Archive for February, 2016

Iranian reformists blocked

29/02/2016

An important article discusses the elections in Iran noting that reformists might be blocked “In a Jan. 9 speech to commemorate a 1978 uprising in Qom, Iran’s religious center, in which the country’s then-royal regime killed protesters opposed to its rule, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei extolled the event as an example of Islamic exceptionalism. The deadly incident, known as the 19th of Dey, its date in the Persian calendar, is widely considered a prelude to the revolution that one year later established the clerical theocracy that rules Iran today. Khamenei boasted that the flame of Iran’s revolution, unlike its French and Russian forebears, has never been extinguished. And he pledged to keep it that way. “It is very important that a revolution manages to survive, keep itself alive, and confront its enemies and defeat them,” he said. “Our revolution is the only revolution that has managed to achieve these things, and these achievements will continue.” The tribute served as a warning that, regardless of the outcome of the elections this Friday, Iran’s path is unlikely to change”.

Pointedly the writer notes that “This mocking of Iran’s reformists and the tragic fate they met in 2009 presaged what took place a few weeks later, when Khamenei’s allies excluded thousands of reformist candidates from this week’s elections. The only reformist candidates who survived the cull were those whom most voters had never heard of. Paradoxically, the reformist list’s best-known candidate is Ali Motahari, parliament’s most outspoken member. A lifetime conservative scion of a famous cleric, his recent realignment with the reformists is testament to the country’s changing political landscape. While the regime wants 2009 to be forgotten, Motahari has criticized the detention of Green Movement leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, simultaneously winning respect from centrists and moderates as well as reformists”.

Interestingly he mentions that “The reformists have also toned down their ideological aims markedly in this election — a step backward from President Mohammad Khatami’s administration of the early 2000s, when they openly aimed to alter the Islamic Republic’s rigid ideology and pass new laws to tackle gender inequality and promote personal freedoms. This was due to the crackdown that followed the 2009 vote: The judiciary locked up so many activists and shut down so many newspapers that, right now, their goals are far more modest, including avoiding being outlawed as a political force entirely. In the present election, they have formed an ad hoc coalition with political factions supporting the country’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, who has tended to seek more gradual change”.

The writer notes that two elections take place, one for the parliament the other for the Assembly of Experts, “Its biggest potential task has long lay dormant: In a manner similar to how the Roman Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals selects a new pope, the 88 clerics who will comprise the next Assembly of Experts will pick the 76-year-old Khamenei’s successor should he die during its eight-year term. While Khamenei and other officials have urged a high turnout in the run-up to election day, they have also taken steps to show that Iran’s elections will happen on the regime’s terms. The Guardian Council, a 12-member constitutional watchdog, in addition to excluding parliamentary candidates deemed insufficiently loyal to the clergy, has sought to neuter Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khamenei’s revolutionary brother turned foe”.

The report adds “For the country’s reformists, the contradictions of the orchestrated selection process and the predominantly octogenarian makeup of Iran’s highest clerical body make a mockery of claims that the polls are democratic. This dissonance is increasingly hard for a young population to stomach. (Iran’s median age is 30, and around 60 percent of its population of roughly 80 million is younger than that.) It is, according to Khamenei, the duty of all citizens to vote. But the underlying meaning of his pronouncements is that the purpose of doing so is to enshrine the system’s legitimacy, rather than allow people to register disapproval”.

Worryingly for the future of Iran the piece notes that “The wounds that were opened by the suppression of the 2009 protests show no sign of healing. At the first rally of the pro-Rouhani Alliance of Reformists and Government Supporters, which aims to topple hard-line conservatives on Friday, thousands chanted “no more house arrest” and “free the prisoners.” The chants were a reference to Mousavi, Karroubi and the countless others deprived of liberty. The thousands who convened in the sports hall rally also held up a modified version of a poster of the reform movement’s éminence grise, Khatami, from the presidential campaign that saw him elected in 1997. The original shows his face in studied concentration, chin resting on hands. But the 2016version shows only the hands, due to censorship under a media ban on Khatami’s face being published or his words used. The moderate alliance’s logo fills the blank space”.

 

The piece ends “Despite such hopes, it is hard to see past the biggest influence over the elections so far: Khamenei and who will be his successor. While members of parliament come and go, the office of the supreme leader is, for all intents and purposes, for life. In his 19th of Dey speech, the supreme leader not only took potshots at his Green Movement enemies — he raised the subject of his own death, highlighting the overarching significance of the Assembly of Experts election. “When the current leader is not in this world, the day we do not have a leader, it is the responsibility of the Assembly of Experts to choose a leader … who holds the key to this revolution,” he said, urging even those who do not approve of him to cast a ballot. But to many, the overt action of his officials to influence the vote and counter Rouhani’s momentum and popularity after the nuclear deal has grossly undermined the prospect of a huge turnout”.

 

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Iraq clashes with Iran

29/02/2016

As fighting in Iraq raged last summer, Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani came across unexpected opposition to his plans to defeat Islamic State. Soleimani is the commander of Iran’s al-Quds brigade and has been a key figure in the fight against the Sunni Islamist group in Iraq. That fight has been led not by Iraq’s army but by Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias. But in August, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told Soleimani that a planned assault on the Sunni city of Ramadi should be left to the Iraqi army, according to a government official and two diplomats. Abadi, a 64-year-old Shi’ite, wanted the militias to stay away to avoid inflaming ethnic tensions, the sources said. Abadi’s office declined to comment on the story, which has been repeated in Baghdad’s diplomatic circles for months. Three Iraqi politicians denied it ever happened. But the government official and the diplomats said the incident was one of a series of moves by Abadi to assert his authority as leader and to distance himself from Tehran and the militias that came to Baghdad’s rescue in 2014 and early 2015. Abadi has begun to push for reconciliation between Iraq’s Shi’ites and Sunnis, and for better relations with Sunni Arab neighbors like Saudi Arabia, they said.

Putin’s Church?

29/02/2016

Following on from the meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kiril an article in Foreign Affairs questions the extent of power Putin has in the Russian Orthodox Church, “In The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington memorably bemoaned that, whereas in the West there has historically existed a divide between the secular and sacred realms, elsewhere in the world they are inseparably tangled. “In Islam,” he wrote, “God is Caesar; in China and Japan, Caesar is God; in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar’s junior partner.” Russian President Vladimir Putin would no doubt find it convenient if the Russian Orthodox Church were fully subordinate to his political project. He must have been quite pleased when, for example, the current head of the church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Rus’ (the geographic reach of the title is significant), declared prior to the 2012 presidential election that the prosperity and stability Russia has enjoyed since Putin took power in the 2000s was a “miracle of God.”

The piece adds “At the same time, however, there is much that suggests that the Russian Orthodox Church is not simply the handmaiden of the state. Rather, the church seems to outwardly enjoy a good deal of influence and prestige over the government, despite the formal separation of church and state enshrined in the 1993 Constitution. Putin and his entourage, for their part, prefer to reinforce such perceptions. They are frequently photographed attending liturgical services and otherwise paying obeisance to the church as a touchstone for national identity. The Russian president, often seen wearing an Orthodox three-bar cross, is likewise not shy about recounting how he was secretly baptized as an infant by his mother during Soviet times. It is also a fact that Putin helped facilitate the 2007 reunification between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, a fiercely anticommunist body based in New York City and largely composed of the descendants of nobles and intellectuals who fled the Bolsheviks in the wake of 1917″.

The piece goes on, “It isn’t hard to see why Putin would tie himself to the church. The Orthodox Church is distinctly popular in contemporary Russia, consistently ranking among the top three institutions that Russians report trusting most. (An October 2015 survey found 80 percent trust the president, 64 percent the army, and 53 percent the church; by way of comparison, only 24 percent trust the media, 21 percent the court system, and 18 percent the police.) Moreover, between 1991 and 2008 the percentage of Russians who identify as Orthodox increased from 31 percent to 72 percent. The affiliation, however, is overwhelmingly cultural rather than faith-driven. During the same period, for example, the percentage professing belief in God only went from 38 percent to 56 percent, and those reporting belief in an afterlife remained stagnant (33 percent in 1991 versus 32 percent in 2008). Meanwhile, the church has benefited from the close ties between its leadership and the government. In 2011, then President Dmitri Medvedev granted the patriarch a residence in the Kremlin. In late 2010, Russian legislators passed a long-awaited bill allowing the return of Church property seized by the Soviet Union, codifying and expediting a process that had been proceeding piecemeal since the 1990s. The Russian Orthodox Church and affiliated organizations have also been the country’s biggest recipients of presidential grants in recent years, receiving more than 256 million rubles in funding between 2013 and 2015″.

Pointedly the writer makes the point that “Outward appearances of a strong bond, however, can be deceiving. The church’s and Kremlin’s preferences do not always align, and the church’s worldly influence, in any case, is quite circumscribed. Although Putin is more than willing to invoke the church’s imprimatur when it suits his agenda, the church does not have much independent ability to either set or sway that agenda. Indeed, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church has had surprisingly little success in pursuing its political goals when these did not coincide with the Kremlin’s interests. It is thus too simplistic to view the church as simply an extension of the state, just as it is naive to assume that it has much power to achieve political objectives over the state’s head. The truth falls in between, with Putin’s government leaning on the church to provide it a veneer of historical and cultural legitimacy, and the church relying on the Kremlin to uphold its position as a moral arbiter for society. The tensions in this convoluted relationship have revealed themselves in Russia’s soft-power promotion efforts, as well as during its interventions in Ukraine and Syria”.

The piece then makes the point, “Kirill, moreover, has long painted himself as a cultural warrior, even before Putin’s conversion to the cause. Further, given that the Russian Orthodox Church’s canonical territory surpasses Russia’s current borders—it mirrors to a significant extent the footprint of the Tsarist, and later Soviet, empires—the promotion of Russian soft-power abroad via the reimagined Russkiy Mir project looks like a natural fit for church-state collaboration. Nonetheless, the reasons for countering the perceived hegemonic pretensions of Western liberalism are understood in somewhat different terms by Putin and the Patriarch. For the Russian president, the moral and ethical component of the Russkiy Mir represents an add-on to realpolitik objectives. Kirill, meanwhile, views the promotion of conservative values as primarily a theological undertaking that can be aided by political means. He sees the project as having both external and internal dimensions, and therefore advocates a “second Christianization” of Russia to rid it of the lingering effects of Soviet atheism, such as its declining but still extremely high abortion rate. These different understandings have occasionally created tensions between the Kremlin and the church over how overtly religion should impact public life”.

The piece goes on to discuss the war in Ukraine and the Donbas, “Examining the Russian Orthodox Church’s reaction to events in Ukraine highlights further the difference in objectives of the church and the Kremlin. The church has thousands of parishes and millions of parishioners in Ukraine, and the Russian government’s actions in Crimea and the Donbas threaten its hold on them. The situation is further complicated by Ukraine’s unusually complex religious landscape. Leaving aside other denominations, the largest Orthodox body in the country, in terms of both members and parishes, is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which is autonomous (internally self-governing) but falls under the ecclesial authority of the “mother” Russian Orthodox Church. The next largest is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), followed by the much smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. The latter two, however, are not formally recognized by the wider Orthodox world. Putin, for his part, has made a point of using religiously tinged language when discussing Ukraine. This was on full display in his March 2014 speech announcing Crimea’s annexation, where he invoked the imagery of Vladimir the Great being baptized into the Orthodox faith in the ancient Crimean city of Chersonesus, an act Putin claimed laid the foundation for the shared culture and values”.

Interestingly it goes on “These references were calculated to strike a chord with Russians, who trace their patrimony back to Rus’, the eastern Slavic proto-state that was established in the ninth century and accepted Christianity from Byzantium in 988 AD. Rus’, however, was centered on the city of Kiev, which is now the capital of a sovereign Ukraine. Putin’s religious appeals, in other words, were meant to remind Russians that they had a legitimate right to take back their spiritual and national birthplace from a Ukrainian government that was trying to distance itself from the civilizational root common to all eastern Slavs. Russian Orthodox officials had a variety of reactions to the Ukrainian crisis, with some supporting the Kremlin’s actions and others criticizing them. Caught in the middle, Kirill refused to take sides, proclaiming that “the children of our church are people of various political views and convictions, including those who are today on opposite sides of the barricades” in Ukraine. Tellingly, despite usually occupying a prominent front-row seat during presidential addresses, the patriarch was not in the audience when Putin announced that Crimea was once again part of Russia. Since then, he has not moved to incorporate the Crimean dioceses of the UOC-MP into the Russian Orthodox Church proper”.

Crucially for Putin it notes “if ecclesial conflicts eventually result in a significant segment of the UOC-MP abandoning Moscow and forming a truly unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church, it would not only undermine a central conceptual pillar of the Russkiy Mir but it would also greatly lessen the symbolic standing and territorial footprint of the Russian Orthodox Church”.

On the ROC and Syria the writer makes the point that “Kirill actively advocated Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict. However, here again Kremlin and church objectives differed. The church’s stated goal was not to prop up Assad or preserve the regional balance of power but to protect Christians from ISIS and other Islamist groups (many Christians in Syria belong to the Antiochian Orthodox Church). In his January 2015 address to Russian legislators, the patriarch observed that Syrian and Iraqi Christians were fleeing their homelands in droves, emphasizing that the “last remaining Christians there today see hope for being saved only in Russia.” Moreover, once Moscow decided to intervene, the patriarch’s press service issued a statement noting that, although Christians face savage crimes, Muslims “are not suffering any less,” and lauding Russian action as a step toward bringing “peace and justice to this ancient land.” Finally, on Orthodox Christmas (January 7), the patriarch further justified Russian operations in Syria by underscoring their defensive nature. However, contrary to what has been widely reported in the foreign-language media and repeated by ISIS propagandists, the church did not call for waging a “holy war” in Syria”.

The piece ends “Putin’s conundrum is that he wants the Russian Orthodox Church to help legitimate the restored Russian state while eliding the abject persecution the church suffered under the Soviet regime, just like he wants to emphasize the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany in WWII without coming to terms with the horrific crimes of Stalin. Where does this leave the church? It is not as an institution subordinate to the Kremlin, but neither does it stand on equal footing with the regime in Putin’s Russia. Moreover, despite recent internal efforts to quell dissent, the church still embodies diverse opinions and viewpoints. As a result, the real synergies are not between the church and the Kremlin but between a burgeoning civil religion that Chapnin terms “Orthodoxy without Christ” and Putin’s muscular brand of statist rhetoric. In a society where over 70 percent of citizens identify as Orthodox even though the percentage of active churchgoers is in the single digits, the cultural resonance of the church is as obvious as its doctrinal relevance is moot, making it ripe for political exploitation. In contemporary Russia, it is not the Orthodox Church but the jingoistic Orthodox atheist that is the regime’s greatest ally”.

“Russian government is considering a 5 percent cut in defence procurement”

29/02/2016

The Russian government is considering a 5 percent cut in defence procurement spending this year, sources say, showing not even Vladimir Putin’s plan to restore Moscow’s military might is immune to the pain of a slowing economy. The president has made beefing up the military a national priority, and the fact it is up for discussion is a sign that no area is safe from budget cuts as Russia begins a second year of recession following a fall in oil prices and Western sanctions. The proposal is backed by the finance ministry and has the support of several other ministries and state institutions, enough for it to be put forward for discussion at a cabinet meeting, four official sources said. A 5 percent cut in defense procurement spending would save the government no more than 100 billion roubles ($1.29 billion), according to an estimate by one official who spoke to Reuters.

The EU and Boris’s view of sovereignty

29/02/2016

A piece in the Economist notes that Boris Johnson has decided to support Brexit, “the commentariat, and almost no one else, has been waiting excitedly for Boris Johnson to show his colours in Britain’s upcoming EU referendum. The great moment came at 3:30pm with the BBC’s confirmation of prior reports that London’s mayor would back a Brexit vote. This news is bad for the In campaign—he is the country’s most popular politician, after all—though not nearly as much as some excited Eurosceptics will claim in the coming hours. It positions Mr Johnson to run for the Conservative leadership should David Cameron lose the referendum, and perhaps, though not as immediately, if he does not. But shamelessly self-interested and probably contrary to his real views on the EU though it is, the mayor’s move is perhaps not entirely disingenuous. He has always insisted that his decision would turn on his concerns that EU membership is incompatible with British sovereignty. Expect him to concentrate on this objection in the coming days”.

The report mentions that “Johnson has thus aligned himself squarely with Michael Gove, the justice secretary with whom he consorted earlier in the week and who declared his support for Brexit on Friday in a 1,500-word statement that overwhelmingly concentrated on national self-rule. The “decisions which govern all our lives”, Mr Gove argued, should be taken uniquely by “people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change”. It is worth taking this variety of Euroscepticism seriously—partly because it comes from the more thoughtful, liberal wing of the movement (Mr Gove is not the Little Englander of Europhile lore, for example). But also because it will feature very prominently in the debates between now and June 23rd, especially as Mr Johnson will now presumably become the face of the Out campaign”.

Interestingly the piece goes on to make the point that “The Johnson-Gove argument goes something like this: unlike many continental countries, Britain has an unbroken tradition of liberty and representative democracy (a “golden thread”) dating back to Magna Carta and shared by other Anglophone nations. This tradition is almost uniquely uncompromising about accountability, steadfast in the conviction that power should rest only in the hands of leaders elected by and answerable to a nation constituting a demos, a community of shared assumptions and experiences. Thus the EU, accountable to foreigners as well as Britons, breaks the sacred bond of mutual power between decisionmakers and those on whose behalf they act”.

