concludes “China and India will continue to acquire new hard power in order to protect their economic interests in the region. In 2013 and 2014, India was the world’s largest importer of arms; China was the third largest in 2013 and fourth largest last year. That growth is reflective of a broader trend in the region: 12 of the top 15 arms importers in the world were scattered across the Indo-Pacific region. This is not to suggest that the two Asian giants are headed toward inevitable conflict. Indeed, competition has the potential to drive dramatic economic benefits to the region as countries soak up Chinese- and Indian-funded infrastructure. The resulting increase in trade infrastructure and connectivity would also benefit both China and India. Yet that positive outcome will require proactive management from all parties and a sustained commitment to balance competing interests. And that is where the United States comes in. In order to secure shared prosperity, the three powers will need to be realistic about the legitimate security concerns of the others. Not surprisingly given Beijing’s provocations in the South China Sea, the United States has moved to strengthen bilateral relations with India while calling for greater Indian activism in the Indo-Pacific”.

 

Moscow’s quagmire?

30/12/2015

Many senior officials in Moscow underestimated how long the operation in support of Bashar al-Assad would take when Putin entered Syria’s civil war on Sept. 30 and no longer talk in terms of just a few months, with one saying the hope now is that it won’t last several years. With the mission in its third month, Putin is pouring materiel and manpower into Syria at a pace unanticipated by lawmakers already struggling to meet his spending goals. The plunging price of oil is sapping revenue and prolonging Russia’s first recession in six years, prompting the Defense Ministry this week to postpone some new weapons programs. “This operation will last a year at a minimum,” said Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the Defense Committee in the upper house of parliament. “I was expecting more from Syria’s army.”

Mexico, oil privatisation at any cost

28/12/2015

A piece in Foreign Policy notes the relationship between Mexico and oil, “When, in 2013, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced a broad reform package that would end the government’s monopoly over the country’s oil sector, his argument was fairly straightforward: Foreign investment could be just the thing to reverse a decade of production declines and revitalise a state that has historically relied heavily on oil for its income. Dazzled by the promise of numbers, Peña Nieto suggested that, by wrenching open the long-closed sector, Mexico could attract more than $60 billion in investment within just a few years, while adding at least a percentage point to its annual GDP growth and creating 2 million jobs”.

The author goes on to mention that “The president’s idea was a revolutionary one in a country whose modern identity was forged thanks to the nationalisation of its black gold in 1938. Critics, unsurprisingly, were quick to argue that Peña Nieto’s reform was nothing less than a wholesale dismantling of Mexico’s heritage. But the president knew that, without a shock to the system, his country could soon turn into a net importer of oil. That meant giving up, at least in part, the keys to the energy industry. Mexico, along with Russia, has long been a poster child for resource nationalism, or the tendency for governments to claim outright ownership of all mineral resources and to monopolize pretty much all parts of the energy sphere. Nearly 80 percent of global oil reserves are under the control of national oil companies, according to a 2007 report by the Baker Institute at Rice University, leaving relatively little energy in the hands of multinational corporations”.

Of course that is not to say that due to this nationalisation policy oil production has stopped. Instead a balance has been found in places as diverse and Norway and Saudi Arabia where the state and oil companies can work together rather than oil companies both owning and producing the resources that should belong to the people of the country in question.

The author controversially claims that “Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela have little choice but to track Mexico’s experiment closely, considering that they all compete for the same investment dollars and that Big Oil will go where it sees the best prospects with the best terms. What’s more, these countries have an even stronger, inescapable reason to follow Mexico’s lead: Resource nationalism is a long-term recipe for disaster”.

Such strong wording is not only dangerous but his examples are highly questionable with no mention of European countries such as the Norway that has taken a very different route to what the author has claimed and been hugely successful. Thus it is not that nationalisation is bad but the conditions under which it takes place and the kind of deal agreed between the oil companies and the state.

He goes on to note “Take Argentina. It has the world’s second-largest shale reserves but is currently a net energy importer after nearly a century of whipsawing between nationalism and an open market. Foreign capital created windfalls in the 1920s and 1930s, but greedy governments snatched back those oil wells in the 1940s, until production dwindled; they then returned, cap in hand, to wildcatters and oil majors just a decade later—a Groundhog Day pattern that continues today. Most recently, in 2012, Argentina lurched toward nationalism again, expropriating its former national oil company from Spain’s Repsol. Argentina now has the unenviable task of trying to lure foreign money and know-how to help tap Vaca Muerta (Dead Cow), a shale formation roughly the size of Belgium that it cannot develop on its own”.

His next example only demonstrates his point, “Venezuela has the world’s largest crude reserves, yet it too must import some basic fuel. For a brief period in the liberalizing 1990s, the government attracted foreign capital and boosted production. But in the 2000s, under strongman Hugo Chávez, resource nationalism returned with a vengeance; oil production in the country has fallen by about one-quarter from its peak levels in 1997. Much more than in Mexico, such decline threatens societywide economic and political meltdowns because Venezuela gets about 95 percent of its export earnings—and half of government revenues—from oil sales. The shrinking pie has imperiled social programs and has limited the country’s ability to import basic staples, such as toilet paper, and even to keep the lights on”.

He argues that “Mexico, of course, has also been crippled by resource nationalism. It coasted for years on the back of hugely prolific offshore fields discovered in the 1970s, but production at those fields peaked around 2004, falling by about three-quarters the following decade. That left Mexico with a bloated, inefficient state oil company that was responsible for a big chunk of the Mexican treasury but had little wherewithal to reverse the slide or to embrace new technologies. So in 2013, when Peña Nieto proposed upending the energy industry, he managed to pass reforms without any real challenge in the legislature. Fast-forward to last July, when, for the first time in nearly 80 years, Mexico auctioned off some shallow-water tracts in the Gulf of Mexico to foreign firms; onshore tracts in northern and eastern Mexico will be awarded this winter. Mexico didn’t offer attractive enough terms, however, and the auction in July flopped. As a result, the country has postponed the auction of deep-water blocks, while it tries to strike the right balance between enticing foreign firms and ensuring that enough revenue still makes it to the national treasury”.

Pointedly he notes that “Of course, such change won’t be easy, particularly because global oil prices have recently tanked, dampening investment appetite everywhere. Then there are security threats from narcotraffickers, especially around Mexico’s potentially energy-rich northern fields. And while proximity to the United States is in many ways a blessing—the world’s best service companies are a short flight away—it’s also a curse: Why make a risky play south of the border when the U.S. shale revolution remains steady? Even still, for Latin America’s once and future oil giants, there’s something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. Demand for energy, especially oil and natural gas, is shifting east: In 2013, for the first time ever, oil demand in developing countries (led by China) surpassed that of rich countries”.

 

Iran, withdrawing from Syria?

26/12/2015

Iran is beginning to withdraw its elite fighters from the Russian-led military campaign in Syria, according to U.S. and other Western military officials, suggesting a fissure in what President Barack Obama derided last month as a “coalition of two.” U.S. officials tell me they are seeing significant numbers of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops retreat from the Syrian combat zone in recent weeks, following the deaths and wounding of some of top officers in a campaign to retake Idlib Province and other areas lost this year to opposition forces supported by the West and Gulf Arab States. As a result, the Russian-initiated offensive that was launched in September seems to be losing an important ally.

Iran’s February elections

26/12/2015

An important article discusses the upcoming elections in Iran for the future of the country.

It begins “In late February 2016, Iran will see two important elections. One is for the Assembly of Experts, a constitutional body. The other is for the Majlis, Iran’s parliament. As Iran prepares for the vote, the power struggle between the hardliners and the moderates and reformists is intensifying. This showdown, even more than the discussions about the Iran deal, will shape Iranian politics in the years and decades to come. According to Articles 107 and 111 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution, the Assembly of Experts is in charge of the appointment (and dismissal) of the Supreme Leader. Its members are elected by popular vote. But over the years, hardliners within the government have used all sorts of maneuvers to essentially neutralise the body. It is now completely obedient to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and meets only twice a year. After each meeting, the Assembly issues a statement praising the “wise leadership” of Khamenei followed by tough rhetoric about Israel, the United States, and those who oppose the rule of the hardliners”.

The piece goes on to note “The election of the Majlis, meanwhile, is governed by Article 99 of the Iranian constitution, which stipulates that “the Guardian Council will monitor the elections for the Majlis, the President, the Assembly of Experts, and any national referendum that may be put to people’s vote.” But right from its inception, the Guardian Council’s monitoring became a point of contention between Iran’s various factions. The main point of dispute was whether the “monitor” clause should be interpreted as giving the council responsibility for vetting candidates in addition to overseeing the elections, a battle that only intensified during the rule of Khamenei. Unsurprisingly, the Guardian Council, which is also tasked with interpreting the constitution, has determined that the clause gives it power to certify the qualifications of all the candidates for each election. The council, historically controlled by ultra-conservatives, has rejected many candidates that it considers critics”.

Importantly the author notes how the deck has been stacked, “The Guardian Council has 12 members: six of them must be clerics and are appointed by Khamenei; the other six must be legal scholars, who are proposed by the judiciary chief to the Majlis to receive parliamentary approval. The judiciary chief, of course, is also a Khamenei appointee. In effect, by controlling the makeup of the Guardian Council, which in turns approves the candidacy of a limited number of trusted candidates for the Assembly of Experts, Khamenei controls the constitutional body that is supposed to monitor and control him. The same goes for the Majlis. It is due to this closed cycle that elected government bodies have become tools for Khamenei to do as he pleases. For example, by pressuring members of the assembly, Khamenei forced the body to sack his rival, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from the chairmanship of the body. In subsequent elections to choose a new chair for the assembly, Khamenei’s office intervened again, and Rafsanjani lost the election to Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a reactionary cleric and ally of Khamenei”.

The article adds that Rafsanjani was unable to control Khamenei and so “has started to oppose many of Khamenei’s policies, and is now closer to the reformists. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also opposes many of Khamenei’s positions, particularly in the cultural arena, including freedom of the press, censorship of books, music, cinema, theater, and the role of women in the society”.

Perhaps in a sweeping statement the author writes that “Rafsanjani and Rouhani are determined to change, to the fullest extent possible, the composition of the Assembly of Experts. The conservatives are well aware of this, and have already linked such plans to pro-American and “seditionist” groups (sedition is the term that Khamenei used to describe the Green Movement). Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the powerful and conservative secretary-general of the Guardian Council, has repeatedly warned that the council will reject all pro-Rafsanjani/Rouhani candidates. That hasn’t stopped Rafsanjani from encouraging reformist candidates, including Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to run in the Assembly of Experts elections. It would be difficult for the Guardian Council to question the credentials of a member of Khomeini’s family, particularly his grandson. Even so, the Guardian Council is likely to bite the bullet and declare that Khomeini is not mojtahed—an Islamic scholar that can issue a fatwa—and will reject his candidacy. But Rafsanjani believes that if a large number of people run, then at least some of them will be elected”.

In the same vein he notes “The same goes for the Majlis elections. The Guardian Council will probably drastically cull any roster that Rouhani and Rafsanjani put forward, but Rouhani has forcefully declared that neither of the two important political factions, the fundamentalists or reformists, can eliminate the other. He has pointed out that rejecting the candidates is illegal and that certifying the qualifications of the candidates is the government’s task, not the Guardian Council’s. He even went so far as to say that holding the elections is the government’s job, and that the Guardian Council must only monitor things to prevent any illegal activities. In all this, Rouhani’s positions are in accordance with the constitution”.

Pointedly the author writes “For all his talk, however, Rouhani does not have the power to enforce his interpretations. He might also be wrong about his ability to speak freely. Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehei, chief deputy to the judiciary chief and its spokesman, responded to Rouhani’s remarks by declaring that what the president said was “his personal opinion” and that it would weaken and destroy the Guardian Council, which is responsible for interpreting the constitution”.

He ends the piece “So what can the world do? If Iran carries out all of its obligations under the nuclear agreement, the international sanctions on Iran will gradually ease starting in the spring of 2016. Perhaps ironically, the timing will benefit the hardliners and hurt the reformists, because the upcoming elections will be held before the end of sanctions have had an effect on Iran’s economy. In turn, the West might seriously consider speeding up the timetable. The next five months will witness a fierce power struggle in Iran. Although the elections have always been limited to the political forces that the state accepts, votes generally lead to a more open political environment. There will be fierce competition, and maybe some unpredicted outcomes. At the very least, democratic groups in Iran must take advantage of the opportunity to expand their own networks. Little by little, those forces could find themselves with more power than they expected”.

He concludes “Whether we like it or not, the United States will have an instrumental role to play in Iran’s democratisation process. Jettisoning the military option, even from the rhetoric of U.S. politicians, the removal of crippling sanctions that amount to nothing more than the collective punishment of the Iranian people, must give way to enhanced negotiations that go beyond the nuclear issue and extend to matters of critical interest to both sides, including the fight against the Islamic State (also called ISIS) and other militant groups. Such talks will benefit global peace and justice, and are bound to work in favor of the democratization process and its advocates in Iran”.

Puer natus est nobis

24/12/2015

Hodie christus natus est

Singapore, a US ally

22/12/2015

An interesting report notes that Singapore have approve US surveillance flights, “Singapore is granting the United States permission to fly sophisticated surveillance aircraft out of its territory to better monitor China’s island-building in the South China Sea, Foreign Policy has learned. The defense agreement to be unveiled Monday reflects Singapore’s concerns over China’s assertive stance on territorial disputes. It also points to a broader trend among countries in the region to seek out the United States as a counterweight to China’s expansionist moves in the contested waterway”.

The report goes on to mention “Two Pentagon officials said the deal will permit the U.S. Navy to operate P-8 Poseidon planes from Singapore’s airfields, providing Washington with a strategic vantage point to track Beijing’s military activity in the South China Sea, which is home to more than $5 trillion worth of commercial shipping. Singapore’s defence minister, Ng Eng Hen, will sign the cooperation agreement during a visit to Washington that will include talks on Monday with his American counterpart, Ash Carter, defense officials said”.

