Archive for March, 2016

Benedict, the need for God, and mercy

30/03/2016

John Allen notes the recent interview given by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “From the beginning, part of the narrative about Pope Francis has been that he’s sort of the anti-Pope Benedict XVI. Where Benedict was cold and aloof, Francis is seen as warm and populist; where Benedict was rigid and dogmatic, Francis is open and flexible; where Benedict was a man of the system, Francis is the antidote to it. One could go on crafting different ways of making the same point, but the idea is clear: Benedict and Francis are often set in opposition”.

Allen goes on to make the point “Francis himself has never fueled that narrative. Right after his election he took a helicopter out to Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence where his predecessor was staying, in order to embrace Benedict. The first encyclical issued by Francis, “Lumen Fidei” in June 2013, was largely based on a draft by Benedict, and Francis has invited Benedict to take part in several big events. We got another reminder that the real story is continuity, not rupture, with publication of a rare interview with Benedict after retirement on Wednesday, showcasing why he’s considered one of the best theological minds ever to occupy the Throne of Peter. The interview took place in October 2015, as part of a conference in Rome on the traditional Christian doctrine of justification by faith, and was conducted by the Rev. Jacques Servais, a Jesuit priest and theologian”.

Allen mentions that “To the extent there was a headline, it was Benedict’s assertion that there’s a “deep double crisis” facing the faith, as a result of the modern theological belief that people can be saved outside Christianity. While endorsing that belief, Benedict says it’s created a loss of motivation for missionary work and also sown doubt as to why one should put up with the demands of Christianity if you can get to Heaven without them. All that is certainly true, though it’s not the first time Benedict has made the point. Vis-á-vis Francis and Benedict, the most interesting portion of the interview comes in Benedict’s reflections on mercy”.

Allen summarises the interview noting that “In a nutshell, Benedict’s argument is that 500 years ago, when the Protestant Reformation happened, people took the existence of God for granted and assumed that God must be pretty ticked off at what a mess human beings have made of the world. Therefore, the driving question was how any human being could be saved. Martin Luther answered that question by saying it’s faith alone, while the Catholic Church insisted it’s faith plus good works, laying the basis for a great schism. Today, Benedict says, the terms of debate have been reversed. Modern women and men look around at all the violence, evil and corruption in the world, and ask what sense it makes to believe in a loving God. In other words, it’s no longer humanity that has to justify itself before God; it’s God who has to justify himself to humanity. Benedict believes God’s answer to that challenge is mercy”.

Allen continues, “According to Benedict, God cannot just make all the evil in the world disappear, because to do so would be to rob humanity of freedom. What God can do is to show mercy, thereby encouraging people to be merciful with one another. Mercy is at the heart of the Christian story, with God’s only son being willing to die amid “the suffering of love.” “Only where there is mercy does cruelty end, only with mercy do evil and violence end,” Benedict says. This brings us by a short route to Francis, since he’s all about mercy. It’s quite literally his motto as pope, which is a three-word Latin phrase, miserando atque eligendo, roughly meaning “choosing through the eyes of mercy.” His first Sunday homily as pope featured the claim that “the strongest message of the Lord is mercy,” and right now we’re in the middle of a special jubilee Holy Year called by Francis and devoted to the theme of mercy. The most famous sound bite associated with Francis, “Who am I to judge?”, is an expression of mercy, as is his attitude toward so many issues and constituencies – the poor, war, divorced and remarried Catholics, and so on. “Pope Francis is totally in agreement with this line,” Benedict says. “His pastoral practice is expressed in the fact that he continually speaks to us of God’s mercy. It is mercy that moves us toward God, while justice frightens us before Him.” As Benedict sees it, he inherited the emphasis on mercy in recent papacies from St. John Paul II, laid out the intellectual case, and then handed it on to Francis, who’s taking the message to the streets”.

He concludes “At the level of Church politics that thumbs-up is fairly important, since some of Francis’ biggest critics come among the very theological conservatives who cherish Benedict. The bottom line, therefore, is that the narrative has the story wrong. The relationship between Benedict and Francis isn’t Ali vs. Frazier, or Coke vs. Pepsi; it’s more akin to Lennon and McCartney, or Rolls and Royce. Granted, Benedict and Francis have very different personalities, but then so did Martin and Lewis or Holmes and Watson, which didn’t stop them from making some magic together. This isn’t a rivalry, in other words, but actually one of the more intriguing partnerships in recent Christian history”.

 

Yemeni ceasefire

30/03/2016

Yemeni officials say Shiite militias and the internationally recognized government have agreed to begin a ceasefire for a week or two before their next round of negotiations. The officials participated in talks on Sunday in Sanaa, the capital, between the rebels and UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. They say talks are expected to restart next month. The officials said Houthis militias have agreed to implement a UN security council resolution which requires them to hand over weapons and withdraw from territory, including Sanaa”.

Conservative, youthful Gulf monarchs

30/03/2016

An article in Foreign Affairs discusses the next generation of Gulf monarchs, “After years of leadership by octogenarians, the Gulf Arab states are getting younger rulers. On February 10, the ruler of Dubai announced a new Emirati cabinet that includes eight new ministers with an average age of 38. The youngest appointee, appropriately heading the Ministry of Youth Affairs, is just 22. A few weeks earlier, the 35-year-old emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, named a fellow member of Generation Y to lead the nation’s foreign ministry—Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who is also just 35. The face of Gulf leadership is changing, and it is getting decidedly younger”.

The piece goes on to note “Although most regional heads of state are long in the tooth, gone are the days where Gulf leadership is entirely the domain of the aged. Now, it is not uncommon for the Gulf states to name crown princes and key ministers who are in their 40s and 50s And since the age gap between rulers and crown princes is growing—in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia the crown princes are a full twenty years younger than the heads of state—the generational logjam is beginning to clear. This means when the Gulf’s remaining senior incumbents pass from the scene, the region could emerge on the other end of the age continuum altogether—exceptional for the youth of its leadership rather than for its advanced age”.

The writer goes on to make the excellent point that “These new ministers include many technocrats that embrace an analytical approach to public policy. The crown princes, all but one of whom is 55 or younger, bring different outlooks to regional and international politics than their predecessors. All lived through the invasion of Kuwait and the 1990–91 Gulf War that followed. Some, including Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, spent more time living within the region than their older counterparts, who spent formative years studying abroad. And of the new leaders who sought outside educations, many attended university in the United States, rather than the former rite of passage of studying in Cairo, London, or Paris. But as Western observers try to read the tea leaves of what this trend could mean for Gulf politics, they should be careful not to conflate youth and experience with political reform”.

The piece adds “there are the pressures of a hereditary regime. In family power dynamics, young leaders worry just as much about rival successors as they do a restive public. Dynasties create hostile environments for political reform; leaders cannot make structural changes to the political system that would disempower the ruling family without the threat of being expelled from leadership. Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the crown prince of Bahrain, discovered this when his attempts to implement reforms after the political unrest in 2011 were met with backlash from hard-line factions within the ruling family. In this region more than others, blood is thicker than water. It is reasonable to expect young leaders to appoint their contemporaries to key positions, but only after consolidating their power. It took two and a half years at the helm for Tamim to undertake a major overhaul of his cabinet. But when he did, three of his appointees were under the age of 45. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies have similar political talent waiting in the wings, and many of the region’s brightest stars have already gained experience through diplomatic posts in Washington and elsewhere. For example, the new 53-year-old Saudi Arabian foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, spent a decade as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States before taking on the role of Riyadh’s chief diplomat, a role he has used to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The current United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, 42-year-old Yousef al-Otaiba, works on behalf of the nation’s 43-year-old foreign minister, and both seem poised to remain leading figures in the UAE’s foreign policy apparatus for years to come given their success in positioning the Emirates as a rising regional power”.

He makes the point that “There are other reasons not to assume that young leaders will gravitate to democratization. Today’s 30-somethings in the Gulf are likely to associate democracy with the bloody 2003 Iraq War or the messy aftermath of the Arab Spring. They have seen fewer examples of democratization going right, unlike preceding generations that watched the fall of the Berlin Wall. A poll conducted in Saudi Arabia during the Arab Spring found that the oldest respondents were most likely to support democracy; the 26–35 group was the least likely. Young royals have come of age at the nadir of regional democratisation”.

Pointedly he writes that “The next generation of Gulf leaders will likely embrace an alternative model: good governance. Specifically, they will concentrate on delivering public services effectively, improving their management of public administration, and pursuing economic reforms that ensure the long-term prosperity of the GCC. Both Tamim and the 54-year-old Emirati crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, have sought to streamline government bureaucracy by promoting information technology, adopting e-government initiatives, emphasizing innovation, and strengthening their countries’ indigenous workforce. The Emirates recently enacted a series of subsidy reforms aimed at strengthening economic stability, a project championed by the crown prince, to relative success. Mohammed bin Salman, the 30-year-old deputy crown prince and defense minister of Saudi Arabia, has promoted similar concepts, as well as adding ambitious plans for greater self-reliance in national security. The Gulf’s youthful leaders are making their mark in the realm of defence, ushering in what appears to be an era of military activism in the region. For example, bin Salman is widely acknowledged as the architect of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. But it is Little Sparta, the nickname that the U.S. military gave the UAE, that best exemplifies this trend. The sons of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum both serve in the UAE military and have participated in the country’s military campaign in Yemen”.

He concludes “the rise of a new generation of leaders provides an opportunity for a much-needed update to U.S. strategy in the Gulf. For too long, Washington has defaulted to a predictable formula of exchanging arms and military equipment for counterterrorism support. Arms sales provide the backbone of the United States’ interaction with the region, but also can give the cynical impression that U.S.–Saudi relations can be measured in guided munitions, or that U.S.–UAE relations can be boiled down to F-16 deliveries. As the Gulf’s young new leaders invest in e-governance, private sector development, and innovation initiatives, Washington will have greater options to collaborate with regional powers. That, in turn, will help Gulf nations build capacity, develop trust, and broaden their relationship with the United States. The West should talk straight with the region’s emerging power brokers. Bin Salman has asked for directness: “What I request is that the thing you actually believe, to say it.” We should grant that request. The solution to Gulf problems is not always more armaments, and it is certainly not a war driven by Saudi-Iranian rivalry. A generational shift in power does not happen often. But when it does, it provides a chance to build more meaningful and beneficial relationships”.

 

ISIS genocide against Christians

28/03/2016

John Kerry declared Thursday that the Islamic State has carried out acts of genocide against Christians and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria. “In my judgment, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims,” Kerry said, using an Arabic acronym to describe the Sunni extremist group. He said the finding is meant to demonstrate that the U.S. recognizes “the despicable nature of crimes” carried out by the group. The timing of the declaration is unexpected: The Obama administration had come under sharp criticism for announcing a day earlier that the State Department would miss a March 17 congressional deadline to determine whether or not a genocide had been carried out because Kerry needed “additional time” to gather the facts”.

“Trump and Obama share much more than either would care to admit”

28/03/2016

William Inboden writes that Trump’s “foreign policy” mirrors that of President Obama.

He opens, “One of the enduring fascinations of American history is how a presidential candidate can campaign as a fierce critic of his predecessor, only then to embrace the main features of his predecessor’s foreign policy once in office. Such was the case with Eisenhower’s adoption of Truman’s Cold War strategic framework, or how President Obama adopted most of George W. Bush’s counterterrorism architecture. With Donald Trump’s recent elaboration of his beliefs on national security policy before the Washington Post editorial board, the substantive similarities between his views and Obama’s are inescapable”.

Inboden goes on to write “Before Trump gave his interview, I made some similar, admittedly provocative, points about these echoes of Obama when speaking last week on a panel at last week’s International Studies Association conference. Reading the transcript of Trump’s discussion with the Post editors alongside President Obama’s much-noted recent interview with the Atlantic reveals some markedly similar convictions and policy preferences between them”.

Inboden goes on to note that despite obvious differences in tone and style, there are “many similar beliefs and positions that Trump and Obama both hold are bracing. Consider: Both are very leery of American involvement in the Syrian civil war, or the Middle East more broadly; Both see Russia as an important partner in the fight against the Islamic State and in restoring regional order in the Middle East, and neither favours taking strong measures against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; Both have called for more even-handedness and balance by the United States on Israeli-Palestinian matters, instead of America’s traditional full-throated support for Israel; Both downplay the promotion of democracy and human rights; Both are skeptical of many traditional U.S. allies and alliances, and are very explicit in demanding that U.S. allies do much more burden-sharing”.

Inboden contends that “Both are less enthusiastic about free trade then their White House predecessors of both parties (admittedly, Obama came around to promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but this was only after he had earlier expressed significant reservations about it, voiced skepticism about NAFTA, and delayed and renegotiated the FTAs with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama); Both support the diplomatic and economic opening to Cuba; Both are very skeptical of stability operations and nation-building efforts. In his May 2012 declaration that the “goal that I set — to defeat al Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild — is within reach,” and announcement of America’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Obama called instead to “focus on nation building here at home.” Trump repeated Obama’s call almost verbatim, which in Trump-speak was rendered as “I don’t think we should be nation building anymore…I just think we have to rebuild our country.” Obama supporters and Trump supporters, who otherwise share almost nothing except mutual disdain, will no doubt not welcome this analysis. But in national security policy, substance matters more than style, and on substance Trump and Obama share much more than either would care to admit. Indeed, for all of their other differences and reciprocal dislike of each other, the candidate who is most aligned with President Obama’s foreign policy, and who as president would be most likely to continue the main outlines of the Obama Doctrine, is Donald Trump”.

“Increased U.S. military activity from five Philippine bases”

28/03/2016

The disputed South China Sea will soon see increased U.S. military activity from five Philippine bases, following the signing of a deal between Manila and Washington that will allow the Pentagon to deploy conventional forces to the Philippines for the first time in decades. The deal — called an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement — was reached Friday between State Department officials and the government of the Philippines, and will allow the Pentagon to use parts of five military installations: Antonio Bautista Air Base, Basa Air Base, Fort Magsaysay, Lumbia Air Base, and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base. It comes at a time when the United States and its allies in the region have expressed concern about China increasingly deploying military assets to man-made islands in the South China Sea. State Department spokesman John Kirby, a retired two-star Navy admiral, said that the United States has “made absolutely no bones about the fact that we take the rebalance to the Asia Pacific region very seriously.” But he added that there is “nothing offensive or provocative” about any of the Pentagon’s deployment of troops to the region”.

Trump’s isolationism?

28/03/2016

An interesting piece argues that the recent terror attack in Brussels show the importance of NATO, “A recent meeting with the editorial board of the Washington Post, Donald Trump finally found international consensus and support on a powerful and creative set of key foreign-policy issues, placing him squarely on record with three well-known international activist leaders. Unfortunately, the global leaders with whom he is in nearly impeccable agreement are Vladimir Putin, Russia’s dictatorial president; Kim Jong Un, the petulant authoritarian leader of North Korea; and Xi Jinping, China’s expansionist-minded president. Consider just a few of Trump’s gems. On America’s allies in Europe: “NATO is costing us a fortune.” On support for democratic South Korea: “We’re constantly, you know, sending our ships, sending our planes, doing our war games.” And on battling the Islamic State: “I would find it very, very hard to send that many troops to take care of it.” It now seems clear that the four of them taken together share a vision of the 21st century that the best course for the world would be a disengagement of the United States from its traditional structure of alliances and a retrenchment from forward military deployments”.

The piece goes on, “By aligning himself with Russia, North Korea, and China on the need to get the United States out of the world and our military back to the piers and barracks where he evidently thinks it belongs, Trump would sow the seeds of global instability and cede significant portions of the world to regional domination. Notably, the South China Sea would be highly at risk of Chinese hegemony, and Eastern Europe would be under significant Russian influence. The ripple effects to other parts of the world would follow, and the already unstable Korean Peninsula would take another step toward open war. All of this would undermine the global economy and diminish U.S. power”.

The report notes “In this regard, the key question posed by Trump was, “Why are we always the one that’s leading, potentially the third world war, OK, with Russia?” It was somewhat unclear how the United States leading would create the potential for World War III, but you get the idea. Not only is Trump troubled by America’s internationalism, but he seems congenitally opposed to the very bedrock principle of that idea: the steadfastness of U.S. global leadership”.

On this point he seems to follow Obama but to a much greater degree than even he would recognise.

The report continues that “The key problem, in Trump’s eyes, seems to be financial: “NATO is costing us a fortune, and, yes, we’re protecting Europe, but we’re spending a lot of money.” He also implied that the United States either ought to get out of South Korea or charge them (by the hour?) for its deployments: “South Korea is very rich. Great industrial country. And yet we’re not reimbursed fairly for what we do.” We’ve seen that movie before. After the apocalyptic events of World War I in Europe, the United States departed the continent, declined to join the nascent global organizational structure offered by the League of Nations, and essentially withdrew from the world, judging it to be complicated, expensive, and unnecessary to maintain a policy of wider engagement. The result was the rise of fascism in Europe, the violent expansion of Imperial Japan, and World War II. While it is always easy to rail against the cost of our military, we get good value for the money. As much as we complain about the cost of an alliance system and forward military deployments, they are a necessity if we are to ensure an open global commons, freedom of the high seas, and security around the world, especially in the nations of our allies and friends. Particularly in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels on Tuesday, now is the time to stand with Europe and NATO, not talk about disengaging”.

Crucially the writer contends that “it is in our fundamental self-interest to engage, operate, and lead. Let’s take Europe and NATO as examples. NATO matters deeply to the United States for five key reasons. First and most importantly, it is the best and most consistent pool of partners the United States has in the world. Our NATO partners share our values — liberty, democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, and the other enduring elements of our national character. These fundamental values of America came from Europe via the Enlightenment, and Washington must continue to stand by them. Second, despite Trump’s comments, Europeans actually spend a great deal of money on defence. While they are indeed spending less than the stated NATO target goal of 2 percent of GDP, it is important to remember that Europeans spend $300 billion per year on defence. Taken collectively, it is the second-largest defense budget in the world, second only to America’s nearly $600 billion and more than Russia and China combined. Third, Europe’s geopolitical position allows U.S. forces to protect American interests and project power in unstable regions, from the Sahel to the Levant. The NATO bases in Europe are not dusty bastions of the Cold War — they are the forward-operating stations of the 21st century”.

Correctly the author adds “Fourth, the U.S. economy is deeply intertwined with Europe. The largest trading relationship in the world flows across the North Atlantic, comprising half of the world’s GDP and nearly one-third of global trade annually. Trump’s stated policy of disengagement from Europe and NATO would embolden Putin, deeply discourage and undermine friends in Europe, and create an atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt. Fifth, NATO and America’s European allies represent a highly capable cyber- and intelligence capability that remains extremely critical. Jettisoning our defense relationships would weaken the United States at a time when such interaction is necessary to deal with global violent extremism. The most recent attacks in Brussels, California, and Paris show that we are linked together in the fight against terrorism”.

