Archive for the ‘Morality’ Category

“How Catholic Fillon will remain during his campaign remains to be seen”

12/12/2016

A piece notes how Catholics in France are backing the presidential contender, “François Fillon will carry the standard for Les Républicains in France’s presidential election next spring. Competitors and commentators — indeed, many voters — were surprised by this outcome. Surprised because Fillon had long trailed in the polls; surprised because Fillon, a former prime minister, was long dismissed as the “eternal No. 2”; surprised because Fillon has promised, if elected, to starve the beast that the French fondly call l’état providence — the welfare state — a move that in France has not typically been a winning campaign strategy. But surprised, too, because, as the rest of the country is now discovering, Fillon is Catholic. Very Catholic. So Catholic, at least to the secular left, that a headline in the newspaper Libération screamed: “Help, Jesus has returned!” Fillon has never made any secret of his beliefs. He hails from the Vendée, the western region that was the site of a long and bloody resistance to the secular values, laws, and, ultimately, soldiers of revolutionary Paris. A lieu de mémoire, or site of memory, for French Catholics, the Vendée is famed for the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, where Fillon goes every year on retreat”.

It mentions that “In his campaign book Faire (“To Make”), Fillon, known for his reticence, nevertheless recalls with deep emotion his Catholic schooling, explains how it has shaped his worldview, and affirms: “I was raised in this tradition, and I have kept this faith.” And, as it turns out, legions of Frenchmen and women who have not kept their faith will nonetheless turn out in droves for a politician who has. These men and women are, in the controversial term coined three years ago by the sociologists Emmanuel Todd and Hervé Le Bras, les zombies catholiques of France. In their book Le mystère français, Todd and Le Bras tried to explain why, in a country where barely five citizens in 100 attend church, the weight of Catholicism is still evident. From the millions of parents who took to the streets in the mid-1980s to protest the Socialist government’s effort to merge private (and overwhelmingly Catholic) schools with public schools to the millions who, 30 years later, took to the same streets to protest the new (but hardly different) Socialist government’s effort to legalize gay marriage, these armies of French “zombies” would have overwhelmed the likes of Brad Pitt, let alone government ministers”.

The report notes that “But this is less World War Z than the newest chapter in the guerres franco-françaises — France’s long series of civil wars fought over the legacy of the French Revolution, which pit a secularist left against a traditionalist right. Todd and Le Bras marvel over the persistence of Catholic habits and values in regions where Catholicism has more or less vanished as an institution. “The most astonishing paradox,” they note, “is the rise of social movements shaped by a religion that has disappeared as a metaphysical belief.” Unable to resist the French weakness for paradox, Todd and Le Bras conclude: “Catholicism seems to have attained a kind of life after death. But since it is a question of a this-worldly life, we will define it as ‘zombie Catholicism.’” Zombie Catholics share certain symptoms: Not only do they hail from regions where resistance was greatest to the French Revolution, but they also have taken advantage of the benefits that flowed from that seismic event. Highly educated and meritocratic, they also privilege a traditional ordering of professional and domestic duties between husbands and wives; strong attachment to social, community, and family activities; and a general wariness over the role of the state in private and community affairs, including “free schools” (Catholic private schools)”.

Crucially the writer notes how “Fillon can check all of these boxes. His economic liberalism, in particular, has led critics to label him a French Margaret Thatcher. But Fillon’s genius was his recognition that France’s zombie Catholicism isn’t just a cultural identity but also a latent political one. Indeed, the zombies came out to vote for him in greater numbers than anyone had anticipated: In the second round of the primary, more than 4.3 million individuals went to the polls. For a party that had never before chosen a presidential candidate by primary, this was a stunning success. (It is important to note that the primary was partly open: Anyone who paid 2 euros and declared they held to right-wing or centrist values was allowed to cast a vote. Although estimates vary of the percentage of those from the left and center who voted, pollsters attribute the second swell of voters to those mobilized by Fillon’s candidacy.) Equally stunning is how the electoral map dovetails with the sociological map traced by Todd and Le Bras. For example, the Vendée and Brittany, the western regions that formed Fillon, are among what the authors call the most “anthropologically hardened” zombie Catholic enclaves — places where the church has vanished but its practices and values persist. Voters from these parts of France also rallied in greater numbers than elsewhere to Fillon, while in those regions identified by Todd and Le Bras as “anthropologically hardened” liberal enclaves — especially in the south, much of Paris (and the former “red belt” that surrounds it), and other large cities — voter turnout was significantly smaller. According to Jérôme Fourquet, the director of opinion and business strategies for French pollster IFOP, the takeaway was clear: Catholic, or at least zombie Catholic, voters played a “disproportionate” role in the primary”.

It goes on to mention how “Just how Catholic Fillon will remain during his campaign remains to be seen, but all signs point to his beliefs being both sincere and deeply held. When the French political scene was upended in 2012 by the monumental clash over the legalisation of same-sex marriage, Fillon never hid his opposition. Once the legislation was passed, Fillon acknowledged that the law must be respected, but he has also repeatedly voiced his opposition to the law’s so-called “excesses,” by which he means the right of same-sex couples to either adopt or use a surrogate mother. His hostility to the law attracted the support of Sens Commun (“Common Sense”), a deeply conservative Catholic organization tied to La Manif Pour Tous (“Protest for Everyone”), the political movement that led the massive protests against the same-sex marriage law. Frigide Barjot, the former leader of La Manif Pour Tous and a controversial figure, appeared at Fillon’s headquarters Sunday night to celebrate his victory. Fillon’s personal opposition to abortion — “Given my own faith, I cannot approve of abortion,” he said in early October — has also sent ripples of concern across the political spectrum”.

The piece contends “Equally unsettling have been Fillon’s remarks on Islam. Though not as provocative as Nicolas Sarkozy, who relentlessly played the “identity card” during his campaign, Fillon has nevertheless underscored what he considers to be the unprecedented challenge Islam poses for France. He insists on France’s “Christian roots,” a statement critics denounce as an implicit warning to French Muslims that they are not chez soi in France. He has claimed that there is a “concrete problem with radical Islam,” immediately adding, afterward, that “Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, and Sikhs do not threaten our national unity.” Not surprisingly, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France issued a warning about Fillon’s candidacy, declaring that anti-Islamic remarks made by Fillon spokeswoman Valerie Boyer — most notably, that only Muslim extremists wear headscarves — represented “a small taste of what to expect” from a Fillon presidency”.

Naturally “the centre and left, the takeaway from all this has been panic: It is as if real zombies have invaded France. Some of the headlines in French media following Fillon’s primary win were nearly as apocalyptic as those in the United States following Donald Trump’s victory. When not stammering over the large cross Boyer wore during a press conference, the co-owner of the left-leaning Le Monde newspaper, Pierre Bergé, tweeted that Fillon’s supporters were no better than the Pétainists of Vichy France. As for Le Monde itself, an editorialist observed, simply, that Fillon’s victory revealed “the emergence of a Catholic and patrimonial right.” And yet, given the lamentable state of the Socialists, bled white by infighting and tied to the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic, Fillon seems likely to be the only thing standing between France and a National Front presidency in next spring’s election. The question now is whether he will be able to convince voters from the center and left to overcome their worries about his religion and his austere economic plans”.

It ends “It’s also an open question whether French Catholics — zombie and non-zombie alike — will maintain their own resistance to the National Front’s anti-Europe, anti-Muslim, and anti-liberal siren call. Fillon does seem to have harnessed what the religion specialist Henri Tincq calls “identity Catholicism.” Those Frenchmen and women, he said, “uneasy with a modernity that has largely erased Christian values from issues like education, family, work, and sexuality,” and increasingly ill at ease with transnational institutions like the EU and the transnational flow of peoples — especially when they are Muslim and hail from the Middle East — have increasingly been retreating to the ostensible safety of traditionally national institutions like the Catholic Church. Fillon is now offering them what seems to be a compelling political alternative to the sclerotic secularism of the left and unsavory heritage of the extreme right. But if this activation of Catholic identity already marks a shift in French politics, its ultimate significance is not yet clear. Much depends on the long-term direction taken by the newly awakened horde of zombie Catholics. Will they retreat further to the right and into the arms of the National Front? The late and great historian of French politics René Rémond always insisted that the more observant French Catholics are, the less likely they are to vote for the National Front. But this truism has, with time, frayed dramatically; moreover, it never applied to the zombies to start with. An IFOP poll taken after last year’s regional elections revealed that 32 percent of practicing Catholics voted for the National Front. Not only was this higher than the national average — 28 percent — of National Front voters, but it was also more than double the percentage of Catholic votes tallied for the party in 2014. As a headline in the Catholic magazine Pélerin announced, the “Catholic dam is collapsing.”

It concludes “The same poll revealed, however, that western France, Fillon’s homeland, continued to resist the National Front’s rise. Many Catholics, regardless of their religious practice, continue to feel repugnance in voting for a party whose founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, thrived on values they consider antithetical to their worldview. But it bears noting that his daughter, Marine Le Pen, continues to reinvent the National Front, also known by its French name Front National or FN. It was no accident that when Le Pen the younger recently replaced the traditional logo of the blue-white-and-red flame of the National Front with a blue rose, she also removed the very names “Le Pen” and “Front National” from the party’s graphics. Now, her public appearances are framed by “Marine” and “Au nom du peuple.” (“In the name of the people.”) As one of her advisors remarked, “Marine Le Pen is not the candidate of the FN but of all Frenchmen and women.” Fillon may have ridden a wave of the undead to victory in the primary. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Catholics — dead and undead alike — will stick by his side this spring.

“The result could be the end of the post-1945 Pax Americana”

04/12/2016

Max Boot, echoing William Inboden, writes about the similarities between Trump and Obama, “It is hard to imagine two presidents more dissimilar than Barack Obama, the cerebral and elegant liberal law professor, and Donald Trump, the brash populist and reality TV star. But if Trump’s campaign pronouncements are anything to judge by, his foreign policy may be more in sync with President Obama’s than either man would care to admit. And not in a good way: Trump shares with Obama a desire to pull back from the world but lacks Obama’s calm, deliberative style and respect for international institutions. A Trump presidency is inherently unpredictable — no one knows how much of his overblown rhetoric to take seriously — but if he does even half the things he suggested on the campaign trail, the result could be the end of the post-1945 Pax Americana”.

Boot goes on to note “One of Trump’s top priorities is to improve relations with Vladimir Putin. In a post-election phone call, Trump told the Russian dictator that “he is very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia and the people of Russia.” Sound familiar? Obama spoke in virtually identical terms when he took office in 2009. Hence his failed “reset” of relations with Moscow. This was part of Obama’s larger rejection of what he saw as the moralizing, interventionist approach of the George W. Bush administration. (Obama also thought that Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s president, would be a more accommodating partner than Putin, who remained as prime minister.) During the 2008 campaign, Obama made a big point of saying that he would talk to any foreign leaders without any preconditions — a stance that his primary challenger, Hillary Clinton, criticized as naive. In office, Obama has re-established relations with the Castros in Cuba and Myanmar’s junta, reached a nuclear deal with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Iran, and did little to back up his calls for Bashar al-Assad to leave office. Instead of enforcing his “red line” with Syria, Obama agreed to a Russian-orchestrated deal under which Assad was supposed to give up his chemical weapons (a pledge the Syrian despot has not fully carried out). Obama has also refused to take any military action to stop Assad’s assaults on civilians, notwithstanding his creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board. Obama has often expressed his admiration for George H.W. Bush, and he has largely governed as an amoral realpolitiker who has put American interests, as he defines them, above the promotion of American values. Far from proselytizing for freedom and democracy, Obama has given a series of speeches in venues including Cairo and the Laotian capital of Vientiane — speeches that, to critics, have sounded like apologies for past American misconduct. (Obama’s aides have claimed he was merely “reckoning with history.”) When Iranian protesters took to the streets in the 2009 Green Revolution, Obama did not express support because he feared that doing so would interfere with his attempts to engage with the Iranian regime”.

