Archive for the ‘Common good’ Category

“Hard to tell whether the legislature will pass a same-sex marriage bill”

10/12/2016

A report note the gay rights progress in Taiwan, “October 2014, a crowd at an LGBT rights rally in Taipei, one of many, lobbed four large red balloons emblazoned with the Chinese characters for marriage equality into the fenced courtyard of Taiwan’s legislature. At that time, a comfortable majority of Taiwanese supported same-sex marriage; a number of polls in the self-governing island of 23 million indicated as much, with one showing as many as 71 percent in favour. But several initiatives to amend the law to achieve marriage equality, first mooted in 2003, have not been successful. Two years later, three marriage equality bills now sit on legislators’ desks; although international mediahave been quick to announce that Taiwan stands on the cusp of being the first government in Asia to achieve marriage equality, the island’s public seems deeply divided. In the latest poll on the subject, released on Nov. 29, 46 percent of respondents supported marriage equality, while 45 percent opposed it. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s lawmakers and its civil society have been more cautious than recent headlines in Western media suggest”.

It adds “Island-wide marriage equality initiatives have been unsuccessful in spite of growing support over decades. Even without national legislation, many local governments in Taiwan now allow same-sex couples to participate in collective weddings and to record their partnership in household registries across the island, although neither action confers any legal rights. To many, the election of President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in January portended a broader, deeper change. Tsai openly made statements that appeared to support marriage equality during and after her campaign. In an October 2015 Facebook video posted to coincide with Taipei’s annual LGBT pride parade, Tsai exclaimed, “Everyone is equal before love.” A year later, she posted a photo on her Facebook page showing a rainbow, adding that her “belief has not changed” post-election. In August, Tsai appointed the first transgender official in government, Audrey Tang, as executive councilor for digital policy, which looked like another step toward acceptance of different gender norms”.

The piece notes “Since Tsai took office this May, pressure has been building on her to deliver. Yet she has never explicitly promised that her administration would push for same-sex marriage legislation, and critics have feared that once in office, she would find herself unable to follow through on her progressive rhetoric. The party that Tsai leads, the DPP, “has neither devoted sufficient resources to communicate the issues of marriage equality nor to reconcile differences within the party,” Victoria Hsu, who heads the nonprofit Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR), told Foreign Policy. It was therefore a setback when Justice Minister Chiu Tai-san announced in August that his ministry still intended to introduce its own same-sex partnership bill — but only in 2017, after studying the impact of such a law on Taiwanese society. (In Taiwan, ministries can introduce bills into the legislature.) The effort dates back to the previous, more socially conservative Kuomintang (KMT) administration of Ma Ying-jeou and is an attempt to compromise between supporters of marriage equality and religious groups opposed. Proposing a separate law for same-sex partnership is politically easier, as it leaves the institution of marriage as currently constituted unchanged”.

Not surprisingly it notes “In the absence of strong top-down leadership on the issue from Tsai, momentum for the bills currently under consideration has come from the bottom up. Audrey Ko, the chief editor of Womany, an online media outlet focused on gender issues and LGBT rights, says a stigma remains for gays and lesbians in Taiwan, one her company seeks to dispel. Other organizations, such as the Taiwan Tongzhi (LGBT) Hotline Association, perform peer counseling and advocacy work. Even corporations are chipping in; in March, McDonald’s released a commercial in which a son comes out to his father in one of its restaurants. (The father accepts it.) This summer, a number of Taiwanese pop artists organized a benefit concert to raise awareness for marriage equality; tickets sold out in minutes. Pop superstar Jolin Tsai performed a lesbian-themed song for the occasion. In the music video for the song “We’re All Different, Yet the Same,” she makes the case for marriage equality by describing the plight of a woman whose partner of more than 30 years is hospitalized; the woman is unable to sign a consent form for emergency surgery because she is legally not a spouse or family member”.

It points out that “A real-life version of this tragedy triggered public outcry and reinvigorated support for marriage equality. On Oct. 16, 67-year-old French professor Jacques Picoux fell to his death from the top of a 10-story building in Taipei, police said. He is thought to have committed suicide after depression caused by the death of his partner due to cancer; Picoux was unable to make medical decisions for his partner in his final days, as Picoux had no legal status. In a response to this outcry, legislators from the DPP and the KMT, as well as the caucus of the New Power Party (NPP), a young activist organization, all introduced similar marriage equality bills. All three proposals would amend the Taiwan Civil Code to open marriage to same-sex couples, but they differ in how to do so. DPP legislator Yu Mei-nu’s proposal introduces a general provision extending to same-sex couples the right to marriage, as well as other family law rights that accompany married status. But it leaves further gendered language across the civil code intact. The proposals of KMT legislator Hsu Yu-ren and the NPP would make references to “husband and wife” and “father and mother” gender-neutral throughout all relevant civil code provisions. These latter two proposals have great symbolic meaning, because they remove a heterosexual presumption from the code, but the legal effect is likely no different than Yu’s proposal”.

It mentions “There is still a long legislative road to travel before Taiwan can become the first Asian government to legalize same-sex marriage. The bills passed their first reading on Nov. 17, but the DPP caucus whip has said the proposed bills will next be reviewed on Dec. 26. During the review process, any legislator can introduce a competing same-sex partnership act. Even if the bills were to enter a second reading, they could still face a boycott and be removed from the agenda. The bills will only become legislation after passing three readings. As these bills went through their first reading in the legislature this month, thousands of people protesting against marriage equality, and only several hundred rallying for it, gathered on Taipei’s streets. Opposition to marriage equality in Taiwan largely comes from small but well-organized and vocal conservative religious groups. Four people reportedly even managed to storm into the legislative meeting room, shouting that the “legislators are monsters” and would want to change Taiwan “into an AIDS island.” It is hard to tell whether the legislature will pass a same-sex marriage bill this time, says Hsu of TAPCPR, partly because of internal opposition within the DPP and KMT. (The NPP caucus fully supports its bill but only holds five seats in legislature.) Tsai has reiterated that the bills are “clear evidence” marriage equality has support across all parties. But even Yu, who introduced the DPP bill, says she is only cautiously optimistic about the chances of passing a marriage equality law”.

It concludes “Outside lawmakers’ offices, the battle for public support continues. If anything, it seems to be waning precisely at the time when it will be most needed. “More and more people are confessing that they love gays but that they don’t support same-sex marriage,” said Ko, because they believe allowing same-sex partners to get married will harm traditional family values. She is therefore unsure whether Taiwan will manage to pass a bill in the next year. At least, Ko added, “people are talking [about it], and it is not a taboo anymore.”

“Weighing plans to rush more firepower to CIA-backed units”

03/11/2016

As rebel-held sections of Aleppo crumbled under Russian bombing this month, the Obama administration was secretly weighing plans to rush more firepower to CIA-backed units in ­Syria. The proposal, which involved weapons that might help those forces defend themselves against Russian aircraft and artillery, made its way onto the agenda of a recent meeting President Obama held with his national security team. And that’s as far as it got. Neither approved nor rejected, the plan was left in a state of ambiguity that U.S. officials said reflects growing administration skepticism about escalating a covert CIA program that has trained and armed thousands of Syrian fighters over the past three years. The operation has served as the centerpiece of the U.S. strategy to press Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside. But U.S. officials said there are growing doubts that even an expanded version could achieve that outcome because of Moscow’s intervention. Obama, officials said, now seems inclined to leave the fate of the CIA program up to the next occupant of the White House. If so, Obama’s successor will inherit an array of unattractive options. Critics of the proposal to increase arms shipments warn that it would only worsen the violence in Syria without fundamentally changing the outcome. But inaction has its own risks — increasing the likelihood that Aleppo will fall, that tens of thousands of CIA-backed fighters will search for more-reliable allies, and that the United States will lose leverage over regional partners that until now have refrained from delivering more-dangerous arms to Assad’s opponents.

EU formally criticises Russia

26/10/2016

Over coming a wave of reluctance to antagonize Moscow, European Union foreign ministers are planning to formally and explicitly admonish Russia for supporting the Syrian government’s deadly assault on Aleppo, an attack that “may amount to war crimes,” diplomats tell Foreign Policy. The European ministers, who will meet meet on Monday in Luxembourg, are also expected to support the imposition of sanctions on as many as 20 Syrian government officials who have had a role in the bombardment. An earlier draft of the EU statement did not include a direct reference to Russia, but has been added at the insistence of the French, British and German governments. The move comes as Secretary of State John Kerry mounts a new diplomatic push to pursue a ceasefire for the besieged city at a meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland on Saturday that includes representatives of Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “Since the beginning of the offensive by the regime and its allies, notably Russia, the intensity and scale of the aerial bombardment of eastern Aleppo is clearly disproportionate,” reads a draft joint statement obtained by FP. “The escalating violence in Aleppo is causing untold and unacceptable suffering for thousands of its inhabitants.”

Clinton to get tough with China

20/10/2016

Hillary Clinton privately said the U.S. would “ring China with missile defense” if the Chinese government failed to curb North Korea’s nuclear program, a potential hint at how the former secretary of state would act if elected president. Clinton’s remarks were revealed by WikiLeaks in a hack of the Clinton campaign chairman’s personal account. The emails include a document excerpting Clinton’s private speech transcripts, which she has refused to release. A section on China features several issues in which Clinton said she confronted the Chinese while leading the U.S. State Department. China has harshly criticized the U.S. and South Korea’s planned deployment of a missile-defense system against North Korea, which conducted its fifth nuclear test this year. But Clinton said she told Chinese officials that the U.S. might deploy additional ships to the region to contain the North Korean missile threat. If North Korea successfully obtains a ballistic missile, it could threaten not just American allies in the Pacific, “but they could actually reach Hawaii and the west coast theoretically,” Clinton said”.

Civic education, good democracy and better elections

14/10/2016

An excellent article notes the role of civic education in the United States current election, “Three-quarters of American adults are unable to name all three branches of American government. About a third can’t even come up with the name of a single branch. That means that more Americans are probably familiar with the “Y U NO”, “Futurama Fry”, and “The Most Interesting Man in the World” internet memes (the “three most popular memes of all time”) than they are with the who, what, when, why, and how of the laws that form the parameters of their life”.

The piece adds “Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post recently cited the first of the above numbers from Annenberg Public Policy Center’s latest annual national survey, released around September 17 for Constitution Day. Strauss’s article is just the latest entry in a tiny genre noting the decline of basic civic knowledge among American adults and children — and the real world consequences of such ignorance. Strauss does civic education a service in highlighting the issue, and contrasting it with the support and attention given STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) education by policymakers, education mavens, and the business community. But it’s not only that people don’t understand the history of the U.S. government and its functions, or that they can’t name them. By every standard cultural and policy marker, both formal and informal, they are being told that this type of learning and intellectual engagement is worthless — not deserving of resources or time or seriousness”.

The report notes “Last year, Julie Silverbrook — executive director of The Constitutional Sources Project — discovered that even as the civic education community has tried to form “robust coalitions and campaigns” to respond to the crisis, their already pitiful funding has dried to a virtual non-existence. Civic education is basically privately-funded. But the entire funding for the community between the years 2011-2013 was between $33 million and $41 million, according to data provided by the Foundation Center. Among the hundred shining stars in the STEM-education funding constellation, Intel Foundation alone gives approximately $45 million in annual grants to STEM program. The president’s 2015 fiscal year budget proposal included over $170 million to improve teaching and learning in STEM subjects. As goes the way of federal funding and priorities, so apparently goes private funding. And yet, in trying to draw attention to even just this part of the puzzle, Silverbrook could only interest The Washington Times in publishing an article about the subject”.