He concludes “The same general arguments pertain in Asia, where our alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, and others help us to ensure global stability and empower the global economy. Trump thinks that the United States should walk away from a leadership role in NATO and disengage from forward military operations. That is naive and dangerous. It will only lead to happiness in Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang — and a bitter harvest for the United States”.

 

Adoramus te Christe

26/03/2016

Not mentioning a federal Syria

26/03/2016

An important article discusses why a federal system will not help peace in Syria.

It opens, “Within the past few days, a news agency report citing an anonymous U.N. Security Council diplomat revealed that Russia and unnamed “Western powers” have been considering “a federal structure” for a post-conflict Syria. “Federalism” is a term that often crops up in the context of peacemaking. International negotiators and warring parties sometimes see it as the best system for integrating diverse nations, ethnic groups, or combatant parties, all of whom may have cause to fear control by an overly powerful centre”.

The piece goes on to mention “Just this week, Syrian Kurds announced a plan to transform the northern area under their control into a federal region, one that would give them considerable autonomy. Meanwhile, Russia may see a federal Syria as a way for its client, the Assad regime, to at least maintain a grip on the majority-Alawite regions, which include Moscow’s strategic assets like the Tartus naval base. To Western powers, federalization may look like the only realistic scenario for a country that has already fragmented into many regions held by various armed groups. For those who fear a complete dissolution of Syria, federalism may seem like the best solution they can hope for. Yet it is all too easy to forget that others may see federalism in starkly different terms. Sceptics fear that granting autonomy to federal units can lead quickly to full-blown secession, hastening dissolution rather than helping put a country back together. In the case of Syria, both government and opposition negotiators have rejected federalism, associating it with a break-up of the country”.

Yet while this is true it also does not answer the alternate critique, what will keep Syria together after the fighting, eventually stops?

The report continues, “The mere mention of federalism has already created diplomatic complications. One need look no further than Libya to see the destructive energies that the talk of federalism can unleash. After the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, political groupings identified themselves as federalists or anti-federalists, which they considered to be incompatible positions. These divisions contributed to the outbreak of conflict. They have also made the ongoing constitution-making process unnecessarily difficult, even if on closer inspection neither side is actually proposing a genuine federal state”.

He argues that “There are other reasons why the talk of federalising Syria meets resistance. Federalising a country involves drawing borders on the map to create federal units. Syrians fear that these borders could turn out to be the same as the ones that the fighting parties have currently carved out. Although this does not appear to be their intention, the idea of great powers like the U.S. and Russia drawing borders on a map is bound to have negative connotations in the same region where Great Britain and France drew the Sykes-Picot line in 1916, creating the new Middle East. Equally sensitive is the perception that borders may have something to do with carving up territory along ethnic or religious lines, potentially creating the sort of sectarian state that most Syrians do not want to live in. The U.N. Security Council resolution of last December, which laid the diplomatic groundwork for the current peace negotiations in Geneva, explicitly rules out transforming Syria into a sectarian state. But drawing borders could still easily lead to a new cycle of violence. Groups desperate to avoid becoming minorities in a new federal unit may fight to defy their fate, while a dominant group may try to cleanse its area of minorities”.

The related point to bear in mind is that some groups cannot be easily compartmentalised. There are Christians all over Syria in the north, south, east and west and to pretend that they can be either ignored or grouped in with others in unhelpful and will lead to future problems.

He goes on to contend “The problem with bringing up federalism is that, from the very beginning, it burdens negotiations with a specific concept of state organization that can call up bad associations and push negotiating parties into blocs of opponents or supporters. There is actually no need to give a name to whatever solution is being negotiated. Several past peace processes show how negotiators should proceed. In South Africa and Spain, both countries with serious tensions between the national level and territorial units, the drafters of their democratic constitutions avoided giving labels to the territorial arrangements laid out in the texts. John Garang, who negotiated the peace deal between North and South Sudan in 2005, noted: “We have not used any formal word in the entire [peace agreement] to describe the type of governance that we have negotiated and agreed on. Perhaps we were guided by the African saying not to name a child before it is born.” A better starting point for any negotiation is to acknowledge that there are no black-and-white templates for organising a country’s territory. There is virtually no state today that is completely centralized; there are, indeed, as many forms of decentralisation as there are states. The December U.N. Security Council resolution foresees the drafting of a new constitution for Syria that will open the way to overcoming the currently centralised system”.

Interestingly he goes on to argue that in practice this would work with, “Negotiators can use this process as a basis for asking the parties to elaborate on the specific arrangements they prefer: How many levels of government should there be? What should be their respective powers? Where should taxes be collected and distributed? Which level of government is in charge of the police, of schools and roads? Should all sub-units have the same powers, or could there be asymmetrical arrangements? A negotiation that focuses on such concrete issues will provide more opportunities for exploring avenues for compromise than a binary choice between a federal system and some other alternative. Such an approach would also better fit the U.N. Security Council resolution, which indicates that the talks should be led and “owned” by the Syrians themselves. Of course, negotiators will not be able to completely ignore the ethnic or religious affiliations of Syria’s various groups when exploring options for decentralising the state, even if there is a consensus on a non-sectarian future for the country”.

He ends “At the same time, any peace agreement will have to be acceptable to wide parts of the population if it is to stick. The U.N. Security Council resolution specifies that any new agreement will have to be approved by referendum. There are, therefore, very practical reasons for avoiding a term that many view as a prelude to dissolution and which may prompt many Syrians to fear being sorted into ethnic or religious groups. The remedy should be clear. Let’s encourage the parties to focus on the tangible issues, not on labels”.

 

Kurdish region in Syria?

26/03/2016

Syrian Kurdish parties are working on a plan to declare a federal region across much of northern Syria, several of their representatives said on Wednesday. They said their aim was to formalize the semiautonomous zone they have established during five years of war and to create a model for decentralized government throughout the country. If they move ahead with the plan, they will be dipping a toe into the roiling waters of debate over two proposals to redraw the Middle East, each with major implications for Syria and its neighbors. One is the longstanding aspiration of Kurds across the region to a state of their own or, failing that, greater autonomy in the countries where they are concentrated: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, all of which view such prospects with varying degrees of horror. The other is the idea of settling the Syrian civil war by carving up the country, whether into rump states or, more likely, into some kind of federal system. The proposal for a federal system has lately been floated by former Obama administration officials and publicly considered by Secretary of State John Kerry, but rejected not only by the Syrian government but by much of the opposition as well”.

Rouhani vs IRGC?

26/03/2016

A piece argues that the coming months will be the real test for Hassan Rouhani, “Ever since he defied Iran’s deep state in last month’s elections, it was only a matter of time until President Hassan Rouhani would be publicly reminded of his limitations. The moment came on the morning of March 8, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired several ballistic missiles in a military drill, displaying wanton disregard for U.N. Security Council resolutions. The missile tests confirmed two things: First, Iran’s president, despite his proven ability to manipulate domestic politics to his advantage and win over public opinion, cannot curb the activities of the country’s most powerful military force. And second, there are organs of Iran’s revolutionary state that will do whatever they can to sabotage Rouhani’s nascent rapprochement with the West”.

The article goes on to note that “During the Feb. 26 election, Iranians opted for the optimistic message of mutual respect, outreach, and global trade offered by Rouhani and his reformist allies. They rejected the overly rehearsed, downbeat talk of American infiltration that is the mainstay of hard-line conservatives. Most crucially of all, however, the elections showed that the political war unfolding in Iran goes beyond parliament and other contested political institutions. The struggle now involves the very highest authority in the land”.

The piece mentions “The elections were not kind to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had issued dire warnings about American attempts to influence the outcome. (Among Friday prayer leaders, all of whom follow sermon instructions that come from Khamenei’s office, one ayatollah even urged worshippers to elect MPs who have “Death to America” written on their foreheads.) It’s not just that the public voted out two of Khamenei’s top counselors from the Assembly of Experts, the body nominally charged with supervising the leader’s work. They also voted for reformists, a political movement whose leaders Khamenei has accused of seditious attempts to topple the regime during street protests in 2009. After years in isolation, the group has formed a coalition with so-called moderate conservatives sympathetic to Rouhani, boosting the president’s heft. After the election, the IRGC, which reports only to Khamenei, decided to strike back. By reportedly writing “Israel Must Be Wiped Out” on two missiles used in a second day of tests on March 9, they moved to show that Iran’s regional security policies, controlled by the supreme leader, are not going to change”.

The writer argues that by conducting the missile tests the IRGC was attempting to remind Rouhani of their power, “Rouhani has yet to comment on the latest tests. When the United States first threatened sanctions in December over Iran’s ballistic missile program, he wrote to his defence minister urging him to intensify the program — a step seen as necessary to show he was not being bullied by the United States. Far from ending Rouhani’s momentum following the election, this week’s projection of force by the IRGC has only highlighted the Islamic Republic’s precarious method of balancing the interests of rival factions. Iran’s president was unequivocal on the need for compromise when speaking on March 1, after it had become clear that reformists and moderates had gained almost as many parliamentary seats as their main opponents had lost. “I hope we all learn a lesson. The era of confrontation is over. If there are some who think that the country must be in confrontation with others, they still haven’t got the message of 2013,” Rouhani said”.

Crucially he goes on to note that “Rouhani’s aim is to give Iranians greater access to the jobs and economic opportunities they say they want. His gradual approach of securing the nuclear deal and eliminating its opponents from parliament will now be followed by a push on the economy. Privatization of state industries, starting with car production, a major industry in Iran before sanctions, is likely the next item on his agenda. Broader political and economic reform will be impossible so long as Khamenei stands in the way. But Khamenei, who underwent prostate surgery in 2014, is reportedly ailing — and there’s a good chance his successor will be sympathetic to Rouhani’s broader agenda. The president’s allies were victorious in the recent election for the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for replacing the supreme leader in the event of his death”.

Importantly the piece adds that “the parliamentary faction most sympathetic to the IRGC’s views is weaker than ever, having lost about 90 seats compared with the previous election. Perhaps its best chance of maintaining influence will be if Ali Larijani, an independent conservative from the holy city of Qom, maintains his post as speaker of parliament. As a former commander in the IRGC who has held key posts across the Islamic Republic’s vast superstructure – he can boast of impeccable regime credentials. He won an endorsement on the eve of last month’s election from the country’s best-known military commander, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who leads the IRGC’s Quds Force, the branch dedicated to foreign operations. Larijani may face a challenge from Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice president under reformist President Mohammad Khatami who headed the reformist list in the elections. Although it would be a prestigious appointment for Aref, Larijani showed during debates over the nuclear deal that he can build bridges across different factions. Aref, and his mostly unknown new MPs, cannot say that”.

He goes on to make the point that “Ultimately though, last month’s election showed that the establishment’s efforts to marginalize reformists have their own limitations. About 11 years after he left office, Khatami – who is banned from being quoted in newspapers or having his picture published — used social media to urge voters to back the pro-Rouhani List of Hope, showing he cannot be silenced. His YouTube video, released five days before polling day, was seen by many as the turning point that persuaded doubters to cast a ballot. Rouhani returned the favour following the election, referring to Khatami as “my dear brother” in public remarks carried live by state television, in seeming defiance of the official ban on mentioning the former president. A day later, the IRGC announced its missile tests. As the IRGC’s latest provocation shows, the president will have his work cut out in delivering the change Iranians want. One of his top rivals will be the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani — a hard-liner who years ago opposed Khatami’s reforms and issued the strongest attack on the pro-Rouhani ticket after the election results were published, accusing its leaders of colluding with foreign media to persuade the public to vote ultraconservatives off the Assembly of Experts”.

The piece ends “There is good reason, however, to think that Rouhani will be more adept at countering his rivals than Khatami ever was. Unlike the former reformist president, the incumbent has held some of the most senior security posts in the Islamic Republic. His recent election victory, on the heels of the nuclear deal, helps him prove that he is not a one-trick pony, but a canny operator whose deeper links within the elite can yield results. It won’t be easy to change how the Islamic Republic operates, but Rouhani is better positioned than any of his predecessors to give it a shot”.

 

“Taliban fighters were seizing further territory in southern Afghanistan”

24/03/2016

As NATO’s secretary general was meeting with Afghan leaders here Tuesday, Taliban fighters were seizing further territory in southern Afghanistan during a bloody fight with Afghan troops. The NATO chief, Jens Stoltenberg, praised Afghan security forces during a news conference with President Ashraf Ghani, but the loss in Helmand province was a blow to the government’s troubled efforts against the insurgency. The Khanashin district in Helmand fell to the Taliban after insurgents had “amassed” in the area “for days,” a local official said. Police and army personnel abandoned their posts outside government buildings after hours of fighting, another security official in Helmand said. Neither official was authorized to speak to the media. Both sides suffered casualties, the officials said”.

“Rapidly losing ground to Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic groups”

24/03/2016

An interesting piece argues that Puerto Ricans, living in Florida could “seal the fate” of the GOP, “State Sen. Darren Soto was the first lawmaker of Puerto Rican descent elected to the Florida Statehouse. Eight years later, he is vying to become Florida’s first Puerto Rican in Congress. But winning the U.S. House seat could be a bit bittersweet for the grandson of a sugar cane cutter: Moving to Washington would mean breaking up his folk-rock band. The Orange Creek Riders — featuring Soto as guitarist, songwriter, and singer — plays to the citrus farming and ranching culture in this heavily Hispanic and Puerto Rican congressional district sprawling through and past south Orlando. Approximately half of the Democratic-leaning district is of Hispanic background; of that, more than a quarter is Puerto Rican, while just under 3 percent is Cuban. It’s reflective of a broader shift in central Florida and across the state, where Cuban-Americans have long dominated the Hispanic vote but are rapidly losing ground to Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic groups. The shift will be tested for the first time in Tuesday’s presidential primary, which will be do-or-die for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who grew up in Miami and is counting on a strong showing among Hispanics here to keep his White House hopes alive”.

The piece goes on to make the point that “Part of Rubio’s appeal to the Republican Party establishment and many of its key donors has been the belief that the senator’s Cuban background would help the party win Florida, and more Hispanic voters. But party elders seem to have made a significant miscalculation: The Hispanic vote is far from monolithic, and Rubio’s Cuban heritage doesn’t necessarily make him any more appealing to the state’s left-leaning Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic groups, or even younger Cubans — particularly if he can’t survive past the Republican primary. That could spell bad news for the GOP, because battleground Florida’s Puerto Rican population — and its political strength — is on the upswing. With San Juan mired in an economic crisis, a massive wave of outmigration is by some estimates bringing thousands of Puerto Ricans to central Florida each month. The number of Puerto Ricans in Florida recently topped 1 million, and their liberal-leaning population is threatening to rapidly surpass the state’s more conservative Cuban-American community, numbering 1.4 million. Florida’s Puerto Rican population has increased more than 110 percent since 2000″.

Interestingly the piece notes that “Since Florida is one of the most important battleground states in U.S. presidential elections, that means Puerto Ricans and Hispanic groups besides Cubans are gaining a stronger voice than ever over who wins the White House. Together, they could turn the swing state into a safe haven for Democrats. “Over the long haul, I believe it will happen,” said Soto, a 38-year-old attorney who is gearing up for a six-candidate Democratic primary in August. But with a note of caution, he added that Democrats can’t take the Puerto Rican or Hispanic vote for granted. “I would say it’s a loyalty that we’re always going to have to maintain.” Democratic chances of winning — and keeping more of the state’s Hispanic vote — are getting a boost from Trump’s continued use of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Heading into Florida’s Tuesday primary vote, the GOP front-runner leads Rubio by more than 18 points in recent polls, 41 percent to 23 percent. Trump is also holding events in central Florida — though he has also been met by protests — and flaunting his victories with Hispanic voters in earlier primaries, a slap at Rubio and fellow Cuban-American Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the GOP’s first viable Latino presidential candidates”.

It mentions that “Puerto Ricans are already U.S. citizens. In 2016, registered Hispanic Democrats outnumber registered Hispanic Republicans in Florida — but for the first time, so do those registering as unaffiliated, including many Puerto Ricans. They are pushing the non-Cuban Hispanic vote to be one of the most sought-after political prizes in 2016”.

The writer makes the point that “By the numbers, Florida’s 1.4 million Cuban-Americans remain the state’s largest Hispanic group, according to data compiled for Foreign Policy by the Pew Hispanic Center. More than two-thirds of them live in Rubio’s stronghold of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and the West Palm Beach metro area. Their registered voters stand at 786,000 strong. But Puerto Ricans are quickly closing in. They number about 1 million, including 702,000 registered voters, and are spread throughout the state beyond their central Florida stronghold. The next closest groups, Mexicans and Colombians, trail far behind at 242,000 and 192,000, but they’re also growing at a faster rate. Mark Lopez, the director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center, said the rapid diversification of the Latino vote could have a long-lasting impact on American politics. In 1990, Cuban-Americans represented 46 percent of Hispanic-American adults in Florida, according to Pew; today, it’s shrunk to just over 30 percent. At the same time, Puerto Ricans have increased from 25 percent of eligible Hispanic Florida voters to 27 percent, and other non-Cuban Hispanic groups, such as as Mexicans and South Americans, have increased their share from 29 percent to 42 percent. One of the key factors undermining the Democrats’ advantage with Puerto Ricans and offering opportunity to the GOP is the sizable growth in unaffiliated voters among Florida Latinos. There are about 610,000 Hispanics not affiliated with either party across the state, but many could swing to the Democratic side of the ledger if Trump wins the nomination and maintains his anti-immigrant stances, which many take as a broad affront to Hispanics in general”.

As evidence for this he adds that “Natalie Carlier, the Florida director for the nonpartisan National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino advocacy group in the United States, says she’s been seeing a more diverse Latino electorate this year — and a more active one. Latinos, including Puerto Ricans, have had traditionally low registration and turnout. But Trump and even the rhetoric of other Republican candidates like Rubio and Cruz seems to be mobilizing Latino voters to come out against the GOP. Miranda said he, too, is hearing similar feedback from other advocacy groups. But he maintained that the DNC is being careful not to underestimate Trump. “Whether it’s Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio — they might say it with a smile but they’re saying pretty much the same thing,” he said. “So we can’t just be running on an anti-Trump message.” When he was 5 years old, Miranda and his family emigrated from Colombia to South Florida as an undocumented immigrant. He was naturalized during the administration of former President Ronald Reagan, the standard-bearer for the GOP’s current generation of self-proclaimed conservatives. While most of the GOP presidential candidates take a hard-line stance on immigration, with several pledging to deport all of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, it was Reagan who signed one of the broadest, comprehensive immigration reform laws, granting residency to some 3 million people in 1986 — including Miranda”.