Boot contends that “On only a few occasions has Obama allowed idealistic considerations to gain the upper hand in his cold-blooded foreign policy — and never for long. He did intervene in Libya to help topple Muammar al-Qaddafi — an intervention Trump supported at the time but now criticizes — but he did little to try to shape post-Qaddafi Libya and gives every indication of regretting his initial intervention. He also called for Hosni Mubarak to step down as Egypt’s ruler during the Arab Spring but did not oppose the subsequent military coup that ousted an elected Muslim Brotherhood government and installed the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It is obvious that human rights promotion, while not dismissed entirely, has not been an animating principle of the president’s foreign policy. More broadly, Obama has given every indication that he does not see America as an exemplar but rather a deeply flawed nation whose forays abroad often have harmful consequences. In a 2009 press conference, Obama dismissed the idea that America is “uniquely qualified to lead the world,” saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” That doesn’t mean that Obama hates America, as the cruder right-wing attacks have had it. In the very same press conference, he went on to say: “Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.” Thus Obama sees the United States as imperfect but virtuous as long as it acts in concert with others — something that it has not always done”.

The piece argues that “Trump, who has a far more jaundiced view of America than Obama does. In a revealing July 20 interview with the New York Times, Trump dismissed concerns about the massive violations of civil liberties being committed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime in Turkey: “When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.” In a similar vein, Trump dismissed concerns that Putin kills journalists: “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too.” This is the kind of moral relativism that Republicans once denounced but now accept from the president-elect. As with Obama, Trump’s refusal to see America as a country with a mission leads him to look askance upon interventions abroad. Like Obama, he eschews nation-building and expresses a preference to work with foreign rulers regardless of their lack of democratic legitimacy. Trump reiterated to the Wall Street Journal after his election that he plans to end support for Syrian rebels and align with Russia in Syria: “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS.” And never mind that Iran, Russia, and Assad are all committing war crimes. Trump’s approach is quite different from what Clinton advocated during the campaign; she called for no-fly zones and safe zones. But it’s not so different from Obama’s current policy, which provides a modicum of aid to the Syrian rebels but tacitly concedes that Assad will stay in power”.

It concludes “This is not to suggest that Trump’s worldview is identical to Obama’s. One of their big divisions is over international institutions. Obama negotiated an international accord to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases; Trump has said global warming is a Chinese hoax and called for pulling out of the Paris agreement. Obama negotiated a nuclear accord with Iran; Trump promises to renegotiate it, calling it a “disgraceful deal” and an “embarrassment to our country.” Obama is a free-trader who negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); Trump is a protectionist who vows to withdraw from the TPP, rip up NAFTA, and impose tariffs. Obama has been supportive of NATO, working to expand the forces that the alliance deploys in Eastern Europe and the Baltics to guard against Russian aggression; Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and questioned the need to station U.S. troops to defend countries that don’t pay enough for the privilege. In sum, Obama is a believer in international organizations and international law; Trump is not. It is hard to imagine Trump saying, as Obama did: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” In turn, it is hard to imagine Obama ever threatening to bomb the “shit” out of another country, to steal its oil, or to torture detainees — all of which would constitute war crimes”.

He ends “In the terms coined by Walter Russell Mead, Obama is a Jeffersonian, while Trump is a Jacksonian: The former believes that the United States should perfect its own democracy and go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” whereas the latter believes that “the United States should not seek out foreign quarrels” but that it should clobber anyone who messes with it. What unites Jeffersonians and Jacksonians, in spite of their substantial differences, is that both support quasi-isolationism — or, if you prefer, noninterventionism — unless severely provoked. Obama has been intent on pulling the United States back from the Middle East. The result of his withdrawal of troops from Iraq and his failure to get more actively involved in ending the Syrian civil war has been to create a vacuum of power that has been filled by the likes of the Islamic State and Hezbollah. Undaunted, Trump has said he wants not only to continue the pullback from the Middle East (he wants to subcontract American policy in Syria to Putin) but also to retreat from Europe and East Asia. He has suggested that he may lift sanctions on Russia and pull U.S. troops out of countries (from Germany to Japan) if he feels they are not paying enough for American protection. It is quite possible, then, that Trump’s foreign policy would represent an intensification rather than a repudiation of Obama’s “lead from behind” approach. American power survived eight years of an Obama presidency, albeit in diminished form. If the president-elect governs the way he campaigned (which, admittedly, is not necessarily a safe assumption), there is good cause to wonder whether U.S. ascendancy will survive four to eight years of Trumpism. The post-American age may be arriving sooner than imagined, ushered in by a president with an “America First” foreign policy”.

“Expects Islamic State to use crude chemical weapons”

30/10/2016

The United States expects Islamic State to use crude chemical weapons as it tries to repel an Iraqi-led offensive on the city of Mosul, U.S. officials say, although adding that the group’s technical ability to develop such weapons is highly limited. U.S. forces have begun to regularly collect shell fragments to test for possible chemical agents, given Islamic State’s use of mustard agent in the months before Monday’s launch of the Mosul offensive, one official said. In a previously undisclosed incident, U.S. forces confirmed the presence of a sulfur mustard agent on Islamic State munition fragments on Oct. 5, a second official said. The Islamic State had targeted local forces, not U.S. or coalition troops”.

Trump’s terrible October

30/10/2016

An article in the Hill argues that Trump’s own base are beginning to reject him, “When Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, told GOP nominee Donald Trump from the podium of the Democratic National Convention in July that “women are gonna be the reason you’re not elected to be president,” she probably didn’t forsee a sinking ship of this magnitude. Trump’s terrible October began Oct. 7, when an 11-year-old video from “Access Hollywood” came to light. In it, Trump describes his past sexual assaults of women: “I don’t even wait.” his was followed by a line of women who have come forward, describing events where, they claim, Trump actually sexually assaulted them (Trump denies these stories are true). New York magazine lists over 20 allegations of Trump’s mistreatment of women that have come out in the past month. And the list grows”.

The report goes on to note how “all of that the three public debates where the public consensus seems to be that Clinton bested Trump, three out of three. October was a terrible month for candidate Trump among women, one might think. Few were shocked when an ABC/Washington Post poll, taken between Oct. 20 and Oct. 22 by Langer Research Associates, was released, trumpeting a headline that Clinton was now in advance of Trump by 12 percentage points nationally among likely voters. That’s what the poll — a snapshot in time — says. But look at the movie, see where the action is, and a different picture emerges”.

It adds “Comparing two ABC/Washington Post polls taken a month apart, Trump’s disaster of October didn’t occur among women, the majority of whom already supported Clinton. Trump’s disaster occurred among his base: men. In the first poll taken Sept. 19-22 — before the “Access Hollywood” video came out — Trump was favoured over Clinton by 19 points among all men, a huge advantage for Trump, which reflects the historical advantage Republicans have had with men in presidential elections. But by the late October poll, the results had flipped. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton now leads Trump by 3 points in the same group — a swing of 22 points — roughly equivalent to one in five men ending their support for Trump during the past month. That’s a huge swing. One might expect that there is a similarly large swing among women; perhaps larger. But there isn’t. In September, women favored Clinton over Trump by 19 points; come October, that advantage did not measurably increase. A mere 1 point changed — It’s now 20 points — minuscule in comparison to the 22-point swing among men”.

It explains that “The impact was greatest among white men without a college degree. These men are supposed to be Trump’s base — and indeed, they still are the largest single demographic that supports Trump, according to the October poll. But comparing the September and October polls, one sees Trump’s base is abandoning him. In September, Trump enjoyed being 59-point favourite over Clinton among this demographic, but by October, this lead had shrunk to only 31 points — a change equivalent to Trump losing support of one in four white blue-collar men in October. That’s an abandonment. That’s an evaporation”.

It describes how “There can be more than one explanation for this change. First, it could be that men are abandoning the Trump ticket, and switching to Clinton in droves. A second possibility lies in that “likely voter” qualifier — it could be that men are simply abandoning Trump; and even if they are not pledging themselves to vote for Clinton in November, they’ve removed themselves from among likely voters, thus changing the outcome. There’s a third possibility: The men are lying to the pollsters. The polls were taken by phone, so one might expect the poll subjects were at home, or at work, perhaps in the presence of their spouse. In early October, an article in The Week describes that 12 percent more wives are voting for Clinton than thought by their male spouses. Likewise, 8 percent more husbands are voting for Trump than thought by their female spouses. Spouses are deceiving each other, perhaps to keep the peace at home”.

It ends “And, so, in the wake of Trump’s awful behaviour coming to light, more blue-collar men might be finding it difficult to assert that they’re voting for Trump while they’re on the phone with a pollster with their wife sitting nearby, even if their intention for the privacy of the ballot box is different. We won’t know for certain until a poll that isolates the subjects, or until Election Day. But if we accept these polls for what they say, the conclusion is clear: There has been an enormous swing from Trump to Clinton among men in the past month, a swing largely due to an evaporation among Trump’s base: white men with no degree. And while white women have also moved from Trump toward Clinton, the migration has been smaller in comparison. White blue-collar men have been, and continue to be, Trump’s base. But, his base has abandoned him in October in such numbers that, if he weren’t so loudly denigrating her, Trump might hear the fat lady sing”.

 

Clinton and white Catholics

28/10/2016

A report in the New York Times notes how Clinton is gaining support amongst white Catholics, “Since the election of Ronald Reagan, white Catholics have flocked to Republican nominees for a raft of reasons, including their stances on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. But this year, something seems different. “Trump is the exception to the rule,” Carol Robinson, 67, said as she left an afternoon prayer meeting in this a Philadelphia suburb with other enthusiastic supporters of Hillary Clinton. “He’s a loose cannon.” Roman Catholics are the country’s second-largest religious group after evangelical Protestants, and they are as diverse as the country itself, with young liberals, cultural conservatives and, increasingly, Democratic-leaning Hispanics”. But now, the Clinton campaign senses a rare opportunity to block Mr. Trump’s narrow path to victory by making inroads with a core part of the church: white Catholics, a prized group of voters who have defied predictions this year. Though a string of polls had shown Mr. Trump opening a lead among white Catholics, a new poll released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute showed Mr. Trump hemorrhaging support”.

The piece notes that “The five-day poll, which ended two days after the release of a recording in which Mr. Trump joked about groping women, and before several women came forward to say he had forcibly kissed or touched them, showed him effectively tied with Mrs. Clinton. The poll showed 42 percent of white Catholics supported him, and 46 percent backed her, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points. “That’s not where Trump wants to be in the homestretch, particularly with a core constituency in Midwestern battleground states,” said Robert Jones, a Public Religion Research Institute pollster. He added that white Catholics, much more than the white evangelicals who have largely remained loyal to Mr. Trump, seemed to be defying the Republican Party’s gravitational pull. Both campaigns see openings: Mr. Trump in hacked emails released last week in which members of the Clinton campaign spoke critically about Catholic conservatism, and Mrs. Clinton in Mr. Trump’s un-churchmanlike behaviour and his tussling with Pope Francis. The pope, on his way home from Mexico in February, suggested that Mr. Trump “is not Christian” if he preferred building barriers over bridges. Mr. Trump, not one to turn the other cheek, responded that Francis’ remarks were “disgraceful.” The episode did not hurt Mr. Trump’s standing in the Republican primaries; in fact, many Catholics believed the pope was improperly meddling in American politics”.