Correctly the writer argues that “The flaw in this case lies in the tradition’s idealistic definition of sovereignty. For Mr Johnson and Mr Gove, being sovereign is like being pregnant—you either are or you aren’t. Yet increasingly in today’s post-Westphalian world, real sovereignty is relative. A country that refuses outright to pool authority is one that has no control over the pollution drifting over its borders, the standards of financial regulation affecting its economy, the consumer and trade norms to which its exporters and importers are bound, the cleanliness of its seas and the security and economic crises propelling shock waves—migration, terrorism, market volatility—deep into domestic life. To live with globalisation is to acknowledge that many laws (both those devised by governments and those which bubble up at no one’s behest) are international beasts whether we like it or not. If sovereignty is the absence of mutual interference, the most sovereign country in the world is North Korea”.

He goes on to note “Thus the EU is just one of thousands of intrusions on the sort of sovereignty that the likes of Mr Johnson so cherish. Britain is subject to some 700 international treaties involving multi-lateral submissions to multilateral compromises. Its membership of the UN similarly infringes its self-determination, for it can be outvoted there just as it can in Brussels. Likewise the WTO, NATO, the COP climate talks, the IMF, the World Bank, nuclear test ban treaties and accords on energy, water, maritime law and air traffic all require Britain to tolerate the sort of trade-offs that Eurosceptic souverainistes find distasteful: influence in exchange for irksome standardisation, laws and rules set mostly by foreigners not elected by Britons (regulations that Britain would not apply, or would apply differently, if left to its own devices). Yet it submits to all of these knowing that, as with the EU, it is free to leave whenever it wants—but at a price not worth paying”.

The argument goes on to deride Johnson’s view of the UK outside the EU, “This is precisely why the two models for a Britain outside the EU often cited by Eurosceptics (including Mr Johnson), Norway and Switzerland, constitute such weak arguments for Brexit. Under the Johnson-Gove view, these countries are quite dramatically more “sovereign” than Britain. But in practice their economies and societies are so intertwined with those of their neighbours that they must subject themselves to rules over which they have no say. This exposes a false choice: in an increasingly interdependent world, countries must often opt not between pure sovereignty and the pooled sort, but—however distasteful the choice may seem—between the pooled sort and none”.

The piece argues against the view of the special UK and its common voters all standing together, “The media is fragmenting and internationalising. The citizens of a given country do not all watch the same television programmes and read the same newspapers any more. Across Europe there is evidence of growing political polarisation along cultural lines: for all their differences in experience and outlook, voters in declining, post-industrial parts of England and France have much more in common with each other than with those in cosmopolitan London or Paris. Language divides people less all the time. Sub-national allegiances are growing in strength (note Scotland’s slide towards independence) and form an increasingly appropriate and effective basis for government (consider all the recent literature on the “age of mayors”). So while one can still argue that power exercised at a national level is more democratically valid than that exercised at a supra-national one, that case becomes less pressing with each passing year”.

The report concludes “Talk of foreigners imposing their will on Britain’s elected government is usually (and especially in Mr Johnson’s case) accompanied by a patriotic flourish: the assertion that, as one of world’s great economic, cultural and military powers, the country deserves to get its autonomy back and can make it on its own. But this chest-puffing diverges from the underlying sovereignty argument, which only works if, deep down, you think Britain a bit puny. Consider the trade-off: let foreigners have some influence over your country of 64m and in return receive quite a lot of influence over a union of more than 500m. When Eurosceptics only mention the first half of this bargain, they imply that Britain is too weedy to take advantage of the second. Which is odd, as the national strengths they otherwise celebrate give the country a tremendous ability to do so. Its diplomatic service, its global alliances, its language, its historical heft—not to mention the absence of a power similarly well positioned to exercise continental leadership—all put it in a fantastic position to set the agenda in Brussels at those rare moments (for example, at the time of the Lisbon Agenda and the union’s eastwards expansion) when it puts its mind to the task. The EU is Britain’s to run, if only it could overcome its insecurity about scary foreign bullies. In an interconnected and ineluctably integrated 21st century, it is that, far more than the Eurosceptics’ purity games, that is real sovereignty”.

“Germany is considering sending troops to Tunisia”

25/02/2016

Germany is considering sending troops to Tunisia to help train soldiers in the fight against ISIL, a newspaper report said on Sunday. Representatives of the defence and foreign ministries would hold talks in Tunis on Thursday and Friday about how the German military could lend support in a training mission, according to Bild am Sonntag. It said the engagement envisaged training Tunisian soldiers first and could eventually be extended to setting up a training camp in Tunisia for Libyan soldiers, run with other international partners. “The ISIL terror is threatening all of North Africa,” German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen said, and is thus crucial “to make every effort to support countries struggling with democracy such as Tunisia”. Ms Von der Leyen said that a training camp in Tunisia would be a contribution toward regional stability. “And if its direct neighbour Libya manages to put in place a unity government one day, its security forces could also benefit from established training facilities in Tunisia,” she said”.

“Seeking new ways to respond to a highly uncertain environment”

25/02/2016

Jane Kinnemont has written the Saudi foreign policy is in a state of flux, “The accession of King Salman a year ago and the decision to lead a military intervention in Yemen mark a new phase for Saudi foreign policy. That does not mean that there is a new foreign policy doctrine or strategy. Rather, the new generation that is taking the lead in foreign policy is seeking new ways to respond to a highly uncertain environment. It is demonstrating a newfound willingness to use military force, but is also witnessing its limits. With the outcome of the Yemen war still far from clear, the direction and the tools of Saudi foreign policy under King Salman are still being tested”.

She goes on to argue “For decades, Saudi Arabia has been described as a conservative power, seeking to preserve the status quo in the Middle East: upholding the system of sovereign states and welcoming the US presence in the region; and for the past three decades overtly supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By contrast, Iran has been seen since the revolution as a revisionist actor, supporting revolutionary non-state movements, while seeking an end to the US presence in the region and an end to Israel’s existence. But these paradigms are shifting; the regional system is in flux”.

She adds that “In Saudi Arabia’s neighbourhood, the state is collapsing in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. These are not only wars for control of the state, but conflicts that will determine whether the state itself will continue to exist in its 20th century borders. The perception that the US is withdrawing from the region is compelling enough to have encouraged Russia to ramp up its military role there. And Iran’s nuclear deal may presage a wider rapprochement with the US, ending more than three decades of enmity and containment. In Syria and Iraq – though not in Lebanon or Yemen – Iran is now the political conservative, fighting for embattled regimes, albeit through a mix of non-state actors that further weaken the sovereignty of those countries. Meanwhile, Iranian diplomats are increasingly trying to pitch their country to the West as an ally against terrorism. Once seen as a country exporting revolution, Iran is now trying to recast itself as a defender of order”.

Naturally, the West should not believe this Iranian trick. They, especially the United States, needs to remain aware of their duplicity in funding terrorism and at the same time wishing to be seen as the solution to the problems of the Middle East.

She continues, making the point that “the Saudis, rather than giving blanket support for counter-revolution, have responded to the uprisings according to personalities and opportunities: supporting regime change directly in Syria and rhetorically in Libya, as both rulers were seen as enemies; sending tanks into Bahrain when a monarchy was threatened; engaging reluctantly with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and then supporting the military coup against it, to return to a version of the ancien regime. Saudi policy towards Yemen is almost the exact opposite of its policy towards Egypt: first, Saudi Arabia supported what they hoped would be a controlled transition away from the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Then, when a combination of ancien regime and revisionist forces carried out a coup, Saudi Arabia led an international military intervention to try to reverse it. The difference in policy largely reflects the Saudi fear of an Iranian role in Yemen”.

Interestingly she makes the point that “Saudi policymakers are keen to emphasize that their aim in Yemen is to reinstate the internationally recognized president, thereby upholding international norms; domestically and regionally, their narrative focuses on pushing Iranian influence out of the Arabian Peninsula, thereby maintaining a traditionally Arab sphere. Yet the war in Yemen is unable to restore the status quo ante. Instead it is exacerbating the country’s existing centrifugal tendencies by introducing a dangerous new element of sectarian politics that may lead to the breakup of the state. Meanwhile, criticism is quietly growing inside Saudi Arabia as well. What is clear overall is that the traditional assumptions about Saudi Arabia’s behaviour – for instance, that it would rely on arms only for deterrence, while basing its foreign policy on diplomacy and financial influence – can no longer be relied upon”.

Crucially she notes that “So far it is mainly the tools, and the ambition, that have changed, rather than the overall direction of foreign policy. As Saudi diplomats and academics articulate it, the Saudi authorities essentially want to protect their own internal stability; to be surrounded by friendly regimes that will do business with them and accept a Western role in the region; and to prevent the empowerment of groups with a transnational agenda that would destabilize Al Saud rule from bases in other countries. Thus, the rivalry with Iran has less to do with ethnic and sectarian issues than with opposition to Iranian power and influence in the region”.

Pointedly she notes that “The suggestion that the Saudi state wants to ‘Wahhabize’ the region is a vast oversimplification: their closest friends in the Gulf are the relatively secular UAE and Bahraini ruling families, not the Qataris, though the latter are closer in terms of religious orientation. In Lebanon, the Saudi-backed Future Movement largely comprises secular Sunnis, while in the Palestinian arena Saudi Arabia favours secular Fatah over Muslim Brotherhood-linked Hamas or any of the smaller Salafist groups”.

The piece ends “Domestically, too, conserving Al Saud rule means change. The ruling family is moving to the younger generation, in the succession, the defence establishment and the foreign ministry. This has also brought about a centralization of power, a more decisive but less consensus-based policy. And the country’s economic challenges, intensified by the persistently low oil price, also spell significant fiscal and economic change. This will make foreign policy decisions more contentious, as defence and aid spending compete with healthcare and education for scarcer resources”.

 

Iran, capping production?

25/02/2016

Iran appeared Wednesday to back a plan laid out by four influential oil producers to cap their crude output if others do the same, though it offered no indication that it has any plans to follow suit itself. The agreement reached in Doha the day before by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Venezuela is aimed at stabilizing global oil prices, which recently plunged to less than $30 a barrel, a 13-year low. But Iran is keen to ramp up exports to regain market share now that sanctions related to its nuclear program have been lifted under a landmark agreement. “Iran supports any measure to boost oil prices,” Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said after talks with his counterparts from Iraq, Venezuela and Qatar “The decision taken to freeze the production ceiling of OPEC and non-OPEC members to stabilize and boost prices is also supported by us,” he added, in comments posted on the ministry’s website late Wednesday”.

“The biggest obstacle to confronting ISIS is Libya’s broken state”

23/02/2016

An interesting piece discusses how to best intervene in Libya.

It starts, “In recent weeks, a succession of U.S. and European officials have warned that military operations to stop the creeping advance of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the shattered North African state of Libya are imminent. Since the summer of 2014, ISIS has exploited a governance vacuum and a factional civil war in Libya to expand what was once just a toehold into a foothold. It has clashed with, and in some areas displaced, older jihadist groups affiliated with al Qaeda. It has used Libya’s lawlessness to attract foreign recruits, conduct training, and plot operations abroad. ISIS now controls the central coastal city of Sirte and is attacking the nearby petroleum facilities to prevent much-needed revenue from reaching Libya’s central bank. And perhaps most worrisome, U.S. officials recently stated that ISIS has sent hundreds of fighters from Iraq and Syria to Libya in a calculated fallback strategy; the total number ISIS fighters in Libya is estimated between 3,000 and 6,500″.

Correctly the authors write that “There’s no doubt that the ISIS presence demands a forcible response, above all from Libyans themselves, backed by Western support. That assistance is likely to involve special operations forces—who are reportedly already on the ground—liaising with, training, and advising Libyan units, backed by aircraft using precision-guided munitions. But this approach carries great risks. The West must proceed carefully, or else it could exacerbate Libya’s political fractures, encourage warlordism, or undermine attempts to re-establish a single government and lay the basis for a cohesive and civilian-controlled military. Any strategy to tackle ISIS should first aim at bridging Libyan political divides and channeling assistance in a way that promotes cooperation between rival forces. For Libyans and Western governments alike, the biggest obstacle to confronting ISIS is Libya’s broken state”.

They note that “For the past year and half, the country has been split into two loose constellations of political factions and armed actors. The first is the Tripoli-based “Dawn” coalition, which comprises Islamist fighters and militias from the western part of the country. The second is the “Dignity” umbrella, which is drawn from eastern tribes, federalists, some western militias, and Qaddafi-era officers recruited into a self-styled “Libyan National Army” led by General Khalifa Hifter. In the past year, internal power struggles have fractured these two groups to the point that they exist only in name. Worse, both have been so focused on preventing rivals from gaining ground that they’ve allowed ISIS to expand, often cynically using the terrorist group’s presence to accuse their adversaries of collusion. Representatives from the two sides recently signed a UN-brokered agreement to form a unity government, which, Western officials hope, will soon issue a formal invitation for military assistance. But the unity agreement is fragile and incomplete, having been pushed through under Western pressure despite resistance from key local players. The Presidency Council, the nine-member executive body established by the agreement, has started to falter before even having managed to form a government. Unless it can obtain the formal support of Libya’s two rival legislatures and take office in the capital, Tripoli, the unity government will be widely perceived as a Western puppet”.

The writers make the point that “Two options are currently on the table: a training program to stand up new army units loyal to the government and a counterterrorism effort focused on providing assistance to those forces on the ground that are most capable and most willing to confront ISIS. Neither option offers a remedy to the problem of factionalism in Libya’s security sector—and both could make matters worse. The training program is based on the flawed premise that Libya lacks skilled fighters. In fact, it has lacked governments capable of bringing skilled fighters under state control. A Western training effort in 2013–14 to build a national army—the so-called general purpose force—failed because there were no national structures for recruits to join: rival political interests in Libya’s state institutions had turned the security sector into a hodge-podge of factional militias. Another training program risks simply repeating this error unless the Presidency Council can agree on a realistic roadmap for building a unified and professional military. In the best-case scenario, such efforts would result in a reliable military for future governments to use. But it would not offer an immediate response to the urgent ISIS threat”.

The writers go on to argue “Counterterrorism assistance must proceed hand-in-hand with building inclusive political and security institutions. The two should be mutually reinforcing. Instead of a training mission or a direct intervention in the form of airstrikes, the West’s priority should be to support the establishment of integrated structures and units in the security sector. At the political level, that will require intensive engagement to overcome the standoff over the army leadership and promote cooperation between representatives of rival factions in the Presidency Council, its government, and the military command. On the ground, the West must tie assistance for the fight against ISIS to a process of integration of armed groups”.

He notes the need for co-ordinated foreign assistance and that “Western involvement in Libya should be geared toward supporting the unity government, which will need to back any efforts to promote battlefield coordination among regional militias. No single faction should receive assistance unless it is considered both neutral in local power struggles and loyal to the unity government. Further, if the government makes progress on re-unifying command structures, Western assistance should flow through a national chain of command, rather than directly to regional coordination centers. Of course, if the council remains paralyzed by internal divisions or the agreement collapses, the Western backed regional coordination centers will have no chance of ever evolving into a foundation for an integrated military. At the very least, however, the strategy will reduce the risk that military assistance will widen political rifts and contribute to the failure of the unity government. Alarmist assessments of ISIS in Libya should not lead to a hasty and heavy-handed intervention. ISIS may be expanding its presence in Libya, but it has not been able tap into the popular discontent of broad segments of the population—yet”.

“A unity government under a United Nations-backed plan”

23/02/2016

Libya’s Presidential Council named a revised lineup late on Sunday for a unity government under a United Nations-backed plan aimed at ending the conflict in the North African state. One of the council’s members, Fathi al-Majbari, said in a televised statement that the list of 13 ministers and five ministers of state had been sent to Libya’s eastern parliament for approval. But in a sign of continuing divisions over how to bring together Libya’s warring factions, two of the council’s nine members refused for a second time to put their signatures to the proposed government, according to a document posted on the Presidential Council’s Facebook page. The U.N. plan under which the unity government has been named was designed to help Libya stabilise and tackle a growing threat from Islamic State militants. It was signed in Morocco in December, but has been opposed by hard-liners on both sides from the start and suffered repeated delays”.

Bernie’s foreign policy, worse than Obama’s

23/02/2016

A piece in Foreign Affairs discusses the foreign policy of Bernie Sanders. His statements on the campaign trail show that this is perhaps the only reason not to support Sanders.

It opens, “Hillary Clinton’s narrow victory over Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucuses made clear that the race for the Democratic Party nomination is far from over. Even if Sanders fails to secure the nomination, he can claim to have substantively changed the dynamic of the race. On domestic policy, Sanders has pushed Clinton to the left, bringing discussions of economic inequality and financial regulation to the forefront of the campaign. But when it comes to foreign policy, Sanders has been much less influential. Many assume that he just can’t compete on foreign policy with Clinton, who served as secretary of state for four years. In the last two televised debates, Sanders offered glimpses of his views on U.S. engagement with Iran and the need for multilateral coalitions to fight the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), but he has yet to offer a comprehensive foreign policy vision”.

Interestingly the author argues “He would not have to look far for one. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the inspiration for the “democratic socialism” that underpins Sanders’ domestic policy, can also provide the inspiration for how Sanders might engage in foreign policy. By embracing Roosevelt’s pursuit of great power cooperation within international institutions and international law, Sanders can articulate what the Princeton University professor John Ikenberry has described as a post-hegemonic foreign affairs strategy: the United States would relinquish its dominant role in maintaining a liberal world order and instead share power with rising hegemons in a system that treats all states as equals. Under this framework, the United States would promote multilateral cooperation through international organizations such as the United Nations and by encouraging collective compliance with international law”.