The author argues that “This is not to make a bugaboo about STEM education. But one consequence of having no funding weight to throw around is that school districts apparently see little benefit in investing in their civic education (social studies) teachers and programs. I manage AEI’s Program on American Citizenship. Our 2014 report on civic education professional development found that social studies teachers typically have to use vacation time to attend even half-day professional development programs. In addition, they often have to cover the cost of the program themselves because the school won’t, and the offering organization isn’t able to cover the operating cost of such a program. By contrast, teachers in other fields are even rewarded for attending their respective professional development programs — or at least, are not effectively punished for doing so. While this makes being a civic educator a laudable example of true civic behavior, there’s also a great deal of evidence that civic educators are uniquely in need of further development and instruction in their subject area”.

She writes that “Working with data collected from over 1,000 randomly selected high school social studies teachers, they found that while 83 percent of teachers believe that the United States is a “unique country that stands for something special in the world,” and that 82 percent think it’s important for students to “respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings,” a majority considers teaching key facts, dates, and major events related to citizenship their lowest priority. A mere 38 percent indicated that “the key principles of American government” was or ought to be a civic teacher’s top priority to impart to students. However shocking, that also should come as no surprise. As the seasoned observers of our teacher-training schools know only too well, for over half a century education theorists have decried any attempt to impart knowledge to students as a joyless and misguided exercise in rote learning. And, since it’s so easy for kids these days to find all the information they need on the Internet, why teach such boring stuff in school? Consequently, civics teachers might be the one teacher constituency in favour of some type of required testing”.

The writer ends “Seventy percent of civics teachers indicated that social studies classes are a low priority in schools because of pressure to show progress on statewide math and language arts tests. Ninety-three percent say “social studies should be part of every state’s set of standards and testing.”As Strauss rightly argues in her article, we are feeling the lack of a civic education in our present national discourse that this current election cycle has only exacerbated. Civics education and learning is indeed important. Fundamental even to the continued life and vibrancy of a representative democracy. But who has ever wanted to teach what evidently no one thinks is important to know?

Misreading the Nordic model

21/09/2016

An article by an extreme right wing economist criticizes the Nordic model, “Sanders, the left-wing populist who for months competed with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, has popularised a simple vision for reform: introduce a Nordic-style welfare state in the United States. In a debate with Clinton, Sanders explained that his aim is to popularise the concept of Scandinavian democratic socialism: “I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn what they have accomplished for their working people.” Sanders and his supporters are not alone in praising the Nordic model. In 2013, President Barack Obama followed suit by making the first bilateral visit by a U.S. president to Sweden, complimenting his hosts about their country’s economic model. He escalated the praise at a U.S.-Nordic summit in May 2016, where he explained: “In a world of growing economic disparities, Nordic countries have some of the least income inequality in the world—which may explain one of the reasons that they’re some of the happiest people in the world, despite not getting much sun. . . . There have been times where I’ve said, why don’t we just put all these small countries in charge for a while? And they could clean things up.” Admiration for the Nordic welfare state runs deep among U.S. academics, journalists, and politicians on the left. It’s easy to understand why—at first glance, the Nordic countries appear prosperous yet enjoy equal distribution of wealth and good social outcomes”.

He argues that “A closer look, however, shows that what American liberals like about Nordic societies is not a product of socialism. The success of Nordic countries has more to do with their unique culture—and free markets—than with their welfare state policies. A 2015 story by PBS titled “What Can the U.S. Learn from Denmark?” is a good example of how many Americans view Scandinavia. The article heaps praise on the Danish social model, explaining that “Danes get free or heavily subsidised health care” and “compensation when they’re unemployed, out sick from work, or on parental leave.” It notes Denmark’s high taxes, strong labour unions, and heavy state involvement in the economy. It suggests that these policies explain why Danes live, on average, 1.5 years longer than Americans. All these statements are of course true, but they lack historical perspective. Danes today outlive their American counterparts, but not because Denmark has the highest tax-to-GDP ratio in the developed world. As late as 1960, taxes in Denmark were actually lower than in the United States (25 percent of GDP compared with 27 percent), yet at the time, Danes lived 2.4 years longer than Americans—well before the creation of the Danish welfare state. In Sweden and Norway, too, the gap in life span compared with the United States is smaller today than it was in the mid–twentieth century, when their public sectors were relatively less developed”.

He mentions that “The positive influence of the welfare state on overall prosperity is similarly exaggerated. In fact, prosperity in the Nordic countries has increased faster in periods of economic freedom than in those of democratic socialism. The example of Sweden is instructive. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, liberal politicians such as Johan August Gripenstedt, minister of finance from 1856 to 1866, introduced reforms designed to secure business freedom, free trade, and strong protections for property rights. From around 1870 to 1936, Sweden pursued pro-market economic policies and was rewarded with an average yearly growth rate of two percent—the highest of any western European nation during the period and twice as high as rates of leading economies such as that of the United Kingdom. In 1936, the Swedish Social Democratic Party was able to form its first majority government. The Social Democrats went on to dominate Swedish political life until 1970, slowly raising taxes and expanding the welfare state while, for the most part, leaving the market-oriented policies of their predecessors in place. During these years, Sweden’s growth rate rose to 2.9 percent. Although higher in absolute terms than before—a product of technological growth and the postwar boom—this was around the western European average”.

Giving context he writes how “between 1970 and 1991, Sweden—unlike other Nordic countries—experimented with third way socialism. The pinnacle of these policies was the introduction of “employer funds,” a system through which ownership of private firms would slowly be transferred to funds run by the labour unions. Sweden’s average growth rate fell to 1.4 percent, the second lowest in western Europe, and many successful businesses and individuals left the country. The socialist experiment was followed by an era of renewed focus on market reforms, reduced generosity of welfare programs, and significant tax reductions. The reforms paid off: between 1991 and 2014, Sweden’s growth rate rose to 1.8 percent—placing the country only slightly behind the United Kingdom, which had the highest rate in western Europe during this period. In addition to economic growth, American admirers of the Nordic societies often focus on their social attributes, such as high levels of income and wealth equality. Yet as I show in my book, many of these attributes largely predate the welfare state. For instance, in a 2008 study of top incomes in Sweden, the economists Jesper Roine and Daniel Waldenstrom explain that “most of the decrease [in income equality in Sweden] takes place before the expansion of the welfare state and by 1950 Swedish top income shares were already lower than in other countries.” A 2013 study by Anthony Barnes Atkinson and Jakob Egholt Sogaard reached a similar conclusion for Denmark and Norway”.

He attempts to further undermine the Nordic model, “Good social outcomes in the Nordic countries predate the welfare state because what makes Nordic societies unique is related not to policy—large welfare states can also be found in countries such as Belgium, France, and Spain—but to culture. Over 100 years ago, German sociologist Max Weber observed that Protestant countries in northern Europe tended to have higher living standards, better academic institutions, and more well-functioning societies than countries in other parts of Europe. He attributed their success to the “Protestant work ethic.” Swedish scholar Assar Lindbeck later built upon this theory by looking at factors other than religion. For instance, he explained that in the hostile environment of preindustrial Scandinavia, it was difficult to survive as a farmer without working exceptionally hard. The population therefore adopted out of necessity a culture with a great emphasis on individual responsibility, honesty, trust, punctuality, and hard work. These cultural attributes help explain why Nordic nations developed high levels of prosperity and low levels of poverty during the small-government era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The welfare states were introduced only once Nordic societies had already become prosperous and equal”.

He notes that “The simple truth is that there is nothing magical about the Nordics. Like other countries, they have thrived economically in periods of free market reforms and have stagnated when taxes and government involvement in the economy have increased. Their social success predates the welfare state and is no more or less impressive than the social success of Nordic Americans. And as I show in Debunking Utopia, norms related to hard work and individual responsibility, which developed before the welfare state, have begun to change since it was introduced”.

He ends “It is easy to understand why so many Americans admire Nordic societies, even if they don’t always understand them. The point is not that Americans should stop admiring Nordic society, but rather that it is time to learn the true lesson from the Nordics—the importance of free markets, strong norms, and policies that encourage citizens to maintain those norms”.

“Plans to end its use of private prisons”

11/09/2016

A report in the Washington Post notes the end of private prisons, “The Justice Department plans to end its use of private prisons after officials concluded the facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services than those run by the government. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced the decision on Thursday in a memo that instructs officials to either decline to renew the contracts for private prison operators when they expire or “substantially reduce” the contracts’ scope”.

The article mentions how “The goal, Yates wrote, is “reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons.” “They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security,” Yates wrote. While experts said the directive is significant, privately run federal prisons house only a fraction of the overall population of inmates. The vast majority of the incarcerated in America are housed in state prisons — rather than federal ones — and Yates’ memo does not apply to any of those, even the ones that are privately run. Nor does it apply to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Marshals Service detainees, who are technically in the federal system but not under the purview of the federal Bureau of Prisons. The directive is instead limited to the 13 privately run facilities, housing a little more than 22,000 inmates, in the federal Bureau of Prisons system. The facilities were meant mainly to house inmates who are mostly low security, “criminal alien” men with 90 months or less time remaining on their sentences, according to a recent Department of Justice Inspector General report. Yates said the Justice Department would review the contracts for those facilities as they come up for renewal, as all will do in the next five years. She said they would then be reduced or allowed to expire, though none would be terminated prematurely”.

Crucially the piece notes “the memo could spark broader change in the prison system. “This is a huge deal. It is historic and groundbreaking,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “For the last 35 years, the use of private prisons in this country has crept ever upward, and this is a startling and major reversal of that trend, and one that we hope will be followed by others.” The Justice Department’s inspector general last week released a critical report concluding that privately operated facilities incurred more safety and security incidents than those run by the federal Bureau of Prisons. The private facilities, for example, had higher rates of assaults — both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff — and had eight times as many contraband cellphones confiscated each year on average, according to the report”.

It adds later that “The problems at private facilities were hardly a secret, and Yates said Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons officials had been talking for months about discontinuing their use. Mother Jones recently published a 35,000-word exposé detailing a reporter’s undercover work as a private prison guard in Louisiana — a piece that found serious deficiencies. The Nation magazine wrote earlier this year about deaths under questionable circumstances in privately operated facilities. It is possible the directive could face resistance from those companies that will be affected. In a statement Thursday, Jonathan Burns, a spokesman for Corrections Corporation of America, criticized the Inspector General’s report, saying it had “significant flaws.”

It goes on to mention “Yates wrote that the bureau also would amend a solicitation for a 10,800-bed contract to one for a maximum 3,600-bed contract. That, Yates wrote, would allow the Bureau of Prisons over the next year to discontinue housing inmates in at least three private prisons, and by May 1, 2017, the total private prison population would stand at less than 14,200 inmates. She said it was “hard to know precisely” when all the privately run facilities would no longer have federal inmates, though she noted that 14,200 was less than half the inmates they held at their apex three years ago, a figure she said indicated the department was “well on our way to ultimately eliminating the use of private prisons entirely.” “We have to be realistic about the time it will take, but that really depends on the continuing decline of the federal prison population, and that’s really hard to accurately predict,” Yates said. According to the inspector general’s report, private prisons housed roughly 22,660 federal inmates as of December 2015, though Bureau of Prisons website indicates the total is now closer to 22,100. That represents about 12 percent of the Bureau of Prisons total inmate population, according to the report”.

