Archive for January, 2016

“Rubio’s lawyers are defending his eligibility”

31/01/2016

Marco Rubio’s lawyers are defending his eligibility to run for president in a quixotic legal challenge that alleges he isn’t a natural-born citizen. A Florida voter filed the suit, which claims that the senator isn’t a true “natural-born citizen” under the Constitution because his parents were not both U.S. citizens at his birth in Miami. The challenge occurs as 2016 rival Ted Cruz has been thrust into the spotlight by repeated “birther” challenges by party front-runner Donald Trump and other critics because the Texas senator was born in Canada.  So far, only Cruz has faced significant questions from those challenging his natural-born status. But the legal brief shows Rubio’s lawyers trying to cut down the accusations at an early level.  The 34-page document, first disclosed by theTampa Bay Times, casts aside the claim, noting that under the voter’s logic “at least six other Presidents of the United States were not natural born citizens and were therefore ineligible for that office.”

“Limited number of American commandos with unrealistic expectations”

31/01/2016

An interesting piece questions the decision of President Obama to send 200 soldiers to Iraq, “U.S. special operations raid on a top Islamic State commander last May that swept up a trove of intelligence has become the gold standard for how the Obama administration envisions the secretive war against the militants. But the White House may be overburdening the limited number of American commandos with unrealistic expectations of turning the tide in Iraq and Syria. Fewer than 200 U.S. special operations forces make up the Pentagon’s much-touted “expeditionary targeting force” that recently arrived in Iraq to take the fight to the militants, but only a few dozen will take part in raids, according to U.S. officials. An even smaller team — about 50 special operators — has deployed to Syria.

The Pentagon rarely discusses the secretive missions of U.S. commandos that the Obama administration calls a crucial part of its bid to “intensify” the war against the Islamic State. Yet in announcing their deployment to Congress, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the elite American troops will “conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture” Islamic State leaders in both Iraq and Syria”.

Crucially the piece dissects the plan proposed by the administration, “During the night-shrouded raid in eastern Syria last May, U.S. Delta Force troops killed Islamic State financial guru Abu Sayyaf and as many as 11 of his henchmen after a short firefight. They also captured his wife, Umm Sayyaf, and loaded computer hard drives and stacks of financial documents from his compound into their Black Hawk helicopters before flying back across the border to Iraq. Over the following days, the records revealed critical details of the Islamic State’s oil infrastructure in Syria. But the real prize was Umm Sayyaf, who could provide much-needed context to the files and a living, breathing source on how the terrorist group funds its operations. Within months, acting on that information, airstrikes began targeting Islamic State oil operations across eastern Syria, depriving the militants of millions of dollars worth of revenue. But the aftermath of the raid that nabbed Umm Sayyaf also pointed to one potential Achilles heel in Washington’s plan: the need for detention facilities. The U.S. military shuttered all of its American-run prisons in Iraq before it left at the end of 2011, and without a place to continue holding Umm Sayyaf, U.S. officials were forced to turn her over to Kurdish authorities last August”.

He adds “Reliable information has become harder to come by with fewer U.S. forces on the ground. In Afghanistan, where the Obama administration is also leaning heavily on a small number of special forces, a tragic Oct. 3 operation in Kunduz underlined the risks of operating with incomplete intelligence. That night, a team of U.S. Green Berets, who had spent long days fighting alongside Afghan special forces, called in an airstrike on a nearby building where Taliban extremists were believed to be hiding. But a lack of constant information sent to the AC-130 gunship overhead resulted in the air crew identifying the wrong building. The blistering hourlong attack instead targeted a charity hospital, killing 42 medical staff and patients, and leading to accusations of war crimes. U.S. military officials are currently weighing punishments for several of the soldiers involved”.

The report goes on to discuss how “As head of the Joint Special Operations Command, now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal transformed the way American commandos wage war. McChrystal oversaw the missions that tracked down al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and, most famously, Saddam Hussein. During the height of the U.S. war in Iraq, McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus created so-called fusion centers where intelligence analysts and special operations forces together pored over information to help plot the next mission. The analysts were “critical to fusing the various pieces of intelligence as the operators picked them off the battlefield,” said Linda Robinson, an analyst at the Rand Corp., who has written several books about special forces”.

Interestingly the piece notes that “McChrystal’s collaborative approach remains a model for the ongoing missions in Iraq and Syria, several U.S. officials told FP. But now, officials noted, the effort is dramatically smaller, with dozens of commandos instead of thousands in the battle zone. And this time, U.S. commandos will be operating jointly in partnership with Kurdish and Iraqi counterparts. President Barack Obama, who when elected pledged to end wars not start them, had long resisted sending special operations forces to Iraq or Syria. And until recently, the Obama administration relied on air power and the training of local troops for full-fledged combat against the Islamic State. But as the U.S. military campaign came under mounting criticism, Obama reversed course — opting for a tactic honed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”.

As if to admit the deficiencies in the strategy the writer continues, “Carter suggested more commandos may soon be headed for Iraq and Pentagon officials are pushing European allies to deploy their own commandos. “The more we use it, the more we’ll learn about additional uses for it,” Carter said of the new contingent of special operations troops. “The more we do, the more we learn what more we can do.” But with only a handful of U.S. ground troops, and lacking consistent, reliable local partners, it’s unclear whether American special operations forces can seriously damage the Islamic State. It will fall to Kurdish and Iraqi fighters to act on intelligence gathered by the United States. Yet U.S. officials are only cautiously optimistic about the Kurds’ ability and privately admit the Iraqi Army remains plagued by leadership and morale problems. It’s also uncertain whether local troops will be capable of coming to the aid of American special forces who may find themselves pinned down in a fight. That was less of a concern in the past, when commanders could rely on nearby rescue units to justify taking more risks, analysts said”.

“U.S. would be willing to use military means if necessary”

31/01/2016

Joe Biden signaled a possible new direction for U.S. policy toward Syria in remarks in Turkey on Saturday, where the vice president was meeting with Turkish leaders to discuss the bloody civil war next door. Biden was speaking at Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace, where he held meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The U.S. is “neither optimistic nor pessimistic,” but “determined” to reach a political solution to the Syrian conflict, he said. But Biden also seemed to go past Obama administration statements in suggesting the U.S. would be willing to use military means if necessary. “We do know that it would be better if we can reach a political solution, but we are prepared — we are prepared if that’s not possible to make — to have a military solution to this operation in taking out Daesh,” the vice president said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in the Levant, also known as ISIS or ISIL”.

 

 

 

“Building a second as-yet-unnamed aircraft carrier”

29/01/2016

An interesting piece  in Foreign Policy argues that China will become an aircraft superpower, “On Year’s Eve, the official People’s Daily confirmed an ill-kept secret: that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is building a second as-yet-unnamed aircraft carrier to serve alongside the Liaoning, the refitted Soviet-era carrier that joined the PLAN fleet in 2012. This is a homecoming of sorts for me. My earliest Foreign Policy essay, in 2011, explored why China wanted carriers in the first place. Fear, honour, interest — the primal motives that spurred China to overhaul a 1980s-vintage hulk for active duty — remain at work today. Strategist Edward Luttwak helps explain why Beijing wants additional flattops and how it may use them for political gain. In his 1974 book, The Political Uses of Sea Power, he wrote that ships are more than engines of war. In peacetime, they are tokens of national commitment, useful for compelling, deterring, or reassuring in crises short of war. Deploying them to trouble spots telegraphs resolve, putting allies, prospective antagonists, and bystanders on notice that the leadership is prepared to use decisive force to get its way”.

Holmes goes on to write that “The People’s Daily claims it will be “totally different” from the Liaoning. (Beijing paid $20 million to purchase the Liaoning; it’s impossible to estimate how much it spent on it afterward or how much it will spend on the second carrier.) Colour me skeptical. Unless the PLAN has concluded that the Soviet design is junk, the new flattop will derive from the Liaoning. It will constitute an incremental improvement, incorporating lessons learned from operating China’s first aircraft carrier. It will not be altogether different — nor should it be. Navies learn by operating ships on the high seas”.

He suggests that the new ship will be about 50,000 tons but this is not as simple as it sounds, “Ships have “light,” “standard,” and “full” displacements. Light refers to the vessel’s weight when no people, stores, fuel, or ammunition are on board — in other words, its empty weight. And full means the hull with a full crew and full complement of supplies. Standard lies between. Which is it for China’s carrier? No one has said — and this is a distinction with a difference. Once upon a time, I was a damage-control officer in an Iowa-class battleship, responsible for monitoring how the ship’s displacement changed as fuel was burned or replenished, stores and ammunition were consumed or loaded, and so on. Our light-load displacement was about 45,000 tons and our full-load displacement about 58,000 tons — a roughly 29 percent difference in tonnage. By muddling the terminology, it is possible to convey a false impression about a ship’s size and power. Transpose that insight to China’s carrier project. If the new flattop weighs 50,000 tons when full, it has roughly the same dimensions as the U.S. Navy’s latest amphibious helicopter carrier, the USS America. If the PLAN carrier is about 50,000 tons when empty, it’s about the same size as the Liaoning, which displaces around 55,000 tons when light but up to 65,000 at full — comparable to the USS Midway, the first U.S. supercarrier. An amphibious transport is a far cry from a supercarrier”.

He argues that “The safest guess is that the PLAN is honouring its tradition of fleet experimentation while undertaking aircraft carrier development. In all likelihood that means a ship displacing around 65,000 tons, comparable to the Liaoning and the USS Midway — a vessel that rendered good service as recently as Operation Desert Storm in 1991. It has laid the keel for an improved Liaoning, while spokesmen are using lowball figures to describe its dimensions. If events bear out that guess, the ship will sport roughly the same “air wing,” or complement of aircraft — any carrier’s major striking arm. Liaoning’s air wing consists of about 25 fighter jets and about 20 helicopters. The new vessel will probably carry about the same aircraft complement”.

Crucially he asks, “How will China use its new flattop? Well, this will be the PLAN’s first genuinely operational carrier. The navy has employed the Liaoning mainly as a training vessel, grooming China’s first corps of naval aviators while acclimating fleet sailors to operating in carrier task forces. Both functions are crucial. Launching and landing on heaving flight decks is extremely stressful — witness studies showing that aviators’ hearts pound harder when landing aboard ship than in combat. Making such intricate endeavours routine takes practice. And ship drivers need practice as well. Aircraft carriers are the centerpieces of carrier task forces. A flattop, that is, steams in company with a retinue of escort ships — destroyers, frigates, logistics vessels, and the like. It needs this entourage to protect against surface, subsurface, or aerial attack while supplying the “beans, bullets, and black oil” that sustain equipment and crews during high-seas operations”.

Worryingly he writes “It’s worth speculating about how many carriers China will build. My guess is China is building toward a seven-carrier fleet, because that would let the PLAN keep using the Liaoning as a training ship while operating six fleet carriers. That sounds like a lot; the U.S. Navy has only 10. (The United Kingdom’s Royal Navy is building two flattops of about the same dimensions as the Liaoning, but no other navy operates more than one.) Using USS Forrestal, the U.S. Navy’s first true supercarrier, as a measuring stick, it will probably take the PLAN at least four years to finish its new ship. The Forrestal was ordered in 1951 and commissioned in 1955. By that time, of course, U.S. shipyards had amassed considerable expertise turning out smaller, more rudimentary vessels of the type — speeding up the design and construction process. Chinese yards could work more slowly since this constitutes their first outing in carrier construction. Does this mean China intends to rampage throughout East and South Asia, or even beyond? Not necessarily. An old folk saying holds that “two is one and one is none.” In other words, the prudent handyman always keeps a spare widget handy. The logic of redundancy applies to navies as well — except that navies need at least three hulls to keep one constantly ready for sea. There’s a rhythm to naval operations, maintenance, and training”.

He goes on to argue that “No armed force with superpower ambitions relishes keeping its commitments only intermittently. A six-carrier fleet would let the PLAN keep two vessels ready for sea at all times while sustaining a viable cycle of maintenance, training, and sea duty. This would open up new operational vistas for China. For instance, one carrier task force could patrol the waters within the first island chain — the offshore islands running from Japan south through Taiwan and the Philippines — upholding Beijing’s maritime territorial claims while reminding fellow Asians of who’s boss. Beijing could dispatch the other combat-ready unit for expeditionary duty in, say, the Indian Ocean, maintaining a standing presence in a region of vital economic importance. If three is one, six is two, plus an extra to train new naval aviators. Ergo, a seven-carrier fleet! Suppose Beijing makes good on this vision. How will it use naval air power to fulfill political purposes? No sane leadership covets war, an enterprise fraught with peril, hardship, and heavy costs. Better to win without fighting. Luttwak observes that governments use ships as implements of “naval suasion,” influencing “allies, adversaries, or neutrals” through “the existence, display, manipulation, or symbolic use” of seagoing fleets”.

He ends “the message broadcast from Beijing is stark: Buck China’s will, and you incur fearful consequences. The message will come through more and more clearly as the PLAN fills out its carrier fleet — building up the capacity to maintain a standing carrier presence in offshore waters. If the United States and its Asian allies want to counteract China’s flattop diplomacy, they need to venture some naval suasion of their own. China wants to dishearten prospective foes through naval capability and shows of political resolve. But the allies can firm up their own naval capacity and alliance solidarity. They can dissuade Beijing if they can sow doubt about China’s inevitable triumph in a trial of arms. They can deflate the threat implicit in PLAN task forces — and uphold their interests and purposes. Take heart — and act.

 

“Sources as saying the reactor had been decommissioned”

29/01/2016

Iran’s deputy nuclear chief has denied a report that the core of the Arak heavy-water reactor has been removed and filled with concrete. Ali Asghar Zarean told state TV that Iran would sign an agreement with China to modify the reactor before doing so. On Monday, the semi-official Fars news agency cited unnamed sources as saying the reactor had been decommissioned. It would represent a final step towards the implementation of July’s nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. Iran has agreed to limit its sensitive nuclear activities in return for the lifting of crippling sanctions”.

Saudis obstruct the peace talks

29/01/2016

An important piece notes that the UN has accused Saudi Arabia of obscruting Syrian peace talks, “In a barely veiled swipe at one of the Middle East’s leading powers, the United Nations’ special envoy for Syria accused Saudi Arabia of undermining his efforts to bring a broad slate of Syrian opposition groups to upcoming peace talks designed to end Syria’s brutal civil war. In his confidential Jan. 18 briefing to the U.N. Security Council, which was obtained exclusively by Foreign Policy, Staffan de Mistura said Riyadh is complicating his efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict by trying to tightly control which opposition groups will be allowed to participate in the negotiations. His comments came shortly after a slate of Saudi-backed Syrian opposition groups, organized under the banner of the Riyadh-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC), rebuffed his personal appeals to allow other groups to take part in the talks. De Mistura complained to the council that the Saudi-backed opposition coalition and its “sponsors insist on the primacy and exclusivity of their role as ‘THE’ opposition delegation.” While de Mistura did not name Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is the main international sponsor of the HNC. The group, however, is backed by France, Turkey, and Qatar”.

The report goes on to note that “The remarks also underscore de Mistura’s struggles to assert his authority as Washington and other world powers remain incapable of finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis. In his remarks to the Security Council, the diplomat appealed to the United States, Russia, and other key powers to back his troubled mediation efforts, saying he will not invite specific opposition groups to upcoming peace talks in Geneva unless the main outside players in the Syrian conflict all sign off on the list. That was seen as a clear rebuke to Riyadh”.

In some ways this is Saudi Arabia flexing its muscles. Its relations with the Obama administration have never been lower and by not allowing the talks to progress then there is an argument to be made that this is the easiest way of letting Obama know what they think of him. Related to this is the possibility that Obama has little interest in the talks going anywhere, which seems to be his consistent Syrian “strategy” as his last year in office dawns.

The piece adds that “Security Council members privately voiced sympathy for de Mistura’s predicament, but said it is unlikely that they will issue a public statement in support of his authority. “He has an impossible mandate,” said one council member. “He is not fully empowered.” Seeking to keep the talks on board, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to travel to Riyadh on Saturday to discuss the composition of the Syrian opposition. For months, the United States has argued in favour of an inclusive “big-tent” approach to political talks that would include all the most influential Syrian parties, with the exception of designated terrorist organizations like the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria. But State Department spokesman John Kirby signaled that the United States is looking to the Riyadh group to lead the negotiations. “As we said after Riyadh, the opposition will be represented at that meeting by delegates chosen from the High Negotiating Committee and only from the High Negotiating Committee,” Kirby said”.

Riad Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister who serves as the HNC’s coordinator, announced the appointment of Asad al-Zoubi, a Syrian army defector, as head of the negotiating team. Hijab also named Mohammed Alloush, a representative of the Saudi-backed Islamist militia Jaish al-Islam, as the group’s chief negotiator.

Hijab warned that his group may not attend the U.N.-brokered talks if the slate of opposition groups is expanded. In a statement issued Wednesday from Riyadh, Hijab dismissed the need for a broader spectrum of Syrian opposition figures, saying his group “incorporated a diverse spectrum of Syrian opposition” figures and would not accept any challenges to its credibility.

Hijab also noted that several members of the opposition coalition favor suspending the political talks until there is a halt to the bombardment of civilians, the lifting of sieges on the civilian population, and the release of detainees from prison. “Dates are not sacred; we will not go to any negotiations while our people suffer from shelling, starvation, and siege,” he said.

Both Arab and European diplomats expressed frustration Wednesday that disagreements over the composition of the negotiating delegation have distracted world powers from focusing on other key challenges of the thorny and bloody Syrian crisis, including establishing a cease-fire and finding ways of reducing the conflict’s staggering human toll.

“Everyone is focused on the composition of the delegation,” said one Arab diplomat, and the other issues “are taking a back seat, unfortunately.”

The article goes on to note that “During Monday’s closed-door meeting, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her counterparts from Britain, France, and Russia reaffirmed de Mistura’s authority to pick the final list of invitees, according to three council diplomats. The controversy over the invitation was widely reported early this week, but FP has exclusively obtained de Mistura’s speaking notes, which provide in his own words a more detailed account of his dispute with the Saudis and his broader frustrations over the complicated effort to cobble together a representative slate of opposition groups. De Mistura said he recognizes that many of the key parties participating in political talks are unlikely to accept each other’s legitimacy or sit together in face-to-face peace talks.”