The article continues, noting that, “The plan to stage U.S. P-8 surveillance flights out of Singapore will almost certainly draw an angry reaction from Beijing. China has repeatedly objected to U.S. Navy vessels and reconnaissance planes operating in what it alleges is its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. But Washington and legal experts say the U.S. Navy is sailing ships and flying aircraft in international waters and airspace — in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Beijing has signed”.

The report goes on to make the point that “The U.S. military already flies maritime surveillance planes out of airfields in Japan and the Philippines. Malaysia also has reportedly invited the Americans to operate aircraft out of its eastern bases. The P-8 aircraft, a modified Boeing 737 jet, is equipped with advanced sensors and radar designed to gather intelligence and hunt down submarines. The United States has shared more intelligence, and provided radar and other equipment to Asian partners who are increasingly concerned over China’s growing military power and its tough tactics as it asserts far-reaching territorial claims”.

Naturally it goes on to mention “Southeast Asian governments fear that if China seizes control of disputed reefs and islands in the southern part of the Spratly archipelago and sets up military outposts, it could potentially dominate access to the resource-rich South China Sea. Beijing has promised not to pursue “militarization” of the area, but it appears to be building a third airstrip on its man-made islands after constructing runways elsewhere that could accommodate military aircraft. China has intercepted U.S. reconnaissance flights and ships patrolling the area, and there have been a number of close calls in recent years. In August 2014, a Chinese Su-27 fighter jet passed dangerously close to a P-8 plane, flying within 20 feet of the American aircraft near Hainan Island”.

Crucially it notes “The defense cooperation agreement to be embraced Monday highlights how Singapore — a tiny island country with a population of less than 6 million but a powerful economy — plays an outsized role in shaping diplomacy and trade in Southeast Asia at a time when China’s assertiveness is rankling its smaller neighbours. Even as it maintains strong trade ties with China, Singapore over the past decade has built a robust relationship with the American military, hosting a logistics command unit as well as U.S. Navy vessels for temporary stints — including new littoral combat ships (LCS) designed to operate close to shore in shallow waters. The first of four LCS vessels has started rotating through Singapore’s port for 10-month deployments. Singapore has invested billions of dollars in new weapons and fighter jets, devoting about 20 percent of its government spending to defence while steering clear of purchasing hardware from Russia or China. And the country’s Changi Naval Base is the only port in the region that can accommodate a visit by a U.S. aircraft carrier”.

“a national unity deal between Libya’s two rival governments”

22/12/2015

The United Nations urged Libyan lawmakers who signed a separate peace proposal to back a U.N.-sponsored deal between the country’s warring factions, saying remaining differences could be worked out after the accord. After a year of negotiations, the United Nations has proposed a national unity deal between Libya’s two rival governments and their parliaments, one based in Tripoli, and the internationally recognized one in the east.  Western powers have backed the U.N. proposal as the only solution to a conflict that is allowing ISIS militants to gain a foothold in the North African oil producer”.

Cameron’s incompetent negotiation

22/12/2015

A report in the Economist discusses the ongoing talks between the UK and the EU, “LIKE blows from a fearsome heavyweight, the crises keep raining down upon Europe’s battered brow. Refugees, terrorism, Syria, Russia, Greece and Britain’s threat to quit the European Union: collectively they have left the EU punch-drunk and gasping for breath. But one of these problems is different from the others”.

The author makes the valid point that “The migration crisis was a product of epic forces outside Europe’s borders; the Greek row stemmed from a mismatch between democracy and the rules of euro membership. But Britain’s “renegotiation” of its EU membership, ahead of an in/out referendum to be held (probably) next year, looks like a self-inflicted wound. Why should semi-detached Britain seek yet more special treatment? Europeans are exasperated. Foreign friends, from Hong Kong to America, are baffled. All are worried. How did it come to this? For months negotiations proceeded quietly as David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, took his concerns to other EU leaders and Eurocrats in Brussels oversaw technical talks. British diplomacy was conducted “very skilfully”, says one. Even the French were starting to believe that Britain was seeking not to wreck the project, but to secure its place within it”.

The piece adds that “Hopes were high that a deal could be struck at an EU summit later this month. But soon after Mr Cameron detailed his proposals in a letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, the wheels came off. Having previously hinted that he was open to discussion on his fourth “basket” of reforms, on migration, Mr Cameron suddenly reverted to an old demand. The EU treaties must be changed, he insisted, to allow Britain to impose a four-year delay before paying in-work benefits to migrant workers. The gambit flopped. On December 3rd Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, told Mr Cameron that he could not expect rapid acquiescence to such a contentious request. Optimists now hope for a deal in February”.

Correctly the piece notes “Some of Mr Cameron’s other requests are reasonable; some are strange but achievable. But on welfare Mr Cameron is trafficking in trivia. By most accounts his proposals would do next to nothing to reduce EU migration: frustratingly, Britain’s labour market is simply too open and successful. Worse, he has picked a fight that may prove unwinnable. Every other government opposes changes that would violate the cherished principle of non-discrimination. Brussels’s finest legal minds will spend the next two months trying to square the circle. But whatever solution emerges will be a long way from the “fundamental, far-reaching” EU reform that Mr Cameron once promised. The problem is “very intractable”, frets a British official who is involved in the talks”.

The report goes on to mention that “What will Mr Cameron do? He is said to believe that his powers of persuasion can override the objections of pettifogging bureaucrats, including his own. He might be right; politics often trumps law when the EU is in crisis. But his form is not good. Many fear a repeat of previous diplomatic misadventures, such as Mr Cameron’s “veto” of an EU fiscal treaty in 2011, which left Britain looking exposed and inept, or his attempt to block the 2014 appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, which he persisted with long after it became clear that he would lose the vote. For most Europeans the prime minister’s recent antics are of a piece with an approach to negotiation they have never understood. “Just who is advising him?” asks one exasperated German”.

The piece goes on to mention “When Mr Cameron began his quixotic quest for EU reform, many predicted he would need a scrap to demonstrate to British voters that his renegotiation was not empty. Perhaps he will emerge in February bloody but unbowed, wielding a “concession” on benefits that he can sell at home. But for the moment he looks boxed in. It is little wonder that fears of Brexit are growing. One concerned British official now puts the chances at 30-40%. Still, Britain’s partners will not allow irritation to cloud their judgment that the EU remains stronger with Britain inside than out. Its liberal preferences are shared by many and its defence clout valued by most. This week Mr Tusk urged compromise with Britain, warning that the issue was “destabilising” Europe. There is also a question of balance, says Anand Menon, a British academic: the Germans do not want to be left with the French; the French do not want to be left with the Germans; and no one else wants to be left with the French and the Germans”.

He concludes “Such calculations may have fuelled complacency in London. Some in No 10 murmur that the EU’s endless crises might help their case: best to give the troublesome Brits what they want and move on. But that is a stretch, as well as dispiritingly small-minded. Mrs Merkel and others certainly seek a speedy resolution to the problem, if only to get back to some proper work. They want Mr Cameron to hold his referendum as early as possible. But when the EU’s signature projects, from the euro to Schengen, are tottering, they are hardly minded to let an irascible Britain weaken the union’s foundations yet further. Britain, they might add, is not the only country with domestic politics. Even friendly countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, fear that obliging Mr Cameron would boost their own Eurosceptics. Negotiators in Brussels were so worried that other governments would use the talks to seek Britain-style carve-outs that they issued pre-emptive warnings that none should try”.

It ends “Somewhere in a parallel universe exists an alternative renegotiation that Britain would be well placed to lead, focused on the EU’s persistent economic torpor and its weak, fragmented foreign policy. Instead, the EU must grapple with Mr Cameron’s parochial concerns while confronting some of the toughest challenges it has ever faced. Vexing this may be; heavyweight it is not”.

Iraq sends reinforcements

20/12/2015

Iraqi forces dispatched additional reinforcements Wednesday to capture Ramadi after seizing strategic parts of the city from the Islamic State a day earlier, dealing a blow to the militant group. Maj. Gen. Ismail al-Mahlawi, head of military operations for Anbar province, of which Ramadi is the capital, said Iraqi forces were preparing to push deeper into the city. “We are preparing to start a large military operation to liberate the rest of Ramadi,” he said Wednesday, speaking by telephone. Brig. Gen Ahmed al-Belawi, a commander of police forces in Anbar, said by telephone that more policemen have been dispatched to the area”.

Francis dismantles Social Communications

20/12/2015

Yesterday Pope Francis appointed Msgr Paul Tighe as adjunct secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture. He had previously been serving as secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications since 2007.

Rocco reports While this week before Christmas has seen two Stateside nods slip under the door, the Pope’s saved the best present for last: at Roman Noon this Saturday, word came that Francis had appointed Msgr Paul Tighe, 57  – the Dublin-bred #2 at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications since 2007 – to the new post of adjunct secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, elevating him to the episcopacy in the process as titular bishop of Drivasto”.

He goes on to add “For starters, the move comes as a surprise, arriving in the face of widely-held expectations (his own included) that – with the Vatican’s communications entities now being consolidated into a single Secretariat led by three Italians and, for “balance,” an Argentine – Tighe would be heading back to Ireland. Most of all, however, given the bishop-elect’s longstanding role as the relentless architect behind the Holy See’s sometimes turbulent embrace of and adaptation to a “new media” world, that he’s sticking around instead (and with a hat, to boot) has the feeling of a watershed moment”.

He makes the interesting point that “if you’re trying to reform a culture – or advance a new one – the quietly warm, wiry and energetic nominee is the kind of guy you’d want to have around: after all, as Francis’ designated coordinator of the blue-ribbon Patten Commission tasked with charting the reform of the Vatican’s media operation, Tighe did the very un-Curial work of presiding over his own obsolescence”.

Importantly Rocco gives background “To briefly recap a long, eventful decade, it bears recalling how the first throes of digital media were mostly greeted in Vatican circles with ignorance at best, paranoia at worst – and even today, in at least few quarters, some things never change. In the main of the Curia, however, the premium on a fortress mentality carried the day until the chaotic fallout of the 2009 Williamson case, when the lessons learned from the debacle of B16’s de-excommunication of a Holocaust-denying traditionalist prelate (whose residency in Argentina is instructive to more recent developments) included a fresh approach to the cyber-world. As a result, after years of being sidelined in its pleas for a more digital-friendly Vatican, the PCCS suddenly found a new openness to a shift of strategy – to no shortage of displeasure from the Old Guard – with Tighe landing in the driver’s seat. By 2011, the council scored a torrent of global attention with its move to hold the Vatican’s first ever conference on social media during the beatification of Pope John Paul II – a Tighe idea whose widespread response stunned the organizers’ very modest expectations – and by late 2012, five years after the attempt at a first platform (called Pope2You) was epically botched due to a lack of top-level interest and support, the Communications council was the conduit behind the smooth, very successful launches of the share-based News.va portal and the Pope’s own @Pontifex Twitter presence, both of them tapped into being by Benedict himself in moments that went viral and then some”.

He mentions that “Alongside Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and two other bishops already on-hand at Culture, “adjunct secretary” is a freshly created post for the council, which isn’t being collapsed into the new, sprawling Secretariat for Communications. Ergo, while the shape of the nominee’s new duties remains to emerge, it stands to be expected or at least hoped that, as a bishop – and one with less of an administrative workload, to boot – Tighe’s role as voice and presence for the church’s digital reality will only increase”.

Germany joins the fight against ISIS

18/12/2015

The German Parliament voted overwhelmingly on Friday to send reconnaissance planes, a frigate and midair fueling capacity to the Middle East to support the campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, although German forces will not be involved in direct combat like airstrikes. The vote — with 445 in favour, 146 against, and seven abstentions — was expected, given the large parliamentary majority commanded by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “grand coalition” government of center-right and center-left.

Millennials and the end of the American Dream

18/12/2015

A report in the Washington Post discusses the end of the American Dream, “When Harvard’s Institute of Politics asked 18- to 29-year-olds if they considered the American dream to be alive or dead, the result was an even split. About half said they considered the American dream alive and well for them personally. About half said it was dead as a doornail”.

The report mentions “Harvard also asked millennials about a number of other issues, too; people in that age bracket like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders more than other Republicans and Democrats, for example. But this bit of data on the American Dream stood out. Particularly in light of data released on Thursday by Pew Research. Pew found that the beating heart of the American dream, the middle class, has shrunk significantly over the past 40 years”.

The piece goes on to note “young Americans are sceptical of their ability to get ahead. Pew’s data also shows that the age range looked at in the Harvard IoP survey saw the biggest drop in income status since 1971, with the biggest gain of any demographic group going to those 65 and over. Within that American dream data was a noticeable split. Those with a college degree thought that the American dream was alive and well at a rate 16 percentage points higher than those who weren’t in college or who had never attended. Non-college-graduates also saw broad decreases in income in Pew’s analysis, with the research firm writing that “[t]hose Americans without a college degree stand out as experiencing a substantial loss in economic status.” We’ve known for some time that people with college degrees have done better in recent years. But two threats still exist. The first is student loan debt, which continues to be a massive burden to recent college graduates. The second is wage stagnation. In analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, for example, wages for young college graduates have been dropping since the year 2000. The trend is more widespread and older than that, but this number certainly might make a new graduate pessimistic”.

It concludes “The idea of the American dream is somewhat nebulous, relating mostly to the idea of the equal opportunity for economic success. Half of people under the age of 30 are sceptical of that idea, and even those with a college degree might still see clouds on the horizon. The results of Harvard’s survey aren’t surprising, even if we might think they should be”.

 

A united Syrian opposition?

