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Geopolitical Edge

How the U.S. can Exploit the China-India Rivalry

April 25th 2012

Chinese swearing in

As the world moves into the second decade of the 21st century, a new power rivalry is taking shape between India and China, Asia's two behemoths in terms of territory, population and richness of civilization. India's recent successful launch of a long-range missile able to hit Beijing and Shanghai with nuclear weapons is the latest sign of this development.

This is a rivalry borne completely of high-tech geopolitics, creating a core dichotomy between two powers whose own geographical expansion patterns throughout history have rarely overlapped or interacted with each other. Despite the limited war fought between the two countries on their Himalayan border 50 years ago, this competition has relatively little long-standing historical or ethnic animosity behind it.

The signal geographical fact about Indians and Chinese is that the impassable wall of the Himalayas separates them. Buddhism spread in varying forms from India, via Sri Lanka and Myanmar, to Yunnan in southern China in the third century B.C., but this kind of profound cultural interaction was the exception more than the rule.

Moreover, the dispute over the demarcation of their common frontier in the Himalayan foothills, from Kashmir in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, while a source of serious tension in its own right, is not especially the cause of the new rivalry. The cause of the new rivalry is the collapse of distance brought about by the advance of military technology. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Obama Faces Tough Choices in Syria

April 24th 2012

PBObama contemplative

As the international peace plan in Syria faltered this week amid continued violence, the Obama administration faces difficult choices as it plots a path forward there. The administration does not want to get into a military conflict in Syria or spark a larger civil war, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has shown little intention of abiding by the peace plan put forward by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Administration officials called for tougher action in Syria this week, including hints at the use of force if Assad does not stop and steeper sanctions to further isolate Assad. But the White House says it still is opposed to any military action or arming the Syrian opposition as it weighs its options.

Defense hawks are clamoring for military action in Syria, and others in the Senate are also suggesting the United States must consider establishing safe havens and arming the opposition.

There are numerous obstacles no matter which route the administration chooses, from Russia’s thwarting of further UN Security Council action to the divided opposition movement and the larger regional issues concerning Iran. The Syrian conflict, which has lasted more than a year and seen more than 9,000 Syrians killed, is now reaching a critical juncture with the peace plan teetering, analysts say. The Obama administration has said that Assad must go, but it has not yet made clear how far it will go to make sure that happens, said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The administration needs to make a decision about what it wants,” Rubin said. “Because you can’t keep giving last chances and maintaining credibility. If you keep delaying, all you’re doing is allowing Assad to kill.” Read more ..


The Arab Winter

Arab AKPs in the Making?

April 24th 2012

Syrian Protests March 2011

Can Turkey's experience in the past decade under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government -- blending democracy, close ties with the West, a "Muslim" foreign policy, capitalism and Islamism -- be copied by Arabs, as many claim? Probably not -- except for Tunisia.

Although rooted in Turkey's Islamist movement, the AKP moderated in order to come to power in 2002. And once in power, the party pursued a policy that delivered phenomenal economic growth. It thereby became so popular that it was able to reshape Turkey, bringing the once-dominant military under its control and the Turkish elites -- including the staunchly secular courts, business community and the media -- into its camp.

Yet the AKP has done a near full circle in foreign policy. Initially, the party took issue with the United States on key issues, including the Iraq War, Israel, and Iran's nuclear program, in the hope of casting Turkey as a "Muslim power." But lately, the party has shifted, moving closer to U.S. positions on Iran and also cooperating with Washington in Libya and now Syria. The AKP came to realize that its strategic value is as a Muslim power with strong ties to the U.S. and access to NATO technology and muscle. Accordingly, in September 2011, Turkey made its most strategic decision of the past decade, joining NATO's 21st century missile defense project. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Nonprofit Hauls in More than Super PAC

April 22nd 2012

Karl Rove

Sixty-two percent of funds raised by two conservative groups associated with former Bush adviser Karl Rove have come from mystery donors, a statistic that shows the increasingly important role being played by nonprofits in a post-Citizens United political world.

American Crossroads , a super PAC, and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a nonprofit, were founded in 2010 by Rove and another former Bush adviser, Ed Gillespie. Together, they raised $123 million through the end of 2011, according to a review of Federal Election Commission data and Internal Revenue Service filings.

Of that sum, $76.8 million, or 62 percent, went to Crossroads GPS, which is a nonprofit, “social welfare” group organized under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code. Like American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS can pay for advertising that attacks political opponents by name and urges viewers to vote against them. But unlike the super PAC, GPS is prohibited from making politics its “primary purpose,” according to the IRS, a rule that these politically active nonprofits have interpreted to mean they can spend up to 49 percent of their funds on such advertising. Read more ..


Germany and France

French Election To Determine Future of 'Merkozy' Alliance

April 21st 2012

Click to select Image
Merkel and Sarkozy

France on April 22 holds the first round of voting in a presidential election that could see Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande take the lead over incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande, who cuts a bland public figure and Sarkozy, the impulsive incumbent, are the top contenders out of 10 candidates. Neither is expected to get 50 percent of the vote needed to win outright. But polls suggest Hollande would win a second-round runoff against Sarkozy on May 6. Political and financial analysts say a victory for Hollande would have implications beyond France because it would bring an end to the so-called "Merkozy" alliance between Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that has guided European policy in recent years.

And potential discord over policy between Europe's two largest economies could have a significant impact on the stability of the euro currency at a fragile time for the continent. A key difference between Hollande and Merkel is how they believe the European Central Bank should operate. Hollande wants new rules that would make it a lender of last resort to debt-burdened eurozone governments. In fact, that had been a traditional French policy goal for the European Central Bank since the 1990s. But Sarkozy has backed down from those ambitions as Europe's debt crisis has unfolded, bringing his position more in line with that of Merkel's. Read more ..