The report adds that “Francis may be more quietly influencing the Catholic vote in other ways. He has moved the church to emphasize inclusion and the welfare of the poor over divisive issues like abortion and homosexuality. And his personnel changes have effectively left Mr. Trump’s conservative backers without much support from prominent Catholic clergy members“It’s a concern among a lot of Catholics that maybe we’re not going to hear the kind of strong message that we heard in past elections,” said Frank Pavone, a Catholic priest who runs an anti-abortion group and is advising Mr. Trump. In 2004, a powerful group of Catholic archbishops publicly advocated the re-election of President George W. Bush. Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis said that if given the chance, he would deny communion to Mr. Bush’s opponent, Senator John Kerry, because of his abortion stance”.

The article mentions how “Pope Benedict XVI elevated Archbishop Burke to the rank of cardinal, but Francis has since essentially demoted him from his Vatican position. And when Cardinal Francis George, a combative voice on social issues from his high perch as the leader of the Chicago Archdiocese, took ill in 2014 (he died the next year), Pope Francis replaced him with the more inclusive Blase Cupich, who has focused his energies on climate change, gun control and immigration reform. The pope announced this month that he would elevate Archbishop Cupich to the rank of cardinal, while passing over the United States’ reigning conservative heavyweight, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, who has remained outspoken in his criticism of Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. Prominent Catholic lawmakers are now targeting voters on behalf of the Clinton campaign. This month, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, held a round-table discussion with nuns in Dubuque, Iowa. The campaign has also created “heritage” outreach programs to try to appeal to voters with immigrant backgrounds, such as Irish and Italian, who are often Catholic. The director of the Clinton campaign’s Catholic outreach program, John McCarthy, said that lay Catholic leaders he met with in Dubuque repeatedly said they were uncomfortable with Mr. Trump. “The divisive rhetoric is what is really pushing people away,” Mr. McCarthy said. But the Trump campaign has done its own outreach”.

Unsuprusingly it notes “The Trump campaign is also courting Catholic conservatives by highlighting a recent comment from Mrs. Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine — himself an observant Catholic — that the church will one day support gay marriage. And it is making the most of every mention of Catholicism in the hacked Clinton campaign emails being released by WikiLeaks. In one 2011 conversation about Rupert Murdoch in particular and prominent Catholics in general, Jennifer Palmieri, who later became the communications director of the Clinton campaign, wrote: “I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion. Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals.” The Trump campaign has also highlighted a 2012 email urging John D. Podesta, a former president of the Center for American Progress, to “plant the seeds of the revolution” against “Middle Ages dictatorship” within the Catholic church. Mr. Podesta, who is now Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, responded by writing that he and his allies had created groups for just such a purpose.

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.”

“Less likely to ease sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine”

20/10/2016

Outraged by Russia’s intensified air strikes on rebels in Syria, the European Union is now less likely to ease sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine, diplomats say, and some in the bloc are raising the prospect of more punitive steps against the Kremlin. While the EU says conflicts in Syria and Ukraine need to be kept separate, the latest military offensive by Damascus and its ally Moscow on rebel-held eastern Aleppo further clouds the strained ties between Moscow and the bloc. That weakens the hand of Italy, Hungary and others who have steadily increased pressure for easing sanctions, returning to doing business and re-engaging with Moscow after first hitting it with punitive measures for annexing Crimea in March 2014″.

Fixing Brazil

23/09/2016

A piece in Foreign Affairs looks at how to fix Brazil, “Brazil has rarely had it so bad. The country’s economy has col­lapsed: since 2013, its unemployment rate has nearly doubled, to more than 11 percent, and last year its GDP shrank by 3.8 per­cent, the largest contraction in a quarter century. Petrobras, Brazil’s semipublic oil giant, has lost around 85 percent of its value since 2008, thanks to declining commodity prices and its role in a massive corruption scandal. The Zika virus has infected thousands of Brazilians, exposing the frailty of the country’s health system. And despite the billions of dollars Brasília poured into the 2014 World Cup and this year’s Olympic Games, those events have done little to improve the national mood or upgrade the country’s urban infrastructure. Meanwhile, many of Brazil’s long-standing problems have proved stubbornly persistent: half of all Brazilians still lack access to basic sanitation, 35 million of them lack access to clean water, and in 2014, the country suffered nearly 60,000 homicides. But Brazil’s biggest problems today are political. Things first came to a boil in the summer of 2013, when the police clashed with students protesting bus and subway fare hikes in São Paulo. Within days, some 1.5 million people took to the streets of Brazil’s big cities to protest a wider set of problems, including the government’s wasteful spending (to the tune of some $3.6 billion) on the construction and refurbishment of a dozen stadiums for the World Cup. In the months that followed, when Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff appeared on television to soothe the unrest, Brazilians across the country drowned out her voice by rattling pots and pans from their balconies. In October 2014, after promising to increase public spending and bring down unemployment, Rousseff managed to win reelection by a thin margin. But she quickly backtracked on her major pledges, announcing a plan to cut state spend­ing and rein in inflation. The public’s anger mounted”.

He writes that the coalition led by Rousseff’s party collapsed with impeachment proceedings against her that were later successful. He adds that Brazil’s constitution allows the president powers to break gridlock between executive and legislature through decree as well as “dislodge pending legislation from congres­sional committees, force Congress to vote on urgent measures, and veto bills in part or in whole. Those powers have long helped Brazil’s presidents avoid deadlock and pass many needed reforms. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Brazilian presidents are all-powerful. To the contrary: their ability to avoid gridlock comes at a high price. Because Brazil’s Congress has more than two dozen political parties, it’s nearly impossible for a single one to win a majority. That forces Brazil’s presidents to form coalitions in order to govern effectively. And that’s where the problems start. Brazil’s political parties lack coherent ideological agendas; instead, they are loosely knit alliances whose members have no qualms about forming or dissolving coalitions at any time”.

The author goes on to mention how “Brazil’s electoral rules allow candidates to switch parties relatively easily, undermining any chance of ideological unity within coalitions. And candidates are elected to Congress based not on the number of votes they receive individually but on the total number their party pulls in. That creates an incentive for politicians to change allegiances on a regular basis: jumping ship for a party led by a popular candidate can often boost less popular aspirants to office (or keep them there). Brazilian politicians thus tend to ride on the coattails of powerful allies instead of focusing on party loyalty, ideological consistency, or the details of policy”.

He also cites numerous inefficiencies, which pale “in comparison to the other big problem engendered by Brazil’s flawed political rules: endemic corruption. In many cases, the pork and patronage doled out by presidents prove insufficient to win Congress’ support; presidents therefore often sweeten the pot by allowing legislators to appoint their allies to plum jobs in Brazil’s powerful state-owned companies and regulatory agencies. Once in these posts, the new officials gain a say over which companies will receive lucrative government contracts. And many of them have proved all too happy to make those decisions based on bribes, which they then share with their patrons in Congress”.

He goes on to mention that “Unlikely as it may seem, Brazil’s current troubles might just have a silver lining: business as usual has become so costly that many Brazilians have finally accepted that the system has to change. Operation Car Wash has laid bare the misdeeds of the country’s political class, and for the first time, dozens of politicians and business leaders have gone to jail. In the past, officials were able to shrug off corruption investigations by relying on a lenient justice system, a weak congressional ethics committee, and a public that seemed inured to graft. That is no longer possible. The judges, investigators, and prosecutors running Operation Car Wash represent a new generation of civil servants, with new values, and they are using a new set of rules and tactics, including the threat of serious sentences and the carrot of leniency deals, to break the silence that politicians and businesspeople have maintained for decades. Just as important, according to public opinion research by the polling group Datafolha, most Brazilians now believe that corruption is their country’s biggest problem. And whereas the protests in 2013 were mostly about irrational government spending, more recently, Brazilians have taken to the streets specifically to protest official corruption. For all his shortcomings, Temer seems to understand the need for change. He is pushing for Brazil’s first-ever cap on public spending, a measure that would limit government expenditures to current levels for the next 20 years, thereby forcing interest groups to compete for a fixed amount of resources instead of pushing for tax hikes or bigger deficits. He has introduced measures that will allow the government to reward efficient bureaucrats across the vast expanse of the Brazilian state. And crucially, he has raised the possibility of constitutional reforms that would reduce the number of political parties and restrict their ability to merge their electoral lists. Both measures would make it easier to get things done in Congress without graft”.

He goes on to suggest that “In short, lawmakers must rewrite the rules of the game so that elected officials stop working only for their backers and start focusing on good governance for the majority of the population. Academics, policymakers, and pundits have offered a number of ideas for how they might do so. One radical proposal would have Brazil drop its presidential system in favor of a parliamentary one akin to the United Kingdom’s. By fusing Congress and the executive, that change would make legislators directly responsible for the success or failure of the government, and since lawmakers would be threatened with fresh elections if they challenged the government’s major decisions, such a reform might reduce corrupt dealmaking and encourage the development of stronger political parties. Other experts have argued for a semi-presidential system, in which a prime minister accountable to the legislature conducts day-to-day politics and a president retains the power to dissolve parliament and call new elections. Shifting to such a system could make lawmakers more accountable for the results of policy decisions while preserving the president’s status as a national figurehead. Yet another proposal would keep Brazil’s current presidential system intact but reduce the number of existing parties to between six and eight and push them to commit to coherent policy platforms, in part by abandoning the open-list proportional representation that defines today’s electoral system”.

He concludes “It is too early to say which of these proposals would be most effective. What is certain, however, is that Brazil’s political system will remain dysfunctional until the country’s president and legislators can work together effectively—in the name of party platforms, not clientelistic bargains. To get there, Brazil must reduce the number of parties in Congress and empower them to discipline their own members. Operation Car Wash, Rousseff’s impeachment, and the overall economic decline have created an opportunity for Brazil to pursue just this kind of reform. Now the country’s politicians must seize the rare opening these cascading crises have afforded them”.

“These objectives do not add up to a coherent policy”

07/09/2016

An article discusses a defence of Obama’s foreign policy given recently, “The Middle East remains the most dangerous, most complicated, and perhaps most controversial element in the Obama administration’s conduct of world affairs. In an interview with Foreign Policy contributor Aaron David Miller, Robert Malley, special assistant to the president and coordinator for the Middle East on the National Security Council staff, discussed President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies in depth. It is not only a polished, sober assessment of the actions and interests of the Obama administration, it’s a surprising one, too — it’s rare that a White House insider and counsel to the president gives us such insight into how off-base much of Obama’s approach to the region is. As ambassador to Turkey and Iraq during the Obama administration’s first term, I had a front row seat as much of that approach developed”.

The writer notes that “Malley’s rendition of Obama’s actions. His account of the Syrian chemical weapons denouement gives more credit to the administration’s decisiveness and less to pure chance — Putin compromising to thwart U.S. military action that Obama had essentially ruled out — than the public record justifies. Malley is basically right, however, in his assessment of the Iran nuclear deal, and the role of “tough multilateral diplomacy” and threat of force in achieving a breakthrough. But a list of American actions does not alone make a coherent mosaic. What gives context are the objectives that underlie activity. Malley, in the two he stresses, and the one he basically ignores, reveals why — as Miller noted — many believe “the Middle East is going to look a lot worse when Barack Obama leaves office than when he arrived.” For Malley, the core administration objectives are 1) avoiding attacks, particularly terrorist, on Americans (“the president’s priority … must be to defend America’s security”) and, 2) avoiding disastrous military adventures (“costly, open-ended conflicts”; “getting bogged down in military adventures”; and avoiding the myth “that military victory invariably translates into lasting political success”). The problem is that these objectives do not add up to a coherent policy — at best, they are things to be careful about when doing foreign policy. But Malley insists these are the standards by which to measure the administration”.