18/12/2015

Syrian opposition groups and rebel factions are set to meet in the Saudi capital of Riyadh in an effort to form a unified front ahead of proposed peace talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. Wednesday’s meeting takes place under the auspices of Saudi Arabia, a backer of Sunni opposition blocs pushing for Assad’s ouster. The nearly five-year civil war has killed more than a quarter of a million people and triggered a refugee crisis of massive proportions.

Cruz misreads Reagan

18/12/2015

A report examines the “strategy” of Ted Cruz (R-TX), “Tuesday evening’s GOP debate witnessed a sharp exchange between candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz on U.S. policy toward dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa. Where Rubio restated his support for regime change in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, Cruz suggested leaving anti-Islamist dictators well alone. “We need to learn from history,” said Cruz, “If we topple Assad, the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests. And … instead of being a Woodrow Wilson democracy promoter … we ought to hunt down our enemies and kill ISIS rather than creating opportunities for ISIS to take control of new countries.” The discussion did nothing to resolve what has become a significant fault line over foreign policy within the Republican Party”.

The article continues “Indeed, this wasn’t the first time Cruz has outlined his vision of an “America First” strategy. His debate remarks echoed the foreign policy speech he delivered at the Heritage Foundation on Dec. 10 — a speech that offers the most complete portrait to date of Cruz’s strategic worldview and, as such, deserves more scrutiny than it has received. True to his style in domestic politics, Cruz’s foreign policy rhetoric seems at first glance to belong to a mainstream tradition, only to reveal political intentions that, in the context of American history, are more marginal and troubling”.

Yet it should be noted that many of the same criticisms were levelled at President Bush who was firmly within the mainstream of the US foreign policy tradition. After the election, in the unlikely event if there is a President Cruz, the actions of a Cruz administration will be within the confines foreign policy tradition of the US.

The writer adds “To Cruz’s audience, Kirkpatrick’s credentials as a Reaganite conservative are impeccable. Kirkpatrick’s most famous work is her 1979 Commentary article, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which Cruz cited in his Heritage Foundation speech. It offers a bleak analysis of world affairs and of human nature. It takes issue with the Enlightenment notion that history is heading in the direction of “reason, science, education, and progress,” and chides those naïve Americans, such as Jimmy Carter, who subscribe to the fanciful “doctrine of modernization” that “predicts progress (in the form of modernization for all societies) and a happy ending (in the form of a world community of developed, autonomous nations).” History has no direction, cautions Kirkpatrick, and the United States needs to focus less on perfecting imperfect but reliable allies (as it had disastrously attempted to do with Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran and Anastasio Somoza García of Nicaragua) and more on the global threat posed by communism”.

The author contends that “There are three reasons why Cruz might have identified Kirkpatrick as a lodestar. First, Kirkpatrick, the first woman to ever to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was a significant influence on the foreign policies of President Reagan — particularly in his support for brutal anti-communist military dictatorships in Latin America — and this connection, in the eyes of today’s Republican Party, automatically confers privileged status. For anyone with serious ambitions in either major party, indeed, invoking Reagan’s wisdom is like pinning an American flag badge to your lapel — you do it without a second thought. Second, Kirkpatrick was inspired to write the article by the supposed failings of President Jimmy Carter, whom she lambasted in the article as weak-willed and sanctimonious, which makes for a nice analogical fit — scratch Carter and replace with Obama. The third reason more directly concerns the substance of Kirkpatrick’s views. Cruz seems to believe Kirkpatrick’s clear-eyed realism offers guidance for the troubles facing the United States today. Rather than take morally charged leaps into the unknown (read: the Iraq War or Libyan War), Cruz is suggesting we follow Kirkpatrick’s advice in supporting unpleasant “authoritarian” leaders. With more than a few intellectual contortions, Kirkpatrick’s references to Somoza and the Shah could be scratched and replaced with Bashar al-Assad and Muammar al-Qaddafi”.

The writer goes on to argue “In the sum, the core of Cruz’s message is this: I’m a literate, tough-minded heir to Ronald Reagan and I see the world as it is. But Cruz’s preferred self-image relies on a highly distorted reflection. Begin with the fact that Reagan was highly selective in how he applied Kirkpatrick’s ideas. In Guatemala and El Salvador, for example, the administration supported murderous right-wing, but reliably anti-communist, dictatorships perpetrating awful crimes against their people. (Guatemala’s then leader, Efraín Ríos Montt, is to be retried for genocide in January.) But in the Philippines, Reagan eventually came round to the idea of pressuring the autocratic Ferdinand Marcos to step down from power, repudiating a key element of Kirkpatrick’s thesis. Indeed, Marcos once offered an after-dinner toast to Kirkpatrick that quoted verbatim from “Dictatorships and Double Standards” — for all the good it did him”.

Controversially he writes “Kirkpatrick’s ideas remain far from the mainstream of either political party in the United States. She was a civilisational pessimist who wanted her nation to ruthlessly follow its core interests, not act upon universal values. In this sense, she shared a similarity with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose support for anti-communist strongmen mirrored her own”.

This is simply not true. The Hamiltonian and Jacksonian schools both adhere to an intensely realist view of the world with power and interests key to US actions. Of course that is not to say these are the only schools of the tradition. Others, notably the Wilsonian school can also be incorporated into an administration’s foreign policy with Bush 41, 43 and Clinton all being recent examples of this mix.

The author adds correctly, “Reagan accomplished something in his second term that Kirkpatrick thought impossible: He formed a close working relationship with a Marxist-Leninist who implemented policies — Glasnost and Perestroika — that served to mellow a “radical totalitarian” regime. Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, was the very thing that Kirkpatrick’s theory held as implausible. When Cruz said in his speech, “we could do worse, in my opinion, than adopting the Reagan-Kirkpatrick philosophy today,” he neglected to note the massive gulf that separated the two”.

He ends “After all, Syrians struggling to survive a hellish civil war in which Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State are the principal antagonists do not “learn to cope … in the miserable roles they are destined to fill.” They flee and they die. And contrary to Kirkpatrick’s world-weary claim, places like Syria, whatever else is true about them, most certainly “create refugees.”

US deploys adviser to Iraq

18/12/2015

The United States is prepared to deploy advisers and attack helicopters if requested by Iraq to help it “finish the job” of retaking the city of Ramadi from Islamic State, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Wednesday. Carter’s remarks were the latest sign of U.S. preparations to intensify its military campaign against the group, which controls wide swaths of Iraq and Syria and has orchestrated and inspired attacks abroad. Islamic State captured Ramadi, a provincial capital just a short drive west of Baghdad, in May in its biggest conquest since last year. Retaking it would be a major victory for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Carter, speaking at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, said it has taken a “frustratingly long time” for Iraqi security forces to claw back territory. But he pointed to significant gains, including recapturing the Anbar Operations Center on the northern bank of the Euphrates River in the past 24 hours”.

Obama’s micromanagement at DoD

18/12/2015

An interesting piece discusses why Michèle Flournoy  rejected the job of Secretary of Defence, “When Michèle Flournoy turned down a chance last year to be the first woman to serve as U.S. defense secretary, she cited “family concerns” for her decision. On Tuesday, Flournoy hinted at another potential reason: the White House’s tendency to micromanage decision-making at the Defense Department. Flournoy, now CEO at the Center for a New American Security and a foreign-policy advisor for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said the Obama administration has a tendency to push the Pentagon’s tactical decisions to “the senior reaches” of the White House, a dynamic that often infuriates defense officials”.

The report continues ““Too often that happens because of two reasons: one, a lack of role clarity, who has what job; and two, a risk aversion,” she told the Senate Armed Services Committee. Since the late 1990s, the White House’s National Security Council staff has quadrupled in size to about 400 people, a trend that accelerated during President Barack Obama’s presidency. This has resulted in long-running complaints from the State Department and Pentagon about White House staffers meddling in agency decisions. Sometimes the griping is genuinely about process; other times department officials who simply disagree with White House policy use the micromanaging argument to save face”.

It goes on to make the point that “Without referencing specific disagreements in the fight against the Islamic State or confronting Russia in Ukraine, Flournoy echoed the long-held Pentagon view that an overactive White House rarely produces the best policy decisions. “One of my former mentors, John Hamre, used to say, ‘If you want to make a staff more strategic, cut it in half.’” she said. “I think as you grow staffs — and this includes the National Security staff — they tend to get more into operational details and tactical kind of oversight.” Few around Flournoy doubted her sincerity of wanting to focus homeward instead of on the military after former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced his resignation in 2014. But if the bloated NSC was a factor in Flournoy’s decision to take herself out of the running, she may not have to wait long to get back in the saddle”.

The writer goes on to note that “Flournoy is widely expected to be on Clinton’s short list for defense secretary should the Democrat win the 2016 presidential election. Flournoy’s work assisting Clinton on her campaign’s foreign-policy messaging presumably won’t hurt her prospects for the high-profile defense job.  During her testimony, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama agreed with Flournoy that White House overreach can inhibit strategic thinking. “We’ve got a problem. We’ve got a breakdown,” he said. Meanwhile, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) maintained his view that the administration doesn’t have a clear strategy for retaking the Islamic State’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria”.

16/12/2015

The main Western-backed Arab rebel group in Syria appears on the verge of collapse because of low morale, desertions, and distrust of its leaders by the rank and file, threatening U.S. efforts to put together a ground force capable of defeating the Islamic State and negotiating an end to the Syrian civil war. “After five years of this war the people are just tired … and so are our fighters,” said Jaseen Salabeh, a volunteer in the Free Syrian Army, which was formed in September 2011 by defectors from the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Free Syrian Army, or FSA, some of whose members are trained by the Central Intelligence Agency, is the biggest and most secular of the scores of rebel groups fighting the Assad government. Although defeating the Islamic State is the focus of Western attention, the U.S. believes there can be no lasting peace in Syria, and no elimination of the Islamic State there, as long as Assad remains in power”.

“Brent crude crashed below $40”

16/12/2015

Brent crude crashed below $40 per barrel today for the first time in nearly seven years, after Opec failed tospecify a production level ceiling on Friday. Brent crude, the global benchmark, shed two per cent to $39.91 per barrel this afternoon, while Western Texas Intermediate crude slumped 2.58 per cent to $36.68 per barrel. Oil prices had temporarily pulled away from nearly seven-year lows this morning, after economic data showed China continued to import commodities despite its slowing growth rate. Preliminary customs data showed China’s crude imports rose 8.7 per cent to 6.61m for the first 11 months of this year, while its November crude imports swelled 7.6 per cent year-on-year.  But prices quickly lost their gains as market sentiment soured again, as attention turned back to Opec”.

Obama’s delusional press conference

16/12/2015

A piece notes that despite the recent speech by President Obama at the Pentagon on ISIS, the strategy has not changed.

The article opens, “Since he last stood at the podium in the Pentagon briefing room in July, President Barack Obama has sent special operations forces into combat in Iraq and Syria, ordered hundreds of new airstrikes against the Islamic State, and struggled to figure out whether, or how, to incorporate Vladimir Putin’s Russia into the anti-Islamic State fight. Obama was back at the Pentagon Monday, but the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria remains much the same as when the president last crossed the Potomac, and his comments reflected an administration searching for good news to announce”.

The report goes on to note “With no major new successes to tout, Obama was forced to recount many of the same victories he listed in July, when he said U.S. allies had taken Kobani in Syria and the cities of Tikrit and Sinjar in Iraq. In a sign of how tenuous even those types of successes can be, Kurdish Peshmerga forces were forced to launch a second full-scale assault on Sinjar just last month after pockets of Islamic State resistance continued to harass the local population. Kurdish commanders say they’ve finally pushed the final militant holdouts out of the area while cutting a vital highway resupply route between Syria and Mosul”.

This is the clearest sign yet the Obama strategy is not working. Many of the administration have the same refrain, that more time is needed but the question then arises as to how much time is needed before real successes come about against ISIS.

As evidence for this he writes “the Islamic State continues to hold the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi, and uses the Syrian city of Raqqa as its administrative capital. Thousands of foreign fighters still stream across the Turkish border, and the fragile U.S.-backed government in Baghdad continues to struggle to unite the country behind the fight. Likewise, Iraqi troops have been fighting at the edges of the Islamic State-held city of Ramadi for months, unable to push deeply into the city despite having up to 10,000 personnel many trained and supplied by the United States — ringing the city. The Iraqi forces outnumber the defenders 10 to 1, according to some Pentagon estimates”.

The piece continues “In his remarks Monday, though, Obama painted a very different picture of the fighting in Iraqi towns and cities. He said, using an acronym for the Islamic State, that “our partners on the ground are rooting ISIL out, town by town, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, block by block” and “we are hitting ISIL harder than ever” with more than 9,000 airstrikes during the $5.2 billion, 16-month campaign. “In many places, ISIL has lost its freedom of maneuver because they know if they mass their forces, we will wipe them out. In fact, since this summer, ISIL has not had a single successful major offensive operation on the ground in either Syria or Iraq,” he said”.

The article goes on to make the point “The president made similar claims during his remarks at the Pentagon in July, boasting of the “thousands of fighting positions, tanks, vehicles, bomb factories, and training camps” that U.S. air power had eliminated and touting Iraqi forces as “an effective partner on the ground.” The fight has morphed in unexpected ways since the president was last at the Pentagon. In September, Russia sent dozens of fighter planes to Syria to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a move that immediately bolstered the strongman’s hold on power. While the White House and U.S. defense officials have been sharply critical of Russia’s role, Moscow’s jets have started to strike more Islamic State sites in and around Raqqa, and the Russians have made sure they will be a key player in any potential political settlement to the nearly five-year civil war in Syria”.