However, problems emerge with this straight away. Firstly, FDR only really dealt with Stalin during the Second World War and after that relations between the two countries froze and remain in stasis during the Cold War. Thus the notion that Sanders could coax Putin into “great power cooperation” would be even more of a naïve failure that the current Obama policy in this regard. Worse, the author mentions that Sanders could take a theme from Ikenberry who lauded the liberal building of the United States after 1945. Yet, in many of Ikenberry’s texts, he assumes that the order will survive after America has in effect retreated from the world. Kagan has rightly warned that this is a dangerous fantasy that should not be countanced. Thus, if the author is correct and these are the themes that interest Sanders then a Sanders foreign policy would be a heightened version of Obama’s, but even more extreme and dangerous. Lastly, this would only propagate the myth of American decline that Obama has both railed against but also done nothing to stop in practical foreign policy terms.

As the writer notes “This approach would build upon U.S. President Barack Obama’s liberal internationalism while rejecting Clinton’s embrace of American exceptionalism, encapsulated in her remark in the first debate: “We’re not Denmark!” Sanders could thus turn Hillary Clinton’s supposed leadership and experience against her and define her as being allied with neoconservative views and out of touch with the Democratic Party’s redefined foreign affairs legacy”.

The article goes on to describe FDR’s foreign policy, “Roosevelt successfully pursued this strategy during World War II. As the historians Frank Costigliola and Alan Henrikson have demonstrated, Roosevelt saw his main diplomatic objective as achieving “Big Three cooperation” among the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union. He emphasized the shared interests between the United States and the Soviet Union despite Anglo-American animosity toward Moscow. FDR believed that only cooperation among the great powers could serve as the basis for a new postwar order embodied in the United Nations, international law, and respect for human rights. Sanders has made a similar pitch with his call for a “coalition of wealthy and powerful states” to defeat ISIS, but he could make it more credible by suggesting that Iran would have a role to play in such diplomacy. The Obama administration’s success in negotiating the Iranian nuclear agreement, as well as Tehran’s presence at the Vienna talks on the Syrian civil war, suggest that Iran is willing to cooperate on shared interests in the region. The agreement has also empowered Iranian moderates, such as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, at the expense of hard-liners bent on regional domination. Given these developments, it is wise for Sanders to open the door to eventual diplomatic normalization with Iran, as he hinted he would in the last debate before the Iowa caucus. The long-term goal should be the development of a great power consensus about the final status of Syria and Iraq”.

The writer goes on to posit that “A Sanders administration could complement its pursuit of great power concert with a renewed commitment to Roosevelt’s postwar vision of international institutions and law. Sanders’ rejection of regime change and the unilateral use of U.S. military force are good first steps in this direction. His next move should be to declare an end to U.S. exemptions from international law by signing and promoting the ratification of the many worldwide treaties and conventions otherwise ignored by Washington, including the Rome Statute, which binds states to the International Criminal Court. The United States should also increase its efforts to reform the UN peacekeeping system to include major U.S. participation in peace operations. These initiatives, combined with support for reforming the voting shares system that governs the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, would demonstrate a new U.S. commitment to global institutions that limit the power of any one actor and reduce military and economic competition”.

The author adds that “By ending U.S. exemptions to international law, Sanders would reaffirm his commitment to these rights, and especially to protections that make up the core principles of the International Labour Organization (ILO). A Sanders administration could further seek to reform international trade agreements by proposing that all new trade treaties, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, adopt legally binding ILO Conventions as the basis for labor protections rather than the nonbinding and vague ILO Declaration on Rights at Work”.

However noble these words they are not grounded in any sort of reality. If the United States is to remain the global policemen, which it must, then it must be above these “laws”. This will correctly lead to charges of hypocrisy and double standards but this is the price worth paying for global governance. To sign these treaties would be a dangerous move which could be used by enemies of the United States to further weaken it and strengthen nations like China and Russia who have no intention of abiding by these treaties anyway.

He ends “Sanders’ articulation of a post-hegemonic vision of foreign affairs could form the strongest challenge yet to neoconservatives in both the Democratic and Republican parties. For example, Sanders could contrast his openness toward Iran with Clinton’s persistent hostility and connect her past support for regime change to future attempts at dominance. By strongly embracing international law and human rights, Sanders could initiate a broader challenge to exceptionalist understandings of the United States’ role in the world. Over time, internationalist ideas might become more acceptable, in the same way that “socialist” positions have become increasingly popular today. If Sanders ran on a comprehensive internationalist platform, he could transform the approach to foreign affairs in the United States and eventually make possible congressional ratification of international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child”.

 

Saudis back away from using troops

21/02/2016

Saudi Arabia said on Sunday that any move to deploy Saudi special forces into Syria would depend on a decision by the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State insurgents. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Friday he expected both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to send special operations forces to Syria to help local opposition fighters in their campaign to retake the city of Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria. Saudi Arabia on Saturday confirmed it had sent aircraft to NATO-member Turkey’s Incirlik air base for the fight against Islamic State militants. “The Kingdom’s readiness to provide special forces to any ground operations in Syria is linked to a decision to have a ground component to this coalition against Daesh (Islamic State) in Syria – this U.S.-led coalition – so the timing is not up to us,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference with his Swiss counterpart in Riyadh.

Methodist vs a jew

21/02/2016

An interesting article in the Washington Post reports on the religious differences of Clinton and Sanders, “Growing up, Bernie Sanders followed the path of many young American Jews. He went to Hebrew school, was bar mitzvahed and traveled to Israel to work on a kibbutz. But as an adult, Sanders drifted away from Jewish customs. And as his bid for the White House gains momentum, he has the chance to make history. Not just as the first Jewish president — but as one of the few modern presidents to present himself as not religious. Sanders said he believes in God, though not necessarily in a traditional manner. “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways,” he said. “To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” Sanders’s religious views, which he has rarely discussed, set him apart from the norm in modern American politics, in which voters have come to expect candidates from both parties to hold traditional views about God and to speak about their faith journeys”.

The article goes on to mention “Every president since James Madison has made the pilgrimage across Lafayette Square to worship at St. John’s Church at least once, according to the White House Historical Association. Only three presidents, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, have been unaffiliated with a specific religious tradition, according to the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life. And President Obama and his predecessors have regularly hosted clergy for White House prayer sessions. Sanders’s chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, emphasized her lifelong affiliation as a Methodist during an exchange Monday with voters in Iowa. Clinton did not mention Sanders, but her words underscored the stark contrast between her more traditional approach and that of her rival”.

The report adds “For Sanders, rejecting the formal trappings of religion adds to the unconventional nature of a candidacy that has energized many liberals but could prove problematic in a general election. He is a self-described “democratic socialist” who has refused to shy away from policy positions that would expand government and increase taxes. Sanders often presents his support for curbing Wall Street banks and ending economic inequality in values-laden terms. He recently described it as “immoral and wrong” that the highest earners in the country own the vast majority of the nation’s wealth. Even so, Sanders has appeared reluctant to delve into discussions about his faith, prompting many to assume on social media that he is more secular than God-fearing”.

Interestingly it goes on to note “Sanders’s father, Eli, grew up in a rural village in southern Poland and crossed the Atlantic in 1921, driven by penury rather than prejudice to seek opportunities in Brooklyn, where an older brother had settled. He married the daughter of Polish immigrants and made his living as a paint salesman, finding community among a circle of like-minded relatives and friends. Bernie Sanders, born in 1941, was raised only blocks from where his second wife, Jane O’Meara, later grew up, but it was culturally distant from her Catholic quarter”.

It later mentions “Almost seven years apart in age, the Sanders boys shared a bedroom in a modest but comfortable apartment. Passover Seders would rotate among neighbors. When their father went to synagogue on Yom Kippur, the boys would sometimes wait outside, listening to the World Series. Bernie Sanders’s bar mitzvah was “a big gathering,” Larry Sanders recalled, at which the adolescent looked younger than his 13 years. Their Jewish education was “unsophisticated,” Larry Sanders said, grounded in a simple moral code of right and wrong”.

The article goes on to note “Larry Sanders doesn’t remember Judaic teachings — or even the Holocaust — being a common topic of conversation within the family, although a pall hung over the household after the Red Cross brought news that an uncle in Poland had been shot by the Nazis. Their parents were ardent New Dealers, said Larry Sanders, who went on to become a Green Party member and county council member in England. By the time Bernie Sanders graduated from the University of Chicago in 1964 and traveled overseas, he was examining ways in which the rest of the world was implementing socialist strategies, his brother said. When Sanders and his first wife, who was Jewish, decided in 1968 to settle in Vermont, they joined a flow of urban Jews who resisted the materialism of postwar America, according to Benson Scotch, a former ACLU lawyer who was part of the same migration. They were looking for something “more open to community,” said Scotch, who said he never expected the young idealist to follow the career path he is now on. People who have known Sanders over the four decades of his political ascent in Vermont — as a member of the leftist Liberty Union Party, mayor of Burlington, and subsequently as an independent member of the House and the Senate — say Sanders’s central interest has always been politics, not religion”.

The report goes on to note “A vivid illustration of Sanders’s approach came in September, on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. While many Jews took the day off from work and school to worship, Sanders was campaigning — at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Va. In his speech, Sanders sought a religious common ground by alluding to a New Testament passage from the Sermon on the Mount that outlines Jesus’ moral teaching”.

The piece continues, “Sanders has also used his family history to draw what he says are important lessons about the dangers of democracy when it is untethered from morality. He recalled during a recent breakfast with reporters how a trip he and his brother took to their father’s ancestral village in Poland reminded him of what happened when elections precipitated the rise of the Nazis, leading to the death of 6 million Jews, including three members of Sanders’s family. But the man who would succeed America’s first black president, and who is in a neck-and-neck race for the Democratic nomination with a woman who touts her history-making potential as the first female president, has done little to promote his own possible historical achievement. And many of the country’s most prominent pro-Israel donors have lined up behind Clinton, who has long nurtured close ties with the U.S. Jewish community and showcased her strong support for the Jewish state. Sanders, in contrast, has emphasized his pro-Israel views less over the course of his political career. In recent days, Clinton’s campaign has attempted to portray Sanders as misguided on Middle East issues”.

It concludes “Perhaps most puzzling is Sanders’s reluctance to cement cultural connections with fellow Jews by sharing stories from his past — among them which kibbutz he stayed on in the early 1960s. In Israel, the Kibbutz Movement — the umbrella organization for the 250 communal settlements — launched a Facebook campaign to find out, featuring a Photoshopped picture of the presidential candidate wearing a symbolic Israeli “tembel” hat. After Naomi Zeveloff published an article in the Forward about the search, readers wrote in, wondering why Sanders wasn’t releasing the information”.

 

 

 

 

Iran gets its money but pays off debts

21/02/2016

Iran gained access to about $100 billion in frozen assets when an international nuclear agreement was implemented last month, but $50 billion of it already was tied up because of debts and other commitments, a U.S. official said on Thursday. Stephen Mull, the State Department’s coordinator for implementing the agreement, also told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee there was no evidence Iran had cheated in the first few weeks since the deal was implemented. Mull and John Smith, acting director of the Treasury Department office that oversees sanctions, faced heated questioning from some members of the committee, where some Democrats joined Republican lawmakers in opposing the nuclear pact reached in July.

Cameron gets his deal

21/02/2016

A report in the Washington Post notes that David Cameron has come up with a deal on the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU, “Having persuaded 27 fellow European leaders to do a deal to save Britain’s E.U. membership, Prime Minister David Cameron faced an insurrection at home on Saturday as his government emerged divided over whether to back a Brexit”.

The article goes on to mention that “In a rare Saturday morning cabinet meeting — the first since the Falklands War in 1982 — Cameron attempted to rally his senior ministers to the cause of keeping the United Kingdom a part of the European Union when the country votes in June. The meeting came just hours after the prime minister inked a deal in Brussels with his E.U. counterparts that he said would dramatically improve British relations with the bloc. The agreement featured concessions in various areas, including currency protections and immigration, and it only came together after two days of round-the-clock talks. But with a referendum campaign now underway in Britain, there were major defections from the government’s senior ranks, reflecting bitter divisions in the prime minister’s Conservative Party over the country’s membership in the E.U. Polls show that voters as a whole are almost evenly split”.

The piece notes that the referendum to decide on the place of the UK in the EU will take place on 23 June, “giving both sides four months to try to convince a majority of voters. Cameron had first promised the referendum in 2013, bowing to a strong current of Euroscepticism that has run through British politics for decades and is unequaled anywhere else on the continent. A British departure would be a first for the bloc, and it could imperil the union’s future by empowering anti-E.U. forces across the continent. The stakes are high for Britain, as well. “We are approaching one of the biggest decisions this country will face in our lifetimes,” Cameron said Saturday. The prime minister announced that a majority of his cabinet was recommending that the British public vote to stay in, and he argued that a departure — popularly known as Brexit — would damage Britain by depriving the country of vital partners”.

The scale of the divisions within the Tories is well know but the piece adds “only minutes after the prime minister spoke, a half-dozen cabinet ministers announced they would defy Cameron and side with out. Cameron had bucked British political convention by allowing his ministers to choose either side of the E.U. debate, rather than demanding loyalty. Saturday’s defections were not a surprise; six have been sharply critical of the E.U. in the past. But their stance reflects just how politically divisive the referendum is likely to be, cutting across party lines. Among the defectors — dubbed #TheSecessionistSix on Twitter — is Justice Secretary Michael Gove, an influential Tory and one of Cameron’s closest friends”.

It goes on to mention “In a lengthy statement released Saturday afternoon, Gove said that he was anguished at the idea of opposing the prime minister, whom he credited with launching his political career. But he said he could not ignore his belief that the United Kingdom would be “freer, fairer and better off outside the E.U.” The union, Gove wrote, is a relic of the 1950s and 1960s that “is now hopelessly out of date.” It is also, he argued, fundamentally anti-democratic”.

Gove is taking a gamble. If the referendum choice is to remain in the EU then his chances of becoming, or at least influencing the future direction, and leader, of the Tories is greatly diminished.

Interestingly the piece notes “Other top government officials opted for “in,” including finance minister George Osborne and Home Secretary Theresa May. May, a hardliner with Euroskeptic tendencies who was at one time considered a possible Brexit supporter, released a statement Saturday announcing she was for “in.” She said the decision was “for reasons of security, protection against crime and terrorism, trade with Europe, and access to markets around the world.”

The report goes on to note that “London Mayor Boris Johnson, a leading Conservative who covets Cameron’s job, has also toyed with supporting the “out” campaign. He did not immediately show his hand Saturday, and the BBC reported he was unlikely to announce his decision until Sunday at the earliest. Johnson would give the “out” movement the sort of charismatic and broadly popular leader it currently lacks. Compared with the Conservatives, the center-left Labour Party is less divided over the issue, with most of the party’s elected officials supporting E.U. membership. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described Cameron’s E.U. renegotiation Saturday as “tinkering.” But he nonetheless said his party would campaign to stay in the E.U. because “it brings investment, jobs and protection for British workers and consumers.” The political leanings of Britain’s newspapers were on vivid display Saturday morning, with right-wing papers dismissing Cameron’s Brussels deal and left-leaning ones praising it”.

 

The piece ends “Analysts suggested that Cameron had won a better deal than many expected but generally played down the effect of European concessions. The prime minister won a British exemption from Europe’s goal of “ever-closer union,” a national veto on E.U. laws, protections for countries that do not use the euro and “an emergency brake” to limit benefits paid to immigrants from within the E.U. Cameron trumpeted the latter concession as a chance to limit net migration to Britain, which is at an all-time high. But experts have cast doubt on the claims, pointing out that most workers do not come to Britain for government benefits”.

 

 

 

Qatari gas to Pakistan

19/02/2016

Pakistan said on Wednesday it had signed a 15-year agreement to import up to 3.75 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas a year from Qatar, a major step in filling Pakistan’s energy shortfall. The deal, Pakistan’s biggest, will help the country add about 2,000 megawatts of gas-fired power-generating capacity and improve production from fertilizer plants now hobbled by a lack of gas, a government official said. “This is a huge and significant achievement because this diversifies Pakistan’s energy mix,” the official said. “This is the single largest commercial transaction that Pakistan has entered into.” Supplies will start in March, Qatar’s state news agency QNA said. They will eventually come to around five LNG cargoes per month, the official said. Pakistan, a nation of 190 million people, can only supply about two-thirds of its gas needs. The ruling party, which campaigned on promises of resolving the energy crisis, wants to ease shortages by expanding LNG shipments before a 2018 general election.

Corker tries to change Pakistan policy

19/02/2016

An interesting piece notes the worthy tactic of Sen Bob Corker on demanding a new approach to Pakistan, “Long-simmering tensions between Congress and Pakistan over Islamabad’s alleged support for terrorist groups burst into public view on Thursday as officials from both nations traded blows over the proposed U.S. sale of F-16 warplanes to the southwest Asian nation. The spat began Tuesday when Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker notified Secretary of State John Kerry he would block the Obama administration’s subsidized sale of up to eight F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. In a Feb. 9 letter, Corker cited Islamabad’s relationship with the Haqqani network, an extremist group that has a history of destabilizing Afghanistan and targeting U.S. forces there. “After years of pressuring the Pakistanis on this point, the Haqqani terrorists still enjoy freedom of movement, and possibly even support from the Pakistani government,” wrote Corker. “This is highly problematic given the Haqqani’s clear involvement in killing the very Afghan army and police we have worked for years to train.” Angered by the accusation, the Pakistani Embassy in Washington on Thursday denied the charge and criticised it as unfounded and ill-advised. “Insinuations of facilitating the destabilizing role of Haqqani network in Afghanistan in any way are indeed unfortunate,” embassy spokesman Nadeem Hotiana told Foreign Policy”.