The Edge of Health

Tax on Salt Could Reduce Cardiovascular Disease Deaths by 3 Percent

April 21st 2012

salt

Voluntary industry reductions in salt content and taxation on products containing salt in 19 developing countries could reduce the number of deaths each year from cardiovascular disease (CVD) by 2-3 per cent in these countries. The preliminary data presented today at the World Congress of Cardiology are the first findings from a new report from Harvard that will be published later this year.

The study set out to assess the cost-effectiveness of two interventions - voluntary salt reduction by industry, and taxation on salt - in 19 developing countries, that represent more than half of the world's population. The required salt reduction levels were modeled on the UK Food Standards Agency experience which set a series of targets for individual food products that have led to a net intake reduction, so far, of 9.5 per cent overall in the country. While a taxation increase of 40 per cent on industry prices (similar to tobacco), determined by previous work to lead to a 6 per cent reduction in consumption, was also evaluated. Read more ..


Syria on Edge

How Bashar al-Assad Built Minority Alliances and Countered Minority Foes

April 20th 2012

pro-Assad Rally Damascus

Our way of government is not identical with that which is pursued with such conspicuous success in highly civilised and settled countries like your own. We leave the various communities and tribes alone to settle their internal differences. It is only where tribe wars on tribe, religion on religion, or their quarrels stop the traffic on the Sultan’s highway that we interfere. What would you have, mon ami? We are here in Asia!”
– An Ottoman governor in Syria to author Marmaduke Pickthall, late in the nineteenth century.

Minority alliances in the Middle East have been a constant reality for groups under threat from perceived “majority” interests. Most of these alliances were military in nature and often covert. Israel has reached out to Christians in Lebanon and Kurds in Iraq. Berbers in Morocco have also engaged Israel. In their shared effort to fight Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) entered into an alliance with the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA). Yet in Syria, where minority Alawites dominate the government and find themselves in conflict with not only the Sunni majority but other minority groups, minority alliances take on a new precedence in their efforts to control the country. Read more ..


El Salvador on Edge

The Leftists Debate as El Salvador Looks Forward to 2014 Presidential Election

April 20th 2012

Mauricio Funes  El Salvador
President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador

The 2014 presidential elections in El Salvador will decide whether the country continues down the path of social investment and economic reform begun in 2009, or whether the country inexorably returns to the neo-liberal model of governance. The presidential campaigns hardly have begun, and already an astute electorate, regardless of party affiliation, is seeking to participate in more democratic methods of choosing candidates. The San Salvador daily, La Prensa Grafica, noted in its survey of the electorate taken at polling places during the March 11, 2012 election of mayors and deputies, that 52% of respondents favored the selection of presidential candidates by the members of each party. Only 22% favored the selection of candidates by the party leadership. This desire of the electorate for political equality is an expression of more than a century of struggle for freedom and democracy.

From now on, the stakes are high. Given recent voting patterns across El Salvador, including a relatively low voter turnout, it is likely that political parties that fail to reflect the views and values of their constituents will be unable to address the authentic concerns of their base and risk losing at the ballot box in the big presidential campaign of 2014. This essay will focus on the left-wing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) and the breach that has opened between the party leadership and a significant segment of its base since 2006, when the party moved from electoral primaries to a more closed candidate selection process. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Mystery Ship to Syria Raises Questions

April 19th 2012

The Atlantc Cruiser Ship

The weekend report of a German-owned, Ukrainian-chartered ship carrying weapons to Syria should raise questions and alarm bells.  Der Spiegel reported that the Atlantic Cruiser, owned by the German company Bockstiegel, had been chartered by the Ukrainian White Whale company to pick up Iranian-origin cargo in Djibouti.  White Whale said the cargo was "mainly pumps and similar things," according to the German shipping agent.  However, the ship was refused entry for refueling at the port of Limassol, Cyprus after the crew told the Cypriots that the cargo was "weapons and munitions."  The Cruiser tried then to sail for Tartus, Syria, but it is currently sitting at sea.

Three questions:

Is the regime running out of bullets?  This would account for Bashar al-Asad's agreement to Kofi Annan's ceasefire proposal.  The proposal worked to the government's advantage in several ways, not least of which was leaving the al-Asad government in place.  But clearly it has taken al-Asad more firepower and more time than he had planned to put down the insurrection.  A few days or a week of respite would have permitted the regime to conserve ammunition until new supplies arrived.  The last known ammunition shipment was from the Russians in January on a ship called The Chariot. Read more ..


Israel and Turkey

Turkish-Israeli Relations in the Shadow of the Arab Spring

April 19th 2012

netanuyahu and erdogan

In order to understand the initial reasons behind the creation of the Turkish-Israeli alliance, one must also recognize why that alignment came to an end. The cause was not within the partnership itself nor was it due to the 2008/2009 Gaza War or the 2010 flotilla events; rather this resulted from the Turkish government’s changing goals and identity. The “Arab Spring” has pushed forward this transformation in Turkey’s rulers while also showing that the new strategy does not work.

What factors brought the two countries together? There were many, and they were well-rooted in the Kemalist republic, which began in the 1920s and is perhaps now coming to an end. The list below explains the factors that created close cooperation and how they changed, leading to a collapse in the relationship. Read more ..


The Middle East on Edge

Much of the Violence in the Middle East is a European Legacy

April 19th 2012

Lawrence, Churchill, and Abdullah
Faisal Attending a Diplomat Meeting

Unlike nation-states in Europe , modern Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi nationalities did not evolve. They were arbitrarily created by colonial powers.