The writer argues that “He has half a point with the first. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the American people have been fixated on avoiding any terrorist attack on U.S. soil. In fact, a recent poll found that 42 percent of Americans say they are less safe from terrorism than before 9/11. But that persistent fear can lead us to ignore what was long thought vital: that if America does not deal with the broader threats to peace that so devastated Europe and Asia in the past century, it places its own security at existential risk. To emphasise the importance of avoiding unsuccessful military operations — his second “core” objective — Malley inflates the dangers. His target, as often with this administration, is the last administration”.

He argues correctly that “it didn’t actually happen as Malley describes: Obama became president not in 2003, but 2009. By then, almost all fighting had ceased in Iraq, President George W. Bush had begun withdrawing forces and had committed to pull out all troops before 2012. Likewise, Bush had opted not to confront Iran militarily over nuclear programs, begun the P5+1 negotiations with Tehran, mobilised the international community with four Security Council resolutions, and negotiated with the Iranians in Baghdad to avoid tensions over Iraq. Even more troubling is Malley’s lack of emphasis on the classic U.S. foreign policy objective since the 1940s: the maintenance of a global security order based on liberal values, international law, and trade and finance — all enabled by collective security centered on America’s readiness to defend these goals; not only against ideological rivals but also regional hegemons seeking to subjugate neighbours and carve out no-go zones against us”.

The article adds “Malley touches on this objective in describing the Obama administration’s balancing act, but does not dwell on what seemingly should be a central objective. That’s understandable, perhaps, as the administration put little emphasis on its role in maintaining global order in the Middle East. Initially Obama’s White House team did not have to prioritize these issues, as the focus was — apart from Iran’s nukes — nonstate actors and the Arab Spring. But recently we’ve witnessed serious challenges to that order: the rise of the Islamic State; the Bashar al-Assad regime’s slaughter of its population and subsequent fallout; the refugee tidal wave across the Middle East and into Europe; Iran’s infiltration of four Arab states; and Russia’s military return. None of these threats — apart from the Islamic State, and then only recently — has generated a robust American response”.

Correctly he writes that “no-risk, no-casualty American aerial campaigns against terrorists convince no one that Uncle Sam will be there when things get rough. Ducking military challenges that carry risks is what our partners see. The administration may want to dismiss those unhappy with Washington’s Iran policy as hopeless opponents of a reasonable (and here I agree with Malley) nuclear deal. But aside from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, nobody in the region opposes that agreement explicitly”.

He ends “One explanation for Obama’s failure to respond effectively to threats to the regional order by Iran, the Islamic State, and now the Russians is the administration’s obsession with Malley’s two objectives, especially avoiding military missteps. Running a deterrence policy always risks military setbacks. But if minimizing risk is job one, deterrence necessarily gets short shrift. Even worse might come. Malley’s emphasis on “testing” the Russians, his assumptions that Putin could bog down in Syria where Assad can’t win, his hope for a better relationship with Iran, and his disparaging tone toward partners together suggest that perhaps the administration does have a Middle East grand strategy, albeit one not vetted publicly: to “share” (the president’s word, not Malley’s) the region with those anti-status quo forces now helping turn it into a nightmare. In this regard, Malley’s most worrisome words refer to the end of Obama’s time in the White House: “six months is a long time … there is still so much to be done.”

Brazil after the Olympics

01/09/2016

A piece notes the problems of Brazil after the end of the Olympics, “The Olympic torch was extinguished Sunday night in a carnival of song and dance, the good times rolled. But it is too early to determine whether or not the games were a success or just a muddling through difficult days. Swimming pools turned green. Some 85,000 soldiers and police were mobilised to provide security, but instances of muggings,stray bullets, and petty theft made headlines. The pollution in Guanabara Bay sickened at least one athlete. And, of course, six-time Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte and three of his fellow swimmers embarrassedthemselves. But the enthusiasm of many Cariocas — as Rio de Janeiro’s residents are called — partially compensated for the long lines to enter venues, food shortages, and challenging transportation delays. However the games will be remembered, it has at least been a temporary respite for Brazilians from the ongoing political and economic crises that have gripped the nation”.

More importantly it mentions “As the games end, the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff will move to closure with Aug. 25 cited as the day the last phase of the process will open. Rousseff faces charges of violating budget laws by authorizing credit lines without congressional approval. That is the formal indictment. But there are many other elements involved in the accounting of her very public national downfall. Rousseff, by most accounts, was a terrible politician. Brazil is a multiparty political system, and the only way to get legislation approved is to constantly build short-term coalitions in Congress; instead, she refused and played to her base. Even worse, she was often petty: In particular, she sought to prevent the re-election of Eduardo Cunha as the speaker of the lower house. In retaliation, it is said, he initiated the impeachment process. Many blame her government for the economic and financial crises that now plague the country. By most accounts, she appointed mediocre functionaries to important cabinet posts. And her Workers’ Party (PT) never encountered a welfare program it didn’t like. As a result of massive public sector spending, the economy overheated. Inflation increased, as did unemployment. Foreign direct investment fell”.

It adds importantly, “the hallmark of the current crisis was the discovery that the state oil company, Petrobras, had become a major source of bribes and kickbacks that were used to finance party politics. Most of the country’s major construction companies were involved, and a host of political leaders across the party spectrum have been implicated in the scandal. It did not help Rousseff’s credibility that she served as the minister of mines and energy and chair of Petrobras while many of the crimes were committed. Of course, she denies any knowledge of what occurred. But the scandal is so large as to deem that defense laughable. A new generation of federal prosecutors have arrested or indicted many of the alleged participants of the conspiracy. Dozens of senior politicians and private sector officials sit in jail. Some are involved in plea bargains; most will serve some time in prison. For economic and political elites who believed they could act with impunity, the new reality that crimes will be punished is a shock — but one that will serve Brazil well in the future. The cozy, often crooked ties between the private sector and the huge, inefficient public sector have been dealt a serious blow”.

It goes on to point out that “though the sins of an economic giant are being laid bare, the country’s finances are still in great distress. A decade ago, Brazil was seen as a rapidly emerging economy — one of the skyrocketing BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) that would own the future. Those were heady days, especially for Brazil. A sharp increase in demand for Brazilian raw materials and commodities, particularly from China, provided an ever-increasing amount of foreign exchange. Investment flowed in. Brazil was upgraded by all the rating agencies. But the PT didn’t understand that the economy was actually neither productive nor competitive globally. Priorities such as physical infrastructure were overlooked. Rigid labour laws, many on the books since the 1930s, made it difficult to fire unproductive workers and hire new ones. Skills were subpar; both technical training and general education languished. Public health, while universal, was substandard. Social security coverage extended benefits to both public sector employees and the private sector, but deficits ballooned and reform was postponed. Brazil’s tax collection was in disarray — leveed at the union, federal district, state, and municipal level, the burden surpassed 33 percent of the country’s GDP. Meanwhile, government grew bigger and bigger as the PT sought to employ as many of its party members as possible, often with little thought to their competence”.

The author mentions that “The acting president, Michel Temer, if confirmed at the end of August as the new chief executive, apparently wants to undertake a reform program. The first priority is to rein in government spending, cutting pensions and workers’ benefits. As might be imagined, the unions are outraged; there will be massive protests if the government decides to move forward”.

He points out its rising debt, partly due to an aging population, “Compounding the problem of a stable social safety net is Brazil’s profound inequality. There is a tremendous gap between the very rich, a struggling middle class, and the poor. The Olympics captured that disparity: As sweeping aerial shots panned from the beachfront condos of Ipanema to the mountainside favelas, or slums, the media didn’t shy from reports on the inability of the favelados to afford tickets for the events. Many of the favelas lack sanitation — a major cause of the pollution in Guanabara Bay, since raw sewage runs directly into the water. Promises to install processing plants have been on hold for decades. Security was frequently highlighted in the media coverage. While tourists and middle- and upper-class Brazilians cheered in the Maracanã Stadium, the favelas were home to the ongoing drug war between the gangs and the security forces”.

It concludes “As the games end and the impeachment process terminates, probably with the dismissal of Rousseff, the grim questions that mark Brazil’s present predicament will resurface. Can public education and health facilities be reformed to give security and opportunity to those in need? Can a corrupt, inefficient, and immense federal government be downsized? After decades of out-of-control growth, are there too many political interests at play to allow for meaningful reform? Can Brazil reinvigorate industry to provide new export products in a world where commodity prices will probably be flat for some time? The short answer is that changes are possible — but not without government reforms first. Most observers agree that much of the gridlock in Brasília is due to the dysfunctional political party system. Remarkably, ideology isn’t the problem: Politicians move from party to party with little regard for loyalty. But changing the system — creating electoral districts and reducing the number of political parties — will require congressional approval. Few analysts believe that there is a broad enough coalition in Brasília that will forgo perks and patronage to make selfless decisions for the good of the state”.

It ends “Local elections are scheduled for October of this year; the results may provide some insight into the impact of the current situation on the average voter. The expectation is that Rousseff’s PT will do poorly at the expense ofpersonalist parties. National elections will take place at the end of 2018. Temer has already said he will not be a candidate. The PT’s former two-term president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, looks increasingly like a liability — and he may well be indicted as part of the ongoing scandal. Will new reform-minded candidates emerge? That is the hope — but there is no guarantee that fresh faces will be able to successfully address the reform agenda. Some argue that economic growth will begin to return in late 2017 or in 2018. If Temer becomes president after the impeachment, he has promised to work with Congress to approve much needed fiscal reforms. Brazil would also be helped if global commodity and raw material prices recover. Surely, Brazil’s working and lower classes will cheer, but the welcome relief may only delay the inevitable reckoning with the painful realities that need to be addressed”.

 

“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.

“Blair defended his case for going to war in Iraq”

11/07/2016

Former British prime minister Tony Blair defended his case for going to war in Iraq, after a long-awaited report found the 2003 invasion was based on flawed evidence and woefully executed. The hugely anticipated Chilcot report offered a damning verdict on Britain’s role in the US-led war, detailing the flawed intelligence, questionable legal basis and inadequate preparation for the occupation. Britain deployed troops before diplomatic options had been exhausted and at a time when “there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein”, the Iraqi leader, the report found. It also highlighted how Blair wrote to US president George W. Bush in July 2002, the year before the invasion, saying: “I will be with you, whatever.”

“Turkey has recalled its envoy to Germany in protest”

11/06/2016

Turkey has recalled its envoy to Germany in protest against German MPs declaring the 1915 massacre of Armenians during WWI as “genocide”. Turkey called the vote “an example of ignorance and disrespect”. Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their people died in the atrocities of 1915. Turkey says the toll was much lower and rejects the term “genocide”. The vote heightens German-Turkish tensions at a time when Turkey’s help is needed to control migrant arrivals. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the resolution would seriously affect relations with Germany, and that the government would consider further measures in response to the vote”.