The article goes on to report that “Delays over the proposed deal, first revealed in November 2015, have become a headache in the often troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The sale aims to support the Pakistani military and acknowledge its efforts to root out extremist groups operating in North Waziristan and other tribal areas. But Corker, following a recent trip to Afghanistan, said he would shelve the funding needed to finance the deal. However, he pledged to lift his hold on the sale of the warplanes itself, an obstacle that has prompted significant lobbying by the U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the jets”.

The piece notes crucially, “It remains unclear if Corker’s hold on the funding will effectively kill the sale, or if Pakistan will find its own sources to finance the costs. “The Pakistanis really want the planes,” said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I believe they have been willing to spend national funds for similar purchases in the past … but I’m sure they would want to try every possible option to avoid that.” A State Department spokesman would not comment on the viability of the deal but defended Pakistan’s recent counterterrorism efforts”.

It ends “Hotiana, the embassy spokesman, expressed optimism that Islamabad could resolve concerns from U.S. lawmakers. “We understand that the deal has not been blocked, but there are reservations regarding the financial aspect,” he said. “We intend to continue engaging constructively with the U.S. side to address specific concerns.” Contents of the Corker letter were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.”

Poland to fight ISIS

19/02/2016

Poland will join the fight against Islamic State, its defense minister said on Wednesday, though he signaled that the scale of its involvement would depend on NATO’s response to Russia’s renewed assertiveness on the alliance’s eastern flank. The announcement, made by Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz after a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Brussels, confirmed an earlier Reuters report that Poland would boost its Middle East involvement in an attempt to convince its allies to shift NATO forces eastwards. “Poland has joined the actions, which are now so crucial, on NATO’s southern flank,” Macierewicz told reporters. “When it comes to details … we will continue to discuss it, particularly as we consider it in the broad context of NATO’s situation, hoping that both the U.S. and NATO as a whole will back Poland and other countries on the eastern flank with their … permanent presence.” Alarmed by Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and its support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Poland hopes NATO will agree at a summit in Warsaw in July to send more troops to former communist eastern Europe.

“Crossfire between Pope Francis and Donald Trump”

19/02/2016

Yesterday Pope Francis weighed in on the US election, “Francis, the leader of more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide and one in five Americans, suggested Trump is un-Christian because of his stance on immigrants and border security policy. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said when a reporter asked him about Trump during his return from a six-day trip to Mexico. Trump’s response to Francis’s comments came quickly. “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” Trump said in a statement. “I am proud to be a Christian and as president I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now, with our current president. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”

The piece adds “Even before his push-back on the pope, Trump was problematic with American Catholics. Last September, a Gallup poll found that just 21 percent of Catholics had a favorable view of the real estate mogul, compared to 30 percent of Protestants. On Thursday, Trump implied the pope is “only getting one side of the story,” fed to him by the Mexican government, “because they want to continue to rip off the United States, both on trade and at the border, and they understand I am totally wise to them.” At contrast was the Argentine pope’s visit to Mexico, intended to spark conversation about resolving a global migrant crisis. On Wednesday, he celebrated Mass in Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city on the Texas border and at the epicenter of drug-fueled violence that has ravaged the United States’s southern neighbor. In a powerful gesture that repudiated the heated anti-immigrant rhetoric of the slash-and-burn Republican primary, the pope lay flowers at the foot of a cross on the U.S.-Mexico border”.

Pointedly it adds “Francis has become increasingly vocal in politics, including on national security issues. He has urged closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and called out the United States for being the No. 1 supplier in the global arms trade during his September address to Congress. The Trump vs. Francis narrative has already overshadowed another controversy to come out of the same press conference in which the pope spoke about the U.S. presidential candidate. The pontiff also suggested the Catholic Church could consider contraception in countries ravaged by the Zika virus as an exception to its position against all forms of birth control and abortion”.

It ends “Zika has prompted a public health crisis in Latin and South America, where much of the world’s Catholic population lives. On Thursday, the World Health Organization issued guidance recommending sexual partners of pregnant women to use condoms or abstain from sex altogether if they live in, or have travelled to, areas that Zika has impacted. Researchers consider pregnant women especially at risk following a spike in birth defects in Zika-affected areas. “Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil,” Francis said. “In certain cases, as in this one, as in that one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these mosquitoes that carry this disease.”

John Allen writes from a broader perspective arguing that popes should get involved in politics, “As aftershocks from the crossfire between Pope Francis and Donald Trump continue to be felt, part of the debate it has unleashed centers on whether it’s legitimate for a pope, this one or any other, to “insert” himself into politics. In a nutshell, phrasing the question that way is a category mistake. Popes are, by definition, injected in politics, though in a fairly unique fashion. Before unpacking why, let’s set aside two potential red herrings. First is the hypocrisy of some people who make this charge, since often what they really mean is that popes shouldn’t take political positions with which they disagree. Many of those upset at Francis for calling out Trump on immigration, for instance, don’t get outraged when popes back conservative positions in the culture wars. Meanwhile, many on the left complain about popes and Catholic bishops being overly “political” on abortion and gay rights, and in the same breath demand that they invest the same energy on social justice questions”.

Allen goes on to make the point “Whether Francis crossed a partisan line depends on how you read the full text of what he said, since he also refused to be drawn into how American Catholics should vote. Nevertheless, to say that someone has a right to issue political commentary is not the same as endorsing the particular way they choose to do it every time. That said, it won’t hold water to suggest that popes should “stay out” of politics, for three reasons”.

“Sanders has raised more than $6 million in the 24 hours”

17/02/2016

Bernie Sanders has raised more than $6 million in the 24 hours since polls closed Tuesday night in New Hampshire, the Sanders campaign confirmed late Wednesday. The campaign beat its $6 million fundraising goal and is now urging supporters to donate another $1 million by midnight.

“Mud-slinging between Leave.EU and Vote Leave”

17/02/2016

A report notes how the divided the Brexit campaign in the UK is, “the months leading up to the still-as-yet-unannounced referendum on its European Union membership, Britain has seen a knock-down, bare-knuckle political death match — a contest filled with outsized personalities and vicious insults, which ultimately asks the most fundamental questions about who Britons are as a nation and who they want to be. And that’s just on the Brexit side”.

The author goes on to make the point that “For those who want to support the campaign for Britain to remain within the EU, the choice is simple: There’s only one group making that case to voters, a group called Britain Stronger in Europe (though it prefers to be called “Stronger In,” on the grounds that “BSE” is also an acronym for mad cow disease). Despite the support of Downing Street and various business leaders, it hasn’t made the strongest impression: Its own chairman forgot the name of the campaign four times in a single interview. The jostling for who will be the official voice of the pro-Brexit side, on the other hand, appears to be just getting started — and has turned very nasty indeed”.

Interestingly the piece notes “The most prominent of the pro-Brexit groups is “Vote Leave,” launched last October and staffed by a collection of top-drawer, mainstream political operators drawn largely from the ranks of the Conservative Party. Next largest is “Leave.EU,” a rival operation set up in July by the insurance tycoon Arron Banks, a political novice until he donated 1 million pounds to the far-right, anti-immigration UKIP party in the run-up to last year’s general election. These two groups may represent the two major camps in the Brexit campaign — but the infighting has also prompted the formation of “Grassroots Out,” a group that claims to be focusing on constituency-level activism (but has so far made a mark mostly for its lamentable taste in neckwear), and “Labour Leave,” which used to be part of Vote Leave but whose members last week decided to go their own way. Much of the coverage of this fighting so far has focused on the personal rivalries, which have admittedly been entertaining. Banks, in particular, has shown himself ready and willing to turn personal, calling Douglas Carswell — UKIP’s sole MP, who, unlike most of his party, is backing the Vote Leave campaign — “borderline autistic with mental illness wrapped in.” More recently, Banks revealed to the Times that his key aide starts every morning with unflattering impersonations of the Vote Leave high command, including its chief executive Matthew Elliott”.

Crucially the piece mentions that “Why all the squabbling? Because under Britain’s electoral rules, the campaigns cannot each make their own respective cases for leaving the EU to their own audiences. Instead, a body called the Electoral Commission will designate one of them the official voice of the Brexit campaign. That status brings free TV advertising, a far higher cap on campaign spending of all kinds, and a guaranteed seat at the table for any debates that take place. The group that wins, in other words, will get to define both the case for why Britain should leave and the vision for what should come next. The mud-slinging between Leave.EU and Vote Leave, in other words, is not just about personality clashes: It is about fundamentally different political visions. Vote Leave’s staff is largely drawn from the Conservative Party; Leave.EU emerged from UKIP. The resulting fight is not unlike the ongoing contest in the United States between the Tea Party and mainstream Republicans over who will be the GOP’s nominee for president. Vote Leave sees Leave.EU members as bumbling zealots who have gate-crashed its party — and rendered its cause toxic in the process. Leave.EU sees the Vote Leavers as toffee-nosed Westminster elitists who don’t understand the concerns of ordinary decent Britons”.

The piece correctly notes that “The best way to explain the difference between the two major camps is to look at the split between Nigel Farage, UKIP’s longtime leader, and Carswell, who, while he may be UKIP’s only MP, crucially defected from the Tories. Farage has not officially come out for Leave.EU — his public statements have been limited to noting that he wants the two groups to get their act together — but it is clearly the Leave.EU campaign that comes closest to sharing his philosophy, with its focus on immigration controls and sovereignty. Carswell, for his part, publicly threw his support behind Vote Leave from the moment it launched, highlighting “the importance of appealing to undecided voters.” Both men are viscerally eurosceptic — but that’s about the only thing they have in common. Farage is a classic Little Englander: His politics are about taking Britain back to the “good old days,” about shutting the door to immigrants and restoring traditional values — the sort of thing that is meat and drink to traditional right-wing voters but less appealing to those in the center. Carswell is best described as a techno-libertarian: He wants to rip apart Whitehall, embrace technological innovation, and allow Britain to make its own way in the world, free from Brussels’s meddling oversight”.

Pointedly the piece argues that “Banks told me he thought it was natural and desirable for the two anti-EU campaigns to join forces. After all, Leave.EU is essentially a marketing campaign, gathering hundreds of thousands of names on social media then converting them into committed grassroots supporters. Vote Leave, meanwhile, has the political expertise: Its staff are masters of the arts of policy and polling, rebuttal and strategy. One could energize core votes; the other could reach undecided voters in the middle. One could fight the ground war; the other the air campaign. The problem is that banding together in anything but the most superficial manner would require a shared vision — and there isn’t one”.

The piece concludes “During the campaign itself, it may be possible to put this infighting to one side. Leave campaigners of all stripes insist that the referendum itself isn’t about deciding what kind of country Britain should be — it’s about making sure that British voters have the right to make that decision, not Brussels apparatchiks. And as with every campaign, the philosophy will be very much in the background: We’re more likely to see endless leaflets informing voters that they’re paying enough to the EU every week to build X new hospitals or that EU membership is worth Y to every household in the country. But still: The Brexit referendum is fundamentally about whether or not to set the country on a new course. If Britain does vote to leave, it will necessarily trigger an entirely separate, and equally impassioned, argument about what exactly that course should be”.

 

“Canada will cease all coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State”

17/02/2016

Justin Trudeau says Canada will cease all coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria by Feb. 22, while it beefs up its military efforts, including the number of special forces deployed on the ground to train Iraqi forces for the next two years. “It is important to understand that while airstrike operations can be very useful to achieve short-term military and territorial gains, they do not on their own achieve long-term stability for local communities,” Trudeau said during an announcement in Ottawa on Monday. “Canadians learned this lesson first-hand during a very difficult decade in Afghanistan, where our forces became expert military trainers renowned around the world.” Trudeau said while Canada will pull its six fighter jets from the bombing mission, it will also triple, from 69, the number of Canadian Forces members helping train local ground troops to fight ISIS in northern Iraq. It will also increase by 230 the 600 Canadian Armed Forces members deployed as part coalition mission. Canada’s military effort under Operation IMPACT will also include maintaining aircrew and support personnel for one CC-150 Polaris aerial refuelling aircraft and up to two CP-140 Aurora aerial surveillance aircraft. Canada will also send troops to mark targets for the coalition partners.

Putin, Francis and Kiril

17/02/2016

piece notes that Putin had a role at the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kiril, “an unlikely scene unfolded at José Martí International Airport in Havana: Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, respective heads of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, embraced and kissed, and met for two hours before issuing a 30-point joint statement focused on Christianity’s future in Europe, the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and the two Churches’ divisive history in Ukraine. Why Cuba? In part because the Caribbean island serves as neutral ground for the two churches, owing to both its strong Catholic ties and the tight bond it forged with Moscow during the Soviet era. But the country, which recently renewed relations with the United States, also serves as an example of the expanded role Pope Francis has assumed in matters of international diplomacy”.

The writer goes on to mention “Both Moscow and Rome have voiced their concerns over the plight of Christians living in Iraq and Syria. When the meeting between Francis and Kirill was announced, Metropolitan Illarion, the foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church (a post Kirill himself once held), told reporters that “the situation in the Middle East, in northern and central Africa, and in other regions where extremists are perpetrating a genocide of Christians, requires immediate action and an even closer cooperation between Christian churches.” Whether Christians in the region are in fact facing genocide is a matter of dispute in policy circles, from Baghdad to Washington, but both the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches agree on the matter”.

Interestingly the piece adds that “In meeting with a church that has vocally supported Russia strategy in Syria, the Vatican may be inadvertently signaling its approval, Frank Synsyn, director at the Centre for Ukrainian Historical Research at the University of Alberta, told Foreign Policy. “I appreciate that the Pope is concerned about the Middle East, but the rest of his timing is very bad,” Synsyn said. “It definitely gives credibility to Putin’s moves in Syria.” Moreover, the focus on the state of Christianity in the Middle East is a public relations win for the Russian Orthodox Church, which is trying to shore up its position in Russia by presenting itself as the defender of persecuted Christians around the world. “This meeting allows them to play a large public role and sell it back in Russia,” said John Burgess, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary”.

Pointedly he writes “that relationship has been complicated by the ongoing war in Ukraine: Kirill’s closeness to the Kremlin has damaged the Russian Orthodox Church’s standing in the country and left the Patriarch walking a tightrope between supporting Putin’s foreign policy and not appearing insensitive to the Ukrainian government and public’s concerns. In the aftermath of the Maidan revolution, a large number of Ukrainians who adhered to the Russian Orthodox Church changed allegiance to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate, which is not under the Russian Orthodox Church’s purview (nor under the Vatican’s; it is independent). This church played a role in supporting the protests that overthrew former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 (and is not to be confused with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which looks to Moscow). It’s against this backdrop that the bad blood between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church over Ukraine’s 5 million Greek Catholics has taken on higher stakes. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was founded in 1596 when a group of Orthodox believers switched their allegiance to Rome. (Its members still practice the rites of Orthodox Christianity, such as crossing themselves right to left and taking Holy Communion directly into the mouth from a priest with a spoon, but see themselves as loyal to the Vatican.) The Orthodox Church accused the Catholic Church of stealing their believers – and, because the church buildings themselves also changed hands, their property — and hard feelings have lingered ever since. Despite its small size, the Greek Catholic Church has played an outsized role in politics: During the Soviet Union, the church supported dissidents and later became a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism after independence, in 1991. During the protest in 2013 and 2014 against Yanukovych, the Greek Catholic Church supported protesters. But its political stance has sometime put it at odds with Rome’s political priorities”.

The piece concludes “Kirill hopes to use the meeting with Francis as a chance to assert the Russian Orthodox Church’s influence within Orthodox Christendom ahead of June’s Pan-Orthodox Council, the first meeting between the various Orthodox churches to take place in over 1,000 years. The Patriarchate of Constantinople is “first among equals” in Orthodoxy, but some two third of Orthodox Christians are Russian Orthodox. Ukraine aside, the differences between Catholic and Orthodox Churches are mostly cultural, liturgical, and theological. But the reasons for Friday’s meeting were mostly political. A thousand years after they parted ways, pontiffs and patriarchs still have a role to play as political leaders on the world stage”.

 

Temporary truce in Syria

15/02/2016

Diplomats trying to secure a cease-fire for the civil war in Syria fell short early Friday in organizing a truce but agreed to try to work out details and implement a temporary “cessation of hostilities” in a week’s time. The deal appeared to be the result of a compromise between the United States, which had wanted an immediate cease-fire, and Russia, which had proposed one to start on March 1. Although foreign ministers from the International Syria Support Group managed to seal an agreement to “accelerate and expand” deliveries of humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian communities beginning this week, their failure to agree on a cease-fire leaves the most critical step to resuming peace talks unresolved. It was not clear from their comments afterward if deep differences regarding the truce and which groups would be eligible for it could be overcome”.