 

 

“Release of detainees was a key opposition demand”

24/03/2016

The U.N. envoy to Syria says opposition officials have raised the issue of detainees in government jails at indirect peace talks being held in Geneva. Staffan De Mistura told reporters Tuesday after meeting the opposition delegation that progress has been made on humanitarian aid and the reduction of violence but not on the issue of detainees. The release of detainees was a key opposition demand ahead of the indirect peace talks. Senior opposition official George Sabra says tens of thousands of detainees are being held by the Syrian government. He says government prisons are not places “to hold prisoners but to kill them.” Another opposition official, Basma Kodmani, says an average of 50 detainees are killed in Syrian custody every day”.

“Average Iranians won’t feel change in their daily lives”

24/03/2016

An important article discusses the dangers of too much excitement about the Iranian economy after the recent election victory for the centrists, “I couldn’t help but smile at Kaveh as I climbed into the backseat of an old, white Iranian Peugeot taxi on a warm May evening in 2014. By any measure, my friend should have been stressed: He had spent the last 90 minutes winding his way through Tehran’s congested traffic trying to find me. The Iranian capital’s infamous crush of Peugeots, Kia Prides, and motorbikes is often endearing for a newcomer to the city, but, for any resident, an hour-and-a-half of driving through the smog and congestion of Tehran’s narrow streets is normally a recipe for a nervous breakdown. But when I saw him nearly two years ago, Kaveh wasn’t just calm, he was beaming. “I’m just happy to see you here,” he replied simply as he climbed back into the taxi. Five years had passed since the last time I had seen Kaveh in Iran amid the Green Movement, the storm of protests that engulfed Tehran in the wake of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s contested 2009 re-election”.

The report goes on “Like so many Iranians, Kaveh, a consultant in Iran’s private banking and aviation industries, was disheartened by the subsequent crackdown and dispirited by the economic hardship in the years that followed. In that time, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had deepened its influence over major sectors of Iran’s economy; firms affiliated with the guard, such as its engineering arm Khatam al-Anbiya, were moving in to replace the major international energy companies that were fleeing the country. As Iran became more economically isolated due to sanctions, corruption reached unprecedented levels.

The piece adds “Hassan Rouhani had been president for almost a year, and Iran and the group of six world powers — the United States, France, Britain, China, Russia, and Germany — had inked an interim nuclear agreement in Geneva. For the first time in years, Kaveh no longer felt hopeless about the future of his country. Members of the business community, like him, believed Rouhani had the political grit necessary to fight corruption and bring economic change. The prospects of a nuclear deal had them revitalized, he told me. Kaveh had become a senior executive at a private aviation firm and was especially excited because sanctions for aviation had been relaxed; his company had launched talks with a European firm to buy new airplanes. International delegations were trickling in for business talks, and there was even talk of trade with America, Kaveh said excitedly. Two years later, in 2016, Kaveh’s attitude has again shifted. Although there are glimmers of hope on the horizon of the Iranian economy, he tells me true change will take longer than he once thought”.

The report notes that “Rouhani has tried to inject a sense of hope among a population disappointed by the lack of immediate economic improvement many thought would come with the historic nuclear accord. But the fact is that many Iranians’ expectations for change greatly outpaced the economic reality: The Iran deal finalised last July will allow the country to harness its vast economic potential in the long term, but average Iranians won’t feel change in their daily lives for some time to come”.

It points out that “Iran is trying to grease the wheels of economic progress. In October 2015, the government launched a $7 billion stimulus plan to boost its sluggish economy by providing credit to local manufacturers and low-interest auto loans to lower-income Iranians. A new low-interest credit card with a cap of $3,000 was introduced to help government employees purchase locally made home appliances”.

It mentions that “Rouhani shored up these initiatives in January with widely publicised trips to France and Italy, where he signed roughly $50 billion in prospective business deals, including a roughly $27 billion agreement with Toulouse-based Airbus to boost Iran’s long-ailing aviation sector with the lease or purchase of at least 114 airplanes. Iran’s leading auto manufacturer, Iran Khodro, also sealed a $440 million joint venture with PSA Peugeot Citroën, with plans to turn Iran into a manufacturing hub for the French automaker. Re-entry to Iran by even one international oil major — such as France’s Total, Royal Dutch Shell, or Japan’s Inpex Corp — would have a huge impact on public morale and improve Rouhani’s standing ahead of presidential elections next year. The European Union has lifted its embargo against purchases of Iranian oil, and the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a Belgium-based private financial clearing and communication system used by most international banks, has reconnected with many of Iran’s banks”.

Naturally he notes that “Iranian politics aren’t the only thing holding up massive foreign investment in Iran — American politics are playing a role, too. Game-changing investments can’t materialise until foreign banks feel comfortable facilitating long-term financing and transactions. But for that to happen, Western European banks will need their home governments to get reassurance from the U.S. Treasury Department that they won’t be penalized or cut off from the U.S. banking system for working with Iran, says Nigel Kushner, chief executive of W Legal, a law firm specializing in international sanctions compliance. And that will largely depend on Washington’s assessment of how Tehran is adhering to its nuclear commitments. In the last decade, European banks have paid billions in fines and settlements for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran, Cuba, and Sudan. In 2014, France’s BNP Paribas paid a record $8.9 billion in fines and was hit with a yearlong ban from conducting U.S. dollar transactions for its oil and gas trade-finance unit. Kushner predicts a large British bank may enter Iran within the next three to six months, if the United States confirms to the British government that the bank won’t be penalised. For the time being, only a handful of small European banks are facilitating money transfers for Iran-related trade. Iran’s national Melli Bank is reportedly able to transfer funds to its branch in London, but Iran’s Central Bank has yet to find a bank willing to engage with it to facilitate transactions. So while Iran has enjoyed higher oil sales to new customers since Europe’s oil embargo was lifted, collecting those revenues and more than $4 billion in old oil debts remains difficult, a senior Iranian oil official told Foreign Policy”.

 

 

Libya’s unity government takes office

24/03/2016

Libya’s U.N.-sponsored unity government was gearing up to assume power on Sunday, although major concerns remained over its chances of successfully setting up shop in Tripoli, where some of its security officials were briefly detained and several militias have openly threatened it. In a statement late Saturday, the Government of National Accord said the majority of the previous, internationally backed government in the country’s east had endorsed it, paving the way for it to take up duties as the country’s sole governing body”.

Remaking of the US party system?

22/03/2016

A piece from the Economist argues that US politics is strange because both Democrats and Republicans are so odd, “POLITICAL parties are never monoliths. As those inside them are ceaselessly aware, they are fractious and fractured. And yet, especially in two-party democracies, they endure. A mixture of delivering the goods their voters desire, dividing spoils between internal factions and adapting to external change allows them to overcome their centrifugal pressures. They even manage, much of the time, to look more or less coherent while doing so. For most of the 20th century most Americans knew, more or less, what their two parties stood for. These times, though, are out of step. Though political scientists proved slow to pick up on it (see article), America’s parties are more fragmented than usual. The state of the Republicans is particularly parlous. But the contradictions among Democrats, though less obvious, also run deep”.

The author goes on to make the point “Donald Trump’s run for the presidency has prospered despite lacking all the things parties usually provide for a front-runner: not least strategists and policies, money. It is hardly surprising that the Republican Party failed to see Mr Trump coming. What is odder, and much more culpable, is its failure to address the mismatch between its grassroots supporters and its policy agenda into which Mr Trump has tapped so effectively. In its subsequent disarray, the party has come to resemble a newspaper that has just discovered that its readers no longer need it to mediate between themselves and the world.

As neat as the criticism is the problem is that these people who support Trump have been “happy” to vote for the GOP up until now and thus have not been as visible as the writer seems to think. He is correct to note the centrality of money, a problem of funding that has been addressed here before.

The article continues drawing a VERY broad, though not incorrect, sweep “The Republican Party arrived in the 21st century as an alliance of small-state, low-tax, pro-business voters with religiously inspired social conservatives and national-security hawks. It enjoyed a disproportionate popularity among white voters, the result of its successful recruitment of southern whites who disliked the innovations of the civil-rights era and, under Ronald Reagan, of blue-collar workers across the country. This mixture of interest groups had proved pretty successful: it held the White House for 28 of the 40 years from 1969 to 2008. During this time the pro-business lot were the senior partners in the arrangement, not least because they paid for the party’s election campaigns. This is the first primary season in 50 years where that has not held true. The Koch brothers, who have built the wealthiest network of political donors in America with the aim of electing Republicans who will cut regulation and taxes, disapprove of Mr Trump. They have said they will not fund his campaign; and yet he thrives”.

The piece goes on to mention the faultlines being exposed “Trump’s ascendancy cannot merely be ascribed to his wealth—though that certainly helps, by allowing him to appeal directly to the concerns of the base rather than those of his donors. He has exposed faultlines within the different camps, as well as between them. Even before his rise, some pro-business Republicans were beginning to despair of the party, the congressional wing of which seemed to enjoy nothing more than shutting down the federal government and playing chicken with the debt ceiling. After the financial crisis, when a Republican-led administration bailed out several large financial institutions, denunciations of crony capitalism became a Republican theme as much as a Democratic one. Mr Trump has deepened the divide on the business wing. In December the head of the national chamber of commerce said he viewed Mr Trump’s candidacy as a form of entertainment. He has also spilt the social conservatives. A libertine history and the look of a roué gone to seed would not in themselves preclude the support of evangelical Christians, who are, after all, keen on repentance. But Mr Trump is not very religious and does not go out of his way to seem so; his adoption of pro-life positions seems insincere”.

Interestingly the piece goes on to argue “The reason evangelicals vote for Mr Trump has little to do with faith or specifics of policy. It is more a question of attitude. A study by the RAND Corporation, a think-tank, has found that the most reliable way to tell whether a Republican voter was going to support Mr Trump was whether he agreed with the statement: “People like me don’t have any say about what government does.” Trump voters feel voiceless, and whatever attributes Mr Trump lacks, he has a voice. He lends it to them, to express their grievances and their aspirations for greatness, and they love it”.

The author makes the very valid point that “The weakest of the three Republican factions, the defence hawks, might even prefer a President Hillary Clinton to a President Trump. Mr Trump’s constant refrain about American troops always losing, his tendency towards isolationism, his insulting of prominent veterans such as John McCain, his attacks on George W. Bush as commander-in-chief and, most of all, his apparent enthusiasm for soldiers committing acts that would have them court-martialled, are a recipe for these Republican voters to the Democratic camp. Again, though, part of Mr Trump’s appeal reflects what at least some Republicans like about hawkishness; its association with authority. The Republican Party has spent the past half-century opposing the might of the federal government in every arena other than foreign policy. It now faces the prospect of going into the election led by someone who, surveys suggest, draws his most ardent support from those who would like a more authoritarian president in the White House. At that point it would be hard to say what, if anything, the party stands for”.

The piece continues noting that there is a divide between the generations, “Trump’s ability to blow Republican cracks asunder is unprecedented. But it has been helped by a long-standing unwillingness to face and fix those contradictions. For years the party has concentrated instead on opposing Barack Obama’s policies and, indeed, his legitimacy. With Mr Obama on the way out, that is moot now”.

The report notes that “As Republicans long to tear down achievements they associate with Mr Obama, Democrats want to protect and uphold them. This has tended to keep the members of the party’s own coalition in agreement. Yet the ties between the voting blocs that favour Democrats—Hispanics, blacks, those with postgraduate degrees, single women, the non-religious, union members and millennials—are subject to change. The primaries have also revealed a powerful urge among activists to move the party leftward. Democrats fare exceptionally well with non-whites: in 2012 one in four of those who voted for Mr Obama were in this category, compared with one in ten of those who voted for Mitt Romney. But the interests of blacks do not always align with those of Hispanics. Fearing more competition for low-wage jobs, the congressional black caucus, allied with the unions, was partly responsible for defeating a push for immigration reform under George W. Bush. The party has found ways round this clash, presenting immigration reform as a question of civil rights; when Mr Obama meets caucus members, immigration reform tends to be omitted in a mutual show of good manners. But the division remains”.

He adds that the Democrats are divided along generational lines “The current crop of primaries has also made it clear that Democrats are divided along generational lines. Bernie Sanders has thrashed Mrs Clinton in every contest among voters whose formative political experiences were the Iraq war (which she supported) and the financial crisis (blamed on her Wall Street supporters). For those born before the Reagan years, by contrast, the fact that Mr Sanders honeymooned in the Soviet Union disqualifies him from consideration. Older Democrats remember the party’s move to the centre in the 1990s as pragmatic, correct and fruitful; younger ones consider it a betrayal. When its members actually turn out to vote, the Democratic coalition is still formidable. Non-whites make up an ever-increasing share of the electorate. Polling by Gallup shows that the number of Americans who describe themselves as liberal has increased over the past 20 years, while those who call themselves conservative has held steady. Self-declared moderates lean Democratic. But often—especially in non-presidential election years—the coalition can’t be bothered”.

Pointedly he argues that “This has led to a party unable to refresh itself. Were Mrs Clinton (68) to win the nomination and then fall under a bus or an indictment, the names often mentioned as possible replacements are John Kerry (72) and Joe Biden (73). During Mr Obama’s presidency Democrats have lost 900 seats in state legislatures, 11 governors, 69 seats in the House and 13 senators. This helps to explain why Mrs Clinton has had no young pretender to voice the opposition to her from within the party. Mr Obama relied on his own apparatus, separate from the party, in his two presidential campaigns. Mrs Clinton has vowed to rebuild the party if she wins. But that supposes that its constituent interest groups continue to see the Democratic Party as the best way to get what they want. Once the presidential election is over, they may find apathy more attractive again—not least because, now that it has acted on heath-care reform and (to an extent) on climate change, the party has been remarkably poor at setting out new worlds to conquer”.

Yet this is a somewhat unfair observation, names like Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris all point to a diverse Democratic Party.

Crucially the writer makes the point that “There is nothing immutable about the way the two parties currently line up. Republicans used to be the big-government progressive party, formed in opposition to slavery and pushing to remodel the South after the civil war; they have also been the small-government party, not only now, but in opposition to the New Deal in the 1930s. Democrats were once the small-government party, opposing those who wanted a more powerful federal government and defending the interests of white southerners against Washington; now they are famous as the big-government party, pushing federal anti-poverty programmes in the 20th century and government involvement in health care in the 21st”.

Interestingly the writer posits that this election could see the current alignment being re-altered, “This election could see the furniture rearranged again. Some Republicans wonder if a Trump candidacy might redraw the electoral map, winning over blue-collar whites who don’t normally vote in rustbelt swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin. If he loses, the party might still conclude that it needs to pay more attention to the economic anxieties of those who feel left behind. For their part Democrats are counting on Mr Trump to energise members of the coalition that voted twice for President Barack Obama, and to put in play moderate Republicans, notably women, who can expect to be bombarded with Democratic messages about the billionaire’s misogyny. If Mrs Clinton marshals a broad anti-Trump coalition that peels off some habitual Republican voters and combines it with high turnout among traditional Democratic supporters, she will have an opportunity to create a new centrist coalition that may long outlast her. Nobody yet knows whether what is happening in 2016 is an anomaly caused by the one-off political persona Mr Trump has created, or if it is tracing the outline of the future. Whatever the parties look like after November 8th, though, Mr Trump’s success to date has already changed the system, in part by proving that voters value ideological consistency (and rhetorical restraint) much less than the political classes assumed. That could be liberating, if it allows elected representatives to stray from the party line. It could be damaging if the only lines they can stray towards are brutally populist ones”.

It ends “Parties exist to distil a complex set of questions into a binary choice; it is impossible to imagine a big democracy staying healthy without them. Yet in 2020, with Mr Trump in mind, the strongest candidates may start from the assumption that they do not need their parties much at all”.

New Burmese president

22/03/2016

Myanmar’s parliament has elected Htin Kyaw as the country’s next president, the first civilian leader after more than 50 years of military rule. Htin Kyaw is a close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party swept to victory in historic elections in November. He said his appointment was “Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory”. Ms Suu Kyi is barred from the post by the constitution, but has said she will lead the country anyway”.

IDS resigns, Osborne falters

22/03/2016

On Friday Iain Duncan Smith resigned from the Cabinet as secretary of State for Work and Pensions. A report in the BBC notes that “Duncan Smith has warned that the government risks dividing society, in his first interview since resigning as work and pensions secretary. He attacked the “desperate search for savings” focused on benefit payments to people who “don’t vote for us”. And he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr his “painful” decision was “not personal” against Chancellor George Osborne. Downing Street said it was sorry to see Iain Duncan Smith go but was determined to help “everyone in our society”.

The piece adds “Duncan Smith told the BBC he had supported a consultation on the changes to Personal Independence Payments but had come under “massive pressure” to deliver the savings ahead of last week’s Budget. The way the cuts were presented in the Budget had been “deeply unfair”, he said, because they were “juxtaposed” with tax cuts for the wealthy. He criticised the “arbitrary” decision to lower the welfare cap after the general election and suggested the government was in danger of losing “the balance of the generations”, expressing his “deep concern” at a “very narrow attack on working-age benefits” while also protecting pensioner benefits”.

A report in the Guardian notes that the resignation will damage the leadership hopes of George Osborne, “By uttering the heresy that George Osborne’s fiscal targets are “arbitrary”, forcing the government to make “unfair” cuts, Iain Duncan Smith risks pulling down the whole doctrine of austerity that has sustained the chancellor’s reputation. An admiring biography of Osborne by the Financial Times journalist Janan Ganesh styled him the “austerity chancellor”; but Duncan Smith carefully set his view that the pursuit of the targets, ceilings and rules Osborne has erected have ultimately perverted the “one-nation Conservatism” that should protect the most vulnerable. George Osborne has long-coveted the prize of the Tory leadership. But Duncan Smith’s sudden and dramatic resignation crystallised nagging concerns about the chancellor within his own party. The bookmakers William Hill said on Saturday it had pushed Osborne’s odds of being the next prime minister from 2/1 favourite to 7/2 second favourite, and shortened Boris Johnson from 3/1 to a 15/8 clear favourite. William Hill’s spokesman, Graham Sharpe, said: “So sure-footed for so long, Mr Osborne was widely regarded as Cameron’s natural and chosen successor, but recent blunders seem to have dealt him a serious blow to achieving that outcome.” It is a sentiment increasingly widely shared in Westminster, where what one backbencher said an “Anyone but George” campaign was gathering force”.

The report goes on to make the point that “The climbdown over disability benefits and the loss of Duncan Smith is just the most damaging of a series of recent revolts, including a defeat in the House of Commons over Sunday trading laws and the “tampon tax” rebellion, which forced the prime minister to discuss the issue with his EU counterparts. And last summer, in what was boldly styled Osborne’s first Conservative budget after the party unexpectedly won a majority in May’s general election, he introduced the deep cuts to tax credits that were subsequently overturned by the House of Lords, another embarrassing U-turn. In his devastating interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday, Duncan Smith said he had also had qualms about these plans, which were introduced to meet the Conservatives’ bold pre-budget promise of cutting £12bn from the nation’s welfare bill. This time, in a bid to avoid similar embarrassment, some budget proposals, including a fuel duty rise and a cut in tax relief on pensions contributions that would have hit higher earners, were ditched even before they went to the printers, as Downing Street sought to avoid any noise in the runup to June’s referendum. In order to secure the leadership, when the prime minister steps down at some point before 2020, Osborne would have to win over enough backbenchers to make it through to the final two candidates, who are then put to grassroots members for a vote. Osborne had already been eclipsed by Brexiteer Boris Johnson in the hearts of many individual members, who tend to be more Eurosceptic than the Tory party in parliament”.