 

“A double-digit lead over Donald Trump”

09/09/2016

Hillary Clinton hit her stride after the Democratic National Convention, riding to a double-digit lead over Donald Trump in some national and swing-state polls — her highest of the year. As of today, though, Americans’ views of her just hit a record low. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 41 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Clinton, while 56 percent have an unfavourable one. That’s the worst image Clinton has had in her quarter-century in national public life. Her previous low favourable rating this year was in July, when it was 42 percent, lower than any mark in historical Post-ABC polls except a few points in the 1990s when a large share of the public had no opinion of her. Her previous high for unfavorable views was in June, when 55 percent disliked Clinton.

Chamberlain, Timothy and May

24/08/2016

A piece from the Economist examines Threasa mays new chief of staff, “ON JULY 7th 1906 Joseph Chamberlain led an 80-car rally to celebrate his 70th birthday. Thousands of Brummies lined its 17-mile route. “Our Joe” had fought for Birmingham’s workers as mayor and, on the national stage, had advocated tariffs protecting its industries. The city was a palimpsest of his achievements: its schools for the poor, its magnificent parks, its grand civic buildings, its whirring workshops and clanking factories full of confident, well-fed workers. Still, eyebrows twitched when, in a speech almost precisely 110 years later, Theresa May cited him as an example. She was campaigning for the Tory leadership and, though he had ditched the Liberal Party over its tolerance for Irish autonomy, Chamberlain had never been a Tory. That the woman who today runs Britain praised him had everything to do with her closest adviser: Nick Timothy. He is one of the most interesting figures in her government. The son of a steelworker and a school secretary, he venerates Chamberlain’s interventionism and wrote a biography of the man. He even wears a long Victorian beard”.

The article goes on, “Those close to Mrs May differ on how much Mr Timothy influences her, but only between “quite a lot” and “enormously”. Like her he is a cricket fanatic (he lives a big six away from the Oval ground). He shares the post of Downing Street chief-of-staff with Fiona Hill. For most of their boss’s spell as home secretary this duo was her praetorian guard: bossing around civil servants, telling David Cameron’s aides to mind their own business and generally exhibiting an unflinchingly protective loyalty to her”.

Interestingly it adds, “Admirers credit this with Mrs May’s unusually long (six-year) stint in the job. Critics fret that the control freakery will now constipate Whitehall: “You couldn’t blow your nose without Nick or Fi knowing,” recalls one former colleague. It is not an exaggeration to discern a direct line between Mr Timothy’s upbringing and Mrs May’s vision. He provides a pragmatic prime minister with an idealistic edge. His credo is captured in an article he wrote in March (one of a series for ConservativeHome, a Tory-aligned website) about “modernisation”. Here a bit of history helps. Back in the early 2000s, when the Conservatives were in the doldrums and the reactionary old farts were doing battle against modernisers, Mr Timothy was with the modernisers. But with David Cameron’s rise to the leadership in 2005, the debate shifted to what modernisation should mean. There was “Easterhouse modernisation”, a focus on the poorest, named after a Glasgow housing estate. There was “Soho modernisation”, an urban social liberalism named after a trendy part of London. But Mr Timothy reckoned a third leg of the stool was missing: “Erdington modernisation”, a concentration on the struggling, patriotic working-class named after the industrial suburb of Birmingham where he grew up”.

The writer goes on to note how “His writings expatiate on the idea. At home: more intervention in the economy, a clamp on immigration, less greenery, tough measures against crime, more religious schools and selective education rewarding poor, bright kids. Abroad: closer links with the Commonwealth—akin to Chamberlain’s proposed imperial economic union—and looser ties to Europe, which features in Mr Timothy’s output only as a source of bad public policies, corrupt leadership and justifications for Brexit. It also means a cooling of Britain’s links to both America, to which he reckons Tony Blair was too close, and China, to which he believes Mr Cameron was too craven. Overall it means a government keener to confront foreigners, vested interests and especially the sort of polenta-munching elites who share each other’s globalising enthusiasms, holiday villas and platforms at Davos”.

It adds “May’s premiership is not a month old. But already it bears Mr Timothy’s stamp. Britain has lost a department dedicated to climate change and gained one devoted to “industrial policy”. She has sidelined the “Northern Powerhouse” programme to integrate the big northern cities and committed to reining in foreign takeovers. A Chinese bid to finance Hinkley Point, a nuclear power station, has been put on hold. The new prime minister’s speech to the Tory conference in October (in Birmingham, as it happens) should be a Chamberlainite symphony. Renewal, a think-tank founded in 2013 to promote working-class Toryism, is emerging as the new regime’s brains trust. Mr Timothy’s analysis of his party—that it can appear not to “give a toss about ordinary people”—is accurate. The Cameroons’ brand of modernisation owed too much to noblesse oblige, to a vision of society that treated the welfare state as the institutional equivalent of giving one’s gardener a Christmas bonus. Mrs May’s authoritative mien and middle-class roots, combined with Mr Timothy’s instinct for working-class priorities, makes her party newly formidable, propelling it into landslide territory (an early election is surely not off the cards). Moreover, she and he have a point. Britain is too unequal. The past years have been brutal to the sorts of left-behind places that have been denied the boom enjoyed by the big cities”.

It ends “Still, the new Chamberlainites have questions to answer. Britain has found confidence and relative prosperity as a linchpin of globalisation. It is good at the sort of service industries that demand flexible labour markets, urban clusters, worldly universities and fast-moving capital: think not just the City of London but successful provincial centres like Swindon, Milton Keynes and Manchester. Where manufacturing survives, it is often thanks to the country’s openness to foreign investors. All this has bypassed some towns. But for decades Britain has sought to make the most of its strengths while helping those who have lost out to adapt or move. Mrs May and Mr Timothy seem to reckon those strengths—and globalisation itself—are much more malleable than their predecessors have realised. The burden of evidence is on them”.

“Recaptured four villages from Islamic State”

20/08/2016

Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces have recaptured four villages from Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) group near its stronghold of Mosul, reports say. The offensive started at 5:30am local time from various fronts and so far. Iraqi forces managed to retake the villages of Tal Hamid, Qarqasha, Abzakh and Qura Takh. Clashes are still ongoing in a fifth village, Sateeh. The advance is part of a wider security operation to retake Iraq’s second largest city, which has been under the control of ISIL, also known as ISIS, since 2014.  ISIL fighters tried to slow down the offensive with two suicide car bombs near the village of Sateeh, but the Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers leading the offensive blew up the car before they reached them. ISIL fighters are now burning tyres near their positions in an attempt to cover themselves from US-led coalition aircraft, Kurdish local television reported. Peshmerga engineering teams are defusing bombs planted by ISIL in the four liberated villages. The battle for Mosul, ISIL’s de facto capital in Iraq and the largest city anywhere in its self-proclaimed caliphate, is expected later this year, but plans have not been finalised, officials and diplomats in Baghdad have said. Army, police and special forces are expected to participate, with air support from a US-led coalition.

“Pensioners have preserved their privileges”

20/08/2016

A piece in Foreign Affairs discusses the need to cut pensions in Europe, “Since the outbreak of the European debt crisis, Greek retirees have become a scapegoat for the continent’s financial and political woes. International creditors were infuriated by the lavish Greek pension system, which allowed public employees to retire as early as the age of 50, and demanded radical overhauls in exchange for bailout funds. They got what they asked for; today, pensions in Greece are 50 percent lower than in 2010. As a result, about 45 percent of Greek pensioners receive monthly checks below the official poverty threshold. Yet the harshness displayed toward Greek retirees is unusual by European standards. The continent’s decision-making process is so heavily tilted in favour of the elderly that pensioners have preserved their privileges even in the face of stagnating growth, crumbling public finances, and skyrocketing youth unemployment. But as the young are pushed to the margins of society, Europe’s gerontocracy is becoming not only financially unsustainable but morally unbearable. Striking a balance between the conflicting interests of the old and the young is therefore necessary to ward off explosive intergenerational tensions”.

The piece goes on to note “Pensioners are a nearly unstoppable force in European politics. With a demographic weight of 130 million people—roughly a quarter of the EU population—they can alter the outcome of any election. But their influence is not just a function of their numbers. Retirees are also one of the most politically active groups in Europe. The Brexit referendum is a case in point. Although the vote was about the future of the United Kingdom, only 36 percent of Britons aged 18 to 24 showed up to the ballot box, as opposed to 83 percent of those over 65. Young people are overwhelmingly pro-European, and if more of them had voted, Britain would not be a departing member of the European Union. (Some millennials are now accusing their parents, not their peers, of having deprived them of a bright future.) All over Europe, political outcomes show a similar bias toward the preferences of the old. In 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rewarded her seniors with several pension giveaways for having supported her third reelection. British Prime Minister David Cameron promised during his reelection campaign to protect the entitlements of retirees, who, in his own words, “made this [the United Kingdom] the great country it is today.” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is currently toying with a similar retreat on pension reform, and French President François Hollande has barely attempted to tackle a pension deficit that is set to reach $23 billion in 2020″.

He correctly adds that “Seniors have also been spared from the effects of the financial crisis. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the austerity measures adopted by Cameron’s first cabinet reduced the income of the average household by about $750, while cutting the earnings of the average two-pensioner family by just $36. Even the reforms adopted between 2010 and 2014 mostly affected the entitlements of future pensioners. Italy raised the retirement age, Spain linked future entitlements to life expectancy, and France increased contributions paid by firms and workers. All shielded the pensions of those already retired. This is a familiar pattern for Europe: when unrealistic retirement promises conflict with the reality of an aging continent, politicians shift the burden onto the next generation”.

He posits that “In addition to political power, pensioners control a disproportionate amount of wealth. European governments spend, on average, 15 percent of their GDP on pensions, but only seven percent on education and family policies. The income of the median European retiree is as high as that of the median active worker, and in some countries is even higher. Finally, pensioners are less likely than the rest of the population to be at risk of poverty or social exclusion. This wasn’t always the case: in the 1960s, Britons aged 65 to 70 were in the bottom 25 percent of the country’s income distribution; now they are in the top 40 percent”.

The article contends that ” The intergenerational fault lines exposed by Brexit testify to growing disaffection with this system. Organizations such as the Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations and the Intergenerational Foundation proliferate across the continent. Europe’s pay-as-you-go pension schemes are based on a promise between generations: today’s workers fund their parents’ pensions, while expecting their offspring to fund their own in turn. The system is vulnerable: it prospers only as long as each generation of workers expects to be at least as well off as the generation of pensioners it pays for. But this is no longer the case, and the temptation to stop contributing to a broken financial scheme is mounting. If enough people start questioning the system, it could implode. To avoid this outcome, European governments should strike a balance between three often incompatible principles: financial sustainability, intergenerational solidarity, and intergenerational fairness. Call it a retirement trilemma.  The principle of financial stability calls for a radical revision of the privileges enjoyed by current pensioners. Benefits should be reduced, and the retirement age should be raised to levels consistent with ongoing increases in life expectancy. This would align Europe’s pension systems with the recommendations of the European Commission and International Monetary Fund, and would be an important step toward sustainability. As the Greek crisis demonstrated, slashing pensions and postponing retirement may replace financial problems with a social catastrophe. That’s why, according to the principle of intergenerational solidarity, governments should allow for some degree of flexibility. Pensions should not just be proportional to lifetime contributions but should also be adequate to guarantee a decent lifestyle. In order to make the system financially sustainable, governments could levy a solidarity tax on the highest incomes and redistribute the proceeds among the poorest pensioners. Likewise, since even the most skilled workers usually lack the skills to keep up with disruptive technological change, workers hurt by automation should be allowed to retire early if necessary. But in exchange for being removed from a tough job market, they should give something back”.