Clinton’s vast brain trust

15/02/2016

An interesting article examines the foreign policy “brain trust” of Hillary Clinton, “in offices across Washington, scores of foreign-policy advisors who Hillary Clinton has never met are drafting policy memos for her that she will never read. The group of advisors is so large, officials in the Clinton campaign cannot offer a definitive estimate of its size. “Several hundred” is the stock answer. It is so decentralized, officials admit they no longer directly control its membership”.

Interestingly the piece adds “Despite its unwieldiness, this network of policy experts has become one of Clinton’s most important weapons against her challenger for the Democratic nomination for president, Bernie Sanders. Not only does her phalanx of surrogates routinely bash the Vermont senator for his views on foreign policy, their vast breadth has created the impression that Clinton has locked up the Democratic Party’s entire stable of foreign-policy hands. For the Clinton campaign, size matters — and Sanders’s comparatively shallow team of advisors reinforces the notion that he won’t be ready to lead the country on Day One. The campaign prefers this attack on Sanders because it differs somewhat from the unsuccessful charge that Clinton directed at then-Sen. Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential primary”.

The writer notes the lack of foreign policy advisers to Senator Sanders, “As much as Sanders has tried to prove the contrary, his interaction with leading national security minds appears limited to one-off meetings with prominent Washington think tankers and the occasional U.S. government official. After the senator came under fire for his lack of foreign-policy credentials earlier this month, the campaign sent out a list of individuals Sanders has met with, including Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Tamara Cofman Wittes, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. In releasing the list, it’s unclear if the campaign was aware that Cofman Wittes is in fact a senior advisor on the Clinton campaign’s Middle East working group — an easy mistake to make, given Clinton’s monopolization of the D.C. talent pool”.

The piece goes on to note that “Clinton’s massive network, despite having only two full-time foreign-policy professionals on staff, is a result of her frontrunner status and longtime ties to the party establishment. At the top is policy director Jake Sullivan, who served as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff when she was secretary of state, and Laura Rosenberger, a former State Department official who runs day-to-day operations and long-term planning. This report is based on interviews with a half dozen people tied to Clinton’s campaign, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. According to officials close to the campaign, Sullivan and Rosenberger interact routinely with a senior group of outside advisors that includes former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Center for a New American Security CEO Michèle Flournoy, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and a number of other high-profile luminaries. Beyond the top roster of experts, the campaign also draws on about a dozen advisory working groups for regional and functional issues on everything from Asia to Europe to human rights to defense to counterterrorism to cyber. Those working groups also contain subgroups of specific countries or issue areas, and remain on call to answer spur-of-the-moment policy questions for the campaign”.

Interestingly the piece reports that “The campaign gives a group of “senior partners” authority to select the experts who make up each advisory working group, and in some cases, Clinton’s top aides aren’t even aware of who the experts are. If an outside expert agrees to join a foreign-policy advisory team, they sign an agreement promising not to disclose the names of other advisors in their working groups. As a result of this decentralized system, the campaign boasts a surprisingly diverse cadre of experts, from early-career think tankers in their 20s to graying ex-diplomats in their 50s and 60s. Everybody gets to be an advisor to Hillary Clinton”.

Correctly he argues “The advantages of a vast advisor pool are manifold. Throughout the year, these think tankers and ex-diplomats draft memos, talking points, and position papers to prepare Clinton for every possible question she may confront on the campaign trail. Clinton’s top aides believe the campaign’s Asia hands have already proven vital in the wake of North Korea’s recent nuclear provocations. Still, some Clinton insiders questioned the utility of generating reams of policy memos on low-profile issues such as elections in Vietnam and Uganda or multilateral summits in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. “I’d be amazed if my memo gets anywhere near a full-time campaign staffer,” said one advisor. But free advice isn’t the only advantage to having a big foreign-policy team. One expert said the system helped ensure loyalty for Clinton by creating “the illusion of inclusion.” “Even though you’re one of hundreds, you feel like you’re part of the team,” said one prominent think tank scholar”.

Not surprisingly he writes that “It’s the type of dynamic that can make an outside expert think twice before tweeting a snarky reaction to a Clinton gaffe or offering a less-than-flattering quote to a reporter. The end goal for many experts is to parlay a stint on an advisory group into a plum job in a future Clinton administration. Ideologically, the army of advisors includes a mix of both hawks and doves — and longtime acolytes of both Clinton and Obama”.

The campaign’s Middle East working group is led by senior advisors Wittes and Derek Chollet, a former Obama administration official, and coordinator Prem Kumar, a senior vice president at the Albright Stonebridge Group. A broad scattering of Middle East experts work under this group, including Bruce Jentleson, a former State Department official; Bernadette Meehan, a diplomat and former spokeswoman for the National Security Council; and Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. The campaign’s counterterrorism working group is led by Rand Beers, a former Homeland Security official; Dan Benjamin, a former State Department official; and coordinator Matt Spence, a former Pentagon official. The human rights working group is led by former State Department officials Harold Koh and Mike Posner. The Europe and Russia working group is led by Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia; Phil Gordon, a former Obama White House official; and Julie Smith, former deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden”.

 

It ends “After nearly tying Clinton in Iowa’s caucus vote and trouncing her by more than 20 points in the New Hampshire primary, the pressure on Sanders to finally build his team is greater than ever. But if that’s his plan, he needs to start recruiting new advisors before they all commit to Clinton — or begin poaching”.

UAE, sending troops to Syria?

15/02/2016

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is ready to send ground troops to Syria as part of an international coalition to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, a top official has said. The announcement comes just days after Saudi Arabia expressed the same position, saying that it was prepared to deploy troops to fight ISIL in Syria if the US-led coalition were to agree. “Our position throughout has been that a real campaign against [ISIL] has to include a ground force,” the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said at a news conference in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. Gargash added that “US leadership on this” would also be a prerequisite for the UAE.

Scalia dies

15/02/2016

A piece reveals the death of Justice Scalia, “Justice Antonin Scalia, the longest-serving member of the current Supreme Court and an intellectual leader of the conservative legal movement, died Saturday, and his death set off an immediate political battle about the future of the court and its national role. Scalia, 79, was found dead at a hunting resort in Texas after he did not appear for breakfast, law enforcement officials said. A cause of death was not immediately reported”.

The report adds “President Obama, who disagreed with Scalia’s jurisprudence, nevertheless praised him as “a larger-than-life presence on the bench” and a “brilliant legal mind [who] influenced a generation of judges, lawyers and students, and profoundly shaped the legal landscape.” Obama said he would nominate a successor, even though the Senate’s Republican leadership and its presidential candidates said an election-year confirmation was out of the question”.

Pointedly the piece writes “Scalia’s sudden death casts a cloud of uncertainty over a Supreme Court term filled with some of the most controversial issues facing the nation: abortion, affirmative action, the rights of religious objectors to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, and the president’s powers on immigration and deportation. An eight-member court could split on all of those issues. It would seem to assure that the Supreme Court, often far down the list of voters’ concern when choosing a president, would become a prominent issue in the campaign”.

The piece adds that “Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, soon to be 83, is the oldest member of the court, while Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is the same age as Scalia. The jurist’s death leaves the court with three consistent conservatives — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — and Kennedy, like Scalia a Ronald Reagan appointee but one who often sides with the court’s liberals on social issues, such as same-sex marriage. The court has four consistent liberals: Ginsburg plus Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Despite their sharp ideological differences, the justices nevertheless often proclaim their personal affinity for one another, and it seemed especially true regarding Scalia”. 

Crucially the piece notes “Although the fate of Scalia’s successor seems likely to consume political Washington, the outcome of the many controversies will be complicated by an eight-member court. If the court ties in deciding a case, the decision of the appeals court remains in place, without setting a nationwide precedent. For instance, the court already was working with one less justice in a case involving the use of race in an admissions case at the University of Texas. Kagan sat out the case, presumably because she worked on the issue when she was Obama’s solicitor general. That means only seven justices would decide whether the appeals court was correct to uphold the program. The court is scheduled to hear in April arguments about Obama’s plan to shield more than 4 million illegal immigrants from deportation”.

 

 

“A call for direct negotiations between the government and the Taliban”

13/02/2016

Four-nation talks aimed at ending Afghanistan’s 15-year war concluded Saturday with a call for direct negotiations between the government and the Taliban by the end of February, but recent battlefield advances by the insurgents could make it hard to coax them to the table. A one-page statement released at the end of the meeting, which was attended by representatives of Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the United States, said a roadmap for peace had been agreed upon. However it offered no details on what incentives the government might offer the Taliban. The statement urged the Taliban, who were not present at the meeting, to join the peace process. All four countries agreed to hold a fourth meeting in Kabul on Feb. 23″.

Chinese Christian schooling

13/02/2016

A report from Foreign Policy argues that Chinese students are attending US Christian high schools, “It is no secret that Chinese students are pouring into the United States; over 300,000 of them attended U.S. colleges and universities in 2015 alone, and Chinese are filling up spots in U.S secondary schools in search of a better education and an easier route into U.S. universities. Less widely known is that at the secondary level, most Chinese attend Christian schools — even though they come from the world’s largest atheist state. Because of restrictions on foreign student enrollment in U.S. public high schools, Chinese secondary students headed Stateside overwhelmingly attend private institutions. And Chinese parents don’t seem to care if that institution has a Christian underpinning”.

The piece goes on, “According to data obtained by Foreign Policy from the Department of Homeland Security via the Freedom of Information Act, 58 percent of the F-1 visas issued for Chinese high school students in 2014 and the first three months of 2015 were for Catholic or Christian schools. Just under 28 percent of Chinese students obtained these visas to attend Catholic schools, while 30 percent were for schools with nondenominational or Protestant Christian affiliations, including schools affiliated with Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Baptist, Church of Christ, and Quaker traditions. (F-1 visas are the most common visas sought by foreign students at U.S. secondary schools.)The number of Chinese students at U.S. high schools has ballooned in recent years. In 2005, fewer than 1,000 Chinese students were enrolled at U.S. secondary schools; by 2013, that number had surpassed 23,000,according to the non-profit Institute for International Education (IIE)”.

The article adds that “The upsurge is not terribly surprising — China’s swift economic development has created a burgeoning middle class determined to provide its children with the world’s best education, a trend that has brought increasing numbers of Chinese college students to U.S. shores. Some Chinese view high school abroad as a desirable alternative to secondary schools at home, which focus largely on test preparation in advance of the extremely competitive gaokao, the Chinese college entrance examination. But U.S. public schools impose tight restrictions on foreign student enrollment, limiting it in most cases to a one-year exchange; that means most Chinese parents looking to enroll their children in a U.S. high school must look to private institutions”.

The report goes on to mention that “Chinese students enrolled at religious institutions often have little to no knowledge of Christianity; Christians comprise only about five percent of China’s population, though estimates vary, and the state-mandated school curriculum there emphasizes atheism, Marxism, and a scientific worldview. “They come with no religious background,” said Schales. “We do require religion classes. We’re very upfront about it ahead of time.” All MVA students must attend religion classes and a short chapel service each day. “We’ve had students who come and personally they’re atheists, and they’ll tell the religion teacher that. But that’s ok. We respect their beliefs too. But they’re going to learn our curriculum and then go off and do whatever they want with it.” There have been “maybe five” Chinese students at the school who have chosen to be baptized, Schales told FP, though, she added, “That’s not our goal.” John May, the director of international student programs at St. John’s Jesuit High School and Academy, an all-boys school in Toledo, Ohio, told FP that the growth in the number of Chinese students at St. John’s began about three years ago. Two Chinese students at a Catholic school where May previously worked also chose to undergo initiation rites and receive the sacraments. But like Schales, May has observed that religion is something of a mystery to most Chinese students”.

Interestingly the piece notes that “As to how so many Chinese students end up at Christian schools despite their lack of religious affiliation, it’s often “word of mouth,” said Schales, the MVA registrar. “We have a few agents who send students to us. We don’t pay agents and we don’t work through any one particular agent,” Schales said. St. John’s, on the other hand, partners with Ivy International Group, a recruitment firm for Chinese high school students, who typically pay full tuition. Christine A. Farrugia, senior research officer at IIE’s Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact, told FP that many religious schools seek out international students to increase their diversity or bolster enrollment, which has fallen across the nation in the past decade”.

The piece ends “To be sure, the percentage of Chinese high school students attending religious U.S. institutions is not unique. IIE finding show virtually the same split of religious versus nonsectarian private school attendance among all international secondary students. And a smaller proportion of Chinese private high schools students attend religious schools than do their U.S. counterparts: about 37 percent of visas issued to Chinese students in 2014 and early 2015 were for nonsectarian private schools, while only 11.7 percent of U.S. secondary students at private schools were enrolled at nonsectarian private schools in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. But it’s nonetheless remarkable that in an officially atheist country, where children are taught to abjure Western religion, so many parents seem willing to send their child to schools founded in religious principles ranging from Christianity, to Judaism, to Scientology”.

Saudi ground forces?

13/02/2016

Saudi Arabia said on Thursday it was ready to participate in any ground operations in Syria if the U.S.-led alliance decides to start such operations, an adviser to the Saudi defence minister said. “The kingdom is ready to participate in any ground operations that the coalition (against Islamic State) may agree to carry out in Syria,” Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, who is also the spokesman for the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen, told the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV in an interview. Asseri said Saudi Arabia had been an active member of the U.S.-led coalition that had been fighting Islamic State in Syria since 2014, and had carried out more than 190 aerial missions.

Benedict the humble

13/02/2016

Three years ago this week Benedict XVI resigned the papacy in what John Allen has termed, “history’s greatest act of humility”.

He opens “By sheer coincidence, I was in Rome on Feb. 11, 2013. My wife and I had already moved back to the United States from Rome, but on that date I had returned to give a talk on religious freedom at the Italian Foreign Ministry, which is why I happened to be in town when the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was made. Here’s how I became aware of it: I was standing at a coffee break talking to other speakers when my mobile phone rang, with a BBC reporter asking if I could confirm the pope was about to quit. Because I had received countless calls over the years asking me to run down bogus pope stories”.

Allen writes that “While Pope Francis is rightly celebrated for his personal humility and simplicity, the single greatest of act of papal humility the world has witnessed in at least the last 700 years, and arguably forever, came three years ago today from Benedict XVI. Yes, there’s a handful of popes who had resigned before. The most proximate in time was Gregory XII, who renounced his office in 1415 in order to end the Great Western Schism. The only real parallel in the sense of a voluntary resignation, however, was Pope Celestine V in 1294, whom Dante consigned to the antechambers of Hell for his “Great Refusal.” Even that comparison isn’t quite on point, because Celestine was facing both the power of King Charles II of Naples and his own successor in the papacy, Boniface VIII, and ended up dying in prison”.

Allen pointedly writes that “Benedict was the first pope to renounce his powers, not in the teeth of schism, foreign armies, or internal power struggles, but rather as the result of an honest self-examination that he simply wasn’t up to the demands of the office any longer. Granted, some Italians believe Benedict stepped down because of a leaks scandal involving secret documents stolen by his former butler, or as the result of pressure from a nefarious insider lobby in the Vatican opposed to his efforts at “purification.” Benedict and those close to him, however, have consistently rejected those explanations, and in any event they don’t make his decision any less voluntary”.

Correctly he adds that “Despite Benedict’s reputation as an arch-conservative, this was a deeply innovative thing to do. Over the years, I’d consulted experts on the papacy in Rome who felt it was inconceivable, not to mention theologically impossible, for a pope to resign. “My God,” one of those experts once told me. “Can you imagine a resigned pope? He might as well be the Archbishop of Canterbury!” In truth, Benedict never got credit for the real humility he exuded throughout his life, including his eight-year run as pope”.

He recounts another example, “Shortly after the election of Pope Francis in March 2013, the new pontiff returned to the Rome residence where he’d stayed prior to the conclave, the Casa del Clero, in order to pack his own bag and pay his own bill. That episode became part of the “humble pope” narrative that has surrounded Francis ever since. Know what Pope Benedict did after his election? He returned to his apartment in Rome’s Piazza Leonina to pack his own bag, which he ported himself back to the papal quarters. His apartment was on the same floor with the residences of three other cardinals, and as he left, Benedict rang their doorbells to thank the startled nuns who acted as the household staffs for being such good neighbours”.

Allen concludes “Why does the story about Francis become legend, while the other about Benedict is almost forgotten? Because Benedict carried a bad narrative into the papacy, while Francis had the good luck to be able to shape his own. In truth, those who’ve had the chance to interact with Benedict generally believe that no public figure in the modern era has suffered from a more dramatic disjunction between public image and private personality. In public, Benedict was seen as aloof and autocratic; in private, he came off as kind, gentle, and shy. History will almost certainly portray Benedict in a kinder light than contemporary accounts. In the meantime, Church officials might want to consider marking Feb. 11 as the “Feast of Holy Humility”, because no matter what happens from here on out, they’re unlikely to get a better example at a higher level”.

 

Christie drops out

13/02/2016

Chris Christie (N.J.), a Republican presidential contender, suspended his campaign Wednesday after a disappointing finish in the New Hampshire primary. Christie announced the decision at a meeting with campaign staffers in Morristown, N.J. The governor, after placing sixth in the Granite State’s primary Tuesday night, had returned home to reevaluate his campaign. Christie is the second Republican casualty following New Hampshire. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina also suspended her campaign Wednesday. Christie had pinned his hopes on New Hampshire and started to see momentum after landing a coveted endorsement from the influential New Hampshire Union-Leader”.

Francis meets Kiril

13/02/2016

Yesterday history was made. As had been previously reported Pope Francis met with Patriarch Kiril of the Russian Orthodox Church.