Crucially the piece notes that “Osborne, and to some extent Cameron with his pre-election pledges to pensioners and other groups, has trapped himself and his party in a straitjacket of his own making. His promise to deliver a surplus on the public finances by 2020 was far more about stymying a Labour party struggling with its own attitude to austerity than the national interest. And the welfare cap, similarly, was more a political stunt, aimed at isolating Labour as the friends of scroungers and skivers, than a well-thought-out policy. Yet by tying himself and his party up in all these pledges, promises and targets, the chancellor ended up delivering a budget that – as Duncan Smith pointed out – couldn’t possibly be construed as fair in its own terms”.

Pointedly the article concludes “While the public may approve of the general idea of bringing down the welfare bill, they also understand that politics is about choices, and targeting the disabled while giving extra cash to wealthy shareholders fails the most basic tests of fairness. It also plays to the most damaging caricature of Osborne, as the privileged son of a baronet, keener on protecting his wealthy friends than helping ordinary Britons: something he has fought hard to shrug off by introducing his “national living wage”, for example”.

A related piece discusses the place IDS played in “reforming” welfare, “was midway through complicated reforms that he has struggled to make work. In office he displayed a reforming zeal that mixed Victorian morality with a determination to tear up the bureaucratic framework underpinning the Department for Work and Pensions. It has been a troubled department, with five ministers for disabled people in six years. Aside from accusations of unfairness, Duncan Smith’s reforms have often been characterised by incompetence in their implementation, and a failure to save the money promised”.

Similarly a report notes why IDS really resigned. It posits five main reasons the first of which is what is said at face value, “Duncan Smith says he is resigning because he cannot accept the cuts to the personal independence payment (PIP), and his argument on this sounds sincere. He says the cuts are “a compromise too far” (meaning a compromise with austerity too far). He says he cannot justify the cuts if they are part of a budget that also cuts taxes for the rich. Duncan Smith has questioned the way cuts have been targeted in the past; before the election he let it be known that he thought there was a case for putting the squeeze more on wealthy pensioners, and means-testing the winter fuel payment, so it is not as if his concerns are 100% new. But nevertheless it is odd that he has decided to resign now, when his department announced the PIP cuts a week ago”.

The second point the article makes is PIP being the last straw, “Resignations are not normally triggered by a single event, and Duncan Smith’s decision to go is the culmination of a feud with the Treasury that has been going on for years. It has been focused on universal credit, Duncan Smith’s flagship policy at the Department for Work and Pensions, and a measure that is currently being rolled out nationwide. Universal credit is supposed to simplify the welfare system, by combining six benefits in one, but, crucially, it was also intended to increase the incentive to work, by ensuring that working always pays more than staying on benefits. However, under pressure from the Treasury,the mechanics of universal credit (tapers, the work allowance etc) have repeatedly been changed, with the effect of making the benefit less generous and the work incentives much weaker”.

The article goes on to argue that there was a personal feud between Osborne and IDS that also helps explain the resignation, “Duncan Smith blames George Osborne and the Treasury for undermining universal credit. But this is partly personal too. Relations between the two have never been entirely harmonious since Matthew d’Ancona published his book about the coalition in which he quoted Osborne telling allies that he thought Duncan Smith was “just not clever enough”.

The article does mention that the EU is a factor, “Duncan Smith’s resignation is not directly related to the EU referendum. But he is one of the six members attending cabinet who is backing Brexit, and for him fighting the EU is one of the great causes of his political career. Normally a sense of collective enterprise helps cabinet ministers to stick together even when they disagree strongly, but what the EU referendum has done is loosen those bonds”.

Lastly it contends that IDS may have been pushed from DWP and therefore decided to jump, “David Cameron is expected to hold a significant reshuffle if he wins the EU referendum (if he loses, it will be another prime minister’s reshuffle) and Duncan Smith was widely expected to be moved or sacked at that point. In the last parliament Cameron tried to get him to move from DWP to Justice. On that occasion Duncan Smith said no, and his status as a former party leader helped keep him in post, but after more than six years in office this summer, he would no longer be in a strong enough position to resist. Sensing that his career at DWP was coming to an end anyway, he may have decided it was best to go on his own terms”.

Amid all the chaos the government quickly appointed the Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP as the replacement of IDS. His firs act was to concede that the cuts to PIP were not only counterproductive but immoral and would be reversed, “David Cameron has been forced to concede that a £4.4bn black hole created by the U-turn over disability benefits will not be filled by further cuts to welfare as he fought to shore up his credibility following the shock resignation of Iain Duncan Smith. The spending climbdown was announced on Monday by Stephen Crabb, the new work and pensions secretary, an hour after Cameron addressed the political crisis engulfing the Conservative party by offering his support to George Osborne and praise for the work of Duncan Smith. Aiming to strike a conciliatory tone in the Commons, Cameron said Duncan Smith had “contributed an enormous amount to the work of this government” in his work campaigning for welfare reform, which he said had reduced child and pensioner poverty and inequality”.

Russia withdraws from Syria

22/03/2016

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has abruptly declared that he is withdrawing the majority of Russian troops from Syria, saying the six-month military intervention had largely achieved its objective. The news on Monday, relayed personally to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in a telephone call from Putin, followed a meeting in the Kremlin with the Russian defence and foreign ministers. He said the pullout, scaling back an intervention that began at the end of September, is due to start on Tuesday. His move was clearly designed to coincide with the start of Syrian peace talks in Geneva and will be seen as a sign that Russia believes it has done enough to protect Assad’s regime from collapse”.

Brazil, privatising its energy sector?

22/03/2016

An ill-timed article,given the price of oil, suggests that failing Brazil can use its deep water oil reserves to salvage itself, “Brazil is wracked by the Zika virus, rising inflation, a deep recession, massive political and corporate scandals, and worries that athletes at the 2016 Summer Olympics will have to compete in dangerously polluted waters. Yet, despite it all, Brazil might have cause for celebration — if politics don’t get in the way. That’s because Brasília is finally taking steps to open up its oil and gas sector and make it more attractive to foreign investors, reforms that are as controversial as they are necessary to help the country tap the energy resources it has long eyed but only partially developed”.

He writes “Brazil unveiled new rules meant to kick-start investment in oil and gas production, part of a suite of measures that Energy Minister Eduardo Braga thinks can lure billions of dollars of new investment from foreign firms, including some in the United States and Europe. Even bigger changes are afoot: Brazil’s lower house of congress is wrestling with legislation that, if passed, would throw open the door for foreign oil and gas firms to develop the country’s massive offshore oil deposits without needing to go hand in hand with the debt-ridden and scandal-plagued Brazilian national oil company. That could finally make it possible for Brazil to realize the promises of its potential offshore oil wealth, first discovered almost a decade ago. Those offshore deposits, estimated to hold more than 60 billion barrels of oil — as much as the North Sea fields that fueled decades of British and Norwegian oil exploration — were expected to turn Brazil into one of the world’s big oil producers. As recently as 2013, the International Energy Agency said that Brazil, next to Iraq, would be the world’s biggest source of new oil production for the next two decades”.

He goes on to mention that “The initial promise floundered. Brazil, expecting oil companies to beat a path to its door to tap what could be world-class oil resources, failed to offer enticing terms for investors. Restrictive laws, like strict rules about using locally made oil-field equipment, made it hard for international oil companies to develop the fields. And state-owned Petróleo Brasileiro, known as Petrobras, was forced by law to take the lead in developing all of the offshore fields. But Petrobras today is staggered by a massive corruption scandal and a mountain of debt; it simply doesn’t have the financial or technical muscle to turn the offshore promise into reality. Petrobras has slashed its own investment budget four times just since last summer, and it has repeatedly cut its estimates of future oil production. For a country facing back-to-back years of economic contraction, getting the energy industry back on track is crucial”.

The writer goes on to make the point “The measures are part and parcel of a wholesale reassessment of “resource nationalism” taking place across Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina. For decades, governments in the region have sought to control mineral wealth like huge offshore oil fields and ensure that most of the benefits from those resources go to their people, rather than foreign companies. That formula can work when oil prices are high, and companies are desperate to get their hands on any promising resources, whatever the terms. But when oil prices are low, and there is fierce competition for an ever-shrinking pool of energy investment, those nationalist policies can backfire”.

He notes that in response to low prices Mexico and a host of other nations are reverting to privatisation, “Argentina, under new President Mauricio Macri, is moving quickly to regain the trust of international investors, reaching a deal with creditors and courting foreign players for the country’s potentially vast reserves of shale oil and gas. Now Brazil, prodded by opposition politicians and business groups increasingly frustrated with 14 years of rule by the same party, is on the verge of rewriting its own restrictive laws. That could move the country one step closer to fulfilling its promise as one of the biggest sources of new oil production in the world”.

Crucially he writes that “the Energy Ministry announced a series of changes to the oil and gas investment framework meant to entice the kind of international capital that could turn things around. That includes steps like extending concessions given to foreign firms years ago, giving companies the option to expand their holdings if they see promising potential nearby, and compelling companies sitting on nonproductive leases to drill or get off the pot. At a time when low oil prices make investment decisions tougher for everyone, the ministry said that “new investments in the oil industry require stable and effective rules” that will offer long-term certainty for oil companies struggling with the worst capital-investment climate in decades. But much bigger changes are potentially on the way. Last month, the Brazilian senate passed legislation that would essentially dismantle the administration’s signature approach to resource development, which was to give Petrobras a leading stake in every oil field project. Given Petrobras’s woes — a battered balance sheet and a far-reaching corruption investigation — that has proved a recipe for stagnation, not for quick development of those fields. With Petrobras unable to take on big, challenging new projects, Brazil under the current law can’t auction off any offshore blocks for development. Taken together, the energy minister said, the changes could attract as much as $120 billion in new investment”.

He ends “The political scandals, and public dismay at the state of the economy, have reached such a level that even much-needed reforms like the oil-sector changes could take a back seat to a settling of political accounts: Opposition politicians are increasingly calling for Rousseff’s impeachment. Until Brazil sorts out its political mess, it will be hard to make progress on the energy-sector overhaul”.

“A possible federal division of Syria”

22/03/2016

Major powers close to U.N.-brokered peace talks on Syria are discussing the possibility of a federal division of the war-torn country that would maintain its unity as a single state while granting broad autonomy to regional authorities, diplomats said. The resumption of Geneva peace talks is coinciding with the fifth anniversary of a conflict that began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad before descending into a multi-sided civil war that has drawn in foreign governments and allowed the growth of Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. Fighting in Syria has slowed considerably since a fragile “cessation of hostilities agreement” brokered by the United States and Russia came into force almost two weeks ago. But an actual peace deal and proper ceasefire remain elusive. As the United Nations’ peace mediator Staffan de Mistura prepares to meet with delegations from the Syrian government and opposition, one of the ideas receiving serious attention at the moment is a possible federal division of Syria”.

Consequences of a Brexit

20/03/2016

A piece in Foreign Policy tries to asses what might happen if the UK leaves the EU, “The death of London as a financial center. A trade war between Germany and Britain. The possible collapse of a historic trade deal. When British voters head to the polls this summer to decide whether to stay in the European Union, the results will have major repercussions at home and abroad — and could trigger economic meltdowns in both the U.K. and Europe. At issue is the so-called Brexit, which would see London choosing to leave an alliance it helped create 43 years ago. For ordinary British citizens, the impact would be felt at airports and train stations, where it could be more difficult to freely move across Europe for the first time in decades. They could also see European-produced goods become more expensive because of an expected fall in the value of the pound”.

The article goes on to mention that “On Feb. 21, amid Brexit fears, the sterling had its biggest one-day drop since the U.K.’s 2009 banking crisis. It could even affect their favourite sports teams because it would be harder to sign soccer players from mainland Europe to contracts in the U.K. because they would not meet more stringent visa requirements. Not surprisingly, Brexit advocates see things very differently. To them, leaving the EU would keep European immigrants from abusing Britain’s welfare system. They say it would give the British government more freedom to negotiate independent trade deals with countries like India, China, and the United States. And advocates say severing the relationship would put Europe’s Syrian refugee problem squarely in the hands of Brussels, not London. That may be significantly understating the real-world economic impact of a Brexit”.

The author goes on to argue that “Add uncertainty to the mix: Nobody’s quite sure what happens to the EU without Britain because no nation has left the EU before. This is the same fear that gripped the EU last summer, when Greece was on the verge of going its own way rather than accepting the onerous austerity measures Brussels was pushing it to adapt. A recent research note published by economists from Citigroup said the Brexit “will be highly negative” for both economies because it would throw out the trade blueprint between the European alliance and the U.K. About 45 percent of British exports going to Europe would be at risk, as would the 16 percent of total EU goods that cross the English Channel to the U.K”.

He cites a German MP who said that a trade war between the UK and EU would be possible but this is almost impossible and could simply be about hype for a domestic audience more than anything else.

He does note that “Pro-Brexit backers take a different view. They argue that the U.K. doesn’t have enough influence in Brussels, despite sending 350 million pounds, or $498 million, to the EU capital each week. Capital Economics, a research consultancy, predicted “business as usual” if a Brexit occurs, anticipating no major economic disruptions. Nigel Farage, leader of Britain’s far-right U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) has proposed giving the U.K. the same status as Norway, which has access to the single market but is not bound by many EU regulations on farming and domestic policy”.

After the “reforms” Cameron returned with a referendum will take place on 23 June, “Bank of England governor Mark Carney refused to explicitly take sides, but warned that the Brexit is “the biggest domestic risk to financial stability” and that some banks would leave London if it occurs. The U.K.’s famous bookmakers favour Britain staying, giving a vote to remain a 77 percent chance. Pacific Investment Management Co., a major bondholder known colloquially as PIMCO, puts the chances of a Brexit at 40percent. A recent YouGov poll found about 37 percent of Brits wanted to stay in the EU, 38 percent wanted to leave, and 25 percent were unsure”.

However a note of caution is needed with these figures as the referendum is not on the minds of most voters at this early stage and as a result these numbers should not be trusted to any significant degree.

The report goes on to mention “The prospect of a Brexit is also dangerous politically, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said Europe is facing a “perfect storm” of crises: the ongoing debate about bailing out Greece, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the looming Brexit referendum. The Greek flirtation with leaving the EU, combined with the U.K. referendum, has made the prospect of abandoning the alliance a possibility for other members who don’t want to deal with broader European issues”.

Senate blocks sale to Pakistan

20/03/2016

The U.S. Senate on Thursday blocked an effort to prevent the $700 million sale of Lockheed Martin Corp F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, although a key lawmaker said he would not allow the use of U.S. funds to finance it. Lawmakers voted 71 to 24 against an attempt introduced by Republican Senator Rand Paul to prevent the sale under legislation known as the Arms Control Act. President Barack Obama’s administration announced on Feb. 12 that it had approved the sale to Pakistan of the aircraft, as well as radars and other equipment. It drew immediate criticism from India and concern from some members of Congress. Paul had called Pakistan “an uncertain ally” and other lawmakers expressed concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear program, commitment to fighting terrorist organizations and cooperation in the Afghanistan peace process”.

Centrist win in Iran

18/03/2016

An interesting piece in the Washington Post notes the victory for centrists in Iran, “A funny thing happened on the way to this week’s parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections in Iran. Consensus unexpectedly broke out across Iran’s fractious political scene as the country’s embattled reformists joined forces with moderate principlists in a campaign strategy designed to hold the line against — if not completely eliminate — the radical fringe on either flank of the political spectrum. Those hard-liners won just 68 seats — down from the 112 seats they currently hold in the 290-seat Majlis, or parliament, and the results so far for the Majlis elections indicate that reformists and moderates won the most seats, with 85 and 73 respectively. These elections marked the further consolidation of the centrist moment in Iranian politics heralded by Hassan Rouhani’s presidential victory in 2013, itself the culmination of the aborted Green Wave coalition led by Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi in 2009”.

The report goes on to mention “The key instrument in this process was the announcement of the List of Hope alliance led by the candidacies of Ali Motahari and Mohammad Reza Aref, erstwhile political rivals on the same slate of legislative candidates. This overlap signaled the emergence of coalition politics as a possible solution for the perils of presidential politics in Iran, an outcome not at all unlike what is already taking place in Brazil and post-Pinochet Chile. In the absence of a proper party system, it is the party list — distributed by text and by Telegram app, copied out by hand, and debated endlessly on sidewalks and in random encounters across the country — that is likely to bring Iranians together in unity. The list plays a powerful role in organizing the votes (if not the thoughts) of Iran’s 53 million eligible voters, 3 million of whom will have voted this year for the first time. Even with the disqualification of most of the 12,000-plus people who signed up for the parliamentary elections and nearly 80 percent of the candidates for the Assembly of Experts, voters in Tehran faced the daunting task of choosing 30 names from 1,121 names for the Majlis alone”.

The piece adds “moderation and standing firm before the forces of radicalism. My interlocutors expressed a sense of resignation if not outright cynicism toward the elections and what they might bring in terms of needed change to Iran. Participants in Iranian elections realize that this is not liberal democracy. At the same time, just as they had in 2013, many Iranians expressed to me their overwhelming conviction that voting was the only way forward if Iran wanted to avoid the fate of its neighbours in the region, above all that of Syria. Participating in a system, no matter how flawed, was better than having no system at all. In the mind of the voter, compromise and congeniality between the left and the right is as much a strategic choice as a genuine flourishing of good feelings, a creative end-run around a truculent Guardian Council that steadfastly continues to deny the free and full participation of reformists in Iran’s electoral system. Blocked from the ballot and forced to play the political game on an uneven playing field, reformists were left with little choice by the Guardian Council in its role as gatekeeper but to form alliances across the ideological divide as a way to overcome formal barriers to participation, in the process facilitating their movement to the political center”.