He goes on to argue that “This is linked to the third principle, intergenerational fairness. At a time of stagnating growth and shrinking work forces, idle retirement is something advanced economies can no longer afford. Old people, especially those who retire early, should therefore actively contribute to the well-being of their societies. As long as pensioners are in good health, their benefits should become conditional on work in public institutions. This work should involve the skills acquired throughout retirees’ careers: retired teachers could volunteer in schools; retired doctors could volunteer in hospitals. Lord Richard, the former head of the British Benefits Agency, was criticized for suggesting something similar in 2012, but these active retirement policies would relieve distressed public finances, increase the self-esteem of the old, and make the pension system more acceptable to the young”.

He ends “Finally, in order for any of these reforms to be possible, it will be necessary to dilute the political power of the older generation. Proposed measures include lowering the voting age to 16, setting the minimum candidacy age at 18, and capping candidacy age at 65. To increase the low turnout rates of young voters, governments should invest in voter education programs through schools and media campaigns. And referenda on nation-defining issues like leaving the European Union should require a supermajority—especially in countries where the elderly represent the majority of the electorate. Europe needs some fresh thinking to address the economic and political costs associated with its aging population. Governments should opt for solutions that promote cooperation between generations and avoid short-sighted electoral temptations. Only then can they solve the retirement trilemma”.

Aleppo siege over

16/08/2016

A Syrian military academy in the heart of Aleppo made for a bold, even reckless target for opposition forces trying to break a devastating siege, but the rebels gambled on a double advantage: surprise and suicide bombers. Soon the rebels were sharing pictures of abandoned artillery and a smashed portrait of President Bashar al-Assad on Twitter, flaunted as triumphant proof that the army was routed and opposition forces were within a few hundred metres of their besieged comrades. Hours later, the people of east Aleppo were dancing in the street, as rebels and activists confirmed that the month-long siege of the area had been broken. The fate of the opposition-held city was back in play. “Morale is very high now,” said activist and poet Mahmoud Rashwani, who had been living largely underground to avoid airstrikes, eking out his supplies of canned food.  The victory is a fragile one. The area is still a conflict zone and it may be some time before a secure corridor for food and medical supplies can be set up, and the regime has called in reinforcements.

“Obama will send 560 more troops to Iraq”

17/07/2016

President Obama will send 560 more troops to Iraq to help retake Mosul, the largest city still controlled by the Islamic State, a deployment intended to capitalize on recent battlefield gains that also illustrates the obstacles that Mr. Obama has faced in trying to wind down America’s wars.  The additional troops, announced here on Monday by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, are the latest escalation of the American military role in Iraq by Mr. Obama, who withdrew the last American soldiers from Iraq at the end of 2011. He began sending them back three years later after Islamic State fighters swept into the country from Syria. Many of the newly deployed troops will be based at an airfield 40 miles south of Mosul that was reclaimed by Iraqi soldiers on Saturday. Administration officials said the airfield would be critical to a successful military operation because the United States could use it as a staging area to provide logistical support to Iraqi forces as they try to retake Mosul”.

“Quietly stalking some of China’s man-made islands”

09/07/2016

U.S. Navy destroyers have been quietly stalking some of China’s man-made islands and claims in recent weeks ahead of a ruling on contested claims in the South China Sea. Over the past two weeks, the destroyers Stethem, Spruance and Momsen have all patrolled near Chinese-claimed features at Scarborough Shoal and in the Spratly Islands, according to two defense officials. “We have been regularly patrolling within the 14 to 20 nautical mile range of these features,” one official said, who asked for anonymity to discuss diplomatically-sensitive operations. The distance is important because if the ships patrolled within 12 miles, the Navy would handle it as a freedom of navigation operation that asserts U.S. rights to freely operate in waters claimed by other countries.

“Deter any attempts to destabilize the region”

27/06/2016

The U.S. Navy chief said on Monday he hoped the deployment of two aircraft carriers on a training mission in East Asia would deter any attempts to destabilize the region, where military tensions have risen amid China’s growing assertiveness. The U.S. carriers John C. Stennis and Ronald Reagan began joint operations in seas east of the Philippines at the weekend in a show of strength ahead of an international court ruling expected soon on China’s expansive territorial claims in the contested South China Sea. Admiral John Richardson, the chief of U.S. Naval Operations, told a Washington think tank it was not often the United States had two carrier strike groups in the same waters and it was a sign of U.S. commitment to regional security”.

 

“Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters has begun a campaign to expel Islamic State”

03/06/2016

A US-backed alliance of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters has begun a campaign to expel Islamic State (IS) militants from land north of Raqqa. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is believed to have deployed about 30,000 fighters. US-led coalition warplanes will support the offensive and Russia has also given its backing. The SDF did not mention any plan to take Raqqa, the de facto capital of the “caliphate” proclaimed by IS in 2014. The alliance, which is dominated by the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) militia, has emerged as a key ally of the US-led coalition over the past two years, leading the fight against IS on the ground in northern Syria”.

Fanning confirmed as Army secretary

03/06/2016

The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Eric Fanning, the White House nominee to be the next secretary of the Army, making him the first openly gay man to hold an armed service’s top civilian position. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., relinquished an eight-month hold he said was unrelated to Fanning’s qualifications or his sexuality. Roberts sought  assurances from the Obama administration that detainees at the military’s Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison would not be relocated to Kansas, and he announced on the Senate floor Tuesday he received them”.

“Killed Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban”

30/05/2016

An American drone strike in a restive province of Pakistan killed Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, the White House confirmed on Monday. Calling the death “an important milestone,” President Obama said in a statement, released just as he was meeting with top officials in Vietnam, that the United States had “removed the leader of an organization that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and coalition forces.” “Mansour rejected efforts by the Afghan government to seriously engage in peace talks and end the violence that has taken the lives of countless innocent Afghan men, women and children,” Mr. Obama continued in the statement. “The Taliban should seize the opportunity to pursue the only real path for ending this long conflict — joining the Afghan government in a reconciliation process that leads to lasting peace and stability.” At a news conference with President Tran Dai Quang of Vietnam, Mr. Obama said that targeting Mullah Mansour did not represent a shift in strategy for the United States mission in Afghanistan.

TTIP, bad for Europe and America

24/05/2016

An excellent piece by Hans Kundami argues that the TTIP is bad for both the EU and America, “For the last few years, almost everyone invested in Europe’s relationship with the United States, and vice versa, has become fixated on the free trade agreement known as TTIP. (For the uninitiated, that’s the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.) The deal, a counterpart to the now-concluded but not yet fully ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) between the United States and 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific, aims to further integrate the European and U.S. economies, which together account for around half of the world’s GDP and nearly a third of world trade flows. Supporters of the project in Germany, Britain, and the United States often give the impression that the West’s entire future — the very concept of the West — hangs on its success”.

Crucially he argues “In truth, TTIP is just as likely to cause transatlantic friction as demonstrate transatlantic unity, as illustrated by media coverage in Europe of the leak by Greenpeace of papers from the treaty negotiations. Amid the fallout from the leaks, TTIP is as likely to discredit the idea of the West as revitalise it. Supporters of the project see it as a way to “renew and confirm” the transatlantic relationship, in the words of European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, the lead negotiator on the European side. Some, including former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, have even referred to TTIP as an “Economic NATO”: a complement to the military alliance that guarantees the security of its members. Thus, Atlanticists — those who believe in the importance of the relationship between Europe and the United States — have largely bought the argument that TTIP is essential in order to maintain its relevance in the 21st century. Meanwhile, the treaty’s critics generally see the idea of “the West”as outdated, incoherent, or offensive. Thus, to be pro-Western has, in recent years, increasingly come to mean favouring TTIP. It is possible, however, to be a pro-Western sceptic of TTIP — especially if one believes, as I do, that the idea of the West should be defined by the common values, not just the common interests, of Europe and the United States”.

He continues “TTIP’s problems start with the hardly overwhelming case for its passage. In the early going, supporters claimed it would generate growth and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2013, the European Commission, for example, claimed that an ambitious deal could produce boost growth in Europe by €120 billion, and in the United States by €95 billion. But independent research done since then by various think tanks has concluded that the macroeconomic effects of TTIP would be lower than these claims suggested. Most serious studies, in fact, suggest it could increase the size of the European economy by between 0.1 and 0.5 percent of GDP over a 10-year period — in other words, by a modest to negligible degree. Many of the other pro-TPP arguments do not apply to TTIP either. For example, Adam Posen has argued that TPP could strengthen the democratic and market-based development of Asian economies, but EU member states are already democracies with market economies, so the same argument does not extend to TTIP. Similarly, one cannot claim that TTIP will raise environmental or labour standards in Europe as TPP could in Asia — what Europeans fear, in fact, is that their high standards will be lowered by the treaty. One can also hardly claim that an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism — a system of tribunals to adjudicate on disputes between companies and states — is needed to protect U.S. companies from expropriation in Europe as one could argue in the case of Asia. (ISDS is one of the most controversial aspects of TTIP in Europe, where citizens worry that the tribunals lack transparency and force governments to make concessions to corporations.) Moreover, while the upside of TTIP is questionable, there is a downside that should worry Atlanticists”.

He points out that “Fears about TTIP, whether rational or irrational, are already fueling anti-Americanism in Europe — particularly in Germany, where there is a massive “Stop TTIP” movement. Critics say the so-called TTIP papers have confirmed their worst fears about genetically modified food and a lowering of consumer protection standards in Europe are likely to further strengthen opposition. In particular, the papers showed U.S. negotiators putting their European counterparts under pressure to ease restrictions on genetically modified food in exchange for a reduction in barriers to the export of European cars — hardly surprising, but alarming to Europeans who distrust GMOs. According to a new poll, 70 percent of Germans oppose TTIP. If American and European negotiators reach the ambitious, comprehensive agreement they insist they want — which would include ISDS — this could be just the beginning of the transatlantic tensions to come”.

Interestingly he argues that “Europeans are likely to blame Americans for any lowering of consumer, health, and environmental standards, particularly in sensitive areas such as food safety. Americans, in turn, are likely to blame Europeans if they experience job losses in the automotive sector, and others, as a result of increased competition from Europe, regardless of the size of the overall boost to the economy on both sides of the Atlantic. In short, there is a real risk that TTIP will backfire and actually increase animosity between Europe and the United States”.

He goes on to argue that “Given the risk that it may prove impossible to pass TTIP, it is a mistake for its supporters to suggest it is essential to the future of the West. As the economic case for TTIP has failed to convince people, its supporters have increasingly sought to make a “strategic” case for it by invoking the concept of the West in this way. Although it is true that the transatlantic relationship needs to be reinvented, and that Europe and the United States must deepen their ties, a trade agreement is the wrong vehicle for this project. The danger of forcing TTIP to carry this weight stems from the fact that it redefines the concept of the West in terms of the economic interests of the EU and the United States. At a time when power is shifting from west to east, Europe and the United States will increasingly need to cooperate with other like-minded states, especially “global swing states” like Brazil and India. In this context, the West cannot stand for the particular, exclusive economic interests of Europe and the United States. Rather, it must stand for universal, inclusive values — above all, democracy – and not simply be measured by prosperity”.