Correctly he notes that “Amid all of this, Defense Department leaders have been forced to admit in recent weeks that the Islamic State has continued to expand outside the strongholds it has built in Iraq and Syria, with affiliates now operating in Libya, Afghanistan, and other countries. Alleged Islamic State sympathizers have also been linked to bloody terrorist attacks in both Europe and the United States. Since Obama’s remarks over the summer, the Islamic State has claimed credit for bombing a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula, as well as for the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, which was the deadliest terrorist assault in the United States since 9/11″.

interestingly the author notes that “Ash Carter announced last month that as many as 200 special operations forces are headed to Iraq in the coming weeks to engage in direct combat with the militant group in an attempt to pick apart its leadership structure. The deployment will come on top of the 50 commandos recently sent to northern Syria to advise moderate Arab and Kurdish groups there. While defense officials have refused to confirm if those troops have already arrived in Syria, Obama announced they “have begun supporting local forces” in cutting off supply lines leading to Raqqa”.

Iran will increase production

16/12/2015

Iran will not bow to pressure to avoid increasing its oil output following the lifting of sanctions despite slumping crude prices, its oil minister insisted on Thursday. “We don’t accept any discussion about the increase of Iranian production after lifting the sanctions,” Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh told reporters on arrival in Vienna, which is hosting Friday’s meeting of OPEC. “It’s our right” to pump out more crude, he added. With oil prices falling heavily on Wednesday, having already slumped by more than 60 percent in around 18 months, Iran is facing pressure from within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and outside OPEC not to raise output”.

Obama’s No Child Left Behind

16/12/2015

A report from the Hill notes the recent bipartisan education reform signed by President Obama, “President Obama on Thursday signed a sweeping rewrite of the controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law.  Obama called the proposal “a Christmas miracle” during a signing ceremony at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. “This is an early Christmas present. After more than 10 years, members of Congress from both parties have come together to revise our national education law,” Obama said.

The report goes on to mention ““A bipartisan bill signing right here,” he joked. “We should do this more often.” The president shared the stage with members of Congress who worked on the bill as well as outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Obama thanked the lawmakers who wrote the legislation, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Reps. John Kline (R-Minn.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), all of whom were on stage with the president”.
The piece adds ““People did not agree on everything at the outset, but they were listening to each other in a constructive way,” the president said. “I think it’s really a testament of the four leaders of their respective committees that we set that kind of tone.” The proposal, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed the Senate on Wednesday by a vote of 85-12, following an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote last week in the House. The legislation reduces the federal government’s control over the nation’s public schools by transferring decision-making power back to state and local governments in areas such as school performance and accountability”.
It goes on to mention “While it keeps annual reading and math testing requirements for grades three through eight, high school students would only have to undergo the testing once. It also allows local jurisdictions more influence over setting goals, crafting school ratings and creating remedial solutions for struggling schools.  “This is the biggest rewrite of our education laws in 25 years,” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Wednesday. “This shows what we can do when both parties work together.” The bipartisan No Child Left Behind measure became law in 2002, setting stringent testing requirements designed to ensure proficiency in reading and maths. But the law was eventually met with strong backlash by state and local authorities that found the standards unworkable. Officials in both parties found the punishments for underperforming schools too harsh, including the threat of closures”.
It ends “The president said the old law bogged down classroom time with standardized testing, forced “cookie-cutter reforms” on local communities and did not produce the kinds of educational gains leaders wanted to see. He said the new law will build on the momentum from the NCLB and “gets rid of the stuff that doesn’t work.” Republicans backed the new law because it transferred power away from the federal government. Democrats backed the measure after securing assurances that disadvantaged students would be guaranteed access to a high quality education across school districts. “We have a great bill,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “It’s very good for our children. It’s about making schools a place where children can learn, teachers can teach, parents can participate.”

“Iran had an active program to develop a nuclear weapon”

14/12/2015

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Wednesday that Iran had an active program to develop a nuclear weapon until the end of 2003, and it said some uncoordinated activities continued until as late as 2009. “The Agency has no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009,” the IAEA said in a report. The report will be presented to the IAEA board on Dec. 15 to determine whether it adequately deals with all outstanding questions about the prior program. Completion of the report is a requirement of the Iran nuclear agreement reached this year, although the accord does not specify any particularly outcome of the agency’s investigation ­beyond assessing “ambiguities” about past nuclear efforts”.

The Western hating left

14/12/2015

Given the beginning of UK bombing of ISIS a interesting piece in the Economist argues that the Left must reject anti-Western notions prevalent in among its members ““DO WE have Syrians?” interjects a woman. A brief silence. The gathering in Manchester’s Central Library is pondering who might take the microphone at its upcoming protest against plans to bomb Islamic State in Syria. On the list so far: Labour Party MPs, MEPs, councillors, the Green Party, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, musicians, poets, trade unionists and “definitely a student of some sort”. Phone messages have been left, e-mails fired off and brains racked for names of old-time peaceniks”.

The piece adds “Only now has the idea of asking a Syrian arisen. “There’s a big Syrian group,” murmurs one. “But they’re not anti,” continues another, disgusted: “They were lobbying for Britain to bomb Assad.” Those present sigh as one. On to the logistics of the event. It is decided that stewards should guard the mic, poised to fend off any “pro-war Syrians or imperialists”. After all, notes the chairman: “We know what we’re talking about here.” Would that BBC Manchester possessed such discernment. The station is interviewing pro-war Kurds tomorrow, to the group’s distain: “They dig ’em up.” “Amazing how they find them!” Such is the eye-swivelling world of Stop the War, the organisation that, though not the same as the anti-war movement (dominated by decent, mild-mannered types), is its main organising force and has a record of sidelining the very peoples in whose interest it professes to act”.

The piece goes on “Rethink Rebuild, the Syrian society in Manchester, requested a speaking slot at its Don’t Bomb Syria meeting there in October, but was ignored. It claims: “The Syrian voice was marginalised throughout the event.” Other Stop the War gatherings have followed that pattern. At one in Westminster Syrians criticising the unrepresentative panel were jeered at and the police called; in Birmingham a Syrian invited to speak was disinvited and branded a supporter of imperialism for backing a no-fly zone. This knack for alienating its notional beneficiaries goes all the way back to Stop the War’s foundation in 2001 by (among others) the Socialist Workers Party, an authoritarian far-left outfit. At one of its first conferences Iraqi and Iranian delegates quit when their motion condemning “Islamic terrorism” was defeated”.

Worryingly, though not surprisingly it  continues “That is the thing with Stop the War. It is not anti-war so much as anti-West; a permanent howl of relativist anguish at NATO and its members. For example, the group could hardly be more indulgent of Vladimir Putin’s wars. It defended the invasion of Georgia as a reaction to “the ambition of the USA to exercise global hegemony”, called many of the Maidan protesters in Kiev neo-Nazis and excused Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. Tellingly, at its “anti-war” demonstration in London on December 1st a poster emblazoned with Syrian flags and the slogan “Support For Bashar Al-Assad” was brandished above the crowd”.

The piece adds “The phenomenon has precedent. In 1941 George Orwell described part of the left as “sometimes squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always anti-British.” In 2007 “What’s Left?”, a book by Nick Cohen, charted the latter-day manifestations of the same instinct: cozying up to Milosevic’s Serbia, blaming America for the 9/11 attacks and, in debates on the Iraq war, conspicuously overlooking Baathism’s horrors. The book was part of a push by those lefties dismayed by their Stop the War-ish comrades to remake the case for Western engagement in the name of egalitarian and Enlightenment values. Another was the Euston Manifesto, a call (so named as it was devised in a pub on the Euston Road) for the left to make “common cause with genuine democrats, whether socialist or not”. The election of Jeremy Corbyn, Stop the War’s chairman, as Labour’s leader in September confirmed the manifesto’s marginalisation”.

Interestingly the writer notes “Corbyn has handed over the reins of Stop the War, but to say he remains close would be an understatement. He declined to condemn it or pull out of a fundraising event when, after the Paris attacks, the group inevitably proclaimed: “Paris reaps whirlwind of Western support for extremist violence in Middle East”. One of his shadow foreign ministers appeared to suggest that Labour would consult Stop the War ahead of the parliamentary vote on air strikes. The organisation has also engaged with Momentum, the pressure group created out of Mr Corbyn’s leadership campaign. The two bodies collaborated in the run-up to the vote, inviting each other’s speakers to events and promoting each other’s efforts to lobby MPs. Together they form the institutional hub of the Labour leader’s inner circle”.

It mentions that “And this is just the start. When Mr Corbyn, under pressure from his shadow ministers, decided on November 30th to offer his MPs a free vote on Syria, Stop the War condemned the move and sent its march past Labour’s headquarters. With moderate Labour MPs under threat of deselection by new, Corbynite party members, the impending publication of Sir John Chilcot’s report on the Iraq war (which unravelled into a disaster on Tony Blair’s watch) and the ongoing battle against Islamic State, this group—“a madcap coalition of Trots, Islamists and anti-West fury chimps”, as one former Labour MP puts it—will continue to play a central role in the politics of Britain’s main opposition party. This is a dismal state of affairs”.

Correctly he makes the point that “Britain’s left has a rich tradition, dating to the Spanish civil war and beyond, of treating tyranny in one country as a crime against all; of heeding the bell that “tolls for thee”. True to that tradition, some Labour MPs used a Commons session on the Paris attacks on November 17th to decry Stop the War and its influence. “Does the prime minister agree that full responsibility for the attacks in Paris lies solely with the terrorists?” asked Emma Reynolds. Such pointed comments were a good start, but only that. Now, this wing of Labour must assert itself: providing cover for MPs targeted for deselection, a platform for those denied one by Stop the War and an emphatic rebuttal of its anti-West rhetoric. It is time for the left to return to Euston”.

 

More women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

14/12/2015

Saudi Arabia will let divorced women and widows manage family affairs without approval from a man or a court order, a state-aligned newspaper said Wednesday, a major step to lift some of the legal powers men hold over female relatives. Under the late King Abdullah, the autocratic Islamic kingdom made some reforms to give women more rights, but these remain severely restricted. Efforts to emancipate women are held back by a powerful clergy and an ultraconservative society. The Al Riyadh newspaper said the Interior Ministry would issue family identity cards not only to men, but also to divorcees and widows, granting them powers that will include accessing records, registering children for schools and authorizing medical procedures. The newspaper did not give a date for the move. In a country where men hold legal powers over female relatives in almost all their interactions with the state, the change will significantly change the lives of divorced or widowed women, particularly for those bringing up children alone”.

“The Paris attacks will impose a cold strategic clarity”

14/12/2015

A relevant piece discusses the need for a reaffirmation of realism following the chaos of Syria, “Like then-President George W. Bush’s declaration of a war on terror after 9/11, French President François Hollande declared France to be at war following the appalling attacks of Nov. 13 by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. While the Paris attack provides a fresh impetus for the West to defeat the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism, it also shows how profoundly the post-9/11 war on terror has failed. After all, haven’t jihadi networks massively proliferated since 2001, leaving Western capitals and cities across the Muslim world perpetually on edge, poised for the next fresh carnage?”

The article goes on to argue correctly “The fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the litmus test of this proposition: He’s a murderous butcher, but only his ground forces can realistically retake much of the ISIS-controlled territory. They haven’t been able to until now, because Western and Gulf states have backed a kaleidoscopic variety of rebels seeking to oust Assad, tying down much of the Syrian military. The fact that much of the territory lost by the Assad regime has wound up in the hands of ISIS and hard-line Islamists has created a climate of moral relativism, where neither Assad nor ISIS make for an attractive option. But this moral relativism has led to inaction and tragedy. Call it the Hamlet non-strategy”.

Crucially the author argues that “the Paris attacks will impose a cold strategic clarity. Whatever the objective threat, the West cannot tolerate the humiliation of terrorist attacks from an enemy that, so far, it has merely sought (and failed) to contain. For all the self-congratulatory talk of “historic” progress at the recent diplomatic talks in Vienna, a “political solution” cannot fix the problem of ISIS and hard-line Islamists — for neither Washington nor Moscow would ever accept a negotiated peace with them. The territory they hold must be cleared and held by infantry. But whose infantry? The Kurds can retake only so much ground, given their limited resources and lack of desire to expand substantially beyond ethnically Kurdish areas. Non-Kurdish rebels are small in number and fragmented. And in many cases their “moderate” credentials are dubious, at best”.

He argues that “That leaves the West, Russia, or the Assad regime and its Iranian proxies. There’s no chance the United States, France, or NATO wants to hold ground on its own, or back Assad. So scratch the first option from that shortlist. Handing the moral and military quagmire over to the Russians — who will, in turn, back the Syrian Army — begins to seem like the only option. Moreover, the anger and anguish of Paris comes on the heels of a refugee crisis of such magnitude and consequence for Europe’s fate that it makes dealing with the Greek debt crisis look like child’s play. The overwhelming urge to impose stability in Syria will mean that moral relativism transforms into moral necessity: eliminate ISIS before all else. Perhaps Russia will agree to allow Assad to transition out of power following the defeat of the Islamic State, in return for sanctions relief. We’ll see. The bottom line is that while the West can hardly support Assad, in the aftermath of Paris, his transition suddenly becomes a secondary matter”.

Interestingly he writes that “This reality already seems to have sunk in. France appears to be at least agnostic towards Russian strikes in Syria, and may even be coordinating with Moscow. Speaking in Vienna the day after the Paris attacks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that “it is time to deprive the terrorists of any single kilometer in which to hide.” Translation: We’re going to finish off ISIS, and tacitly accept Assad. For now”.

Indeed this is the only real problem with this view. It is only about the short term. It omits the fact that Assad has no credibility and his rule will not be long or perhaps even very stable. The result is that Syria may have to be partitioned into smaller states. This more long term strategy will only mean working with Assad for as long as it takes to destroy ISIS.