Interestingly the piece argues that “Iran, in other words, is becoming more democratic in spite of itself. If the line against radicalism holds, as it already appears to have held based on early results from Iran, the story of these elections will be how, in one of the great ironies of Iran’s post-revolutionary political development, the intransigence of the Guardian Council helped provide the necessary basis for the formation of a more tolerant and pluralist politics in Iran.The campaign against radicalism has not gone unchallenged by the Iranian hard line. The list was announced on the Saturday before the elections — Iranian campaigns are impossibly short by American standards. By Tuesday, the hard-liner principlist organs had denounced the “30 + 16” slate as the “English list,” made in the United Kingdom by government scribes working out of the offices of BBC Persian. This incredible, if not unsurprising, charge was quickly met with derision by the center-right, including an incredulous Motahari, who denounced the cry and hue of outlets such as the Kayhan and Ettelaat newspapers as little more than “charlatanism.” The hapless response to the consolidation of the centrist vote neatly captured the basic dilemma faced by Iran’s hard-liners and regime stalwarts. Troubled by the burden of producing a high turnout, the state expects (but does not officially require) its citizens to vote as an expression of national unity, but that vote necessarily passes through division. The use of elections to project strength to Western audiences, each vote “a bullet to the heart of the enemy,” necessarily falls apart in the rough and tumble of electoral politics and the competition for supporters”.

The piece adds “Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, went so far as reiterate his stunning insistence, originally made in the final days of the 2013 presidential election, on the importance of every Iranian vote, “even those who don’t believe in the system and the leadership … as the election belongs to the nation, and the system.” Nonetheless, not even the leader could ignore the terms of an election that had deviated from the official narrative of national unity in favor of political temperance formed from below. Playing off the compound construction of the term for moderate (mianroh) in Farsi, literally “middle” (mian) of the “path” (roh), in speech delivered last Wednesday, Khamenei delivered a clear rebuke of moderate and radical as paired oppositions”.

It ends “If in the United States there is growing evidence that the American political system is tearing apart at the ends, leading to an ever-quickening disintegration of the center, then Iran presents a case of polarization giving way to politics turning inward, achieving the same result anticipated by Downs but by other means. By seeking shelter and stability in the middle of the road, ordinary and elite participants in these latest elections remind us that politics continues to exist in Iran, despite the odds, on a trajectory that may yet prove propitious for democracy”.

 

“Increased financial assistance to Pakistan”

18/03/2016

Saudi Arabia increased financial assistance to Pakistan and signed an agreement of $122 million in economic aid on Thursday, the highest amount Riyadh has officially given to Islamabad in the last five years. The signing ceremony for the grant, which includes a $67 million package, took place the day Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief General Raheel Sharif were attending the closing ceremony of the multi-nation ‘Thunder of the North’ military exercise in Saudi Arabia”.

Why Bush dropped out

18/03/2016

An interesting piece notes the reasons why Jeb Bush’s campaign didn’t last in the campaign, “For Jeb Bush’s campaign, August was a cruel month. Donald Trump’s attacks on the former Florida governor as a ­“low-energy” politician were beginning to stick, and the two were bickering over immigration. The issue before the Bush team was what to do about it. Some advisers argued for an aggressive response, even to the point of challenging Trump to some kind of one-on-one confrontation. Others resisted, believing Trump’s candidacy was unsustainable, while some cautioned against getting “into a pigpen with a pig,” as one adviser recalled. Others described it as “trying to wrestle with a stump.” Those summer days crystallized the plight of a campaign that had begun with enormous expectations and extraordinary resources, as the scion of one of America’s dynastic political families sought to follow his father and brother to the presidency”.

The piece goes on to report “At what would become a crucial moment, Bush’s team had no clear strategy for a rival who was beginning to hijack the Republican Party that the Bush family had helped to build, other than to stay the course set months earlier of telling Bush’s story to voters. “There was no consensus,” senior strategist David Kochel said of the discussions about how to combat the threat of Trump’s candidacy. Other campaigns were wrestling with the same problems, but as the front-runner in the polls at the time, Bush would suffer more than the others. On Saturday night, the candidacy that had begun with such promise ended quietly after a disappointingly weak fourth-place finish in South Carolina”.

The report makes the point that “Ever the gracious realist, Bush announced in his concession speech that he would end his campaign as Trump continued to soar as the GOP front-runner. “I have stood my ground, refusing to bend to the political winds,” he said. Whether Jeb Bush ever had a chance to win the Republican nomination in a campaign year that proved so ill fitting for a rusty politician who preferred policy papers to political combat is a question that will be debated long after the 2016 race has ended”.

Interestingly the author adds “Mike Murphy, the chief strategist for Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, explained what had happened this way on Sunday. “Our theory was to dominate the establishment lane into the actual voting primaries,” he said. “That was the strategy, and it did not work. I think it was the right strategy for Jeb. The problem was there was a huge anti-establishment wave. The establishment lane was smaller than we thought it would be. The marketplace was looking for something different, and we’ll find out how that ends when we have a nominee.” The result is one of the most startling failures in the modern history of American politics: the fall of the House of Bush. It is a human story about the struggles of one of the most successful former governors in America in his bid to become president, like his father and brother, set against the backdrop of one of the strangest political cycles the country has seen in years”.

The article mentions that “Beyond underestimating the anger in the electorate, three other problems led to Bush’s downfall. First, the candidate and his team misjudged the degree of Bush fatigue among Republicans. Aides said an internal poll conducted last fall showed discouraging news: Roughly two-thirds of voters had issues with Bush’s family ties. “Bush stuff was holding him back,” said one aide who saw the polling data. “We obviously knew it was an issue, but even still, the gap between it and other issues — I don’t think we thought it would be that big.” Second, Bush and his team miscalculated the role and power of money and traditional television commercials in the 2016 race. During the first six months of 2015, Bush raised more than $100 million, most of it stockpiled in Right to Rise, a strategy that seemed right at the time but came at the cost of not dealing with other pressing needs”.

Importantly the piece notes “the prodigious fundraising of Bush’s broad network scared off no one. As the Bush campaign would learn, every credible candidate today has a few billionaire friends who can enrich a super PAC. In the end, all that money came to symbolize frustration rather than power. Third, Bush ran a campaign that, whether deliberate or not, was rooted in the past, managed by loyalists who admired Bush and enjoyed his confidence but who, like the candidate, found themselves in unfamiliar political terrain. His advisers were convinced from the start that the more voters learned about what Bush had done as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, they would flock to him as their presidential candidate. Bush stubbornly held to that approach — even as evidence mounted that it was out of step with voters”.

The scale of the problems were made clear when the author notes “That evening, Bush touted the team’s record fundraising as guests dined on lobster rolls and hamburgers at a luxury resort tucked among a forest of birch groves and balsam fir. “It was incredibly memorable to be there with several generations,” said Jay Zeidman, a Houston-based investor who helped raise money from young professionals. The next day, the donors got briefings from senior Bush aides including Bradshaw, campaign manager Danny Diaz and finance director Heather Larrison. They laid out how the campaign planned to take on contenders such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Throughout, there was little mention of Donald Trump”.

It adds “Nothing, however, cut as close to the bone as Trump’s claim that Bush was too “low-energy” to serve as president. The accusation was laughable — until it began to stick. Trump’s charge was in fact a proxy for a different and more difficult argument to combat: that Bush was neither strong nor edgy enough for a party seething with anger at the grass roots. “Nobody tapped into it, for all the polling, all the focus groups,” said Theresa Kostrzewa, a North Carolina lobbyist who raised money for the campaign. “The biggest thing they did was miss was just how angry the American electorate was and that Trump would be their Captain Ahab.” Bush’s advisers would contest that claim. They could see the anger, they said. The issue was what to do about it. “Donors, political operatives and big thinkers from around the country urged us to ignore Trump for months,” Bradshaw said. “There was no one in the news media or the operative class at the time who felt Trump would ultimately be a serious contender for the nomination.” At the same time, others feared that engaging Trump was almost beneath Bush and would thrust the candidate into a never-ending game of charge-countercharge. “Jeb should be bigger than this,” another aide recalled thinking”.

Interestingly he notes “Bush’s failure to come to terms with one of the downsides of his family name came to a head over a four-day period in May, when he stumbled over the decision by his brother, former president George W. Bush, to go to war in Iraq. Changing his answer on a daily basis, Bush came across as a flat-footed campaigner clearly uncomfortable articulating his views on the most critical moment of his brother’s presidency. But it also highlighted the ­double-edged nature of being a candidate named Bush. In a January Washington Post-ABC News poll, nearly 6 in 10 Americans held an unfavorable view of Bush. He was the only Republican with a negative favorability rating: 44 percent said they had a favorable impression of the former governor while 50 percent rated him negatively. His rankings grew worse as the campaign progressed. A fundamental weakness, supporters said, was the lack of a coherent rationale for Bush’s candidacy and the failure to make inroads with activists on the right. “At the end of the day, it wasn’t clear the name was ever surmountable,” said a Bush donor. “If the name was going to be surmounted, it would have to be because there was a fresh set of ideas.” Bush offered ideas, but in a campaign dominated by Trump, they were ignored or lost to most voters”.

The piece concludes “The final months were difficult for Bush. After a particularly weak performance during a debate in Boulder, Colo., in October in which Rubio appeared to get the better of him, there were suggestions that he might quit the campaign right then. Reporters who made inquiries about the possibility were brushed off. In the middle of it all, Bush spotted a reporter who was a regular on the trail with him. “Hey — I didn’t drop out, did I?” he shouted. “You know, that kind of stuff really gets my juices going. I’m going to win this thing, and when I do — you’re going to give me a big hug.” Through it all, Bush attempted to keep both good humor and determination in the face of the inevitable”.

It ends “The final indignity in a campaign that had suffered through many came three days before Saturday’s primary, when South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley endorsed Rubio rather than a man she described as a friend and mentor. When it ended Saturday night, Bush told saddened supporters: “We put forward details, innovative, conservative plans to address the mounting challenges that we face. Because despite what you might have heard, ideas matter, policy matters.” His final remarks as a presidential candidate were a reflection of the campaign he had constructed from the start, one he had built to his unique specifications, which nonetheless proved to be a mismatch for a political environment that caught him by surprise — and for which he paid a hefty price”.

“Vacuum in Libya is being exploited by the Islamic State”

18/03/2016

The political and security vacuum in Libya is being exploited by the Islamic State extremist group which has “significantly expanded” the territory it controls in the conflict-torn north African nation, U.N. experts said in a report circulated Thursday. The experts monitoring U.N. sanctions against Libya said the militant group has successfully recruited marginalized communities in the central city of Sirte, which it controls. It has also increased its operational capacity in the city of Sabratha and the capital Tripoli through local recruitment reinforced by foreign fighters, the experts said. “While ISIL does not currently generate direct revenue from the exploitation of oil in Libya, its attacks against oil installations seriously compromise the country’s economic stability,” the six-member panel said in the report. “Libyans have increasingly fallen victim to the terrorist group’s brutalities, culminating in several mass killings.” Libya has effectively been a failed state since the 2011 ouster and death of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, which led to the country’s military collapse and fragmentation by powerful militias. Since 2014, an internationally recognized government has convened in the far east of the vast, oil-rich country while a rival Islamist government is based in Tripoli. The United Nations has been trying to help forge a unity government to revive services to millions of people and confront IS extremists”.

“Signs of an ideological revival are everywhere”

18/03/2016

A long piece discusses the ideological wars in China between Confucius and Mao, “For most Chinese, the 1990s were a period of intense material pragmatism. Economic development was the paramount social and political concern, while the various state ideologies that had guided policy during the initial decades of the People’s Republic faded into the background. The severe ideological struggles that had marked the end of both the 1970s and the 1980s had exhausted the population, leaving it more than eager to focus single-mindedly on an unprecedented bevy of economic opportunities. Now the tide is changing yet again. Chinese society is apparently rediscovering, or at least re-prioritizing, its moral and ideological cravings. Over the past several years, ideological forces and divisions have moved back to the center of Chinese political and social life, and ideological tensions among Chinese elite are now arguably higher than at any point since the immediate aftermath of the 1989 protests. The image of a “post-ideological” China has become increasingly outdated”.

Interestingly the piece contends “Relatively few observers or policymakers, however, seem to entertain the possibility that Chinese elites are ideological creatures, or even that they may be dealing with an ideological population. This is a remarkable sea change with profound implications for policymaking. Just a decade or two ago, many commentators had trouble accepting that Chinese statesmen — or even educated Chinese — were anything but Communist ideologues. In the early 2000s, the notion that Chinese elites no longer believed in Communism was still a novel one that sometimes triggered incredulity and backlash. By contrast, anyone today who insists that Communist ideals still hold sway over Chinese policymaking does so at considerable risk to his or her reputation as a serious China hand. How did the idea of a post-ideological China arise? The charitable — and possibly correct — interpretation for this change is that it simply reflected a general shift in Chinese social attitudes. Chinese political and social discourse turned away from ideologically charged arguments in favour of the kind of flexible pragmatism that the former Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin regularly advocated”.

The writer posits that the other expectation is that Chinese growth led to a sense of vulnerability as opposed to the Western democracies, he adds, “In China today, the signs of an ideological revival are everywhere. Most visibly, a number of icons, long thought dead, have made prominent and in some cases highly successful resurrections in national political rhetoric. First is long-deceased Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s rehabilitation as arguably the core element of the party’s founding myth and its historical legitimacy. As a number of scholars and commentators have noted, in several recent speeches Chinese President Xi Jinping has enthusiastically embraced Mao not only as the party’s founding father, but also as a symbol of its commitment to nationalism and populism. This marks a significant departure from the subdued and almost reluctant treatment of Mao that Xi’s predecessors”.

In addition the author notes the rise in Confucius in China, “It is easy, and perhaps tempting, to dismiss these initiatives as cynical ideological propaganda by an authoritarian state facing unprecedented socioeconomic and political tension. There is undeniably some truth to this, but it is far too simplistic. In fact, one could just as plausibly argue that the party has played a reactive role, rather than a proactive one: its ideological campaigns to revive figures such as Mao and Confucius reflect intellectual and cultural currents that have rapidly gained force among highly educated Chinese over the past five to seven years. Compared to the depth and momentum of these currents, the party may simply be trying to catch up”.

He argues that a new left has emerged alongside a neo-Confucian movement, “The New Left combines nationalist sentiments — as a January 2010 editorial in the Global Times declared, “we do not want to become a Western intellectual colony” — and widespread dissatisfaction with economic inequality into a potent call for a “reconstruction of socialism,” one that would both reinstate many of the planned economy policies of the 1980s, and further strengthen ideological control over the Internet and media. If one surveyed the current Chinese intellectual world, the most influential figures — and those that enjoy the closest ties to the party leadership — tend to be leftists. This includes the prominent economists Wang Shaoguang and Justin Yifu Lin, the political scientist Cui Zhiyuan, and the philosopher Liu Xiaofeng. Neo-Confucian figures, on the other hand, generally support both the revival of Confucian ethics such as filial piety and the reinstatement of certain traditional political institutions, particularly the civil service examinations. Although they tend to be less mainstream, the sheer combustibility of the term “Confucianism” in Chinese political and intellectual discourse has nonetheless given them an outsized media presence. Since the late 1990s, calls for a Confucian revival have steadily gained in volume and popularity”.

Crucially he writes that “Both developments have their roots in anti-Western nationalism. From the early 1980s to the 2000s, democracy, the rule of law, and free market reform were the political lingua franca not merely of most Chinese intellectuals, but also of most business leaders, and even some officials, who paid at least regular lip service — and probably more than that — to these aspirational ideals. During this period, Chinese elites appeared to share the consensus that China should, in a word, Westernize. To a large extent, both the New Left and neo-Confucianism were intellectual backlashes against this consensus”.

He makes the point that these movements have begun to converge with nationalism being central, “Whatever its causes, the current ideological landscape likely has serious consequences for Chinese policymaking: ideological resurgence dramatically alters the social and political landscape in which the party-state operates. The sources of legitimacy are very different in a pragmatically materialist society than in an ideologically charged and polarized one. Whereas robust economic growth was the key to popular support in the former, it is probably insufficient, and perhaps not even necessary, in the latter. At the moment, it’s profoundly uncertain which side — liberals, leftists, or cultural conservatives — will eventually gain the upper hand in these ideological wars. If one side does emerge on top, the government may find itself forced, or at least strongly incentivized, to seek sociopolitical legitimacy via redistributionist policies, civil rights reform, or perhaps a full-scale swing towards some reconstructed notion of traditional cultural values. This could be either a curse or a blessing: it might force the party-state into uncomfortable ideological positions, but it could also provide alternative sources of social support in times of economic or geopolitical turmoil”.

The piece ends “Nationalism, like any distinctive political ideology, is a double-edged sword. Over the short term, and particularly during economic downturns, the party leadership may find it convenient to tap the leftist or neo-Confucian movements for social support — which recent rhetoric suggests the party is attempting to do. But this is not necessarily a comfortable long-term solution. One need only look back at the spectacular rise and fall of Chinese politician Bo Xilai to find a major example where the party leadership was profoundly uncomfortable with the ideological zealotry of some self-identified Maoist intellectuals. Leftist ideologies are not always more reliable allies than liberal ones”.

He concludes “Chinese policymakers themselves deeply ideological, or at least becoming more so? It’s true that Xi’s recent positions on Mao, Chinese cultural traditions, and the need for a culture change among government employees are broadly consistent with those of a pragmatic autocrat. But they are also broadly consistent with the behaviour of a bona fide socialist and cultural conservative pursuing his ideological goals in a measured and cautious fashion. Regardless of what one thinks of the current leadership, with any luck, the Western notion that Chinese politics are simply rooted in pragmatism will soon die out”.

“Resolve in Congress to renew and boost U.S. sanctions on Tehran”

16/03/2016

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told VOA that Iran’s missile launches are sparking stronger resolve in Congress to renew and boost U.S. sanctions on Tehran. “There are three categories [of sanctions] that can be looked at in a bipartisan way, and we are attempting to do that now,” Republican Senator Bob Corker said. In particular, Corker said he is working to extend the Iran Sanctions Act, which was suspended as part of last year’s landmark international nuclear accord with Tehran. The law targets international investment in Iran. It remains on the books but will expire at the end of the year unless Congress extends it. Responding to congressional developments on Iran, a senior administration official told VOA, “It’s not necessary to extend the Iran Sanctions Act at this time since it does not expire until the end of the year. Right now our focus is on implementing the deal, and verifying that Iran completes its key nuclear steps.” President Barack Obama has stated repeatedly that sanctions will “snap back” if Iran violates the nuclear accord. Such leverage will be lost if the Iran Sanctions Act expires, according to Corker”.

Obama nominates Garland

16/03/2016

A piece in the Washington Post notes that today, President Obama has formally nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy left by Antonin Scalia.

The report opens “President Obama on Wednesday nominated Merrick Garland to serve on the Supreme Court, setting up a protracted political fight with Republicans who have vowed to block any candidate picked by Obama in his final year in office. Garland, 63, is a longtime Washington lawyer and jurist who is chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Considered a moderate, Garland is widely respected in the D.C. legal community and was also a finalist for the first two Supreme Court vacancies Obama filled. In announcing his choice in the White House Rose Garden, Obama said he followed “a rigorous and comprehensive process” and that he reached out to members of both parties, legal associations and advocacy groups to gauge opinions from “across the spectrum.” He said Garland “is widely recognized not only as one of America’s sharpest legal minds, but someone who brings to his work a spirit of decency, modesty, integrity, even-handedness and excellence.”