Interestingly the piece adds “The Saudis are not the only ones who have drawn red lines on participation in the political talks. Syria, Russia, and Iran consider some key participants in the Saudi-sponsored opposition, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, to be terrorist organizations that should be excluded from the talks. Turkey has threatened to pull out of the political talks if Kurdish groups, including the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its political affiliate, the Democratic Union Party, are allowed to participate. Other Arab governments believe that excluding the Kurdish groups, which have waged some of the most successful military campaigns against the Islamic State in Syria, is absurd. Council diplomats and other observers say that de Mistura’s remarks were aimed at prodding the United States to apply pressure on the Saudis to back down and allow a larger slate of opposition figures to participate in talks. “He needs Russia and the U.S. to tell their guys to line up and behave, to tell their guys it’s not up to them,” said one U.N.-based observer who has tracked de Mistura’s mediation effort”.

The report concludes that “The U.N. envoy’s troubles stem from the fact that responsibility for overseeing the political process is divided between the U.N. and the International Syria Support Group, a 17-nation group of powers that the Security Council considers the “central platform to facilitate the United Nations’ efforts” to achieve a lasting political settlement in Syria. Until now, that formulation has given a virtual veto to any support group member to block parties. For instance, Turkey has blocked the representation of the YPG and the Democratic Union Party on the grounds that they are allied with a Turkish terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Russia, meanwhile, has pressed for the exclusion of Islamist groups, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, from political talks. Frustrated by the lack of agreement, de Mistura told the Security Council behind closed doors that he wouldn’t issue invitations until the key powers reached agreement on who would be in and who would be out”.

 

More French airstrikes against ISIS

29/01/2016

French President Francois Hollande says airstrikes against Islamic State extremists will accelerate in coming months. In a speech Thursday to the country’s diplomatic corps, Hollande said that this year must be one “of transition in Syria.” France has joined the United States in carrying out airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, but has said peace will come only with the departure of President Bashar Assad. The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that left 130 dead and hundreds injured were carried out largely by French-speaking Europeans who had trained with Islamic State.

An Asian WTI?

29/01/2016

A piece in the Economist discusses the future of oil benchmarks, “FORTY years ago America, still reeling from the 1973 oil crisis, banned most exports of crude oil. That prohibition was lifted by Congress in mid-December. The first shipment under the new rules set sail on December 31st from the Texan port of Corpus Christi. The renewed flow of crude is already changing how oil is priced”.

Correctly the piece notes that “Not all barrels of oil are alike. Crudes can be viscous like tar or so “light” they float on water. Their sulphur content ranges from the negligible (“sweet”) to the highly acidic (“sour”). Though hundreds of grades are bought and sold, traders use a handful of benchmarks to make sense of the market. Brent, from the North Sea, is the current international standard. Americans prefer to use a similar grade known as West Texas Intermediate (WTI). WTI was once the main global benchmark. It has a number of advantages over Brent. For one thing, it arrives at the delivery point—Cushing, Oklahoma—by pipeline, and so can be sold in batches of variable size. Brent, in contrast, can only be sold by the tankerload. As Brent sees fewer, bigger transactions, generating continuous prices is tricky. The ever-shifting price of WTI can be observed directly, making it more transparent. And Brent is umbilically connected to a declining oil province. It comes from only a handful of oilfields, whereas a WTI contract can be satisfied by any suitable oil delivered to Cushing”.

Interestingly the piece mentions that “WTI had one vital flaw, though. The export ban meant that it could detach from world oil prices if America produced more crude than expected, since the surplus could not be exported. For most of the late 20th century that risk was hypothetical, as America’s output steadily declined. But in recent years the shale-oil boom revived American production. A glut of crude emerged, first at Cushing and then by the cluster of refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. That pushed American crude prices below Brent. The spread peaked in 2011 at $28 a barrel. As the price of WTI began to say less and less about the state of the world market, traders spurned it in favour of Brent. Trading in contracts linked to Brent overtook those linked to WTI in early 2012”.

Naturally the author writes “The resumption of American exports has changed all that. The two benchmarks now trade at more or less the same price. WTI has duly regained its position as the most traded oil benchmark. This back-and-forth, however, may prove a distraction compared with another shift in the oil market: its centre of gravity is moving inexorably eastwards. OPEC, a cartel of oil exporters, expects demand in Asia to grow by 16m barrels a day by 2040. If that happens, Asia would end up consuming more than 46m barrels a day—four times as much as Europe. As Asia grows, it will become the dominant force in the world market. A good benchmark has to reflect supply and demand for oil wherever it is used. WTI may continue to be influenced by bottlenecks in the American market. Brent reflects the market for oil in north-west Europe. That was once a positive, but as Europe’s share of global demand for oil declines, proximity to the continent is no longer the advantage it was”.

The piece ends “That suggests that an Asian benchmark will rise to the fore. The Shanghai International Energy Exchange plans to launch its own yuan-denominated contract this year. The new benchmark will have trouble getting off the ground. For one thing, China’s capital controls make it difficult for foreigners to buy the yuan needed to trade the contracts. The wild swings in China’s equity markets set an unnerving example for investors. But time is on its side”.

“Asked more countries to send Special Operations troops to join the fight”

27/01/2016

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said Thursday that the United States has asked more countries to send Special Operations troops to join the fight against the Islamic State, and not just typical partners like Britain and Australia. Carter did not name the countries, but said “there are states in the region” who have been asked to become more active in the military campaign. Countries in the region that have Special Operations troops that train with U.S. forces include Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The comments came during a news conference as the secretary was on base for a meeting with other senior military officials to plan an expansion of the fight against the Islamic State. An elite “expeditionary targeting force” including U.S. Special Operations troops has arrived in Iraq, Carter disclosed Wednesday, and is expected to carry out a variety of raids and intelligence gathering to strike the terrorist group.

“Appealing forlornly to its better nature”

27/01/2016

A piece from the Economist discusses President Obama’s last State of the Union and his appeal to agonism and argues that it showed both his weaknesses and virtues, “TO HEAR most of the contenders for this year’s presidential election tell it, America is in a horrible state. Republicans both mainstream and whacko, from Jeb Bush to Donald Trump, describe a country enfeebled militarily, ailing economically and culturally corrupted by seven years of Democratic rule; on the left, Bernie Sanders describes an economy rigged against ordinary Americans. In his last state-of-the-union message to Congress on January 12th, Barack Obama delivered a rebuke to that miserabilism—and to the ugly nativism it is fuelling among voters”.

The author goes on to note that “During his first presidential campaign, Mr Obama promised Americans a lot of change they would like. In what is likely to be his last major speech before the process of electing his successor begins in Iowa on February 1st, he talked more of the historic change globalisation is making, to the workplace, pay packets and complexion of American society, in turn creating much of the anxiety and resentment his would-be successors are pandering to”.

The writer notes that “It is not certain that America will master the turbulence. “Progress is not inevitable,” he warned, disabusing those conservative critics who accuse him of holding a Pollyanna-ish view of history. “It’s the result of choices we make together. And we face such choices right now. Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation…? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, in what we stand for?” This was genre-busting stuff. The annual presidential address to Congress is traditionally a wishlist of legislative business for the coming year, with, in the final year of a presidency, an additional trumpeting of the incumbent’s record”.

The piece notes that the speech had some of this by exhorting “Congress to approve the recently concluded Pacific trade agreement, pass legislation to authorise the ongoing American operations in Syria and Iraq and work on criminal-justice reform, one of the few remaining causes that has bipartisan support. He also noted many of his achievements; in presiding over impressive job creation, health-care reform and America’s first national effort at mitigating carbon emissions, for example”.

However the core of the speech, as the piece mentions was “an effort to stake out, ahead of Iowa, the ground for legitimate debate in a civilised society. America has not, Mr Obama ventured to suggest, gone to the dogs. Its economy is the envy of the world. Its armed forces are unrivalled. So is its global leadership. “When it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead—they call us.” On that basis alone, anyone promising extreme solutions to America’s problems should be mistrusted. And where they threaten the principles of fairness and rule of law, the basis of America’s strength, they must be disdained. “We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” said Mr Obama, in a nod to Mr Trump’s promise of mass deportations and a blockade of Muslims. “This isn’t a matter of political correctness. It’s a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong.” The job of politics is to settle finer debates, about the role of the state in apportioning wealth (“The American people have a choice to make”) and the exercise of America’s undimmed power. It was in this didactic spirit that Mr Obama defended his record. On the state, he argued that it was reasonable to worry about overburdening business with regulation, but illogical to reduce welfare payments, as most Republicans want, at a time of wage stagnation and rising insecurity for millions of workers”.

The writer adds that “On national security, he protested, in a tacit response to his many critics, that escalating the wars in which America is already embroiled will not make it safer; “That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire…It’s the lesson of Vietnam; it’s the lesson of Iraq.” This was vintage Obama, disdainful of the tribal emotions that have subsumed American politics, cerebral, unrelentingly reasonable. No doubt, it reminded many of his critics, who represent around half of Americans, why they abhor him. Mr Obama said the one big regret of his presidency was that partisan divisions had got worse during the course of it; but America is in no mood for healing. Sitting behind Mr Obama, Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, wore the impassive expression of a man who dared show no flicker of approval for a president his party despises—even when Mr Obama denounced the business-throttling red tape it should hate even more”.

The writer continues “When Mr Obama claimed that America was not enfeebled militarily, many Republican congressmen emitted a scandalised gasp. Yet mainstream Republicans candidates such as Chris Christie and Mr Bush, none of whom has denounced Mr Trump’s vile politics half as effectively as Mr Obama, must quietly hope Republican voters imbibe his moral lesson, and reject the rabble-rousers. While he himself must pray that Democratic voters, 30-40% of whom are currently tempted to vote for Mr Sanders, will instead rally to Hillary Clinton who, because more electable, is much likelier to protect his legacy”.

Interestingly the writer goes notes that this is Obama’s weakness, “That, in turn, points to Mr Obama’s weakness, the other political context in which he spoke. The president’s decision not to recite the customary legislative to-do list—as notable by its absence as the victims of gun violence symbolised by a seat left empty next to Michelle Obama—was partly enforced. After a burst of bipartisan co-operation last year, including the overdue passage of a federal budget, he can expect little additional help from Congress. Whatever extra measures he hopes to burnish his record with, for example, to equalise pay between the sexes or increase the modicum of gun control he attempted this month, will probably have to be enacted by executive decree. So were many of his existing achievements, including changes to how laws on immigration are enforced. Although Mr Obama has not used his presidential powers half as profligately as his critics claim—his immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both issued many more orders—his inability to get much legislation passed since the Democrats lost control of the House in 2010 has made his record unusually dependent on them. And given that most Republicans candidates vow to erase many of those orders, his legacy is one bad election result away from looking rather thin”.

The piece concludes “In his peroration, Mr Obama alluded to that frailty. In the absence of much enthusiasm for electoral reform in Congress, he promised to “travel the country” making his case for it. That desirable change, which he himself once promised to bring about, “will only happen when the American people demand it”, he concluded. As so often, he is right and admirable in his diagnosis. Still, it is hard not to be dismayed by the image he left hanging in the divided House, of the president, once the change politician, reduced to wandering America like a mendicant preacher, appealing forlornly to its better nature”.

“Afghanistan will hold postponed parliamentary elections in October”

27/01/2016

Afghanistan will hold postponed parliamentary elections in October, the top election official said on Monday, after last June’s deadline to choose a new assembly was missed because of political squabbling.Parliament’s five-year term expired last June, but elections were postponed because of security fears and disagreements on how to ensure a fair vote after a bitterly disputed presidential election in 2014.President Ashraf Ghani issued a decree last year extending parliament’s mandate until a vote could be held, a decision criticized by Afghans, who questioned whether the extension was legal.If the elections go ahead as planned, they are likely to be held against a backdrop of sharply worsening security, with the Taliban trying to build on their campaign last year that included the brief capture of the northern city of Kunduz.The elections will be held on Oct. 15″.

Sanctions lifted on Iran

27/01/2016

A report from the Washington Post notes the lifting of sanctions on Iran “Iran reentered the global economy Saturday, as years of crippling international sanctions were lifted in exchange for the verified disabling of much of its nuclear infrastructure. For Iran, implementation of the landmark deal it finalized with six world powers last summer means immediate access to more than $50 billion in long-frozen assets, and freedom to sell its oil and purchase goods in the international marketplace. Tehran has hailed the deal as vindication of its power and influence in the world. “Today marks the moment that the Iran nuclear agreement transitions from promises on paper to measurable progress,” said Secretary of State John F. Kerry”.

The report goes on to mention that “The removal of sanctions comes as President Obama begins his last year in office, and almost seven years to the day since he called on Iran to “unclench your fist” and take steps toward rapprochement with the United States and the world. As a result of the agreement, he said in his last State of the Union speech this week, a “nuclear-armed Iran” has been prevented, and “the world has avoided another war.” The triggering event for implementation was certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency Saturday that Iran had successfully completed all the nuclear steps it agreed to in July: sending the bulk of its enriched uranium outside the country, mothballing most of its centrifuges, and disabling its Arak nuclear reactor, capable of yielding plutonium. The IAEA is also charged with monitoring and verifying Iran’s continued compliance”.

Interestingly the piece goes on to note “IAEA certification of compliance opened the door to announcements and speeches by high-level officials from the negotiating parties. A new U.N. resolution codifying the deal immediately goes into effect. The IAEA begins strict monitoring provisions on the ground in Iran. White House executive orders and implementation guidance issued by the European Union and the U.S. Treasury, along with waivers of certain restrictions signed here by Kerry, will start the wheels of international business and finance turning. To the consternation of critics in the United States — including Republican presidential hopefuls who have called it a dangerous sellout by Obama and vowed to dismantle it — the deal is now done”.

The Obama administration hopes that “In the long term, the agreement is a major milestone in the Iranian revolution, with the potential for far-reaching economic, political and cultural ramifications. The end of Iran’s near-total economic isolation could drive more modernization and open the country to moderating outside influences. More money spent at home to upgrade failing infrastructure and jump-start the economy would allow pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani to showcase the sanctions relief he pledged in his 2013 campaign. U.S. and international opponents, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies see the agreement as a dangerous gift to an aggressive and duplicitous regime, and have warned that Tehran will use the money to increase spending on terrorist groups that serve as its proxies in a fight for regional dominance”.

Crucially the author notes that “Although Iran has more than $100 billion in available frozen assets — most of it in banks in China, Japan and South Korea — slightly less than half will more or less automatically go to preexisting debts. How the rest is spent will reveal the direction of internal power battles between Iranian hard-liners and pragmatists. That kind of money is too much to be transferred in one fell swoop. Richard Nephew, a former sanctions chief of the U.S. negotiating team, said the Iranians will likely transfer it out in chunks, and may even leave it in place while they decide how to spend it”.

The piece notes the context for the lifting of sanctions, “Despite official rejoicing by the negotiating partners, implementation comes at a particularly inauspicious time for Iran and the United States. Oil is at its lowest price in more than a decade, in part because of expectations Iranian crude will flood the market, and Iran’s currency has declined precipitously. Tehran will be getting far less income than it anticipated when the negotiations took hold in late 2013, making it difficult for the government to deliver the jobs and economic boom Iranians have been told will ensue. Many think it will take years to repair the country’s decrepit energy infrastructure in order for oil to flow at its pre-sanctions rate”.

 

“Tehran should remain wary of its old enemy the United States”

25/01/2016

“Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday welcomed the lifting of international sanctions against Iran, but warned that Tehran should remain wary of its old enemy the United States. State television reported that Khamenei wrote to President Hassan Rouhani to congratulate him on implementing the nuclear deal, which resulted in U.S., European Union and United Nations sanctions being lifted over the weekend. In his first comments since the deal took effect, Iran’s highest authority made clear that Washington should still be treated with suspicion. He made no mention of a surprise prisoner exchange that also took place this weekend”.

Cameron’s foreign policy: profit over action

25/01/2016

A report details the weak response of the British Government to a report on the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, “The present era has been defined by globalization, financial globalization above all, and true to form, Britain has positioned itself in recent years as the global capital for capital. The city of London has become a hub for the world’s money, clean and dirty; London property is now the investment of choice for the world’s leading plutocrats and kleptocrats. Dean Acheson’s 1962 quip that Britain has lost an empire and not found a role is pretty but untrue — the role is evident in the glass skyscrapers and condo buildings now planted across the capital city. But Britain’s new status as global financial hub comes with its own contradictions — contradictions that have become painfully clear with Thursday’s release of the public inquest into the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London. It concludes that Litvinenko was “probably” assassinated on the direct orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with “prime facie” evidence that the Russian state was involved. So how should Britain behave when the powers whose money it relies on feel so emboldened as to ride roughshod over the United Kingdom’s security? Litvinenko was a Russian intelligence agent who had received political asylum in the U.K. in 2001, was granted British citizenship, and was helping MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, research the connection between the Russian government, organized crime, and money-laundering networks in Europe — research that led a Spanish prosecutor to call Putin’s Russia a “mafia state.” A few days before flying to Spain to help with the investigation, Litvinenko was murdered with radioactive polonium”.

The writer argues that “There was no shortage of reasons to suspect the Kremlin was involved. Polonium is a highly rare material, which very few states produce under strict security — Russia is one of the few. Police and journalists quickly followed the polonium trail and killer to Moscow: A former KGB officer called Andrey Lugovoi had met with Litvinenko in London shortly before he fell ill and left the country shortly thereafter. As evidence mounted about Lugovoi’s involvement, the Russian government made him a deputy of parliament, thus granting him immunity”.

Crucially he adds that “That the Russian government would respond in stonewalling fashion was unfortunate, but predictable. The British government’s behaviour was more surprising, and disappointing. It initially blocked all efforts for a public inquiry, seemingly for fear of jeopardizing its trade ties with Russia. Those ties are, by all accounts, considerable. BP (formerly British Petroleum) owns nearly 20 percent of Russian state oil company Rosneft, which is controlled by Putin’s close ally Igor Sechin. Russia’s rich, who have invested heavily in the U.K. property market, receive a quarter of the “investor visas” that the U.K. hands out to those who can pay a million pounds for them. Vladimir Ashurkov, a Russian anti-corruption campaigner, claims to have reported multiple cases of senior executives in Russian state companies, such as VTB and Transneft, laundering money through London, but with no follow-up from the U.K. financial security services. “At some point, it becomes a question of political will,” said Ashurkov”.