“Britain has proved especially willing to look the other way”

28/05/2016

A relevant article notes the links between London and corruption, “British Prime Minister David Cameron was caught on video describing Nigeria and Afghanistan as “fantastically corrupt” and “possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world.” Many Nigerians were outraged by his comments, which came on the eve of an anti-corruption summit in Britain to be attended by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Some demanded an apology from Cameron. But Buhari was phlegmatic. “I am not going to demand any apology from anyone. What I am demanding is the return of assets,” he said, referring obliquely to the tens of billions of dollars in stolen Nigerian money thought to be squirrelled away in London bank accounts. “What will I do with [an] apology? I need something tangible.” It’s no secret that corruption is a problem in Africa. Some $50 billion in illicit finance flows out of the continent every year, according to the United Nations. In the first 40 years of independence alone, Nigeria’s leaders stole or squandered an estimated $400 billion. But as the barbed comments from Buhari imply, these leaders had accomplices in the West. Britain and other developed countries are not the cause of Africa’s corruption, but they are certainly an impediment to its eradication. Cameron didn’t loot Nigeria’s coffers himself, but his government has provided thieves financial getaway vehicles to ferry stolen riches out of Africa”.

The report goes on to note “Buhari knows better than most how this white-collar mugging goes down. Back when he ruled Nigeria as a military dictator in the 1980s, he went after former ministers and civil servants from the previous administration in a wide-ranging anti-corruption probe. Some of them fled to Britain — in itself an indication of the benevolent treatment they expected to receive there. The response of Buhari’s government was to send agents to kidnap former transport minister Umaru Dikko from his home in London. They got as far as snatching him off the street, drugging him, and stuffing him into a shipping crate. But the plot was foiled at the last minute by British security forces as the agents prepared to load Dikko onto a flight back to Nigeria. The episode resulted in a major diplomatic crisis during which Britain refused multiple extradition requests from Nigeria, leaving the former minister to grow old with his allegedly ill-gotten gains. It’s understandable, if not excusable, that Nigeria resorted to kidnapping former ministers on European soil. At best, legal avenues for repatriating stolen wealth from abroad are infuriatingly slow. At worst, they are dead ends that come with hefty legal fees”.

It adds “This is sadly typical of African efforts to recover stolen wealth. Some have argued that African governments bear some responsibility for not aggressively prosecuting offenders at home. One oft-cited example is the so-called chickengate scandal in Kenya, where British companies paid bribes – codenamed “chicken” — to Kenyan officials to obtain contracts to print election materials. British authorities prosecuted their country’s offenders, but Kenyan authorities did not. What can Western countries do if their African counterparts lack the political will to root out corruption? This argument obscures the fact that African governments are fighting a battle on two fronts. Even when they successfully prosecute corruption at home, they often have to restart litigation in foreign countries to have any hope of accessing the stolen funds. In other words, they must litigate every crime twice: domestically to secure a conviction, and abroad to recover the money. This all but ensures that the stolen funds won’t be repatriated in full, since foreign lawyers typically collect a percentage of the money they recover. For African governments, illicit financial flows are lose-lose. But for Western firms, they’re win-win: There are profits to be made whether or not the money is eventually recovered and returned”.

Not supursingly the piece mentions “Leena Koni Hoffmann, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Africa Program, described these flows as “integral to the economies of” recipient countries. London’s booming housing market, for example, has been artificially inflated by money laundered from abroad, according to Britain’s National Crime Agency. Not surprisingly, Western enforcement of international anti-corruption treaties has been lax. As Cameron admitted at the summit last week, “When it comes to tackling corruption, the international community has looked the other way for far too long.” Of the 41 industrialized countries that are signatories to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Anti-Bribery Convention, only four actively enforce it, according to the Berlin-based anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.  Britain has proved especially willing to look the other way when foreign officials arrive with suspiciously large sums of money. Although British banks are supposed to conduct anti-money laundering checks when receiving funds from foreign politicians, a 2011 report from the country’s Financial Services Authority revealed that many had repeatedly failed to do so. For example, former Nigerian Gov. James Ibori managed to deposit more than $2 million over several years at a single British bank branch, largely in over-the-counter cash deposits, before anyone raised an eyebrow. He was eventually convicted of money laundering in a British court in 2012, but the fact that no one caught on sooner speaks to the absurd laxity of the system”.

The piece ends “After last week’s summit, Cameron announced the formation of a Global Forum for Asset Recovery that will convene next year to discuss returning corruptly acquired funds to four countries, including Nigeria. He also announced that he would introduce new regulations that will make it more difficult for foreign shell companies to launder money in Britain by forcing them to declare their holdings in a public register. All this talk of cracking down on illicit finance is commendable, but unless Western governments get serious about enforcing anti-corruption regulations — remember, there are conventions in place that many signatories simply disregard — it won’t lead to anything. One way to improve enforcement would be to internationalise it, removing the fox-and-henhouse-like incentive structure that prevails when nations are expected to prevent illicit funds from flowing into their own pockets. This could be done either by empowering existing international enforcement bodies, such as the International Court of Justice, to prosecute transnational corruption or by establishing a stand-alone international anti-corruption court. Sadly, I don’t see Western countries leading the charge to do either”.

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”.

Bangladeshi gay rights activist murdered

18/05/2016

Bangladesh police say a top gay rights activist and editor at the country’s only LGBT magazine is one of two people who have been hacked to death. The US ambassador to Bangladesh condemned the killing of Xulhaz Mannan, who also worked at the US embassy. Another person was also injured when the attackers entered a Dhaka flat. Since February last year suspected militants have killed several secular or atheist writers and members of religious minority groups. The two men were murdered two days after a university teacher was hacked to death by suspected Islamist militants. So-called Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility – but the Bangladeshi government insists there is no IS presence in the country.

“social and family pressures drive 80 percent of gay men to marry women”

25/04/2016

An unusual article notes the reasons why Chinese people support gay marriage, “In June 2015, two Chinese men filed a lawsuit after their local civil affairs bureau refused to register their marriage. When in early 2016 a district court in the southern province of Hunan agreed to hear the case, it marked the first time a Chinese court accepted a case about same-sex marriage. But on April 13, after just a few hours of deliberation, the judge ruled against the couple”.

It goes on to note “It’s a blow, albeit an expected one, to the growing number of supporters of marriage equality in China. Chinese attitudes toward same-sex unions reflect similar U.S. trends — a younger generation, less traditional than their parents, who believe that all love between two consenting adults should be recognized, and growing acceptance throughout society for individual choice and personal happiness. When the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in June 2015 effectively legalizing gay marriage around the country, Chinese netizens celebrated in droves, expressing hope that China might itself one day legalize such unions. But one major driver of Chinese support for marriage equality reflects a social issue that is virtually nonexistent Stateside: the estimated millions of Chinese women, known as tongqi, or “wives of gays,” who are trapped in loveless marriages with gay men. In the hours after the April 13 ruling, many comments on microblogging platform Weibo placed tongqi front and center in the debate about same-sex marriage. “Those who oppose same-sex marriage are just producing more tongqi,” wrote one user in a comment that received more than 10,000 likes. “I don’t admire homosexual behaviour, but if same-sex marriage is forever prohibited, won’t the tragedy of gay wives be more and more common?”asked another, adding, “The country should at least consider some reform measures on behalf of the poor women who are tongqi.” Sham marriage is a serious problem in China, where social and family pressures drive 80 percent of gay men to marry women, according to estimates from Zhang Beichuan, who directs the Beijing-based nonprofit academic society China Sexology Association. Women married to gay men often face heavy emotional and social tolls, compounded in a society where divorce and homosexuality still carry strong stigmas”.

The piece adds “Gay men married to straight women may have intentionally misled their wives in order to build a public image that conformed to societal and family expectations, but in some cases, the men may not yet have come to terms with their own sexuality. Online chat groups and support groups, such as the Beijing-based Pink Space, have helped women deal with the shock of such discoveries. While some women, like Li and Qiu, seek divorce, others remain in the marriage, especially those with children. While the online focus on tongqi suggests concern for women’s rights, the reality underlying the phenomenon is more complex. Tongfu, or “husbands of gay wives,” also exist, but less is known about their experiences.According to research by sociologist Tang Kuiyu and others at the Harbin Institute of Technology, that’s because tongfu are “less likely to take their complaints online” or seek out others in the same situation. The researchers also found that tongfu had greater financial independence than tongqi, making it easier for them to obtain divorces. The fact that middle-aged divorced men face less stigma than their female counterparts also has made it easier for tongfu to remarry”.

It ends “The pressure to marry, and to create the appearance of a life that conforms to social and family expectations, has also led some gay men and lesbians to enter into sham marriages with one another, again largely for appearances’ sake. Some couples may live together only when family is in town, though others may opt for in-vitro fertilization in order to have a child together. Li, the sexologist, who has advocated for marriage equality since 2003,believes that legalizing same-sex marriage would go far in reducing the ranks of tongqi. Many of China’s netizens seem to agree. “For every married gay couple,” wrote one Weibo user in a comment that garnered more than 8,000 likes, “there are two fewer miserable tongqi.” Not to mention two fewer men unable to pursue true happiness”.

“Cameron himself bears some of the blame”

17/04/2016

A pertinent article discusses how David Cameron, while having done nothing illegal, has had his “chickens come home to roost”.

The piece opens, “The Tarbert Estate, on the ruggedly beautiful Hebridean island of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland, is one of David Cameron’s favourite bolt-holes. Jura, which has a population of some 200 people, spread over 142 square miles, was once described by George Orwell, who wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four on the island, as marvelously “ungetatable.” That is part of the attraction. It’s why I holiday here, visiting my in-laws; it’s why Cameron likes to holiday here, too, visiting his. Not that we should expect the prime minister to be visiting Jura anytime soon, though — however much the idea of escaping the turbulence thrown up by the leak of the so-called “Panama Papers” must appeal at the moment. The sprawling 19,000-acre Tarbert Estate is run by the prime minister’s stepfather-in-law, Viscount Astor. Technically, however, it is owned by a company headquartered in Nassau, in the Bahamas. Yes, Cameron’s offshore retreat is itself an offshore enterprise. And so Cameron’s favourite Scottish escape now also serves as an inconvenient reminder that the lives of the rich and famous are ordered according to their own rules and norms, vastly different — as the Panama Papers reveal — to those that govern the rest of us. That Cameron is rich is hardly news to Britons. He has never hidden his gilded upbringing. The son of a stockbroker, he was educated at Eton College, arguably Britain’s most prestigious, and certainly most famous, school. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and soon graduated to using a silver knife and fork, too. As he told the House of Commons on Monday, “[aspiration and wealth creation] are not somehow dirty words.”

The piece adds “Cameron has always acknowledged his good fortune, but, until now, this good fortune has never caused him serious difficulty. The revelation in the Panama Papers that his father established an offshore investment trust based in the British Virgin Islands has changed that. Worse still was the clumsily handled admission — which was only wrenched out of him a few days later — that Cameron himself held shares in the ironically named Blairmore Holdings Inc. until January 2010, at which point, just months away from becoming prime minister, he sold his interest. It should be stressed that there is no indication that Cameron ever broke the law and that he paid tax on the dividends accrued from his late father’s offshore investments. Nevertheless, the taint of unearned privilege is not easily removed. Making matters worse, Cameron had previously criticized high-profile celebrities who took advantage of complicated offshore financial vehicles to minimise their tax liability. He hosted a G-8 summit in 2013, which was supposed to create new arrangements by which governments could crack down on international tax avoidance, and then, that same year, as we now know, he helped water down EU proposals to shine a more powerful light on potentially shady offshore practices”.