Pointedly the piece notes that “Seven sitting Republican senators voted to confirm Garland in 1997: Dan Coats (Ind.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), Orrin Hatch (Utah), James M. Inhofe (Okla.), John McCain (Ariz.), and Pat Roberts (Kan.). GOP lawmakers, though, have said since Scalia’s death that Obama should leave the choice of a new justice to his successor and that they have no intention of holding a hearing or a vote on the president’s pick. Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said “the next Supreme Court justice could dramatically change the direction of the court” and Americans deserved to “weigh in” before that happens”.

By way of context the piece adds “Garland is a Chicago native who graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. After becoming a partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter, he joined the Justice Department, where he handled the drug investigation of then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry as an assistant U.S. attorney in the District. Ascending the ranks, Garland became principal associate deputy attorney general, where he supervised the massive investigations that led to the prosecutions of the Unabomber and the bombers of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Garland was appointed to the D.C. federal appeals court by President Bill Clinton in April 1997 and confirmed on a 76-to-23 vote. In February 2013, Garland became chief judge of the D.C. federal appeals court”.

The article goes on to mention the comments made by the GOP before this nomination, “A four-page document circulated Tuesday afternoon among a small group of the administration’s allies, with the heading, “Read What Republicans Had to Say About President Obama’s Supreme Court Nominee, Merrick Garland, Before He Was President Obama’s Supreme Court Nominee,” highlighted the support he has enjoyed from lawmakers in the past. “Garland has had a distinguished legal career, and prior to the GOP’s historically unprecedented obstruction, was a favourite of Senate Republicans alongside progressives,” the briefing material says. “When earlier Supreme Court vacancies occurred in the seats now filled by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said he would be ‘very well supported by all sides’ as a SCOTUS nominee.” The document notes that when Obama was filling the first Supreme Court vacancy of his tenure, Hatch was quoted at the time as saying that Garland would be a “consensus nominee” who “would be very well supported by all sides.” The briefing material includes previous descriptions of Garland by leading news organizations as a potential nominee who would attract support of Democrats and Republicans alike”.

Sadly, though not unexpectedly, “Democrats are also preparing to make the Republicans’ opposition to filling the vacancy an issue in the fall election. Speaking in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Tuesday night, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton said in her victory speech that one of the reasons the presidential race matters so much is because the Supreme Court appointment has such enormous policy implications. “Together, we have to defend all of our rights — civil rights and voting rights, worker’s rights and women’s rights, LGBT rights and rights for people with disabilities — and that starts by standing with President Obama when he nominates a justice to the Supreme Court,” she said, prompting large cheers from the crowd. While the question of who sits on the nation’s highest court is not traditionally a top-tier election issue, Democrats are hoping to use it as part of a broader narrative about Republican resistance to the president’s policies”.

Worryingly for Republicans the piece adds that “At the moment, more Americans appear to be sympathetic to the White House’s argument. Sixty-three percent of Americans said the Senate should hold hearings on Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, while 32 percent said it should not hold hearings and leave it to the next president, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week. Majorities of Democrats and independents supported holding hearings, while Republicans were more evenly split (46-49) and over half of conservative Republicans said hearings should not be held (54 percent)”.

The piece ends “Administration officials are hopeful that the GOP senators who are most vulnerable this November — Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Pat Toomey (Penn.) — may lobby their leaders for a vote if they come under fire back home for blocking the nominee. “The success or failure of this will depend on the pressure that can be brought to bear on those senators who Mitch McConnell marched out to the firing line,” said one former senior administration official, who asked for anonymity in order to discuss internal White House deliberations”.

“Options yet for attacking the growing Islamic State threat in Libya”

16/03/2016

The Pentagon has presented the White House with the most detailed set of military options yet for attacking the growing Islamic State threat in Libya, including a range of potential airstrikes against training camps, command centers, munitions depots and other militant targets. Airstrikes against as many as 30 to 40 targets in four areas of the country would aim to deal a crippling blow to the Islamic State’s most dangerous affiliate outside of Iraq and Syria, and open the way for Western-backed Libyan militias to battle Islamic State fighters on the ground. Allied bombers would carry out additional airstrikes to support the militias on the ground. The military option was described by five American officials who have been briefed on the plans and spoke about them on the condition of anonymity because of their confidential nature. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter outlined this option to President Obama’s top national security advisers at a so-called principals meeting on Feb. 22. But the plan is not being actively considered, at least for now, while the Obama administration presses ahead with a diplomatic initiative to form a unity government from rival factions inside Libya, administration officials said. Even so, the United States military is poised to carry out limited airstrikes if ordered against terrorists in Libya who threatened Americans or American interests, just as it did against an Islamic State training camp in western Libya last month”.

Shale production and the problem of finance

16/03/2016

A piece in the Economist argue that rising oil prices will not allow the shale industry to recover, “NO ONE can deny that America’s shale-oil industry is having a hard time. In recent weeks it has suffered the indictment and subsequent death in a car crash of one of its pioneers, Aubrey McClendon; a shellacking from Hillary Clinton, who could become America’s next president; and a warning from Ali al-Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, to cut costs, borrow money or face liquidation. The data illustrate the extent of its woes. The American government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) says oil production in December, of 9.3m barrels a day (m b/d), was lower than a year earlier for the first time since early 2011, weighed down by Texas and North Dakota, the heartlands of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The EIA said on March 8th that it expects American crude production to fall to 8m b/d before it bottoms out in the latter part of next year”.

The piece goes on to note “Against that bleak backdrop, the mere hint this week that American oil prices were rebounding towards $40 a barrel, up from a low of less than $30 a barrel a month ago, must have felt like a get-out-of-jail-free card. With a chutzpah typical of the industry, some shale executives see $40 oil as the threshold above which they can resume drilling and make money again—even if America is still awash with record amounts of crude in storage. If they are right about that, it could change the entire dynamics of the oil market, quickly smoothing any upward or downward spike in prices. But it is not at all clear that they are”.

The report adds that “In theory, it is not hard for the frackers to increase production rapidly, once it becomes economical. Rig and drilling costs have fallen so fast that some wells could make money with prices around $40-45 a barrel, according to Rystad Energy, a consulting firm. Firms have laid off many workers, but with well-paid jobs hard to find elsewhere, it could be relatively easy to attract them back. In preparation for higher oil prices, producers from the Bakken field in North Dakota to the Permian and Eagle Ford in Texas have reported that they have hundreds of “drilled but uncompleted” ( DUC) wells. DUCs should be anathema to a self-respecting shaleman; they sink cash into the ground in the form of wells, but defer the all-important fracking that breaks open the shale rock and produces the oil. They could be a quick way to resume production, however. In late February Continental Resources and Whiting Petroleum, two big operators in the Bakken, said that above $40 a barrel they may begin fracking their rising inventory of DUCs”.

However the piece goes on to mention that “For most of the industry, however, the problem is not finding oil but finding cash. “No one is sitting on any excess capital,” says Ron Hulme of Parallel Resource Partners, an energy-focused private-equity fund. For years the industry borrowed heavily to finance its expansion, because it was failing to generate enough cash to cover investment in new wells. The supply of credit, whether from banks or the high-yield debt markets, has either dried up or is much more expensive than it was. Capital expenditure has fallen as a result, but not by enough to balance the books. In the fourth quarter of last year, American and Canadian oil firms spent $20 billion, while generating only $13 billion in cashflow”.

The piece goes on to note that only the firms with the most money have the ability to resume drilling but even those that wish to do so may find few takers as investors as more wary of shale companies than before, “The weaker firms are unwilling to sell assets to raise cash because the proceeds would go directly to their creditors. “You’d have to prise those assets from their dying hands,” says Mr Hulme. He notes that even firms that are technically insolvent may have enough liquidity to keep them from such potential fire sales. Not all of them, though. On March 8th Goodrich Petroleum, a shale oil-and-gas company, said it would postpone paying interest on its debt, as it puts pressure on creditors to exchange debt for equity in order to avoid a default”.

It finishes, “To provide a sufficient margin of comfort, prices may have to rally a lot higher than $40 a barrel to lure capital back in. Bobby Tudor of Tudor, Pickering, Holt, an energy-focused investment bank, believes that at $40 a barrel production will continue to decline, at $50 it would flatten out, and only at $60 would it increase. “Drilling wells at today’s commodity prices is still destructive of capital,” he argues. One further wrinkle: as oil prices increase, so can costs. Those, then, who hope that nimble shale producers will be able to move the global oil price up and down just by turning the taps on and off may be disappointed. Their financial backers will be the ones really calling the shots”.

China arms its islands

16/03/2016

China quietly deployed some of its most advanced surface-to-air missiles to a disputed island in the South China Sea, further stoking tensions between Beijing and the governments of Vietnam and Taiwan, which also have laid claim to the Paracel Island chain. The multiple HQ-9 missile batteries placed on Woody Island have a range of about 125 miles, and operate like an American Patriot missile battery, which can be used to destroy aircraft, or knock cruise and ballistic missiles out of the sky”.

“Iranians don’t trust the United States to implement the agreement”

14/03/2016

After the elections in Iran a piece notes Iranian moderates mistrust of America, “In the aftermath of the nuclear agreement, the debates in the United States and Iran have become a mirror image of each other. As some officials in Washington worry that the Iranian government will use the deal to secretly develop nuclear weapons, in Tehran, Americans are the nefarious party – intent on slapping sanctions back on Iran at the first opportunity”.

The report mentions that “Although Iranians generally remain wary of the deal, outright opposition remains a minority view. The Iranian hardliners who opposed the nuclear deal lost decisively in parliamentary elections last Friday. Reformists, centrists, and independent conservatives won all 30 parliamentary seats in Tehran, and several hardline opponents of the deal also lost their seats in the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with selecting the next supreme leader if 76-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dies or resigns”.

The piece goes on, “Some hardliners are warily watching the U.S. presidential election play out, and are making the case that a new administration in Washington could reimpose sanctions. Hardliners “are waiting for the U.S. elections so that if a Republican with a harsh view comes to power, they could also talk tough,” Khadir said. Most Iranians are concerned about who will come to power in the United States next year, according to Izadi. A phone poll conducted by the University of Maryland showed 62 percent of Iranians don’t trust the United States to implement the agreement. Iranian fears that the U.S. government will renege on the deal, Izadi says, are rooted in the fact that political support for the agreement in the United States is tenuous. He points out that while Iran’s parliament favoured the agreement, a majority of the U.S. Senate opposed it. Obama was able to implement the accord because the Senate failed to muster the two-thirds vote needed to override a presidential veto“.

Yet while this is true, the deal does not have GOP support, the view is also problematic as it assumes what is said on the campaign trail will be turned into policy. Just look at Obama. Secondly, whoever is elected in November will be bound be the previous administration, unless its Trump, so the Iranians have far less to far then they think.

The piece goes on to report, “Popular opinion in both countries reflects the same disparity. The University of Maryland poll showed 72 percent of Iranians support the agreement. A Gallup poll released in February showed only 30 percent of Americans favour the deal, with 57 percent opposed. Yet Iranian analysts express cautious optimism that both sides will continue to implement the agreement. For Iran, the nuclear deal has eliminated the most damaging sanctions and allowed it to concentrate on improving its battered economy. For the United States, it eliminated the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons and generally lowered tensions with the country”.

The piece concludes “the electoral defeat of hardliners has opened a wider discussion in Iran about the merits of nuclear power. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continually expanded Iran’s enrichment facilities, making development of nuclear power an issue of national pride. As a right-wing populist, Ahmadinejad used the nuclear issue to stoke Iranian nationalism and call for self-reliance. That idea has been discredited in the eyes of many reformists. Farzad Yazdoneh, a 25-year-old student, said he supports President Hassan Rouhani’s policies and would like to see an end to nuclear power, which is both expensive and unsafe”.

“Saudi Arabia is seeking a bank loan”

14/03/2016

Saudi Arabia is seeking a bank loan of between $6 billion and $8 billion, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters, in what would be the first significant foreign borrowing by the kingdom’s government for over a decade. Riyadh has asked lenders to submit proposals to extend it a five-year U.S. dollar loan of that size, with an option to increase it, the sources said, to help plug a record budget deficit caused by low oil prices. The sources declined to be named because the matter is not public. Calls to the Saudi finance ministry and central bank seeking comment on Wednesday were not answered. Last week, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia had asked banks to discuss the idea of an international loan, but details such as the size and lifespan were not specified. The kingdom’s budget deficit reached nearly $100 billion last year. The government is currently bridging the gap by drawing down its massive store of foreign assets and issuing domestic bonds. But the assets will only last a few more years at their current rate of decline, while the bond issues have started to strain liquidity in the banking system.

Trump, the American Berlusconi

14/03/2016

A piece notes how Trump is similar to Berlusconi, “It’s unnerving how alike the Republican front-runner and the former Italian prime minister are: skillful practitioners of political expediency, proud makers of shady deals, and unrelenting peddlers of their own cause. “Trump is Berlusconi in waiting, with less cosmetic surgery. Berlusconi is Trump in senescence, with even higher alimony payments,” columnist Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times. Also in the Times, Italian author Beppe Severgnini didn’t mince words: “Both are loud, vain, cheeky businessmen, amateur politicians and professional womanizers. Both have a troubled relation with their egos and their hair.” In the Washington Post, Rula Jebreal noted, with more garb, that “like Berlusconi in Italy, Trump has built a political campaign employing unvarnished language and jaundiced humour.” Over the course of the campaign, Americans have gotten a taste of Berlusconi-like bravado. But it is nothing compared to the main course — to what the likes of Il Cavaliere and other self-avowed nonpoliticians do to their countries once they’ve actually been put in charge”.

The author notes that “Berlusconi came to power in 1994, riding a wave of popular discontent with the national political class resulting from a corruption scandal that enmeshed all levels of government (never mind that Berlusconi himself was also tainted by it). Between the time he was first elected and 2011, when the euro crisis and pressures from Brussels finally brought his reign to a rather ignominious end, he served as Italy’s prime minister three times, for a total of approximately nine years. Whether from his pulpit as the head of government, as a larger-than-life leader of the opposition, or as the owner of the country’s largest media empire, Berlusconi single-handedly dominated Italian politics for nearly 20 years. The country has nothing to show for it”.

It adds “the single worst thing Berlusconi has done, with his decades of dismissive — if not outright abusive — talk about everything from political parties to the judiciary to the media to the presidency (which serves a largely ceremonial role, but crucial to the nation’s cohesiveness) is that he has shattered Italians’ trust in their democratic institutions”.

Worryingly he reports that “Last month, he called Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government an “illegitimate regime” and the judiciary “the worst cancer of our democracy.” Over the years, he has insisted that any and all legal charges against him were “arbitrary” attempts by “totalitarian” magistrates to undermine the will of the people who elected him. He once said he was “absolutely the politician most persecuted by prosecutors in the entire history of the world throughout the ages.” He has also described journalists as “criminals” and made a habit of suing those who criticize him along with their publications, including foreign ones like the Economist. He has referred to his nemesis Romano Prodi as a “dangerous liar” and accused former Italian President Giorgio Napolitano of conspiring with European authorities to orchestrate “a coup” against him in 2011. He has described the euro as a “rip-off” that “screwed everybody.” This incendiary rhetoric has profoundly affected Italian voters. According to the private research institute Eurispes, in 2004 approximately 17 percent of Italians said they had little or no trust in the president of the republic. By 2012, after Berlusconi had left office at last, that figure had jumped to more than 35 percent. Distrust in the judiciary went from an already high 41 percent in 2004, a good decade into Berlusconi’s unceasing fight with justices, to a whopping 61 percent in 2012. All the while, freedom of the press in Italy decreased, whereas perceptions of corruption increased(according to Reporters Without Borders and Transparency International, respectively)”.

It ends “All in all, it’s not in the political philosophy or the election pledges of a Berlusconi or a Trump that one should look for clues as to how they may govern. Because the truth is, they have none. Those who say Trump is a “Republican in name only” are right. Trump, like Berlusconi, is not a conservative per se, certainly not an ideologue. Berlusconi only had a right-wing worldview and legislative proposals insomuch as they served his own personal agenda. He was a populist who espoused conservative talking points because, at the time, they were in vogue, and therefore it was advantageous for him to do so. But it’s not hard to imagine him enthusiastically embracing the opposite positions had those more effectively buttressed his case. Rather, Americans should be alarmed by Trump’s open disregard for even the most basic political conventions, his eagerness to insult his opponents, the ease with which he overlooks the U.S. Constitution and refuses to engage with the press, and his tendency to prioritize his own interests over the interests of the country. Berlusconi has taught us that their kind leaves only ruin in its wake. America, you’ve been warned”.

 

Open ended Syrian truce

14/03/2016

Syria’s cessation of hostilities is open-ended, U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Wednesday, brushing off a perception that the truce needs renewing this weekend. He told reporters he would now press on with more peace talks – though neither the Syrian government nor the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) have confirmed they will attend. De Mistura said he had heard some of the warring sides had indicated the ceasefire, which started at midnight Feb. 27, would expire in two weeks. “From the U.N. point of view and the Geneva meetings we have been having on the task force and certainly (the) Munich understanding, there was an open-ended concept regarding the cessation of hostilities,” he said after a meeting on Syrian humanitarian issues in Geneva. The Munich meeting in February was a key point in Syrian peace process, when De Mistura asked its international backers, led by the United States and Russia, to do more to make the warring sides come to the table to negotiate. They hatched a plan for a ceasefire, and the opposition High Negotiations Committee said it would support a two-week halt to the fighting”.

“Leave it to the United States to put teeth into the tribunal’s finding”

12/03/2016

A piece in Foreign Policy discusses US-Sino relations in the South China Sea, “Beijing has raised the stakes in a showdown with the United States that is about to grow even more tense with the approach of a crucial legal milestone in the increasingly heated territorial dispute. China’s tough tactics are forcing the United States to decide whether to push back aggressively — even if it risks a military confrontation — or sit back and let Beijing continue to slowly but surely dismantle an international order that cemented 70 years of peace and prosperity in Asia”.

This choice is of course quite binary and the Obama administration has had plenty of chances to show its mettle against China and its vastly increased territorial expansion, some have been successful while others have been a disaster.