In 1919, in the wake of World War I , England and France carved up the former Ottoman Empire into geographic spheres of influence, dividing the Mideast into new political entities with new names and frontiers. Some of the newly created states' names came from classical antiquity, such as Syria and Palestine, while others were based on geographic designations, such as Jordan and Lebanon. Iraq , for example, was a medieval province with borders very different from those of the modern state, which excluded Mesopotamia in the north and included part of what is now western Iran. Territory was divided along map meridians without regard for traditional frontiers (i.e., geographic logic and sustainability) or the ethnic composition of indigenous populations. The prevailing rationale behind these artificially created states was how they served the imperial and commercial needs of their colonial masters. Read more ..


Turkey on Edge

Will Syria’s Sectarian Divisions Spill Over into Turkey?

April 18th 2012

pro-assad rally ankara dec 2011
Pro-Assad Rally in Ankara, December 2011

Observers of the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria are increasingly worried that the conflict will turn into sectarian struggle, and with good reason: the Assad regime has enjoyed overwhelming support among Syria’s minority Alawite population, while the country’s Sunni majority is leading the anti-Assad rebellion. But the conflict poses another risk. It may stir sectarian tensions in Turkey, which could, in turn, complicate any international intervention against Assad’s regime.

The major sticking point is the Alevi group, a syncretic and highly secularized Muslim offshoot based in Turkey that has often defined itself as a minority persecuted by the country’s Sunni majority. Should the conflict in Syria turn Sunni on Alawite, Turkish Alevis may find themselves empathizing with the minority Alawites in Syria and, by extension, with the Assad regime. More than that: they could actively oppose any intervention organized by their own government.

Some of this is rooted in contemporary Turkish politics. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has moved away from its hardline Islamist roots and made inroads across most sectors of Turkish society, has, thus far, failed to win much support from the Alevis, who constitute 10 to 15 percent of Turkey’s 75 million citizens. Unlike the AKP, the Alevis tend to align with the secularist views of Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, favoring a strict separation of religion and politics. And sectarian conflict in the 1970s, including attacks by Sunnis on Alevi communities, has left behind a legacy of distrust between Alevis and Sunnis. Read more ..


Turkey on Edge

Turkey's Emergence as Significant Regional Power Continues Apace

April 17th 2012

Turk flags

Turkey is re-emerging as a significant regional power. In some sense, it is in the process of returning to its position prior to World War I when it was the seat of the Ottoman Empire. But while the Ottoman parallel has superficial value in understanding the situation, it fails to take into account changes in how the global system and the region work. Therefore, to understand Turkish strategy, we need to understand the circumstances it finds itself in today.

The end of World War I brought with it the end of the Ottoman Empire and the contraction of Turkish sovereignty to Asia Minor and a strip of land on the European side of the Bosporus. That contraction relieved Turkey of the overextended position it had tried to maintain as an empire stretching from the Arabian Peninsula to the Balkans. In a practical sense, defeat solved the problem of Turkey's strategic interests having come to outstrip its power. After World War I, Turkey realigned its interests to its power. Though the country was much smaller, it was also much less vulnerable than the Ottoman Empire had been. Read more ..

Broken Government

Grading Each of the 50 States for Accountability

April 17th 2012

money changing hands

The State Integrity Investigation is an unprecedented, data-driven analysis of transparency and accountability in all 50 state governments. The Center has partnered with Global Integrity and Public Radio International to assign each state a letter grade — based on 300 government integrity indicators. No state received an A, and eight states failed.

The tales are sadly familiar to even the most casual observer of state politics.

In Georgia, more than 650 government employees accepted gifts from vendors doing business with the state in 2007 and 2008, clearly violating state ethics law. The last time the state issued a penalty on a vendor was 1999. A North Carolina legislator sponsored and voted on a bill to loosen regulations on billboard construction, even though he co-owned five billboards in the state. When the ethics commission reviewed the case, it found no conflict; after all, the panel reasoned, the legislation would benefit all billboard owners in the state — not just the lawmaker who pushed for the bill. Read more ..


Tunisia on Edge

Understanding the “Islamist Wave” in Tunisia

April 16th 2012

New Tunisian Assembly

On October 23, 2011, Tunisia held the first free and democratic elections in the country’s history. Nine months after the popular uprising, known as the Jasmine Revolution, which toppled a decades-long dictatorial regime, Tunisians were able to experience one of the most basic facets of democracy: the right to vote. Thus, Tunisians headed to the polls to elect members of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) with a sense of renewed hope. For nearly all of the voters, it was in fact their first time participating in an election. It was also the first time voters could go to the polling station without prior instructions or injunctions.

Voters were called upon to elect 217 members of the NCA, whose task is to appoint an interim government and to draft a new constitution within one year, and to prepare the country for general elections. The final results of the elections were announced on November 14, 2011. The Islamist party Ennahda won a relative majority, obtaining 89 seats. Ennahda was then declared the winner of the election. Tunisians in the cities, in rural areas of the interior, and especially in Europe reportedly voted for Ennahda. Having, however, won a relative majority and not an absolute one, Ennahda was compelled to form a coalition with the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol, both secular center-left parties. Read more ..


The Edge of Terror

Hizballah and the Arab Revolutions: The Contradiction Made Apparent?

April 15th 2012

Hezbollah waving flag

Since the 1990s, Hizballah has defined itself along a number of parallel lines, each of which prior to 2011 appeared to support the other. The movement was simultaneously a sectarian representative of the Lebanese Shi’a, a regional ally of Iran and Syria, a defender of the Lebanese against the supposed aggressive intentions of Israel, and a leader of a more generically defined Arab and Muslim “resistance” against Israel and the West. As a result of the events of 2011, most important the revolt against the Assad regime in Syria, these various lines, which seemed mutually supportive, began to contradict one another. This has diminished Hizballah’s position, though it remains physically unassailable for as long as the Assad regime in Syria survives.