John Allen writes that “In an historic encounter which, in a sense, has been centuries in the making, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church met Friday in Havana, issuing a joint declaration pledging their churches to “walking together.” It was the first-ever meeting between the leaders of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, the two largest Christian groups on each side of the rupture between Eastern and Western Christianity conventionally dated to 1054. “We spoke as brothers, we have the same baptism, we are both bishops,” Francis said. “We talked about our churches, agreeing that unity is built by walking together.””

Allen goes on to write that “Francis began his outreach even before the meeting began. Asked aboard the papal flight to Havana when he would carry the press corps to either Russia or China, the pontiff said, “Russia and China, I carry them here,” touching his heart. Francis also tweeted on Friday that “today is a day of grace,” describing the meeting with Kirill as “a gift from God.” Meanwhile, the Russian news agency TASS reported that Kirill told Cuban President Raul Castro earlier on Friday that he placed “great hope” in the meeting with Francis, and signs of a thaw between the two churches were seemingly already visible. On Thursday, the head of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Church and a representative of the Patriarchate of Moscow met in Bekerke, Lebanon, the headquarters of the Maronite leader”.

Both pope and patriarch signed a declaration which included “An acknowledgement that “we have been divided by wounds caused by old and recent conflicts, by differences inherited from our ancestors. Deep concern for “Christians [who] are victims of persecution.” The two leaders said, “In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated. Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed.” A plea for greater interreligious dialogue: “Differences in the understanding of religious truths must not impede people of different faiths to live in peace and harmony,” the two men said. Worry about secular hostility to religion: “We observe that the transformation of some countries into secularized societies, estranged from all reference to God and to His truth, constitutes a grave threat to religious freedom. It is a source of concern for us that there is a current curtailment of the rights of Christians, if not outright discrimination.”

Allen adds that the statement also included messages about immigrants and preserving the “natural family”. Allen then mentions that “The emphasis on persecuted Christians in the Middle East in the declaration is especially noteworthy, as it was cited in advance of the meeting by leaders on both sides as lending special urgency to the encounter. The Pew Forum estimates there are roughly 5.6 million Catholics and 5.5 million Orthodox in the Middle East and North Africa, each between 1 and 2 percent of the region’s population”.

Crucially Allen notes that “Historically, Russia has seen itself as the patron and protector of Middle Eastern Christians, especially the Orthodox. Francis has denounced the threats faced by Christians in places such as Iraq and Syria repeatedly, saying the fact that various Christian denominations are suffering together creates an “ecumenism of blood.” Although efforts to put such a pope/Russian patriarch summit together have been underway for decades, announcement of Friday’s meeting came just one week ago in a joint statement from the Vatican and the Patriarchate of Moscow. It took advantage of the fact that Kirill was already scheduled to be in Cuba at the same time Francis would be en route to Mexico, making it feasible for the two men to intersect. Observers say the decision by Francis to stop in Havana was also intended as a sign of graciousness, since many Russians still think of Cuba as their “home turf” in the Western hemisphere”.

Pointedly he notes “The Russian Orthodox Church, however, claims roughly two-thirds of the 225 million Orthodox Christians in the world, and it has long taken a wary view of a meeting between its spiritual leader and a pope, the vestige of suspicions that Catholics want to convert Orthodox. St. John Paul II, the first Slavic pope in history, dreamed of reuniting Eastern and Western Christianity, and for the better part of a quarter-century during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, he voiced a desire to either visit Russia or to meet the patriarch of Moscow at a neutral site. For reasons both theological and political, such a meeting never occurred. Despite the historic nature of Friday’s meeting, few ecumenical experts believe it will lead to the swift restoration of full unity between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy. Even the run-up brought reminders of the lingering theological and political divides. On Feb. 5, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church told reporters that the meeting would take place “despite the problem of the uniates,” a reference to the 22 Eastern churches in communion with Rome, which some Orthodox leaders regard as “Trojan horses” designed to peel away Orthodox faithful. Hilarion also took pains to insist there would be no joint prayer between the pope and patriarch, noting that the meeting would take place not in a church, but an airport departure lounge”.

The piece goes on to add that “not quite everyone was prepared to celebrate Friday’s meeting – especially in Ukraine, home to the 5-million-strong Greek Catholic Church, which has long been ground zero for tensions between Catholics and Russian Orthodox. While welcoming the meeting and praying for its “spiritual fruit,” Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church warned in a statement issued two days beforehand that it should not be “hyperbolized.” In part, Gudziak argued, that’s because the Russian Orthodox Church is carrying significant baggage. “In the Putin years, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, increasingly wedded to state power, has sacrificed its freedom and undermined its prophetic vocation while receiving lucrative government support,” he said. Gudziak also implied that Moscow has political motives within the Orthodox world to exploit a platform with the pope. “The Russian Orthodox Church presents itself as the biggest Orthodox church, but approximately half of the flock it claims is in Ukraine,” he said. “Ukrainian Orthodox are expressing their desire for independence from Moscow, from whence war is being waged against them.” “[Independence] is something both Putin and Kirill are striving to prevent at all costs,” Gudziak said. “The asymmetry of the encounter between pope and patriarch — who they represent, and what they stand for — needs to be understood in order to avoid misconstruing the nature and impact of the Havana rendezvous.” In an essay for Crux on Thursday, another Greek Catholic cleric, the Rev. Andriy Chirovsky of Ottowa, expressed similar concern that both Putin and the patriarch might seek to turn the tête-à-tête with the pope into a PR coup”.

Fiorina drops out

11/02/2016

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina has suspended her campaign one day after a poor showing in New Hampshire.  “While I suspend my candidacy today, I will continue to travel this country and fight for those Americans who refuse to settle for the way things are and a status quo that no longer works for them,” she said Wednesday in a statement released by her campaign. As the only female GOP candidate, Fiorina also included a message for young women to “not let others define you” and warning them that feminism doesn’t mean that that women have to vote “a certain way.”

Still dealing with Bibi

11/02/2016

An article argues that whichever president is elected they will have to deal with Bibi.

The piece begins, “To hear the presidential candidates tell it — regardless of their political party — you’d think we’re on the verge of a new and glorious age in U.S.-Israeli relations no matter who succeeds President Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton asserted in December that she would take the U.S.-Israeli relationship “to the next level.’” On his work with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Marco Rubio trumpeted that it is “only the beginning of what I will do as president in support of Israel.” Jeb Bush said that the Obama administration has gone “behind Israel’s back,” and promised to “rebuild the trust that has been badly eroded during this administration.” Donald Trump swears that he will do more for the country than anyone else: “I’ve devoted so much time over my life to Israel,” he said recently. “The other politicians, they can talk, but believe me, they haven’t done what I’ve done.” And Ted Cruz has made it clear he is on the side of the Jewish state, saying, “The Palestinians have turned down every reasonable offer of peace. And I believe America should stand unshakably alongside the nation of Israel. If I am elected president, that is exactly what we will do.” Some of this pro-Israel campaign love fest is of course to be expected in an election year, particularly on the Republican side where candidates are already exploiting the bad relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to own the Israel issue and hopefully use it against the Democratic nominee, particularly if it’s Hillary Clinton”.

The author goes on to mention “Much of the pro-Israeli tropes are driven too by genuine upset over the Iran deal — another issue on which the Republicans are trying to hammer the administration and Hillary. Indeed, the already accepted conventional wisdom seems to be this idea that no matter who sits in the White House in 2017 — whether it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz — there will be a profound change for the better in relations with the Netanyahu government. But this, of course, is wrong”.

Pointedly he writes “Here’s a news flash for those pro-Israel voters who think that getting rid of Obama is going to return U.S.-Israeli ties to the good old days. Despite the pro-Israel rhetoric of the campaign, the next president isn’t going to enter the promised land of tension-free U.S.-Israeli relations. It won’t be Obamaland anymore. But my guess is that within six months — a year tops — the next president and Netanyahu will be annoying the hell out of one another.

The first reason he writes is that an imagined time when relations were good between the nations are gone, if they ever existed at all, “the special character of the bond doesn’t mean it will remain free of conflict, tension, or a variety of irritants. Indeed, on the substance of the issues, particularly on the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu is Mars, and the Americans are much closer to Venus. Anyone looking for the kind of closeness that played out in the 1990s when then President Bill Clinton and then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin bonded in a way that has not been seen before or since, or even for the reasonably good Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush days, ought to get a grip and realize that those times really were the exception, not the rule”.

The second reason the writer argues is that Bibi is still prime minister, “In 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu will surpass David Ben-Gurion as the longest-governing prime minister in Israel’s history. And through most of his political life he’s been suspicious of the United States and worried that Washington was either too naive or self-interested to truly understand Israel’s needs and requirements. Obama may be gone next year, but Netanyahu’s suspicions of Washington will remain as will the issues that reinforced them — the Iran agreement and an unresolved Palestinian issue. At Davos, John Kerry proclaimed that the war with Israel over the Iran agreement is over. But the struggle over its implementation isn’t. And as Netanyahu warned on “implementation day” and afterward, Israel will be Iran’s watchdog and will press the international community to hold its feet to the fire. But even if Washington and Jerusalem manage to manage the Iran issue, there’s still the Palestinian issue to aggravate relations”.

The third reason he gives is that when the next president is elected he/she will have to govern with all the nuance and details that that entails, “On the Republican side, even the most pro-Israeli campaign rhetoric usually gives way to the realities of governance. Ronald Reagan — perhaps the most instinctively pro-Israeli Republican president ever — wrestled with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin over a peace plan that bore his name and over Lebanon. In 1981, the Reagan administration actually placed a hold on delivery of F-16s to protest Israel’s extension of administrative law to the Golan Heights. The George W. Bush administration would fight with the Israelis publicly over Sharon’s West Bank policies, including settlements. And despite repeated campaign promises by both the Republicans and Democrats alike to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, no administration has ever followed through. This time around, assuming the Jerusalem language is in either platform, the same thing is certain to happen. But isn’t this batch of Republicans different than most traditional candidates? And isn’t there a strong desire within the Republican Party to send a strong signal that the Republicans, not the Democrats, have Israel’s back? Wouldn’t you expect a consistently pro-Israel right or wrong position from the likes of Ted Cruz or Donald Trump? Or even from Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or Marco Rubio, who has taken to calling the West Bank and Gaza “Judea and Samaria” and has threatened to tear up the Iran agreement on his first day in office? All of this may be fine during the campaign. But once the governing starts, the poetry, as the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo believed, turns to prose. There are European and Arab allies to be managed and previous administration commitments to be maintained”.

Correctly he writes that “Sooner or later, all will have to react to some Israeli action that will make the Europeans or Arabs unhappy, or contradict U.S. policy. And like the last Republican who ran on a strong pro-Israeli position, George W. Bush, a new president will react: Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2004 while hammering Israeli actions, Bush 43 sounded very much like President Obama. “Israel should impose a settlement freeze, dismantle unauthorized outposts, end the daily humiliation of the Palestinian people, and avoid any actions that prejudice final negotiations,” he said. Bush had an Iraq war coalition to maintain and pretending to act on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and criticizing Israel was a way to keep Europeans and Arabs on board”.

The final section discusses Clinton, “Like President Obama she feels strongly about a two-state solution, and is probably more knowledgeable about the issues given both her and her husband’s involvement; she also knows Netanyahu, and had her run ins with him but also seems better positioned to manage Israel too. After all, she’s a Clinton; someone who has a natural pro-Israeli sensibility and is wary of alienating Israel by asking for things she knows Israel can’t deliver, such as a comprehensive settlements freeze. As president, Clinton would likely avoid the drama of the Obama administration. She readily admits in her book Hard Choices she was never comfortable backing Bibi into a corner on settlements; and I doubt if you would have had the backbiting array of chickenshit comments from her White House meetings. In other words, her approach would likely be to try to find a way to work with Netanyahu before considering confronting him. She’ll do the necessaries on protesting Israeli settlements and occupation practices, but will try to avoid the tensions with Bibi that turned the U.S.-Israeli relationship into one long roller coaster ride — mostly downhill”.

He ends “Even though the next president will undoubtedly have a less contentious relationship with Bibi, whatever honeymoon a fresh start provides will likely be short-lived. Where you stand in life has a lot to do with where you sit; and Washington and Jerusalem are in very different places, these days especially. Indeed, don’t let the campaign talking points fool you. There won’t be a transformation in U.S.-Israeli ties, a change in the unresolved Palestinian issue, a resolution over Israeli settlement construction, and U.S.-Iran policy will ensure an agenda full of problems. A newly installed American president and an old Israeli prime minister will be wrestling and struggling to manage these issues for a long time to come”.

 

Sanders overwhelms NH

11/02/2016

Bernie Sanders didn’t just beat Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, he crushed her in a resounding double-digit win. A few polls ahead of election day suggested a massive victory for Sanders was possible, but his presidential campaign almost couldn’t have hoped for a better result. Just before midnight, Sanders led with 60 percent of the vote compared to Clinton’s 39 percent, a margin substantially larger than most polls had projected. Although Sanders’s lead could shrink a bit as the last votes are tallied, it’s a huge win for his insurgent campaign”.

“closed its eyes to Putin’s mischief to avoid the hard choices on Syria”

11/02/2016

An excellent piece argues that President Obama has betrayed the Syrian rebels.

It opens, “What a difference a year makes in Syria. And the introduction of massive Russian airpower. Last February, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Shiite auxiliaries mounted a large-scale attempt to encircle Aleppo, the northern city divided between regime and rebels since 2012 and battered by the dictator’s barrel bombs. Islamist and non-Islamist mainstream rebels — to the surprise of those who have derided their performance, let alone their existence — repelled the offensive at the time. What followed was a string of rebel advances across the country, which weakened Assad so much that they triggered Moscow’s direct intervention in September, in concert with an Iranian surge of forces, to secure his survival”.

Yet, the writer argues that these rebel gains “and despite wishful Western assessments that Moscow could not sustain a meaningful military effort abroad — the Russian campaign is finally delivering results for the Assad regime. This week, Russian airpower allowed Assad and his allied paramilitary forces to finally cut off the narrow, rebel-held “Azaz corridor” that links the Turkish border to the city of Aleppo. The city’s full encirclement is now a distinct possibility, with regime troops and Shiite fighters moving from the south, the west, and the north. Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion since the start of the uprising in 2011″.

The report goes on to mention “despite the polite wishes of Secretary of State John Kerry, the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes have hit non-Islamic State (IS) fighters. Indeed, Moscow and the Syrian regime are content to see the United States bear the lion’s share of the effort against the jihadi monster in the east, instead concentrating on mowing through the mainstream rebellion in western Syria. Their ultimate objective is to force the world to make an unconscionable choice between Assad and IS”.

The piece argues that the Syrian regime is gaining ground, especially around Aleppo that are the biggest problem for the rebels.

The article continues, “To complicate the situation even more, the regime’s advances could allow the Kurdish-dominated, American-favoured Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to conquer the area currently held by the Free Syrian Army and Islamist militias between the Turkish border and the new regime front line north of the Shiite towns of Nubl and Zahra. This would pit the SDF against IS on two fronts: from the west, if the Kurds of Afrin canton seize Tal Rifaat, Azaz and surrounding areas, and from the east, where the YPG is toying with the idea of crossing the Euphrates River. An IS defeat there would seal the border with Turkey, meeting an important American objective”.

The writer then argues that “Despite U.N. resolutions, international assistance still does not reach those who need it most; in fact, aid has become yet another instrument of Assad’s warfare. Neither Kerry nor de Mistura are willing to seriously pressure Russia and Assad for fear of jeopardizing the stillborn Geneva talks. Seemingly unfazed by this controversy, de Mistura’s top-down approach relies this time on an apparent U.S.-Russian convergence. At the heart of this exercise is Washington’s ever-lasting hope that Russian frustration with Assad would somehow translate into a willingness to push him out. However, whether Putin likes his Syrian counterpart has always been immaterial”.

Crucially the author argues that “Ever since 2011, the United States has hidden behind the hope of a Russian shift and closed its eyes to Putin’s mischief to avoid the hard choices on Syria. When the Russian onslaught started, U.S. officials like Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken predicted a quagmire to justify Washington’s passivity. If Russia’s intervention was doomed to failure, after all, the United States was not on the hook to act. Russia, however, has been not only been able to increase the tempo of its military operations, but also to justify the mounting cost. And contrary to some pundits, who hailed the Russian intervention as the best chance to check the expansion of IS, Washington knows all too well that the result of the Russian campaign is the strengthening of the jihadist group in central Syria in the short term. This is a price Washington seems willing to pay for the sake of keeping the Geneva process alive”.

Pointedly the piece goes on to mention that “the bankruptcy of U.S. policy goes deeper. The United States has already conceded key points about Assad’s future — concessions that Russia and the regime have been quick to pocket, while giving nothing in return. In the lead-up to and during the first days of the Geneva talks, it became clear that the United States is putting a lot more pressure on the opposition than it does on Russia, let alone Assad. Just as Russia escalates politically and militarily, the Obama administration is cynically de-escalating, and asking its allies to do so as well. This is weakening rebel groups that rely on supply networks that the U.S. oversees: In the south, the United States has demanded a decrease in weapons deliveries to the Southern Front, while in the north, the Turkey-based operations room is reportedly dormant. The result is a widespread and understandable feeling of betrayal in the rebellion, whose U.S.-friendly elements are increasingly losing face within opposition circles. This could have the ironic effect of fragmenting the rebellion — after years of Western governments bemoaning the divisions between these very same groups”.