After the widow of Litvinenko demanded a hearing “Not long thereafter, Foreign Secretary William Hague preemptively submitted a public interest immunity certificate, a move designed to keep the government’s classified files on Litvinenko from being made public. The home secretary then claimed an inquest would incur too many “public expenses.” The lawyers for Litvinenko’s family argued, in reply, that the “British government, like the Russian government, is conspiring to get this inquest closed down in exchange for substantial trade interests which we know Cameron is pursuing.” In 2014, the High Court sided with the lawyers, ruling that the home secretary’s refusal to have an inquiry was not “rational” and legally erroneous. The inquiry was opened later that year, led by Sir Robert Owen. The final report is a personal victory for Marina Litvinenko and a reward for her persistence. It is also a defeat for the British establishment, some of whom still oppose her search for justice”.

The report ends, “Britain should be able to square its dependence on international capital with its traditional ideas of sovereignty, security, and values. Scratch the surface, and the former is intrinsically interconnected with the latter: Foreign money wants to come to the U.K. precisely because it has values — for instance, the rule of law — and decent security. If London becomes a mere butler to the super-rich, prepared to sacrifice its legal system for the sake of cash, it loses its value as a financial safe house: Why put your money in a country where your enemies can bump you off if they can afford to pay off the powers-that-be? But such long-term thinking is beyond a government trying to bring in as much global money as possible, as fast as possible, in order to balance the budget in the immediate future. 2015 saw the U.K. roll out the red carpet for China, with the government welcoming Chinese investment into British nuclear power. Rights groups and the security ministries lodged protests, but were ignored. When the Chinese bump off a dissident in London, what will we do? The satirical website “Russia in Your Face” caught the present mood best: It portrays the British Foreign Ministry meekly requesting that Putin carry out assassinations in the U.K. somewhat less conspicuously than has been his habit. The portrait is only as distorted as the U.K.’s current financial role on the global stage”.

Rouhani wants free elections

23/01/2016

Iran’s president lobbied on Thursday for more free and fair elections in Iran, saying moderate and reformist political factions should also be allowed to run in next month’s parliamentary elections. Hassan Rouhani’s speech, which was broadcast on state TV, was a stab at Iran’s constitutional watchdog, which has disqualified large numbers of moderates and reformists from running in the Feb. 26 vote. Rouhani said that “the Parliament is the house of the people, not a particular faction.” Rouhani, who took office on a pledge to bring about reforms, said elections are pointless if there are “no competitors” and that the upcoming balloting will be “the most important job ahead” that will reflect on his administration. He said that while religious and other minorities — such as Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians whose combined population in Iran numbers less than 500,000 — have four members in parliament in total, larger groups should also be represented”.

Bartholomew vs Kiril

23/01/2016

A piece from the Economist notes the future gathering of Orthodox bishops from around the world, “Imagine over 300 mostly grey-bearded men of religion, bearing sonorous titles and varying degrees of real authority, gathering in an ancient building in Istanbul which long formed part of the Topkapi Palace, a residence of the Ottoman sultan-caliph. No, the participants in the most important gathering during the summer of 2016 won’t be sheikhs or muftis, although their chosen venue is now a landmark in a mainly Muslim city. These visitors will take their cue from earlier days in the city’s history and from the venue, the church of Hagia Eirene (which can be translated “holy peace”). They will be Orthodox Christian bishops, with flocks anywhere from Siberia to the war-zones of the Levant. Their meeting, due to take place around the feast of Pentecost, which falls on June 19th, will try to ensure that eastern Christianity punches closer to its weight in world affairs. With Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople presiding, the prelates can be expected to issue a joint declaration on global issues like poverty, the environment and embattled religious minorities. It is also hoped that they will shed some clarifying light on their relations with other Christian churches and—most contentiously—with one another”.

The piece mentions “Assuming it goes ahead (until the last moment it will be vulnerable both to inter-Orthodox squabbles and to tensions in the host country, Turkey), the meeting will dramatically draw attention to Orthodox Christianity’s half-hidden existence. Depending on how you count, the total number of its adherents is given as anywhere between 140m and 250m or 300m. (Most people in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, whose combined population is about 200m, tell pollsters they are Orthodox, at least nominally; that helps account for the higher estimate.) To outsiders, it seems that the church’s ability to speak out in the world is limited by its extreme decentralisation. There is nothing like the vertical Roman structure, which gives the pope a personal stature recognised even in secular circles. But, for the Orthodox, the lack of such a vertical structure is a point of principle”.

Crucially it adds “As they read history, the east-west split in Christianity occurred in 1054 because the pope asserted an illegitimate top-down authority. Eastern bishops opposed Rome’s effort to impose a version of the Nicene Creed that in their view subtly downgraded the Holy Spirit. In Christian doctrine the Holy Spirit, the power of God to inspire and illuminate human beings, ranks with the Father and the Son as one of the three persons united in a single God. As the Orthodox see things, the papacy broke with pure Christian doctrine when it claimed that the pope was the unique “vicar of Christ” on Earth”.

The report goes on to note “At a more practical level, each of the 14 churches that recognise one another as part of world Orthodoxy enjoys administrative independence. But those churches will become better co-ordinated if Patriarch Bartholomew fulfils his hopes for the Great and Holy Council of bishops, which many will see as the most important Orthodox gathering since 787. For him, it is a diplomatic triumph that the meeting has been scheduled at all, given the rumbling rivalry between his see and that of Moscow. The Patriarch of Constantinople is recognised as “first among equals” in the Orthodox world; Moscow often seems to claim a kind of de facto preponderance within Orthodoxy by weight of numbers and strategic heft. Basic doctrine will not be opened up in 2016 (that was settled by the seven early councils, Orthodox say), but some important issues of religious practice will formally be on the table, such as rules for fasting, the church calendar and inter-religious marriage. Even in these areas, Slavic conservatism is expected to preclude any substantial change”.

The writer continues “But the life of Orthodox communities from California to Hong Kong will be affected by the atmosphere established at the council, to which each of the 14 churches can send 24 bishops. That atmosphere may depend a lot on the chemistry between two personalities: the host and the Patriarch of Moscow. Bartholomew I is a polyglot ethnic Greek (although ex officio, a Turkish citizen) who enjoys global esteem because of his environmental initiatives. He has warm relations with other Christian churches and Western political leaders. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian church, has close ties with President Vladimir Putin, although their priorities may not be identical. In his comments on the Ukrainian conflict, Kirill has at times given heart to the Russian-nationalist cause and sometimes sounded more conciliatory, perhaps reflecting the fact that thousands of parishes under his ultimate authority lie in government-held parts of Ukraine”.

Interestingly even this gathering is not immune from geopolitics, “Rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow can flummox Western religious leaders, including the pope, who want closer relations with both. Patriarchs Bartholomew and Kirill have known each other a long time, but they differ over church authority in the United States, western Europe and, above all, Ukraine. For nationalist Russians, the fact that Kirill oversees much of Ukrainian Orthodoxy is a bond between the two Slavic nations. But many Ukrainians dream of a new national church under Bartholomew’s aegis. When Bartholomew visited Ukraine in 2008, he steered a careful line, acknowledging both Kirill’s position and the legitimacy of Ukraine’s religious aspirations”.

It ends “For the council to succeed, such differences must be finessed. It is sure to be a moving experience for the bishops: chanting beloved hymns in celebration of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, in the spot where the Spirit’s divinity was proclaimed 1,635 years earlier. A propitious moment, perhaps, for breakthroughs”.

Oil below $30 a barrel

23/01/2016

Brent crude oil prices rebounded on Tuesday from a 12-year low after data showed Chinese oil demand likely hit a record high in 2015, but the recovery was not expected to last amid warnings that the market would stay oversupplied this year. Analysts also attributed much of the bounce from under $28 a barrel to a brief short covering rally after oil prices crashed over 20 percent this year, triggering a record volume of short positions in the week through Jan. 12. “It seems to be a healthy upside correction in an otherwise downtrending market,” said Tamas Varga, oil analyst at London brokerage PVM Oil Associates. Brent crude futures, the global benchmark, posted their strongest daily gains in four months, before easing back to trade up 32 cents, or 1.12 percent, at $28.88 a barrel.

Schism in Anglicanism

23/01/2016

A report in the Washington Post reports on the effective schism within the Anglican Communion, “For the first time, the global organizing body of Anglicans has punished the Episcopal Church, following years of heated debate with the American church over homosexuality, same-sex marriage and the role of women. The Anglican Communion’s announcement Thursday that it would suspend its U.S. branch for three years from key voting positions was seen as a blow to the Episcopal Church, which allows its clergy to perform same-sex marriages and this summer voted to include the rite in its church laws. It was also seen as a victory for conservative Anglicans, especially those in Africa,, who for years have been pressing the Anglican Communion to discipline the U.S. body”.

The piece notes that ““The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union,” the leaders of the Anglican Communion, which represents 44 national churches, said in a statement during a meeting in Canterbury. “The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.” Although it’s too early to predict what will happen three years from now, when the Episcopal Church could vote on its response to the suspension at its denomination-wide meeting, observers say it is unlikely that the U.S. church will reverse its position on same-sex marriage. This could prompt the Anglicans to continue the suspension or make it even harsher, not allowing the Episcopal Church to fill key positions on the global body”.

The report goes on to mention “The decision in England will have little impact on Episcopalians in the pews, who have grown increasingly liberal after the 2003 consecration of the openly gay priest Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire. That action prompted dozens of U.S. churches to break off and declare their allegiance to conservative rival groups. Michael Curry, the Episcopal Church’s newly-elected presiding bishop told the other primates –top bishops from each of the national churches — that the Anglican’s sanction would be received painfully by many in the U.S. denomination”.

The piece adds “In remarks he has made available to Episcopal News Service, Curry said the Episcopal Church has a “commitment to be an inclusive church.” “I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society,” Curry, the church’s first African American presiding bishop, told the primates. “And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.” The Anglican Communion is a global family of churches that historically descended from the missionary efforts of the Church of England. Unlike the Catholic Church, Anglicans do not have a hierarchical head in a pope, but it has a leader in Canterbury that gathers church leaders together. The constituent churches, which preside over a membership of about 85 million, are self-governing”.

By way of background it mentions that “Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby announced in September that he had summoned Anglican leaders to a special meeting, seen as an attempt to stop a larger Anglican schism. A spokeswoman for Welby said he will be holding a news conference Friday. Ahead of the meetings this week, some expected the primates on the more conservative end of the church to walk out of the meetings if the Episcopal Church was not sanctioned. Like other mainline denominations, the Episcopal Church, home to U.S. presidents and the nation’s elite, has struggled to fill its pews in recent years. It has lost more than 20 percent of its members since it consecrated Robinson, and new statistics suggest that membership continues to fall, dropping 2.7 percent from 2013 to about 1.8 million U.S. members in 2014″.

Unsupuringly the author notes “The Communion has been divided globally and in the United States for years over issues from gay rights to women’s ordination to how to read the Bible. The dispute has led to multimillion-dollar lawsuits over who has the right to church properties. Episcopalians and breakaway Anglicans in Falls Churchwere embattled over tens of millions of dollars in property, a court dispute which the Episcopal Church eventually won. The suspension stipulates that the Episcopal Church can no longer represent the Anglican Communion on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee or take part in decisionmaking “on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion.” The primates on the more conservative end of the church wanted the Episcopal Church’s full withdrawal from the Communion for three years, a period during which they would not be able to be present or vote at meetings, according to a spokesperson for Archbishop Foley Beach of the Anglican Church of North America, a breakaway group of conservative churches in the U.S. The group has not been formally recognized by the Anglican Communion”.

 

Sanctions on Iran lifted

21/01/2016

The United Nations Security Council received on Saturday a report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirming Iran fulfilled commitments under a nuclear deal with world powers, triggering an automatic end to most U.N. sanctions, diplomats said. The receipt of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report by the 15-member council terminates seven previous U.N. resolutions, which are now replaced by a resolution adopted on July 20 that carries over some U.N. restrictions. In a note to council members, seen by Reuters, Uruguay’s U.N. Ambassador Elbio Rosselli, council president for January, circulated the report to members on Saturday evening. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. “This achievement demonstrates that international proliferation concerns are best addressed through dialogue and patient diplomacy,” Ban’s spokesman said in a statement. Under the July 20 resolution, Iran is now “called upon” to refrain from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons for up to eight years. Critics of the deal say the language does not make it obligatory”.

Gay marriage in Taiwan?

21/01/2016

An article notes that Taiwan could be the first in Asia to legalise gay marriage, “Austin feels lucky to be Taiwanese. A gay man, he freely enjoys Taipei’s vibrant club scene, centered around Red House, an historic theatre from the early 20th century. At night, groups of male friends parade the square and frequent its numerous gay bars before heading to a nearby club, where they dance to female K-pop bands. In many ways, Taiwan is already more free than other countries, he said. He is “not afraid someone will hurt me” because he is gay. But marriage equality for Taiwanese like Austin is not yet a reality, and proposals to legalize same-sex marriage have gained little traction in Taiwan’s legislature. The idea’s popularity is rising, however, and island-wide elections on Jan. 16 — when the more liberal Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is projected to oust the long-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) from the presidency and possibly the Legislative Yuan — could put Taiwan one step closer to becoming the first Asian nation to permit same-sex marriage”.

The article mentions “Previous attempts at marriage equality on the self-governing island have failed. First proposed in a draft amendment to human rights legislation in 2003, marriage equality was put on the table again in 2013 by DPP legislators, this time in the form of a proposal to amend Taiwan’s Civil Code. It stalled. But public support for same-sex marriage equality on this self-governing island of 23 million is on the rise. In July 2015, thousands of LGBT activistsmarched through the capital, Taipei, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, effectively legalizing it nationwide. A 2015 poll sponsored by Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice found that 71 percent of respondents favoured legalising same-sex marriage, and imminently”.

Interestingly it adds “Other initiatives in Taiwan have sought to advance same-sex partner rights. Cities across Taiwan last year began to accept civil partnership household registration for same-sex partners, and allowed same-sex couples to join in mass marriage ceremonies, though both the household registration and the marriage ceremonies do not carry legal weight. The Ministry for Health recently allowed a special interpretation of the Medical Care Act to permit same-sex couples visitation rights and to make medical decisions for each other. Support for marriage equality also runs relatively strong within the DPP. Although the party has not formally adopted a party-wide stance on the issue, many of its candidates support the current draft of same-sex marriage legislation. “A little less than [75 per cent] of all DPP legislators support the bill,” according to Michael Cole, senior editor and researcher at Thinking Taiwan, a DPP-funded nonpartisan think tank. “And the chances that it would be passed will be substantially higher if, once the new legislature opens on Feb. 1 the DPP and the third force parties have succeeded in securing a majority of seats in the Jan. 16 elections,” Cole said, using a term for third parties besides the KMT and DPP. According to a survey by Pride Watch Taiwan, an LGBT rights advocacy group, an overwhelming majority of supporters for the bill are DPP candidates. Most opponents are KMT candidates”.

The report notes that “Opposition to same-sex marriage has come from a small but vocal minority of conservative religious groups. In November 2013, when a marriage equality bill originally proposed by Cheng Li-chiun and Yu Mei-nu, both DPP legislators, first entered parliament for consideration, tens of thousands of anti-gay marriage protesters took to the streets. But those groups are quite marginal in broader Taiwanese society, Dafydd Fell, director of the Taiwan Studies Centre at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London, told Foreign Policy via email. The marriage equality question in Taiwan, as elsewhere, often splits along a generational divide. Yu, a long-time advocate of women’s and LGBT rights, told FP that supporters of the bill “are from the younger generation,” while those decision-makers over 40 or 50 years old tend to oppose it. It so happens this generational divide is deepening, for reasons that include but go well beyond the marriage equality question. Dissatisfaction with the administration of current President and KMT member Ma Ying-jeou — in particular, his mounting coziness with mainland China — culminated in the occupation of Taiwan’s parliament by students and civic activists in March and April 2014, and at least 100,000 protesters rallied in the streets, a series of events known as the Sunflower Movement. Fledgling political parties founded in its wake have focused on social justice issues such as indigenous rights, environmental protection, women’s rights, and LGBT issues. The New Power Party, established in early 2015, has rapidly risen in the polls to become Taiwan’s third most popular”.

It concludes, “Tsai’s embrace of the issue does not extend fully to the lower levels of the DPP. When the Green Party/Social Democratic Party Alliance asked all political candidates to pledge their support as sponsor or co-sponsor of a marriage equality bill during these elections, only nine KMT and 13 DPP candidates agreed; but all candidates from liberal third parties have signed the pledge, including all 11 candidates put forth by the New Power Party (NPP). That puts its passage in continued doubt, even with a DPP victory. “To pass this bill, it must have the major parties’ strong political will,” said Victoria Hsu, candidate for the Green Party-Social Democratic Party Alliance and one of the authors of the 2013 Marriage Equality Bill. Tsai’s support, at least, appears genuine. She promised support for same-sex marriage during her unsuccessful campaign in the island’s previous presidential election. In an October 2015 Facebook video, she directly expressed support for marriage equality — just in time for Taipei’s Gay Pride parade. “Everyone is equal before love,” she said. Tsai’s running mate, Chen Chien-jen, is a prominent member of the Catholic community, but in November 2015 quoted Pope Francis, saying everyone has the right to pursue happiness. “The Lord loves everyone, so he loves homosexuals,” Chen said“.

“Hopes for Delhi-Islamabad détente”

21/01/2016

Officials in India and Pakistan have agreed to re-schedule diplomatic talks which were postponed after a militant attack on an Indian air base. India accused Pakistan-based group Jaish-e-Mohammad of carrying out the assault in which seven Indian troops and six militants were killed. On Wednesday, Pakistan said it had arrested several members of the group. On Thursday, India said arrangements were being made for a meeting between foreign secretaries of both countries. Hopes for Delhi-Islamabad detente were raised in late December after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid an unexpected visit to his counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his way back from Afghanistan, and the two sides announced plans to resume peace talks. The attack has set back the peace initiative.