He concludes “Those who try to make a strategic case for TTIP often insist it is about values because it will allow the West to “set the rules for the 21st century.” It is not clear that other countries — those in Asia, for example — will really follow the rules set by Europe and the United States in TTIP (as opposed to the different rules in TPP). But even if they do, it will be only in limited areas like phytosanitary standards. This is surely not so much “revitalizing” the West, as trivializing it. The biggest threats to the West in the 21st century come from authoritarian and revisionist powers. It is difficult to see how TTIP will be of much help in responding to those threats (though TPP may be). Supporters of TTIP should take a step back and think more carefully about the West, as both a geographic and a moral concept. In order to reach out to rising powers that are not part of the West in a geographic sense, Americans and Europeans need to emphasize the moral definition of the alliance and de-emphasise its geographic definition. But this is the exact opposite of what those who invoke the West in order to make the case for TTIP are doing. By identifying the West with the economic interests of Europe and the United States, they are as likely to discredit it as “revitalize” it”.

“As part of a cabinet reshuffle aimed at fighting corruption”

15/04/2016

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi named Nizar Salem al-Numan as a candidate for the key post of oil minister on Thursday as part of a cabinet reshuffle aimed at fighting corruption, state television said citing its correspondent. Abadi also named prominent Shi’ite politician Ali Allawi for the post of finance minister and tagged Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, a relative of Iraq’s king deposed in 1958, for foreign minister, state TV added. Abadi presented his proposals to parliament for a technocrat government in the face of resistance from politicians who fear their entrenched interests could be hurt. He merged several portfolios and presented a list of 16 ministers while keeping the current defence and interior ministers, state television said earlier. The established political parties fear a reshuffle could weaken patronage networks that have sustained their wealth and influence for more than a decade”.

An empire of tax dodgers, drug dealers, and embargo breachers

07/04/2016

A piece in Foreign Policy notes the UK’s “empire of tax evasion” after the release of the Panama Papers, “There is a temptation, when looking at the astonishing “Panama Papers,” to start by searching for politicians from your own country who are implicated. If you are British and approach the documents in this way, you’ll find slim pickings in the information released so far. Among the many thousands of names listed in the leak as possibly implicated in dodgy tax deals, there can’t be any appearance less surprising than that of Baroness Pamela Sharples, the widow of the former governor of Bermuda. That is, until you get to Lord Ashcroft — billionaire, Belizean national, and former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party — who would have been more remarkable if he had been absent. Then there’s Michael Mates, a former Tory MP, who stood down in 2010 amid another business scandal. And David Cameron’s late father, but again — hardly a surprise. To engage in this exercise, however, is to largely miss the point: not just the point of this astonishing leak, but the point of the whole United Kingdom. Because it’s hard not to look at the whole affair and see Britain right at the core of it. Or, at least, the British state, which one might argue is a very different entity”.

Crucially he writes that “There are, you see, a few important facts we are rarely told about the British state. Like, for instance, the fact that it governs more land in the Southern Hemisphere than the Northern; more penguins than any other; that there are 18 legislatures under Westminster’s auspices; and that these include the governments that oversee by far the most important network of tax havens in the world. With the City of London at its center, Britain’s network of refuges from taxes, regulations, and other pesky laws stretches first to the crown dependencies — the Isle of Man, Guernsey, and Jersey — and then into the 14 British overseas territories: places like the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands. From there, this web extends to places like Hong Kong, not under British rule since 1997 but, according to author Nicholas Shaxson, still feeding “billions in business to the City.””

The piece goes on to mention “The overseas territories — the last vestiges of the old empire — each have slightly different political structures, but all of them have a governor figure, appointed by the British government. All of them hand control of their foreign policy over to Westminster, and all of them depend on the motherland for military protection: The Falklands War is an obvious example, but let’s not forget that when Tony Blair famously claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction capable of reaching British military targets within 45 minutes, he was referring not to London, but to Akrotiri and Dhekelia, Britain’s military bases and overseas territory on Cyprus. Akrotiri and Dhekelia still serve a strategic purpose, which make them the exception; most of the overseas territories have evolved into, essentially, parking lots for the wealth of the .01 percent. It’s worth pointing out that more than half of the companies listed in the leaked Mossack Fonseca documents are registered in the U.K. or its overseas territories — and they’re not based in Birmingham”.

He does argue that these territories are now part of a “financial empire”, he then correctly writes that “Want to understand how things on the edges got so bad? Look to the center: The City of London itself is even older than the empire. The 1.12 square miles that make up London’s financial center have had their own constitutional arrangements for a millennium. (As Shaxson notes, it’s said that William the Conqueror allowed the City to keep its “ancient rights” in 1067, as he trashed the rest of the country.) Today, those square miles are governed by the City of London Corporation, whose representatives are elected by the businesses that operate there, and they have an unelected representative who sits in Parliament, as well as their own police force, which has been remarkably unsuccessful in policing British banks. Because having its own built-in constitutional protections wasn’t sufficient, in 2010, the City paid for more than half of the Conservative Party’s election campaign, ensuring Cameron’s narrow victory (along with the aforementioned Lord Ashcroft) and that any significant new regulations on finance after the 2008 crisis would be politically impossible. To be sure, however, the Labour Party didn’t do anything to regulate the city in the previous 13 years when it was in power — winning it over with a famous “prawn cocktail offensive” that was a key part of its strategy to get into No. 10 Downing St. in the first place. All of this goes a little way to explaining why Britain has, for some time now, been considered the global capital for criminal money laundering among those in the know. Perhaps, with the release of the Panama Papers, the last sheen of respectability will finally be stripped away”.

He rightly notes the obsession with money and money laundering has led to pushing up the price of the pound making exports more unaffordable and driving up the cost of housing in the South East.

He ends “It was not so long ago — within my grandparents’ lifetime — that Britain was at the center of the biggest empire in human history. Many observers have considered the present day, understandably, as the post-imperial era, placing the end date of empire somewhere around the time Britain withdrew from South Asia. But perhaps we got ahead of ourselves — perhaps we’re only just now seeing the final stages, the physical empire replaced with a hidden financial one. And perhaps the Panama Papers will be seen as the moment when this empire, too, finally began to come unstuck”.

Sadr and Sistani, tackle Iraqi corruption

05/04/2016

With Iraq’s politicians tainted by corruption and the army’s standing hurt by battlefield defeats, two Shi’ite clerics have re-emerged as leaders in matters of state. In their different ways, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraq’s two most influential Shi’ite leaders, are pressuring Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to tackle graft at the heart of Iraq’s government. The timing of their intervention is delicate. If Abadi fails to satisfy Sistani and Sadr by delivering long-promised anti-corruption measures, his government may be weakened just as Iraqi forces are gearing up to fight for the largest city under Islamic State control – Mosul. In recent weeks both clerics have increased pressure on Abadi. Sistani signaled his displeasure in January by saying his voice had “become sore” with repeating his calls for reforms. On Feb. 5, he said he would no longer deliver weekly sermons about political affairs, and he has been only addressing religious matters since. Sadr followed up by escalating street protests”.

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”.

“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”.

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.

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

23/02/2016

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

“Crossfire between Pope Francis and Donald Trump”

19/02/2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05/02/2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31/01/2016

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

 

 

 

More French airstrikes against ISIS

29/01/2016

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

Rouhani wants free elections

23/01/2016

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

“Scandinavia’s best lesson”

30/12/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germany joins the fight against ISIS

18/12/2015

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

Obama tries to close Gitmo unilaterally

10/12/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Osborne, the new Victorian

01/12/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afghanistan joins the WTO

19/11/2015

Afghanistan on November 11 agreed to terms for joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) at a meeting with representatives from the trade body’s existing 161 members. A WTO official who attended the meeting in Geneva told Reuters that trade ministers will confirm the terms of Afghanistan’s accession during a meeting in Nairobi in December. Afghanistan would become a member of the WTO 30 days after it ratifies the deal”.

“Patrols within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands”

15/11/2015

The U.S. Navy plans to conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands in the South China Sea about twice a quarter to remind China and other countries about U.S. rights under international law, a U.S. defense official said on Monday. “We’re going to come down to about twice a quarter or a little more than that,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about Navy operational plans. “That’s the right amount to make it regular but not a constant poke in the eye. It meets the intent to regularly exercise our rights under international law and remind the Chinese and others about our view,” the official said. U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes on Monday said there would be more demonstrations of the U.S. military’s commitment to the right to freely navigate in the region”.

 

US attack al-Qaeda Afghan bases

13/11/2015

The U.S. military official in charge of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan says U.S. forces have attacked what are believed to be the largest al-Qaida training camps found in the course of the 14-year Afghan war. Army General John Campbell told The Washington Post in a report published Friday that some 160 al-Qaida operatives were reported killed in the attack, which involved dozens of American airstrikes and 200 Special Operations forces. He said the operation that took place on or around October 11 hit training areas that covered an area of 80 square kilometers near Afghanistan’s southern border with Pakistan. The facilities are believed to have existed for as long as a year. The operation took place just days before U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through the greater part of 2016 and some 5,500 troops in the area into 2017″.

Synod winners and losers

05/11/2015

John Allen writes about the winners and losers of the recently concluded Synod on the Family.

He opens “The most significant and contested gathering of Roman Catholic bishops in the past 50 years formally ended on Sunday after three weeks of debate and dispute, but the arguments over who “won” and who “lost” are only beginning. The synod of 270 cardinals and bishops from around the world was the second in a year called by Pope Francis to address how and whether Catholicism could adapt its teachings to the changing realities of modern family life. Traditionalists had taken a hard line against any openings, especially after last October’s meetingseemed to point toward possible reforms. While the delegates made hundreds of suggestions on a host of issues, two took center stage, in part because they represented a barometer for the whole question of change: Could the Church be more welcoming to gays, and was there a way divorced and remarried Catholics could receive Communion without an annulment? The synod was never going to provide definitive answers; it is only an advisory body to the pope and cannot legislate or bar changes in Church policies”.

He goes on to mention “Yet some on the right saw the lack of an explicit recommendation to allow divorced and remarried Catholics a pathway to Communion as evidence that “conservatives basically ‘won’ this synod,” as Damian Thompson wrote in The Spectator. “…divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can’t receive the sacrament and that’s that,” Thompson wrote. Similarly, The Wall Street Journal’s report called the document passed Saturday evening “an embarrassing defeat” because it did not specifically authorize the pope to approve Communion for the remarried and for his “liberalizing agenda.”

The lack of almost any opening to gays and lesbians was certainly a setback for progressives who had been cheered last fall that so many top churchmen had used unprecedented language in speaking in positive terms about gays and same-sex couples.

But the broader reality is that conservatives, as many of them acknowledged, did not get what they wanted or needed at this synod, and their prospects going forward look even dimmer.

Here’s why:

1. Divorced and remarried Catholics made some gains.

The final report from the synod contained key phrases about individual Catholics in “irregular” situations — such as being remarried without an annulment — using the “internal forum” of their conscience, in consultation with a pastor, to consider their status in the Church.