He adds “Syria makes plain that we don’t, actually, have an alternative to Assad. Yes, the Syrian strongman himself may well ultimately be “transitioned” out of power, but his repressive regime will stay intact. Whatever Assad’s personal fate, dissolving his regime means removing any vestige of state order that remains in Syria, and replacing it with even more chaos. And surely we’ve learned by now that things can always get worse. Syria merely confirms the lesson the West should have learned from Iraq: that the freedom agenda in the Muslim world is dead”.

He mentions that “The role of intervention, post-Paris, will be exactly the reverse of the post-9/11 model. Interventions will occur, but only to back fragile governments — not unseat them — without attaching any guarantees of future democratic transformations. France’s successful intervention against al Qaeda in Mali in 2013 is a good example of this model”.

He ends “Finally, we should no longer doubt that gaps in fragile states in the Muslim world will be filled by anything other than hard-line Islamists. Sure, there were always terrorist networks like al Qaeda that could set up bases in ungoverned space. But 14 years later, we see how the information revolution has massively catalyzed the formation of jihadist networks. The speed with which ISIS has risen, proselytized, and formed franchises all over the world, cannot be explained without accounting for the interconnectivity of contemporary communication. In Afghanistan and Iraq, radical Islamic terrorists took years to build up cells; in Libya, hard-line Islamists were part of the rebellion from the outset. The result in today’s networked age is that every potential armed opposition movement in the Muslim world now becomes a potential jihadi branch. The West can’t risk that”.

He concludes “The post-Paris war on terror will affirm the West’s commitment to fighting radical Islamic terrorism, but, in the process, it will reject the idiom of revolutionary, moralizing democratic change inherited from President Bush. Syria was the end of the line for that approach. This new phase will assume that terrorists are nonstate actors, and will take the view that if you have an international system built around strong sovereign states — no matter how brutal or unconcerned with human rights — life becomes much harder for nonstate armed groups, including terrorists. This is simply a reflection of the new realities we face, not a celebration of that shift. Of course, privileging the idea of strong sovereign states above all else is simply another way of re-stating the basic principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other sovereign states, a principle that dates back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and echoed in the U.N. Charter. In this sense, there is strong historical precedent for what we will see post-Paris: revolutionary moments that tend to spin out of control, leading to mass violence that requires a return to prioritizing stability over all else”.

 

“RAF Tornado jets have carried out their first air strikes”

12/12/2015

RAF Tornado jets have carried out their first air strikes against the self-styled Islamic State in Syria, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed. Four Tornados from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus took part in the operation soon after MPs voted to approve bombing. The “successful” strikes hit the IS-controlled Omar oil fields in eastern Syria, the defence secretary said. But PM David Cameron said the campaign would take time, saying “we’re going to need to be patient and persistent”. “It is complex and it is difficult what we are asking our pilots to do, and our thoughts should be with them and their families as they commence this important work,” Mr Cameron said. MPs overwhelmingly backed UK military action against IS – also known as Daesh – in Syria, by 397 votes to 223, after a 10-hour Commons debate on Wednesday”.

Needing a new Mid East policy?

10/12/2015

An interesting article argues that the US needs a new approach in the Middle East, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” was the wise advice proffered by Michael Corleone in the classic film, The Godfather: Part II. To sort out U.S. policy in the Middle East, however, the United States might need to take the reverse view — and take a hard look at the roles its Arab friends and partners are willing to play. The recent obscene terror attacks in Paris and the on-going Syria conflict would seem to cry out for an international response, no less than Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Islamic State’s new global terrorism underscores that it is a mortal threat to both Arab states in the region and major powers outside the region — and not just the United States and Europe, but also Russia, China, Japan, and India”.

The author then mistakenly draws a parellell between the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and ISIS, “Why is it that the United States is not actively mobilising a similar coalition to reverse all the gains of the Islamic State? This necessarily also involves expunging the Islamic State from its Raqqa-based “caliphate” and finding a resolution to the Syria conflict. Sending 50 Special Operations troops is a transparent attempt to check the box and appear to be doing something. Where is Jim Baker when we need him? To be fair, the tepid response cannot all be blamed on the fear and loathing of a meek, retreating Obama administration. How is that the Saudis, Gulf states, Egypt, and Turkey — all of whom face an existential threat from the Islamic State — are so preoccupied with other concerns that they can’t be bothered to fight the Islamic State? Think about it: If I call myself the Islamic Caliphate, the leader of all Muslims, don’t I need to possess the holiest sites of Islam at Mecca and Medina? Is that not obvious to Riyadh? The Islamic State has already wreaked havoc on Egyptian territory in the Sinai, and is literally a stone’s throw away, across the border from Turkey”.

Yet the problem with this analysis is that ISIS is not seen as a threat to the Saudi’s because ISIS makes no claim to Mecca. The other point to bear in mind is essentially geopolitical. The Saudis gain from the weakening of Syria, and with it, Iran and Iraq. Therefore to view the problem as purely religious is a grave error.

The piece goes on to argue somewhat implausibly, “While between them these frontline states have more than 5 million men under arms, they do not see it in their respective interest to deploy them and wipe out the Islamic State. And as any military officer will tell you (take the U.S. experience in Iraq), a war cannot be won solely by airpower. Any strategy whose objective is destroying the Islamic will sooner or later need boots on the ground to seize their occupied terrain and lay the basis for a new, legitimate governing authority in that liberated land. The intriguing question then is why Arab countries, so eager to have the United States play a leading security role in the region, are so obsessed with other concerns? To be sure, Iran and its imperial designs are a clear long-term threat to the Saudis and other Sunni-dominated nations in the region”.

The author goes on to mention “Nonetheless, while the details may be argued and a debate about burden-sharing with oil importers like China, India, Japan, and the EU is overdue, a U.S. offshore balancing role in a volatile region remains an important pillar of stability. But we are still left with the conundrum that any Western-led effort to wipe out the Islamic State cannot ultimately succeed on its own. If such a campaign is viewed as an American or Western war (or a crusade) it will trigger a backlash in the Islamic world. This is the trap the Islamic State, with its end of days pseudo-theology is laying. There must be a coalition within which those in region play a major, leading role. It cannot be, not a coalition mainly in name only with Uncle Sucker doing all the heavy lifting: The war against the Islamic State must be owned by those surrounding frontline states. The United States, France, Russia, and others can and should strongly aid and support it — including with some boots on the ground. But it must be principally their war. They must show beyond a doubt that the Islamic State is not Islam, it is not legitimate: it is a scourge and a hijacking and bastardisation of the Islamic faith”.

This ignores that theses states, do not have the technical or military ability to truly defeat ISIS. At the same time it should be argued that there needs to be a principle US involvement in order to buttress and extend the role of the United States in the region. If, as the author suggests, the Arab states take a lead without the US it could set a dangerous precedent that would lead them to take military action without US permission. This would only further weaken American abdication in the region that has taken place under President Obama with disastrous consequences.

The piece goes on to mention “There is a congruence of threat assessments in regard to Iran and its long-term intentions. This is discernable in Tehran’s hardline reaction to the nuclear deal: that it is a one-off exception, the United States is still the Great Satan and expanding Iranian influence remains their strategic objective. But in the here and now, there is an urgency to the threats from the Islamic State and the conflict in Syria that supersedes concerns about Iran. Indeed given that the Islamic State cannot be eliminated until the Syria conflict is resolved, there is some overlap of interest in that Iran will necessarily be a part of any Syrian solution”.

He concludes “In any case, unless and until frontline Arab states rethink how they calculate their near-term interests, the United States would be wise to begin some soul-searching discussions with its friends in the region about the nature of U.S. security ties in the imploding Middle East. The on-going multiple crises in the Greater Middle East has led many U.S. analysts to argue for enhancing security ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and other Arab partners. But security partnerships, and certainly coalitions, necessarily begin with shared objectives. In other regions, where the United States has a dominant security guarantor role, Europe and East Asia, there are active partners and security relationships with shared threat perceptions and some measure of reciprocity in regard to their respective defense roles and missions. In NATO, there is a full-fledged collective security commitment. In East Asia, through U.S.-Japanese, U.S.-Korean, U.S.-Australian bilateral alliances, and a growing set of security partners in ASEAN, a regional security network is evolving”.

Backing firing on China

10/12/2015

Japan is jettisoning decades of World War II pacifism. Communist Vietnam is buying arms from the United States, its old enemy. The Philippines is inviting U.S. forces back 25 years after kicking them out. Even tiny Singapore is getting in on the action, allowing U.S. Navy surveillanceaircraft to use bases on its territory. The culprit? China, whose expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea are triggering a wary and at times angry response by neighbors from Tokyo to Jakarta. Alarmed at what they see as Beijing’s bid to dominate the strategic waterway, nations there are spending billions on ships, submarines, planes, and other military hardware and actively seeking closer defense ties with Washington and with each other. That’s good news for the Obama administration, whose vaunted “rebalance to Asia” has been hampered by upheaval in the Middle East. Now, China’s land grab is rejuvenating the American effort, clearing the way for the United States to sell billions of advanced weaponry to China’s neighbours, while spending $250 million of its own money on new hardware like patrol ships, better surveillance, and communications gear”.

 

 

“Hold alliance troop levels in Afghanistan steady at about 12,000”

10/12/2015

The NATO allies decided on Tuesday to hold alliance troop levels in Afghanistan steady at about 12,000 next year and launched a campaign to fund the 350,000 Afghan forces it hopes can some day secure the country against Taliban militants. Fourteen years after the United States first sent troops to Afghanistan, NATO governments have doubts about the ability of its army and police to defend against Taliban fighters, who briefly took over the northern city of Kunduz in September. As a result, the 28-member Western alliance is abandoning plans to slash its troop levels by the end of this year. “We are in Afghanistan to prevent that Afghanistan again becomes a safe haven for international terrorists … that is also in our security interest to make sure that that doesn’t happen,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. Excluding U.S. counter-terrorism forces, NATO will have about 12,000 troops in Afghanistan for most of next year, made up of about 7,000 U.S. forces and 5,000 from the rest of NATO and its partners such as non-NATO member Georgia”.

 

Obama tries to close Gitmo unilaterally

10/12/2015

A piece from Foreign Policy argues that the closure of Gitmo will stretch presidential power, “In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama accused President George W. Bush’s administration of a “clear abuse of power” for claiming sweeping authority for the executive branch to effectively ignore Congress. Obama promised he would be a different kind of president, one who would not copy his predecessor’s use of executive orders to impose by fiat what he could not do legislatively or copy Bush’s frequent signing of statements to implement only the parts of different bills that he wanted to. But in his final 14 months as president, Obama is weighing just those types of unilateral steps to realize his long-sought goal of closing the Guantánamo Bay prison, which would mean flying detainees to military or civilian prisons in the continental United States. The president would make the move even though Congress has passed an array of bills over the past seven years that expressly forbid him to transfer detainees from the detention center to the American mainland”.

The report goes on to make the point “The White House is expected to unveil its long-delayed plan to close the Guantánamo prison on Friday, a package that will include options for transferring the remaining detainees to high-security prisons in Colorado, Kansas, or South Carolina and an assessments of the related costs and logistics. With Congress firmly opposed to closing the prison, a unilateral move by Obama offers the only realistic way for him to shutter the controversial facility before his term expires. But it would set up the biggest test yet of his view of presidential authority, which took a hit on Monday when a federal appeals court blocked executive orders designed to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation”.

The piece notes “It would also pose a serious political threat to Obama and his fellow Democrats less than a year before Americans go to the polls. Unlike executive action on immigration reform or gun control, there is little public enthusiasm for moving detainees from the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to a prison in an American state. A unilateral order by Obama would inflame the political right and spark a potentially damaging confrontation with the Republican majority in Congress. Even lawmakers in Obama’s own party are wary of a decision that could undermine Congress’s role as a check on presidential power”.

Despite political sense and military advice, “Obama, however, has long held a deep personal conviction on the issue, dating back to his days as a senator. He has argued repeatedly that the prison at Guantánamo provides fodder for extremist propaganda, damages relations with allies, and violates America’s values. His view was echoed by Bush himself in his second term, who said he wanted to close the prison, though he never took steps to shutter the facility. Since Obama took office, the administration has gradually cut the number of detainees by more than half, from 242 to 112. Of those, 53 are cleared to be transferred to other countries, while the rest are either due to be tried before military commissions or held indefinitely without charge. With the Pentagon dragging its feet on shifting detainees to foreign nations, there is no chance the 53 men will be out of Guantánamo when Obama’s term ends in 2017″.

Pointedly “The White House says it will continue to seek a deal with Congress, but spokesman Josh Earnest has refused to rule out executive action to resolve the future of the prison. “I certainly wouldn’t take off the table the ability of the president to use whatever authority is available to him to try to move closer to accomplishing this goal,” he told reporters last week. Current and former officials acknowledge that administration lawyers have long discussed the constitutional grounds for such executive action on Guantánamo. If Obama goes ahead with the unilateral move, two officials told Foreign Policy that it would be months before any detainees were physically moved out of Cuba”.

The report mentions that “Obama’s use of executive authority on Guantánamo wouldn’t in itself be a new thing; the president has increasingly tried to enact his agenda through executive orders after growing frustrated with congressional inaction. In the case of immigration, climate change, and gun control, Obama issued orders after citing Congress’s failure to pass proposed legislation. But on Guantánamo, Obama would be going a step further, overriding laws that specifically bar him from transferring detainees from Guantánamo”.

Interestingly the article notes that “Experts are divided over whether Obama actually has the constitutional authority to take action on Guantánamo. Opponents can point to a 2009 opinion by Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, who wrote that “to the extent Congress wants to place judicially enforceable restrictions on Executive transfers of Guantanamo or other wartime detainees, it has that power.” But some legal scholars, including Ingrid Wuerth, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University, take a broader view of presidential authority when it comes to detainees”.