The year 2011 witnessed a series of upheavals and revolutions, which launched a long-awaited process of change in some of the stagnant polities of the Arab-speaking world. It is too soon to draw any definitive conclusions regarding where these changes may lead or what the Arab world will look like when the storm has passed. Nevertheless, the transformations that have already taken place are presenting established political players across the Middle East with new and unfamiliar questions and dilemmas. Read more ..


The Iranian Threat

On Nuclear Talks, One Step Sideways, Two Steps Back

April 15th 2012

Ahmadinejad at Iranian nuclear plant

On nuclear talks, one step sideways, two steps back
Iran and the P5+1 are presenting the world with a new approach – succeeding in negotiations without making progress • The six powers delighted in "new initiatives" •

The problem is that Iran rejected the same initiatives two years ago.
A strange meeting took place in Istanbul on Saturday. Both sides to the renewed nuclear talks between Iran and the major world powers tried to present a new concept: succeeding in negotiations without making any progress. Under these circumstances, it came as no real shock to anyone that the big achievement coming out of the talks was the general agreement that there is even an issue to discuss, and there is also a date and a venue for the next round: May 23, in Baghdad. The talks between Iran and the five world powers (Russia, China, the U.S., Britain, France plus Germany), were "constructive and useful," E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced on Saturday.

Read more ..

The Battle for Bahrain

Bahrain on the Brink Jeopardizes U.S. Interests in the Gulf

April 14th 2012

Shiite protest in Bahrain

The ethnic strife between majority Shiites and the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family in Bahrain is worsening, with a growing risk that the U.S. naval base there could become contentious.

A near perfect political storm has been developing in Bahrain in recent days. In one incident on April 9, seven policeman were injured, three seriously, when their checkpoint was devastated by an improvised explosive device attached to a container of gasoline. As an apparent consequence of this, a mob of Sunnis armed with iron rods and sticks ransacked a supermarket owned by a major Shiite-owned business group. The U.S. embassy in the capital, Manama, which has issued ten alerts to U.S. nationals since the start of the month, warned today that "demonstrations, coupled with instances of possible sectarian clashes, are possible throughout the weekend."

Meanwhile, the organizers of the Formula One motor race, due to be held on the island April 20-22, are under pressure to cancel the event, as it was last year because of Bahraini violence that did not abate until after the imposition of emergency law and the arrival of Saudi paramilitary forces trained in riot control. Hosting the race is a matter of prestige for Bahrain, but the participating teams are reportedly concerned about security. They also do not want to be associated with a regime being criticized for violating human rights. An imprisoned Shiite activist leader has been on hunger strike for more than two months, and Amnesty International is due to release a damning report about flawed reforms on April 17. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

The Challenge of Containing Iran's Enrichment Activities

April 13th 2012

Iran Nuclear Equipment

With talks between the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) and Iran set to resume in Istanbul on April 13, officials are discussing possible compromises that might persuade Tehran to give up any ambition of developing nuclear weapons. Apparently, one of the principal components of these proposals is acceptance of Iran's right to enrich uranium to around 3.5%, a level suitable for civilian power reactors. But this could turn out to be a fatal bargain: centrifuge technology is easy to hide, and there are few barriers to continuing enrichment up to 90%, the level needed for an atomic bomb.

Natural uranium contains just 0.7% of the fissile isotope U-235, which is the key to both controlled chain reactions in nuclear power plants and uncontrolled, explosive chain reactions in atomic bombs. Enriching this material is a progressively easier process. For example, if the aim is to produce 90% enriched uranium, reaching the 3.5% level requires some 75% of the work. By the time 20% enrichment is reached -- the level Iran currently achieves -- 90% of the work has been done. Therefore, cutting a deal in which Iran gives up enriching to 20% but continues enriching to 3.5% would buy relatively little time. Worse, it would not solve the more fundamental problem: the unknown scope and nature of Iran's nuclear program. Read more ..


Jordan on Edge

Jordan Facing Instability and Pressures

April 12th 2012

King Abdullah of Jordan
King Abdullah II

For the first time in decades, the compact that has maintained stability in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is coming under intense pressure. On one end of the spectrum, influential elements within the regime’s traditional powerbase—East Bank tribes—are protesting Amman’s perceived inattention to their dire economic straits, its perceived preference for accommodating Palestinian economic interests, and its perceived laxity on corruption. At the other end of the spectrum is a dangerous evolution of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

Traditionally, the group has had an ambivalent relationship with the government. At present, the accommodating East Bank-led generation of MB leaders is in decline, with a more radical, Palestinian Hamas wing in ascendance, riding the regional trend. The combination of both developments—disaffection among the traditional East Bankers and heightened demands for political representation by a more assertive MB—poses a serious challenge to the regime, particularly at a time when Jordan’s economic prospects do not appear bright. The East Bank problem is real and severe, but with resources and flexibility, it can be solved. The MB problem, however, may be beyond the regime’s ability to control because it is fed by regional events, such as the Brotherhood’s demonstrated success in Egypt and the potential Islamization of the political opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

What Iran Might Gain from a Nuclear Deal

April 12th 2012

Iranian nuclear facility

If Iran decides to seriously negotiate during upcoming nuclear talks -- currently scheduled to begin this weekend in Istanbul -- what might it expect to gain from the resultant deal? Probably not much, because even a comprehensive agreement on nuclear issues would not close the profound geostrategic split between Washington and Tehran.

ONLY MODEST ECONOMIC BENEFITS

Most of the U.S. sanctions on Iran were enacted for reasons that extend beyond proliferation, such as state support for terrorism and human rights violations. When Washington imposed restrictions on Iran's Central Bank in February after prolonged internal debate, the reasons cited in President Obama's executive order were not the nuclear program, but instead "the deceptive practices of the Central Bank of Iran and other Iranian banks to conceal transactions of sanctioned parties, the deficiencies in Iran's anti-money laundering regime and the weaknesses in its implementation, and the continuing and unacceptable risk posed to the international financial system by Iran's activities." None of these problems would be dispelled by a comprehensive nuclear agreement. Read more ..