The piece concludes “It’s understandable for the United States to bank on a political process and urge the Syrian opposition to join this dialogue in good faith. But to do so while exposing the rebellion to the joint Assad-Russia-Iran onslaught and without contingency planning is simply nefarious. Washington seems oblivious to the simple truth that diplomacy has a cost, as does its failure — probably because this cost would carried by the rebellion, for which the United States has little respect or care anyway, and would be inherited by Obama’s successor. The conditions are in place for a disastrous collapse of the Geneva talks — now delayed until late February — and a painful, bloody year in Syria. All actors understand that Obama, who has resisted any serious engagement in the country, is unlikely to change course now”.

 

 

Russia suspects Turkey

09/02/2016

Russia said on Thursday it suspected Turkey was preparing a military incursion into Syria, as a Syrian army source said Aleppo would soon be encircled by government forces with Russian air support. Turkey in turn accused Moscow of trying to divert attention from its own “crimes” in Syria, and said Aleppo was threatened with a “siege of starvation”. It said Turkey had the right to take any measures to protect its security. In another sign of the spreading international ramifications of the five-year-old Syrian war, Saudi Arabia said it was ready to participate in ground operations against Islamic State in Syria if the U.S.-led alliance decided to launch them. The United States welcomed the Saudi offer, which together with any Turkish incursion would further embroil regional powers in a conflict that pitches Sunni-backed fighters against Damascus and forces backed by Moscow and Shi’ite Iran”.

“Can only be solved by rebalancing its economy”

09/02/2016

A piece by Patrick Chovenac argues that China should not devalue its currency, “Buffeted by a slowing economy, a falling stock market, and a rising tide of money leaving the country, China is flirting with weakening its currency, the renminbi (RMB). Despite repeated — and very high-level — pledges to maintain its value, Beijing quietly let the RMB slip 5 percent against the U.S. dollar in 2015. Many see its decision in December to switch the RMB’s peg from the dollar to a basket of currencies as a back-door way to piggyback on the weakening of other currencies against the dollar. Meanwhile, a growing chorus of economists, hedge funds, and policymakers are saying that China must “go with the market” and let its currency fall to save its stumbling economy”.

The writer argues that those calling for a Chinese devaluation are wrong, “A weaker RMB won’t fix the problems with China’s economy that are causing capital to flee; it will only make them a lot worse. Only reform and rebalancing — moving away from a reliance on exports and investment to drive growth and toward a more balanced, consumption-based economy — can put China’s economy back on track. Beijing drawing down on its bloated foreign currency reserves to defend the RMB — instead of letting it slide — is integral to making that rebalancing happen”.

However there are serious questions to be asked as to whether the CCP has any real desire, or indeed motivation, for such a move. It would require not just economic but political effort to scale back or even pritatise large chunks of Chinese state owned industry with all its connections to the CCP. That might be a bridge too far for the CCP.

He goes on to argue “Economists are prescribing the wrong solution for China because they are used to dealing with an entirely different set of problems. Countries that suffer a “currency crisis” — unrelenting pressure for their currency to fall in value — are usually debtors that run a trade deficit. If their exports falter, or import prices spike, or foreign financing to cover their trade gap dries up, they will run short of the foreign currency they need to pay their bills. The amount of local currency it costs to acquire (the now scarce) foreign currency will rise, making imports more expensive and locally made goods more competitive, at home and abroad. The shift in the exchange rate sends a corrective signal throughout the economy — consume less, save and produce more — that pushes payments back into balance”.

Logically he adds “China is different. Like Japan in the 1980s, China has piled up a precariously high level of internal debt, but in relation to the rest of the world, it is a creditor nation with a trade surplus. Its problem is not a reliance on external financing to support consumption, but an excessive reliance on external demand to support domestic output and return on investment. The corrective is a stronger, not a weaker, currency that enhances the purchasing power of domestic consumers while discouraging the build-out of even more overcapacity. The question is not whether China is facing an economic crisis, but what kind of crisis. Crises faced by creditor nations have different origins, impose different constraints, and have fundamentally different solutions than those of debtor countries. When Japan suffered a sharp slowdown in growth starting in 1990, accompanied by a property and stock market collapse, it did not face a currency crisis; in fact, the yen actually rose in value”.

He goes on to mention that “Yet the RMB has come under strong downward pressure in recent months. The current pressure isn’t a signal to rebalance — that came in the form of a 36 percent rise in the RMB with relation to the dollar since 2005 — but the result of Beijing’s consistent failure to heed that signal, by flooding the Chinese economy with cheap credit, erecting subtle trade barriers, and propping up money-losing industries. Now, falling asset prices and investment returns, along with doubts about the coherence of Beijing’s policy response, are causing capital to leave the country. Despite a record trade surplus, China is hemorrhaging cash — with an estimated $1 trillion in capital outflows in 2015″.

He goes on to make the point that “Responding by letting the RMB weaken further would be counterproductive on multiple levels. Far from reducing capital outflows, expectations of a falling RMB would only intensify them, pushing the currency down even farther. If expectations were the main problem, then a sudden, large devaluation might preempt and defuse them. But neither gradual depreciation nor a sudden devaluation would solve the major reason money is leaving China: Beijing’s failure to rebalance its economy. In fact, a weaker currency, by subverting the purchasing power of China’s consumers and fostering unsustainable forms of growth — in other words, favouring savers and production at the expense of consumer purchasing power — would only worsen the problem. Even the benefits of a weaker RMB would likely prove illusory. Other countries would quickly come under pressure to devalue their own currencies, erasing whatever advantage Beijing sought to gain. In 2015, a stronger U.S. dollar — against the euro, yen, and a host of emerging-market currencies — cut noticeably into U.S. growth and corporate earnings. Another round of competitive devaluation, triggered by China, could tip the United States into recession. Weakening the RMB would do little to boost China’s exports, if it sinks one of China’s top markets”.

He argues that “The alternative — which China has been doing, at least for the most part — is to support the RMB by drawing on the country’s huge stockpile of foreign currency reserves. Over the past two decades, China’s central bank accumulated nearly $4 trillion by intervening to keep the RMB from rising. Since June 2014, it has sold $663 billion of that defending the exchange rate”.

He ends the piece “What China is facing with these capital outflows isn’t a payments crisis but a crisis of confidence, one that can only be solved by rebalancing its economy. Supporting the RMB sends the right price signals to facilitate that move while buying time for more substantive reforms to unlock a less lopsided path to growth. Of course, it is possible that Beijing will squander this opportunity. Or that it is already too late, that nothing at this point will restore confidence, and all the money will simply flee. But while China may risk failure defending the RMB, not doing so virtually guarantees failure. If Beijing lacked the resources to hold the line, the IMF and other central banks possibly could augment its firepower — and ward off speculative pressure — by lending China hard currency or swapping it for RMB. Buying time for China to rebalance might well be to their advantage, compared to the potentially disastrous global consequences of competitive devaluation”.

“Currently equalling or even surpassing Cold War levels”

09/02/2016

Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic is currently equalling or even surpassing Cold War levels, according to NATO’s top naval officer. The North Atlantic was again and area “of concern” for the alliance, Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone, Commander of NATO’s Maritime Command, said, with the commanders of his submarine cells currently reporting “more activity from Russian submarines than we’ve seen since the days of the Cold War”. Not only are Russian submarines returning to Cold War levels of operational activity, but Russian submarines have made a major jump in technological performance, Vice Adm Johnstone said, with NATO seeing “a level of Russian capability that we haven’t seen before”.

 

“Venezuela will have to default”

07/02/2016

A piece discusses that Venezuela is “about to go bust”, “Venezuela’s economy is facing a tsunami of bad news. The country is suffering from the world’s deepest recession, highest inflation rate, and highest credit risk — all problems aggravated by plunging oil prices. Despite all its troubles, though, until now Venezuela has kept making payments on its $100-billion-plus foreign debt. That is about to end. In recent days a consensus has emerged among market analysts: Venezuela will have to default. The only question is when”.

The article goes on to mention “A Venezuela meltdown could rock financial markets, and people around the world will lose a lot of money. But we should all save our collective sympathy — both the government in Caracas and the investors who enabled it had it coming. In the last few years, the Venezuelan government has been steadfast about staying in good graces with its lenders. It has paid arrears on its debt religiously, and has constantly asserted that it will continue paying. But it has neglected to implement the reforms Venezuela would need to improve the fundamentals of its economy”.

The writer adds that “Its commitment to socialist “populism” and the complicated internal dynamics within the governing coalition have paralyzed the government. It has repeatedly postponed important reforms like eliminating its absurd exchange rate controls (the country has at least four exchange rates) or raising the domestic price of gasoline (the cheapest in the world by far). Instead, the government has “adjusted” by shutting off imports, leaving store shelves all over the country barren. This strategy now seems unsustainable. According to various estimates, in 2015 Venezuela imported about $32 billion worth of goods. This was a marked drop from the previous year. This year, given current oil prices and dwindling foreign reserves, if Venezuela were to pay off its obligations — at least $10 billion — and maintain government spending, it would have to import close to nothing. In a country that imports most of what it consumes, this would ensure mayhem. That is why all analysts predict default in the coming months”.

He goes on to argue “One of the reasons the coming default will be so messy is the many instruments involved, all issued under widely varying conditions. Part of the stock of debt was issued by PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, which owns significant assets overseas (For example, Citgo is 100 percent owned by the Venezuelan government). Another part of the debt was issued by the national government directly, while another big chunk is owed to China, under secretive terms. The Chinese issue looms large. China’s loans to Venezuela — close to about $18 billion, according to Barclay’s – consist of short-term financing payable via oil shipments. As the price of oil collapses, Venezuela needs to ship more oil to China in order to pay them back. Barclay’s estimates that right now this is close to 800,000 barrels per day, leaving little more than a million barrels per day Venezuela can sell for cash. A default will send ripples beyond Wall Street. Many people have been buying high-risk, high-return Venezuelan debt for years — from pension funds in far-off countries to small banks in developing ones. Most stand to lose their shirts. Yet the signs that this was unsustainable were there for all to see. For years, Venezuela has had a massive budget deficit, sustained only by exorbitant oil prices. For years, analysts have been warning that the Venezuelan government would rather chew nails that allow the private sector to grow. And yes, a lot of that borrowed money was used to help establish a narco-military kleptocracy“.

It ends “In a few months, once the rubble of the Bolivarian revolution is cleared, the discussion will turn to how Venezuela can be helped. It would be smart to remember that aid should come to the Venezuelan people first. As the scarcity of food and medicine grows, Venezuela may become the first petro-state to face a humanitarian disaster. If and when a responsible government in Caracas asks for foreign assistance, solving this urgent issue should be at the top of the agenda. Conditions on financial assistance should privilege the interests of Venezuelans caught in the debacle above the interests of angry hedge fun managers or international bankers”.

 

“Agreed to revisit a previous judgement that upheld a law criminalising gay sex”

07/02/2016

India’s Supreme Court has agreed to revisit a previous judgement that upheld a law criminalising gay sex. Three senior judges said the 2013 ruling would be re-examined by a larger bench of judges, in a move that has been welcomed by activists. The judges said that the issue was a “matter of constitutional importance”. According to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), a 155-year-old colonial-era law, a same-sex relationship is an “unnatural offence”. In deeply conservative India, homosexuality is a taboo and many people still regard same-sex relationships as illegitimate.  There has been a very vocal campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in India”.

Using terrorists to fight terrorists

07/02/2016

James Traub writes what will happen after the failure of the Syria peace talks in Geneva, “The Syrian peace talks that were to start last Monday, then Friday, just might get underway this week. But even if the Syrian regime accepts a U.N. resolution requiring an end to the starvation sieges it has imposed — as Syrian rebels are demanding as a precondition for joining the talks — the war is likely to go on and on, generating even more deaths and ever more refugees. The talks have virtually no chance of ending in a peace agreement”.

Traub continues “The good news for the administration of President Barack Obama is that the talks may not end at all. Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy charged with cajoling everyone to get into the same Geneva hotel, if not the same room, has said that he expects to shuttle among the parties for six months. The “process,” it seems, may long outlive even the strongest intimations of failure. As with the now-defunct Palestinian “peace process,” the Obama administration will thus be enabled to cling to the battered raft of diplomacy even as it ships water — at least until the last plank disappears”.

Correctly he argues that “It is absolutely true, as the administration maintains, that only diplomacy can ultimately stanch the bloodshed in Syria. And ending the Syrian civil war is in turn indispensable to the goal of eradicating the Islamic State. But the “Geneva process” is no more likely to succeed today than it was the last time it was tried, in 2014. Should they ever sit down, those on the other side of the table — the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia, and Iran — will not feel compelled to accept any offer to which Syria’s rebels or their backers in the region could possibly agree. So what’s Plan B? There is no Plan B”.

He goes on to mention that “de Mistura hoped to build a cease-fire from the ground up by negotiating a series of local freezes. That effort has stalled. Now that Assad is reclaiming territory from the rebels thanks to Russian air support, he has no incentive to agree to any halt save as a precursor to surrender by the rebels. That may help explain why de Mistura is preparing for long-term shuttle diplomacy. What choice does he have?”

He argues that the administration has accepted that Assad will stay, at least for transition, despite what they say publicly, yet Traub writes realistically that “It probably doesn’t matter. Assad won’t accept that formula, and there are currently no signs that either Russia or Iran will force him to do so. At that point, the Obama administration, which will be running out the string on its tenure, will have to choose between a cynical commitment to a dead-end diplomatic process and helping the rebels finally change the calculus at a time when Assad has far stronger support than he did during the last two rounds of negotiations, in 2012 and 2014”.

Traub argues that the rebels should not accept defeat at the hands of Assad “because it has become clear that the Islamic State cannot be defeated without the help of the Syrian rebels. Why is that? First, it’s widely understood that the Islamic State cannot be dislodged by bombing alone, any more than a group of supremely dedicated insurgents can be. A ground force must do the hard work of routing them from urban areas under their control. In Iraq, the Islamic State may be uprooted through a combination of American bombing and ground assaults by the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga. In Syria, the army belongs to the Assad regime, and the Kurds can’t and will not go far beyond Kurdish-majority zones. Any act of liberation by non-Sunni forces would be likely to outrage the Sunnis now under the Islamic State’s thumb, provoking a new round of sectarian bloodshed. That rules out Western forces. Sunni states, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, could furnish such a ground force, but they won’t. Each has enemies (the Kurds, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood, in order) that preoccupy them more than Baghdadi’s men”.

In true realistic fashion Traub writes that an alliance with terrorists is needed to defeat the terrorists of ISIS, “the rebels (not including al-Nusra Front, the al Qaeda affiliate) but certainly encompassing the nationalistically minded Salafists, such as Ahrar al-Sham. Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French diplomat and scholar of the Arab world, has called for the West to organise and support the rebels in an assault on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the caliphate’s capital. His logic runs as follows: The expanding circle of the Islamic State’s terrorist attacks abroad (Paris, and more recently Istanbul and Jakarta) shows that it can no longer be “contained.” The West must therefore act to reverse its triumphal narrative, which fuels recruitment of new warriors; the greatest blow to that narrative would be the fall of Raqqa”.

He goes on to note that the problem with this plan is that Russia would bomb the force before it began an assault on Raqqa, “Washington would have to not only lead a bombing campaign against the Islamic State but also insist that Russia leave the good rebels alone”.

Traub adds that of four experts “only one, Hassan Hassan, a Syrian journalist and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, agreed that rebel forces were both willing and capable. Charles Lister, a leading authority on the Syrian opposition and author of The Syrian Jihad, said that he thought Filiu was absolutely right that “taking [the Islamic State] on definitively in cities like Raqqa is the only way to genuinely dent the movement’s momentum and confidence,” but nevertheless concluded that a fragmented opposition reeling from attacks by the Assad regime and Russian bombers cannot be organised right now”.

Traub concludes “There are two very different ways to achieve the conditions necessary to make the rebels a meaningful anti-Islamic State force. The first is that the Geneva negotiations somehow succeed and Assad agrees to a nationwide cease-fire and the Russians stop bombing the rebels. Senior American military officials have already concluded that they will need to send hundreds of more troops to Syria and Iraq to engage in training, surveillance, and intelligence work; they would provide support to both Kurdish and Arab rebel forces in Syria. The other alternative, of course, is that the negotiations fail and the Obama administration concludes that, as a matter of national self-interest, it must take the lead in supporting the mainstream rebels and organising support among its coalition partners, demonstrating to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Iranians that Assad has no long-term prospect of remaining even as master of a rump state in western Syria. At some point, the coalition would also have to establish a no-fly zone that would allow rebels to move eastward from Aleppo to the Islamic State-held city of Manbij and then on to Raqqa. This would, of course, require some very tough diplomacy with Russia, which until now has largely had its way in Syria”.

He ends “Maybe there’s another, better way. But if it’s true that the rebels are not an impediment to the war against the Islamic State but rather a powerful potential ally, we have to treat them that way. In the face of the impending talks, they have proved far more organised and coherent than they have been in the past, banding together behind a former Syrian military leader to form the High Negotiations Committee. It would be wonderful if everyone could get together at Geneva and agree on a collective good. But just in case that doesn’t happen, we need to be ready with Plan B”.