“Momentum is building for Bernie Sanders”

21/01/2016

An opinion piece from the Hill argues that the prospects for Hillary Clinton’s campaign look bleak, “No doubt Hillary Clinton has started the new year “feelin’ the Bern.” Momentum is building for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential race, while Clinton’s once formidable leads over the Vermont senator are rapidly deteriorating, less than three weeks before primary voting begins. To fight back, Clinton deployed her best asset, former President Bill Clinton, to campaign for her, only for GOP front-runner Donald Trump to brand him an “abuser.” Then Clinton had her pregnant daughter, Chelsea, attack Sanders for wanting to dismantle virtually every existing healthcare program and strip millions of Americans of their coverage, which isn’t true. Chelsea Clinton was criticized by the media, the Sanders campaign and President Obama’s former adviser David Axelrod”.

The author goes on to opine, “The timing couldn’t be worse. There’s yet more evidence in Clinton’s emails that classified information was mishandled while she was serving as secretary of State, and a report by Fox News states the FBI has expanded its investigation to examine possible “public corruption” resulting from the connection between her work at the Clinton Foundation and her tenure at the department. Combined, the potential legal jeopardy probably makes the prospect of losing the first two primary contests seem like much more fun. Sanders currently leads comfortably in New Hampshire, which borders his home state of Vermont. Clinton campaign officials say that’s to be expected, because he is well known there. But new polls also show a sharp decline in Clinton’s national lead as well as her lead in Iowa. One poll now even has Sanders ahead in Iowa”.

The article mentions “on the heels of another damaging email revelation — one that Bob Woodward said showed Clinton wanted to “subvert the rules” and reminded him of Watergate — Vice President Biden admitted he regrets not running (against her) “every day.” This week, he characterized Sanders as the original champion against special interests and income inequality, telling CNN the issue was “relatively new” for Clinton, and that “Hillary’s focus has been other things up to now, and that’s been Bernie’s — no one questions Bernie’s authenticity on those issues.” Biden “clarified” the following day that he meant Clinton’s recent focus was foreign policy, thanks to her background as secretary of State. Nonetheless, the slight was registered by both camps”.

Stoddard adds that worryingly for Clinton “Losses in the first two contests, and what they portend for the general election, would hurt Clinton even if she wins her party’s nomination. While she can take comfort in her solid standing in South Carolina and the other Southern states that follow, where African-American voters are likely to form a firewall against a Sanders surge, it will be other Democratic voters she will need to worry about. Young voters and independents are with Sanders by substantial margins. Because primary voters tune in often just weeks or days before voting, Sanders victories in New Hampshire and Iowa could threaten Clinton’s standing down south even if black voters stuck with her”.

The piece ends “Clinton probably finds Sanders even less likely a Democratic nominee than she thought then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was in 2008. She’s even using the same put-down for Sanders that she used for Obama: that “a magic wand” would be required to achieve possibly unrealistic goals. “I wish that we could elect a Democratic president who could wave a magic wand and say ‘We shall do this, and we shall do that.’ That ain’t the real world we’re living in!” she said Tuesday. With Sanders attracting the passion of the party, and the federal government expanding a criminal investigation into her conduct, Clinton may want to shop for her own magic wand”.

“Asked the United States to hold joint naval patrols”

19/01/2016

The Philippines has asked the United States to hold joint naval patrols, a defense ministry spokesman said on Thursday, amid a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. Foreign and defense ministers from the United States and the Philippines met in Washington this week for the second time in more than three years to discuss trade and security, focusing on the South China Sea. “We are suggesting that we also patrol the area together,” Peter Paul Galvez told reporters in Manila. “There is a need for more collaborative presence in the South China Sea.” China claims almost all the South China Sea, which is believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas, and has been building up facilities on islands it controls”.

“History is not going to look particularly kindly on his tenure”

19/01/2016

A piece discusses the last State of the Union speech given by President Obama, “However hard President Barack Obama tried on Tuesday night to convince the American people that his seven years of wartime leadership have left the country safer and stronger, I’d venture to guess that history is not going to look particularly kindly on his tenure as America’s commander-in-chief. Yes, he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden—a gutsy, important move. There was also the strike in Yemen that took out the radical al Qaeda preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki — a U.S. citizen, no less. Not an easy call by any means, and one that was almost certain to trigger controversy, not least among Obama’s progressive base. You get points for that. More broadly, especially during his first term (when re-election concerns figured prominently, a cynic might add) the president proved relentless in using drones to target jihadist leaders across the Middle East and South Asia. Indeed, when it comes to warfare by remote control, he’s authorized 10 times more strikes than George W. Bush, leaving his predecessor looking positively timid by comparison”.

The writer notes “In Afghanistan, the president announced in 2009 a surge of 30,000 troops — but in the very next sentence told the enemy that he’d withdraw them in 18 months, without reference to the situation on the ground. What successful military leader in the history of the world has ever done that? While Obama has now reversed his politically-driven commitment to remove all U.S. forces before he leaves office, he still plans to draw down to the ridiculously inadequate number of 5,500 troops — despite ample evidence, month after month, that conditions are dangerously deteriorating. The Taliban insurgency threatens more areas of the country than at any time since 2001. New al Qaeda training camps are sprouting uparound the country, including one of the largest ever — repeat, ever — covering 30 square miles, which U.S. forces only belatedly discovered and destroyed in October. What else is out there that we don’t know about? And if all that wasn’t ominous enough, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan is increasingly entrenched and rapidly expanding its capabilities”.

He goes on to argue “Libya was supposed to be the poster child for Obama’s light footprint approach to the smart deployment of American hard power. Uh, right. Deferring to French and British leadership, U.S. air power played a key role in bringing down the Gaddafi regime. Mission accomplished, or so he thought, the president abandoned the playing field as quickly as he could, declaring victory while turning his back on even the pretense of a post-conflict stabilization effort. Chaos ensued. A failed state dominated by marauding jihadists. Four U.S. government employees murdered, including the first ambassador killed in the line of duty since Jimmy Carter’s presidency. And yet again, the icing on the cake, the emergence of an ever-more powerful Islamic State affiliate, controlling territory, attacking vital oil installations, and no doubt planning as we speak to launch terror attacks into Europe — a mere hop, skip, and a jump across the Mediterranean”.

Then the writer gets to Obama’s failed legacy in the Iraq and Syria, “And then we come to Iraq and Syria. Where to begin? Do we have to? The series of sorry, sordid, ideologically-motivated missteps have been endlessly rehashed. Painful. Tragic. Unnecessary. The precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, with Obama’s absurd declaration that “we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home.” Tell it to the troops that had to march right back in 2014 to help prevent Baghdad’s collapse and re-conquer territory previously won with American blood. Then there’s the bizarre, almost surreal retreat from enforcement of the Syria red line. After Obama publicly pledged that Assad’s punishment for gassing his own people would amount to nothing more than “a shot across the bow,” and John Kerry assured the world that any strike would be “unbelievably small,” it didn’t seem like the mangling of American credibility could get any worse. But oh, it did. Paging Vladimir Putin! Then there’s the war against the Islamic State, itself. We will defeat them. No, wait. We will destroy them. But rest assured that we will never put troops on the ground. Ah, yes, the Obama way of war: don’t proceed without first spelling out to the enemy — as well as prospective allies that you hope to enlist in the fight — all the capabilities that you will never bring to bear to achieve victory. Eighteen months later, the war drags on. The enemy metastasizes across multiple countries and continents. A global jihadist insurgency gathers on the horizon. For the first time in four decades, Russian power has returned to the Middle East with a vengeance. Europe strains to the breaking point under the weight of its worst refugee crisis since World War II”.

Correctly he argues that “With the world coming apart at the seams, with U.S. leadership and credibility in a slow death spiral, with adversaries across the threat spectrum increasingly coming to the conclusion that it is open season on Pax Americana, it’s hard to think of a worse time to be hollowing out the instrument of American power that has underwritten global stability and prosperity for 70 years”.

Obama’s correct but endless proclamation of the myth of American decline have done nothing to stop Russian actions, or Saudi fears, or Chinese actions into believing that maybe he protests too much.

The piece ends “Obama has never worn the garb of commander-in-chief comfortably. He’s led a nation at war, often in multiple theaters, for his entire presidency. One of those — the war against the Islamic State — he launched himself. Yet can anyone recall a single speech, even a single memorable line, delivered with the purpose of galvanizing the troops, much less the nation, to sustain the level of sacrifice, commitment, and leadership necessary for victory? That’s no accident. Just think of the catch phrases and concepts that are most associated with Obama’s national security doctrine: Time to focus on nation building at home. Leading from behind. Don’t do stupid shit. Hitting singles and doubles. Ending wars by withdrawing from them. The list goes on. But no assessment of Obama’s performance as commander-in-chief is more damning than the one offered by his own Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, in his 2014 memoir, Duty. Discussing the president’s leadership of the war in Afghanistan, Gates writes that by early 2010 he had concluded that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” Despite having just months earlier ordered an additional 30,000 troops into combat, Gates is astonished to find that the president harbored fundamental doubts about his strategy, claiming that Obama was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail.” Gates is particularly confounded by what he sees as the President’s lack of passion as a wartime leader who was responsible for maintaining the morale of his troops and their faith in the mission”.

Fanning withdraws over Gitmo

19/01/2016

Eric Fanning has waited four months for the Senate Armed Services Committee to formally consider his nomination to be President Barack Obama’s next secretary of the Army. On Monday, with no hearing in sight, Fanning threw in the towel. Fanning had been serving as the Army’s top civilian official on an acting basis, but the Pentagon said he would be stepping down from his position until he gets a confirmation hearing — a move that could be months away. With no signs that Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) plans to hold that type of session anytime soon, it’s possible that Fanning will never get his day on Capitol Hill. Fanning is hardly an unknown player, having already held several high-level Pentagon jobs, including a brief stint as Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s chief of staff earlier last year. His confirmation would also make him the first openly gay leader of a military service. His problems stem, in part, from Guantánamo Bay. Republicans in Congress are furious over Obama’s plans to use his executive authority to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility by the end of his term — and transfer dozens of detainees to prisons in the United States — and blocking nominees is one way to show their displeasure”.

Remaking the Saudi state?

17/01/2016

A report from the Economist discusses the radical changes planned in Saudi Arabia in the Deputy Crown Prince Muhammd bin Salman, “THE Al Sauds once again hold court in Diriya, their ancestral capital that was laid waste by the Ottoman empire and is being lovingly restored as a national tourist attraction. This is where the Al Sauds forged their alliance in the 18th century with a Muslim revivalist preacher, Muhammad Ibn Abdel-Wahhab—a pact that to this day fuses the modern Saudi state with the puritanism of Wahhabi Islam. And this is where Muhammad bin Salman, the 30-year-old deputy crown prince who is the power behind the throne of his elderly father, King Salman, receives foreign guests in a walled complex. One side of his reception room is decorated with the spears, swords and daggers of tradition. The other is dominated by a large television, showing the casual horrors of the Middle East and the repercussions of his own actions play out on rolling news: the execution of a prominent Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, (and 46 others accused of terrorism and sedition, mostly linked to al-Qaeda jihadists) led to a mob ransacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran and, in retaliation, to the kingdom severing diplomatic relations with Iran”.

The report goes on to mention “Talking late into the night with the news left on throughout, Prince Muhammad discusses his country’s interventionist foreign policy and its uncompromising response to terrorism and sedition. Asked whether the kingdom’s actions were stoking regional tensions, he said that things were already so bad they could scarcely get any worse. “We try as hard as we can not to escalate anything further,” he says; and he certainly does not expect war. But for his entourage, Saudi Arabia has no choice but to stop Iran from trying to carve out a new Persian empire”.

The article notes that “If his defence of Saudi foreign policy was unrepentant, even more striking was his ambition to remake the entire Saudi state by harnessing the power of markets. No economic reform is taboo, say his officials: not the shedding of do-nothing public-sector workers, not the abolition of subsidies that Saudis have come to see as their birthright, not the privatisation of basic services such as education and health care. And not even the sale of shares in the crown jewel: Saudi Aramco, the secretive national oil and gas producer that is the world’s biggest company”.

The writer continues, “At 80, the newish King Salman is part of the same gerontocracy that has run the country for decades. But he has entrusted much of his realm to Prince Muhammad, who is in a hurry to awaken it from its torpor. He knows that, for all its ostentatious luxury, the country faces huge problems. The oil price has plunged. Arab states all around have collapsed. In the vacuum, Iran, the Shia power that has long alarmed Sunni Arabs, has spread its influence across the region, particularly through the militias it grooms—in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and most recently in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s underbelly. The Arab world is confronted not just by a Shia Crescent, “but by a Shia full moon”, says one confidant of the prince. As well as Shia militants, Saudi Arabia also faces resurgent Sunni jihadists: a revived al-Qaeda in Yemen to the south, and Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria to the north. Both seek to lure young Saudis raised on the same textbooks and homilies that the jihadists use. The Al Sauds have survived by making three compacts: with the Wahhabis to burnish their Islamic credentials as the custodians of the holy places of Mecca and Medina; with the population by providing munificence in exchange for acquiescence to absolutist rule; and with America to defend Saudi Arabia in exchange for stability in oil markets”.

Interestingly the piece mentions “Yet he knows that change must come, and fast. He has injected new energy into government, and is taking huge gambles. What he lacks in experience and foreign travel, he compensates for with confidence, focus and a battery of consultants’ reports. He reels off numbers and policies with ease, pausing only to take a call from John Kerry, America’s secretary of state. He speaks in the first person, as if he were already king even though he is only second in line. Over five hours King Salman is mentioned once; his cousin, the crown prince, Muhammad bin Nayef, does not figure at all, though he is in charge of internal security and may be biding his time”.

The writer goes on to mention that “Such is Prince Muhammad’s frenetic activity that officials reel and outsiders regard him as a bullock in a china shop. Just weeks after his father made him defence minister, fighter jets from Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s richest state, led a coalition into action against the Houthi militias of its poorest, Yemen. To critics who say he was rash to intervene in a land that has bloodied foreign armies before, Prince Muhammad says the action, if anything, came too late: the Shia Houthis, with Iran’s help, had taken the country and sophisticated weapons, such as jets and Scud missiles. Scuds are occasionally fired at Saudi targets; thousands of Saudis living near Yemen have been evacuated to avoid rockets and artillery fire. In Syria he plans to send special forces against IS”.

Crucially he author adds “Prince Muhammad’s most dramatic moves may be at home. He seems determined to use the collapse in the price of oil, from $115 a barrel in 2014 to below $35, to enact radical economic reforms. This begins with fiscal retrenchment. Even after initial budget cuts last year, Saudi Arabia recorded a whopping budget deficit of 15% of GDP. Its pile of foreign reserves has fallen by $100 billion, to $650 billion. Even with its minimal debt of 5% of GDP, Saudi Arabia’s public finances are unsustainable for more than a few years. His budget, unveiled in December, cuts subsidies on water, electricity and fuel. These were aimed mostly at big consumers, including the myriad royal princes. “I don’t deserve these subsidies,” he says. Even so, Saudis witnessed the rare sight of people queuing to buy petrol before the prices rose by 50% on January 1st. This month Saudis accustomed to leaving on the air-conditioner when going on holiday will receive dearer electricity and water bills. Within five years, the plan is that Saudis should be paying market prices, probably with compensation in the form of direct payments for poorer citizens. Ministries have halted expenditure on cars, furniture and showcase projects. The government is scrutinising allowances and overtime claims to save money. Soon Saudis will for the first time pay value-added tax of 5% on non-essentials, in a move co-ordinated with other members of the six-country Gulf Co-operation Council. Prince Muhammad is adamant that there will be no income or wealth taxes, but he plans to balance the budget in five years”.

Importantly it notes that “Under his “Transformation Plan 2020”, set for publication by the end of the month, the prince wants to develop alternatives to oil and drastically to cut the public payroll, which acts as a form of unemployment benefit. To do so he wants to create jobs for a workforce that will double by 2030. Ministers speak of doubling private education to cover 30% of students, establishing charter schools and transforming public health care into an insurance-based system with expanded private provision. In addition to Aramco, the prince wants to sell stakes in state assets from telecoms to power stations and the national airline. The government is to sell land to developers, such as the 4m square metres it owns around Mecca, the most expensive real estate in the world. The prince sees huge promise in developing Islamic tourism to the holy sites; he hopes to boost the 18m annual visitors to 35m-45m in five years. Sceptics abound. Reform has long been talked about but never implemented. Prince Muhammad’s ministers are astute, have PhDs from Western universities and speak the jargon of key performance indicators, but much of the government is deadweight. Even the unemployment figures are subject to doubt. “Few bits of the bureaucracy actually function at a high level,” says a Western diplomat. Even senior advisers question the kingdom’s capacity to find and absorb the trillions of dollars on which the plan is predicated”.

The piece presents problems when it mentions that “In Jeddah, the commercial capital on the Red Sea, some businessmen remain sceptical, and speak more of exporting their wealth than investing it in the country. There is also suspicion of hidden motives. With each new elderly monarch, they say, favoured sons have indulged in self-aggrandisement, leaving courtiers to disguise their acquisitions as privatisations and economic reforms. Media reports of Prince Muhammad’s lavish parties in the Maldives and the crown prince’s house-hunting for a Sardinian villa worth half a billion euros are fodder for social media, of which Saudis are keen users. As the man who ultimately controls the Public Investment Fund, the destination for many assets to be sold, and who has taken direct oversight of Aramco, the prince is already the subject of some muttering. What is true is that, for all his talk of transparency, his government continues to treat royal and state expenses as one and same; the royal component is a state secret”.

The political ramifications for this are noted when “A bigger challenge for the reformers is the fact that the prince’s dizzying changes amount to, in effect, a rewriting of the Saudi social contract. Why, mutter some Saudis, should we tighten our belts when the princes continue to enjoy untold riches? And for all his boldness in economic matters, he remains obtuse when it comes to political liberalisation that might help secure consent for the economic revolution. A tiny number of women have recently campaigned for and won seats in municipal elections, under changes brought in by the late King Abdullah; who more than a decade ago had promised Saudis “true democracy” in 20 years. It is nowhere in sight”.