The piece goes on “This spring, an international tribunal in The Hague will rule for the first time on the validity of China’s territorial claims, encapsulated in an expansive “nine-dash line” that seeks to fence off nearly the entire South China Sea for Beijing. The new deployment of the long-range, surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island, as confirmed by Taiwan’s defence ministry Wednesday, has only underscored the importance of the pending court decision, pitting might against right in the starkest possible terms. Experts believe the tribunal likely will rule in favour of the Philippines, which brought the suit in 2013 to forestall Chinese occupation of reefs, rocks, and atolls that both countries claim. That will compel both Washington and Beijing to make a choice: The United States will have to decide whether, and by how much, to enforce the ruling with the gray hulls of the U.S. Navy. And China, which has refused to take part in the arbitration case, faces an acid test of its self-proclaimed commitment to upholding the international order that has paved its own rise from economic weakling to world power in a generation. The tribunal’s decision will mark the next turning point in the contest over the South China Sea, “because either that will deny China all moral and legal authority to do what’s doing, or it won’t,” said a former senior Barack Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity”.

The article makes the historical point that “The spats over the South China Sea have pit Beijing against neighbours like the Philippines and Vietnam for decades; Vietnam and China actually did battle over some of the barren atolls in the early 1970s. In recent years, however, China has aggressively moved to turn its paper claims over South China Sea features into reality. Beijing has spent billions of dollars to dredge tons of sand and coral to artificially add thousands of acres to the disputed islets; many are now big enough to hold air fields and fighter jets, radar and air-defense stations, and deep-water docks”.

The Chinese aggression has prompted a response from those of Capitol Hill, “China’s new gambit has top U.S. lawmakers seeing red and calling for a more forceful U.S response. “The United States should consider additional options to raise the costs on Beijing’s behaviour,” said Senate Armed Forces Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who decried what he called China’s “militarization” of the region and “coercion” of neighbours. He said that even “conducting occasional freedom of navigation operations are inadequate,” and that to really push back against Beijing, the United States must adopt “policies with a level of risk that we have been unwilling to consider up to this point.” Tellingly, Beijing deployed the advanced weaponry to the South China Sea just as President Obama hosted the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, at a two-day summit in California — the first to be held in the United States. As in recent years, dueling claims and provocative actions in the South China Sea dominated the talks. ASEAN members danced around an explicit condemnation of China’s behaviour, but in a joint statement at the end of the summit the Southeast Asian leaders specifically and unanimously agreed to uphold the international, rules-based order”.

Correctly the piece notes the repercussions of Chinese actions, “China’s claims and land reclamation activities have driven many Asian nations closer to the United States. Tokyo and Washington revised their joint defense guidelines, and Japan has largely jettisoned its post-World War II pacifist stance. The Philippines is asking U.S. military forces to come back 25 years after kicking them out. Even Vietnam, a communist country with close trade ties with China, is moving closer to Washington and seeking to buy U.S. weaponry to push back against Beijing. Ironically, though, one U.S. ally in the region is making Washington’s response even trickier. Taiwan, a key ally that buys billions of dollars worth of U.S. defense gear, seemed to side with China when recently wading into the dispute. Outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou made a high-profile visit last month to Taiping Island, which is occupied by Taiwan and claimed by China, over the strong objections of Obama administration officials and diplomats. China’s former nationalist government, which lost the civil war against Mao Zedong and Chinese Communists before decamping for Taiwan in 1949, originally created the nine-dash line map to encompass its sweeping vision of China’s island realm. By insisting that Taiping is an island, and not a rock like the Philippines claims, Taiwan is possibly undermining Manila’s case before the international tribunal and providing legal ammunition for mainland China”.

Pointedly he writes “At issue before The Hague court is Manila’s contention that the features claimed by China in the South China Sea are rocks, not real islands. While it sounds arcane, the distinction matters: Under international law, islands are endowed with huge, exclusive economic zones up to 200 miles deep; rocks, on the other hand, are not. And rocks that are normally under water, as were many South China Sea features before Chinese bulldozers went to work, don’t enjoy any territorial sea at all. But the Court of Permanent Arbitration has no powers of enforcement. And China has made clear since the suit began that it would not cooperate. Experts say that may leave it to the United States to put teeth into the tribunal’s finding, by, for example, aggressively sailing past Chinese-claimed features that aren’t legally deemed to be islands”.

It ends “Although China’s assertive stance has sparked a reaction from Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries in the region that since have sought closer security ties to Washington, the blowback has not been sufficient so far to persuade Beijing to pull back from its course. A ruling against China from an independent, internationally respected court like the one in The Hague would be a political embarrassment for a country that has portrayed itself as a responsible player on the world stage. But Beijing could decide to simply weather the storm, as it has calculated so far that Washington and other Asian governments are not willing to risk military confrontation or economic retaliation over the South China Sea. And whatever the court rules, no one is predicting Beijing will renounce the claims it has staked out or reverse the massive reclamation work it has undertaken. For Washington, perhaps the best outcome would be a quiet freeze by China on its militarization activities, or a conciliatory move to permit fishermen from the Philippines to ply disputed waters off its coast. But even if the United States goes all in, by stepping up naval patrols, increasing military cooperation with partners and allies in Asia, and bolstering its economic reach with a Pacific trade deal, it may be too late to roll back the Chinese tide. Beijing appears intent on asserting what it sees as vital, indisputable interests in the Western Pacific, even if that means souring relations with Washington”.

 

Truce in Yemen

12/03/2016

Yemen’s Iran-backed rebels have freed a Saudi soldier in return for seven detained Yemenis as part of a tribal-mediated border truce agreed by both sides, the Riyadh-led coalition said Wednesday. The agreement reached during a visit by a Yemeni tribal delegation to the kingdom is the first of its kind since the Saudi-led coalition began a military campaign against the rebels in March last year. The frontier between war-ravaged Yemen and its northern neighbour has seen many deadly incidents over the past 12 months. Yemen’s delegation sought to negotiate a truce “along the border with the kingdom to allow the entry of medical and humanitarian aid to Yemeni towns near the theatre of operations”, the coalition statement said. Coalition forces have responded by allowing aid to flow through the Alb border crossing, said the statement published by the official SPA news agency. Saudi soldier Jaber al-Kaabi was handed over to the coalition in exchange for seven Yemenis who were detained by Saudi authorities at the border, it added”.

“Whether Pell’s past will trump his present”

12/03/2016

John Allen writes about the problems of Cardinal Pell, “After a bruising week of testimony by Cardinal George Pell before an Australian Royal Commission examining his record on child sexual abuse cases, the 74-year-old prelate may have given Pope Francis enough reason to justify keeping him around in the Vatican, both because of the lack of any new “smoking gun” revelation and also by pledging his support for anti-abuse efforts. If so, the urgent question will be whether Pell’s past will trump his present — meaning whether he’ll still have the papal backing he needs to finish the work of bringing transparency, accountability, and integrity to Vatican finances, which is the central reason Francis brought him to Rome two years ago”.

Allen goes on to write “Pell, the Vatican’s top financial officer, was giving testimony about his response to abuse cases in the city of Ballarat, where his priestly career began and which has been an epicenter of Australia’s abuse scandals, and also about his time as archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001. He appeared via a video link from Rome, after a heart condition made the long flight home inadvisable”.

Fairly he describes the “The four-day hearing was not a walk in the park, and Pell undeniably took some hits. Over and over, he insisted he was not aware of what he conceded was a “world of crimes and cover-ups” regarding pedophile priests, that he, too, had been deceived, and that at most he was guilty of being insufficiently curious. Those claims strained credibility for many Australian observers, including his chief interrogator, who described them as “implausible.” A columnist in the Sydney Morning Herald wrote Friday that “two George Pells” fought for control of the history books during the testimony”.

The adds “Yet against all odds, there are five ways in which Pell actually may emerge in a stronger position from this experience. First, the lengthy examination failed to produce any new “smoking gun” proving that Pell had direct knowledge of abuse and covered it up. He did admit to one instance in 1974 of being told by a student that a priest at a local school was “misbehaving with boys,” but said the student did not request action. If there was such a bombshell, this surely would have been the moment in which it emerged”.

The report continues “there was no suggestion of any act that would rise to the standard of a crime, and the same questions could be asked of virtually anyone else who was in Ballarat at the time. Second, Pell went through the strenuous process without complaint, agreeing to testify from 10 p.m. every night in Rome until 2 or 3 a.m. He was under no legal obligation to do so, which makes his cooperation meaningful. Third, at the end Pell met with several of the 15-20 abuse survivors, relatives, and supporters who flew over from Australia for the hearing, with at least some coming away striking positive notes”.

The other two ways Allen says that Cardinal Pell may emerge stronger is that “Pell pledged his support for the survivors and for recovery efforts from the abuse scandals, including offering to help create an Australian research center for abuse prevention and detection. Fifth, at the end of the hearing, Pell did not use comments to journalists to issue laments about the unfairness of it all or to suggest that he’s some kind of martyr. Instead, he said the limelight he’s attracted might be of some use in Europe, in terms of raising awareness of the abuse issue and cajoling the Church into abandoning its traditional culture ofomertà regarding clerical crimes. (That’s probably an especially pointed comment with respect to Italy, where the abuse scandals in most respects are still to arrive.) It remains to be seen what the future holds for Pell, who turns 75 on June 8. There are calls in Australia and elsewhere for Pope Francis to set an example by firing him”.

Interestingly Allen writes that “In Italy’s L’Espresso magazine on Thursday, journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi, who’s currently facing a Vatican trial for publishing leaked financial documents, insisted the pope must get rid of Pell now, because otherwise it would “gravely put at risk the image of a revolutionary and inflexible pope, the sworn enemy of the maniacs who infest the Church.” It’s not clear whether Francis will act on that advice, although in the past he’s shown himself deeply reluctant to make personnel moves under pressure. Assuming Pell does stay on the job, it will be important for the pontiff to find a way to make clear that Pell’s Australian difficulties have not damaged his capacity to implement the financial house-cleaning that was a key component of the pope’s electoral mandate three years ago”.

The piece ends “The worst of all worlds for a reforming pope probably would be to frustrate those who want to see Pell held accountable as a symbol of “zero tolerance” for child abuse, and simultaneously to hand a win to the Vatican’s old guard terrified of Pell’s clean-up efforts on money. The pope’s challenge boils down to this: If Pell stays, then he needs to stay for real, with the tools he needs to do the job. Otherwise, the actual “grave risk” to Francis’ image would be to allow criticism on one front to impede real change on another”.

No Taliban presence at peace talks

12/03/2016

The Taliban said on Saturday it would not take part in peace talks brokered by representatives of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States, casting doubt on efforts to revive negotiations. The Taliban, ousted from power in a U.S.-led military intervention in 2001, has been waging a violent insurgency to try to topple Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and re-establish a fundamentalist Islamic regime. Following a meeting of the so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group made up of representatives of the four countries in Kabul in February, officials said they expected direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban to begin in early March. But the Taliban, which calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, denied it would be participating in any upcoming talks in Islamabad. “We reject all such rumors and unequivocally state that the leader of Islamic Emirate has not authorized anyone to participate in this meeting,” the group said in a statement”.

America’s new nuncio?

10/03/2016

Rocco writes about the new, though yet to be announced nuncio to the United States, “Less than two months since Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano reached the retirement age of 75 – and, indeed, all of two days after that came up here – the choice of his successor as Nuncio to the US is reportedly at hand: in a piece published earlier today on his Settimo Cielo blog, the conservative Italian vaticanista Sandro Magister said that Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the 70 year-old French-born legate to Mexico, is the Pope’s selection for the DC posting, with an announcement said to be “imminent.” A mission-chief for 20 years – and the Vatican’s man in Mexico since 2007 – the reported choice would mark another move by Francis to highlight the “peripheries” toward which the pontiff has ceaselessly prodded the church; Pierre’s first assignment as a Nuncio was over four years (1995-99) in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere”.

Rocco goes on to make the point that “two weeks after the Pope’s long-desired stop at the US border and subsequent doubling-down on it, what would be a provocative transfer north given the US’ political climate would bring a figure intimately familiar with matters of immigration as the Holy See’s representative to the US government, to say nothing of the Nuncio’s role as the Pope’s eyes, ears and voice to an American Catholic fold which has been transformed by an influx of Hispanic migration. On yet another key front, unlike the prior lead occupants of 3339 Massachusetts Av NW, Pierre would arrive in the States with an unusually well-steeped understanding of the church in the Southern and Western US, which have jointly surpassed the old bastions of the Northeast and upper Midwest over recent years in becoming the majority bloc of the nation’s 70 million faithful. All at once, the prospect of Pierre’s appointment would both come as a surprise and not as one. While the name of the Frenchman has circulated in authoritative quarters only over the last six weeks or so, from the outset of the succession talks the most widely cited name for the DC post has been Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the bubbly Italian who won great acclaim and affection in New York’s church and diplomatic circles over his eight years as the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations headquarters there”.

Rocco adds however that “Now 63 and transferred to Poland since 2010, the onetime “deputy foreign minister” in the Secretariat of State notably became the first quarterback for the Vatican’s amplified environmental push under Benedict XVI, which Migliore championed on the Holy See’s behalf in the UN’s deliberations. That said, a current of opposition to Migliore’s appointment to the US began circulating early this year, and given the word of Pierre’s selection, the Mexico rep.’s experience with migration issues – and the Pope’s ostensible desire to send another message on their import – would appear to have tipped the balance in his favour”.

Interestingly, he goes on to make the point “As Francis marks the third anniversary of his election on Sunday, it bears recalling that Papa Bergoglio has not followed the tradition of his predecessors in his choice to stick with the US representative he inherited for a lengthy period of time. Over the last half-century and more, each new Pope has traditionally placed a diplomat of his own choosing in Washington within the first year of his pontificate, reflecting the assignment’s immense import both on civil and ecclesial fronts, above all in the Nuncio’s most consuming function: compiling the massive amounts of consultation, research and reports which set the stage for every appointment of a bishop”.

He then gives the requiste background “Named to Washington in October 2011, Viganò’s assignment to the post was widely perceived as an “exile” from Rome in the wake of his unsuccessful campaign to combat mismanagement and graft in Vatican City’s finances and contracts as the city-state’s deputy mayor. Following his arrival, the archbishop’s pleas to Benedict for support in the cause became a centerpiece of the incendiary “Vatileaks” document drops, which destabilized the Curia for the bulk of 2012 while winning Viganò a significant amount of praise for his forceful efforts. In the wake of Francis’ election, the new Pope’s push for Curial reform and a financial cleanup led to well-placed expectations that Viganò would see his triumphant return to Rome in a leading post. The speculation turned to naught, however, after a smear campaign by the archbishop’s enemies and circulated in the Italian press is believed to have short-circuited the move”.

Crucially he writes that “Having laid the groundwork for the Pope’s markedly successful East Coast trip last September, the career diplomat landed in the center of another ferocious storm in the visit’s wake when it emerged that Kim Davis – the Kentucky clerk who was briefly jailed for refusing to perform same-sex marriages on religious freedom grounds – was quietly greeted by Francis at the DC Nunciature between public engagements. In a remarkable clarification issued in response to the furore caused by word of the meeting, a Vatican statement said that, with Davis among “several dozen” people present, “such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. While the release emphasized that “the Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.” it likewise revealed that “the only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family.” The former student was later found to be openly gay and had brought his partner to the encounter”.

Rocco ends the piece “Having won wide esteem among the US bishops with his gracious style, quiet assists and commitment to a heavy travel schedule to take part in local church events, Viganò was feted by the bench at last November’s plenary in Baltimore with the traditional champagne reception which the USCCB accords to a Vatican representative attending his final meeting. That said, as the archbishop’s success at ultimately obtaining the appointments of those he’s recommended has largely been stymied by the influence of the Stateside cardinals on the Congregation for Bishops – who vote on the ultimate endorsement of a candidate before the file reaches the Pope – Viganò’s “swan song” pick on these shores is understood to have been the July elevation of one of his favorites, Fr Robert Barron, as auxiliary of Los Angeles, a move that stoked widespread shock among the American hierarchy”.

Interestingly, Rocco does not mention the fate of Vigano. There are, as ever, a number of posts available should Francis wish to reward Vigano. Notably these are the archpriest’s job at Santa Maria Maggiore. However, in light of the chaos seemingly favoured by Francis he may wish to not reward/punish Vigano for his Davis stunt and his preference for favouring ecclestical no-bodies.

End of Turkish press freedom?

10/03/2016

Turkey’s biggest newspaper, Zaman, has published an edition carrying pro-government articles, two days after being taken over by authorities. On Friday, a court ruled that Zaman, previously linked to an opponent of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, should now be run by administrators. Its last edition under old ownership on Saturday said Turkey’s press had seen one of its “darkest days”. Meanwhile, a newspaper set up by former Zaman staff was launched on Sunday. Police raided Zaman’s Istanbul offices late on Friday hours after a court ruling placed it under state control, but managers were still able to get Saturday’s edition to print. No reason was given by the court for the decision. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the takeover was “legal, not political”.

“Oversupply in the oil market will continue into 2017”

10/03/2016

Keith Johnson argues that the cuts in oil production will not occur, “Low oil prices will be a fixture of the world economy for at least the next year, as the big oil producers inside OPEC show zero appetite to rethink their 2014 decision to pump with abandon and let the market sort winners from losers. Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi told an industry conference in Houston Tuesday that a cut in production “is not going to happen.” Instead, he said, low prices will themselves drive out “inefficient and uneconomic” producers from the market, slowly bringing some balance to an oil market that remains badly out of whack”.

He goes on to write, “Crude oil prices had rallied on Monday, but gave all those gains back after Naimi dashed any lingering hope that Riyadh might ride to the rescue. Prices dropped about 5 percent in New York and London, putting oil back under $32 a barrel. Another year or more of low oil prices will be bad news not just for Saudi Arabia, which is running budget deficits and scrambling to diversify its economy. Other big producers, like Iraq, are literally running out of money to meet other pressing challenges, such as the eruption of the Islamic State. Venezuela, another country heavily reliant on oil exports, is slowly imploding, and more time with cheap oil simply compounds the pain from sky-high inflation, worthless currency, and a dysfunctional political system. OPEC oil export revenues have plunged from a combined $1.2 trillion in 2012 to an expected $320 billion this year if prices stay near current levels”.

Johnson goes on to argue “Expectations for a sustained period of cheap oil don’t just come from the top dogs at OPEC. The International Energy Agency, in its medium-term oil report released Monday, also said that oversupply in the oil market will continue into 2017. The IEA noted that low prices are indeed poleaxing U.S. shale producers, who need higher prices than their Mideast rivals; the IEA projected U.S. shale oil production will fall this year by about 600,000 barrels a day, the first such contraction since the American energy boom began in 2008. Bankruptcies have already littered the oil industry, and big banks are increasingly setting aside money to cover bad loans to the U.S. oil and gas patch, too. But even a modest growth in demand, primarily from developing economies, won’t be enough to erase the huge supply overhang that exists today. Analysts figure the world pumps between 2 million and 3 million barrels per day more than it consumes”.