Syria’s main opposition join the talks

07/02/2016

A delegation from Syria’s main opposition group arrived in Geneva on Saturday to join U.N.-mediated peace talks, demanding President Bashar al-Assad’s government be made to comply with a U.N. resolution on humanitarian aid and human rights. “We are keen to make this negotiation a success,” opposition spokesman Salim al-Muslat told reporters as the delegation arrived from Riyadh, ending weeks of uncertainty about whether they would come and the talks would happen. The 17-strong team from the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC), including political and militant opponents of Assad in the country’s 5-year-old civil war, is expected to have a first meeting with the U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura on Sunday, setting up the first peace talks in two years. Muslat said the HNC insisted on implementation of a U.N. resolution demanding all sides allow aid access, release detainees, end sieges and stop targeting civilian areas. That was not a precondition for talks, he said, but it was the duty of the Security Council members who agreed the resolution last month, including Syria’s chief ally Russia, which is supporting Assad’s forces with a bombing campaign.

ISIS in Afghanistan?

07/02/2016

An article in Foreign Affairs argues that ISIS will fail in attempting to extend to Afghanistan, “January 2015, Kurdish forces drove the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS) out of Kobani, a city previously considered to be one of the group’s strongholds. At the time, ISIS released an audio statement to restore the morale of its beleaguered fighters. In it, spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani reassured ISIS foot soldiers that the group was “becoming stronger and stronger” and “taking confident steps with no doubt or hesitation.” Adnani then dropped a bombshell: ISIS had added Wilayat Khorasan—a territory encompassing Afghanistan and Pakistan—to its growing list of international outposts. Since the establishment of Wilayat Khorasan, Afghanistan has become central to ISIS’ campaign for global expansion. But challenges in Afghanistan have plagued the group from the very start”.

The piece continues, “After more than two decades of conflict, the Taliban is deeply entrenched in Afghanistan’s militant communities. As an indigenous force, it can draw on tribal relationships and ethnic loyalties, an inherent advantage over ISIS. And although the Taliban may not be particularly savvy on social media, the group understands the needs and desires of Afghanistan’s jihadists in ways that ISIS can’t”.

The writers note that ISIS have established a radio station and “In its war of words in Afghanistan, ISIS has attacked the Taliban with a smear campaign that would make political operatives and spin doctors proud. The group has relentlessly challenged the Taliban’s jihadist credentials, implying that it caters to regional state governments”.

The piece goes on to argue that “ISIS has also challenged the legitimacy of the Taliban leadership. In the months before the Taliban announced the death of leader Mullah Omar, ISIS waged a campaign against the one-eyed Taliban emir. The tenth issue of Dabiq, published in July 2015, featured a lengthy comparison of Omar and ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in which ISIS claimed that Omar’s “nationalist” worldview hindered efforts to “unify the ranks of the Muslims all around the world.” When the Taliban announced Omar’s death in July 2015, ISIS shifted the focus of its criticism to Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour. In a video released in August 2015, ISIS accused Mansour of being an ally of Iran. The Taliban’s multiyear cover-up of Omar’s death (although the Taliban finally announced his death in 2015, it is believed that he had died in 2013) provided ISIS’ social media army with another opportunity to demean the Taliban and al Qaeda. Immediately after the Taliban announced Omar’s death, ISIS supporters on Twitter began feverishly posting tweets in Arabic with the hashtag #talibanslie, accusing the group of being untrustworthy. Similarly, Abu Maysarah al-Shami, an ISIS sharia official, wrote a damning article in which he accused the Taliban of deceiving the ummah (global Muslim population) for years”.

Interestingly they write “For all of ISIS’ attempts to besmirch the Taliban, they have yet to capitalize on the group’s internal discord. In fact, the recent establishment of a Taliban splinter faction, composed of several prominent Taliban commanders, amounts to a refutation of ISIS in Afghanistan. Although many reports have indicated that the Taliban faction and ISIS have established an alliance, the splinter group has actually rejected collaboration with ISIS in Afghanistan. Many of ISIS’ troubles in Afghanistan are of the group’s own making. ISIS has undermined its prospects by criticizing Pashtunwali, the tribal code to which Pashtuns—the majority of the Taliban fighting force—adhere. In Dabiq, ISIS also criticized Deobandi Islam, the Taliban’s prevailing school of Islamic thought. It is therefore not surprising that the only ISIS foothold in Afghanistan is in Nangarhar Province, which, unlike most other provinces, has a significant number of adherents to Salafism, the Islamic methodology practiced by ISIS“.

Underlinging their point they add  that ISIS “has suffered its own internal fracturing in Afghanistan. In late October 2015, ISIS deputy commander (and former Guantánamo Bay detainee) Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost announced that he was abandoning his ties with Hafiz Saeed Khan, Wilayat Khorasan’s emir, whom Dost accused of committing atrocities against innocent Afghan civilians. Although Dost vowed that he would remain loyal to ISIS, the dispute is a poor sign for ISIS’ long-term prospects. Further, even though ISIS pulled off spectacular events in Paris, the Sinai Peninsula, and elsewhere, these attacks are not likely to matter much to Afghan militants, most of whom are focused primarily on Afghanistan”.

The piece concludes “Outside of Afghanistan, ISIS’s efforts to peel militants away from al Qaeda have yielded mixed results. Though the group has managed to acquire pledges of allegiance from Boko Haram and the Sinai Peninsula’s Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, two groups that were previously in al Qaeda’s orbit, no official al Qaeda affiliates have defected to ISIS. In fact, groups like al Shabab and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continue to rebuff ISIS’ expansion efforts, with al Shabab aggressively targeting ISIS sympathisers in Somalia. ISIS’ struggles thus far suggest that it will need more than a snappy propaganda initiative to chip away at the al Qaeda network. ISIS has struggled to navigate Afghanistan’s complex web of tribal, ethnic, and religious relationships. In other words, propaganda and spin can only take ISIS so far in Afghanistan. Until the group’s leaders better understand the complex politics of Afghanistan, they may find themselves stymied in the graveyard of empires”.

“to counter efforts by Islamic State to expand into Libya”

05/02/2016

President Barack Obama directed his national security advisers on Thursday to counter efforts by Islamic State to expand into Libya and other countries, the White House said. Islamic State militants have taken advantage of chaos in Libya to establish themselves in the city of Sirte, and they have carried out several attacks on oil installations this month. “The President directed his national security team to continue efforts to strengthen governance and support ongoing counterterrorism efforts in Libya and other countries where ISIL has sought to establish a presence,” the White House statement said, using an acronym for Islamic State”.

Francis and Kiril in Cuba

05/02/2016

Today the Press Office of the Holy See released a brief statement to announce the meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church on 12 February in Cuba.

A report notes that “The meeting, the first between a sitting pope and a Russian patriarch, will be an important step in mending the Great Schism that divided Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054. “This meeting of the Primates of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, after a long preparation … will mark an important stage in relations between the two Churches,” said a joint statement released by both churches Friday. The encounter between the two leaders, expected to last roughly two hours, will take place at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, and will conclude with the signing of a joint declaration. No details about the content of that agreement were released. Kirill will be visiting the island nation as part of his first-ever official visit as patriarch of the Russian Church to Latin America. His tour will include stops in Brazil and Paraguay”.

John Allen writes that “Journalism tends to wildly overuse the term “historic,” but when it comes to Friday’s announcement that Pope Francis will meet Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia on Feb. 12 in Havana, there’s simply no other word for it. It will be the first meeting ever between the head of the Catholic Church and the spiritual chief of Russian Orthodoxy. It’s a moment for which ecumenical leaders on both sides have been labouring for decades, and to be honest, many thought they’d never live to see it. St. John Paul II, the first Slavic pope who dreamed of reuniting Eastern and Western Christianity, longed to visit Russia, or, in the absence of such a trip, to meet the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church at a location of his choosing”.

Allen goes on to note “For the better part of a quarter-century, rumours of such a meeting would periodically erupt — the pope and patriarch would meet in Vienna, for instance, or in Crete, or in some other neutral site. It never came to be, in large part because of resistance on the Russian side. Many Russian Orthodox fear that the Catholic model of ecumenism means submission to papal authority, and despite repeated assurances from John Paul, Benedict XVI, and now Francis that what they’re after instead is “reconciled diversity,” the suspicion never seemed to abate. Further, many Russian Orthodox clergy and laity have a series of standing complaints about the Catholic Church, and have long insisted those disputes must be resolved before a meeting between the heads of the two churches would be anything other than a cheap photo-op”.

Allen mentions that these complains, bordering on paranoia, include “The so-called “Uniate Churches,” meaning the Eastern churches in communion with Rome, which some Orthodox see as a Trojan horse originally created to siphon people away from Orthodoxy”.

Allen also notes that the ROC bemoans the very existence of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church which the ROC sees as being on its territory but, Allen writes the UGCC is also resented “for its generally pro-Western and anti-Russian political line”.

Allen does not the supposed evangelism of the Catholic Church in Russia but fairly notes that “a study in 2002 found there were just 800 conversions in the entire decade of the 1990s. Meanwhile, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity exploded in Russia, so much so that a 2012 book referred to it as a “post-Soviet gold rush.” How acute have these tensions been felt over the years? In 2004, John Paul II dispatched a high-profile delegation to return a cherished Russian Orthodox icon called the Madonna of Kazan to the Patriarch of Moscow. The group arrived at the Kremlin, sat through a lengthy Orthodox liturgy, and then formally placed the icon into the patriarch’s hands as a gesture of papal outreach and respect”.

Allen mentions that “As they were doing so, the sound system inside the Cathedral of the Dormition was turned off so the crowd couldn’t hear the Vatican side expressing its good wishes, and a spokesman for the Patriarchate of Moscow went outside to go on television to say that until Rome got out of Ukraine, none of this meant anything”.

Thus, far from being a block to better relations it seems the ROC, under the previous patriarch, did all it could do be childish and immature at the gestures to the ROC.

Allen interestingly adds that “In recent years, however, three things have happened to jar the prospects for détente forward. First was the election of Kirill in February 2009. Prior to becoming patriarch, Kirill had served as chair of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department for External Church Relations, and in that capacity was effectively its top ecumenical official. Kirill was long seen by ecumenical experts as open to closer ties with Rome and with other branches of Christianity, and when he would occasionally make less friendly declarations, many attributed it to his need to placate hardliners within the Russian Orthodox synod. Seven years later, Kirill may feel that he has consolidated control to a sufficient extent that he can face down whatever criticism may come for agreeing to meet the pope”.

He goes on to mention, “Second has been the tremendous progress made over recent decades in relations between Catholicism and other Orthodox churches, especially the Patriarchate of Constantinople, but also Orthodox bodies in other nations, such as Armenia, Albania, Romania, and elsewhere. Granted, Moscow is the essential player in Orthodoxy, since two-thirds of the world’s 225 million Orthodox Christians are Russians. Yet the calculation in Moscow today may be that if it continued to stand on the sidelines in terms of warming relations with Rome, it would find itself isolated. Especially in light of a pan-Orthodox council scheduled for Crete in June, the first such gathering of leaders of all the Orthodox churches in 1,000 years, Moscow probably feels under pressure to reassert its relevance and leadership, and a high-profile summit with the pope is a terrific way of doing so”.

Allen ends “Third, Francis has changed the calculus in Orthodox circles in terms of how they think about the pope. He’s the first Latin American pope, and thus does not summon the same set of historical resentments largely tied to European history as either John Paul II, a Pole, or Benedict XVI, a German. Moreover, his foreign policy priorities since his election have been largely congenial to Russia’s perceived interests. In September 2013, he joined forces with Vladimir Putin in successfully heading off a proposed Western military offensive in Syria to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Since then, Francis and Putin have met in the Vatican and found common ground on several matters, including the protection of Christians in the Middle East and the growing reemergence of Cuba in the community of nations”.

He ends “Given that the Russian Orthodox Church enjoys an extremely close relationship with the Russian government, it’s unlikely Kirill would have agreed to the meeting with Francis without at least a tacit green light from Putin. Back in the John Paul II days, it was always taken for granted that the first encounter between a pope and the Russian patriarch would have to take place on a neutral site, and then it could be followed by a papal trip to Russia itself. If so, then Vatican-watchers might want to hit Rome bookstores for guidebooks to Moscow, because as of today, the idea of such an outing has transitioned from wildly improbable to increasingly plausible”.

Worsening situation in Afghanistan

05/02/2016

President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Thursday the security situation in the war-torn country is deteriorating and assured senators he will do a thorough review of American troop levels needed to stabilize the nation. Army Lt. Gen. John W. “Mick” Nicholson Jr. told the Senate Armed Services Committee he will have a better sense of conditions in Afghanistan within a few months if he is confirmed by the Senate. As wartime commanders must often do, Nicholson walked a fine line during his confirmation hearing. He supported the Obama administration’s exit strategy, which critics have derided as politically driven, while also promising the senators his decisions will be grounded in sound military strategy”.

“They don’t have the pope’s explicit endorsement, they’re at least not defying him”

05/02/2016

A piece in Crux by John Allen notes how Pope Francis is sending mixed signals on civil unions for gays, “Last weekend, tens of thousands of Italians took to at least 100 piazzas up and down the country to demonstrate their support for a measure currently before the Italian parliament, and backed by the governing center-left majority, to provide civil unions for same-sex couples along with full adoption rights. On Saturday, another wave of demonstrators is expected to flood Rome’s Circus Maximus to oppose that measure, in a rally known as Family Day. It was originally set for the square outside St. John Lateran, for centuries the seat of the papacy, but organizers say they were forced to relocate due to the high number of people planning to take part. The event is expected to be so big that the Italian train company is offering a 30 percent discount to people traveling to Rome using the code “Family30”, which is standard practice for large national happenings. When backers of the civil unions bill protested in this case, the company apologized but did not withdraw the discount”.

Allen writes that “Backers believe they have enough support to pass it, although since parties have indicated that members are free to vote their consciences, hard counts are illusive. This is Italy, so from the beginning of the ferment, one question above all has loomed over the debate: “Where does Pope Francis stand?” Early on, it seemed plausible Francis might just sit this one out”.

Allen goes on to remind readers that “when Argentina geared up for a national debate over gay marriage in 2010, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was publicly critical, but privately signaled he’d be willing to live with civil unions as a compromise measure. In the end that didn’t happen, and Argentina became the first nation in Latin America to legalise gay marriage. Yet memories of the future pope’s position have endured. When a precursor to Saturday’s Family Day rally was staged last June, the pope’s man within the powerful Italian bishops’ conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, was seen as distinctly cool to the idea. The assumption was he was acting with at least the tacit support of the pope, if not his outright blessing”.

The confusion of where Pope Francis stands comes from when he “abruptly canceled a meeting last Wednesday with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference and a vocal proponent of Family Day. Many took that as a snub, suggesting that Francis wants to keep his distance from the fight. Two days later, however, Francis reversed course and stepped directly into the debate. In an annual speech to a Vatican court, Francis issued a blunt warning that “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union,” which was taken by Italians as a criticism of the Cirinnà bill and, at least indirectly, an endorsement of Family Day”.

Allen makes the point that “There’s already some indication that the latest signals coming from Francis may be changing the political landscape. Late last week, backers of the civil unions bill presented a packet of modifications, including language clearly distinguishing the relationships from marriage, and also requiring that a family tribunal evaluate all proposed adoptions to be sure they’re in the child’s best interests. Other amendments include that if a couple in a civil union splits up, they will no longer be entitled to use the same last name, another effort to make it different from marriage. Those revisions, however, have not satisfied the bill’s critics. In the meantime, some backers of the bill are now threatening to vote “no” if it’s watered down any further”.

Allen tries to unpick the reasons for Francis’ mixed messages, “In Argentina six years ago, the alternative to civil unions was full marriage rights; in Italy, no one has put gay marriage on the table, and at least for now, it’s a political non-starter”.

The second point he notes is that the Church in Italy is divided, “the Italian media has made a great deal of a perceived rupture between Galantino and Bagnasco, and more broadly a divide in the Italian Church, with some dioceses participating heartily in Family Day and others effectively ignoring it. In that context, Francis may feel the need to demonstrate solidarity with Bagnasco by not undercutting his position”.

He adds that the Church has influence in Italy, “For all its travails, the Catholic Church still has significant social capital and packs a political punch. That doesn’t mean the Italian Church wins all the time; famously, it lost referenda in 1974 over divorce and in 1981 over abortion, and prevailed in 2005 over stem cell research only by persuading Italians not to vote in order to invalidate the ballot. Yet Mass-going Catholics remain a sizable chunk of the national population and are well represented in both major political parties, and their sentiments have to be at least considered. Certainly the pope himself still has some political muscle in his own backyard. It was a perceived rebuke from Francis in September, after all, that’s credited with bringing down Rome’s former mayor Ignazio Marino. Perhaps the calculation on the civil unions proposal — to paraphrase a Star Trek “Borg” reference — is that resistance is not futile”.

Allen ends “For now, the pro-family demonstrators planning to turn out in Rome on Saturday can feel that if they don’t have the pope’s explicit endorsement, they’re at least not defying him … and in Italian political life, now as ever, that’s no small thing”.

Yet this lack of a clear position makes Francis meaningless to the debate. Either Francis stands with the hypisocracy of the Church’s teaching or he says nothing.

“Consider new sanctions against Iran”

05/02/2016

France has asked the European Union to consider new sanctions against Iran over recent missile tests, in a request made shortly after the EU ended sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, officials have told The Associated Press. Two officials from European Union nations said the French proposal is under EU review but most other EU members view it as counterproductive to efforts to revive political and economic ties with Iran after the protracted chill over the nuclear dispute. The officials, who were briefed by people who attended the meeting, spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly”.