Further to this the plan to transform the country come across internal problems, “In a country where concerts, public movies and female performances are banned, the prince talks of the “entertainment crisis”, and about his own children lacking things to do. Here and there, he seems ready to try to loosen the grip of the clerics. His latest education minister, Ahmed al-Eissa, is an academic whose book on the dreadful state of Saudi schools, which he blames in part on the restrictions placed by “religious culture”, remains banned in the kingdom. Private schools, still barred from teaching evolution, would have a freer hand to set their curriculum and choose pedagogic materials beyond those designed by the clerics”.

It ends noting the importance of the United States, “for a Saudi royal with no Western education, Prince Muhammad speaks about America passionately. “The United States has to realise that they are the Number One in the world, and they have to act like it,” he says; the sooner America steps back into the region—even with boots on the ground—the better. Prince Muhammad’s schemes do not appear to be inspired by ideology. Many of the ideas he is pursuing have lurked in ministers’ drawers for years. Others follow examples from elsewhere, be it charter schools in America, public-private partnerships in Britain or the abolition of fuel subsidies in Egypt (and Iran). Instead they are born of necessity. The conjunction of a fall in oil prices, a geopolitical crisis and a hyperactive prince afford a once-in-a-generation chance to modernise the country. The Arab spring has shown time and again that post-colonial Arab states are singularly dysfunctional (see page 41). That raises serious doubts about Saudi Arabia’s ability to reform. But the regime has little choice: its survival may depend on it”.

 

“Oil fell briefly below the widely watched $30-per-barrel”

17/01/2016

“Oil fell briefly below the widely watched $30-per-barrel level on Tuesday, extending a selloff that has sliced almost 20 percent off prices this year amid deepening concerns about fragile Chinese demand and the absence of output restraint. Prices settled down 3 percent, a seventh straight daily decline for oil. Traders have all but given up attempting to predict where the new-year rout will end, with momentum-driven dealing and overwhelmingly bearish sentiment engulfing the market. Some analysts warned of $20 a barrel; Standard Chartered said fund selling may not relent until it reaches $10. By Tuesday, the crash had become almost self-fulfilling, with speculators too afraid to buy for fear of being burned by another false bottom”.

“Circuit breakers have introduced wrenching anxiety”

17/01/2016

A piece in Foreign Policy notes how the Chinese stock market short circuited, “It was an embarrassing about-face for Chinese securities regulators. Just days after introducing “circuit breaker” policies on Jan. 4 — which paused stock markets for 15 minutes on a five percent drop and shut them down for the day on a seven percent drop — Beijing announced Jan. 7 that it would suspend the new rules, effective immediately. The circuit breakers had been intended to stem market panic. But Beijing’s latest move did precisely the reverse; on both Jan. 4 and Jan. 7, stocks experienced a rout, with trading halted on Jan. 7, a Thursday, just 29 minutes after it had begun. Chinese netizens are again calling for the ouster of top securities regulator Xiao Gang, a man they have loved to hate since at least July 2015, and making fun of the circuit breaker policy”.

He adds “How did the policy backfire so badly? Call it human nature. By pausing during a trading rout, the logic goes, circuit breakers enable investors to re-focus on the actual value of what they’re trading, instead of looking over their shoulders at what everyone else is doing. (And any trading algorithms run amok can be corrected before bringing down the whole system.) But something else happened: When the self-interested calculations of reasonable, individual investors clashed with Beijing’s efforts to regulate China’s volatile stock market into submission, the individuals won. And Chinese policymakers, who won a reputation for competence as economic stewards during the nation’s quarter century of torrid growth, suffered yet another black eye”.

Correctly he goes onto mention that “Chinese stocks have sustained massive losses in rent months, particularly over the summer of 2015, before embarking on a mild rally in late 2015. But on Jan. 4, the first on which circuit breakers were introduced — surely in the hopes their mere presence would deter big drops, obviating the need to enact them — stocks plummeted, triggering the dreaded circuit breaker. Markets closed early, and traders went home without knowing just how far stocks would have fallen if given the chance. The next two days were calmer, but the anxiety remained. On top of stock market losses, the value of the renminbi (RMB), China’s currency, had been falling in offshore trading. That development depresses the value of all assets denominated in RMB, and incentivizes people to sell them off before the RMB drops further”.

The scale of what had happened is revealed when he notes that “On the fateful morning of Jan. 7, a randomly selected trader of Chinese stocks could be forgiven for not knowing what stocks were actually worth. Large shareholders in China are banned from selling their positions; circuit breakers mean many stocks have not had a chance to fall so low that they look like a good deal to buyers. The bottom, in other words, was hard to glimpse. As soon as markets opened on, Jan. 7, traders went looking for it. In offshore trading, the RMB had already depreciated around one percent by the time stock markets opened (although authorities later intervened to reverse the drop). Stocks quickly plummeted, and the first switch on the circuit breaker, which requires a 15 minute “cool down” after a five percent loss, was ripe to be triggered. A seven percent drop closing the entire day’s trading could not have felt far off”.

He notes that what happened was that “a surge of people racing for a single, closing exit door. Not everyone was going to get through; not all sellers were going to find buyers. To entice a buyer, a reasonable trader would have priced his or her sell order for a stock even lower than its last trade price. After all, everyone thought they knew the markets would fall further. Some got out in time; some did not. But the psychology behind the mad rush to sell before circuit breakers kicked in explains precisely why they haven’t worked. Chinese securities regulators hoped to stem market panics by limiting losses in any given day, letting cooler heads prevail. Instead, the circuit breakers have introduced wrenching anxiety into Chinese stock markets, compressing the time frame in which traders feel they can cash out, and leaving everyone wondering — still — where the bottom truly lies”.

 

Assad’s exit strategy?

15/01/2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that it would be too early to speak about granting political asylum to Syrian President Bashar Assad, a Putin ally and arguably the main obstacle in the Syrian peace process. Russia began carrying out air strikes on the positions of Islamic State fighters in September in support of Assad’s army which critics say are aimed against Assad’s opponents. Russia, the United States, Middle East nations are promoting talks between the Syrian government and opposition, and Assad has been seen as a highly divisive figure. Putin said in an interview with the German daily Bild published on Tuesday that Moscow is advocating for a constitutional reform in Syria and if the next election is democratic, “Assad won’t have to go anywhere, no matter if he is elected president or not.” While Putin refused to speculate on a possible Moscow’s role in helping to remove Assad, he indicated that it would not be too difficult for Moscow to do”.

Taiwan moves away from China

15/01/2016

An important article discusses the historic election in Taiwan to take place tomorrow, “The day after the unprecedented November summit between the leaders of China and Taiwan, the Facebook page of Tsai Ing-wen, the front-runner in the upcoming Taiwanese presidential election, was flooded with some 70,000 messages. The majority of them were written in the simplified Chinese characters used only on mainland China, and they demanded that Taiwan reunify with the rest of the country. Given that Facebook is banned in mainland China, this campaign had a rigged feel to it, another of the efforts — direct and indirect, menacing and gentle — that Beijing has made over the years to lure Taiwan back into the fold of the motherland. The willingness of Chinese President Xi Jinping to meet with his Taiwanese counterpart, President Ma Ying-jeou, was on the gentler side of the spectrum, a promise of peace and harmony if only Taiwan does not go its separate way”.

The report mentions “Taiwan’s presidential election campaign has indicated that none of the approaches to its Taiwan problem appear to be getting China to its goal. A foreign-educated, policy-wonkish former senior bureaucrat, Tsai is the candidate who embodies the notion of a separate Taiwan, and she remains so far ahead in the polls that her victory is almost a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the question isn’t so much whether the 59-year-old Tsai will win the Jan. 16 election, but whether her election will signify a failure of China’s reunification policy. In other words, whether a Tsai victory means that the one-China idea, with regards to Taiwan, is dead. Yes, Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland has not been the only thing on voters’ minds. A widening income gap, a sense of diminished opportunities for young people, and disarray in the ranks of the incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) are other factors”.

Importantly it notes “the existential question for Taiwan is always whether to promote integration with the giant across the Taiwan Strait, or to keep a certain distance, and Tsai represents the option of distance. She is the nominee of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favours ultimate independence: Its governing charter opens with a call for “the establishment of an independent sovereignty known as the Republic of Taiwan.” This does not mean that the DPP would attempt to establish such a sovereignty. But the election campaign is taking place after eight years of a tremendous joint effort, fostered by the outgoing KMT president, to persuade Taiwan of the benefits of ever closer and more elaborate ties with the mainland. Tsai’s election would represent a conviction that integration has gone too far, too fast; that Taiwan has gotten too close to the authoritarian, controlling, and often bullying giant across the strait; and that this closeness poses a danger to Taiwan’s treasured sense of de facto independence”.

This is a clear advantage for the United States. While the US should not overly antagonise China, it should be ready to use Taiwan as a sign that it is not prepared to tolerate its aggression in the South China Sea or elsewhere. One clear way of doing this is weapons sales to the island.

The closer relationship is noted when “Under Ma (who, having served two terms, cannot run for a third), China and Taiwan have signed more than 20 agreements expanding trade and investment, tourism, student exchanges, and direct flights. Trade jumped to almost $200 billion a year — from roughly $18 billion in 2000 — and China now buys some 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports. This has had a remarkable effect, exponentially multiplying contacts between the two sides while reducing the chance that Taiwan could be a flashpoint for conflict in Asia — a particular worry in Washington, because the United States would be obliged to intervene if China launched an armed strike on Taiwan”.

Yet the fact that many in Taiwan think links with China have gone too far show that greater trade links do not automatically translate into a reduction in tensions as was seen by Chinese actions on the new president’s facebook page.

The piece goes on to mention “the very speed and amplitude of this cross-strait development generated a startling backlash in Taiwan, expressed by the 2014 Sunflower Movement — when huge student-led demonstrations forced Taipei to shelve a major trade deal. The hundreds of thousands of protesters feared that the Goliath on the mainland was being given too much economic power over the Taiwanese David. “Protect Democracy: Never Give Up” read one common poster. Others depicted Ma as “Ma Zedong,” likening him to China’s Mao Zedong. His approval rating had fallen to 9 percent and stayed there”.

Interestingly the writer argues that “There is a risk here in overstating the difference between Tsai’s DPP and the KMT. In fact, on the most basic question of dealing with the mainland — independence or reunification — both parties have long observed a kind of double restraint: neither independence nor reunification, but an indefinite perpetuation of the status quo. The KMT is known as the pro-Beijing party, meaning that it opposes independence as a matter of principle, favours reunification as an eventual goal, and believes more economic integration will stave off future conflict. But the party’s leaders acknowledge that formal reunification is impossible for the foreseeable future”.

The author notes that the new president is cautious, “there’s not much radicalism or impetuosity in her curriculum vitae. She’s a graduate of Taiwan National University’s College of Law, has a master’s degree in law from Cornell, and a Ph.D., also in law, from the London School of Economics, where she wrote a dissertation on international trade law. As Time pointed out in its June profile, she was abroad during the protest movement of the late 1970s that gave birth to the DPP. Back then, Taiwan was a repressive one-party state, and many of its future leaders were bloodied and imprisoned. Tsai only joined in 2004 after a nonpartisan technocratic career in several posts. She was a KMT appointee to Taiwan’s Fair Trade Commission, the island’s chief economic regulatory agency; in 2000 Chen named her to the very visible post of minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which carries out the day-to-day work of dealing with China”.

He adds “Tsai was promoted to be the head of the DPP in 2008 after a scandal badly tarnished it — the outgoing president, Chen, was imprisoned for bribery — and the party’s leaders were looking for a fresh, untainted face. She ran for mayor of Taipei in 2010 and lost, to Eric Chu, who is her KMT rival in the upcoming election. She ran for president against Ma two years later and lost again, narrowly. But Ma’s approval ratings have stayed low, and the KMT’s nominee in the upcoming election, Hung Hsiu-chu, was performing so poorly in the polls that in October the party, in a highly public gesture of desperation, ditched her in favour of Chu”.

Pointedly he notes if she does win “her election would further a trend toward permanent separation that began long before she was born. Ever since the island became a Japanese colonial possession in 1895, Taiwan has been under mainland rule for a grand total of four years: the period between the 1945 defeat of Japan in World War II and the Communist takeover of China in 1949. That year, the KMT government and several million mainland refugees arrived on Taiwan and created what they called “Free China” — even though for a quarter century it was a repressive one-party state that, like its bitter Communist enemy, rigorously stamped out any pro-independence sentiment”.

He concludes “Similarly after Ma’s unprecedented November meeting in Singapore with Xi, Tsai was unsparing in her criticism, using the occasion to evoke the danger of Chinese coercion. “We expected him,” she said of Ma, “to note Taiwan’s democracy, Taiwan’s freedom, the existence of the Republic of China, and most importantly, the rights Taiwanese have to decide their future freely. However, he did not mention any of those.” At around the same time, Tsai replied to those 70,000 pro-unification Facebook messages by making essentially the same point. “I hope this rare new experience can let the ‘new friend’ see a more complete democracy, freedom, and pluralism of Taiwan,” she wrote. On Jan. 16, the Taiwanese will show that they have the right to decide their future. And if Tsai emerges victorious, Beijing’s strenuous effort to win Taiwan’s population to the side of a unified China will have suffered a striking defeat”.

 

“Removed the core of its plutonium reactor and filled it with concrete”

15/01/2016

Iran removed the core of its plutonium reactor and filled it with concrete Monday, paving the way for economic and financial sanctions to be lifted soon. The work that effectively rendered the reactor at Arak harmless was the last major hurdle for Iran to fulfill its commitments under a landmark deal reached just shy of six months ago in Vienna. The International Atomic Energy Agency must verify that everything was done satisfactorily before U.S. and international sanctions can be lifted. But that is expected to take days, not weeks. “In a few days, we will see the end of the cruel sanctions against Iran,” President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech in southern Iran. “When sanctions end, I will explain to people how great of an accomplishment this is.” The lifting of sanctions will unlock Iran’s access to about $100 billion in its own assets that has been frozen in foreign banks. The United States and the United Nations have prepared the legal steps necessary for sanctions relief to take effect. That should give Rouhani a significant political boost before parliamentary elections in late February. He won election in 2013 promising to end sanctions that have undercut the economy. He returned to that theme in his speech Monday, when he predicted the upcoming new year, which is marked in Iran in March, would be a one of “economic revival” despite oil prices slumping to an 11-year low”.

Saudi fears of Iran, overproduction and Obama

15/01/2016

A report in Foreign Policy discusses the fear felt by many in the House of Saud, “The true surprise about the Saudi-Iranian contretemps over the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is that it caught so many people off guard in the first place. Anyone paying attention to Saudi Arabia knew that something like this was a long time coming. Unfortunately, not enough people were paying attention until it was too late. It’s impossible to understand the current situation without delving into Saudi politics and foreign policy. But it’s equally important to be honest about the limits of our knowledge. Very much like the Islamic Republic of Iran, it’s very difficult for anyone outside the highest reaches of government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to really understand its fears and strategies”.

The writer argues that “it’s clear that Saudi policy has to be understood as an interweaving of Saudi internal and external interests, and right now those interests are overwhelmingly about fear. The external threats it seems to see are easier for Americans to recognise than the internal ones. But what we often miss is how the Saudis see external issues affecting their internal circumstances and creating domestic threats they find far more frightening than the external threat on its own. At the broadest level, when the Saudis in Riyadh look at the Middle East around them, they see a region spiraling out of control. Since 2011, they have witnessed a massive increase in general instability across the region”.

The writer notes that civil wars, terrorism and refugees have turned a placid region into one wrecked by chaos, “Indeed, both the civil wars and the spillover they generate have also produced a general mobilization of the Middle East’s Shiites, instigated and led by Iran. And that includes the Shiites in the Saudi kingdom. Officials in private and press reports occasionally note that hundreds of Saudi security service personnel have been killed and wounded in operations in the Eastern Province, the home to the vast majority of the kingdom’s Shiites. Americans tend not to pay attention to these operations because we see them as proof that the Saudis have things well in hand; but another way to look at it is that the Saudis are fighting pitched battles with someone in the cities of the Eastern Province. In other words, there seems to be a much higher degree of mobilization and violent confrontation among the Saudi Shiites than most realize”.

Implausibly he argues “Then there are Saudi fears about the oil market. Everyone seems to believe that the Saudis are purposely not cutting back production to kill off North American shale producers. But that is absolutely not what the Saudis are saying, either in private or public. Instead, they are saying that they can no longer control the oil market because there are too many other sources and all of the OPEC countries cheat like crazy whenever Riyadh tries to orchestrate a production cut. This has happened to them repeatedly over the past 20 to 30 years. They try to cut production to prevent oil prices from dropping, and the rest of OPEC takes advantage of it to pump as much as they can, contrary to what they promised and agreed to. The result is that there is no overall supply curtailment and the Saudis lose market share. This time around, they have stated that they cannot realistically control the OPEC oil supply, so they are not going to try to do so. Instead, they are going to fight for market share. But doing so means having to win a race to the bottom, with the result that their oil revenues are plummeting”.

Correctly he writes “the region’s civil wars have the Saudis so frightened that they have intervened in unprecedented ways. They have poured tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars into Syria and Yemen and to a lesser extent Iraq and Libya. They are pouring tens of billions more into Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and Bahrain to shore up their governments, prevent state collapse under the strain of the spillover from neighbouring civil wars, and thus prevent more civil wars on their own borders. But these increased foreign-policy costs coupled with reduced oil revenues have forced the Saudis to draw from their sovereign wealth fund at a rate of $12 to 14 billion per month — a pace that will wipe out those reserves in less than three years, but is likely to cause severe domestic political problems (including dissension within the royal family) long before”.