The report goes on to mention “Stung by criticism — and scrambling to contain the fallout — Cameron published his most recent tax returns last week, a move that, though standard in the United States, is considered a radical break from convention in Britain. But these, in turn, simply demonstrated the extent of Cameron’s wealth. The revelation that he had — again, legally — been gifted £200,000 by his mother five years ago, the better to avoid inheritance tax obligations, only added to the sense that the prime minister is too rich to be wholly in touch with the concerns of the average voter. Unfair? Perhaps. But politics is not a game of fairness.  The Panama Papers drama is another helpful reminder of the distinction between what is legal and what is seemly. The opportunity to minimize tax liability is not the same as a license — particularly as an elected official — to do so. This helps explain why, remarkably, Cameron has endured calls this week that he ought to resign, even though no one has yet satisfactorily demonstrated why he should step down. His tax affairs, though small bore in comparison to those of the truly ultra-wealthy, just feel mildly dodgy. And in today’s Britain, mildly dodgy appears to be enough to prompt the citizenry to break out the pitchforks”.

Correctly the writer argues “If this is the case, however, Cameron himself bears some of the blame. In the six years that he has been prime minister, Cameron has repeatedly stressed, “We’re all in this together,” as if repairing Britain’s battered public finances post-crisis was not just a matter of economic prudence but also, in some inchoate sense, a moral necessity. Every part of society was expected to contribute. As it turns out, however, some would contribute more than others. One of Cameron’s first decisions was to increase the rate on the so-called value-added tax — a levy on consumption that is unavoidably regressive — to 20 percent. Almost as quickly, he cut the rate of income tax paid by the wealthiest 1 percent of Britons from 50 percent to 45 percent. This was justified on the grounds that doing so would actually increase revenue by making avoiding tax less attractive — but, even so, the political symbolism was only too apparent: The Tories cut taxes for the rich, because that is what Tories exist to do. Meanwhile, the local government services upon which the poor depend, to a disproportionate extent, have been squeezed like never before”.

The piece ends “The sense that there is one set of rules for the wealthy and another for the ordinary is widely felt. In 2008, the government agreed to bail out some of the country’s largest banks; yet, in 2016, the government is reluctant to bail out a stricken steel industry upon which as many as 40,000 jobs depend. One rule for the City of London, another for the remains of Britain’s manufacturing base. That the comparison is inexact matters little. (The banks were rescued because abandoning them to their otherwise wholly merited fate risked destroying the entire British economy; the steel industry, by comparison, is of less account.) The economics make sense; the politics are more painful. There remains a sense that there has not been a full reckoning with the crash and the ensuing recession. The bankers most heavily implicated in it have resumed their plutocratic ways. London has become a playground for the global 1 percent, as Russian and Persian Gulf money pours in. The divide between the have-lots and the have-less has rarely been so obvious and so dramatic. That has consequences — not the least of which is an uptick in public cynicism and a corresponding diminishment of trust. A kind of social fabric is wearing thin. And without trust, public institutions, upon which the governance of the nation rests, are corroded to the point at which they eventually collapse. It is a breeding ground for festering discontent and populist revolt. The ability of massive multinational corporations, such as Google, Apple, and Amazon, to effectively negotiate their own tax rates only adds to an increasingly pervasive sense of unfairness. In other words, we are all in this together only if you take a very generous definition of “we” and “in” and “together.” It is a question of morals, not laws”.

He concludes “Cameron will survive this storm. The Labour Party, led by veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, remains in the business of demonstrating its own unelectability, and so the Tories will slog on — even though, perhaps perversely, the lack of a credible opposition actually magnifies the anger felt at a government that is safe, but increasingly unpopular. But the damage to Cameron’s reputation is done. It is enough to leave the prime minister pining for the peace and quiet of Jura — a retreat he will now probably only enjoy again after he has retreated from front-line politics. He has, to this point, been a lucky prime minister, who has paid little price for his failures — the most notable of which being a persistent inability to meet his own government’s economic targets and balance Britain’s public finances. But all generals, even lucky ones, run out of luck eventually”.

“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”.

“A Panamanian law firm that specialises in offshore tax havens”

09/04/2016

A massive leak of secret files from a Panamanian law firm that specialises in offshore tax havens has revealed the often-murky financial wheelings and dealings of some of the world’s most powerful political players, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the king of Saudi Arabia, Iceland’s prime minister and the family of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, among dozens of others. In a data dump that is described as being larger than leaked US diplomatic cables, around 2.6 terabytes of information drawn from the internal database of Mossack Fonseca has been made public. The data from the Panama Papers, available on the website of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — one of around 100 news organisations and 300 journalists that worked on mining the data simultaneously — also reveals the offshore holdings of members of Prime Minister Sharif’s family”.

“Both sides in the debate can take consolation”

09/04/2016

Yesterday Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitia, his long awaited Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation.

John Allen writes that “One of the standard talks I’ve given on the Catholic lecture circuit for years now focuses on the cultural gap between the Vatican and Main Street USA. Only semi-jokingly, I sometimes title it “Rome is from Mars, America from Venus,” because it does often seem they’re on two different planets. One area where the cultural gap is especially apparent is contrasting attitudes towards law. For Americans, and perhaps Anglo-Saxons generally, law is a lowest common denominator of civic morality. It’s what we expect everyone to do all the time, and if a law is being widely disobeyed, for us that’s a crisis – we either want to repeal the law or launch a crackdown, but we can’t have people making exceptions on the fly”.

Allen goes on to notes “For Mediterranean cultures, which still shape the thought-world of the Vatican to a significant degree, law is instead more akin to an ideal. It describes a moral aspiration, but realistically it’s understood that many people much of the time will fall short. (If you don’t believe it, come to Italy sometime and watch how the locals approach traffic laws!) A frustration I’ve long experienced as an American journalist covering the Vatican is that when the pope or some Vatican department issues a new law, it often comes off as terribly draconian and harsh in media coverage and public discussion. It’s difficult to explain that always encoded into the legislation is the common-sense expectation that bishops and pastors will use good judgment in applying it in ways that reflect their local circumstances”.

Allen makes the point that Rome “never says that second part explicitly – perhaps out of fear that it will come off as encouraging hypocrisy, rather than presuming a good-faith effort to live up to the value the law expresses. They don’t usually say it, that is, until now. One striking point about Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ sweeping new apostolic exhortation on the family, which was released in a Vatican news conference on Friday, is that it lifts up this long-standing Catholic capacity for flexibility and nuance in pastoral practice, and sets it squarely alongside the law in full public view”.

The report goes on “Although the 264-page text treats a staggering variety of topics, public interest initially will focus on what Francis says in chapter eight about Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, since that was the lighting rod issue in two contentious Synods of Bishops in 2014 and again in 2015. In a nutshell, the pope neither creates any new law on the issue nor abrogates any existing one. What he does do, however, is place great stress on the pastoral practice of applying the law, insisting that pastors must engage in a careful process of “discernment” with regard to individual cases, which are not all alike, and help people reach decisions in conscience about the fashion in which the law applies to their circumstances. The “money quote” on this score comes in one of Francis’ footnotes (number 336, to be exact), in which the pontiff says, “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline.” In effect, what he’s saying is that there may be cases in which a given divorced and remarried Catholic, after talking things out with a priest, could be justified in reaching the decision that they don’t carry the guilt that should exclude them from the sacraments, including Holy Communion. In truth, that may not change very much in terms of in-the-trenches experience in the Church”.

Interestingly Allen makes the point that “For one thing, that sort of pastoral adaptation, sometimes referred to as an “internal forum” solution, is already happening. In many parishes, you can find divorced and remarried Catholics who come forward for communion, and many pastors have either quietly encouraged them to do so or, at least, never discouraged them, choosing to respect whatever decision they’ve made in conscience. For another, the language in Amoris Laetitia on the Communion question is sufficiently elastic that both sides in the debate can take consolation, meaning that those pastors and bishops inclined to a stricter reading of Church law probably won’t feel compelled to revise their thinking, and neither will those given to a more flexible stance”.

Crucially he adds “Amoris Laetitia represents a breakthrough of no small consequence, because for once in a Vatican text, what got enunciated wasn’t simply the law but also the space for pastoral practice – which is where the Church’s long-underappreciated capacity for subtlety and compassion usually enters the picture. In other words, what Pope Francis has done is let the rest of the world in on one of the best-kept secrets about the Catholic Church: Yes, the Church has laws, and it takes them very seriously. But even more than law it has flesh-and-blood people, and it takes their circumstances and struggles seriously too. At one stage, Francis writes that the divorced and remarried can find themselves in situations “which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications, leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment.” In reality, that’s been the spirit of things in the Church forever, to greater and lesser degrees depending on time and place. Still, it somehow feels new, and important, to hear a pope saying it out loud”.

 

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”.

ISIS genocide against Christians

28/03/2016

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

“Signs of an ideological revival are everywhere”

18/03/2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Poland to fight ISIS

19/02/2016

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

“Crossfire between Pope Francis and Donald Trump”

19/02/2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”.

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

15/01/2016

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

Ramadi liberated

03/01/2016

A triumphant Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared on Monday that the coming year would see his forces defeat Islamic State, after his military achieved its first major victory since collapsing in the face of the fighters 18 months ago. Iraqi forces flew the national flag above the main government complex in Ramadi earlier in the day, declaring they had recaptured the city, a provincial capital west of Baghdad, which fell to Islamic State in May. “2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when Daesh’s presence in Iraq will be terminated,” Abadi said in a speech broadcast on state television, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State that the hardline group rejects. “We are coming to liberate Mosul and it will be the fatal and final blow to Daesh,” he added. Mosul, northern Iraq’s main city, is by far the largest population center in the self-proclaimed caliphate Islamic State rules in Iraq and Syria.

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.

The Western hating left

14/12/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

08/12/2015

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

UK joins the fight against ISIS

04/12/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germany deploys troops

02/12/2015

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

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”.

Obama sends troops to Syria

09/11/2015

A report notes Obama’s decison to send troops to Syria.

It begins “In a major shift, the Obama administration is now willing to have U.S. troops take part in direct combat against the Islamic State, a move that could lead to American fatalities in Iraq and Syria and that poses political risks for a White House that had long vowed to keep U.S. forces out of the fight. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that the United States “won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground.” ISIL is an alternate acronym for the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or Daesh”.

The article goes on to make the point “Carter’s comments follow his assertion last week that he is “absolutely prepared” for a larger U.S. ground combat role in Iraq — even though those types of missions would carry the clear risk of American casualties. Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, a member of the Army’s elite Delta Force, was killed last week during a raid on an Islamic State prison. A 39-year-old father of four, Wheeler was the first American service member to die in combat in Iraq since 2011. Testifying along with Carter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford added that in addition to special operations raids, he would be open to embedding U.S. troops with Iraqi combat forces to help provide them with intelligence, direct airstrikes, and artillery fire but only if their deployment “had an operational or strategic impact” on the fight”.

Pointedly the piece notes that “The shift in thinking from months of pledges of “no boots on the ground” to one that embraces an active combat role comes as the Obama administration looks for ways to reinvigorate a stalled fight in Iraq, where the Islamic State retains control of several key cities. It also comes amid an intensifying Russian military intervention in neighbouring Syria, where Vladimir Putin has promised to battle the Islamic State but instead has focused most of his airstrikes on the rebels working to unseat Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Carter called the new strategy “Raqqa, Ramadi, and raids,” referring first to the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, followed by the Iraqi city of Ramadi that was taken by jihadi forces in May, and finally to the potential new American ground role in the fight”.