For decades, the Vatican had effectively barred priests and penitents from using the “internal forum” in the remarriage context for fear it would be abused.

Also, the final document doesn’t mention Communion explicitly, but it was clear — and numerous Church officials confirmed privately — that the language refers to the sacraments and, most important, it gives Francis an opening to take further action, which Church officials expect him to do.

Moreover, if the three paragraphs (out of 94) in the final document dealing with the remarried were not problematic, why did so many bishops speak out so strongly against them in the final closed-door session before the vote? And why did those paragraphs get the fewest “yes” votes of all — in one case, just one vote above the necessary two-thirds threshold for official passage?

2. Silence on gays is preferable to harsh words.

The absence of any breakthrough language on gays was a tactical retreat by progressives who saw that they did not have the support in the synod to get close to a two-thirds threshold.

Even getting close to half would have been hard if not impossible, and would have revealed the deep divisions in the synod on the issue and left the pontiff with an unpalatable option of choosing one side or the other — those who spoke warmly about gay couples and others, such as African Cardinal Robert Sarah, who used harsh and almost apocalyptic language about gays and lesbians.

“It was better to leave the question open for further study and reflection than blocking it with bad paragraph or bad text,” Belgian Bishop Johan Bonny, a point man for those favoring change, told reporters. “That is a point for next time.”

Bonny was in the same small language group as Sarah, for example, and Bonny and others in that group said sentiment against homosexuals was so strong that “there was no way of discussing it in a peaceful way.”

Time may be on the side of those seeking a Church that is more welcoming to gays, even if it will never endorse gay marriage.

While many Africans stood out for their blasts at homosexuality, other African churchmen said that their views were developing on this issue and were catching up with the more accepting attitudes in the West.

Conservatives, on the other hand, painted themselves into a corner at the synod by arguing that the only satisfactory outcome was for the synod to reiterate current Church teachings and practices and bar any future flexibility. That didn’t happen, and they are left trying to explain.

3. The synod showed that the Church can, and has, changed.

That change can seem obvious when viewed from the perspective of history, but it’s been a neuralgic point for those who fear that admitting to any evolution can lead to a slippery slope. Francis hammered home the need to change in his forceful closing address to the synod Saturday, in which he declared that “the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit,” and he called on the Church to adapt to different cultures and conditions.

“A faith that does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oases, creates other deserts,” as he said in his closing homily at Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday.

Many cardinals and bishops welcomed what they said was an end to a judgmental Church and the start of a more pastoral Church that considers people first and rules second.

But change is never easy for the Catholic hierarchy.

“We are discombobulated. Some defend the past, others dream of a different future,” Cardinal Francesco Montenegro of Sicily, a strong supporter of the pope, said in explaining the reactions of some of his brother bishops. “The fact that there have been so many reactions is a sign that what he is proposing is something new and powerful.”

4. The synod is dead. Long live the synod.

This synod ended, but synodality — the ongoing process of dialogue, discernment, collaboration, and collegiality that leads to new approaches and possibly even doctrinal shifts — isn’t over.

Francis made that clear in what was viewed as a landmark talk during the synod to mark 50 years since these meetings were begun after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). But synods had become routine, almost “rubber-stamp” affairs. No longer.

The pope said that the “Church and synod are synonymous,” and that the journey of discernment is ongoing. Church leaders were free to speak their mind, whereas in past years they would have been silenced. Once the flock hears pastors disagreeing and speaking openly about, for example, the value of families led by gay couples or single parents, it’s hard to “unring” the bell.

“The real takeaway from this synod is that Pope Francis has changed the way the Church goes about reflecting on her pastoral ministry. That’s no small thing,” Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl said on Sunday. “You had all this open discussion about issues that the Church is struggling with. You’re not going to be able to close that door in the future.”

That’s not to say that the future won’t be messy at times, and anxiety-producing, especially for traditionalists and for those who prefer a neat and tidy Church.

5. It’s Francis’ turn now.

As long as Francis is the pope, he makes the final call, and he is expected to take the suggestions he has heard in this synod, and in last year’s synod, and the various consultations he has held since he was elected in March 2013, and use them as a launchpad for further, more concrete reforms.

Perhaps the biggest question is how long Francis has and how many like-minded cardinals and bishops he can appoint before he dies or retires. He turns 79 in December and openly acknowledges that his may not be a long papacy.

Vatican expert and author John Thavis last week crunched the numbers and found that Francis has appointed 13 percent of the world’s active bishops in his 31 months in office and 26 percent of the voting members of the College of Cardinals who would elect his successor.

At this pace, the pontiff would probably need six or seven more years to reach a tipping-point majority of cardinals and bishops.

“I’m sure the pope realizes that, for quite some time, he will have to work with an episcopate that may at times act as a check on his innovative pastoral proposals,” Thavis wrote.

Francis likes to say that “time is greater than space.” The synod gave him space, but he may need much more time to do with it what he wants.

“Francis tapped ideologically centre-left clerics”

28/10/2015

Yesterday Pope Francis appointed new archbishops in Palermo and Bologna.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“U.S. Navy will not be deterred”

20/10/2015

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

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

18/10/2015

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

Francis, pressing for economic justice

27/09/2015

Daniel Altman writes that Pope Francis is a great economist, “a quick look at his speech to Congress and other remarks this week reveals that his true strength may lie in the dismal science — and there’s much American politicians could learn from his understanding of the economy. One of the biggest themes of the pope’s visit has been helping people in need. “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk,” he told Congress. And in economic terms, these comments could not be more pertinent to the United States. The workforce is essentially stagnant in size, with virtually zero growth in the number of people in their prime working years and a low participation rate to boot. As a result, increasing the economy’s output means raising productivity”.

Altman goes on to make the argument that “It’s easiest to raise the productivity of people at the low end of the scale; a bit more education or training makes a much bigger difference to a burger-flipper than it does to a medical device engineer who already has a doctorate. And when productivity rises a lot, so do income and tax revenue, while demand for social services falls. This boost to the government’s budget is exactly what helps society to satisfy those common needs. So those people in vulnerable and risky situations — typically poor, handicapped, or lacking social support networks — are the right ones to think about as the source for future growth. The pope’s speech also drew a parallel between the global refugee crisis and mass immigration to the United States. “On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities,” he said. “Is this not what we want for our own children?” As a guide for dealing with incoming migrants, he suggested the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If future growth is the goal, economists would probably offer an identical prescription”.

Altman notes “The pope also condemned homelessness in the United States during remarks at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington. “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing,” he said. This rings true for economists as well. Does it make sense never to provide housing to someone who can’t pay for it? It’s illegal for most hospitals to deny medical care to people with emergency conditions, regardless of their ability to pay. Housing somehow doesn’t fall into the same category, though it can be just as important to safety and well-being — and possibly to being productive in the economy. By comparison, any disincentive to work that might arise from access to free housing would likely be of minor economic importance. Despite his discussion of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and other byproducts of the American economic system, the pope never mentioned the word inequality. Yet he did warn against the “polarization” that fed a “simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.” This us-versus-them dynamic has a long and unfortunate history in American economic policy, from the demonised welfare recipients of the Ronald Reagan era to Mitt Romney’s deadbeat 47 percent. It’s the sort of dynamic that leads Congress to cut food stamps for 850,000 households at a stroke — they didn’t earn that food, even if their state governments think they need it and should get it. When members of Congress themselves are mostly millionaires, it’s not hard to figure out why the concerns of poor Americans are so far from their minds. And so polarisation feeds greater inequality, which pulls us and them still further apart”.

He ends the piece “It’s a recipe for economic ruin, especially in a nation that needs to harness all of its talents to grow. The creation of an economic underclass does nothing for the social stability that an economy needs to function, and wasting the potential of smart kids who happen to be born poor just means that productivity and economic growth will continue to lag. The pope gets this, and he delivered his sermon in language that was allegorical but still rather easier to grasp than the testimony of most Federal Reserve officials. Hopefully, his audience was paying attention”.

 

Fanning as Army Secretary?

27/09/2015

Just four years after the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the Pentagon reached another milestone in its campaign to better integrate gay, lesbian, and transgender personnel into its ranks with the nomination of Eric Fanning, an openly gay official, to the Army’s top civilian post. If confirmed to be the next secretary of the Army, Fanning he would become the first openly gay civilian to head a branch of the U.S. armed forces. Fanning has been serving as acting undersecretary of the Army since June, after a brief three-month stint as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s chief of staff earlier this year. In a relatively short career, Fanning has amassed an impressive multiservice résumé, having served as Air Force undersecretary and acting secretary from 2013 to 2015, and deputy undersecretary of the Navy from 2009 to 2013. “Eric brings many years of proven experience and exceptional leadership to this new role,” Obama said in an announcement Friday.

Francis on immigration

25/09/2015

A report in Foreign Policy discusses the recent address of Pope Francis on the subject of immigration, “Pope Francis’s historic address to Congress on Sept. 24 was wide-ranging, covering topics from racial justice to the plight of refugees to the environment, but it repeatedly returned to a surprising refrain: Addressing the packed chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, he called himself “the son of immigrants.” He reminded his audience, composed of lawmakers, Supreme Court justices, and White House officials, of the thousands who make their homes in the United States from Latin America and elsewhere. He asked them to “view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories.” He repeatedly urged his audience to “enter into” dialogue with the poor, the elderly, and, of course, with immigrants. Time and again, his words were met with standing ovations and rapturous applause”.

The report adds that “The pontiff had delivered a similar message the previous day — but before a very different audience. Addressing the United States bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Francis acknowledged their efforts to “welcome and integrate” immigrants. He also told them to “step back, away from the center,” and be “promoters of the culture of encounter.” In his comments, he reiterated his often-stated notion that the place of the church is on the edges of society, where it can stand up for the poor and the marginalised. Many of the bishops remain hesitant over Francis’s decision to make his central message one of mercy — of listening and being present to those not always listened to — rather than focusing on issues of sexuality. (In his address to Congress, the pope barely hinted at Catholic teachings on marriage, briefly mentioning the importance of “fundamental relationships,” before turning again to focus on the poor and vulnerable.) Some have raised the question of whether the so-called “Francis effect,” a phrase used by Catholics to describe the potential impact he might have on the global church, will ever fully take hold among American bishops. Their public perception is often one of being culture warriors, staging a long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign against same-sex marriage and battling the Affordable Care Act over access to birth control and abortion. They have alienated enough American Catholics that half of the laity have left the church at some point in their lives, and the vast majority cannot imagine returning”.

The Church, at least in the United States has little credibility on these issues and is widely ignored. Cardinal Burke’s statement that the Church can never speak enough about gay marriage not only flies in the face of what Pope Francis has said but also done little to either attract people to the Church, or persuade people to come back.

Crucially the writer notes “there is one issue on which the bishops and the pope have been able to find common ground: the importance of church outreach to immigrants. The tone and language of American bishops have often been in extreme contrast to Francis’s focus on mercy. In an interview just prior to the pope’s arrival in Washington, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco referred to same-sex marriage as “the ultimate attack of the evil one.” The conservative Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who heads the Philadelphia archdiocese where the pope will travel later this week, also opposes same-sex marriage and is known for taking a harsh tone with Catholics who disagree with him”.

Incorrectly the writer notes of Pope Benedict that “The American church hierarchy was overwhelmingly appointed by Francis’s predecessors. It is mostly white and rapidly aging. Popes John Paul II and Benedict spent much of their papacies focused on issues of the body and sexuality, and the American bishops’ theology reflects this. These bishops heard and absorbed that message and expected Francis to carry it forward, which he surely has — but not as his primary focus”.