He ends noting “the Saudis feel frustrated and abandoned by the United States. Many Saudis and other Gulf Arabs consider President Barack Obama deeply ignorant, if not outright foolish, about the world and the Middle East. They evince out-and-out contempt for him and his policies. From their perspective, the United States has turned its back on its traditional allies in the Middle East. Washington is doing the least it can in Iraq, and effectively nothing in Libya and Syria, with the result that none of those conflicts is getting better. If anything, they are actually getting worse. Moreover, Saudi Arabia seems to differ over whether Obama is using the new nuclear deal with Tehran to deliberately try to shift the United States from the Saudi side to the Iranian side in the grand, regional struggle or if he is allowing it to happen unintentionally. The more charitable Saudi position is the former, because that suggests that Obama at least understands what he is doing, even if they think it a mistake and a betrayal. The latter view, for Saudis, sees him as a virtual imbecile who is destroying the Middle East without any understanding or recognition”.

For those who have argued that the Saudi’s have no where else to go during Obama’s term he argues “The depth of Saudi anger and contempt for the current American leadership is important to understand because it is another critical element of their worldview and policies, as best we can understand them. With the Middle East coming apart at the seams (in Saudi Arabia’s view), the United States — the traditional regional hegemon — is doing nothing to stop it and even encouraging Iran to widen the fissures. Since the United States can’t or won’t do anything, someone else has to, and that someone can only be Saudi Arabia. The dramatic increase in Riyadh’s willingness to intervene abroad, with both financial and military power, has been driven by its sense that dramatic action is required to prevent the region from melting down altogether and taking the kingdom down with it”.

He ends “the Saudis are scared of the rising tide of popular mobilization and Shiite mobilization; they are scared by their loss of control over the oil market and what that is forcing them to do domestically; they are scared by the spillover from the region’s civil wars and the costs that they are being forced to bear to try to prevent that spillover from affecting them; and they are scared that we are abandoning them for Iran”.

“To resurrect a stalled Afghan peace process”

15/01/2016

Delegates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States held talks on Monday to resurrect a stalled Afghan peace process and end nearly 15 years of bloodshed, even as fighting with Taliban insurgents intensifies. Senior officials from the four countries are meeting in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, to launch a process they hope will lead to negotiations with Taliban insurgents, who are fighting to re-impose their strict brand of Islamist rule and are not expected at Monday’s talks. The Pakistani prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, opened the meeting, saying the primary goal should be to convince the Taliban to come to the table and consider giving up violence. “It is therefore important that preconditions are not attached to the start of the negotiation process. This, we argue, will be counterproductive,” he said. “The threat of use of military action against irreconcilables cannot precede the offer of talks to all the groups.” Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry were joined by Richard Olson, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and General Anthony Rock, the top U.S. defense representative in Pakistan, as well as China’s special envoy on Afghanistan affairs, Deng Xijun”.

Brazil’s myriad problems

13/01/2016

A report in the Economist discusses the mounting economic problems of Brazil, “THE longest recession in a century; the biggest bribery scandal in history; the most unpopular leader in living memory. These are not the sort of records Brazil was hoping to set in 2016, the year in which Rio de Janeiro hosts South America’s first-ever Olympic games. When the games were awarded to Brazil in 2009 Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, then president and in his pomp, pointed proudly to the ease with which a booming Brazil had weathered the global financial crisis. Now Lula’s handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, who began her second term in January 2015, presides over an unprecedented roster of calamities”.

The author mentions that “By the end of 2016 Brazil’s economy may be 8% smaller than it was in the first quarter of 2014, when it last saw growth; GDP per person could be down by a fifth since its peak in 2010, which is not as bad as the situation in Greece, but not far off. Two ratings agencies have demoted Brazilian debt to junk status. Joaquim Levy, who was appointed as finance minister last January with a mandate to cut the deficit, quit in December. Any country where it is hard to tell the difference between the inflation rate—which has edged into double digits—and the president’s approval rating—currently 12%, having dipped into single figures—has serious problems”.

The report adds “Ms Rousseff’s political woes are as crippling as her economic ones. Thirty-two sitting members of Congress, mostly from the coalition led by her left-wing Workers’ Party (PT), are under investigation for accepting billions of dollars in bribes in exchange for padded contracts with the state-controlled oil-and-gas company, Petrobras. On December 15th the police raided several offices of the Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), a partner in Ms Rousseff’s coalition led by the vice-president, Michel Temer”.

Worryingly for the future stability of the country it mentions “Brazil’s electoral tribunal is investigating whether to annul Ms Rousseff’s re-election in 2014 over dodgy campaign donations. In December members of Congress began debating her impeachment. The proceedings were launched by the speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha (who though part of the PMDB considers himself in opposition) on the grounds that Ms Rousseff tampered with public accounts to hide the true size of the budgetary hole. Some see the impeachment as a way to divert attention from Mr Cunha’s own problems; Brazil’s chief prosecutor wants him stripped of his privileged position so that his role in the Petrobras affair can be investigated more freely. Mr Cunha denies any wrongdoing”.

The piece argues that both external and internal factors have come together, “Now prices of Brazilian commodities such as oil, iron ore and soya have slumped: a Brazilian commodities index compiled by Credit Suisse, a bank, has fallen by 41% since its peak in 2011. The commodities bust has hit economies around the world, but Brazil has fared particularly badly, with its structural weaknesses—poor productivity and unaffordable, misdirected public spending—exacerbating the damage. Regardless of what she may or may not have done with respect to the impeachment charge, Ms Rousseff’s cardinal sin is her failure to have confronted these problems in her previous term, when she had some political room for manoeuvre. Instead, that term was marked by loose fiscal and monetary policies, incessant microeconomic meddling and fickle policymaking that bloated the budget, stoked inflation and sapped confidence. Poor though her record has been, some of these problems have deeper roots in what is in some ways a great achievement: the federal constitution of 1988, which enshrined the transition from military to democratic rule. This 70,000-word doorstop of a document crams in as many social, political and economic rights as its drafters could dream up, some of them highly specific: a 44-hour working week; a retirement age of 65 for men and 60 for women. The “purchasing power” of benefits “shall be preserved”, it proclaims, creating a powerful ratchet on public spending”.

Pointedly it writes “Since the constitution’s enactment, federal outlays have nearly doubled to 18% of GDP; total public spending is over 40%. Some 90% of the federal budget is ring-fenced either by the constitution or by legislation. Constitutionally protected pensions alone now swallow 11.6% of GDP, a higher proportion than in Japan, whose citizens are a great deal older”.

The scale of the problem is seen when the author notes “Analysts at Barclays, a bank, expect debt to reach 93% of GDP by 2019; among big emerging markets only Ukraine and Hungary are more indebted. The figure may still seem on the safe side compared with 197% in Greece or 246% in Japan. But those are rich countries; Brazil is not. As a proportion of its wealth Brazil’s public debt is higher than that of Japan and nearly twice that of Greece. Unable to increase taxes, Ms Rousseff’s government may prefer something even more troubling to investors and consumers alike: inflation. Faced with the inflationary pressure that has come with the devalued real, the Central Bank has held its nerve, increasing its benchmark rate by three percentage points since October 2014 and keeping it at 14.25% since July in the face of the recession. But despite this juicy rate the real continues to depreciate”.

The article calls for harsh cuts, a policy that seems to not have worked, or at least worked at the expense of all other measures, “These efforts are meeting with some success: in December pro-government rallies drew more people than anti-government ones for the first time all year. It looks unlikely that the impeachment will indeed move to the Senate (which would trigger a further six months of turmoil). But this hardly provides a political climate conducive to belt-tightening, let alone to the amendment of the constitution which Mr Barbosa has said is needed to deal with the ratchet effect on benefits. Fiscal adjustment is anathema to the government workers and union members who are Ms Rousseff’s core supporters. Like the country’s economic problems, its political ones, while specific to today’s particular scandals and manoeuvring, can be traced to the transition of the 1980s. History reveals a consistent tendency towards negotiated consensus at Brazil’s political watersheds; it can be seen in the war- and regicide-free independence declared in 1822, the military coup of 1964, which was mild compared with the blood-soaked affairs in Chile and Argentina, and the transition that created the new constitution. One aspect of this often admirable trait is a resistance to purging. The mid-1980s saw a lot of institutions—the federal police, the public prosecutor’s office, the judiciary, assorted regulators—overhauled or created afresh. But many of the old regime kept their jobs in the civil service and elsewhere. The transition was thus bound to be a generational affair”.

It adds “In 2013 the average judge was 45 years old, meaning he entered university in a democratic Brazil. Civil servants are getting younger and better qualified, says Gleisson Rubin, who heads the National School of Public Administration. More than a quarter now boast a postgraduate degree, up from a tenth in 2002. Sérgio Moro, the crusading 43-year-old federal judge who oversees the Petrobras investigations, and Deltan Dallagnol, the case’s 35-year-old lead prosecutor, are the most famous faces of this new generation. Unfortunately, this rejuvenation does not extend to the institution most in need of it: Congress. Its younger faces typically have family ties to the old guard”.

On the scandals at Petrobras the writer notes “One of the causes of the mensalão scandal was corruption that provided Lula’s government with a way to get the votes it needed from the disparate small parties. The petrolão (“big oily”, as the Petrobras affair is widely known) apparently shared a similar aim. Such ruses may have helped PT governments pass some good laws, such as an extension of the successful Bolsa Família (family fund) cash-transfer programme. But the party was not able to do all that it had said it would; potentially helpful reforms in which it was less invested fell by the wayside. Raphael Di Cunto of Pinheiro Neto, a big law firm in São Paulo, points to many antiquated statutes in need of an update, such as the Mussolini-inspired labour code (from 1943) and laws governing foreign investments (1962) and capital markets (1974). A Congress in which dysfunction feeds corruption which feeds further dysfunction is not one likely to take the hard decisions that the economy needs”.

It ends “The strength of Brazil’s institutions suggests something shy of the failed populist experiments of some South American neighbours. And the fact that voters in Argentina and Venezuela rebuffed that populism in the past few months has not escaped the notice of Brazil’s politicians. But every month of dithering and every new petrolão revelation chips away at Brazil’s prospects. The 2010s are already certain to be another lost decade; GDP per person won’t rebound for years to come. It will be a long time before a president can match the pride with which Lula showed off his Olympic trophy. But if Brazil’s politicians get their act together, the 2020s could be cheerier. Alas, if they do not, things will get a great deal worse”.

“China landed three civilian airplanes”

13/01/2016

U.S. military leaders are “concerned” after China landed three civilian airplanes in recent days on a newly built runway on one of the manmade islands it claims in the disputed South China Sea, a Pentagon spokesman said Thursday. China landed two commercial jets on Fiery Cross Reef on Wednesday just days after it landed an airplane there for the first time since the runway was completed in September, according to China’s state-run news agency Xinhua. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook confirmed the United States was aware of the three landings at the site in the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by several other nations including the Philippines and Vietnam. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying described the latest moves to the Associated Press as tests of the airfield for “civil aviation” purposes. But Cook said Thursday they only raise tensions in the region”.

“Belligerent rhetoric only plays into the hands of the Saudi monarchy”

13/01/2016

A report discusses the next “front” in the Iran-Saudi war.

It opens, “Looks like 2016 was born in violence. Saudi Arabia’s execution of popular Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr has led to an escalation with its regional nemesis, Iran. After Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran was sacked by an angry Iranian mob, Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with the country and organized a regional coalition of countries to isolate it further — Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Djibouti, and Sudan have all cut or downgraded diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic in the incident’s aftermath. Iran accused Saudi Arabia of going even further Thursday, claiming that Saudi warplanes had launched airstrikes against its embassy in war-torn Yemen”.

It goes on to mention “Far from being an angry string of irrational actions, the Saudi escalation in recent days seems like a cold and premeditated act of international gamesmanship. Meanwhile, there is reason to believe that Iran’s moves following Nimr’s execution were a strategic blunder. Sheikh Nimr was, after all, a Saudi citizen; by going beyond condemnation to issuing threats, Iran’s reaction served to confirm, rather than challenge, the Saudi narrative about the cleric as a terrorist mastermind in the employ of an Iranian agenda. But the fallout from the recent war of words won’t only be felt on the battlefields of Syria and Yemen. While the military struggles in the region get the most attention, the most important area in which the conflict will play out could be the economic arena”.

He posits that “it looks like Riyadh and Tehran will increase support for their allies, as a negotiated peace looks further away than ever. Unfortunately, Syrian and Yemeni civilians will bear the brunt of the violence. The markets have also weighed in, and they do not appear to expect any direct military confrontation between the two countries. The oil market is particularly sensitive to disruptions in oil supply routes or facilities, as would occur during a conflict between the two Gulf powers. But while there was a spike in oil prices immediately following the recent escalation, it was short-lived, and prices continue to slide, hitting an 11-year low Wednesday”.

He writes that the Saudis aim to weaken Iranian economic growth, “Even as oil prices sit near an 11-year low, Saudi Arabia has continued to pump massive amounts of crude oil. It has repeatedly refused to cut production, rendering OPEC’s price-setting mechanisms useless — and the kingdom has enough excess capacity to drive the price even further down. Analysts have speculated that Riyadh might be trying to drive U.S. shale oil producers out of the market, but the more important aim is to wreak havoc on the budgets of Iran and Russia, both of which are dependent on oil revenues for income”.

He notes that “While the Saudi economy is more heavily reliant on oil than Iran’s, its foreign exchange reserves are far higher and its sovereign wealth fund owns far more assets. It also still has the untapped option of issuing bonds — it has the world’s lowest GDP-to-debt ratio (under 2 percent) and a high credit rating. Most importantly, Riyadh is already taking steps to inject more funds into government coffers: The development to watch out for is the planned economic reforms package, which would institute a value-added tax, cut subsidies, and privatise certain sectors. According to Saudi calculations, should this be successful, the country will see a balanced budget before 2020. Iran, on the other hand, does not have as many options. It’s already in the midst of a subsidy reform plan and, unlike Saudi Arabia, already taxes its citizens. Raising taxes is difficult when inflation is high (16.2 percent) and unemployment is in the double digits (10.4 percent). The oil price necessary to balance Iran’s budget is much higher than the price needed to balance the Saudi budget; the Iranian oil sector is in need of development after more than a decade of sanctions”.

He goes on to write “For these reasons, Iran’s aggressive reaction to Nimr’s death represents a strategic blunder. Rather than simply issuing a condemnation, Iranian leaders issued what could only be construed as a direct threat. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, talked of “divine vengeance”; a spokesman at its Foreign Ministry said that Saudi Arabia will “pay a high price.” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a televised speech in which he went so far as to describe Saudi Arabia as an illegitimate state and said that Nimr’s execution “will not pass.” This belligerent rhetoric only plays into the hands of the Saudi monarchy, whose recent tough stance toward Iran seems to have become very popular at home”.

He ends “A young Shiite man from the kingdom’s Eastern Province is now less likely to feel Saudi or adopt a Saudi identity — something that does not bode well for the future. After the executions, young protestors in Nimr’s hometown marched to chants of “the people demand the downfall of the Sauds.” Saudi Arabia and Iran could have solved their long-standing issues without destabilizing the region, but they instead chose to cynically exploit existing sectarian tensions. The final chapter in this saga has not yet been written — but the region will not see peace until both sides recognize and respect each other’s boundaries”.

Syria, chemical weapons free?

11/01/2016

All of the chemical weapons declared by the Syrian regime have been destroyed, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. “This process closes an important chapter in the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapon programme as we continue efforts to clarify Syria’s declaration and address ongoing use of toxic chemicals as weapons in that country,” Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, the director-general of the OPCW, said Tuesday. A deal to remove chemical weapons from the war-torn nation was struck in 2013, after video footage appeared to bolster claims by opposition forces that Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons in an attack on civilians. U.S. President Barack Obama had said that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict constituted a “red line” that, if crossed, would force him to reconsider whether or not the United States should intervene in that country’s civil war.

Trying to stop the pivot to Iran

11/01/2016

An unusual article argues that the excution of Nimr al-Nimr was an attempt by Saudi Arabia to halt its supposed “pivot” to Iran.

It opens, “Saudi Arabia’s escalating diplomatic war with Iran is part of a new attempt to derail what Riyadh sees as a clear American shift towards Tehran. Unfortunately for the kingdom, it probably won’t work. That’s because the Obama administration has effectively decided that upholding the nuclear accord with Iran is more important to U.S. interests — and to the president’s historical legacy —  than safeguarding a decades-old alliance with Saudi Arabia. From holding off on imposing new sanctions after Iran violated U.N. resolutions recently to all but turning a blind eye to Tehran’s military role in Iraq, the Obama administration has alarmed Riyadh and other Persian Gulf powers that fear being left on the sidelines”.

The report goes on to mention “The kingdom may have reason to worry. The United States sharply criticized Riyadh over the execution last week of a prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, voicing concern it could fuel sectarian tensions in the region. But when a mob torched the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in outrage over the cleric’s death, Washington and other Western governments offered a more muted response, calling on the Iranian authorities to ensure the security of diplomatic missions. That’s a sharp contrast from how the White House reacted in 2011 when the British Embassy in Tehran was overrun after Western governments tightened sanctions on Iran. President Barack Obama himself publicly accused the Iranian government of permitting the attack”.

Interestingly the author notes that “In another sign of what the Saudis see as evidence of a conciliatory approach to Iran, Washington has yet to impose sanctions against Tehran even after the regime conducted two ballistic missile tests since the nuclear deal was agreed in July. The U.S. administration said it would impose sanctions on Iran over the missile launches — which violated U.N. resolutions — but has since pulled back from taking action. The delay has drawn criticism from lawmakers and critics of the deal”.

He goes on to posit that “Since tensions spiked over the weekend between Riyadh and Tehran, the United States has appealed for calm and urged both sides to take steps to defuse the crisis — without publicly siding with either country in the dispute. Since Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at least twice and also talked to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday”.

The extent of the shift to Iran is noted when he writes that “In years past, it would have been unthinkable for the U.S. government to take an even-handed approach in the case of an argument between the Saudis and their Iranian rivals. The rapport that developed between Kerry and other American diplomats and their Iranian counterparts during the course of the nuclear negotiations has dismayed Riyadh”.