Yet this half hearted strategy leaves open the question, if things are not going well for the Obama strategy then why only put in some troops. Either his strategy has failed and needs a fundamental rethink or Syria and Iraq are not important in which case it is irrelevant that ISIS have large chunks of Iraq and Syria. Obama cannot have it both ways.

The report goes on to conclude “Across the border in Syria, a few dozen Syrian fighters who had been trained and equipped by U.S. forces as part of a failed $500 million program are still in the fight, Dunford said. Despite the cancellation of the program, the general said they continue to receive American aid and have been active in calling in airstrikes on Islamic State positions. Carter also outlined a change in the training effort for Syrian moderate fighters, saying that while the old approach was to identify, vet, and transport fighters out of Syria for weeks of training, the new approach is to work with trusted leaders of groups that are already fighting the Islamic State and “provide equipment and some training to them and support their operations with air power.” Carter and Dunford were repeatedly pressed on the issue of what kind of support the United States was prepared to offer these Syrian fighters when they come under attack, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) repeatedly framing the issue as a moral one. Neither defense official was willing to offer specifics, but Dunford did admit that “we have the authority, and we have the capability” to defend them through air power. But when asked directly if the United States was ready to defend the rebels from Russian airstrikes, he denied that the main U.S.-backed group, the Free Syrian Army, had been targeted by Russian aircraft”.

“Ending the biggest ­population-control experiment in history”

30/10/2015

The Washington Post reports that China has ended the one child policy, “China said Thursday that it will abandon its controversial “one-child” policy and allow all couples to have two children, effectively ending the biggest ­population-control experiment in history amid growing pressure from a rapidly aging population. The move, which came after a meeting of the Communist Party leadership, reflected concerns about potential labour shortages and rising numbers of elderly people that would greatly strain the economy in the years ahead”.

The piece goes on to report that “The communique from a plenary session of the party’s Central Committee did not say when the policy change will be implemented, only that the party had decided to “fully adopt the policy that one couple is allowed two children [and] actively take action on aging population.” China’s unpopular one-child rule was introduced in 1980 and was brutally enforced through huge fines, forced sterilizations and abortions, experts say. It empowered and enriched a huge swath of officials, with bribes often paid to skirt the rules. It also skewed China’s sex ratio as a result of the selective abortion of girls, who are much less favored in traditional Chinese culture”.

However, some have argued that the plan is too little too late and will not halt the dramatic collapse in its population. This will have subsequent effects on its economy, military power, and future strength all at a time when the UK is getting dangerously close to China.

The piece goes on to make the point that “Calls to abandon the policy have crescendoed in the past decade, but the Communist Party moved slowly, partly relaxing the rule in 2013 before Thursday’s announcement. Experts on Chinese affairs, including Wang Feng at the University of California at Irvine, have long warned that the country was heading toward a “demographic precipice” that could challenge the legitimacy of Communist Party rule. Wang called the policy’s abandonment “great news” even if the effects will take a generation or longer to filter through. “This really marks a historic point to end one of the most controversial and costly policies in human history,” he said. “But China for decades to come will have to live with the aftermath of this costly policy.” The nation’s fertility rate — estimates range from 1.4 children per woman to 1.7 — is far below that of the United States and many other nations in the developed world, leading to a rapidly graying society and increasing demands on the state, such as social programs and health care for the elderly”.

Pointedly the piece notes “It also means a substantial decline in the supply of young labour to power the world’s No. 2 economy as it seeks to dethrone the United States. China’s working-age population fell for a third straight year in 2014, declining by 3.7 million to 916 million, according to government data, in a trend that is expected to accelerate. Meanwhile, the number of people 60 or older will approach 400 million, or a quarter of the population, in the early 2030s, according to U.N. forecasts. The 60-plus age group represents about a seventh of China’s population. “The reform will slightly slow down China’s aging society, but it won’t reverse it,” said Peng Xizhe, a population professor at Fudan University. “It will ease the labour shortage in the long term, but in the short term it may increase the shortage because more women might stop work to give birth.” The policy was introduced in delayed reaction to booming birthrates as China recovered from Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and the famine of 1958 to 1962. But by 1980, it actually was no longer needed, many experts argue. Birthrates in China already had declined sharply during the 1970s”.

Unsuprisingly the policy has been criticised, “Wang said the one-child policy was “a textbook example of bad science combined with bad politics” that was morally questionable and primed a demographic time bomb by driving down fertility rates further. Despite the demographic pressure, Thursday’s communique said China was “sticking to the basic policy of state family planning” and “population growth strategy.” In other words, it is not taking its hands off the rudder entirely: Under the new policy, couples will still be limited to two children”.

Naturally, “The policy shift two years ago, however, did not appear to lead to a big boost in birthrates, with economic pressures and the cultural norms around having one child meaning that many families decided to stay as they were. “The change won’t cause a baby wave, as the last policy change proved,” Peng said. “Couples chose not to have a second child because of economic pressure and insufficient social welfare.” Another population expert, who was involved in policy formation and spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to give her name, said the change will not have significant economic effects. “Its political meaning is much greater than its demographic meaning,” the expert said. “Academics have continuously lobbied the government to abandon birth control for around 10 years. The good thing is the government is correcting the direction” of policy”.

“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”.

The Synod’s ostriches

18/10/2015

A piece from Crux notes the progress of the Synod, “Given the blindingly obvious fact that there are deep divisions at the 2015 Synod of Bishops, various ways of analyzing those fault lines have been proposed. Some see them in terms of the difference between a deductive and inductive approach, some between meeting the world halfway versus not being swallowed up by it, and so on. As the synod rolls into its second week, yet another way of understanding the fundamental divide is coming into focus: The gap between those who believe the demands of classic Catholic teaching on sex, marriage, and the family may be unrealistic or inappropriate for some share of the contemporary population, and those convinced that it’s widely attainable in the here-and-now”.

In his classic style Allen writes, “Perhaps one could call the latter position the “Yes We Can!’ brigade at the 2015 synod. (Presumably, the irony of applying Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan to a bloc of folks who would generally be seen as cultural conservatives isn’t lost on anyone.) Many in this camp suspect that advocates of a more “pastoral” approach on matters such as homosexuality and divorce have quietly thrown in the towel on the idea that it’s reasonable to expect lifelong faithful marriage to be the norm, or that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics shouldn’t be sexually intimate, and so on. The “Yes We Can!” faction wouldn’t deny that many people don’t actually live those teachings, but they insist that it can be done, and fear that by not encouraging people to do so, the Church clearly risks selling them short”.

Allen goes on to add “We caught an early glimpse of this position in the first cycle of reports from the synod’s small working groups, which were released last Friday. The base text for the synod, known as the Instrumentum Laboris, came in for fairly withering criticism in those reports — as a colleague in the press corps put it, had this been a college term paper, the kid who wrote it would have flunked. A key point was the assertion by several groups that the document portrays an overly negative assessment of the situation facing the contemporary family, seemingly more focused on where families break down than where they flourish”.

However, this group of single men, whom Allen calls the “Yes we can group” know nothing about the real lives of the people that they are supposed to be leading. To pretend that all is well in the Church’s teaching in this regard is simply to bury their heads in the sand.

Allen gives an example, “The group led by Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto arrived at a similar conclusion. “Most of our group felt the Instrumentum Laboris should begin with hope rather than failures, because a great many people already do successfully live the Gospel’s good news about marriage,” it said. On Monday night, I attended an event organized by one of the participants in the synod featuring a couple of well-known Roman experts on issues pertaining to marriage and sexual ethics, where the refrain was much the same. One of the evening’s most powerful moments came when a speaker complained that in its debate over the issue of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried — known in shorthand fashion as the “Kasper proposal,” since its leading advocate is German Cardinal Walter Kasper — the synod risks treating such believers as “second-class” Catholics, incapable of living out what the Church asks”.

 

Correctly he mentions that “No one in the synod would deny that there are Catholics out there, perhaps more than one might imagine, who do accept the full version of Church teaching. Virtually everyone could probably agree that such folks deserve whatever pastoral backup the Church can muster. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who’s also at the synod, posted a blog item on Monday suggesting that these people form a “new minority” in the contemporary world, writing that “they are looking to the Church, and to us, for support and encouragement.” The question is, how should the Church treat people who can’t, or don’t want to, make those choices? For one side of the synod’s debates, it might be time for the Church to honestly acknowledge that such folks are likely to be the majority, and often for understandable and morally defensible reasons”.

Allen concludes “Without giving up on the ideal, this group would say the Church needs to make better accommodations for those who fall short. The “Yes We Can!” camp, however, believes Church teaching isn’t just an ideal, but a practical way of life, though without minimizing the sacrifices it may entail. As they see it, the synod’s message ought to be, “You’re called to this, and we’re going to have your back in pulling it off.” How those two instincts might be reconciled, and whether that’s even possible, will help shape the drama of the synod during the two weeks left on its calendar”.

The Teflon pope

08/10/2015

A report notes that Pope Francis is playing with “house money” in the 2015 Synod, “In the abstract, Pope Francis might have reason to be a bit nervous that his much-ballyhooed Synod of Bishops on the family, an Oct. 4-25 summit he’s been touting as a potentially defining moment of his papacy for almost two years, might be about to run off the rails. We’ve already had confirmation, for instance, that a clash among the bishops over the hot-button question of allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to Communion is far from resolved”.

Allen reports that “On day one, Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő basically tried to bury the issue. Yet on day two, Italian Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli used a Vatican news conference to say that it remains “completely open,” and pointedly asked that if all the bishops were going to do was to echo Erdő’s line, then “what are we doing here?” Similarly, there was enough blowback against changes to the synod process on the opening day that Francis felt compelled to take the microphone to insist that he’d personally approved the new rules, which critics feel are designed to limit the information flow and stack the deck in favour of desired outcomes”.

The piece continues “Much like the last edition of the synod in 2014, there’s also a risk that expectations are being created that might not be realised. On Tuesday, for example, a Vatican spokesman said some participants have called for rejecting “exclusionary language” on homosexuality. “These are our children, our family members,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, summarising points made inside the synod. “They aren’t outsiders, but our own flesh and blood. How do we speak about them [positively] and offer a hand of welcome?” It remains to be seen, however, if a majority of bishops are on board. As Archbishop Paul-André Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec, put it on Tuesday, for every prelate seeking to overcome a “growing gulf” between Church teaching and the realities of family life by meeting the world halfway, there’s another worried about not being swallowed up by it. For them, the challenge isn’t rephrasing doctrine so much as reinforcing it”.

Naturally Allen notes that “Francis is no naïf, so the question has to be asked: Knowing how easy it would be for things to go wrong, why would he put his credibility on the line by allowing a potentially rancorous summit to play out this way? Part of the answer may be that Francis is in a position to ride out whatever storms may come because he’s insulated by his own narrative. That narrative, of course, is that Francis is the “People’s Pope,” a humble, simple reformer trying to steer Catholicism toward greater compassion and mercy. It’s made him a moral hero outside the bounds of the Church, as well as something of a “Teflon” figure to whom no criticism ever seems to stick for very long. Recent days have brought confirmation of the point by inviting a comparison with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI”.