The author goes on to mention “As the first Latin American pope, Francis has obvious appeal to Latino Catholics. The fact that he has chosen to deliver several important addresses in his native tongue demonstrates that he knows his audience. The United States is now the fifth-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. And yet, only about 3 percent of American priests identify as Latino, according to CARA, the Georgetown University center. Evangelical churches have been aggressively reaching out to Latinos for decades, and younger Latinos are almost as likely as their white peers to be religiously unaffiliated — members of the so-called “Nones.” To reverse the pull of Latinos away from the church, both the pope and the bishops must help immigrants not only feel safe, but welcomed”.

He ends “The pope has asked the American bishops for dialogue and “encounter.” Dialogue implies deep listening and meeting people where they arrive, rather than drawing a line and placing the hierarchy on one side and the people on the other. The pope modeled this encounter as he drove through the streets of Washington on Wednesday. When 5-year-old Sofía Cruz, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, made her way through the barricades surrounding the pope, he told security to “let her come to me.” She handed him a note, which began with the words, “I am [an] American citizen with Mexican roots.” It also told the pope that immigrants like her parents deserve to live with “dignity” and “respect.” Francis embraced her”.

 

Francis speaks to Congress

25/09/2015

A report in the New York Times notes the speech given by Pope Francis yesterday, “Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, challenged Congress and by extension the mightiest nation in the world on Thursday to break out of its cycle of paralysis and use its power to heal the “open wounds” of a planet torn by hatred, greed, poverty and pollution. Taking a rostrum never before occupied by the bishop of Rome, Francis issued a vigourous call to action to lawmakers who have spent years stalemated over major issues and even now are days away from a potential government shutdown in a dispute over the moral boundaries of federal spending. “Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples,” he told a joint meeting of Congress in an address that cited American icons like Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.” If his words of unity struck a lofty note, though, his choice of issues effectively fed the very divisions he assailed.

The piece adds that “He emboldened liberals with a passionate defense of immigration, an endorsement of environmental legislation, a blistering condemnation of the arms trade and a plea to abolish the death penalty. For their part, conservatives chose to focus on his defense of religious liberty, the traditional family and the sanctity of life at “every stage of its development.” In the end, both sides could walk away taking vindication from parts of his message. But the liberal references in his speech were explicit and extended while the conservative ones were more veiled and concise. As a result, Democrats cheered and led standing ovations more often in a somewhat more dignified version of a presidential State of the Union address. Afterward, liberal groups wrapped themselves in the glow of Francis’ speech and claimed momentum for their initiatives, while Republicans largely focused on the majesty of the event and played down policy implications”.

The writer mentions that “Despite the spectacle, there are limits to any pope’s ability to move an entrenched political system, and there was little sign that he had done so here. Within hours, the Senate was back to business, conducting another stalemate vote as Republicans failed to break a Democratic filibuster of a measure to cut off federal money from Planned Parenthood. Francis’ address, delivered in slow and heavily accented English, may have lost some of its power as lawmakers strained to make out his words. Vatican officials said that the Argentine-born pope wanted to speak the primary language of the United States in the people’s house and that he spent much of the summer practicing. But afterward, he switched to his native Spanish when he appeared on the Speaker’s Balcony of the Capitol to wave and share a prayer with tens of thousands of people who had gathered on the West Lawn to watch his address on jumbo televisions”.

The piece mentions that “Wrapping up his visit to Washington before flying to New York, the pope visited St. Patrick’s Church, a short distance from the Capitol, to address the plight of the homeless.  “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing,” Francis said. “We know that Jesus wanted to show solidarity with every person.” He waded into a crowd of mostly homeless men and women, including felons, mentally ill people, victims of domestic violence and substance abusers. He stopped to lay his hand on the heads of children who had kept quiet for hours of waiting with special pope colouring books. With his speech to lawmakers, Francis became the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress, a milestone in the journey of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, and it generated enormous interest. Lawmakers, aides and invited guests jammed the historic chamber of the House of Representatives. Sitting behind Francis were Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and House Speaker John A. Boehner, both Catholics. Flanking the aisle at the front were Secretary of State John Kerry and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and not far behind them was Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, all Catholics. Francis, who spoke with Mr. Kerry at the White House on Wednesday, stopped to shake his hand. Mr. Boehner, who invited the pope earlier this year, wept repeatedly”.

Poinetly the author notes “Francis devoted the greatest share of his speech at the White House on Wednesday to climate change, but he made immigration the most pronounced part of his remarks to Congress, alluding to his own family’s history of moving from Italy to Argentina. “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners,” Francis said. “I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.” He cited “do-unto-others” and then added, “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” While that represented typical code for abortion, Francis segued immediately and at length to a call for the abolition of the death penalty. “Every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” he said”.

The author mentions that “He was less restrained in calling for an end to the arms trade. “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?” he asked. “Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money — money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.” While he never used the words abortion, homosexuality or same-sex marriage, he offered a strong statement supporting those who share the church’s views of those issues”.

 An related piece notes that Francis has told Congress of Catholic doctrine which has resulted in his speech was used “to subtly tweak both Democrats and Republicans, with Pope Francis framing some of the most explosive political issues of the day in starkly moral terms. Speaking in English, a language the pope has never mastered, Francis gave a speech that touched on many aspects of American politics but did not come off as overtly partisan. It created some awkward moments to be sure, with Democrats applauding when the pope spoke about doing more to help immigrants, while many Republicans sat motionless. When Francis reiterated his anti-abortion views and spoke about the sanctity of marriage, by contrast, Republicans reacted more enthusiastically than Democrats. Francis, a 78-year-old Argentinian who assumed the papacy in 2013, called on U.S. lawmakers and the American people to do more to assist the poor and to combat environmental degradation caused by “human activity.” He invoked the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” calling on lawmakers to do more to help immigrants, though he offered no specifics. He also criticised the pursuit of wealth and linked it to climate change, something the pope wants the United States to do more to combat. Many Republicans, in a break with Francis, refuse to acknowledge that mankind contributes to climate change”.

Interestingly the piece notes that “Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who is also running for president, stood and applauded when the pope called for compassion for those trying to enter the United States. At the same time, the pope made a point of saying he supported the sanctity of life at every stage of its development, an anti-abortion remark that doesn’t sit well with pro-abortion rights Democrats. And without explicitly saying so, the pope took a veiled swipe at same-sex marriage, a right most Democrats, including President Barack Obama, support. The pope met with Obama for 40 minutes in the Oval Office on Wednesday in a closed-door meeting”.

The power of the words of Francis were seen when the article adds “Even members of the Supreme Court were swayed by Francis. The justices typically don’t applaud during joint sessions of Congress. But when Francis called the United States “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” they stood and clapped. Although Francis challenged Republicans and Democrats on key issues, lawmakers departing the speech sought to downplay those differences and offered praise for his message. “It was really very historic. I really enjoyed it,” Sen. Ron Johnson, a conservative Republican from Wisconsin, told Foreign Policy on the steps of the House chamber. Despite the pope’s explicit references to environmental degradation “caused by human activity,” a point Johnson is skeptical of, he found a way to comfortably interpret the pope’s message into his own worldview. “We share the goal; we want a clean environment. How we achieve it there are some differences of opinion,” he said”.

Sanders, undermining super-PACS?

05/09/2015

An interesting report notes that Bernie Sanders is attracting small donors and the possible effects this has on super PACS “Donna Mae Litowitz, a Miami Beach retiree, likes Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont so much that three months ago she sent his presidential campaign $10,000. His campaign sent back all but $2,700 because it was more than he was allowed to take under federal election law, but she wishes he had kept it all. “I like what Sanders stands for, and he says what needs to be said,” said Ms. Litowitz, who gave money in 2008 to Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. “And I don’t like Hillary Clinton.” In an election dominated by million-dollar donations to “super PACs,” Ms. Litowitz qualifies in Mr. Sanders’s insurgent campaign as a big donor. Unlike almost all of the other major Democratic and Republican candidates this year, Mr. Sanders has refused to accept support from super PACs, relying instead on supporters like Ms. Litowitz as well as tens of thousands of small donors giving as little as $5 or $10″.

The report goes on to mention “The average donation, according to campaign officials, is $31.30. The result is a campaign built on populist issues like income inequality that appears to be drawing even more rank-and-file support than Mr. Obama did in 2008, when he used a network of smaller donors to win the White House”.

Interestingly it makes the point that “About a quarter of Mr. Obama’s donors over the course of that campaign gave a total of $200 or less, according to a study by the Campaign Finance Institute. While direct comparisons are difficult at this early stage in the 2016 race, Mr. Sanders’s small-dollar support appears significantly higher than Mr. Obama’s in 2008, and more than any other candidate this cycle. Mr. Sanders has raised more money in gifts of $200 or less than any candidate, Democrat or Republican, an analysis of campaign finance reports shows. A huge chunk of his money — $11.4 million, or about 75 percent of all his contributions — has come from small donations routed through ActBlue, an online site that facilitates contributions to Democrats, records show. The influx of support has helped Mr. Sanders build a formidable war chest, with his campaign raising $15.2 million as of the most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission in July. Campaign officials say he has raised millions more since then and will far surpass that total this quarter. That still puts him far behind Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raising juggernaut, but Mr. Sanders said in an interview that he was unbowed”.

Democratic strategists are beginning to take notice.

Crucially the report mentions that “Sanders’s fund-raising strategy will test the prevailing notion in Washington that no candidate can successfully compete on the national stage without tapping into the many millions of dollars that have poured into super PACs since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. Super PACs supporting Mrs. Clinton have already raised more than $20 million, records show; on the Republican side, two super PACs backing Jeb Bush raised about $108.5 million. Yet when a Vermont legislator, Chris Pearson, offered to set up a super PAC to support the Sanders campaign, Mr. Sanders told him to “kill it,” Mr. Sanders said, because did not want to be beholden to “the millionaires and billionaires.” Mr. Sanders said that it was “a difficult decision” to opt out of such a powerful and quick way to raise money. In doing so, he said, “we’re giving up millions and millions of dollars, no doubt, but we will sink or swim based on what we get from the middle class of the country.” Nor has Mr. Sanders held many of the kind of fund-raisers that presidential candidates traditionally devote much of their time to. He has held only five, and they have been more like political rallies, held at places like a Washington, D.C., brewery and a Seattle tavern, with a contribution of $100 or less sometimes required”.

The piece ends “Even so, Mr. Sanders in the last quarter raised less than a third as much as Mrs. Clinton, whose campaign reported contributions of $47.5 million in the spring quarter. But Mr. Sanders and his aides say they can blunt the effect of Mrs. Clinton’s financial advantage by running a more frugal campaign, even as they build campaign operations in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. So far, the more-with-less approach is holding up. In his filings to the election commission, Mr. Sanders reported spending only about $3 million — or less than 20 percent of the money he had raised. Mrs. Clinton, in comparison, reported spending at about twice that rate, or about $18.7 million — nearly 39 percent of her contributions — on things like catering at fund-raisers and slick media productions. (Her campaign asked for approval from the election commission this month to allow donors to pay for their own food, drinks and valet parking at some events.) Mr. Sanders was left with $12.1 million in cash on hand at the end of June, and Mrs. Clinton had $28.9 million”.