The consequence of the Obama policy is noted when he writes, “Angered over Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Syria, his withdrawal of support for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after popular protests in 2011, and his readiness to turn a new page in Washington’s relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia has come to believe that the United States can no longer be counted on as a rock solid ally ready to come to the aid of its Arab friends, Nasr and other analysts said. Increasingly, the Saudis are striking out on their own, staging a major military intervention last year in neighbouring Yemen against Shiite Houthi rebels supported by Iran. The campaign has failed to achieve a quick victory and threatens to turn into a quagmire for Riyadh, with U.S. officials privately urging the Saudis to cut their losses and negotiate a peace deal. For its part, Washington has been disappointed with Saudi Arabia’s lackluster efforts fighting the Islamic State, as Riyadh has devoted most of its energy in recent months to the faltering campaign in Yemen. U.S. officials, and their counterparts in Europe and the Middle East, worry about the future stability of the Saudi monarchy given a growing succession crisis and other domestic problems. And Western governments were particularly disturbed by the execution of Nimr, as well as its provocative timing — which came after months of painstaking diplomacy to persuade Iran and other powers on both sides of the Syrian war to enter into a peace process”.

Perhaps optimistically the author notes “Brett McGurk, the U.S. pointman for the anti-ISIS effort, told reporters Tuesday he expects both governments to overcome their differences and work toward a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria, citing encouraging signs from Riyadh”.

Needless to say, “Iran voiced incandescent rage over the execution of Nimr but will likely calibrate its reaction to Saudi Arabia’s actions, according to analysts and former officials who said Tehran is anxious to avoid jeopardising the planned lifting of economic sanctions promised under the nuclear deal. Iran’s economy has suffered under the weight of the sanctions coupled with falling oil prices, and Tehran stands to gain access to roughly $100 billion in impounded funds. The easing of sanctions also could allow Iran to increase its oil exports from 1 million barrels a day currently to a pre-sanctions level of up to 2.5 million barrels a day”.

Interestingly he writes “After the nuclear deal was clinched last year, the Obama administration tried to repair its frayed ties with the Saudis, with little success. The White House chose not to publicly warn Riyadh against executing Nimr, and instead conveyed its concerns in private. But Washington may soon face a day of reckoning with the Saudis, as the two countries interests diverge, according to Nasr”.

He ends “The perception that the United States has pulled back from a once dominant role in the Middle East has prompted Arab governments to entertain overtures from Russia, which has waded into the Syrian conflict to prop up the regime in Damascus. While the Saudis and Iran engaged in a war of words this week, Russia offered to serve as an intermediary. Moscow’s foreign ministry said Monday that Russia was ready to help both sides pursue “a path of dialogue.”

“Kuwait had recalled its ambassador to Iran”

11/01/2016

For all the diplomatic dominoes that have fallen across the Middle East in recent days, with ambassadors from different countries flying home as a result of the explosive rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the map of allegiances has not significantly altered. Certainly, several countries offered muscular shows of solidarity to Saudi Arabia after an Iranian mob attacked its embassy in Tehran over the weekend, prompting a crisis that has put the United States in a bind and has threatened to set back the prospects for a resolution to the conflict in Syria. By Tuesday, Kuwait had recalled its ambassador to Iran, the United Arab Emirates had downgraded its diplomatic relationship, and Bahrain and Sudan had joined Saudi Arabia in severing its relationship with Tehran entirely.  Yet many other Sunni Muslim countries signaled that they intended to take a more measured approach to the argument — sympathizing with Saudi Arabia, a rich and powerful ally, but also determined to avoid getting sucked into a harmful conflict with Iran, a country governed by Shiite clerics, with potentially grave costs”.

“Could send oil prices back to the triple digits”

11/01/2016

Keith Johnson arguesas others have done, that low oil prices will rise eventually, “Never mind roiling tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Islamic State’s continued assault on Libyan oil infrastructure, or North Korea’s purported detonation of a hydrogen bomb. Crude prices hit their lowest levels in more than a decade on Wednesday, plunging through a rotted floor and falling more than 5 percent in trading in New York and London to about $34 a barrel — culminating a dizzying crash from heights of more than $100 a barrel in the summer of 2014. Which makes for an odd time to start worrying about all the things that threaten to drive oil prices sharply higher. Yet that’s exactly what many in the industry are starting to do”.

Johnson writes that “The current oversupply of oil, which is keeping prices low, is also setting the stage for oil’s own rebound. The U.S. shale boom, which has gushed more than 4 million barrels of oil a day onto global markets, is fizzling, with U.S. production this year set to shrink for the first time since the bonanza began. Investment across the global oil industry is in free-fall like it hasn’t been for 30 years, which makes it harder to keep today’s wells pumping and puts tomorrow’s projects on ice. Global demand for oil, meanwhile, is still growing, if not quite as fast as last year’s heated pace. In other words, an oil market that currently looks ridiculously glutted is poised to tighten up dramatically later this year and could send oil prices back to the triple digits with all sorts of nasty consequences for a still-wheezing global economy”.

He adds that “In the meantime, all signs point to even lower prices for crude. Asian economies, the motor of global growth, and demand for crude are both stumbling. Prolonged malaise in countries like China could further dampen already tepid expectations for oil-demand growth this year, which would push prices even lower. Meanwhile, oil storage tanks around the world are brimming already and getting fuller because the world still pumps more oil every day than it burns. The U.S. oil storage facility in Cushing, Oklahoma, holds more crude now than ever before. At the same time, Iran, sidelined from oil markets since 2012, is gearing up for a return as Western sanctions are lifted as part of last year’s nuclear deal. If Iran is able to increase oil output and exports more quickly than experts expect, that could further flood a glutted market”.

He continues, “low prices, which did nothing to discourage oil producers last year, are finally starting to take a toll. Thanks to heroic efficiency gains, U.S. shale oil production miraculously continued to climb last year despite plunging prices. But there aren’t any more rabbits in that hat: The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects U.S. shale production to drop this year by about 1 million barrels a day from last April’s peak. Oil rigs in North Dakota’s shale patch, for example, have fallen to their lowest level since 2009 because producers that struggled to break even with $50 oil cannot make ends meet when crude fetches $30-something a barrel. Overall, after record-setting growth last year, non-OPEC oil production is expected to shrink this year by about 600,000 barrels a day, the first contraction since 2008″.

Pointedly he writes “That alone would make for a much tighter oil market. Experts figure the world pumps about 1.5 million barrels a day more than it consumes. But demand is expected to grow this year by at least 1.2 million barrels a day, nearly absorbing the whole surplus. Remove another 600,000 barrels a day of supply, and there’s no surplus at all. Wood MacKenzie, the oil and natural gas consultants, expect oil inventories to start shrinking increasingly rapidly in the second half of 2016. The price plunge has set the stage for other, longer-term impacts by discouraging capital investment across the industry. Oil companies need to invest in existing projects to counteract the natural decline of older oil fields by, for example, injecting tired wells with fluids to maintain pressure and keep output steady. Massive investment is also needed to fill future pipelines with big, ambitious projects like deepwater rigs or oil fields in the Arctic, which will be needed to meet global demand in the next decade”.

The crucial point, is that “That investment is drying up. Big-ticket projects, like Shell’s gamble in the Alaskan Arctic, have been iced. Countries like Iraq are scrambling to find the cash to pay for much-needed oil-infrastructure improvements. Brazil’s Petrobras, whose deepwater fields represented the industry’s most ambitious investment plan, is battening the hatches and slashing future production estimates. Canada’s oil sands have gone from boom to bust in the space of a year. Overall, capital expenditure in the oil and gas industry shrank dramatically last year and is set for another 25 percent contraction this year, figuresMoody’s, the ratings agency. Years of back-to-back belt-tightening are almost unheard of in the industry; the last time it happened was during the oil-price collapse of the mid-1980s”.

Crucially he writes “A tighter market would mean gradually higher prices down the road at any rate. But it could also set the stage for dramatic price spikes when something went awry, like the recent heated confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia or the Islamic State’s relentless assault on Libya’s teetering oil industry. That’s because the oil industry’s natural shock absorber — spare production capacity that can quickly be called on to fill any unexpected shortfalls — isn’t really there anymore. OPEC’s spare capacity is at historically low levels because everybody is pumping flat out to make what money they can with low prices. Estimates vary, but the amount of extra oil that OPEC, essentially Saudi Arabia, could quickly get to the market is estimated at between 1.25 million barrels a day and 2.3 million barrels a day, a hairbreadth margin in a global oil market that pumps almost 100 million barrels a day”.

He ends “With little buffer set aside for a stormy day, a taut market could be especially vulnerable to just the kinds of geopolitical shocks that have been proliferating in recent months, from the Persian Gulf to Syria to Russia to the South China Sea. “The oil glut has dwarfed any focus on spare capacity,” said Richard Mallinson, an analyst with Energy Aspects, a consultancy in London”.

“lost around a third of the territory it once controlled”

09/01/2016

The Islamic State group has lost around a third of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, according to figures provided Tuesday by the US-led coalition. “In Iraq, it’s about 40 percent,” said Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the international coalition which carries out daily air raids against IS and also provides training and weapons to local forces fighting the group.  “In Syria… we think it’s around 20” percent, he said. When the size of the so-called caliphate IS proclaimed 18 months ago was at its largest, Iraq accounted for a slightly bigger part of it than Syria. “Taking together Iraq and Syria… they lost 30 percent of the territory they once held,” Warren told reporters in Baghdad”.

“Unlikely to gobble up much of the excess crude”

09/01/2016

Keith Johnson writes explores the mystery of why oil prices are falling despite increased Iranian-Saudi tensions, “Saudi Arabia and Iran, OPEC’s two biggest powers, are at each other’s throats in an escalating war of words that is already spreading to other countries in the Middle East and Africa and spooking diplomats from Moscow to Beijing. Yet crude oil prices fell on Monday, a reminder of how dramatically awash the world still is in cheap oil. Oil traders had initially panicked after Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran on Sunday amid fears that the growing tensions sparked by Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric could further escalate and potentially threaten oil supplies. That sent crude prices sharply higher in early trading in Asia, Europe, and the United States on Monday”.

He goes on to write “The political crisis has intensified further, with other Persian Gulf countries joining Saudi Arabia in downgrading or cutting diplomatic ties with Tehran. Oil traders, though, don’t seem to care: Oil prices began falling within hours of markets opening as traders digested gloomy economic news from Asia, including the 10th straight month of falling Chinese factory orders. The dismal data is being seen as a sure sign that the engines of the global economy are sputtering and unlikely to gobble up much of the excess crude sloshing about. The global oil glut, in other words, weighs more heavily on prices than even the prospect of open conflict between two rival, regional powerhouses”.

The report goes on to mention “Despite the growing unrest — which included the sacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and moves by an array of Persian Gulf countries to downgrade their diplomatic ties with Iran — actual oil production is not at risk in either country. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia is still pumping flat out, and Iran is gearing up to boost oil production and exports in the coming months as Western sanctions are lifted”.

He adds that “The spat between Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Sunni state, and Iran, the standard-bearer of Shiite Islam, has been brewing for decades and has only intensified in the wake of the landmark nuclear deal Tehran inked last year with Western powers. Riyadh and its Sunni neighbors worry that the deal, by freeing Iran to export more oil and earn more money, will allow a rejuvenated Iran to expand its regional influence at their expense. Tehran, for its part, feels slighted by Saudi Arabia, which took advantage of Iran’s global isolation in recent years to increase its own role in the region and in global oil markets. Saudi Arabia has tried to push back against Iranian influence in countries like Iraq and Yemen. The two countries’ primary battleground is Syria, where Tehran has been one of President Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest supporters while Riyadh has pumped money and weapons to the rebel groups working to oust him”.

Crucially he writes that “Oil is just a part of the broader rivalry between the two countries, both of which rely heavily on income from exporting crude — and both of which have suffered as crude prices plunged over the last year and a half. Crude prices have fallen from about $110 a barrel in the summer of 2014 to the mid-$30s a barrel today. Annually, that costs Iran about $25 billion in foregone revenues and costs Saudi Arabia almost $200 billion. But Saudi Arabia, emboldened by much deeper pockets than Iran, has been able to withstand the price decline better. As the biggest oil producer and dominant voice inside OPEC, Riyadh has ignored calls from other OPEC members, including Iran, to throttle back its oil production to prop up falling prices”.

Pointedly he notes that “At the same time, Iran is angling to jump back into global oil markets with a vengeance and claw back market share as sanctions are lifted. Since 2012, Iranian exports have been limited to about 1 million barrels a day, compared with 2.5 million barrels a day before Western sanctions were imposed because of Iran’s controversial nuclear program. But under the terms of the deal reached last year, those oil sanctions will soon come off, potentially freeing Iran to dump up to 1 million barrels of additional oil into an already glutted market”.

Correctly Johnson sees the broader ramifications of the row, “The escalation prompted concern far and wide, especially since it could torpedo floundering talks for a resolution to the five-year-old Syrian civil war and the broader fight against the Islamic State. State Department spokesman John Kirby on Monday urged leaders in the Middle East to take steps to calm the escalation”.

He concludes “With a more impetuous Saudi leadership than in years past, and Iran’s leaders torn between hard-liners and relative moderates, there are real prospects for significant escalation. That could extend to proxy fights in places like Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has battled to push back against Iranian-backed rebels, or Syria, where Riyadh has backed rebel groups fighting the regime of Assad, an ally of Iran. But despite the relative calm on oil markets Monday, the conflict could also spread to the oil patch itself, Reed said. Saudi oil installations in the eastern, heavily Shiite part of the country are potentially vulnerable to sabotage. And in 2012 hackers, reportedly from Iran, planted malware on Saudi Aramco computers in a high-profile attack that wiped out thousands of computers and crippled the oil company’s corporate operations for weeks”.

India fights ISIS

09/01/2016

India on Wednesday said it can undertake operations against the ISIS terror group under a UN flag if the global body adopts a resolution in this regard. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, who has returned after a crucial meeting with his US counterpart Ashton Carter in Washington, also said that India has been sharing intelligence on the ISIS and it will be enhanced. “We have made it clear that if there is a UN resolution and if there is UN flag and a UN mission, then as per India’s policy to operate under UN flag, we will participate,” Parrikar told reporters here at India Gate after laying wreath at the Amar Jawan Jyoti on Vijay Diwas. He was replying to questions on the possibility of India’s participation in operations against the ISIS. Asked specifically if India will operate against the ISIS under the UN flag, he said, “that depends on whether UN takes a resolution”. India had earlier this month, along with major world economies, participated in the first-ever global meeting held in Paris to discuss and evolve mechanisms to combat the clandestine and largely undetected terrorist financing network of the Islamic State terror group.

“Slowdown of the world’s second-largest economy”

09/01/2016

A piece discusses the disastrous first day of trading in China, “stocks followed Chinese equities deep into the red Monday, a stark reminder that the slowdown of the world’s second-largest economy is having significant consequences far from Beijing. Chinese stocks were down so steeply Monday that regulators triggered so-called “circuit breakers,” which halt all trading when losses or gains of 5 percent are met. This is the first time officials in Beijing have ever used the emergency measure”.

It adds “it did little to halt the rout. The CSI 300 index of the largest listed companies in Shanghai and Shenzhen lost 7 percent of its value Monday. The benchmark Shanghai composite index fell 6.9 percent, while the Shenzhen composite lost more than 8 percent. It’s the worst day of losses on the Shanghai composite since August last year, during the depths of a 40 percent summer drop. The sell-off in China sparked a similar one in New York, where the Dow Jones industrial average plunged hundreds of points just after trading began. As of 3:06 p.m. in New York, the index was down 420.69 points, or 2.41 percent, the worst opening day loss in 84 years. It closed down 276.09, or 1.58 percent, for the day. In Germany, the DAX was also down 4.3 percent”.

The report adds that “The rout began when a survey by the Chinese media group Caixin released Monday showed China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index fell to 48.2 in December, from 48.6 the previous month, a number below expectations. Any measure under 50 shows a slowdown in manufacturing”.

It goes on to mention “The bloodletting in both China and the United States is a reminder that China’s economy, which managed to sustain growth through the Great Recession while the rest of the world suffered, is not as powerful as it once was. It’s not yet clear whether Beijing met its 7 percent growth target for 2015. But it is clear that exports out of China — an important part of its economy — were down sharply throughout the last year”.

The piece notes that “Monday’s losses will also likely prove to be a test for Chinese regulators. Throughout 2015, officials in Beijing took steps to liberalize their economy, including allowing their currency to float and allowing market rates to determine the interest rate Chinese savers get on their money. They were rewarded by the International Monetary Fund, which made the Chinese currency, the renminbi, an official reserve currency, along with the U.S. dollar, the British pound, the Japanese yen, and the euro. The circuit-breaker provisions were created by Chinese officials in December of last year but had yet to be used. Monday’s massive losses show they might not be enough to rescue its stock market from another tumultuous year, according to Gu Yongtao, a strategist at Cinda Securities”.

“Bahrain and Sudan have both severed relations with Iran”

07/01/2016

A number of Saudi Arabia’s allies have joined diplomatic action against Iran after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked amid a row over the execution of a Shia Muslim cleric. Bahrain and Sudan have both severed relations with Iran, and the UAE has downgraded its diplomatic team. Saudi Arabia on Sunday severed ties and gave Iran’s diplomats two days to go. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said trade links with Iran would be cut and air traffic links stopped. But in an interview with Reuters news agency, Mr al-Jubeir also said Iranian pilgrims travelling to holy sites in Mecca and Medina would still be allowed to enter. Saudi Arabia and Iran are respectively the key Sunni and Shia powers in the region and back opposing sides in Syria and Yemen.

GOP primaries and the use of force

07/01/2016

An article discusses the GOP primaries, “With memories of the San Bernardino and Paris massacres still fresh, Republican presidential candidates have been lambasting the White House for what they deem as the administration’s foreign policy failures. They criticise President Barack Obama for weakening the United States, undermining its leadership and credibility, and allowing its adversaries — from the Islamic State (IS), to Russia, to China — to become more menacing. To restore America’s strength, alliances, global standing, and leadership, the candidates have all, by and large (with the exception of Sen. Rand Paul), advocated greater use of force against IS, and an increased U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria. More broadly, almost all have called for a major priming of the Pentagon pump with billions of additional dollars to restore what they describe as our sapped military strength”.