Allen expands on this point “At different moments in their respective papacies, each has faced criticism for a move with regard to a previously little-known bishop. The controversies involved two chronic sources of anguish for the Catholic Church — its record on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in the case of Benedict, and its reaction to the clergy sexual abuse scandals for Francis. In 2009, Benedict lifted the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops, including one, Richard Williamson, with a history as a Holocaust denier. That decision sparked global outrage and became a front-page story for weeks, deepening impressions of Benedict as out of touch and insensitive to public opinion. The outcry became so intense that two months later, Benedict released an unprecedented letter to the bishops of the world, apologizing for mishandling the affair and revealing how isolated he was from information anyone could find easily on the Internet. Flash forward to 2015, when Pope Francis named a new bishop for the diocese of Osorno in Chile who critics believe covered up crimes by his country’s most notorious abuser priest. The appointment triggered protests in Chile and objections from some of the pontiff’s own advisors on anti-abuse efforts, but has had little echo anywhere else”.

Pointedly Allen argues “Francis hasn’t responded with a heartfelt mea culpa like Benedict, but with defiance. In a five-month-old video, Francis is heard telling an employee of the Chilean bishops’ conference that people criticizing his move are being “led around by the nose by leftists,” and that the country has “lost its head.” While the substance of the two situations may be very different, the potential for backlash is eerily similar. Just imagine what the reaction would have been had Benedict blamed his own woes on “leftists,” and you’ll understand the difference between the narratives the two pontiffs carry around. It’s striking that outside the Spanish-speaking media, there’s been relatively little reaction to the Barros affair, certainly nothing like the firestorm Benedict faced six years ago”.

Allen then relates this to the Synod “No doubt, Francis would prefer that the summit reach an inspired result on the contentious questions, such as divorce and pastoral approaches to gays and lesbians, and also to generate momentum toward a renewed commitment to supporting families both in their struggles and their triumphs. Yet it’s entirely possible that’s not how things will end. It could be that the synod produces heartache and acrimony, with bishops walking away unsatisfied and Catholics at the grassroots left dazed and confused. The experience of the last 18 months, however — reinforced both by the relatively mute reaction to the Barros controversy, and by the perceived success of the pontiff’s outing to the United States — suggests such a scenario might not put much of a dent in Francis’ own political capital. In terms of broad public opinion, it’s plausible to believe that if the synod is seen as a success, Francis will get the credit. If it’s seen as a shipwreck, the takeaway may be that it’s despite his leadership rather than because of it”.

He ends “At least in part, it may be because Francis grasps that when he rolls the dice these days, he’s basically playing with house money. If he loses, he’ll still be flush; if he wins, he just might break the bank”.

Russia bombs the good guys

08/10/2015

A piece argues that Russia is not hitting ISIS, “Barack Obama’s administration said Wednesday that it doesn’t know whom Russia is bombing inside Syria. Rebel leaders on the ground there say they know precisely whom Moscow is targeting — and it isn’t the Islamic State. Instead, Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria — which dominated the final day of the United Nations General Assembly session — appear to have struck a rebel group that likely was vetted by the CIA, uses U.S.-made weapons, and has publicly backed the international coalition fighting the Islamic State. The group is also part of the ad hoc alliance of militias battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which means that the early phase of Moscow’s military intervention will strengthen Assad at least as much as it will weaken the Islamic State”.

The article continues “U.S. officials were quick to criticize the strikes, which they said had hit targets that didn’t appear to be linked to the Islamic State. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at the Pentagon that the strikes were in areas “where there probably were not ISIL forces,” using an alternate acronym for the group. White House spokesman Josh Earnest, for his part, told reporters that it was “too early for me to say exactly what targets they were aiming at and what targets were actually hit.” The strikes come amid a flurry of diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations, where Moscow and Washington have traded potshots about who is to blame for the rise of the Islamic State and who should take the lead in fighting the group”.

The author goes on to write “In public comments at the United Nations, Russian officials have said that the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State isn’t working and instead have called for working more closely with Assad and Iran to defeat the group. But rather than spurring cooperation over the shared threat posed by the Islamic State, Moscow’s moves threaten to usher in a new era of conflict with Washington by weakening groups devoted to the fight against Assad while bolstering Tehran’s influence in the region”.

Later he goes on to argue “Experts say those videos show that the group is clearly receiving American weaponry. According to N.R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of specialist technical intelligence consultancy Armament Research Services, or ARES, the video of the attack on the Syrian tank shows a U.S.-made AN/TSQ-136 missile guidance set, consistent with other U.S.-made TOW missile systems that ARES has documented being used in Syria. According to Jenzen-Jones, the missiles “offer a noteworthy increase in anti-armor capability when compared to the majority of systems which are employed by the Syrian Arab Army and various rebel groups.” U.S.-made military equipment, most prominently anti-tank missiles, have been distributed to rebels through an operations center, called the Military Operations Command (MOC), that’s organized by countries arming the anti-Assad opposition, which allows them to vet the groups receiving support. The operations center reportedly includes U.S. intelligence officers, which suggests that the United States authorized the distribution of weapons to Tajammu al-Aaza”.

He ends “Earlier Wednesday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that a Russian official had informed the United States that Russia would begin flying missions over Syria shortly before the strikes began. It’s not clear whether Moscow also told the United States that the first group it would bomb would be one that had received arms from Washington”.

Petraeus suggests Syrian safe zones

06/10/2015

A report notes the David Petraeus says the US needs to play a bigger role, “In his first testimony since resigning from the CIA, David Petraeus apologized to Congress for leaking classified information to his former lover and advocated a stepped-up military intervention into Syria that would go well beyond what the Obama administration has so far been willing to do. Petraeus, a retired four-star Army general who previously oversaw the war efforts in both Iraq and Syria, said the U.S. should establish safe zones in Syria for refugees and demand that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stop dropping barrel bombs on military and opposition targets. If Assad failed to head those calls, Petraeus said the U.S. should shoot Syrian aircraft out of the sky”.

The piece goes on to report “Petraeus, speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee,  argued that protecting more refugees and giving U.S.-backed Syrian rebels the authority to attack Syrian government forces as well as Islamic State militants would help the U.S. win over broader swaths of Syria’s Sunni majority. The testimony comes as the Obama administration has acknowledged the failure of the Pentagon’s program to train and equip moderate members of the Syrian opposition. Earlier this month, a senior U.S. general acknowledged that the $500 million program, which planned to produce 4,500 Syrian rebels by the end of the year, had only succeeded in training a handful of fighters currently operating within the country. Still, while advocating for more muscular military efforts, Petraeus cautioned Republican senators about the importance of securing a political agreement with the Assad government to resolve the Syrian conflict. He warned that a hasty overthrow of the Assad regime could result in a worse outcome than currently exists”.

The piece notes that “Members of the Senate panel uniformly thanked the general for his service, but offered little indication that they would act on his recommendations through legislation. At the outset of the hearing, Petraeus apologized for leaking classified information to his mistress, Paula Broadwell, while she was researching a book about his leadership methods — an event that led to his resignation in November 2012. “Four years ago, I made a serious mistake — one that brought discredit on me and pain to those closest to me,” Petraeus said. “It was a violation of the trust placed in me and a breach of the values to which I had been committed throughout my life.” “There is nothing I can do to undo what I did,” he added. “I can only say again how sorry I am to those I let down and then strive to go forward with a greater sense of humility and purpose, and with gratitude to those who stood with me during a very difficult chapter in my life.”

“Francis appears to want two things from the synod”

04/10/2015

As the Synod on the Family opens today, John Allen writes that “In the wake of bitter controversy surrounding a private meeting with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis during his trip to the United States last week, Pope Francis has a chance beginning Sunday to get back “on message” with the opening of a Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome. The Oct. 4-25 summit of prelates from around the world is a critically important moment for the pontiff, one he’s been building toward for more than a year. If past is prologue, however, he may face a stiff challenge in steering it toward his desired outcome. On Friday, the Vatican issued a brief statement on the encounter with Davis, saying it was not intended to endorse her position “in all its particular and complex aspects.” Whatever one makes of how the meeting happened, or what it ultimately says about Francis’ views – and theories on both matters abound – the big picture remains intact and works to validate a fairly firm conclusion about this pope”.

Allen mentions that “Francis clearly upholds traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and the family. He believes those doctrines don’t make the Church the great “Doctor No” of the modern world, but rather mark out a path to genuine human fulfillment. He also believes strongly in religious freedom, one of the core messages he came to the United States to deliver. At the same time, Francis is also the pope of “Who am I to judge?” with regard to gay people trying to live faithful lives, recoiling from anything that makes Catholicism seem intolerant or merciless. After all, although he met Davis, he also met a same-sex couple and voiced no objection when Mo Rocca, an openly gay TV personality, delivered a reading at his Mass at Madison Square Garden”.

Crucially Allen writes “Francis appears to want two things from the synod. First, he wants a balanced approach to hot-button issues such as homosexuality and Communion for the divorced and remarried, blending defense of tradition with new language and a new pastoral approach that emphasizes inclusion. Second, he doesn’t want synod debates to be consumed by those issues”.

Yet with his missteps and misinterpretation he seems to have made these subtle, admirable goals achieveable in the climate in which the Synod takes place.

Allen makes the valid point that “If recent experience is any guide, the pope may have his work cut out for him. This synod is actually round two of a process that began last October with a first summit on the family. Back then, fierce debate broke out over homosexuality, the pastoral care of divorced Catholics, and what to make of other “irregular” relationships. The hope had been that the year between the first synod and the second one might allow time to cool those tensions and find common ground, but there’s not a great deal of evidence that things have played out that way”.

Allen admits that the hopes of the Synod of Francis might not come to fruition, “there seems to be a mounting tendency on all sides to suspect skullduggery and underhanded tactics. In the run-up to this summit, a well-known journalist in Rome published an e-book asking whether last year’s edition of the synod had been “rigged,” implying that a cabal of progressives had tried to stack the deck in favour of a more permissive line on matters such as homosexuality and divorce. On the other side, a minor Vatican aide announced on Saturday that he’s gay and happily in love, and called on all gay Catholics who have been “persecuted by the Church” to fight for their rights. Predictably, the official in question, Polish Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa, was swiftly fired from his Vatican position”.

Pointedly he adds “Whenever topics such as homosexuality and divorce are on the docket, feelings will run strong. What’s new now is a sense, however exaggerated, that movement might actually be possible. That’s elicited strong passions both from those who see such movement as desirable, and those who view it as alarming.  On Friday, a synod official tried to play down impressions of division. “There’s no surprise about the fact that there are opposing opinions,” said Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who briefed reporters on the synod process. True enough – there are more than 5,000 Catholic bishops in the world, and the idea that they’ll ever be in complete agreement is fantasy. What’s a bit more unusual, however, is to put those divisions on full public display. Yet that seems to be the forecast in Rome. If Francis is to get the synod he wants, he may need to spend some political capital along the way to bring people together. Over the next three weeks, we’ll see if he’s got enough left in the bank to pull it off”.

 

 

 

 

 

Less than 50% support for Palestinian state

27/09/2015

More than half of Palestinians no longer support a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel, a survey released on Monday showed, rejecting the goal that has underpinned four decades of international diplomacy. The poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, a leading research group in the Palestinian territories, found that 51 percent of Palestinians oppose the two-state solution while 48 percent support it. The figures were down from 51 percent support and 48 percent opposition three months ago. The survey was carried out on 1,270 people in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza from Sept. 17-19. The two-state solution – an independent Palestine existing side-by-side with Israel – has been the broad objective of negotiations since the mid-1970s and the overriding focus of U.S.-led diplomacy for the past 20 years. Perhaps more worrying from a sentiment point of view is that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed (65 percent) said they did not believe the two-state solution was any longer practical because of Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank”.

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”.

 

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”.