Obama gets the votes needed

03/09/2015

President Barack Obama scored a crucial victory Wednesday as a key Democrat said she would support his landmark nuclear deal with Iran, effectively giving him enough votes to protect the bill from congressional attempts to kill it. Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s endorsement safeguards what the White House sees as Obama’s signature diplomatic achievement and spells a defeat for the accord’s opponents, including the Republican majority in Congress and pro-Israel lobbying groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. With momentum shifting in favor of the accord in recent weeks, AIPAC and others opposed to the deal are struggling to rally enough votes for even a symbolic show of resistance from Congress, which would require securing 60 “no” votes needed to break a Democratic filibuster and get a resolution through. Opponents need at least six Democrats to come out against the deal to achieve that goal, but have so far only won over New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez. Mikulski’s endorsement, announced in a statement, could cut both ways politically. On the one hand, it could free wavering Democrats to support the deal because they would now know they wouldn’t be providing the decisive vote. On the other, it could make it easier for fence-sitting Democrats like Mikulski’s colleague, Ben Cardin, to vote their conscience without having to worry about handing a president from their own party a historic defeat.

Chinese pro-life movement

26/08/2015

An interesting article notes how China is becoming more pro-life, “On July 14, a U.S. anti-abortion group released an undercover video of an employee of abortion provider Planned Parenthood casually discussing, over wine and salad, the harvesting and donation of fetal tissue for medical research. The video provoked a nationwide outcry among pro-life activists and politicians, who have called for investigations into the national reproductive health care provider’s practices. The news quickly reached China, and within days the video had been posted to Chinese video streaming site iQiyi, where it received more than 170,000 views. China has the highest number of abortions in the world, with an estimated 13 million performed annually. Many in China view abortion as a purely personal decision, a necessary if sad option for people in difficult situations. Unlike in the United States, where abortion clinics face tight restrictions in some areas, similar facilities in China are readily available and widely publicized”.

Thankfully the author notes that “despite widespread support for abortion access, the government’s strict limits on family size, and tight controls on civil society and religion, China is home to a small but growing number of pro-life activists who deploy tactics that many Americans would find familiar. One such group of activists operates in the southwestern city of Chengdu. On May 31, 2012, Wang Yi, the pastor of a local official church called Autumn Rain Church, posted an open letter on microblogging platform Weibo calling for citizens to join him in demonstrating in front of abortion clinics. The next day — June 1, International Children’s Day — Wang and members of his church held a protest at a clinic and handed out flyers. Since 2012, Autumn Rain worshipers have run a campaign each year on June 1 called “No Abortion on Children’s Day.” Campaign members now operate social media accounts on microblogging platform Weibo and mobile messaging app WeChat, each with the slogan “Opposing abortion for Jesus” and a small number of followers. For the past three years prior to the holiday, the Christian group has distributed flyers, held small demonstrations, and once even ran a series of ads on public buses. Photos of the demonstrations and pro-life statements posted online do not seem to have been censored, perhaps because they are usually shared no more than a few dozen times”.

Naturally he notes that “The Chengdu pro-life group’s tactics, and even its social media content, closely resembles the methods and rhetoric of the pro-life movement in the United States. A May 30 post from the Chengdu group’s WeChat public account featured an infographic with images of skulls, grouped together in the shape of the national map, with a headline in a dramatic font: “There Are 13 Million Abortions Every Year in China.” During this year’s protest, a handful of protesters gathered in front of the Zangnan Women’s Hospital in Chengdu. Their faces downcast, they carried large posters with gruesome photos of aborted fetuses and headlines that read, “A fetus is a child too” and, “Who is qualified to determine life or death?” The group also appears to watch the U.S. pro-life scene closely. Two days after the video outcry involving Planned Parenthood (whose name in Chinese means “Planned Birth Association”), No Abortion on Children’s Day posted an article about the video”.

Interestingly the report goes on to mention “pro-life advocates, like other grassroots organizations in authoritarian China, can operate only by remaining small and strictly nonpolitical. According to a July 26 article by World, a U.S.-based Christian magazine, one church in China formed a partnership with a local hospital to open a crisis pregnancy center, painted pink and yellow, where volunteers speak with abortion patients about alternative options. Another organization in China provides financial assistance so that women can pay the fines that would otherwise push them towards abortion. Yet another, China Life Alliance, is U.S.-based but seeks change in China by helping to sponsor safe houses that serve Chinese women “at high risk for forced abortions,” according to the organization’s website. It also helps mobilize “abortion rescue teams,” volunteers who walk into abortion clinics and speak directly with patients to try to convince them to pursue other options, as well as providing training seminars for local churches. According to a map posted on the CLA website, pro-life volunteers operate in 29 cities around China. CLA did not respond to a Foreign Policy request for comment”.

Crucially for a country that is experiencing a religious revival, “Christianity is not the only religious force in China that opposes abortion. Buddhism, with more than 244 million adherents according to a 2012 Pew study, the most recent such study available, is the largest religion in China. It’s known for its strong opposition to killing of all kinds, and according to Buddhist understanding, human life begins at conception. In a November 1993 interview, the Dalai Lama, a revered Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader who fled China in 1959, told the New York Times that while “abortion, from a Buddhist perspective, is an act of killing.” He added that there were exceptions if the fetus had severe congenital defects, for example, or if having the child would put extreme strain on the parent”.

The piece adds, “China’s swiftly evolving society has shifted the demographics of abortion, creating a window for pro-life groups to prevent abortions without directly challenging family planning policies. The procedure used to be primarily associated with married women, but unwed women now undergo the operation in increasing numbers. Chinese attitudes towards sex have become significantly more liberal than they were two decades ago; premarital sex and cohabitation are now relatively common, with 71 percent having sex before marriage, according to one study. That has meant a rise in unplanned pregnancies among a group of women who then seek what could be considered, under the context of Chinese family planning law, preventable abortions. Like a second child, a baby out of wedlock triggers a fine of $6,400, more than the average annual salary in China. To avoid it, unmarried pregnant woman can abort — or they can keep the baby and marry the father. Encouraging unwed couples to marry can thus be an effective pro-life strategy”.

The writer makes the point that “Although anti-abortion sentiment and action groups exist in China, none of it has crystallised into anything approaching an organised pro-life movement, which in the United States has pursued legal and legislative means to reduce access or funding for abortion. Average Chinese citizens cannot vote for legislators, and activists seeking legal change are routinely detained or harassed. (Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer who rose to international attention after a dramatic escape to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, spent years under house arrest for his legal defence of victims of forced abortion.) Meanwhile, mass rallies such as the annual March for Life, held every year in Washington, DC, are impossible in China without the party’s blessing”.

The report ends “At the grassroots, abortion remains a largely accepted practice. Eight out of 13 respondents in the Chengdu pro-life group’s video, for example, agreed that abortion “killed people,” yet most further qualified their answers to add that abortion was a “personal decision,” that it depended on the health of the fetus and the mother, and that it was a morally complex affair. Only two stated that they were unconditionally opposed to abortion. Online, many web users expressed similar views. “The mother’s well-being is more important that of the fetus,” wrote one user in a popular thread on Zhihu, an online question-and-answer forum where young, often well-educated users often engage in in-depth discussions. “If the mother is not capable of looking after the child, giving birth to the baby would cause more damage.” Other justifications for abortion offered on Chinese social media might seem surprising to Western observers. A number of commenters argued that the procedure prevented infanticide — not a distant memory to some in China, where a traditional preference for sons led to a historical practice of female infanticide”.

Obama speaks on the deal

08/08/2015

A report in the New York Times notes a speech by President Obama recently on the Iran deal.

It opens “Obama took on critics of the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers in an aggressive speech on Wednesday, saying they were the same people who created the “drumbeat of war” and played on public fears to push the United States into the Iraq war more than a decade ago. “Let’s not mince words: The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some sort of war — maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon,” Mr. Obama told about 200 people in a speech at American University. “How can we in good conscience justify war before we’ve tested a diplomatic agreement that achieves our objectives?” Mr. Obama, opening a new, more overtly political phase of his public campaign for the accord, portrayed the coming vote in Congress to approve or reject the deal as the most consequential foreign policy decision for lawmakers since Congress voted in 2003 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He implored them to “shut out the noise” and back the deal”.

The report goes on to note “Delivered in stark terms that surprised some foreign policy analysts and left no room for questioning whether the agreement is good for American security — “It’s not even close,” Mr. Obama declared at one point — the president’s speech was a striking display of certitude about a diplomatic deal that has split the American public and presented a dilemma for lawmakers, including many in his own party. Mr. Obama criticized Republicans who are pressing forward with legislation to block the accord, which is on track for a vote in September”.

Interestingly it adds that “Opposition to the agreement, he said, stems from “knee-jerk partisanship that has become all too familiar, rhetoric that renders every decision made to be a disaster, a surrender.” He said hard-liners in Iran who chant “Death to America” were “making common cause with the Republican caucus.” Lawmakers who oppose the deal said they were not persuaded, and some said they resented the president’s tone. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said the speech had done a disservice to lawmakers in both parties who “have serious and heartfelt concerns.” “These Democrats and Republicans deserved serious answers today, not some outrageous attempt to equate their search for answers with supporting chants of ‘Death to America,’ ” Mr. McConnell said, adding that Democrats who had declared their opposition would be “especially insulted” by the president’s remarks. “This goes way over the line of civil discourse,” he said”.

The piece mentions that “Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who has served in Republican and Democratic administrations, said that Mr. Obama’s speech seemed intended to leave no doubt “that those who oppose it are either uninformed or, in the case of the Iraq war comparison, recklessly marching to the next war in the Middle East.” Mr. Miller called the speech a “stunning” show of boldness by a president who feels empowered in the final stages of his presidency to pursue an accord he believes could be transformational. “There is a real danger here for him in overselling” the deal to a skeptical Congress, he said. In making his case, Mr. Obama made an unusual, personal appeal to voters — more in keeping with a 30-second political television advertisement than a foreign policy address — urging them to contact their representatives and press them to accept the deal, which would lift some sanctions against Iran in exchange for new restrictions meant to suppress its ability to obtain a nuclear weapon”.

Needless to say the piece notes the section of the speech where President Obama confronted “pro-Israel groups, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, which are sending hundreds of activists to lobby lawmakers to reject the deal and are planning to run more than $25 million in television advertising to rally opposition to it. The struggle is playing out this month as members of Congress leave Washington to face voters in their home states and districts. “If the rhetoric in these ads and the accompanying commentary sounds familiar, it should,” Mr. Obama said. “Many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.” Aipac responded forcefully on Wednesday to the president’s characterization of its campaign of opposition to the deal”.

The piece rightly mentions that “Obama’s tone came as a surprise to some political and policy analysts who said he had delivered a speech that seemed intended to stoke fear instead of foster discussion. David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said that even though the White House had been effective at privately engaging skeptics of the deal on its merits, Mr. Obama appeared to be “hyping” his case to the public, perhaps in an effort to match the incendiary language of his opponents”.

It concludes “While Mr. Obama’s comparison to the Iraq war appeared to be an effort to distinguish his own approach from that of President George W. Bush, some critics said his speech employed the same with-me-or-against-me trope associated with Mr. Bush. “It comes remarkably close to the cartoon image that he has painted of Bush’s rhetoric,” said Peter D. Feaver, a political scientist at Duke who was a national security aide to Mr. Bush from 2005 to 2007”.