Economic Policy on Edge

Mass Privatization Put Former Communist Countries on Road to Bankruptcy, Corruption

April 11th 2012

Bulgarian CP HQ, left to decay
Bulgarian Communist Party HQ, decaying and defaced

A new analysis showing how policies advocated by western economists helped to bankrupt Russia and other former Soviet countries after the Cold War has been released by researchers. Authored by sociologists at the University of Cambridge and Harvard University, the study, which appears in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, is the first to trace a direct link between the mass privatization programs adopted by several former Soviet states, and the economic failure and corruption that followed.

Devised principally by western economists, mass privatization was a radical policy to rapidly privatize large parts of the economies of countries such as Russia during the early 1990s. The policy was pushed heavily by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Its aim was to guarantee a swift transition to capitalism, before Soviet sympathizers could seize back the reins of power. Instead of the predicted economic boom, what followed in many ex-Communist countries was a severe recession, on par with the Great Depression of the United States and Europe in the 1930s.

The reasons for the economic collapse and skyrocketing poverty in eastern Europe, however, have never been fully understood. Nor have researchers been able to explain why this happened in some countries, like Russia, but not in others, such as Estonia. Read more ..


Inside Africa

Africa's Dilemma Over Its 'Blue Men': The Tuareg

April 11th 2012

Tuareg warriors

Some years back, when I left Niamey, the capital of Niger, and headed north on a rutted, dirt track it was as if the country disappeared on me. There was no police, no sign of authority, nothing. Flash floods had left the road completely washed out in places, with the wheels of large trucks half-sunk in mud, drivers stuck for days on the side of the road. Here there were only Tuaregs, the "blue men" as they were called, on account of the color of their dazzling robes and the blue vegetable dye ("nila") they smeared on their bodies. The Tuaregs, a pastoral Berber people, were lords of the Sahara; it's better to have a Tuareg with you than a GPS device, went the saying of U. S. Army Special Forces with whom I was embedded.

My experience heading north from Timbuktu in Mali was even more extreme. Though it connotes the back of beyond, Timbuktu was actually a cosmopolitan locale -- complete with a museum of medieval Islamic manuscripts, a few decent restaurants and satellite dishes -- compared to where I was going. I was off to Araouane, 240 kilometers (150 miles) north from Timbuktu into the desert. Araouane was a name on a map, as though it were Cleveland or some place. But nobody in Timbuktu -- and certainly not in Bamako, the Malian capital very far away to the southwest -- knew anything about Araouane, and if anyone still lived there. It took 14 hours and numerous breakdowns in the fine sand to reach Araouane, a huddle of ruins on a cosmic emptiness where only women, children and old men lived -- the Tuareg men were out conducting raids and commerce on caravan routes throughout the desert. Here the Malian state did not exist. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Moral Equivalence Over Islamist Terror Is the Trojan Horse in Europe

April 10th 2012

French muslim woman

The place of Islam in democratic societies should be examined honestly, without prejudice either way. It was a false moral equivalency of Catherine Ashton, the European Union's High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs to equate the murders in Toulouse with "what is happening in Gaza." Moral relativism of that kind could well become the new Trojan Horse for democracies.

The United States and the democratic European countries both face a challenge: to respond to terrorism, particularly from home-grown terrorists, without violating individual and group civil rights. Britain faced this as a result of the events of July 7, 2005 when four Islamic suicide bombers, most of whom were born and raised in Britain, denoted bombs in London's transport system, killing 52 and injuring over 700. France has now. in March 2012, experienced the brutality of its home–grown terrorist. This incident is the canary's warning of future danger. International problems in the Middle East and in Afghanistan have coalesced with European national and local problems, particularly the alienation of minority groups, the failure to integrate into the larger society, and the continued immigration from Arab and Muslim countries have made the task of the Western countries difficult.

The West might remember the warning of Laocoön: Do not accept the Trojan Horse from the Greeks, it is a "deadly fraud." The place of Islam in democratic societies must be examined honestly, without prejudice either way. Read more ..


The Iranian Threat

Iran Seeks Increased Regional Role with Threats and Diversions

April 10th 2012

Iranian Revolutionary Guard

For centuries, the dilemma facing Iran (and before it, Persia) has been guaranteeing national survival and autonomy in the face of stronger regional powers like Ottoman Turkey and the Russian Empire. Though always weaker than these larger empires, Iran survived for three reasons: geography, resources and diplomacy. Iran's size and mountainous terrain made military forays into the country difficult and dangerous. Iran also was able to field sufficient force to deter attacks while permitting occasional assertions of power. At the same time, Tehran engaged in clever diplomatic efforts, playing threatening powers off each other.

The intrusion of European imperial powers into the region compounded Iran's difficulties in the 19th century, along with the lodging of British power to Iran's west in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula following the end of World War I. This coincided with a transformation of the global economy to an oil-based system. Then as now, the region was a major source of global oil. Where the British once had interests in the region, the emergence of oil as the foundation of industrial and military power made these interests urgent. Following World War II, the Americans and the Soviets became the outside powers with the ability and desire to influence the region, but Tehran's basic strategic reality persisted. Iran faced both regional and global threats that it had to deflect or align with. And because of oil, the global power could not lose interest while the regional powers did not have the option of losing interest. Read more ..

Israel and Azerbaijan

Israel’s Friend on Iran’s Border

April 9th 2012

Israeli Jet

According to a recent report in Foreign Policy magazine, Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to its southern airbases on Iran’s northern border from which it could potentially launch airstrikes against Iran. “The Israelis have bought an airfield,” a senior administration official reportedly said in early February, “and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.”