The piece mentions that “Congressional Republicans and other opponents of housing detainees on the U.S. mainland could try to fight the executive order in the courts, which was the tactic used against Obama’s action on immigration. But it’s unclear what group or individual would meet the legal criteria for filing a lawsuit, as they would have to argue they were directly injured by the executive action, experts said. In the fight over immigration, the case was brought by Texas and 25 other states. Sen. John McCain, a Republican who has favored closing the prison, believes the president has no authority to shut down the facility unilaterally, his office said. Asked by reporters how Congress would respond to an executive order, McCain said: “Go to court. All we can do is go to court.” A group that has campaigned against the transfer of Guantánamo detainees, 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America, hinted at a possible legal response if the administration tried to take action. Asked if it would file a lawsuit to block a possible executive order, the group’s co-founder, Tim Sumner, told FP: “We will not sit by idly if the administration attempts to fulfill a foolish campaign promise. For now, that is all we will say.”

Crucially the piece ends “The legal question of whether Congress can specify — through laws authorizing government spending — where detainees can be held by the U.S. military is largely unchartered legal territory, experts said. Instead of the courts, the battle over Guantánamo and presidential authority might end up playing out in the political arena, with Congress leveraging the power of the purse to try to force the White House to back off. A trio of Republican lawmakers, Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), from the three states with prisons assessed by the Pentagon as possible sites to transfer the detainees, has vowed to head off any unilateral move by the administration”.

Importantly the article notes that “To limit the political backlash over Guantánamo’s closure during the 2016 presidential campaign, Obama could wait to move the detainees out of the base in Cuba until after the November election, one former Pentagon official said. Democratic candidates running for office would not be forced to take a stand on the issue. Under that scenario, Obama would issue an executive order that would move the detainees from the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo to a base in the United States, with only American military personnel involved in the transfer. The detainees would be held at a military prison, such as the facilities at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas or in Charleston, South Carolina. Upon arriving on the mainland, the detainees would likely have more success arguing for their right to a speedy trial under U.S. law, as they would no longer dwell in the legal limbo associated with Guantánamo, some experts said. At that point, with pending cases from dozens of detainees in federal courts, rescinding the executive order could become extremely difficult, particularly if state agencies had no role or jurisdiction over an action handled exclusively by the U.S. military, officials said”.

The piece concludes “As president, Obama’s signing statements and policies have sometimes resembled Bush’s approach to presidential power relative to Congress. He has invoked commander-in-chief authorities to justify the widespread use of lethal drone strikes abroad and the secrecy surrounding them, despite criticism that in many cases the individuals targeted did not represent an “imminent threat” to the United States. By attempting to put the Guantánamo prison to rest, Obama would be reinforcing an unintended legacy of his presidency — expanding the boundaries of presidential power. During Obama’s first term in office, administration officials debated whether the president had the authority to override legislation regarding the prosecution of Guantánamo detainees in civilian federal courts in the United States, according to a new book by New York Times reporter Charlie Savage, Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency”.

“Deploying a new force of special operations troops to Iraq”

08/12/2015

The United States said on Tuesday it was deploying a new force of special operations troops to Iraq to conduct raids against Islamic State there and in neighbouring Syria, in a ratcheting up of Washington’s campaign against the group. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the deployment of the new “specialized expeditionary targeting force” was being carried out in coordination with Iraq’s government and would aid Iraqi government security forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces. “These special operators will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIL leaders,” Carter told the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, using an acronym for Islamic State. “This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations into Syria.” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office issued a statement saying it welcomed foreign assistance but Iraq’s government would need to approve any deployment of special operations forces anywhere in Iraq – a point Carter also acknowledged”.

Khamenei vs Rouhani?

08/12/2015

An important article in Foreign Affairs notes how Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran, is preventing reform in Iran.

It opens, “the three centers of power in Iran—the Supreme Leader, the president, and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)—are embroiled in a historic contest to shape the course of Iranian foreign policy. This clash, long seen as inevitable, was finally sparked by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s landmark nuclear deal with the P5+1 negotiating partners in July. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fears that the deal was just the first step in the Rouhani’s government’s grand designs for deeper economic integration with the world, which could irrevocably alter the balance of power in Tehran. In turn, Khamenei has given the IRGC’s hardline generals the green light to fight back”.

The piece goes on to argue “Ironically enough, it was Khamenei himself who set Rouhani on the course to power. Through his control of Iran’s voting process, Khamenei first sanctioned Rouhani’s candidacy and then his victory in the 2013 presidential elections. He then proceeded to back the president’s nuclear negotiating team until a deal was reached in July 2015. Khamenei badly needed some sort of agreement to escape intense international sanctions that peaked in 2012, which threatened to unravel the nation’s economic framework”.

However this image of Khamenei as all powerful is slightly overstated. The 2009 revolutions shook the regime to the core and if Rouhani did not win, and another candidate was chosen to win the election the consequences for the regime may have been terminal. Thus, Khamenei had no choice but to allow Rouhani to win.

The writer continues “Throughout the negotiations, Rouhani and his inner circle argued for a principled détente with the West. That made Khamenei distinctly uncomfortable. Iran’s Supreme Leader was never interested in an open-ended détente, and certainly not with the United States. Anti-Americanism is, after all, Khamenei’s main claim to domestic legitimacy. Better relations with Washington would thus be a net political loss for him. Still, Khamenei stayed on board with the negotiations because he too could see that the country badly needed sanctions relief, and calculated he could prevent a nuclear diplomatic settlement from turning into a pretext for détente with Washington. In turn, he delivered Rouhani the political backing the president needed to conclude negotiations. For example, on September 17, 2013, the day after Rouhani urged IRGC generals to be open to compromises both at home and abroad on issues ranging from not playing an excessive role in Iran’s economy to acquiescing to more regional cooperation, Khamenei echoed the president’s words in front of those same generals”.

He adds “In August 2013, shortly after the Rouhani government was installed, Khamenei had agreed to let the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which reports to the president, conduct the nuclear negotiations, instead of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). Even so, Khamenei also made it clear that the IRGC generals would still run foreign policy as it related to militarised conflicts, such as those in Syria and Iraq. For this task, Khamenei gave the nod to General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, its foreign operations branch. As late as October 2015, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif openly admitted that, even as the foreign ministry handled nuclear negotiations, Iran’s Syria policy was “not in the hands of the Foreign Ministry in Tehran.” This division of labour worked out well: Iran’s diplomats possessed the credentials and ethos that resonated with the West. They stood in stark contrast to former Iranian President’ Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s provincialism. Iran’s hardliners in the IRGC, meanwhile, were acting with near impunity in the region’s conflict zones”.

The author notes that Khamenei hoped to block Rouhani’s agenda of greater dialogue with the US. Yet the author correctly notes that “Khamenei’s displeasure toward potential rapprochement with the United States reveals his own insecurity. According to the Supreme Leader, Washington both intends to and is capable of bringing down the Islamic Republic, with nuclear negotiations serving as the Trojan horse. In this conception of U.S. grand strategy, Rouhani is at best cast as a naive enabler and, at worst, a willing agent of the Washington, as some of Rouhani’s most hardened critics, such as IRGC head Mohammad Ali Jafari, and Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati and Ahmad Khatami, two hardliners close to Khamenei that have openly argued with him at times”.

Interestingly the piece adds “in clamping down on Rouhani, Khamenei may have jumped the gun. If anything, he may have forced the president to up the ante as well. The half sentence admonishing U.S.–Iranian trade in Khamenei’s letter to Rouhani has taken on a life of its own; since its publication, IRGC generals and their resources—media outlets, their minions in the Iranian parliament, and other lackeys in the state machinery—have all ripped into Rouhani’s government. Everything it stands for is now a fair target. Khamenei has provided the IRGC with a blank check to “identify threats to the political order” and address them as it sees fit. This measure is bound to receive pushback from Rouhani’s faction. Not only does the Iranian president believe he has an electoral mandate to pursue domestic and foreign policy reform, he also sees a profound appetite among Iran’s population for a transition to a much milder version of the Islamic Republic. By publicly mandating unelected IRGC generals to act as a check on a popularly elected president, Khamenei has crudely pitted two centers of Iranian power against one another. But in doing so, the 76-year old Khamenei has merely raised the stakes in an intra-regime power struggle—one that might cause the Supreme Leader to lose control within Tehran’s political decision-making process”.

However matters are complicated further by Khamenei’s failing health. He is said to have cancer and the next supreme leader will be crucial in Rouhani’s reforms are to continue. Equally, if a hardliner is elected to the top job Rouhani may have to appeal directly to the people which may begin a civil war.

The piece ends “The Iranian people had hoped that the nuclear deal would be the beginning of broader Iranian reforms at home and improved relations abroad. Unless Khamenei opts to stop the IRGC’s onslaught on Rouhani, the president’s camp will have to decide whether it can push back against Khamenei. If Rouhani does choose to react, Iranian politics will enter uncharted waters in the years to come”.

NATO funds Afghan security through 2020

08/12/2015

NATO and its allies have reaffirmed their commitment to work on securing new pledges to fund Afghan security forces through to 2020. Speaking at the Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said their current commitment was until 2017. The final decision about continuing of NATO military and financial help to Afghanistan will be finalized in NATO members’ summit in Poland in July next year. “We will also launch work to ensure we can finance the Afghan security forces from 2018 to 2020. Because as you know we made a pledge back at our summit in Chicago several years ago to finance Afghan National Security Forces but that pledge ends in 2017 so we have to make a new decision to continue to finance the Afghan National Security Forces also after 2017. And we will start to address that at our Foreign Ministerial meeting and then hopefully make the final decision at our summit in July next year,” he said”.

Russia: Propaganda vs Reality

06/12/2015

Nathan Gamester writes about the reason why there is no opposition in Russia, “In Russia they call it the “battle between the television and the fridge” — the tension between propaganda-fueled patriotic euphoria and a darkening economic reality. Which of these will matter more to the Russian people? Which will influence their opinion of their government? First, the case for the fridge. Most of the objective data point to Russia doing badly”.

He goes on to argue that “Inflation is up. Wages have fallen. Economic growth is not just lower but shrinking. Falling oil prices have hit the country’s economy hard (oil constitutes 50 percent of government revenue and 70 percent of exports). People and businesses are defaulting on loans. The currency has gone to the dogs. Life expectancy is still very low. And the IMF has predicted that Russia could lose up to 9 percent of GDP due to the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU. When it comes to how people perceive their country, on the other hand, things are looking positively balmy in Russia”.

He points out that “According to Gallup World Polls, confidence in the military is up 13 percent. Approval of the government is up 27 percent. Despite the objective reality, satisfaction with living standards is up 13 percent while confidence in financial institutions is up 6 percent. Put simply, despite living in a country in decline, the Russian people are responding to surveys more positively than they did a year ago. As a result, Russia has surged in the Legatum Institute’s recently released Prosperity Index in 2015 — from 68th to 58th place in just one year”.

He asks “And so how can we square the difference between Russia’s objective reality with the optimism of its people? Which is the real Russia? In many respects, they both are. The way people feel about their standard of living is often as important as the reality of their “objective” conditions. If a person is afraid to walk the streets at night, it can be as debilitating to their quality of life as living in a high-crime area even if, in reality, crime rates are low. The perception of a problem (however unfounded) can be as crippling as the reality. In Russia, the opposite is true. Putin’s increasingly muscular approach to foreign policy — and his effective modern-day propaganda machine — diverts Russians’ attention from their deteriorating living standards”.

He points out that “But the wide gulf between perception and reality can only be sustained for so long. In the same year that Russia annexed Crimea, Ukraine overthrew a widely despised government. But the sense of euphoria did not last long. With inflation currently running at more than 50 percent and the economy shrinking, only 28 percent of Ukrainians are satisfied with their standard of living — the eighth lowest such ranking in the world. In Ukraine, it seems, the optimism of the “Revolution of Dignity” could only last so long in the face of economic disaster. Ukraine now ranks 70th on the Prosperity Index, down seven places since last year”.

The piece goes on to make the argument that “Unlike his enemies in Kiev, Putin is a master of misdirection and manipulation. The television, it appears, can be more powerful than the fridge. Or to choose a different metaphor: Putin is a toreador using propaganda as his cape to avoid the bull of reality. So far, he’s doing it successfully — though this strategy begs the question of what new patriotic and military victories he will need to keep the bull at bay. In the Kremlin’s militant propaganda, the great enemy is the United States, which is allegedly controlling both “fascists” in Ukraine and ISIS in the Middle East. In one way, at least, the U.S. is indeed Russia’s great opposite – though not quite in the way the Kremlin argues. If polling in Russia shows high subjective and low objective ratings, then U.S. polls show the reverse — a population that feels depressed even as, objectively, things are going pretty well. In 2014, U.S. GDP grew at 2.43 percent. US inflation is at 1.62 percent — better than Russia’s 8 percent. U.S. life expectancy is 79 years of age: not great by developed world standards, but better than Russia’s 70. When it comes to subjective criteria, though, the country seems to be in a much worse position. Only 35 percent of Americans say they have confidence in their government, compared to 73 percent of Russians”.

The piece concludes “In Russia’s case, the gap between perceptions and reality is most likely explained by the sophistication of the Kremlin’s propaganda operation. In the U.S., by contrast, the data reflect that citizens in developed democracies tend to demand a lot from their government. This is why perceptions matter. Economists are taught that demand often begets supply — if people do not (or cannot) demand better government, they won’t get it”.

McCain and Graham suggest and army in Syria

06/12/2015

McCain and Graham, who is running a longshot bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, spoke with Camerota from Irbil, Iraq. “I’m suggesting that we create a regional army to go into Syria because there’s nobody left in Syria to destroy ISIL. And if we don’t destroy ISIL in Syria they’re going to hit the American homeland,” Graham told CNN. Graham said that if the U.S. leads a regional force to fight ISIS in Syria and remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, it will find support from Arab leaders. “We were talking to the now-King of Saudi Arabia (Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud) before he became king and he told John McCain, who he admires greatly, ‘You can have our army, you just gotta deal with Assad.’ The emir of Qatar said ‘I’ll pay for the operation,’ Graham said. “But they’re not going to just fight ISIL and let Damascus fall into the hands of the Iranians. Assad has to go.”