The report notes that “Naimi, making his first visit since 2009 to the oil industry’s most important conference, appeared to tender an olive branch to beleaguered U.S. producers, who have suffered the most from OPEC’s risky gamble. “I welcome additional sources of supply, including shale oil,” he said, adding that “nimble” U.S. oil companies will be needed again once demand catches up with global supplies of crude. Yet behind the conciliatory words, Naimi brought a tough message for U.S. producers, many of whom are struggling to stay in the black. Much of the world’s current oversupply, he said, is because oil prices stayed around $100 a barrel for years. Those high prices made pretty much any oil field economically viable, no matter how complicated or exotic, from Canada’s tar sands to Brazil’s ultra-deepwater discoveries to America’s frack-happy boom of the last eight years”.

Interestingly he mentions that “The remedy for what ails the oil market today, Naimi said, is to embrace the market itself and let prevailing prices determine who should be pumping and who should be idling drilling rigs. Saudi Arabia, which can pump oil cheaper than just about any country on Earth, can still make money even if oil prices keep going south. Others, like many in the U.S. shale patch, cannot”.

He ends the piece arguing “Just don’t expect Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members to do the heavy lifting. Naimi said that Saudi Arabia’s experience in the 1980s — when it alone shouldered the lion’s share of production cuts to help balance a glutted market — taught Riyadh a lesson. That’s why, Naimi said, OPEC decided to keep pumping oil flat out in late 2014, even after it was apparent that crude prices were falling off a cliff. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing Saudi Arabia or other big producers can do to stabilize the market. Riyadh and Moscow, two of the world’s biggest producers, have discussed a production “freeze” at current levels”.

Pointedly Johnson adds “The trouble is, both Saudi Arabia and Russia are pumping near-record amounts of crude every day; freezing production at sky-high levels will do little to alleviate the global glut. What’s more, other big oil producers, like Iran, which is desperate to boost oil production and exports to claw back market share after being sidelined by international sanctions for the last half decade, have made clear they have no plans to respect any informal “freeze.” On Tuesday, Iran’s oil minister called the proposed freeze “ridiculous.” None of which is to say that low prices will be here forever, or even through the end of the decade. Every year, said IEA chief Fatih Birol on Monday, the world needs 4 million new barrels per day of oil production: 1 million barrels to meet growing demand, and 3 million barrels simply to replace production declines at old, tired oil fields”.

He concludes “That’s why IEA warned that back-to-back years of investment cuts in the industry could well set the stage for a price spike in a few years’ time, as much-needed projects get delayed or axed altogether. “The risk of a sharp oil price rise” by the end of the decade, the IEA report warned, “is as potentially destabilizing as the sharp oil price fall has proved to be.”

Denmark to bomb ISIS?

10/03/2016

Denmark’s government will present proposals soon to expand its mission against Islamic State into Syria, including air strikes, Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen’s office said on Friday. If approved by parliament, F-16 fighters, C130J transport aircraft and 400 military personal, including special operations forces and support staff, would take part in the Syria campaign by the middle of the year. Danish forces have already seen action against Islamic State in Iraq. Parliament is expected to vote on the proposals in separate readings on April 1 and April 19. The main political parties have already said they backed the proposal, at a cross-party committee meeting that included the defense and foreign ministers. Denmark’s expanded mission into Syria comes after direct requests from France and the United States, Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen told reporters after the committee meeting.

Sanders foreign policy adviser

08/03/2016

An interesting report notes how Bernie Sanders is building is foreign policy advisers, “Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has finally begun efforts to assemble a team of foreign policy advisors following weeks of criticism from Hillary Clinton that his campaign lacks the kind of trusted experts necessary to inform a future commander-in-chief”.

The report goes on to mention “According to sources close to the campaign, Sanders has tapped Bill French to help craft the Vermont senator’s foreign policy messaging and coordinate with outside advisors and experts.  French, a policy analyst at the National Security Network, a nonprofit policy group dedicated to building “a strong progressive national security and counter conservative spin,” has testified on Capitol Hill on various proposals for combatting the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria. French’s testimony last March warned lawmakers about the risks of an overly-broad war authorization against the Sunni extremist group that could be used in unexpected ways by a future U.S. president. He also raised doubts about the Obama administration’s soaring rhetoric about being able to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. French has written broadly about U.S. defense policy and its modern history, including extensive analyses on the capabilities of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a catalogue of every authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) the United States Congress has ever passed”.

Interestingly the piece adds that “Previously, the campaign has been unable to name any full-time foreign policy advisors on staff despite persistent questioning on the subject from national media outlets. French alone will likely be called on to enlist a team of outside advisors to draft memos and develop position papers for the senator. He will have his work cut out for him. As reported by Foreign Policy, Clinton’s campaign has already amassed an army of several hundred, perhaps even more than a thousand, foreign policy advisors to assist the campaign and publicly cast doubt about Sanders’ ability to lead the world’s lone superpower. Clinton’s massive network is a result of her frontrunner status and tenure as secretary of state, where she cultivated close ties to the Democratic Party’s foreign policy talent pool. Her campaign’s foreign policy is run by policy director Jake Sullivan, who served as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the State Department, and Laura Rosenberger, a former State Department official who runs day-to-day operations and long-term planning. Some of her top outside advisors include former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Center for a New American Security CEO Michèle Flournoy”.

The article notes that domestic policy is where Sanders has his focus but the report notes ends that he “has been largely supportive of the president’s drone program targeting suspected terrorists around the world. Like Clinton, he opposes the White House’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal he says doesn’t provide adequate protections for American blue collar workers. The intensity of attacks between the two candidates has increased as Sanders’s quixotic campaign surprised observers after he won the New Hampshire primary by more than 20 points. Last week, the Vermont senatorpassed Clinton in a national poll for the first time during the 2016 race when a Fox News poll showed him with 47 percent support to her 44 percent. At the same time, Clinton secured a victory against Sanders in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday and  three other recent national polls show her registering double-digit leads. The Clinton campaign is expecting a large victory in Saturday’s presidential primary in South Carolina where she’s currently running 20 points ahead”.

“Dispatched a small armada to the South China Sea”

08/03/2016

The U.S. Navy has dispatched a small armada to the South China Sea. The carrier John C. Stennis, two destroyers, two cruisers and the 7th Fleet flagship have sailed into the disputed waters in recent days, according to military officials. The carrier strike group is the latest show of force in the tense region, with the U.S. asserting that China is militarizing the region to guard its excessive territorial claims. Stennis is joined in the region by the cruisers Antietam and Mobile Bay, and the destroyers Chung-Hoon and Stockdale. The command ship Blue Ridge, the floating headquarters of the Japan-based 7th Fleet, is also in the area, en route to a port visit in the Philippines. Stennis deployed from Washington state on Jan. 15″.

“It is domestic insecurity that is breeding belligerence”

08/03/2016

An interesting piece from Foreign Affairs discusses the coming collapse of China and its implications on Eurasia, “As China asserts itself in its nearby seas and Russia wages war in Syria and Ukraine, it is easy to assume that Eurasia’s two great land powers are showing signs of newfound strength. But the opposite is true: increasingly, China and Russia flex their muscles not because they are powerful but because they are weak. Unlike Nazi Germany, whose power at home in the 1930s fueled its military aggression abroad, today’s revisionist powers are experiencing the reverse phenomenon. In China and Russia, it is domestic insecurity that is breeding belligerence. This marks a historical turning point: for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell, the United States finds itself in a competition among great powers. Economic conditions in both China and Russia are steadily worsening. Ever since energy prices collapsed in 2014, Russia has been caught in a serious recession. China, meanwhile, has entered the early stages of what promises to be a tumultuous transition away from double-digit annual GDP growth; the stock market crashes it experienced in the summer of 2015 and January 2016 will likely prove a mere foretaste of the financial disruptions to come”.

He adds “Given the likelihood of increasing economic turmoil in both countries, their internal political stability can no longer be taken for granted. In the age of social media and incessant polling, even autocrats such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin feel the need for public approval. Already, these leaders no doubt suffer from a profound sense of insecurity, as their homelands have long been virtually surrounded by enemies, with flatlands open to invaders. And already, they are finding it harder to exert control over their countries’ immense territories, with potential rebellions brewing in their far-flung regions. The world has seen the kind of anarchy that ethnic, political, and sectarian conflict can cause in small and medium-size states. But the prospect of quasi anarchy in two economically struggling giants is far more worrisome. As conditions worsen at home, China and Russia are likely to increasingly export their troubles in the hope that nationalism will distract their disgruntled citizens and mobilize their populations”.

Yet there seems to be not enough of this occurring to pressure the respective regimes for change, “As U.S. policymakers contemplate their response to the growing hostility of Beijing and Moscow, their first task should be to avoid needlessly provoking these extremely sensitive and domestically declining powers. That said, they cannot afford to stand idly by as China and Russia redraw international borders and maritime boundaries. The answer? Washington needs to set clear redlines, quietly communicated—and be ready to back them up with military power if necessary”.

These are exactly the kind of guidelines that have not come from the Obama White House. It has had sent confused messages to China about its “islands” in the South China Seas, it has set out red lines, only to break them and done little to reassure allies of its intentions of supporting them. Thus, the world and the United States will be much safer when Obama leaves office. Until such time only hope will suffice.

The author adds “Partly because Russia’s economic problems are far more severe than China’s, Moscow’s aggression has been more naked. After President Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic rule came to an end in 1999, Putin consolidated central authority. As energy prices soared, he harnessed Russia’s hydrocarbon-rich economy to create a sphere of influence in the countries of the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. His goal was clear: to restore the old empire. But since direct rule through communist parties had proved too costly, Putin preferred an oblique form of imperialism. In lieu of sending troops into the old domains, he built a Pharaonic network of energy pipelines, helped politicians in neighbouring countries in various ways, ran intelligence operations, and used third parties to buy control of local media”.

Correctly he goes on to argue “Not coincidentally, these military adventures have accompanied the sharp reversal of Russian economic power. In 2014, the price of oil collapsed, the countries of central and eastern Europe continued to wean themselves off Russian gas, slow global growth further reduced the appetite for Russian hydrocarbons and other natural resources, and the West levied damaging sanctions on Moscow. The result has been a full-blown economic crisis, with the ruble losing roughly half of its value against the U.S. dollar since 2014. That year, Russian GDP growth fell to nearly zero, and by the third quarter of 2015, the economy was shrinking by more than four percent. In the first eight months of 2015, capital investment declined by six percent and the volume of construction fell by eight percent. Russia’s economic problems run deep, leaving its leaders with few easy options for fixing them. For decades, Russia has relied on natural resource production and a manufacturing sector that makes consumer goods for the domestic market (since few foreigners want to buy Russia’s nonmilitary products)”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Try as he might, however, Putin will not be able to shelter his regime from the fallout of economic collapse. Desperation will spawn infighting among a ruling elite that has grown used to sharing generous spoils. Given the absence of strong institutions, as well as the brittle and highly centralized nature of the regime, a coup like the one that toppled Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 cannot be ruled out; Russia remains Soviet in its style of governance. The country has experienced the crumbling of autocracy followed by chaos before (as during and after the 1917 revolutions), and it’s possible that enough turmoil could cause Russia to fragment yet again. The heavily Muslim North Caucasus, along with areas of Russia’s Siberian and Far Eastern districts, distant from the center and burdened by bloody politics, may begin loosening their ties to Moscow in the event of instability inside the Kremlin itself. The result could be Yugoslavia lite: violence and separatism that begin in one place and spread elsewhere. As Moscow loses control, the global jihadist movement could take advantage of the vacuum and come to Russia’s outlying regions and to Central Asia”.

Turning to China the writer argues that China is on the brink, “Slow growth is also leading China to externalize its internal weaknesses. Since the mid-1990s, Beijing has been building a high-tech military, featuring advanced submarines, fighter jets, ballistic missiles, and cyberwarfare units. Just as the United States worked to exclude European powers from the Caribbean Sea beginning in the nineteenth century, China is now seeking to exclude the U.S. Navy from the East China and South China Seas. Its neighbours have grown worried: Japan, which views Chinese naval expansion as an existential threat, is shedding its pacifism and upgrading its forces, and Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam have modernized their militaries, too. What were once relatively placid, U.S.-dominated waters throughout the Cold War have become rougher. A stable, unipolar naval environment has given way to a more unstable, multipolar one. But as with Russia, China’s aggression increasingly reflects its cresting power, as its economy slows after decades of acceleration. Annual GDP growth has dropped from the double-digit rates that prevailed for most of the first decade of this century to an official 6.9 percent in the third quarter of 2015, with the true figure no doubt lower. Bubbles in the housing and stock markets have burst, and other imbalances in China’s overleveraged economy, especially in its shadow banking sector, are legion. Then there are the growing ethnic tensions in this vast country. To some degree, the Han-dominated state of China is a prison of various nations, including the Mongols, the Tibetans, and the Uighurs, all of whom have in varying degrees resisted central control. Today, Uighur militants represent the most immediate separatist threat. Some have received training in Iraq and Syria, and as they link up with the global jihadist movement, the danger will grow”.

Correctly he notes that “Even more so than Putin, Xi, with years of experience serving the Communist Party in interior China, must harbour few illusions about the depth of China’s economic problems. But that does not mean he knows how to fix them. Xi has responded to China’s economic disarray by embarking on an anticorruption drive, yet this campaign has primarily functioned as a great political purge, enabling him to consolidate China’s national security state around his own person. Since decisions are no longer made as collectively as before, Xi now has greater autonomy to channel domestic anxiety into foreign aggression. In the last three decades, China’s leadership was relatively predictable, risk averse, and collegial. But China’s internal political situation has become far less benign”.

He rightly notes that “China’s ambitions reach further than Russia’s, but they have generated less concern in the West because they have been more elegantly applied. Whereas Putin has sent thugs with ski masks and assault rifles into eastern Ukraine, Xi’s aggression has involved much smaller, incremental steps, making it maddeningly difficulty for the United States to respond without appearing to overreact. He has sent his coast guard and merchant ships (rather than exclusively his navy) to harass Philippine warships, dispatched an oil rig into waters claimed by both China and Vietnam (but for only a few weeks), and engaged in land-reclamation projects on contested islands and reefs (but ones that are devoid of people). And since these acts of brinkmanship have taken place at sea, they have caused no hardship for civilians and practically no military casualties. Other Chinese moves are less subtle. Besides expanding its maritime claims, China is building roads, railways, and pipelines deep into Central Asia and is promising to invest tens of billions of dollars in a transportation corridor that will stretch from western China across Pakistan to the Indian Ocean, where China has been involved in port projects from Tanzania to Myanmar (also called Burma). As China’s economic troubles worsen, the elegance of its aggression may wear off and be replaced by cruder, more impulsive actions. Xi will find it harder to resist the urge to use Asian maritime disputes to stoke nationalism, a force that brings a measure of cohesion to societies threatening to fragment”.

The result of this Kaplan says will be chaos, “Policymakers in Washington had better start planning now for the potential chaos to come: a Kremlin coup, a partial breakup of Russia, an Islamic terrorist campaign in western China, factional fighting in Beijing, and political turbulence in Central Asia, although not probable, are all increasingly possible. Whatever form the coming turbulence takes, it seems certain the United States will be forced to grapple with new questions of one sort or another. Who will control Russia’s nuclear arsenal if the country’s leadership splinters? How can the United States stand up for human rights inside China while standing by as the regime puts down an internal rebellion? Planning for such contingencies does not mean planning a war of liberation, à la Iraq. (If China and Russia are ever to develop more liberal governments, their people will have to bring about change themselves.) But it does mean minimizing the possibility of disorder. To avoid the nightmarish security crises that could result, Washington will need to issue clear redlines. Whenever possible, however, it should communicate these redlines privately, without grandstanding. Although congressional firebrands seem not to realize it, the United States gains nothing from baiting nervous regimes worried about losing face at home”.

He makes the point that “In the case of Russia, the United States should demand that it stop initiating frozen conflicts. As Putin attempts to distract Russians from economic hardship, he will find it more tempting to stir up trouble in his neighbourhood. Lithuania and Moldova probably top his list of potential targets, given their corrupt and easily undermined democratic governments. (Moldova is already nearing the point of political anarchy.) Both countries are also strategically valuable: Moldova could provide Russia with the beginning of a gateway to the Balkans, and Lithuania offers a partial land bridge to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. For Putin, frozen conflicts carry the advantage of being undeclared, reducing the odds of a meaningful Western response. That’s why the response must be in kind: if Putin makes behind-the-scenes moves in Lithuania or Moldova, the West should intensify sanctions against Russia and increase the tempo of military exercises in central and eastern Europe”.

On the problems in China he argues that “Washington also needs to set clear redlines with China. In the South China Sea, it cannot allow the country’s land-reclamation projects to graduate to the establishment of a so-called air defence identification zone—airspace where China reserves the right to exclude foreign aircraft—as the regime declared in the East China Sea in 2013. Such moves form part of a strategy of deliberate ambiguity: the more unclear and complex a military standoff becomes, the more threatened the United States’ maritime dominance will be. If China does announce such a zone in the South China Sea, Washington must respond by increasing U.S. naval activity in the vicinity and expanding military aid to regional allies. Already, the U.S. Navy has begun freedom-of-navigation operations, however halfhearted, within the 12-nautical-mile boundary of sovereign authority that China has claimed around its man-made islands. If these operations do not become regular and more explicit, China will not feel deterred”.

He ends arguing correctly, for strength, “The president should never expect Israelis, Poles, and Taiwanese, for example, to trust him because he is leading on climate change (as he has intimated they should); they want him to highlight their own geopolitical dilemmas. Although pandemics, rising sea levels, and other global challenges are real, the United States can afford the luxury of focusing on them thanks largely to its own protected geography. Many U.S. allies, by comparison, live dangerously close to China and Russia and must contend with narrower, more traditional threats. Given their own tragic geography, Asian nations want to see more American warships in their waters. As for central and eastern Europeans, they want a muscular and unambiguous commitment to their defense. Now more than ever, because of the way globalization and the communications revolution have made geography more interconnected, an American president risks losing his reputation for power in one theater if he fails to respond adequately to aggression in another”.

He concludes “Containment wasn’t only about restraint, as many now like to believe; it was also about engaging in calculated aggression and consistently reassuring allies. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. presidents prevailed while avoiding nuclear war by understanding that rivalry and conflict, rather than peace, are normal. Today, as China and Russia accelerate down the path of protracted conflict, future U.S. presidents must acknowledge that same truth. And they, too, must apply the right mix of strength and caution as they leave behind the comparatively calm decades of the Cold War and post–Cold War eras and prepare to navigate the anarchy of an unraveling Eurasia.

ISIS fights Taliban for recruits

06/03/2016

the Islamic State group is looking for sophisticated skills as it builds its foothold in new territory: Pakistan. It is courting university students, doctors, lawyers, journalists and businessmen, and using women’s groups for fundraising. It is also wading into fierce competition with the country’s numerous other militant groups, particularly the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida in the Subcontinent, the new branch created by the veteran terror network. Here in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, IS loyalists have set up their strongest presence, carrying out multiple attacks in the past year and setting up networks”.