Azerbaijan quickly denied the claims, and a senior official said that the allegations were “aimed at damaging relations between Azerbaijan and Iran.” Azeri-Iranian ties have been strained in recent months over the former’s relations with Israel. At the end of February, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi called a meeting with the Azerbaijani Ambassador to Tehran and warned him not to let Israel use Azerbaijan to stage an attack. In a later meeting, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev confirmed that his country would not do so.

But, according to Foreign Policy, Baku could keep its word and still provide Israel with essential support, such as allowing search-and-rescue units inside Azerbaijan or permittig Israeli bombers to land there after a strike, eliminating Israel’s problem of refueling its jets midflight to ensure a safe return home. According to the report, an intelligence officer noted that Washington is “not happy about” Israel’s alleged colluding with Azerbaijan. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Can U.S. Bounty Bring In Pakistani Militant Leader?

April 8th 2012

Hafiz Mohammad Saeed
Hafiz Mohammad Saeed

Usually when governments offer bounties, it means a wanted man is in hiding and the public's help is needed to find him. But Washington's announcement on April 2 of a $10 million bounty for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed breaks that mold. Saeed may be wanted by Washington and by New Delhi, which has charged him in absentia with masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. But he is not wanted in Pakistan, where he lives.

The Pakistani Supreme Court ordered Saeed freed in 2009 after he challenged Islamabad's grounds for keeping him under house arrest over implications his organization was involved in the attacks. He is the founder of Lashkar-e Taiba, an armed militant group that fought against Indian control in Kashmir and was banned in 2002 after being linked to an attack on India's parliament. He then set up the religious charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which Indian and U.S. officials say serves as a front for the banned militant wing. Just hours after the U.S. State Department announced the bounty on April 2, Saeed appeared on Pakistan's Geo TV. He said he was a free man and was ready to speak with U.S. officials at any time. Read more ..


The Edge of Genocide

For Journalists, Sarajevo was The Story Of Their Lives

April 7th 2012

Sarajevo Destroyed
Sarajevo

Between them, the journalists gathering this week in the Bosnian capital for the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege have covered dozens of conflicts: Afghanistan. Beirut. Chechnya. Iraq.

But amid the drinks and chatter of a correspondents’ reunion at the city’s Holiday Inn -- which served as the main base for foreign journalists covering the war -- it soon becomes clear that there is only one Sarajevo. It’s a war that schooled an entire generation of reporters on the best and worst that humanity had to offer, the power of laughter over tears -- and ultimately, the fact that there is only so much journalists can do to change history.

“We were reporting, reporting, reporting. And it took so long for anyone to react,” says Emma Daly, who covered the 44-month siege for Britain’s “Independent” and who now works as communications director for Human Rights Watch. “It was very frustrating. We said at the time that the best we could hope for is that [former British Prime Minister] John Major would never be able to claim later on that he didn’t know what was happening.” Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Russia's Show of Syrian Force

April 5th 2012

Syrian protests 2011

While Western and Arab countries struggle to find a way to assist the Syrian people, Moscow is continuing to do all it can to save the Assad regime of Syria. Speaking on a trip to Azerbaijan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Syrian opposition wouldn't be able to overwhelm government forces even if it was supplied with weapons from abroad. He warned that a foreign military intervention would lead to even more disastrous consequences for Syria and further urged other nations not to arm the Syrian opposition. Lavrov's statements came just days after Russia and China boycotted the latest "Friends of Syria" gathering in Istanbul -- a weak diplomatic effort aimed at assisting the Syrian opposition.

That the U.S. and most Western nations are at odds with Russian policy should not come as a surprise. Nevertheless, the manner in which Moscow is shamelessly pushing its case demonstrates the seriousness with which they view the Syrian issue. Take, for instance, the Capitol Hill briefing on Tuesday afternoon held by the Russian embassy and hosted by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL). Led by embassy officials Anton Vushkarnik and Sergey Kuznetsov, they refused to even acknowledge that Bashar al-Assad was killing his own people. Read more ..


The Edge of Terror

Is Al-Qaeda Making a Run for Africa?

April 5th 2012

Al-Shahab in Somalia

Analysts are growing concerned that al-Qaeda—under pressure in its long-time hideouts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq—is looking towards Africa, seeking to capitalize on the instability there to regroup and reorganize. According to a recent study by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), “Africa represents a fertile ground for a diminished ‘Al-Qa’ida-core’ to ... re-launch its mission of global jihad.”

The release of the report is particularly timely, given recent events in Mali. On March 22, rebel soldiers mounted a political coup in the capital, Bamako, ousting elected President Amadou Toumani Toure for his inability to equip the army to suppress the growing Tuareg insurgency in the north. The insurgents, fighting to carve out a new country in the region, were recently energized by the return of some 2,000 Tuareg fighters from Libya where they had worked as mercenaries for Moammar Qaddafi. Since the ouster of Mali’s president, however, the Tuareg rebels have taken control over several large towns, including the ancient town of Timbuktu. Read more ..


Iraq on Edge

The Future of the Marjayia

April 5th 2012

Marjayia

The current form of religious leadership over the Shi'ite community, marjayia, was founded in the 1830s when Mohammed Hassan Najafi became the first transnational Shi'ite religious authority (marja) in Najaf, Iraq. Najafi created a universal patronage network through which he received religious taxes and endowment incomes, and appointed religious representatives from Shi'ite cities in Iraq to India.

In the 16th Century, Shi'ite jurists (mujtahids) had established a new conceptual theory describing the relationship between community leaders and Shi'ite worshipers. According to the theory, each worshiper should either reach the highest educational level in Shi'ite jurisprudence (ijtihad) or follow a living person who has attained such a level. The theory of 'following' (taqlid) was intertwined with another significant theory, which permitted Shi'ite jurists to receive religious taxes on behalf of the infallible and hidden twelfth Shi'ite Imam. It is believed that this Imam will return at the end of time to establish a just global government. Thereafter, a new form of Shi'ite leadership emerged that both provided the monarchy with legitimacy and was protected by it, but was also financially independent from it. Read more ..