“In many Arab economies, good economic policies rarely constitute good politics”

06/12/2015

An interesting article details the problems of the Gulf economies in the future.

It opens, “Five years ago, the Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates shared a fiscal surplus of some $600 billion; by 2020, the International Monetary Fund predicts that they will have accumulated a combined deficit of $700 billion. Sustained low oil prices could make things even worse. This bad news is yet one more reminder of resource-rich Arab states’ need to build vibrant, diversified economies that can withstand the effects of oil price shocks. Although Arab governments have long recognised the need to shift away from an excessive dependence on hydrocarbons, they have had little success in doing so. Iraq, for example, set economic diversification as a core policy objective in one of its first five-year development plans in 1965—yet the country has only become more dependent on oil over time. In Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, too, diversification has been a central, yet largely unrealised, development goal since the 1970s. Even the United Arab Emirates’ economy, one of the most diversified in the Gulf, is highly dependent on oil exports”.

The piece mentions “Why have Arab governments consistently failed to diversify their economies despite tall promises and grand plans? The answer has more to do with politics than economics. Indeed, if diversification were as simple as importing technical blueprints from states that have already diversified their economies, such as Botswana, Malaysia, and Norway, it would already have been accomplished. The trouble is that in many Arab economies, good economic policies rarely constitute good politics, especially for ruling elites.  This is because the structural changes demanded by economic diversification—specifically, the production of a greater number and variety of high-value goods—promise to empower business constituencies that, flush with new income, could potentially challenge the ruler”.

The piece goes on to argue “In Kuwait, for example, the rise of an independent merchant class could undercut the power of the monarchy. If rulers in the United Arab Emirates have accepted diversification, meanwhile, it is partly because the Emirati private sector poses little political threat, since it is overwhelmingly reliant on foreign labour. For diversification to succeed, its political costs for elites must be offset: they need to know that they will gain more than they will lose from the reforms. Any serious discussion of economic diversification must therefore begin by recognizing that resource-dependent elites will have to be compensated for the losses they will risk”.

The report gives the example that “Countries that have successfully diversified have generally had political frameworks that could tolerate it and regional environments that encouraged it. Consider the example of Botswana, which at independence in 1966 was highly reliant on mineral extraction, particularly diamond mining, and since then has developed strong agriculture and tourism sectors. Botswana’s success can be attributed to a number of factors: the country inherited constituencies with diverse economic interests, among them farmers and herders; it also benefited from political competition and stable coalitions”.

The article goes on to mention “Arab states lack all three ingredients that facilitated economic diversification in these success stories: varied economic constituencies, strong political coalitions, and beneficial neighbourhood effects. Indeed, at the time of independence, many Arab economies did not inherit economic constituencies that could have gained strong political roles; instead, economic activity remained confined to royal circles. The discovery of oil compounded the problem, since it enabled rulers to tie down the merchant class in state contracts and other forms of patronage. Pervasive conflict in the region further undermined the prospects of private production by disrupting market linkages among states”.

Pointedly he writes that “To move away from their dependence on oil, then, Arab societies need to develop a new political settlement that forces elites to cede ground to the private sector. That, however, raises a difficult question: if a closed, resource-dependent economy benefits elites, what could possibly persuade those elites to allow for diversification? The answer likely lies in policies that compensate elites for the losses they suffer from a leveling of the economic field. China provides an illustrative example of this process: by incorporating business leaders into the Communist Party structure, Beijing managed to align economic reform with the interests of political elites. Or consider the case of Ethiopia, now among the world’s ten fastest-growing economies, which has set up party-owned enterprises supported by specialized endowments to promote investment in underdeveloped regions. Such models of party capitalism raise tough questions about market competition. But they nonetheless demonstrate that elites tend to favor an expansion of the economic pie when they stand as its lead beneficiaries”.

He concludes “Economic diversification in the Middle East is thus far from a technocratic affair. It carries deep power implications for ruling elites and for broader regional dynamics. If the Gulf states hope to reap the benefits promised by diversification, they should ameliorate the costs it might impose on ruling elites and exploit the benefits it offers the region at large”.

 

 

Dunford admits ISIS not contained

04/12/2015

The United States has “not contained” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the nation’s top military officer said Tuesday, contradicting President Obama’s remarks last month about the terror group. “We have not contained” ISIS, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.  The comment runs counter to what the president said days before ISIS launched a string of attacks across Paris.  “I don’t think they’re gaining strength. What is true is that from the start, our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them,” Obama told ABC News. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, later said the president’s remarks applied specifically to Iraq and Syria”.

UK joins the fight against ISIS

04/12/2015

Given the non-binding vote in the House of Commons this week a piece notes that the UK has not begun to bomb Syrian ISIS targets “David Cameron sought Wednesday to reclaim Britain’s role as America’s wingman in the war on terror, securing parliamentary approval over a fragmented Labour Party for the United Kingdom to join the U.S.-led air assault against the Islamic State in Syria. The decision marked an important political victory for Cameron, who was humiliated more than two years ago for failing to win enough domestic support to launch airstrikes and punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using deadly chemical weapons against his own people in the country’s civil war”.

The report goes on to make the point that “The conservative British leader’s case for war gained ground in the weeks following the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris that killed 130. It also came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged NATO members to increase their military commitments to the fight against the Islamic extremists. “We should answer the call from our allies,” Cameron said at the opening of Parliament’s hours-long debate on the use of force in Syria. He noted that the extremist group’s execution of British hostages in Syria, and its plots to commit “atrocity after atrocity” on the streets in Britain demanded a military response”.

The report goes on to mention “Following the 397 to 223 vote in Parliament, President Barack Obama praised Britain, saying it has been one of America’s “most valued partners in fighting ISIL.”  We look forward to having British forces flying with the coalition over Syria, and will work to integrate them into our Coalition Air Tasking Orders as quickly as possible,” he said. It was the most assertive response by a Western government since France stepped up its airstrikes against the Islamic State last month”.

The piece adds “World powers are seeking to move closer to an international agreement on a political transition in Syria. Saudi Arabia is organising a conference of Syrian opposition leaders in Riyadh in the coming weeks aimed at unifying the group’s overall message. On Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power was cautiously upbeat, telling reporters at U.N. headquarters that “we have not seen this kind of momentum around the diplomatic and political track in a very long time, and arguably ever.” On the same day, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken told a Washington forum hosted by Foreign Policy that that the chances of crafting a political transition in Syria were better than “at any time during this crisis.” And Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told the Associated Press that Moscow is more determined than ever to reach a consensus on a list of “terrorist” groups in Syria before the next round of talks, tentatively expected to take place later this month in Vienna or London”.

The article continues “Kerry stopped short of outlining specific commitments from member nations that have yet to gain final approval from their capitals. He said new contributions wouldn’t necessarily include ground troops or direct fighting; rather, countries could supply medical facilities, refueling services, and intelligence gathering — an easy out for nations that do not want to be drawn directly into combat. “There are many things that countries can do,” he said. Kerry also held the door open to Russia broadening its cooperation against the Islamic State in Syria. Moscow can be an “extremely constructive and important player in reaching a solution to this current crisis,” Kerry said. “And I think the world would welcome that kind of cooperative effort.” Concerns about maintaining broad international participation against ISIS spiked after Ankara last week shot down a Russian warplane that entered Turkey’s airspace, the first time a NATO member downed a Russian jet since the 1950s. The United States has worked quickly to lower tensions in the dispute, offering notably measured support for Ankara while urging both sides to engage in dialogue”.

The writers go on to  note “prospects for closer cooperation with Russia encountered fresh strains with NATO’s decision to invite Montenegro to the alliance. That defied Moscow’s long-held complaint that expanding NATO’s footprint into the Balkans is “irresponsible” and would erode trust between Russia and Western powers. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called Montenegro’s inclusion “the beginning of a very beautiful alliance.” In an angry response, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that NATO’s “continued eastward expansion … cannot but result in retaliatory actions from the East, i.e., from the Russian side, in terms of ensuring security and supporting the parity of interests.” In the past, Britain’s inability to secure parliamentary support for military operations with the United States has raised questions about London’s reliability as an ally. Skepticism over combat has lingered in Britain since the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein — without U.N. Security Council authorisation — based on the false pretext that the late Iraqi strongman was building an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction”.

Pointedly it ends “Britain’s military prowess also has been diminished by defence cuts; the army alone is projected to be pared down to as little as 50,000 troops over the next four years. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, an anti-war proponent who is proving unpopular with key factions in his own party, denouncedCameron’s military plans Wednesday before the House of Commons as a “reckless and half-baked intervention,” and an “ill-fated twist in the never-ending war on terror.” Critics also have questioned whether Britain and other members of the coalition of more than 60 nations against the Islamic State have the legal authority to intervene militarily in Syria, given that Assad has not asked them for help. British officials claim the United Nations’ charter, which allows member states to use force in self-defense, provides sufficient legal basis as long as the Islamic State continues to plot against or attack U.K. interests. They also point to a French-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution that calls on member states to use “all necessary measures” to eradicate ISIS’s safe havens in Syria”.

“Japan scrambled jets”

04/12/2015

Japan scrambled jets after 11 Chinese military planes flew near southern Japanese islands during what Beijing said was a drill to improve its long-range combat abilities, reports said Saturday. The planes — eight bombers, two intelligence gathering planes and one early-warning aircraft — flew near Miyako and Okinawa on Friday without violating Japan’s airspace, the Japanese defence ministry said in a statement released on Friday. Some of them flew between the two islands while others made flights close to neighbouring islands, the ministry said”.

A solution to Syria?

04/12/2015

A report from Foreign Policy notes that a solution might be possible to end the war in Syria, “A top State Department official said Tuesday that the chances of crafting a political transition in Syria were better than “at any time during this crisis,” a striking note of optimism given the unrelenting carnage of the country’s nearly five-year-old civil war. Speaking at Foreign Policy’s annual Transformational Trends forum in Washington, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Russia’s military intervention to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad had “ironically” hastened progress towards a potential diplomatic solution to the conflict, which has killed some 250,000 people and sparked the largest refugee crisis since World War II”.

The piece mentions “Blinken’s comments came just weeks after leaders from the U.S., Russia, Britain, Iran, Saudi Arabia met in Vienna to sign a statement in support of a January 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition. The agreement does not yet have buy-in from the Syrian rebels or the Assad regime. In explaining his optimism, Blinken argued that the Moscow’s support to Assad, in the form of airstrikes, arms transfers, and financial assistance, has “increased Russia’s leverage” over Assad, the strongman whose departure will be necessary to end the conflict.  “He owes them,” Blinken said”.

Importantly he writes that “He also noted that Russia’s intervention in Syria has trapped the Kremlin into a fight that it can’t sustain politically, financially or strategically. “Russia is perceived now with being in alliance with Assad, Hezbollah and Iran, and thus against the interests of the vast majority of the Muslim world,” he said. “The risk there is that its own community, 15 percent of Russia is comprised of Sunni Muslims, will be enraged, and other communities from Central Asia to the Balkans will take it out on Russia,” Blinken said. This is not the first time a State Department official has gone on record with surprisingly optimistic assessments of the state of the Syrian peace talks. Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry said “we’re weeks away conceivably from the possibility of a big transition for Syria, and I don’t think enough people necessarily notice that. But that’s the reality.” Those comments prompted guffaws from critics who noted that any significant diplomatic accomplishment was at best months away, given the logistical challenges of agreeing to a ceasefire and holding elections, much less even forging an agreement between the fractured Syrian opposition”.

The piece ends “In his remarks Tuesday, Blinken went on to tout the accomplishments of last month’s Syria summit in Vienna, which built momentum behind a ceasefire agreement in Syria, but left the most important problem of the crisis unsolved — the fate of Assad. Still, Blinken noted that the Vienna talks marked the first time that Iran and Russia had ever agreed on the “need for a political transition in Syria.” “That’s a first,” he said. “We now have, without exaggerating its potential, a greater possibility at achieving a political transition in Syria than we did just a few months ago and arguably at any time during this crisis.”

Germany deploys troops

02/12/2015

Germany is planning to deploy 1,200 troops to help France in the fight against Islamic State jihadists in Syria, its army chief said Sunday, in what would be the military’s biggest deployment abroad. “From a military point of view, around 1,200 soldiers would be necessary to run the planes and ship,” army chief of staff Gen. Volker Wieker told Bild am Sonntag newspaper, adding that the mission would begin “very quickly once a mandate is obtained.” “The government is seeking a mandate this year,” said Wieker. Berlin on Thursday offered France Tornado reconnaissance jets, a naval frigate, aerial refueling and satellite images in the fight against the IS group. Between four and six Tornados would be deployed to deliver images of the ground, even in poor weather and during the night, Wieker said. Asked why Germany had shied away from participating in direct air strikes, Wieker said the coalition already had “sufficient forces and means” dealing with that aspect of the battle”.

“It is time for America to call China’s bluff”

02/12/2015

A blog post from Shadow Government argues that it is time for America to act in the seas around China, “America’s challenge to China’s unilateral claims to the international waterways of the South China Sea is long overdue. Chinese strategists have repeatedly told foreign observers that they believe Beijing has a strategic window — until U.S. President Barack Obama leaves office and before a new president adopts a tougher approach — in which to assert their exceptional claims in maritime Asia. During his current visit to Southeast Asia for regional summits, President Obama should make clear that Chinese coercion to revise Asia’s established order will not succeed on his watch, and deploy more elements of America’s diplomatic and military toolkit to match his words with action”.