Pointedly the piece notes that “Americans seem to be on their side. Recent polling shows that national security and terrorism concerns have become the most important election issue in the mind of the American public, rising from 21 percent in April to 40 percent in December, replacing jobs and the economy (which declined from 29 percent to 23 percent). According to a December 2015 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the public disapproves of Obama’s foreign policy by a ratio of 57 to 37 percent. Even before Paris and San Bernadino, Americans saw the GOP as more able to “protect the country from international terrorism and military threats,” by an advantage of 52 to 36 percent. Internationally, the world’s problems seem to reinforce the Republican solution: toughness, bluster, and force. The globe seems messier and scarier today than it was in 2008, after all. Order in the Middle East has given way to chaos and conflict, as the region has devolved into a petri dish for breeding global jihadists. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its aggressive behaviour in eastern Ukraine pose a threat to the norms underpinning global order. China is increasingly assertive in challenging U.S. interests. The Ghani government in Afghanistan is hanging on by a thread. A two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is on life-support. And refugees fleeing the misery of the Middle East and North Africa are placing a crushing burden on Europe”.

The writer notes that these problems are fodder for GOP position on greater use of force, yet the author adds “Policies and public expenditures in pursuit of this muscular mantra would not only fail, but would also systematically weaken U.S. leadership and influence. The Republican jeremiads are wildly off base, reflecting an atavistic attachment to the world of the 1990s, when we emerged from the Cold War as the last superpower left standing. And they are grounded in several misconceptions about the nature of the world and the sources and limits of American power, resulting in magical thinking about the capacity, will, and means at our disposal to bend an increasingly unruly world to our preferences”.

Part of this analysis may be true, it is certainly no longer the 1990s but when so much of the Middle East is wrong under Obama’s inaction some use of force should be considered.

The author notes that “Republican rhetoric is replete with calls to restore the leadership of the United States, as the most powerful, indispensable, and exceptional nation. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) captures this view well, though he is not alone. For Rubio, the United States is the natural, inevitable, and indispensable leader. “America plays a part on the world stage for which there is no understudy. When we fail to lead with strength and principle, no other country, friend or foe, is willing or able to take our place. And the result is chaos,” Rubio says on his campaign website”.

The writer adds correctly, that “The call to restore American leadership and its dominant international role is a consistent theme for Republican presidential candidates. It is a dangerous one, because the world has changed in a fundamental way. The United States is simply no longer a global goliath bestriding a unipolar world. Turkey no longer jumps when America says frog. Putin is unmoved by U.S. demands. China is clearly expanding its own role, creating international economic organisations that include most of its closest allies but not the United States. The raw measures of military and economic power that are typically invoked to rebut the relative change in global power are not easily converted into the currency of diplomatic leverage”.

He notes that power is about coalitions, yet this was always the case even in the heady days of the 1990s, “Insisting that the United States take the lead in international events, crises, and conflicts, would be counter-productive. An elusive quest to restore a unipolar world order run from Washington leads to behavior at odds with the requirements of effective diplomacy in a rebalanced, multipolar world”.

The piece goes on to mention that “asserting U.S. control, as the GOP field suggests, vastly overstates the degree to which we are responsible for or could change global realities and problems. To recognise this reality is not declinism or abandoning the field, as Rubio suggests — it is realism”.

Certainly this is true and the GOP would do well to recognise this. However, the utility of well placed and well planned power should not be forgotten either, as Obama seems to have done.

Correctly he does write that “The argument that U.S. military power has declined and that its revival is the key to restoring our global leadership is  false. This is because this idea deliberately understates current U.S. military capabilities. The Republicans conveniently avoid the reality that U.S. defence spending is greater than the combined defense budgets of the next eight countries with the highest levels of defence spending”.

He makes the point that “The Republican argument is also misleading. It substitutes measures of military capability and the assertive use of military force for sound foreign policy judgment. U.S. military power is useful and necessary for many good things: it can help maintain a favourable balance of global power, support freedom of navigation, deter aggression against allies and friends, demonstrate the credibility of U.S. security commitments, respond to humanitarian disasters, provide critical support for American diplomacy, and, embedded in a broader policy context, contribute to the struggle with terrorist organisations”.

Yet the key to a successful foreign policy is not sound judgement or force but sound judgement when using force! It is not an either/or decision but both are needed. Obama has strayed too far from this balance.

We cannot solve everything

He does correctly write that the US cannot “solve everything”, “Chest-thumping over American leadership, decline, and military power makes for good Republican primary politics. Doing so preserves the illusion that the United States is omnipotent and can fix everything. But it will make terrible policy, frustrating international success and breeding international mistrust and wariness — the opposite of what we need to play an appropriate leadership role”.

He ends “No Republican candidate is running clearly against this rhetorical tide (and even the leading Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton embraces many of the flawed assumptions underlying the GOP foreign policy doctrine described here). Rand Paul appeared to try, but his message is being drowned out, as his polling numbers reveal. Bernie Sanders has a different message, but it is likely to fail. The real debate about how the United States should engage with the world will probably have to wait for the general election, and even then, a full debate is not certain. In the meantime, prepare for a tidal wave of empty, dangerous bluster and belligerent rhetoric instead of thoughtful proposals for how we should engage in the restructured world of global relations”.

 

“Security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated”

07/01/2016

The overall security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated in the second half of 2015, with an increase in insurgent attacks and higher casualties among both Taliban and national forces, a Pentagon report stated Tuesday. This month marks a year since the US- and Nato-led mission in Afghanistan transitioned into an Afghan-led operation, with allied nations assisting in training and equipping local forces to tackle the Taliban and other groups in the war-torn nation. “The Taliban have remained active in their traditional strongholds, namely in Helmand in the south and Logar and Wardak in the east, and also created a sense of instability for brief periods of time in other parts of the country, such as in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan,” the Pentagon’s semiannual report to Congress stated. The US has said its airstrike on an MSF facility in Afghanistan was a mistake. For the 22 dead, the injured survivors and the casualties of fighting still going on in Kunduz, it was a tragedy The Taliban takeover of Kunduz – widely reported in the Western media because of a deadly US airstrike on a hospital – was a stinging blow to the country’s security forces”.

An new economy in Saudi Arabia?

07/01/2016

A piece in Foreign Affairs argues that Saudi Arabia will halt an “oil economy collapse”.

It opens “The September 11 collapse of a crane at the Grand Mosque in Mecca provided a grave metaphor for Saudi Arabia experts. A number of observers, citing supposed infighting among senior Saudi royals, have predicted an unprecedented political upheaval. Other critics however, have focused on the precipitous drop in oil prices since June 2014 to argue that the kingdom is in serious economic trouble. Indeed, the decline in oil prices from about $115 to below $45 today seems the more daunting challenge. Of course, oil does play a central role in the functioning of the Saudi state. Riyadh, however, is no stranger to oil crises. The lessons Saudi Arabia learned from previous crashes have taught it to curtail public spending and maintain access to large foreign currency reserves when in trouble. As a result, Saudi Arabia is better positioned than ever to weather the effects of flagging oil prices. Although it will still face difficult decisions in the months ahead, the challenges alone are not enough to bring about the state’s demise”.

The article notes the extent of the importance of oil for the country, “Oil accounts for 90 percent of Saudi Arabia’s exports and 40 percent of its GDP. More importantly, it constitutes almost 80 percent of the Saudi government’s revenues. With the bulk of its wealth coming from the sale of its natural resources rather than taxation, its citizens have had relatively limited involvement in the political decision-making process.  The Saudi economy—like many of those across the Middle East—combines free market policies underlying its banking, healthcare, manufacturing, construction and telecommunications sectors with heavy state involvement in regulation, planning, and development funding. The Saudi public sector remains immense; recent reports, including a poll conducted by Gallup, estimates that the Saudi government employs as many as eight out of every ten citizens. The government has pumped billions of dollars into education, housing, and healthcare in the hopes of preparing its young population to compete in a global economy”.

The writer adds that “During past oil slumps, Saudi Arabia has resorted to a combination of spending cuts and revenues boosts by instituting hiring freezes, delaying the implementation of some industrial projects, raising the fees associated with licenses and permits, and even increasing the price of its heavily subsidized gasoline. Some of these same measures are under consideration once again. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Saudi Arabia might follow the example of other Gulf Cooperation Council states and reduce energy subsidies, which comprise up to 20 percent of the government’s budget, although officials have said that such a measure is not yet necessary. Saudi officials have also made assurances that the government has adequate reserves of approximately $650 billion. Nevertheless, in July, Saudi Arabia issued public bonds for the first time since 2007 and issued another $5.3 billion worth in late November. For its part, the International Monetary Fund has warned that if Saudi Arabia continues to tap into its reserves at the current pace in order to meet its budget shortfall—predicted to be in excess of $130 billion—it will deplete the funds within five years”.

Correctly the piece argues that “the Saudis are deliberately trying to force out high-cost producers, especially U.S. shale producers, by forcing global prices to plummet due to an oil surplus. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has even suggested that the Saudis are using oil as an economic weapon against Russia and Iran for their support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, forcing prices downward as financial punishment for the two other prominent oil-producing nations Tempting as it is for some to believe the latter of these narratives, there is little evidence to support this contention, and a number of prominent energy analysts have attributed the current slump to simple market fundamentals”.

Interestingly he mentions that “A recent report suggested that the Saudi government is on the verge of embarking on major reforms including substantial budgetary cuts, a redoubled effort to reduce the size of public sector employment, and an increase in the state’s private sector. It is unusual for Saudi officials to reveal reform plans in such a manner, but they are not nearly as averse to political, social, and economic reforms as many assume. There is little doubt that they would prefer to embark on gradual reforms on their own terms and at their own pace, but the state of the global oil market will make that exceedingly difficult. The Saudi government will continue its effort to diversify its economy in order to reduce its dependence on oil profits, and has directed its efforts toward crafting a knowledge-based economy in the years ahead through investments in education. It will also likely continue to privatize some government-owned corporations, including in the telecommunications, healthcare, and education sectors. Likewise, efforts to reduce the number of non-Saudis working in the private sector—estimated to be eight million—have paid some dividends, showing some significant improvements in the number of Saudi women in the workforce. To curtail government spending, the Saudis have even taken some measures to slowly open their stock market to foreign investors. Even tourism is now viewed as a sector with significant potential to generate employment. In this new oil economy, the Saudis are considering all their options, and nothing is off the table”.

UN closes investigation into Iran

05/01/2016

The U.N. nuclear agency closed the books Tuesday on its decade-long probe of allegations that Iran worked on atomic arms, and Tehran proclaimed that within weeks, it would finish cutbacks on present nuclear programs that the U.S. fears could be turned into making such weapons. The probe had to be formally ended as part of a July 14 deal between Iran and six nations that involves the removal of economic sanctions on Tehran in exchange for its commitment to crimp its nuclear program. A resolution was approved by consensus of the 35-nation board of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency. The move means that some questions about the alleged weapons work may never be resolved. Before the resolution’s adoption, agency head Yukiya Amano told the board that his investigation couldn’t “reconstruct all the details of activities conducted by Iran in the past.”

“Debilitating meddling and micromanagement by the White House”

05/01/2016

A piece in Foreign Policy notes how Obama tried to destroy Chuck Hagel,  “Jetlagged from a long overseas trip, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had just sat down with his wife for a quiet dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant in northern Virginia when his phone rang. It was the White House on the line. President Barack Obama wanted to speak with him. It was Aug. 30, 2013, and the U.S. military was poised for war. Obama had publicly warned Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad that his regime would face consequences if it crossed a “red line” by employing chemical weapons against its own people. Assad did it anyway, and Hagel had spent the day approving final plans for a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against Damascus. U.S. naval destroyers were in the Mediterranean, awaiting orders to fire”.

The report adds “Instead, Obama told a stunned Hagel to stand down. Assad’s Aug. 21 chemical attack in a Damascus suburb had killed hundreds of civilians, but the president said the United States wasn’t going to take any military action against the Syrian government. The president had decided to ignore his own red line — a decision, Hagel believes, that dealt a severe blow to the credibility of both Obama and the United States”.

The report notes that “Hagel, now that time has passed and he’s willing to discuss his tenure in office, cited the episode as an example of a White House that has struggled to formulate a coherent policy on Syria, holding interminable meetings that would often end without a decision, even as conditions on the ground worsened and the death toll grew steadily higher. The 69-year-old former Nebraska senator and Vietnam War veteran, speaking for the first time about his treatment by the Obama administration, said the Pentagon was subject to debilitating meddling and micromanagement by the White House — echoing criticism made by his predecessors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta”.

The piece adds that Hagel “remains puzzled as to why some administration officials sought to “destroy” him personally in his final days in office, castigating him in anonymous comments to newspapers even after he had handed in his resignation. Although he does not identify her by name, Hagel’s criticisms are clearly aimed at Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, and some of her staff. Hagel’s former aides, and former White House officials, say the defense secretary frequently butted heads with Rice over Syria policy and the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo. The former Pentagon chief offers a view from inside an administration that was caught flat-footed by the multi-sided conflict in Syria and by the subsequent onslaught of the Islamic State. His account describes an administration that lacked a clear strategy on Syria during his time in office and suggests that it may not have one anytime soon — despite the mounting carnage and waves of refugees”.

The piece fairly notes that “As defense secretary, Hagel carried out the administration’s policies dutifully without missteps. But his meandering public comments seemed to strike the wrong note at a moment of upheaval. And if Hagel had no major mistakes, he also had no major accomplishments; during the height of then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hagel’s aides boasted about the dozens of times the U.S. defense chief was speaking to his Egyptian counterpart and touted Hagel as the administration’s main conduit to Cairo. Left unsaid was that Sisi ignored Hagel’s entreaties and continued his brutal campaign to repress the group”.

The piece goes on to mention that decisions were not made “While Hagel preferred smaller meetings and one-on-one phone calls, the White House often summoned him to large Situation Room sessions with last-minute agendas sent out overnight or on the morning of the meeting. The White House’s policy deliberations on Syria and other issues run by Rice and her deputies seemed to lead nowhere, according to Hagel. “For one thing, there were way too many meetings. The meetings were not productive,” Hagel said. “I don’t think many times we ever actually got to where we needed to be. We kept kind of deferring the tough decisions. And there were always too many people in the room.”At larger White House meetings, with some staffers in the room he did not even know, Hagel was reluctant to speak at length, fearing his stance would find its way into media reports. “The more people you have in a room, the more possibilities there are for self-serving leaks to shape and influence decisions in the press,” he said. Instead, Hagel preferred to convey his views in weekly meetings he and then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey had with the president or in phone calls and meetings with Rice, Biden, or Secretary of State John Kerry. In contrast, national security meetings led by the president were efficient and focused, with no time wasted on tangents, he said”.

Interestingly the piece mentions that “Hagel agreed with Obama’s reluctance to deploy a large ground force to Syria or Iraq, he wanted the administration to hammer out a plan for a diplomatic settlement in Syria and to clarify whether Assad needed to go and under what circumstances, he said. While the White House sought to stay out of the conflict in Syria, the Islamic State’s lightning advance into northern Iraq in June 2014 — with Baghdad’s army collapsing in retreat — came as a “jolt” to the administration, Hagel said. Asked at a press conference in August of that year about the nature of the threat posed by the Islamic State, Hagel told reporters that “this is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” He cited the group’s military skill, financial resources, and adept online propaganda as an unprecedented danger that surpassed previous terrorist organizations”.

The next section delves into the White House micromanaging DoD, “The White House’s penchant for meddling was a frequent problem, Hagel said. Dempsey complained that White House staffers were calling generals “and asking fifth-level questions that the White House should not be involved in,” he said. Hagel’s predecessors, Gates and Panetta, as well as Michèle Flournoy, the former No. 3 official at the Pentagon, have all criticized the White House’s centralised decision-making and interference with the workings of the Defense Department. Hagel said the politically motivated micromanagement, combined with a mushrooming bureaucracy at the National Security Council, raises a real risk for the executive branch — potentially undercutting the proper functioning of the Pentagon and other cabinet offices”.

On the issue of Russian actions in Crimea, the author makes the point that “Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula in March 2014 and its support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine blindsided Washington, and it produced another rift between Hagel and White House officials. In National Security Council meetings, Hagel said he stressed the importance of avoiding a direct confrontation with Moscow and keeping communication channels open with the Russian military. But he urged the administration to send a clear signal to Moscow — and U.S. allies in Europe — by expediting communications and other gear to the Ukrainian government as it fought against pro-Russian separatists. “I also made the point that the U.S. should be giving more non-lethal equipment to the Ukrainians than we were, at a much faster pace,” Hagel said. “We had to keep in mind that there was a global leadership optic here. The world, including our NATO partners, was watching to see how we would respond.” The administration moved too slowly to help Kiev, Hagel said, though he does not believe Washington should have given weapons to the Ukrainians”.

Guantánamo wars

On the administration’s attempts to close Gitmo it notes “Under a law adopted by Congress, Hagel, as defense secretary, had the ultimate responsibility for approving the transfer of inmates to other countries. And it meant he would bear the blame if a released detainee later took up arms against the United States. The White House, trying to fulfill Obama’s promise to close the facility that has been condemned by human rights groups as a legal black hole, pressed Hagel to approve transferring inmates to other countries. But Hagel often refused or delayed signing off on dozens of transfers when he judged the security risk too high, often based on advice inside the Defense Department. The White House grew deeply frustrated with Hagel over the delays”.

Interestingly the piece adds “After clashing repeatedly with the White House, Hagel said it was probably inevitable that he would have to step down as Pentagon chief, given the friction that had developed. But he was not prepared for the humiliating way in which he was let go, “with certain people just really vilifying me in a gutless, off-the-record kind of way.” The White House asked Hagel if he would stay on until a successor was found, and he accepted. But even after he agreed to leave, Hagel said, some White House officials trashed him in anonymous comments to newspapers, claiming he rarely spoke at Situation Room meetings and deferred to Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “They already had my resignation, so what was the point of just continuing to try to destroy me?” he said. It was a painful end to a career in which Hagel had gone from success to success. After his 1968 combat tour in Vietnam, where he was decorated with two Purple Hearts, he had served as a Capitol Hill staffer, worked as the deputy administrator for the Veterans Administration under President Ronald Reagan, made his fortune in the early years of the cellphone industry, handily won two terms as a senator for Nebraska, and was at one point considered a potential contender for the White House”.