America on Edge

Lethal Injection Drug Issues Could Put Executions on Hold

April 4th 2012

execution gurney

A federal judge’s decision to block imports of a drug used in executions will leave states to rely more on a substitute drug that could itself be getting scarce—developments that raise questions about both how these drugs are regulated and whether states will have the drugs they need to continue capital punishment by lethal injection.

Over the past three decades, lethal injection has become the primary method of execution in the United States because it is widely viewed as the most humane alternative. Thirty-five states and the federal government use this method and more than 1,100 inmates have been put to death by lethal injection.

State justice or corrections departments have conducted these executions by administering the anesthetic sodium thiopental in a lethal dosage on its own, or as part of a three-step “cocktail” in which sodium thiopental is followed by pancuronium bromide, a paralytic agent, then potassium chloride, which stops the heart and causes death.

But in late March, a federal judge blocked importation of sodium thiopental, ruling that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ignored the law by allowing it to be imported into the country without following regulatory protocol. The drugs were slated for executions, a purpose unapproved by the agency—and unlikely to ever be approved by the agency. Sodium thiopental is only available from overseas, because its U.S. manufacturer, Hospira Inc., stopped making it 2011, as a result of controversies over its use in executions. Read more ..


Israel on Edge

Israel’s New Strategic Environment

April 4th 2012

Israeli Jets Parked

Israel is now entering its third strategic environment. The constant threat of state-on-state war defined the first, which lasted from the founding of the Jewish state until its peace treaty with Egypt. A secure periphery defined the second, which lasted until recently and focused on the Palestinian issue, Lebanon and the rise of radical Sunni Islamists. The rise of Iran as a regional power and the need to build international coalitions to contain it define the third.

Israel’s fundamental strategic problem is that its national security interests outstrip its national resources, whether industrial, geographic, demographic, or economic. During the first phase, it was highly dependent on outside powers—first the Soviet Union, then France and finally the United States—in whose interest it was to provide material support to Israel. In the second phase, the threat lessened, leaving Israel relatively free to define its major issues, such as containing the Palestinians and attempting to pacify Lebanon. Its dependence on outside powers decreased, meaning it could disregard those powers from time to time. In the third phase, Israel’s dependence on outside powers, particularly the United States, began increasing. With this increase, Israel’s freedom for maneuver began declining. Read more ..


The Drug Wars

U.S. Facing Bold New Calls for “Drug War” Alternatives

April 3rd 2012

Click to select Image

At a poorly attended summit of Central American leaders, the host President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala reiterated calls for the decriminalization of recreational drug use. Although some regional former heads of state have called for such a solution, President Molina became the first sitting head of state to openly advocate for such a controversial stance when speaking at the Central American Security Summit in Antigua, Guatemala. Billed initially as a groundbreaking summit during which “alternative solutions” to the War on Drugs were to be discussed, the conference’s emphasis on how to manage the War on Drugs, as well as talk of decriminalization, were sidelined before the conference even began.

After accepting invitations to the conference, three heads of state, representing fully half of the countries in the region, pulled out of the conference on short notice. This was likely the result of pressure from Washington, which has long opposed legalization, and the reluctance of the Organization of American States, the (OAS) to face up to the issue of drug trafficking and related violence.

President Molina declared that the War on Drugs had failed, asserting that it was time to reconsider drug policy in the region. The summit, he hoped, would put an end to the stigma surrounding the discussion of decriminalization as a serious policy alternative to outright prohibition. He added that the conflicts surrounding their countries have cost Central American countries hundreds of millions of dollars annually and tens of thousands of lives. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Syrian Opposition Seeks to Show Alternative to Assad

April 1st 2012

anti-assad-demonstration

Syria’s fractious opposition groups began reconciliation talks in Istanbul aimed at demonstrating they can provide a coherent and effective alternative to Syrian President Bashar Assad. The opposition forces have been invited by Turkey and Qatar, which hold the rotating chair of the Arab League, to talks in Istanbul to try to form a common front while their homeland is convulsed by a year-old uprising that Assad is trying to crush. About 300 dissidents attended the welcome dinner at a seaside hotel in Pendik, a distant suburb on the Asian side of Istanbul, and more were expected to join what the Turkish hosts call an “open house” meeting.

Burhan Ghalioun, president of the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), has sought support for the meeting to end with a “national oath,” committing all the opposition to building a democratic state, without any agenda for revenge, and to seek reconciliation once Assad is removed. “Based on the national responsibility on all the political powers in the Syrian revolution and the efforts to unite the opposition and its vision, we declare the basic principles that the new state will be based upon,” a draft declaration said. Read more ..


Foes McCain and Abramoff Establish Truce on Campaign Reform

April 1st 2012

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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jack Abramoff appear to have a truce.

In 2005, McCain earned a badge of ethical pride as the head of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee who dragged Abramoff's backroom dealings through the public spotlight in a crusade to reveal public corruption on Capitol Hill. Now, nearly 7 years later, the former Republican presidential nominee is lauding the disgraced lobbyists efforts to reform campaign finance rules. “He paid his debt, which was decided by a jury of his peers, and since he paid his debt to society I can’t hold anything against him,” said McCain in an interview. “So if he wants to take on efforts to improve government then I applaud it.”

McCain’s investigation of Abramoff helped land the former lobbyist three and a half years in prison for defrauding Native American tribes of more than $80 million in lobbying fees. “By the way, he’s not very happy with me, as you can imagine,” said McCain.

But Abramoff begs to differ.