The report goes on to argue “After years of lobbying by the American military to undertake freedom-of-navigation operations within what China claims to be its territorial waters, the White House finally consented in October to a symbolic show of force that saw a U.S. destroyer sail within 12 miles of a Chinese construction on a reef in the South China Sea. But even that deployment sent mixed messagesto both Beijing and America’s Asian allies, as reports circulate that the U.S. Navy invoked “innocent passage,” tacitly recognising China’s sovereignty over waters around its artificial islets. Such a softly-softly approach is unlikely to alter Beijing’s game plan. In fact, China has more to lose in any military confrontation than does the United States. America is richer, more powerful, has more allies, and enjoys a more resilient political regime than that monopolized by the Chinese Communist Party. President Xi Jinping must know that a foreign conflict could unleash the kind of nationalism within China that could ultimately target his regime itself; after all, this is how previous dynasties have fallen”.

Correctly he writes that “China’s strategy to date — building artificial structures and claiming the surrounding waters as national territory — has been to salami-slice. Beijing has secured incremental gains below the threshold of any actual conflict, while Washington is distracted elsewhere. It is time for America to call China’s bluff with a more robust and proactive strategy to deter further attempts to redraw the map of Asia. Rather than ceding the initiative to Beijing in the South China Sea through a reactive and purely localized policy, the Obama administration needs to demonstrate that continued military aggression in maritime Asia could endanger China’s wider interests”.

The scale of China’s challenge and the pitiful response from Obama is shown when the author writes that “One-third of global trade flows through the South China Sea. Control over it would not only threaten East Asia’s economic lifeline; it would position Chinese naval and air power at the mouth of the Indian Ocean. To prevent Chinese revisionism from upending the region’s delicate balance of power, the U.S. and its allies must raise the costs and call into question the benefits of further Chinese encroachments on Asia’s existing territorial order. Diplomacy can set the stage for this. In 2010, Chinese leaders were shocked when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined with counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to criticise China’s conduct in the South China Sea and assert an American interest in the peaceful resolution of conflicts there. The Philippines has filed a case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against China’s assertions of sovereignty over its South China Sea territories, and Indonesia is now threatening to do the same over the Chinese threat to the Natuna Islands. Japanese diplomats have worked concertedly to help ASEAN states develop a common position in support of freedom of navigation and other principles of maritime international law. American diplomacy can do more to encourage these trends, reunifying ASEAN around the principle that Asia’s maritime disputes cannot be resolved through force and developing a robust plan of action to enforce that norm”.

Crucially he writes that “Soft power aside, the primary instrument for defending Asia’s fragile status quo must be American military strength. The United States must be more creative with its superior military toolkit in defending the existing liberal order. First, Washington must back its words with action. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter says U.S. forces will operate wherever international law allows. American forces must systematically challenge China’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea, and its “Nine-Dash Line” in the South China Sea, challenging China’s ability to enforce its questionable claims. Second, the United States should encourage its allies to undertake similar patrols through Southeast Asia’s maritime commons. Japan and Australia are considering doing so; India’s increasingly powerful navy should do the same as part of its ambitious “Act East” policy. The United States and its allies should undertake joint exercises in the South China Sea’s international waters, challenging China’s claims to control access to them. Third, the United States should work with its allies to help them deploy the same kind of anti-access and area-denial capabilities that China is developing to exclude foreign forces from Asia’s regional commons. These include missile defenses, anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and more sophisticated patrol and combat aircraft. The goal is not to present China with an offensive military threat, but rather to cast doubt on the viability of aggressive Chinese military operations”.

He concludes “China’s economic lifeline runs westward across the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf, and eastward across the Pacific, all areas where the U.S. Navy remains predominant. China’s economic health requires an open international trading order and the country’s access to the dollar-based financial system. China’s core interests would be undermined by stronger American military partnership with Taiwan, and greater U.S. support for the rights of restive Chinese citizens in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong. Geographic proximity may mean China has the upper hand in a localized dispute over the South China Sea. But if leaders in Beijing understand that their interests beyond Southeast Asia are at risk, they may find that the costs to China’s global position outweigh the prospect of narrow gains closer to home. Ironically, China has more to lose than any other country from the threat it is posing to the ground rules of an international system that has — until now — facilitated its rise to prosperity and power”.

Russia threatens Turkey with sanctions

02/12/2015

Russia threatened economic retaliation against Turkey on Thursday and said it was still awaiting a reasonable explanation for the shooting down of its warplane, but Turkey dismissed the threats as “emotional” and “unfitting.” In an escalating war of words, President Tayyip Erdogan responded to Russian accusations that Turkey has been buying oil and gas from Islamic State in Syria by accusing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers, which include Moscow, of being the real source of the group’s financial and military power. The shooting down of the jet by the Turkish air force on Tuesday was one of the most serious clashes between a NATO member and Russia, and further complicated international efforts to battle Islamic State militants”.

Osborne, the new Victorian

01/12/2015

A piece from the Economist lauds George Osborne as he quickly dismantles the British state, “GEORGE OSBORNE is the ultimate Westminster operator. On November 25th, setting out the government’s five-year spending review, he praised colleagues, ditched unpopular cuts to tax credits that had formed the centrepiece of his budget only five months ago, cracked jokes—“We’re not going to make that mistake again,” he deadpanned of a botched government attempt to privatise forests in the last parliament—showered Tory-leaning pensioners with cash and favoured MPs with oinking heaps of pork. A grant here, a spending guarantee there and a kind word for the other guy: the chancellor of the exchequer, who talks of professional politics as a “guild”, was plying his trade with panache”.

It seems Osborne can do no wrong as he makes it harder to be poor, increases the taxes on the poor, makes life for the rich easy by not introducing a rise in income tax and pares back the state either giving it to local government (without the resources) or privatising it, with cuts to policing and health care while continuing the march of the State out of the education system and proposing a market system despite all that has previously happened when such systems have been introduced. The writer makes no attempt to excoriate Osborne for even thinking that his plan over tax credits may have dented his ability to govern for the poorest and most vulnerable in society instead of adhering to nonsense about a smaller state and freer people. The Economist has been criticised elsewhere for its positions.

The piece goes on “It is easy to see why Mr Osborne, with his hurricane of micro-announcements, feints and sleights of hand, is compared to Gordon Brown, his predecessor-but-one. Like Mr Brown as chancellor, he craves the premiership and is prone to short-term fixes and populist gambits. Yet when Mr Brown became prime minister in 2007, it transpired he had little long-term vision. The vacuous, headline-chasing mores of that period were captured by “The Thick of It”, a sardonic television comedy featuring a hapless minister for “social affairs and citizenship” whose grand plan was a “Fourth Sector Pathfinder Initiative”. Mr Osborne walks in the footsteps of a Moses who descended from the mountain with an Etch A Sketch”.

Interestingly the piece does mention, “Is he condemned to the same fate? The consensus is: yes. On the left Mr Osborne is seen as an aristocratic, louche, post-moral dandy. On the Tory right he is considered a metropolitan, louche, post-moral luvvie. Both sides start from the assumption that the chancellor has no big plan and few fixed beliefs. This is wrong. Mr Osborne is a liberal idealist. He bombards aides with accounts of the great Victorian reformers. He badgered Bagehot to reread Mill’s “On Liberty”. Consider the few subjects on which he differs from David Cameron, the prime minister from whom he is otherwise inseparable. Unlike his boss, Mr Osborne was an early Tory supporter of gay reproductive rights, cried at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and has little time for tax breaks for married couples or Sunday trading restrictions”.

Yet Osborne makes the same mistake as many in the United States whose mantra is to end/abolish/shrink the state and let “people” flourish. Yet what will probably, and to an extent is already, happening is that only the richest best connected people will flourish in this new Victorian age that Osborne seems bent on introducing. The poor will become poorer, less heeded and more irrelevant to the political process than ever become as money and politics continue their sickening march together. The state, according to this view has no moral purpose and is seen as an inherent blockage to “progress”. The fact that there are Sunday trading restrictions is good, to abolish them in order to boost economic growth makes little moral sense and diminishes the common good and ignores the social implications.

The piece goes on to praise him “From this outlook stems a vision of the state evident despite Mr Osborne’s tactical tacking. New Labour, the political project that he filleted for lessons for the Tories, governed in the tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Its underlying view was that a civilised society needed the state’s corrective hand. Because he differs from this, many Labour types consider the chancellor a follower of Thomas Hobbes, with his brutal, dog-eat-dog vision of human nature. The chancellor has, it is true, sometimes nurtured this image, characterising welfare claimants as lazy scroungers, for example. Yet Mr Osborne is broadly loyal to the third pole: John Locke, who believed that people tend to be decent, wise and fair. His is an outlook essentially optimistic about human nature but wary of state bloat”.

What the piece omits is that a smaller state will only hurt the poor and be of immeasurable gain to the rich. Without regulation the market will eat itself and effectively take society with it.

The article continues in its praise, “That comes across in his policies—including those outlined on November 25th. The chancellor transferred to councils responsibilities for homelessness and social care and announced that he would wind up their government grant. But he is also letting those authorities control and retain local business-tax receipts. The essence of his vision is thus to scale down the great Whitehall subsidy machine, pushing responsibilities down to citizens, companies and local authorities. Hence the cuts to tax credits should be partly mitigated by a higher minimum wage. Big cities outside London are rapidly gaining powers over their public services and economic fortunes. Housing benefit is being cut as more support is going to housebuilders. Grants to trainee nurses and students are being replaced with loans, and state services increasingly carry user charges (for visa applications and, in some cases, court time). Big companies will soon foot the bill for the apprenticeships from which they benefit. Mr Osborne, in other words, is reducing government’s compensatory role”.

The report goes on to spin this shrinking state as a positive, “Instead the chancellor proposes an enabling state: one that, though offering a limited safety net, concentrates on creating the conditions in which actors can solve their own problems. Thus in 2013 Mr Osborne pushed successfully to lift a cap on university student numbers, has cut corporation tax (and wants to cut it further) and is now pumping cash into infrastructure and science. He often fails to live up to the credo; he has done too little to curb old-age and middle-class welfare, spur house-building, or plug gaps in skills. Yet this does not detract from the vision that—once the thick layers of hyperactive political pragmatism are stripped back—serves as the lodestar of his chancellorship”.

The piece ends frightenly, “The chancellor stands a good chance of running Britain for a while if, as seems probable, he succeeds Mr Cameron in a few years. If he does, his priority will be to win the next election. But in the process, and especially if he succeeds, the outcome could be a state transformed: committed to forging a benign environment for individuals, firms and municipalities, but less willing to meddle in how they proceed—or to catch them when they fall”.

Putin talks Syria in Iran

01/12/2015

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is visiting Tehran for talks with the Iranian leadership expected to focus on the Syrian crisis. Moscow and Tehran have been the key backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad throughout his nation’s civil war. Russia has shielded Syria from international sanctions and on Sept. 30 launched an air campaign against the Islamic State group and other militants, while Tehran has sent military advisers to shore up Assad”.

 

Clinton distances herself from Obama

01/12/2015

A report notes that Hillary Clinton will bring a harder approach to ISIS, “presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton outlined her plans to defeat the Islamic State in a Thursday speech that both defended the Obama administration’s current strategy against the militant group — and proposed a range of hawkish military actions the president has long refused. In her remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Clinton reiterated her support for a no-fly zone in Syria and called for creating humanitarian corridors in the war-torn country to shelter displaced Syrians who would otherwise seek refuge in Europe. She also signaled an openness to sending more U.S. special forces to Syria than the 50 troops President Barack Obama has already authorized, and advocated for intensifying America’s air campaign against ISIS”.

The piece goes on to make the point that “She also criticized U.S. allies in the Middle East for not doing enough to defeat the Islamic State, which controls large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. “Our efforts will only succeed if the Arabs and Turks step up in a much bigger way. This is their fight and they need to act like it,” she said. “So far, however, Turkey has been more focused on the Kurds than on countering ISIS.” The Obama administration has long rejected the establishment of a no-fly zone, calling it a dangerous and expensive operation that could easily put the U.S. on a slippery slope toward a wider military engagement. Clinton said she supported a limited no-fly zone that would not encompass the entire country, but help create “safe areas where Syrians could remain in the country, rather than fleeing toward Europe.” Such a plan would require the U.S. to patrol Syrian skies and shoot down Syrian or Russian fighter jets if they crossed into the established zone. The U.S. has been working with Turkey to carve out so-called “safe zones” for displaced Syrians, but the two sides have yet to agree on an implementation plan”.

Unsurpurisingly the article notes “It wasn’t the first time Clinton has distanced herself from the president in an effort to bolster her national security credentials. During the Democratic debate last Saturday, responding to Republican candidates who criticized her former boss for saying the Islamic State was “contained,” Clinton used her opening lines to mimic GOP arguments against Obama’s Islamic State strategy. “It cannot be contained, it must be defeated,” she said. Still, Clinton was careful not to strike too sharp of a contrast with the president, who remains broadly popular among Democratic voters and whom she served under as secretary of state for four years. “Like President Obama, I do not believe that we should again have 100,000 American troops in combat in the Middle East,” she said. “If we have learned anything from 15 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that local people and nations have to secure their own communities. We can help them, and we should, but we cannot substitute for them,” she added”.

The report concludes “Clinton’s speech comes as her Republican rivals propose a series of increasingly hawkish measures to defeat the Islamic State and deal with the second-order effects of the 4 ½-year civil war in Syria. Sen. Lindsey Graham wants to send 10,000 U.S. troops to Iraq and Syria; Donald Trump wants to bomb oil fields in the Middle East; Sen. Ted Cruz proposed only letting in Christian refugees to the United States; and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently advocated for a vast military buildup, including 40,000 new Army troops, new submarines and aircraft and about 4,000 more Marines”.