Since his release from prison in 2010, Abramoff has partnered with good government groups in an attempt to shed light on the corrupting influence money plays in politics. He said he hopes to work with the senator someday. “I appreciate Senator McCain’s comments and approach and hope one day we might even find ourselves on the same side fighting to reform our political system,” said Abramoff in an email.

McCain's signature campaign finance reform law, co-sponsored with former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), has been largely dismantled by recent court rulings, notably the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010. The civil tone between McCain and Abramoff is a stark juxtaposition to years past, when the Arizona Republican has frequently invoked his investigation of the lobbying scandal as proof that he is not corrupted by K Street. The issue came up repeatedly during his bid for the presidency in 2008. “Ask Jack Abramoff if I’m an insider in Washington,” said McCain during a debate. “You would probably have to go during visiting hours in the prison, and he will tell you, and his lobbyist cronies, of the change I made there.” Read more ..


Mali on Edge

Mali Coup Opponents Lament Attacks

March 31st 2012

Amadou Haya Sanogo
Coup leader Amadou Haya Sanogo (credit: Martin Vogl)

A week after the coup in Mali, some people are worried that freedom of expression is being trampled, after opponents of the military government were attacked while holding a meeting on Thursday in the capital Bamako. Amnesty International has called on the military government to investigate the incident.

On Thursday evening, charred patches on the ground near the Bamako labor offices marked spots where motorcycles and a car were burned during the unrest. People who were at the meeting said that what appeared to be pro-junta youth suddenly began hurling stones into the yard where people were gathered. They said those who were attacked then went after the stone-throwers and fighting broke out.

One man, who said his hand was injured in the scuffle, did not want to be identified, fearing for his security. He says the country is in danger; he fears that civil strife is likely to become worse in the days and weeks to come. “If people no longer have the right to assemble and express themselves without worrying about being attacked,imagine that level of attack on human dignity and human rights,” he said. He continued: as I see it we’ve got two options: remain silent, or speak out and face the violence like that we saw on Thursday. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Lebanon’s Security Concerns over Syria

March 31st 2012

Lebanese protesters

Since the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began a year ago, Lebanon has lived in fear that the worsening violence will spill across the border. In recent days, that fear has come close to being realized with reports that Syrian troops fired into Lebanon during clashes with rebels. The reports were mixed, with some stating that Syria staged an incursion across the frontier to destroy a house that allegedly harbored members of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), while others claimed that a few machine gun rounds strayed across the border during fighting on the Syrian side. The Lebanese government, which is backed by Damascus, denied that any incursions occurred, but opposition supporters accused Syrian troops of burning homes belonging to Lebanese who sympathize with the rebels next door.

The rival views neatly reflect a deep political division in Lebanon. The poles are represented by the Future Movement, which is headed by Saad Hariri and openly champions the Syrian revolutionaries and the Iranian-backed Shiite militia, Hizballah, which continues to support its ally in Damascus. Prime Minister Najib Mikati has adopted a policy of noninterference on Syria, placing it at odds with the consensus view of the twenty-two-member Arab League. Lebanon was one of only two countries to voice reservations over the league's February decision to formally recognize the Syrian opposition and ask the UN Security Council to deploy a peacekeeping force. Read more ..


The Caribbean on Edge

China vs. Taiwan: The Battle for Influence in the Caribbean

March 29th 2012

vice premier Wang Qishan
Vice Premier Wang Qishan (credit Republic of Trinidad & Tobago)

China’s projection of influence in some previously unfamiliar regions of the world continues to grow, that much is clear. When it comes to Latin America and the Caribbean, Beijing has strengthened its ties, particularly by means of comprehensive trade relations, with countries like Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela. This has been done not only to secure non-traditional trading partners and commodity sources like oil and soybeans, but also to corner established markets for its many traditional exports.

China’s relationship with the Caribbean is complex, as this region is particularly important to Beijing’s foreign policy goals regarding Taiwan, which has some of its greatest supporters there. Several Caribbean states currently recognize Taiwan as an independent republic, instead of maintaining the “one-China” position that has been endorsed by the mainland government.

Investment and Development

Unsurprisingly, China has been able to establish strong economic ties abroad, particularly in the developing world, by means of a series of investment deals. These include some major initiatives in the Caribbean in recent years. In September 2011, Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu visited Jamaica to meet with Governor-General Patrick Allen and Prime Minister Bruce Golding. While there, Hui put forward a five-point proposal for intensifying bilateral relations. The goals outlined by both sides included: promoting high-level exchanges to deepen mutual political trust, strengthening economic and trade cooperation, improving agricultural cooperation, expanding people-to-people and cultural exchanges, and promoting coordination in international affairs. Read more ..


Turkey on Edge

Turkey's Pivot Toward the USA

March 28th 2012

Turk flags

Turkey's foreign policy has come full circle in the last year. Far from confronting Washington on a range of issues, Ankara is embracing its membership in NATO while working closely with Washington on Middle East issues, including Iran and coordinating Syria policy. What has changed?

First and foremost, Ankara has come to appreciate a constant in the value of its foreign policy: Turkey is east if you view it from the perspective of the West, and west if you view it from the perspective of the East.

In the 2000s, Ankara's pivot away from the West almost upset Turkey's unique identity. The nation entered a period of increasingly cold relations with the United States and turned its interest to the Middle East in hopes of becoming a regional power. This strategy, however, did not exactly make Ankara a formidable power in the Middle East. Take, for instance, the Saudis' and other Persian Gulf countries' yearning for a regional counterbalance against Iran. For them the Turkey of the 2000s, isolated from NATO and Washington, began to resemble a "wealthy Yemen," i.e., a prosperous, large Muslim nation with no real value added to regional security. Ankara's strategy even started to erode its national prestige, although it initially was popular with the people.

Read more ..


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